Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Samsung being sued over patent on Android feature predicting remaining battery runtime: other Google partners may face same problem sooner or later

This blog has been reporting on patent infringement allegations targeting Android--typically lawsuits against Android device makers--since 2010. Some of them turned out meritorious and resulted in injunctions. Google derives huge commercial benefits from Android (among them the infamous "app tax"), but it generally doesn't indemnify its device makers (also called OEMs). It became known that Google was picking up some of Samsung's legal bills in the dispute with Apple (with respect to particular patents), and Google and Samsung may now be talking about such an arrangement again as patent licensing firm K.Mizra has announced a patent infringement complaint against Samsung in Germany over an invention of which K.Mizra is "convinced that a pre-installed Android based feature [...] uses [it]."

On its website, K.Mizra announced the filing of a complaint (seeking damages for now, but everyone knows such complaints can always be amended so as to seek an injunction, too) against Samsung with the Dusseldorf Regional Court on May 20 (press release, PDF). The patent-in-suit is EP2174201 on a "method and system for predicting the power consumption of a mobile terminal." The claimed invention was made by a reputable and sizeable Dutch research organization named TNO (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Toegepast Natuurwetenschappelijk Onderzoe; Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research).

I stumbled upon that announcement as I was checking on the licensing firm's website for potential new information on K.Mizra v. Niantic, a case that will go to trial in Munich next month and involves the Google-powered backend of the Pokémon GO mobile game. By coincidence, the "Pokémon patent" was originally obtained by the same research organization, which according to its website employs 3,652 professionals.

What gets me so very interested in this case against Samsung over Android's prediction of remaining battery life is that I actually noticed the accused feature last year after switching from an iPhone to a Google Pixel phone. This screenshot shows what my Pixel settings told me this morning, and I'll explain in a moment what makes this so special:

Mobile phones have for a long time been able to provide an estimate of remaining battery runtime. What EP'201 covers, however, is a way of taking user activity into consideration. After my iPhone-to-Pixel migration (which I'm very happy about though I think Google needs to improve the Maps user experience), Android originally told me that I had about a day of remaining battery life when the device was fully charged. But a few weeks later, I noticed that my fully-charged Pixel was predicted to have enough power for well over two days. As batteries don't get better with time, the only plausible explanation was that Android had realized I was using the gadget mostly for emails, instant messaging, phone calls, and web browsing, but not so much for the most power-draining activities.

As you can infer from the screenshot further above, my phone is currently predicted to run for about 40 hours when fully charged. That is still a lot more than the original runtime prediction of about 25 hours, but less than the peak of 55 hours that I experienced last year. By now the battery is almost a year old, so it may be a bit weaker--but another possible explanation is that I went to the Stade de France on Saturday to watch the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool FC, which tempted me to take more pictures and record more videos than I ever have on a single day.

So the algorithm is not only predictive but also adaptive: it analyzes user behavior and learns from it. That's the most precise way to predict when a given user needs to recharge. Mostly, it's a function of the extent to which a given user runs certain apps. The camera app with which I took all those pictures on Saturday consumes more power than the email client.

As is always the case in patent litigation, it's instructive to take a look at the claim (I don't know which one(s) K.Mizra is asserting, but let's just look at claim 1 for now):

A method of predicting the power consumption of a battery-powered mobile terminal used for carrying out a sequence of user activities, wherein each user activity involves an interaction with the terminal and wherein each user activity causes one or more terminal activities involving power consumption of the terminal, the method comprising the steps of:

  • determining, for each user activity, which terminal activities it causes,

  • carrying out a series of user activities, the terminal activities of the series involving at least all terminal activities of the sequence,

  • measuring the power consumption of the terminal while carrying out the series of user activities,

  • deriving the power consumption of each terminal activity from the measured power consumption of the terminal,

  • adding, for each of the user activities of the sequence, the power consumption of the respective terminal activities caused by the particular user activity to obtain the power consumption of the respective user activity, and

  • adding the respective power consumption of the user activities of the sequence to obtain the power consumption of the sequence.

So, it's about analyzing user behavior, which triggers certain operations by the device, and calculating a user-specific level of power consumption on that basis. Knowing how much power a user consumes on average per, say, minute or hour of operating time, it then takes just one more step to determine how long the remaining battery power will last for that particular user--of course, barring a sudden deviation from that average, such as when I went to that soccer game.

The specification of the patent specifically refers to mobile apps--but the patent has a June 2007 priority date, so this was before Apple allowed third-party developers to create iPhone apps and before Google imitated Apple. The inventors were apparently inspired by pre-iPhone phones like Nokia handsets and BlackBerries, and the description seemingly presciently mentions Java apps (the programming language that Google later selected for Android).

I can see why K.Mizra considers this patent infringed, and it will be interesting to see how Samsung--and, actually, Google--seeks to defend itself before Presiding Judge Sabine Klepsch of the 4c Civil Chamber of the Dusseldorf Regional Court (case number: 4c O 27/22). If K.Mizra prevails, it's hard to imagine how any Android device maker out there would not be liable. So I guess not only Samsung and Google but also the likes of OPPO and Xiaomi will be watching with interest. And it's a separate question whether Apple's iOS makes use of the same invention...

According to K.Mizra's press release, "younger version of the Android [operating system]" infringe this patent. It's also my recollection that a few years ago Android devices weren't as good at predicting the remaining battery runtime as they are now. But it also shows how visionary the inventors were: the patent has a 2007 priority date, and apparently Google implemented this superior predictive method about a decade later.

Finally, in case anyone is curious about my recent battery-draining use of the Android camera app, I uploaded just one example to YouTube and you can find it below :-)

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