Apple multitouch patent is all about UX lock-in

Apple (s aapl) notched a significant win last week when it was awarded a key patent related to basic multitouch functionality. The patent was first called “hugely problematic” for other smartphone makers, owing to its “incredibly broad” scope by PC Magazine, but most now agree that the initial response overstated things a little. Even so, it’s a patent that provides a key advantage when it comes to touchscreen mobile computing, one which may present real and much bigger headaches for the competition.

Defense, not hunting license

Don’t think of this as a hunting license for Apple, or permission to launch a broad offensive against its competitors in the smartphone space. While FOSS Patents’ Florian Mueller told me the patent is “excessively broad” in his own personal opinion, “it’s nowhere near the scope of a patent on anything multitouch.” UBS analyst Maynard Um said in an email to his clients that the patents held by Apple seem intended mostly “for defensive purposes,” since “collecting royalty is not Apple’s business model.”

In other words, competitors will still have to cross specific boundaries to incur a legal response from Apple, but where those lines are drawn reveal the key to why the patent is so valuable. This patent covers the ability to navigate in apps and web pages with a one-finger flick, and two-finger scrolling for embedded elements within a frame, which are all part of what makes the iOS user experience so good.

Um believes “Google (s goog) and Microsoft (s msft) may find work-around solutions in their mobile operating systems to avoid any infringement,” but Mueller points out that “staying outside that claimed territory will always come with some degradation of the user experience.” It’s that UX advantage that Apple wants to maintain with this patent.

More buttons for competitors

Apple’s touch interface on iOS devices has broad appeal because it works intuitively, and it has familiarity because of the broad reach of iOS (over 187 million iOS devices had been sold at last count). If you want to see more content on an iOS device, you push the screen down or pull it up, and the on-screen software responds as one would expect. According to Mueller, staying clear of Apple’s new multitouch patents would likely involve using additional icons or buttons for things like zoom and scrolling, which add a level of complexity to touch interaction. Basically, it would degrade UX on competing platforms. People new to touchscreen computing, and users used to iOS, would have trouble adjusting to these added elements, and they would also make for a cluttered interface. Apple, in other words, is better positioned to achieve a kind of user experience lock-in that would be hard for the competition to overcome.

That’s not to say Apple will be the only handset manufacturer to implement things like two-finger scrolling. Mueller notes that since Apple is already involved in patent litigation with Motorola(s mmi), Samsung and HTC, it could reach cross-licensing agreements that allow other hardware to use its multi-touch patents as part of a settlement in some of those cases.

Ultimately, this patent is undeniably a win for Apple, and a loss for the competition, but it doesn’t mean we’ll see Apple turn into a litigating monster. It, does, however add some more legal backing to Apple’s existing UX advantage in the smartphone game, which will have long-reaching effects for the future of the market.