The patents present four (somewhat) novel forms of unlock that range from simple to complex
The "Big Three" of the Android world -- HTC Corp. (TPE:2498), Samsung Electronics Comp.Ltd. (KS:005930), and Google Inc.'s (GOOG) nearly-acquired subsidiary-to-be Motorola Mobility -- all share a common legal adversary -- Apple, Inc. (AAPL). Apple has asserted a slew of claims against the Android phonemakers, and they haven't been shy about firing back, sometimes quite successfully (other times not so much).
I. The Backup Plan
One of Apple's biggest successes, however, came when it scored a German injunction on Motorola's smartphones, thanks to its unlocking patents. Apple's earliest anti-Android lawsuit against HTC also used the first of Apple's two unlocking patents, and multiple internation suits against Samsung have applied it, as well.
The German court did crucially rule that the circular unlock on the Motorola Xoom tablet was not in violation. Unfortunately, it did not rule about the grid pattern unlock (to this author's knowledge).
To cut to the chase, it is my informed opinion that Apple's unlocking patents are likely invalid or should be narrowed, due to prior art. But that process will take time. And Google can't afford its partners to be temporarily removed in such a competitive market. So that's why a new unlocking claim -- first dug up by the IP experts Patently Apple -- is so important.
Google already has filed a patent for the rights to the aforementioned grid-based unlock (U.S. Patent Application No. 20110283241 A1), but it likely will not receive this patent until 2013, at the earliest.
Assuming the worst case scenario -- that some regions choose not to invalidate or narrow Apple's broad ownership claims to an unsecured lock, Google would be in a bind. And if, worse yet, some region decided Apple's patent so broad as to cover Google's grid unlock, it would be in really deep trouble. In short, Google expects to win, but it has far too much to lose and needs a backup plan.
That backup plan may be U.S. Patent Application 20120036556 A1, filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Feb. 9, 2012.
II. Three Different Unlocking Techniques in One Patent (Plus Voice Support)
This method of unlock offers an easier, lower security novel unlock, should the user want one. In its most simple method, the unlock involves simply scrolling through a side-scrolling list of commands, and then dragging one to an unlock "bin".
The action not only unlocks the screen in a method different from Apple, et al.'s method, but it also conveniently launches the task you want. A downside is that it may be a bit slower to scroll and find your desired action, rather than Apple's directly unlock, followed by a full-screen delve for the desired app. However, this could be mitigated if Google implements allows Android users to create their own list order (which would allow commonly used functions to be placed earlier. The patent suggests such a streamlined implementation, both verbally and visually.
The second method offers slightly more security, and again a novel solution, albeit a less secured one than the grid unlock. In the second method a series of common actions are displayed on a grid. One action is the special user-designated "unlock" icon. While it'd be easy to determine this by brute force (hence the security is limited), the experienced user can drag their desired action icon to the unlock icon and then back to initial location to unlock the screen in a novel way. Doing so also launches the target app, as with the first method.
Users can either start with the unlock icon and drag it to the desired action, then back to the unlocked icons position; or start with the desired action icon and drag it to the unlock icon, then back to desired actions original position. Either way, the special designated unlock icon has to be part of the three-step drag sequence.
This process can also be accomplished via a redundant voice command. This offers slightly more security, given that users could reverse engineer the unlock icon via "reverse engineering" fingerprint smudging (a similar concern has been raised about the grid unlock).
Finally the second unlocking patent offers a third unlocking mechanism -- a plain password driven method, with plain voice entry.
Google also has yet another method of unlocking -- Ice Cream Sandwich's facial recognition unlock, but the biometrics involved have shown to be weak, capable of being defeated by a picture of the phone's normal user, via methods we've covered in the past.
The technology was already patented by Pitt Patt -- U.S. Patent 7,881,505. Google owns this patent, now via its acquisition of the firm. Both Google and Apple (as well as research institutions) have filed for patents on how to improve the facial recognition method, making it more robust and resistant to image spoofing. Similar patents to the two new American filings, have likely been filed overseas in various jurisdictions.:)