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Archive for the ‘iPhone’ Category

Tsera, LLC v. Apple Inc. et al. Patent troll?

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Here’s a little fairy-tale about what might have happened: Chuang Li took an idea to his boss at Actiontec who determined that it wasn’t of interest to the company and told him the idea was all his if he wanted to pursue it. Chuang ultimately refined the idea into the user interface that would become ubiquitous on MP3 players. The Patent Office rejected his application on a technicality. Chuang labored for years patiently jumping through hoops for the patent examiner while educating him on the validity of his claims. When the patent was finally issued, Chuang took it to Apple and requested a reasonable compensation for his idea. Unable to reach agreement with Apple after five years of effort, Chuang found a reputable firm of New York lawyers who were willing to take the case on a contingency basis.

Now here are some facts: the slashdotscape is alive with outrage about another patent lawsuit, this time filed by a company called Tsera LLC against Apple and 18 other companies over a touchpad interface to personal media player type devices (iPods).

Tsera was formed a couple of weeks ago on July 10th, and has filed no ownership or officer information with the Texas Secretary of State. Its registered agent is National Registered Agents, Inc. of New Jersey. Five days after the company was formed, Chuang Li, the inventor of US patent number 6,639,584 assigned that patent to Tsera. That same day Tsera filed suit in the notorious U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. Tsera’s attorneys are Kaye Scholer LLP of New York (specifically James S. Blank, Patricia A. Carson, Leora Ben-Ami, Oliver C. Bennett and Tsung-Lin Fu.) Tsera’s local counsel are Jack Wesley Hill and Otis W. Carroll of Ireland, Carroll and Kelley, P.C. of Tyler Texas.

The complaint reveals that Tsera has no parent corporation, and that no public company owns 10% or more of its stock.

The original application for patent 6,639,584 was made exactly ten years ago, on July 29, 1999. At that time (and still) the inventor, Chuang Li was apparently working for Actiontec Electronics, Inc. of Sunnyvale, CA. Chuang Li did not assign the patent to Actiontec, although other patents he applied for around that time were assigned to Actiontec. Companies like Actiontec normally require their workers to assign all the intellectual property they generate, especially when it is relevant to their business. Actiontec makes an MP3 player called the PocketRave.

Chuang Li’s application was rejected on October 9, 2001, just two weeks before Apple launched the first iPod (which did not have a touch-sensitive interface.) Three months later, on 28th January 2002, Chuang Li submitted an amended application, which was again rejected, in November 2002. In May of 2003 Chuang Li appealed the rejection and submitted another amendment. The appeal was ultimately successful, and the patent was issued on the 9th of October, 2003.

Looking at this chronology, you can see that the patent application was amended after the July 2002 launch of the touch-wheel iPod. Numerous rejections and resubmissions are common in the patent process, but they can be symptomatic of a “submarine patent,” where an inventor (famously Jerome H. Lemelson) files a vague patent and tweaks it over the course of several years to make it apply to some successful product that has appeared in the interim. The most egregious type of patent trolling is when the patent at issue is meritless, but the troll demands a settlement that the defending company determines is cheaper to pay than to go to court over.

The Tsera patent doesn’t cite as prior art Xerox’s US Patent 5596656, filed in 1995 and issued in January 1997. The basic idea of the Xerox patent is to replace a keyboard by forming strokes on a touch-pad, while the basic idea of the Tsera patent is to replace buttons and knobs on a portable electronic device by forming strokes on a touch-pad. The Xerox patent has a system of “unistrokes” on a touch-sensitive surface that can be performed “eyes free” and in which unistroke symbols can “correlate with user invokeable control functions.” The Tsera patent has a “device controlled by a user tracing a command pattern on the touch-sensitive surface with a finger,” “without requiring the user to view the portable electronic device,” with each of the “patterns corresponding to a predefined function of the portable electronic device.”

These descriptions actually apply better to the iPhone and the iPod Touch than they do to the canonical iPod touch-wheel, where the annular touch sensitive surface doesn’t really accommodate free-form strokes.

The Xerox patent was the subject of extensively reported litigation running from 1997 to 2006.

The Xerox patent, which is prior art to the Tsera patent, includes free-form touchpad strokes used as control functions. I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that application of this same idea to portable devices would have to be non-obvious or the term “control functions” would have to be narrowly defined in order for the Tsera patent to be valid.

Is Tsera acting as a patent troll? You be the judge.

Skype for iPhone

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Well, that last post on the likely deficiencies of VoIP on iPhones may turn out to have been overly pessimistic. It looks as though Hell is beginning to freeze over. Skype is now running on iPhones over the Wi-Fi connection, and for a new release it’s running relatively well. AT&T deserves props for letting it happen – unlike T-Mobile, which isn’t letting it happen and therefore deserves whatever the opposite of props is.

6 hours after it was released Skype became the highest-volume download on Apple’s AppStore. In keeping with Skype’s reputation for ease of use, it downloads and installs with no problems, though as one expects with first revisions it has some bugs.

My brief experience with it has included several crashes – twice when I hung up a call and once when a calendar alarm went off in the middle of a call. Another interesting quirk is that when I called a friend on a PC Skype client from my iPhone, I heard him answer twice, about 3 seconds apart. Presumably a revision will be out soon to fix these problems.

Other quirky behaviour is a by-product of the iPhone architecture rather than bugs, and will have to be fixed with changes to the way the iPhone works. The biggest issue of this kind is that it is relatively hard to receive calls, since the Skype application has to be running in the foreground to receive a call. This is because the iPhone architecture preserves battery life by not allowing programs to run in the background.

Similar system design characteristics mean that when a cellular call comes in a Skype call in progress is instantly bumped off rather than offering the usual call waiting options. I couldn’t get my Bluetooth headset to work with Skype, so either it can’t be done, or the method to do it doesn’t reach Skype’s exemplary ease of use standards.

Now for the good news. It’s free. It’s free to call from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world. And the sound quality is very good for a cell phone, even though the codec is only G.729. I expect future revisions to add SILK wideband audio support to deliver sound quality better than anything ever heard on a cell phone before. The chat works beautifully, and it is synchronized with the chat window on your PC, so everything typed by either party appears on both your iPhone and PC screen, with less than a second of lag.

After a half-hour Skype to Skype conversation on the iPhone I looked at my AT&T bill. No voice minutes and no data minutes had been charged, so there appear to be no gotchas in that department. A friend used an iPod Touch to make Skype Wi-Fi calls from an airport hot-spot in Germany – he reports the call quality was fine.

The New York Times review is here

Wi-Fi and the Mobile Internet

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

Admob periodically publishes numbers on the mobile Internet and its usage. The numbers are badly skewed because of Admob’s customer mix. For example Indonesia lists as the second largest mobile Internet market in the world. But if you make your own mental adjustments for this, the numbers are informative.

Admob’s latest report highlights Wi-Fi use in the USA.

Of the ad requests fielded by Admob, in August 2008 9% came from Wi-Fi capable devices: dual-mode phones, iPod Touches and Sony PSPs. In November this number doubled to 19%. Since the numbers for August aren’t broken down, it is uncertain which devices drove this growth, but my guess is that it is due to the booming sales of the iPhone.

Of the requests from Wi-Fi capable devices, the proportion that came over Wi-Fi varied radically. For the iPod Touch and the Sony PSP, 100% of the requests were over Wi-Fi. No surprise there. But on the phone side, a very interesting discrepancy between the iPhone (42% of requests by Wi-Fi) and the HTC phones (16% of requests by Wi-Fi). Since each of the phones uses the same browser for cellular data and Wi-Fi connections, it can’t be an ease of use of the Internet issue. Two other possibilities come to mind: the Wi-Fi may be easier to set up on the iPhone than it is on the HTC phones, or the cellular data speed may be worse on the AT&T network, driving the users to Wi-Fi, while users on T-Mobile (where all the HTC phones listed in the report are) get acceptable performance from their cellular data connection.

The Blackberry data casts a similar light on the question. The two Blackberries in the report were the 8820 and the 8320. The 8820 had the same profile as the iPhone – 40% of the requests came by Wi-Fi. The 8320 had even less Wi-Fi use than the HTC phones – only 8% of the requests came by Wi-Fi. These two phones are both on the same carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile), they have the same Wi-Fi chip (from TI), and their specs are similar.

The clue is in their release dates. The 8320 has been out on T-Mobile for a year, but was not yet released on AT&T in November when AdMob collected their numbers. The 8820 was released by AT&T a year ago, but by T-Mobile only 6 months ago. There are obviously a lot of other variables at work – like 3G versus 2G, for example, and pricing structure, but this looks like evidence that the T-Mobile data network has a more acceptable performance than AT&T’s.

A not so perfect Storm

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

The Verizon Storm may be heading for failure in more than one way. A raft of reviewers, led by David Pogue of the New York Times are trashing its usability. This means that even with the marketing might of Verizon behind it it may not fulfill its goal of being a bulwark against the iPhone in the enterprise.

But the Storm was an experiment in another way by Verizon. The other three major American mobile network operators have capitulated to Wi-Fi in smartphones. Against the new conventional wisdom, Verizon decided to launch a new flagship smartphone without Wi-Fi. The Storm looks like a trial balloon to see whether Wi-Fi is optional in modern smartphones. If the Storm is a success, it will demonstrate that it is possible to have credible business smartphones without Wi-Fi. But if it turns out to be a flop because of other factors, it will not be a proof point for Wi-Fi either way.

But Wi-Fi is a closed issue by now for all the network operators, perhaps even including Verizon. Phones have lead times of the order of a year or so, and controversies active back then may now be resolved. Verizon covered its bets by launching three other smartphones around the same time as the Storm, all with Wi-Fi (HTC Touch Pro, Samsung Omnia, Samsung Saga).

Before its launch, AT&T hoped that the iPhone would stimulate use of the cellular data network. It succeeded in this, so far beyond AT&T’s hopes that it revealed a potential problem with the concept of 3G (and 4G) data. The network slows to a crawl if enough subscribers use data intensively in small areas like airports and conferences. Mobile network operators used to fear that if phones had Wi-Fi subscribers would use it instead of the cellular data network, causing a revenue leak. AT&T solved that problem with the iPhone by making a subscription to the data service obligatory. T-Mobile followed suit with the Google phone. So no revenue leak. With the data subscription in hand, Wi-Fi is a good thing for the network operators because it offloads the 3G network. In residences and businesses all the data that goes through Wi-Fi is a reduction in the potential load on the network. In other words, a savings in infrastructure investment, which translates to profit. This may be some of the thinking behind AT&T’s recent acquisition of Wayport. The bandwidth acquired with Wayport offloads the AT&T network relatively cheaply. AT&T’s enthusiasm for Wi-Fi is such that it is selling some new Wi-Fi phones without requiring a data subscription.

The enterprise market is one that mobile network operators have long neglected. It is small relative to the consumer market, and harder to fit into a one-size-fits-all model. Even so, in these times of scraping for revenue in every corner, and with the steady rise of the Blackberry, the network operators are taking a serious look at the enterprise market.

The device manufacturers are way ahead of the network operators on this issue: the iPhone now comes with a lot of enterprise readiness Kool-Aid; Windows Mobile makes manageability representations, as does Nokia with its Eseries handsets. RIM, the current king of the enterprise smartphone vendors also pitches its IT-friendliness.

Wi-Fi in smartphones has benefits and drawbacks for enterprises. One benefit is that you have another smart device on the corporate LAN to enhance productivity. A drawback is that you have another smart device on the corporate LAN ripe for viruses and other security breaches. But that issue is mitigated to some extent if smartphones don’t have Wi-Fi. So it’s arguable that the Storm may be more enterprise-friendly as a result of its lack of Wi-Fi. Again, if the Storm becomes a hit in enterprises that argument will turn out to hold water. If the Storm is a flop for other reasons, we still won’t know, and it will have failed as a trial balloon for Wi-Fi-less enterprise smartphones.

More on voicemail transcription

Saturday, August 9th, 2008

In a previous posting about Jott, I mentioned GotVoice. I spoke with Colin Lamont, the VP of Sales and Marketing at GotVoice the other day. GotVoice is a voicemail-to-email company with some interesting claims. First, it collects voicemail from all your voice mailboxes: cell phone, company, personal, then it transcribes it to text and sends it to you by email and SMS.

GotVoice sells its service directly to end users, and also licenses it to service providers. The largest end-user company that has licensed it to date has about 1,000 employees. The largest service provider licensed to date has 13 million subscribers. Most wireless companies bundle voicemail for free, so GotVoice appeals to them as a way to glean revenues from their voicemail repositories. Many service providers have cobbled-together networks formed by a series of acquisitions. For these, a by-product of the GotVoice service is that it pulls all their voicemail systems from multiple vendors into a unified system.

GotVoice claims that it works with any voicemail service. This is technically challenging. There are about 8 major systems vendors from whom telephone service providers buy voicemail equipment, and each of those providers has multiple iterations of its products. So GotVoice has done extensive work first to integrate with all of these by dial-up emulation of a user, then by direct access through the system APIs for service provider deployments.

A second collection of GotVoice special sauce is in their transcription technology. GotVoice has established an exclusive partnership with an ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition) vendor, working together to achieve a remarkable level of accuracy for automated recognition. The basis for this accuracy is twofold. First, it is tailored to voicemail, which tends to have a relatively consistent structure. Second, GotVoice had a non-transcription voice mail service for a few years, and amassed collection of archival voicemails from hundreds of thousands of users with which to train their recognizer. As a result, GotVoice claims 90% recognition accuracy, compared with 60%-65% from rivals.

This high accuracy enables GotVoice to depend less heavily on human transcribers. The obvious benefit of this is that their cost of doing business is lower because they need less workers. A less obvious benefit is that GotVoice claims greater confidentiality than its competitors. The agents who transcribe the parts that the ASR misses are presented only with small fragments of speech, and with a list of guesses from the recognizer. This means that the overall meaning of the message is less likely to be revealed to call center workers.

GotVoice charges $0.25 for each transcribed voicemail, with a minimum of $5.00 per month for the service.

GigaOM reviewed GotVoice in February. The review elicited some informative comments from users of various similar services.

I haven’t tried GotVoice yet, mainly because my current setup works well enough that my motivation to change is weak. I don’t have all that GotVoice offers, but I do have a single voice mailbox with a visual list of its contents.

My personal unified voicemail system is very simple. I only give out my landline number, which is provisioned to forward on busy/no answer to my cell phone. That way I pick it up on my desk when I am in the office and when I am out of the office the call rolls over to my mobile phone. If I don’t answer it there, it goes to voicemail. So all my voicemail is on the mobile.

Since my mobile is an iPhone, I get a nice visual voicemail interface. For each voicemail it shows the Caller ID and the time, though of course no text indicator of the contents. Unfortunately the iPhone visual voice mail has an irritating flaw: there is a long pause (4 or 5 seconds), between pressing the play button and starting to hear the message.

Jott for iPhone and other ASR products

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

In a previous posting I wished for an iPhone voice memo recorder, and I was disappointed to find that the 2.0 software load still lacked one. I now conclude that this was an intentional omission, yielding the opportunity to the new iPhone third party software community.

Last week I downloaded Jott, a free application, from the iTunes store. It is a serviceable voice recorder, so my wish is fulfilled.

But the beauty of the third party software community concept is that motivated, talented people in hungry startups will go beyond what’s justifiable in a large company like Apple, and this is what Jott has done. It doesn’t just record voice memos, it transcribes them into written text.

It works very well. It uses people to do the transcriptions. I am not sure if the utterances are preprocessed with Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) and transmitted to humans for verification and correction, or if it is entirely done by people in a call center somewhere. When I mumble the text comes back as “Unclear,” but I can still play back what I said and recognize it for myself.

There are a few other transcription-type applications out there. Spinvox and PhoneTag transcribe voicemail into SMS and email. A great idea. Nuance, the world leader in voice recognition technology, announced a similar service in April.

In contrast to the foregoing, Yap is 100% automated, so to avoid mistakes it has the user verify its efforts. You speak the text you want to send as an SMS (or that you want to search the web for) and Yap renders it as text on your phone’s screen. You correct it and send it off. Yap doesn’t appear to be deployed yet.

Similar to Yap, but already deployed in the real world is Vlingo. I went to the Vlingo website to download a trial, but didn’t when I discovered I would have to buy a Blackberry to try it on. Vlingo was recently adopted by Yahoo! to power its onSearch mobile product. Nuance is suing Vlingo for patent infringement. Nuance has announced an application like this for the iPhone, but a search for “Nuance” in the iTunes store doesn’t yield any results for it yet.

Another ASR granddaddy is Tellme (now owned by Microsoft), which powers the Sprint Live Search service. Tellme also lets developers do free hosted low-volume implementations of their concepts in VoiceXML.

Getting back to my iPhone wish list, I am still baffled as to why it doesn’t do cut and paste. The argument that it would require an awkward user interface was exploded a year ago.

Update July 25th: I neglected to mention some other voicemail transcription services. Here is a comparative review of GotVoice, SpinVox, YouMail, and PhoneTag.

Ask and ye shall receive

Friday, March 7th, 2008

Ken Dulaney, Gartner VP distinguished analyst and general mobile device guru, told the crowd at the Gartner Mobile & Wireless Summit today that he still can’t recommend businesses adopt the iPhone — even with an SDK. Dulaney said that he recently wrote Apple a letter in which he outlined several things Apple would need to do with the iPhone before Gartner could change its mind about it. The directives included:
– Permit the device to be wiped remotely if lost or stolen
– Require strong passwords
– Stop using iTunes for syncing with a computer
– Implement full over-the-air sync for calendar and PIM

Jason Hiner, TechRepublic March 5th, 2008

On the same day Dulaney said this in Chicago, Phil Schiller of Apple was holding a news conference in Santa Clara granting some of these wishes, and many more:

  • Microsoft Exchange support with built-in ActiveSync.
  • Push email
  • Push calendar
  • Push contacts
  • Global address lists
  • Additional VPN types, including Cisco IPsec VPN
  • Two-factor authentication, certificates and identities
  • Enterprise-class Wi-Fi, with WPA2/802.1x
  • Tools to enforce security policies
  • Tools to help configure thousands of iPhones and set them up automatically
  • Remote device wiping

At the news conference Apple wheeled out several corporate endorsers: Genentech, Stanford University, Nike and Disney.

At first blush, the new enterprise-oriented capabilities of the iPhone appear to be an IT manager’s dream come true (though it will be a while before the dream is a reality.) Even this contrarian post concedes that it will make the iPhone more competitive with the Blackberry, while faulting Apple for not having a comprehensive enterprise strategy.

Apple is clearly serious about the enterprise smartphone market, and this strategy is sound. The business market supports price points that easily accommodate the iPhone, and this strategy spills over to the business PC market in two ways: today by acting as a door-opener for Mac sales, tomorrow by evolving the iPhone into a PC replacement for many users.

iPhone 3G, SDK, enterprise orientation

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

UBS thinks that the 3G iPhone will be released mid-year. iLounge reports that the much-anticipated iPhone SDK will be delivered in June, at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. A beta version will be released at an announcement event on March 6th.

There are several reports that Apple intends to target business users with the iPhone, competing with Blackberries, Nokia’s Eseries and Windows Mobile devices. Since the SDK reportedly will expose interfaces to the phone and Wi-Fi, developers of Wi-Fi soft-phones and enterprise Fixed-Mobile Convergence systems will presumably add iPhone support to their existing Symbian and Windows-supporting products. It remains to be seen how easy it will be for developers to actually get their software “officially” onto the iPhone. Apple can choose their degree of open-ness from a variety of options discussed here.

For Apple to aim at the business market makes a lot of sense. With the successful transition to Intel processors Macs already run Windows natively, and iPhones are supposedly making inroads among executives. According to ChangeWave, summarized here, the iPhone has a 5% share of corporate smartphones already, with astronomical ratings for satisfaction.

To make enterprise IT departments happy, though, Apple will have to make the iPhone more manageable; either by building in OMA DM like Nokia with the Eseries, or by letting third parties develop enterprise manageability clients using the iPhone SDK.

Competitors aren’t sitting still for this. The October 2007 announcement of “Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager” was a step forward for Windows Mobile in the enterprise. Microsoft is also leaking stories about how when Windows Mobile 7 is released in 2009 it is going to be more of a pleasure to use than the iPhone. It is conceivable, I suppose, but Microsoft’s track record on usability is pretty consistent. The fundamental part that they invariably seem to get wrong is instant response to user input.

iPhone thirty to fifty times better than other phones?

Monday, February 18th, 2008

Owners of iPhones know that web browsing on the iPhone is a completely different animal than on any other cell phone. How different? Well, it would appear to be thirty to fifty times different.

Thirty times is difference in data usage between iPhone users and others on the T-Mobile network in Germany, according to Unstrung.

Fifty times is the difference in the number of Google searches by iPhone users compared to others according to Google.

Open wireless handsets and networks for America?

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

I have previously written about OpenMoko. It seems now that it was the drop before the deluge. Google’s Android appears to have gained good traction with Sprint and T-Mobile joining the Open Handset Alliance, with Dell rumored (update) to be planning an Android-based phone, and with Verizon expressing lukewarm support. Nokia has for some time sponsored open source handset software through Maemo.org, but this week it upped the ante with its acquisition of TrollTech. Trolltech is responsible for Qtopia, a semi-open source platform used in Linux-based phones. That makes four credible Linux-based mobile phone software platforms. Update: Make that five – the LiMo Foundation is a consortium of carriers (including NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone), phone makers (including Samsung, Motorola and LG) and others “dedicated to creating the first truly open, hardware-independent, Linux-based operating system for mobile devices.”

But a phone doesn’t have to be open-source to be an open application platform, and this category is just as vigorous, but better established. Nokia’s Symbian phones have always been open to an extent – there are over 2 million developers registered in Nokia’s developer organization, Forum Nokia. Then we have Microsoft. Microsoft claims that sales of Windows Mobile phones are set to double year-on-year, to 20 million units. Windows Mobile provides a sufficiently open application environment that applications like Skype run on it. The iPhone is not yet officially an open application environment, but there is still a healthy slate of applications from third parties for those with the stomach to take the unofficial route. This is scheduled to change in February when the open-ness goes official with the release of Apple’s SDK for the iPhone. So that’s three major open application environments for smart phones.

2008 is also the year that Wi-Fi phones will come into their own. The dam broke with the iPhone. Wi-Fi on the iPhone raises the bar for all the other smart phones, making Wi-Fi a baseline checklist item for the next generation of smart phones. Previously mobile network operators were fearful that Wi-Fi in a phone would divert traffic from their data networks. This fear led, for example, to AT&T’s removal of Wi-Fi from their version of the Nokia E61. But there is now new evidence. At last week’s IT Expo East I heard an unsubstantiated report that 60% of wireless data usage in December was by 2% of the phones: iPhones. If this is even partly true, it would demonstrate that a web-friendly phone will drive traffic on the cellular data network even when it has Wi-Fi.