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Patent Fights Are About Hearts and Minds

As much as I talk about Imaginary Property on the blog and on Twitter, I don’t often get a chance to really lay out the problem with Intellectual Property and copyright quite as nicely as this article does. Discussing the latest round of M$ / Google / Oracle / Samsung arguments over patents, the author gets into the really important bit for everybody else:

Google vs Microsoft Isn’t Just A Battle of Products, But A Battle of Ideas | Epicenter | Wired.com.

Don’t underestimate the reach of these caricatures. This spring, I was playing Angry Birds with a seven-year-old who patiently explained to me why he liked Apple more than Verizon, because Verizon’s Droid phones just stole all its ideas from Apple’s iPhone. (I still haven’t told him that I have a Verizon iPhone now.)

My young friend may have been mixed up on the details, but he was lucid, he was deliberate, and most importantly, he was absolutely convinced. That’s what Google’s fighting here, in public — and that’s why Microsoft and others will be fighting back.

The question of why copyrighting does or does not hurt innovation is a topic which I have yet to address on the blog. I’m thinking I should start doing better with that.

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Google, Integration and the “Microsoft Syndrome”

CNN’s Fortune Tech section offers an interesting analysis of #Google and its current development cycle, relative to #Microsoft and its chief advantage / shortcoming, which is integration of products:

Is Google suffering from Microsoft Syndrome? – Fortune Tech.

And yet, it seems that those at the Googleplex are increasingly giving in to the temptation to integrate new product development into a “synergistic,” if monstrous, whole. Integrating new products into existing ones, the story goes, should give a new product a boost with a built-in user base and in-product feature merchandising, not to mention enhanced “strategic” and “platform” value, which basically translates to customer lock-in.

I understand the temptation to make this comparison and have even thought the same things, from time to time. Android’s fusing of phone, Gmail and FaceBook contacts is incomplete at best and leads to duplication. Google Desktop Search was an invasive resource hog. Buzz, the article’s chief whipping-horse, was definitely a huge fail that still surprises me in its ability to avoid the ax.

There are, however, a number of differences between Microsoft’s integration scheme and Google’s. The first and most obvious is that, while Microsoft was trying to find a way to fuse Access databases and your music library, Google’s core competency has always been search. And search is a natural fit for all manner of activities online or on your computer.

Secondly, while Microsoft has been interested in your desktop experience on your PC, Google’s integration is about web services. Web services – from RSS to Twitter – are all based on a unifying principle in the first place: I publish my tweets and trending Bit.ly links to my website, other people have their latest Foursquare checkins on their sidebars. We share articles on WaPo with our friends on FaceBook and take suggestions on dinner choices from Foursquare. Thus fusing the +1 button and Google+ with other services like search isn’t just good business sense for Google: it is the edict of Web2.0 all over again.

Third, Microsoft’s penchant for integration comes directly at the expense of the security of their operating systems. From ActiveX vulnerabilities to Internet Explorer bugs exploited through Windows Media Player, integration has always been and we may presume shall always be Microsoft’s primary weakness. Google is not providing you an operating system, though it could be argued that the suite of Google tools online nearly replaces your operating system. Still, while there is a new growth in #Android malware, the chances that hackers will find the same wealth of security vulnerabilities that they do in Microsoft is unlikely.

Finally, while Google is certainly not without flaws, their core product remains not just good but outstanding. Microsoft, in the meanwhile, is dogged by any number of persistent, endemic problems to their core software that nearly define the company.

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Google Plus: What’s in a (Pseudo)nym?

This weekend, many Google Plus users got a rude awakening, when they discovered that their Google Plus user accounts – along with all other associated Google Accounts – were unceremoniously deleted from the Google system. This without the slightest notification or recourse. The reason, as explained in a CNet news piece, is that Google would like to maintain a friendly air at Google Plus and therefore prefers real names:

Why Google+ requires real names | Digital media – CNET News:

In a reported conversation Sunday night with tech blogger Robert Scoble, Google’s senior vice president of social, Vic Gundotra, acknowledged that Google has made mistakes in its first pass with Google+. But he explained that the requirement to use real names is an attempt to set a positive tone, “like when a restaurant doesn’t allow people who aren’t wearing shirts to enter.”

The comparison to a restaurant’s shirt and shoes policy is cute but not at all apt. There are perfectly legitimate sanitary concerns about walking around barefoot in a restaurant, plus half-naked Baby Boomers do not belong anywhere near my garbage plate, thank you very much.

Using a real or assumed name on the Internet is a trickier issue. One of the luxuries of being on the Internet is the ability to remain anonymous and I think we eliminate anonymity on the Internet at our peril. It is easy to discount the importance of not being associated with an account when we see trolls on websites, but the reality is that, whether looking into deeply-personal medical information or just wanting more information of a type that might hurt one’s relationships or career, there are plenty of times when the freedom to not have to identify yourself is paramount. And its important also to remember that, whereas in the past you simply looked at websites completely anonymously anyway, the social nature of the modern Internet means you can’t ever really be sure which sites are hooked into which of your social networks.

Put it another way: if Google’s intent is to allow you to maintain your own personal data and keep privacy as you see it, then Google also has to acknowledge that your identity is itself a piece of personal data. To be shared or kept private.

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Technology

Is Video Chat the new WebTV?

There are just some things that don’t mix. Over and over again, we’ve discovered this with the various strands of Internet-connected television. Yes, being able to download movies and television shows from your NetFlix account to your Tivo box is a nice feature, but no, people are not inclined to sit in front of a keyboard or even a smart phone while watching television. Now with the announcements by both Google and FaceBook that they’re rolling out video chat features, I have to wonder if we’re not about to witness yet another colossal industry flop, this time in stereo?

Evolution – in organic life or in technology – is not a conga line of superior creations. Evolution includes many branches of distinctly-adapted creations that fulfill a required niche. That’s why there are humans and butterflies on the same planet, rather than a single, superiorly-adapted species. That is also why there is television and radio: one does not fulfill the role of the other. Its important to keep this in mind when we watch the parade of tech analysts and trend-watchers as they insist that Product X is the “wave of the future,” and that all other similar technologies will soon be relegated to the Smithsonian.

Internet on the Television

Computers and televisions also fulfill distinct roles. One is active, the other passive. When you watch television, do you really want to sit with a keyboard, tablet or smart phone and constantly change your field of vision? Not to simply update your Twitter or maybe program a few things to record, but to even make the television operate? That’s a recipe for a headache, even in the most technologically-adapted people I know. And forget about mice and the ill-fated pointers.

In many homes, television viewing is also a communal experience. Two or more people will watch the same television. Computers are largely a personal device, with only one person viewing it. Imagine watching television while someone constantly fiddles with five different applications on the same screen.

So while I certainly spend many television-watching sessions also furiously Twittering and surfing the Internet – much to my wife’s chagrin – I really don’t have any desire to combine the two in a single device. And clearly, after the flubs of WebTV and Gateway Media Center PC’s, the idea has gone to trial and the verdict has been a sentence of life on WikiPedia.org entries and punchlines.

All Hail Video Chat!

So, video phones have been the oohs-and-aahs sci-fi fantasy since there has been sci-fi. Why hasn’t it happened sooner? Well, it has. Over and over and over again, from AT&T’s Picture-Phone of 1956 right up to The Apprentice hawking some video phone service I don’t know the name of because…. it seems like it was probably a failure.

And here we go again. FaceBook and Google both have video conferencing systems in various states of readiness, and the big story throughout much of the media was whether Google beat FaceBook to the punch or the other way ’round. But has anybody bothered to ask the question: why do we use Social Networking instead of just talking to each other face-to-face? Because the answer to that question may be the reason for what I suspect will be an inevitable and expensive failure for both companies.

Social Networking is only half-social: yes, we share, we talk, we debate, we laugh. But we do so within the privacy of our own spaces. And we do so, in many cases, in various forms of anonymity. Even video blogging is a largely underutilized avenue of blogging. Do we wonder why?

Then there is one last item that dogs many would-be technological revolutions, Web TV and Video Chat included: the techno gap. Its all well and good for those of us who live and breath technology to say how easy it is to setup FaceBook chat, but is that the same experience your grandparents will have? What about your sister or brother who has a few kids constantly fiddling with their computers? Or your parents with the spyware and viruses loaded on their systems. Will they have the same effortless experience as you?

I could be completely wrong about the video chat thing. But I’ll bet anyone who cares to that this thing dies a slow, largely untelevised death in the backwaters of the companies foolish enough to have bothered.

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Technology

The #NSA and #FBI investigating the #Google #China hack claims

From CNet Security today we learn that the FBI and the NSA (at minimum, there are doubtless other agencies involved) are looking into the Google claim that a phishing scam of Chinese origin was targeting US government officials. Google’s claim also specifies journalists and activists have also been targeted, though this article does not specifically deal with those claims:

Feds investigate alleged attacks on Gmail accounts | Security – CNET News.

The official statement from the National Security Agency is a bit of a dodge, actually:

“Speaking on behalf of the U.S. government, we’re looking into these reports and seeking to gather the facts,” Caitlin Hayden, deputy spokesperson for the National Security Agency, told CNET today. “We have no reason to believe that any official U.S. government e-mail accounts were accessed.”

Notice that official government email accounts would not be administered by Google or gMail, so of course they would not be directly affected. That is not the same thing as saying that US officials with private email accounts didn’t get hacked, or that the information they shared with others on that account isn’t of a sensitive nature.

For its part, China seems to be acting rather punchy, especially considering the fact that Google’s statement does not imply any specific government involvement in the hack. In fairness, though, announcements of hacking attempts don’t normally include the specific city and country of origin. So the question becomes what, if any, Chinese government buildings are in Jinan, China?

Add to this the official Pentagon announcement that it will declare cyberattacks to be acts of war and you’ve got a somewhat scary escalation in the Internet realm. Not that I think cyberattacks will escalate to full-scale war, but a purely network-based “cold war” could tie up billions of dollars of Internet trade, which is not good news for economy.

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Is Google Android in Copyright Trouble?

Copyright law is complicated. Open Source copyright law is, ironically enough, even more complicated. So, its not necessarily the first thing most people really want to read about, even if the consequences of those copyright laws are more important to the world we live in today than at any time in the past.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a general format to news articles which makes understanding issues like this more complex. Journalists generally tend to start at the end of the story for the benefit of the high-tech audience – tell people who already follow the story exactly what new thing has prompted the article – then follow that up with a history lesson and end with alternate viewpoints that argue against the primary view of the article. That makes something like the current story on Google very hard to read, even for those like myself who consider themselves familiar with copyright law (though not a lawyer):

Google’s ‘clean’ Linux headers: Are they really that dirty? • The Register.

So, what is the deal? Well, let’s break it down:

Open Source

Linux is Open Source software, which means its not just free to use but also free to distribute entirely new versions of. You can modify the software, repackage and release as your own stuff.

But there’s a catch: in the case of the base of Linux, the software is released under a license which enforces a rule stating that not only is the software free, but any derivative distributions must also be free (copyleft). You can’t make money off the core Linux distribution, nor can you make money off modifying it and repackaging it.

Many versions (distros) of Linux exist that do make money, notably Red Hat. So, what’s the deal? Those software distros use a modified “header,” which is sort of like the beginning of the program. Those headers introduce some basic information about how the system behaves, setup environment variables and generally inform the user how the software is to be interacted with. As you might imagine, this modified version of the header is also free for download.

Google Android

What has Google done to cause the ruckus? Well, Google’s mobile operating system, Android, is based on Linux. And instead of using a prepackaged, licensed version of the headers, they’ve opted to create their own based on the core Linux headers. For the most part, as far as anyone can tell, all they’ve actually done was strip out comment language that said the distro was for free-use only.

And that’s the problem: to some people, this is the equivalent of tearing the “not for resale” sticker off a bottle of perfume at the store and then turning around and selling it. Whether or not this is actually true boils down to the kind of hair-splitting decisions upon which copyright law – and law itself – exists. In the opinion of those who believe Google has done nothing wrong, the headers for Linux only really define and establish a few relatively trivial variables and as such, do not necessarily constitute anything all that original. Therefore, they don’t necessarily constitute something copyrightable.

Why did Google chose to go this route? According to the above-linked article, it was because they wanted to keep the issue of GPL out of the user’s experience. I take that to mean they didn’t want users to have to question whether something was legally downloadable or not, just let one Google-defined license define copyright for all apps. Presumably, the GPL licensing on the profit-ready header distribution would have complicated that, at least in the eyes of Google’s executives.

Either way, Google felt comfortable enough – all things in the world of computers revolve around some level of copyright infringement risk – that they opted to create their own headers. It is upon this decision that Android’s fate rests, if its critics are to be believed. It is worth noting that Richard Stallman one of the leading voices in Free Software – and an openly hostile voice against for-profit software – agrees with Google’s assessment of the situation.

The Consequences

Well, with all that out of the way, what earthshakingly-important consequence will there be for all this? Of course, it all comes down to money.

If the Google Android OS is based on the core Linux distro using the copyleft license, then Google cannot charge for its use or development. That’s not a big deal, since Google isn’t really charging for it anyway: unlike Apple, its entirely free to use the Android API and create your own applications from it.

But what about those apps with the $1.99, $2.99 charges on them? Well, you can’t charge for them because they’re based on copyleft software. Whoops! With a single judge’s ruling, any company looking to make money off Android software is out of luck – and may even be subject to lawsuits themselves.

So, that’s what is at stake. I hope that helps some people understand what’s going on.

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Google in China: Its Not About Censorship

I should be less surprised to have to say this than I am: Google’s trials in China have nothing whatsoever to do with censorship. In spite of the often breathless accounts of Google’s fight against the Empire, this is not a David and Goliath hero story. When the issue was censorship or the Great Firewall of China, Google made their choice: sell, sell, sell.

I’m not as altogether opposed to that decision as I know many on both the Right and the Left are. I am of a persuasion that believes that the more money and the more power flows through a society, the more inevitably free that society becomes. At least, to a point. It is certainly self-evident in China’s case that controlling information is a cornerstone of a closed society.

But that is all water under the bridge. The issue before us now is not one of censorship, but of politico-industrial espionage. Threatening to lower the firewalls on Google.cn’s service is merely Google’s way of putting pressure on the Chinese government where it hurts. Google found evidence it claims as fairly indisputable that China launched attacks on the email accounts of Gmail users as well as 34 other companies. The Gmail users were apparently dissidents within and without China’s borders.

For Google, this is a classic pocketbook issue: maintaining the security of Gmail accounts is paramount to maintaining the viability of that revenue source. It is also true that Gmail accounts are tied to a host of other Google products, from Google Docs to Google Talk, iGoogle and many others. The security issue flows well outside the email system and compromises Google’s entire empire right down to the fledgling Android OS.

For the US, currently catching heat from the press for remaining silent on the issue, this is an extremely complex issue for which rash, Bush-era responses are ill-fitted. While many in this country would like to consider China an enemy and weave paranoid stories of conquest, the truth is much stickier. They are certainly a chief rival in a world with a sizable power vacuum – political and economic. They could quickly become an enemy, but for now and in public, they are not.

Plus, every country worth it’s salt is messing around with Cyber-spying. We can’t possibly have clean hands, nor really is it in our national interest to be so driven-snow pure. Throwing stones is not in anyone’s interest, either. Let’s not forget that the Internet’s first iteration was the ARPANet, a wholly military-scientific enterprise of the United States’ design.

But I think that, in the wake of an eight-year administration, our media gets used to a certain way of doing things at the White House. Doubtless the Bush Administration would have had some bellicose words about “Freedom” and “Democracy” within moments of hearing of the suspected attack. I think we can all agree, upon reflection, that’s just stupid.

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Creepy Uncle Google

Apologies for the self-reference, but over at my web design discussion website, I posted an article which I think probably bears some reference on my political one:

It seems Google has decided to change it’s AdSense code to allow it to read Internet user’s cookies and advertise to them based on their browsing history. Why is this a bad idea? Well, let me count the ways (I already did).

This is something for all of you who use Google AdSense on your websites to consider. Personally, I’m not going to be forced to change my privacy policy to satisfy Google’s need to violate or at least dangerously skirt the law. If this plan goes through, I’m ditching AdSense.

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Great. Health SPAM by Google?

Am I the only one who thinks that a company that cannot plug a simple security hole in their social networking site should not be trusted to automatically grab data from your grandma’s sugar monitor?

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Google Gaudi

Google has revealed it’s latest offering in its information indexing services, Google Gaudi.  Gaudi’s purpose is to utilize voice recognition software and search for words and phrases inside of Google Video and YouTube videos just like Google ordinarily would search HTML text.

This is actually a smaller piece of a larger technology, as anyone who has ever released a video with copyrighted music in it probably knows by now.  YouTube (owned, remember, by Google) scans it’s video library with audio recognition software to find audio that indicates the video might be in violation of copyright law and alerts copyright holders of the issue.  I know this because back when I was still doing video blogs (which I miss), I did a blog that was partially in tribute to James Brown shortly after his death.  I was informed last week that my video, which included a few clips of James, was potentially in violation of copyright.  Happily, the copyright holder had no interest in persuing the removal of my content.

So, those of us interested in SEO (Search Engine Optimization, basically making your webpage as friendly to search engines as possible) have been hearing rumors forever that Google would eventually be developing sound and video search capabilities.  It appears we are seeing the dawn of that new era of search capability.  It wil be interesting going forward to see what this new technologies bring to light, from advanced new uses and benefits for end users to brand new “Black Hat” attacks.

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Justice May Sue Google for “Being Evil”

Actually, it looks like it might just be anti-trust.  No big whoop: the Bush Justice Department probably just wants to look like it’s doing something.

Google recently announced a deal with Yahoo! to provide advertisement on Yahoo!’s network, sharing the profits with the portal company.  This deal, should it be put into action, would make Google the soul source of 80% of all Internet advertising revenue.  That’s a fairly staggering figure that does make you wonder about the potential monopoly.

But what is genuinely amusing about all this is having Microsoft lawyers tsk-tsking over Google’s dominance in search and advertisement:

Microsoft also has objected to the deal, saying it would unfairly foreclose competition on the Web. In Senate hearings in July, Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith, testified that “if search is the gateway to the Internet, and most people believe that it is, this deal will put Google in position to own that gateway and the information that flows through it.”

Well, now. Ain’t that rich?  Basically, Microsoft objects to Google’s dominance primarily because they want to be the dominant company.  If anybody should be sued for anti-trust, it should be Microsoft.

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Google Chrome, Net Neutrality and Internet Privacy

If you haven’t had time to do so already, you should really check out Google Chrome, which promises to be the most significant new development in computer software in about ten years.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of adapting new technology right away, prefering instead to watch others scrape their knees while the kinks are worked out of the new system.  In this case, however, I’m inclined to maybe take the leap, just because this seems a genuinely new and different technology of which I’d like to be well-familiar by the time it reaches saturation.

What Google is not saying about this new app – but everybody else who knows a thing or two about computers is saying – is that Chrome is not really a browser at all: it’s a web-based application Operating System.  Chrome allows you to launch web apps directly from the desktop – like anything from Flickr’s photo managing to your WordPress blog.  It handles file downloads on its own, has an integrated search/url/bookmarks toolbar that seems at least as impressive as FireFox’s “Awesome Bar,” which I love.  In short, this application seems built around the idea that you can virtually bypass your current Operating System and file system to store and work with everything online, making Windows optional and Linux systems at least as viable.

All of this is fascinating, but think for a moment about the consequences.  Your ISP is looking to cap your downloads, which means even accessing your own stuff could cost extra money.  Telco giants – not just your local ISP – want extra money for all that surfing you do.  Meanwhile, Google itself has left privacy advocates steaming over it’s dealings with China, and the pressure to release sensitive information in the United States and elsewhere will become more and more difficult to resist as we continue to do more things online.

I don’t particularly have any perscriptions for any of this.  All I’m saying is that we need to pay much, much more attention to the Internet as a vital resource than our current political environment allows.  We need to forget that much of the traffic on the Internet is concerned with porn or Miley Cyrus and take this seriously.