In a surprise move this morning, Google announced that it was officially enabling the latent ability of Android phones - including the new Google Nexus One - to use pinch-to-zoom functionality in the phone's Browser, Gallery and Maps applications.
Multitouch is a feature which enables users to interact with a touchscreen by using more than one finger. For example, the intuitive use of finger & thumb to "pinch & zoom" - one of the most popular features of Apple's iPhone operating system.
Until now owners of Android phones have had to rely on workaround hacks from independent Android developers to enable multitouch on their handsets. Understandably, people unwilling to modify their phone and lose the warranty have been annoyed that Google had disabled the feature.
iTnews had been investigating potential reasons for Google keeping this feature disabled during the last two weeks and as recently as January 24, all Google Australia PR was willing to confirm was that the Android 2.0 framework "includes support for multi-touch" - but other questions were effectively stonewalled.
We asked Google why some Android phones have multitouch enabled/disabled depending on which market they're sold in. For example, the Motorola Droid in the USA has multitouch disabled while the identical phone sold in Europe as the Motorola Milestone has multitouch enabled.
The Google Australia spokesperson responded by explaining that Google had significant input into development of the Android framework but "as with other platform technologies, such as the text-to-speech engine, carriers and OEMs can choose to implement it" as they please.
Tech blog Engadget recently interviewed Eric Tseng, Senior Product Manager for Android at Google, and grilled him about the absent multitouch feature on Android handsets and he also evaded the question by rephrasing it:
"When people say 'why doesn't Android have multitouch?' it's not a question of 'multitouch'... I want to reframe the question. We have multitouch - what people are asking for is specific implementations in the UI that use multitouch, like pinch-to-zoom, or chording on the keyboard," he was reported as saying. Apple owns the trademark for "Multi-TouchTM" when referring to a touchscreen interface.
It has long been speculated that the real reason for Google not officially enabling multitouch was a "gentlemen's" agreement with Apple to avoid infringing on patents such as #7479949 which includes claims such as: "instructions for detecting one or more finger contacts with the touch screen display; instructions for applying one or more heuristics to the one or more finger contacts to determine a command for the device; and instructions for processing the command."
Until recently, Apple has been quite rightly able to argue that the iPhone has several user friendly features such as multitouch ability and the best touchscreen smartphone screen which are superior to Android handsets. But these advantages are one-by-one being eroded with announcements like Google's bombshell today.
The ball is now in Apple's court. Only time will tell if the company is willing to unleash a phalanx of lawyers to defend its multitouch patents, or if it satisfied that the cold war standoff to date has provided the iPhone with enough competitive advantage to gain significant market share.
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