Will Amazon's Cursor Patent Lead To Manipulated, Unintended Clicks?

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In online, when does anticipating a user's likely move and making that move easier morph into imposing what the retailer wants the shopper to do? Can the programming power to make a site visitor's cursor go where the retailer wants—and to specifically click on what the retailer wants clicked, such as "click here to purchase"—be something merchants can be expected to be disciplined about using?

This ethical and marketing question (now there are two words rarely seen together) is prompted by a patent granted to Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) on February 26. That patent discusses using what Amazon calls "gravity-based link assist" to guide a cursor to where the system thinks the shopper wants it to go. And to do so more quickly than some systems can.

Although the patent specifies that this approach can be used in laptops, tablets and a wide range of other devices, its initial focus is on ebooks. That is because of a very specific technical issue: ebooks often have much slower refresh rates, so slow that shoppers can be confused about whether they have successfully clicked a link.

"In devices that employ a display with a relatively short refresh time (e.g., a cathode ray tube (CRT) display, a liquid crystal display (LCD), etc.), the visual confirmation is provided almost immediately after the user provides the input," the patent application said. "However, some devices employ displays that do not have comparatively fast refresh times. Such displays, like an electronic paper display employed in eBook reader devices, often do not provide the same immediacy of input feedback. Instead, there may be a perceptible delay between when a user provides input and when that input is visually displayed on the screen. This delay can be confusing to users, because they are not sure whether the device registered their input at all. Complicating matters is that some of these same displays employ larger pixel granularity. As a result, it may be more difficult to identify the location of the user's intended input on the screen. In some extreme cases, the user may unintentionally activate a different object or link. This can be frustrating to users, because they are not sure why the device registered their input in that way, and it may take multiple additional inputs to unwind the incorrect selection."

And when that incorrect selection involves authorizing a payment, that "unwinding" might be particularly difficult and possibly expensive.

The application defines "a relatively long refresh rate" as being an update that takes more than 15 milliseconds to show the change on the screen. "Typically, electronic paper displays have display update times greater than about 100 milliseconds and, in some implementations, displays may have display update times greater than about 250 milliseconds."

That's the idea behind this patent; namely, it can provide a way to tell a shopper a link has been clicked and to do so faster than the machine could on its own. "Gravity-based link assist may be used to provide visual confirmation of the user's input more quickly, thereby removing uncertainty in the mind of the user about whether an input was received. In at least some implementations, the gravity-based link assist may be provided more quickly than a display update time of the electronic device."(By the way, this application includes more delicious examples of classic legalese. For example, how would you define a mobile device? This is how Amazon's lawyers did: "A nontransitory computer-readable medium having computer executable instructions encoded thereon, the computer executable instructions, upon execution configuring a processor to perform operations comprising: rendering a graphical indication of user input as part of a graphical user interface." It's the "executable instructions upon execution" that makes it lyrical.)

The application spoke at length about how the full control of the mouse clicks can be retained by the retailer.

"Pointer gravity parameters may be predetermined or user configurable to set a threshold distance from a clickable link where a gravitational field becomes active. The rate of deceleration for gravitational field activation may also be predetermined or configurable by the user and may differ for various types of links. For example, links represented by images may have a stronger gravitational pull than that of textual links," the application said. "When a link has weaker gravity, the pointer may move through the region or field with less delay, and may even appear to skip over the link more quickly, than in comparison to pointer movement through links with stronger associated gravity. Along a trajectory, when a pointer decelerates within a gravitational field of a navigation element, gravity-based link assist automatically positions the pointer at the assisted-center of the associated link."

Can users resist or override the strong gravitational suggestions made by these sites? Yes, but it will take some effort. "Links may be configured to have a stronger gravitational pull or enhancement in some situations. In various implementations, the pointer gravity application may exert a gravitational pull that keeps a pointer at an assisted-center position for a period of time," the application said. "In such implementations, a user may overcome the gravitational pull by continuing to move the pointer or accelerate out of the gravitational pull."

Used as described—to help a shopper using a slower piece of hardware—it's innocuous and helpful. Indeed, it could be very helpful for E-tailers that would otherwise be losing purchases their customers want to make. That said, there is a clear potential for abuse here.

This abuse could easily hurt E-tailers that do not succumb to these temptations. That would happen if abuse became rampant enough that shoppers started avoiding online purchases for fear of their mouse following orders from someone else.

The problem, of course, is if this results in unintended purchases on sites—such as Amazon or Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iTunes—that already have payment data on file and use some form of one-click. Would some sites roll the ethical dice, assuming some percent of unintentional purchases will not be challenged?

For what it's worth, Amazon—under its current management—is not likely to even consider such a tactic. But if this gravitational approach gets widely licensed or, more likely, the idea is widely copied without the benefit of a paid license, the potential for wrongful use is very much there.