On Tuesday, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted the Mac maker patent number 7,434,177 titled "User interface for providing consolidation and access." The 20-page filing outlining the principles behind the Dock and its magnification component is credited to Jobs, in addition to well-known Apple interface designers Bas Ording and Donald Lindsay.
Apple now retains the exclusive right to prevent others from making, using, selling, or otherwise employing replicas of the technology in their own products. Under United States patent law, that right typically extends 20 years assuming the company keeps up with routine maintenance fees due 3Â½, 7Â½ and 11Â½ years following the grant date.
Since the release of Mac OS X 10.0 in 2001, the Dock has been one of the most prominent features of operating system's user interface, serving as a centralized and resizable launch pad for applications and document files.
Over the years, the Dock has evolved in both appearance and function, gaining a 3D look and most recently assuming the role as a container for Stacks, another organizational feature introduced alongside Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard.
Although CDE — a similar interface element for flavors of the Unix operating system — preceded Apple's implementation by approximately 8 years, the origins of the Mac OS X dock date back even further. It was actually conceived in the late 80's and release in 1989 as part of Nextstep, an operating system developed by NeXT Computer, a company Jobs founded after being ousted from Apple a year earlier.
When Apple purchased NeXT for $429 million in December of 1996, it absorbed the company's assets and intellectual property, which include the Nextstep operating system.
It should be noted, however, that the patent awarded to Apple this week doesn't grant the company broad ownership to the principles behind software-based application trays. It instead pertains to aspects of a dock specific to the company's implementation, primarily its magnification component and ability to display application names as a user cycles through its icons.
For more on the history of Dock, please see AppleInsider's three page report: Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Dock 1.6