Tech’s forbidden touch

March 29, 2012

“You can look, but you can’t touch” – great advice in most museums, and every strip club. But it makes no sense when it comes to our computers. We are getting very touchy-feely with our smartphones and tablets, and this is how it should be. Even BlackBerry and Amazon’s Kindle, which launched with hardware keyboards to differentiate it from the competition, have abandoned them.

It’s no accident. We touch instinctively. We are born touching everything, and only learn where the boundaries are later in life. Our handheld devices are reconnecting us with the primary technique we used to learn about the world we had just entered. The metaphor extends. Now it’s the mobile computers that we use to learn about the world around us, and we control them with our fingers, by touching a screen. How do you place a price on that?

Many are trying, thanks to software patents. Patents have become a bane to the very essence of innovation. They are arsenals, ostensibly meant to defend but more often used to offend. Yahoo’s lawsuit against Facebook over 10 patents further proves that weaponizing software patents is the last gasp of a dying business.

Which brings me to the news that Twitter is trying to patent one of the most instinctive gestures on the iPhone, what they call User Interface Mechanics. Anyone who has used a Twitter client on their phone knows to refresh the page: You “pull” it down and release. Others use this as well, like Google’s Gmail mobile site.

But as Techcrunch noticed, this functionality isn’t built into every core app on the iPhone (like the Mail app), and the reason is probably because it’s potential lawsuit bait.

It’s not a sure thing that Twitter’s application will be approved, or that Twitter would enforce it. The most important computer interface device – the mouse – was patented by visionary Douglas Engelbart in 1970, and everything worked out all right.

But the point is that once you have the right to control the use of something, you have the power.

The goal of IP protection is to encourage innovation by creating incentives for an inventor to come up with something new and useful. But when used to circle the wagons around the obvious, it has the exact opposite effect. Where is the dividing line? I’d say ’round about something that would have been invented anyway. The wheel, as opposed to a Segway.

Pretty soon, we’ll be using eye-movement detection and Siri-like voice commands as much or even more than touch. Specific approaches to a method are certainly proprietary, but surely not the method itself. Google’s search algorithms are properly that company’s property, but search isn’t.

This stuff is a big deal, even though it doesn’t (forgive me) touch us every day. But ideas that are simple, easily repeated, and in retrospect no-brainers cause a revolution, unless they are not permitted to do so.

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the graphical user interface, the granddaddy idea of personal computing. He got a peek at a prototype at Xerox PARC. But that didn’t prevent the audacious Jobs from accusing Bill Gates of ripping him off, with Windows. In an encounter allegedly witness by Andy Hertzfeld, Gates cooly replied:

“Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

Or, as Ratso Rizzo said at that party when caught stuffing his pockets with buffet fare: “Well, if it’s free, then I ain’t stealin’.”

It would be insane if windows (small “w”), icons, drag-and-drop and the like were private property. The line is somewhere between stealing and free. Wherever it is, it isn’t where we are now.

Twitter hasn’t made it a habit to throw its weight around – though some developers might say that buying Tweetie was a blow to the innovation it had encouraged. Now, Twitter has a chance to make a grand gesture, by setting this gesture free.

PHOTO: An Apple employee is reflected in the screen of an iPad tablet computer at an Apple store in central London while demonstrating the device during its UK launch, May 28, 2010. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

One comment

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Just two comments regarding Apple and Xerox PARC:
1. Apple bought access to the PARC by means of a stock deal that seemed lucrative to the Xerox managers on the East Coast: They might buy 100,000 Apple stocks for one million dollars before the Apple IPO. Microsoft never paid this admission fee.
2. Yes, the Macintosh team took up the ideas of the Xerox PARC, but it also changed numerous operating modes and added countless new features. Accordingly, the Xerox Alto did not imply, for example, menus flapping down from the upper edge of the screen, but operated with some kind of a pop-up window instead. Moreover, the window did not open automatically by double-clicking on a document, but had to be opened manually. ory/2012-03-22/apple-and-xerox-parc

Posted by CDernbach | Report as abusive