The Evolution Of The App Dock: Apple Didn't Invent It And Doesn't Deserve A Patent On It

from the prior-art,-anyone? dept

Earlier this year, there was some buzzing among Apple loyalists that Dell was copying Apple when it launched a "Dell Dock" offering that would highlight what applications were open. The creators of the Dell Dock, a company called Stardock, then put up a fantastic blog post detailing the history and evolution of such docks, which came from many places well before Apple, and each step of the way added a little feature here or there, in a normal evolutionary manner. It was a great post that I had considered writing about, because it really did an excellent job highlighting how these things "evolve" via different companies, all trying to improve on an idea, and why claiming "ownership" or giving a monopoly to one provider was not just pointless, but would likely hinder innovation. I didn't end up writing it up because I got busy and it slipped through the cracks.

But I remembered it when I opened up a Slashdot post announcing that Apple had patented the dock, after a long battle with the Patent Office. The patent itself does recount some history of this element of UIs and tries to suggest that Apple's implementation is really unique and non-obvious. But it's difficult to see how anyone could read the real history and evolution of docks, which that Stardock blog post clearly lays out above, and not think that Apple's "innovations" here are the totally obvious next steps of the evolution. It's even more difficult to see how innovation is advanced by granting Apple a monopoly here. Obviously, for many years, innovation in this space occurred because multiple companies were competing with each other to provide a better user interface. So they would one-up each other. Giving Apple a monopoly to stop others from taking the next step in the evolution is putting the brakes on innovation, not helping it along.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:14am

    If you had bothered to actually read the patent claims and not just a summary you could have saved yourself a lot of time by realizing they weren't granted a patent on the "dock". They were granted on the innovations of magnification and other very specific innovations that NeXt (now Apple) had made and were actually released into production.

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:42am

      Re:

      From the patent:
      Methods and systems for providing graphical user interfaces are described. To provide greater access and consolidation to frequently used items in the graphical user interface, a userbar is established which includes a plurality of item representations. To permit a greater number of items to reside in the userbar, a magnification function can be provided which magnifies items within the userbar when they are proximate the cursor associated with the graphical user interface.

      Reading the abstract (the one from the actual patent) and the title for the claim: "User interface for providing consolidation and access"
      It would appear that you are incorrect. Both prominently feature the fact that they're patenting a method of consolidation and access for applications, documents, shortcuts, etc.

      In bothering to read through the patent, it appears that they simply use the magnification (which is really fairly obvious, though the way Apple does it is particularly nice) to justify the patent. They appear to lay claim to the idea that because they have this single innovation, they deserve a patent on the whole concept.

      This patent is tantamount to patenting the concept of a car because you built a more efficient engine. Far too broad.

       

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        Nobody, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 9:10am

        Re: Re:

        Nah, it is much worse than that...

        A new engine can have a pretty significant impact on the way a vehicle works and is utilized, though it still makes patent on the car a stupidly far reach.

        The Dock, no matter how nice it is, does not have that significant a level of impact on the computer. It is simply a new way of presenting what the computer is doing or can be doing.

        It would be more like trying to patent the car because you came up with a new way to light up the dash gauges. Even further of a reach...

         

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      Mike (profile), Oct 9th, 2008 @ 9:12am

      Re:

      If you had bothered to actually read the patent claims and not just a summary you could have saved yourself a lot of time by realizing they weren't granted a patent on the "dock". They were granted on the innovations of magnification and other very specific innovations that NeXt (now Apple) had made and were actually released into production.

      Actually, despite your snide tone, I did in fact read the claims, as I noted in the actual post, in pointing out that it was for this particular implementation -- the magnification part. I then explained how reading the history of the dock shows that this is an obvious next step in the evolution.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 12:02pm

        Re: Re:

        Actually, I think magnification similar to that (such as mousing over an object and it getting bigger) has *already* been on various forms of docks since before Windows XP SP2 came out.

         

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    some old guy, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:15am

    Software patents

    No software deserves a patent. (period)

     

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      jack, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:32am

      Re: Software patents

      every software deserves a patent with out them it wouldnt be illegal to hack a program copy the driver and all the code rewrite the visuals and publish the same software with a bit different look. or you could just hack xp and copy the whole os and do the same thing rewrite the visuals and make thousands of dollars off of someone else's program

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:42am

        Re: Re: Software patents

        um...no.

         

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        ehrichweiss, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:51am

        Re: Re: Software patents

        come back here and post when you're not drunk and have something that's actually *intelligent* to say.

        You obviously have no working knowledge of the patent or copyright systems so how about you run along and let us adults talk, ok.

         

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        Anonymous Coward, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 11:57am

        Re: Re: Software patents

        Jack: Please learn how software works before posting again on this issue, thanks!

        - The Internet

         

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        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 12:00pm

        Re: Re: Software patents

        Jack: Please learn how software works before posting again on this issue, thanks!

        - The Internet

         

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          guy one, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 12:49pm

          Re: Re: Re: Software patents

          Ha ha...
          Anon Cow: please learn how to use the submit button before claiming to be "The Internet". Thanks!


          -guy one

           

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    •  
      identicon
      Mac, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 9:23am

      Re: Software patents

      No software deserves to be called a 'literary work', i.e. Copyrighted.
      I can see a patent; it's a process not unlike chemical engineering patents which are patentable...

       

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        Phillip, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 11:08am

        Re: Re: Software patents

        perhaps you should check again, but literary work is not the only thing that can be copyrighted.

        last I checked a picture can be copyrighted and that is definitely not a literary work.

         

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:23am

    true, but very specific innovations should at least be trademark-able for licensing purposes. I agree that very broad software and IP patents are generally bad for the industry.

     

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    Bob, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:29am

    Let's not forget the other part

    Obvious innovations should NOT be patentable either. These little innovations that companies add from one year to the next, could be considered an obvious next step in the evolution and therefore, again, not patentable.

    I agree with Mike, that patenting "The Dock" or even sections of the dock, will put brakes on innovations, and that's just wrong. Software developers have always added to prior work to make something better, it's something that's happened for years. MOST Developers just want to be given their due for their part of the development process, and that's all good and well. The problem becomes when corporations begin to think that patents equal prestige.

    Having Apple doing what IBM and MICROSOFT have done over the past years is ironic, considering how Apple use to be. It's a shame that another great company has fallen to the corporate greed.

     

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    Rob, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:49am

    Software

    Why does a piece of software that someone spent huge amounts of time making and perfecting not deserve to be eligible for a patent? They wrote it. If they want to do the nice thing and release it as open source, that's awesome, but they certainly should not have to. They should be allowed to come up with a unique idea, or a unique aspect of an idea, and be able to lay claim to it.

    Sorry, but I think they should be able to patent things they did indeed come up with...especially when those features are frequently thought of as being an integral part of something that company or individual is known for.

    And Jack - remember that punctuation is your friend, eh?

     

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      ehrichweiss, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 9:05am

      Re: Software

      Why doesn't software deserve a patent? Because 99.999% of the time the software is little more than an adaptation of something in the "real" world being automated in a standard personal computer. If that thing in the real world didn't deserve a patent, neither should the software.

      Recently a criteria was presented that most software patents would be rejected unless they were for a SPECIFIC piece of hardware; meaning that if it were written for a generic personal computer that anyone could buy at a store, it was likely not going to get a patent. If you wrote some firmware for, say, a Cisco router that did something innovative, it very well could be patentable since a Cisco router isn't a generic PC.

      The biggest problem is that unless one is an *experienced* developer, they aren't going to know what concepts already have prior art, or that an idea would be trivial and obvious to someone with more than 3 months into their first programming course. The people in the patent office making those decisions typically have even less experience than that, and typically no experience whatsoever.

      In 1985 I wrote what I believe to be the first visual programming environment. I never bothered to patent it because it seemed painfully obvious to me as the next step in innovation and was little more, to me at least, than a hybrid of the new GUI operating systems and a programming environment.

      That said, there's enough prior art on the dock that this will be ruled invalid soon enough, and there'll be opportunity since Apple has already started with the cease and desist letters over something THEY DID NOT INVENT OR INNOVATE.

       

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    Just a Developer, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:52am

    Software already falls under copyright law (this would prevent the direct copying in Jack's post). Adding Patents to software design and development only slows innovation. I'm lucky to work in a mostly research oriented environment and so do not have to worry particularly about patents on concepts I use. However, in projects in the past I have been concerned about possible overlap with patented software (Blackboard) when my software wouldn't have even competed in the same market.

     

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    Rob, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 8:52am

    Clarification

    To clarify - I did not mean to imply that Apple is fully justified or that they came up with the dock. I was speaking in broad terms.

    I think you should only be able to patent something you really did come up with, but not something someone else did, or something as broad as the whole dock concept - like the coward said.

     

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      Paul, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 9:31am

      Re: Clarification

      The opposite of no patents for software is NOT open source. You can have closed-source and not have a patent. It just means someone can write their OWN competitive product. Just because you have an idea for software doesn't mean someone else shouldn't be able to come along and do better. Competition breeds better products.

       

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  •  
    identicon
    Paul, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 11:13am

    Re: Stardock's history

    I read the Stardock history blog post, and they mention that docks are ancient, going all the way back to 1994, with a dock-like tab launcher that was a part of OS/2. Problem is, NeXT was founded in 1985, and the first NeXTSTEP beta was released in 1986 with v1.0 released in 1989. I think they got there first.

    I agree that all software patents are bad, but if we're going to get into slinging history around, we could at least get it right.

     

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      Olvagga, Oct 10th, 2008 @ 3:23am

      Re: Re: Stardock's history

      Actually what they say is that Stardock has been making docks since 1994. They then go on to say "But let's say you're a true die-hard Steve Jobs zealot and want to argue that NeXT "invented" the dock. You'd still be wrong as docks were part of Acorn computers from the early 80s."

       

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    Overcast, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 11:19am

    Wow, they must be having some serious issue with innovation or sales to be sue happy like this.

     

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    another mike, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 12:40pm

    is the dock like the taskbar?

    So write your own dock that clearly looks like the Apple Dock. When the black turtleneck lawyers come around, say "Sorry not infringing on you. Here's some e-mails we just faked up between our executives proving we're infringing on Stardock."
    Then when Stardock comes by, say "No not yours. You can't sue us, it's Apple's patent."
    Now that you've baited the two against each other, sit back with a bag of popcorn to watch the show. They can't even gang up against you. Any evidence Stardock submitted would be prior art to invalidate Apple's patent, knocking them off the case, and then knocking out the whole case since there's no more patent to infringe on.

     

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    identicon
    Scott Lithgow, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 12:56pm

    Hardwork rewarded

    Going back to the original idea of a patent, the idea is see hard work rewarded and stop people ripping off someone else's idea.

    Apple to me seem to be trying to profit of others ideas which seems to me to be there business plan no different from MS

     

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      Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Oct 9th, 2008 @ 3:06pm

      Re: Hardwork rewarded

      Scott Lithgow wrote:

      ...the idea is see hard work rewarded and stop people ripping off someone else's idea.

      Just because you've done hard work doesn't mean you're automatically entitled to a reward. The world doesn't owe you a living. That's the difference between working "hard" and working "smart".

       

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    Killer_Tofu (profile), Oct 9th, 2008 @ 1:00pm

    Booo

    So they took something tons of people have used, added a feature thats already been done, and suddenly its patentable?
    I swear this weekend I am putting in an application to work at the Patent Office. I am not joking, they need a techie to help starting pushing things in a better direction. So many of the these are so insanely obvious its not even funny. Just adding a computer to something should not make it patentable. How long have magnifiers of some sort been out? 100's if not thousands of years. And this is somehow non-obvious?
    I am applying this weekend dang it.

    Also, where is that Lennie person from a post yesterday to say that this was absolutely necessary otherwise it would have been kept secret and nobody could've figured out how to do it?

     

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      mike42 (profile), Oct 9th, 2008 @ 6:44pm

      Re: Booo

      No! Please don't provoke it!
      I wasted two hours trading posts before I realized it was just a troll... it contradicted the "patent versus secrecy" argument in it's next post.

      I should have known anyone who would post 5 two-screen comments was a troll.

       

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