Update: Apple Claims Invention of Multi-Touch, Phone CPU Undervolting, Sues HTC to Stop Sales

One trend we mentioned in our coverage of Windows Mobile 7 was how its look was rather unusual in that it didn’t imitate the chiclet icon-on-a-grid look that was first introduced by Apple’s iPhone and since embraced by scores of different phones, including many Android phones.

It turns out Apple took notice of this and other similarities as well, and decided that the other companies were ripping off its flagship product.  The Cupertino electronics giant today filed suit against handset maker HTC with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) and in U.S. District Court in Delaware.

However, the suit covers much more ground than merely multi-touch and layout.  In total Apple is suing it for violation of 20 patents.  Among the patents that Apple was granted that it says HTC is “stealing” are a patent on an “Object-Oriented Graphic System”, a patent of cell phone processor undervolting (“Conserving Power By Reducing Voltage Supplied To An Instruction-Processing Portion Of A Processor”), and touch-screen unlocking (“Unlocking A Device By Performing Gestures On An Unlock Image”).

Steven P. Jobs, Chief Executive Officer at Apple was quite outspoken about the suit in an Apple press release put out this morning.  He comments, “We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it.  We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.”

Apple says the iPhone is responsible for “reinventing the mobile phone”, and compares the popular device to its personal computers that helped launch the home computing revolution.  It writes:

Apple reinvented the mobile phone in 2007 with its revolutionary iPhone®, and did it again in 2008 with its pioneering App Store, which now offers more than 150,000 mobile applications in over 90 countries. Over 40 million iPhones have been sold worldwide.

Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s with the Apple II and reinvented the personal computer in the 1980s with the Macintosh. Today, Apple continues to lead the industry in innovation with its award-winning computers, OS X operating system and iLife and professional applications.

HTC has not yet responded to the suit.  We’ve contacted HTC, Apple, and Google (see below) seeking additional comments.

The suit may revolve around HTC Hero, a multi-touch Android OS (1.5) phone from HTC released around the world last fall, and the Nexus One, the Google-HTC exclusive multi-touch handset powered by Android 2.1 that just released in January.  Apple last year was granted a patent on mobile multi-touch, which it reportedly used to pressure Google not to release multi-touch in the first generation version of Android OS (Google did go on to include multi-touch in newer versions of the OS, such as the versions used in Google’s Nexus One and the HTC Hero).

In the suit Apple is seeking a court order to block the import of Nexus One and HTC Hero hardware, according to Business Week.  The handsets are manufactured in Taiwan (HTC is based in Taoyuan, Taiwan).

Apple also has a pending countersuit against Nokia for similar cell phone patent infringement.  In that suit, filed in December, Apple accuses Nokia of stealing technology covered by 13 iPhone-related patents.  Apple’s general counsel Bruce Sewell issued a statement at the time that echoed Mr. Jobs’ most recent remarks.  He commented, “Other companies must compete with us by inventing their own technologies, not just by stealing ours.”

Nokia claims that the iPhone rips off technology covered in 10 of its patents, including patents on wireless data, speech coding, security and encryption technology.  It filed suit in October.

Based on Mr. Jobs comments and the new litigation, more suits may be coming, particularly against those who use multi-touch in their devices or have similar interfaces.  Possible targets include Palm (whom it has threatened in the past), Research in Motion, or Motorola.  It could also go straight to the source of many of the handset OS’s and sue Google, but that seems unlikely given the intimate relationship between the companies and Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s deep involvement with Apple, Inc.

Is Apple a dreamy inventor turned innocent victim, exploited by greedy handset makers like it suggests?  That’s open to debate.  But it’s clear that Apple is eager to use litigation as a tool to try to knock down obstacles to its iPhone’s dominance.

Update 1: Mar. 3, 2010 8:24 a.m. —
A Google spokesperson responded to our inquiry yesterday, commenting:

We are not a party to this lawsuit. However, we stand behind our Android operating system and the partners who have helped us to develop it.

We’re still in the process of getting in touch with HTC and have heard nothing but silence from Apple.