Patent Nonsense

by Bob DuCharme

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I guess all that R&D research at Microsoft is paying off—the U.S. Patent Office recently granted them patent 6,785,865, for a method of "Discoverability and navigation of hyperlinks via tabs." They've patented the clever idea of using your keyboard's tab key instead of a mouse to navigate among the hypertext links in a document. Just imagine the possibilities!

Don't Mozilla and Internet Explorer already do this? Try going to Yahoo's home page or any other page with a lot of links and pressing the tab key several times. Watch the little dotted rectangle that moves from link anchor to link anchor. Stop at one particular link, press the return key, and watch the browser traverse that link. (As described in this recently granted patent: "Once a hyperlink has focus, the hyperlink may be activated through the keyboard by performing an action such as hitting the return key.")

For millions of people, their first exposure to anything hypertext-like was the online help in Lotus 123, the killer app that inspired most offices to get their first personal computer. Various phrases in each help screen were displayed in bold text to show that additional help was available for those concepts. The cursor keys moved the cursor from one of these phrases to the next, and pressing Enter displayed the related help screen. (Last night, to check my memory of this behavior, I booted an old laptop running Windows 98, chose "Restart in MS-DOS mode," and tried to install a 1986 copy of Lotus 123 release 2, but had no luck. 123 got its speed on those old 4.77 Mhz machines by using assembly language that wrote directly to the hardware, and even Windows 98 is modern enough of an operating system to not allow that. Does anyone out there have 123 release 1A or 2 running on some old box? Can you confirm my memory of the on-line help navigation interface?) Keyboard navigation of hypertext links has been around for a long time, maybe even having some roots on pre-PC systems, perhaps with a CICS base. (I'd love to hear about any direct experience with this as well.)

A lawyer with some patent law experience once told me that the Claims section is the key part of any patent document. The rest is just background. If I remember correctly, he also told me that claims tend to begin with the solid, easily defensible core ones and then build from there as far as the document's authors can go. If you get sued for infringing claims 1, 2, 3, and 4 of a patent and claims 2, 3, and 4 each build on their predecessor, you should have an easier time proving that you didn't infringe on claim 4 than proving that you didn't infringe on claim 1. The first halfway original idea I see in patent 6,785,865 is in claim 3, "The method of claim 2 wherein, the visual indication [that a link has focus] is a curved focus shape." If you like this, you'll love claim 7, "wherein the focus shape is circular," and claim 8, "wherein the focus shape is polygonal."

Other claims describe some mildly interesting ideas, such as keyboard-based navigation of different hypertext areas within a single image and the maintenance of a list of hypertext link elements "wherein the element list comprises information describing a location of a next hyperlink and a type of the next hyperlink." XHTML 2's nextfocus attribute would allow a more sophisticated relationship among a document's hypertext links than a single linear list would, though. Still, I'm always happy to see people encourage link typing (1, 2, 3, 4).

Claim 19 refers to a keyboard device, "said keyboard device having at least one key." You know, these engineering specs have to be very explicit to avoid misunderstandings. Another fun part of the patent document is the References section: there's a URL using the wysiwyg protocol, a 1996 article from "The Unofficial Newsletter of Delphi Users," a dead link from 1997, a Sams book on Frontpage 97, and a 1996 QUE book titled "Using HTML The Fast and Easy Way to Learn." (I assume that some punctuation was lost in the transcription of the title.) It's nice to know that some solid scholarship went into this. To be fair, the patent application was made in 1997, so the references will be old, but still: QUE and Sams books and an unofficial newsletter? Who is this Stephen S. Hong of the USPTO who decided, in the summer of 2004, "OK, you're all set, here's a solid new piece of intellectual property for Microsoft's portfolio?"

Do you know of any keyboard-based hypertext navigation that predates Lotus 123?


2004-09-20 10:37:01
Does that mean...
...that all lynx users must now pay royalties to MS? Bummer :-(
2004-09-20 22:27:51
What a crock
The patent officer himself was using prior art as he filed this patent.

What's next, a patent on tabbing through widgets in a GUI?

2004-10-01 12:52:22
Sometimes there's hope...