In the fall of 2008 Apple was awarded a patent on the OS X dock. The troubling part is that Apple applied for this patent in 1999! It took the Patent Office nine years to award it! Why the delay? I have absolutely no knowledge on what makes an idea patentable. I would conjecture that the Patent Office had to ponder whether some computer “eye candy” with some functionality was indeed patentable. In the early days of microcomputers Apple developed spreadsheet and word processing applications but so did Microsoft, IBM, and others. No software vendor attempted to patent spreadsheets or word processors. This is what the hardware was invented for. The software apps, whatever they may be, follow the invention of the hardware. Yes, the developers can and should copyright their code. During the nine years of “patent pending” several programmers made similar docks for Windows and Linux. In fact some Linux distros automatically enable an Apple-like dock on the desktop. Is the idea of a dock that much different than the idea of a spreadsheet? What now is the fate of all those Windows and Linux docks?
Even more troubling is the patent awarded to Apple regarding the use of multi-touch screens. This patent was applied for in 2008 and took only a matter of months to be awarded. Again, Apple did not invent the multi-touch hardware. They were the first to write software to to make use of the hardware in the form of the iPhone and iPod Touch. In January 2009 Palm announced the Palm Pre smartphone which would behave in a manner similar to the iPhone. Other companies, including Microsoft, announced projects that would incorporate multi-touch. What now? Surely, Palm is not stealing Apple’s code.
I believe that the Patent Office needs to do some rethinking. Software innovation should be rewarded but not in it’s concept but in it’s features. Competition benefits consumers. For example, as a software consumer I have a choice to use Microsoft Office, OpenOffice or Lotus Symphony all of which are “office suites.” Now suppose Microsoft applied for and was awawarded a patent on the concept of a suite, i.e. several related applications bundles and integrated into one. That would kill off all the competition and Microsoft could charge whatever the market would bear for the software. Of course, that’s not going to happen so why is the Patent Office giving Apple the opportunity to do the same????