Did Apple Just Corner the Market on Multi-Touch? I Hope Not!

By  |  Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 6:19 pm

“We have invented a new technology called multi-touch…and it’s phenomenal.”
–Steve Jobs at the Macworld Expo 2007 keynote that introduced the iPhone

Lemme begin with my usual disclaimers: I’m not a patent attorney. Scratch that: When it comes to the mysteries of patent law, I’m not even a well-informed layman. But I do know that I’m bothered by the news that Apple has apparently successfully patented the basic idea of a computer interface based on multi-touch input.  (Here’s its filing at Google Patents; the patent was just awarded.)

I’d love to see a definitive investigation into the concept of multi-touch interfaces and convincing proof of who was the first to come up with the idea, build technology based on it, demo it in public, and name it. And I’m not saying that Steve Jobs’ claim that Apple invented multi-touch is false.

It’s clear, though, that the iPhone’s multi-touch interface didn’t spring onto the market in 2007 without competition or antecedents. Jeff Han of Perceptive Pixel was wowing audiences with iPhone-like magic long before Apple filed its patent on September 5th, 2007:

And Microsoft was clearly working on its Surface tabletop interface at the same time that Apple was inventing the iPhone (I first saw Surface at a Microsoft press event at the Consumer Electronics Show the night before Jobs unveiled the iPhone):

I’ll leave it to others to parse what it is exactly Apple that now controls, and whether it’s possible for anyone else to do multi-touch without asking for a lawsuit. But Apple COO Tim Cook’s insistence last week that Apple will use all available means to protect its intellectual property, combined with the news about this patent, has me worried. As, presumably, they were designed to do.

It’s a little as if someone patented QWERTY at the moment that personal computers first began to take off in the late 1980s. (Or, to choose a real scenario, as if Apple’s 1988 lawsuit against Microsoft and HP had prevented anyone else from doing graphical interfaces that smacked of the Mac.) And while I don’t begrudge Apple’s right to use the U.S. patent system as the U.S. patent system is designed to be used, I think it would be a lousy development if Apple had the right to prevent its competitors from doing multi-touch, and exercised that right via the U.S. court system. There may be examples of patent-related squabbling in Silicon Valley that weren’t fundamentally bad for consumers, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

Let’s end with an image from Apple’s patent that does nothing to clarify what it just patented, but is fun to look at:

Apple Multi-Touch Patent

 
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6 Comments For This Post

  1. KevinD Says:

    Apple, MS and Han are all latecomers. Multitouch dates from the early 1980s:

    http://www.billbuxton.com/multitouchOverview.html

    Even the pinch was done at Sun back in 1992:

    http://www.asktog.com/starfire/

    No, the patent is not about either of those. Take the time to read the very few claims and you’ll see it’s about a particular way of determining user scroll or select.

  2. JustCallMeBen Says:

    the patents can only defend the exact technology in the iPhone to do multi-touch (the electrolyte screen), nott he idea of multi-touch itself, since (as pointed out above) that idea has been around in public since the eighties.

    This is btw the reason Adobe, MS and Apple all have technically very different techn ologies to detect the multi-point input: I know MS uses infra-red, I don’t know what adobe uses, but it’ll be something different then the Apple electrolyte-screen and the MS infra-red cameras.

  3. Jeff Says:

    Regardless of who invented the technology I thought the main thing was who filed the patent first.

  4. Yikes Says:

    Harry McCracken: “I’d love to see a definitive investigation into the concept of multi-touch interfaces and convincing proof of who was the first to come up with the idea, build technology based on it, demo it in public, and name it.”

    I don’t think you should care. Apple is not patenting the general concept of multi-touch interfaces. And it is difficult to determine who was the first to come up with the idea, considering that scientists have been working for decades on what was later to become “multi-touch”. Sophisticated concepts are not invented in only one day by just one guy.

    According to Bill Buxton (Microsoft Research): “Multi-touch technologies have a long history. To put it in perspective, the original work undertaken by my team was done in 1984, […] and we were not the first. Furthermore, there was a significant body of prior art on which multi-touch was built.”

    http://www.billbuxton.com/multitouchOverview.html

    He says “and we were not the first.” It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who was first and who to credit the idea to.

    Harry McCracken: “And I’m not saying that Steve Jobs’ claim that Apple invented multi-touch is false.”

    Of course it is false, this is at the very least a gross oversimplification. But Jobs was giving a keynote, not a lecture to students at some university. He won’t explain a technology which history goes back at least 25 years. It would take a semester to explain everything. :-)

    Please note that Jeff Han’s (and Microsoft’s) implementation is totally different. Same concept, but based on a different underlying technology (rear projection surface).

    Harry McCracken: “I’ll leave it to others to parse what it is exactly Apple that now controls”

    Here is Nilay Patel’s attempt.

    http://www.engadget.com/2009/01/28/apple-vs-palm-the-in-depth-analysis/#continued

    “Nilay is admitted to practice in both Illinois and Wisconsin. In addition to practicing law, Nilay is also a contributing editor for Engadget.”

    http://agency68.com/about/

  5. justcallmeben Says:

    @Jeff: no, you can’t file a patent for something someone else invented. The moment you file it, you should be the only one who knows about your invention. When someone else created it, that offc isn’t the case.

  6. Tom B Says:

    You have to peruse the "claims" in any patent to understood exactly what a patent covers. Claims can be challenged individually by competitors, based on usefulness, obviousness, or novelty.

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    [...] Did Apple Just Corner the Market on Multi-Touch? I Hope Not! (technologizer.com) [...]

  2. did-google-really-cripple-android-to-please-appl « eonly.us Says:

    [...] Google caved in so easily. While yes, Apple does have a significant stake in multi-touch as Harry pointed out in January, companies should not let this get in the way of innovation. In fact, its questionable [...]