Apple’s iPhone. Is it really well protected by patents?

During his presentation of the iPhone, Steve Jobs mentioned that they have filed for more then 200 patents to protect the inventions they’ve put into this new gadget. Want to know what exactly have they patented? Then read on.

Apple iPhone music coverflow

To find out which of the cool iPhone features has been patented by Apple and are now protected from replication and which ones you can expect to be copied soon by the likes of Nokia, Samsung or Motorola, we’ve combed through the U.S. Patent and Trademark database and checked all relevant Apple’s patents.

And we came to a conclusion that this time Steve Jobs did his homework and most of the key features that make iPhone an iPhone will not be easily copied by competitors. This applies to Multi touch display, the idea to use full screen of the device for User Interface, scrolling, zooming and other finger gestures, soft on screen controls, multifunctionality, proximity, ambient light sensors and many other functions. Here are the details:

Multi-touch Screen.

It’s the key feature which probably led to the development of the iPhone itself. Multi-touch screen was created sometime in 2003-2004 and was the result of Apples efforts to improve Tablet PC interface. According to Time after seeing the new screen Jobs “Forgot all about computers” and decided to transform the cellphone instead. Apple described this screen in a patent application filed in May 2004, called “Multipoint touchscreen“.

Although they seem to be a part of the computer screen, touch screens are actually separate transparent devices that are placed above the display. Touch screens themselves are just clear panels with a touch sensitive surface. The touch panel registers touch events and sends these signals to the controller. The controller processes these signals and sends the data to the computer system. The software driver translates the touch events into computer events.

Touch sensitivity can be achieved through a number of technologies including resistive, capacitive, infrared, surface acoustic wave, electromagnetic, near field imaging, etc. However all of the previous technologies were unable to accurately distinguish positions of the touch, if more then one object a time was placed on the panel.

Apple iPhone multipoint touchscreenApple solved this problem by putting a number of transparent electrodes or array of conductive lines formed from Indium tin oxide (ITO) on a panel and thus forming a number of separate reference points (grid), which could be used to determine the position of multiple objects touching the screen at the same time. The force sensing mechanism embedded between electrode layers also allowed them to deduct the intentions of the user based on the way he puts fingers on the screen and filter out accidental touches.

Apple claimed following key inventions related to multipoint touch screen:

“…the transparent capacitive sensing medium comprises: a transparent electrode layer, the electrode layer including a plurality of electrically isolated electrodes and electrode traces formed from a transparent conductive material, each of the electrodes being placed at different locations in the plane of the touch panel, each of the electrodes having an individual trace for operatively coupling to capacitive monitoring circuitry…..
…further including one or more integrated circuits for monitoring the capacitance at each of the electrodes, the integrated circuits being operatively coupled to the electrodes via the traces….
….wherein the electrodes are placed in rows and columns….
….wherein the electrodes and traces are formed from indium tin oxide (ITO)….”

And alternative implementation:

“….wherein the transparent capacitive sensing medium comprises: a first layer having a plurality of transparent conductive lines that are electrically isolated from one another; and a second layer spatially separated from the first layer and having a plurality of transparent conductive lines that are electrically isolated from one another, the second conductive lines being positioned transverse to the first conductive lines, the intersection of transverse lines being positioned at different locations in the plane of the touch panel, each of the conductive lines being operatively coupled to capacitive monitoring circuitry….
…..the conductive lines on each of the layers are substantially parallel to one another….
…..the conductive lines on different layers are substantially perpendicular to one another…
…..the transparent conductive lines of the first layer are disposed on a first glass member, and wherein the transparent conductive lines of the second layer are disposed on a second glass member, the first glass member being disposed over the second glass member…
…..wherein the conductive lines are formed from indium tin oxide (ITO)…

Multifinger gestures.

After creating a multipoint touchscreen Apple started working on various cool things that Multi-touch enables to do. You could see the results of this work during iPhone introduction. Like scrolling, flipping through cover art, increasing and reducing pictures, etc; and all of this with natural movement of one or several fingers.

Apple iPhone multi touch gestures

Apple calls this method of device operation “Multifinger gestures” and describes them in detail in a patent application called “Gestures for touch sensitive devices“. This patent has 100 different claims related to the operation of Multi-touch device and basically covers all the ways Apple could think of to manipulate various objects that appear on the screen. That includes rotating, zooming, panning, scrolling, flipping and performing other cool stuff that you saw during the demo.

Device integration

After creating the basic software to operate an iPhone, it was time to fuse all the possibilities that it provided into a new device. It should be a novel device, the kind the world has never seen before. And, of course, since it was so new, everything about it should be patented. Apple’s patent called “Multifunctional handheld device” was the result. It tries to cover pratically every aspect of iPhone user interface, including:

Full screen touch screen display covering almost all the area of the hand-held device and operated mainly through on screen buttons:

…multi-functional hand-held device may be configured with a full screen display or a near full screen display. A full screen display consumes substantially the entire front surface of the device. The display may extend edge to edge or may fit within a small bezel of the housing at the edge of the device. The full screen display may consumes 90% or more of a front surface of a housing for a hand-held electronic device…
Because a limited number of physical buttons are provided, the hand-held device preferably uses a touch screen as the primary input device…GUI may present an on-screen button, and the touch screen may detect when a user presses the on-screen button…The hand-held device may be constructed with only cross-functional physical buttons, i.e., there are no buttons dedicated to individual devices. These type of buttons may include power buttons and hold switches…

Multifunctionality – iPod, Cellphone and Internet Communicator in one device. Functions changes through software. Switching between applications (Phone, iPod, Internet) through on screen buttons:

“…Alternatively adaptability may be accomplished by virtually incorporating the physical inputs for each functionality into the GUI in conjunction with a touch screen. This allows the GUI to adapt to whatever device is selected, and the touch screen can receive inputs corresponding to the GUI. With a GUI for each functionality, the UI for the hand-held device adapts such that the multi-function device, in effect, becomes a particular device. For example, if the cell phone functionality is selected, the GUI presents a set of virtual or soft controls that look similar to the physical controls typically used on a cell phone, such as a keypad, function buttons and possibly a navigation pad, for example….

Multitasking:

Preferably, the user may be able to activate two or more device functionalities simultaneously. In such a case, the software for the multiple functionalities is activated simultaneously and the display operates in a split screen mode where the screen is parsed into different sections, each section including a particular device GUI. Generally this would require the GUI for each functionality to fit on the screen. The multi-function mode may be selected in a variety of ways. In one implementation, when the user simultaneously touches two or more device icons, the device activates the multiple device functionalities and brings the appropriate GUIs into view on the screen.

Accelerometer:

The hand-held electronic device may also include a motion actuated input device. The motion actuated input device provides inputs when the hand-held device is in motion or is placed in a certain orientation. A motion actuated input device typically includes a motion sensor, such as an accelerometer, that monitors the motion of the device along the x, y, and/or z axis and produces signals indicative thereof. The motion sensor may, for example, include an accelerometer. Alternatively, the motion sensor could be an orientation sensor, such as an electronic compass, that allows the device to determine its orientation in a generally horizontal plane. The motion sensors may be attached to the housing or to some other structural component located within the housing of the device. When motion is applied to the device (gesturing, shaking, hand waving, etc.), it is transmitted through the housing to the motion sensor.

Other:

Other advanced sensors that are pat of iPhone also have their own patents. Proximity sensor is covered by patent application called “Proximity detector in a handheld device“. Ambient light sensor is part of “System for sensing ambient light“.

So Steve Jobs exclaimed during keynote “And boy have we patented it!” it was not an empty boast. The have indeed PATENTED it. And though not all of the claims have received patent protection yet and even less of them may withstand scrutiny in court if Apple decides to enforce them, many of the claims should should stick.

I guess Steve has learned his lessons from Mac and there it would be very difficult for Nokia or Samsung to repeat the Microsoft Windows feat and create an iPhone knock-off without violating at least some of Apple’s IP.

Author: Stasys Bielinis

While I like to play with the latest gadgets, I am even more interested in broad technology trends. With mobile now taking over the world - following the latest technology news, looking for insights, sharing and discussing them with passionate audience - it's hard to imagine a better place for me to be. You can find me on Twitter as @UVStaska'

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  • http://www.alexmac.biz Alex McKenna

    These principles could be employed as a new type of desktop keyboard, which could eliminate the mouse.
    You could type and make screen gestures on the same multi-touch surface, on your desk-pad, replacing the keyboard, whilst observing the results on the usual screen. A similar pad on a laptop could also eliminate the ghastly “scratch pad” which always sets my teeth on edge.

  • Juan Pueblo

    Just like the rest of the Apple “innovations” the iPhone is simply a copy of what was done by Xerox Parc like 20 years ago.

  • Mustang

    I saw Jeff Han doing most of those finger moves and using most of this tecnology in a presentation of multi-touch interfaces back in 2005.

    Did apple bought the patent rights from them?

  • Mark

    Apple’s genius isn’t really technical. This stuff isn’t rocket science–it’s quite straightforward actually. Don’t get me wrong–I think Apple has done a good job of technology integration in a nice form factor. But Apple’s real genius is in the leadership’s will to push something new and interesting through from technology idea to actual product. Vision of this sort is absolutely key to the success that Apple has had with some of their ideas (like the iPod) and also why they have failed so spectacularly at times (remember the Newton?)

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  • iphoner404

    Here’s Apple’s visual voice mail patent “User interface for voice message access” patent number 6,097,941. Looks like they filed several other in 1997 also.

  • Scott

    I know of one patent that Apple has not filed for and its already been patented by someone I know personally. iPhone has been doing these commercials about how they can see their messages and choose which ones they want to open. Well, its been patented and Apple is infringing.

  • Graham

    The Newton was made when Steve Jobs wasn’t at Apple; but it IS what made the iPhone so good. The fact that the Newton had failed with its size, weight, interface that required a stylus made Apple think differently about how they should approach mobile computing and devices. The Newton’s interface was pretty good for ’93. Apple tends to over-patent their devices because competitors like to run out and copy it quickly. This just slows then down. Also, the comment about Xerox is crap – I hate when people bring that up because you cannot equate taking one idea with 30 years of innovation in interfaces – it would have happened with Xerox or not.

  • Eric

    They didn't “patent” it, they applied for a patent on it. Big difference.

  • Eric

    They didn't “patent” it, they applied for a patent on it. Big difference.