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A patent filing published for the first time on Thursday notes that it's often useful for a user to be given an indication as to the content of a target file or link, before the user clicks on the user-activatable element that will open the target.
However, the text or icon normally associated with a user-activatable element in today's computer operating systems is typically insufficient to provide a user with enough information to determine whether the target item is of interest.
For instance, the appearance of an on-screen cursor may change to a text entry cursor (vertical bar) when positioned in a text entry field, or morph into a hand or arrow when positioned over a movable object, which offers some information as to the type of input operation that can be performed.
"However, such limited information generally fails to provide useful information about a target item referenced by a user-activatable element," Apple wrote. "In particular, current user interfaces do not generally provide any technique for providing detailed information about a target within a cursor in a manner that is responsive and dynamically controllable by the user."
Instead, the company proposes methods for changing the appearance of an on-screen cursor to provide excerpt of the contents of a target, what applications are available to open the target, as well as meta-data or other descriptive information concerning the target.
One method described in the filing essentially relates to making QuickLook technology — currently available in the Finder of Mac OS X Leopard, and system icons in Mac OS X Snow Leopard betas — accessible to the cursor. In the example shown below, a thumbnail of a web page is displayed natively by Apple's Safari browser when a user places the mouse over a hyperlink.
Similarly, a mouse-over can present the user with an icon representing the type of document associated with link when a thumbnail image is not available or cannot be read quickly enough to provide satisfactory response time.
Launch and operational controls
Most useful, however, are mouse-over events that cause the cursor to produce visual representations of the options available for working with a file or link. In the example shown below, a mouse-over event results in the display of four operations a user can perform on a file, such as a folder of pictures or a video file. Without activating the file, dragging it to a dock icon, or using a contextual menu, the user can choose to initiate a slideshow, email the file, send the file via iChat, or begin playing or displaying the file.
Likewise, the cursor may instead display four applications suitable for working with a file, letting the user open the file within an application other than its default application without having to use a contextual menu or fussing with the Mac OS X dock. For example, a mouse-over event on a text file would allow the user to open the file in either Word, BBedit, Pages, or Text Edit.
The 17-page filing is credited to Apple engineer John Louch.