Have you noticed that since mid-2007, a lot of other phone manufacturers have come out with multi-touch displays that are all but identical to those on the iPhone? I certainly noticed, and it made me wonder if Steve Jobs's January 2007 claim regarding multi-touch, "Boy have we patented it," was just an idle threat.
As it turns out, Jobs's claim was just a few years early. Patently Apple reports that, as of yesterday, Apple has been awarded three very important multi-touch related patents. The first patent, "Portable Electronic Device with Multi-Touch Input," describes in detail the multi-touch input method present on the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, and Apple's multi-touch trackpads. It also sounds remarkably similar to the input methods present on competitors' touchscreen smartphones.
The second patent, "Ellipse Fitting for Multi-Touch Surfaces," is similar to another patent that Apple filed last year. It describes multiple input methods that all iOS device users will recognize: typing, pointing, scrolling, object manipulation, and so forth. The third patent, "Simultaneous Sensing Arrangement," describes some of the sensing mechanisms present in multi-touch devices. Patently Apple has the full details on the patents if you're truly curious, but they basically represent patents for both the hardware and input methods behind multi-touch.
Patents are an unusually touchy subject, particularly when lawsuits over them are involved. Apple's initial lawsuit against HTC earlier this year sparked a firestorm of Internet rage, with many commentators complaining that Apple was engaged in anti-competitive practices and attempting to stifle innovation. That's certainly one way of looking at it.
Another way of looking at it would be to look at something like Marco Arment's smartphone retrospective and recognize that other manufacturers have achieved success in the smartphone market over the past few years only by copying features that Apple innovated, like multi-touch. And regardless of whether you agree with the phrase "Apple innovated multi-touch" or not, that's now what the record shows: Apple now explicitly owns the patents for multi-touch. Frankly, I'll be shocked if Apple doesn't sic its patent lawyers on the likes of HTC and other manufacturers over multi-touch now.