Monday, November 26, 2012

7 Thoughts on patents, copyright and promoting progress of science and the useful arts.

The Congress shall have Power…To promote the Progress of Science
and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors
the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8
The subject matter sought to be patented must be sufficiently different from what has been used or described before that it may be said to be nonobvious to a person having ordinary skill in the area of technology related to the invention. USPTO

Hi there, I'm MrCopilot. I develop solutions, usually involving a general purpose computer and some clever arrangements of words and numbers. I am a product of the digital age, I grew up with technology in an era when it was just peeking its head into homes and business. I recall the brief flirtations with red LED watches, laser discs, the advent of the home computing, networking, email, 300 baud BBS ..., and on through to the present day where everyone is interconnected by multiple devices per person. I have come to understand a few things that are seemingly nonobvious to the major players in the information technology industry based on the current court dockets.

1) Software is already covered by Copyright law.
Program = collection of words, numbers and symbols. 
Book = collection of words, numbers, and symbols. 
Both offer the Author protection for his "writings" as defined above. Many tend to depend on that protection in the free software and open source world that I prefer to live in, and many more depend on it in the closed source world that I tend to not visit often. It needs no further protection. You can't use it unless I give you permission. Feel free to implement your own version or licence it under my terms.

2) No piece or collection of software is an invention.
It is software. It is writings, it is math, it is function.
That interpretation immediately precludes the issuance of any Software Patent. Unfortunately, that interpretation has not been the prevailing one by those in charge of issuance. Consequently we have battles in courts across the country about whether a programmer can develop utilizing in-app payments, device manufacturers having to change software because it allows a user to slide to unlock or universally search their device and internet.

3) It is all obvious.
Every single piece of software ever written could be written by any other programmer of ordinary skill in the area of technology related to the software. The level of sophistication, abstraction, design, and elegance would vary, but given the same input nearly all competent software developers can accomplish whatever is asked. 

4) General Purpose Computing promotes the useful arts. Limiting their functions, development, deployments and sales does not.
Any software designed to run on a general purpose computer should be free from patent infringement as by definition of its use it is promoting the useful arts. Banning the import and sale of a general computing device based on software it contains is as ludicrous as banning a book for the ideas expressed as to similar to previous works. Essentially, "You can't sell a dictionary, We already sell a dictionary."  The implementation of an idea may be patented, but the idea may not. and yet, that is what I see in every software patent case I come across. 

5) Software & Hardware development move at different time frames from each other and "real time".
The current Patent grant of 20yrs is 4 to 10 lifetimes in the technology world. 5yrs is ancient in terms of hardware, The useful lifetime of a typical "novel' software innovation is limited by what it runs on and the constraints of the day. New interfaces, increases in computing power, memory capacity, easy networking and other improvements render old solutions unnecessary and obsolete sometimes in the time frame of months. In software we keep what we need, and incrementally improve it, but also cull out the cruft, thin out support for ancient hardware and disused protocols.  Extended exclusivity of a certain function, feature or description implemented in software ensures it will never be useful to anyone but the patent holder, in other words the opposite of progressing the useful arts.

6) Patents have become weaponized.
A competitive advantage can be gained by disrupting normal operations of your competitors with long, costly legal battles and filed injunctions across the globe (even when you have no actual hope in winning in the end). If you can afford it and they can't. If you can get a temporary ban, well, than that is even better for the bottom line. Patent abuse is as old as patents themselves. The modern equivalent is something far worse, far more destructive to actual innovation than any abuse seen before. 

7) Only Congress has the power to affect the changes required to solve this problem. 
They set the rules, the limits, the renewal fees and time frames through legislation. That gives you the voter a lever to use to help solve this problem. This gives me both hope and dread. Hope that the problem rises to the level of congressional action (no easy feat), Hope that enough people pay attention for a minute to whatever godawful first draft comes outta the House subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, and properly raise SOPA type hell. Yes, it is really Chaired by Ben Quayle! Dread rising...

Fortunately many agree that there is a problem. The scope and severity is debated internally but many are of the opinion that something must be done and debates over possible solutions are occurring regularly.

SCU put on a lovely conference about what can be done.
Groklaw has a decent overview written by a thoughtful attendee.
Wired is running an extended series of opinion pieces done by industry figures entitled The Patent Fix

Facts figures, news and analysis

Pay attention and make your voice heard.

Now if you will excuse me I have some useful arts that need promoting.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Onlive Desktop or Windows for Android

OnLive Desktop is an Android or iOS App that gives OnLive users their own Windows 7 machine in the cloud. For free users have touch enabled desktop access, Microsoft Office, and some cloud storage.

Why? Full versions of Microsoft Office that will render and edit your documents with perfect fidelity, if you are in to that sort of thing. Also you'll be running a fresh clean Windows install, remember what that was like?

If you want access to speedy flash enabled browsing on your tablet, or customized desktop, be prepared  to shell out $5 a month. Might be worth it to you if your tablet has a fruit on it.

Upon loading, the os syncs your Documents folder to your user account. You can upload files and documents at Which would seem a fairly painless way to test cross platform websites during development on the go. IE will let you browse local html files. It certainly less stressful than trying to run a vm on your hardware.

Unfortunately running foreign exes is a no- no. So if running portable apps or testing your own is important, that will cost you 9.99 a month. Bummer,  really wanted give Blender a spin. Plan details.

Windows on a tablet is even less attractive proposition than Windows on a desktop. The technology is interesting, but with Windows as the only non enterprise consumer option, the appeal wears off rather quickly for this user. Something tells me OnLive Desktop could be an interesting tool for developer testing purposes, if the chains were loosened a bit. As it stands, stick with their gaming service which has the good sense to hide the Windows running underneath.  


OnLive Cloud Gaming for Android, PC Gaming is Dead, Long Live PC Gaming.

Abstraction is a prime mover of technology. Innovation gets all the press, but more often than not, that innovation is actually just abstracting away of existing technology. So it is with OnLive.
In a sentence, OnLive is an instant on subscription service for streaming PC Gaming.

The key abstraction here was to pull the hardware requirements away from the customer. The client has the requisite screen, input and sound hardware,  and OnLive has the hardware that runs the  game, and the software to stream the game video and audio to your screen and speakers as well as carry your inputs back to your game. Similar to the way various remote desktop and vnc software works, but If you have used a vnc client,  your first thought was probably "graphical performance will be hit or miss, laggy and highly unpredictable." That is where OnLive has spent its R&D dollars over the last few years. Compression and optimization, to allow multitudes of gamers access to a fairly sizable and eclectic library of pc games. In addition to trailers and allowing users to become spectators and cheer or jeer the players for free, Onlive allows free timed trials of many games, a definite improvement over relying on reviews and boxart as your purchasing metric.

Users are given a chance to have or watch a real players experience and decide whether this is or is not your type of fun. Since they are just streaming the game to you, streaming the video to multiple clients needn't even require that much technical wizardry, It is highly impressive to use though.  

OnLive has either very deep pockets or very favorable developer licensing terms, probably both. A look at the breadth of content available and the various pricing levels shows a depth of target market strategy that is kind of brilliant. OnLive checks all the focus group boxes, no matter whether you are a Mac, PC, iPad or Android Gamer. None of the above, no  problem, they sell a console or a seperate controller too.

What kind of Gamer Are You?
  • Rental Gamer Day passes 2.99 5.99
  • Subscription Gamer Netflix: 9.99 all you can game 150 game play pack.
  • Purchase Gamer: Full Game at varying discount prices  4.99-54.99
  • Bargain Bin Hunter: Frequent Bundle Sales and Discounts
  • FreeLoader Timed Trials
  • IndieGamer Nice library  of  Indie Hits and releases
  • Parent: Instant Library  Play Pack + Console
OnLive Play Pack gives you  access to over 100 games pulling from every genre for about the price of 2 AAA games a year, $9.99 a month. Not bad if you have always on internet with a decent speed above 3Mbits recommended.

Lets take a look at the OnLive Gaming experience for Android. (Android Market)

You get 2 choices of Android client. Spectator Only, works well on our Logitech Revue for a bit of gaming voyeurism on the big screen.

Fully compatible Android devices allow actual gamelplay. OnLive is quick to point out they are adding more tablets and phones to the fully compatible list everyday.

While OnLive has customized some games to enable touch only controls, the majority require at least a mouse and keyboard.

The android client is every bit as smooth as on the PC and Mac, same Ozymandias wall of screens showing live games you can drop in and out on to watch or play. Gameplay is surprisingly fluid and the visuals are frankly amazing.

As long as you keep a good wifi signal, compression artifacts are hardly noticeable.

Take a few steps outside your wi-fi zone and things get blocky, and you get warned before OnLive drops you out of the game completely.

Find yourself a good internet connection, an OnLive client and have yourself a afternoon of gaming. Watch em, Try em, Buy em, Rent em, Subscribe em.

With a bit of manual Wine tweaking or the help of the linux gamer tool playonlinux, you can run the client on your Ubuntu box as well, checking off the last box, Console, Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, and Linux.

PC Gaming is Dead, Long Live PC Gaming.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Asus Transformer Ice Cream Sandwich and a Bluetooth Keyboard

Text input on a touchscreen device is a necessary but painfully evil problem. It is true there are a few on screen keyboards are better than others, high  praise akin to the improvement in soup with the addition of 1oz versus 4oz of rat poison. OS vendors  and device manufacturers are well aware of the problem, which results in a plethora of on screen keyboard choices, varying degrees of annoyance inducing autocomplete and text prediction engines, and hyper active haptic feedback complete with IBM selectric sound effects, and finally with the admission that the problem just cannot be solved,  most devices support bluetooth, usb or/and hardware keyboards.

When choosing which new device to purchase for everyday usage, you need to consider your needs carefully along with your budget. Last year, when in  need of a tablet for a development project, we took some time to consider the use cases and set up some sensible requirements.

  •  Recent Android OS
  •  External SD or microSD Storage 
  •  Keyboard Support
  •  Large Tough Screen 
  •  HDMI Out
  •  Capacitive Touch Screen
  •  Reasonably Priced
  •  Front and Rear Cameras
  •  No Contract

Google handed out the initial batch of Honeycomb Xoom tablets at their annual Google IO conference, making it the odds on favorite. Despite being Google's official Android development device, the Xoom version released for sale was far less attractive, being overly high priced and shipped knowingly with non functioning SD reader hardware/drivers. Briefly the Atrix was a possibility with their linux based webtop dock, but after a few too many complaints from friends, slow to non existent updates and Motorola was off the list.  

Acer and Asus had dueling 10 inch tabs with virtually identical specs. Acer's Iconia line offers full size usb ports, while Asus has a nifty if a bit pricey physical keyboard dock equipped with an extra battery "transform"ing it into a first class Android net/notebook with a ridiculously long time between required wall wart copulations.

Foolish nights investigating the many thousand variations on 6 or 7 Chinese designs wrapped in horrid iPad plastic cases, attached to flaky resistive touchscreens and oddball screen sizes with stale Marketless versions of Android. Low memory, low on storage, missing features, every corner cut twice, In a word cheap. The whole lot of them come off the list.

An unexpected sale knocking $99 off of any tablet forced a decision with the Asus Transformer (TF101) winning out in the end.

6 months and 4 timely over the air updates later, Ice Cream Sandwich in the last one, (thanks Asus), there are no regrets save one, purchasing the slate without the keyboard dock. But In a household with 5 Android devices and counting, the expense just wasn't justifiable for a single device keyboard and without impending trips away, the standard battery lasts long enough for my daily usage. However, as usage increased, the realization that a real keyboard was needed to fully utilize the technology productively. The on screen is fine for a quick chat or post but tedious for any sort of long form communication and you can forget coding.

Unlike the Acer and Xoom tablets, Asus has a proprietary connector for charging, data  USB, and docking. If you would like to attach a USB device, like say, a keyboard, an additional $40 USB adapter or the $150 keyboard dock is required, leaving Bluetooth as a real alternative.  

Once upon a time you could pick up a bluetooth keyboard for a song. But then someone figured out that ant Bluetooth  keyboard works on an iPad and therefore should cost near as much as Apple's keyboard. Look at this list from Staples

Apple Wireless Keyboard $69

Apple makes some mighty fine hardware, but pairing it with my droids feels like it would be wrong. Not ironically enjoyable wrong, like pairing Microsoft's mouse and keyboard with a linux box ( bonus achievement for plugging in a wired Xbox360 controller, another for doing so without actually owning a 360.) Truthfully this is one of the finest wireless keyboards ever available and you could do much, much worse.

Logitech Android Keyboard $69
Logitech has been making keyboards for nearly the entire history of consumer computing. Our Logitech Revue's keyboard is brilliant and would be perfect at home if not for its oddly named unifying wireless protocol. No usb port, no unifying adapter. Not to worry Logitech has you covered with a solid slim chicklet keyboard with Android specific keys and a clever case that does double duty as a stand when not holding the keyboard.

Microsoft Mobile Keyboard 6000 $89
They make plenty off money off Android devices they don't really need your $90, which is why you can find it online for around 40 or 50.
We'll pass without review.

Model specific Case and Keyboard Combos
For Transformer owners this option is fairly far off the table. Third party case and cover makers rightly assume if you bought a Transformer and want a keyboard you probably want the Asus keyboard dock eliminating the need for a cover. If you are a Xoom, Iconia,  Thrive, Kindle Fire, or iPad owner there is a plethora of folio style case/keyboard combos  available from $40 through $199. 

Various roll-up, fold-up or micro sized keyboards

If you are pretty sure you'll always be typing on a hard surface, a roll-up wireless silicone keyboard might be up your alley for $49 to $59.

The fold out portable keyboard has been with us since the early days of palm and pocket pc devices, and most still feel like they are breaking if not with every keystroke, then during the origami storage and unfolding rituals. pass.

The tiny remote sized keyboards might be great for texting but would be clumsy to  use on a table top and repetitive multi-modal shifting required for anything but the alphabet earns them a pass as well.

Generic Bluetooth Keyboards
You might expect there to be a sea of choices under this heading, but once you lop off the high end close to or more expensive than the Asus dock, the list gets paired down quite a bit to a few wireless standard pc keyboards that use bluetooth, a few mac keyboard clones, and a very few generic tablet\iPad.

With the full size PC keyboards, although your fingers might find them comfy and homey, they do not travel very well.  The mac clones are of questionable quality yet priced at nearly the same cost as Apple's  aluminum beauty, better off spending the extra $19. So our test bench is graced with something from the generic tablet  / iPad category from a manufacturer familiar with tablets, designers of many a case, aCase.

$39 Acase(TM) Ultra Slim Bluetooth Keyboard Stand for Any Tablet PC / SmartPhone
Slim and sexy, the smoke grey folio cover closes with large magnetic tabs that when open attract to form a sturdy enough stand to support nearly any tablet or phone in either orientation. The all black interior and width might fool you into thinking it was made for the Asus Transformer. When closed up, it is so thin that even in its packaging it was delivered in a priority mail envelope. Placed on a flat surface the keys seem to rise up from the surface lending comparisons of a supermodel draped over one of David Coverdale's sports cars not entirely unjustified.  When was the last time a keyboard could make that claim?   

Android 3.x devices and higher work fairly seamlessly with nearly any HID Bluetooth keyboard as does iOS. Testing with our newly Ice Cream Sandwiched Transformer, setup was a breeze. Turn on Bluetooth from the status bar, search for devices, select, enter the number on the keyboard and you are paired and ready to go. After 10 minutes of inactivity the keyboard goes to sleep, Android's Bluetooth status notification turns grey, touch a key too wake it back up and the status bar indicator lights blue. As a nice touch if you are currently editing text when the keyboard nods off, the onscreen keyboard pops up, when you wake up the bluetooth keyboard, the on screen keys hide automagically. A small but delightful thing.

Layout and Keys
Very much in the vane of other folio style keyboard cases, with a single piece of silicon covering all the keys, providing both the spring for the keys, as well as keeping dust and the occasional splashes of carbonated beverage from invading its innards. The keys feels spongy to type on but are spaced well and after a while your fingers get used to the odd way each button travels when depressed.  The qwerty layout is complete with F1 through F12, del and backspace, and arrow keys. Noticeably absent were pgup, pgdn, home, end, and damn it all, the right hand shift key. Clearly marketed toward iPad customers, the fn, control, alt/option and command keys are to the left of the space bar. An Apple Home/Back rectangle button lurks ominously in the top right corner and function as a Home button in Android.

Android Function Key Mappings
f6 Search works like a dedicated hard search button, within an app with search capability it shifts focus to the search box.
f7 Previous Track,
f8 Play/Pause
f9 Next Track
f10 Mute
f11 Volume +
f12 Volume -
All of the media keys work perfectly and will not interrupt your current app or activity.

Through sheer rote testing, we have found a few more hidden shortcuts for Android as well that are universally available even while within any app.
Command P    opens Google Music App and shows current playlist. (does not start playing)
Command C    opens Contacts App, or the People app in Ice Cream Sandwich.
Command A    opens the Calculator Application
Command L    opens the Google Calendar
Command M  opens Google Maps
Command B   opens the Browser.

and Hey, what do you know...
Command UpArrow is PgUp
Command DownArrow is PgDn
Esc = Back
The control and alt keys appear to not function in any apps, (current vim is a bit of a challenge without control.) The habit of shift arrow highlight, ctrl-c and ctrl-v is a tough one to break even after the third time watching your text be replaced with a "c" followed by the futile attempts to undo adding "z","z","z" and realizing that block of text is now also gone into the aether.

OK  here is where the Acase falls a bit short. comfortable enough to type on, it has a rather annoying habit of randomly repeating keys. Admittedly, re-editing occasional double esses is still miles less frustrating than the every other word correcting the onscreen hoists on you. All hail the arrow keys which make quick work of these edits. It should be noted that on at least one occasion, possibly due to a low battery, there was a mad dash to try and stop the keyboard from backspacing over an hour of work, flipping of the keyboard's power switch ended this writer's newest nightmare. So far at least, after a good charging, that issue has yet to recur. Too soon to gauge the battery life, but the ever so helpful manual claims:
Maximum working time:25 days
Uninterrupted Working time:90 hours
Standby Time: 100 days
Not bad from a 4 hour usb drip charge.

The rest of the manual is dedicated to pairing with your iPad. The box however, is quick to point out just how device agnostic it is, and I quote:
"The case with slim and lightweight
also functional to folding into a stand,
such  as iPad, iphone 4 and majorities of tablet PC can be using this keyboard,
the main material of Silicone, thickness within 1.35cm,
"ULTRA SLIM, light and easy to carry
even vacating more space"

Add in the extra points for engrish hilarity, the utility of editing and working with a whole page of text at a time unobstructed, a very nicely angled stand, Android 4's elegant integration,  subtract the annoying repeating and slightly spongy keys, and Acase still manages to squeak out a buy recommendation, well worth the $39, especially if you have multiple smart devices around the house.

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