Sunday, February 1, 2009

The curious case of iPhone multi-touch patent (Apple vs. Palm)

"I was born under unusual circumstances." And so begins 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' adapted from the 1920s story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In respect of the aforementioned great movie, I feel a funny similarity between the movie with the current situation that befell on Palm and its upcoming smartphone: the Prē™. As we all know it, ever since the Prē™ introduced for the first time at CES 2009, it draws plenty of attentions not only from Palm-fans but also both from tech enthusiasts and competitors.

The Prē™ is yet to be launched and land on the market into our palms, but the newly born child of Palm which is supposedly to save the company to stay afloat in today’s tough competition has the possibility to face a potential law suit from Apple. Where for the last weeks, Apple and Palm have been exchanging nothing but brawl talks through mass media.

Neither of both companies are pointing their fingers at the moment, but it’s easy to guess since this all started when Apple COO Tim Cook was asked about Palm Prē™, and how close some parts of the Palm webOS™ mimics iPhone multi-touch gestures. And when U.S. Patent Office awarded Apple with the iPhone multi-touch patent, the Cupertino-based company now has grounds to start law suits against Palm. It’s only a matter of time until we see an ugly fight between those companies which are both well known for creating break through innovations…

While for us, end users and consumers it’s more interesting to know what is it about iPhone multi-touch patent that Apple plans to protect with whatever arsenals the company has. The curiosity is enough to make these three famous tech sites to published deeper analysts to look into the patent dispute:Though each of them have their own different perspectives on how to take a look at the iPhone multi-touch patent dispute, I found thin red strings that connect their analysts together. I’ll just gonna take the most compelling points, for more thorough discussions you can visit them by clicking on the respective links above.

The 358-page mother of all (multi-touch) patents

Iphone multi-touch patent I’m quoting from Rob, which I think the awarded 358-page of iPhone multi-touch patent is indeed the source of all law suits to come from Apple. And he also gives a nice explanation, in rather acerbic words yet true if I may say, about the generosity of pages for one patent: “Steve Jobs, who never takes no for an answer, wanted his folks to patent the iPhone. They did this in what appears to be the mother of all patents.”

It is hard to transcribe a new technology in words, not even for the inventors themselves nor for the lawyers, just like what Prof. Wagner has said to Gizmodo: ”Patent claims are an attempt to use words to describe things and ideas, an imperfect way of operating. In an ideal world we'd have patent claims that look like a title record you get for your house [your property starts exactly 200 feet from this road walking in exactly this direction, etc]. But it is incredibly difficult to predict exactly what a patent will or won't cover.”

If we are to remember the multi-touch in iPhone, it went way back to the first introduction of iPhone first generation at Macworld 2007 by Steve Jobs himself, where the “patented revolutionary UI (User Interface)” line written all over the slides on big screen. And long before that, Apple has bought a company called FingerWorks back in 2005, who founders Wayne Westerman is also named in the iPhone multi-touch patent along with Steve Jobs.

Apple has prepared iPhone multi-touch technology for quite some time, so it does make sense in a way for the company to defend the IPs (Intellectual Property) which have cost millions of dollars and cooked long till ready in its R&D department.

Patent fights

Apple is not the only one who can think of preparing for legal law suit against Palm, in fact Nilay (Engadget) has dug up four patents from literally hundreds of Palm’s patents that seem to directly implicate the iPhone.

It’s not a simple “pillow-fight” anymore, a fight which no one will receive serious injuries. But if Apple is forcing the iPhone multi-touch patent to the court, Palm might use its own patents to counter back Apple, and so the table could turn into Palm’s favor. Remember, Palm has been in the mobile (PDA and smartphone) market long before Apple was.

Cow law suitRob (TG Daily) is also reminding us on how alike this patent fight of Microsoft vs. Linux in the past, but this time Apple is in Microsoft’s role while Palm as Linux. Back then, Microsoft was threatening Linux with litigation for violations over its patents and copyrights. In the end and even until today, Microsoft has calm down and stashed away the litigation in ice box although we got to wonder what would’ve happened if it went to court. Microsoft may not win, if so then the software giant would even possibly loose all of its precious patents and copyrights as well. And this could be the same case for Apple vs. Palm right now.

Risks assessment

Alright, enough of the long talk about what kind of patent Apple has or Palm has. It’s tiring enough to hear the 358-page of the multi-touch patent, I can’t imagine how boring it is to discuss one page after another. Let’s get to the point: who’s going to win this patent dispute? Apple, or Palm?

I’m going to present to you first the insight view by Rob (TG Daily) about how dangerous it is for Apple if its thick patent fail in court: ”… smaller patents can be defended individually and losing a small number of them would not necessarily put the entire phone at risk. But if any major part of this patent fails it could effectively take the entire patent out…”

That’s true, the biggest risk for losing the patent for Apple is almost equal as losing the iPhone itself. And Nilay (Engadget) said: “…by suing Palm, Apple's putting its iPhone patents at risk, and that's an awful big ante. Same for Palm if it sues Apple and loses -- it stands the risk of losing its patents…”

Yes of course, Apple has a solid & firm grounds for sticking up its iPhone multi-touch technologies covered in the patent. Apple can win the case, if it ever goes to court.

But if I may put a counter argument, or like what Rob (TG Daily) has put it way much better in his own words: “Each item in Apple's patent, once in front of a judge, could have widely different interpretations depending on the judge, which is generally why you try to keep patents as simple as possible.”

Rob’s argument is sound, and it's in somewhat same circle of what Prof. Wagner has said above to John (Gizmodo). No inventors, not to mention the lawyers who don’t fully understand the invented technologies, can able to describe them in plain words or pictures.

One last thoughtPalm pre face small

"Designing around patents requires innovation," said Prof. Wagner, "and a lot of times, the end result turns out better than the what was being imitated." Again, another sound argument. Technology is a never ending innovation, it grows upon older ones, and the roots can be traced back to the most aging technologies invented by somebody else.

The remaining question for all of us is not whether or not there’s a hole in the iPhone multi-touch patent to be used by Palm, but instead we need to focus on bigger issue for the future of smartphones: will iPhone multi-touch patent stifle the innovations since it covers almost all of the advanced functions for touch screen devices (ex: swipe, pinch, etc.)?

IMHO it’s like someone has patented the sliding mechanism for doors, where every door in the whole world will be forced to use the usual swing mechanism or pay the patent for just a bit of variation to use the door…

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