So Apple got yet another patent granted today, and now there's yet another media firestorm over whether it means Cupertino will be able to sue every other phone manufacturer out of business, or at least out of the business of making multitouch devices. And, as usual, most of the hysteria is based on a fundamental misinterpretation of what the patent claims actually say, and what behaviors they actually cover in iOS. I don't know why we keep repeating this sad cycle, but I do know that it's always, always better for us to read the claims and try to figure them out for ourselves -- and in this case, they're actually pretty narrow.

Now, the key to understanding patents is to read the claims. That's step one. Every single element of each claim is important! Anything that doesn't hit on every single element of the claim doesn't infringe. And any patent article that doesn't include a specific analysis of the claims isn't worth your time. It's that simple. So! Let's look at the first claim of patent #7,966,578, which was granted on June 21 -- it's very, very specific:

  1. You need a "portable multifunction device with one or more processors, memory, and a touch screen display." Check!
  2. That device needs to display "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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. It's easier to show this in a video, actually:

 

And... that's it! That's all the patent covers. The other claims of the patent attempt to broaden this language somewhat by changing the specific number of fingers to the variables N and M and by saying the technique can be used in applications other than the browser, but the main idea is always the same: you interact with a main interface display using N fingers, and you interact with a frame within that display using M fingers, in a way that doesn't alter the main display.

Now, that's a pretty narrow patent, and 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. I certainly wouldn't call it an "iPhone patent" or anything nearly so broad or sensational. That said, it's certainly yet another arrow in Apple's quiver of patents on the things that make the iPhone work the way it does, and Cupertino may well assert it against another OEM sometime down the line. But even still, Apple's already locked in litigation against HTC, Samsung, and Motorola -- one more granted patent isn't going to swing the balance by much. So let's all take a breath and remember to read the claims carefully next time, shall we? It's better for everyone.