by Al Sacco

Apple to Sue Palm Over Pre Multi-Touch Tech? Much Ado, Much Too Soon

Jan 23, 20093 mins
IT Leadership

The big news on the mobile front today—besides the fact that Barack Obama will be the first U.S. president allowed to employ a smartphone while in office—relates to comments made by Apple COO Tim Cook that suggest the company is planning to file a lawsuit against competitor Palm over touch-screen technologies used within its recently unveiled Pre handheld. Palm investors are already panicking; some analysts are predicting the worst. I say calm down, take a deep breath and see this for what it currently is: A non-issue. Here’s why.

Image of scales of justice with both Apple and Palm logos

First of all, a bit of background, as well as Cook’s comments, which were made in response to an analyst’s questions during a Wednesday Apple earnings call.

Way back in January, 2007, just after Apple unveiled the game-changing iPhone at its annual Macworld event, a black-turtleneck-clad Steve Jobs held the shiny new device high above his head and proclaimed that the company had already filed for more than 200 patents to protect the innovations within the iPhone. We now know that many of those patents relate directly to the iPhone’s multi-touch display, as well as the corresponding multi-finger gestures that let users do tasks like zoom in on an image or Web page with a pinch of two digits.

As for Cook’s recent comments, the Apple COO was asked by RBC Capital’s Mike Abramsky about handset competitors efforts to “navigate carefully” around Apple’s multi-touch-related patents in rival touch-based devices, specifically Palm and the Pre.

Cook’s response:

“We like competition, as long as they don’t rip off our IP…I don’t want to talk about any particular company. However, we will not stand for having our IP ripped off. And we will use whatever weapons we have at our disposal.”

While Cook never called Palm out in his answer, it does seem likely that his comments were meant for the Treo-maker. Still, they shouldn’t be enough to send Palm investors running to sell off stock. Nor should Palm enthusiasts start to worry, at least until a finalized version of the Pre hits retail stores and we—users, analysts, investors, Apple–can determine whether or not the device’s multi-touch functionality really is as similar to iPhone as some industry-watchers seem to think. (The device was initially unveiled at CES 2009 earlier this month, and it’s expected to go on sale through Sprint before the second half of this year.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Apple can’t or won’t eventually file suit against Palm; of course it can, and it might, just as soon as the Pre becomes available. But the way I see it, there are plenty of other handhelds on the market today that use very similar multi-touch tech, as Abramsky pointed out. And a number of them—I’m thinking the HTC Touch Pro and the BlackBerry Storm—already seem to walk the line between friendly imitation and potentially-damaging replication.

It’s true, none of the smartphones I named above have pinch-in or pinch-out functions, but they also have multi-touch features similar to other touch-based iPhone functionalities for scrolling, switching between images or pages and more. And don’t forget about all those notebook computers out there with multi-touch support—or Windows 7, which also uses multi-touch. Wouldn’t Apple also have to sue the various producers of these products to justify a suit against Palm?

So while Apple legal action against Palm and its Pre could become a reality in the future,

I wouldn’t get too worked up about it quite yet.