Patents are public

I do a fair amount of open source code development, yet I am not (yet?) against the idea of software patents. I think there are significant problems with the way software patents are implemented in the US, but I don’t find the concept fundamentally odious.

However, I do find corporate bullying using patent infringement as a pretext quite reprehensible. A recent example–to which I will not link so that I don’t make things worse for the coder–really has me annoyed.

In essence, an independent coder reimplemented from scratch and for no commercial gain a program to  duplicate the functionality of a commercial product. The coder then published her/his work with the intent of releasing the code under an open source license. I am not a lawyer, but I think the general gist of a patent is that it is illegal to distribute a product that is under patent protection without first obtaining a license from the patent holder. As far as I know, it is not illegal in the USA to discuss patents in public nor to publish, for example, plans for making a better or different patent-protected Hovercraft Eel Sensor. It only becomes an issue if you try to distribute a product based on those ideas without a license. The ideas and discussion thereof are public. The use of ideas in products is protected.

The coder in our story has simply published plans (i.e., source code) for making a different version of a (possibly) patent-protected product. Nowhere does the coder indicate her/his intent to distribute a product (i.e., executable code) based on the plans. In spite of this, our coder gets a threatening email from the V.P. of the corporation that makes the commercial product citing (without specificity) that the published work infringes on their patents.

It may also be worth noting that the coder does not appear to have done any reverse engineering to discover how the software works. So if the V.P. actually means “trade secret” when he actually says, “patent,” then there’s nothing there either.

I am not a lawyer, but I utterly fail to see the grounds for the corporate entity’s gripe in this and similar cases. Also, in the particular case in question, you cannot help but notice the extreme vagueness in the communications from the corporate entity. Under these circumstances, one would easily be forgiven for thinking that the corporate entity knows it has nothing to stand on and that its strategy is simply to threaten a costly legal process against the coder. They know that  lone coders will almost certainly comply with threatening requests to spare themselves the burdens of the situation. I am not a lawyer, but in common-person speak we sometimes use the word “extortion” for this strategy.

You can’t have it both ways: patent protection and protection from public scrutiny. Patents are public.

Home Cloud

If the recent rash of netbooks is any indication, cloud computing may actually be gaining traction.

The aspect of cloud computing that’s the most attractive for me is being able to access all your stuff no matter where you are–provided you have a computer with a decent Internet connection and a fairly standard browser. However, there are two very bothersome aspects of cloud computing. First, if you cannot connect to the provider of your cloud service (e.g., your ISP is flaky, the service’s servers are ill, the site has been banned in the country you are in, etc.), you are screwed. Second, no matter what guarantees the provider gives you, your stuff is in someone else’s hands–meaning the provider can legally sniff your stuff for more effective marketing (Google) or it may be illegally hacked into.

However, there is a fairly easy approach to ameliorating both these problems, especially now that capable server hardware has become so profoundly cheap. The idea is simple: instead of having Google, Google Apps, Zoho or whomever host your Cloud apps, host them in your own home on a dedicated computer. As long as you don’t plan to open your Home Cloud to tons of users, the performance demands on the hardware will be pretty small.

When you host your Cloud apps from home, if your ISP goes nuts you will still be able to access your stuff from within your home LAN. While this won’t help you if you need to access your stuff from Starbucks, it is better than not being able to access it from anywhere. Also, when you host your Cloud apps from home, your data stays at home. It still may be open to hacking, but it won’t be available for other purposes. In addition, a would-be hacker would have to specifically target your server, whereas in a hosted situation one breach of the server may make all users’ data available to the hacker.

One downside to the Home Cloud concept is that it places the burden of backing up data on the home user. But this can be greatly simplified by appropriate Home Cloud software.

A bigger problem with the Home Cloud is what all the cool people are now calling “monetization”. In other words, how do you make money off it? End users are becoming increasingly accustomed to getting services for free. Google makes money feeding you ads. Zoho makes money by selling premium services mostly to businesses. Are users willing to pay for Home Cloud software? One possible way forward is to adopt the media server model: dedicated server hardware that’s preloaded with everything needed to make it go and that requires a minimum of user configuration. We may be living in a time where it may actually be easier to sell hardware that encapsulates a task than software.

I’m aware of only a few projects that have a Home Cloud spirit. eyeOS and Lucid Desktop are OSS home-hostable apps that give the user a virtual Web-based desktop. Another project to keep an eye on is Tiny Tiny RSS–essentially a home hostable replacement for Google Reader. All three of these projects are open source software, and it will be interesting to see where all three of these projects go.

A rare moment of accountability

On my way to the office today, a white van barreling down a road that joined mine at a T junction nearly removed my car, and possibly me, from service. Fortunately, disaster was averted by some heavy breaking and staccato tire squealing on my part (no ABS on the 1997 Fiat-TOFAS Tipo).

This in itself is not news. Near-misses in traffic are a million a day here. What made this event special was that the driver pulled over at a suitable spot some 300 meters on, rolled down his window, and poking both arms and his head out of the window gestured toward me for forgiveness.

And it all happened so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to give him a warm huggie to let him know that while I was annoyed at his carelessness I still appreciated his accountability.

P.S. For those of you who thought this entry might have something to do with audio, I have no reason to think that the white van had anything to do with speaker sales.

Hi-Fi reactionism and RoHS


One of the things that studying the hi-fi world from a design perspective (for the last three years) rather than from an engineering perspective (for fifteen years before that) has shown me is that hi-fi is an incredibly conservative field.

In all likelihood this has its roots in the solid-state disasters of the 1970’s, and it certainly wasn’t helped by the CD disasters of the 1980’s. Today, we are in a position where there is a loud and influential group of audiophiles who seem to feel that anything “old” (directly heated triodes, point-to-point wiring, horn-loaded fullrange loudspeakers, etc.) is good, and anything “new” (digital crossovers, solid-state anything) is “bad”. Well, the bad news for them is that there is another “new” being introduced into the industry, but this “new” doesn’t have its roots in technological advancement. Rather it has its roots in ecological concerns and public health.

I am talking about the RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) directive that the EU adopted in 2003. In short, it “restricts the use of six hazardous materials in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment”[1]. The result of this directive is that it is becoming increasingly impossible to build equipment anywhere that uses parts and/or solder containing lead. Because the EU is such a big market, and because manufacturers usually don’t want to set up different manufacturing processes for different markets, the use of lead is being phased out everywhere. Parts manufacturers are phasing out the use of lead tinning in their parts, and this means that assemblers need to use lead-free processes as well.

So, what I see happening soon is talk in the hi-fi industry of “leaded” vs. “unleaded” products–with the idea that the “leaded” form of a product being more desirable. Of course, this idea will receive resistance from the silver-solder crowd, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out as well. Maybe this particular form of insanity has already started. If you know of any examples, I would love it if you’d let me know.

[1] Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Accessed 13 May 2007.

On (not) making loudspeakers and the future…

open door policy

A summary of the current state of affairs from Biro Technology’s founder.

At the present time, Biro products are not available for sale in the USA. However, our custom services are still available to those in Istanbul, Turkey or to anyone willing to deal with shipments from Istanbul. I sincerely hope this is a temporary situation. If you are interested in how this situation came to be, I encourage you to read on.

For many years, there has been a close professional association between Biro Technology and Audio by Van Alstine, Inc. AVA was the first and eventually became the only dealer of Biro products, and in between the demands of running Biro, I would often provide technical and editorial services to AVA. That relationship grew even closer in 2001 when I decided to move to Istanbul, Turkey to advance my academic career. To keep Biro products available for sale in the USA, AVA agreed to manufacture and sell Biro products under an exclusive license. Around the same time, I took over most of the engineering duties at AVA on a consulting basis as well. Biro and AVA started to resemble two beans in a pod. Life was good.

I was therefore a bit surprised to read in the premier issue of Inside AVA that the recent lapse in Biro product availability was due to the unavailability of a critical L/1 system component. In actuality, while reliable supply of a critical L/1 component did indeed dry up last year—forcing us to retire production of the L/1—I had engineered a new design to replace the L/1. However, this new design was never put into production because of AVA’s increasing need to focus their available labor resources exclusively on their own line of electronics. Thus, the lapse in Biro product availability is actually due to labor pressures at AVA, not because of a lack of manufacturable Biro designs. For those who enjoy this kind of thing, the gory details follow.

In the summer of 2005, having recognized the need to engineer a solution to the obsolescence of a critical high-frequency subsystem component, I finally succeeded in producing a prototype system to replace the L/1 that was superior overall to the original, but at the same time was much easier to manufacture. This was preceded by a couple non-starters and involved an incredible amount of reanalysis and reevaluation of some subtleties in design goals. The process was aided by significant advancements in instrumentation since the original L/1 was designed. It was long, hard, sleepless work, but the result was worth it.

When I went to meet with AVA to play them the final prototype and to go over the manufacturing process, I was informed that current labor pressures at AVA, which we briefy had discussed before, meant that something had to give. Regrettably, the most logical choice was for AVA to stop manufacturing loudspeakers. Given this state of affairs and the overall level of exhaustion all around, none of us saw much point in auditioning the new system, and as a result nobody at AVA ever heard the new system, a design of which I remain very proud.

To AVA’s credit, it must be said that it takes a special kind of person to want to make speaker systems. On the surface it seems to be a relatively simple process, but in fact it places heavy burdens on a manufacturer, particularly with respect to material handling (cabinets are heavy) and storage (cabinets are large). Given AVA’s increasing need to support the labor on their own line electronics, coupled with the difficulty in finding adequately qualified labor in general, they simply couldn’t carry the burden of making speakers anymore.

The above notification took place mere days before I was due back in Istanbul to start a new semester. Sure, I would have appreciated some advanced notice of the situation, but, you know, la merde se produit. The situation left me with a couple choices: return to manufacturing systems myself or find someone else to manufacture them. The latter was not really possible given the fact that I spend all but about 4 weeks a year in Istanbul. Implementing the former, while conceptually possible, was not do-able in the available two-day time frame. That left me with no choice but to suspend product availability in the USA until a solution to the manufacturing problem could be found.

Ultimately, for our clients it doesn’t really matter why there is a lapse in Biro availability. To you the only thing that really matters is that we are not there for you, and for this I am quite sorry. Trust that in between my fulltime teaching load, thesis writing, other projects and research, and my Biro activities here in Istanbul, I will be trying to find a solution to the manufacturing problem in the USA. And if you have any ideas, I would love to hear from you.

In the meantime if you would like to visit an old version of the main Biro Technology website, which has information on the most recently available Biro products, you can still do so.

Warmest regards,
Mithat Konar