Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Patent Troll Forgets Pearl Harbor

Just sitting here, quietly leaching off the genius of others--After the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese admiral famously said that all Japan had done was “awaken a sleeping giant.”

The same may bersaid of a patent holding company named Lodsys, which has triggered a war with Apple and its developers. At stake is a threat to innovation for Apple’s mobile operating system and hugely profitable App Store crashing. Google also has been threatened, and Microsoft could be next.

Lodsys may have made a second mistake: it let lawyers make decisions instead of just giving advice. Now it is a war it cannot afford to lose and the giants stirreth.

Lodsys is the kind of company the technology industry loathes. Labelling them patent trolls. They invent nothing, innovate nothing and make all their profit from license fees for patents royalties or the result of law suits.

On Friday, the 13th of last month, Lodsys sent Fedex letters to more than a dozen developers for Apple’s IOS, demanding royalties on a patent it owned for what are called APIs, the software that lets you upgrade or pay for software on your iPhone. They demanded 0.575 percent of sales going back to 2009 and future sales to 2023, when the patent expires.

The patent in question, No 7222078, “Methods and systems for gathering information from units of a commodity,” was invented by Massachusetts inventor Daniel H. Abelow in 2003 who sold it a year later to Intellectual Ventures, a Seattle holding company started by former Microsoft executives.

IV promised, when it was formed, it would not sue developers over patents because, after all, that would stifle competition. According to Julie Samuels of the Electronics Frontier Foundation, they have already broken that promise at least once. More intriguingly, they apparently set up “stand-alone” companies that do sue developers. Lodsys is believed to be one.

Apple, Google and Microsoft purchased blanket licenses for the patent with VI, and Apple insisted that all its developers use the API to post applications for the mobile operating system. The patent has since been sold twice, finally to Lodsys. Think mortgages.

Two weeks after hitting Apple developers, several Android developers received similar letters.
The developers screamed at Apple to protect them, even threatening a boycott.

“If Lodsys is successful, a wave of others, smelling blood in the water, will converge in a feeding frenzy of half-point licensing fees,” said developer Mike Lee, who organized the boycott. “Every week developers will have to deal with new players starting ventures on their backs…. Innovation will stagnate, and the whole industry would probably move to Europe, where patent law is not insane.”

 Moreover, there’s the question of what lawyers call burden, which also could discourage companies from working for Apple or Google.

Samuels said responsible developers go to a lawyer and ask them to make sure they weren’t violating someone’s patent, a freedom to operate opinion. That lawyer would probably does not bother to look at technologies Apple supplied assuming Apple did its homework. Now the greater burden and cost is on the developers’ backs.

On May 23, Apple’s prodigious legal staff, given little choice, responded something like the Judean People’s Liberation Front in Monty Python’s “Life of Bryan” --a long letter protesting Lodsys’s actions. It was, to be fair, a cease-and-desist letter to Lodsys, claiming the blanket license covered the developers.

To everyone’s surprise, Lodsys, who seemed genuinely offended at a being called a “troll” and was being drowned in vituperative emails and blog comments (including death threats), found itself in a position were it could not back down. It said in its blog if it did not pursue the matter it would lose all its legal rights, its raison d’ĂȘtre.

So they started suing developers.

(This is not an isolated case. A company called Macrosolve is notorious in the industry for suing first and then writing letters. They have targeted not only Apple but Blackberry and Android apps in a board patent that covers all Internet forms.)

What happened to Lodsys next is different. The little guys fought back, or at least one did. ForeSee Results, a company that sells software for Web surveys went to court in Chicago asking for a declaratory judgement invalidating Lodsys’s four patents.

Mike Wokasch, a patent lawyer in Madison, WI, said invalidating patents is tough but ForeSee’s action has another aspect to it. “What ForeSee Results is doing is essentially entering into patent litigation. It has the same potential costs as you might expect with one huge advantage: it’s not in East Texas.”
East Texas is where law suits against large corporations go to die.

Then Apple jumped back in, this time for real, also asking for a declaratory judgement invalidatiing the patents in Texas.

Lodsys then went ballistic, filing the suits it threatened in the letter, whereapon several other companies, who rely on the developers, including The New York Times Co. also filed suits challenging the patents.

Patent trolls exist because they know fighting them is a lot more expensive then simply paying them off. Most developers are single guys or a small company that really can't afford to fight back. it can cost upwards to $1 million to fight a patent suit.

Now they are up against companies that can take that money out of the petty cash drawer and if they lose, they are toast.

The upshot is that a lot of lawyers will have a lot of billable hours. Remember Pearl Harbor.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Whatever happened to the Wired City?

OMG, We're stuck with Comcast--Ten years ago, more than 200 municipalities in America dreamed of the Wired City where you could get broadband internet service anywhere, inthe libraries, schools, on a park bench, sitting in your car. Parking meters would be wired, as would police and ambulances and firetrucks. Ten years later very few municipal WiFi services exist. 

The Wired City was a dream and it would bring the internet to even those who could not afford it. Best of all, you didn’t have to deal with Verizon or Comcast, which alone would be reason to celebrate. And cities wouldn’t have to go through the expense of digging ditches or stringing cables to each building or home.

The dream ran into economics and politics. Mostly, however, it ran into a simple technologic problem. You can’t wire a city with WiFi. Wrong technology.

The dream was glorious, and cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and even technology savvy San Francisco, fell for it. Philly and several other cities even found a corporate ally, Earthlink, and hot spots were even begun. But two or three years later, the plans were abandoned. Earthlink ran like hell and the cities acknowledged it wasn’t going to work. By last March, when the Federal Communication Commission released Connecting American, the National Broadband Plan, WiFi was mentioned on only a few pages. We had moved on.

If you wanted WiFi, you probably needed to head to a Starbucks. You can do a building, an office, an airport, even a campus. You cannot do a city.

One of the first problems was predictable. The cable companies, especially Time-Warner and Comcast went berserk, complaining of unfair competition. They often had monopolies in cities and were not happy about having to give up any shadow of the space to someone who would operate as a non-profit. They lobbied states to ban municipality owned systems and succeeded in many. The battle now is still being battled in North Carolina.

But the technology was its own worse enemy.
  • What you send from a transmitter doesn’t always match what you get at the receiver. Free-space propagation means that a signal strength degrades inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two. Even if nothing interferes, the signal will degrade.
  • The interference in a city is massive. Every wall, car, piece of furniture, tree, window that comes between the transmitter and receiver will reflect, diffract and scatter the signal. So does every other radio signal.
  • WiFi is limited to two broadcast bands and they have to share the space with other electronic devices. Since none of these devices have to be licensed, anyone can turn one on and screw up a WiFi network.
  • The FCC limits power to 1 watt, not nearly powerful enough to overcome the obstacles.
  • The signal frequencies are too high. The lower the frequency the better a system’s ability to cope with interference.WiFi operates at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz; FM radio, which can penetrate walls and cars, operates  between 30 MHz-300 MHz.
  • All the above means you have to have a lot of installations and someone has to install them, climbing on trees and poles, negotiating with landlords, drilling holes, running cables in interiors.
Actually, there are technologies that would work, including 3G and 4G telephony. That won’t help laptops equipped with WiFi or other computers, so that remedy is not terribly useful.
For now, the Wired City will have to be limited to specific areas. And some of us still have to tray to get a live human being at Comcast or Verizon.
“Your call is important to us. Now sit there and wait.”

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Climate change, forest fires, and cultural collateral damage

Carmel Forest in better days
The price of climate change isn’t just high temperatures and rising seas. It is cultural, political, economic and philosophical. Climate change has collateral damage.

In December, the worst forest fire in Israel’s history destroyed 12,000 acres (4,800 hectares) of forest. The fire did not just destroy trees; it destroyed one of the philosophical underpinnings of the Jewish state, costs millions of dollars, dozens of lives and could even contribute to bringing down a government.

The fires should not have been a surprise. In 2001, Israeli scientists predicted that the changing climate would eventually lead to heat waves, drought, a change in rain patterns and eventually forest fires. All that turned out to be true. Guy Pe’er, a co-author of Israeli’s National Report on Climate Change, said what happened in Carmel was “a taste of the future.”

The fire roared through the mountains in the northern part of the country, south of the port city of Haifa, an area about 1,500 feet (500 meters) above sea level, which draws thousands of tourists because of its exceptional beauty in a region more famous for desert. Something like 5 million trees were destroyed. Forty-three people died, many of them burned to death in a trapped bus.

In the report almost a decade ago, Pe’er and others said that if temperatures in the area rose by as little as 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7) Fahrenheit, the desert would expand northwards by several hundred miles. But at the rate temperatures were rising, the temperatures would be higher than that by century’s end. This would essentially put an end to Israel’s Mediterranean climate.

This year, the rains did not come. Carmel suffered from eight months of drought and unusually high temperatures, hovering around 96 degrees Fahrenheit (30 C). It was prime forest fire weather. And Israel was totally unprepared.

Getty Images
Some background puts this into perspective. It’s not just the trees.

Israel is perhaps the only country in the world that has more trees now than it did in the beginning of the 20th century. Trees became the symbol of the Zionist movement, reclaiming the land from the desert and the neglect of millennia. Many Jewish homes in the diaspora had little blue boxes sent by the Jewish National Fund, an organization devoted to planting trees in the Holy Land. When you had loose change, you put in the blue box. Stores in Jewish neighborhoods stocked the boxes as well. Children who went through the rite of passage of the bar or bat mitzvah often received planted trees as presents. (My family probably has a couple of dozen plantings in our name). It was a legitimate wedding gift.  Millions of trees were planted, turning northern Israel green. The forests were lines of mostly pines, exceptional only in where they were, how many of them there were and how they got there. For the area they were extraordinary, and there were so many of them they actually changed the local climate.

Unfortunately, the JNF never invested any of that gift money in forest fire fighting equipment and the country itself discovered to its dismay it also had neglected fire emergencies under the theory that most of the buildings in Israel are made of stone and hence not fire prone. The fire burned itself out more than it was put out, and a country famous for sending aid to other countries suffering from natural disasters had to ask for help for itself. Even the Palestinians chipped in with engines.

The unpreparedness could cost the Interior Minister his job and the poor response of the government did little good to the precarious government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, the JNF is trying to collect funds to plant more trees and is running into opposition from contributors who are unhappy about what they did with the money they had, and scientists who believe the best way to restore the Carmel forests is to leave them the hell alone and let nature rebuild them. Nature is likely to do a better job.

Except for the changing climate, that is,which could make the forests of Carmel just a brief moment of verdure in the long history of that sere and benighted region.