The fierce battle for the smartphone market, in which more and more users are moving their Internet access and application usage, has resulted in a morass of patent lawsuits, with multitouch gesture capabilities a primary point of contention among Apple, Nokia, Google, Microsoft, and others.
Multitouch is significant to the mobile battle because it enables the use of gestures, which allows for sophisticated interactions on small devices, whether for playing games, browing the Web, or controlling applications. Apple's iPhone popularized this approach and, as a result, redefined the mobile market.
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As you'd expect, Apple has patented its multitouch technology and used those patents against competitors such as Google, which has shied away from deploying multitouch natively in its Android operating system. Smartphone maker HTC developed its own multitouch UI layer for Android and Windows Mobile, but Apple later sued, claiming patent infringement.
"The bottom line is everybody's fighting over who gets control of the mobile phone market," said Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group. "It's really a battle for control because patents determine what you can do without paying a royalty and what you can't." That gives patent owners a way to stall competitors, create a price disadvantage, or steer competitors to less compelling nonpatented technologies.
Why mobile competitor are willing to risk an Apple suit
Although Apple has numerous multitouch patents, several competitors are willing to deploy multitouch capabilities even at risk of a lawsuit, says Chris Hazelton, an analyst at the 451 Group, because of multitouch's importance for mobile apps, particularly games. "A lot of apps today and many more going forward will require the ability to register more than one touch at a time. Companies like Palm and Motorola are using multitouch and may or may not have patent protection on multitouch -- but are willing to risk it," he says.
The reason is simple: Without multitouch capability in their devices, mobile vendors "won't be competitive against iPhone, in particular," says Yankee Group's Howe.
One reason they're willing to risk possible suits from Apple is a belief they likely have mobile patents that Apple or others may be infringing. For example, HTC ended up licensing some mobile software stack with the knowledge that they have patents in other areas Apple may be infringing on, said 451 Group's Hazelton.
It's unclear if Apple has licensed or offered to license its multitouch technology to competitors. None of the companies involved would disclose details of the suits or their mobile patent concerns. Yankee Group's Howe says that Apple has been reluctant to cross-license, which would trade with competitors the rights to use its multitouch in return for the right to use their technologies in its iPhone and iPad. Cross-licensing is a common technique to settling such disputes; for example, Apple and Microsoft settled their user interface dispute this way a decade ago.
One reason for Apple's reluctance to cross-license is that all mobile device makers are paying Nokia for use of its original GSM patents (GSM is the core cellular technology behind most 3G networks), and Apple believes if it has to pay for GSM, others must pay for multitouch, Howe says. He expects that Apple and its competitors will ultimately end up with a cross-licensing deal.
The mobile lawsuit derby
The head-spinning array of lawsuits can be tough to follow, and Apple isn't alone in aggressively staking out patent turf.
Among them is one from Apple suing HTC in March for what Apple says is infringement of 20 of its patents related to the iPhone user interface and underlying architecture and hardware. HTC builds phones based on Google's Android and Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating systems, and it has developed the Sense UI that adds iPhone-like controls for these devices. HTC disagrees with Apple's legal actions and plans to defend itself. It's also brought the issue to the International Trade Commission.
At the time of the suit, Apple CEO Steve Jobs wrote, "We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions or we can do something about it. We've decided to do something about it. We think competition is healthy but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."
Nokia, meanwhile, sued Apple last fall, charging that the iPhone infringes on Nokia patents covering wireless data, speed encoding, security, and encryption. Apple followed by countersuing Nokia, accusing Nokia of infringing 12 Apple patents. Not to be outdone, Nokia just this month fired back with another complaint, charging Apple with infringement of patents for speech and data transmission, use of positioning data, and antenna configuration. Nokia is including the new Apple iPad as a device supposedly violating Nokia's intellectual property.
Nokia's public statement was just as adamant as Apple's: "Nokia has been the leading developer of many key technologies in mobile devices. We have taken this step to protect the results of our pioneering development and to put an end to continued unlawful use of Nokia's innovation."
Nokia is the not the only company pursuing Apple. EMG accused it of infringing a patent related to Internet navigation on a mobile phone. Elan Microelectronics has also accused Apple of infringing two patents related to multitouch.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has licensed some of its patents to HTC for use on Android smartphones. HTC will pay royalties to Microsoft, which had declined to say what technologies were covered by the patents, though news reports indicate they concern the mobile operating system's software stack. Microsoft has also expressed concerns related to Google's Android OS and -- like Apple and Nokia -- says it does not want competitors getting a supposed free ride on the company's innovations.
While the mobile vendors use public threats, private negotiations, and the courts to sort out their claims and counterclaims, one outcome is already certain, says Yankee Group's Howe: "More money for the lawyers."