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Apple + Tech

The IP wars: the User Interface front

Josh Johnson has written a fascinating article at Mac Appstorm “New UI Patterns in App Design a Blessing or a Curse?” in which he questions the impact of user interface (“UI”) evolution that is driven by App developers, rather than platform owners (Apple in this case).

He cites the examples of Tweetie and Reeder as software that has driven UI evolution. Yet in both cases the only financial gain to the software developer was whatever revenue they could earn from their App (in the case of Tweetie this includes the proceeds from its’ acquisition by Twitter). Neither developer appears to be making any claim to the IP that could be said to reside in their Apps’ UI.

… a huge problem arises in the form of intellectually property. When Apple sets the standard for app design, developers are actually expected to follow suit. No one suggests that LittleSnapper “ripped off” iPhoto, instead we write reviews about the “gorgeous iPhoto-inspired interface.”

This is not the case when the trend setter is a third party developer. If we post a review of anything that looks remotely like Reeder, commenters immediately cry out for the blood of the offending designers, longing to see them hanged for their crimes.

The thing that needs to be decided is, where do we draw the line between theft and the widespread adoption of a new and better UI pattern? Throughout the history of software, the masses have duplicated the efforts of the innovators. But what incentive is there to innovate if any successes are immediately cloned and occasionally even improved upon, making the innovator’s app anything but unique?

At the same time we have:

  1. Alleged patent troll Lodsys suing developers for alleged infringements of patents it claims to own in things like in-app purchase.
  2. Google paying $US12.5b for Motorola Mobility.Google’s statement and press conference made it very clear that this was a purchase of Motorola’s patent portfolio.

Whilst Josh Johnson’s article was primarily concerned with the impact on UI standards across the Mac platform, my question is should these App developers be paid licensing fees by other Apps that use their UI?

Under current application of patent law the answer is undoubtedly “yes”. And that would certainly shake up the App development eco-system.

Discussion

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  1. […] not going to argue against the notion that intellectual property law is broken. In fact I think there’s a lot to be debated. But Apple is no different from any company who needs to protect their brand and their […]

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