There's been a whirlwind of chatter about Apple's multitouch patents since the Motorola DROID was released to reviewers sans any built-in support for Android 2.0's multitouch APIs -- there's no pinch-to-zoom in the browser or maps app, and the soft keyboard is decidedly a single-touch affair. What's even more curious is that the DROID clearly supports multitouch, as several new apps have demonstrated, and the overseas UMTS variant of the handset, the MILESTONE, has been shown on video with pinch-to-zoom in the browser several times now. That's led to a ton of speculation that Apple's somehow blocking Google from using pinch-to-zoom in the US, so we thought we'd step in with a little refresher on the state of Apple's multitouch patents and some thoughts how they might be affecting the DROID. Read on!
To begin with, Apple's various patents on multitouch functionality haven't changed since we last looked at them vis-à-vis the Pre back in January -- pinch-to-zoom hasn't been magically added to their claims. Now, Apple's had nearly 300 additional patents granted since we wrote that piece, including two that seem to cover the iPhone's soft keyboard, but a quick skim doesn't indicate anything that implicates pinch-to-zoom. It's certainly possible we could have missed something, but we're going to proceed under the assumption that nothing about Apple's patent portfolio has changed in regards to multitouch pinch-to-zoom since our piece on the Pre last January, as we haven't seen or heard anything to the contrary.
That's not to say the situation is entirely the same, however -- in fact, some major developments have gone down in the past 11 months. First, Palm actually shipped the Pre, replete with pinch-to-zoom and the specific locking-scroll behavior covered by one of Apple's patents, and we haven't heard a peep from either company about pending litigation -- they seem content to fight some sort of super-lame iTunes proxy war instead. Still, Palm's a pretty small player in the big scheme of things, and Apple could be waiting for it to blow
up all on its own -- another Sprint-only handset or two and it could be all over for Ruby and co., no enormous legal bills necessary.
But there's been another massively high-profile product launched in the past few months with multitouch pinch-to-zoom enabled: Windows 7, accompanied by a slew of multitouch computers, all of which support pinch-to-zoom in at least Internet Explorer and the photo browser, and many of which bundle in additional apps to make use of the gesture. On top of that, the Zune HD has pinch-to-zoom, as does Microsoft Surface. We can't imagine Steve Jobs would be watching competitors like Microsoft, HP, Lenovo, and Sony all introduce major new products that feature pinch-to-zoom if he could prevent it with the threat of patent litigation.
So that brings us back to the DROID as it ships in the States, with no built-in pinch-to-zoom and no multitouch keyboard, but the obvious capability of supporting both. Is Google so afraid of a mythical patent Apple hasn't yet enforced that it's purposefully leaving features out of its OS? We just don't think so -- if Google was so fearful of patent litigation we doubt Android 2.0 would explicitly have multitouch support built-in. We'd say there are two much more likely scenarios: either Apple and Google have an agreement to limit Android in some way (which would jibe with some old rumors about the G1), or Google just hasn't gotten around to implementing multitouch in its apps yet, and it wanted as much control over the DROID as possible -- which explains reports we've heard that claim the MILESTONE's pinch-to-zoom is a Motorola addtion, similar to what HTC did with the Hero.
Unfortunately, chances are we'll never know what to make of this truly odd limitation in an otherwise standout device. Hell, we may never even know who made the final call to leave multitouch gestures off the DROID -- Google's statement to us kind of makes it seem like it was Verizon's decision. But we do know that multitouch gestures like pinch-to-zoom are clearly going to be a huge part of future interfaces, and the sooner everyone comes clean about what they can and can't do, the better. Now -- has anyone heard of any tweaked DROID ROMs?