Apple exec Tim Cook's recent posturing over touchscreen and multitouch patents during the company's financial conference call surprised many by how unexpected and direct it was. Now, it looks like we might know why the COO was quite so forthright: what Cook knew - and at that point most of us didn't - was that Apple had finally been granted their infamous "Touch screen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics" patent, number 7,479,949, which had been languishing in review at the patent office for more than two years.
"A computer-implemented method for use in conjunction with a computing device with a touch screen display comprises: detecting one or more finger contacts with the touch screen display, applying one or more heuristics to the one or more finger contacts to determine a command for the device, and processing the command. The one or more heuristics comprise: a heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a one-dimensional vertical screen scrolling command, a heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a two-dimensional screen translation command, and a heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a command to transition from displaying a respective item in a set of items to displaying a next item in the set of items." Apple patent 7,479,949 abstract
The patent covers not only the practical aspects of a multitouch display, but also the gesture set that has come to be associated with it. That means motions such as pinch, rotate and swipe. It's uncertain what this will mean for gestures on the Palm Pre, the most notable of all upcoming multitouch devices.
It seems likely that this is what Cook was referring to when he told analysts that for the iPhone, "software is the key ingredient, and we believe that we are years ahead of our competitors." Expect there to be much small-print examination by Palm, who came out fighting after Apple's comments with the suggestion that they too have their own "robust patent portfolio".