In today’s Finshots, we explain the patent dispute between Apple and Masimo that could spoil Apple’s Christmas.

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The Story

Apple just lost a patent war! And now, the tech giant can’t sell its money-spinning Apple Watch this Christmas!


Yup, we know that’s crazy. But let’s tell you a little bit about what’s going on here.

The year is 2013. Masimo, a relatively small medical corporation, had just solved a big problem in the medtech industry ― inaccurate blood oxygen measurements. You see, before this, most technologies that measured oxygen levels in the blood needed patients to remain absolutely still. Otherwise, it would result in a false reading. But you know you can’t expect patients to always stay still. So this was a big problem.

Masimo had a brainwave. It came up with a technology where light could be transmitted through body tissues around the body part where these devices were worn. Blood that has enough oxygen or lacks it, absorbs light differently. So sensors would pick up this behaviour and return a reading in the form of a number. Accuracy levels jumped. And it was a game-changer.

Now Apple was watching these developments. It was in the early stages of building its wearables business — stuff like watches. And it knocked on Masimo’s doors. It wanted to partner with Masimo to integrate its new technology into these new products. Masimo was over the moon! An association with Apple could fuel its business like a rocket ship. And they rushed to sit across the table with Apple for some confidential meetings.

But soon, the whole episode turned into a nightmare for Masimo.

Masimo realised that Apple didn’t care much for it. Apple just wanted the tech. And soon enough, the tech giant started poaching its major employees including the Chief Medical Officer. Apple dangled lucrative compensation packages in front of them.

Next thing you know, many folks with sensitive information about the tech jumped ship. Now, Masimo didn’t think that anything could go wrong. After all, its former employees had agreed to respect the confidentiality clause.

So at first, it behaved with restraint. It simply wrote to Apple asking it to keep away from pulling out such trade secrets from its former employees.

But the damage was already done. These folks had already begun filing patents on behalf of Apple behind Masimo’s back. If you’re unfamiliar with patents, it’s an official claim of sorts that asserts a company’s right over a new invention. So it gives the company a legal right to stop others from making or using its creation for a certain time. And apparently, these Apple patents were similar to what Masimo had applied for as early as 2002.

And then Apple released devices loaded with light sensor blood oxygen reader technology.

And that’s when Masimo decided to go on the offensive. It filed a lawsuit against Apple in 2020. It alleged that Apple stole its trade secrets. Secrets that helped Apple use technology that currently ticks on the new Apple Watches.

Now the jury couldn’t decide who was in the wrong here. And the case ended up in a deadlock.

But Masimo didn’t lose hope. It filed another complaint with the US Trade Commission in 2021. And finally, these folks ruled in favour of the medical corporation. They said that Apple violated Masimo’s patents. And that it couldn’t sell its famous Watches anymore.

And let’s just say this could be a massive blow to Apple. Its wearables, home and accessories business which includes its AirPods and Watches generates over $40 billion a year ― and 40% of the segment’s revenues till September this year came from Watches alone.

So yeah, it looks like Masimo’s finally getting its revenge!

But wait…Apple is such a massive company. Do you really think it’ll resort to such antics to get ahead?

Well, Apple’s actually got quite a bad reputation for being a bully. In fact, when Apple knocks on the door of a smaller player, people even call it the “Kiss of Death”. Or in the words of Masimo’s CEO — “First, you get all excited. Then you realize that the long-term plan is to do it themselves and take it all.”

Here’s another example.

In 2016, a company called AliveCor made an accessory that could run an electrocardiogram (ECG) when paired with the Apple Watch. But before AliveCor started selling the product, Apple met with the company to see what the product could do.

A couple of years later, Apple introduced the ECG measuring tech directly into its Watch. It made AliveCor redundant. And it didn’t stop there. It even blocked the integration with AliveCor.

Needless to say, AliveCor complained. It claimed patent infringement. And it won. The Apple Watch with ECG monitoring was banned.

But wait…Apple didn’t cede ground either. It decided to go to the patent board and try and strike down AliveCor’s patent. It worked. The board decided to allow sales to continue. And AliveCor was left holding the bag.

Could Masimo’s fate be similar?

We don’t know but you can be sure that Apple will try. Heck, Apple loves trying to destroy others’ patents. In the past decade, Apple’s filed the most petitions to invalidate patents. It wants everything to itself.

And this will definitely be a battle for the ages — a David vs Goliath kind as a $6 billion company takes on a $3 trillion one. And you can be sure many will be rooting for Masimo.

Until then…

P.S.: Here's another ghost from Apple's past where it may have followed its 'Kiss of Death' playbook. And that wasn't even with a small company. It was Qualcomm! We're talking about a battle between the two tech giants which ended up in a settlement back in 2019.

Until 2010, Apple used Intel’s chips but switched to Qualcomm for chips to be used in its iPhones and other devices. But a couple of years later Apple began hopping back to Intel chips. Apparently, in the meantime, Apple gave Intel some sensitive information including source code that it had access to. It helped improve Intel’s chips, with lower costs for Apple of course. The lawsuit ended in a settlement amounting to $4.5 billion that Apple paid Qualcomm to drop all litigations against it.

So now you tell us. Could Apple just be a sly copycat?

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