Microsoft Patents iPod ... or Something Else Entirely
Here is an excellent article on patent reform from groklaw. I have more to say about patents here on girtby, but in the meantime this is worth reading.
The article goes on to talk about patent law reform in general, but it starts by citing TechWeb converage of a patent spat between Microsoft and Apple over the iPod user interface. The idea is that Microsoft patented the interface before Apple submitted their patent, but after the iPod was made public. According to the story Microsoft was patenting something that Apple had already produced. Microsoft bad for stealing their ideas, patent office bad for allowing a patent with clear prior art. As can be expected, the slashdot crowd go ballistic.
But it looks like TechWeb has got it wrong. They seem to be saying that the technique described by the AutoDJ system was the subject of Microsoft's patent. But if that's the case, it certainly does not describe the iPod user interface. At least, I haven't found the button on my iPod that uses a gaussian process to automatically generate music playlists. (And it's not for want of trying, either!)
So Microsoft didn't steal Apple's idea (not this one, anyway!) and it looks on the face of it to be a legitimate patent. So what about the Apple patent application?
Reading further into the groklaw comments, the claim is made that the Apple application was about Graphical user interface and methods of use thereof in a multimedia player, otherwise known as hierarchal menus. As the commenter put it:
Yes, seriously, that's what they were trying to patent, the idea of using a tree of menus to operate a portable music player. Can you believe it? (I knew you could.) I'd chalk this rejection up to an example of the USPTO doing some good.
In other words it had nothing to do with automatic playlist generation, hence it is very unlikely to have been trumped by Microsoft's patent. At least, not the AutoDJ patent. Most of the mainstream media reports that I saw, with the exception of The Register, failed to notice this.
Of course it's possible that Microsoft are trying to patent Apple's iPod innovations through other patent applications not already cited. But so far none of the media reports have offered any proof of this.