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Apple Tax My Eye

August 27th, 2012 No comments

If you read the WSJ and NYT and a few other sites with paywalled content I won’t link to, you’ll hear about the ‘fear of an Apple tax’. The idea is that, because Apple won the lawsuit, Samsung and others will have to pay Apple to license patents and the cost of your phones will go up.  The anti-Apple angst in this argument  is absurd on it’s face because:

1) Apple pays license fees to Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and countless others who have IP in the wireless telecom business now as part of the price of every chip they buy.

2) Apple pays a “Samsung Tax” now because Apple buys components from Samsung that Samsung makes a tidy profit from selling to Apple. It’s naive and childish to imagine the idea that any product as complex as a smart phone isn’t already ‘taxed’ in a very tangled web. You may say Apple’s IP will be additive but even if it is, it’s just so much noise below much louder signal.

3) The patents in question are not difficult to work around at all, that is unless you want to make product that looks and feels like an iPhone.

Beyond this Apple Tax hogwash is a segment of the internet’s population that wants to make Apple the villain and Google the great ‘Open Source Savior Of Our Freedom’.  They loathe Apple, they want to make Apple a villain that goes and whines to the courts. They cite history they don’t understand to paint Apple poorly.

Unfortunately the only legitimate thing they can cling to as proof of Apple’s evil is the infamous quote:

“I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong,” Jobs said. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

“I don’t want your money. If you offer me $5 billion, I won’t want it. I’ve got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android, that’s all I want.” – Steve Jobs Via Walter Isaacson

Well fine, be mad at Steve for his typical tone. When you’ve been in any kind of meeting where there is a multi-million dollar argument going on and you haven’t heard somebody take that tone, or, the more dangerous one, the quiet calm and subtle one, get back to me.

That quote is what we in the business call… business.

Remember that Apple has been on the receiving end too: ZDNet: Nokia likely netted $600 million plus in Apple patent settlement.

A few things these great “Message Board Marauders” should probably know before they step up to paint Apple the big bad wolf in an industry full of sweet warm fuzzy sheep:

– Apple’s ‘look and feel’ lawsuit against MS was because MS agreed to licensing terms with Apple when they launched Excel.  Excel, for those who don’t know, was a Mac *first* application built with Apple support and (according to Apple) licensing for MS to use some UI functionality) and Apple objected to MS’s taking license (poetic not legal) in MS’s interpretation of the agreements around Excel by using them in Windows. And..  before you jump up and down and say “Apple ripped off what they saw at Xerox PARC!” remember, Apple paid for that (in advance, not after getting sued by the way).

– The lawsuit settled in 1997 with the patent cross licensing agreement with Microsoft was not the ‘look and feel’ license suit but another one over QuickTime and Video For Windows sharing some of the same actual code because MS used the same company to support VfW dev as Apple had used for the QuickTime port to Windows.

– Apple did try to negotiate with Samsung before filing suit.

– Samsung countersued trying to use patents that fall into a class many courts have described as “standards essential” and therefore must be licensed under “Fair, Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory” (FRAND) terms. and, in this case, were “exhausted” because Apple had paid for the chips from vendors who had paid already to license Samsung’s patents. In other words, iPhone buyers were already paying a “Samsung Tax”,

You can have all the opinions you like about which company in the shark lagoon of the tech industry  is the poor persecuted underdog worthy of your activist support but make the arguments you use to support your opinion with some awareness not only of the facts but their historical context.

As I might actually agree (and I do) that the US patent system is a disaster in need of reform the intent of the patent system is a good one, a necessary one:  “if you invent something, you should have a reasonable period of time to make money off your efforts before others can use what you invented without paying you.” or.. as it’s said in the US Constitution: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;”

Here’s my take on the current state of affairs:

– Samsung nakedly ripped off Apple in several small but important ways and got spanked for it.

– Google bought Android they didn’t ‘innovate it from whole cloth like conquering heros’ and Android is not, in any practical way like Linux or other FOSS because the carriers maintain control of most Android devices in the wild and they do it in cahoots with the Samsungs and HTC’s of the world. Thinking Android protects your rights as a consumer is delusional at best.

– Until Apple managed to cut their deal with ATT for the original iPhone exclusive, phones in the US were positively buried in crap designed to preserve and extend carrier revenue.  Verizon locked out Bluetooth and wire-connected contact syncing direct to the device so you had to use their online service to manage your contacts off the phones on *many* models of phones. They all had horrible and little ‘carrier branding animations’ at phone startup and ugly badging on the phones. They all  set it up so ringtones were things you could only buy from a carrier at absurd pricing. If a phone had any ‘smart’ at all, it was crammed full of bundled ‘crapware’ even less removable than the junk you find on el-cheapo consumer PC’s.

Apple did more for your ‘freedom’ in that deal they cut with ATT than Android ever has.

If you love Google so much, instead of whining on message boards about ‘big bad Apple’  think about this; Google could use this situation as an opportunity to fix the Android ecosystem and we’d all win.

How?

Google licenses “Official Android” branding and access to Google’s Android marketplace to phones that meet certain hardware and openness standards including:

– Users can upgrade to new versions of Android from *Google* not at the carrier’s whims.

– Google will indemnify handset makers from lawsuits from Apple and anyone else over the software.

– Google will “badge” phones that meet minimum specs for current and roadmap Android versions so customers know they won’t have a locked down phone with hardware quirks that make Android development both absurdly complex and profitless.

Google then innovates Android away from Apple’s patents or, if you think they can’t manage that, or that Apple’s patents are bull#$%^, Google can sues to invalidate those patents.

If Google did that? Android would get better. Windows Phone would get better. iOS would get better and the carriers would be left to compete on their quality of their service to attract and retain customers instead of thinking they had any business in the content game that kept them wasting money, and crapping up your phones, hoping to cash in on the next ‘flash of cultural lunacy’ that was the ringtone market.

For more from somebody far more ‘in the know’ on this see: Jean-Louis Gassée’s:  The Apple Tax, Part II

And… in the pity for Samsung department, see the previous post below.

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Facebook just bought Instagram and now 0wns you

April 9th, 2012 No comments

**** UPDATES: See Bottom of Post *******

Facebook just bought Instagram for one billion dollars. What did they buy? An iOS/Android app that lets you apply ‘very quickly get tacky’ photo filters to your cell phone snaps?

Nah…ugly, hopelessly hipster photo-effects does not a billion dollar business make.

Did they buy a tool that lets users upload images to a free service and share those pics on Facebook and Twitter from their cell phones?

Nah… it’s not that hard to do.  Facebook and Twitter phone apps already support this functionality and that’s not worth one beeeeelyon dollars.

Well if they didn’t buy these two defining features of Instragram what did they pay a billion dollars for? Facebook paid a billion dollars to own more of you. Well, dear readers, I hope not literally you because I hope you, like me, were smart enough not to sign up for Instagram in the first place but a lot of other people did. A lot of people I sincerely respect as technologists did. Even a lot of real photographers I know did and, from day one, it baffled me.

Well, now the bill for the ‘free’ they enjoyed comes due.

Now, Facebook, who many ‘digerati‘  have managed to completely avoid (or, who, like me, regret joining and now try to manage more closely) owns all the information you uploaded to and shared on Instagram. No, they don’t own the copyright to your photos. They don’t even really own the metadata but they own you in the  l337 sense of the word ‘own’ or should I say p0wn you.

They’ve now dominated, defeated, fragged you and made you their… Well you get the idea.

Cameras, your phone cameras included, store  time, technical and often (usually on a phone) location metadata. Metadata is data about data. In this case, data about your pictures. Not just data that could be extrapolated with facial recognition or some other high tech fun, it’s simple and highly revealing data attached to the digital photo. It’s metadata uploaded right alongside the retro-sepia-lomo-shot of  your latest achievement in home canning. The metadata can often be extracted, aggregated and analyzed and, if it included GPS data (and again, on a cell phone camera, it usually does), you’re ‘checking in’ every time time you upload a picture.

All the metadata from GPS data you may have allowed to have stored and uploaded with your photos to whatever contexts you’ve shared them in, to the kinds of content you’re keen to photograph, to when you tend to take pictures to share. All of it. Owned.

The metadata Instagram have uploaded from your phone with your photos. The choices you’ve made about content. The pictures you took of every craft-brewed beer you’ve drunk. All of that is now in Facebook’s hands.

If you use Facebook, if you’ve shared your Instragram pics on Twitter, that’s all correlatable into one more-disturbing-than-you-can-likely-imagine profile of who you are, who you interact with, where you go, when you go there and, given the proclivities people have for the content of cell phone photos, what you eat, drink, smoke or otherwise ingest.

Now all that information is right there in the same mine-able cache of data along with everything you told Facebook about yourself, your friends and your family. And, worse yet, right in the mix along with everything your less than cautious friends might have decided they thought was ok to share about you.

“Big deal Jon you paranoid recluse, get a life!”

Oh yeah? Read this: This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy and when you’re done and you say “But Jon, I don’t check in with Foursquare and besides, they took down that nasty stalker app.”. Bzzt… wrong answer. No Winnebago for you.  No autographed picture of Randy Mantooth either. They know more, not less than you think.

A decision or an accident by Facebook that shows this data to anyone able to access your page and a web scrape will make a “Girls Around Me” level of resolution and tracking  easy work for for any serious but average developer. By serious but average I mean the guys who work in your employer’s IT department. The PI your soon to be ex-husband’s lawyer hires. The PI his lawyer uses to build his case in effort to use custody of the kids as a cudgel. The kid who gets mad at you, teacher, for failing his plagiarized term paper. The stalker with resources. Your political opponent. Anyone with, frankly not especially hard to come by, resources who wants to do you harm or who wants to look in a general geographical area for somebody to do harm.

Never forget dear readers, we’d all be much better off if we started thinking of our personal information as currency and our opinions as monetizable content. Even if you’re not worried about any of the above, and the truth is, really most of shouldn’t. All of this makes you more the target for advertisers including charities and political campaigns. It’s more information about you that search engines can use to skew what results you get to help support your preferemces, or preconceptions.

The real lesson here is, a free service to help you share your content isn’t free. It’s costing you every time you use it. Start choosing more carefully. Start taking more control of your data.

 

***UPDATES 4.11.12***

Check out Andy Ihnatko’s piece in the Chicago Sun Times

I’m told by a reliable source that Instagram defaults location data to “off”. I didn’t remember. While I do actually think that’s good behavior, I’d guess many users turn it on because they like the ability to define place as part of what they post. I know there’s a lot of EXIF and other photo metadata to be mined all over the web.  It’s also not an Instagram-only issue. The point above is that you should know what you reveal where.  See this post on Aperture’s lookups though that post isn’t about what you post but rather how Apple looks up location info from GPS coordinates.

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Lytro – Misunderstood but with promise

March 8th, 2012 No comments

There’s been a lot of buzz about the Lytro light field camera and with buzz comes inevitable confusion and misunderstanding.

I’ve been watching this technology since I first heard about Lytro many months ago and while I can’t justify the expense of buying the hardware yet, I was and remain extremely intrigued. The problem is that there’s a lot of what I perceive as ‘missing the point’ in how much of the online photo community is reacting to it. One of my favorite photography blogs, Scott Bourne’s  Photofocus features a post there now that addresses a lot of the misunderstandings he and I both see on the web about Lytro.

There’s also something he and I seem to be differing on and he’s called me out on Twitter for having an “agenda”. In part this post is for Scott to better understand what I have been unable to say in 140 character chunks but it’s mostly about the bigger picture, so to speak, with Lytro.

Let’s start with what Lytro is. The best way to do that is to read this from Lytro  themselves to explain it. The link to the CEO’s dissertation is also worth reading, even skimming if you prefer not to get too deep into math and optics to understand better how it works.

There are a few key points the above will make clearer so please, have a read and come back.

Read up? Ok, good, thanks. Here we go. The key points I see as being misunderstood by the web photo community in general.

First, light field needs a lot more pixels than you will see in a final image. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not a ‘flaw’ it’s simply a fact of the technology. The issue is now, with this first product, the final output size of the images is not comparable to what you would get from a similarly priced camera. That’s fine. A similarly priced camera can’t be focused after the fact either. People wrongly compare the low resolution output images to comparably priced or even cell phone cameras and, I think profoundly miss the point. More on this below.

Two, it’s a first product offering and it’s offered as a consumer product. Again, not a problem. It means Lytro can evolve the product and may even manage to do so for customers who already own the hardware. One should never buy a product based on the promise of a future update but a reasonable hope there are such updates in the offing sure is nice and Scott is a reliable source in my experience.

But, even with new features, perhaps even improved image performance in the main area this release seems to fall short, low light, the hardware is inherently limited in this *first* consumer product. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. It’s cheep compared to a professional DLSR and one or more good lenses. It’s not intended to be, nor is it a good use of what makes it special to compare its value based on the pixel count of the output files or the spec sheet of a comparably priced camera. There’s something unique here. Something new but, again, more on that below.

What both of these things mean is that this will start, we hope , to get a lot more interesting as time goes by. Light field photography has enormous potential. It has limitations. It has artistic constraints. Constraints are good. They change creativity. Depth of field and how it’s used in composition with focus are limitations of traditional photography that have been the basis of spectacular art. The lack of predetermination of focus and depth of field at capture time adds a new creative dimension and more important, to me, is that the viewer of the image can be empowered to interact.

Lytro’s player provides interactive interface to let the viewer change focus, and, perhaps, in future, depth of field is a new limitation, a new opportunity for the photographer. How do you compose an image where you empower the user to change it as they view it? What do you have to do differently as an artist when you let the viewer engage, when the expectation, the requirement is that you create an image that you know will be used this way? It gets interesting and that’s good!

Years ago, I was interviewed about how I and my then colleagues used another form of photography that allowed the user to interact, to alter what they saw of a photograph. Some of those same ideas apply here and I think Light Field and Lytro will bring a new means of expression to the photographer. I think this is great. Every medium has limitations and often the more interactive the medium the more interesting and challenging it is to do something compelling by using those limitations.

In a Twitter conversation about the following concern, Scott Bourne thought I had an agenda in asking a question I still don’t know the answer to. He’s right. I do. It’s nothing nefarious though. It’s very simple.

I asked Scott if he knew if the Flash application that let viewers of the images interact with the selective functionality made possible with Lytro’s tech had to be hosted at Lytro’s site. By all indications, yes that appears to be the case and that concerns me, a lot. While the Lytro desktop application will let the photographer use selective focus and publish a static image from the source light field image captured by the camera, it seems one must host one’s images at Lytro to publish and share images that allow the viewer to interact. If this is true, this is a problem for two major reasons.

First, editorial. Lytro would take a business risk acting as the publisher of images that may be controversial. The artist should be able to decide how far to push the boundaries of ‘good taste’ (within the limits of the law) and if they want to publish work in the tradition of Andres Serrano rather than Ansel Adams they should be able to do so without concern that Lytro’s business needs preclude them being comfortable hosting the images. Lytro’s Terms Of Use:  indicate that Lytro, wisely, retains the right to decide if images they host are ones they are comfortable with.

Second, business. There’s more to read at that terms of use link above but the current state of affairs, and what I was asking Scott about, would indicate that photographers currently need to rely on Lytro to host images in the Lytro ‘light field picture player’ (A flash app). This has the obvious risk that, should Lytro change their business model, perhaps charge for hosting add advertising or, though Scott reassures me they have plenty of funding, fold or sell out, then the photographer’s images may not be available, or available the same way with the same interactivity in future.

There’s reason to hope right in those same terms of use. Lytro makes reference to approved players and my hope is they release an open source player for their images. They can do this without compromising their IP rights to the light field imaging technology and in doing so, they’d reassure photographers investing not the trivial cost of the camera but the priceless value of their artistic efforts invested in creating images they wanted users to be able to interact with.

This is hardly the last word on this topic and all I seek to do here is start a conversation. Hopefully get Scott and other talented photographers thinking about the interactivity and Lytro to think about opening up what’s needed for people to host their images themselves.

P.S. It should be obvious, I hope, that light field photography, the ability to change focus after the fact is also a possible boon to other non-artistic endeavors from security to manufacturing quality control and machine vision applications. Light field moving from research paper to reality could be huge and Lytro could be a very smart place to invest.

 

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