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To read comments to this article, go here
Prior Art, Anyone? Anyone? Barnes & Noble? Google? Motorola? - Updated 4Xs
Thursday, April 28 2011 @ 05:11 PM EDT

This is amazing -- an iPad-like device that is 17 years old. Props to Daily Mail for finding this. Here's a detail that might matter:
A 1994 promo film released by technology firm Knight-Ridder talks about 'taking today's newspaper into the electronic age'....

The Tablet was created by a team of journalists, designers and researchers.

It was never released, and was instead developed to show the media industry what the future of news consumption could hold.

When I put my patent-context hat on, that tells me it's valid prior art, depending on the dates of various patents and functionality.

Check those dates, Barnes & Noble! No. I will do it for you. The patents that Microsoft hilariously claims are being infringed by Android were issued in the following years: 1998, 2002, 1999, 2005 and 2005 respectively. I am looking at my calendar. OMG. The year 1994 comes before all of them. My, my. That predates all of Paul Allen's patents too. Check out the video. I see a "Tell Me More" column. And it had a Personal Interest feature. It even had a touchscreen. Say, Google, are you aware of this? If not, here's a present for you and Android, I hope.

And here's the interesting part. I just checked Microsoft's patent No. 5,778,372, and I don't see this Knight-Ridder tablet listed as prior art. That, of course, is the issue Microsoft has raised in its appeal to the US Supreme Court in the i4i v. Microsoft case, what level of evidence is required to toss overboard a wrongly issued patent that was not considered by the USPTO examiner prior to its issuance. Talk about conflict. If this turns out to be relevant prior art, what will Microsoft want to happen now, I can't help but wonder?

Update: More, more, more ... to add to your findings in your comments: A prototype of a tablet demonstrated in public by MIT in December 5, 1995:

A Status Report on Reading Appliances
David Chaiken
Digital SRC
Thursday, December 7, 1995
1:45 PM (1:30 refreshments)
Edgerton Hall, Room 34-101

Abstract
Thursday, December 7, 1995
Computer Architecture Group Seminar
Laboratry for Computer Science, NE43-6th floor playroom, 1:45 PM (1:30 refreshments)
David Chaiken, Digital SRC
A Status Report on Reading Appliances

Abstract:

Within the next five to ten years, consumers will be able to buy portable reading appliances from stores like Circuit City. These virtual books will cost at most $499 and will have interfaces tuned both for browsing on-line media and for sustained reading. For the next five years, the cost of reading devices will be driven primarily by the cost of high-resolution liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Portable displays with resolution suitable for sustained reading will first appear in high-end laptops in the two year time-frame, triggering a race to the consumer appliance.

In anticipation of the availability of high-resolution screens, the virtual book project at SRC has built a prototype reading appliance called Lectrice. This virtual book has a 10.4 inch, XGA (1024 X 768 pixel), 122 dots per inch (dpi), color LCD. Initial experience with the device has led to a number of conclusions about the architecture and the interface for reading appliances. Specifically, current laptop displays --- with resolutions less than 100 dpi --- do not have adequate resolution for sustained reading, but the Lectrice screen is above threshold. Given appropriate resolution, the reading interface still needs careful tuning. Neither a keyboard nor a stylus suffices for input, and current displays are too cluttered to be good for sustained reading. Lectrice includes buttons for common actions (such as turning pages), as well as display software with minimal ornamentation to reduce distractions while reading. Finally, the previous generation of low-power processors is adequate for a prototype device, but true reading appliances will require processors that are just making their way into the marketplace.

This talk describes the virtual book project and discusses how the project fits into the high-level themes and organization of research at Digital. The presentation concludes with a hands-on demonstration of Lectrices.

Joint work with Mark Hayter, Jay Kistler, and Dave Redell.

Host: Stephen A. Ward

And here's a paper from 1988, "Tablet: The Personal Computer of the Year 2000", where the authors describe a tablet, stating that everything in the description was already known and existing in 1988:
Background: On September 3, 1987, Apple Computer invited students from twelve, top-ranked universities in the United States to detail their vision of the personal computer of the year 2000. The students were asked to be creative but practical, to describe the purpose and underlying technologies of their design. They were to be judged on both original thought, and how well they showed their thought would work. Each school sent its two best entries to Apple engineering directors. From these entries, the directors were to select the five best. From these, the nation's best entry was to be determined by a distinguished panel of judges comprised of Steve Wozniak, Alvin Toffler, Alan Kay, Diane Ravitch and Ray Bradbury. On January 28, 1988, that honor went to the the Tablet team from the University of Illinois. This is their entry....

Abstract

The University of Illinois design extends the freedom of pen and notepad with a machine that draws on the projected power of 21st century technology. Without assuming any new, major technological breakthroughs, it seeks to balance the promises of today's growing technologies with the changing role of computers in tomorrow's education, research, security, and commerce. It seeks to gather together in one basket the matured fruits of such buzzword technologies as LCD, GPS, CCD, WSI and DSP.

The design is simple, yet sleek. Roughly the size and weight of a notebook, the machine has no moving parts and resembles the dark, featureless monolith from a well known movie. Through magneto-optics, a simple LaserCard provides exchangeable, mass data storage.

Its I/O surface, in concert with built-in infrared and cellular transceivers, puts the user in touch with anyone and anything. The ensemble of these components, directed by software that can transform it into anything from a keyboard or notepad to an office or video studio, suggests an instrument of tremendous freedom and power....

The Machine

Our machine will have the same dimensions as a standard notebook. It will look like an 8x11 monolith from the movie 2001, and be reminiscent of the Dynabook. This rectangular slab will weigh but a few pounds, and have no buttons or knobs to play with. The front surface will be a touch-sensitive display screen and will blink to life upon touching two corners. On one of the short sides will be a credit card sized slit, while the other three sides support a ridge with a slight reddish tint. It is targeted towards the professional of the year 2000; the engineer, lawyer, or teacher who is willing to pay the equivalent cost of a microcomputer of today. The I/O Surface

The most important part of any computer is its interface with the user. The front surface of our computer is a high-resolution touchscreen, which yields slightly to the touch. With this single input device, we can get a tremendous range of flexibility and options. We can use it to create an entirely soft interface.

Fingers are low-resolution devices. They can get in the way in certain applications, especially when they block our view of what they point at. To take true advantage of human motor control and a high-resolution touchscreen, we need a fine-tipped stylus. A walk through any art gallery shows what man can do with stylus type devices.

On powering up our machine, icons representing a typewriter keyboard, a ball point pen, a telephone, a calendar, a TV, and a host of other applications will appear. By touching and dragging with the stylus, we can manipulate the icons as with a mouse. We can move rapidly through a series of pop-down, drag-off menus by checking off what we want with the stylus. Pressing the typewriter icon will cause a keyboard pattern to appear on the screen. This pattern can be redrawn like MacPaint objects and so be customized to the user's finger size and taste. Since it is soft, the key pattern can be QWERTY, Dvorak or based on one of the new, non-standard shapes like the chord. As we traverse down a menu and we need text input, the keyboard will pop up.

But if we are holding a stylus, why bother with the keyboard? Unless the user requires rapid entry, the stylus is a natural way to enter text. Pressing the ball point pen icon will cause a ruled notebook page to appear on screen, right down to simulated loose-leaf holes if desired. With the stylus, we can write and draw directly on the surface of the screen. As we stroke the stylus across the screen, a simulated ink trail is left behind. Nothing beats a pen for writing or doodling, so this will permit the ultimate integration between text and graphics. Some people feel more comfortable composing on paper than on a computer, and this presents the illusion that they are. And, if we wish, handwriting recognition software will convert to type all the text we scrawl out.

This metaphor will extend easily to the applications we are familiar with. Text editors can be built around the standard editorial symbols used by proofreaders, where slashing out a word means deleting it and circling two words transposes them. Despite the interactive nature of word processing programs, almost all writers print out a draft and scratch corrections upon it before pronouncing it ready. Our text editor will support this style, and graphics and mathematics will be integrated in a similar fashion.

Without question this is technologically feasible. Our interface relies on three different technologies: display, touchscreen, and optical character recognition. Each of these is progressing nicely towards what we need in 2000. The density attained in liquid crystal display (LCD) technology has increased by a factor of 100 every 7 years [1]. For an 8'' by 11'' color display with laser printer resolution we need less than ~3 E7 pixels, which by extrapolation will be available by 1991 and cheap by 2000. In addition, LCDs represent the perfect foundation for a touch-sensitive display. The capacitance of an LCD cell is pressure sensitive, so we can easily detect the tip of a stylus and even how hard it is being applied. Already, LCDs have been used as digitizing tablets [2] and given the resolution of our display we will have no difficulty mimicking the finest ball point.

Cursive character recognition is a difficult problem, and smacks of artificial intelligence. However, there has been enough progress to show that it is coming. Today, there exist systems with 97% character recognition accuracy for neat handwriting. Combined with spelling correction, such systems achieve near 100% accuracy [3]. Adjusting for variations in handwriting is equivalent to breaking a substitution cipher [4,5], a trivial task for our computer. Training on the owner's handwriting will lead to the highest possible recognition rate. Of course, no system will recognize 100% of handwritten text, but what isn't recognized can be highlighted in a different color and reentered by the user.

A high resolution, color display can do more than just imitate a notebook page. It will be fast enough to support video. The entertainment possibilities are amusing, such as having a display of thirty-six 1"x1" moving icons, each one a different television channel, permitting us to monitor the action over a large section of the dial. We can watch the bad guy being rubbed out on channel six while the passion heats up on channel forty. A more important application is video communications. Video is the next obvious step in the communication evolution which started with text and has progressed to voice....

There is no major aspect of our machine which is not in some sense sitting in a laboratory today. We do not suppose a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, superconductivity, or any other sexy technologies, as foretelling their destiny is still the province of psychics, not scientists. We do not rely on the construction of a new, national infrastructure such as a fiber optic link to each home, since this will require at least a generation to complete. We look at what is possible and start from there. The creativity in our design involves synthesis, uniting disparate elements into a clean and satisfying whole.

The Systems Research Center of Digital Equipment Co. (DEC SRC) of Palo Alto built a working and usable tablet in the early-mid 1990s.  One of the key developers there was Mark Hayter. Their description of the virtual book is here [PDF].

Update 2: Here's a bit more information on the Knight-Ridder tablet, in an article on Bloomberg in 2009, "Amazon’s Kindle DX Resurrects ‘Crazy Idea’ From Knight Ridder", by Greg Bensinger, including the name of the lab where it was built, and yes, it was built, and where one of the leaders of the project now is working:

In 1992, Knight Ridder Inc. set employees to work at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, to create its own portable newspaper-reading device to boost readership and revenue.

“There were people talking even then about the death of newspapers and there would be some electronic medium that would replace ink on paper,” Roger Fidler, who headed the Knight Ridder laboratory, said in an interview last week.

Fidler and his colleagues spent about three years trying to create an electronic tablet that could download newspapers and magazines. With the death of James Batten, Knight Ridder’s chairman at the time, the project fizzled and the 10-person lab was shut down, according to Fidler.

McClatchy Co. bought Knight Ridder, the publisher of the Miami Herald, in 2006. Fidler, 66, is now the program director for digital publishing at the Donald Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia. ...

Amazon.com didn’t take any inspiration from Knight Ridder in developing the product, Drew Herdener, a spokesman for the Seattle-based online retailer, said in an e-mail....

From 1992 to 1995, Fidler and his team worked on the tablet and attracted some interest from newspaper and magazine publishers in joining a distribution system. Hardware tripped them up: Screens then were too heavy or bulky for most consumers and required too much power, Fidler recalled....

“I am thrilled this is finally happening,” said Fidler. “It’s vindication for all the years when people said this was a crazy idea and it wouldn’t work.”

I love Amazon saying they didn't take inspiration from it. But it is still prior art to the degree it matches any patent claims. That is true whether or not they knew about it or drew inspiration from it. I'm posting this because someone posted a comment alleging that there was no hardware ever built. But as you can see, there was.

Update 3: You can find information about a RAND tablet, in use since 1963, here. There's a PDF on that page, a RAND paper that tells you all about what it calls "A Man-Machine Graphical Communications Device". 1963.

Update 4: And here's a fascinating article about Alan Kay's Dynabook, dated from 1968, where even the journalist can see the obvious foreshadowing of the iPad (and of course other tablets). There's a link also to an interview with Kay in April of 2010 by Tom's Hardware, "Did Steve Jobs Steal the iPad?", in which he pointed out that the touchscreen comes in the modern day from One Laptop Per Child's XO:

Of course, many things in the multi-touch UI, page turning animations, etc. were first done by the group of my friend Nicholas Negroponte at MIT. The idea of touch screen interaction also goes back to this community, both at PARC and Negroponte’s research group at MIT that invented a multi-touch tablet in the 70s. One set of the machines we made, called ‘The NoteTaker,’ had a touch screen.
That is what is so discouraging about the US patent system, that the wrong people take credit for work that others have actually done first, and the prior art only comes to light with litigation or an article like this. That is *especially* true with regard to prior art created by the FOSS community, because in the normal course, the USPTO examiners don't know about it and they won't find it ever in their usual practice of searching for prior art.

Then somebody steals the idea and patents it. I don't know the history here, so I'm not making the accusation the article does, and wouldn't without my own research. But let's assume for the sake of argument that it's so. You know what? At least Jobs sees value where it exists. I was thinking about Microsoft, and how it actually partnered for a while with OLPC. They surely saw the same innovative things that the rest of us did. And yet their phone is so ugly and so uncool. How does that happen?

Oh, and for all you Sci-Fi freaks, some PADDs. What's prior art searching without Klingons?

Update 4: Another entry, the Acorn NCs, STBs & Prototypes dating back to 1996, with a link to a fact sheet [PDF] about the research done there.


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