Rotten to the Core

By Mike / On / In Technology

Much has been made of Lodsys, and we have heaped scorn upon them. But Lodsys is nothing but a container for scorn, a shield in East Texas, one shell in a game of shells designed to distract us from the real villain—Silicon Valley itself.

At the core of a network of thousands of patent trolls lies the biggest troll of all, a protection racket called Intellectual Ventures. If you’d like to know more about Intellectual Ventures and their relationship with Lodsys and other trolls, I recommend the latest edition of This American Life, who did a story on the subject.

The story was familiar, but the conclusion was novel—Intellectual Ventures is a Silicon Valley startup, funded by venture capitalists who are expecting massive returns, which are only possible by squeezing as many revenue streams as possible.

One thing you have to know about the Valley is that, underneath its non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements, it is completely incestuous. The same investors, the same funds, the same companies come up with their finger in the same pies again and again and again.

That means that when IV and their horde of hypodermic parasites land on other Valley companies, the licensing fees are just moving money around between the same people. The only real revenue is from Valley outsiders—indies and foreigners. You know, the ones they laugh at.

When you follow the money all the way through the complex tunnels of financial and legal confusion, you end up at the Valley itself. This whole patent war is really just a huge anti-competitive play that the Valley has made, intentionally or not, to screw the rest of the technology world.

A Silicon Valley refugee such as myself, who has fled to a jurisdiction with a saner patent system, finds himself stuck, because all the serious platforms are based in or around the Valley.

Even if a European company makes apps to sell in Europe, they still have to go through a Valley company, making them potential victims of this whole scam. The EU is going to need to step in to protect its technologists from this American madness.

There is also an opportunity here. I’ve said before that this nonsense is going to leave the US a third-world pariah in technology. Right now the calculus must be that even if they lose the App Makers to broken healthcare and immigration systems, they still control the platforms.

But for how long? Because right now the US patent system is every app platform’s major weakness. If someone were to exploit that by making a decent platform out of reach of American attorneys, I and most other developers would flock there.

Indeed, we might have no other choice.

Taking a Stand

By Mike / On / In Technology

News from the front has not been promising. Tech blogs read like Tolkien short stories. Our colleagues are being overrun by patent trolls. Widget Press is about to fall, and Iconfactory may be next.

None of us are ready to take up this fight, but if we don’t bring the fight to them, they’re going to bring the fight to us.

At this point we have two options. We continue business as usual, going along our separate paths, spending each day praying we are not the next to fall. Or we stand together, here and now, and fight back.

Abandon the notion that lawyers are our enemies. There are many lawyers who would like to help stop this misuse of patent law. I know because when lawyers and others want to help App Makers, they contact the Appsterdam movement.

Our goal is to serve the interests of App Makers all over the world, and there is no greater interest than fighting the destruction of our industry, our businesses, and our way of life.

Let this be our rallying cry. We’re starting by putting the call out for attorneys and patent experts who would like to help assemble a legal team: email bmf at

In a few weeks, we’ll set up a legal defense fund to fuel that team. Then we will formulate and implement a strategy to fight these bastards.

Together, we will get the message across: If you come after indies, we will come after you. They can afford to fight, but we cannot afford to lose.

Made by robots in California

By Mike / On / In Technology

This week’s winner of the “Who can be more like Apple?” award is HP, which has had some success with its HP Touchpad, because it looks enough like an iPad you can almost forgive it for not being an iPad. But let us make one thing abundantly clear:

With uncle* of the iPod Jon “Ruby” Rubinstein on the job, they’re obviously not trying to be Apple. Richard “It’s Richard” Kerris, formerly Apple’s Senior Director of Worldwide Developer Relations, even said so, which is how we know it’s true. The fact they ripped off Apple’s trademark slogan merely serves to drive that point home.

As I have pointed out before on this blog, the problem with following Apple is that the furthest you can go is up Apple’s ass. If you want to compete with Apple, you have to do your own thing, which might just enable you to out Apple Apple.

Instead what you get is Apple’s slogan with hippyish “Apple” replaced by the inhuman “HP,” which sounds like the name of a robot, or to the British, the name of a tangy sauce.

Back when HP had a soul, it was called Hewlett Packard, because it was started by two guys named Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, classmates at Stanford, who started the business in their Palo Alto garage.

These were the guys Steves Jobs and Wozniak were emulating when they started Apple in a garage. These are the guys everybody is emulating when they try to frame their company as having been born in a garage.

You know the way all pilots sound the same? That’s because they are all trying to be like Chuck Yeager. You know how every technology company says they were started in a garage? That’s because they are all trying to be like Hewlett Packard. Not HP. Hewlett Packard.

You know why its fans put up with Apple when they’re bad? Because they make quality products. But aside from that, it’s because when we look at Apple, we see that picture of Steve and Steve in the garage.

Where’s the picture of Bill and Dave in the garage? Why don’t you take that picture, simplify it a bit, make it look like a woodcutting, and laser engrave it on the back of your new toy. Remind people where you came from. Remind yourself where you came from. Then live up to that.

That, my friends, is how you compete with Apple.

* The actual father of the iPod being Tony Fadell.

What is an app?

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam, Technology

When we talk about Appsterdam, we talk about App Makers, but what is an App Maker? And what exactly are these “apps” they are making? Common misconceptions are that “apps” refer to “Apple” or are something specific to mobile. The real answer is more interesting and more complicated than that.

To understand apps, you have to understand machines—not just the current state of machines, but the complete timeline of machines, from their inception, to their foreseeable future. I have a nice Keynote sequence I use to demonstrate this in my “Product Engineering” presentation.

Machines are actually older than mankind. They were invented by some clever ape who used a stick to fish a termite out of a rotten log. Thus was the world introduced to the first machine, and with it the meme of using tools.

At first tools were simply repurposed bits of nature, but when hominids took to the task, they specifically modified these bits to create better tools, chipping off bits of stone, for example, to create a better knife or arrowhead.

When we skip forward again to the dawn of recorded history, we see complex machines, purpose-built from smaller, interoperating parts. With this we have the introduction of craftsmanship, of artisanship, as tools are expensive, and prized, and the people who make them are valuable to society.

With the advent of the industrial age, and the introduction of interchangeable parts and assembly lines, tools became cheaper and more accessible. We gained the economies of scale. Machines gained the notion of configurability. By changing the machinery that produced new machines, new types of machines could be created.

Then a brilliant mathematician named Alan Turing had the realization that, with a large enough number of fast enough switches, we could create a universal machine, which could be reconfigured, or “programmed” to be any number of tools. Thus was born a new class of machine, which we now know as “computers.”

Computers eventually became small enough to fit on a desktop and cheap enough to fit in a family budget. Rather than something for governments, they became something for people, and the era of the personal computer signaled a new era for machinery—a universal machine in more ways than one.

That trend has continued to the point where computers are things we carry in a pocket, or in the crook of an arm. Beyond merely being personal, we now bond with these machines, as they become not just features of modern life, but a part of ourselves. This is the era we live in, the age of apps.

Looking into our wildest imaginations, we see a time when we are engineering on the molecular level, when machines are themselves made of nanomachines. Hardware and software cease to be distinct concepts when we can change not just how a machine behaves, but what a machine is.

How we turn a book into a piano.

We do not yet have the ability to turn a book into a piano, except that we do. In the context of the entire timeline of machines, something like an iPad becomes less like the Colossus and more like a poor man’s nanocolony.

This represents a fundamental shift from old-school “applications” running on a computer to the new software: “apps” that transform hardware to provide a complete experience. An app is an experience encapsulated in a product, the magic necessary to turn a piece of glass and metal into anything we need it to be.

Apps are transformational not only to hardware, but also to the way we do business. App production lends itself well to an artisanal economy of small businesses that cooperate with each other. We can proffer explanations of this, such as freedom from the demands of physical manufacturing, but it is largely phenomenology.

It seems not to matter so much what an app runs on as where an app comes from. Great apps come from great artists, who tend to be part of a great community. To a large extent, Apple’s success in this field is attributable to the community of developers who work on their platform.

But Apple doesn’t have a monopoly on quality, nor on culture. The things that make great apps are universal, and meant to be shared. Everyone deserves great apps. It is a firm belief in that idea that has Apple veterans joining with App Makers of every stripe to share their knowledge with anyone who will listen.

And I do mean anyone. We talk about App Makers, rather than developers, or designers, because it takes more than development and design to make a great app. Making, selling, and maintaining an app also takes businessmen, project managers, marketeers, lawyers, domain experts, and a very big sacrifice from our families.

Something has happened over these last four years. We’ve done an about-face, stopped looking toward the past, and started the business of building the future. That’s what it takes to be an App Maker, and that’s who it takes to make an app.

#unlodsys Q&A

By Mike / On / In Technology

My #unlodsys bug was closed as a duplicate. What does that mean?

Right now #unlodsys bugs are being closed as duplicates almost as soon as they are created. Although the response you get is pre-formed, rest assured that a real person sent it. It doesn’t take long to spot another in a series of duplicates, and the fact the bugs are being closed so soon means someone has noticed the trend.

From this we can extrapolate the bug is blinking red in Radar (Apple’s bug tracker) right now. That’s exactly what we want. The more times a bug is duplicated, the more powerful it becomes, because it shows the will of the people. This campaign is the same as calling your representative in government. The contents of the individual call is not as important as the number of calls they have received about the issue.

Aren’t we wasting the time of some poor engineer?

Absolutely not. Bug reports are not scrubbed (i.e., handled) by engineers, they are scrubbed by specialists. Only then are they forwarded to the appropriate people. We are not taking them away from their usual duties. Scrubbing these bugs is their job.

Bombarding these folks with duplicate bug reports is not an abuse of the system, it is exactly how the system is designed to work. Apple wants us to communicate with them via Radar. Doing it this way is, in a word, respectful, whereas flooding the email box of some poor evangelist or Steve Jobs himself would not be.

What do engineering bug reports have to do with legal?

It is a misconception that Radar belongs to engineering. Radar and its kin are used throughout the company for tracking all sorts of issues. Moreover, big events in Radar trigger a response beyond Radar. You can bet that when Radar blows up with something, Steve knows about it pretty quickly.

There’s also the very simple fact that our making a coordinated effort makes our grievances known all over the internet. The press have already noticed the #unlodsys boycott and reported on it, which increases the pressure on Apple.

Aren’t boycotts a waste of time?

Often, yes, because the number of people participating in the boycott is tiny compared to the total number of customers. In this case, however, there really aren’t that many productive developers. Action by a few hundred people means nothing relative to, say, the customer base of Proctor and Gamble, but in terms of the developer base of Apple, it has a huge impact.

Isn’t the Lodsys patent patently absurd?

It looks that way, but even absurd, easily invalidated patents cost more to defend against than most developers can afford. That’s the whole point of #unlodsys. We can’t even afford to have this conversation, so we’d like someone else who can, and who has skin in the game, to jump in.

What about other claims from Lodsys and other patent trolls?

There is a lot going on in the realm of patent trolling lately, and a lot more to come if we don’t act in a loud and coordinated fashion to stop it. Like good engineers, we have to focus our efforts on one API on one platform with one parasite. We picked the one that is a clear-cut case for Apple’s intervention and that actually impacts their revenue.

Isn’t this unjustified panic?

Regardless of whether it is justified, panic is useless. We need to funnel whatever feelings we have into action. Filing bugs and not using an API that could get us sued is a pretty reasonable course of action. We’re not filing a class action lawsuit or picketing 1 Infinite Loop. We’re just letting Apple, and those who watch Apple, know what we need and why.

Won’t Apple fix this anyway?

Maybe, and maybe our boycott will have no effect whatsoever. On the other hand, we might make them move faster, or with more severity. Moreover the online conversation this has generated will make its way into Apple. It might educate them. It might move them. It might even make them help us. The one thing we can be sure of is that the most effective way to have no effect is to do nothing.

What if Apple doesn’t respond?

Then that will be a wonderful opportunity for Google.