Verizon and Motorola's upcoming Droid handset is getting a lot of press, here, there, everywhere, and one of the negative points that's come up -- in relation to the iPhone -- is the Droid's lack of multi-touch gestures like pinch-to-zoom. (TiPb mentioned it a couple days ago as well).
Some might complain about Verizon nickel-and-diming users by charging an extra $15/month for Exchange support, or that given Verizon's CDMA technology the Droid can't multitask a phone call and a data connection (so if, for example, you're using the new Google Maps Navigator and a need to talk on the phone at the same time, you're only as good as your last cache). Others are honing in on the Android app space limitations, or just the limited apps (NSFW). But what makes multi-touch so intriguing is that it's a bit of a mystery as to why the Droid doesn't support it. Of course, the G1 didn't support it either, but Android 2.0 is supposed to contain the API's to do it, and the non-Verizon (GSM, for sale outside the US) version -- called the Motorola Milestone seems to do it, if not smoothly (yet?).
Apple's massive multi-touch patent portfolio is cited as a reason, both now for the Droid and then for the T-Mobile G1. Either Google, while CEO Eric Schmidt was still on the board, agreed not to violate them, or fears litigating them. So, they build in the functionality and let 3rd parties take advantage -- and the risk that goes with it -- if they so choose.
But why then does the Palm Pre have multi-touch gesture support on Sprint in the US? Wouldn't the same patents apply? Sure. However, patents are like nukes. They can be deadly unless the guy you're pointing yours at is pointing equally deadly ones back at you. As both TiPb and PreCentral.net have posted for a while -- and Palm has explicitly stated -- Palm has a heckuva mobile patent arsenal.
Blustering about lawsuits aside, Apple suing Palm (or vice versa) brings mutually assured patent destruction down on the both of them. While Apple is arguably filthy rich and Palm pauper poor, they might not want the expense or the hassle given Palm's current market position. Verizon and Google, however, is another matter, especially since Google has been in the mobile space nowhere near as long as Palm, and likely doesn't have the same type of core mobile patent portfolio in their pocket to assure the same type of stalemate.
At the end of the day, only the top executives (and their lawyers) at Apple, Google, and Palm know for sure, but that's our guess.
It's a shame, of course, because the iPhone's multi-touch gestures are natural to the point where they should arguably be ubiquitous for capacitive touch screen devices. Apple settled "look and feel" lawsuits with Microsoft over the windows/mouse/pointer interface over a decade ago. They likely consider multi-touch a similar competitive advantages, however, and Steve Jobs said as much at Macworld 2007 when he introduced Apple's implementation of it:
"And boy, have we patented it."