Day: 27 December 2013

Raging Thunderbolt:

Even worse are reactions like Harry Marks’s (Marks is, of course, a noted fan of the podcast):

They took apart a developer’s website in a mean-spirited and childish way, not unlike how they’ve torn apart bad tech writers over the last four years. Yes, they’ve been doing this for four years, but now suddenly it’s a problem.

That’s where defenders of Angry Mac Bastards are wrong. It is not only a problem now, suddenly. It has always been a problem. Unfortunately, too many of us bystanders simply watched and let the cyberbullying continue. And, worst of all, the people who actually listened to the podcast and its sponsors encouraged and enabled the continuing cyberbullying.

Entirely agreed. The premise of Angry Mac Bastards seemed, to me, to be a show celebrating a lack of nuanced critique or interesting discussion, opting instead for shouting and vitriol. I’m sure there are fans of that kind of thing — Rush Limbaugh certainly has a huge audience — but bullying of this calibre and in front of a large audience is detestable. Good riddance.

One of the interesting things about writing this site in a part-time capacity is that a controversy can take shape, reach its peak, and become resolved before I’ve had the chance to write about it. Case in point: Information Architects’ patent on Writer Pro’s “Syntax Control” feature. Here’s what IA’s Oliver Reichenstein wrote about that feature:

Syntax Control — distinguishing a specific aspect of the text to assist in editing — is a solid innovation, one we’ve been working on for more than four years. As with every serious design, once you have seen how it works and how effective it is, it seems obvious, but it was a long road to get there. We’ve trademarked and obtained patent pending for Syntax Control. If you want it in your text editor, you can get a license from us. It’s going to be a fair deal.

There’s a lot to unpack as to why this is controversial, but let’s start with the trademark status of Syntax Control: Reichenstein claims they’ve registered the mark, but a quick search of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s database reveals no such mark. Information Architects has offices in Switzerland and Japan; unfortunately, those countries do not have a public trademark search engine.

Then there’s the patent situation, which has been conflated with a lot of other software patents but isn’t at all like a generic software patent for one reason: NSLinguisticTagger. Yeah, that’s right: Information Architects tried to patent an existing part of Apple’s SDKs. Oh, the gall, the cojones. An “innovation [they’ve] been working on for more than four years” my aching ass.

Anyway, they called off that patent application. Jonathan Poritsky wrote a great explanation, which you should check out. Case closed, right?

Not exactly. This event demonstrates just how ridiculous many software patents are. We’ve been talking ad nauseum about intellectual property in the digital era seemingly forever: from the Apple v. Samsung trial, to the other Apple v. Samsung trial, and the Rockstar stuff. And now this.

Intellectual Property

And now you want my opinion.

This is going to be tricky because I’m not entirely sure where I stand on intellectual property as an entity. Trademarks seem generally alright — you don’t want some guy making tomato soup in his garage and branding it with the “Campbell’s” logo, or two major companies trading under the same name. But copyright and patent law requires a more complex story.


In the United States, copyrights began with a fourteen-year protection limit, with the option to extend for another fourteen; this has since been extended to a comical degree:

The Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 extended copyright terms in the United States. Since the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship. The Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier. Copyright protection for works published prior to January 1, 1978, was increased by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.

Make no mistake: that’s a long-ass time for the rights of a work to be held by anyone.

But it isn’t simply the term limits which are outrageous: it’s also in the way that copyright law is policed. The Disney empire is built largely on the backs of public domain stories — Cinderella, Snow White, and so forth — yet the company vigorously threatens anyone who goes near those stories. The company also lobbied in favour of the Copyright Term Extension Act. Simply, Disney wishes to lock down their adaptations of other people’s stories for as long as possible.

Then, of course, there are overzealous DCMA reports:

A representative of NPG Records wrote to Twitter to say eight video clips hosted on Vine contained “unauthorized recordings” and “unauthorized synchronizations” and asked the company to remove them immediately.

Six seconds of Prince music in the background of your Vine clip? Violation. Ridiculous.


And then there are patents, the intellectual property everyone loves to hate. I reiterate: I don’t entirely know where I stand on software patents, let alone patents in their entirety. I think that’s because the discussion so far hasn’t been finely-grained enough for me to form an adequate opinion on them. Asking someone what they think of patents is like asking them what they think of food: what if they have a dietary restriction, or dislike a certain kind of food? Similarly, an opinion on patents should really be filtered as an opinion on the different components:

  1. Patent assignment: how are patents granted or denied? Is the process adequate?
  2. Innovation: is the invention actually that innovative? Similar to (1), is there someone in the patent office who can reliably make that judgement? Is the prior art discovery process sufficient?
  3. Term limits: are patent terms of adequate length, or should they be shorter to compensate for increased productivity and speed of innovation?
  4. IP usage: is the intellectual property actually being used in a product or service?
  5. Challenging: is the process for challenging the legitimacy of a patent sufficient?
  6. Enforcement: is the process for enforcing patents sufficient?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. They require nuance and detail, and the answers will vary on a per-patent basis. I can’t answer them, mostly because I lack any schooling or training whatsoever in intellectual property law. So take everything I say here with that caveat in mind.

I have previously supported certain patents. I do believe there is fundamental innovation at the heart of some inventions, even in the software space: video codecs come to mind. In the hardware space, I think unique designs or innovative production methods should be patentable. I think it’s entirely within the rights of a person or company which invested the time and money into developing these things to reap some reward from protecting these innovations and licensing them to interested parties.


There’s so much wrong with patent law in 2013 that it cannot function in a sensible, reasonable way.

Last week, I listened again to This American Life’s “When Patents Attack, Part 2”, and I urge you to do the same if you find yourself with a spare hour. It’s a riveting tale which explains many of the significant problems in the patent system better than I ever could. But, off the top of my head, here’s my short list of issues which need to be addressed for the patent system to be fixed, in no particular order:

  • Genetic patents: these should be entirely abolished, for the reason that causing or discovering a mutation in nature cannot and should not be owned by a person or entity.
  • Non-practicing entities: a patent should be required to be used in a publicly-available product or service within a certain timeframe — say, two years — or it becomes null and void, and it must be reapplied for.
  • Term limits: due to the increasing pace of innovation and discovery, patent limits should probably be much shorter, and extensions should be entirely removed.
  • Innovation requirements: similarly, the requirements for level of innovation should be much higher, and should be more rigorously evaluated by experts from corresponding fields of research.
  • Overbroad patents: there is a nuance required to reading patents because there are dependent claims and every word matters. Still, a substantial amount of patents seem to get through which are far too broad to be considered protecting a specific innovation or invention.

None of these are radical or revolutionary — indeed, nothing in this post is radical or revolutionary — but this codifies how I feel about intellectual property. It is as much for me as it is for you. I think it’s sensible, practical, and reasonable (at least, I hope it is).

But, as I said above, I have no education in intellectual property law, so my opinions on the subject are inconsequential and probably misguided. If you are an expert in the field, I’d love to hear from you.

Regardless of my lack of expertise, I think the lack of nuance is a major problem when this issue is discussed. Bickering about patents as an entire entity is either unhelpful or should be polemic. If you can’t do the latter, you’re probably just wasting your breath.

Christopher Mims,1 Quartz:

All in, 2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it—Silicon Valley.

Oh, really? Sure, Silicon Valley has had more than its share of big dick moves this year, but an “embarrassment for the entire industry”? What justification is there for that?

2013 was the year smartphones became commodities, just like the PCs they supplanted.

That’s not an embarrassment — that’s enormous. Isn’t the commodification of a once-niche product a positive, rather than a negative?

Mims continues:

Even at the high end, Apple and Samsung’s newest flagship phones weren’t big leaps ahead from previous versions. The most that Apple could think to do with the new, faster processor in the iPhone 5S was animate 3D effects that make some users feel ill and a fingerprint sensor that solved a problem that wasn’t exactly pressing. Apple’s new iOS7 mobile operating system, which felt “more like a Microsoft release,” crippled many older iPhones and led to complaints of planned obsolescence.

In a series of complaints about Apple’s new iPhone, only one, the fingerprint sensor, is actually attributable to the iPhone itself; the others are software-related. Of course, it’s Mims’ prerogative to view a complete overhaul of an operating system as not a “big leap ahead”, and I disagree with that. But his citations are such weak sauce: the “planned obsolesce” story was incredibly dumb, while the fingerprint sensor complaint cites a Tumblr post which features this pullquote from a Fast Company article:

As far back as the early 2000s, fingerprint sensors were embedded in a slew of devices, from laptops produced by HP and Toshiba to phones made by Nokia and Motorola. But while Apple was able to make fingerprint sensors feel like a fresh idea, its competitors were only capable of making the technology feel superfluous, stale, and unready for market.

This quote doesn’t reinforce Mims’ statement that the problem “wasn’t exactly pressing”, nor does it even support the notion that it was a poor idea. In fact, the point of the article is simple:

…that’s the difference between Apple and its competitors. Where others saw an imperfect technology it could temporarily repurpose, Apple saw the long-term potential to perfect it. It was willing to gamble hundreds of millions of dollars on the idea. And while it’s far from a surefire bet, the risk it took on the technology is why the public and market still see Apple as an innovator.

Alright, back to Mims’ article. What else made 2013 “tech’s lost year”?

Wearables were a letdown

Thanks for harshing my mellow there, Mims.

Former giants continued their inglorious decline

The old dogs — Microsoft, Intel, and BlackBerry — aren’t looking so hot these days. But, again, doesn’t a shifting landscape demonstrate this wasn’t an embarrassing year, but rather a significant one? Sure, the writing has been on the wall for a while, but the fact that these changes persist speaks to a powerful technological shift.

M&A replaced innovation

Microsoft bought Nokia‘s devices business, which would have been an astonishing turn of events a few years ago, but now felt like a lurch into an unsure future in which Microsoft remains an also-ran in mobile devices.

The purchase felt inevitable, but it’s still pretty big news.

Most big news about Apple was about the company’s tax-avoidance techniques and general failure to deliver any new products of note. (It still isn’t making phablets, though they’ve been hugely successful for other manufacturers.)

Just because Mims says something, that doesn’t make it true. (Emphasis mine.)

It goes on and on like this, with complaint after complaint. You and I have heard these all before, but Mims combines them into a surprisingly dull list. In fact, the best part of the story comes in the final paragraph:

And as is the case every year, tech pundits made countless dubious calls for which they will never be held to account.

Those are four links to stories Mims wrote in 2013 for which he was either proved wrong or are too ridiculous to consider seriously. He should have linked to this article as well. Based on Mims’ criteria, 2012 and 2011 would also probably be write-off years.