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No, Apple isn’t patenting developers’ work. But it still has a bigger problem

Patents are hard to understand. If any government wants to reduce the costs of running a business quickly and easily, it should revamp the system of patents to make them easy for people who aren’t lawyers to read, and harder to actually get in the first place.

So it’s no surprise that there’s been a massive amount of misreading of Apple’s patent application on “Systems and methods for accessing travel services using a portable electronic device”. What’s made it easier to misread is Apple’s – frankly stupid – use of FutureTap‘s interface for its excellent Where To? application in the descriptive part of the patent. FutureTap, understandably, are miffed because it looks like Apple is trying to steal their ideas.

And the coverage on the back of it follows suit. John Brownlee at Cult of Mac titled his “Apple submits software patent for other developer’s app, including title and design“. Om Malik at GigaOm (probably my favourite tech site) was so astounded by what he thinks Apple is doing he had to preface his post title with “Not a joke“.

What the patent isn’t

However, I think that FutureTap, John and Om have got this one completely wrong, although I can absolutely see why. First, of all, looking at the patent it’s pretty clear that what’s not covered is either the title or the design. Although those are in the diagrams (they really are just the Where To? interface), they’re not covered by the patent. This isn’t, in fact, a design patent at all, as it doesn’t cover the “ornamental design” of the product. Neither is there a claim on copyright of the interface.

What’s worth remembering is that drawings in patent applications are illustrative, not descriptive. That is to say, they illustrate kind of thing the patent is talking about, but don’t form part of what’s claimed. For example, patent illustrations will often include branded products – like a specific kind of car if its an automotive patent – but the specific car isn’t part of the patent claim.

What the patent is

Dig deeper into the patent itself, and it’s actually clear that what Apple is claiming bears almost no relation to the functionality of Where To?. The summary is this:

“This is directed to systems and methods for integrating travel services in a single application available to a portable electronic device. Using the single application, a user can access and control travel services before arriving at the initial location of travel, on arriving at the initial location of travel, during travel, and after travel. Such services can include, for example, reserving a travel itinerary, checking-in remotely for a reservation, providing airport information, providing for social networking, obtaining dining or entertainment during travel, controlling and requesting cabin services, providing arrival notifications to third parties, providing destination location information, and the like.”

What does that actually mean? Basically, what Apple is seeking to patent is software systems consisting of a back end and a GPS-enabled device capable of sending and receiving location data in the context (specifically) of air travel.

These systems then allow a traveler to create an itinerary and access services based on that itinerary as they travel. These services could include electronically unlocking doors of travel service providers (so, for example, giving you access through your iPhone to an executive lounge) or distributing on-the-fly upgrade offers based on location. They would also allow you to automatically check in, by letting a booking system know that you had arrived at an airport.

WhereTo? doesn’t actually do what Apple is describing. It allows you to manually search for services close by, using a really nice interface. But it doesn’t communicate with service providers’ systems, or provide you with location-based offers based on an itinerary. It’s a much more simple system – a really nice app, but absolutely not what Apple is seeking to patent.

The lesson Apple should learn

Reading patents is tough, but there should have been enough information in the summary for the patent for FutureTap to realise that what Apple was claiming wasn’t anything like their software. Of course, they would be understandably anxious about their interface appearing in a patent – and the first lesson that Apple should learn is never, ever include someone else’s software design in a patent, particularly when it’s a valued member of your developer community.

But the traction this story got illustrates another challenge that Apple now faces: automatic mistrust.

In press conference called over the iPhone 4 antenna issue, Steve Jobs said this:

“Apple’s been around for 34 years. Haven’t we earned the credibility and trust from some of the press to give us a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, of our motivations, and the fact that we’re confident we’re going to solve these problems, we’re going to take care of our users?”

The problem is that for some users, and particular the press, the answer is no. Apple hasn’t done enough to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be trusted not to do whatever it needs to do to make a profit.

When sensationalist bullshit sites like Gizmodo jump to the conclusion that Apple is “teh evul”, I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it. If a horde of Slashdot commentors berate Apple for not letting them develop malware and distribute it via the App Store, who, really, cares?

But the fact that smart, rational guys like Om Malik might believe that Apple was simply trying to patent another company’s idea and screw over developers in the most crass way possible should raise some flags at the company. Om is a clever guy, with a lot of perspective – he wouldn’t have run this story unless he thought there was something in it.

And Om is by no means the only one. Talk to the majority of journalists, and they regard Apple somewhere between “to be approached with caution” and “don’t believe a word they say”.

Relearning the fine art of proactive PR

I’d put a lot of the blame for this firmly at the doors of Apple’s marketing and PR policy since the return of Steve Jobs. Essentially, Apple’s PR policy can be summed up as “say as little as you can get away with to the press. Be professional, courteous, but as essentially give away nothing.”

This, of course, contributes to the overall secrecy which, in turn, makes it possible for Apple to do its fantastic event marketing, which makes each product launch something that attracts worldwide coverage. But the flipside is that the relationship between Apple, the press, and other influencers is remarkably shallow. The kind of face-to-face, deep, personal relationships that encourage trust for a company from the media simply isn’t there.

Consider this: Why did it take a major PR foobar like the iPhone 4 antenna for Apple to open up and show off its state of the art antenna design and test labs? This is not, in any way, something that tells you anything about future products – except “they might have antenna”, which I would think anyone could work out. Had Apple shown this off at the iPhone’s launch, with a press tour and techies on hand to talk about how proud they were, the press would have taken the whole iPhone 4 story with a much bigger pinch of salt. Any other technology company in the world would be screaming from the roof tops about it.

This kind of thing is basic, proactive PR – but it appears that basic, proactive PR is just not on the agenda at Apple. Instead, the concept is that the only thing that anyone should care about is the end product. That’s a fine aim, and it avoids the elementary mistake of attempting to use marketing and PR as “lipstick on a pig“. But the problem with it is is that if a deeper story needs telling, you’re forced to tell it reactively, putting you on the back foot and making you look like you’re not in control of the situation.

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  • Anon

    Here is the invention that is being applied for in the patent application:

    Claim 1. A method comprising: determining a user is scheduled to travel to a destination on a current date; determining a portable electronic device in possession by the user is powered off; determining the user arrived at the destination by detecting that the portable electronic device has been powered back on; and transmitting an arrival notification of the arrival of the user to at least one third party recipient.

    It is that which is described by the claims that describes the legal invention of any patent. Everything else is simply to support the claims themselves. The drawings, the summary, the whole rest, is not that which is “protected”. Only what is described by the claims.

    Far too many knee jerk reactions by “the press” are a result of reading a title, or looking at one drawing (as in this case) and failing to read the claims.

  • Brandon

    It reminds me too much of this snafu with apple a while back:

    http://news.cnet.com/2100-1045_3-5250692.html

    So apple already has a history of stealing ideas from developers on their systems. They don’t get a press “get of jail card” nor should they.

    If you point is correct there is no reason why Apple would need to illustrate futuretap’s interface at all. They could of chose any of their own UI layouts and placements.

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