Apple awarded patent for iPhone interface

On Tuesday, Apple was awarded a United States patent for a "Portable multifunction device, method, and graphical user interface for translating displayed content."

When Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPhone at Macworld Expo 2007, he lauded its multitouch interface. "And boy, have we patented it," he added. It seems that now, four and a half years after Jobs declared the iPhone's innovations worth protecting, that the United States Patent and Trademark Office has agreed.

On Tuesday, Apple was awarded U.S. Patent 7,966,578, for a "Portable multifunction device, method, and graphical user interface for translating displayed content." In other words, Apple received a patent on the basic behaviors of the iPhone.

The patent application was first filed back on December 19, 2007. In its patent-ese, the application laid out a description of the iPhone's general function, with an emphasis on its multitouch interface:

An N-finger translation gesture is detected on or near the touch screen display. In response, the page content, including the displayed portion of the frame content and the other content of the page, is translated to display a new portion of page content on the touch screen display. An M-finger translation gesture is detected on or near the touch screen display, where M is a different number than N. In response, the frame content is translated to display a new portion of frame content on the touch screen display, without translating the other content of the page.

There's no denying that Apple revolutionized the smartphone industry with the launch of the first iPhone. There's similarly no denying that the iPhone's interface spawned a slew of competitors who, shall we say, seemed to pay the iPhone the sincerest form of flattery. What might Apple's newly-awarded patent mean for the Android and Windows 7 smartphones of the world?

Via an email to Macworld, patent expert Florian Muller--a vocal critic of software patents--described Patent 7,966,578 to as "excessively broad." Though Muller acknowledged "that Apple is a truly innovative company," he suggested that Apple--like other large companies--"understand[s] the name of the patent game," and thus aimed for a broader patent that could theoretically give it more legal muscle to exert over potential competitors.

"Unless this patent is invalidated or at least narrowed, it will be a potential impediment to innovation until December 2027," Muller said. "I don't see any innovative achievement disclosed in that patent document that would justify a monopoly of that breadth and duration. Apple could use it in various ways throughout that period, including some that would be highly undesirable."

The "highly undesirable" action to which Muller alludes is that, armed with its new patent, Apple now has new legal means by which to go after its rivals in the smartphone market. Apple could, in theory, demand high patent licensing fees from Google, Microsoft, and other multitouch mobile OS developers--or seek to prevent the sale of infringing devices in the U.S.

Matt Schruers, the vice president for law and policy with the non-profit Computer and Communications Industry Association concurred with Muller's conclusions. "This seems to be a very broad patent," he told Macworld. But, Schruers added that it's hard to know just what would happen with Apple's new patent were it tested in court. "The length and impenetrability of [the patent's] claims will ultimately dictate the patent's scope," he said.

"Whether a court is going to uphold a patent of that kind of breadth is impossible to say... It's hard to predict how a patent will be construed by an individual judge," Schruers added.

According to Spyros J. Lazaris, a patent attorney with Los Angeles-based Lazaris Intellectual Property, "It could cover any mobile device with a screen capable of accessing the web and showing web pages, including tablet computers and smartphones."

Added Muller: "This patent is so broad that I can't see any alternative [technical] implementation that wouldn't be found to infringe it." That is, the patent seems to cover the breadth of multitouch support on mobile devices; even if a company achieved the same effect using a different technological approach, in Muller's view, that approach would still violate Apple's patent.

And how might Apple leverage its new patent, based on how the company has handled its patents historically? According to Muller: "In the smartphone patent wars no other company seeks to drive competitors out of business the way Apple does. The only way companies can deal with Apple is if they bring patents to the table that Apple needs. In that case, there can be a cross-license. If you don't have that bargaining power, tough luck."

Schruers was equally blunt. "Patents like this create uncertainty, which generally leads to negotiations. Patent lawyers for Apple show up with a big stack of accordion files, Google's lawyers come with their stack, and back-room patent cross-licensing begins." He described the process as "a cold war of mutually assured destruction of your opponent's patent portfolio."

Apple has a long history of pursuing legal protection for its user interfaces. The company sued companies that attempted to emulate its iPod interface on Microsoft Pocket PCs, threatened companies offering Aqua-style themes for Windows, and--most famously--fought (and lost) a drawn-out "look and feel" case against Microsoft over Windows's own attempts to emulate the Mac's visuals.

More recently, Apple has sued Samsung, claiming the company copied various elements of the iPad.

How Apple chooses to wield its new iPhone patent, of course, is entirely up to Apple. The company didn't respond to Macworld's request for comment on how it intends to leverage the patent. One suspects, however, that Google and Microsoft are asking, too.

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