The idea in this patent, submitted by Yahoo!, is a clever little idea: if someone is starting to drag an icon or mail message somewhere, why not bring the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak? If she is dragging a photo, for instance, the browser or operating system can guess that she wants to open it with PhotoShop or the Gimp, and present that choice right next to the icon for the photo.
Yes, an idea worth experimenting with, and one that (as the patent application amply emphasizes) could turn up soon in desktop window managers, in applications such as mail programs, in Ajax-enabled web pages, on mobile devices, and all sorts of places. And Yahoo! wants a cut for supposedly thinking it up.
Discussed by a lawyer in his blog and presented in full on the Peer to Patent site, this application seems to be a tough one to crack, despite its simplicity. Only two comments are posted, and no actual instances of prior art (although one comment tentatively suggests on instance). If no prior art is found in 35 days, the comment period closes on Peer to Patent and little stands in the way of granting the patent.
I have nothing against acknowledging the brilliance of the interface designers at Yahoo!. If GUI users overcome their initial surprise at having targets pop up at them, smart drag-and-drop may prove to be a convenience. Amusingly, the author of the patent application presents it as much more–a radical improvement to user interaction. But this has no impact on the granting of the patent. A novel idea can get a patent no matter how small an increment over current practice it represents.
What’s more disturbing to me is the cavalier way in which a Yahoo! designer has picked off the easiest layer of a complex design and tries to set up a toll gate to profit from it. (More likely, exercising the patent on such a small advance would just hold back its adoption, so I imagine Yahoo! is just trying to beef up its cross-licensing patent portfolio.) A consideration of the work that would go into implementing smart drag-and-drop quickly reveals that it would require serious research into user interaction and extensive changes to many parts of an application or desktop to deal with design issues such as:
- How does the system choose the targets to present to the user for each type of icon or other user interface element?
- How should the system subdivide its elements so that relevant targets are grouped with elements that can be dragged?
- Once heuristics for these choices are developed, what data structures store these targets, how are targets linked to the objects being dragged, and how can an association be made quickly so as to present targets almost instantly to preserve a comfortable user experience?
- What hooks does the desktop have to present to applications so they can create seamless experiences such as the hypothetical mail program suggested in the patent application? How do applications need to be redesigned in order to categorize user interface elements that are presented to the desktop for this service?
If you’re a web developer or other person with experience in graphical interfaces, maybe you can prevent this. Check out the claims and see what prior art you can find.