Blog Post

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 (s AAPL) 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 (s 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 (s RIMM) could be firmly in the sights of Apple too.

28 Responses to “Thoughts on the Apple multi-touch patent- look out Microsoft”

  1. Dub Dublin

    Apple’s patent is probably on pretty shaky ground – this concept has been around, and well documented, for more than a decade prior to the advent of the iPhone. Don’t believe me? Google “Sun Starfire Video” and watch it for yourself ( http://www.youtube.com/results?search_type=&search_query=Sun+Starfire+Video&aq=f ) Although there’s a lot more than multitouch on display there, it definitely makes an appearance – note especially the use of spreading two fingers to signify a “copy” operation on the Starfire computer, as well as more advanced gestures Apple won’t be able to do for years…

  2. I agree with KDarling. Apple can fill as much space as they want with fluff about use cases and embodiments, but the claims section is the only part that contains the patentable idea(s). The rest is to help explain how the patent might be used because the inventor is required under patent law to provide enough information in the patent so that someone else skilled in the art can implement the invention themselves.

    The soft keyboard would never hold up, even if they had been awarded it, since touch keyboards have been around since the first touchscreen devices.

  3. Patents Armaggedon?

    I’m not the first to point out that Palm, after 20 years in the market, should have a good numbers of patents related with, hummm, palm-size devices and their interacion methods.

    If Apple finally starts the war, maybe it would be a grosser miscalculation even compared with that (in)famous initiative of divide Palm between palm source and palm one. I am not an specialist in interface patents, but maybe suddenly Apple finds itself surrounded by counterattacks from patents that cover more devices than iphone.

    Anyways, just mentioning the possibility of using a patent against a dying company of glorious past makes me reject Apple products forever. No more ipods for me, and I will not be a macbook owner, what I almost became.

    Shame on Apple

    • Rodders

      Juan says: “Anyways, just mentioning the possibility of using a patent against a dying company of glorious past makes me reject Apple products forever. No more ipods for me.”

      Ummm… maybe I’m wrong, but in this article at least there is nothing that says to me that Apple IS considering suing Palm, just speculation by the blog poster that they MIGHT, or perhaps COULD… I’m not sure that a bloggers opinion of what may happen should be a reflection on Apple.

  4. KDarling

    Good grief.

    Neither the application abstract nor the other 300 pages are covered by the patent. No keyboards or touch or pinch or whatever.

    The CLAIMS section is the ONLY thing you should read and comment on. And it’s extremely tiny and specific to a certain way of determining scrolling etc.

  5. DrCaffeine

    Certainly the big guys — Apple / Microsoft / IBM /etc — all have cross-licensing deals.

    The real impact is on the smaller, innovative companies attempting to bring something new and creative to the market. These sorts of patents on heuristics (defn: common sense rules) and processes serve to stifle innovation, and hence competition, because although they may be overturned later in court, the little guys just don’t have the resources to fight lengthy court battle.

    And even if they win on one patent, the massive patent portfolios of the major players can be used to destroy the competition by attrition.

  6. mikecane

    I expect Apple’s patent for the non-screen area will be found to infringe on Palm’s patent for its Graffiti area (hey, just because most gestures were for ABC123 doesn’t mean *all* were — C/C/P, CommandBar, etc). And, of course, Palm had a soft keyboard well before the iPhone was even thought of. Plus, Apple at one time wanted to buy Palm.

    I’m surprised everyone is devoting so many words to this issue. I’ve dismissed it in a few comments and tweets.

  7. Appreciate the reply! :)

    I’m not sure if this post was meant to be flamebait, generate hits, etc., but come on guys. I know you can do better than this.
    I’ve been reading JkOnTheRun for some time now and lately the articles just don’t seem as informed as they used to be.

    I’m not sure if it’s lack of time, interest, or what have you, but the suppositions offered to lots of the news out there just don’t seem to be well though out.

    You state as fact a few times in the article that Apple WILL take this action and that, but you have no source to back up these statements. Then a few paragraphs later, you say it’s all speculation..?? COME ON!

    I pretty sure you guys have posting quotas now that you are owned by Gig Om, but please take one minute to read over and think about what your posting.

    I’m only writing this because I care, so please don’t take it as an attack.

  8. bluemonq

    “This is 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.”

    Moot? It’s not moot at all; it could end up being part of the foundation to challenge the awarding of this patent. I’m really trying to not read anything into this, but it sounds almost as if you’re already convinced that that multi-touch is Apple’s baby, through and through.

    Sure, Apple is the first company to sell a capacitive multitouch device targeted at the general public. But lest you forget, Fingerworks sold a line of multitouch peripherals for industrial and commerical use until 2005 – when it was bought by Apple.

  9. This patent will be overruled in court, Jeff Han and his company Perceptive Pixel already own the multi-touch patent and have been experimenting with it for years! I believe that Microsoft has been licensing it for its Microsoft Surface.

  10. Anyone know a site with fully informed legal analysis on this issue? There seems to be HUGE numbers of examples of prior art (Jeff Hahn, Other university work, MPX, Microsoft Surface etc etc.) Picsel ProViewer had gestures to zoom in, out, change page, etc YEARS before Apple did. So, where’s the new? Does adding gestures + multitouch (both OLD, not Apple IP) count as new? We need an IP lawyer to comment, methinks.

  11. Gadget Merc

    If apple using this patient against any company I will never purchase or recommend another Apple product again. I will encourage everyone else to do the same.

  12. eggnorinse

    I haven’t read the patent, but the quotes look like they are not from the “claims” section of the patent and are merely descriptive.

    Patents are all about the claims, the descriptive text has very little legal standing.

    Additionally, you can only patent an implementation, so the general “multi-touch” patent would be a tough sell. Multi-touch is an idea, with many possible implementations.

    Interestingly, would certain gestures of mutli-touch/gesture input qualify for patent or copyright protection? As gestures themselves are language/expression which usually falls under copyright and not patent.

  13. You assume that Microsoft and Apple don’t have a very broad cross licensing agreement in place. And don’t assume that Apple’s multitouch UI wouldnt be benificiary of any such agreement.

  14. LoL, Apple is the biggest competitor in the PC market?

    c-c-c, I guess some people are posting comments in their dreams!
    But ok, never mind, I’ll take your comment as a typo =)

    There are million other things that could be written about Apple, but I won’t go there, they’re just not worth it.
    Nor would that make any difference anyways =/

  15. Hmm. I may be getting old, but I believe my original (Palm) Pilot in 1996 had a soft keyboard. When did Apple file its patent? Did they also patent the air I am breathing right now?

    Don’t quite understand the “Windows 7 preinstalled in bootcamp” idea. That would be so non-Apple. Remember the Mac vs. PC commercials?

  16. Anonymous Nag

    “This is 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.”

    Come on, at least glance at Wikipedia before making statements like that.

  17. One name you’ve overlooked is HP. HP is Apple’s largest competitor in the PC market. Their Touchsmarts are the only consumer PCs that feature multi-touch. This patent allows Apple to cut into that line without necessarily releasing direct competition. Alternately, Apple could introduce Touchsmart-style operation in Macs with no fear of legal reprisal from HP. Hopefully, they chose the latter option.

  18. An important note, and one of precedent would be that it is not uncommon for a Patent to be given without full/proper investigation. It is likely in the event of Apple trying to use the patent, further investigation by a defense would show what the patent processors did not take into account, i.e., the numerous multi-finger/multi-gesture preceding “publicly demonstrated” technologies.

  19. i never liked apple…i think i do it less now. apple is dead to me. with this patent they are only destroying competition and the “genuine” innovation. all companies wanting to implement ANY type of multitouch UI in their devices need to pay apple?? what is wrong here… apple is making money with something they did not even invent!

    ahhh..why do i feel so annoyed by todays news..

  20. Patrick Perez

    Well, I believe the Nokia 770 had an on screen keyboard and was available in 2005, so that would seem to negate the onscreen touch keyboard patent as it is clearly prior art. I also beleive that multi touch research projects in academia had been widely demonstrated (though I have no references for that).

    I think the Apple patents may be revoked due to this, but that doesn’t mean the Pre won’t be a casualty in the interim. Obviously, MS can match Apple in the courtroom.

    Patrick