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Apple awarded multitouch patent, debate over implications ensues


Apple has recently been awarded a patent for a "Portable multifunction device, method, and graphical user interface for translating displayed content," and much debate has ensued over the implications of this patent. Some, such as intellectual property analyst Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents, claim the content of the patent is excessively broad. Mueller told PCMag that the patent "covers a kind of functionality without which it will be hard to build a competitive smartphone," and could "allow Apple to stifle innovation and bully competitors."

Others, such as Nilay Patel of This is my next, disagree and claim the patent is in fact very narrowly focused. Classifying the reaction of outlets like PCMag and Macworld as a "media firestorm," Patel claims the patent's contents only apply to a very narrow range of behaviors. "The main idea is always the same: you interact with a main interface display using N fingers, and you interact with a frame within that display using M fingers, in a way that doesn't alter the main display." As one example, Patel notes that you're able to use the pinch-to-zoom gesture on an embedded map in Mobile Safari without causing the content around that map to zoom as well.

Patently Apple's analysis of the patent asserts that Patel's interpretation is incorrect, and the patent may well be as far-reaching as initial reports suggested. The site claims this newly-awarded patent applies not only to the main claim, but also several other incorporated patents that read like a litany of basic multitouch device functionality:

  • Multipoint Touch Surface Controller
  • Multipoint Touchscreen
  • Gestures For Touch Sensitive Input Devices
  • Mode-Based Graphical User Interfaces For Touch Sensitive Input Devices
  • Virtual Input Device Placement On A Touch Screen User Interface
  • Operation Of A Computer With A Touch Screen Interface
  • Activating Virtual Keys Of A Touch-Screen Virtual Keyboard
  • Multi-Functional Hand-Held Device
None of us at TUAW are lawyers, so we're not particularly well-qualified to determine who's on the right side of this debate as far as the patents themselves are concerned. In the end, Apple itself will be the sole entity responsible for deciding whether this patent and the others in its portfolio are far-reaching enough to go after competitors who have... let's say re-mixed... some of the innovations brought to market in the original iPhone.

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