Who Actually Owns The Patent On The “Pull To Refresh” Feature On Mobile Devices?
A while back, users had to hit buttons to refresh the pages they were on. There was that wonderful “refresh” button in the browser, which is largely the standard in browsers still today. Mobile devices had buttons for this function as well, at least until recently.
Now a days, when we want to refresh content in an app, we can “pull to refresh” within the app. It’s a motion that allows you quickly tell your phone you want to see the latest and greatest information without a whole lot of thinking about it. Just pull down within the interface, and it’ll refresh for you (if the app supports it). This motion is without a doubt more friendly than buttons. The motion is also patented.
For list-based applications, pull to refresh is amazing. I never really thought about who came up with it before. Surely there must be a patent out there for this type of interaction… and indeed there is. If you had been wondering at all, prepare for a shocker.
It’s not Apple.
In a patent titled “User Interface Mechanics,” owned by Twitter and listing Loren Brichter, the developer of Tweetie (which is now owned by Twitter), among its inventors, the abstract describes pull-to-refresh behavior:
“Input associated with a scroll command may be received. Then, based on the scroll command, a scrollable refresh trigger may be displayed. Subsequently, the scrollable list of content items may be refreshed in response to determining, based on the scroll command, that the scrollable refresh trigger has been activated. In at least one instance, it may be determined that the scrollable refresh trigger has been activated in response to determining that the scroll command was completed while the scrollable refresh trigger was fully displayed.”
Apple hasn’t implemented pull to refresh in any of its mobile software yet. Mac OS X Lion has the abilities to pull down the window in Safari, and you have the ability to pull almost any app down past the top header. But they don’t refresh. It doesn’t work for any of their apps. That’s because Apple isn’t actually allowed to implement the feature.
Surprisingly, Facebook has managed to get implement the pull to refresh feature within its mobile apps, and so has Google with their Google Plus App. Facebook nearly got into some trouble with it back in 2010, after they allegedly “appropriated” some open source code in order to implement the feature for the iPhone application. Shaun Harrison of enormego writes that after digging through the Facebook app’s source code, his findings were clear, and Facebook had basically stolen the code for themselves:
“I finally found the class: TTTableHeaderDragRefreshView. I started looking over to code to see how they accomplished it, and that’s when I realized it: this was our class [...] Facebook prefixed some variables, slapped their Three20 branding on it, restructured some code, but it was the same code we wrote. The same code we wrote, with zero mention of us.”
Facebook later released a new version of the app that displayed proper credits for such things, but now that Loren Brichter has been awarded the patent, Facebook’s costs for the coding of their app has likely gone up substantially in licensing fees.
As for Google Plus… I really don’t know. What I can tell you, is that all three of these networks are using different wording in their apps, and that any application currently using the pull to refresh feature, is currently in violation of the patent if they aren’t paying for the use.
Well done Twitter, you’ve managed to score a point on Apple and the rest of the people who’d likely love to use such a wonderful user-friendly design element in their software. I guess we won’t be seeing this any time soon as a standard without Twitter getting rich!