Saturday, July 30, 2011

86. Spotify Welcomed to the U.S. with a Patent Infringement Lawsuit

[Article first published as Picking on the New Kid: Spotify Sued for Patent Infringement on Blogcritics.]

We here in the United States are a litigious sort, and have become increasingly more so with further advances in technology and more filings of patent applications. I’ve written a couple of things on lawsuits regarding technology and patents since I started writing about games and tech, and those few articles may actually only cover 0.0001% of all of the tech legal action that has occurred since 2009.

You see over the years the practice has become so farcically common that there’s no way I can keep up on the topic without giving it a dedicated blog of its own, updated daily. Actually, five or six times daily would probably be required to get it done. Tech lawsuit news almost always involves the world’s technical giants, namely Apple, Oracle, and any one of the companies that manufacture anything running an Android OS. So did Spotify, a company that provides a digital music service, expect to be part of the lawsuit club when they hopped on their boats and sailed over from Europe to the new world?

Expected or not, Spotify joined the club earlier this week, and got slapped with a lawsuit from PacketVideo, a company that produces software that allows users to wirelessly stream music and video. They are accusing Spotify of patent infringement, specifically US patent 5,636,276. The patent in question describes a “Device for the Distribution of Music in Digital Form,” which PacketVideo claims is the technology that enables Spotify’s cloud based service to even exist. But that’s not all – they insist that they informed Spotify in May about their ownership of this patent, but the complaints were completely ignored. Either as revenge of a friendly "welcome to America" gift, PacketVideo's goal is to win a judgment for willful violation and have the courts put a permanent injunction (as in the ban hammer) on Spotify in the US, unless of course some licensing fees and royalties start flowing PacketVideo’s way.

Spotify is a popular service that has been around in Europe since 2008, and after a long wait and users foaming at the mouth while they started signing US music labels, finally launched in the US last week. They already have deals with Sony and other major labels in place. They offer a free service for streaming licensed music, which is kept free through advertisements, which also allows users to listen to their playlists anywhere they have a Spotify client set up. Paid options are also available that drop the ads and allow users to stream without a web connection over a cell phone or mobile device. That last part may be where PacketVideo has some issues.

But Spotify maintains that their technologies are fully proprietary. In a statement to CNET, a Spotify representative said: "In just under three years, Spotify has become more popular than any other music service of its kind. This success is, in large part, due to our own highly innovative, proprietary hybrid technology that incorporates peer-to-peer technology. The result is what we humbly believe to be a better music experience-lightning fast, dead simple and really social.” They will naturally be contesting the accusations.

Even if there seems to be sufficient evidence for the lawsuit based on how long PacketVideo’s been in business and the fact that they were one of the biggest startup companies of their time, there is some counter evidence to be taken into account. First off, this patent wasn’t something they even made themselves. They bought the patent a few years ago when they acquired a Swiss company called Basel, and actually developed nothing themselves. Based on that, it doesn’t seem right for PacketVideo to claim infringement against Spotify, especially when that claim is so sweeping and unspecific. Then again, this isn't about what's right, it's about money.

Spotify is actually a very innovative service, which they developed themselves and have been executing well across the pond for a while now. If this infringement was actually something serious enough to warrant a permanent injunction, why wait until now to sue? The Basel acquisition meant that PacketVideo now operated in Europe, in the same neighborhood where Spotify planted its roots. They could have filed suit anytime since 2008. It seems a little suspect that the timing lines up with when Spotify started expanding their service area across the Atlantic - lines up to the tune of about 2 weeks for those keeping score.

This is just another entry in the long line of lawsuits rooted in old, ridiculously broad scoped patents. This is the type of activity that potentially punishes those who truly innovate and come up with new things by holding them subject to infringement suits from archaic patents that shouldn't have held any water to begin with. Filing a patent for an idea (which is all that this was) that has no meat, method of execution or even technological means at the time will ultimately stifle future technological creativity for fear of legal action. Even the FTC has recognized that patent lawsuits similar to this are a problem in today's marketplace (kinda large-ish PDF). So does PacketVideo's case hold water? Or does it all smell a bit too much like another troll's moved in under the bridge? You decide.

In the meantime I'm just going to be over here filing a patent application for a device that provides glasses-free, fully immersive, touch sensitive virtual reality. I have no idea how it'll work, and I don't think we even have the means to do it right now, but when we do, my lawyer will be suing the hell out of someone.

It was my idea first.

Friday, July 22, 2011

85. The Great Chinese Apple Store Swindle

[Article first published as The Great Chinese Apple Store Swindle on Blogcritics.]

Anyone who follows consumer tech can argue about what Apple really excels at and where their success comes from. But to me it’s one thing above all else. More than their technology and even more than their sales numbers (well sort of), what Steve Jobs’ company cares about most is the Apple brand and image. That iconic apple chunk that as evolved into their silver fruity visage since the days of Macintosh has become a beacon to Apple’s customers, even driving more serious fans to buy their products for no justification other than “Apple made it.”

That’s truth – I’ve known people and of people in the past that on more than one occasion would forego doing anything fun because they didn’t have any cash. They did however have a shiny MacBook Air. My little cousin wants an iPhone for no other reason than “Apples are cool.” She hasn’t the first damned clue about what it does aside from make calls. As much as I can’t stand hardcore Apple fanboys and fangirls though, they exist because the Cupertino King is just that damn good at managing his brand, and owning the customers’ sou... I mean creating the customer loyalty that goes with it.

They take great care in playing cloak and dagger to keep new products veiled in shadows and pushing the image that Apple stands for innovation, imagination and a sense of cool. As such, they monitor and control every aspect of that – from apps available the App Store to developers to swearing business partners to secrecy. So it would be fair to say that they treat, oh I don’t know, cheaply made knockoffs bearing the apple logo with disdain and lawyers, right? But what if the knock-off wasn’t just an iPad or iPhone, but an entire Apple Store?

That’s exactly what blogger BirdAbroad stumbled into near her home in Kunming, China. She mentions the influences of western culture taking hold there, with stores like H&M and fast food restaurants like KFC have been cropping up around that area. But an Apple Store in Kunming? Apple definitely has a Chinese presence, but in larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing. I’ve never even heard of Kunming before today, have you? It would be like a blogger in China writing about anywhere that's not New York, DC, Chicago, LA or Philadelphia. Her blog has a lot of pictures of the store, which does actually look like a legit Apple Store complete with legit Apple gear.

As she says, “They looked like Apple products. It looked like an Apple store. It had the classic Apple store winding staircase and weird upstairs sitting area. The employees were even wearing those blue t-shirts with the chunky Apple name tags around their necks.” But things still didn’t sit right with her – things like lower quality paintjobs and staircase materials raised her suspicions, along with the fact that Apple never prints the phrase “Apple Store” on their storefronts as this place had.

But it didn’t stop there of course. After some further investigation speaking with the staff, she found that they not only believed they worked for Apple, but were trained to “protect the brand,” meaning no one was allowed to take pictures. Apparently the Chinese words for “brand” and “fake store’s ass” are the same. Her final verdict – “A beautiful ripoff – a brilliant one – the best ripoff store we had ever seen (and we see them every day). “ She includes pictures of other knockoff stores just around the corner as well. None of them are this good.

The Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime Report was able to get in touch with one of the staff members of the store in question, who was under no impression that Apple was in charge of signing his checks. His statement was that “I just care that what I sell every day are authentic Apple products, and that our customers don’t come back to me to complain about the quality of the products.” He goes on to almost brag about how their store is one of the best around, even though they openly lie about any affiliation with Apple.

Apple has not commented as of yet, but I’m extremely curious to see how this is handled. Will they see this as a personal affront to the mighty fruit and lawyer up with some force? Or take the highroad and have them apply for authorized reseller status? With Apple Stores themselves being one of Apple’s golden arrows in their quiver of marketing tricks, my money’s on option #1. Remember the lost iPhone 4 that ended up in a fight with Gizmodo? When it comes to product secrecy and their brand, Apple doesn’t mess around.

STORY UPDATES 07/25/11: 2 of the stores found by BirdAbroad are being shut down by Chinese authorities. The store described as a "beautiful ripoff" is not one of them - according to Reuters, it is currently in the process of becoming an authorized Apple reseller.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

84. Google+? Still a Minus for Google Apps Users

[Article first published as Google+? Still a Minus for Google Apps Users on Blogcritics.]


Yeah I said it, and you didn’t misread it either. It’s spelled quite correctly regardless of the squiggly red lines I see below it editing the text. I don’t mean malarkey as in foolish or insincere. I mean malarchy, as in something that can only be classified as governed by the bad. As you all should know by now, unless you live in a spider hole, Google is gearing up their Google+ program, which is their latest try at social networking. Much like Gmail when it first came out, there was a limited trial that used an invitation system to register new users. Originally, this article was supposed to be all about Google+, as I had fully readied myself to sign up and give you fine folks some sort of review and maybe some screenshots of what it’s all about. But I can’t. I can only guess. I can only live vicariously through my friends’ experiences and curse Google, with a shaking fist of indignation held high.

I have 3 invitations, but I still can’t log on. Every time I try I get hit with that same irritating message: “Oops... you need a Google profile to use this feature. Google Profiles is not available for your organization.” Since when am I an organization? Allow me explain, as the definition of “organization” is pretty narrow. You see kids the thing is this: I have a fair-sized ego. In the words of Dr. Cox from Scrubs, “this machine runs on props.” It’s not an ego so big that I would try to trademark a common phrase a la Donald Trump’s “you’re fired,” but big enough that I would (and did) register the domain name, for no other purpose than to host email addresses from it and run my little blog. That’s right, mine. Doing that through Google and enom was stupidly cheap and they give you Google Apps on your domain to boot. That little detail is what makes me an “organization,” even if I am just an organization of one single damn user. Google+ requires a Google profile. And guess who isn’t allowed to make Google profiles? You guessed it, Google Apps “organizations.”

I figured it wasn’t too big of a problem. I have other email addresses aside from my Google Apps address. So let’s try going through those. “Oops... you need a Google profile to use this feature. Google Profiles is not available for your organization.”… Well damn. Just being logged into my Google Apps account means that clicking invitation links from my Yahoo email address still won’t work. And I can’t do it through my Gmail account, because I can’t be logged into that and my Google Apps account simultaneously. But in my head I still had outs. I tried opening the invitation in my Yahoo address on my phone. Maybe that would do the trick. “Google+ is unavailable for your account.” … Monkeys. No dice. I was signed in under my Google Apps in account on my Droid X as well, which is synced to my email.

Now this doesn’t mean I can’t use Google+ period. I can always log out of my Apps account and use my old Gmail account. But I really don’t want to. My Apps account is open all the time – for email as well as other services like Google chat, Blogger, Feedburner and Google Analytics. I’d have to use Google+ independently if I wanted to see it at all, that is to say I have to be logged out of everything to use it. So if I’m on Google+ I can’t see my email. If I’m on my email I can’t use Google+. It’s a regular conundrum, and one that could have been avoided at that. A few months ago I got notice from Google about changes being made to all Google Apps accounts. After this transition, I couldn’t be logged in to my Apps and my other Gmail account simultaneously, which is something I did before, and something that would have circumvented my current issue. I’ve been reading about some workarounds through Google Reader, but have yet to test.

Now it’s said that Google Profiles and Google+ are still “coming soon” for Apps customers, but then again they said the same thing about Buzz and that never really panned out. It’s the matter of pure inconvenience to me that is turning me off to the entire idea before I even get it up and running. An entire subset of paying customers is being left in the dark. That’s surprising for Google, whose services I’ve generally been very pleased with. I can’t be even close to the only one who uses Google Apps for personal domain registration and use. There must be a bunch of users of equal or greater ego and/or nerdiness that does the same thing. Can this tweak really be that difficult to make?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

83. World of Warcraft and Add-ons: the Fall of a Purist

[Article first published as World of Warcraft Add-Ons - the Fall of a Purist on Blogcritics.]

Now if any of you read this with any sort of regularity, you’ll know that I play World of Warcraft. Until recently, I may have been one of the few that played it without add-ons or UI modifiers. I’m counting Recount as an exception here, because that just shows how much damage we’re doing and who I can blame for breaking my traps.

I was, in short, almost a purist, and classified add-ons as sanctioned cheating since they take a lot of the challenge out of the game. In fact I said I wouldn’t allow myself to use any add-ons (again, except Recount) until I had leveled a character to 80 “clean,” which was the cap at the time. I’m the same way with most games I play on the PC and consoles. Game Genie style devices or mechanics haven’t touched my consoles via my hands since I was 10, when I doubled my party’s initial health in the first Final Fantasy for the NES. After I beat the game, the victory seemed so tainted end empty that--at 10 mind you--I felt I had to start over and beat it clean before claiming victory. It’s just how I roll. I can probably credit my father with this – he wouldn’t let me use a calculator in elementary school until I could do my multiplication tables up to 15 in my head.

I started playing WoW right before the Burning Crusade expansion came out so I didn’t play much of the game “vanilla,” but I still got through heroics and Karazhan’s ghostly denizens, and even plowed through Arthas’ frosty minions in Icecrown Citadel in Wrath of the Lich King without too much issue. Evading boss attacks and knowing when to do what was relatively easy: for example an enrage is obvious as a boss turns bright red, and most of the other attacks coming my way were clearly telegraphed with an animation (like something showing up on the ground or some sort of charge-up). On my end, I would have to just pay attention to when my abilities were active so I knew when to use them. I knew for example that when it said “Lock and Load” above my head, I had two free explosive shots at my disposal. I didn’t need fancy glowing screen filling notifications.

In every WoW iteration though, Blizzard incorporated the functions of the most popular add-ons into its stock user interface, making the need for additional add-ons even less necessary in my mind, and giving me even less of a reason to download them. My “Lock and Load” example from above now makes explosive shot glow with a gold border so I know it’s active. I’ve got no problem using that now, as it’s in a player’s stock toolkit. Eventually however, after years of countless reactions to my playing with an unedited stock interface that went from the bewildered to the surprised to the downright strange, I stepped into the Blackwing Descent raid encounter a couple months ago and it finally happened: after the slew of wipes we experienced I downloaded Deadly Boss Mods. DBM and other certain other add-ons have almost become a requirement for even being invited to raid groups, since it flat out increases the chances of success by giving you warnings and timers for absolutely everything that’s going on. Don’t have DBM installed? You might find yourself back in Stormwind or Orgrimmar spamming the Looking for Group channel, because you just got kicked from your (former) raid group.

I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t downloading it for me, but for the guild, and that my having this installed would contribute to less wipes and save us a lot of time and repair bills. After running raids in the Cataclysm expansion a few times, I found with the add-on I was required to think less and able to act more, with the jury still out on whether or not that really was a good thing. I mean I perform much better, but did DBM make me a better player or bring me down to a new lower standard of gameplay?

All of us became worse players in Wrath of the Lich King, which was incredibly easy compared to Burning Crusade and Cataclysm. A lot of people blame that lack of difficulty in Wrath for the frustration-fueled departure of players after level 80, but I think they’re only half right. It was Wrath combined with DBM and other third party add-ons that created a class of players characterized by (a) an ability to collect epic gear damn near blindfolded, (b) an expectation that all things be that easy for them, (c) an inability to cut it when things became a little bit difficult, and finally (d) a level of being spoiled that precludes them from even trying.

My self-assessment that I am a half-decent player comes from what I’m able to do with the tools I have been given – which I’ve handily been able to do through level 85. And the way some of these Cataclysm boss fights go, add-ons are pretty much needed to get through them. So I shouldn’t feel so dirty using DBM right? I guess it’s for the team. Either that or I've just gotten good at rationalizing.

Now playing a rogue on the other hand… that’s a feeling of dirtiness that’s unforgivable.