2012-08-27

Apple Vs Samsung

Apple describe iOS as having an “Elegant and intuitive interface” that “You know how to use…from the first time you pick it up.”

It’s intuitive because it’s obvious. Tap/pinch to zoom, rotate gesture, drag to scroll: all obvious gestures. Non-obvious gestures (place phone on the ground and do a handstand to zoom) didn’t make the cut.

Now answer this: if the gestures are successful because they are obvious to a lay user from the first time he picks it up, how can they be patented if the main criteria for these patents is that they are non-obvious to a professional user interface designer?

Comments

jeff on 2012-08-28 at 03:32 said:

Don’t confuse marketting hype with patent law.

When Apple say “you know how to use it from the first time you pick it up”, they are of course misrepresenting. In point of fact, if you came to the device from one of their competitor products, you would intuitively not know how to use it.

I have to admit that I had my iPod Nano for quite some time before I realised that you “pinch to rotate” the display - it wasn’t intuitive at all, despite having had an iPod Touch and an iPad for years. Of all the screened devices I own (including TV, oven, VCR, car dash), only a minority support this “pinch to zoom/rotate” notion and yet everyone thinks it’s “intuitive”.

The notion that something “feels natural” is misleading. The reality is that something “doesn’t feel unnatural”. Pinch to zoom has no basis in nature whatsoever - however, you’ve now seen it often enough on phones/pads that you think that its intuitive. I sat down at my desk today to write a report. I tapped the notepad twice. Nothing happened. I tapped the pencil. Nothing happened. Eventually I picked it up and started writing. I tried spreading my fingers on the paper to get a closer look, but nothing happened.

The only place that “pinch to zoom” is natural or intuitive is within the bounds of a metaphor which everyone has confused with reality.

Ant on 2012-08-29 at 17:36 said:

I think if you were to give any competent developer a device with the capabilities of the iPhone (excellent multitouch screen, fast 3D hardware) and told him to invent some gestures, he’d come up with pinch-to-zoom in no time.

The first gestures I’d expect him to come up with are single-touch. Drawing from existing systems, a tap corresponds to a mouse click. Touching and dragging is another obvious one, as is a double-tap and a tap-and-hold. All of these have been implemented with mouse-based UIs.

Now bring in multitouch. Suppose I tap with two fingers simultaneously. An obvious existing analogue is a right mouse click. The iPhone doesn’t implement a two-finger tap, but then the Mac doesn’t provide a two button mouse so perhaps that’s why the iPhone doesn’t have one. I’ve invented a new gesture right there! Patent here we come. Obvious? Yes. Patentable? Apparently. (Just realised that Apple added this to Mountain Lion in order to show scroll bars. Curses, too late to make my first billion dollars.)

Tap and drag with two fingers in the same direction is another gesture missing from the iPhone. It could mean “scroll between documents” rather like the two-finger swipe in Safari. Even better, it could be “switch between apps”. Fast app switching without double-tapping on the home button? Another patent!

Next we can consider two fingers moving in opposite directions. If we think of the gesture as affecting the on-screen document but draw an analogy with a physical document, it can only do one thing: tear the document in two. Perhaps it could be used to split documents or reveal something behind the document in the middle of the tear. However, since the touchscreen is small and not amazingly accurate and we’re designing a device for consumption, not editing, neither is very useful. If we cast aside the physical metaphor and just work with the device we’ve got, what else can we do with this gesture? If the touch points were to remain at the same locations relative to document, the document would zoom in. We could use the 3D hardware to enlarge the on-screen graphic.

Are their any physical analogies to this gesture? I can think of a few off the top of my head. Grab one of those cheap plastic bags with a logo on it from your local supermarket and stretch it. Find a biker with a tattoo and perform the gesture on it. Use some Silly Putty to pick up newspaper print and stretch that. Stretch a T-shirt with a logo on it. “Pinch to zoom” is nothing more than a digital analog of “stretch”.

If we limit the gesture so that the two fingers’ movement describes a single line, we can add another gesture in which two fingers move in opposite directions and describe different lines. The obvious thing to do here is to make the document rotate.

The fact that other companies failed to implement these gestures is, I think, due to two reasons: disinterest in software development and inadequate hardware. The average hardware company seems to have nothing but contempt for the software they put out. When was the last time you used any of the crapware installed by an OEM on the average Windows machine? Or any of the “value-add” junk installed by handset manufacturers on their Android phones? Microsoft themselves will attest to the appalling quality of most hardware manufacturers’ drivers. That Apple does care about their software is what sets them apart from other computer manufacturers. Should they be rewarded for this? Absolutely. That’s why they’re currently the largest company in the world. The fact that they spent 10 minutes thinking about how users would interact with their hardware whilst their competition didn’t doesn’t make their patents less obvious.

On the hardware side, any device implementing pinch-to-zoom needs to be able to resize a 32-bit 320x480 image to an arbitrary size at 60fps. Ovens don’t include 3D-accelerated graphics chips.

Jeff on 2012-08-30 at 12:43 said:

Double-tap is zoom on the Maps control. Pinch{spread} works as well, but double-tap can be construed as “there, right there” which is what people do on a paper map. Pinch to zoom out is actually the reverse of stretch of a T-shirt (which zooms in, if you think about it). Rotation is typically around a fixed point - if you hold one finger still, why doesn’t that become the centre?

Fundamentally, I think you need to stop and think about what your metaphor really is before you go designing. That’s where that actual work is, constructing a complete mental model that the user will be able to unconsciously anticipate (which is what “intuitive” means - something that can be “intuited”, not “something that is intrinsically obvious”). Why would you think that tapping on a glass screen would operate the same way that tapping a physical button does? That’s yet another leap that most people make with no rational basis whatsoever. Why does tapping a user control that looks like a slide switch toggle the switch? That’s not intuitive at all, to me.

Similarly, when you start talking about how some gestures operate within an app, and others are used for switching between apps, you’ve ruined the user experience. They are no longer interacting with their content, they are interacting with a device.

The Nexus Android is intriguing like that - the “go back” button at the bottom of the screen has surprised me several times because it will go back to a different application sometimes (if one application launches another), and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes its an “os button”, other times its an “app button” but both times it has the same icon, and there is no discernable way to tell which will happen without just trying it. Big picture, I don’t mind it, I prefer it a lot to Apples “double-click then select an icon” or the (originally developer-only) four-finger-swish. I like their “consistent access to ‘Running Applications’” and the ability to switch by picking from a list. I understood what it meant, because I know how lists work. But in the same way that it’s not at all apparent as to why tap-and-hold on an icon switches to wiggly mode on an iP[oa]d, it’s not apparent why tap-and-hold on Android list entries in some apps switches you to a context menu rather than just “activating that entry”. There’s nothing “intuitive” there, it’s just another learned behaviour.

But the point is that getting pissy simple stuff like that consistently right is actually a significant amount of work - it must be because so few companies actually do. And if it’s hard to get right, it deserves patent protection - your product is better than theirs and it’s differentiating features gives you a competitive advantage, which is what patenting is about.

Apples patents are a way of saying “This is what is different about our device, this is what is important, this is why people will buy our device”. That’s exactly the same as Henry Ford creating a production line, it was that process that improved his business, that made his business surpass his competitors.

Attributing motive to why no-one else did it is pointless. Apple can quite comfortably argue that “no-one else thinks this is a good idea, or they would be doing it” and the Patent office should not need to go asking everyone else “is this a good idea?”. Search for prior art, by all means, but not go suggesting the idea to Apples competitors to ask them “do you think this is obvious” ?

“Obvious” is an idiot word to apply to anything associated with the law. It is impossible to assess how obvious an “innovation” is. “I could have thought of that” is a refrain that is only heard from people who, by definition, didn’t.

People misconstrue what Apple did here. They didn’t just rock up to the patent office, say “here’s an idea”, go back to Cupertino and spend 2 weeks writing it. They spent millions of dollars proving that their theoretical idea would work, with no proof whatsoever that it was actually feasible or would sell.

That is what the patent system is for, to give inventors some reassurance that the effort/expense that they go to will stand a reasonable chance for them to benefit.

Here’s an interesting one to ponder with regard to the patent wars. I’m reasonably comfortable that Apple have the one on “magnets in the cover that automatically turn the iPad on/off” (though someone at work wondered whether perhaps Microsoft had it). Ask yourself why the Google Nexus 7 has the same software support in place without advertising that as a feature? ie, I have a cover for my Nexus that does exactly the same thing as the iPad smart cover. And yet nothing in any Google advertising material I’ve seen mentions this feature.

Is that feature so obvious that it doesn’t deserve patent protection? Should Apple be able to sue? Should Google be able to say “we got the idea from our fridge door, not from your iPad” ?

There is this peculiar desire in some areas of the consumer community that “all products should feature the best of all possible products, and at the cheapest price”. That does not translate into a viable industry model. Arguments of the form “… but that means I can’t have one” are essentially irrelevant. You can, you just need to save more money. Welcome to free enterprise where the market solves its own problems. Only if there aren’t enough people willing to pay a price will that price come down, not because people are prepared to rewrite the law to suit themselves (which is what throwing away the patent system is, rewriting law).

Jeff on 2012-08-30 at 12:44 said:

Oh, and with respect to Ovens and hardware, have you seen an iPod Nano? The hardware in one of those guys is plenty for doing pinch to rotate, swish, etc.

Ant on 2012-09-01 at 17:14 said:

But the point is that getting pissy simple stuff like that consistently right is actually a significant amount of work - it must be because so few companies actually do. And if it’s hard to get right, it deserves patent protection - your product is better than theirs and it’s differentiating features gives you a competitive advantage, which is what patenting is about.

Traditional patents are supposed to work like this:

  • I have an idea for a revolutionary new vacuum cleaner that uses a cyclone.
  • I build an implementation of my idea.
  • I patent my implementation.

Another company can come along and say, “Hey! Cyclone vacuum! That’s cool; I’ll make one.” They build their own implementation of a cyclone vacuum and patent that. Everyone makes different implementations of cyclone vacuums. The best implementation of the idea (or the cheapest) tends to sell the most.

What Apple has done is this:

  • Come up with ideas for interacting with a touchscreen device;
  • Implement the ideas;
  • Patent the ideas.

I should be able to create my own implementation of pinch-to-zoom. As long as I don’t copy their actual implementation (how can I, without the source?) there’s no patent infringement. Is Samsung’s implementation of pinch-to-zoom as good as Apple’s? No - Apple spent all that time polishing it and making it consistent. That’s a differentiating feature. Is the fact that Apple expended effort patentable? No. Does giving Apple a monopoly on interacting with touchscreens promote the improvement of mobile technology? No. You could argue that, without the promise of a 20-year monopoly, Apple wouldn’t have put in the effort, but on the other hand there’s IE6: Microsoft killed off their competition and therefore didn’t improve the browser for six years. I’d much rather see Apple competing in the marketplace than in the courtroom.

The issue with patents like pinch-to-zoom is that they aren’t traditional patents. They’re design patents, which seem to have been created by a group of people who think that everything is designed in a vacuum and have never heard the saying “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Regarding the cover magnet idea - my first Blackberry (circa 2005) had the same feature. Same idea, different implementations. That’s how patents are supposed to work, rather than “I own the idea of having magnets in a case and no-one else can do it.”

Jeff on 2012-09-01 at 23:49 said:

Sadly, your description of how the patent system works is incorrect. They don’t patent the “implementation” - they patent the “process” and it has always been the case that everyone (not just Apple) describes the process in as wooly a form as possible so that “minor variations” are not sufficient to allow a competitor to clone your product. For example, if I were to describe a product as requiring 100rpm inside my vacuum, then a competitor could just ship exactly the same product that spins at 102rpm.

With respect to IE6, they actually weren’t the first. By definition, they weren’t patentable - way too much prior art in that space. What prevented people from improving on the browser was that it wasnt patented - there was a free competitor in the market place (IE6) who cloned the function set of the originals and people could not distinguish it from any of the others enough to consider paying for a better model. IE6, and Microsofts failure to develop it, is an argument for software patents - they should never have been allowed into the game in the first place.

With respect to Blackberries and magnets, the patent system has a mechanism for overriding something that had prior art - it remains to be seen whether any of the players in that game actually speak up during trial.

No-one argues that the patent system shouldn’t allow this sort of thing. But it does.

Corporations are not moral beings, they are essentially amoral, but everyone forgets that they are required to be by law. Otherwise shareholders could not sue their directors if they felt that the company had not adequately protected its investment and maximised its profits. As such, Apple (and Microsoft, and Samsung) are required, by the system, to work to the letter of the law.

The ridiculous use of the term “loophole” when applied to the way that the law is applied is another symptom of people blaming the system when they are themselves at fault. A “loophole” is where a set of laws, that you have agreed to, did not actually describe the scenario you envisaged, it did not lock down all the possibilities that you should have thought of in the first place. Fundamentally, it’s the same problem that the USA has with its Constitution - so many times, they come up against a situation where the founders did not have an inkling that a problem might exist, much less the vocabulary to accurately describe it. Instead, they assumed that people would go back and rely on precedent and “implied intent”.

The explicit intent of the Patent System was to foster innovation whilst giving inventors some (time-limited) motivation, with the implicit expectation that a patent that described car manufacturing would “obviously” not be re-interpreted to apply to boat manufacturing. Almost immediately, it becomes obvious (to us) that the ability to patent a carburettor applies to both and so people patent the tiny stuff rather than the big items. Fair enough, they should still be able to make a living off it - how do you feel about the guy that patented the “philips head screw”.

Where it goes wrong is the ability to sell the patent - that’s the fundamental flaw. You should be able to license your patent (which allows the inventor who can’t ramp up manufacturing enough to profit from his invention), but sale should immediately cancel the exclusivity. This would immediately eliminate the nonsensical “arms-piles” of patents that are being built by people who are not innovating.

What I find most offensive are the idiots who claim Apple is a “patent troll”. There is nothing trollish about what Apple have done, every one of the patents that they sue over has been used in an actual product, whose sales are being affected by the clones. Whereas Google, buying up patents from other companies, by definition cannot have shipping products that use those patents, at least no products that they produced before the purchase.

How about this then? You say yourself that Samsungs pinch-to-zoom is not as good as Apples. But do you think then that it’s reasonable for people in a coffeeshop…

https://plus.google.com/u/0/114476892281222708332/posts/246srfbqg6G

… to continue to believe that the products are equivalent. Apple has very clearly been injured by Samsung - what is the solution to this? Obviously, these are idiots who don’t actually look at the devices themselves, just at the press that describes them but thats where the whole trade dress argument stems from, that one company is making a product that is deliberately not dissimilar.

Personally, I think Apple should be taking that blog post back into court during appeal and saying to the judge “we think the award was too small”.

Ant on 2012-09-02 at 04:45 said:

Sadly, your description of how the patent system works is incorrect. They don’t patent the “implementation” - they patent the “process” and it has always been the case that everyone (not just Apple) describes the process in as wooly a form as possible so that “minor variations” are not sufficient to allow a competitor to clone your product.

That’s absolutely the case, but it’s absolutely contrary to the spirit in which the patent system was created. Like you say, patents were intended to provide a short-term monopoly to encourage people to develop new solutions to existing problems. They’ve been perverted into being a means to stifle innovation by allowing corporations to develop a single solution to a problem and describe it in the most abstract way that they can, and in doing so, claim that they own all possible alternative solutions. I find it utterly abhorrent, and think that both the patent and copyright systems (anything to do with “intellectual property”, really) desperately need reform.

Where it goes wrong is the ability to sell the patent - that’s the fundamental flaw.

Agreed.

IE6, and Microsofts failure to develop it, is an argument for software patents - they should never have been allowed into the game in the first place.

Suppose Tim Berners-Lee had patented the web browser, the web server and HTML. The browser wars would never have happened, and Netscape, IE, Opera, Firefox, Safari and Chrome wouldn’t have existed. Assuming the patents expired in 2010, 20 years after the release of Berners-Lee’s first browser, the state-of-the-art today would look something like Mosaic. A monopolist has little impetus to innovate; certainly not at the pace that the web has developed. Actually, there probably wouldn’t even be a web browser today; the whole thing wouldn’t have taken off, and Tim Berners-Lee would be a footnote in a forgotten corner of his university library. The Gopher protocol is a wonderful demonstration of what the patent-encumbered web would look like.

You’re right that Apple is playing by the rules and is using the patent system as it is used by corporations across the world. I just think that the patent system as it exists is fundamentally broken, and Apple (and every other corporation that uses patents offensively to stifle competition) is taking advantage of that fact.

The coffee shop blogpost is a result of Apple taking Samsung to court to prove that Samsung’s products are substantially the same as Apple’s own. Instead of highlighting the differences - build quality, UI, development tools, software, experience - Apple have spent a fortune highlighting the similarities. Who’s fault is it if people now believe that a Samsung and an iPhone are basically the same thing?

I suppose the response to that is “they shouldn’t be similar enough for it to be provable in the first place”, but if they are, I’d argue that it is better to spend money emphasising the differences that make the iPhone a better product than the similarities that make the Samsung a comparable product.

jeff on 2012-09-02 at 22:49 said:

There is an interesting article here:

http://techpinions.com/pinch-to-zoom-and-rounded-rectangles-what-the-jury-didnt-say/9465

which clarifies that Apple didn’t actually attack pinch-to-zoom, and that their patent is a lot more limited in focus than the tech press are claiming.

With respect to Berners-Lee patenting HTML, that would have been a good thing (though I don’t believe you can patent a file format, only a process). The fact that something is patented does not preclude someone else from licensing the technology, and there is no need for the licensing cost to be onerous. If you look at how the GPL works, they assert that they own copyright in all of their software, yet charge nothing for it (provided you agree with their political stances and propagate on the same licensing conditions).

Patented can still be FreeAsInBeer, and in fact that’s what the FSF should be pushing when discussing file formats, etc.

Microsoft are the worst offender here with their embrace-extend-extinguish approach to standards, and they’d have been prevented from doing that at the outset if standards were capable of being owned by a benevolent dictator via patent.

In this case, Apple didn’t prove the products were the same, Apple proved that Samsung had deliberately tried to make the products look the same with the presumed intent to deceive the consumer. There is no way that someone actually operating an Android machine could believe they were using iOS, but they’ll only discover that after they’ve opened the box, and only if they’ve used iOS - are there Android stores where you can try a Samsung machine out of the box, ala the Apple stores?

What Samsung have created is a bunch of idiots in a coffeeshop who will hold up their Android machine and say “this is exactly the same as the iPhone/iPad experience”. In essence, they have created a crowd of liars and unfortunately, there will be people around them who will actually believe them.

In the same way that everyone says “Apple stole the user interface from Xerox” without ever having experienced the Xerox interface. I have - we had a North Star when I was at school, and I can tell you that the Mac never looked like a Xerox interface (and I had a 128K Mac with System 1.0). The Lisa (yes, we had one of those as well) definitely looked similar, but the way you used a Lisa has never been replicated into the Mac.

I suspect that Apple have a greater respect for the consumer than the tech press who think that “the sheep have just been told that Samsung is just as good”. Apple have consistently, in this trial, focussed on the minute patented detail. It’s only the tech press that have generalised it badly, and quite frankly the tech press is rarely going to be read by the majority of Apples target audience.