Myhrvold’s Insane Troll Logic

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I should learn that sitting down to check my feeds just doesn’t work as a strategy to get a few relaxing minutes away from a stressful and irritating day. Not when I have a feed that’s searching the web for information on patents and the USPTO, anyway. From an interview with Nathan Myhrvold running on News.com:

What do you think of the complaints of how patent litigation is hurting companies? Some days it sounds like the trumped-up malpractice crisis of the ’80s.
Myhrvold: Well, this is even stranger. We actually did a study on this. The overall number of lawsuits for patents is growing, but so is the overall number of patents. So explain that to me.

If I’m painfully obtuse, please, someone tell me, but I don’t actually understand what Myhrvold’s argument is supposed to be here. I see a pretty straightforward explanation. The number of patents granted each year has been increasing steadily since the early ’80s, with a big, ugly spike in the late ’90s:


[Chart actually intended for a different post that I’ll have time to finish one day…]

As the number of patents granted increases…so too does the number of patent lawsuits.

And when you add in the shifts in what is considered patentable (check the two cases noted on the chart), the picture doesn’t get any prettier. There are a lot more potential infringement targets for a patent on something like “one click buying on the internet” than for a patent on, say, a “Gate turn-off thyristor with anode rectifying contact to non-regenerative section.” One might then reasonably expect that as the number of software and business model patents increases, they will tend to generate lawsuits at a per-patent rate rather higher than their old-fashioned cousins.

Okay, I feel better now. Thanks for listening.

What Color are Google’s Helicopters?

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Being some additional space for me to vent on the topic of…

…a discussion related to Google’s recently added “search history” that started on Dave Farber’s IP list and eventually made its way over to Declan McCullagh’s Politech list. (Note that some fair portion of the discussion happened off list, so you get only some highlights in the links above.)

It started with a message from Dave Farber, entitled “BAD IDEA OF THE WEEK — Google Launches Personal History Feature,” which was just a forward of an AP story on the feature. I initially read that as a suggestion that it was a bad business idea for Google, and responded: since A9, AskJeeves, and Yahoo all offer some form of search history these days, it seemed to me that Google really had to respond with a similar offering.

The followup from there was people laying out privacy concerns, both actual and hypothetical, that could arise from such a feature. Just to get this taken care of up front, I totally agree that there are privacy concerns inherent in Google’s search history feature; where I seem to depart from most other people on these mailing lists, however, is that I see Google’s search history as one example of a sort of privacy concern that is already ubiquitous on the Web these days, rather than a dramatic first step on to a slippery slope. Further, I’m much more frightened by the decay of offline privacy in the US than I am by anything happening online.

So a couple of things, largely taken from a rather snide email that I sent to Declan McCullagh (if you see this, Declan, sorry — I should have gone to bed rather than replying to one last email):

If we’re concerned about Google explicitly retaining search history, so too should we be concerned about the fact that A9 already does the same thing, and that A9’s login is tied to the user’s Amazon login. As noted above, other search engines already offer explicit search history retention, as well. Yes, Google is currently bigger and more popular than other search engines, but focusing attention exclusively on Google — even getting them to eliminate the feature — would not effectively address the larger privacy issue.

Note the word “explicit” in the paragraph above. Most of us only have a vague idea of what the data retention and disclosure policies are for our ISPs and the sites we visit: search, commerce, or otherwise. Remember that your ISP knows every site that you visit, for at least as long as it takes for logs to roll over. Unless you reject all cookies, have javascript completely disabled, and use an anonymizing proxy server, the sites that you visit may also know a great deal about you. Even if you clean out your cookies periodically, a static IP or an ISP-assigned DHCP address with a long lease (which is pretty common) means that sites can link together what you’ve been doing across multiple visits without having to store much of anything on your local machine.

Assuming that you aren’t so paranoid that you’re taking all of the privacy-enhancing steps above, you’ve got another big privacy issue: there are a whole lot of companies in the business of tracking you from site to site. Take a look at your cookies…atdmt.com, centrport.net, audiencematch.net, advertising.com…these organizations and others like them know as much or more about your browsing habits than sites like Google or Yahoo. That may or may not be a problem, but since many of those compaies have a reach that extends much further than any single content-based site, it’s an issue that bears examination from a privacy perspective. Again, do you know what the data retention and distribution policies are for these companies?

And then for US citizens, of course, there’s the offline world. Libraries, retailers, religious institutions, travel and communications companies…any and all records that these organizations have of your transactions must be provided to the government upon request, no warrant required, no notification to you required. Go, Patriot Act.

So yes, it’s possible that there are a couple of mysterious black helicopters circling above your house, but I don’t think that they belong to Google. Yet.

And yes, I still owe a followup on Fishtank and Habitrail. I’ll get to it…

Ads via RSS: Weblogs, Inc./Google and Slashdot/Feedster

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I noticed earlier today that Slashdot has very tentatively started putting ads in its RSS feed, apparently powered by Feedster. Since the FeedsterMedia site wasn’t as locked down as it probably should have been, I also learned that ads have been (or shortly will be) running in some of the Freshmeat and Sourceforge feeds, as well.

On the heels of that discovery, I was pointed to Jason Calacanis’ post noting that Weblogs, Inc. has started running Google-powered ads in some of their feeds. Dave Winer is not amused.

Character Blogs are a Complete Waste of Time?

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An interesting little firefight broke out a few days ago over on Micro Persuasion, around Rubel’s Character Blogs are a Complete Waste of Time post. [Go read the post and comments.]

Speaking as someone who created a pretty successful “character” corporation/Web site a number of years ago, I fall strongly into the “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with character blogs” camp. Around the same time that I created Alien Abductions, Inc., I was also spending a lot of time writing and was fascinated by the public/private tension of a lot of writing on the Web; I created a couple of characters and had them write “online diaries,” which looked a lot like blogs. Those were less successful (I’m not that good a writer), but that experience makes me strongly disagree with statements like this:

Rubel writes:
Character blogs are a waste of time because a character is not and never will be human – unless it’s Pinocchio. Jason even noted that the Captain, who blogged about basketball, couldn’t possibly play the sport. Ugh. A character blog is a giant missed opportunity to have real humans – whether they be employees, customers, or even distillers and bottlers – engaging in a real dialogue with consumers. I am all for using characters in TV commercials and even micro-sites, but having them blog is just a lame, lazy idea. In fact, it’s an insult to blogging and bloggers everywhere.

I have a difficult time accepting that creative writing in a particular format (e.g. “character blogging”) is an insult to anyone. I can agree that the Captain Morgan blog sucked, but that’s because the writer or creative team doing it sucked…they didn’t understand what they were doing. If a writer creates a compelling character and the character’s blog is engaging — revealing different aspects of the character over time — then what’s the problem? Why is that blog offensive when a “micro-site” by or about that character isn’t?

Since I still owe a followup on Fishtank and Habitrail, in addition to my regular job and trying to squeeze in a few minutes with my family, I’ve decided to take an experimental approach in this post. There’s a great deal more I could say, but instead I’ll see if I can get someone else to take a look at the topic. Someone who has a keen interest in, and understanding of, both blogs and the role that “characters” play in our lives. Someone like Wil Wheaton. Actually it is Wil Wheaton.

Since my email to him will just be one of the many coming from somebody that he doesn’t know, asking for something, I won’t give good odds on his having time to respond, but I’ll update if I hear anything. Consider the buck passed.

Wists: “Visual Bookmarking”

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Just got pointed to Wists — a “visual bookmarks” tool. Think del.icio.us with an image associated with each tagged link.

My 60 second feedback is:

– Wists offers a couple of features that del.icio.us users currnetly lack, but want…the ability to designate your items as public or private is compelling (good).

– Wists offers some tools that seem to push it a little further in the direction of networking/explicitly social software. Could be a benefit for the ever-so-necessary process of community building (interesting, potentially good).

– The “email this link to someone” functionality, while cool, better be pretty well locked down: tagspam is already showing up all over the place…if it’s combined with regular spam, that could be a real pain in the ass (good, but with potential for evil).

– Because it’s got the whole “add an image” element on top of tagging, the bookmarking process is currently two steps, and seems a little rough. May be that the bookmarklet just doesn’t currently play nice with firefox, though (less good).

– I’m a word guy. Despite enthusiasm on the part of people like Om Malik, my biases are such that I have a hard time believing that adding an image is all that useful…the users will have to prove to me the images consistently add useful information/value to the system.

– The item above notwithstanding, the fact that the majority of the images that I saw in the “recent items” list were the logos of the site being linked does indicate a possible commerce-friendly approach to social bookmarking that has started my “when do they get bought out” counter going.

More in a couple of weeks. Send word or comment if you have thoughts on Wists to share.

Bad Ideas, but Boundless Optimism

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You have to admire the fortitude that it takes to embrace an idea that has failed time and time again, and still present it as an “innovation:” Billboard PostPlay gushes that Walmart’s On-Demand Music Kiosks [are] A Potential Hit.

I don’t pay a lot of attention to the music world and — off the top of my head — I can still come up with three times that this exact idea has flopped. And when you get into the details of this offering it becomes even less appealing:

Walmart offers approximately 375,000 songs, compared to iTunes 1MM+; when selecting from the rather limited options, you pay $4.62 for a three song CD, with the ability to add up to 17 more songs at 88 cents each.

Let’s do the math…

Ordering online, you can get a spindle of 50 CD-Rs for about ten bucks (and you pay less if you search around or buy in larger quantites). On iTunes, a song costs $.99. That means that a creating your own three song CD at home costs you $3.17…about a buck and a half less than Walmart is charging. Even if you go up to 20 songs, your homegrown CD costs you $19.80, which is only about 22 cents more than the Walmart version. And you drove to Walmart, didn’t you? What with gas prices the way they are and all…

On the assumption that the target market for a custom mix CD is pop culture savvy teens and young adults, who probably own a computer with a CD burner and have probably heard of “the internet” and “iTunes” — or worse yet, “file sharing networks” — I find it hard to share PostPlay’s enthusiasm here.

The Fishtank and the Habitrail

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A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a time — I think it was 1998 or early ’99 — there was a company. In the offices of this company there was a gigantic fishtank, filled with delicate aquatic plants, dramatic structures built from rocks and coral, and beautiful, brightly colored fish from oceans around the world. This fishtank, of course, was maintained by the company’s Technology Department.

One day a Business Guy walked over to a Technology Guy, and said, “hey, tech guy — we’ve figured out that we really need a Habitrail. I know that the Technology department already has a lot to do, what with the fishtank and all, so we’ve already gotten finance approval to get consultants to install and set up the Habitrail. Your guys won’t need to worry about it at all, but I just wanted to give you a heads up anyway.”

“That’s great,” said Technology Guy, “what are you going to do with the Habitrail?”

Business Guy smiled and held up a hand.

“The Habitrail will improve sales productivity, in ways that are impossible to accomplish with the fishtank. It’ll be really good for the company,” he replied, “but you really don’t need to worry about it — we want to avoid putting even more work on your plate, so we’ve already gotten everything worked out with the consultants.”

Technology Guy and Business Guy chatted for a few minutes about that week’s episode of Frasier, and how rich they were going to be when their options vested, and then went their separate ways.

A few months later the consultants installed the Habitrail. It was stunning. There were three nautical miles of shiny plastic tubing in a rainbow of Web-safe colors, it formed a ten foot tall double helix next to the water cooler, and it even had a hamster-scale replica of a Bavarian village that sat beside the office coffee pot. The resident hamsters were trained to do a little welcoming dance when people came into the office every morning, and an army of hamster-sized robots cleaned and polished the Habitrail every night.

Everyone was overjoyed.

About two weeks after the installation, Business Guy paid another visit to Technology Guy.

“Hey, bizman,” said Technology Guy, without looking up from his monitor, “how are you liking the Habitrail?”

Business Guy grinned.

“It’s everything I hoped it would be, and more. Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about…we’ve had the Habitrail for a couple of weeks now, so I just wanted to check in and see when you thought you’d be able to get the fish moved in there.”

Technology Guy paused his game of Half-life and turned around.

“I’m sorry — what’s all this, then?”

“The fish,” explained Business Guy, “we need to move them into the Habitrail. Since the Habitrail offers advantages that the fishtank doesn’t, it just makes sense to use the Habitrail for everything, rather than the fishtank. I thought that was obvious from our discussion last quarter.”

“Interesting.”

Technology Guy paused, with a thoughtful look on his face.

“Very interesting, indeed. I would have thought it was obvious that if we put the fish into the Habitrail, a few different things will happen.”

He started counting off items on his fingers.

“First, most of the hamsters will immediately drown as we pour the water and fish into the Habitrail…next, as the water slowly drains out because the Habitrail isn’t watertight, all the fish will die…after that, the few remaining hamsters will feast upon the corpses of the fish. And probably on the hamster corpses, too. Hamsters are like that.”

Technology Guy stopped for a moment, blinked, and then held up one more finger.

“Oh yeah — there’s a chance that we’ll all be electrocuted because of the water that will be filling our office up above the level of the electrical outlets, too. I’d estimate that it should end up about knee-deep.”

Business Guy stopped smiling.

“This isn’t good,” he said, “seeing all those fish swimming around in that big tank is really distracting to the sales force. Unless we can find a way to get the fish into the Habitrail, we’ll have to go back to having somebody walking around and poking the salespeople with a sharp stick every few minutes.”

Here endeth the lesson.