Nexus 7 Magnetic Sensor Could Be Trouble for Google, Asus

Google may have kept the Nexus 7's magnetic sensor feature a secret on purpose: to get the 7-inch Android tablets out on the market before Apple's sniffed a possible patent infringement. But the cat's now out of the proverbial bag, as one developer stumbled across the sensor on Wednesday, almost a week before the Google tablet ships.

The big deal is that this sensor turns the screen on and off when using a magnet. This is a handy gadget for peripheral makers who plan to release Nexus 7 Smart Covers that will turn the screen off when the protective flap closed by the user. The sensor is located at the bottom left-hand side while in portrait mode, and can be activated by swiping a magnet on the front or back.

Unfortunately, Apple has been using the same Smart Cover technique on its notebooks and the iPad 2 for some time. Heck, Microsoft reportedly has a similar feature on the just-announced Surface Windows 8-based tablet. But in Apple's case, the company naturally has a patent covering the Smart Cover magnetic system.

But Asus and Google may not be in quite such hot water. Android Police points out that Apple's patent on its Smart Cover seems to be narrowly tailored in form and function for the cover and iPad mechanism specifically. It focuses more on the Smart Cover's ability to latch onto the host device rather than turning the screen on and off. There's also talk in Apple's patent of a "useful functionality" being added to the Smart Cover, but the language itself seems to indicate it falls only within Apple's particular design and mechanism, and doesn't try to cover every tablet-based Smart Cover on the market.

Even more, the Nexus 7's magnetic sensor is actually located near the pogo-pins that have been set aside for a future dock device. A possible argument in court could be that the magnetic sensor has nothing to do with a Smart Cover peripheral, but is ready to be used with the upcoming dock. As of this writing, Google still has not updated the Nexus 7 product listing with the magnetic sensor feature, nor is it listed in the Nexus 7 Cover's description. It's also not mentioned on the pre-sale product pages provided by Office Depot, Sam's Club and Staples.

Still, despite doubts over the patent wording, will trigger-happy Apple take Google and Asus to court over the functionality? It's possible given that the Nexus 7 is a direct threat to the iPad. Whether Apple succeeds in banning the Nexus 7 will depend on the lawyers deciphering the patent wording.