Blog Archive: 2011

Obviously wrong

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So Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble for patent infringement. Well, that’s what patents are for: the right to sue. And that’s what licenses are for: the right to avoid getting sued. The only thing is, if you’re going to sue someone with half a brain, you should at least make sure your patent is reasonably solid.

With that said, one of the patents that Microsoft claims that Nook is violating deals with annotating documents, an area I know a bit about. The patent, filed in December 1999, claims a system and method to associate annotations with a non-modifiable document. The idea is that file positions in the document associated with user-selected objects are used to retrieve annotations from some other location, and to display these annotations for the user.

Sounds obvious, no? So obvious, in fact, that when we built such a system in 1997, we didn’t bother patenting this.

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Smooth ink on the iPad

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To try to understand the software limitations of inking on the iPad, I had earlier described an ad hoc writing experiment I had conducted on some free iPad applications designed for drawing. The goal was to understand whether the software imposed any fundamental limitations on marking on an iPad using a finger or a stylus. Because the device is designed to be operated with a finger, there seem to be some hardware-based limitations on the size of the tip of the stylus that prevent the kind of fine-grained visual feedback one needs to write. My conclusion at the time was that there was something wrong with the way applications got stroke data from the device that made all of them track so poorly.

It appears that I was over-generalizing. First, given the capabilities of the iPad platform to download and render video,  it seems unlikely that the hardware is not capable of providing events fast enough; the question was really about the software. A reader of this blog pointed out that I had missed the Penultimate app, and this app was apparently quite good at handling ink. I had indeed not tested it because at the time I was testing only free apps.

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Inking Rennaisance?


In a recent post, James Landay compared Dan Bricklin’s note-taking app with a research project called NotePals done at FXPAL during a summer internship by Richard Davis, James’ student. The idea behind both is that writing on a small device (or with poor spatial resolution) is hard, but if you write large and then scale down the ink, you get much more legible results.

Dan’s iPad app works great for this purpose, and with only a little practice one can get really proficient with it. I’ve used it as my primary sketching tool on the iPad, including for sketching interface designs. I wish I could import background images into it for sketching on, but otherwise it’s a nice basic tool. The same idea — write on a zoomed out image & then shrink the ink — works great on the iAnnotate app as well, although the interaction is not really optimized for that the way that Briklin’s app is.

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Inking on the iPad

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As a follow-up to my review of iAnnotate, I did a quick exploration of drawing apps available for the iPad to understand the limitations of ink handling on the device. I tried five free annotation apps that were identified by the query “draw free for ipad.” These included Draw Free for iPad, PaperDesk LITE for iPad, Adobe Ideas 1.0 for iPad, Draw for iPad, and Doodle Buddy for iPad.

These apps were structured either around the canvas or the notepad metaphor, and supported a range of colors, inks, and effects. My only test was to select the thinnest ink the tool allowed, and to try to write a short phrase on each one. The test was purely visual, but then it’s the visual impact that I am interested in.

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Review of iAnnotate

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Recently I tried an experiment with one of our iPads to read and review a journal submission using the iAnnotate application. For the purposes of review, I had to read and comment on the draft, and then write up the review. I approached the problem much like I would had I been reading on paper, which included highlighting important, controversial or confusing passages, writing comments and reactions in the margins, and flipping around the document. These were all activities we had supported in XLibris, and I was curious how the iPad would stack up.

The short of it is: loading documents: OK; readability: Great; inking: poor; highlighting: poor; text annotations: OK; within-document navigation: so-so; between-document navigation: OK. Overall: good for reading, not good for active reading.

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