An uncanny resemblance, don’t you think?
On the left, an in-app screenshot of Where To?, an iOS app nudging travelers along a GPS trail to local points of interest. “Where To? makes it incredibly easy to locate the closest steakhouse, bank branch, billiard club or anything else you may be looking for, at the drop of a hat!” That in-app homescreen has not changed since version 1.0, which was a Day 1 download on the App Store.
On the right, Where To’s eerie doppelnganger, plucked from the Aha-like inner mindscape of an Apple patent attorney. The patent is dated December 18, 2009 and describes “systems and methods for integrating travel services in a single application available to a portable electronic device,” allowing users to easily be directed to local restaurants, banks or nightspots. Sound familiar?
In other words, Apple seems to have patented the functionality of another company’s app, right on down to that app’s physical design and title.
Needless to say, the original developer, Futuretap, is none too happy about it. If the patent is granted, they might find themselves infringers as the creators of the same app cited in Apple’s patent.
Software patents are bullshit, but looking at the evidence, this is particularly shameless. What is going on here? Even if this is just an example image of such an app, it looks bad. Apple appears to be prowling the App Store, looking for existing applications for inspiration, then claiming ownership of the idea behind them with the US Patent Office.
That’s just patent trolling. It’s perfectly legal, and it appears that Apple’s own Developer’s Agreement might cover exactly this scenario, but how does Apple expect developers to be comfortable working on the App Store if they employ questionable ethics like this? No one likes a hit-and-run.
Update: Excellent point by Dan Wiseman, who thinks the use of “Where To?” as an image in a patent application was probably innocent, but stupid nonetheless.
I think it’s more likely that the people involved in drawing up this patent simply didn’t think about the message it would send to developers. I’m sure it’s not Apple’s practice (or intention) to plunder the App Store submissions bin for new things to patent. But there remains a conflict of interest in Apple acting as the sole steward of the iOS software universe while also filing patents in areas that have long been staked out by third-party developers.