Aug 24

User Experience is not Technology

I went a little dumb in the head and read the comments on a few sites reporting on the Apple v Samsung patent case today and it’s got me fuming. Let me be clear: I am technology agnostic. You should use whatever piece of technology aligns best with your needs functionally, emotionally, and philosophically, whether that means you stick with one vendor for everything or use a combination. I have no problem with people who love Apple products, but the sentiments I’m seeing in the pro-Apple comments are infuriating.

This case wasn’t about protecting IP. It was about protecting monopoly.

Claiming that Apple “deserved” to win the suit and that “developers should stop [trying to copy Apple] and try creating something new instead” is childish and ignorant. Yes, Apple deserves compensation for their innovation – doing something new and compelling that demonstrably pushes technology forward should absolutely be rewarded – but Apple didn’t “build the iPhone/iPad from the ground up” as many of the comments are claiming. They streamlined/improved technology that was already there, added new elements, and integrated the pieces to create a unique user experience that no one had seen before. The iPhone was innovative and revolutionary but it wasn’t created from thin air.

And do you know what else won’t be created from thin air? Everything that comes after the iPhone. Contrary to what people seem to think, technological innovation is, more often than not, about doing something new with what already exists and not about creating something new whole-cloth.

Technology patents should be about protecting your technology: you figure out how to do something clever, you patent your method, and when it becomes wildly popular, if your competition wants to do it too, they have to find a different way to achieve the same thing. It may turn out that their method isn’t as efficient, robust, or aesthetically pleasing as yours or they could end up with something better. The end result may be the same, but one experience will likely be considered superior because the underlying technology is superior.

Yes, that’s called copying. But it’s also called competition and it helps drive innovation.

And that’s why this lawsuit is problematic; it’s not about the technology, it’s about the end result:

Among the Apple-patented features Samsung devices were found to have been infringing upon: the “bounce-back” that happens when you scroll to the end of a list, double-tap zoom, pinch-to-zoom as well as the design and iconography on iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches. (source)

None of the things on that list are technology, they are user interface – or more precisely, UX (user experience) – elements. They define OS behaviors. The patent lawsuit wasn’t about how Samsung might implement those elements, it was about whether or not Samsung (or anyone else) should be allowed to implement them at all.

Put another way, Apple saying that no one should be able to include pinch-to-zoom functionality because they had it in the iPhone first is akin to Microsoft saying no OS should be allowed to use point-and-click menus because they had it in Windows first1. If you’re thinking that patenting point-and-click menus is ridiculous, well, you’re right. But so is patenting something like pinch-to-zoom. They’re both methods of interaction with an operating system, and they’re both considered pretty standard at this point.

Should Apple be compensated for getting there first? Absolutely. Whatever algorithms or code they are using to implement pinch-to-zoom, or any of the other functional elements, should be forbidden fruit to every other technology company. And they should go after anyone who uses their algorithm or code with a vengeance. But should they be able to sue the pants off someone who figures out a different (or possibly better) way to do the same thing? Absolutely not.

Much like point-and-click menus, the UX elements listed above are becoming expected mobile OS elements and users will be disinclined to purchase phones or tablets that don’t include them; they’ll want to stay with what’s familiar. Oh, and that bit about iconography? They’re talking about the rounded corners on application icons. Rounded Corners. So if you create an operating system that uses icons with rounded corners, you’re violating Apple’s patents.


That is not a reasonable patent.

When you take user experience elements that are very rapidly becoming standards for user interaction and tell developers they can’t use those elements – not the technology that created those elements, but the elements themselves – for 20 years, you’re not protecting your IP, you’re stifling competition and innovation.

Our patent system is supposed to be about protecting creators but it’s very rapidly becoming a tool to limit, or destroy outright, competition in a variety of sectors. That’s not something we should celebrate, no matter who wins a particular case.

1 Technically speaking, Microsoft didn’t invent clickable menus. Xerox’s Alto computer has that honor as the first computer to offer a graphical interface with clickable elements, circa 1973. But the analogy is still valid; as with iOS and pinch-to-zoom, you can argue that it was the popularity of Windows that helped standardize GUI menu behavior and helped set home computer user expectations when it came to how they interact with their computer. If you’re interested in learning more about the evolution of graphical interfaces, Toasty Tech has compiled a timeline that includes screenshots of the old operating systems.