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What's Apple Planning to Fend Off iPhone's Rivals?

Apple iPhone

What's Apple got up its sleeve for the iPhone? Per usual, the company has pressed the mute button when it comes to disclosing any future product plans. But a recently awarded Apple patent on touchscreen devices and persistent buzz around new video features both might shed some light on the next iPhone.

Late last month, the U.S. patent office awarded the company Patent No. 7,479,949, "Touchscreen device, method, and graphical user interface for determining commands by applying heuristics." It's a complicated description for a fairly simple concept: interacting with a touchscreen and moving through lists on it by using your fingers.

But it's unclear whether Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) will wield its new patent to ward off a growing number of rivals who are seeking to capitalize on the iPhone's booming popularity with touchscreen features of their own. Instead, some industry observers say that Apple might be content to continue beating them in the marketplace -- a task that might be made easier thanks to a widely expected injection of videoconferencing and video-capture features into its bestselling device.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

The scrutiny over Apple's next moves comes at a time when competitors in the mobile device market are scrambling to catch up to Apple's innovative iPhone. Palm drew a lot of buzz at last month's Consumer Electronics Show when it showed off the Pre, its next-generation smartphone considered a likely iPhone challenger and due to ship in summer.

It's a closely watched debut, in part because like the iPhone, the Pre sports a touchscreen interface that supports "multitouch" -- the ability to simultaneously use more than one finger to manipulate images on the screen. That feature also happens to be a key component in Apple's recent patent, the latest of many it's been granted or has pending related to the iPhone.

Is a showdown brewing between Apple and rivals over multitouch? One patent attorney who's examined Apple's newest patent said it would give the company "unbelievable market power" if it stood up to a court challenge.

"What they're really patenting is the concept of using your fingers on the touchscreen in a particular way," said Jerrold Spiegel, who heads the technology practice at New York law firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz. "It could be a huge asset for them."

Yet Spiegel wasn't convinced Apple had a lock on the concept.

"I have concerns about whether it would stand up to a court challenge," Spiegel told InternetNews.com. "If something's too obvious, it's not patentable ... That's why there was such an uproar over One-Click," he said, referring to Amazon's controversial patent for single-click online purchasing.

It's unclear how Apple plans to use its new patent. During its recent first quarter earnings call, Apple's acting CEO, Tim Cook, said the company is ready to battle any competition through the marketplace. While not addressing Palm specifically, he also noted his company's patent arsenal, however.

"We will not stand for having our intellectual property ripped off, and we'll use whatever weapons we have at our disposal," he said.

Page 2: Palm's prospects, and will video come to the iPhone?