When COO Tim Cook told analysts last week that Apple would "not stand for having our IP ripped off," he was likely referring to the company's all-encompassing iPhone patent. The patent, titled "Touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics," was granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office last week and assigned patent number 7,479,949.
The abstract describes a "computing device, comprising: a touch screen display; one or more processors; memory; and one or more programs" and specifically mentions a variety of methods and heuristics for interpreting the touch input and translating it to commands for scrolling, flipping from page to page in the SpringBoard, zooming webpages, and other commands. In addition, it also details the combination of components that the iPhone represents, including Bluetooth, WiFi, cell, and GPS radios, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, and touch-sensitive screen.
The patent lists Steve Jobs, Scott Forstall, and a number of other Apple engineers, including Wayne Westerman. Westerman, who became an Apple engineer when Apple acquired his FingerWorks, Inc in 2005, is responsible for a lot of the multitouch gesturing and on-screen keyboard technology used in the iPhone.
Since the original iPhone launched in June 2007, competitors have scrambled to emulate its success by releasing touch-based mobile devices. Recent entries include RIM's BlackBerry Storm, the HTC/Google/T-mobile G1, and Palm's announced but as-yet unreleased Pre. When asked pointedly about the Pre's touch interface similarities to the iPhone, Cook responded:
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 can be clearer than that.
That could be easily interpreted as a threat to Palm, though Cook made it clear he wasn't singling out any company in particular. But Palm, which hired Apple's former head of hardware engineering, Jon Rubenstein, and other former Apple engineers to develop the Pre, felt it necessary to respond to Cook's statements:
Palm has a long history of innovation that is reflected in our products and robust patent portfolio, and we have long been recognized for our fundamental patents in the mobile space. If faced with legal action, we are confident that we have the tools necessary to defend ourselves.That's tough talk from both parties, but Apple has a long list of patents related to the iPhone and its multitouch technology, as well as a history of vigorously defending its innovations in a courtroom. With its "iPhone" patent granted, it would behoove Palm or any other mobile device maker to either make sure that their designs aren't stepping on Apple's toes, or start looking for prior art to challenge the patent. And though Cook says Apple welcomes competition, being able to enforce the patent (which would be a long and costly process) might encourage the competition to try and out-innovate Apple on other fronts.