30 years before Samsung: When Apple sued Microsoft

30 years before Samsung: When Apple sued Microsoft

Summary: In 1988, Windows 2.0 triggered Apple's first interface trial. That copyright suit offers a key lesson in innovation: There's more than one way to paint a GUI.


For longtime watchers and users in the Mac market, last week's verdict feels like a bit of payback. Yes, this time it's Apple against Samsung, but it's really a win against the rival OS vendor Google. Back in the early days of the Mac OS, it was Microsoft, and Mac fans are still a bit rankled by how that fight went down 25 or so years ago. Yet, the history offers a bit of hope that there's more than one way to paint a GUI.

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the only GUI computer on the market was the Macintosh (okay, and maybe the Lisa, later known as the Mac XL). Programs associated today with the Microsoft Windows platform such as Word and Excel started out on the Mac platform.

In November 1985, Microsoft launched Windows to little impact in the PC market. DOS users and business leaders really believed in batch and command-line computing and distrusted the expensive GUI systems. We can't understand this today since there's a GUI interface on almost every computing device, from your phone to your printer.

However, over several years, Microsoft refined the interface — in other words, making it more like the Macintosh. In 1988, Microsoft released Windows 2.0, which incorporated more Mac features, and this triggered a copyright suit over interface elements. Microsoft countersued saying that Apple had given permission to make derivative works from the Mac OS and Mac programs.

Unlike its position in latest suit, Apple wasn't the big player in the market; it had a solid market share, especially if you added up Apple computers and Macintosh. But Microsoft DOS and Windows computers were the primary platforms for business computing and then for personal computing.

The trial went on and on for years. There were no injunctions. Microsoft kept refining Windows and released Windows 3.0 in 1990 (and the popular, stable version 3.1 in 1992). Each new version was added to the case.

But as the years came and went, the market became increasingly familiar with the conventions of graphical interface computing — again meaning Macintosh idioms, although in the guise of Windows. The older, predominant DOS computing was ignored and Windows became the new, natural way to compute.

In the trial, this market reality was reflected in 1992 by a drastic narrowing of the issues. If an interface element was considered the only way to accomplish some task or function, then it couldn't be copyrighted. The scope of the trial was reduced by declaring the Mac elements to be natural. When the confusion of the early derivative work license and the changed computing culture were combined, Apple's innovation and evolution were dismissed.

Nowadays, the situation is different: we're still in the beginning stages for mobile computing. There may still still be an opening for non-Apple interface innovation. But they will have to get on with it.

The example of the early work on the Finder offers an example of what can be created in a short while. When the Finder was first being authored by Steve Capps and Bruce Horn it didn't look much like anything we would recognize.

In a special issue of MacWEEK celebrating the first decade of Macintosh (Jan. 3, 1994), intellectual-property lawyer Marie D'Amico wrote about the early days of the Finder. The story included previously unpublished screen shots that had been exhibits in the Apple vs. Microsoft lawsuit. Since the images are a part of the public record, I will include some of them here.

Some of the interface ideas are based on assumptions that we find laughable today. But some basic ideas such as overlapping widows and icons are there.

Early Finder Overlapping Windows

In the summer of 1982, the Finder had the Macintosh represented by a window containing icons for disk drives, a printer and a power supply. Menu commands included icons to the left of the command name. An icon was opened by selecting it and choosing the View It command, represented by an iconic pair of eyeglasses. Prior versions used the term "Do It," but users refused to choose this command, thinking it was "Dolt."

Early Finder Documents

In the View It version, the disk drive, when opened, was represented by a life-size floppy disk with applications and documents shown as rectangular buttons on the disk. Both the windows and the icons could be overlapped by other windows or icons. Steve Jobs liked the giant floppy Finder because a user could hold the disk, point to the spot where he saw the icon and say, "This is where my document is stored."

Early Finder1 Diskette

In other Finder incarnations, many variations on each feature of the user interface were tested. At one point, window titles were displayed in tabs at the top of the window and in a title bar. Bars were eventually chosen because tabs didn't leave enough room to grab and move the window. The close box also spent some time as a rectangular Go Away button, but this was later rejected.

This display of progress encourages me. And it should serve as an example to Google and Microsoft (and Apple too). Get creative and make new ways of computing. Perhaps we could look at a globe and say "my file is here." Or somewhere.

Topics: Apple, Android, iOS, iPhone, iPad, Operating Systems, Windows

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  • This Trial Was About Protectionism

    It was never about innovation, it was about the desperate efforts of a company losing market share to try to hobble its competitors and delay the inevitable. History shows that this sort of behaviour never works. Apple will end up losing far more than it can ever hope to gain. It would be nice to think the company could devote the same effort it has put into its lawsuits into actually making products that will delight customers and make them want to buy.

    But it's probably too late for that now.
    • Wishfull thinkin...

      Neither company will be massively impacted by this long term - samsung are the biggest player in this industry after all- but we may get more innovation.... But how you ask? By doing things different- if you risk such big fines for even being similar you won't risk it - look at windows mobile; really different; all the linux desktops... Who knows with more variation android may actually take down ios on the high street?

      As for protectionism... Well obviously if you believe you invented something you'd sue someone you though copied it no?
    • Risk-taking needs to be rewarded...

      ...or else, capital will stay in safe investments. Admit it, Apple risked the farm on this one, and they could lose it all if they were unable to differentiate their products.

      Microsoft, Palm, RIM, Nokia have shown there are multiple ways to do it. Yet, Samsung, by copying Apple, has created enough traction to not only crush them, but all the other Android phone manufacturers as well. Those Apple ideas must be worth something big.

      As in big customer-satisfaction numbers, well ahead of everyone, including Samsung.

      Apple users appear to be extremely delighted, with a steady stream of nice new features coming their way all the time. (hint: it's the lawyers, not the well-funded engineers, who spend their time in the courtrooms).

      Sometimes it feels like Android users either love complexity or are easily convinced Samsung phones are "just like the iPhone".

      But patents are not granted for ever, which makes it fair for everyone.
      • Re: Risk-taking needs to be rewarded...

        ... and Apple just got a billion-dollar payout for not taking any risks.
        • So?

          You don't think Apple took any risks? How about a computer company launching a media player at a time when they were not really popular, or launching a phone in a seemingly saturated market controlled by Nokia, RIM and Motorola, or launching a tablet computer when all before had all but failed. Or to go back further to basically relaunch the company with a blue bubble computer.

          No, you're right, I can't see where they've taken any risks.
          A Grain of Salt
          • Also opening computer retail stores....

            at a time when Gateway and everyone else was struggling.

            Taking a big risk launching a phone that was all touch-screen with onscreen virtual keyboard at a time when BlackBerry style physical keyboard were everywhere.

            Taking a big risk in launching a tablet named "iPad". Wonder who's laughing now?

            Taking a big risks in launching $1000 MacBook Air at a time when everyone was selling cheap $399 Netbooks.
    • RE: This Trial Was About Protectionism

      "It would be nice to think the company could devote the same effort it has put into its lawsuits into actually making products that will delight customers and make them want to buy."

      Do you mean products like the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air? I only ask because I am confused by how much more devotion Apple customers need to show before you think they are "delighted" with the products. Are the lines not long enough at the Apple stores on the day a new product ships for you? Is the fact that their Developer Conference was sold out in a matter of hours indicate that they are not generating excitement about their products? Could it be that the fact that they are the most valuable company in world mean that investors think that Apple is not spending enough on innovating new products? Maybe the fact that their chief design engineer, Sir Jonathan Ive, has won several prestigious awards, and has been knighted, for his contributions for innovative design is just not enough innovation for you.

      Yeah maybe your right, they should spend more on innovation. They have so obviously spent the last several years wasting money on silly legal pursuits that they can never hope to create innovative products that can compete again. Not to mention that customers and investors think Apple products are not worth buying. (That last paragraph was sarcasm, just in case you have as much of a problem identifying it as you do identifying innovation.)
    • Darned right!

      It wasn't about innovation because the copycats have been perfectly happy ripping off Apple's intellectual property as long as they can get away with it. The government doesn't police the world for patent infringement. It's up to patent holders to protect their IP. That's how the world operates, so you'd better suck it up and get used to it!
      Thankfully Samsung lost big time, so now Apple's competitors will have to actually invent workarounds and maybe create some nice revolutionary new ideas. We will all benefit. Samsung might even feel the market pressure to provide OS updates for their hardware that is more than a week old.

      This time, 25 years later, Apple used design and utility patents to protect their inventions, rather than the weak copyrights of before. Patents have a much shorter life than copyrights.
      • While I Agree On Concept...

        I disagree in practice. Apple's IP is a little more than a mixture of stolen ideas put together with a few unique innovations. Pinch to zoom, shockingly enough, existed BEFORE the iPhone (and long before they were given the patent). They were the first ones to try and patent it, because in the days before the patent wars, people patented ideas that were unique and weren't the obvious method of doing something. Apple decided to patent everything in the most generic of ways (such as performing a gesture on a lock screen to unlock it. When voice recognization was lousy, and biometrics expensive, how else do you expect to unlock a touch screen without using a physical button? Let them patent a specific gesture if necessary, but they can't have a patent that broad)
        As far as I'm aware, they invented the "bounce back" functionality and can have that patent. The industry standard could be to stop at the end and I wouldn't lose one wink of sleep.

        Apple definitely didn't steal from Android in regards to the drop down notification system that people take for granted because again, it just makes sense.

        I have no problem with them defending IP in regards to their developed technologies (such as the bounce back), but please don't act like they invented half of the things they sued Samsung for. Because they were the market leader they can scream "copyright" because it typically makes sense to follow the leader. But when they were granted bogus patents regarding the shape of a phone (that shockingly, also already existed on the market place), than we realize what the argument is really about: patent what makes your product unique. The patent office, if they did their job in reviewing the patents, would have rejected the patents stating pre-existing products.
  • Amiga/atari/xerox

    I think you forget the Amiga, that was revolutionary!
    • To a point

      The Atari used GEM, which was more of a copy of MacOS than Windows was...

      That said, we were using graphical terminals attached to VAX systems back in 1981 and they had their own UI.
  • What about X11

    Did anyone sue them?
    • I think

      X project was launched in 1984.
  • not true.

    the article gives the impression that apple is the only innovator. For your info, apple didn't invent this GUI you are talking about.
    • History

      Actually, Apple DID invent the very items of which David notes. The 'look at' that Jobs paid PARC all that Apple stock to take didn't include code or such things as overlapping windows.
      Reference: http://www.folklore.org/ProjectView.py?project=Macintosh&author=Andy%20Hertzfeld
    • Apple IS the only innovator

    • Stop re-writing history, owellnet

      Your slip is showing.

      Cylon Centurion
  • The problem

    The problem is that in this case, certain patents have been validated that are far too basic and over-arching. While the "rectangle with rounded corners" trade-dress claim seems to have been, thankfully, thrown out, validation of Apple's claim to own the pinch to zoom and two finger twist gestures are just as problematic. Pinch to zoom and two finger twist are so basic because they simply mimic the manner in which we interact with real-world object. Consider two finger twist. It's a gesture I find myself using with some frequency in Google maps to rotate the "north" direction of a map. Well, this gesture is nothing more than reproducing the exact same finger movements I would use to spin a paper map on a table. The fact that you can claim a patent on that is almost as ridiculous as claiming that you can patent the number eight. And while few if any objects in real life can be re-sized, the pinch to zoom is just as natural a gesture for this action as two-finger twist.

    So what's happened is that the patent office and the courts have granted Apple, not just some patents that allow it to protect its intellectual property, but patents that basically allow it to exclude competitors from the smart phone market altogether. No one's going to buy a competitor product if you have to interact with its interface in odd, and unnatural ways.
  • Funny how everything becomes obvious after it is widely used.

    But the creators who was creating it (and patenting it) did not think they were obvious at the time, years earlier. Many of Apple's multi-touch patent were filed back in the 90's. Think what the market was like when these were filed.

    I remember the early Mac GUI being put down as just a toy OS by DOS proponents. No serious computer user is going to use a mouse on some graphical user interface, real men use command line lol. We've seen the same type of reaction with the iPhone with the use of multiply fingers on screen (multi-touch) vs stylus, onscreen keyboard vs physical qwerty keyboard etc. The iPhone was also deemed a toy phone compared to BlackBerry and WinMO phones. The iPad was supposed to be a failure also, passed off as just a large iPhone with only one button, very large bezel, why would you buy an iPad when netbooks were more useful?
    • Or maybe...

      Or maybe no one through to patent this stuff before, because it was just too obvious. Interacting and manipulating a virtual object on a screen the same way you'd manipulate and interact with a physical object in the real world isn't exactly a novel idea.

      What's happened is that the last couple of decades have seen an IP land-grab due to ridiculous patent office policies that have allowed companies and individulas to patent stuff that should never be patentable. the granting of overly broad patents has been a problem that many of us have been decrying long before Apple decided it would attempt to neuter its competitors in the smartphone market through the courts before they could pose a real threat to Apple's market dominance.