Apple's latest trump card is a patent on multitouch, granted to Steve Jobs, iPhone software lead Scott Forstall, and FingerWorks co-founder Wayne Westerman.  (Source: AppleInsider)

Apple's patent covers multitouch and a number of gestures raising the possibility of suits against other companies implementing multitouch in portable devices.  (Source: AppleInsider)
Apple secures the means to legally punish would-be competitors

DailyTech previously reported that Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook hinted in an earnings call that litigation against competitors whom Apple believes are trying to infringe its intellectual property may be in the works.  Now Apple has gained a solid foothold to sue would be competitors like Palm who release similar multi-touch devices.

Apple was granted a patent for multi-touch, featured in its popular iPhone, on January 20, 2009.  The patent encompasses the basic technical deals of multi-touch technology, as well as finger gestures such as pinch, swipe and rotation.  Apple's CEO Steve Jobs, currently on medical leave, and Scott Forstall are among those credited with "inventing" multi-touch.

On a basic level, the patent is an interesting, if a bit lengthy 358-page recap of Apple's iPhone technology, including various algorithms to better process typed text on a touch keypad and other things of that nature.  It also hints at "a blogging application" and "a digital video camera application", possible new features in future iPhones or iPod Touches.  The patent also hints at voice activated dialing for the iPhone describing a system that "converts the electrical signal [from human sound waves] to audio data and transmits the audio data to the peripherals interface for processing."

However, more important is the legal power that the patent grants Apple.  Apple's patent states that it describes a "touch-sensitive area of the device that, unlike the touch screen, does not display visual output.  The touchpad may be a touch-sensitive surface that is separate from the touch screen or an extension of the touch-sensitive surface formed by the touch screen."

Palm's advertising materials for the Pre state, "[The Pre has a] gesture area, which enables simple, intuitive gestures for navigation."

So obviously the Pre and phones from other competitors seem to directly encroach on the IP domain laid by Apple's new patent.  The patent also raises the potential for possible IP conflicts with Microsoft in the portable computer domain.  Microsoft is heavily pushing multi-touch as a key feature of the upcoming Windows 7 OS

While it would be hard for Apple to argue infringement against Microsoft in a desktop design, certain laptop designs, especially ultraportables might be subject to scrutiny.  And considering that there's no loss of love between Apple and Microsoft, which have a colorful history, it seems unlikely that Apple would fail to pursue such legal opportunities, if they present themselves.

Other non-multi-touch smart phones like the Blackberry Storm, which has swipe gestures, may also be potential targets, though these functions may be considered to be covered by previous patents licensed by RIM and others. 

Thus far, Apple has announced no litigation against its smart phone adversaries.

"I mean, if you wanna break down someone's door, why don't you start with AT&T, for God sakes? They make your amazing phone unusable as a phone!" -- Jon Stewart on Apple and the iPhone
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