Is Apple's Interface Patent a Game-changer?

Carl Weinschenk

Once in a while, readers have to more careful than usual when interpreting events that are conveyed by technology journalists and bloggers. After all, depending on the writer's background and training, he or she may not be the best technology analyst. The need to not jump to conclusions is illustrated by the reaction to a patent award to Apple for an important iPhone design element.

The news is that Apple was awarded a patent - U.S. patent number 7,966,578, to be precise - that protects its multitouch interface. This is how InfoWorld describes it:

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.

In other words, the patent relates to using fingers to enlarge and otherwise manipulate content on the screen. That's potentially a big deal, since the description covers a standard smartphone operation. The keyword is "potentially." The press has spent the past couple of days offering opinions - theirs and from legal experts - of the real-world impact of the patent. (More details on this and other Apple patents are available at Patently Apple.)

An early take - and one that commonly was thought to be a bit over the top (the headline tells it: "Apple iPhone Patent a Huge Blow to Rival Smartphone Maker") - was posted by Dvice also suggested that the award could spell big trouble for other vendors., to its credit, posted a piece pointing out why experts are more conservative in assessing the possible impact of the award. ITProPortal was among other sites that see the award as limited:

Critics say that "an abstract is not a patent" since the abstract of a US patent is only a sketch, whereas the protected intellectual property is only to be found in the specific claims. This confusion could make the media suggest that a patent's influence is broader than it actually is.

The bottom line is that it is impossible to say anything definitive about the impact of the patent award. While it may be great, it is just as likely that other factors - such as wins and losses in the marketplace - will have more short- and long-term impact on Apple and its competitors.

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