Blog Post

Apple’s Multi-Touch Patent: A More Realistic View

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

So Apple (s aapl) 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 (s msft) 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.

31 Responses to “Apple’s Multi-Touch Patent: A More Realistic View”

  1. Apple pretty much invented personal computing as we know it, and they definitely invented the coolness factor. If it weren’t for Apple, nobody would understand the distinction between a geek, a nerd, and a hipster; they would have no idea about the nuances in the varying patterns of our summer scarves and beanie colors. XEROX didn’t really ‘invent’ what they did because they didn’t mass market their R&D and publicly take credit for all of it.

    It’s like this: if I were to think up a design for a bicycle powered salami slicer and spend years diagramming schematics and building prototypes and revising designs, that would be great and all, but it’s not really my invention. If a vegan entrepreneur came along and copied the whole design but for tofu and marketed it, he really would be the “inventor” in all semantic permutations of the word because he had brought it to the market. I would just be the guy who inspired the real inventor by providing the technical context in which he could truly receive that inspiration.

    It’s like with smartphones. Apple really invented the smartphone because the first time I heard cool people talking about smartphones, they were talking about the iPhone. So my first experience with a coolphone was with an iPhone. PalmOS, Blackberry, Nokia.. nobody I know really uses any of their products so they must not have any global market share.

    p.s. I do watch a lot of Law and Order on my iPod so I am pretty familiar with laws and the patents and all of that courtroom stuff.

  2. A prior public domain disclosure of an invention is enough to derail a patent, and there is a well known book that previously described EXACTLY the kind of multi-touch technology Apple claims to have “invented” more than 25 years ago.

    Such a description alone can not gain patent rights for the author, because he hasn’t reduced the invention to practice and applied for a patent, but is sure as hell will derail anyone else from securing a patent.

    This is because to gain a patent you must be the first to both think of something AND reduce it to practice.

    Now let’s consider Larry Niven’s novel “The Integral Trees” published in 1984. In the Novel, Niven clearly describes in detail how his protagonist is able to interact with a shuttle vehicles touch screen controls –

    Here is the relevant quote again from “The Integral Trees” –

    “The Grad closed lines that should represent the doors, with a pinching motion of his fingertips.”

    So our hero pinches his fingers together on a touch screen, to bring together the doors – you can’t have a much more succinct description of ‘multi-touch’ than that.

    In the face of this very precise prior public description of Apple’s supposed ‘invention’ (in a book read by literally MILLIONS of people), I can’t see how the pinch gesture elements of this patent can possibly be valid.

    Niven is a popular science fiction author, and this book won the LOCUS Award in 1985 and was nominated for BOTH the Hugo and Nebula Awards (the most prestigious awards in science fiction), so it’s safe to say that it was a quite popular book which was VERY widely distributed and has been read over the years by millions of people around the world.

    Apple’s 7,479,949 patent lists more than 2 dozen inventors, and with that many people involved, I personally would be very surprised if one or more of them hadn’t read “Integral Trees” (science fiction being very popular with technical types like engineers and programmers).

    Intentionally attempting to patent a known public domain concept constitutes patent fraud, a criminal act, so if even ONE of the Apples Engineers who worked on muti-touch has library records that show that he or she read this book . . .

  3. No, not good for apple, good for you…the old ploy of the idiot film critic, going against the grain just to make a name for himself…good marketing, bad journalism…

    Apple is a business first…it wants to regulate technology and strike down those that don’t play by its rules, not in the name of technology, but in the name of money….who’s money? Those that make more a year than a hundred people with your income…..cynical but true

    Nobody can steal the idea of multi touch anymore than I can steal the idea of two handle bars versus one on a bicycle or stereo speakers instead of mono…also, simply being a multi touch device does not equate to being an iphone knock off

    Apple has the right to patents, but not ridiculous ones…like the MPAA, they insult our intelligence and abuse law to further thier business agenda….

    Lastly, iphone was a neat phone, but it was only the best when it was the only one of its kind…now every android phone does what the iphone does, better and with more freedom….and cheaper! Like Steve jobs needs more money, selling his over priced locked down wanna-be PCs

    dude, think outside the Mac

  4. Jeff had

    YOu’re an A**Hole, why? What we are talking is about patents, and this kind of patents are just ideas, so YES, APPLE STOLE the idea from Jeff.
    If everything would be like you think, all the companies would have the right by law to use multitouch because they use diferent os, diferent hardware.. A DIFERENT PRACTICAL IDEA.

    So stop lieing defend apple!…

    And also, YES IT WILL KILL INNOVATION, with no competition, apple will hold their innovations and they won’t give users new features until they have sucked all the money from each idea. They will stop research because they will own the multitouch market.

    No competition, no research to accelerate, only slowdown.

  5. cloudsandskye

    The outcome of the lawsuit by Apple against Microsoft back in 1988 speaks for itself. If Apple’s GUI was significantly original, they would have won the case. The court specifically pointed out that many of Apple’s claims failed on an originality basis. Apple admitted during the case that it borrowed many of its representations from Xerox and IBM. Apple returned to its “complete look and feel” argument, stating that while the individual components were not original, the complete GUI was. The court rejected these arguments because the parts were not original. The court’s decision was affirmed on appeal and Apple’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied.

    Because Mac’s GUI was heavily based on unlicensed GUI developed before by Xerox, in the midst of the Apple v. Microsoft lawsuit, Xerox also sued Apple on the same grounds.

  6. Check my link to see an article explaining why a lawsuit would certainly do Apple more harm than good. They’d open themselves up to additional patent claims, risk having them invalidated and would suffer harm to their reputation as trademark bully.

  7. I’m not sure why more people don’t seem to know this (or at least don’t mention it in articles about Apple’s Multi Touch patents), but Apple purchased FingerWorks a few years ago — a company that pioneered Multi Touch on translucent screens. It’s ridiculous for people assume that Apple just swooped in made up a patent for an interface that already existed. FingerWorks has been around for a long time, and Apple spent a lot of money to own their technology and prior art. Apple has every right to protect that investment. Anyone who whines about Apple not inventing Multi Touch obviously doesn’t know the history of FingerWorks.

  8. champs,

    “but MacOS was not created in a vacuum”

    I’m well aware of that. What part in my article about relying on the work of others eluded you?


    Thanks for the additional thoughts. I had read some of Buxton’s stuff a while back. I don’t disagree that the patent system in general (not just software) needs help.

    If XEROX had patented the whole shooting match, things may well have been different. But such revisionism is tricky. For example, if they had thought enough to patent it — or, given the time, at least try be protective of it — they probably would have thought enough to bring it to market, or shop it around. At the very least, they wouldn’t have let Jobs and Co. take a closer look. Even then, I believe Apple would have worked on the GUI.

  9. Tom, I think you missed my point (or perhaps I didn’t articulate it properly). I did not mean to enter into a debate on who invented modern computer GUIs. Nor am I diminishing, in any way, the contribution Apple made in perfecting, extending and commercializing the work which originated elsewhere. My point is that if XEROX, or others, had held patents as sweeping as Apple now holds on multi-touch interfaces then Apple’s history, and that of the IT industry, would have been very different.

    I do not mean this as an argument against software patents in general. But the patent system as it relates to software is clearly broken. The impact of that systemic failure is a poor assessment of what constitutes novelty and obviousness. Again, I am not diminishing the innovation of Apple’s multi-touch implementation. What I’m wondering is whether the underlying ideas are in fact innovative enough to warrant a patent.

    To get another perspective on this I would kindly recommend you consider the thoughts of Bill Buxton on multi-touch prior art at (Bill is part of Microsoft Research but I don’t think that makes his observations any less valid).

    Thanks though for your article and the interaction.

  10. The desktop metaphor existed. The mouse existed. Apple dressed it up with pulldown menus, but MacOS was not created in a vacuum. The only thing killing me here is that you believe it is anything but an evolutionary design. Well, that and the belief that Springboard is anything new.

  11. Gazoobee

    I guess I’ll join in on the “great article” front. I was going to point out that those folks that are constantly on about Apple “stealing” the GUI from Xerox Parc just don’t really know what they are talking about, but you even did that for me in the comments.

    The only other thing I was going to say was that although I don’t know why the one commenter took the time to talk up John Gruber, but that they should be careful not to believe everything the guy says. He is indeed a genius, very knowledgeable about Apple and is somewhat of an “inside guy” in that he has excellent contacts. The trouble is he is also an ass, very juvenile (personality-wise) in person, and heavily biased (as we all are).

    Just because someone is smart, doesn’t mean they don’t have their own personal axes to grind or strange points of view that lead them to come to some very wrong conclusions. Just Sayin. :)

  12. 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.
    Bravo, very well said. This illustrate perfectly how Apple invented its GUI interface with Xerox mouse (Xerox did not know what to do with it until Jobs and co. licensed it), but failed to tightly protect its invention against the intrusion of Microsoft. This time, Apple is not going to let this baby get stolen again that easily, especially when you have not one but a bazillion of phone makers trying to take a stab at it.

  13. 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.

    • PulSamsara

      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.

  14. 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.

  15. SimpleLife

    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.

  16. @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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

    • 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.