'Apple took a bite without approval'

Updated: 2013-08-23 10:32

By Wei Tian (China Daily)

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 'Apple took a bite without approval'

Apple CEO Tim Cook (left) visited Foxconn's iPhone assembly plant in Zhengzhou, Henan province in March last year. Provided to China Daily

'Apple took a bite without approval'

'Apple took a bite without approval'

Chinese company takes tech giant to court for IPR infringement

Though no verdict has been handed down as yet in its action against Apple Inc, Zhizhen Network Technology Co believes that Chinese companies can effectively use the existing legal channels in China to protect and safeguard their intellectual property rights.

The Shanghai-based company was in the news recently after it took the US tech giant to court for alleged patent infringement. Zhizhen said Apple's popular Siri application, or intelligent digital assistant, installed in iPhones, iPads and iMacs, infringes on its patents for the voice-controlled assistant, Xiao i Robot. The virtual assistant is mostly used in smartphones, televisions, cars, Web browsers and even in call centers.

Yuan Hui, chairman and chief executive of Zhizhen, says that by taking on a formidable opponent like Apple, it knew it was opening a can of worms.

"Many people thought that we were taking on Apple just to earn a name for ourselves and our products, but it is really an effort to safeguard our valuable IPR and not for a fast buck," he says.

"Shameless and self-hype were the comments used by several Apple fans to describe us on social networking sites, while some others who supported us called us the 'David who challenged Goliath'. These comments have not really swayed us in any way and we are determined to protect what is rightfully ours," Yuan says while talking to China Daily in his simple but spacious office at a high-tech park in west Shanghai.

"Whatever the result, we have got a business to run."

Zhizhen filed the lawsuit against Apple on June 21, 2012, just a few days after Apple paid $60 million (45 million euros) to Proview Technology (Shenzhen) to end a protracted legal dispute over the iPad trademark in China.

Many viewed the case as another greedy Chinese company trying to blackmail the magnate. Li Yi, secretary general of China Mobile Internet Industry Association, says the case was an example of the industry's woes.

"The huge compensation Apple paid for its trademark has encouraged many to follow in the steps (of Proview)," he says.

"But product is the key. Apple redefined the concept of tablet computer, whereas Xiao i is not a competent rival."

Known as the "father of robots" in China, the 40-year-old Yuan has been developing human-computer interaction software for more than a decade after he gave up a lucrative job with Microsoft to branch out on his own. Yuan says that Xiao i Robot was launched in 2004, and subsequently gained popularity on Microsoft's MSN messenger.

Apple's Siri application responds to a user's commands largely through voice recognition software. Siri Inc, a start-up company that Apple acquired in 2010, started producing the virtual mobile assistant in 2007.

According to Yuan, Zhizhen got a patent for its product from China's State Intellectual Property Office on Feb 15, 2006, after filing for it on Aug 13, 2004.

Yuan says that Xiao i Robot currently accounts for more than 90 percent of the domestic market, and there are no competitors on the same level. "Though we commercialized the product in 2006, it did not make a profit for over five years. Since 2011, our fortunes have improved thanks to the mobile Internet boom," he says.

The company's current clients include all three major telecom operators in China, leading banks such as China Construction Bank and China Merchants Bank, and online vendors such as JD.com and Vancl, as well as several government bodies.

"People don't realize, but our products are actually everywhere, and are used by hundreds of millions of people every day, when people enquire about their telephone bill via short message, or talk to a bank's virtual customer service using Wechat," Yuan says.

Intelligent assistants such as Siri and Xiao i Robot consist of mainly two parts - the voice recognizer in the front and the human-computer interaction software at the back.

Pointing to several other similarities between Siri and his company's product, Yuan says that the front part for Siri has been developed through an alliance with the US-based voice recognition technology provider Nuance. In China, Xiao i Robot is the strategic partner of Nuance.

"Since most of our work was confined to the back-end operations, we did not have any brand recognition with customers," Yuan says. "That could be one of the reasons why we are often bandied as a 'nobody' or a 'blackmailer'. Unfortunately, it is the way we have chosen to operate, and will continue to do so. It is a criticism that we will just have to live with."

Justifying his IPR claims, Yuan says Xiao i Robot has since moved on to even higher planes. "There are four stages for the human-computer interaction - DOS command, graphical interface, touch screen, and finally artificial intelligence, or robots," he says.

"What Siri is doing is to create an omnipotent robot; and the ultimate form of this would be entities like characters from movies like Transformers or Terminator.

"Only tech giants with deep pockets such as Apple and Google can realistically achieve these goals," he says, adding that language-based services are very much related to knowledge of local culture, and so local companies have more advantages.

"Apple is a company that has the largest market value in the world. China has for long been accused of not according IPR protection and of lack of technical innovation. It is these factors that have promoted most of our detractors to dub us bad guys."

If Xiao i Robot manages to get a favorable verdict, Apple will have to stop selling all its products with the Siri service in China. "We will primarily focus on establishing the infringement claim, before going ahead with other aspects like monetary compensation," Yuan says.

"For Apple, it's a case they can ill-afford to lose, as the Chinese market is crucial to their fortunes. But that's Tim Cook's business, not mine.

"Whatever the outcome, the case will lead to more awareness about IPR, and also serve as a valuable reference point for regulatory protection."

China will not resort to protectionism to block foreign companies coming in, he says. Any disputes would have to end up in the court.

Industry experts believe there will be IPR disputes between Chinese companies and their foreign counterparts in the future.

"It is important for Chinese companies to understand their rights and options," Yuan says. "Our case against Apple clearly proves that Chinese companies do not lack innovation capabilities.

"I do not grudge respect for Apple as I believe it is a great company," Yuan says, adding that he owns several Apple products and software purchased through official channels.


(China Daily European Weekly 08/23/2013 page8)