Apple has decided to remove the blood oxygen measurement feature from its latest Apple Watch models to avoid a US import ban won by medical device maker Masimo.
Background of the Legal Dispute
The legal battle between Apple and Masimo has been going on since 2020 regarding patents related to pulse oximetry technology used to measure blood oxygen levels.
Masimo sued Apple alleging that the tech giant infringed on 10 of its patents covering inventions related to accurate noninvasive monitoring of blood constituent levels. Masimo claimed Apple infringed by adding a pulse oximetry sensor and app to the Apple Watch to measure blood oxygen levels.
In September 2022, the US International Trade Commission (ITC) ruled that Apple infringed on Masimo patents and banned imports of Apple Watches equipped with the pulse oximetry feature.
Apple appealed the ITC decision but the appeals court upheld the import ban earlier this month. Apple had filed a last ditch emergency appeal to pause the import ban while further appeals play out, but the ITC denied that request last week.
Apple’s Solution to Avoid Import Ban
With the import ban due to go into effect on January 19, Apple was facing the prospect of halting sales and imports of the latest Series 9 and Ultra 2 models of the Apple Watch.
Rather than pull those products from shelves, Apple decided to avoid the ban by removing the blood oxygen measurement app and disabling the pulse oximetry sensor hardware across the Series 9 and Ultra 2 lineup.
On January 15th, Apple informed US Customs officials of the changes to the Apple Watch models. Customs has since confirmed that with the blood oxygen feature removed, the redesigned Apple Watches are not subject to the import ban.
By stripping out the infringing functionality, Apple can continue selling the latest watches in the US without disruption while it exhausts the appeals process, which could take many more months to resolve.
Criticism Over Disabling Useful Health Feature
Public health experts have criticized Apple’s decision to disable the blood oxygen measurement, which was added to the Apple Watch in 2020 specifically to aid monitoring of respiratory diseases like COVID-19 and sleep apnea.
Dr. Michael Snyder, a genetics professor at Stanford School of Medicine, called it “a real shame and disservice to Apple Watch users” that the feature was being removed. He argued Apple should pay licensing fees to utilize Masimo’s inventions rather than stripping a “critical health metric” from the device.
Tech analysts have also highlighted the poor timing of losing the feature amidst an ongoing surge of respiratory illness this winter.
“It’s unfortunate this useful capability approved by the FDA is being held hostage over patents,” said industry analyst Neil Cybart. “Apple likely determined paying royalties wasn’t worth the cost, but the bigger loss is to consumers who now miss out during flu season.”
What’s Next in the Legal Battle?
Apple indicated it will continue appealing the ITC import ban even after making changes to comply in the interim.
The company can still file petitions in federal court seeking to invalidate Masimo’s pulse oximetry patents. Legal experts say Apple has reasonable arguments the patents fail to meet enforceability requirements.
If Apple succeeds getting the underlying patents tossed, that would void the import ban and allow restoring the blood oxygen measurement feature through a software update.
However the appeals process could still drag on for another year or longer. In the meantime, new buyers of Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 models will not have access to the blood oxygen app at initial launch.
|ITC rules Apple infringed Masimo patents, imposes import ban
|Appeals court upholds ITC import ban
|January 15, 2023
|Apple informs Customs of removing blood oxygen feature to avoid ban
|January 19, 2023
|Import ban on previous Apple Watch models due to take effect
While legal experts believe Apple has reasonable grounds for challenging validity of Masimo’s patents, the process is uncertain and could fail.
If Masimo’s patents are upheld, Apple may have no choice but to reach a licensing deal and pay royalties to the medical firm in order to restore the blood oxygen measurement feature. Apple has not commented on any licensing negotiations that may occur behind the scenes even as the lawsuits and appeals drag on.
For now, Apple is clearly hoping to stall as it collects more sales of the lucrative holiday launches of Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2. What remains to be seen is whether those new owners will ever gain the full functionality they may have expected with blood oxygen tracking. Apple is keeping mum about if or when it expects to reactivate the disabled feature as it maneuvers to overcome a sudden IP barricade thrown its way.
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