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Apple awarded key "multi-touch" patent covering the iPhone

Apple last week was awarded a monstrous 358-page patent covering the touch screen, graphical user interface, and methods that combine to define the iPhone user experience.

Dating back to September of 2007 and granted last Tuesday, U.S. Patent No. 7479949 lists many inventors; notably, Apple co-founder and chief executive Steve Jobs, iPhone software director Scott Forstall, and FingerWorks co-founder Wayne Westerman.  (FingerWorks was responsible for gadgets with an opaque surface that could respond to gesture controls before being acquired by Apple to aid its multi-touch efforts several years ago.)

The filing is essentially a summary and overview of all the technologies that come together in the iPhone.  In the patent, Apple claims coverage for the device itself, the way gestures like pinches and zooms are detected, and the software the device runs.  Also mentioned are many other different details and aspects of the multi-touch user interface, such as a finger swipe, a two-thumb twist, and a method of determining which object was intended when a touch seems to cover both.

Apple interim chief executive Tim Cook recently promised to aggressively pursue any company or person who "rips off" Apple's intellectual property, and this patent affords the Cupertino-based iPhone maker the footing it would need to mount any such defense.

In detail

In setting a tone for the filing, Apple described how portable phones received more and more pushbuttons to control new features, but the inability to adapt the input methods to match the application running is a problem.  Thus, a touchscreen device is a better choice; however, gestures can be difficult to interpret or translate into the commands the user actually wants the device to perform.

"Accordingly, there is a need for touch-screen-display electronic devices with more transparent and intuitive user interfaces," the filing reads.  These improved devices can take input and interpret it as "precise, intended commands that are easy to use, configure, and/or adapt.  Such interfaces increase the effectiveness, efficiency and user satisfaction with portable multifunction devices."

iPhone patent

Future features?

There are also some interesting aspects of the filing that may hint at future plans for the iPhone and iPod, such as "a blogging application" and "a digital video camera application" — both of which have been mentioned in previous coverage of the patent. Similarly, voice-activated dialing could someday be a feature, as the document refers to audio circuitry that "converts the electrical signal [from human sound waves] to audio data and transmits the audio data to the peripherals interface for processing."

Apple mentions a touchpad for activating or deactivating functions.  The patent describes it as a "touch-sensitive area of the device that, unlike the touch screen, does not display visual output.  The touchpad may be a touch-sensitive surface that is separate from the touch screen or an extension of the touch-sensitive surface formed by the touch screen."  

Interestingly, this is a feature Palm is already touting about its upcoming Pre handset.  According to Palm's press release: "[The Pre has a] gesture area, which enables simple, intuitive gestures for navigation."  The gesture area is separate from the touch screen.

Final Observations

Along with covering the iPhone, the patent filing is notable for referencing 40 other existing patents, and for naming Jobs first among its inventors.