Thoughts on the Apple multi-touch patent- look out Microsoft

do-not-touchThe tech world is buzzing over Apple’s being awarded a patent covering the multi-touch gesturing.  We knew Apple had applied for a patent but reality sets in when one is awarded, thus giving Apple some teeth to go after those who dare to “infringe” on the technology.

Discussions are already popping up trying to lay claims that others besides Apple have produced multi-touch technology first and thus negating the fact that Apple has the patent.  This may be a moot point with the patent having been awarded to Apple and let’s be fair they did produce the iPhone with multi-touch, the first actual product to have the technology.  What remains to be seen is how Apple chooses to protect this technology from “abuse”.

Many (myself included) are predicting that Palm may be in trouble as soon as their upcoming smartphone, the Pre, is released.  Palm has integrated multi-touch into the OS and Apple certainly stands to protect the technology as used in the iPhone.  This could easily be a death-knell for Palm as one would think Apple could get an injunction against the Pre preventing the sale of the phone using “Apple’s” technology.  It is not likely that Palm could engage in a lengthy and expensive battle to get the Pre on store shelves as it has been stated many times that the Pre is what will save Palm from certain death.  Apple knows that you can bet.

What many are incorrectly assuming is that this patent is for the iPhone technology alone and that Apple can only apply it to the smartphone market.  That is just not correct as near as I can tell from reading the patent documents.  Apple is including the multi-touch technology on MacBook notebooks and it would appear that this patent covers that usage too.  This opens up a whole new scenario of Apple going after Microsoft in a very public, pitched battle that will have an impact that reaches much farther than the iPhone market.  From the patent:

For simplicity, in the discussion that follows, a portable multifunction device that includes a touch screen is used as an exemplary embodiment. It should be understood, however, that some of the user interfaces and associated processes may be applied to other devices, such as personal computers and laptop computers, which may include one or more other physical user-interface devices, such as a physical click wheel, a physical keyboard, a mouse and/or a joystick.

In some embodiments, in addition to the touch screen, the device 100 may include a touchpad (not shown) for activating or deactivating particular functions. In some embodiments, the touchpad is a touch-sensitive area of the device that, unlike the touch screen, does not display visual output. The touchpad may be a touch-sensitive surface that is separate from the touch screen 112 or an extension of the touch-sensitive surface formed by the touch screen.

So it would be naive to assume that Apple would only defend this technology in the smartphone arena.  They have explicitly expanded the definition of usage to include touchpads like on the MacBooks and this is where it gets interesting as far as Microsoft and Windows 7 is concerned.

Multi-touch is the hot ticket in the computing world which is no doubt why Microsoft made it clear early on that they have included it in the basic tenets of Windows 7.  It’s not working fully in the beta versions we’ve seen so far of Windows 7 but Microsoft has made it clear that will be rectified in the final shipping version of the new version of Windows.

Apple is not going to sit idly by and let Microsoft put multi-touch in the Windows operating system, it would not be in their best interest to do so.  They are going to go after the inclusion of multi-touch technology in Windows 7 and it’s going to get very nasty.  Apple could eventually license multi-touch to Microsoft (and others) but that is not they way they usually exploit their technological advantages.  They could easily tell Microsoft legally to cease and desist including multi-touch in their products.  Can you imagine an injunction against distributing Windows 7?

Perhaps the amount of money is significant to see Apple license multi-touch to Microsoft for Windows 7.  Can you imagine Apple getting a small royalty for every single license of Windows 7 that Microsoft sells?  That would make a few folks in Redmond lose sleep at night.  Or how about this- every new Mac sold will have OSX and Windows 7 preinstalled in Bootcamp.  No Windows license fee required, Macs will be dual-boot from the box and all to let Microsoft put multi-touch in Windows 7.  Stranger things have happened.

It is clear that we are just speculating where this will eventually go but I do believe this is one of the most important advents in the computing space in a long time.  There are so many companies (and products) that could be affected by this patent and its effects may be felt by many for some time to come.

On a closing note the patent documents seem to imply that Apple now holds the exclusive rights to on-screen soft keyboards:

The user interfaces may include one or more soft keyboard embodiments. The soft keyboard embodiments may include standard (QWERTY) and/or non-standard configurations of symbols on the displayed icons of the keyboard, such as those described in U.S. patent application Ser. Nos. 11/459,606, “Keyboards For Portable Electronic Devices,” filed Jul. 24, 2006, and 11/459,615, “Touch Screen Keyboards For Portable Electronic Devices,” filed Jul. 24, 2006, the contents of which are hereby incorporated by reference in their entirety. The keyboard embodiments may include a reduced number of icons (or soft keys) relative to the number of keys in existing physical keyboards, such as that for a typewriter. This may make it easier for users to select one or more icons in the keyboard, and thus, one or more corresponding symbols. The keyboard embodiments may be adaptive. For example, displayed icons may be modified in accordance with user actions, such as selecting one or more icons and/or one or more corresponding symbols. One or more applications on the portable device may utilize common and/or different keyboard embodiments. Thus, the keyboard embodiment used may be tailored to at least some of the applications. In some embodiments, one or more keyboard embodiments may be tailored to a respective user. For example, one or more keyboard embodiments may be tailored to a respective user based on a word usage history (lexicography, slang, individual usage) of the respective user. Some of the keyboard embodiments may be adjusted to reduce a probability of a user error when selecting one or more icons, and thus one or more symbols, when using the soft keyboard embodiments.

Sounds like RIM could be firmly in the sights of Apple too.


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