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Apple takes over universe with sweeping patent win. Or not...

It might seem like all modern smartphones, from the iPhone to Android to Windows Phone phones, have the same basic features - touchscreens, pinch-to-zoom, double-tap-to-zoom in the browser, etc. But in actual fact, the technology that enables 'multi-touch' is a fierce battleground of patents. As the creators of the iPhone, Apple registered a lot of patents on bits of multi-touch and licensed lots more. So Google and Microsoft have had to find alternative ways of doing certain things to avoid infringement.

This morning, though, it seemed Apple might have scored a patent which might really mess up other companies' multi-touch efforts. As CNET reported,

Apple's patent, which the company applied for in 2007, boils down to one simple focus: when a person uses their fingers to interact with the touch screen, the software reacts to that gesture. Images that Apple included with its patent application show that functionality being implemented across several different applications, including a Web browser and a home screen.

Sounds pretty broad, right? As in 'OMG Apple just destroyed Android' broad. It's not like you can have multi-touch - or any touch - if the software isn't allowed to react to a user's gestures.

Except, of course, it really isn't that broad a patent at all. The initial excited reporting missed a little detail, as patent expert Nilay Patel explained on This Is My Next, the patent only applies when a device is displaying

'a portion of a web page in a stationary application window,' and that portion has to include both the regular page content and a “frame displaying a portion of frame content.” That’s something like a Google Maps embed — it’s a frame within a webpage that displays other content.

The device has to 'detect a translation gesture by a single finger,' and in response somehow translate both the main content and the frame content. That means when you scroll with a single finger, everything has to move. Lastly, the device has to be able to detect 'a translation gesture by two fingers' and in response translate only the frame content without translating the main content. That’s exactly what happens on the iPhone today — you can pinch-to-zoom on a map embed without zooming a main web page.

In other words, this is really a pretty narrow patent. As Patel says, 'I don’t think the big brains at Google or Microsoft (or Motorola or Samsung or HTC or whoever) will have a hard time engineering around it — it’s really just one specific type of multitouch interaction.'

Of course, one more patent could still give Apple an extra weapon to hit Android makers over the head with. But the end of Android? Not quite.

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