When the iPhone first launched at Macworld in 2007, I distinctly remember Apple CEO Steve Jobs boasting that the company had over 200 patents on this thing. At the time, that boast stuck out like a sore thumb as I couldn’t recall Apple making such a fuss over patents before.
Attempting to ‘protect’ one’s intellectual property through patent applications is something that large tech companies do every day. But the fact that Jobs felt the need to highlight this in relation to the iPhone told its own story: Apple was onto something big and it fully expected others to copy many of the iPhone’s ‘innovations’, such as the device’s multi-touch User Interface and related gestures to manipulate content.
Two years on and although we’ve seen many so-called iPhone “killers” from the likes of Google, Nokia, Samsung, HTC and RIM, none of them have dared to go as far as implementing a multi-touch UI.
Until just over a week ago, that is, when Palm unveiled its new Pre smartphone and accompanying webOS, which includes a capacative multi-touch display and relies heavily on gestures for navigation. None of which has gone unnoticed by Apple.
During yesterday’s earning call, Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook made a thinly veiled warning:
We are watching the landscape. We like competition, as long as they don’t rip off our IP. And if they do, were going to go after anybody that does…
I don’t want to talk about any specific company. I’m just making a general statement that we think competition is good. It makes us all better. And we are ready to suit up and go against anyone. However, we will not stand for having our IP ripped off, and we’ll use whatever weapons that we have at our disposal. I don’t know that I could be more clear than that.
What if Apple did file a suit against Palm claiming patent infringement based on the Pre’s use of multi-touch and gestures, who would win and how might it change the competitive landscape?
Firstly, it’s far from clear that Apple would actually win any such suit. While they have many, many patents related to elements of the iPhone’s design, if contested, I think there could be plenty of ‘prior art’ to prove that Apple’s innovations aren’t entirely original. Multi-touch User Interfaces have, I’m led to believe, existed in technology research labs for tens of years. Apple, like almost nobody else does, built on existing ideas and turned them into a successful commercial product. Just like with the original Mac and some of its Xerox PARC roots.
However, intellectual property law suits are more than often not about who is right or wrong but who has the deepest pockets. This is where Apple is a Goliath compared to Palm. And in this context, Palm needs a costly and lengthy lawsuit like a hole in the head.
Remember Surface, Microsoft’s multi-touch tabletop computer? It relies on gestures galore for navigation and manipulating onscreen objects, and if Redmond is to believed, has been brewing in a Microsoft R&D lab for many years. And who knows, maybe they plan to bring Surface-like features to the upcoming Windows Mobile 7 OS. That’s not to say that Microsoft invented multi-touch either but it reinforces that Palm isn’t the only cowboy in town. HP also has its own multi-touch computer.
If Apple were to go up against Palm in the courts, might it be in Microsoft’s and HP’s interests to see Palm successfully dispute Apple’s patent claims. Maybe enough to back them or at least file a counter suit?
Image credit: Engadget (Macworld 2007)