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Apple threatens Palm chomp

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Palm has demonstrated it can still create truly compelling devices, but Apple wields a significant patent portfolio in the area and has made it clear that it isn't afraid to use it. So will Palm's success simply fill the Cupertino coffers?

The Palm Pre is everything Palm fans were hoping for, lacking only backwards compatibility to pile on top of the elegant form factor, impressive specification, and an intuitive interface. But it's that interface which is going to attract most attention in the coming months, and probable legal action once the device is launched. So El Reg took a trawl through the US Patent office records to see what Apple has got protected, and how Palm might be hoping to sidestep that intellectual property.

It's worth, first, being very clear. Apple didn't invent multi-touch interfacing - it bought it from the remnants of Fingerworks, an innovative multi-touch keyboard company that went bankrupt because punters wouldn't pay hundreds of dollars for a keyboard. Fingerworks keyboards feature multi-touch functions with gesture recognition - this article is being written on one - but they were not the first multi-touch product as the technique can be traced back to 1971 at least.

Apple did acquire a bunch of patents when they bought Fingerworks, but most of those are concerned with using chords of four or five keys, and working out which key is being pressed from the context - useful on the iPhone, but irrelevant to the Palm Pre with its slide-out QWERTY keypad. Since the acquisition Apple has been busy patenting every aspect of touch interfacing. A quick search for "Apple" and "finger" reveals 1571 patents - though at least one is for a super-safe kitchen chopping board rather than anything IT-related.

Most attention recently has been focused on Patent number 7,479,949, which was awarded to Apple a few days ago and has been described as a patent on multi-touch interfacing - though in reality the patent is far from being that. 7,479,949 covers the technique for discovering what the user has in mind when they touch the screen: some iPhone users find webpage hyperlinks almost impossible to tap on, as the iPhone assumes they want to scroll around the page - presumably because the user's finger isn't static enough.

This patent covers the detection of that movement, to establish if a contact is a tap or just a very short scrolling request. It also discusses the angle of movement dictating whether a purely horizontal or vertical scroll is preferred or if the user is requesting free scrolling.

Using an alternative finger-based browser, such as Opera, the scrolling is always free, so no detection of vertical or horizontal scrolling is used - while (in our experience) Opera can't detect the difference between a quick scroll and a tap-to-click anyway, so there's no conflict there. The Iris browser goes even further, requiring a one-second dwell to trigger a hyperlink.

But Apple isn't dependent on 7,479,949, as the company has several other patents pending that have a more obvious infringement potential.

Probably the most clear-cut would be Patent Application 20070146337, which covers the use of Newtonian physics on scrolling triggered by a stroking finger. The faster the finger moves the faster the content scrolls, but the patent also states explicitly that the movement may happen "in accordance with a simulation of a physical device having friction," which could be viewed as a genuine innovation - and one that the Palm Pre also sports.

Application number 20080094370 could also cause Palm some headaches, though until we get more exposure of the Pre interface, it's hard to say with any certainty. 20080094370 covers the idea of having multiple gestures triggering the same action - so a swipe to the right might show the next album cover, but tapping on the perspective-viewed cover would also work, as would tapping on a "next" button. It remains to be seen if the Pre has such flexibility, but hard to imagine it won't.

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