Content is king, but if you build it will they come?

We are in a time when the number of operating systems are growing incredibly rapidly. This is essentially a throwback to the time when every company that made a Mainframe or Minicomputer developed their a custom operating system for that line of systems. This was because it was difficult to translate operating systems from one system to the next, each system had such radically different components that were hand built by the engineers designing the system, and the OS was a differentiator on the market that would increase sales based on its capabilities.

As it is the mobile operating system market has already gone through at least one round of expansion and contraction. Blackberry is on the brink, Palm was bought by HP and then sold to LG, Windows Mobile replaced by Windows RT (or just Windows 8), Nokia’s Symbian, Nokia’s MeeGo, Samsung’s operating systems Pre-Android Bada, and there are likely others. In general these have contracted down to two primary operating systems: iOS and Android on mobile. Windows is still trying to threaten with Windows 8 (the ARM version) but their market share is very limited (4.5% in August of 2013). Which essentially puts it down with all the other new operating systems that have recently come to market.

In my opinion there are two front runners for OSes not based on Android that have a chance to take market share. The first is Firefox OS, which has just begun shipping phones. I would argue that Firefox OS is actually more similar to Chrome OS than to Android because it’s very webcentric and focuses on apps that can be developed for Firefox and HTML5. I believe this does allow for a great deal of flexibility as Firefox is a great brand and already has a set of applications for the browser. These, hopefully, will be easily transferred to Firefox OS from the browser.

The second OS that I find especially interesting is Ubuntu mobile OS. This operating system I believe offers the future path that all OSes need to be considering. While running purely on battery it enters a scaled down operating system and power consumption, but when the phone or tablet is plugged in it converts to a full blown Linux operating system with a significantly higher level of processing power behind it. I believe that in the long run this type of operating system and processor combination will ultimately be the future (Samsung is doing some of this with their 10.1 2014 edition), because we will want to eliminate as many of our computing devices as possible. Tablets are already beginning to do this, and with the Phablet tablets are being replaced in some sizes. The lines will continue to blur and I think Ubuntu will be in a unique position to take advantage of that in the upcoming year.

There is one other dark horse OS that I know very little about, it’s Samsung and Intel’s joint venture. It is Linux based like Ubuntu and Android and it’s called Tizen. This has little to no adoption, but could be a player in the very low cost market. Which is where Firefox OS is positioning itself, while Ubuntu is putting itself at the high end market.

As for the Android derivatives, the most successful and largest threat to both iOS and the general Android platform is Amazon’s Fire OS. Amazon has had a long practice of pushing content over the cost of the product. In fact with most of their Kindle products they are barely breaking even or making pennies on each one sold.

The other derivative is also wildly popular but with a specific type of user. Cyanogenmod has offically become its own company and recently raised $23 million from venture companies. This is going to be a change for Cyanogenmod because they will not longer be able to use the Play store, which may not be that big of a problem because they’ve had an underground app store for some time.

There are others, I’m not trying to display an exhaustive list of mobile operating systems. What I’m trying to display here is that there’s a lot of competition in the mobile operating system space that is only going to become more difficult.

For a mobile operating system to be successful they need two things, applications and content that is viewable in those applications. This is the number one thing that most tech pundits talk about when discussing which platform is better between iOS, Android, or Amazon. In fact, they argue that Amazon’s weakest because of the limited number of apps partially because they do not have access to Google Play. Currently, Android and iOS are well over a million apps each. Which essentially means that they both have a huge number of apps and most of them are never used. It will take years for Amazon to come close and even longer for the other OSes to reach those numbers.

How can the other operating systems over come this limitation? I’ll answer that question in my next blog (published on 12/20/2013).

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:

tech·nol·o·gy/tekˈnäləjē/

Noun:
  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.

Ubiquitous free high speed wireless: 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.

However, I think that in my next blog on Computing, we’ll see the largest changes.

Software Patents are the new Copyright

In one of my previous posts I commented that I was seeing a convergence withing copyright activities. I believe that something just as horrible is starting to happen within the software patent world. I think that it will threaten the free software movement as well. We’ve had patent trolls around for a long time now. Almost since the first patent was created, however, this didn’t interact with our daily lives. It was similar to the way that copyright didn’t affect you and me on a daily basis. Sure, changes in prices or the removal of a product could affect us, but typically we were able to find a replacement or dealt with the price change. However, I think that this new type of patent troll is more dangerous. Yesterday I saw a post on Ars Technica discussing how Lodsys is going after Apple app developers. Apple isn’t happy about this at all, because it threatens to ruin the base they have developed.

I think there are some other problems with this as well. Historically, if a company, that produces software, was looking to go for an IPO or bought by another company there’s a thing called due dilligence, where the products are checked for stolen code. This is a big deal, because if I stole the code from Linux or some other open source software, my entire project falls under the GPL, and forces my source code to become open as well. This can create massive headaches for companies.

There is a key difference between what used to happen in the past and what is happening now. Before it was the method of making something happened that mattered. For example if I took a really fast way to sort something from open source how it was sorted was what mattered, not that it sorted. Why does this matter? Well the code is also technically copyrighted and owned by the writer. Now the outcome matters as well. What if some one had a patent on sorting. I’ve mentioned how crazy this would have been in the past and how this would impact innovation.

Let’s say some one decided to put in for a patent on shooting animals at some sort of target through a controlled interface. Once the animal hit the target the animal interacted with the target which changed the user interface to indicate that the change had occurred. I have two games on my phone right now, Angry Birds and Monkey Blaster that would both be impacted by this patent. Both of them have very different goals and methods for shooting an animal at a target and different results once it hits the target. Indeed, the definition of target is different between these two games. However, neither of these developers are going to be looking for patents when they have an idea about what’s the next game they want to make.

The patent that is mentioned in the Ars article is absurd. It should never have been approved. There’s nothing novel in the development of the in app purchase. That is something that should be obvious from any one in the computer industry. You could easily see the relationship between a website and an application. In fact, I’m sure that there have been cases of this in the past. Another question that remains to be seen is this going to impact services like Steam? The article notes that Lodsys has already gone after EA.

This change in behavior towards apps and software patents is a very bad change. We need to work to address these types of problems. Returning to the requirement of producing a product to have on the market within a certain number of years could help address these problems. However for software this will likely just lead to a crappy product put on the market that no one buys and no one knows about.

EFF’s Tor challenge and Internet Freedom

First of all, no I didn’t participate in the Tor challenge. I don’t feel I can use my computer in this way while I’m doing a lot of work on it for school. However, I think the idea is excellent. I didn’t explain what TOR is did I? Well here’s the EFF website about Tor. TL;DR: basically it provides a way for You, to hide your actual IP address. You have to install a piece of software to access the network. Once you access the network you’re data will bounce around and come out an exit point, which is your “final” IP address. This final address will take the brunt of any legal or illegal activity being conducted on the TOR network. The EFF suggest that you do not run an exit relay out of your home and the Tor project has some recommendations on running an exit point. However, it should be safe to run a middle relay to allow traffic to flow through your home address. The data that flows between middle nodes is encrypted. See the picture below.

EFF representation of the Tor network: from Tor Project

Why is this technology important? This helps with freedom of speech. The US constitution allows free speech and this is an important tool in allowing freedom of speech. Of course like any proxy website, or VPN it can be used for other purposes, as can the ideas of free speech. We may not like what it is being used for, what is being said or why, but it’s still legal. One thing that is noted repeatedly on both the EFF and Tor page is the risk of DCMA take downs and law enforcement attention. Both of these have a chilling affect on freedom of speech.

It seems to me that copyright control and protection may seriously damage a project like this. If all the exit nodes are shut down because of copyright take down notices we lose a valuable tool in preserving our freedom of speech as well as an assumed right to use the internet in the way we feel is best.

Another concern I have about this technology is the obvious potential use by hackers. This tool is going to be used by hackers. It would be foolish for them not to. This of course puts this technology at odds with the wishes of the government to control copyright infringement and prevent hacking of businesses and government agencies. I seriously hope that the US government, and the EU, gives protection to the exit nodes from legal repercussions from hackers using these networks. Used in the right way Tor could be a modern Underground Railroad for dissenters in countries like Libya, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

Innovation and Software Patents

Whenever a new type of product is released there are a lot of difficulties with intellectual property. This is being played out in biotechnology and software. As recently as last year it was possible to patent human genes in the US. See this link for the recent verdict against it. The ACLU also had a write up from 2009 when this case was still ongoing about the history of genetic patenting. Software is another case of this. Many people argue that since software is an algorithm or series of statements that leads to a result it should not be patentable. This makes sense as mathematical proofs are unable to be patented. The argument is that for proofs these are discoveries and more natural processes than creating technology.

In the EU it is not possible to obtain a software patent at all. They claim that with software there are multiple different methods to obtain the same output. Software patenting is a very recent trend. The most famous example is the Amazon.com one-click to buy button. Which, if you don’t know what it is, basically allows you to store an address and a credit card and automatically buy whatever product you’re looking at. Fairly simple right? Well there was a lawsuit against a major competitor, Barnes and Noble about this in ’99. Some how this patent managed to survive the re-review, even though it’s a fairly obvious idea and could be implemented in about a billion different ways. On the billions, I’m not even exaggerating. There would be so many different interactions that could make the actual implementation totally different. These range from database types, information request, how the data is actually stored in the data base. There could be nothing similar between the implementation at all, yet Amazon ones all the methods to do this. In terms of patents this is effectively an amazing patent.

Let’s put this more simply. If software patents had been allowable in the 70’s when software first started to take off we would be living in a different world. BIOS have been owned by IBM until 1990 or so, which would have made manufacturing computers a two horse race between Apple and IBM. Microsoft or Apple could have patented the Operating system, and then the graphic user interface. IT innovation would have been non-existent. Think of this, some one could have patented data sorting. There are a many different ways to sort data in the CS world and all of them would have been covered by a single patent. Then some one could have decided to patented sorting on a multi-core computer (by then sorting as a patent would have expired).

Software is more like a mathematical proof than it’s like inventing the computer.

Innovation in the software world has been amazing because it has been something of a free for all. However, there are drawbacks to this lack of IP protection. In the most recent version of iOS, iOS5, Apple has been accused of lifting many of it’s new “innovations” from apps that have been rejected from the app store, or that have been selling in the jailbroke iPhone app store. Here’s the link for the article. How do we deal with cases like this, either Goliath stealing from David or David stealing from Goliath? There needs to be some sort of protection.

Potentially copyright should cover this, or a registered design. Perhaps in the case of the app stores a non-compete agreement should be signed if the app is rejected by Apple. Meaning Apple won’t steal it. However, there is no easy solution. Software design thefts are going to be very difficult to manage and deal with.