The Devil's Advocate - Apple's GUI Patent Strategy is Transparent [TMO Scoop]

by , 7:00 PM EDT, May 13th, 2004

In my morbid fascination to see how many times other “reporters” will see-and-net one of my stories as if it was their own, I bring you, righteous reader, another important Apple patent application for your reading pleasure. Apple filed a patent application for "Graduated visual and manipulative translucency for windows" on November 5, 2003, which was published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as US Patent Application No. 20040090467 on May 13, 2004.

[Author's Addendum: This patent application is a continuation of now issued US Patent No. 6,670,970, which was filed on December 20, 1999 and published on December 30, 2003.]

This patent application is targeted towards the use of transparency in a Graphical User Interface (GUI); the abstract describes the invention as:

...overlaid, Information-bearing windows whose contents remain unchanged for a predetermined period of time become translucent. The translucency can be graduated so that, over time, if the window's contents remain unchanged, the window becomes more translucent. In addition to visual translucency, windows according to the present invention also have a manipulative translucent quality. Upon reaching a certain level of visual translucency, user input in the region of the window is interpreted as an operation on the underlying objects rather than the contents of the overlaying window.

The listed inventors are Thomas Bonura and Kim Silverman. Dr. Kim Silverman is apparently "Apple's Principle Research Scientist" researching "Speech Synthesis, Speech Recognition, Voice Verification, Latent Semantic Analysis, and their integration into the User Interface."

In fact, some of the figures in the patent show the use of transparency in the context of speech recognition, which may be a sign of things to come from Apple.

Illustration accompanying Apple's new patent application

From the patent application:

For example, if a speech recognition program indicates that an information-bearing, floating window is to be created on the graphical user interface to provide the user with feedback regarding the status of the speech recognition program, the application can pass values for these parameters to an appropriate functional layer of the computer operating system ...

This is a pretty important patent application, if it is granted. Claims 26 and 33 seem to broadly cover translucency with regard to windows:

26. A computer-readable medium for providing a graphical user interface for a computer, the computer-readable medium comprising: means for rendering a window on a display; and means for varying a level of translucency associated with said window in response to a predetermined event.

Securing protection for such window-transparency technology may mean the only semi-transparent Microsoft Word tool palettes you will see will be on the Mac, if anywhere at all. As it develops demand for style and eye-candy in the consumer-technology sectors, those that wish to coast off of its developments will find it more difficult without licensing Apple's technology. Who knows, if Apple were this aggressive in protecting its designs with patents earlier, we all might have been spared the iMac'ified George Forman Grill.

Considering the Mac-like leanings and heavy use of transparency in future versions of Microsoft's Longhorn [via the good folks at MacDailyNews and screen shots via the sharp eyes at Cult of Mac], this patent application, should it issue, would be an major stumbling block to Microsoft and an important barrier to mimicry for Apple.

Although Apple lost the battle to Microsoft in the GUI-look-and-feel lawsuit of the late 80s by relying on copyrights, as well as various contract issues, it seems to be righting its errors by stockpiling user interface patents for an impending war. Should it come, would-be UI imitators might find themselves in deep Waterloo.