Office ribbon – patenting look and feel?
The ribbon is in effect a tabbed tool bar with large context-aware icons that show you more interactively what will happen when you use them and put the various options and selections right in there. It’s a concept I find that works very well indeed although some reviewers have been less enthusiastic.
Jensen Harris, Group Program Manager of the Microsoft Office User Experience Team, has been blogging about the forthcoming UI changes for some time but only recently dropped the bombshell.
Microsoft believe they own this concept and will licence it to you for free providing you don’t compete with them.
If you’re not familiar with the history of computing or have been bombarded with FBI-copyright-warnings since birth you might think this is perfectly reasonable. The core problem however is that graphical user interfaces, like much of human endeavour, has been an iterative process of refinement and the concepts need to be free for the next iteration to happen.
Or, as Sir Isacc Newton said
If I have seen a little farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.
The ribbon would be nothing without the developments that came before it. The tool bar, the tab, the icon or going back even further the window, the mouse and the document model.
Microsoft invented none of these things nor do they licence them from somebody else indeed the whole concept of suing over “Look and Feel” died back with Apple’s failure to get a judgement over Microsoft for Windows borrowing UI concepts and Lotus also failing with their 1-2-3 interface being used in by Borland in their Quattro product.
The United States copyright and patents offices typically understand how damaging copyright on human interaction can be and indeed this is why a typeface (font) is not actually copyrightable. (TrueType, PostScript and OpenType font files *are* copyrightable but only because they contain a list of instructions – a program – to rendering the font).
Much of the common GUI we see today started with a special group at Xeroc Parc which was then copied by the likes of Apple, Digital Research, IBM, Amiga, Next, Acorn and indeed Microsoft.
If you could patent basic user-interface concepts for 50 75 years either Xerox or Apple would be the only people able to produce such a graphical interface (depends on how water-tight Apple’s licence with Xerox was).
You could likely say goodbye to scroll-bars, tabs, docks, dragging, drop-down menus, tear-off menus, recycle bins, radio buttons and other plethora of concepts we’ve gained along the way as they’d be little incentive to innovate when the government has given you the exclusive right to basic concepts.
I can’t help but wonder if this whole thing kicked off because Creative believe they own the idea of a very simple menu as used in the iPod and indeed are trying to sue Apple about it.