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Summary:

Apple won a significant victory last week when it was awarded a key patent related to basic multitouch functionality. It was called too broad by many, and raised the specter of pitched legal drama. It’s definitely a key victory for Apple, but why?

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Apple notched a significant win last week when it was awarded a key patent related to basic multitouch functionality. The patent was first called “hugely problematic” for other smartphone makers, owing to its “incredibly broad” scope by PC Magazine, but most now agree that the initial response overstated things a little. Even so, it’s a patent that provides a key advantage when it comes to touchscreen mobile computing, one which may present real and much bigger headaches for the competition.

Defense, not hunting license

Don’t think of this as a hunting license for Apple, or permission to launch a broad offensive against its competitors in the smartphone space. While FOSS Patents’ Florian Mueller told me the patent is “excessively broad” in his own personal opinion, “it’s nowhere near the scope of a patent on anything multitouch.” UBS analyst Maynard Um said in an email to his clients that the patents held by Apple seem intended mostly “for defensive purposes,” since “collecting royalty is not Apple’s business model.”

In other words, competitors will still have to cross specific boundaries to incur a legal response from Apple, but where those lines are drawn reveal the key to why the patent is so valuable. This patent covers the ability to navigate in apps and web pages with a one-finger flick, and two-finger scrolling for embedded elements within a frame, which are all part of what makes the iOS user experience so good.

Um believes “Google and Microsoft may find work-around solutions in their mobile operating systems to avoid any infringement,” but Mueller points out that “staying outside that claimed territory will always come with some degradation of the user experience.” It’s that UX advantage that Apple wants to maintain with this patent.

More buttons for competitors

Apple’s touch interface on iOS devices has broad appeal because it works intuitively, and it has familiarity because of the broad reach of iOS (over 187 million iOS devices had been sold at last count). If you want to see more content on an iOS device, you push the screen down or pull it up, and the on-screen software responds as one would expect. According to Mueller, staying clear of Apple’s new multitouch patents would likely involve using additional icons or buttons for things like zoom and scrolling, which add a level of complexity to touch interaction. Basically, it would degrade UX on competing platforms. People new to touchscreen computing, and users used to iOS, would have trouble adjusting to these added elements, and they would also make for a cluttered interface. Apple, in other words, is better positioned to achieve a kind of user experience lock-in that would be hard for the competition to overcome.

That’s not to say Apple will be the only handset manufacturer to implement things like two-finger scrolling. Mueller notes that since Apple is already involved in patent litigation with Motorola, Samsung and HTC, it could reach cross-licensing agreements that allow other hardware to use its multi-touch patents as part of a settlement in some of those cases.

Ultimately, this patent is undeniably a win for Apple, and a loss for the competition, but it doesn’t mean we’ll see Apple turn into a litigating monster. It, does, however add some more legal backing to Apple’s existing UX advantage in the smartphone game, which will have long-reaching effects for the future of the market.

  1. I’m not a fan of the patent office issuing such broad coverage of this technology to one company. If one thing history has proved, it is the allowance of science and technology to leapfrog its predecessors with more advancements. This subsequently creates an ever evolving future for these advancing developments. Allowing someone to patent running water is a problem waiting in the wings. The possibility of stifling innovation is adherent with one entity controlling the forecast of what will or won’t be researched, developed and delivered to the world.

    I am highly disappointed in the patent office’s lack of insight on this. While Mr. Mueller may see this as not a problem for Microsoft or Google, I see a large scale of roadblocks for small companies to capitalize on a given technology. Imagine if Linux were not open. Where would computer or phone technology be?

    This is an accident waiting to happen. It allows Apple one step closer to controlling the entire technical aspects of a consumer’s interests and future of technical mobile devices. This could also quite possibly bleed beyond the mobile industry as well.

    John B.

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  2. I once did usability testing under the cameras in a Microsoft lab to get a free copy of Word. My loudest complaint was the stupidity of requiring double-clicks to do something when a single-click did nothing. The reason was, or course, that the Apple’s UI used single clicks, so Windows had to have two. (We’re luck Linux doesn’t need three.) Don’t forget that Apple sued Microsoft over just that sort of thing. Apple lost, but the lingering effect still haunts Windows.

    This sort of behavior is so common in the high-tech industry, that I suspect that the autistic spectrum disorders that troubles ‘geeky’ people and their kids is broader than most psychologists assume. A difficult with understanding how other people feel extends far beyond the computer game obsessions of people with Asperger’s syndrome. It extends into yelling, screaming tirades as corporate CEOs and an unwillingness (we suspect) to let the entire world freely share what is actually a pretty obvious way to do a touch UI.

    For such people, “How I feel” matters greatly. Everything must happen their way. “How others feel” matters hardly at all. That’s why, among other things, Apple hasn’t explained how those with slow or non-existent Internet connections will upgrade to Lion. That’d be easy to do, almost trivial, but it’d require at least some ability to empathize with people who don’t live in high-tech Cupertino. People with what we might call Weakened Empathy Syndrome (WES) don’t seem to be able to engage in that sort of thinking.

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  3. Chanson de Roland Monday, June 27, 2011

    Well, a patent that gives Apple’s devices exclusive rights to one and two finger scrolling and manipulation certainly sounds very broad to me, as I am sure it does to Apple’s competitors in the markets for mobile smart devices. And that patent seems to read on what Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone have practiced in the past and which they practice today. That means, even if Google and Microsoft can create a work-around for their respective future devices, they each would still be liable for huge liability for past infringement, if Apple chooses to sue and prevails in those suits.

    At best, Apple may only issue cease and desist demands, where it agrees not to sue for past infringement, if an infringer, e.g., Google or Microsoft, immediately complies by ceasing all current and future infringement. But so complying would be vastly expensive for Microsoft, Google, and the Android OEMs, as they would have to immediately stop all production, destroy all inventory, and throwout all current product-development plans.

    So yes, if those infringing on Apple’s patent were to immediately cease their infringing practice, Apple may be content, but even that is nothing short of a disaster for Microsoft, Google, et al., as their would have to start from scratch in the markets for smartphones, tablets, and any other device that practices Apple’s patent.

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  4. ” . . that is nothing short of a disaster for Microsoft, Google, et al., as their would have to start from scratch in the markets for smartphones, tablets, and any other device that practices Apple’s patent.”
    .
    Oh well
    That is the consequence of stealing someone’s intellectual property.

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    1. Wild guess what stl does for a living.. the old joke ‘first, kill all the lawyers’ probably makes her have a tort seizure. Apple has made a mint ripping off, patenting unoriginal and patenting the patently obvious. Apple certainly isnt alone but the consequence is humanity is held back forever paying off the pharisees and just as an aside here – soon, monsanto just to eat.. good times. People are starting to notice and are not amused.

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    2. I call fanboy on that one Multitouch wasnt invented by apple

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  5. congratulations for apple, but on one side of the apple have made use of devices that belong to Nokia

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  6. Quoting Florian Mueller suggests that this article is unreliable. Sad but true.

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  7. ap-ple has a proven track record at suing current or possible future competitors in order to slow them down (apple doesnt like to compete on merit alone) and this was when is was on dubious legal ground. Now that some idiot has granted it a patent for something it didnt invent (atually apple doesnt invent most of it’s stuff just rips it off of other …multi-touch was invented by the U of Toronto in the 80’s), apple is going to sue every smart phone manufacturer it find just so it doesnt have any competition. Leave it to the apple fansite Gigaom to portray a slimy company like apple as the tech victim defending iself

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