So Apple is finally awarded their multi-touch patent, and the hue and cry from the Apple Bashers is pretty loud. But not only Apple Bashers are worried, Daring Fireball had this to say: Very broad language – taken at face value, Apple effectively owns the IP […]


So Apple is finally awarded their multi-touch patent, and the hue and cry from the Apple Bashers is pretty loud. But not only Apple Bashers are worried, Daring Fireball had this to say:

Very broad language – taken at face value, Apple effectively owns the IP rights to multi-touch in the U.S. This sucks.

DF’s major beef is with the patent office awarding the patent in the first place due to its broad language. However, what other type of language does one use for the concept being patented? We’re talking a whole new UI here. The implication seems to be that the patent is short on specifics, yet it’s 358 pages! When you’re patenting a new UI, I’m thinking you’re going to have to brush with broad strokes lest you forget a corner of the canvas that a competitor uses to white out your picture.

Other comments I’ve read on various blogs are more alarmist. Apple will become a monopoly. Apple is evil. I hated them before, I hate them even more now. Apple will kill innovation. Apple hates competition. Blah, blah, blah…

And all of this without Apple even lifting a finger. I guess it’s easier to yell and scream first, and then look for justification later.

What’s Really Going On?

My view of the whole thing is that Apple remembers a painful lesson, and has no intention of letting it happen again. They invented the computer GUI we’ve been using for 25 years and got precious little for it. It was ripped off, and those goods rammed down our throats through means that are still questionable, at best.

Back then, the idea of patenting or copyrighting software or a UI was pretty fuzzy (just ask the inventor of Visacalc, it must suck to see a bajillion dollars of Excel sold every year and get bupkis). It also didn’t help that the ’85 agreement between Microsoft and Apple could have been worded better, but I’m not so sure that back then Microsoft would have been stopped from their rip-off Windows shell even without that agreement. Today we know better.

Apple spent millions of dollars and several years developing the premiere touch user interface, and they had no intention for any other company to simply copy the primary elements and then claim it’s the same thing. Not this time.

Does Apple Deserve This?

For those claiming Apple doesn’t deserve the patent because they did not “invent” multi-touch, who did invent it? Jeff Han? Did he not rely on the works of others? Doesn’t everybody? More to the point, who is everybody modeling their product after? That’s right, that would be Apple. No one is ripping off Jeff’s, or anyone else’s, designs for the simple reasons there was nothing practical enough to rip off.

At some point, when you perfect an idea, and actually make it work, and usable, and practical, and bring it to market, and it’s affordable and reliable enough to be a huge hit then, yes, you “invented” it. Apple absolutely did this with the Macintosh, and they did it with the iPhone OS.

Will It Kill Innovation?

As for the idea that this kills innovation, please re-think that question using incentive and history as your guides:

  • Incentive, because why put in the massive amounts of time, money and effort to truly innovate — and put up with all your competitors mocking and ridiculing it until the product becomes a huge hit — only to watch them change their tune and just start ripping it off? The incentive is that if you take those huge risks (does anyone not appreciate what a risk this was for Apple?) you’ll get rewarded by being afforded some level of protection. That potential reward encourages innovation, it doesn’t kill it. In fact, it’s a major reason for the patent system in the first place.
  • As for history, did Apple’s lack of control over the computer GUI give us innovation? Are any of you seriously going to argue the DOS shell known as Windows was innovative? It could be argued that not being able to stop Windows ultimately set the computer tech world back 15 years. Please. Blatant knock-offs from those trying to make a quick buck (or even just survive) is not innovation, it’s stolen IP. Let’s not get all teary-eyed over supposed suppressed innovation. The rip-off artists aren’t interested in innovating anything.

And please try to think back to only two years ago, when much of the planet was mocking Apple and the iPhone. How short some memories are! That every phone should be like this seems self-evident now, but it was Apple who realized it and did the work to make it so. I do not (and should not) care that someone was demoing resizing photos on a huge screen with expensive equipment in an implementation that was not at all practical outside of a lab, or university, or demo room. That’s not what the iPhone is. That’s its genius. That’s what is being patented.


It remains to be seen how Apple will use this patent to protect their IP. I do not dispute that many patents are used as weapons to club everything in order to make a buck. We see a lot of such “patent trolling,” but does anyone seriously think Apple is going to be a patent troll now? I mean, surely you know they have better sources of revenue, right?

I just don’t see Apple having the time nor the inclination to try to make a few bucks that way. It’s about trying to stop blatant copycats of a major game-changing design in a way they could not 25 years ago. Good for them.

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  1. Agree with you 100%.

    If the patent office allows it, and Apple doesn’t patent it, you can bet some patent troll will patent it, and come around to sue Apple. It’s already happened on the iPod.

  2. You can’t just put glasses on a teddy bear and lay claim to all bespectacled stuffed animals.

    All the elements of WIMP were there before the Steves tucked them into a $6k “personal computer,” and at least six years ago, single-contact gesture controls were being raved about in the game Black and White.

    1. Yup… see Jeff Han

  3. Champs,

    “All the elements” does NOT mean you have a real product. What Apple paid stock options to see at Xerox PARC was crude and incomplete, and was never going to see the light of day. Apple did not “put glasses” on a teddy bear. They fabricated the thing and stuffed it. Oh, and the original Mac was 2.5K, not 6. I suggest you look at PC prices from back then.

  4. Robert Anderson Wednesday, January 28, 2009

    Very, very nicely put:

    At some point, when you perfect an idea, and actually make it work, and usable, and practical, and bring it to market, and it’s affordable and reliable enough to be a huge hit then, yes, you “invented” it.

    One doesn’t patent ideas; one patents implementations. It’s that simple. People who are under-familiar with the process tend to over-value ideas, and under-value the hard sweaty work it takes to get ideas to be really fruitful implementations.

    1. You’re right, but a “Multi-touch interface” is not an implementation. A specific combination of sensors, materials, processors, and code is an a implementation. This is just as absurd as patenting a “electronic computing device”, or a “Multi-wheeled method of transportation”. And you can’t seriously tell me that a “swipe” or “pinch” is not “prior art”. Apple didn’t invent the GUI, the MP3 player or Multi-touch. This nonsense ruins the intent of a patent, but I don’t blame Apple, I blame our outdated and ill-informed patent system. If people understood that there is more than magic and pixie dust inside these devices, this crap wouldn’t happen.

  5. Another terrific article. Well done.

  6. Awful. Please read at least a little bit about patents before purporting to write an article about them. Articles like this give me the impression that you probably don’t know what you’re talking about half the time.

  7. @Tom Reestman: Apple’s Lisa predates the Mac and actually came in at a much higher price tag than I stated. There are numerous teddy bears on the market with glasses, the combination is obvious, and the only IP defense is a trademark on a specific combination of facial/accessory design elements.

  8. John Gruber is one of my favorite bloggers, writers, and thinkers, in all things, not just Macs.

    On this one, I agree with Tom Reestman. I think Tom’s one of the best bloggers/writers out there right now, in substance, style, and tone.

    I like what Robert Anderson said above, it’s all about how things are implemented:

    My first Apple product was an iPod mini, after I had tried in vain to get numerous Microsoft Plays For Sure MP3 players to work consistently with subscription music. I really tried to make it work because I loved the concept, but Microsoft never was able to make it work consistently (even Bill Gates admitted this in interviews, sorry I don’t have a linked reference, too lazy). From that iPod mini, I’ve totally switched to all things Apple in my workflow.

    When the iPhone first came out, like Chris Pirillo, I though it was all bunk and hype. To paraphrase Pirillo, “I’m eating crow now, and I really hate to eat crow”, and I’m taking it all back.

    I’m not a big fan of IP (intellectual property) and patents generally to begin with, but that’s a separate issue all together. But if we are going to patent IP, I think things like OS X and the iPhone interface definitely deserve it, and I don’t think it will stifle competition or innovation, but instead rewards the original innovator in this case.

    Patent law and IP theory are huge subjects all onto themselves, and they could be discussed and debated till infinity by both experts and general citizens alike.

    Overall, another great piece of writing. No doubt I’m biased in my judgment because I agree with it.

  9. Actually Tom it was XEROX PARC that invented the computer GUI that we’ve been using for the last 25 years. If there was anyone “ripped off” it was them. Apple would have been in a very different position today had XEROX been able to hold patents on their inventions as would the PC and software industry given XEROX poor track record in commercializing them.

    The area of software patents is, unfortunately, very complex. Too many poor patents are granted requiring the courts to step in and fix the mess. So I think it’s early days before anyone can say with certainty that Apple has stitched this up.

    I wonder whether significant parts of multi-touch are actually novel and non-obvious. For example, is flicking your finger across a touch screen to mimic the action of a scroll bar really innovative? Or is it just a different manifestation of the same innovation? And keep in mind that Adobe Acrobat reader has the hand tool to move around regions of the screen.

    At the end of the day there’s only one thing for certain – there will be a lot of lawyers making good money on all this.

  10. Brian,

    XEROX PARC did not have such items as the pulldown menu, or other components we took for granted starting with the Mac. XEROX did not invent the GUI we’ve been using for 25 years. The mouse, for example, was invented (and patent applied for in the late 60s) by Douglas Engelbart. This was not at XEROX, but some of his researchers later went to XEROX and brought the concept with them. So XEROX clearly relied on the work of others (which is perfectly fine, and something I alluded to in the article). Sure, PARC made large strides in the development of the computer GUI, but it wasn’t all “theirs”, and not something they’d be bringing to market… ever.

    XEROX didn’t need patents to protect their work. Their GUI was “locked up” in PARC, and could have stayed that way. They made no attempt to protect it, and in fact gladly let Apple come back with a few people — in exchange for Apple stock options — to take a more in-depth look. Steve Jobs, fascinated as he was, knew that it was a “flawed” UI, and Apple set about perfecting it. I’d say what they came up with has stood up very well, wouldn’t you?

    Finally, for any readers who, after 25 years, still will not give Apple credit for the modern computer GUI then it’s got to be killing you to think Apple pulled off another UI paradigm with the iPhone.

    1. So… in other words… I’ll twist the facts and disregard others until they back up my manufactured point.

      Apple doesn’t deserve a patent for multi-touch. Not even close.

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