Thursday, April 25, 2013

Is Microsoft Stealing Apple's Patents?

Over the years, we have watched Windows develop into what it is today.  Microsoft has added some really useful and nice features.  However, many of these features were already in the Macintosh OS X (or other operating systems) before they came out in Windows.  Of course, long-time readers of my blog know what I think of Windows.  Let's take a look:
  • Show a "dock" of applications in a bar on the bottom, with a mixture of shortcuts and running apps.  This first appeared in Windows with Vista, where you can "pin" apps to the task bar, circa 2007.  It was always a part of Mac OS X, first released around 2001.
  • Search feature on the Start menu first appeared also with Vista (2007), this allows you to type the name of the app to launch, and does a quick search on document file names as well.  Mac Spotlight first announced June 2004 and released in April 2005.  However, Spotlight is much more comprehensive than both the start menu, and the Windows search feature (really!?  12 steps to make it work kind of like the Mac!!??).  It is both rolled into one, and searches all forms of data on your system including e-mails, file contents, and more - in one, simple, global magnifying glass on your system bar.
  • Windows Store is now in Windows 8 (2012), where users can go to an app to buy more apps from both Microsoft and other developers.  Apple introduced the Mac App Store with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard in January 2011 (almost 2 years earlier); Ubuntu Software Centre was introduced with Ubuntu back in 2008 or earlier.
  • Secure Installation - Secure software installation was introduced with Windows Vista (2007), where even though you were an administrator, you still had to accept software installation.  Problem is, the prompts are so frequent and annoying, and limited in scope only to software installations, that they are pretty much useless.  Mac has had secure system changes including installations since OS X introduction (2001), which more broadly cover securing the system from invalid changes, not just software installations.  With OS X 10.8 (Spring 2012), they now add the ability to restrict apps that are signed by Apple, for organizations who have obtained valid licenses to develop software, and passed the Apple App Store review for safety and security.
Just these few features show that Windows has been about last to adopt what the rest of the industry has already considered standard fare, while doing so in a haphazard and incomplete fashion.  But if you have followed Microsoft throughout its history, you would know it is not an innovator.  Products like SQL Server (its database engine) and Visual BASIC (and Visual Studio) were acquired through purchases of the innovating company who developed them, graphical features of Word, Excel, and others were ripped from competitors WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 at a time when WordPerfect and Lotus were not very litigious (and indeed software patents were not as prevalent as today).

Now, I would be the first to tell you that the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is completely overwhelmed and over its head when it comes to software technology.  They haven't the slightest clue of how to police the patents.  An NPR story that first aired in 2011, When Patents Attack, exposes in great depth the shortcomings of the USPTO, and particular "patent trolls" who make money off of hoarding patents and suing others.  Their research has shown that about 33% of USPTO software patents granted, actually conformed to the "uniqueness" requirement.  2/3 of the software patents issued were non unique, public knowledge, and thus not patentable.  But that is besides the point.

It seems that most people are fooled into thinking that Microsoft is a big innovator.  In fact, I might be wrong, but I can't think of a single innovation throughout their history - unless you count the innovation of digital and distribution rights, and the innovative ways in which they have sued their competition.  Or, the innovative way in which they avoided complying with the US Department of Justice suit in which they had to provide customers with an alternative to Internet Explorer.

Friday, April 12, 2013

MailBox - is it worth the wait?

I read the buzz about DropBox buying MailBox, and was wondering is it really that good?  So I downloaded the free app - only to find out they don't activate it until they add the infrastructure to support the volume.  And, there were about 580,000 people ahead of me!  The numbers were going down about 1 a second, so I thought it shouldn't take too long.  Got slower as time went on, and it was 2 weeks before I could use the app I had downloaded.  So much for instant gratification!

Was it worth the wait?  YES!  (Spoilers...)  So what's so darned great?  I mean, the mail app that comes with iOS is pretty good, and offers some great features.  But, let's face it, it really hasn't been updated since what, iOS 2 or 3?  And we are on 6, on the cusp of 7.  So what's so great about this app?

First, the limitation - if you call it that.  It only works on GMail accounts.  I have been a GMail user for I don't know, perhaps 8 years or more?  GMail is certainly the most reliable, portable, and works with a variety of services like calendar, cloud storage, and more.  So for me it was a very easy choice.

Second, the results.  After years and thousands of messages, my Inbox is clean!  I always hung onto e-mails with the intention of reading them later, or keeping them for records.  Still, it was a losing struggle - until now.  How, you might ask?

We get into the features.


  • Easy yet powerful gestures for managing messages.  These gestures mean that you don't need buttons taking up room on the screen, and also that managing the messages are both intuitive and fast.
    • With a simple swipe to the right, you archive your message.
    • With a longer swipe to the right, you delete the message.
    • Swipe left to file for later.
    • Swipe longer left to put in a folder.
  • Floating buttons appear when needed to reply or forward
  • Very fast operation
  • File for Later is very powerful - you can put e-mails off until tomorrow, next week, or specific dates.  They will be out of your Inbox until that date arrives.

  • Clean, elegant, and productive interface for managing messages.
  • Price is right.  ¥0.0
  • Recognition of content elements within message, like phone numbers, addresses, and dates to create calendar entries.
  • Integration of calendar entries with Fantastical, the best calendar app for iOS. 
  • The Compose screen is simplified, elegant, and very useful.  Streamlined and minimalist.

  • Absolutely LOVE the message reading functionality.  Because messages are grouped in threads, you are reading the thread.  When you tap an individual message, it pops up to the right (shifting the thread left and behind).  You can then swipe it off to the right to return to the thread.

Issues and Limitations

Without a doubt, they have nowhere to go but up.  Any app cannot be perfect (except perhaps Skyview), so I hope they do correct these limitations.
  • For wider appeal, support of Exchange accounts, and perhaps even POP.  Although, I don't know if that would provide message thread grouping.  Right now, I use Apple mail app for my work address, and use this one for my personal.  (Unless I can convince my company to switch from Office 365 to Google mail...)
  • No reporting of spam
    • One of the things I love with GMail is the fantastic spam filters.  However, the problem with using it on non-Google mail clients like iPhone Mail App is the few messages that make it through the spam filter, you can't flag them as spam to improve the algorithm.  This means I have to jump to the mobile mail client (web browser), which is nowhere near as good for reading and managing the messages.
  • No support of other browsers - especially Chrome for iOS.  When I hold down on a link, I want to see "Open in Chrome" if I have it installed.
  • Improved handling of multiple messages
    • Right now, you can do the same swipes on a bottom inbox count line to move all of the messages somewhere (archive, delete, later, tag folder).  However, I may not want to do the same on all, only some, and definitely it only works if there are a small number of messages in your Inbox.
    • Instead, they should move to an Edit / Checkmark / Swipe storyboard, or perhaps a multi-finger swipe and all the messages under your fingers are swiped.
  • No "reader" button for HTML messages
    • Like Safari on iOS, it would render the message with larger font, remove extra columns (like the ones with ads), and just narrow down the important text, images, and links.
  • No "print" function, especially using AirPrint.  I don't know if anyone is using Google Cloud Print, but that is really not as important as AirPrint.
  • No "Save to PDF" function, if this supported Google Drive, DropBox - that would be the ultimate.