• The iPod Patent Pickle: Welcome to the Silly Season

    September 3rd, 2005

    A long time ago, someone in the media decided the summer must be the “silly season.” Politicians were on vacation from the seats of power, and the populace was too busy having fun to worry about serious matters. With less hard news to report, and this was before the Internet and blogs, newspapers and broadcasters focused more on the offbeat. Ever wonder why you read more about sightings of UFOs during those months? Maybe it wasn’t just a decision by our “visitors” to come out of their hiding places when it was warm outside.

    Segue to 2005, and not a whole lot is happening in the technology universe. Except for a certain meeting with the media in San Francisco to announce some new products, and a short-lived 30-day trial marriage with the Mac mini, Apple Computer hasn’t done a whole lot in the public arena. So we’ve had to look a little harder for news and I sometimes feel I’ve reached the point of desperation trying to find something of real significance.

    Take the crazy world of patents. Apple controls the music player market, but it can’t get the U.S. government to approve a patent for the iPod’s interface. Microsoft is poised to get one for its variation of a music player’s behavior, and now Creative Labs, which has failed miserably in its efforts to stand up to the iPod in the marketplace, has been granted a patent of its own. The application, filed nine months before the iPod came out, describes “A method, performed by software executing on the processor of a portable music playback device, that automatically files tracks according to hierarchical structure of categories to organize tracks in a logical order. A user interface is utilized to change the hierarchy, view track names, and select tracks for playback or other operations.”

    Now I don’t pretend to be an intellectual property attorney or any kind of attorney, but hierarchical menus are as old as the graphical computer interface. Are the government hacks who review these applications living in the dark ages? Now maybe there are hidden elements involved that aren’t obvious from the patent summary, but I fail to see what is so unique about this feature that merits awarding a patent to Creative.

    Just a short time ago, some technology pundits were claiming that Apple would have to send royalty checks to Microsoft because of its pending music player patent. Now, if we take any of this on faith, which I’m not prepared to do, maybe Apple will also have to send checks to a competitor that it has trounced in the marketplace. If that were true, would it make any sense?

    As I said, I don’t see anything particularly unique in Creative’s claim of a particularly unique creation here. If it had the corner on music player interfaces, surely we’d see a positive result in its products, and we don’t. That, in itself, is one argument against its claims of originality.

    In the end, it’ll take lawyers, and briefs and appeals to sort things out and the whole crazy affair, and the process could drag on for years. By the time it’s all resolved, Creative might well decide to follow the lead of the Rio and get out of the music player business altogether. Frankly, if any product eventually supplants the iPod as leader of the pack, I expect it’ll come from a Sony or a Samsung, and not from a small company hoping to exact some financial tribute courtesy of a patent.

    Perhaps the era of the digital musical player will have come and gone, and we’ll be focusing on the next great thing, whatever that may be. Maybe, as some suggest, the ultimate music player is the venerable mobile phone. It’s not enough that you can store contact lists, custom ringers, games and video clips. We are told that the mobile phone is destined to become the repository of your music library as well, even though current reports states that the forthcoming Motorola phone with iTunes will only contain a couple of dozen tunes at most. With that number of songs at your beck and call, it’ll be no better than the commercial rock station that repeats the same songs over and over from a tiny play list.

    Well at least you won’t have to listen to a torrent of commercials.

    Right now, the mobile phone companies are no doubt salivating over the vast profits they’ll earn once they can sell you music online from catalogs of one or two million tracks. Even if some have to share the joy with Apple Computer or another company, it won’t matter. Greed as good, as Michael Douglas said in the 1987 movie Wall Street.

    Now from my standpoint, and call me old fashioned, I still think the primary purpose of a mobile phone is to make and receive phone calls. Sure, I have a few fancy rings installed, customized for family and close friends, but that’s as adventurous as I plan to get right now.

    But as I said, this is the silly season, and anything can happen. But I have to go. I’m going to get a pair of binoculars, so I can look for UFOs in the Arizona skies.

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