According to the US Patent office records, last week on January 20th, 2009, Apple Inc. was awarded a patent to what is essentially multi-touch. If I understand the patent correctly this will have far reaching ramifications to the multi-touch industry.
Touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics
A computer-implemented method for use in conjunction with a computing device with a touch screen display comprises: detecting one or more finger contacts with the touch screen display, applying one or more heuristics to the one or more finger contacts to determine a command for the device, and processing the command. The one or more heuristics comprise: a heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a one-dimensional vertical screen scrolling command, a heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a two-dimensional screen translation command, and a heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a command to transition from displaying a respective item in a set of items to displaying a next item in the set of items.
I’m not an expert or even a novice at interpreting patents but as I read it they have patented not only multi-touch in general but also many of the gestures used in iPhone and elsewhere (e.g. Microsoft Surface), such as pinching, swipe, tap, rotation, and others. If this is the foundation of threats of legal action against Palm than its also the foundation of legal threats to all multi-touch devices. It’s scary. I would greatly appreciate comments from people who can clarify the meaning of the patent and its implications.
UPDATE January 29th, 2008
Engadget has a pretty good article on the Apple patent - probably the best analysis I've seen so far. It puts my mind to rest to some degree as it seems the patent is very focused on specific gestures rather than covering any and all multi-touch gestures which is what I was afraid of. Nice reporting guys!
UPDATE: January 27th, 2009 (morning)
Based on a comment on my posting on the NuiGroup.com forums and many comments on a Slashdot.org post, it seems that the patent is for "heuristics" which is essentially the interpretation of gestures on the touch screen into actions on the interface. So, for example, the idea of placing your fingers on the screen and swiping down to scroll through a list is a heuristic of multi-touch; the interpretation of a finger contact gliding down the surface of a screen resulting in a scrolling motion. That's really bad for the industry.
Multi-touch is still new to the mass consumer market and the use of standardized gestures is key to the success of the technology. Take the scroll motion above. It's intuitive and natural way to scroll through a list based on decades of experience of using scroll bars on Windows, right? Now imagine that every multi-touch phone had to implement this gesture differently. What if on the Android phone you have to rotate your finger in a circle while on your Nokia phone you have to tap three times. That's a pretty ugly situation and if it had existed with WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse, and Pointers) it would have severely injured the development of the graphical computer interface. But that didn’t happen with WIMP. Instead, all WIMP-based interfaces treat scrolling the same way; you click on the scroll handle and drag it the direction you want to scroll. It's the same on a Mac, Windows, GNOME & KDE (Linux), X11 (Unix) and just about every other WIMP interface.
If Apple had patented just a few gestures that would have been bad but tenable; instead they seem to have patented the very idea of multi-touch gestures. That moving your fingers on a touch sensitive surface can be interpreted as some kind of interaction with the user interface. That's absolutely horrible and quite possibly the worst possible outcome. How will any other company be able to implement multi-touch (including Microsoft with its Surface device) if Apple holds patent on the very concept of gestures in multi-touch?
If my analysis is correct there is going to be one of two outcomes. Apple will license the technology to all comers which will be tolerable but also will hinder development of multi-touch systems by open source and small companies; OR Apple will simply use its patent to completely corner the market on multi-touch in general (not just phones but multi-touch on any device). The later scenario would result in serious injury to the advancement of multi-touch. I find it hard to believe that this type of patent will stand up in court given the abundance of prior art dating back at least to 1982. In my opinion, it’s up to Microsoft at this point to challenge the patent – if they don’t who will?