Apple Granted Patent Related To iPhone Text Selection [Patent]

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It’s easy to forget just how much the iPhone changed things. Today saw the publishing of one of the iPhone’s most familiar patents — its gesture/touch-based text selection tool.

Describing a new way of selecting text using gestures on a multi-touch sensitive display screen, the patent, which was filed back in March 2008, is credited to Wayne Carl Westerman, Apple’s Multi-Touch Architect; Bas Ording, a User Interface Designer who joined Apple not long after Jobs’ return; B. Michael Victor, and Stephen O. Lemay.

Coming less than one year after the first generation iPhone was launched, the patent not only gives a technical overview of this particular element of the phone, but also provides a broader look at the philosophy behind the device. In doing so it makes clear the extent to which every aspect of the iPhone project conformed to one overarching vision — reminiscent in many ways of the original Macintosh and Apple’s early drive toward “modeless” computing in the early 1980s.

“As portable electronic devices become more compact, and the number of functions performed by a given device increase, it has become a significant challenge to design a user interface that allows users to easily interact with a multifunction device. This challenge is [particularly] significant for handheld portable devices, which have much smaller screens than desktop or laptop computers.

This situation is unfortunate because the user interface is the gateway through which users receive not only content but also responses to user actions or behaviors, including user attempts to access a device’s features, tools, and functions. Some portable communication devices (e.g., mobile telephones, sometimes called mobile phones, cell phones, cellular telephones, and the like) have resorted to adding more pushbuttons, increasing the density of push buttons, overloading the functions of pushbuttons, or using complex menu systems to allow a user to access, store and manipulate data.

These conventional user interfaces often result in complicated key sequences and menu hierarchies that must be memorized by the user.”

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The patent goes on to note that, at the time of the iPhone’s launch, selecting text has been either cumbersome or downright impossible on the majority of smartphones. Thanks to Apple’s touch sensitive display, however, “detecting a text selection” can be made using a simple “initiation gesture with the touch screen display” at which point text selection can easily and straightforwardly be carried out in such a way that the device’s “[w]ord processing function can be performed on the … text located in the text selection area.” A simple diagram of Apple’s text selection method can be seen below:

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  • MrsCleaver

    Interesting article. More interesting to me, and ironic, is that the first PDA almost anyone can remember—the Apple Newton—had text selection and editing far superior to Apple’s modern iDevices. Even the Palm Pilot and all its iterations was much, much easier to select and edit on.

    I think because so few people had experienced on-screen editing, the iPhone captured their imagination in this area. But anyone who used a Palm, a Trio or certainly a Newton knows the iPhone and iPad are clunky at text handing in comparison, patent or not.

    By the way, it was Steve Jobs who—while not coining the name PDA for Personal Digital Assistant—was the first to make it a mainstream term. That PDA, while too early in the market to the make impact Jobs hoped, was the Apple Newton. I haven’t used mine for years, but it still fires right up, and one can select and edit text within a minute of use.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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