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


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.