'Innovation stifling' iPhone patent spells doom for all, maybe

Apple's newly awarded U.S. Patent 7,966,578 is blowing up all over the news on the premise that it could in theory block the sales of all multitouch devices or force rivals to pay up licensing fees, but since the description for the patent is so broad, it might end up getting tossed out in court for restricting innovation.

Filed back in December 2007, months after the original iPhone was released, the patent basically says Apple has the exclusive rights to create devices that can be manipulated with multiple fingers, which in case you haven't figured out by now, applies to virtually all modern smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices with touchscreens.

Here's the gist of it:

"[a] computer-implemented method, for use in conjunction with a portable multifunction device with a touch screen display, [that] comprises displaying a portion of page content, including a frame displaying a portion of frame content and also including other content of the page, on the touch screen display."

With the patent, Apple could easily kill off rival smartphones and tablets, and force their makers to cease and desist. Speaking to Florian Mueller, an expert intellectual property activist, PC Mag learned that it might not be quite the devastation that everybody is making the patent out to be.

"The way to read a patent claim is that it's only infringed if the accused technology is implemented in its entirety--all of the characteristics must be matched."

Given the broadness of the description, even patent experts admit that it might only apply to the iPhone's interface interaction with Web pages such as pinch-to-zoom in and out or swiping to navigate. If Apple does choose to exercise its new patent to the fullest extent and block all devices that infringe on its iPhone, it would be "hard to build a competitive smartphone," said Mueller.

But that's looking at it with the worst possible scenario. Rival companies like RIM, Microsoft and Google will almost surely contest the patent. If that fails, then well, Apple could always "license its patented technology for a tidy new income stream" as PC Mag puts it.

Then again, Apple's recent feud with Amazon, Microsoft and Nokia over its applied (but not yet granted) trademark for the term "App Store" seems to be chugging along fine without much contest by the little guy who doesn't have enough cash or the the hotshot lawyers to battle it in court.

Is Apple, a company's whose products and brand spew friendliness really going to bully the little dude? You better believe it!

While the patent will almost certainly be challenged by the big electronic giants, the Chinese company that makes super cheap Android phones or multitouch MP3 players could soon find themselves out of business. Dispelling all rivals would essentially give Apple a monopoly on the smartphone market, which as PC Mag points out, would not sit well with the courts.

Just don't be surprised if you wake up one morning and read that Apple is suing the world, because it could happen (and not just to Samsung).