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Paul Chapman .Net Musings

The basis for much growth in science has been the sharing of ideas. Ideas get passed around, question, examined, peer reviewed and eventually built on. This system has worked for centuries, taking man from the discovery of fire - to the moon and back. Computer software is much the same. Ideas thought up, built on and improved - this has taken computing from machines requiring a legion of white clad acolytes and air conditioned offices to something I can slip into my shirt pocket, read emails, send instance messages, store my music, video and pictures. Excel built upon changes and improvements to the Spreadsheet originally written in the early 80's.

Innovation has thrived in environments where one can freely improve and build upon the work of others - can you imagine what would have happened if Daimler Benz had opted to enforce a patent on the motor car! No Ford, no Chrysler, manufacturing may have not changed with the assembly line. And forget learning to drive when each car has to be different in order not to infringe some patent!

So anyway it seems some wit in the US Patent has decided to give Apple a patent on the Dock which forms part of OS X. It would help but from this developers view the Dock does not seem to be that original - it is a menu, some nice bells and whistles but a menu none the less. It was Edison who said 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. That is true - It would have taken some time to write the code - and that is protected certainly in the UK by copyright. Even if I could get the source code - I cannot copy it to implement my own Dock. So what if I want to improve on the Dock - first I have to pay a large fee to Apple's patent lawyers. Why, thinking up the dock is just the start - I'm still going to have to do the 99% of sweat to implement my dock and my whiz bang improvement. So why bother, why sweat for my 99% and give a lawyer most of the money. So one does not build upon the original, but wastes time trying to find another way when the Dock might fit the bill.

Why do companies do this? Apple produces some excellent hardware - better in many respects than the PC - but it is the PC which has most of the market - and it is open, anyone can write software for the PC and anyone can build a compatible PC and sell it. Companies which start to rely on patents cease to be innovative, because the competition cannot build upon the original product and force the original company to innovate. The company rationale moves therefore from innovative to just protecting a patent; which itself becomes less use as people avoid infringing the patent - although this point does not stop companies being formed for the sole purposes of profiting from these things.

It does not help but to a greater or less extent the dock is not that original; at it's heart it is a menu - something you could have picked up in any restaurant  back when a PC was something in a sci-fi movie!

Something not a million miles from the Dock has been seen on Risc OS, Silicon Graphix. You could drag applications to the toolbar in Windows 95! Long before OS X came out.

This is not the first time Apple have tried this - anyone remember Windows 1/2 - all those luvly tiled windows because of some daft agreement between MS and Apple - ended up in court eventually and Apple lost - why? because Rank Xerox had done it before - I was using overlapping windows on Unix Workstations long before the MAC.

So come on Apple - the New Macbooks show what you can do when you innovate. So stop the lawyers and innovate. And will someone teach the US patent office a little history of computing please.

Posted on Thursday, November 20, 2008 11:18 PM | Back to top

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