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‘Pull to Refresh’ function patent could fall into Twitter’s hands

by Phil Hornshaw

A lot of attention has been paid to the very specific interface feature of some social networking apps lately, mostly because it’s Twitter, and not Apple, who might end up owning that particular piece of intellectual property.

According to a story from TechCrunch, the “Pull to Refresh” feature seen in some apps, like Twitter and Facebook, isn’t making its way into Apple’s first-party core apps because Apple doesn’t own it, Twitter does. Or at least, Twitter might, if it’s granted a patent filed back in 2010 called “User Interface Mechanics,” which claims to own the technology of issuing a command by pulling down on a menu on a touchscreen device.

In fact it was Loren Brichter, the app developer who created Twitter client Tweetie, who filed the patent. Since then, Tweetie was acquired by Twitter itself, along with the patent application as well. The actual patent hasn’t been granted yet, because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a lot to get through and can move rather slowly, and in the meantime, other apps have been making use of Pull to Refresh – among them, third-party Twitter clients such as Tweetbot.

As the TechCrunch story points out, that may well be the end of it. Brichter has said he wouldn’t enforce the patent, and while he doesn’t speak for the larger company that is Twitter, at least right now, Twitter has nothing to gain from smacking third-party developers with the Pull to Refresh patent. Tech companies patent things all the time that they might not ever use and very well may never enforce; as the story mentions, many patents are held defensively just in case.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll never be in Twitter’s interest to use the patent to make grief for someone. If you need a precedent for that scenario, just take a look at the various throw-downs happening between Apple and other smartphone companies, such as Samsung and Motorola, in which the companies are pulling out lots of patents to use against each other. Some of those patents are even being invalidated and could potentially have some far-reaching effects. If the same happened with Twitter over Pull to Refresh, just by way of example, it could be tough to see how many other apps would be affected and what the overall fallout might be.

So it seems the reason that Apple hasn’t thrown out Pull to Refresh for its apps is that it’s avoiding a potential vulnerability. That might not be the case forever, though: for one thing, Apple and Twitter have a pretty cozy relationship right now, with Twitter baked pretty deeply into the entire iOS 5 experience. And as TechCrunch notes, Apple uses Pull to Refresh in its internal apps – so maybe it’s only a matter of time until Apple’s public apps include the feature as well.