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.