Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Facebook's new patent from the AOL portfolio (US 8,648,801).

Today, the US PTO awarded Facebook an interesting patent (US 8,648,801) with a funny title, "Aligned display navigation." Since the patent references one of my early patents, I've decided to check it out; and in the beginning it looked quite hot!

First, a little bit of background:

The patent belongs to the AOL portfolio that Facebook acquired from Microsoft for $550 Million. It covers user interactions with content using the touchscreen - a dominant UI solution in modern smartphones and tablets. The inventor, Luigi Lira, has a number of patents in this domain; most of them go back to 2002. For example, the original provisional application for this patent was filed in March, 2002.

The patent specification describes a touchscreen system that helps the user navigate between different sections of a web page. After 12 years of back-and-forth arguments with the US PTO, the patent lawyers for Facebook/AOL managed to generalize the notion of the page into "the content comprises a plurality of portions." The purpose of the generalization is clear: try to cover the modern multi-screen "swipe" interface for smartphones. One of the claims specifically mentions finger as the object being tracked by the system.

On the surface, the patent looks really broad and strong. Nevertheless, using our train analogy*, we can easily spot a logical flaw right in the middle of a long, somewhat obfuscated series of steps:

If I were to attack the patent in court, I would point out to the judge and jury that the patent describes a scenario where the move to the next screen happens BEFORE the system determines whether the user's "swipe" has been validated. That is, according to Claim 1, we move the screen first, and think second. If the system makes a mistake, i.e. the "swipe" turns out to be invalid, we return the user to the previous screen. In essence, we jerk the interface in reaction to any object flying near the screen. Obviously, modern systems do the opposite: they validate user input first, then move to the next screen.

The verdict: after 12 years of patent prosecution, Facebook received a marginally useful patent. It's biggest value would be in threatening other companies with a lawsuit that is not obviously frivolous.

* The train analogy goes as follows:

Imagine that instead of the content with multiple portions (e.g. a web page or app) that needs to be presented on a touchscreen, we have to unload a train with multiple cars. Note that each car has to be unloaded separately: one by one. To make our life easier, someone has sent us a telegram with a detailed description of each car and its relative positions in the train ( in Claim 1 they call it "data representative of content to be displayed on a touchscreen display" - typical aboutness).

Your station manager reads the telegram aloud to the workers and they do the unloading. According to the patent, as soon as the train engineer hears the manager say anything or even sneezes, he moves the next car into the unloading position. If the manager makes a mistake - Ooops! - the engineer moves the train back. Clearly, this is not the best way to organize the operations. The main reason for having a qualified crew, including the manager, is to avoid unnecessary jerking of the heavy train in response to the manager's every sneeze.

tags: patent, facebook, example

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