In the last couple of years a lot of iOS and Android apps have begun implementing a very simple and intuitive method to refresh pages. You simply scroll up to the top, and then keep scrolling. In most cases an arrow and the phrase "pull to refresh" (or some variation thereon) will appear. Pull just a little farther and voila! your page/feed/inbox/whatever will refresh.
When Loren Brichter's Tweetie 2 hit the App Store in the fall of 2009 it was a major hit. The Twitter client was a ground-up rewrite of its immensely popular predecessor, and it brought a host of new features. One of those new features was "Pull To Refresh." So popular and intuitive did the feature seem to many that it wasn't long at all before it started to pop up in other applications as well. Now, just over two years later, a wide array of apps - not just Twitter clients - include something similar. It's in countless Twitter apps, including Echofon, Tweetbot, and others. It's also in the official apps for Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google Voice, Google+, and numerous others. There are even iOS jailbreak tweaks that bring it to Safari and Mail.
That last one - the jailbreak tweaks - raises an interesting question: if "pull to refresh" is so wildly popular and included in so many apps, why don't we see it in, say, iOS? Why hasn't Apple implemented it in Mail or Safari themselves? The answer appears to be that Twitter has a pending patent application for the feature. On April 8, 2010, several months after Tweetie 2 was published, Brichter filed an application for a patent on the feature. Later that year Twitter decided to expand their offerings by entering the world of mobile apps. Rather than hire developers and built their own Twitter client, they took the easy route: they found the best Twitter client available at the time - Tweetie 2 - and they bought it. Brichter went to work for Twitter and Tweetie 2 was quickly rebranded as Twitter for iPhone (and iPad, and Mac), and Twitter became the owners of the patent application.
At the time, that fact wasn't widely known. Yesterday, though, Dustin Curtis posted details of the patent application. Curtis suggested that Twitter's patent application was the reason the pull-to-refresh feature wasn't more widespread. The application's abstract describes "[m]ethods, computer readable media, and apparatuses for providing enhanced user interface mechanics" dealing with "a scrollable list of content items" and "a scrollable refresh trigger." The full patent application can be found here.
Now, if the application is granted, it could spell trouble for all those apps that have implemented this feature. If Twitter is granted the patent and decides to pursue those who infringe it, they could be forced to either sign licensing agreements or face legal action. Fortunately, however, there are indications that Twitter may not be interested in pressing the issue. According to a report today by MacStories, Loren Brichter has said that although he can't discuss the details of the situation, "I don't think people have anything to worry about."
If Brichter is right, then that is good news. While there are questions about whether the pull-to-refresh feature is too generic to be patented, it isn't really in anybody's interest to force the issue in court. Twitter has yet to speak on the issue, however. A request for comment has not yet been answered.
What do you think? Is "Pull To Refresh" to generic to be patented? Should Twitter press the issue if the patent is granted, or just leave it alone? Does your favorite Twitter client use "Pull To Refresh"? What about other apps? Let us know in the comments.