The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has awarded Apple patent number 7,479,949 covering key aspects of the iPhone's multi-touch user interface.
The filing, with 358 pages of drawings and Steve Jobs as its first author, comprehensively describes the iPhone operating system's interface, and how hardware on the phone interprets finger movements and taps as instructions for the software. The filing makes liberal use of the word "heuristics" -- a trial-and-error-based engineering technique that reduces the calculations necessary to arrive at a solution to a problem. Heuristics may not always be correct, but good heuristics result in something at least close to the right answer.
This patent, combined with Tim Cook's statement about protecting Apple's intellectual property during their first-quarter conference call, is a shot across the bow for Palm and their new Pre smartphone. Cook said that Apple would aggressively defend their IP, and a patent covering that IP is an important shield for Apple.
AppleInsider also notes that the patent covers features not seen on the iPhone, but interestingly are critical features of the Palm Pre. For example, Apple's patent mentions a touch-sensitive area that does not display visual output: a dead-ringer for the Pre's gesture area, separate from the touch screen.
The Pre uses multi-touch gestures as part of its webOS interface. If the technologies in Palm's devices are found to infringe on Apple's patents, Palm will either have to change the way the device works, or license the technology from Apple. The likelihood of Apple granting Palm a license is slim to none.