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The Mountain and the Multi-Touch Molehill

What happens when Apple and Palm representatives vaguely mention the ability to use and defend their patents, and then one anonymous source from Google vaguely states that Apple asked Google to not implement a certain technology in a recently release product?

You get a whole lot of blog headlines keying off of a single publication’s unnamed source.

There are dozens more like these, and all the stories appear to cite a VentureBeat article that cited an anonymous source on the Google Android team who reported he was “relieved” that Google decided to heed Apple’s request.

What Gives?

These stories are a mess of supposition and leaps of imagination. The fact is, I was hard pressed to find any publication that even mentioned an attempt to contact Apple over this issue. (For the record, Apple didn’t respond to a LinuxInsider inquiry, and none was expected given the nature of the story. Still, we at least tried.)

Part of the reason behind these new blog posts is the recent history that led up to them. Here’s basically what happened: Palm introduced the Pre. It’s a nice touchscreen phone. Then Apple held its financial report. Someone on the conference call asked about iPhone competitors. Acting chief executive Tim Cook said Apple will protect its intellectual property. Reporters/bloggers jumped on it with sensational headlines. A Palm spokesperson said the company is confident and can defend itself.

Nobody at Apple or Palm named names — those conclusions were largely drawn by the press and a lot of bloggers. Lots of stories hit the Web again.

And oh yeah, Apple was granted some patents relating to the iPhone’s use of multitouch.

Meanwhile, Engadget published a great in-depth report about Apple’s iPhone patent that seemed to have gotten lost in the shuffle, and Pre Community posted a similar in-depth report covering Apple and Palm’s different patents.

So then VentureBeat finds an anonymous Android developer who says they were “relieved” that Google didn’t go against Apple’s wishes, given the aforementioned possible legal storm between Apple and Palm (which is at this point really just a bunch of blog speculation). “Relieved?” Seriously? That word, coming from anyone with any power on the Android team … is not that likely, making me believe the source is probably a low-level employee.

The whole thing might be true — Apple might have said, “Hey, don’t do this, for us, we’re good buddies, you know?” And Apple may have even made a threat — but getting such a threat or polite request confirmed by a credible, named source, on the record, is pretty much impossible.

Now we’ve got a situation where dozens of headlines from reputable publications are saying Apple asked/threatened Google not to implement multi-touch, citing Apple’s patents and fear of Apple’s legal posse.

What Does This Patent Cover?

Engadget reports that Apple’s wide-ranging iPhone patent that everyone is throwing around doesn’t really cover multi-touch in the first place; rather, it focuses more on how a page reacts to a single touch — the axis of movement based on the direction of a finger when scrolling or shifting. Second, the other relevant piece relates to the bounce-back effect you get on the iPhone when you try to move a page off the available screen and it bounces back. The initial views of the Pre show similar effects, and those effects aren’t about multi-touch.

Second, Palm could fairly easily avoid both features if they felt they had to. For instance, instead of locking the direction of travel when moving a document, it could be open to all directions. Engadget posted a nice little video illustrating the axis movements. As for the bounce back effects, Palm could modify those if needed. Either way, any of these fights would probably be behind the scenes, if Apple even chose to address them.

And Palm, it turns out, has some patents of which Apple could possibly run afoul, in which case the companies might end up in a costly fight that they both might lose. Interested in more detail? Pre Community’s piece did a great job of uncovering it all.

The Difficulty of Patents

So where’s the story? So far it’s mostly just a bunch of speculation stemming from two minor comments about patents and one anonymous Google Android source. And the result? Lots of comments from readers ready to say Apple is being a big, mean monster.

Maybe, maybe not. Sure, Apple has a reputation for being a tough negotiator, but patents are notoriously difficult to enforce — especially something like multi-touch. Google would know this. Does anyone think Google is particularly afraid of Apple? Come on!

Bill Buxton, a principal researcher with Microsoft Research, has posted quite a bit of detail about multi-touch technologies and ideas that have been around for years, which likely means that Apple’s patents in the area aren’t so “wide-ranging” as most bloggers seem to think.

“It’s hard to comment on the strength of patents held by Apple or anyone else without having done extensive research on them,” Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told LinuxInsider.

Eckersley added that Apple’s patents must either be very narrow or could even be invalidated by precedents, some of which are noted by Buxton.

“Note that even with a careful prior art search and analysis, patent litigation is usually a very expensive game of chance. Often, companies find it cheapest to settle lawsuits even if the patents being asserted against them are invalid,” he added.

What’s crazy about this entire set of stories is that it’s being spun almost like a public relations war … but Apple, Palm and Google all seem to be trying to stay out of it!

When any of these three goes on the record with a real threat … or real litigation … at least then we’ll have some real stories to cover.

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