Apple threatens Palm chomp
Patents drawn at 20 paces
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.
Equally important could well be application number 20080036743 , which broadly claims to cover recognising gestures on a multi-touch surface. The patent application covers the process of capturing a gesture, which is then compared to a stored database of gestures to decide what action should be triggered. Also covered is the inclusion of a "gesture editor" to enable users to create their own gestures, and a hierarchical system for rating gestures by complexity.
But to most people the key capability of the iPhone's interface is the two-fingered zoom. Though it turns telephone use into a two-handed operation, the two-fingered zoom is the function that iPhone fans most enjoy showing off. The Fingerworks keyboard has the same function, only using five fingers, and Apple's patent clearly differentiates from such prior art by specifying a "portable electronic device" and the use of icons.
The patent application is number 20070152984 , and it specifies that a graphical object greater than a specific size can be interacted with through the use of multi-touch, including "wherein the operation to be performed is changing a magnification level of the object by an amount corresponding to a change in distance between two or more contacts with the display surface." That would seem to cover the act of zooming in by drawing two fingers together, a demonstrated  as a feature of the Palm Pre.
But before giving up on Palm, or accusing Apple of being unreasonable, there are three very important things to remember. Firstly, all except the first example quoted are patent applications - and Apple isn't going to sue anyone until those patents have been awarded, assuming that they are. Secondly, the Pre is still at the prototype stage, and nothing is going to happen until the device launches and Apple gets a chance to see if Palm is worth suing.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly: We are not patent lawyers. Apple probably has patents we've missed during this trawl, and Palm could well have workarounds to avoid the infringements we've suggested. But given the amount of money both companies are most likely going to be spending on litigation over the next couple of years, perhaps patent lawyer would be a sensible career move. ®