Thursday, January 13, 2011


And while we're on the subject, there is a debate currently raging on teh intert00bz concerning Microsoft's challenge to Apple's attempt to patent the phrase "app store". As Chris of The Lousy Linguist reminds us:

... the basic idea, as Wikipedia defines it, is distinctiveness ... While it may be the case that Apple introduced the term in 2008, it seems to have expanded to generic use in less than a year and now gets used at least semi-regularly for non-Apple products.

Well, yes, but what exactly is distinctivness in this context? As many were quick to point out, there is nothing distinctive about either "Windows" or "Office". John Gruber of Daring Fireball argues that that's totally ok, because Microsoft isn't selling actual windows or offices, a point I fail to grasp. If "Windows" or for that matter "Apple" can be trademarked, I don't see a reason why "App Store" or "AppStore" (note the capitalization) shouldn't be.
Also, let's pause for a sec and consider the word "app". Yes, the American Dialect Society word of the year, defined thusly:

noun, an abbreviated form of application, a software program for a computer or phone operating system

And this is where I say 'whoa there'. "App" certainly isn't a mere shortened form of "application". First of all, it refers specifically to applications on mobile devices with touchscreens* and applications for Macbooks (notebooks with OSX) that can be purchased through Mac App Store. Thus I have apps on my iPod touch and Palm Pre, but applications and programs on my desktop PC (Windows 7) and notebook (Vista)**. What's more, an "app" in terms of mobile devices isn't just any application for any mobile device. My venerable Palm m105 with Palm OS 5 had applications on it and they sure as hell weren't called apps. And neither are the Java applications on my trusty Siemens U600 or whatever it was I had on the iPaq I borrowed for that one trip back in '02. We all shortened words a lot even back then and yet, somehow we didn't come up with "app". Apple did, some time in 2008 with the introduction of iPhone, no doubt capitalizing on the similarity with company's name. And it's only then that "app" (and, by extension, "app store") entered public consciousness. The use of the term "app" was extended to computer applications with the introduction of Mac App Store last November, once again through concentrated effort on Apple's part.
And secondly, as Ian Bogost points out (via Daring Fireball), an app isn't just any new application. It is, for better or worse, a new way of creating and packaging functionality:

The days of the software office suite are giving way to a new era of individual units, each purpose-built for a specific function... or just as often, for no function at all.

So with all due respect to Ayn-Rand-channeling Mr. Russell Pangborn, an 'app store' isn't just a store that sells apps the same way a 'toy store' is a store that sells toys. It's a whole new platform for providing software, one that Apple invented and one that everybody else is copying. Now I'm no fan of copyright or trademarks, but if trademarks are a part of the system we use to protect intellectual property, then this one should by all rights go to Apple.

* I know, I know, but it's the best definition I can come up with.
** The Google Chrome OS is an outlier, as Google stuff tends to be.


Licia said...

BTW, the exhibits brought forward in Microsoft's motion make for some interesting linguistic reading on the matter. Here is a quote on the American Dialect Society's choice for Word of the Year 2010, which makes one wonder about the timing of the motion!

« […] indeed, the arrival of app stores by Apple’s competitors was cited by the American Dialect Society as of the reasons it chose “app” as its Word of the Year for 2010, even though it was not a new word. Linguist and American Dialect Society representative Ben Zimmer noted:

App has been around for ages, but with millions of dollars of marketing muscle
behind the slogan “There’s an app for that,” plus the arrival of ‘app stores’ for a wide spectrum of operating systems for phones and computers, app really exploded in the last 12 months.

bulbul said...

Hey, where did John Cowan's comment go? I swear it was right here this morning. Stupid Google...

John disagreed and said: For one thing, I have been using app 'application (program)' for a very long time, probably since the mid-1990s (my first Windows was 2.0 in 1988). The phrase "Windows apps" currently gets half a million Google hits. A second's googling finds this 2007 article titled "40+ Free Windows Apps For You", and very shortly thereafter this 2004 Steve Yegge post called "Scripting Windows Apps". So app is not in any way an Apple or 2008 invention."
All very true. And yet, there's an app and there's an app. I certainly don't dispute that the word "app" was used as a shortened form of "application" before 2008 and probably still is. What I'm saying is that the "app" in "app store" and in general usage as of January 2011 is a different word or a word with different meaning - a specific type of software application for a specific device. On this, even Microsoft sort-of agrees. In their Motion for Summary Judgment, they say
"“App” is used in the trade, by the press, by relevant consumers, by Apple’s competitors and by Apple as the name for software applications, especially applications for
mobile devices."

what a remarkable coincidence indeed :)
The whole case is full of interesting linguistic material and so is the entire USPTO website. My favorite so far has been this case with the Armenian word "lavash" at the center.

John Cowan said...

Trademarks aren't just one big flat list of strings. They are partitioned in two different ways, at least in the U.S.:

First, every trademark is applicable only to a certain subject area, and trademarks in different subject areas don't collide even if they are identical. For many years, Apple Computers and Apple Records (the publishers of the Beatles) used the same term "Apple" without a problem, because they were in different subject areas. However, when Apple Computers started to sell music, Apple Records sued — and Apple Computers ended up paying out a hefty sum to license the "Apple" trademark in connection with music.

Second, every proposed trademark is classified as fanciful, arbitrary, suggestive, or descriptive. The distinctions between the first three groups are merely technical; it's the last group that's important here. Descriptive marks merely describe the trademarked object, and as such are inherently not trademarkable (examples: "Fast" modems, "104-key" keyboards, "Tubeless" computer monitors), unless they have acquired in the minds of consumers the function of indicating the source of the goods.

Most computer operating systems provide windows nowadays, so "Windows" is a descriptive mark, and it is only protectable because Microsoft has gone to a lot of trouble to insure that when people see the word "Windows" in connection with computers, they think of Microsoft. Such trademarks are always shakier than the other types. When Lindows Inc. started to sell a Linux-based operating system to compete with Windows, Microsoft sued, and they had to change their company name and product name to Linspire — but it was Microsoft who paid Lindows $$$$$ in the settlement, as well as giving them some rights to use Microsoft patents, now unfortunately expired.

Licia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adrian said...

You really need to change that line: "we didn't come up with "app". Apple did, some time in 2008", since you've agreed that it's not true. According to Google News, "app" was in common use by 2002, with a meaning that I'd say is the same as today - only the devices have changed - and the phrase "killer app" was being used back in 1991, if not earlier.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I don't have my BlackBerry in front of me (can't bring it into the office), but I'm pretty sure it has "apps".

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