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Apple wins portable device UI 'scroll bar' patent

Apple on Tuesday was granted a patent for the implementation of the transparent disappearing vertical and horizontal scroll bars seen in lists on mobile operating systems like the company's iOS.

In a surprisingly fast turnaround for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple won U.S. Patent No. 8,223,134 for "Portable electronic device, method, and graphical user interface for displaying electronic lists and documents " a little over four months after the property was initially filed for in March.

The '134 patent covers both vertical and horizontal scroll bars seen when moving through a digitally represented list like a music playlist or message thread. Also covered is any type of "digital document" or image that cannot be fully displayed on a portable device's small screen.

In its filing summary, Apple notes that the patent was created in response to the limited screen real estate users have to work with on today's mobile devices. To save precious pixels the patent's inventors, including iOS chief Scott Forstall, envisioned a disappearing contextual scroll bar on the right and bottom edges of a display that allows mobile users to keep track of where they are in a given list or image.

From the background:

As portable electronic devices become more compact, and the number of functions performed by a given device increase, it has become a significant challenge to design a user interface that allows users to easily interact with a multifunction device. This challenge is particular significant for handheld portable devices, which have much smaller screens than desktop or laptop computers.

Apple's disappearing scroll bar patent illustration. | Source: USPTO

According to the patent the scroll bars will appear when an object like a finger comes in contact with a multitouch screen, when a list is first displayed as well as other instances where navigation is needed. The bars slowly fade when they are no longer needed based on time set by the mobile OS leaving the screen free of distracting UI elements.

Adding to the functionality is dynamic contextual resizing based on how long a list or how large an image is being displayed. For example, if a list contained only three items, the vertical scroll bar would likely fill the entire right edge of the display while a list with 100 items would prompt the bar to shrink.

Scroll Bar Size
Illustration of dynamic UI asset resizing. Note the smaller vertical scroll bar.

Apple has recently adopted the iOS-style scroll bar in its most recent desktop applications with mixed results, though the real issue could be the Android mobile OS which uses an identical UI element. Just as the iPhone maker has successfully leveraged previous graphics patents against Google's OS it may do the same with Tuesday's granted property.