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May 28, 2008

Electrovaya settles patent infringement suit

An interesting situation: An intellectual property company named Typhoon Touch Technologies announced Electrovaya had settled a patent infringement lawsuit by Typhoon and Nova Mobility Systems "for an undisclosed sum representing a royalty payment of at least 20% on past and future sales of its Scribbler Tablet PCs in the United States. Additionally, Electrovaya formally recognized the validity of Typhoon’s patents at issue in the litigation and acknowledged infringement of one or more of the patent claims." (see here)

20% on past and future sales of a tablet? Wow! And recognizing the validity of a patent? That's even more amazing given the vague and confusing nature of many patents. So what is this patent for? That would be US patents 5,379,057, issued January 3, 1995 and 5,675,362, issued October 7, 1997. They both have the same abstract:

"A portable, self-contained general purpose keyboardless computer utilizes a touch screen display for data entry purposes. An application generator allows the user to develop data entry applications by combining the features of sequential libraries, consequential libraries, help libraries, syntax libraries, and pictogram libraries into an integrated data entry application. A run-time executor allows the processor to execute the data entry application."

The drawings accompanying both patents show a tablet computer like the ones Momenta, IBM, NCR, GRiD, Samsung, Fujitsu, Dauphin, TelePad, Toshiba and many others offered for sale in the early 1990s. The picture on the right shows the drawing included in the 1995 patent and a couple of computers that precede it. The two computers I added for comparison's sake are a 1993 IBM ThinkPad 700/710 and a 1992 Dauphin DTR1. On the surface it's hard to see how a 1995 patent for a "self-contained general purpose keyboardless computer" could impact a 2008 Electrovaya slate when numerous companies made such computers already in the early 1990s. Then again, patents are finicky things and their interpretation is up to courts.

Anyway, the patents in question were issued to Microslate, a company that was certainly a pen computing pioneer with its ultra-rugged Datellite touch screen computers (see one of our early reviews of it in Pen Computing here).

Interestingly, Typhoon also sued Dell, Xplore, Sand Dune (the Tablet Kiosk folks) and Motion for infringement on touch screen technology and seeks damages for lost profits. Motion reached some sort of settlement. Typhoon apparently thinks that the patent in their possession covers just about the entire mobile market: "manufacturing, selling, offering for sale, and/or importing a variety of portable computer products, including but not limited to tablet PCs, slate PCs, handheld PCs, personal digital assistants (PDAs), ultra mobile PCs (UMPCs), smart phones, and/or other products covered by the patents-in-suit."

The suit has a co-plaintiff in Nova Mobility Systems, located in Tempe, Arizona. Nova, interestingly, offers the SideARM handheld. The SideARM was originally conceived by long defunct Melard and then became part of Microslate's lineup, the very company that was assigned those two patents. Typhoon's Form 10QSB shows that they bought the patents from Nova Mobility and agreed to pay them a 10% royalty from enforcements. So Microslate, an early player in the rugged slate market, sat on the patents all this time, then sold them, and now they are supposed to cover virtually every mobile device ever made even though such devices existed long before the patents? Elegant.

We're all in favor of respecting intellectual property, but figuring out what exactly that means isn't always easy. When I was a kid many decades ago I envisioned a little black box that told me everything I wanted to know by simply asking a question and let me communicate with anyone who had one. I doodled drawings of it. Does that mean I own the exclusive rights to cellphones, smartphones, Google and the entire web? Sadly not. But it would really be nice to at least have 20% of all those sales.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:36 PM | Comments (0)

May 26, 2008

XP Embedded: When benchmarks lie

Providing rugged mobile computers is a constant exercise in trade-offs and balancing. Screens get bigger and brighter, processors get fasters, disk larger, and customers want all that, without paying for it in the form of larger batteries and more weight. The problem, really, is that battery technology has not kept pace with the rest of the circuitry inside a computer, and so batteries struggle to provide enough juice to keep everything running for long. When you think about it, it's pretty bizarre that the very machines that are supposed to go as fast as possible often annoy their users by constantly trying to go to sleep, stand by, hibernate or shut off. Or that they come factory-configured to run at half speed and with the backlight dimmed.

The increasing power demand of the latest electronics (and in the processor department, their cost) has driven many manufacturers to look for alternate solutions. One is to pick a much simpler processor that consumes a lot less power. That approach, however, has its own problems. Two primary ones, in fact. The first is that customers think a machine with a "slow" processor cannot possibly be very powerful. And second that, in fact, it isn't. Fortunately there's a solution, albeit one that is only suitable for certain tasks and applications.

An embedded operating system.

See, a general purpose OS, like Windows XP Professional, is just that, general purpose. You can do anything you want with it, and run anything you want on it. With that in mind, Microsoft equipped Windows XP with all the drivers and software and utilities one could possibly need. The result is a rather large operating system with numerous processes and services running all the time, all consuming memory and power, and having the potential to slow even a powerful machine to a crawl.

An embedded operating system is totally different. The idea is to only use what you need to perform a certain task and leave everything else behind. This greatly reduces the size of the operating system and dramatically reduces hardware requirements. XP Embedded is generally used for smart, connected and service oriented commercial and consumer devices that do not need all of Windows XP, yet can still run thousands of existing Windows applications. An embedded OS can easily be as small as 40MB and it's even possible to cut it all down to around 8MB with a bootable kernel.

XP Embedded is not one-size-fits all. A company will determine exactly what a machine is for and what it should be able to do. They then include as many components (hence the term "componentized" operating system) as they need. There are over 10,000 available and it's easy to create lean, nimble embedded OS platforms that can still do sophisticated high level tasks like advanced multimedia, browsing, communications or whatever a task requires. An embedded OS can even run as a real-time OS via third party plug-ins. Essentially you get the power of the basic Windows XP engine, but without any overhead you don't need.

Which means that in an embedded systems machine, benchmarks do not necessarily tell the true story. They simply measure raw power, but not how efficiently that power is put to use. What all this boils down to is that a mobile computer with an embedded OS can be much faster than you'd think it is based on its hardware specs. In fact, we reviewed some that were so quick that almost no one would believe they ran on a low-power, inexpensive processor and just a minimum of RAM. So benchmarks would tell one story, real world performance another.

This is not to say that an embedded OS is the perfect solution for all mobile computing tasks. But it can be for organizations that build their own customized, componentized OS. And for those who have very clearly defined applications that work within the confines of an embedded OS.

Posted by conradb212 at 03:50 PM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2008

What happened to Symbol!?

Symbol Technologies was always one of my favorite companies. I visited their headquarters in Holtsville, long Island several times over the years and always came away impressed with their sleek designs and willingness to try out new ideas. That feistiness carried over into some aggressive acquisitions (like the bitter fight with Telxon) and, after some financial incongruencies, the sale of Symbol itself. Now Symbol is part of Motorola, but it isn't very clear what kind of part.

A good year or so after the acquisition Symbol seems to have been halfway absorbed into Motorola, but if you go by the Motorola website it's almost impossible to figure out how. Symbol is only listed as carrying bar code scanners, mobility software, and OEM scan engines, but no longer any handheld computers. The former Symbol handhelds have become sort of stateless, popping up under "Mobile Computers" without any brand name at all. So the former Symbol MC50, for example, is now just a "MC50," presumably somehow by Motorola.

It's actually quite sad to see all that. Symbol's once proud state-of-the-art handhelds now languish, carrying on in some way with dated processors and even more dated software. Some have unceremoniously been discontinued whereas others seem destined to just die from neglect. The MC35, MC50, and MC70 had a very promising career ahead of them when they were introduced, but now they are aging rapidly. The emphasis appears to be on the big and fairly conventional MC9000 Series of handhelds. They come in a variety of permutations with various size keypads, and they remain reasonably up-to-date with Windows Mobile 5.0 and Marvell (why does almost everyone still call them Intel when Intel sold the business a long time ago?) PXA270 processors.

There may well be method to this madness, and the decision to focus Symbol entirely on scanners may be a good one. Obvious it's not. And it's truly sad to see Symbol's proud legacy of handheld computers rapidly go to seed. I mean, make them part of.... SOMETHING!

Another sad thing is Motorola's website itself. It must rank right up there with the most confusing, least user-friendly ones I've seen. It's not surprising the company is in such trouble. The impression you get along every step of the way is, "We don't know who or what w are, or what we want to be!"

Frankly, as is, I think Symbol, and its customers, would have been a whole lot better off with Symbol intact and independent. Spin them off so they can get back to business, Motorola.

Posted by conradb212 at 01:21 AM | Comments (0)

May 06, 2008

A video says more than a thousand pictures

While it's still not entirely sure how the YouTube phenomenon is changing our view of the world, changed it has. Initially we thought YouTube and its many competitors were simply repositories for stuff people recorded off TV, but that has changed. These days, if anything happens anywhere, whether it's important or not, it'll be on YouTube in a moment.

However, the YouTube phenomenon has also led to entirely more serious changes in how things are being portrayed to the world. Specifically, video is being used to show what products can do. But that's not new, you might say. No, the idea of using video to highlight a product is not new, but the way video is being used now is. In the olden days, videos were mostly polished commercials, the kind we watch on TV (unless we have TiVo). YouTube gave video sort of an underground flavor. It's not glitzy footage created by Madison Avenue types, but clips done by us, the people.

Last fall, for example, we thought it might be fun to do an underwater video of one of the products we reviewed. It was by no means professional quality; we just used a little Casio digital camera with a YouTube mode. Then we set up a tripod in a pool, I donned my scuba gear and, bingo, video of a handheld computer being used underwater. This went up on YouTube with a rather innocuous title, "Trimble Nomad computer goes diving." Amazingly, even with this non-provocative title and very utilitarian keywords (trimble, tds, rugged, scuba, waterproof), the video has been viewed over 4,000 times in the few months since. Another one we did a bit later, of the Juniper Systems Archer Field PC, has also been viewed almost 2,500 times. Hmmm....

Turns out, an increasing number of entrepreneurial companies are taking advantage of the YouTube phenomenon by rolling their own underground videos. One of our sponsors, MobileDemand, has been playing a leading role by creating a number of videos that demonstrate the toughness and ruggedness of their xTablet slate computer. The result is a series of increasingly better and more outrageous videos that are both funny and compelling. While I never warmed up to Panasonic's omnipresent "Legally we can't say..." commercials/videos/billboards/print ads, MobileDemand makes their point much more convincingly (and at infinitely lower cost). And while the origins of the idea are clearly based on the YouTube syndrome, MobileDemand is running its videos on Blip.tv which has much better video quality.

If you haven't seen one of the MobileDemand videos you can do so right here by running the clips embeded in this paragraph. You see their flagship product being tossed around, thrown off a hill, and strapped to the top of a car and taken through a car wash. In a loose adaptation of the MIL-STD-810F "drop test" (officially called MIL-STD-810F Method 516.5, Procedure IV -- Transit Drop), you see the xTablet being dropped, rapid-fire, 26 times. To drive the point home they use the computer to pound a nail into a wooden board. All the while, video is running on the computer's screen so you can see that it still works and never skips a beat. That's pretty clever. Oh, and knowing that outdoor footage of a screen that is not outdoor-viewable isn't exactly compelling, the MobileDemand folks smake sure it's abundantly clear that theirs IS outdoor-viewable. It's all done in a fun, "YouTube" way. To demonstrate that their tablet's display, usually the most vulnerable part of a rugged computer, can take a direct hit, they drop a full beer can onto it. And then, to make sure folks realize that a beer can dropped from a few feet packs a punch, they drop one onto a guy's midsection. Ouch!

A video can clearly say more than a thousand pictures. That's because we've all become jaded with mere images. We all know how easily they can be edited, modified and faked. Video, that's another story. It's hard to fake a video of a guy hammering a big nail with his computer. Which means, for now, demonstrating products on funky videos is a great idea. It certainly doesn't replace images or the printed word as video is a serial medium that you pretty much have to watch from start to end as opposed to glossing over "random access" print.

Posted by conradb212 at 07:59 PM | Comments (0)