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Apple’s Recent Patent Push

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Much has been said over recent decision to award Apple, the consumer electronics manufacturer (and budding semiconductor manufacturer), a patent that describes how the user interacts with a touchscreen display in a mobile application. The patent itself is very narrow in its claim, as the abstract details:

A computer-implemented method, for use in conjunction with a portable multifunction device with a touch screen 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 touch screen display. 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. 

Initially, uproar was expressed across the internet, as the (sometimes unfavorably-viewed) Californian electronics giant looked to be taking advantage of an open patent claim to provide itself a competitive advantage over its many competitors in the smartphone realm. Many took the claim to mean that Apple was now the sole proprietor of the concept of touchscreen technology , i.e. the iPhone/iPod Touch was now the only acceptable product on the market that could use a touchscreen as its user interface. This would thereby establish a monopoly of the technology preventing competitors like Nokia, HTC and RIM from incorporating a touchscreen into their handset designs.

This is not the case, and this uproar seems more about the excitement from the title of the patent (“Portable multifunction device, method, and graphical user interface for translating displayed content”), then it does about the context of the actual claim. Nilay Patel has done a good job in disseminating the patent and the end result is a patent that is very narrow in its coverage of touchscreen technology and one that would be difficult to assert via patent litigation.

Does this mean that this recent patent claim by Apple is irrelevant? Absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite when you look at it from the “big picture” point of view. The typical smartphone occupies over thousands of patents, so a narrow patent like this is unlikely to change the landscape of the handset market, unless of course the patent covers a groundbreaking new technology that changes the course of the industry. Apple winning this patent claim, in the grand scheme of things, is a reflection of the electronics powerhouse developing their overall portfolio of patents in an effort to protect their assets and impact their market results. Look no further then the company they are currently locking horns with in the courtroom, Nokia, and their massive portfolio of handset-related patents to see how important it is for a company to protect their intellectual property. From that perspective, it now becomes clearer why such an innocuous patent such as #7,966,578 could be a harbinger of things to come from Apple.

--Mike McLean

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