By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 6:19 pm
“We have invented a new technology called multi-touch…and it’s phenomenal.”
–Steve Jobs at the Macworld Expo 2007 keynote that introduced the iPhone
Lemme begin with my usual disclaimers: I’m not a patent attorney. Scratch that: When it comes to the mysteries of patent law, I’m not even a well-informed layman. But I do know that I’m bothered by the news that Apple has apparently successfully patented the basic idea of a computer interface based on multi-touch input. (Here’s its filing at Google Patents; the patent was just awarded.)
I’d love to see a definitive investigation into the concept of multi-touch interfaces and convincing proof of who was the first to come up with the idea, build technology based on it, demo it in public, and name it. And I’m not saying that Steve Jobs’ claim that Apple invented multi-touch is false.
It’s clear, though, that the iPhone’s multi-touch interface didn’t spring onto the market in 2007 without competition or antecedents. Jeff Han of Perceptive Pixel was wowing audiences with iPhone-like magic long before Apple filed its patent on September 5th, 2007:
And Microsoft was clearly working on its Surface tabletop interface at the same time that Apple was inventing the iPhone (I first saw Surface at a Microsoft press event at the Consumer Electronics Show the night before Jobs unveiled the iPhone):
I’ll leave it to others to parse what it is exactly Apple that now controls, and whether it’s possible for anyone else to do multi-touch without asking for a lawsuit. But Apple COO Tim Cook’s insistence last week that Apple will use all available means to protect its intellectual property, combined with the news about this patent, has me worried. As, presumably, they were designed to do.
It’s a little as if someone patented QWERTY at the moment that personal computers first began to take off in the late 1980s. (Or, to choose a real scenario, as if Apple’s 1988 lawsuit against Microsoft and HP had prevented anyone else from doing graphical interfaces that smacked of the Mac.) And while I don’t begrudge Apple’s right to use the U.S. patent system as the U.S. patent system is designed to be used, I think it would be a lousy development if Apple had the right to prevent its competitors from doing multi-touch, and exercised that right via the U.S. court system. There may be examples of patent-related squabbling in Silicon Valley that weren’t fundamentally bad for consumers, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
Let’s end with an image from Apple’s patent that does nothing to clarify what it just patented, but is fun to look at: