What follows is a slightly rambling stream of consciousness orbiting around the subjects of the patent system, technological development, the open-source community and user interfaces. The whole situation is far from simple, with benefits on all sides. I guess my thinking comes from a recognition of what I see as the inevitability of product transparency and how to curb that into economic growth. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on these subjects, so feel free to leave a comment or email me.
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We need to copy, right?
The copyright and patent system can be a messy business – and I mean business in the literal term.
Right now, research and development teams are setting out like early colonialists to stake claim on ideas, theories and methodologies. This would be fine, if the driving factor for such activity was truly innovation – but I don’t believe that it is. Instead, we find patents being created and filed away with the manic fervour of an arms race. In fact, recently we’ve seen how this impacts the smartphone industry with the cases of Apple v. Samsung.
This means that the incentive for coining, describing and protecting an “original” idea, system or method has as much to do with the implementation or progression of a company’s own product or service as it does with crippling their financial opponent’s ability to progress. The implications of such a dynamic are that our technology suffers and it’s feature-set becomes porous – a collection of innovative features and stunted features, mutually exclusive between brands – or else is obfuscated for no reason other than to avoid legal penalties.
The oft talked about example is Apple’s ownership of “slide to unlock”, this is the reason Google Android’s lock screen is rendered as “swipe to unlock”. The distaste I have for the ownership of gestural actions in an interactive environment is doubly so when those gestural actions are informed by a borderline skeuomorphic interface. How is sliding a virtual slider to unlock a device a new, patentable idea? I was sliding my cassette player into operation from “sleep” to “stand-by” 10 years prior to the iPhone. I was sliding latches to unlock gates that were made by people long before I was even born. I realise that the iPhone created new territory, and that “unlocking” in that context is a slightly different concept to the gate I mentioned above, but the gesture must surely belong to a collective lexicon outside of ownership. At some point an idea is so integral – and I daresay basic – that to deem it only useable by a single company in a massive, emerging market sector is a flavour of lunacy that is detrimental to the progression of technology on the whole. The danger lies in this attitude being applied somewhere truly integral. How would our technology look if the rotating volume knob was patented? If one brand owned the push-button?
But then, perhaps my opinion is skewed by hindsight.
Imagine three children seated at a round table with a piece of paper in front of each of them. There are a box of crayons in the centre and each child has privilege to one colour that no other child can use – one child owns red, another blue and another yellow. All other colours are shared. The children then attempt to draw the same thing. The resulting drawing’s are all shit subpar for different reasons, probably stemming from an illogical lack of colour, respectively. Or maybe they all make innovative use of a limited pallette, in which case, touché imaginary children.
I don’t know anyone with blue skin. Damn patent system.
Everything you can do, I can do different
The work-around, of course, is subtle deviation or obfuscation or inversion or “different”. Which often leads to users being presented with what I can only describe as counter-interfaces. Counter-interfaces are equally devious.
The new WiiU Pro Controller and the Xbox Controller feature inverted button arrays creating two interfaces that directly clash in learned operation. Is this the result of trying to avoid legal hassle, or in trying to lock users in to their system through some sort of familiarity-loyalty?
What do I mean by familiarity-loyalty? A loyalty borne out of familiarity with a product’s idiosyncracies. But further than that, it refers to the idea of creating these idiosyncracies for the purpose of locking users in to your system. This is perhaps doubly apparent with video game consoles because they share mutual software in the form of video game titles. You can play the same game on multiple consoles, being forced to interact with each one differently only in a schematic sense. You still have all the same functions. You just have different buttons. Inevitably, your option of multiple consoles only exists in a theoretical world, because in reality you will only ever take the time to master and operate one of them. This doubtlessly helps to fuel fanboyism, and what brand would be complete without adversaries to go into consumer combat with?
I’m pretty sure every chainsaw I’ve ever operated had roughly the same interface. My loyalties are influenced by the quality of the chainsaw, not my reluctance to learn a new interface structure.
Take a moment to imagine what Nintendo would offer.
Ok, so the chainsaw scenario is probably an unfair example. I remember my first mobile phone, it was a Nokia 3310. In fact, my next three mobile phones after that were all Nokia models. Why? Because it was common knowledge that the GUI’s between their products varied minutely. I was free to choose any (Nokia) phone that I wanted with minimal hassle, but to deviate from their brand meant I would be met with a jarring user experience. My fourth device, a Samsung, provided me with just that – and a few embarrassing, unintentionally sent messages, given that the BACK and SEND buttons were reversed on my new device.
The interesting thing about this idea of familiarity-loyalty is that the opposite directive – attempting design convergence of your interface with that of your competitors – makes it easier for consumers to switch to your product, whilst at the same time making it easier for consumers to leave your customer-base.
Hide your source, hide your errors, hide your potentials
There’s a similar dichotomy between open and closed-source mentalities. The same sort of benefits at the expense of “control”. Closed-source means that you do not share your production methods – code, manufacturing details, CAD files and so on with the general public – meaning that competitors and DIY “makers” can’t replicate your product and modify it to suit their needs or material access or fuse it with new hardware. This seems like an obvious choice of conduct from a typical business perspective. Why would you give away information that you spent plenty of money and time on researching and developing?
The answer is this: Open information can lead to free, highly-dispersed, communal development. Open information and modification fuels product longevity.
Here’s the second answer: We’re going to steal the information anyway. We’re going to modify it anyway. We’re inquisitive creatures. We do it for fun.
Hammer Editor: An in-house production tool released to the community.
By allowing your users access to legitimate information regarding your product, marvelous things can happen. Companies are slowly starting to realise the potential benefits of letting users modify their products. When Microsoft first released the Kinect, they were of the anti-mod, anti-hack mindset. But in my opinion the hackers and modders and makers and academics were doing much more exciting things with the Kinect than Microsoft was. The mindset has definitely changed:
The enthusiasm we are seeing in the scientific community – specifically the research and academic communities – around potential applications of Kinect, is exciting to see… It’s an exciting time for Microsoft, our customers and partners as we explore the possibilities [Natural User Interfaces] has to offer and how we can make them a reality – Kinect for Xbox 360 is just a first step.
Steve Clayton, Microsoft Blog
It seems Microsoft realises that free research and development by minds outside their organisation, that are excited enough about the concepts they are exploring to explore them despite not being on their payroll is a good thing.
Videogame company Valve learnt this lesson long ago – they are a thriving example of how understanding your craft, your technology and your audience leads to healthy financial success. One of their most popular titles, Counter-Strike, was originally a community-made modification of one of their existing products. Valve knew early on of the advantage of community created content, releasing their in-house level editor Worldcraft (later Valve Hammer Editor) to the public. Basically, you release one product that spawns more products and relates to a wider audience or keeps your existing audience captive for a lot longer (people still play Counter-Strike 1.6, which is now ~10 years old). As long as you are still selling the seeds, who cares what the fruit is made into?
Don’t be afraid of the culture, leverage it, help create it
Again, it’s going to happen anyway.
Young kids at a “maker faire” (source: boingboing.net)