Apple gains multitouch patent for mobiles

Summary:The iPhone maker has been granted a patent covering the manipulation of touchscreen content within a frame, but experts disagree as to how much impact the decision will have on rivals

Apple has been granted a patent for multitouch interaction on a mobile device display that has raised questions as to whether it threatens iPhone and iPad competitors.

Apple iPhone

Apple has been granted a patent for multitouch interaction on a mobile device display. Screenshot: Stephen Shankland/CNET News

The patent, granted on Tuesday by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) after being filed in 2007, covers the movement of content within a frame on a touchscreen, without affecting other content on the display.

The abstract for patent number 7,966,578 describes "a computer-implemented method, for use in conjunction with a portable multifunction device with a touchscreen display, comprises displaying a portion of page content, including a frame displaying a portion of frame content and also including other content of the page, on the touchscreen display".

The patent covers a specific kind of multitouch activity, but covers its use in applications ranging from browsing to maps and word processing. It even includes a claim on storage media that contain programs covered by the patent. There is considerable disagreement among commentators on the breadth or narrowness of the patent.

According to intellectual property lawyer Nick Phillips, a partner at Barlow Robbins, the patent appears to be "extremely broad and to cover the multitouch interface that we are used to seeing on smartphones".

The patent abstract describes the results seen when 'N' — one or more — fingers are used on a device interface. "An N-finger translation gesture is detected on or near the touchscreen display," it says. "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 touchscreen display.

It certainly allows Apple to assert a claim against a number of its rivals who use these multitouch interfaces.

– Nick Phillips, Barlow Robbins

"An M-finger translation gesture is detected on or near the touchscreen display, where M is a different number than N," it continues. "In response, the frame content is translated to display a new portion of frame content on the touchscreen display, without translating the other content of the page."

Phillips believes the patent could allow Apple to ask for licensing fees from competing mobile device makers.

"It certainly allows Apple to assert a claim against a number of its rivals who use these multitouch interfaces, although as ever the question will be whether it is too wide to be valid," Phillips told ZDNet UK. "As I read the claims, the interface has to recognise at least multitouch gestures but would cover an interface which recognised single-finger and multitouch gestures."

However, patent attorney Matt Macari disagrees, writing on his Litigating Apple blog that the patent is actually very narrow and unlikely to have a major impact on the smartphone or tablet market.

"You don't have to be a patent attorney or a paranoid Apple competitor to understand that this patent doesn't afford Apple broad patent coverage over all capacitive multi-touch interfaces," Macari wrote. "Let's start now with understanding what it's not. It's not a patent on fire or the wheel. And it's not a market killer."

The iPhone-maker has received multitouch patents before — one in 2009 covered basic pinch-to-zoom and swipe-to-scroll functionality, while another in 2010 dealt with the use of multitouch for complex image and parameter adjustments. The patent adds new types of functionality to Apple's multitouch patent arsenal.

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Topics: Mobility, Smartphones


David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't be paying many bills. His early journalistic career was spent in general news, working behind the scenes for BBC radio and on-air as a newsreader for independent stations. David's main focus is on communications, of both... Full Bio

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