Another day brings another multitouch patent lawsuit. This time, it’s Elan Microelectronics Corporation looking to ban Apple’s multitouch products — including the new iPad — in the U.S. Elan is no stranger to such a suit, though. In 2008 it won a similar dispute with Synaptics.
Synaptics (s SYNA), maker of the touchscreens on several phones, including the Google (s goog) phone from T-Mobile and the LG Samsung Instinct, has benefited as touch has been added to all kinds of devices — its seen a boost to both its profits and its number of customers. The company today introduced a new touchscreen that allows for 8-inch screen sizes and 10-finger gestures, as well as a low-end product that allows for basic one- and two-finger gestures. The more advanced product is likely for netbooks or phones, and could even be used as more of a touchpad rather than a touchscreen. Synaptics says it could be used for gaming or navigating 3D interfaces. These high-end touchscreens will be available to manufacturers in November, so don’t expect to see them in devices for another year or so.
The low-end touchscreen, meanwhile, will allow folks who don’t want to buy a high-end phone the fun of single-finger gestures such as tap, double tap, tap and slide, pinch, press and flick. The lower-end product will fit screens up to 4.3 inches. And if touch can make web site navigation on feature phones easier, it will be a boon to carriers trying to push more data plans on its customers.
The LG Secret launched today with a touch screen powered by Synaptics touch capacitors, a technology whose star has risen in the consumer devices universe in the wake of the iPhone. The iPhone uses a grid layout of capacitive sensors to enable multi-finger gestures, something that wouldn’t be possible with resistive sensors. Sensing capacitors are one of the many ways electronics companies can create touch-sensitive controls, but they’re expensive and obviously require skin-to-device contact in order to work.
Prior generations of touch screens have used resistive sensors, which rather than relying on the human body to affect a charge to make them work, rely on pressure. One big drawback of such a system is poor screen clarity, but they can be used with a finger or a stylus and traditionally they were cheaper than other sensors. The price advantage of resistive sensors, however, is dwindling, and companies such as Synaptics and Cypress Semiconductor are now poised to grow along with the market for capacitive sensing technologies. According to Synaptics, which reported earnings last week, touch phones grew to comprise 10 percent of its $79 million in sales in its most recent quarter.
Other chip firms are taking note. In February, Atmel Corp. agreed to acquire Quantum Research Group, a developer of capacitive sensing intellectual property, for $88 million in cash and up to an additional $42 million if certain contingencies are met. Chip research firm iSuppli predicts that global shipment revenue for leading touch-screen technologies will increase to $4.4 billion by 2012, up from $2.4 billion in 2006, but that includes resistive infrared and other touch technologies as well.