Monday, August 29, 2011

Lawyers trump programmers

There as a time when the success of a hi-tech product was pretty much in the hands of those who designed it, those who implemented the design, and the marketing team that sold it.

Come up with a great idea, design a solution around it, get some kick-ass engineers and programmers to turn that solution into a reality then let your ace sales-team take it to the world. Pretty soon you'll be able to kick back and count your profits.

And that's the way it ought to be.

Unfortunately, in the second decade of the 21st century, that's increasingly *not* the way things are working out.

It seems that these days, it's the lawyers who are determining which products will succeed and which products will not.

Take the tablet and cellphone marketplaces for instance.

Right now there's a huge battle underway between patent-holders -- each of which is trying to shoot their competition down by filing suit for all manner of infringements.

Of course patent law is there for a purpose and all good ideas need protection yet, for some reason, it seems that we've almost reached the point where you can't make anything new without infringing someone else's rights.

Apple claim that Samsung are infringing their patents with the Galaxy mobile phone and their tablet computer. In some jurisdictions, the courts are siding with Apple. Sucks to be Samsung.

Of course Samsung, like many other manufacturers, is basing their software on Google's Android OS but have made a few tweaks that apparently fall foul of those Apple patents.

Then there is the war brewing between Google (with the VP8 video codec it has built into WebM) and the patent pool entity MPEG LA who are rattling the lawsuit sabre.

Many commentators claim that ridiculously lax patent laws are partly to blame for the fiasco that is currently emerging in the hi-tech sector. Some argue that many of the patents which have been granted, especially in the software area, are neither novel nor without significant prior-art and therefore ought not to qualify for protection.

Unfortunately, so long as all sides have plenty of cash and a seemingly unlimited army of lawyers, the only winners will be the BMW and Porsche salesmen.

In the meantime, Google and other companies are now finding that it is often cheaper to buy up those companies who have the patents you might otherwise infringe than it would be do battle in a courtroom or to license a right to use that intellectual property.

Let's hope this whole situation gets sorted soon and we can get back to the process of coming up with really smart, innovative, affordable and useful hi-tech products.

Am I holding my breath?


Monday, August 22, 2011

HP dumps PCs and notebooks for software

Just three short weeks after proudly stating that NZ customers would play 40% more than others for their Touchpad tablet computer, HP has announced that it's pulling out of the hardware game.

Not only is it going to ditch the TouchPad but it's also looking to divest itself of all its PC hardware lines and even its WebOS Smartphone products.

Instead, the company is investing heavily in acquiring software talent and intends to reposition itself as a major player in this field.

Although the company's realisation that the Touchpad was never going to fly must come as a relief to shareholders, the company's stocks still took a hit on the news.

One thing is for sure, if HP had tried to do an Adidas and charge Kiwis 40% more than the rest of the world they would have been held up to ridicule and derision by savvy consumers.

This strategic withdrawal from the PC hardware marketplace is a bold step for HP but not a silly one. Although they still have a significant market-share (17.5% of the US market) it is very clear that, in the face of intense competition from rivals such as Apple, the whole market is undergoing significant change. The company has reported significant decline in its netbook and notebook sales -- clearly a result of the iPad's runaway success.

One of the keys to success in an industry as dynamic as the computer one is knowing when to refocus -- fortunately, HP seems to have done this in time to avoid major embarrassment -- although some claim that the Touchpad was proof that it might have been prudent to make this move just a little sooner than they did.

Right now, only 2% of HP's revenues come from software so this redirection is perhaps a risky decision that wasn't taken lightly, especially when you consider that they're now spending $10bn to buy the UK software company Autonomy to establish more of a foothold.

Observers and commentators will be watching HP's progress and reinvention over the coming months to see just how well this gamble pays off.

The great thing about this industry is that the only constant is change.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The end of the PC?

It seems that some experts are now telling us that the PC, as we've come to know it, is reaching the end of its reign.

Ever since IBM launched its industry-defining personal computer way back in 1981, most people have associated home and small-office computing with a beige box having a separate keyboard and monitor. Apparently, now that era is ending.

Thanks to massive improvements in user interfaces and the miniaturisation of processors, memory and other peripherals, we no longer need that box, that bulky monitor, or even that array of push-buttons ordered in a typewriter-like fashion.

Today and tomorrow's computers are far more likely to be as varied in form and style as the PC was fixed.

Notebooks and netbooks have already stolen a significant share of the market in recent years but the newest and most revolutionary form of personal computing has to be the tablet computer and in particular, the iPad.

However, personal computing has long gone past requiring us to use tools with generic capabilities such as web-surfing, word processing and some accounting functions. The arrival of uber-powerful microprocessors has meant that almost every bit of consumer electronics we own has an inbuilt computer which usually performs a specialist task, rather than the more generic role the PC once played.

Instead of listening to audio files on our computers, now we use our iPods or other MP3 players.

Instead of surfing the web and checking our email on a PC, an increasing number of people are performing these tasks through their mobile phones.

Game playing, which was once one of the most popular applications of the home PC has been offloaded to a large degree onto gaming consoles, most of which have internet connectivity.

So, if these experts are correct, the humble PC may be about to become an endangered species, seldom seen in the office or home -- eventually replaced by other smaller, sleeker, more effective and possibly more purpose-specific computing devices.

Alas PC, I knew you well.

Now where did I put that iPad?

Friday, August 5, 2011

When the universe hates rubgy

Those who rely on satellite links for data or television signals are only too familiar with the effect of atmospheric effects on the signal they receive.

When heavy rain, thick cloud or, on occasion, even dense fog is around, the minute amount of power that would normally reach their satellite dishes and be focused onto an ultrasensitive LNB sometimes is just not enough to allow the signal to be separated from the noise.

This is usually a transient problem and occurs so infrequently as to be little more than a minor annoyance -- however, another, more celestial effect looks set to wipe out some parts of the Rugby World Cup broadcasts carried by satellite TV provider, SkyTV.

According to reports, some outages of up to 15 minutes will affect live coverage of some rugby games during the RWC competition and this time it's not atmospheric conditions that are to blame.

The culprit will be the sun itself.

Due to the geostationary orbit of the satellites which carry some key data and television signals, twice each year the positioning of those satellites just happens to be such that they eclipse the sun itself. Or should I say "try to eclipse" the sun.

Unfortunately, since their size is so much less than that of the sun, our neighbourhood fusion reactor effectively obliterates their signal by outshining it with a blast of electromagnetic radiation many orders of magnitude greater than the satellite's faint signal.

When these satellites are positioned directly between the sun and the receiving dishes on the earth below, the radio frequency noise that the sun generates effectively overwhelms the comparatively feeble satellite signal and thus reception is lost.

What's worse is the fact that the larger the satellite dish being used, the worse the effect, as an increasing amount of the sun's "noise becomes focused on the sensitive LNB at the focal point of the reflector.

This effect usually only occurs for a few minutes per day over a period of several days, around the spring and autumnal equinoxes but unfortunately, this year the spring equinox coincides with the RWC and the timing of some of the matches being played as part of that competition.

Broadcasters say the worst effects will occur at around 1:20pm but will be relatively short in duration, affecting viewers in some regions more than others.

However, it just goes to show that no matter how advanced the technology, mother nature always has the final say.