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February 26 2014

January 29 2014

Four short links: 29 January 2014

  1. Bounce Explorer — throwable sensor (video, CO2, etc) for first responders.
  2. Sintering Patent Expires Today — key patent expires, though there are others in the field. Sintering is where the printer fuses powder with a laser, which produces smooth surfaces and works for ceramics and other materials beyond plastic. Hope is that sintering printers will see same massive growth that FDM (current tech) printers saw after the FDM patent expired 5 years ago.
  3. Internet is the Greatest Legal Facilitator of Inequality in Human History (The Atlantic) — hyperbole aside, this piece does a good job of outlining “why they hate us” and what the systemic challenges are.
  4. First Carbon Fiber 3D Printer Announced — $5000 price tag. Nice!

December 20 2013

Four short links: 20 December 2013

  1. A History of the Future in 100 Objects — is out! It’s design fiction, describing the future of technology in faux Wired-like product writeups. Amazon already beating the timeline.
  2. Projects and Priorities Without Managers (Ryan Carson) — love what he’s doing with Treehouse. Very Googley. The more I read about these low-touch systems, the more obviously important self-reporting is. It is vital that everyone posts daily updates on what they’re working on or this whole idea will fall down.
  3. Intellectual Ventures Patent Collection — astonishing collection, ready to be sliced and diced in Cambia’s Lens tool. See the accompanying blog post for charts, graphs, and explanation of where the data came from.
  4. Smokio Electronic Cigarette — the quantified cigarette (not yet announced) for measuring your (electronic) cigarette consumption and uploading the data (natch) to your smartphone. Soon your cigarette will have an IPv6 address, a bluetooth connection, and firmware to be pwned.

November 21 2013

Patents, they’re not what they used to be

When I was about 16, I went to visit my grandfather in Denver, where he’d decided to retire. He moved there after spending 30 years in Midland, Michigan working for Dow Chemical. I guess he went west for the dry air. I don’t know if it was good for his lungs, but it sure didn’t go well with wool carpet. I shocked myself every time I touched something. Sometimes the spark would arc three inches from my finger tip to a door knob. There would be a visible flash and pop, and then a reflexive jump. It was a bit terrifying after a while. My grandfather, being an engineer, had figured a simple solution to that problem: he just touched every door knob with his key to ground himself before he opened it. It worked fine, but I didn’t remember to do it. Not once. But that’s not the point of this post.

One evening, we got to talking about his work at Dow and he showed me his patents. He was proud to show them to me, and I was proud of him. The fact that he had all those patents struck me as a testament to his ingenuity. He was smart, and the U.S. Government was acknowledging it in a most formal way.

Most of his patents were about some chemical process or another, but one of them caught my imagination as particularly cool. He realized that the heat coming off of the leading edge of a high-speed aircraft could be used to pre-catalyze jet fuel. I loved airplanes (back then, I still wanted to fly jets), it seemed smart, and I think I just liked the cartoony nature of the drawing in the patent.

Endothermic Fuel SystemEndothermic Fuel System

He worked for Dow, so naturally all of his work was assigned to the company. And really, that seemed fine to him, and to me. After all, to him that patent was probably less about the temporary grant of government-sponsored monopoly and more about the USPTO’s recognition of his intellect put to paper. It would have been nice for him if Dow had sold his invention to Boeing for lots of money, but it was sort of orthogonal to the intrinsic incentive framework he was working from.

As odd as this mindset seems to me now, it was a mindset I adopted explicitly at the time, and held onto implicitly for a long time after. That evening must have been important to me because I resolved then to patent some of my ideas some day. Years later in my career, when I was working for a small consulting firm, I started making patent applications with my colleagues.

And a while ago, many years after it was filed, this patent showed up — and I should have been thrilled. The idea was to use shared context as an input to routing algorithms, an idea I was super excited about, and that 16-year-old version of me would have been stoked that the USPTO saw enough value in it to grant a patent. The problem is that my relationship with patents is a lot more complicated now than it was then, and honestly, my first thought was “aw, shit.”

Jefferson was concerned about monopoly, a lot, and it took him a long time to come around to the idea of patents in those newly united states. He reluctantly changed his position when he realized that the surging industrialization of England would put us at a serious disadvantage if we were unable to keep up, but I don’t think he ever fully resolved the tension he felt between the need for innovation and his distaste for monopoly. He was probably right in his day to support patents, despite his concerns. Conditions change, however — today, software patents, in particular, have become little more than the re-enshrinement of the rentier in law, little different than a King’s Charter, and less useful.

And that was on my mind this morning when I read this. Especially this bit: “An IBM spokesman told Politico, ‘While we support what Mr. Goodlatte’s trying to do on trolls, if the CBM is included, we’d be forced to oppose the bill.’” … because, rents. But I can’t really be all that self-righteous about it when I hold a software patent too, can I?

There is an irony to this story. By the time Brian, Bill and I submitted our application, I had already soured on software patents. The only reason we submitted this one was because we were trying to build an open source community around the idea, and we wanted to protect the idea for the community we imagined building. We were building a software platform called “rvooz,” a contraction of rendezvous, and we launched a site called rvooz.org to host the code. We had high hopes for it and worked on it for more than a year, but unfortunately, it just didn’t get any uptake, neither with our market or with the community. C’est la vie.

The irony part comes later, when we sold our company to a much much larger company, and I tried (hard) to get that patent application killed. In fact, I thought I had gotten the application pulled, so imagine my surprise years later when it came through. So, now the patent exists, without the open source community it was designed to protect, and it’s owned by assignment to the kind of big company that sees patents as more of a protective moat than as a well of innovation.

Anyway, I guess the point of this post is one part to express disappointment at the turn of events that has led me to feel bad about achieving something my grandfather would have been proud of, and one part mea culpa. It bugs me that our patent is in the world, and I guess I felt I owed the world an explanation.

October 31 2013

Four short links: 31 October 2013

  1. Insect-Inspired Collision-Resistant Robot — clever hack to make it stable despite bouncing off things.
  2. The Battle for Power on the Internet (Bruce Schneier) — the state of cyberspace. [M]ost of the time, a new technology benefits the nimble first. [...] In other words, there will be an increasing time period during which nimble distributed powers can make use of new technologies before slow institutional powers can make better use of those technologies.
  3. Cisco’s H.264 Good News (Brendan Eich) — Cisco is paying the license fees for a particular implementation of H.264 to be used in open source software, enabling it to be the basis of web streaming video across all browsers (even the open source ones). It’s not as ideal a solution as it might sound.
  4. Principal Component Analysis for DummiesThis post will give a very broad overview of PCA, describing eigenvectors and eigenvalues (which you need to know about to understand it) and showing how you can reduce the dimensions of data using PCA. As I said it’s a neat tool to use in information theory, and even though the maths is a bit complicated, you only need to get a broad idea of what’s going on to be able to use it effectively.

July 24 2013

Four short links: 24 July 2013

  1. What to Look For in Software Dev (Pamela Fox) — It’s important to find a job where you get to work on a product you love or problems that challenge you, but it’s also important to find a job where you will be happy inside their codebase – where you won’t be afraid to make changes and where there’s a clear process for those changes.
  2. The Slippery Slope to Dark Patterns — demonstrates and deconstructs determinedly user-hostile pieces of software which deliberately break Nielsen’s usability heuristics to make users agree to things they rationally wouldn’t.
  3. Victory Lap for Ask Patents (Joel Spolsky) — story of how a StackExchange board on patents helped bust a bogus patent. It’s crowdsourcing the prior art, and Joel shows how easy it is.
  4. The World as Fire-Free Zone (MIT Technology Review) — data analysis to identify “signature” of terrorist behaviour, civilian deaths from strikes in territories the US has not declared war on, empty restrictions on use. Again, it’s a test that, by design, cannot be failed. Good history of UAVs in warfare and the blowback from their lax use. Quoting retired General Stanley McChrystal: The resentment caused by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.

July 22 2013

Four short links: 22 July 2013

  1. The Anti-Virus Age is Overfor every analyst that an AV company hires, the bad guys can hire 10 developers.
  2. 3D Printing’s 2014 Renaissance (Quartz) — patents on sintering about to expire which will open up hi-res production. Happened in the past when patents on fixed deposition modelling expired: Within just a few years of the patents on FDM expiring, the price of the cheapest FDM printers fell from many thousands of dollars to as little as $300.
  3. Ultrafine Particle Emissions from Desktop 3D Printers (Science Direct) — Because most of these devices are currently sold as standalone devices without any exhaust ventilation or filtration accessories, results herein suggest caution should be used when operating in inadequately ventilated or unfiltered indoor environments. (via Slashdot)
  4. Aireal — focussed changes in air pressure simulate sensations of touch. The machine itself is essentially a set of five speakers in a box–subwoofers that track your body through IR, then fire low frequencies through a nozzle to form donut-like vortices (I imagine the system as a cigar-smoking Microsoft Kinect). [...] In practice, Aireal can do anything from creating a button for you to touch in midair to crafting whole textures by pulsing its bubbles to mimic water, stone, and sand. (via BoingBoing)

November 23 2012

Four short links: 23 November 2012

  1. Trap Island — island on most maps doesn’t exist.
  2. Why I Work on Non-Partisan Tech (MySociety) — excellent essay. Obama won using big technology, but imagine if that effort, money, and technique were used to make things that were useful to the country. Political technology is not gov2.0.
  3. 3D Printing Patent Suits (MSNBC) — notable not just for incumbents keeping out low-cost competitors with patents, but also (as BoingBoing observed) Many of the key patents in 3D printing start expiring in 2013, and will continue to lapse through ’14 and ’15. Expect a big bang of 3D printer innovation, and massive price-drops, in the years to come. (via BoingBoing)
  4. GraphChican run very large graph computations on just a single machine, by using a novel algorithm for processing the graph from disk (SSD or hard drive). Programs for GraphChi are written in the vertex-centric model, proposed by GraphLab and Google’s Pregel. GraphChi runs vertex-centric programs asynchronously (i.e changes written to edges are immediately visible to subsequent computation), and in parallel. GraphChi also supports streaming graph updates and removal of edges from the graph.

April 13 2012

Publishing News: DoJ lawsuit is great news for Amazon

Here are a few stories from the publishing space that caught my eye this week.

Amazon does a little Snoopy dance

DoJSeal.pngThe biggest story this week was the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) filing a lawsuit against Apple and publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Penguin, accusing them of colluding over ebook prices. If you unplugged or dropped off-grid for the past several days, solid roundups and analyses can be found with Tim Carmody at Wired and Laura Hazard Owen at PaidContent, and you can read the complaint itself here (PDF).

Right off the bat, three publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster — settled, and Macmillan and Penguin stood their ground. Amazon responded to the situation almost immediately as well:

"This is a big win for Kindle owners, and we look forward to being allowed to lower prices on more Kindle books."

Book publishing analyst Michael Norris told the New York Times: "Amazon must be unbelievably happy today. Had they been puppeteering this whole play, it could not have worked out better for them."

Apple finally responded yesterday. As reported by Peter Kafka at All Things Digital, Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said:

"The DOJ's accusation of collusion against Apple is simply not true. The launch of the iBookstore in 2010 fostered innovation and competition, breaking Amazon's monopolistic grip on the publishing industry. Since then customers have benefited from eBooks that are more interactive and engaging. Just as we've allowed developers to set prices on the App Store, publishers set prices on the iBookstore."

Much discussion and analysis has ensued in the aftermath — and I'm sure it will continue in the coming days and weeks.

Some are purporting that even if the collusion between the publishers proves to be true, Apple might walk away squeaky clean. A report at CNET noted why this may be the case:

"One reason lies in the Justice Department's 36-page complaint, which recounts how publishers met over breakfast in a London hotel and dinners at Manhattan's posh Picholine restaurant, which boasts a "Best of Award of Excellence" from Wine Spectator magazine. The key point is that Apple wasn't present."

Bryan Chaffin at the Mac Observer argued that yes, collusion most probably occurred but that it will be a mistake to undo it: "Doing so will clear the way for Amazon to dump books below price, taking ever more share (and power) in the book industry — that is the greater anticompetitive threat."

On the flipside, Mike Cane argued on his xBlog that the suit didn't go far enough and that the DoJ needs to sue Apple again. In a letter sent to all of the Department of Justice attorneys listed in the antitrust suit papers filed, he said:

"The advantage iPhone and iPad owners have in using the iBooks app is that they can browse and purchase eBooks from within that app. It's a seamless customer experience.

By contrast, all eBook apps from competing eBook stores — such as those from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and others — cannot offer an identical shopping experience. They are disallowed by Apple. Apple has demanded from each of its iBookstore competitors a 30% cut of any purchases made using Apple APIs for what is called 'in-app purchasing.'

To me, this is every bit as much restraint of trade as the collusive price-fixing that made the Department bring Apple and its co-conspirators before the court for remedy."

Individual U.S. states have thrown in as well: 16 State Attorneys have filed suit, alleging that agency pricing cost consumers $100 million.

Earlier this week before any suits were filed, at least two of the Big Six publishers refused to sign new contracts with Amazon. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out and whether or not publishers are spurred into action to do more to prevent Amazon from totally monopolizing the market, such as dropping DRM.

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Just about a year ago, Amazon introduced an ad-supported Kindle at a reduced cost in exchange for the consumer enduring ads on the home and screen saver pages. Now, Yahoo has filed patent applications that indicate a plan to bring those ads directly into ebook content. A report at the BBC explained:

"The filings suggest that users could be offered titles at a variety of prices depending on the ads' prominence. They add that the products shown could be determined by the type of book being read, or even the contents of a specific chapter, phrase or word ... It suggests users could be offered ads as hyperlinks based within the book's text, in-laid text or even 'dynamic content' such as video. Another idea suggests boxes at the bottom of a page could trail later chapters or quotes saying 'brought to you by Company A.'"

From a revenue perspective, ads in ebook content makes all kinds of sense. From a reader perspective, I just hope there's always a price point for those of us who prefer to do our reading sans corporate sponsorship.

B&N one-ups Amazon

A close friend recently told me a story highlighting an issue with his Kindle: While reading in the car on a road trip, he had to give up his Kindle and resort to the Kindle app on his iPad to keep reading when it got dark. Maybe he should have waited and bought a Nook.

B&N introduced the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight this week — the first e-ink device to employ light. Alexandra Chang described the device in a post for Wired:

"The GlowLight resembles B&N's flagship Nook Simple Touch — same 6-inch touchscreen display, same size and includes the same internal parts. The Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, however, is slightly lighter at just 6.95 ounces, compared to the Nook Simple Touch's 7.48 ounces ... The GlowLight technology consists of LED lights located at the top of the Nook's screen and an anti-glare screen protector. The light is evenly scattered across the screen and is adjustable via the menu."

The timing of the release is interesting, as rumors surfaced last week that Amazon was readying a front-lit display for its Kindle device.

Seal: US-DeptOfJustice-Seal, on Wikimedia Commons

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April 11 2012

Four short links: 11 April 2012

  1. Inside Apple (Amazon) -- If Apple is Silicon Valley's answer to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, then author Adam Lashinsky provides readers with a golden ticket to step inside. In this primer on leadership and innovation, the author will introduce readers to concepts like the "DRI" (Apple's practice of assigning a Directly Responsible Individual to every task) and the Top 100 (an annual ritual in which 100 up-and-coming executives are tapped a la Skull & Bones for a secret retreat with company founder Steve Jobs). Hopefully it can provide a better template for successful executive behaviour than "be an arsehole who has opinions about design" which seems to be all that many have taken from the life and works of Steve Jobs. (via BoingBoing)
  2. Microsoft Buys Netscape Patents from AOL (Slashgear) -- when your employer says "we need you to file for a patent on this, just so we can build up our defensive arsenal", bear this in mind: you can never know that the defensive portfolio won't be bought by an aggressive competitor in the future. I'm not sure that we can all sleep sound knowing that Microsoft owns autofill and SSL.
  3. Open Data and The Gulf Oil Spill (Ars Technica) -- competing interests meant uncoordinated data collection, reporting distorted research by omitting caveats on preliminary work and findings, and talking openly about what you're doing can jeopardise your chance of publication in many journals. I found data collection stories particularly horrifying. (via Pete Warden)
  4. Smart Meter Hacks -- Liston and Weber have developed a prototype of a tool and software program that lets anyone access the memory of a vulnerable smart meter device and intercept the credentials used to administer it. Weber said the toolkit relies in part on a device called an optical probe, which can be made for about $150 in parts, or purchased off the Internet for roughly $300. “This is a well-known and common issue, one that we’ve warning people about for three years now, where some of these smart meter devices implement unencrypted memory,” Weber said. “If you know where and how to look for it, you can gather the security code from the device, because it passes them unencrypted from one component of the device to another.” Also notable for the fantastic line: “What you’re hearing is the sound of [a] paradigm shifting without a clutch,” Former said.

March 08 2012

Developer Week in Review: The new iPad and the big meh

The wacky climatology continues here in New England. We got half a foot of snow last week and it's 65 degrees today. Combine that with the unseasonable tornados Friday in the Midwest and South, and the icebox Europe has been suffering under, and you want to quote Bill Murray from "Ghostbusters": "Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together ... mass hysteria!"

And speaking of mass hysteria ...

Apple announces new products. World yawns.

iPad third generationSomewhere on a sleepy little ice-covered moon in a far-off galaxy, 12-eyed alien sloths watched the live-blogging of the Apple iPad reveal yesterday, so over-hyped are Apple's product announcements these days. The big surprise this time was that, well, there were no big surprises. A combination of leaks from companies in Apple's supply chain and good guesswork meant that we've known for days what was likely to be announced, and the rumors were pretty much on the money. A 4-core iPad with 2x display resolution and a better camera, on LTE, and an upgraded Apple TV unit. It seems that the days are gone when Apple's master pitchmen can pull something genuinely novel out of the hat with no advanced warning. I can remember the stunned applause when the iPhone was first unveiled. The "new" iPad's announcement was more like "yeah, OK, cool."

That having been said, the new iPad is going to blur the laptop/tablet lines even further, as a combination of more processor power and a higher resolution display are letting more and more advanced applications make the transition to a tablet form factor. For developers, this is going to mean abandoning the mouse and keyboard as the primary way of doing things in user interface design, even for products that traditionally were thought of as "desktop applications" (such as CAD).

And yes, for the record, I bought a 64GB LTE model (black). If you're looking to trade in your old iPad, Amazon seems to be giving the best offers at the moment for used ones.

Great moments in patent extortion, the series!

Steve Jobs famously vowed that he'd destroy the Android, but recent reports indicate that Apple has decided it would rather make profits, not war. Apple is reportedly offering to back off patent litigation against handset vendors in return for a $15/unit license fee. If you combine that with Microsoft's $10/unit fee, that means that $25 of every Android sold is going to companies that directly compete against the platform.

What a great business model! Buy our product, or don't buy it, but either way we'll make money on the deal. Mind you, I'm sure Apple and Microsoft clear more than $25 and $10 respectively in profit off each iPhone and Windows phone they sell, so they'd still rather you buy one of theirs. Still, if you can't beat 'em, tax 'em!

Welcome Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi model BThe Raspberry Pi is finally here and shipping. Not surprisingly, the $35 single-board Linux computer immediately sold out. However, there's evidently a robust supply chain in place because I was able to purchase a unit for delivery in just a few weeks.

For my money, the big loser in all this is going to be the Arduino, which is cute but underpowered and hard to develop for. Given the Pi is cheaper than most Arduinos and offers networking, HDMI and USB, plus an easier-to-use Linux OS, I can see a lot of developers deciding to drop Arduino in favor of it. It will run happily on 4AA batteries and has GPIO ports available, so you could even use it in your favorite autonomous flying vehicle autopilot application if you wanted.

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February 14 2012

Four short links: 14 February 2012

  1. Why I Hate The STOCK Act (Clay Johnson) -- an attempt to reform insider trading within government, but because Congress exempts itself from substantial penalties then it has little effect where it's needed most. We won't see change on the issues that matter to us (copyright, due process for Internet takedowns, privacy, etc.) while the lawmakers are distracted by money.
  2. Instruction Medium is the Message (Dan Meyer) -- Print is a medium. Same as digital photos. Same as a teacher's voice. Same as a YouTube video. Same as a podcast. These are all different media. And as we know, the medium is the message. The medium defines and constrains and sometimes distorts the message. The math that can be conveyed in a YouTube video is not the same math that can be conveyed in a digital photo or a podcast or a print textbook. Anything that can be replaced by a computer should be; it's doubtful that successful widespread education consists only of things a computer can replace.
  3. Eolas Patent a Hollow Victory (Simon Phipps) -- those who were extorted by the patent troll will go uncompensated, and the loss of one patent leaves their business model still intact. The patent system is extremely broken in the US, it's a giant cost of doing business, a regulation-created tax that is paid to trolls instead of to the US Government. What idiot supports a tax that doesn't go to the government? An ethically-corrupted one (see point 1 above).
  4. Monitor your Continuous Integration Server with Traffic Lights and an Arduino -- nifty little hardware hack. It's an example of making physical objects which control or portray virtual systems, and it's tied into this Continuous Integration trend whereby software changes go live as soon as possible rather than being held off until 2am on the first Thursday of the month, when the IT team come in to manage the rollout of the new code. CI, in turn, is an example of failing early on something small rather than failing later and larger. (via Sandy Mamoli)

February 10 2012

Developer Week in Review: A pause to consider patents

This week, as I do occasionally, I want to focus in on one specific topic.

For regular readers, the topic of technology innovation and patents is nothing new; it's a problem that is frequently covered in this space. But this week, there were two important occurrences in the world of intellectual property that highlight just what a mess we've gotten ourselves into.

The first is an unexpected turn of events down in scenic Tyler, Texas, home of the world's most litigant-friendly patent infringement juries. How friendly? Well, biased enough that Eolas relocated its corporate HQ to Tyler just to be close to the courts. Eolas, as you may recall, is the pesky gadfly that's been buzzing around giants such as Microsoft for years, claiming broad patents over, well, the entire Internet. Rather than continuing a costly court battle it might lose in the end, the House of Redmond settled, and a host of other high-tech cash-cows followed suit.

US Patent 5,838,906As Eolas continued to threaten to sue the pants off everyone, a ragtag group of plucky companies like Adobe Systems, Google, Yahoo, Apple, eBay and Amazon.com said enough is enough. And this week in Tyler, following testimony by luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a jury agreed, invalidating the infamous '906 patent.

You'd think that this would make Google, one of the main defendants, a big hero and confirm its status as Not Evil. But in the very same week, Google refused to budge on its licensing requirements for patents it acquired from Motorola, patents that are required for any company that wants to play in the 3G cell phone space.

When a standard is adopted by governmental bodies (such as the FCC) or standards-setting bodies like IEEE, it should ideally be free of any intellectual property restraints. After all, that's the purpose of a standard: to provide a common framework that competing companies can use to produce interoperable products. Standards such as GSM and CDMA are why you can use your iPhone in Europe (if you're rich).

The problem is, most modern standards come with a bundle of patents attached to them. In the 3G space, Google (through the Motorola acquisition) and Samsung own a lot of them. As part of the standard-making process, these companies are supposed to agree to offer use of the patents under Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) license terms. The idea is that all companies using the standard pay the same license fees to the patent holders, so no one gets an advantage. The problem is, who decides what is Fair and Reasonable?

This is especially pernicious when the company licensing the patent is also a competitor in the space. Obviously, Samsung doesn't pay itself a license fee to use its patent, so it doesn't matter how expensive it makes the fee, as long as Samsung doesn't incur the wrath of the standard-setting body. In the case of Motorola/Google, the license fee is set at 2.25% of the total selling price of the phone (which would come to around $13.50 on a $600 iPhone). Apple, et al., are screaming to the moon that that kind of licensing is not in the spirit of FRAND, but it's up to groups such as the European standards body, ETSI, to determine if the patent holders are really playing fair.

Of course, Google has fallen victim to the same issues. Although it doesn't pay the piper directly, phone manufacturers using Android end up reportedly paying $5 per phone to Microsoft to avoid patent issues. It's worth noting, however, that at least Microsoft is using software-related patents that it claims Android infringes, not patents directly related to the underlying standards used by the phone.

There's a simple solution to this problem, of course, which is not to allow patent-encumbered technologies to become standards. The software world has (mostly) been free of this kind of nonsense, and it's a good thing. Can you imagine having to pay a license fee to use SOAP, or AJAX? The worrisome thing is that this could become the model used for software patents, and it would basically kill smaller companies trying to be innovative.

Oh, and before you count Eolas out of the game, remember that this is just a single trial it lost. It can try again with another jury and another set of companies. Unless the USPTO invalidates the underlying patent, Eolas is still out there, waiting to strike.

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Jury to Eolas: Nobody owns the interactive web

As Joe Mullin reported at Wired earlier tonight, a Texas jury has struck down a company's claim to own the interactive web. The decision in this case comes after more than a decade of legal wrangling that has drawn in some of the biggest technology companies and retailers in the world. As Timothy Lee observed at Ars Technica, Eolas, "a patent troll that has been shaking down technology companies for the better part of a decade, now faces the prospect of losing the patent."

It's a rare reversal of two software patents (7,599,985 and 5,838,906), that shouldn't have been granted in the first place. It's also an important victory for the open Internet.

As a result of the decision, the eight companies that were resisting the patent lawsuits won't have to pay anything to Eolas. If Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Amazon, Adobe, JC Penney, CDW Corp., and Staples had lost the patent infringement suit, they would have been subject to more than $600 million in damages.

The Eolas patent case represents one of the most infamous claims to ownership of the commons that grew up in universities, garages and labs in the early 1990s.

Here's a quick summary of the history: the '906 patent was applied for in 1994 and granted to Eolas in 1998. Eolas sued Microsoft in 1999. Microsoft lost that trial and settled with Eolas. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Microsoft both petitioned the U.S. Patent Office to reconsider patent. The Patent Office upheld it, both times.

The Eolas patent covers "embedded application" in a browser, a broad description of a function that was typical of client-server systems of the time. The patent was then used by Eolas founder Michael Doyle to make a broad claim about the invention of interactivity on the web, based upon a medical imaging application that enabled a user to manipulate images on a web browser with computation occurring in the background on a server.

The case appears to have turned on the demonstration of prior art by the defense. A computer science student at the University of California at Berkeley, Pei-Yuan Wei, testified during the trial that he had conceived of making interactive web features as early as 1991, including the creation of the Viola Web browser. Viola, first released in April 1992, was the first web browser with inline graphics, scripting, tables and a stylesheet. The web browser was in development at O'Reilly in 1992-1994. Another UC Berkeley student, Scott Silvey, testified that he had demonstrated such features to engineers at Sun Microsystems in 1993.

That testimony, when combined with that of web pioneers like Eric Bina, the co-founder of Netscape, and Dave Raggett, who invented the HTML "embed" tag, and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was enough to convince this jury.

"It was ahead of its time," testified Berners-Lee. "The things Pei was doing would later be done in Java."

One interesting detail that emerged in the case was that the U.S. Patent Office didn't have access to the Internet in 1994 and was apparently forbidden from going on the Internet in 1997, which would make research into prior art in cyberspace somewhat of a challenge.

Patent trolls continue to be a major issue for software companies and the technology industry as a whole in 2012, as an episode of "This American Life" on when patents attack effectively communicated.

As Mike Masnick points out at TechDirt, while today was an important victory for the networked commons and civil society, Eolas still has a lot of settlement money in hand to pursue an appeal.

That said, the jury's decision to invalidate Eolas' claims of ownership regarding the basic technology that enables access to the interactive web means the company won't be suing anyone for a while.

Here's to the Open Web.

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November 18 2011

Publishing News: Tech patent wars spill into the book world

Here are a few stories that caught my eye this week in the publishing space.

Patent wars heat up as B&N's position against Microsoft goes public

Barnes & Noble's presentation and accompanying exhibits outlining its position against Microsoft's patent licensing fees for Android devices were made public this week (see the lawsuit here and some background here). Groklaw summed up the situation succinctly, saying, "In effect, Barnes & Noble says Microsoft is doing what's it's done in the past against Netscape and Java, only now the target is Android and the weapon of choice is patents." A later Groklaw post excerpted one of the letters Barnes & Noble gave to the Justice Department:

Simply put, Microsoft is attempting to monopolize the mobile operating systems market and suppress competition by Android and other open source operating systems by, inter alia, demanding oppressive licensing terms directed to the entirety of Android, asserting this dominant position over Android on the basis of patents covering only trivial design choices and entering into a horizontal offensive patent agreement with Nokia ...

Instead of focusing on innovation and the development of new products for consumers, Microsoft has decided to invest its efforts into driving open source developers from the mobile operating systems market. Through the use of offensive licensing agreements and the demand for unreasonable licensing fees, Microsoft is hindering creativity in the mobile operating systems market ... Through the use of oppressive licensing terms that amount to a veto power over a wide variety of innovative features in Android devices of all kinds, as well as its prohibitively expensive licensing fees, Microsoft is attempting to push open source software developers out of the market altogether.

The summary slide from the presentation highlights B&N's main assertions of Microsoft's anti-competitive offenses:

Slide from Barnes & Noble presentation for the Justice Department

Geekwire posted the entire presentation, and Groklaw has a nice presentation and analysis of the other five exhibits Barnes & Noble presented with the slides.

Anti-SOPA equals pro-pirate?

Congress was busy this week with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) hearing, in which Google boldly stood against, well, pretty much everyone else at the hearing. A post at Ars Technica reported that "Google's lawyer was the only one of the six to object to the bill in a meaningful way," and that "[t]his wasn't a hearing designed to elicit complex thoughts about complex issues of free speech, censorship, and online piracy ... the hearing was designed to shove the legislation forward and to brand companies who object as siding with 'the pirates'."

The controversial act (nicely explained here) looks to establish legislation to punish companies and websites that allow pirated content. Opponents of the act, including Google, Yahoo and Facebook, say it goes too far and would give the government too much power (Ars Technica outlines the major issues here). The Washington Post explains:

SOPA protects artists' intellectual property, enabling them to pursue a profit — which, in the case of record labels and movie companies, cuts off consumers' paths to free downloads and pushes them toward purchasing the work. But the types of content that would be prohibited under SOPA would also include amateur remix works, like YouTube covers of songs or mash-ups of movies. These works would be considered copyright violations, and not only could the creator of the work be legally vulnerable, but also could the host of the content.

The Washington Post also quoted Michael O'Leary, who represents the Motion Picture Association of America (which supports the Act), as saying, "Fundamentally, this is about jobs." In a tongue-in-cheek post, Edward J. Black at HuffPo agreed the Act will create jobs ... for lawyers, judicial employees, cyber security engineers, government, Internet monitors/censors, and pornographers. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) — who, as Ars Technica points out, "helped author the key Internet safe harbors that keep sites like Google, Yahoo, and eBay from being sued into oblivion for the actions of others" had a succinct, level-headed comment on the situation:

We took the opportunity to pass a law that said that neutral parties on the net are not liable for the actions of bad actors. So now, as we again debate web censorship, let's ask ourselves: what next generation of innovations won't be realized if we backtrack on that principal now? Yes, the Internet needs reasonable laws and bad actors need to be pursued, but the freedoms of billions of individual Internet users should not be sacrificed in the interest of easing that pursuit.

Authors now cry foul on Amazon's Kindle Owner's Lending Library

The Kindle Owner's Lending Library took a hit this week from the Authors Guild. When Amazon launched its new lending service a couple weeks ago, publishers — including O'Reilly's GM Joe Wikert — were the first to voice concerns. Now, the Authors Guild is arguing the program is a breach of contract. A post on the Guild's site asks, "Are any of the books in Amazon's new e-book subscription/lending program properly there?" The post purports that the Big Six refused to participate in Amazon's program, but "[n]o matter. Amazon simply disregarded these publishers' wishes, and enrolled many of their titles in the program anyway."

KindleLibrary.PNG

The Authors Guild post also points out that the smaller publishing houses that agreed to participate in the Lending Library program might not have the right to:

While these publishers generally have the right to license e-book uses for many of their authors' titles (just as most trade publishers do), our reading of the standard terms of these contracts is that they do not have the right to do so without the prior approval of the books' authors.

The Guild concludes with instructions on how authors can get their books removed from the program and says:

Under most (perhaps all) publishing contracts, a license to Amazon's Lending Library is outside the bounds of the publisher's licensing authority. This isn't a minor matter — in order to protect the author's interests, all publishers should be asking permission before entering into such a bulk licensing agreement, and most would need to seek a contract amendment to do so.

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November 17 2011

Four short links: 17 November 2011

  1. Questioning University -- my take on the issue of whether a university education (particularly CS) is still relevant or whether kids should go straight to startups. So what do I tell my kids? Should I urge them to go to university? Should I tell them to jack it all in and run off and join a startup? This is what's occupying my mind now.
  2. Still Cripped by Free (Simon Phipps) -- the freedoms of free and open software (the ability to use it for whatever you want, to improve it or give it to others who can then improve it) represent creative and financial independence. Fifteen years after open source and business really started to get dirty with each other, the misunderstanding is still widespread that it's about price. Simon has a clear and robust essay about the latest UK procurement guidelines to show why price can be subverted in a way that freedom cannot.
  3. The Private and Social Costs of Patent Trolls -- Using stock market event studies around patent lawsuit filings, we find that NPE lawsuits are associated with half a trillion dollars of lost wealth to defendants from 1990 through 2010, mostly from technology companies. Moreover, very little of this loss represents a transfer to small inventors. Instead, it implies reduced innovation incentives. (via BoingBoing)
  4. Facebook's Teams and Use of Data -- great talk by Adam Mosseri of Facebook, where he covers the composition of teams at Facebook, how they use data to make decisions, and when they don't use data to make decisions. (via Bryce Roberts)

July 28 2011

Developer Week in Review: Linux turns the big 3.0

I have been informed by the contractors, currently starting in on bathroom renovation No. 3 at our house, that my official designation is "Houston." This is because, pretty much every day, they call me at work and say "We have a problem." If you think patching bugs in legacy code written by someone who has left your company is bad, try getting work done on a 215-year-old house.



While the rest of the O'Reilly family is out cavorting in the wilds of Portland at OSCON, a few of us must tend the fires back East, and keep the rest of the world informed on what's going on. Such as ...



The new Linux is out, the new Linux is out!

LinuxIt used to be, when COBOL developers roamed the Earth, that a new release of the Linux kernel was a cause for much excitement, especially something as momentous as a new major version. Can anyone every remember when Linux 1.x became Linux 2.0? Here's a hint, it was 15 years ago.



But times have changed. Very few people install a Linux kernel directly anymore. Most get them through the distribution they have chosen. And for people who have embedded versions of Linux, they may not have the slightest idea what version of the kernel they're running. Ask a random sampling of HTC Android users what kernel is installed, and you'll probably get a blank stare (here's a cheat sheet, if you're interested.)

Adding to the ho-hum nature of the 3.0 release is that fact that there's really nothing special in it, by Linus' own admission. He just figured it was time to stop endlessly adding to the 2.0 version tree, and get a clean start on the 3's. With the 20th anniversary of the famous Linux Letter coming up in late August, now is probably as a good a time as ever to put the terrible twos to bed for good.

Here's a fun question to ponder, though: How many build scripts that assume "2.6.X" or "2.X.X" as a Linux version number are about to break?

Hoist with their own petard

It behooves people to remember, in this day and age, that the things they say and write may come back to haunt them. Thus, when trying to make the case that the Android operating system is an unholy misuse of Java, it would have been good for Oracle to remember that there was a letter floating around from 2007 in which Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz offers Google a warm greeting, and pledged to work aggressively to cooperate with Google on Android.



There's a certain sweet symmetry in Oracle's battle against the search engine giant being potentially derailed by material from deep in the web's archives. It was legal eagles at Groklaw who uncovered the letter, but I'm sure there was much Googling involved in finding it.



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You have to admire Lodsys' ambition

Not content with suing the smaller fry of the iOS and Android ecosystem, patent "leveragers" (I'd use a less kind word there, but my editor would just change it ...) Lodsys has taken their patent fight to some truly big fish. In new legal action, Rovio (the makers of "Angry Birds"), EA, Take Two Interactive ("Grand Theft Auto") and Atari have found themselves in the defendant box.



The continuing suits, which revolve around in-app purchases, could prove an interesting line in the sand. Apple has licensed rather than litigated in the past, but the signs so far are that Apple (which already paid Lodsys once for the use of the patents) has decided that enough is enough. By dragging big players such as EA into the fray, Lodsys may be making the same mistake that SCO did when they dragged IBM and other large corporations into their Linux litigation. Big companies have large legal teams, and at some point, Lodsys may find themselves worse off than if they had just taken their money and run.


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July 22 2011

Top stories: July 18-22, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.


Google+ is the social backbone
Google+ is the rapidly growing seed of a web-wide social backbone, and the catalyst for the ultimate uniting of the social graph.
Intellectual property gone mad
Patent trolling could undermine app ecosystems, but who can mount a legitimate challenge? Here's four potential solutions.
Software engineering is a team sport: How programmers can deal with colleagues and non-programmers
Ben Collins-Sussman, tech lead and manager at Google, and Brian Fitzpatrick, engineering manager at Google, explain the "art of mass organizational manipulation."
FOSS isn't always the answer
James Turner says the notion that proprietary software is somehow dirty or a corruption of principles ignores the realities of competition, economics, and context.


Emerging languages show off programming's experimental side
Alex Payne, organizer of OSCON's Emerging Languages track, discusses language experimentation and whether these efforts are evolutionary or revolutionary.

Rugby photo: Scrum by MontyPython, on Flickr; Open sign photo: open by tinou bao, on Flickr




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July 20 2011

Developer Week in Review: Mobile's embedded irony

Happy Lion day! For those of the Mac persuasion, today is a milestone, as Apple wraps the odometer around again, kicking it over to 10.7. Also, our favorite Penguin (and brother in POSIX arms) turns 20, complete with birthday wishes from Redmond. Many happy returns!

Free mobile OS, but with a patent surcharge

Microsoft continues to look for new and innovative (or old and litigious) ways to make money, and one of them is to squeeze Android handset manufacturers for a reported $15/unit in patent fees for every phone sold.

The irony stings sharp here. Android may be an open source operating system, but in order to actually buy an Android phone, you need to pony up patent money to the king of the closed source OS, Microsoft. And since (except for legal fees) Microsoft has no costs associated with the production of the unit, it's 100% pure profit for Microsoft.

If you want to buy an HTC Droid phone, the story is getting even worse, because the ITC decided that HTC violated several Apple patents. That's likely to lead to a similar arrangement with Apple.

Meanwhile, Blackberry (you remember them) is quickly becoming the also-ran of the mobile market, with a new survey showing a dismal 4% of potential buyers are now considering a Blackberry. This, combined with unconfirmed reports that the Blackberry PlayBook is in trouble, seem to point toward Android and iOS being the safest developer platforms for the near future.

On the other hand, Apple is now so successful that not only are the Chinese cloning the products, they're cloning the stores!

Like fine wines...

As my eligibility for AARP looms, it's good to know that my value as a developer is continuing to climb, at least on average. That's the conclusion of a recent study, which found that older developers tended to have higher reputation values on StackOverflow.

This confirms a suspicion that I've fostered for a while, which is that for those developers who bother to keep up with the new stuff (the study showed that the population of developers decreases rapidly as they age), having a wide range of knowledge and broad experience does in fact have value.

Of course, part of the problem is that older developers tend to get sucked into management or transformed into architects, and some just don't have the passion to keep up with the latest hot technologies. But if you can stick with it, and if companies are willing to recognize that more mature developers have value, the stigma of the older developer being put out on the ice to die may become a myth. Meanwhile, keep the heck off my lawn, you young punks!

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git thee to a nunnery!

The git lovefest continues to swell this week, with Google Code adding git to their list of supported SCMs. With the move, Google achieves parity with well-known sites such as github and SourceForge, and gives developers looking for a place to call their project home yet another option.

Meanwhile, on the theory that you can never have enough standards, a new distributed source control system called Veracity is sticking its head out of the nest. I hate to squash innovation, but with git, Subversion, Mercurial and even cvs all fighting to be the One True source control system, isn't adding another one just playing into the tyranny of choice paradox?

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July 18 2011

Intellectual property gone mad

Friday night, I tweeted a link to a Guardian article stating that app developers were withdrawing apps from Apple's app store and Google's Android market (and presumably also Amazon's app store), because they feared becoming victims of a patent trolling lawsuit. That tweet elicited some interesting responses that I'd like to discuss.

The insurance solution?

One option might be to rely on the insurance industry to solve the problem. "Isn't this what insurance is supposed to be for? Couldn't all these developers set up a fund for their common defense?" wrote @qckbrnfx. An interesting idea, and one I've considered. But that's a cure that seems worse than the disease. First, it's not likely to be a cure. How many insurance companies actually defend their clients against an unreasonable lawsuit? They typically don't. They settle out of court and your insurance premium goes up.

@mikeloukides Isn't this what insurance is supposed to be for? Couldn't all these developers set up a fund for their common defense?less than a minute ago via Tweetbot for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

If you look at medical malpractice insurance, where unfounded malpractice claims are the equivalent to trolling, I would bet that the willingness of insurance companies to settle out of court increases trolling. An insurance solution to the problem of trolling would be, effectively, a tax on the software developers. And we would soon be in a situation where insurance companies were specifying who could develop software (after a couple of malpractice cases, a doctor becomes uninsurable, and he's effectively out of the business, regardless of the merits of those cases), what software they could develop, and so on. Percy Shelley once said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." But my more cynical variation is that the insurance companies are the world's unacknowledged legislators. I don't want to see the software industry dancing to the insurance industry's tune. Some fear big government. I fear big insurance much more.

Fighting back?

There's a variant of the insurance solution that I like: @patentbuzz said: "Developers need to unite and crowdfund re-exam of obnoxious troll patents. Teach them a lesson." This isn't "insurance" in the classic risk-spreading sense: this is going on the offensive, and pooling funds to defend against trolling. I do not think it would take a lot of effort to make trolling (at least, the sort of low-level trolling that we're looking at here) unprofitable, and as soon as it becomes unprofitable, it will stop. Small-time app developers can't afford lawyers, which is precisely why trolling is so dangerous. But here's the secret: most patent trolls can't afford lawyers, either. They can afford enough lawyering to write a few cease and desist letters, and to settle out of court, but their funds would be exhausted fairly quickly if even a small percentage of their victims tried to fight back.

@mikeloukides Developers need to unite and crowdfund reexam of obnoxious troll patents. Teach them a lesson http://t.co/8wFkyFQless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

This is precisely where the big players need to get into the game. Apple has tried to give their app developers some legal cover, but as far as I know, they have not stepped in to pay for anyone's defense. Neither has Google. It's time for Apple and Google to step up to the plate. I am willing to bet that, if Apple or Google set up a defense fund, trolling would stop really quickly.

Blocking sale of patents?

A large part of the patent problem is that patents are transferable. @_philjohn asks "Do you think changing law to prevent transfer of patents could reduce the patent troll problem?" On one level, this is an attractive solution. But I'm wary: not about patent reform in itself (which is absolutely necessary), but because I've worked for a startup that went out of business. They had a small intellectual property portfolio, and the sale of that portfolio paid for my (substantial) unused vacation time. That's not how things are supposed to happen, but when startups go out of business, they don't always shut down nicely. It's worth asking what the cost would be if patents and other kinds of intellectual property were non-transferable. Would venture capitalists be less likely to invest, would startups fail sooner, if it were impossible to sell intellectual property assets? I suspect not, but it isn't a simple question.


A call to action

Patent and copyright law in the U.S. derives from the Constitution, and it's for a specific purpose: "To promote the progress of science and useful arts" (Article I, section 8). If app developers are being driven out of the U.S. market by patent controlling, patent law is failing in its constitutional goal; indeed, it's forcing "science and the useful arts" to take place elsewhere. That's a problem that needs to be addressed, particularly at a time when the software industry is one of the few thriving areas of the U.S. economy, and when startups (and in my book, that includes independent developers) drive most of the potential for job growth in the economy.

I don't see any relief coming from the patent system as it currently exists. The bigger question is whether software should be patentable at all. As Nat Torkington (@gnat) has reported, New Zealand's Parliament has a bill before it that will ban software patents, despite the lobbying of software giants in the U.S. and elsewhere. Still, at this point, significant changes to U.S. patent law belong in the realm of pleasant fantasy. Much as I would like to see it happen, I can't imagine Congress standing up to an onslaught of lobbyists paid by some of the largest corporations in the U.S.

One dimension of the problem is relatively simple: too many patent applications, too few patent office staff reviewing those applications, and not enough technical expertise on that staff to evaluate the applications properly. It doesn't help that patents are typically written to be as vague and broad as possible, without being completely meaningless. (As the staff tech writer at that startup, I had a hand in reviewing some of my former employer's patent applications). So you frequently can't tell what was actually patented, and an alleged "infringement" can take place that had little to do with the original invention. Tim O'Reilly (@timoreilly) suggested a return to the days when a patent application had to include the actual invention (for software, that could mean source code) being patented. This would reduce much of the ambiguity in what was actually patented, and might prevent some kinds of abuse. Whatever form it takes, better scrutiny on the part of the patent office would be a big help. But is that conceivable in these days of government spending cuts and debt ceilings? Larger filing fees, to support the cost of more rigorous examination, is probably a non-starter, given the current allergy to anything that looks like a "tax." However, inadequate review of patent applications effectively imposes a much larger (and unproductive) tax on the small developers who can least afford it.

If we can't rely on the patent office to do a better job of reviewing patents, the task falls to the Apples and Googles of the world — the deep-pocketed players who rely on small developers — to get into the game and defend their ecosystems. But though that's a nice idea, there are many reasons to believe it will never happen, not the least of which is that the big players are too busy suing each other.

Apple and Google, are you listening? Your communities are at stake. Now's the time to show whether you really care about your developers.

Crowdfunding the defense of small developers may be the best solution for the immediate problem. Is this a viable Kickstarter project? It probably would be the largest project Kickstarter has ever attempted. Would a coalition of patent attorneys be willing to be underpaid while they contribute to the public good? I'd be excited to see such a project start. This could also be a project for the EFF. The EFF has the expertise, they list "innovation" and "fair use" among their causes, and they talk explicitly about trolling on their intellectual property page. But they've typically involved themselves in a smaller number of relatively high-profile cases. Are they willing to step in on a larger (or smaller, as the case may be) scale?

None of these solutions addresses the larger problems with patents and other forms of intellectual property, but perhaps we're better off with baby steps. Even the baby steps aren't simple, but it's time to start taking them.

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