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Microsoft, Apple 'spar over iPod patent'

Don't bring on the clones, just yet

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According to AppleInsider, a patent filed in 2002 by a Microsoft researcher has prompted the US Patent and Trademark Office to reject an Apple application to patent its iPod user interface.

But leave the black helicopters grounded for a moment: the conspiracy theories may not be flightworthy.

The AppleInsider story says the Apple application "to patent the menu-based software interface of its popular iPod digital music player has ultimately proved unsuccessful."

However that isn't the case. The story is coy about the patents it discusses, doesn't mention the Microsoft connection and upon further research, it's clear that several key aspects of the iPod are adequately covered by separate Apple IP applications. Both patents discussed have weathered multiple rejections by the USPTO.

The story reports that last month an iPod-related patent application for "rotational user inputs" by Apple was rejected, with the examiner citing an earlier 2002 application filed by John Platt. A Microsoft Research scientist who used to work for touch pad vendor Synaptics, Platt filed a claim for "playlist generation based on seed items" on May 30 2002, some seven months after the iPod was unveiled.

Comparing the two applications, it's hard to see how they overlap. AppleInsider claims "the process by which the iPod's software displays its own menu-based interface is very similar to the process Platt's filing goes on to describe." Such a similarity eluded us, although you can judge for yourselves - the links are at the end of this report.

Apple's application, assigned to iTunes engineer Jeffrey Robbins, Apple CEO Steve Jobs and VP of marketing Phil Schiller, was made on September 26 2002, and describes rotating an input device to navigate in a linear fashion through a user interface. "Although the type of computing device can vary, the improved approaches are particularly well-suited for use with a portable media player," according to the filing.

AppleInsider reports that the rotational patent has been rejected by the USPTO. However, this isn't as final as the statement suggests. "Non-Final Rejections" (NFR) of this kind aren't unusual. Patents are frequently bounced back to the inventor, and many successful patents are accepted only after several NFRs. For example, an Amazon.com e-commerce patent we wrote about recently succeeded at the fifth attempt in four years.

Apple's rotation application, we discover, received its first NFR on September 29, 2004 and was bounced again on June 13 this year.

But Platt's playlist application also has a rejection history. It received an NFR on 17 November 2002, and a more serious Final Rejection on 14 June 2004. After further documentation was received, and extension granted, the application received another NFR on 11 December last year.

Apple has filed a number of applications to protect the iPod and iTunes user interfaces, including 60/359,551 ("Touch Pad for Handheld Device") and 60/387,692 ("Method and Apparatus for Use of Rotational User Inputs").

Apple is facing two infringement suits claiming the iPod violates existing IP. ®

Related links

Robbin, Jobs, Schiller application
Platt's application

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