Apple awarded multi-touch patent- end game for everyone else?


apple-multi-touch-patentA sharp reader on jkOnTheRun points us to a World of Apple article discussing the awarding of the multi-touch patent to Apple (s aapl) just a few days ago.  This is the patent they filed last year that covers how they have implemented multi-touch on the iPhone and the new MacBooks using the trackpad. The big question with this patent award is if this ends the multi-touch game for everyone else, including the upcoming Palm (s palm) Pre smartphone.  Several netbooks also implement multi-touch using the touchpad and that seems to be in violation of this patent.  Apple could license this technology but it’s been their practice to keep it for themselves in the past and this could get pretty ugly very fast.

The patent assignment covers all of the gestures used in the iPhone including window scrolling, both horizontal and vertical, and two thumb rotation.  It specifically addresses using multi-touch to augment the web browsing experience and goes even further to patent the very process of recognizing multiple touches on the screen.  We are not experts in legal patent issues but the processes are discussed very clearly and it looks like they’ve got multi-touch totally locked up.

Palm is set to release their multi-touch enabled phone, the Pre, shortly and Apple has already made it clear they will protect their IP in regards to multi-touch.  The timing of this patent award by the US government couldn’t come at a worse time for Palm, that’s for sure.  We expect to see Apple do more than rattle their sabers at companies like Palm to protect this patent.  It’s a great time to be an Apple shareholder but not so much so for everyone else.


Nicholas Bedworth

As some astute readers pointed out, the prior art in multitouch goes back decades.

And the government issuing a patent doesn’t have a lot of significance. If Apple were to try and demand royalties from another company, it would simply result in protracted litigation, with an eventual business discussion about “how much?” Company A pays Company B.

Apple’s attempts to do this in the past have, in some cases, have not exactly worked out too well :).


Multitouch was around both in theory and practice before Jeff Han and apple picked it up. Even before fingerworks who apple bought to get multitouch. Apple’s achievement is putting in on a device so small the irony is that they could not do this without Balda (the company that makes the screen).

As for the idea that “It’s a great time to be an Apple shareholder but not so much so for everyone else.” A much better and far, far more in depth analysis of the situation is available here:


Jeff Han did the research work that made the iPhone multitouch possible. Apple did not invent it and would not be able to file a general patent without buying the rights to his work.


Apple needs to defend its IP rights vigorously. I would not trust all the PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY.


The last thing anyone wants to argue in court is the validity of a patent. It is an expensive crap shoot. This is true for Apple and Palm (and the rest of us). If Apple does not enforce its patent rights, their patent rights weaken. If Palm is aware of the patent and then infringes, then Palm can be sued for triple damages – a nasty outcome. So they may end up doing exactly what they don’t want to do.

In the end, the big companies usually trade patent licenses. If it is a medium versus a large company, the medium company tends to lose because they can’t handle the legal bill and/or don’t have the managed portfolio of patent licenses to trade. For potentially infringing little companies, there is usually not enough money to make it worthwhile.

I don’t know about Palm’s patent portfolio, or how well they have managed enforcement of their rights in the past, but all of that will be part of their decision on what to do.

And it depends on the specifics of the patent. Patents are written for a specific case, but use language to allow for the most general interpretation. I doubt that a bright line can be drawn between what Palm does and Apple patented.

Frank McPherson

Microsoft is likely to just licensing from Apple, assuming that Apple will issue a license.

The patent issue is likely while multitouch isn’t in Android.

If allowed to by the courts, Apple will use the patent to crush Palm unless they settle/license. My guess is Apple will be most aggressive protecting this against phones such multi-touch is pretty fundamental to the iPhone experience.

Loren Heiny

Bill Buxton, a pioneer in some of the touch technologies and who by the way works at Microsoft, has an excellent overview of touch and multi-touch here:

Note, some of this research goes back to the 60s, though most touch work really starts in earnest in the 80s and multi-touch in the 90s.

Using a pinch gesture to zoom text in and out was unique and well implemented from a mass market standpoint in the iPhone, I’ll give Apple that. However, unique and non-obvious from a technology standpoint–outside of some arcane interpretation of how patents work? I don’t think so.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read the patent, so maybe I’m missing the real point to all of this.


Multi-touch (i.e., capacitative sensor array) technology has been around for at least 15 years in some form or another and almost certainly longer, though combining it with a screen is relatively new. Also, there is more than one way to implement multi-touch (e.g., capacitative sensors, gloves, et al.).

Just to argue against weak, overblown interpretations of this patent:
– it is not a patent “on multitouch” as a whole.
– it is a patent on the use of “heuristics” in the sensing and interpretation of multitouch input for controlling a computational device
– these “heuristics” specifically mentioned include those that interpret multitouch input as commands to perform the following actions:
(a.) – vertically scroll the image on the screen
(b.) – move around the image on the screen
(c.) – display the “next” item in a “series.”

The description of this “invention” is specific enough to receive the patent but broad enough to seem ridiculous, IMO. That’s what is most striking about the patent. But, if one-click shopping got a patent that was later shot down, this is similar.

On the other hand (I’m too lazy to look at the actual patent text), if the “invention” is the specific means by which the “heuristics” operate, then only those specific means are patented. If they used a particular computationally strategy, who knows, maybe the patent is very reasonable.

It’s funny how much people follow Apple’s patents. I think it started because people wanted clues to potential new Apple products, although very few of the ideas from patentst have come to fruition as actual consumer products. But most companies file patents defensively — if they’ve done a significant amount of work on something in secret, there’s a point at which you think about everything that is potentially patentable from your work. If a company shelves a project or area of research and design, it may file patents to “cap off” the work they did. You don’t patent an area of research too soon, because patents are publicly accessible. It can be better to release a new product rather than announce to all your competitors the features you’re currently have in R&D. But if you think the cat is out of the bag and you have a head start, sometimes you file a patent. Very few companies or individuals will challenge a company like Apple over something like this, so it helps weed out competition.

At the same time, I highly doubt Apple will pursue MS for their basically non-existent Surface table on the basis of this patent. Why not? Because it would be ridiculously expensive, because the Surface doesn’t actually make any money, and because they might lose in court in the attempt to actually enforce this patent.

IANAL, but I know a little bit about patents. Almost all patents on computational processes (like one-click shopping, for instance) seem kind of bogus and a lot of them probably are.


@Ze Stuart: And those things never came to market. Apple’s patent is for something real, not just an idea. This is how patents should work, protecting actual technology, not ideas for technology.


Rather than wasting money and time to fight against Apple, I wish Palm just release Pre with multitouch disabled. Of course, within a few days, some anonymous “hackers” will find out how to enable it back, and everyone will use it.


The half truths being posted by people on this and other blogs(including the blogs Arthur’s)is chilling.

I’m getting tired of doing you’re jobs!

There is a thing called prior art and patents can be invalidated as a result.

Also take a look at Palm’s prior patents. They weren’t lying when they said they had very fundamental patents that could easily be used to turn around and sue the pants off of Apple if a lawsuit was brought against them.
Some of these patents go all the way to 1997.


I happen to hold a couple patents and having been through the patent process, I can assure you there are loads of ways around issued patents. Tweak the claims the slightest bit and what was not patentable can become patentable. However, more importantly, just because the USPTO issues a patent means rather little, believe it or not. What matters is validity and that is hashed out in the courts. Apple’s lawyers may have convinced a patent examiner in VA that they have something for which is there is no prior art and is non-obvious, but convincing the courts is what counts and is a very different matter.


I remember seeing these patents on blogsbefore the Iphone was released. There was speculation that it might bean Apple slate tablet back then. Then the iPhone ended up being the product.

As companies began releasing products with multitouch including our HP tx2 I vas surprised at Apples silence.

I find it hard to believe nobody knew these patents existed.

I wonder if the lawyers involved, have found a loophole in the patent.

James Kendrick

Who thought up multi-touch and when is a moot point now. Apple holds the patent and has a number of products that use the technology. They will be hard to beat here.

Ze Stuart

@Sumocat: I think multi-touch was around before the iPhone…

Remember the demonstration on big wall screens on YouTube? Generally with mappings. And of course Minority Report.

James Kendrick

Kevin, you and me both. My next Mobile Tech Minutes is wondering just such a thing. The big battlefield will not be smartphones as many think but on the desktop. :)


Neil: I don’t know when development on either product began, but Surface was officially announced months after the iPhone’s announcement. With multi-touch, Apple beat everyone else to market, and now they’ve beaten them to the patent office. It will be interesting to see how everyone proceeds from here.


If Apple have proprietory technology around the Multi-Touch interface then that is fair enough, (companies that innovate should be protected from those that copy)… But I cannot see that the gestures themselves can afford much protection.
A workaround is to allow the user to choose from a selection of gestures for each action during the initial device setup, or even add their own.

There is a real risk though that companies like Palm may not survive the potential lengthy time-burden that a legal challenge can take, which will be a shame.

Neil Mosafi

I just don’t get patents like this, it harms everyone. Surely they have been able to recoup their R&D costs by now!

Anyway didn’t Microsoft debut their “Surface” was before the iPhone was even conceived and that uses multi touch…?


Which netbooks currently use the multi-touch? I would like to run out and buy one before they are extinct. Might be a collectors item.


I’m no expert on this sort of thing but there are some pretty big companies working on multi-touch and I’d have thought at least one of them would have done their homework to ensure that this patent wouldn’t cause them any trouble.

Microsoft, Palm, Synaptics, N-trig are just a few examples. I’m sure there’s more to this and Palm will be OK.

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