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The Devil's Advocate - Kinky iMacs, iTunes, & Other Apple Patents [TMO Scoop]
by - May 11th, 2004

Despite the claims from some that see very little Intellectual Property (IP) coming from it these days, Apple begs to differ. Four new patents were issued to Apple within the last week; one for the iTunes User Interface (UI), one for a double jointed iMac, one for a menu-list UI widget, and one for pre-OS X UI theme switching.

iTunes UI

Let's start with perhaps the most important of the bunch. Apple filed a patent application for a "Media player interface" on January 8, 2001, which was issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as US Patent No. 6,731,312 on May 4, 2004. The sole inventor of the iTunes interface is listed as Jeff Robbin, who was also the primary author of SoundJam (SoundJam was the basis of iTunes after Apple acquired it and Jeff). Good job Jeff. The abstract describes the invention we all know and love as:

[M]edia player application code which implements the procedures of generating in a user interface an application window having a window frame and a plurality of stiles to define a plurality of panes within said frame...

(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Kinky iMac

Next up, the double jointed iMac. I suppose the inspiration for this design was a "two is better than one" meme. And yes, technically, it has more than two joints--oh screw it, see for yourself:

(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Apple filed this patent application for a "Display device with a movable assembly" on November 8, 2001, which was issued by the USPTO as US Design Patent No. D489,370 on May 4, 2004. Apple CEO Steven P. Jobs gets "credited" as the first named inventor, among many others, for this creation.

Well, we saw the snake arm iMac a while back and Mr. Jobs was the first named inventor for that as well. I for one was grateful Apple put a bullet in the snake. As for this design, well I'm sure dentists everywhere will miss it; I won't. Although it is nicer than the current iMac design in at least one way. The screen has a very thin bezel, much like the bezel of the Titanium PowerBook.

UI Themes

Apple is still receiving UI patents on theme switching back from the pre-OS X era. Apple filed a patent application for "Switching between appearance/behavior themes in graphical user interfaces" on March 28, 2002, which was issued by the USPTO as US Patent No. 6,731,310 on May 4, 2004. This is really moldy-oldy stuff as it relates back to applications that were filed as early as May 16, 1994. The listed inventors are Timothy Craycroft, Jeffrey R. Cobb, Robert G. Johnston, Jr., and Robert R. Ulrich.

I listed the inventors because here are a bunch of guys that clearly worked hard on a project to make the UI so much more configurable, and in a way weren't given their due. I'm sure they have all gone on to do great things, but I know if it were me, I would have wished the functionality was out there for everyone to enjoy. Anyway, the abstract describes the invention as:

Systems and methods for providing a user with increased flexibility and control over the appearance and behavior of objects on a user interface. Sets of objects can be grouped into themes to provide a user with a distinct overall impression of the interface. These themes can be switched dynamically by switching pointers to drawing procedures or switching data being supplied to these procedures...

And here's a flashback:

(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Yeah, it's a bit cheesy looking now -- the UI equivalent to Kajagoogoo -- but still, it's not the particular look that was key, but the ability to morph the UI. Apple seems to practice a "do as I say, not as I do" philosophy to UI design these days. It is constantly changing the look of Aqua. Every release brings out some new applications in chrome that don't seem to be digital-hub-like applications: Safari comes to mind. The company even changed the acrylic plastic tabs to linear-segmented-acrylic plastic strips. Why? Why not? And then to confound us all, made new chrome tabs for Safari.

All of this UI tweaking is not bad in my book. I always thought that the Mac OS changed way too little from its first release through OS 9, and I'm a big believer that holy cows make the best burgers. So I'm all for Apple trying new things even when the company seems to violate every single human-interface principle Apple itself established. It's just strange that Apple is getting so experimental and in so many ways clearly breaking their pre-OS X UI conventions, while locking others out from the same experimentation. Certainly others would like the ability to tweak the UI as well.

Which brings me to the reason I threw this creaky old patent into the mix here. There is a reason why Apple decided to pursue this patent and pay to file it as recently as 2002. One reason may be that Apple sunk money into this patent application, and just had their lawyers keep pushing until it issued. Possible, perhaps even likely.

Another reason may be that Apple may want to re-establish the Appearance Manager in OS X at some point. We've been stuck with Graphite and Aqua for quite some time now. A snazzy and new UI is always cause for commotion in the Apple world. As OS X matures, it's going to be more and more difficult to get that "wow" factor for each new release, and this may well be a trump card Apple plays in one of the next 10.x updates.

Interestingly, OS X's UI is actually rather configurable. OS X is basically OPENSTEP with some compatibility layers. The UI itself has been skinned from NeXT's old look and feel to the OS 9 Platinum look in OS X Server 1.0 (remember that?) and then to Aqua. Further, the smart folks at Unsanity created ShapeShifter, which lets you skin the bejezus out of OS X.

Menu Lists

Adding further to its UI IP arsenal, Apple filed a patent application for "Combined menu-list control element in a graphical user interface" on September 29, 2000, which was issued by the USPTO as US Patent No. 6,734,882 on May 11, 2004. You've already seen these:

The abstract describes the invention as:

A control element for use in a graphical user interface, which combines the display features of the list box element and the pop-up menu element into a single GUI control element. The combined menu list control element is capable of displaying data in multiple states thereby allowing to it to optimally use the available display space for presenting data to the user.

Flattery will get you in trouble

The other interesting thing about this spate of patents is just how seriously Apple is taking the UI. If you look through the iTunes UI patent, you'll notice there are a lot of claims and the claims basically cover the display and interaction of a three pane media player. Apple also filed to secure the UI for the iPod. Basically, Apple is covering its entire user experience for digital music.

Also, a while back I wrote about how Apple secured design patents on the look of Aqua elements ranging from transparent dialogue boxes, gum-drop window buttons, chromatic windows, and things as minor as the waste basket icon. The menu-list patent, which is now quite a pervasive UI widget, is just a continuation of Apple extending IP protection over its user interface. Even the theme switching patent has a significant and high number of claims showing a substantial investment on Apple's part.

What is clear, Apple has learned how to protect its look-and-feel and the company is doing it with zeal. Imitators best beware; it would seem that Apple doesn't plan on being flattered.

is an attorney. Please don't hold that against him. This work does not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of The Mac Observer, any third parties, or even John for that matter. No assertions of fact are being made, but rather the reader is simply asked to consider the possibilities.

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