Published just last week, the WIPO patent for a "Portable Electronic Device with Interface Reconfiguration Mode" was submitted in late December 2006, just days before Apple chief Steve Jobs was set to take the stage at Macworld and unveil his company's first cellphone. The patent echoes a similar US-only filing made in December 2005 but would apply to dozens of countries across Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The patent appears to take a page from Jobs' keynote speech in January, pointing out the inherent need for a flexible touchscreen interface. Since the keys and screen on traditional cell phones are fixed in place, the interface can rarely change to accommodate new features; developers often have to add physical buttons or overload existing buttons with special features, the patent explains. In return, users often can't change the interface themselves to fit their own expectations, typically forcing them to memorize obscure commands.
Apple's solution would rely heavily -- but not necessarily -- on a touchscreen interface virtually identical to that of the iPhone. By dragging an on-screen icon with a finger or stylus, users could either move icons to a static tray on the screen, replacing an earlier icon, or shift them around in their existing sections. In that latter case, neighboring icons could move aside gracefully to reorder the interface on the fly and make it clear where an icon will land when the user lifts their pointing device.
The method could also use pseudo-physics to simulate a more natural feel, adding "friction" depending on the speed of a tossing motion applied to an icon, or a magnetic effect that would let users use less precise movements to drop an icon into place.
Unlike many Apple patents, existing iPhone owners can already attest to Apple's use of the new WIPO patent for a shipping product: any user who has ever rearranged the lower icons in the handset's iPod interface to speed access to audiobooks or podcasts is mirroring Apple's tray portion of the patent.
But while the patent has already seen partial use in the current interface, the ability to reposition icons within an existing section remains untapped. In the present iPhone control scheme, the 'home' screen would be the only feasible candidate for the patent but is so far unchangeable. If implemented in that area, the technique would allow users to move frequently used buttons such as Google Maps or SMS to more familiar locations in the main display.
Apple has also left the patent open to address other electronic devices, conceivably allowing other non-phone handhelds to share the same software design principles.
The patent filing was first noted by Macintosh news site MacNN.