Technology Theft

Apparently in the Steve Jobs bio there’s discussion about how he plans on destroying Android because he thought Google stole his idea. Well, yea, a phone operating system is genius, it’s just difficult to get a critical mass for a given operating system. There’s the problem of lock-in and network effects, which impact the likelihood of a given person adopting a new technology. That’s also why Google followed Apple’s lead with creating the Android Market. It’s also why Apple is suing every single major Android phone manufacturer. However, Jobs shouldn’t have been that upset there have been a lot of dead cell phone operating systems like Palm’s, many mobile windows and most recently the beautiful MeeGoo from Nokia.

Cell phones aren’t the only place where this sort of “theft” happens. Typically, it’s more considered technological borrowing by taking from one technology type and applying it to another. This happens when some technological limit is hit on a technology. This technological theft basically allows the engineer/designer to overcome some inherent limitation in a technology. An example of this was the effort that allowed proper planes to compete with jets for an extended period of time. They use super chargers and similar technology to allow the plane to fly at heights and speeds they shouldn’t normally be able to fly at.

However, this borrowing can lead to major legal issues. Which is why it’s fairly common to see licensing agreements between major firms that involve thousands of seemingly unrelated patents. This is so they can avoid any sort of legal issues if they have to use a technology the other company owns.

Other types of theft are really common, such as in software. Look at how much Facebook has taken from both twitter and google+.

What should we do about technology theft? Well, we need to deal with the patent problem first. However if we address that issue I think that technology theft is one of the best things that can happen. It’s a way that drives improvements of subtechnologies that make the larger technologies more efficient. It’s a way that technology evolves through selection process.

On a side note, I get to see my wife tomorrow, so I’m probably not going to be blogging much for the next week or so.

Where good ideas come from

Last year I bought a book after listening to a segment from NPR that my dad had sent. In it they interviewed to different authors, Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson, I ended up getting both books. To my dismay the Kevin Kelly book, What technology wants,  was in my opinion painting a technology deterministic world that ultimately was unrealistic and absurd. I stopped reading it and never finished it, which is something I almost never do (I would equate him with Clay Shirky in being overly optimistic about the role of technology).

The second author’s book was significantly better. It’s called Where Good Ideas Come From and it has some really great ways to generate new ideas and how he believes ideas are formed. Below is a short talk of his animated by RSA animation.

The short and simple is that I completely buy his approach to generating new ideas. In his book he discusses using a piece of software (DEVONthink) while doing almost all of his reading . I’ve tired to do this with a similar program in windows called Evernote, but it’s difficult to remember to do it. I feel I need to get better at it. I had a great idea for a blog two days ago, never wrote it down and totally forgot what it was. Helaas pinda kaas (Dutch for “too bad peanut butter”). In some way the book is a big ad for DEVONthink, but that’s not really the important part. The important thing is how these different ideas come together and lead to new and fully formed ideas. A tool like DEVONthink or Evernote (There’s also OneNote as part of MS office) allow you to increase your ability to find things and create new ideas.

I effectively use websites like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and the books I read in this fashion. Many of my blog posts come about from the different news stories I read to which I put my own spin on them and add additional commentary. Typically by combing ideas from multiple different sources. I love when my friends point me to new sources of information or stories I’d be interested in. One of my blogs, What is the value of a patent, was written because someone sent me the “When Patents attack” story by This American life. I was able to combine the ideas presented in that story with my knowledge of patents that I’ve learned at TU/e to write an interesting blog that’s more than either story.

Yes, my last two blogs have basically be book reviews. However, I figured that as a public service announcement to let people know how I come up with my topics. I think it’s important that other people try to create their own content and share what you know. If you don’t feel comfortable writing, shoot me an idea and let’s see what we can make of it.

Internet and Social Media books: A comparison between Lessig and Shirky

Recently I’ve read two books related to the internet and to some extent social media. The first book I’ve mentioned and quoted repeatedly, Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig. The second is a book I just finished called Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky which is about how as the internet has evolved and grown we have been able to create our own content instead of simply being passive consumers.

Despite the fact that Code 2.0 was originally written in 1999 and then updated in 2006 and Surplus was written in 2010 I feel that Code is still more relevant. Some of this can be attributed to the approach of the authors. In both cases the authors discuss specific websites and how they impact social interaction between different actors. As side from arguing that the free time and the increased ability to create, Shirky focuses on social connections and ignores other considerations related to content creation. He oversimplifies the skills required to create new content and ignores vested interests ability to prevent content creation.

Lessig on the other hand, creates a framework where it is possible to analyze the interactions between the various actors that interact on the internet. He looks at the market forces, social forces, regulatory forces, and social norms that interact with the internet in different ways. In this way Lessig is able to create recommendations to improve the interaction with the various forces acting on the internet. His goal is to create a safe internet that allows privacy, transparency, great places where economic exchanges can happen and required controls to prevent abuse of the internet.

There are some other differences between these books. Shirky reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s the World is Flat. It’s an incredibly optimistic view of the internet. Effectively the author can’t find anything wrong with the social interactions that occur on the internet. He isn’t concerned with the privacy issues with sites like Facebook, hacking issues both white and black hat and censorship at any level. He ignores these issues and looks at the community aspect. Which is fine, but he should at least mention these factors as they can seriously impact the quality of a community that’s being created. Lessig has a much less optimistic outlook and in fact believes that the internet will allow the government unprecedented access to our personal information and control over the information we control.

I think that these two books represent well the different ways that people look at the internet. I personally have a Lessig outlook. This maybe for a few reasons. I’ve read a few of his books, I can be cynical and I don’t have endless optimism for any technology. I think that the internet is an amazing thing. That people are creating more content, but it’s going to take some time before it gets to the point that Shirky is dreaming of. One of my friends over at KBMOD things that within a few years everyone will have a YouTube account the way that everyone has a Facebook account. I’m skeptical of this. I think there’s more time required to be effective at being a YouTuber than being a Facebooker. Which will decrease the number of people that are willing to take up a hobby. Facebook takes about 10 seconds to update, with YouTube you have to feel comfortable in front of a camera or talking over some sort of content. I think it’ll happen over time, but I think there will be something of a U shape of users. I think older generations that have more free time will pick it up.

I think both books have a positive outlook on the internet and social media. They both think that the more connections that happen the more connections that can occur. Overall, I personally think that if you’re interested in the different forces interacting in the internet Lessig’s book is for you. If you’re interested in a rosy outlook on the positive impact of the internet then read Shirky’s book.

Is software a technology?

I saw an interesting comment on r/technology today, r/technology is a subreddit devoted to all things technology, where the author complained about too much web/software related articles were being posted on the site. As the site is user driven the choice of the content can be influenced by questions and comments like this. In fact it can change the shape of the entire community and how they interact with each other. For instance r/fitness tested text based submissions only with no external links allowed. This fundamentally changed the discourse in that community. Anyway, this made me sit back and think about if software or websites should be considered technology in the way that a computer or keyboard is.

According to the Google dictionary the following is the definition of technology:


  1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry: “computer technology”; “recycling technologies”.
  2. Machinery and equipment developed from such scientific knowledge.

I believe that software could fall into the first category of technology. Wikipedia says: Technology is the making, usage, and knowledge of toolsmachines, techniques, craftssystems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function.

Again this could easily be applied to software. Specifically because of the word techniques. However, I think we need to tread carefully here because both of these definitions would also include all of mathematics as a form of technology. Why does this definition matter? Well, you are able to patent technologies, but you are not able to patent mathematical algorithms or techniques. If some one was able to prove that P=NP in a mathematical proof then it couldn’t be patented. However, if you put that same proof into a piece of software it suddenly becomes patentable, and then make some one very rich.
I think there’s another fundamentally cognitive difference as well. Despite the fact that people say Android phone technology or Apache web server technology, it feels different than when you say internal combustion technology. I think the main difference is the physicality of the combustion technologies over the technology that has been developed to create phone OSes or webservers. It requires manual labor and a set of tools and skills that are all physical entities whereas with the software, anyone with a computer can learn how to program. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a set of people that are better at it or more likely to pick it up than other people. I’m basically self taught in both SQL server and VB.Net.The fact that software can be copied perfectly an infinite number of times also changes how it should be treated.
I think that these differences means we should actually treat software differently. I think that it is a technology, but a technology more related to mathematics and logic than other sciences.

Communication in Science

I watched this great TEDxRotterdam talk today the guy who gave it wrote an article on a case of homosexual necrophilia activities of a duck. He happened to observe it in action. He basically happened to be in the right place at the right time and is trained as a biologist. For that article he won the ig noble prize, for science that makes you laugh then think. These types of awards are great methods for scientists to communicate with the general public. It shows that scientists can really have a sense of humor.

Another great example of this was a panel discussion at The Amazing Meeting, a James Randi event, which had two really well known scientists, Bill Nye and Neil de Grasse Tyson as well as two less well known scientists (to the general population) Pamela Gay and Lawrence Krauss. (Link to the video it’s an hour long) In the panel they discuss the future of space. At some points it gets rather heated between de Grasse Tyson and Krauss, but it’s great to see serious scientists with a sense of humor discuss something they are passionate about. All of them make some seriously excellent points. They discuss how we’re at a turning point in the space program and  how the shift to commercial space flight will change the space industry. The point they are the most serious about however is saving the James Web Space Telescope. For those of you unaware, this is the replacement for Hubble, as I mentioned in my NASA blog. As a side note we need to save this.

The point they were making though, is that there needs to be an adjustment in how NASA works and how scientists interact with the larger population. If scientists aren’t able to articulate why a specific study needs to be done, for it’s own sake, then in some ways they don’t deserve to do it. The added benefit is that most of these endeavors do have additional positive externalities in the form of spin-off firms. Which is pretty awesome.

However, the important thing to take away here is that there needs to be an improve method for scientists to communicate complex ideas to the general public in a way that gets people reading about it. Independent bloggers like me certainly help, but there needs to be a larger push by general scientists. I’d love to have my advisers here at TU/e blog. They study extremely interesting topics and I’d really enjoy getting to read them. There are some “rock” star science bloggers like PZ Meyers but he also discusses a lot of controversial topics that a great deal of people don’t like. He’s an atheist and is extremely vocal about it. Another blogger is Ben Goldacre who studies bad science and attempts to debunk it (his TED Talk).

I think that Google Scholar will do great things for opening up access to materials written by scientists. I for one try to take advantage of it. I use it to search for documents if I can’t find them on the university system and surprisingly I have a really high hit rate. Copyright restrictions limit it.

So how can you help? I suggest sharing articles you find interesting. I try to do it as much as I can. I love when I find a really interesting article posted on facebook or twitter.

Ubiquitous Free Wireless Combined

One of the people I follow on twitter posed an interesting question. What would happen if there was free broadband wireless all over Europe. I sent them my 140 character answer but felt really unsatisfied by that. I’m going to devote some blog space to it over the next few days because I think that there would be a lot of changes. I’m going to break this into a few section. I haven’t worked out all of them but there will be government, business, computing and social changes. This structure loosely follows some of the structure within Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0. He also argued there were four structures that impact community building on the internet. It is written in the US context, but can be applied in other countries.

I’m going to start with Governmental changes.

One of the first things that will happen will be further encroachments on the ability for users to be anonymous and use pseudonyms online. Initially the requirement to login will be used to track which areas have the highest user rates and things like that, but this could be an incredibly powerful tool to prevent copyright abuse from users of the network. IP addresses would go out the window as an enforcement tool of nearly any online abuses. For instance, the safest place to download a movie from the internet would be on the train. You’d be changing IP addresses frequently and it would be very difficult to track a single user from one IP address to the next.

To deal with these problems there would have to be strict oversight to protect users of the network from invasions of privacy from the government and third party users of the network. Currently, the US government has a significantly heavy hand in collecting data from ISPs, Cloud data and social networking data. This includes both European and US data. This would need to be prevented.

Paying for and managing this network would need to be determined as well. One route could be to put a tax on advertisements that are displayed in a IP address range. Since IPs are distributed through regions this would be technically possible. Google just announced they made $9.7 Billion and nearly all of that is from ads (99% was from ad revenue in 2008). Putting a modest tax on this revenue will help pay for this network. Assuming that this infrastructure would need to be rolled out and continually upgraded I would expect at least $2-3 billion annual investment is required. I’m basing this on how much Verizon Wireless and AT&T invest in their network annually. This of course would change based on the amount of capacity required (a lot) and what technology used (WIFI, Wi-Max, LTE) for the network.

Since, this will effectively kill the business model of the telecoms, like T-mobile and KPN, they could be used to help manage the network. Governments and the like aren’t the best at managing these networks these old companies would be the best suited to manage it. That or create an organization that is based on former employees.

Finally, the network would have to be net neutral. Otherwise, it would effectively be government censorship if there was a reduction in access to any portion of the web. This means that the internet would be free as in free beer and free as in free speech. This would ensure the most positive results from the free internet on the business side and improve ability of users to participate in democracy.

Biggest changes? Management of the network, increased privacy concerns, paying for the network and copyright owners influence on data controls.

Part II Business

In my previous blog I discussed some governmental issues with ubiquitous free high speed wireless internet. In this piece I’m going to discuss the impact on businesses. I’ll start with some really obvious impacts and then move into some that may be more interesting.

First, this would effectively kill the current business model for telecoms. Not just internet providers but it would also have a massive impact on telephony and television providers. Internet providers would basically go out of business unless the governments that implemented the network hired them to manage the networks and perform the upgrades required to ensure expected performance. It should also be expected that net neutrality should be the norm as the internet is free as in free beer and as in free speech in a situation like this. This would impact telephony in a similar manner. With free internet phones could be designed to work on wifi (or whatever the network type is) and use services like Google Voice (which is popular in the US and free). These services provide a telephone number as well. Further more skype communication or similar type programs could become the norm as they are free and easy to use. The impact on television would be a continuation of the current system. With Netflix and Hulu driving usage to the web. Without easy access pirating will be the norm and extremely easy.

In the US Starbucks is extremely popular for two reasons, gigantic flavored coffees and free wireless internet. I think in the Dutch context free wireless internet would spur an increase in the amount of business meetings that happen at cafes. With the slow service which is designed to encourage conversation and being social, it would be a great way to work remotely from outside of home. As it stands there aren’t that many places, at least in Eindhoven, that have wireless internet like that. I think it will spur sales at restaurants.

The broadband movement is already increasing the number of people that can work from home and be educated at home. I think there will be some differences though. Mostly because of the freedom that is allowed with the wireless connections. You are able to connect everywhere and anywhere. I think this will create more flexible schedules. I’d be able to work nearly as easily on a train as I would be able to in the office. I would be able to get on a train at the time I’m supposed to be at work get there for some meetings and finish up around the same time just on the train.

I think that there will be more business models based on highly interactive advertisements and user driven actions out in the “wild.” I’ve seen a lot of the QR codes outside of buildings as it is, but I think there will be an increase in the number of these. Users will be more willing to activate them because they are going to get the data from them significantly faster than previously. This will drive traffic to these sites and potentially new jobs from the different types of videos/ads that could be created with them.

I think this will also be something of a technological discontinuity. Broadband at home encourages one type of behavior, but I think there will be very different interactions with broadband everywhere. In the long term there could be a slew of different devices that will take advantage of the continual connections. Clothing could be that could measure the current weather conditions real time which could be uploaded to get real time weather information. We could collect data at levels we’ve never seen it before. This is just one usage of the informational sphere we’ll be living in. There will be a huge number of new applications that will radically shift the way people think about knowledge, information and computing products. Predicting the next wave of technologies based on the wireless web is difficult. It’s likely to be impossible.

Part III Computing

In my last two blogs, Government and Business, I’ve discussed some of the impacts on our society of ubiquitous high speed wireless internet. In this post I’ll look at the future of the computing industry. I think that this industry will go one of two ways, or perhaps both at the same time. The first route is obvious and is already happening, the second route will probably begin as a backlash to the first route.

The obvious route is cloud computing. As I’ve said we’re already going down this route. The best example of the speed of this transformation is the Amazon Kindle Fire (all three different links). Basically, we will be using less powerful, but still growing in abilities, equipment and pushing the more processor intensive applications out onto a server in the cloud. This will most likely be owned by some private organization. Amazon’s Fire is a great example of this because it provides the ability to browse websites at a much faster rate than what’s allowed under current network speeds. Even with high speed internet this may continue because it’ll fit the website to your screen and make it even faster than over the high speed network.

However, many people are skeptical of cloud computing. There is a sense of a loss of ownership. You become locked in to a specific firm to provide the required services. End User license agreements change frequently and your true ownership of the data and information you place on their servers can change unexpectedly and in ways that aren’t in the favor of the users. Additionally, it’s been acknowledged by both Google and Microsoftthat all data in their cloud servers are subject to the US Patriot Act. This raises privacy concerns for the EU and firms using cloud services.

I think that these concerns will drive another type of cloud computing. I think it’ll be something like a personal cloud. It will be similar to working with both a desktop and a laptop at the same time and remoting into the desktop from the laptop, but it will be done seamlessly and transparently. The ownership of the data will be clearly yours and the power will effectively take a phone or low power table and turn it into a fully powered desktop computer. This way the cloud won’t be out there and will be easily controlled by the end user. You don’t have to worry about the Patriot Act or a company going under, changing rates and other issues like that.

Both of these changes will create disruptive changes within the computing industry. The Kindle Fire is on the cutting edge of this. I fully expect Amazon to create additional applications that will run on the Amazon cloud system. There’s no reason not to expect this. It will shift how apps are developed. It will also change who is in the game of creating computers. Dell, for example, will continue to have a major hold over both servers and personal computers, however as we move away from laptops to tablets and phones over time Dell is going to fail in this market. They have been unsuccessful at every attempt to enter these markets. There will be a shift in the players in the market.

These systems will only work with ubiquitous internet connection. They will become more effective as the network speed and capacity increases. Users will become more willing to use the systems as the reliability of the systems increase.

In my opinion these changes will fundamentally change the way that we look at computers. The way we interact with computers and how we feel about the usage of computers. Today they are everywhere, but in the next few years I expect them to become more prevalent as we are able to offload high power demanding applications off of our phones and onto powerful servers.

Part IV Societal

This is the last post I discussed the impact on the computing industry of ubiquitous high speed free wireless internet. In this post I’ll discuss some of the societal changes. In some ways the societal changes may be smaller, at first, than we’d anticipate.

First, we’ve seen how much people have jumped on playing with their phones in public spaces. I fully expect this trend to continue and in fact to increase. Simple to play games like Angry Birds will become more advanced and will likely look better. People will do more work on their phones and will likely begin using video calls in public. Which will be annoying, but it’s going to happen.

There may be a wave of apps that will try to increase the amount of social interaction of players. This doesn’t mean that we’ll have an increase of in person social interaction, but will likely be an increase of virtual social interaction. Which for some people is significantly better than what would happen otherwise.

I think that the ubiquitous internet will have a mixed impact on the ability to do work. As it is a lot of people already spend a great deal of time working from home off the clock. This will likely increase, but I think there will be a trade off. As people will, hopefully, be able to work while commuting more easily on trains and buses. People will begin to work in more places like cafes compared to the amount that currently do.

There will be other changes as new devices and applications are created to take advantage of the high speed internet. Many of these changes will happen as these devices are developed.

I would like to be completely optimistic that the greater the amount of internet will lead to a larger amount of user created content. That the increase of wireless internet will increase personal engagement in political and social activities, but I don’t think it will. I think that there will be a small increase because there will be a larger number of people that weren’t able to do it before are able to do it.

I think that a high percentage of engagement in social networks, content creation and other types of engagement will take some time to occur. I think it’s because of a mind set. A lot of people have no desire to become involved in these types of things. I would like to imagine that these changes will happen over night. However they will not. People will need time to understand how to exploit this infrastructure. It will take time for unique social experiments to develop using the network. Some people will understand immediately how to create new tools for the new environment, but it will take many established firms time to fully exploit it.

It will also take people time to adapt to the change. It’s not obvious in what ways the average user will exploit this technology. In many ways it will just increase the amount of general web browsing going on, in other ways video viewing will increase as well.

In this series I’ve looked at how our government, business, computer and social environments will change based on ubiquitous free wireless internet. It will have immediate changes and longer term changes that currently fall into the realm of science fiction. Device makers and app developers will have a new world to exploit because of increases in computing power locally and remotely. Creating novel methods of using this power is what will drive the next phase in our economy.