Technology

Apple's Magic Touch Screen


The most impressive feature of the new iPhone is the sophisticated multipoint touch screen—with enticing possible applications

Of all the things that I find fascinating—and mysterious—about the iPhone, the touch-sensitive screen probably tops the list.

I've just spent an afternoon wading through a 29-page patent application that Apple (AAPL) filed in 2004 for what it calls a "multipoint touch screen." I'm coming away with some very interesting ideas concerning what touch-screen technology may mean for Apple and the direction its products may take. It holds promise not only for the iPhone, due to be released in about three months, but for Apple's iPod music players as well. It could even presage a line of mobile computers.

The first thing that jumped out at me (perhaps it's been noted elsewhere, but the significance escaped me during the opening weeks of the iPhone hype) is how technically sophisticated the screen is.

Touchy-feely

Consider the "pinch" feature. When holding the phone and browsing—say, the Web page of a certain business news site—and you want to zoom in on a particular section, place your thumb and forefinger on the screen near the image you want to see more closely and push them away from each other. I guess you'd call this a "reverse pinch." Bring those fingers closer together and you get the opposite effect—of zooming out. You get the picture.

Impressive as a touch screen that can keep track of two fingers at once may be—try more than one finger on a conventional touch screen—the screen outlined in Apple's patent application will be able to react to as many as 15 simultaneous touches. The document says that's enough for all 10 fingers, the palms of both hands, and three "others," whatever they may be. The software on the iPhone, or whatever other device employs the technology, can respond to each individual signal, independent of the others.

And this is where the possibilities are particularly intriguing. Once the iPhone is on the market, it follows that over the course of a year or so the iPod family of products will evolve and take on more iPhone-like trappings. These could include a multi-touch screen that produces its own on-screen, clickwheel-like control panel. This type of interface has been seen in other Apple patent filings.

Bridging the Gap

Where else might the iPhone screen leave its mark? MacBooks and MacBook Pros? Perhaps, but the appeal of touch-sensitive screens seems fairly limited for notebooks, in my view. Some people like the convertible notebook-tablet PC that Microsoft (MSFT) tried to popularize some years back, and indeed some industries find that a tablet notebook can be useful for those who spend more time on the job walking around than sitting at a desk. A multitouch line of notebooks is possible, but to my mind less likely.

UBS (UBS) analyst Ben Reitzes, in a research note on this topic earlier this week, suggested that a new "ultra-portable" Mac might appear, bearing some aspect of multitouch technology. He says such a device could "bridge the gap" between computing and media playing.

How about this: A wireless-ready portable screen that can act as a sort of remote client for a conventional Mac or an Apple TV—or both? Microsoft tried something like this with its smart display technology initiative some years ago, but with limited success (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/23/03, "This 'Smart Display' Isn't—Yet"). Imagine a smart multitouch display approximately the size of a thin hard-cover book that would give you access to all the files stored on your PC and play the video and music stored on your Apple TV, without requiring much memory or storage capacity of its own.

From that display, you could launch applications on the Mac, watch them running from the screen, and make changes to documents that could be reflected the next time you sit down at the Mac and open that document. You could watch iTunes videos and movies and plug in headphones and listen to music from your iTunes playlists.

And consider the multitouch opportunities. An on-screen keyboard on which you could actually type more or less normally, much like the one on the iPhone. Done correctly, the device could make access to a computer a far less structured affair, not requiring you to sit in front of it at a desk to get anything done. Its presence could become more ephemeral, akin to a TV remote: Reach for it and it's there; use as needed.

Secret Partner

And Apple appears to own the patents around this technology, though it seems a patent has yet to be formally issued. Some of the technology appears to have come from a company called Fingerworks, which was founded by two former University of Delaware professors and ceased operations in June, 2005. The founders may now be working with Apple, Reitzes says. Both Apple and Fingerworks are defendants in a patent lawsuit brought in January by Quantum Technology Management, a British outfit that says it owns a patent on "capacitive field sensing" that's being infringed by the two companies.

To build the screens, Apple has partnered with a German company called Balda, best known for making wireless-phone components for companies such as Nokia (NOK). It owns half of a Chinese company called TPK Holding. Balda and TPK, in turn, have formed a joint venture with an outfit called Optera, a unit of Magna International (MAGBF), which specializes in making glass coatings that conduct electricity—exactly the kind of ingredient you want in a touch screen.

Balda initially confirmed to a news agency that it was the supplier of the touch screen a day after the iPhone was announced on Jan. 9 (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/11/07, "Apple's iPhone Rings a Lot of Bells"), but has since taken a more tight-lipped approach and no longer comments on the matter.

Its many secrets aside, I'm starting to think that the most important thing about the iPhone is not how cool a wireless and media device it appears to be, but the screen that makes it look so good.


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