Don’t Stop Pinching and Zooming Just Yet

When reading the press following the Apple vs. Samsung verdict, one couldn’t help but conclude that Apple had won ownership over “pinch-to-zoom” as a user interface.

Apple had successfully sued Samsung over a number of patents relating to its touch-based gestural interface claiming Samsung was stifling innovation by blatantly ripping off Apple’s features rather than inventing their own from scratch.

The two-fingered gesture (moving fingers closer together to zoom in, further apart to zoom out) is among the best known and most widely imitated touch gestures used today. One implication of the verdict was clear — that going forward, only Apple devices would be allowed to pinch-to-zoom.

The Washington Post, Fast Company Design and Business Insider all got in on the sky-is-falling action, conjuring a “Post-‘pinch’” era of “Usability Hell.”

Not so fast.

Thankfully, a handful of journalists did their due diligence and found that reports of pinch-to-zoom’s cross-platform demise were greatly exaggerated. Apple wasn’t victorious across the board, and even where it did win decisively, plenty of wiggle room was left available for alternate implementations of similar features.

The Verge’s Nilay Patel dispelled the multi-touch myth decisively in his article, “The myth of pinch-to-zoom: how a confused media gave Apple something it doesn’t own.”

To be clear, Apple does have a patent on a specific, limited pinch-to-zoom implementation, but as far as I know the company hasn’t yet asserted it in any lawsuits, and it seems just as easy to design around…

Steve Wildstrom summarized the media’s misrepresentation of the verdict well in his Tech.pinions post, “Pinch-to-Zoom and Rounded Rectangles: What the Jury Didn’t Say.

The actual issues in the Samsung case involved several patents covering the overall design and “trade dress” of the iPhone and iPad and three Apple “utility” patents that cover specific software behaviors. One covers the bounceback behavior of screen objects when you try to scroll beyond the edge of the display. A second concerns how the device differentiates between a one-finger scroll gesture and a two-finger move gesture. The third covers tap-to-zoom, which expands objects in the display centered on the point of the tap (think Maps).

He continued:

Apple claimed that Samsung infringed on four design patents. The D’677 patent covers the overall design of the iPhone while D’305 covers the layout of icons. These claims were upheld. But the jury rejected infringement claims based on patent D’889, which covers the iPad, and rejected eight of 13 claims under D’087 and which deals specifically with the rectangles-with-rounded-corners design of the iPhone…

Did the jury decide to reject some of Apple’s claims because the patents weren’t infringed or because they were invalid? A Groklaw examination of jury foreman Velvin Hogan’s post-trial comments is illuminating but doesn’t answer this question definitively.

Software patent law is a tricky business, and the debate rages on whether it adequately protects intellectual property or squashes innovation. In any case, it’s unfortunate that so many venerable publications got the pinch-to-zoom story so wrong. Whatever your opinion of the outcome, the devil in the details shows that Apple’s win won’t be the end of this story.