On January 20, 2009, Apple was awarded patent
, titled "Touch screen device, method, and graphical user
interface for determining commands by applying heuristics." This patent
potentially has the power to make life difficult for anybody developing
hardware or software involving touch screens. It could also bring about an
unwelcome repeat of some twenty-year-old history. But any attempt to
enforce this patent risks repeating a twenty-year-old conclusion.
In March, 1988, Apple filed suit against Microsoft and HP, claiming that
their new window-oriented interfaces violated Apple's copyrights on the
Macintosh GUI. This suit drew widespread condemnation on the net and a boycott compaign
by the Free Software Foundation, which refused to incorporate Macintosh
support into its software for years. Apple eventually lost, but, in the
process, it cast a cloud of uncertainty over graphical interfaces for some
More recently, Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook was quoted
in this way:
He went on to say that Apple will challenge any company it thinks
is infringing on its IP - which is hard to be taken any other way
than a warning to Palm, whose new Pre device is the first to
significantly incorporate multi-touch components since the iPhone.
The saber which Apple is rattling here is widely thought to be patent
#7,479,949, often referred to as "the multitouch patent." Multitouch
interfaces are those which can respond to simultaneous operation of two or
more pointing devices. These "devices" are normally fingers on a touch
screen, but it need not be that way. Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch devices
have made multitouch a core component of the interface, as typified by the
"pinch" gesture used to change the zoom of the object displayed on the
screen. At this particular time, multitouch typifies Apple devices in much
the same way that a well-developed windows-icons-menus-pointer interface
did in the late 1980's.
Incorporation of multitouch techniques into other products seems like it is
only a matter of time - and not very much time at that. The upcoming Palm
Pre device is one obvious example. The Android developers have also
clearly been thinking about multitouch; current releases do not support it,
but it turns out that the
G1 hardware supports multitouch, much to the joy of the G1 hacking
community. Whether that capability will ever be exploited by official
Android releases remains to be seen, though. Google is clearly concerned
about the issue, and developers have been asked
not to discuss the patent on the Android lists.
Whenever one deals in patents, one must look at what has actually been
claimed. The first claim for Apple's patent is illustrative (if painful):
A computing device, comprising: a touch screen display; one or more
processors; memory; and one or more programs, wherein the one or
more programs are stored in the memory and configured to be
executed by the one or more processors, the one or more programs
including: instructions for detecting one or more finger contacts
with the touch screen display; instructions for applying one or
more heuristics to the one or more finger contacts to determine a
command for the device; and instructions for processing the
command; wherein the one or more heuristics comprise: a vertical
screen scrolling heuristic for determining that the one or more
finger contacts correspond to a one-dimensional vertical screen
scrolling command rather than a two-dimensional screen translation
command based on an angle of initial movement of a finger contact
with respect to the touch screen display; a two-dimensional screen
translation heuristic for determining that the one or more finger
contacts correspond to the two-dimensional screen translation
command rather than the one-dimensional vertical screen scrolling
command based on the angle of initial movement of the finger
contact with respect to the touch screen display; and a next item
heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts
correspond to a command to transition from displaying a respective
item in a set of items to displaying a next item in the set of
Note that this claim does not address multitouch techniques at all. Some
of the dependent claims do mention it, but in the specific context
of using a two-thumb gesture to change the orientation of a web browser
display. The iconic "pinch" technique does not appear anywhere in the
claims for this patent, though it is mentioned several times in the
descriptive text. Your editor is far, far removed from being a patent
attorney, but he has a hard time seeing how this patent could be read
against most multitouch techniques.
What does appear in this patent is a heuristic for suppressing
horizontal scrolling if the user makes a sufficiently steep gesture on the
touchscreen. This sort of heuristic can certainly be found in the Android
interface, which does just that kind of vertical-only scrolling. In your
editors (again, unqualified) reading, the scrolling claims present much
more potential for trouble than multitouch.
If Apple were to prevail with claims based on this patent, the effects
could be severe - at least, in the United States. Devices made by
companies other than Apple could lose a number of important techniques
which make touchscreen-based interfaces usable. Companies like Palm could
conceivably license the patent from Apple (if Apple were willing), but that
is almost certainly not
an option for toolkits (like Android) which are based on free software.
Linux World Domination for mobile devices could well suffer a major setback.
Arguably, this patent would have no effect on business conducted outside of
the US. Fully-capable devices could be sold elsewhere, as long as they are
developed entirely outside of the United States. American users could be
stuck with iPhones or devices with inferior interfaces - with the lucky few
carrying devices furtively imported from elsewhere. In practice, excluding
the US would make it harder for any such product to succeed. And US-based
platforms, including Android and Palm webOS, would be out of luck.
It may not come to that, though. Perhaps Apple does not intend to use its
patents as an offensive weapon. After all, the company has done well
enough by focusing on building great products, and the look-and-feel
lawsuits of the 1980's did little to help Apple succeed. A new round of
litigation would risk alienating developers worldwide and distracting Apple
from the activities which truly benefit the company.
If Apple does take the offensive, it faces a couple of severe obstacles.
One is the slowly-changing attitude in the US, where legislators and judges
are (belatedly) figuring out that the patent system is out of control. The
bar has been raised (though not by enough), making patent enforcement more
difficult than it once was. Beyond that, there is also the issue of prior
art. The best reference there would appear to be this extensive
history of touch-based interfaces put together by Bill Buxton at
Microsoft Research. Suffice to say that, as in most other areas of
endeavor, there is little that is truly new with touchscreen interfaces.
(As an aside, it's also worth noting that Microsoft, by virtue of its own
interest in mobile devices, could become an unlikely ally of the free
software community in this particular battle, should it come to be fought.)
All of that will be little comfort, though, to anybody working with
touchscreen-based products in the US now. Even if a company sued by Apple
were to emerge victorious, that victory would come at the cost of millions
of dollars spent, much time lost, and much uncertainty sown among others
who are thinking about developing for that company's platform. So, for
now, the patent system continues to inhibit the innovation that it was
created to encourage.
Comments (33 posted)
As PostgreSQL gears up for its
8.4 release, contributors to the popular database project are debating
on the pgsql-hackers
mailing list how to handle two large patches. The immediate issue is
whether to include the patches in the 8.4 or 8.5 release, but the larger
issue is a review system that suffers from a shortage of peer reviewers
and that has improved only marginally in the last two releases, despite
concerns raised in 2007
and 2006. The current
discussion offers a snapshot of the growing pains that large free
software projects find themselves increasingly facing.
PostgreSQL development is based upon a series of CommitFests
— periods in which patches are accepted and reviewed that are
followed by development releases. Between CommitFests, no new patches are
accepted. The trouble is that two patches in particular, SE-PostgreSQL, which adds Security Enhanced
Linux's security model, and Hot Standby, which
allows queries on databases during archival recoveries, have not been fully
reviewed, and have prolonged the current CommitFest. Although developer
Robert Haas suggests
that at least three other patches may also be delaying the release cycle,
most of the discussion has centered on SE-PostgreSQL and Hot Standby.
Part of the debate over the two patches concerns exactly what to do with
them. As Bernd Helmle points out, with the
current CommitFest already over three and a half months old, and the next
one not due until May, "That means we're essentially closed to new
patches for six months, which is a really long time. To put it another way,
for every week the core team spends reworking the existing patches, it will
be another week before someone can get feedback on any new patches
Moreover, core team member Tom Lane says,
prolonging the current CommitFest until the patches are ready means that
the 8.4 release will not happen until the fall of 2009, rather than in late
spring. Such a release date would mean that the next release will take
almost a year to produce, which is unacceptably long in most contributors'
Given this situation, Lane says,
community has to decide whether to delay the release of each of these
patches to the 8.5 release, delay long enough for the patches to be
properly handled, or else include only a limited feature set for each of
them as a compromise solution.
In the case of SE-PostgreSQL, several contributors seem open to dropping it
altogether. "To be brutally honest, I don't care about the feature at
all: the only thing I ever do with SE Linux is turn it off," Haas says,
and one or two others agree.
Unsurprisingly, this attitude sits poorly with KaiGai Kohei, the developer of
SE-PostgreSQL. Demanding a rationale for the proposed rejection of his
patch, Kohei notes that, given the growing popularity of cloud computing,
database security is becoming increasingly important. "If we can
include these features in a timely fashion," Kohei writes,
"it makes PostgreSQL more attractive."
Kohei is supported by Dave Page, who is concerned
that delaying or rejecting SE-PostgreSQL, which is sponsored by the Exploratory IT
Human Resources Project "will send a fine message to those
companies that have sponsored development work — that we will
arbitrarily reject large patches that have been worked on following the
procedures that we require." Page is concerned that "we
will rapidly find that no company wants to sponsor features for PostgreSQL
in the future."
In the same thread that these scheduling and content issues are being
discussed, PostgreSQL contributors are also debating the reasons that the
review system is not working as well as it should. Heikki Linnakangas suggests
that the situation was to some extent inevitable because "big patches
simply take a long time to mature."
Others suggested that the problem was that final approval of all patches
must be given by the core team, and the work load has simply become too
large. As Helmle says,
"core developers are too busy with reviewing stuff during the
CommitFest. Because of this, it's really hard to get the necessary time of
somebody who is able to evaluate the architecture of a new feature and
(more important) its side-effects on the whole system." Under these
circumstances, Helmle questions whether delaying the acceptance of features will do anything to improve the release cycle.
A large part of the discussion of the review system centered on possible
improvements to it. Haas raises the possibility
of adding a "FeedbackFest" at the end of CommitFests to focus
the entire project on patch reviews, and also a policy that, once a patch
was rejected, it would be declared dead if a corrected version was not
resubmitted within two weeks. In much the same vein, Jaime Casanova
suggested a policy under which large patches submitted late in a CommitFest
would not be guaranteed a review. "Maybe that will [encourage]
authors to send patches more often and more early," Casanova writes.
Another possibility, raised
by Riggs is to overlap releases, so that submitters of rejected patches
could move their contributions to a later release and know when it was
likely to be included. However, this idea was quickly shot
down by Lane, who points out that "key committers are
overstressed already." In fact, in Lane's view, overlapping releases
would only add to the problem because, "everyone will find it more
interesting/fun to work on new patches instead" of
reviewing. "The current system at least gives non-committers
developers some motivation to help with that stuff, because they know their
patches won't be looked at until beta is over."
Much of the discussion about solutions was about a system that would
automatically send reminders about the status of patches — a solution
that everyone in the discussion seemed to agree would be more efficient
than the present reliance on a wiki page for each CommitFest. Josh Berkus,
who is co-lead for the present CommitFest agreed, writing
that "My inability to systematically send reminder e-mails to
submitters and reviewers — or, for that matter, even track when they
were assigned or last updated — has been a significant drag on the
effectiveness of the CommitFests. Some patches stalled, and I missed
Possible solutions for notification included Patchwork and Review Board. However, as the
merits of different solutions were debated, Berkus notes
that "our review/commit process is so peculiar to our project that
using *any* prebuilt solution would require us to change our process to
support the tool. And I can't imagine this group doing that." The
possibility of writing a custom application was raised
by Haas, but no decisions were made to start such a project.
At this point, discussion petered out into a discussion of what
SE-PostgreSQL and Hot Standby required in order to be included in the 8.4
release. One possible stumbling block for SE-PostgreSQL may have been
removed when Kohei explained
that the security policy of the patch, which no project member apparently
felt competent to review, didn't need review because it had already been
tested by SE Linux, the upstream project.
A decision on what to do with the two patches should be made within a week,
Until then, what is interesting about the discussion to outsiders is how it
shows one project attempting to deal with growth. From the discussion, it
seems that PostgreSQL has outgrown policies and procedures that once served
it well, and is still adjusting to the change. Like many other free
software projects these days, PostgreSQL is facing the challenge of its own
Comments (4 posted)
Green computing frequently makes the news either for its cost-saving
potential to businesses, or as a way for eco-conscious consumers to reduce
their environmental footprint. But UK-based Aleutia, Ltd takes a different approach,
using green to produce ultra-low-power-consumption Linux PCs for classrooms
and businesses in developing countries. The company's flagship product is
the E2, a compact desktop system
that consumes just 8 watts.
The E2 measures 115x115x35 millimeters, is fanless, and runs from
Compact Flash storage. It sports a 500 MHz VIA processor, 1GB of RAM, and
comes with VGA, Ethernet, PS/2, audio-in, audio-out, and three USB ports
packed onto a ruggedized aluminum enclosure. The case has screw mounts
designed to match
the 10x10 centimeter VESA plate on the backs of most LCD
monitors, allowing for an even smaller desktop footprint.
The company sent two Compact Flash cards with its review unit, one
containing a standard Debian Etch installation, and the other Aleutia's
customized version of Ubuntu 8.04 LTS. Other operating system choices are
available, including Windows XP, although founder Michael Rosenberg says
Ubuntu accounts for the overwhelming majority of customer selections.
The base model that I tested retails for £199; options adding a Mini
PCIe WiFi module or hard disks are available at additional cost. If you
opt for the WiFi model, be prepared to either load a binary blob or to work
with NDISwrapper; the card included is a VIA VT6655, which is supported by
VIA-built closed drivers only. Alternatively, the Mini PCIe slot is unused
in the base E2 configuration, so any other card of your choice is an
option. The graphics situation is better; the onboard video for all E2s is
a 32MB VIA CX700, running the openChrome driver.
The Compact Flash card is ready to boot; no installation required. It
uses the GNOME desktop environment and a customized suite of applications,
including several not common to vanilla Ubuntu, such as the Mozilla-based
Songbird audio player, Mozilla
Seamonkey, and MPlayer, which Rosenberg says provided the best playback
performance of the available free software video players. There are also
applications from the proprietary world, such as Skype, Picasa, and Google
Desktop. A local mirror of Wikipedia is included as a reference,
containing 4,625 articles.
Apart from these supplementary applications, however, the system is a
full-fledged Ubuntu installation, capable of downloading updates through
the project's official APT repositories. Rosenberg explains that the
company went with the 8.04 LTS release for stability's sake on behalf of
the units in the field, and that his team continues to track Ubuntu
development as well as other Linux variants.
Considering the E2's low power profile, I was surprised by some of the
application selections, such the inclusion of OpenOffice over the much
leaner Abiword, and Seamonkey over Firefox. Songbird is an interesting
project in its own right and I find it impressive in a number of ways, but
it consumes far more memory than many simpler music players. Google
Desktop is a CPU drain that I have never found to be worth the trouble.
At 500MHz, the E2 will strain to perform some processor- or
graphics-intensive tasks. I found video playback choppy, although audio
playback and Skype were flawless. Saving files to flash storage is
predictably slower than writing to a hard disk, but the difference is only
discernible on multi-megabyte data like downloaded audio or video. The E2
is easily capable of handling Internet and office tasks like you would
expect in the classroom or in an Internet cafe. The 8 watts of electricity
it consumes is roughly five percent of the power drawn by a typical desktop
computer; if you did not know it was specially-engineered to be green, you
might well mistake its performance for a traditional PC one generation or
so behind the curve.
Video performance and write speed are two particulars that the company
is taking specific steps to improve as it continues to tweak the E2's
system configuration. Many of the tweaks Aleutia incorporates to improve
E2 performance originate with the ever-increasing pool of Linux netbook
hackers. The platforms face similar issues: flash storage of limited
capacity, low-speed (by desktop standards) CPUs and graphics processors,
and limited RAM.
Rosenberg chronicles the effort on the corporate blog, noting changes such as the
adoption of the lightweight Fluxbox window manager to replace GNOME's
default Metacity, filesystem tuning, and accelerating Firefox by storing
the browser cache in RAM instead of writing it to flash storage. The team
has recently been experimenting with supplanting GNOME itself with LXDE, although Rosenberg confides that the
system is not yet stable enough to ship to customers. It is a promising
alternative, though, as Aleutia has demonstrated
that an E2 running LXDE is capable of playing video smoothly
Speaking of netbooks....
Despite the E2's obvious benefits from a power consumption and space
perspective, once you add on the cost of a display and I/O hardware, the E2
is also similar in price to a midrange netbook -- without the portability.
Thus one might well ask how Aleutia sells the E2 as a better value.
Rosenberg's answer is that the E2 is designed to outperform and outlast the
expensive Dell and HP Windows boxes that dominate education channel sales
in developing countries, particularly in Africa. In that context, of
course, a netbook's small screen and keyboard are a
disadvantage. Furthermore, the E2 is designed to be easily serviced by
local resellers -- a problematic board can be pulled out and replaced in a
matter of minutes, unlike the more complex beige boxes.
Still, considering Aleutia's stated goal of catering to underprivileged
schools, comparisons to one other high-profile effort are inevitable: One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Like OLPC,
Aleutia is targeting its machines at schoolhouses in underdeveloped parts
of the world -- but, unlike OLPC, Aleutia is attempting to stay
The company highlights two
differences between itself and the OLPC project. First, it operates as an
open-to-all manufacturer. OLPC's XO laptops are available only to national
governments, through specially-negotiated contracts. Aleutia can and does
sell E2s in any quantity to any buyer. Second, Aleutia warranties its
devices for three years and offers support and repair services. When OLPC
has offered XOs to the general public through "Give One Get One" programs
in the past, the laptops came with a 30
day warranty and no support.
The company appears to be making its case to business and schools. It
currently has resellers in six countries outside the UK, and has made sales
to 37 others. Rosenberg says he just shipped a classroom set of E2s and
LCD monitors to a school in Musoma, Tanzania, where they await clearing
customs before they can be installed. At this point, he adds, the main
hurdle Aleutia faces is marketing against the billions of dollars spent
each year by the larger manufacturers.
"Typically, our customers find us through blogs or just searching on
Google. Internet access is much more expensive in Africa so often it's a
question of [expatriates] or volunteers finding us in the UK and then
putting us in touch with prospective customers back in Africa." The Musoma
sale was just such a case. "The headmistress had seen the pair of E2s at
the school we have case study
for, contacted our local reseller, and spent the bulk of her annual budget
to set up this ICT lab."
The state of the art changes fast, and development continues on
successors to the E2 hardware -- including the possibility of mesh
networking and optical drives. Whatever the next model looks like, though,
it will build on the E2's tradition of desktop performance at remarkably
low power consumption, a feat that would not be possible on a closed
Right now, the E2 would not replace a typical Linux hacker's primary
workstation, but for a less demanding usage scenario it is worth
considering. The low profile, minimal power draw, and rugged construction
make it viable in conditions beyond those suitable for a traditional PC.
And as Linux continues to evolve on low-power platforms, you can be sure
its advantages will only increase.
Comments (33 posted)
Like any large development project, Fedora has a number of important
problems to resolve at any given time. One of those problems is power
management and, in particular, power conservation; developers in the Fedora
project have also often stated their desire to have a more "green"
operating system. So one might think that, when Matthew Garrett came along
with a proposal like this
The blinking cursor causes the processor and GPU to be woken up
frequently. On one of my test systems, this causes somewhere in the
region of 2 Watts of extra power consumption. I'd like to change
the default for this to false. Anyone have any objections?
...that the request for objections would yield few responses. What ensued
instead was a lengthy discussion (to put it charitably) which made it clear
that some users value their by-default blinking cursor far above any other
Blinking cursors have been targeted by developers concerned about power
consumption for some time now. Every transition requires that the system
wake up to make the cursor change, and wakeups increase power usage.
Beyond that, though, Matthew has written a
graphics driver patch that allows the system to put the graphics
processor into a sleeping state as well - as long as the screen does not
change. Once again, every cursor transition requires powering up the GPU;
that is where much of the excess power usage comes from.
This power savings comes at "idle" times, so some detractors pointed out
that, on most systems, the screen saver will quickly power down everything
when the system is idle. But "idle" in this context means something
different: it describes times when nothing is being drawn to the screen.
Such periods of idleness come about, for example, during each of your
editor's frequent pauses as he ponders what to write next, what to make for
lunch, or whether it wouldn't be better to just drop everything and go for
a bike ride. It is a different time scale than the screen saver operates
on. Idle displays will not come about if frequently-updating applications
are running, but, otherwise, it's a common occurrence even on systems which
are nominally busy.
Accurate counts of Fedora installations are hard to come by, but most
estimates seem to be in the millions. A two-watt power savings over
millions of systems implies a total power savings in the megawatt range.
Even if the power savings estimates are way off (and there are those who
assert that this is the case), it seems like something worth reaching for.
After all, it's a simple default change, and anybody who is truly attached
to a blinking cursor can change it back - even if Fedora has helpfully
hidden the toggle under Preferences/Hardware/Keyboard in the main menu.
Besides, your editor came to a thoroughly objective conclusion many years
ago that blinking cursors are an annoying distraction and that any
developer implementing such behavior should be sentenced to ten years of
COBOL coding under a strobe light.
The arguments against this change seem to fall into two categories. One of
those is that users are unable to find their cursor if it does not blink.
The "wins" are massively overhyped, and the loss is users
wondering where the damn cursor is (there are good reasons it was
made to blink in the first place)
The other argument seems to be along the lines of "but we've always had a
blinking cursor." Example:
Blindingly ignoring tradition is patently absurd.
We might as well change the slogan to:
Fedora: stupid and proud of it!
Numerous other developers have come out in favor of the change. This seems
like one of those issues where a full consensus will never develop; so, if
this change is to be made, somebody has to just do it despite the flames.
It would appear that Matthew has done
exactly that. One can only wonder how many more carbon emissions would
have been avoided if he hadn't asked for objections first.
Comments (50 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: Android application security; New vulnerabilities in firefox, moin, phpMyAdmin, sudo,...
- Kernel: Dracut; Online defragmentation for ext4; Taming the OOM killer.
- Distributions: Sabayon Linux 4; K12Linux F10 Live Server; Mandriva Linux MIB-Live 2009; Debian Lenny release planned for February 14.
- Development: Fully automated bisecting with "git bisect run", new Compiz Council, Inside Zero and Shark, new versions of rsplib, CrunchyFrog, Samba, dradis, Zope, liblouis, Audacity, jack_capture, Kicad, AVC, wine, Firefox, SimPy, GCC, IcedTea6, Pyflakes, RFIDIOt, GIT.
- Press: OLPC reorg plans, Linux Defenders fight patent trolls, Brad Hards' lca talk, Active Directory coming to Linux, WoW bot violates DMCA, Dario Freddi interview, Recovering hard drives, Build a Read-Only Linux System, Defense Dept's project repository, OO.o health check, Linus' desktop environment, KDE Lokalize funded.
- Announcements: EFF cell phone freedom petition, Trophees du Libre call, BruCON cfp, LinuxCon cfp, Linux Storage and Filesystem Workshop cfp, PyCon-IT cfp, Red Hat Summit/JBoss World cfp, OO.o at FOSDEM, SAHANA conf, UKUUG conf Where 2.0 conf, FSFE Free PDF Readers campaign, ELC-EU videos.