Monday, August 30, 2010

29. paul allen vs everyone

paul allen, from forbes' billionaire list
early on when i started this silly little project i did a post touching on tech patent law, concerning apple, google, and htc.  i said then how tech patent lawsuits never fail to entertain, and recent times do nothing but provide more examples to support that.  during said recent times, litigation over patents has been on the upslope and it almost seems that there's more opportunity for business and profit in lawsuits than there is actual innovation or development of products and goods.  to highlight this, paul allen, one of the co-founders of microsoft, filed a lawsuit against AOL, apple, ebay, facebook, google, netflix, office depot, officemax, staples, yahoo! and youtube over four patents owned by his company interval research (and interval licensing, llc).

look at that list.  yep, that's right folks, paul allen just sued the internet.

the patents covered in the lawsuit pertain to things like recommending products or articles to a user based on what they've been looking at and what they're looking at right now.  i'm sure any of you that have ever used ebay  or netflix are familiar with their user recommendation systems.  i was actually surprised that amazon didn't make the list, as its user recommendation system is one that everyone has seen and used.  it's a pretty basic function in most e-commerce systems these days.  microsoft was also omitted from allen's attack, which of course makes sense since he still has active investments in the company.  as for amazon, the only link between them and allen is that they're based in his home town of seattle.  he's not having financial problems (i'm guessing) and is wealthy enough to answer warren buffet's call for the world's billionaires to donate large masses of their money.  so why drop this lawsuit now?

according to a public statement made by allen's man david postman, "interval research was an early, ground-breaking contributor to the development of the internet economy," citing its work with developing companies and technology transfers for patented tech.  he went on, "this lawsuit is necessary to protect our investment in innovation. we are not asserting patents that other companies have filed, nor are we buying patents originally assigned to someone else. these are patents developed by and for interval."

developed by and for interval.  interval research was dissolved in 2000, so it's been defunct for a decade.  neither interval licensing nor paul allen developed or produced these technologies, they just own "the ideas."  this still enables them to file an infringement suit against anyone for actually producing something that's close to it, even 10 years after the fact.  the four patents in question (6,263,507, 6,034,652, 6,788,314, and 6,757,682) don't look like much more than a series of flowcharts and a couple of mathematical formulas to me.  what if someone achieves the same end through different means?  are they legally actionable?  and what impact does that have on the tech and software industries?  mountains of additional money would have to be poured into legal budgets to protect against lawsuits of this kind instead of engineering and R&D, and where do you think they're going to make that money back?  that's right, it'll get passed down to the consumer.  personally i've been both the engineer with the cool ideas as well as the businessman trying to commercialize technology.  with that, in my head having to worry about lawsuits on patents from 10 years ago would get in the way of trying to come up with and produce products people want and can use, which is where it really counts.  a cool idea that can't be materialized, after all, is meaningless in the end.

i mean had the idea when i was 12 that it would be cool if i had some sensors on me that made my video game characters move like i did on screen.  if i somehow patented the idea back then, could i sue nintendo for a piece of their fat stacks of wii money now?

and some folks agree.  in response to the suit, a google spokesperson said that "innovation - not litigation - is the way to bring to market the kinds of products and services that benefit millions of people around the world."  harvard/duke/berkeley super professor vivek wadhwa agrees on that concept, and pushes for abolishment of software patents for similar reasons.

interval wants damages of course (amount undisclosed) and for these companies to stop using these technologies, or start paying them royalties to do so.  i hate to use a phrase that's thrown around a lot on the internet these days, but this whole situation reeks of patent trolling.  the defendants in this case clearly won't stop using these features in their e-commerce systems, which leaves only the option to kick more money over to allen.

that is, if he wins.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

28. gaming, society, and politics: medal of honor

super mario bros. (NES)
do you remember video games from the 80's?  that's when i played my first games - the super mario brothers / duck hunt double cartridge on a nintendo my parents bought me as a birthday present my for my 7th in 1988.  needless to say, back then games were completely different, where 8 bit color was high graphics and the A and B buttons on th NES controller were a total enhancement over previous systems.  720 and 1080p flatscreens?  nope, sorry, we had 256 colors in brilliant phosphor on our big screen 25" tv's.  and it was wonderful.

it's been more than 20 years since then.  i'm almost 30.  seeing games explode over the years into complex stories set in visually stunning landscapes, and expanding into the online realm, i am just as into games now as i was then, if not more.  which means that i and people like me view them somewhat differently - not just as distractions, but increasingly powerful multimedia engines that are capable of capturing an audience and conveying thoughts and ideas.  sometimes even more effectively than television or movies.  which means they're going to increasingly cause some controversy.  in that way gaming has become a very broad and easy target for politicians to assault from their soapboxes with constant media coverage.

medal of honor (2010)
the reason i bring this up is recent controversy and almost rage surrounding EA's most recent reboot of their medal of honor game.  for those not familiar with the medal of honor franchise, it's a series of first-person shooter style games that's been highly successful for a little over a decade.  the main backdrop for all of these games has so far been world war II, and puts players in the shoes of allied soldiers, in various scenarios and theaters of conflict.  the upcoming reboot of the series shifts the focus of the franchise to the war in afghanistan, namely operation anaconda, which took place in 2001.  where the controversy arises is that in MOH multiplayer mode, one side plays as the allies while the other side plays as the taliban.  that last part is what people have problems with.  this started from the UK's minister of defence liam fox, who called the game "tasteless" and "shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the taliban against british soldiers."

the game doesn't actually doesn't have any british soldiers in it.  but i'll let him slide on that for now, since his sentiment is really what was important here.

a report on fox news was a little more local.  this report featured gold star mom karen merideth with the sentiment that "war is not a game," who had this to say:  "we've just come off of the worst month of casualties in the whole war, and this game is going to be released in october. so families who are going to be burying their children are going to be seeing this and playing this game. i just don't see that a video game based on a current war makes any sense at all. it's disrespectful."

you can see the whole fox news clip on ars technica.

medal of honor (2010)
again, this game only allows players to play as the taliban during multiplayer mode, not during the campaign missions.  the reason for this is the same as it's always been.  you need two teams - if one team is playing as the good guys, then the other team has to be the bad guys.  it's been a constant theme in gaming over the last many years.  counter strike multiplayer was counter-terrorists vs terrorists.  MOH: allied assault multiplayer was allies vs axis.  command and conquer's global liberation army was a terrorist faction.  and i don't remember such outbursts during those releases, even for WWII based games featuring nazi factions in multiplayer settings.

hell, you've probably even played cops and robbers as kids.  or maybe cowboys and indians?

point being, there always has to be a bad guy.  and no one at EA is trying to make an argument that the taliban aren't bad guys.  it is extremely clear that the taliban are the bad guys.  and the campaign missions don't go through taliban storylines or have the player plot the demise of american forces.  they focus on tier one operators operating under the command of the national command authority, elite ops and army rangers.  you know, the good guys.

that aside, i can understand where those who share the minister's point of view are coming from.  and i'm not insensitive to ms merideth and other like-minded people.  the wounds of war are very deep, and perhaps too fresh in the minds of people.  but i think that this game is about exploring the experience of the american soldier, not being a terrorist.  EA's team is still proud of the work they're doing, and in response to criticism, EA president frank gibeau had the following:

"at EA we passionately believe games are an artform, and i don’t know why films and books set in afghanistan don't get flack, yet [games] do. whether it's red badge of courage or the hurt locker, the media of its time can be a platform for the people who wish to tell their stories. games are becoming that platform."

"games have been set in afghanistan before. we anticipated this [controversy] when we decided on the concept of the game – this is about being a special forces solider. what’s really important for us is that we partnered with the US military, and the medal of honor society as well. we've gone out of our way to produce the best story for the game."  videos of interviews with the people that consulted from these organizations can be found on the official medal of honor site.

i'm not really a huge fan of the medal of honor series, mainly because i lost interest in the whole military FPS genre years ago, but i still feel that had to put in my two cents in on the criticisms against it.  it's very easy speak out against something without really taking a deep look at it.  in this case, the phrase "play as taliban" is causing red flags without a real look at the context.  EA isn't forcing people to purchase or play this game, so not purchasing it is a completely valid option.  it's true, war is not a game.  but we also have to remember the reverse, that a game is not war.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

27. tablets - the final frontier

apple ipad
these are the voyages of the starship ente... oh nevermind.

tablets, man.  tablets.  they're the latest front on which the mobile wars rage.  desktops and laptops have pretty much become commoditized, and even the cell phone war has been a game of "who can beat the iphone," even though in my opinion the droid x does (shh, don't tell anyone, i'm trying to be impartial).  after the surge of netbooks since 2007, they and their cousins the tablets would naturally have to come next.

so, next question - what the hell IS a tablet?  why are they here?  and what do they want with us?  with the release of the ipad earlier this year, the big tech giants aren't exactly in agreement - steve jobs says the ipad and tablets exemplifies the end of the "mouse and keyboard" pc era, while steve ballmer's opinion is basically that the ipad and other tablet devices ARE, in fact, pc's.  this all aside, "tablets," as they were, have been around for a pretty long time.  we all (well some of us anyway) remember running windows xp tablet edition, waaaay back when the definition of a tablet pc really wasn't much more than a laptop with an outward facing screen and some limited pen input.

that definition has changed from then to now.  a lot.  and it only partially has to do with technology, as far as being an evolution from the netbook.  beyond that, the definition of tablet really changed with an evolved definition of the user. you have your business users, home users and tech enthusiasts - the trinity that ruled consumer electronics for so long, and now a new class - the mobile media user.  these users don't want high-grade graphics and cpu power for gaming or power for editing.  they're not concerned with exchange push or being able to open up office to do some work.  they're on the move - watching youtube on the train or tv through hulu on the bus, running fluff web apps and playing low-res, low-power games (that can still be extremely fun).  so all this considered, what is a tablet, finally?  with all the opinions floating around it's far to say that it's a hybrid.  a "netbook plus," built for media consumption.  less than a laptop or notebook, a low-power device running on something like an ARM or intel atom processors with a light operating system, that doesn't have the power to run high-end games and intensive applications.  more than a cell phone, with larger screens for better media viewing and everyday usability.

android-powered archos 5 tablet
and understanding this concept is what will sell mobile units in today's media-hungry markets.  it's why smartphone sales have skyrocketed in the last few years.  apple does, which is why their ipad is at the forefront of the market.  microsoft on the other hand, does not.  at least to me.  steve ballmer's goal is now to focus a big push on getting windows 7 on a tablet form-factor unit, as is their solution to most things - put some windows on it, to make windows a ubiquitous platform for every user.  not because he thinks it's a viable platform, but because he needs to compete with apple.  from the recent microsoft financial analysts meeting:

"they sold certainly more than I'd like them to sell, let me just be clear about that.  We think about that.  We think about that in competitive sense.  And for us, then, the job is to say, Okay, we have a lot of IP, we have a lot of good software in this area, we've done a lot of work on ink and touch and everything else -- we have got to make things happen."

ironically this comes almost simultaneously to killing the their own courier tablet project, which sucks, because that thing looked straight awesome.  unfortunately their mobile game still needs some work, from what we've seen of the windows phone 7.  yes, "make things happen" indeed.  windows 7 tablets were shown off at CES 10 in january on an hp slate, but they have since dropped windows 7 in lieu of  the (probably) webOS platform, which they now own through their palm acquisition.  HP's not alone in that decision - others have also skipped over windows 7 in favor of the android platform for their tablet - asus, samsung, and archos just to name a few.

ahhh yes.  android.  a light OS.  the mobile OS of champions.  the OS that gives google a real shot here in the tablet market.  coming off extremely impressive sales of motorola's droid x and other android devices,  it's clear that they're here to stay, and will continue to go head to head with apple for the tablet crown through the number of manufacturers that are adopting android.  HP may be the sleeper in this war - now that their slate will potentially run webOS instead of windows 7, they'll have ownership of both their hardware and software, which is an advantage that only apple currently enjoys.

but let's not forget that blackberry is said to throw their hat in the ring with their "blackpad" in november.  but we'll see how that goes - i'm not sure how a (one can only imagine) business-focused tablet is going to sail too far.  and there's also verizon and motorola's upcoming tablet - the one i'm really excited about, that integrates fios tv into the tablet experience.

so let the war march on.  the end winner is just going to be the consumer, since increased competition is going to force manufacturers to make their products more desirable versus their competitors.  but until the major clash, apple's tablet throne is still intact.