Patently ridiculous

While most of us think of this time of year as the season of giving, corporations seem preoccupied with keeping, or even taking — via outrageous patents.

One current trend in graphical user interfaces these days is the use of live icons to indicate files, where the icon represents a mini-preview or thumbnail of the document in question.  Think Windows Explorer, Apple Finder, or the default home page in Google Chrome.   For those who like GUIs, it’s a time saver — the user can more easily recognize which document to open, without first loading the application used to open it fully.  But Cygnus Systems, Inc. says “that’s our invention!” and is seeking damages and a permanent injunction against further infringement by Microsoft, Apple, and Google of their US patent 7,346,850 which describes that sort of interface.  Pull it, guys!

Moving to the other end of the usability spectrum, RIM (the makers of the popular BlackBerry mobile device) wants to patent what seems to be a bone-headed “improvement” over their SureType keyboard technology.  Instead of combining a numeric and QWERTY keypad in the same interface, RIM’s US patent application 20080318617 describes a keypad that starts out with the familiar numeric layout, and then folds out into a QWERTY keyboard — with two letters sharing each key.  Couldn’t they just keep things simple and provide a clay tablet interface instead?  This is one patent that I doubt they’ll ever need to defend.

While we’re on keyboards, Apple has filed a patent application covering the use of swiping gestures on touch screen keyboards.  Examples include swiping down for Return, swiping left for Delete, etc.  The number of fingers used in a gesture could change the meaning of a directional swipe — for instance, a one-finger swipe to the right could add a space, while using two fingers would add a period.  While these features certainly seem like they’d be useful shortcuts for advanced touch screen users, the idea seems much too broad for a patent — and there’s probably plenty of prior art.  Apple, if you’re trying to tell us that certain finger gestures can have meaning for only your devices, then I’ve got a single-finger gesture of my own for you to interpret.

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