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Apple attempts to patent fast user switching

Rewriting patent history?

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Apple has filed for a patent that suggests the company is working on a new mobile device capable of supporting multiple users. Either that or it's cunningly trying to outflank Microsoft's lead on fast multi-user switching by retrospectively patenting the technique as its own.

Almost as interesting as the patent's content is the name of its lead inventor: Steve Capps, erstwhile Mac OS Finder co-designer and more recently Microsoft's Windows UI architect. Capps is also remembered as the designer of the UI used in Apple's Newton PDA. That gives you an idea of the application's heritage.

The application, number 0030107606, is entitled 'Multiple personas for a mobile device'. It describes how a computer system's settings can be immediately changed to reflect a new "persona" when the user chooses from a list of available personae using a graphical user interface displayed on the computer's screen.

Aimed at mobile devices it may be, but to us the patent's abstract recalls Mac OS X 10.3's fast user switching system, demo'd in public for the first time by CEO Steve Jobs as Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference last month. When that facility is enabled in the new version of the multi-user OS, codenamed 'Panther', users can instantly activate their own accounts by selecting from a menu of users in the top right-hand corner of the menu bar.

Switching this way doesn't log the current user out of the system, or kill his or her apps, it simply changes the system's settings and application states to those of the user who'd just switched in. The change is engaged with a rather cute rotating cube graphical metaphor.

At WWDC, Jobs admitted that Microsoft had beaten Apple to market by offering such a feature in Windows XP, but he claimed Apple's implementation was the better of the two.

That would imply, surely, that Microsoft has a solid prior art claim?

No. The current application, filed last November and updated this past June, turns out to be a continuation of a patent, number 6,512,525 filed in August 1995, long before Windows XP arrived, and finally granted in January 2003 with the same title. That patent is also assigned to Apple.

The downside - if Apple's intent is to outflank Microsoft; we're only guessing here - is that the patent refers to multiple personas of a single user, not multiple users. While Panther's approach to fast user switching might perform its magic by treating multiple users' preferences as different personas of a single, virtual user, it's questionable whether the original patent covers such a use.

Incidentally, it does, however, cover uses such as the Mac OS' Location Manager, which switches network-related settings according to the user's location. The patent extends that idea to cover other, more personal settings and data, that might depend on the user's location/identity, ie. the computer's owner as public individual and as company employee.

Whatever, Apple's continuation application applies the concepts relevant to fast user switching retrospectively to the original patent. The continuation application is reworded to imply the kind of functionality delivered by Panther's fast user switching. There are references to "said persona being one of multiple personas available on the computer system and associated with one or more users of the computer system" a concept seemingly missing from the original patent. The later application also refers to linking personas to passwords - another pointer to fast user switching.

So the new application clearly associates fast user switching with multiple personas, essentially allowing Apple to claim it has owned that technology since 1995.

And, of course, this is perfectly permissible under US patent law, an intellectual propery attorney of our acquaintance told us. Continuations can be and are filed to retrospectively add claims to already granted patents. Sometimes that's because the inventor is appealing against claims that were originally disallowed, more often it's done to slip one past a competitor - an approach we've heard described as "Machiavellian".

Will Apple use its new-found intellectual property rights? Maybe not, but like its use of QuickTime patents to win a $150 million investment from Microsoft demonstrated some years back, it may now have the opportunity to do so if it ever hears the words 'cancelled' and 'Microsoft Office' in the same sentence. ®

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