Did Ward Cunningham invent linkify prior to Apple’s patent?

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Through my The Tweeted Times I was alerted to the recent issue of Apple’s patent attack
on HTC and Google Android described in Adrian Kingsley-Hughes’ ZDNet article as a “massive patent blow”. Here in July 2011 HTC was found to have infringed two of Apples patents, according to Bloomberg.

One of the two patents in question is U.S Patent 5,946,647 (see also at Google patents). I found a good detailed introduction to the patent and case at FOSS Patents. The patent is filed February 1st, 1996 and has the date August 31st, 1999.

The particular software patent deals with identifying structured elements in a text so it can be linked to “actions” – if I understand the patent correctly. These structured elements could be “a phone number, post-office address, e-mail address, and name.” Identifying the phone number could result in a program implementing an action such as “dialing a number identified by the telephone number grammar or placing the number in an electronic telephone book”. With my quick scan of the patent I couldn’t see that identification of Web links was mentioned.

In Android a related functionality seems to be implemented with the so-called Linkify. As far as I can see the functionality allows you to identify email addresses, street addresses, phone numbers and web links.

It occurred to me that wikis do identification of structured elements: weblinks and CamelCase, – but usually wikis do not identify phone numbers, names and street addresses. Identification of web links are associated with clickable links (well, of course). CamelCase are either associated with links to an existing page or construction of a new page. Ward Cunningham‘s wiki goes back to March 25, 1995. I was not familiar with that early system, but I suppose it had link extraction with regular expressions. So hasn’t Cunningham come up with a linkify functionality for web links already in 1995?

When I was visiting NEC Research Center in Princeton in 1999-2000 several researchers were working with extracting structured elements from texts such as emails, scientific papers and web pages. Andries Kruger constructed a system that would identify names and dates from scientific call for papers. The system is described in DEADLINER: Building a new niche search engine. Kurt Bollacker, Steve Lawrence and C. Lee Giles were working on the CiteSeer system that extracted authors, titles and years among other things from scientific papers. This is described in CiteSeer: an autonous Web agent for automatic retrieval and identification of interesting publications. I also had a go on regular expressions for extraction of structured elements. Most recently I have been working on extracting brain coordinates from neuroscience papers. If you press the “Extract: Talairach coordinates from linked PDF” link on a Brede Wiki page there is a regular expression going over the text in a PDF so individual brain coordinates can be linked up to specialized neuroscientific searches. Similar extraction is happening in large-scale in Tal Yarkoni’s NeuroSynth database, see this entry for an example extraction rendered nicely on a MRI brain scan.


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