The iPhone launch, two short years ago. Photo David Pham.

Apple’s iPhone should be a herald of a new age in interface design. But now, with speculation that Apple and Palm could get into a patent battle, and murky concerns about patents in multi-touch interface design in general, it’s unclear how much intellectual property legal wrangling will have to happen first.

I’m going to resist turning this into a long rant – partly because I think the jury is out on so many issues. It’s never been entirely clear what Apple continues sacred in its intellectual property on the iPhone. It’s even less clear – with similar multi-touch designs spreading back decades and murky law around gestures in general – what their legal standing is. No one knows at this point whether there will actually be a lawsuit between Palm and Apple (or which direction). But one thing I can say with confidence: we need alternatives to Apple. Even if you love your iPhone, I think you’ll agree it’d be tragic if other vendors didn’t push the technology forward. And we need alternatives like Google Android that support real open development, release free and open source code, and provide an option to Apple’s deeply proprietary, restrictive development platform. Innovative music software in particular won’t be able to thrive if alternatives are closed or nonexistent.

Here’s a quick look at where we’ve been, and where things are:

This has been a storm cloud since the beginning. Me, in January 2007, immediately following the keynote: Macworld: Will Apple Keep its iPhone Closed? Multi-Touch Patents? (I wish I had been wrong. No one believed me at the time that these two areas would be big issues.)

The original tech predates the iPhone. Engadget in 2007 on Apple’s multi-touch roots – FingerWorks gave them a patent portfolio and some key technology.

Google may have dropped out of the race. VentureBeat has a source that claims Google voluntarily dropped multi-touch to keep Apple happy. Even if that’s not true, I think potential legal battles with Apple – and the incorrect notion among consumers that this is Apple’s invention – could have a chilling effect. Update: There may indeed be some chilliness in the air, but there’s strong evidence that Google didn’t “cave” to Apple somehow — they just didn’t get around to it. And a multi-touch G1 may not be far off. Just asked the guy who’s already hacked the G1.

Both Apple and Palm are loaded up with patents – and no one knows what will happen. Engadget analyzes the potential for a Palm/Apple legal standoff – but there are two major issues here. One, Palm has a healthy patent portfolio of their own, meaning they could counter-sue. Two, no one knows if anything will come of this – aside from some saber rattling, we’re not even sure there will be a suit.

Just to keep things in perspective, though: I think multi-touch in general is safe. It’s a technology coming to phones, mobile devices, computers, Windows 7, Synaptic trackpads, Linux … the list goes on. To me, the question is whether developers will be free to try ideas without lawyers breathing down their necks, and that’s very much an open question.

And I think the deeper questions about whether open development, as on Android, can be competitive, may prove to be more important in the long run. Apple aside, we need more common-sense, modernized patent law – even if the Android in this case voluntarily dropped a feature, you can see that the issues are linked. And we need to have open development if people are to have freedom to experiment with design. This is about more than Palm and Apple; it’s about how we interact with our tech.