Patent absurdity exposed at last

This morning’s Observer column about Richard Posner’s landmark ruling.

What brings Posner to mind this Sunday morning, however, is not his views on obesity but on intellectual property. You may have noticed that in the last few years the world’s biggest technology companies have become lavish patrons of the legal profession. Apple, Google, Samsung, HTC, Microsoft, Oracle, HP, Amazon and others have being suing one another in courts around the globe, alleging that they are infringing one another’s patents. The resulting bonanza for lawyers has long passed the point of insanity, but up to now the world’s courts seem powerless to make the litigants see sense. As a result, judges find themselves allocated the role of pawns in what are effectively business negotiations between global companies.

Until now. What happened is that Posner, in an unusual move, got himself assigned to a lower court to hear a case in which Apple was suing Google (which had purchased Motorola in order to get its hands on the phone company’s patent portfolio) over alleged infringement of Apple’s smartphone patents. Posner listened to the lawyers and then threw out the case. But what was really dramatic was the way he eviscerated the legal submissions. At one point, for example, Apple claimed that Google was infringing one of its patents on the process of unlocking a phone by swiping the screen. “Apple’s argument that a tap is a zero-length swipe,” said Posner, “is silly. It’s like saying that a point is a zero-length line.”

The real cost of the smartphone revolution

This morning’s Observer column.

For many years, the most assiduous provider of data about the ongoing revolution has been Mary Meeker, an industry analyst who once worked for Morgan Stanley, the investment bank that acted as lead underwriter for the Netscape IPO in August 1995 (and thereby triggered the first internet boom). She began making an annual conference presentation, “The Internet Report”, which acquired legendary status in the industry because it distilled from the froth some elements of reality.

Ms Meeker is now a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms, but she has not abandoned her old habits. Last week she presented her latest annual report – now labelled “Internet Trends” – at the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference in California.

It’s a whopping 112-slide presentation, which bears serious contemplation. Buried within it are some startling numbers…

The new Digital Divide

From today’s NYTimes.

The world’s congested mobile airwaves are being divided in a lopsided manner, with 1 percent of consumers generating half of all traffic. The top 10 percent of users, meanwhile, are consuming 90 percent of wireless bandwidth.

Arieso, a company in Newbury, England, that advises mobile operators in Europe, the United States and Africa, documented the statistical gap when it tracked 1.1 million customers of a European mobile operator during a 24-hour period in November.

The gap between extreme users and the rest of the population is widening, according to Arieso. In 2009, the top 3 percent of heavy users generated 40 percent of network traffic. Now, Arieso said, these users pump out 70 percent of the traffic.

Michael Flanagan, the chief technology officer at Arieso, said the study did not produce a more precise profile of extreme users. But the group, he said, was probably diverse, with a mix of business users gaining access to the Internet over a 3G network while traveling, and individuals with generous or unlimited mobile data packages watching videos, the main cause of the excess traffic.

Interesting data. At the moment, only about 13 per cent of the world’s 6.1 billion cellphones are smartphones, according to Ericsson, the leading maker of mobile network equipment, but the rate exceeds 30 percent in larger markets like the United States, Germany and Britain. My (informal) guess, based purely on observing those around me in the street and on trains, is that the proportion of smartphones is much higher than that in the UK.

The increasing penetration of smartphones is a one-way street — and, as Jonathan Zittrain, Tim Wu and others have pointed out — the destination it’s heading towards is not necessarily an attractive one in terms of freedom and innovation.

As the NYT report puts it:

The more powerful phones are rapidly replacing the simpler, less voracious devices in many countries, raising traffic levels and pressure on operators to keep pace. In countries like Sweden and Finland, smartphones now account for more than half of all mobile phones … About 35 percent of Finns also use mobile laptop modems and dongles, or modems in a USB stick; one operator, Elisa, offers unlimited data plans for as little as 5 euros, or $6.40, a month.

As a result, Finns consume on average 1 gigabyte of wireless data a month over an operator’s network, almost 10 times the European average. As more consumers buy smartphones, the level of mobile data consumption and congestion will rise in other countries.

Technology: a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating photographic art

The Observer asked me to write the introduction to a feature about digital cameras. This is how it begins…

The strange thing about photography is that although it’s been revolutionised by digital technology, at heart it’s the same medium that entranced Louis Daguerre, Eugène Atget and André Kertész, to name just three of its early masters. And although it’s become much easier to take photographs that are technically flawless (in terms of exposure and focus), it’s just as difficult to capture aesthetically satisfying images as it was in the age of film and chemicals. It turns out that technology is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for creating art.

Still, the technology is pretty impressive…

In the piece I pointed out that the iPhone is now the most popular camera among Flickr users (which highlights how distinctions between hitherto different types of device (phone/camera; MP3 player/phone; etc.) are becoming blurred. This morning I noticed that the Guardian had an interesting feature in which a professional photographer compared the images produced by an iPhone 4S and his top-of-the-range Canon DSLR. The phone turns in a very creditable performance.

A useful ArsTechnica piece comes to similar conclusions:

For snapshot purposes, the iPhone 4S is comparable to the 8MP Canon 20D when it comes to image quality. But that comparison is a little unfair—you can easily achieve better results with newer DSLRs in terms of exposure, noise, and megapixel count. What you can’t do with any DSLR, though, is (again) slip it into your pants pocket. Lenses that have as bright an aperture as the iPhone 4S’s f/2.4 will also either be limited to a single focal length or generally be much larger and heavier than the lightweight kit lenses that many users have.

Thanks to @4b5 on Twitter for the link.

So does SIRI have a moral agenda?

Interesting blog post by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Siri can help you secure movie tickets, plan your schedule, and order Chinese food, but when it comes to reproductive health care and services, Siri is clueless.

According to numerous news sources, when asked to find an abortion clinic Siri either draws a blank, or worse refers women to pregnancy crisis centers. As we’ve blogged about in the past, pregnancy crisis centers, which often bill themselves as resources for abortion care, do not provide or refer for abortion and are notorious for providing false and misleading information about abortion. Further, if you’d like to avoid getting pregnant, Siri isn’t much use either. When asked where one can find birth control, apparently Siri comes up blank.

The ACLU put Siri to the test in our Washington D.C. office. When a staffer told Siri she needed an abortion, the iPhone assistant referred her to First Choice Women’s Abortion Info and Pregnancy Center and Human Life Pregnancy-Abortion Information Center. Both are pregnancy crisis centers that do not provide abortion services, and the second center is located miles and miles away in Pennsylvania.

It’s not just that Siri is squeamish about sex. The National Post reports that if you ask Siri where you can have sex, or where to get a blow job, “she” can refer you to a local escort service.

Although it isn’t clear that Apple is intentionally trying to promote an anti-choice agenda, it is distressing that Siri can point you to Viagra, but not the Pill, or help you find an escort, but not an abortion clinic.

Apple’s response, according to CNET:

Apple … is still working out the kinks in the beta service and the problem should be fixed soon.

“Our customers want to use Siri to find out all types of information and while it can find a lot, it doesn’t always find what you want,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said. “These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone, it simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better and we will in the coming weeks.”

Although I’m as partial to conspiracy theories as the next mug, somehow I don’t think SIRI’s apparent moral censoriousness is a feature rather than a bug. But it does remind one of the dangers of subcontracting one’s moral judgements to software — as parents, schools and libraries do when they use filtering systems created by software companies whose ideological or moral stances are obscure, to say the least.

What’s significant about the new iPhone

This morning’s Observer column.

Tuesday would be – so the hype machine assured us – iPhone 5 day. But Tuesday came and went and it turned out to be only iPhone 4S day, and the assembled chorus drawn from the Apple-obsessed region of the blogosphere and the “analysts” of Wall Street howled their frustration. Which made one wonder what these people expected – an iPhone 5 that did teleportation? It also made one wonder if anyone on Wall Street has ever heard of the sigmoid function, the universal s-shaped learning curve that shows a progression from small beginnings and accelerates rapidly before creeping slowly towards its maximum point.

The point is that the iPhone has been through the acceleration phase and is now at the point where it can only get incrementally better. What CEO Tim Cook and his colleagues announced on Tuesday represented an implicit acknowledgment of that reality: they announced an incrementally improved product…

BlackBerry: a smouldering platform

Not quite burning yet. But emitting smoke. Sobering assessment of what RIM’s latest results tell us. Excerpt:

When reporting its fourth quarter in March, RIM had forecast revenues in the range of $5.2-$5.6bn and profits of between $770-812m.

Instead, they both came in lower. Now, you might look at that and say that revenues are up, and shipments are up – so what’s the worry?

First, it’s in the gap between those two – which led to the fall in profits. Basically, you can see clearly from those numbers that RIM must be getting less money per phone. Quite substantially less, if you take into account the average cost of a PlayBook (which is going to be a lot more than a BlackBerry).

We would have been able to tell you exactly how much it was getting per handset – but following its results last time, RIM said it would stop giving out both average selling prices (ASPs) for handsets and the total number of BlackBerry subscribers, which it had been doing since the beginning of 2002. And another financial point: the company is to buy back 5% of the outstanding shares. I won’t go into the mechanics of why share buybacks are bad (two quick reasons: the company should have better things to spend its cash on, such as R&D, and buybacks featherbed executive share options). But when a company circles the wagons by reducing the amount of data it gives out and does a buyback, something is wrong.

Here’s what’s wrong: RIM’s platform is burning. Except that this isn’t the fully-fledged conflagration that Stephen Elop perceived at Nokia. It’s more of a smouldering. But it’s happening nonetheless, and it’s been happening for a long time: RIM hasn’t released a major new phone since August 2010. (Yes, that’s nearly as long as Apple.) It sort-of showed off a new version of the Torch in May; that will actually be released in September. (Way to kill the sales, people.)

RIM’s management knows it has a problem, but doesn’t seem to be able to make the shift – the very difficult shift, it should be noted – from the old BlackBerry OS to the new QNX platform that is going to power forthcoming BlackBerrys (and already powers the PlayBook).

QNX-based phones have been much promised; RIM hasn’t however delivered.

That figures. I’ve noticed how almost all my corporate contacts — the people who once had BlackBerrys to a man or woman — now have iPhones.

The Apple spyPhone (contd.)

It’s fascinating to see what happened overnight on this story. Firstly, lots of people began posting maps of where their iPhones had been, which is a clear demonstration of the First Law of Technology — which says that if something can be done then it will be done, irrespective of whether it makes sense or not. Personally I’ve always been baffled by how untroubled geeks are about revealing location data. I remember one dinner party of ours which was completely ruined when one guest, a friend who had been GPS-tracking his location for three years, was asked by another guest, the late, lamented Karen Spärck Jones, if he wasn’t bothered by the way this compromised his privacy. He replied in the negative because he had “nothing to hide”. There then followed two hours of vigorous argument which touched on, among other things, the naivete of geeks, the ease with which the punctiliousness of Dutch bureaucracy made it easy to round up Dutch Jews after the Germans invaded Holland in the Second World War, the uses to which location data might be put by unsavoury characters and governments, Karl Popper and the Open Society, etc. etc.

Michael Dales has a couple of interesting blog posts (here and here) about the iPhone data-gathering facility. And, like all geeks, he’s totally unsurprised by the whole affair.

It seems rather than worry geeks, most of us find the data amazing. I suspect that’s because most of us know that this data could be got otherhow anyway – all it really shows is where your phone has been, and the phone operators know that anyway – and I typically trust them a lot less than I trust Apple (not that I think Apple is angelic, it’s a shareholder owned company, but I generally have a more antagonistic relationship with phone companies than I do Apple). So the fact the data resides on my phone is handy – if I was worried about people tracking where my phone goes then I’d never turn it on.

Michael also sees positive angles to this.

If you have a Mac and want to see where your iPhone has been (and then, like most people, post it to the Internet :) then you can get the tool to do so here. What I think is potentially really exciting is what you can do with the data now that you have access to it, not just your phone company. Quentin has already had the idea that you could use it to geotag your photos, which would be awesome, but how about things like carbon calculators, trip reports, and so on?

This post attracted a useful comment from ScaredyCat which gets to the heart of the problem:

The brouhaha isn’t just about the data being stored, it’s about the data being stored unencrypted. I love data like any geek but you do have to wonder why the data is being collected in the first place.

Precisely. What the data-logging and storage facility means is that your iPhone is potentially a source of useful confidential information for people who would have no hope of obtaining that information legally from a mobile phone network.

This point is neatly encapsulated by Rory Cellan-Jones in his blog post:

This obviously has intriguing implications for anyone who possesses one of these devices. What, for instance, if you had told your wife that you were off on a business trip – when in fact you had slipped off to the slopes with some mates – and she then managed to track down your iPhone location file? (I should stress that this is an imaginary scenario).

For divorce lawyers, particularly in the United States, the first question when taking on a new client could be “does your spouse own an iPhone?” And law enforcement agencies will also be taking a great interest in the iPhones – or iPads – of anyone they are tracking.

The other interesting thing about the spyPhone story is that, according to Alex Levinson, it’s an old story. He says that

Back in 2010 when the iPad first came out, I did a research project at the Rochester Institute of Technology on Apple forensics. Professor Bill Stackpole of the Networking, Security, & Systems Administration Department was teaching a computer forensics course and pitched the idea of doing forensic analysis on my recently acquired iPad. We purchased a few utilities and began studying the various components of apple mobile devices. We discovered three things:

* Third Party Application data can contain usernames, passwords, and interpersonal communication data, usually in plain text.
* Apple configurations and logs contain lots of network and communication related data.
* Geolocational Artifacts were one of the single most important forensic vectors found on these devices.

After presenting that project to Professor Stackpole’s forensic class, I began work last summer with Sean Morrissey, managing director of Katana Forensics on it’s iOS Forensic Software utility, Lantern. While developing with Sean, I continued to work with Professor Stackpole an academic paper outlining our findings in the Apple Forensic field. This paper was accepted for publication into the Hawaii International Conference for System Sciences 44 and is now an IEEE Publication. I presented on it in January in Hawaii and during my presentation discussed consolidated.db and it’s contents with my audience – my paper was written prior to iOS 4 coming out, but my presentation was updated to include iOS 4 artifacts.

Thanks to David Smith for passing on the link to the Levinson post.