Tetris, Torture, and the Gorilla-Arm Problem

Every time computing technology changes, we learn something new about the affordances of being human. I got my most recent lesson when I discovered DroidTris, a clone of the popular falling-blocks game for Android. As it turns out, a touchscreen version of Tetris works really, really well – and in doing so, it sheds new light on one of the classic ergonomic blunders of computing history.

The earliest ancestor of today’s handheld touch screens was the light pen, originally invented on the Whirlwind project in 1952. A light pen is nothing but a photodiode on a stick that you can use to designate a spot on a monitor; as Wikipedia notes, “a light pen works by sensing the sudden small change in brightness of a point on the screen when the electron gun refreshes that spot. By noting exactly where the scanning has reached at that moment, the X,Y position of the pen can be resolved.” Several early attempts at hypertext editing systems in the 1960s used light pens, but the device was overshadowed by Doug Engelbart’s invention of the mouse.

Touch-screens proper were invented in 1971, and enjoyed a brief round of hype in the early 1980s. For a time it appeared that this was an input style that might displace the mouse and make computing interfaces really natural – after all, what could be simpler than just pointing at what you want? But it didn’t happen. The technology claimed a couple of niches in places like restaurant point-of-sale systems, where it’s still widely used today, but it never achieved mass consumer adoption.

The light pen and touch screens both fell victim to the same problem, which was really about the way the host displays were mounted. Humans aren’t designed to hold their arms at or above shoulder height for any longer than it takes to complete a burst-exertion maneuver. In fact, forcing people to do this with the threat of beatings or electrocution was a form of torture favored by the North Vietnamese that left former presidential candidate John McCain (among others) with crippling injuries. In less extreme settings, the discomfort caused by using a light pen or touch surface mounted at or above shoulder height is called the “gorilla-arm problem”, and neatly explains why mice and trackballs won.

The hint that restaurant point-of-sale systems give us about touch screens is that display mounting matters. Take your vertically-mounted torture device, drop it two feet and rotate it to face upwards, and the gorilla-arm problem vanishes; suddenly touch manipulation is actually useful. Especially for short command sequences that don’t involve repetitive motion.

Now fast-forward to my Android phone. I try out DroidTris and I discover that being able to literally swipe and drag the falling piece any direction but up is terrific – in act, I can play competently at significantly higher speeds than I ever manged with arrow keys. Er, but wait – this isn’t short bursty command sequences like a restaurant point-of-sale system, it’s rapid precise motions for long periods. Where’d my ergonomic problem go?

Answer: I can position the touch surface where I want it with my other hand. We’ve just rediscovered the ergonomics of scribbling on a hand-held notepad with a pencil or pen. In practice, doing this involves occasional changes of the relative position of the writing surface to avoid repetitively stressing the same small bunches of muscle fibers in the arm. People who scribble on notepads are unaware they’re doing this, but in combination with keeping the pad below shoulder height this is what banishes gorilla arm.

So, indeed, the ancient failures of light pens and touch screens were all about the tacit assumption that the touch surface needed to be mounted in a fixed vertical position at eye height, well above shoulder level. That’s a valuable lesson.

62 thoughts on “Tetris, Torture, and the Gorilla-Arm Problem

  1. Eric, the ‘tacit assumption that the touch surface needed to be mounted in a fixed vertical position at eye height’ wasn’t an assumption — it was an engineering compromise.

    The only screens available at the time were bulky, expensive CRTs. In order for a light pen or touch screen to work, it needed to be able to directly contact the screen. Remember that for a CRT of a given size, the tube and electronics (of the day) were going to be deeper than the diagonal size of the screen. If you mount the CRT such that the screen is horizontal, the bulk of the CRT will be taking the place where a sitting operator would otherwise place his legs. If you place the screen at a shallow angle, the CRT will leave huge wedges of space where standardized rack-mounted equipment can’t fit. Thus you mount the CRT vertically, at a height convenient for viewing, making it inconvenient for use as a touch surface.

    Now that we have large, thin, light-weight screens, it’s easy to forget how bad CRTs really were.

  2. Assuming that the Minority Report interface was real, Anderton (Cruise) arm motions are wide, sweeping and do not require fine accuracy. So he looks more like a librarian putting books away with futuristic flourishes. Plus, he constantly takes a different stance from one scene to the next. He’s obviously doing that to avoid RSI, not just for the movie.

    The problem I have with touch screens remains their failure to properly simulate the operation of push buttons and toggle switches. That is, a consistent amount of force must be applied to the switch in order to activate it. My HTC Incredible pains me for this very reason. In my opinion, touch screens need to become velocity and after touch sensitive just as MIDI based musical instruments are.

  3. “the ancient failures of light pens and touch screens were all about the tacit assumption that the touch surface needed to be mounted in a fixed vertical position at eye height, well above shoulder level.”

    The technology of the CRT forced that mounting. It’s not as if a 50 lb monitor is easy to maneuver.

  4. > Several early attempts at hypertext editing systems in the 1060s used light pens, but the device was overshadowed by Doug Engelbart’s invention of the mouse.

    So that’s why King Harold lost the Battle of Hastings. His sword arm was sore from using the light pen.

  5. It’s also a question of public vs. (semi-)private display. A display mounted at eye level and vertical can be “eavesdropped”; that is, a manager can look over your shoulder much more easily to ensure that their capture of your time is not being reclaimed by you due to you actually accomplishing your assigned tasks in a time-efficient manner. Whereas a horizontally mounted display, or a handheld display, is far harder for a third party to “observe” without electronic “eavesdropping” tools (remote viewing of sessions, forex).

  6. This is exactly the problem with the current crop of all-in-one touch screen desktop PCs, like the one’s HP is selling. What are the thinking with the upright position? Surely they’ve done usability testing? Or maybe they’re just trading on the novelty for some fad sales and aren’t serious about touch screen use.

  7. Are light pens viable w/ current LCD screen technology? Sounds like a lightpen + LCD screen combo should be a lot cheaper and more reliable than even a resistive touch screen,

  8. We’ve just rediscovered the ergonomics of scribbling on a hand-held notepad with a pencil or pen. In practice, doing this involves occasional changes of the relative position of the writing surface to avoid repetitively stressing the same small bunches of muscle fibers in the arm. People who scribble on notepads are unaware they’re doing this, but in combination with keeping the pad below shoulder height this is what banishes gorilla arm.

    It’s not just the change in the position of the screen — it’s also minute changes in pressure applied to the pen. When you add that in, it explains the failure of the Newton and other early PDA/tablet platforms that focused on handwriting recognition. They weren’t pressure sensitive, and this caused people to have to maintain a constant pressure; resulting in the same sort of repetitive stressing, but in the hands and wrists rather than the arms.

    The ergonomics of a device definitely count — for a lot. That’s why, despite the existence of wireless keyboards and mice, people often add a remote control to their HTPCs.

  9. FWIW, I have Tetris on my Android phone (not the specific one you mention though.) I find it significantly more difficult to operate than on a keyboard. I’m not a game player, so perhaps that is part of it, but I find it more difficult for two reasons:

    1. Tetris uses quantized positions, I find the digital stroke of a keyboard key easier to get right than the analog sweep of the finger. One click moves it over one position, rather than a swipe approximately 4.3 mm.

    2. I have moderately long fingernails, and they get in the way when trying to gesture to a touch screen (when typing I frequently type with the tips of my nails rather than the pads of my finger.)

    However, I think your general point is well taken, it is not just the lower position of the device, it is the ability to make minute subconcious positional adjustments that count. However, I continue to be baffled as to why styluses are not a standard option, especially (as Morgan mentioned) with a pressure sensitive tip. It would be very inexpensive to add, and would open up a very wide range of possible applications.

    I suspect that is Steve Jobs’ “my way or the highway” attitude coming to play. Unfortunately, his closed view of the world has infected the devices that follow in his wake.

  10. @Jessica:
    Before I got an iTouch, I had used several electronic devices with standard touch screens, which work with actual pressure on a membrane suspended above the screen. The iTouch uses some sort of really odd screen (I’ve read something about it using capacitance across the glass, but I’m not sure how that would work) that is much, much nicer, if you’re using your finger, than an old-style screen. The older ones are very difficult to use if you don’t have a stylus and don’t have fingernails worth noting; trying to use them with your fingertip is imprecise and kind of painful, because you need to apply quite a bit of pressure. It could be that the inability to use a stylus is an unavoidable side effect of using the iTouch-style touch screen (the only thing, other than human skin, that I’ve found that can activate it is the outside of a banana peel), in which case I would rather have the new screens.

    It could be, I suppose, that the lack of a stylus is a simple way of Jobs trying to distinguish his products from older touch-screen things, and the iStuff could have styli if they wanted. This would, I agree, be nice.

  11. I just got an iPhone 4 and man this thing is awesome.

    Before I had a cheap generic cellphone and had no idea everything it could do.

    This thing is cooler than Mr. Spock’s tricorder. :0)

    The only thing missing is the iPhaser.

    I have been hearing stuff that the Android is not truly open source because the manufacturers add their own frontends. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

  12. > Answer: I can position the touch surface where I want it with my other hand. We’ve just rediscovered the ergonomics of scribbling on a hand-held notepad with a pencil or pen.

    Stunning breakthrough! Gonna try Palm’s “Graffiti 1″ on the Droid next?

  13. It may not be original equipment, but you can buy a stylus for your iPhone if you really want one. ThinkGeek has them.

  14. # Pat Berry Says:
    > It may not be original equipment, but you can buy a stylus for your iPhone if you really want one. ThinkGeek has them.

    Indeed, but “standard” matters. The fact that every phone has, for example, a 3D accelerometer makes a whole range of applications possible.

  15. Even with all the improvements in technoogy, I still find touchscreen very awkward and inaccurate for most purposes other than the most basic point-and-click applications. Repeatedly rubbing my finger against a screen feels very uncomfortable. I cannot play touch-screen games for more than a couple of minutes. Maybe my forefinger is too fat?

  16. The other problem I forgot to mention is that in small touch screens, using your finger to input blocks the vision considerably of the screen mainly and makes gaming a bit more awkward.

  17. You can buy a stylus for iPhone/iPad, but don’t bother; they suck. The Newton stylus felt like writing with a pen; the standard iPhone stylus simulates a fingertip so it’s got a fat, rubbery tip that is sticky. Hard to slide around the screen, it doesn’t hit a very precise spot, and it just feels wrong.

    My dream device is still basically a faster/thinner/better Newton 2000 with the NotePad application. I had hoped I could get something reembling that with iPad/stylus/Pages, but I was wrong. I’ve given up on the stylus and went back to fingers.

  18. guest: Are light pens viable w/ current LCD screen technology? Sounds like a lightpen + LCD screen combo should be a lot cheaper and more reliable than even a resistive touch screen,

    No. Light pens *depended* on the ‘flying spot’ of the beam scanning across the screen of the CRT. LCD screen pixels stay the same brightness as they are updated, making a conventional light pen impractical.

  19. >The other problem I forgot to mention is that in small touch screens, using your finger to input blocks the vision considerably of the screen mainly and makes gaming a bit more awkward.

    DroidTris addresses this by accepting a flick or drag anywhere in the screen; you don’t have to be touching the falling block.

  20. “No. Light pens *depended* on the ‘flying spot’ of the beam scanning across the screen of the CRT. LCD screen pixels stay the same brightness as they are updated, making a conventional light pen impractical.”

    I’m aware of that. But the light pen driver could search for the position by brightening/darkening progressively smaller areas of the screen. It would be slow and inconvenient, but still useful for many applications,

  21. You can, evidently, get a stylus for Android phones. HTC makes one — the link has the best picture I could find. It’s not quite like a pen, but it does look like it would give you quite a bit more precision than the sticky think Glen Raphael notes for the iPhone.

    I wonder if there any apps that can take advantage of a stylus…

  22. I love my N900, and have a depleted signo uniball 270 to use as an art stylus, rather than the standard plastic toothpick that comes with the device. The resistive screen is pressure-sensitive, which opens up artistic possibilities that don’t yet exist on capacative devices like the iWhatever.

    The thing I still loathe about all touch-screen devices – the inevitable buildup of crap. I’m no germophobe, but i dread to think what that petri dish is breeding. Maybe they should incorporate Microban?

  23. This is basically the deepest core of usability and APIs. The way, simplicity and error-proneness of expressing oneself to other people and to machines.

    > Morgan Greywolf Said:
    > The ergonomics of a device definitely count — for a lot. That’s why, despite the
    > existence of wireless keyboards and mice, people often add a remote control to
    > their HTPCs.

    I would like to add that I believe “ergonomics” here also means simplicity. A remote control is
    a simple device which has controls mapped to useful commands. A normal keyboard
    has quite a lot of expressive capability that isn’t nearly always needed, but
    nevertheless adds the huge bloat with it. One can’t really use a regular keyboard with
    only one hand. I, for one, demand a simple interface for any given task.

    Even though there are these multimedia keyboards, like the one I’m now typing
    with, featuring commands like play, stop, increase/decrease volume and several
    others, I have never really learned those because there are no standard positions
    for the keys and the functional keys themselves are hard to reach.

    There is always a cost to learning a new interface, which depends on the task and
    the requirements of expressiveness. A specific tool designed for a job gives the best results but
    she wants her dues paid.

    Using an external input system permits one to easily use commands that aren’t available on regular input systems. For instance, I bought a gamepad controller which I have mapped to do some operations that require several clicks of the
    mouse or annoying keyboard shortcuts. While using software like Eclipse I use
    the gamepad along with the mouse to compare and edit programs with my peers.
    Instead of clicking the right mouse button and selecting Refresh and then
    clicking again and selecting Synchronize, I just point the mouse with my right
    hand and press a key with my left hand on the pad which I have mapped to
    Refresh, then click on another button I have set to compare selected files.
    (There’s a delay between refresh and compare, the software checking the
    filesystem, that I haven’t managed to solve with a single command)
    I’ve set up a command to maximize a window, another to close a window, and others to save, delete, copy, paste etc.

    The game pad enables several modes, but my personal preference is to have just
    one mode which sends certain events that I map in the applications. I map key
    events for the buttons, and then map the applications to respond to those. That
    has the advantage of never requiring to change the mode of the controller, but
    it needs me to configure all the applications tor respond to the events in the
    way I want.

  24. @Heikki Naski:

    Although I agree that with your general gist that “simple” can be important in a device primarily intended for content consumption — whether that be a home theater PC, a smartphone, a tablet, or whatever, I think you misunderstand a couple of things here: what we’re talking about here aren’t really input devices, but ergonomics in general and, specifically, how the computer industry has classically gotten ergonomics wrong.

    I prefer to think about the ergnonomics of an entire device. taking a more holistic approach to the concept. General purpose computers, such as the one I’m sitting at now, are basically designed to be very versatile content-creation workstations, whether that content consists of audio and video, text, software, 3D models, or some mixture of all of those. To that end, they’re kind of like Swiss Army knives — they can do a lot of different functions, but they don’t specialize in any one function.

    But these days, computing functions are being moved into more and more specialized devices. My NAS device, for example, is a Linux system just like my desktop Linux workstation and my Linux laptop. But this network filer entirely lacks a keyboard, a screen, or any of the niceties that go along with the other machines; it doesn’t have X or a desktop environment. It simply has a Web server which runs a UI for configuring its CIFS file server, which happens to be Samba, and (thanks to a bit of modification) also controls a CUPS-based print server. At the end of the day, what I have is a reliable device that I can just plug my printer and disks into and I no longer have to think about it. It is a purpose-built device, not a general-purpose computer.

    Ditto for my home theater box (a PC running the Mythbuntu Linux distribution) — it’s attached to my television, sound system and cable box and it plays and records video and audio. I no longer think of it as a general-purpose computer because that’s not what I use it for — it’s a digital video recorder and a multimedia jukebox. And it does those things quite well. In this case, I built this device, but they sell pre-canned devices that are essentially the same thing. It doesn’t have a keyboard or a mouse attached to it because it doesn’t need one. I could hook one up if I really need to, but I don’t foresee that happening because it does what it does and does it well. I do software updates by entering commands on over SSH, but I could just as easily setup some cron jobs do this all automatically and e-mail me when it’s done. (And I may just do that)

    And that brings us to the smartphone. Again, while it has a lot of the power of a general purpose computing device, it isn’t. WHat it is is a phone, a personal organizer, a handheld game system, a GPS device with street navigation functions, a mobile e-mail device … but ultimately it’s a gadget. And that’s what make it useful. While I could hack on it, I don’t have to. It’s a device I don’t have to think very much about.

    What these devices have in common is that, unlike my desktop and my latpop, they are, to borrow a phrase from the late Jef Raskin, information appliances. And as information appliances, they each have their own ergonomics: the smartphone is built to be used anywhere at any time and be ready to provide the information I need at my fingertips — or voice command — or to make a phone call. The home theater machine is built to used while I kick back on the couch to watch a movie — and I do love movies. :) And I predict we’ll have more and more of these little purpose-built machines — these information appliances. And they’ll get more and more specialized. But I think — or at least I hope — that’ll they’ll all be hackable.

  25. > DroidTris addresses this by accepting a flick or drag anywhere in the screen; you don’t have to be touching the falling block.

    This is an interesting solution. Does it not take away a bit of the intuitiveness of touch screen input? I ask because I don’t have much experience with the continuous interaction games on touch screen devices. I don’t own any touch screen phone myself, but on my brother’s iPhone, I tried to play a few games, but quickly became weary of the constant rubbing of my fingers.

    On many cheaper devices, touch screen is poor and inaccurate and not good enough for continuous interaction as in games.

  26. Standard Mischief> Stunning breakthrough! Gonna try Palm’s “Graffiti 1″ on the Droid next?

    Dude, I used to be able to take notes in Graffiti 1 about as fast as most folks could talk (not word for word, but close enough). If I had a stylus, I might give that a try :^).

  27. Not too far off topic – has anybody tried any slatedroids? I just ordered the critter on the other end of that link, with GPS and 16 Gig storage. I’m hoping it’s goodness :^). If not, it’ll be on ebay… cheap :^).

  28. guest> But the light pen driver could search for the position by brightening/darkening progressively smaller areas of the screen. It would be slow and inconvenient, but still useful for many applications,

    Yes, you *could* make it work…but the brightness changes would probably be annoyingly visible. Also, the light pen needs some means of communicating with the device (like a cord). A simple stylus with a touch screen is really the way to go.

  29. >Not too far off topic – has anybody tried any slatedroids?

    Not yet. That’s a pretty tempting price, though; I might want to buy one just so I can leave it in the kitchen for light Web browsing while I eat.

  30. And they’ll get more and more specialized. But I think — or at least I hope — that’ll they’ll all be hackable.

    Most of them will not be hackable.

    Think about it: why would the average movie buff want to hack his movie watching machine? Hackers are so few in number, and their reasons for hacking (mainly e-peen-related) so far removed from the specialized function of the device, that they become statistical noise in the device’s target market segment.

    More important than catering to hackers is catering to the needs of movie studios, who want a signed-in-blood guarantee that piracy will not occur, that the MPAA-sanctioned anti-piracy PSAs will air before each film, that demographic data will be collected upon each viewing, that the user will be charged for each viewing, etc. Remember, things that make movie watching more convenient are to the major studios what the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.

    So there is no value proposition, from a business perspective, from making the device hackable. There is immense value proposition in making it unhackable. That’s why I say this is the future of computing.

  31. esr> Not yet.

    I’ll post my reactions when I get it … probably some time next week (slow plane from China :^).

  32. Think about it: why would the average movie buff want to hack his movie watching machine?

    I’ll give you a hint. It start’s with ‘bit’, ends with a ‘rent’ and has a ‘tor’ in the middle. :)

    So there is no value proposition, from a business perspective, from making the device hackable. There is immense value proposition in making it unhackable. That’s why I say this is the future of computing.

    I’m not as convinced as you are that the film and recording industries will stay the way they are. Even they know that their business models must change or they’re going to die. That’s why we’re seeing a plethora of streaming services, and even plenty of content being offered free as in beer. And it’s going to continue moving in that direction.

    As someone else mentioned, I’d rather stream movies from the net for free, even if I had to watch commercials, than pay the exhorbitant prices they charge for DVDs or BDs.

    Which brings us back to the reason why the average movie watcher wants to hack his movie box: commercial-free streams. Download a little scripty, and you can skip all the commercials.

    Look, Jeff, even the iPhone is hackable when it comes down to it.

  33. Which brings us back to the reason why the average movie watcher wants to hack his movie box: commercial-free streams. Download a little scripty, and you can skip all the commercials.

    Which, to Big Media, is theft. “Your contract with the network is, you’re going to watch the spots.”

    Look, Jeff, even the iPhone is hackable when it comes down to it.

    Only by accident. Don’t expect that to last through the next hardware rev. Same applies to most Android phones.

  34. # Dan Says:
    > The thing I still loathe about all touch-screen devices – the inevitable buildup of crap. I’m no germophobe, but i dread
    to think what that petri dish is breeding. Maybe they should incorporate Microban?

    Dude, do you use door handles, vending machines or money? At least the germs on your phone are your germs.

  35. Jeff Read Says:
    > Think about it: why would the average movie buff want to hack his movie watching machine?

    A large part of the value of iPad and iPhone is the hackers who create vast numbers of apps. So the average movie buff might not want to hack her iP* but she surely appreciates the folks who do.

  36. >Same applies to most Android phones.

    Um? What’s your reason for saying this? I know at least some Android phones are explicitly hackable.

    As a probably-offtopic side note, I work during the summers at a small GPS consulting company (I am in no way involved with the GPS; I write web pages) the owner of which was speculating for a while in my hearing about the possibility of implementing their GPS accuracy corrections in smartphone-type devices; the issue being that this would require the extremely-raw GPS data from the device (no NMEA or anything; actual pseudoranges to the satellites). This, of course, makes it completely impossible on iStuff. Do any Android phones currently support customization to that degree? If so, can it be packaged as a normal app? That strikes me as one very useful application for hackable devices.

  37. > So there is no value proposition, from a business perspective, from making the device hackable. There is immense value proposition in making it unhackable. That’s why I say this is the future of computing.

    I suggest the tale of the Linksys WRT54G and its successors as a counterexample. If an embedded device is hackable, entire cottage industries can form around producing specially-tweaked firmwares for it.

  38. >I suggest the tale of the Linksys WRT54G and its successors as a counterexample. If an embedded device is hackable, entire cottage industries can form around producing specially-tweaked firmwares for it.

    Jeff Read thinks that all device manufacturers are fixated on IP lockdown and cuddling up to the RIAA/MPAA axis of evil, so they’ll ignore the increased sales pull-through from those secondary markets. He’s wrong, but it wouldn’t matter if he were right; their efforts to make unhackable devices are doomed, which means the strategy he thinks they’re pursuing is doomed as well.

  39. Dude, do you use door handles, vending machines or money? At least the germs on your phone are your germs.

    Quite so….fair point, well made….but they don’t wink at me like a greasy screen ;)

    And here I am, about to be up to my elbows in deer guts….I’m a real conundrum….

  40. Jeff Read thinks that all device manufacturers are fixated on IP lockdown and cuddling up to the RIAA/MPAA axis of evil, so they’ll ignore the increased sales pull-through from those secondary markets

    Sadly, if you s/all/most/, he’s probably right.

    The content coalition has gotten a lot of legislation to bully those manufacturers. If they can make the case that your device circumvents DMCA, any profits you might earn from selling it will be lost in court.

  41. Dude, do you use door handles

    When I use a public restroom with a physical door (as opposed to a serpentine entryway) after I finish washing and drying my hands, I take one last piece of paper towel, use it to grasp the door handle, then discard the PT in the trash can sitting right next to the door for all the other people who know how many people do not wash their hands after using the toilet.

    I don’t think I’m crazy to take such a reasonable precaution.

  42. @esr:

    Jeff Read thinks that all device manufacturers are fixated on IP lockdown and cuddling up to the RIAA/MPAA axis of evil, so they’ll ignore the increased sales pull-through from those secondary markets. He’s wrong, but it wouldn’t matter if he were right; their efforts to make unhackable devices are doomed, which means the strategy he thinks they’re pursuing is doomed as well.

    I agree. And I was going to say that the RIAA/MPAA business model is inherently doomed at this point, so I don’t think that device manufacturers care much about any revenue streams coming from them. Google just annnounced Google TV, and they are actually working hard on open sourcing it. Sony, an MPAA and RIAA company, doesn’t seem to mind too badly.

  43. Jeff Read thinks that all device manufacturers are fixated on IP lockdown and cuddling up to the RIAA/MPAA axis of evil, so they’ll ignore the increased sales pull-through from those secondary markets.

    Not all of them, most of them as Monster said. Apple has shown that not only can this be successful, it could lead to profits beyond most people’s wildest imagination. Apple has proven itself the only tech company capable of bringing the *AA and the cellphone carrier cartels to heel, something even throngs of open-source and net-freedom crusaders couldn’t achieve.

    Sony, an MPAA and RIAA company, doesn’t seem to mind too badly.

    Rumor has it that Apple is in talks to acquire Sony. If that happens, Steve Jobs will personally walk in and burn any outstanding contracts with Google with his smooth shiny white iZippo.

  44. Rumor has it that Apple is in talks to acquire Sony. If that happens, Steve Jobs will personally walk in and burn any outstanding contracts with Google with his smooth shiny white iZippo.

    So Apple is about to subject itself to an SEC investigation, is it? Interesting. *Sniff*, *sniff*…what’s that I smell? Apple pie?

  45. I don’t think I’m crazy to take such a reasonable precaution.

    I don’t think you’re crazy either…in fact, you’ve taught me a new trick….thank you :)

  46. >Rumor has it that Apple is in talks to acquire Sony.

    That’s the best thing that could possibly happen to Sony, but if Apple wants to start selling TVs and game consoles, they can get into that business for a hell of a lot less than the cost of acquiring Sony and integrating their operations.

  47. Guys,

    Looks like the Nook Color may be the tablet to beat if it can be rooted. At half the price of the cheapest iPad, it’d be a serious tablet contender if only there were a way to load Android apps on there beyond B&N’s standard set.

    I’m not holding my breath for an easy way to root this bad boy. And I probably won’t buy one until it is rooted.

  48. That’s the best thing that could possibly happen to Sony, but if Apple wants to start selling TVs and game consoles, they can get into that business for a hell of a lot less than the cost of acquiring Sony and integrating their operations.

    Apple would also gain access to all of Sony’s movie, music, and video game IP. Think of what acquiring Bungie did for Microsoft, and multiply it by like a kajillion.

  49. Jessica: Developers aren’t “hackers” in that sense.

    They don’t write iOS software by hacking the iOS devices. They do it with the Apple SDK and tools, on a Macintosh.

    The hackability of the platform has almost no bearing on the “vast number of apps” in the App Store*. Probably no bearing at all, now that I think of it.

    (For that matter, as far as I know the vast majority of Android app development likewise doesn’t depend on rooted hardware either.)

    (* Of course, it has great bearing on the jailbreak-app scene, but that’s incredibly minor in comparison and of course completely inaccessible to something like 99.99% of users. Thus, only of interest to hacker users.)

  50. I think there’s some confusion over the term ‘hackability’ and it’s been used by different people in this thread in different senses, going back to the multiple senses of the term ‘hacker’ and ‘hack’. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m using those two words as defined in the Jargon File, which I consider authoritative.

    So, we can say a device is ‘hackable’ if we mean that the security system can be circumvented so as to bypass a device’s lockdown or permissions system. This is most certainly what Jeff Read and Sigivald mean by ‘hackable’.

    But there are other uses of the term. We can also mean ‘hackable’ in the sense that a device can be modified to do something unexpected or cool. This may but does not necessarily imply that a device is hackable in the first sense. Any system that’s programmable is probably hackable in this sense of the term.

    A somewhat convoluted example of this last sense is the NAS 200, which a few months ago, I hacked to make it perform print server functions on my network. The device is hackable in that there is no security to bypass — you can load any alternative firmware you want on the device, and from there, you can modify the system to do things that it can’t do out of the box. Furthermore, it’s even more hackable than some devices because Cisco/Linksys gives you the full build system and all of the proprietary binaries necessary to retain full out-of-the-box functionality, thanks to some action by our friends at the FSF.

    JessicaBoxer most certainly means hackable in this sense: even using the SDK and tools for iOS or Android, it’s possible to make your mobile device do things that others haven’t dreamed of. You just need to come up with some clever code — perhaps even a ‘hack’ or two. These devices are certainly hackable in that sense.

    There are, of course, other senses of this word ‘hackable’, but they would be out of scope here, I think.

  51. Well I’ve been playing around with my new iPhone 4.

    One thing that occurred to me was “Wouldn’t it be cool to watch an episode of classic Star Trek on this?”

    Well of course you can’t, because the stupid thing won’t play Flash. Same thing with South Park. This is a deep, thick layer of suck.
    This got me to wondering, “How the hell does YouTube play on it? It uses Flash doesn’t it?” Well Apple paid Google to convert the videos to h.264 on the fly.

    I don’t know but I assume Android devices play Flash yes? This is a major chink in Apples armor. Seriously just show prospective buyers that you can watch Star Trek on an Android and not on an iPhone…
    Maybe there is something to this open source after all.

  52. “Hackable” in this sense means “able to be made to run arbitrary user-supplied code at the highest privilege level or bare metal”.

    I don’t know but I assume Android devices play Flash yes? This is a major chink in Apples armor. Seriously just show prospective buyers that you can watch Star Trek on an Android and not on an iPhone…
    Maybe there is something to this open source after all.

    Web developers are abandoning Flash in droves. Why? Because it doesn’t work on iPhones and iPads, and those constitute a big (and growing!) chunk of their target audience. Plus there’s also the open secret that Flash sucks. It sucks even more on Android devices, most of which are too pitiful in the CPU and memory department to handle it at any decent speed.

    Star Trek will get there, if it isn’t already. As if owning an iPad and being able to flip through screens of data like Captain Picard weren’t Star Trek enough… :)

  53. Web developers are abandoning Flash in droves.

    I see no evidence for this at all. Most of the video on the Web still uses Flash due to the fact that the most popular browsers still lack decent HTML 5 support and everything else sucks. For example, the HTML 5 WEBM (Matroska) video esr mentioned, A Digital Media Primer for Geeks, didn’t work well until fairly recently. (To be fair, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m now using newer versions of Chrome and Chromium or if it’s because they changed something on the site.)

    If there is any movement away from Flash, I suspect that this has less to do with those specific devices and more to do with the fact that HTML 5 is making Flash obsolete. And, apparently, even Adobe thinks so.

  54. Morgan Greywolf Says:
    > JessicaBoxer most certainly means hackable in this sense:

    I didn’t necessarily mean hackable in the strictest sense you talk about Morgan (though you are no doubt right.) I really mean “developer friendly”, that is to say there is a competitive advantage for a manufacturer to make it easier for developers to develop software on their device, including a low level access interface. Why, after all, the argument goes, the number of people who actually hack the device is a tiny number of actual users. The answer would simply be leverage. Those tiny number of users dramatically increase the utility of the device for all users.

  55. > I see no evidence for this at all. Most of the video on the Web still uses Flash due to the fact that the most popular browsers still lack decent HTML 5 support and everything else sucks.

    It is true that most of the video on the Web is available in Flash — that number is close to 100%. However, in under a year we’ve gone from 10% of Web video available in HTML5 up to 54%. So most of the video on the Web also uses HTML 5. Their analysis is that mobile devices, including Android, are responsible for this. I think that sounds about right; HTML 5 is a better video experience than Flash on Android.

    http://blog.mefeedia.com/html5-oct-2010

  56. Morgan: True, in what you said, but she said “hackers who create vast numbers of apps”. I find it hard to read that as related to the hackability of the device in your sense, without collapsing “hacker” and “programmer” into near-synonyms.

    If she’d talked about “hackability”, your sense would have been the obvious one, and I suspect I wouldn’t have chosen the one I did.

    (And I see her clarification means we’re both sorta right. She didn’t mean what either of us thought, exactly.

    Though on the other hand, I’m not sure that that sort of “hackability”, in the sense of having a nice, open* SDK, is actually that big of a feature in a “plays and records movies” box.)

    * In the sense of “available with ease and well documented, and non-employees can acquire and use it”, not regarding licensing. Open access, not open source. The latter is nice, but not super relevant to the developer story.

  57. Don>Dude, I used to be able to take notes in Graffiti 1 about as fast as most folks could talk (not word for word, but close enough). If I had a stylus, I might give that a try :^).

    I’m still using it. I learned a functional level of Graffiti in a week by leveraging my unproductive 5 minutes per day on the porcelain throne (yay Giraffe). Having an effortlessly portable digital note taking device with built in To-Do (missing in the iPhone, but there’s an app I’m sure), and easy data transfer/backup to the PC was life-changing. Never doubt the utility of being able to read your own scribbles or always having your Rolodex and grocery list on hand.

    I’m looking for total control over when and where my future palm replacement device talks to cell towers, the same effortlessly portable form factor, root access, a sane data plan from a cellphone provider, and a data entry mode that I can live with before I make the switch. Make sure that my wish device either come in at a sane price-point, or have an ironclad overnight warranty replacement like palm did before they went evil. Without overnight replacement, I’ll have to buy two devices.

    Just to throw it out there, my ideal data entry device that I’d prefer over the ergonomics of a handheld notepad would be a wireless chord keyboard that was based on the easy and quick to learn American Sign Language fingerspelling alphabet. Make it small enough to operate while inside a coat pocket and connect to the pad/PC/PDA/smartphone over Bluetooth or something. Make sure you don’t need to strap it on, make the lightweight device durable as heck, and make it rechargeable in an hour over something as ubiquitous as a USB port.

  58. Eric, as promised, here’s my initial impressions of the A81-E Android Tablet: Good hardware, but far from a finished product. If I was comparing the experience, I’d have to say similar to attempting to use the early Fedoras as a daily use desktop. If you have time to screw with it to get it all set up the way you want, I think it will be good, but it’s not really consumer ready. Most definitely a hacker toy.

    Now I’m comparing this thing to my Samsung Moment which worked REALLY WELL out of the box.

    My biggest problem has been that Market doesn’t show many apps without some hacking. I think that’s because this thing doesn’t call itself a “phone” or something and so many apps that are categorized for Android “phones” don’t show up as being installable. There are apparently two ways to fix this, one involving much futzing with configs on the phone, and one which is pretty simple. I did the simple one, and I think that’s what screwed me. The “simple” fix clears a bunch of configuration information out of the phone in a sort of hack-and-slash manner, and after doing this, some apps (most notably the book reader I REALLY wanted to use with this thing) didn’t work anymore.

    Also, GPS has been somewhat of a disappointment and since there’s no way to get a data link on the go, Google Nav didn’t work (I gotta see if it will cache a bunch of road data if I start it while I’m home).

    Anyway, it’s the middle of the night, so I’ll continue playing with it and give an update later this week or over the weekend.

    Still, for under $300, I’m not disappointed.

  59. Standard Mischief: May I suggest Graffiti App for Android.

    Then put in the apps to control the phone (there are several, but if nothing else, just put a button on your screen to turn airplane mode on/off).

    Also, for the Todo, check out RTM. Works very well for me (when I pay attention to it :^).

  60. I just found in the App store a browser called Skyfire.

    It allows you to watch Flash videos, and it is free.

    So now I can geek out on Star Trek all I want. :)

    tres cool.

  61. Ok, my late review :^). I’ve had several problems, mostly related to screen dimming. If you get one of the Witstech devices, DO NOT use the power control tool that comes w/ Android 2.x to control brightness, because when you dim the screen all the way or make it all-the-way bright, the screen shuts off. Only cure I found was to reflash :^/.

    So, once I figure that out, and had unscrewed myself from that disaster (twice… wasn’t paying attention the first time), loaded some apps and started playing. Video playback is not great (I knew that from other reviews at the site listed above), but acceptable. Sound isn’t too bad (headphones from my Samsung Moment work, don’t know if the mic works, but I doubt it, since there’s a separate mic port like a PC). The USB connecter comes with a USB A adapter so you can plug stuff into it, but that’s mostly useless as there’s no drivers (thinking about hacking the Android distro with a custom kernel to get a USB-Serial driver in there so I can use this as a terminal to access routers/switches in a pinch, and probably a USB mass-storage driver to access thumb drives and cameras – now I just need time, something I have very little of ;^).

    Web browser is REALLY fast (compared to Samsung Moment) and works well. Of course, it’s usually recognized as a phone-based browser, so there are limitations due to that. Haven’t tried the Mozilla browser yet, will likely download and bang on that when I have a chance.

    One big disappointment has been battery life. I’m getting only about 3 hours out of this thing, vs. the 5 hours that the reviews said to expect. Part of the problem may be that I’ve been using the car charger to charge it due the the fact that I received a bad wall-wort. I sent an email last week, and received a new wall-wort via air-mail from China yesterday, so that was good.

    All-in-all, for a hacking toy, this isn’t a bad buy. It’s useful as it is, and if I ever get time to screw with the OS, I can certainly make it a lot more useful. My biggest wish is that it had a larger hacking base (like my Moment). The only thing I’d do different is not get the GPS as it doesn’t work w/ Google Earth/Navigator, and it’s not likely it ever will (at least not if I have to fix it… don’t know a thing about it and not enough time or inclination to learn it these days).

    One interesting thing is that the device comes with all the stuff to perform development on it. All you need to do is download the dev environment for you PC and you can hack away (reportedly). It’s rooted out of the box.

    And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve NOT had time to go reading every forum and looking for hacks on this thing, as I spent most of my play time with it while sitting in the Denver Airport last week. Perhaps I’ll get a couple hours to delve into work already done by others and post an update if I find something that helps with the above issues. I know some of the annoyances have been addressed but as I said, I’ve not had time to do much digging.

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