Friday, May 14, 2010

Apple's two-fingered gesture to competitors

It seems that whenever new user-interface technology appears, lawsuits follow close behind.

Those who can remember when the first GUI interfaces began to appear on personal computers will recall that Apple and Digital Research became involved in a bit of legal biffo over who owned the intellectual property associated with a virtual trash-can.

Goodness knows how much money was spent on lawyers over the issue but now it all seems so trivial -- although at the time it was a deadly serious business.

Well the mouse-driven GUI has been "the" user-interface standard for desktop and laptop computers for decades but now there's a new kid on the block.

The advent of mobile phones and other small computing appliances with ever-larger touch screens has seen the introduction of "multipoint gestures" as a key component of modern user-interfaces.

Simply touching a virtual button on an LCD is no longer a powerful enough way to interact with these devices. Manufacturers have come up with clever stuff that represent pinching, parting and other gestures involving the use of more than one finger and movements beyond a simple touch.

But who owns these "gestures"?

Well (once again) we have Apple coming out with all (lawyers') guns blazing and filing suit against another major handset maker HTC.

Just as it did with the trash-can, Apple is laying claim to multi-touch gesturing as its own sacred and patented intellectual property, making it clear that (as far as the big A is concerned) nobody else can use this technology without their permission.

So why don't HTC simply come up with their own alternatives rather than knowingly infringe Apple's patents?

Well it seems that they can't actually come up with anything better and they know that if they're going to compete head on with Apple, they need to provide this level of intuitive interface.

In fact, the patenting of multi-point gestures could be a real roadblock for all the other mobile device-makers who will find themselves stuck with second-rate user-interfaces and reduced market share as a result.

Will Apple license this technology to competitors?

I doubt it. After all, why rent out the goose that is laying the golden egg? Better that they keep this stuff for themselves and reap the benefits that come from higher sales of their iPhones and iPads.

In fact, the "do or die" importance of multi-touch gesturing is even forcing other big-name companies such as Palm and Motorola are said to be contemplating their own multi-point
gesturing interfaces, possibly risking legal action from the Apple in the process.

However, all hope is not lost.

Back in the early days of the PC GUI, Apple did cross-license technologies with Microsoft which explains why Windows ended up with a trash can.

The real question is whether HTC, Palm, Motorola or any of the other mobile device makers has anything Apple might want in return for such a license. If not, Apple may be quite prepared to give a different kind of two fingered gesture to its competitors when it comes to this technology -- and, as they've proven in the past, they're quite prepared to back that up with legal action.

Of course if you think you've developed something better than multi-point gesturing as a user-interface to small hand-held devices, you may be sitting on a goldmine.

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