Their latest US patent, 8,082,523, is for multitasking while using a handset's phone app. Technically there are some additional details, such as using a touch gesture and displaying an icon for switching to another application, but that's really just specifying that it applies to a standard mobile device touch interface.
Here's the abstract from the USPTO (US Patent and Trademark Office):
A portable electronic device displays, on a touch screen display, a user interface for a phone application during a phone call. In response to detecting activation of a menu icon or menu button, the UI for the phone application is replaced with a menu of application icons, while maintaining the phone call. In response to detecting a finger gesture on a non-telephone service application icon, displaying a user interface for the non-telephone service application while continuing to maintain the phone call, the UI for the non-telephone service application including a switch application icon that is not displayed in the UI when there is no ongoing phone call. In response to detecting a finger gesture on the switch application icon, replacing display of the UI for the non-telephone service application with a respective UI for the phone application while continuing to maintain the phone call.
If Apple weren't so obviously serious about using their smartphone patents against other companies, you would almost have to suspect they were trying to point out the ridiculousness of the modern patent system.
And regardless of their intent, that's exactly what patents like this, or another one approved recently for "swipe to unlock," clearly show. The unlock patent, for example, describes a process almost identical to one introduced by another company in 2005, but with the addition of some simple animation.
If there's a silver lining behind this cloud, it's that Apple's lawsuits defending such ridiculous patents may reach the point where even the clueless government officials who set patent policy can no longer defend the status quo.
The reason they have been able to avoid the issue for so long is that most tech patents granted in recent years have been purely defensive. Before Steve Jobs took offense to Android copying iPhone features, lawsuits from actual practicing entities (ie not patent trolls) were the exception, rather than the rule.
However, it was inevitable that would change eventually. The stated purpose of patent laws is to enforce government granted monopolies on inventions. While it is easy to point the finger at Apple for abusing the patent system, it is more accurate to say their actions are exactly what the system was designed for.
The question is how long we can continue on this course before the collateral damage becomes more than the economy can bear.
Written by: Rich Fiscus @ 22 Dec 2011 9:37