Prior Art

Do the tablets in Kubricks 2001 movie constitute “prior art” to the iPad?

This question recently incited much heated discussion on Twitter (( I feel I should apologize to those of you who happen to follow both me and Heilemann on Twitter for having polluted your streams. )). What made this spike my interest in such a fashion is my love for science fiction, and in particular the works of Arthur C. Clarke. Many of his ideas specifically, came to fruition decades later. For example, in 1945 Arthur C. Clarke inadvertently invented satellites. He didn’t patent them; as he put it:

I’m often asked why I didn’t try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, “A patent is really a license to be sued”.

Now Clarke merely described what would later become satellites. He didn’t build one, nor did he design how such a thing looks. And indeed satellites today come in all manner of configurations and designs, yet they are still, clearly, satellites.

These days Apple is busy suing Samsung for infringing on Apples look and feel patents with their Galaxy line of phones and tablets. Put simply, Galaxy S phones are too like the iPhone, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is too like the iPad. While the comparison photos in the suit filing appear to have been doctored (( For example, scaling down the Tab and opening the App drawer for the photo op instead of comparing the homescreen to the homescreen. )), I’m not going to argue that Samsung TouchWiz is inspired by Apples iOS (which it clearly is) (( In fact I loathe Android skins in general and would like nothing more than Apple forcing Samsung to improve, or better yet rid the world of TouchWiz )).

Focusing on what sparked this discussion — could the tablet devices seen in the 2001 movie constitute prior art for the iPad — I do think that’s fair to say and I’ll get to why I think that is. Whether or not they’re merely portable televisions, they are electronic devices and their form factor is certainly strikingly similar to that of the iPad. But is it prior art?

Prior art:

Prior art […], in most systems of patent law, constitutes all information that has been made available to the public in any form before a given date that might be relevant to a patent’s claims of originality. If an invention has been described in prior art, a patent on that invention is not valid.

To be specific, Apple is suing Samsung over 4 patents. Two of those are related to the iPhone form factor. One is related to how iOS works. The fourth patent is over the tablet form factor; here’s the illustration from the patent application:

ipad_patent

If you explore the patent application itself (beware, TIFF file), you’ll note that no specific size is noted in the patent application. The tablet illustrated doesn’t necessarily have a 10 inch screen.

Samsung is in a tight spot. While I find it surprising (and disappointing) that these four patents were granted in the first place, they clearly appear to have been infringed upon. Were I in Samsungs shoes, (and if I were I’d never have released TouchWiz in the first place) I’d be doing everything I could to defend against this suit. Certainly if I was able to find prior art that invalidated any of the four patents in question, I’d look wherever I could, even in my old sci-fi DVD collection. In the case of that one patent Apple has on the tablet form factor, I do see why Samsung would try and invoke prior art on that (though I’m surprised they didn’t pick Picards tablet instead). You see, if Samsung can convince the judge that patent #4 is invalid — that the slabs shown in 2001 are reminiscent of the pencil sketch shown above — it would cut their woes by a fourth.

Samsung is not my favorite Android vendor. They’re not even my favorite hardware vendor. Perhaps it would be good for them to suffer a defeat at the hands of Apple.

But I do consider Arthur C. Clarkes description of a satellite to be prior art. I consider Larry Nivens description of a ring-world to be prior art to the ring shown in the Halo video game. And so, hearing Samsung cite Kubricks tablets as prior art to the iPad is not the dumbest thing I ever heard. Apples tablet is a wonderful combination of a well-designed user-experience and durable, delicious hardware. Even so, the form factor described in their tablet patent is not a unique snowflake, as countless sci-fi authors would have you know.

HTC Desire Review

The Desire is HTCs current european flagship Android phone. Its hardware specs are pretty much the same as those of the Google Nexus One phone, except it’s got physical Android buttons and an optical trackpad. In addition to this, the Desire has HTCs “Sense” UI, a skin that lies on top of the Android operating system.

HTC_Desire

I’m not going to lie, I loathe HTC Sense. These days, Android is riding a rocket to stardom, soon surpassing iPhone as the number one smartphone platform. A rising number of people are going to want an “Android phone”. Unfortunately, they can’t have it, because custom Android experiences like HTC Sense exist (( This is not HTCs fault entirely, I also blame Samsung, Motorola and all the other “skin” vendors. )). Sense brings you a black Android interface that features a flipping number clock up front, and a number of “social” widgets, such as “Friendstream”. If only it stopped there, I believe I could deal with it, after all, Android users can replace their entire homescreen interface with alternatives like ADW Launcher, available from the Android Market. The problem with Sense is that it doesn’t stop there, and I will go in to more detail in a different essay, suffice to say, Sense replaces core apps with HTC specific ones, replaces your lock screen with one that unlocks in your pocket … it sinks its teeth so deep in to Android that the overall experience is diluted and diminished.

HTC_Sense

As for the hardwarewhile on principle I’m against the amount of buttons present, I do appreciate that they’re physical. To be fair, they’re also quite handy once you get used to them.. I find myself missing the back button on the iPad. When I want to call someone, I find it nice and quick to press the search button, type in the first letter of my contact, and then press call. Even so, I’m still opposed to their existance, as they encourage lazy app design. Another boon of having only one a home button is that hardware vendors don’t get to screw around with the order of the buttons (“Back” and “Home” have switched places, compared to the Milestone).

In more comparisons to the Milestone / DROID, the speaker really isn’t that good. It’s not as loud, nor as clear, and the sound is almost scratchy in comparison. I suppose, on the flipside, that the Desire speaker is normal, whilst the Milestone/DROID speaker is phenomenal. Even so, now that I’ve experienced how good a phone speaker can be (my usecase was listening to podcasts in my kitchen, phone in pocket), the lack of a similarly excellent speaker in the Desire detracts from the rating.

The weight and grip of the device is just right, and you’re unlikely to get scratches on this thing. Overall the hardware is very nice.

Verdict

Android_homescreen_cyanogen

So, should you get one? To answer this, you have to ask yourself: are you going to root this phone and install a vanilla version of Android on it? If you can answer yes, well then the HTC Desire may be your dream phone! It’s easily jailbroken using Unrevoked, and easily re-flashed using Rom Manager. You’ll get your phone just like you want it!

Did that last sentence make you throw up in your mouth a little? Well in that case, you don’t want to get the HTC Desire. If you want an Android phone and you don’t want to jump through flaming hoops to get one, I’m so sorry to say that you have only three choices at the moment:

  • US Motorola DROID (not Milestone or any other Droid)
  • Google Nexus One
  • The soon to come T-Mobile G2.

So that’s bad news for us europeans. I can only hope Google changes the terms of use when Android 3 comes; hardware vendors really need hand-cuffs.

In a summary of this odd device, you get two ratings:

  • If you are a nerd and you’re going to the lenghts to “fix” this phone, this is the phone you’re looking for, especially if you’re stuck in Europe. 
  • If you just wanted an Android phone or a phone that works, I can’t recommend the Desire, and unless you’re able to get your hands on a Droid, a Nexus One or a G2, I recommend you buy an iPhone.

Why I Now Believe There Will Eventually Be A Google Nexus Two

A while back, we learned from Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, that the Nexus One was a successful one-shot experiment. Which when translated means: we’re going back to making only software. Now, however, we’re once again hearing rumours of a Nexus Two.

We’ll probably not get one next month, but I now believe we will get one eventually. For two reasons.

Android_homescreen_cyanogen

My current homescreen.

Development

The first reason is that, as an OS maker with an increasingly popular offering, slated (get it?) to soon appear on tablets and televisions, Google will occasionally need updated hardware to internally develop and test for. This was the case with the G1, it’s the case with the N1, and it will be the case with the N2. Probably come Android 3.0 this fall.

Skin Discouragement

The second reason is related to so-called Android “skins”. I’m preparing a larger article on Android skins and the scourge they represent, suffice to say, there’s no such thing as “just an Android skin”.

The point is, there’s a reason for Apples success. It’s the holistic approach to a unified, singularly consistent and polished experience.

Since I bought an HTC Desire, I got some serious time with HTC Sense. Enough for me to root my phone and install a stock Froyo ROM in disgust. Sense may be polished, but it’s not consistent, user-friendly or thought through in the way the N1 is. And I can say that with some confidence as the ROM I’ve installed is pretty much the N1 experience.

So, Google gets it. Apple gets it. Apparently, HTC, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson don’t get it. These dinosaurs clearly have OS envy, which makes them unlikely to discontinue their misguided reskinning efforts in favor of Google Experience phones. Which is why — in efforts to stall this fragmentation — Google will have to lead the Android 3 charge with new hardware that demonstrates what Android is at its best.

This Fall

The bottomline is, Android is facing a serious challenge with the fragmentation. Android is not just an application platform, it’s an experience, and right now Android vendors are showing a surprising incompetence by diluting this.

There’s no doubt Androids success is its openness, and the abillity for Motorola to feel like they own what’s on their phones. But this very openness is what allows them to bundle an uninstallable demo of Need For Speed Shift on the Droid X, or HTC to switch out the stock Contacts app with one that misses the point entirely. Android is a great operating system, make no mistake, and Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Sky Map and all the other fantastic Android apps will run fine on phones riddled with “Moto Blur”, “HTC Sense” or “Samsung TouchWiz”. But the Android experience, the one that has a shot at surpassing the iPhone experience, is riddled with holes. Which is why, if 3rd party vendors can’t make proper Android phones — and I’d argue we have only the Nexus One and the Motorola DROID as proper Android phones — Google will have to do it themselves.

The Travesty That Is The HTC Sense Lock Screen

I can’t believe Apple is suing them for this. It’s really not worth it.

The item in question here is HTCs Sense-branded lock screen for their Android devices such as HTC Desire and HTC Legend:

HTC_Lockscreen

The lock-screen is activated every time you put the device to sleep by clicking the power button. The next time you wake it up, the lock screen is there, waiting for your finger to swipe that grayish handle downwards, ensuring that it isn’t accidentally woken up while in your pocket. Incidentally, that’s exactly what happens.

Vanilla Android – or Google Experience devices (Moto Droid, Nexus One), as well as the iPhone, have lock screens which require you to swipe horizontally, and for some distance as opposed to the meagre centimetre which unlocks HTCs screen. On those devices, the chance that you accidentally wake up and unlock your phone in your pocket is all but non-existant, whereas it’s now happened three times on my HTC Desire. The only solution I’ve found, short of re-flashing the phone with Vanilla Android, is to enable Androids unlock pattern, for an extra layer of pocket protection.

I’m thrilled with Android, and I like the HTC Desire hardware. It is, however, becoming very clear to me that custom UIs is the scourge of Android, and HTCs Sense isn’t all you’ve heard it was. In fact, it’s not sensible at all.

Android: On Context Buttons

Capacitative

David Barnard complains about the capacitative buttons below the Nexus One screen. As I have done in my Motorola Milestone review. But it gets both more interesting and, unfortunately, worse, in the story of these buttons.

There are four buttons (( On some systems, there are only three, the Search button being omitted. )):

  • Back
  • Context menu
  • Home
  • Search

While programmable, the back button mostly works as you’d expect. When in the browser, “back” goes back in history as any browser worth its salt should. When you’ve just started an app, “back” goes to your homescreen. If you’re in an app, browsing menus, back goes to the parent menu. If you’re playing “Solitaire”, the back button has been programmed to undo the last move. This is a very useful button, as useful on an Android handset as in a browser where “back” takes up the prime real estate.

The context menu is an intriguing design. It’s most comparable to what happens when you right-click on a PC: same as if you right-click on your desktop, if you context-press on your homescreen, you get to change the wallpaper. If you’re in an app, context-press invokes the options menu. In both cases, when you press the button, a menu pops out with a context menu: “Wallpaper”, “Share Image”, “Options” and so on. I’ll get to the usefulness of this in a second.

The home button works as the iPhone home button does. It takes you to your homescreen. More than that, if you press and hold the home button, an Alt-Tab like menu showing recent apps is invoked, which is useful if not completely necessary for multitasking. Similarly, the search button when single pressed opens a Google search, whereas a long-press invokes “search by voice” (( Which doesn’t work nearly as well as you want it to, but that’s another story. )).

Useful On A Whiteboard

So, while the first three of these buttons are indeed useful (and I do honest to goodness use them all the time), I would argue that they shouldn’t exist. As compared to David Barnards piece, not for one but for two reasons:

  1. They encourage lazy app design
  2. Like Barnard says: you’ll sometimes hit these buttons when you don’t want to

To elaborate on #1, this is mostly related to the “back” and “context menu” buttons, which you’ll have to deal with if you’re an Android app writer. Obviously, the iPhone does well without these buttons. The back button on an iPhone app is usually an arrow-elongated pill button in the upper left corner (like a browser), and option menus are also usually available from aptly titled buttons. So essentially there’s no reason why an Android app couldn’t work like this. The whole idea of adding these buttons, however, is to save space. On a tiny screen, I hear the initial Android handset designers argue, you shouldn’t have to make space for back and options buttons. Which in theory may be valid, but in actual practice isn’t a problem at all since these screens scroll. The net result is that at least the back and context menu buttons become mystery meat navigation: you won’t know what happens until you press. Potentially disruptive.

Lastly, the fact that these buttons are usually capacitative buttons (as opposed to tactile, pushable buttons) that are placed in immediate extension of the screen, sharing the same glass, means you’ll accidentally hit it once in a while; whether it be in a browser and you accidentally scroll down on the home button, or as in Barnards example, when you press space on the keyboard. Gruber argues, and this is apt, that if you could compare a touch screen to a computer screen, the capacitative buttons on the Nexus One are right in the prime real estate area: the screen edges. Which means they’re easy to hit, even when you don’t want to.

The worst problem with these buttons is that now they exist, both Android and Android apps rely on them. An Android handset without these buttons would be less than useless. That is, unless Google decides to do what’s right as soon as possible and deprecate these buttons, thereby pushing developers to design UI that works without them.

Motorola Milestone (European Droid) Mini-Review

A few weeks prior to the holidays, I splurged on a Motorola Milestone, which is the european version of the US superphone called the “Droid”. I’ve now had the device for day to day use for a couple of weeks, and I’m now ready to tell you that while it’s certainly a great device, it’s not without its flaws. Which deserves a review. For the remainder, I will be referring to the device as the Milestone, but to my knowledge the only difference between the Milestone and the Droid is that Milestone is 3G, has a different boot logo. Plus, “pinch-to-zoom” works in the browser.

The Milestone is gorgeous. It has a really nice rubbery matte feel on the bottom, and the glass is clear, sharp and totally droolworthy. It’s a quite heavy device, more-so than you’d think, which is actually good; it makes it feel as sturdy as it seems.

Certainly, Google Android, the mobile operating system running on the device, is what propels the Milestone to greatness, and make no mistake, this is a great device. Aside from simply providing a super fast and smooth experience, the Google account integration means after the initial setup phase, you already have your your email and your calendar available to you with no extra work. I upgraded from a Nokia phone that was so old that I had no way to export and import my phone-numbers. Which, as it turns out, wasn’t a problem as Android simply imports your contacts, so most of the phone numbers I’d already entered. Which is so great. So, so great.

Daily Use

The phone was purchased to be a sub-sub-notebook on the road, a place to gather my meeting appointments and todo-lists, quickly access email, calendar and some maps. For all those things, Milestone with Android is incredible. I’ve been positively surprised at every turn; this is built smart. Everything works, everything syncs. You can’t not love this.

Transferring data to the device is as easy as connecting the device it to your computer and copying stuff to the SD-card in the phone. Which is such a hammer-punch to Apples brass ones. The sheer bliss it is not to have to open iTunes just to copy music to the device makes Apples handcuffs seem like a mindbogglingly stupid decision. If you add to that the ability to multi-task, for instance editing your calendar and to-do list while listening to a podcast, you’re really looking at a device that’s gunning for great.

The real question is, whether it’s Android I love, or the whole package.

The Good And The Bad

The really great:

  • The Milestone is gorgeous, and not in an “urban hipster” sort of way
  • Sliding out the keyboard is a clickety pleasure
  • The super hi-res WVGA screen is delicious
  • Pinch-to-zoom in the browser works superbly (this is a Milestone-not-Droid feature)
  • While Google Maps features turn-by-turn navigation, you also get “MotoNav”, which’ll further make your Garmin and TomTom obsolete

Aside from this bulleted list, there are some awesome apps on the market which I’m told aren’t available on other platforms. Such as Google Sky, which is like an overlay for a starry night, telling you which stars you’re looking at with surprising accuracy. Also, Google Listen, whose mobile podcasting subscription features rival that of iTunes’ (whose podcasting features have been its sole raison d’etre on my PC).

The not so great:

The capacitative buttons. At the bottom of every Android phone you’re likely to find contextual buttons: back, context-menu, home, and search. While useful (( Pressing and holding the “Home” button invokes an alt-tab-like app switcher )), it’s a problem that they’re in a capacitative glass area that’s part of the screen. Which means if you’re holding the phone in landscape mode and navigating or otherwise dragging the screen content, you’re extremely likely to accidentally activate one of those buttons. Which doesn’t happen a lot, but is really annoying when it does.

Another thing is the fact that most europeans can’t yet purchase paid apps / full-version apps in the Android Market. I’m told this has something to do with carrier billing and Google Checkout not yet available in my country, both issues I don’t care about. I can pay Visa, PayPal, whatever — just let me pay damn you! I shouldn’t have to do the Android equivalent of jailbreaking your phone (“rooting it”) just to buy the full version of Robo Defense!

Going on, I know I should’nt expect much from a mobile camera, but this one doesn’t impress me, despite it being a whopping 5 megapixels.

Most importantly, and probably the biggest detraction from the Milestone is the slide-out keyboard itself. Engineering a phone with a slideout keyboard, I assume, is way harder than building one without it; so there had better be a damn good reason to do so. And yes, using the physical keyboard is better than using the onscreen one. But only a little bit. All the buttons are more or less flat, meaning the difference between using the slideout keyboard and the onscreen keyboard in landscape mode is very little. And very sad. Add to this a directional button thingy to navigate, select and click (the gold thing on the image) which simply never does what you want it to. The bottomline is that the decision to add a slideout keyboard seems like an afterthought. Unfortunately, because I’m a big fan of tactile feedback.

Another thing is the fact that when I walk around with the Milestone, the keyboard will more often than not slide out just a little bit, enough to annoy me (and to activate the screen consuming a few minutes of power) — it betrays the feeling of sturdy; something which can also be said of the battery lid, which hasn’t yet fallen off on its own but feels like it could.

It’s Still A Great Device

The best way to describe the Milestone is that it’s my favourite new device of 2009, despite its qualms and flaws. Most of its troubles feel trivial compared to what you do get, and the rest of the issues are software things Google will probably fix, if not in Android 2.1, then in some undecided future.

That said, the recently rumoured Nexus One seems like the Milestone/Droid without the keyboard troubles, which is simply a phone that’s just a little bit better. If it becomes available to me, I’m selling the Milestone and getting one.

Google Android 2.0 rating:

Motorola Milestone hardware:

Overall:

[Update]:  US Droid phones now have “pinch to zoom” as well.