Microsoft Gesture Patent Applications Give Apple the Finger

Last Updated Jul 28, 2011 4:30 PM EDT

Microsoft (MSFT) has long experience in effective strategic and tactical use of patents. A set of four patent applications for interface gestures, made public today, shows how the company is working to protect what little position it currently has in mobile from Apple (AAPL) and other rivals.

Love 'em or hate 'em, Microsoft has been a leader in patent strategy. Sure, it uses its massive portfolio of 18,170 patents and more than 21,600 publicly published applications to trip up competitors. But the same patents also help the company negotiate room to do business in an mutually-assured-destruction, nuclear-détente sort of way. And in the realm of mobile computing, where it has been doing badly in the market, Microsoft continues to add to its Big Legal Club arsenal.

Mobile has seen a lot of patent battles in the last year or two, most if not all of which have been focused on driving competitors out of the way, and Microsoft has been heavily in the fray. So has Apple, particularly with some of the multi-touch patents it has gained. Microsoft can't afford an imbalance in power and wants to expand its arsenal. Hence, it filed a series of patent applications that, if eventually granted, would likely cover some things that Apple, and others, would want to do:

  • Stamp Gestures -- The application is for a gesture that would allow a stamping action as is common in image editing. The users selects an area to copy and then stamps it elsewhere on the image.
  • Brush, Carbon-Copy, and Fill Gestures -- The gestures would allow someone to copy lines or parts of objects or use an object as a pattern to fill another.
  • Edge Gestures -- The user could select an object and manipulate the orientation of its edges, among other things allowing a rotation on the screen.
  • Cross-Reference Gestures -- The gestures would link different objects together.
The extensive list of figures common to these applications suggests that Microsoft has many other additional gesture applications in the works that are not yet publicly published. Taken in total -- again, if Microsoft is successful in obtaining patent grants -- they give the company the type of advantage that Apple has sought and obtained in a recent multi-touch patent.

Competition isn't impossible, but it becomes tough as any one company ties up more of the potential intuitive gestures a multi-touch user interface might have. Getting more of a foothold in this area offers Microsoft a number of advantages:

  • It becomes another lever in future negotiations with Apple, with cross-licensing taking Windows Phone out of the target that Apple has already painted around Android-based phones.
  • Gestural patents would let Microsoft turn the screws even more on hardware vendors like Motorola (MMI), which it currently is suing for patent infringement.
  • More room to attack on the touch interface front also means more reasons for mobile hardware vendors to partner with Microsoft to avoid the legal complexities.
  • Microsoft could seek royalty revenue from companies that it could either beat in court or scare into a licensing agreement. That would extend the significant amount of income it already receives from vendors that use Android.
Is it a nice strategy? No. Does it advance mobile computing? No. Does it offer an advantage to consumers? No. Is it as effective as hell in getting what the company wants? Absolutely.

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Image: Flickr user samantha celera, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.