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Apple Spotlight Patent Reveals 3-Year Head Start on Microsoft [UPDATED]

TMO Scoop - Apple Spotlight Patent Reveals 3-Year Head Start on Microsoft [UPDATED]

by , 5:15 PM EST, January 27th, 2005

A patent granted to Apple January 25th, 2005 appears to reveal that Apple had a multiyear head start on Microsoft for Spotlight, the Apple search technology that will be released later this year in Tiger. Many had seen Spotlight as a quickly developed, me-too technology intended to compete with Microsoft's long-delayed Longhorn update to Windows, but the patent application shows that Apple began working on the technology in January of 2000, years before Longhorn was announced.

Spotlight offers a new paradigm on searching for anything on your Mac. From one place, you can search e-mails, contacts, images, calendars, and applications, and the results appear as you type. The company has also made it possible to integrate with other apps, with some of the Apple's iApps being the first to use it.

All of these features appear to be covered by patent 6,847,959, Universal interface for retrieval of information in a computer system, which was filed on January 5th, 2000, and granted to Apple on January 25th, 2005. The abstract of the application is as follows:

The present invention provides convenient access to items of information that are related to various descriptors input by a user, by means of a unitary interface which is capable of accessing information in a variety of locations, through a number of different techniques. Using a plurality of heuristic algorithms to operate upon information descriptors input by the user, the present invention locates and displays candidate items of information for selection and/or retrieval. Thus, the advantages of a search engine can be exploited, while listing only relevant object candidate items of information.

That translates into a patent application for a means of searching a variety of files using a variety of algorithms to produce results that are relevant to the user.


Figure 3B from the patent shows an early version of the Spotlight interface before it was Aquafied

The patent suggests that a key to Spotlight's flexibility is that it uses a system of plugins for any particular data type to be indexed and/or searched. This allows Spotlight to be indefinitely expanded for new file types, as well as new applications that wish to incorporate the technology.

From the patent:

In the second general category of global heuristics, the user input can be provided to most or all of the plug-in modules in parallel, and the results that are returned from each one are then processed in accordance with a given heuristic.

[...]

For instance, if the user desires to look at prior tax return information, each of the letters "T," "A," and "X" are provided to the modules as they are typed. As soon as the letter "T" is entered, sets of matching items of information are returned by the modules, and the top five candidates are displayed. Entry of the letter "A" causes the list to be updated according to the candidates which match the sequence of letters "TA." After the letter "X" is typed, the displayed list might contain the five most recent tax returns that were filed by the user.

You can read the patent in its entirety at the US Patent & Trademark Office's Web site.

Spotlight differs from both Sherlock and the Finder's search function in both scope and power. Panther's Finder can search for a variety of data and file types, and can even search the content of some documents, but as represented above in Apple's patent application, Spotlight takes the notion much farther, and it is much faster.

It also goes far beyond what Google has put together with its Google Desktop search utility. Google Desktop can specifically search Outlook and Outlook Express files, AIM chat logs, Internet Explorer files, text files, and Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, but nothing else.

Google Desktop is currently available only for Windows, though a Mac version of the software has been promised by the company.

John Kheit assisted with this article.

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