The Devil's Advocate - Apple Patents Exposé & iTMS UI: Part Patent, Part Speculation
by - January 21st, 2005

I missed out on all the pre-Macworld gossiping, so here's my way, hopefully, to make amends. One part news, and one part speculation. First the news.

New Patent Filings

Apple filed for two patent applications for a " computer interface having a virtual single-layer mode for viewing overlapping objects " on June 20, 2003 and October 22, 2003, which were published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as US Patent Application Nos. 20040261038 and 20040261037, respectively. Application No. 20040261037 is a continuation of an application filed back on June 20, 2003. These applications basically cover Apple's window managing Exposé user interface. The Abstract describes the invention:

The interface includes a user-selectable mode in which the windows are rearranged, and resized if necessary, so that all open windows can be simultaneously viewed within the area of the display, thereby enabling any one of the windows to be easily selected for access.

If you've never tried Exposé, Apple has a nice mockup of the feature for you to try.

Apple also filed a patent application for an "Graphical user interface for browsing, searching and presenting media items" on April 26, 2004, which was published by the USPTO as US Patent Application No. 20040268451. The application is a continuation of a February 10, 2004 filing. This application generally covers the user interface for an online media store (e.g., the iTunes Music Store (iTMS)).

The Abstract describes the invention:

Improved graphical user interfaces suitable for reviewing, browsing, previewing and/or purchasing media items are also disclosed. The graphical user interfaces are suitable for reviewing or browsing numerous media items. The graphical user interfaces are also suitable for previewing or purchasing media items in an on-line manner. The graphical user interfaces are particularly useful for a system that provides purchase and distribution of media in a client-server environment.

Right. I know. That's nothing earth shattering. So on to the speculation.

Not So Strange Bedfellows: Sony, TiVo, and Apple

All these filings are really securing Apple's position in the Internet consumer media and entertainment arena. One of the greatest advantages the iPod enjoys is a simplified user interface and experience. By methodically shoring up the user interface look-and-feel with patents, Apple has left a lot of companies holding very small wedges of the market share pie.

Functionally, the iPod is not that different from other MP3 players, but mere mortals can approach the iPod and iTunes interface and make great use of the platform. That, ultimately, is why Apple is eating the competitions' lunch. It is not easy making a good user interface; those ignoring that truth have suffered for it-one way or another.

Speculation: Option A

This brings me to my first bit of speculation: Apple is working on software for a TiVo-like Digital Video Recorder (DVR) with an iMovie Video Store (iMVS) interface as part of a joint venture with Sony. What's my basis for this? Just pure speculation spurred by the somewhat odd appearance of Sony's President during the Macworld keynote. Perhaps that is why Sony's President highlighted how important the software and interface are to designing products. Imagine a TiVo with an Apple-slick interface and with one more thing: a "Shop for videos" option that launches an iMovie Video Store right on your television. Such a device would even create a viable market for a video iPod.

Ignore the man behind the RDF

Before anyone mocks the utility of a video iPod (because of Steve Jobs' two perennial arguments against it), let me suggest that you not believe the reality distortion field (RDF) hype. Remember, your favorite producer of the RDF also said you would not want a flash based MP3 player, yet here we are. Anyway, the common arguments against a video iPod are that 1) a video iPod's screen would be too small to enjoy watching video, and that 2) you cannot watch a video iPod passively because video demands your full attention, which, unlike music, would limit you from using it while driving/jogging/smashing atoms, etc.

To dispel these two fallacious arguments (and yes, to say Steve Jobs' is flat-out wrong regarding the video iPod), let me cite two existing products/technologies. The first is the paperback novel. Yes, people read these all the time on their commutes (e.g., in the car passenger seat, on the subway, on the bus), on vacations, on plane trips (even on your personal Gulfstream), while waiting (e.g., at the doctor's office) and in a million other places. Certainly reading is not something you're going to do while driving (at least one would hope), and yet the paperback novel is a very successful and widely used medium.

As for questions of the screen being too small, perhaps the RDF has caused people to forget about perspective. Yes, simply move the device closer to your face, voilà, the picture is bigger. Again, we have a device proving the point: the Blackberry. Blackberry users constantly read and respond to emails on very small screens with even tinier text.

Basically Steve Jobs' arguments against a video iPod are the same ones lobbed against all sorts of new mediums in the past. You know, like folks that suggested you would never want to listen to a record because it isn't as good as being at a live performance, that suggested you would never want to watch a movie on your television because it wasn't as good as watching it at the movie theatre, or that suggested you would never want to listen to music from an MP3 player because the format was so much worse than CDs in quality, and on and on.

Despite such snobbery, those "lesser" venues became quite successful. While, true, I would not prefer to watch the latest Star Wars movie on a small video iPod having the option of a movie theatre. However, those of us without Gulfstreams do not always enjoy as many options as we might like, and watching a movie while waiting in line at the DMV would make the experience more palatable. And there is certainly a great deal of content that is not heavy on high-definition special effects that would work great on a small screen. A great many television shows will scale down to the small screen rather nicely; I certainly would enjoy watching episodes of the Apprentice or Charlie Rose interviews on my commute.

You jaundiced and hardened Mac cynics, don't laugh too quickly. One of the major stumbling blocks to a video iPod is the lack of legal and easy to obtain content. Such a deal would provide not one, but two sources of legal content. The first would be through an iMovie Video Store where users could simply buy and download content to their DVR (and synch with their video iPod). Sony and Pixar could help here with their vast collection of movies. The second source of legal content would be all of the television content stored on the DVR and the ability to move it to a video iPod á la TiVoToGo-like functionality.

By having a DVR that syncs to your video iPod via Rendezvous as easily as your iPod does with iTunes, you really are kickstarting an entire new industry. The great part is with such a DVR (possibly as part of Sony's Playstation 3), you have an end-run around cable companies' monopoly as a delivery system for on-demand movies.

Actually, you make an end-run around the entire television distribution system. This is probably one of the reasons cable companies and television networks are hoping TiVo goes out of business; they can sense such a device could threaten some of their revenue and power.

With Apple's patented interface for purchasing, "browsing, searching and presenting media items," such an Apple DVR would allow for independent video producers to access a wider audience than ever before. Just as Apple is giving access to many independent labels on the iTMS, it could do the same with an iMovie Video Store enabled DVR. I know that I would enjoy watching Kevin Rose's Internet video productions straight on my TiVo (or better still, on an Apple DVR). Putting out a DVR "from the makers of the iPod and the Walkman" would certainly command a good deal of market power.

Speculation: Option B

Now some may question, why go through all the trouble of a joint venture with Sony when Apple could just buy TiVo? TiVo's market cap is a meager $332 million, making it quite a bargain for the right company. I'm relatively confident that whatever it would cost Apple to buy 51% of TiVo would be more than compensated for by an up-tick in its own market cap from the markets' positive reaction to such news.

Actually, I am surprised that Microsoft hasn't yet scooped-up TiVo as a way to dominate the industry instead of its floundering adventures with UltimateTV. Having $6 billion in the bank, Apple could easily afford to buy TiVo. Obviously, so could Microsoft. But TiVo and Apple already have cooperated together insofar as TiVo has adopted Apple's Rendezvous network technology, but more importantly I believe there is a reasonable amount of respect between the two companies on a technical level. So to a great extent, if Apple showed some interest, the folks at TiVo would likely be receptive. Then again, history has shown that if Microsoft shows enough money, TiVo may well be receptive.

One hopes that if such an opportunity exists (i.e., to buy some promising talent and technology) that Apple would not again lack the vision and miss out as it did with Microsoft's purchase of Bungie. One can argue that had Apple bought Bungie instead of Microsoft, and were Halo released as a Mac game first, that such a move could have revitalized the Mac as a legitimate gaming platform.

After all, Halo made the Xbox a success, and with the right vision, it could have done wonders for gaming on the Mac. The sad thing is, like with TiVo, one had the impression that the people at Bungie really liked and felt more kinship towards Apple, but Microsoft beat Apple to the punch.

Regardless, should Apple seek to buy TiVo, it would not be unprecedented. In the past, Apple has not been above buying out media-technology companies to strengthen its position. For example, Apple bought Emagic for Logic, a program used in the professional music production industry-a field with significantly less revenue generating potential than the video distribution industry. Another reason to consider buying TiVo is that it owns some key patents in the field. Certainly a TiVo buyout makes an awful lot of sense were Apple to forge ahead into the DVR consumer space.

Option C: Both A and B

What may make even more sense, and might allow Apple to dominate the Internet video distribution industry as it currently does the Internet music distribution industry, is to do both options A and B. By buying the talent at TiVo, developing a killer software distribution system (i.e., an iMovie Video Store), and by owning all the best interface and DVR patents in the field, Apple would have a lock. Further, by licensing the software to Sony and perhaps others, Apple can secure rights to distribute a significant quantity of video content.

Such a deal could also help Sony. It must be relatively concerned about Microsoft and the Xbox, which recently started to outsell the Playstation 2 in the US. By providing a compelling Apple-licensed user interface on the Playstation 3, Apple could help cut the legs out from under Microsoft in the home media console market and help deliver Sony games, music and video content into the living room.

Option D: None of the Above

Of course Apple can choose to do nothing. It would be a shame were Apple not to leverage its patents for media browsing and purchasing interfaces and iPod success into other digital-hub related spaces -- including the nascent battle for the living room. I would hate to see the iPod be Apple's "one trick pony" in the consumer electronics space. If we believe Apple's rhetoric regarding it wanting to be a digital-hub provider, then it will eventually need to address the commercial video space (i.e., television and movies) or it risks losing that market to those with more backbone.