Apple Patents iPod User Interface [Scoop!]
March 25th, 2004

Apple filed a patent application for a "Graphical user interface and methods of use thereof in a multimedia player" on October 28, 2002, which was published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as US Patent Application No. 20040055446 on March 25, 2004. The summary notes that:

The invention described herein pertains to a user interface that provides for a user friendly and efficient retrieval of stored multimedia asset files.

The abstract further describes the invention as having a:

hierarchically ordered graphical user interface…A first order, or home, interface provides a highest order of user selectable items each of which, when selected, results in an automatic transition to a lower order user interface associated with the selected item.

The patent goes on to describe much of the workings of the iPod and its user interface (UI).

Considering the date of the patent application, there isn't much new here from a technological standpoint. Yawn. You can find the iPod and its legions of users by upturning any rock. What is new here is this. Apple may well receive a patent on its very elegant media navigation UI found in the iPod. That's a big todo.

Considering that one of the major distinguishing features of the iPod is that it is simply way easier to use and navigate, having a patent on the interface presents a big obstacle to knock-off artists. Dell and other would-be pretenders to the MP3 throne will actually have to come up with their own UI or license it from Apple. This makes HP's decision just to outright license the iPod a lot more understandable.

So far the competition has managed to match or best Apple's MP3 designs in every aspect except ease-of-use. In price, extra features (hello -- what's it going to take for Apple to put an FM radio in an iPod), battery life, dimensions, weight (and weight), and capacity, other MP3 makers have bettered the iPod. However, the UI on other players just plain sucks. Beyond Apple balancing the feature set of the iPod and making it look attractive to most people, the iPod's greatest market differentiating feature has been ease of use.

It seems the MP3 market is more sensitive to bad UIs than the desktop market. This makes some sense. When you are jogging or commuting, being able to just intuit the controls of a music player without paying close attention is really a must. Most other players simply do not offer such a straightforward and easy-to-use interface. So far, with regard to design, it's Apple iPod 1, rest of world 0. The question is can or will someone else come up with a navigation UI that is "good enough" without getting sued by Apple?

Should this patent application be allowed by the USPTO, it may turn out to be a big ace-in-the-hole for Apple. Had Apple secured patents on its desktop user interface, many years ago, the entire landscape of the computer industry would likely be very different today.