Firstly I should qualify post by saying I’m not a “patent troll” nor do I agree with the mess that is “software patents” in the US. However in my previous life I worked in R&D at British Sky Broadcasting and part of my job was to create Intellectual Property that Sky could turn into new products and services.
On the left is a drawing from UK Patent Application GB2455331 created during my career at Sky, on the right is the “Personalize Google News” feature rolled out by Google last year. I find the resemblance in user experience and function to be remarkably similar. I should mention that while I’m named as one of the inventors I no longer work for Sky.
If your interested in the backstory please read-on.
Back in 2007 I had an informal meeting with a colleague James Weeks in Sky News to talk about some new ideas for the website. Rather than operating a stringent project management regime, R&D was very informal for small speculative projects.
We distilled the idea down to a very simple concept:
“get more people to watch video clips on the Sky News website, and for longer…”
To facilitate this we needed to personalise the content offered to each user based on a set of implied or explicit preferences. The video content had to be ‘fresh’ and condensed into an allotted amount of time. The idea being if you are a regular Sky News visitor, you should always get the freshest and most relevant content in a tiny 5, 10 or 15 minute package.
We nicknamed the project “Sliders” because a key part of the user experience was a slider-control to express their like or dislike to a category of news. I spent a couple of days working on it, built a system for scraping all the existing video content and automatically classified each to their top-level categories “UK”, “Sports”, “Business” etc.
For example a piece mentioning Gordon Brown would be classified for both “UK” and “Politics”, whereas a clip about David Beckham would be classified as “Sports” and “Showbiz”. Of course, a production version of this would have a Content Management System and a team of people classifying each video but this was just an initial prototype.
The following week I presented the initial clunky prototype (above) with a User Interface knocked up as a Adobe Flash application. It was an absolute hit, the concept gained a lot of attention over in Sky News and both myself and James moved on to set out how we could do this properly as a new Sky News service.
Prototype to Production
Both myself and James invested a lot more time on this little project, James had access to news presenters and editorial staff to create some bespoke video clips (short, medium & long version) to help realise our “timeline” concept. I set about making a robust back-end service to store user preferences and history as well as making significant improvements on the algorithms. With the help of a UX designer I overhauled the user interface and imbued it with the look & feel of the Sky News brand.
After a couple months concerted effort we were ready to take it to a small field trial. Feedback was great, a few minor tweaks to the user interface made all the difference. A couple of weeks later the “beta” was migrated to the live Sky News website and promoted on the homepage. Within minutes of going live we had users trying it out, a comment form on the same page captured feedback from users and I conducted analysis on the logs generated on the backend.
After a few months and hundreds of thousands of users it quietened down. The button promoting it on the homepage was replaced by the next-big-story, however the widget lived on for those with the direct link or bookmark. Eventually both myself and James were too preoccupied with other important projects to give it the care and attention needed and it was mothballed in 2010.
Unbeknownst to me at the time Sky’s Intellectual Property team had been busy preparing a patent application for the concept from the start. Only six months ago I discovered UK Patent Application GB2455331 was granted in June 2009 with both myself and James Weeks listed as the inventors.
The patent makes a number of claims around the ‘media server’ functions, how it interacts with users and prepare/deliver content for their devices be it PC, mobile or set-top-box. I should mention that it’s not explicitly laying claim to the “slider” control itself, but its function in relation to expressing like/dislikes and what the ‘media server’ then does in response.
Lastly, there are a number of drawings that depict aspects of the system including the prototype user interface.
While I am a fan of Google products and services, it’s been a long while since I used Google News. In fact, it was only today I mis-clicked “News” on my way to “Gmail” when I noticed the “Personalize Google News” widget (screenshot below).
The personalization widget is on the top-right, much like with Sky News Sliders – you set the positions (postive or negative) and the server tailors News content to match your preferences. Arguably Google News is a ‘media server’ in much the same way the patent describes, it is also performing the same functions.
Now I’m not an IP lawyer but I’m sure it could make for an interesting conversation between Sky and Google.