Friday, 4 November 2011

Don't occupy Wall Street - occupy the patents courts!

[From a comment thread in The Register]

For some time now, I've felt that patents have been over-used and over-priced...and heading for a big fall - not just in value, either.

They're being used not only to obtain value from invention - as was always the way - but now to stifle innovation, and - worse - also to set out deliberately to destroy companies. See Jobs' recently-published quotes on Android, and Apple's outspoken intentions towards Samsung, if you're in any doubt.

It feels like we're on the eve of a war. I think we probably are, but it will come from an unexpected direction.

In China, India and other emerging economies, patents don't hold back progress in the way they do in established economies. Sooner or later, the biggest Western governments will realise the potential consequences. At some point - and it may happen sooner than we expect - there must be moves to weaken patents.

That could come from a number of directions. The entry barrier to patent enforcement litigation could be raised by having the litigant place a large bond (say, three times the compensation/penalties sought) in court escrow, to be released to the defendant if the case fails.

Given that a lot of patents are spurious, the defendant could be granted a pre-hearing opportunity to overturn the patent by submision of proof of prior art or lack of inventive step - meaning that any litigant could be faced not only with the potential of financial disaster in failure, the risk of having their patents ruled invalid.

The actions of the court in enforcing the patent could be limited: an upper limit on claim size; a strictly limited window of opportunity to file claims (in effect, a statute of limitations on patent violations); the restriction of recourse to retrospective establishment of a court-set reasonable licence fee; the removal of any powers to ban sales of supposedly infringing items, except where the defendant has failed to pay the retrospective licence fee after a reasonable period.

One way or the other, the current patents system has to be fixed, and on a worldwide basis - and not just to protect business interests.

Otherwise the human race's dying words could well be, "We couldn't shoot down the meteorite, because the patent court grounded the weapon system."

Friday, 7 October 2011

"Human Resources" - the phrase that should have died a-birthing

My inbox was assaulted today by an email from a publisher that shall remain nameless, with the subject line: "Human Resources: Managing your Most Valuable Asset".

I unsubscribed at that point. Anyone who can't see the irony in that email title isn't qualified to pronounce on it, and I wrote as much to the company, expecting it to be forwarded to the digital shredder.

Much to my surprise, the editor emailed me back. And I'll give her full credit, she was courteous, even if she did justify the use of "Human Resources" on the basis that everyone else is doing the same: argumentum ad populum, for anyone who still cares about debating rules.

It would have been churlish not to have replied, so I did. Here's what I wrote:

Hi Name Omitted, and thanks for responding.

Having been in business for over a quarter of a century, and running them for most of the last decade, I'm painfully aware that "Human Resources" is a term in common use. However, that in itself doesn't justify its use: that's just following the sheep. Buzzwords can change. Some should.

Any company that truly does value its staff and their contribution to its profits - and wants to keep both - has to do better than speak of its people in terms that reduce them to the same status as a desk fan. The word "company" means a group of people with a common purpose - and that's what distinguishes staff from "resources". You could replace every desk in a business with a different model overnight, and trading would continue unaffected. Try doing that with staff...

It's rather ironic that we as a community finally managed to bring an end to the thoroughly unsavoury practice of treating women in business as objects - only to extend the same courtesy to everyone else too!

Oh well, rant over. :) Thanks again for your response - and if I can in some small way have moved your (personal and collective) views on "HR", I'll have had a great Friday!

Best wishes,


So, am I a lone voice in a confederation of the dumb, or a dumb schmuck in the confederation of the smart?

Monday, 9 May 2011

I Told You So! (Episode 2)

Way back in November, in a blog article called "ARM's Cortex-A15 CPU, and how it will change your world"", I closed with this paragraph:

So here's the real left-field question: given the power and BoM cost savings, how long now before Apple ditches Intel completely for ARM?

In a follow-up ("Desktop ARMs - and what they'll mean for Microsoft"), I expanded on those thoughts, opening with:

If Apple finds that the ARM processors out-compete Intel on price and power consumption, and at least match x86 for performance, the choice to switch is going to be a no-brainer.

And lo, it came to pass. Again.

Today, Charlie Demerjian published a very interesting article entitled "Apple dumps Intel from laptop lines" in his own blog, "Semi Accurate".

It seems as though I've been a tad prescient. That, or well-informed.

The rest of my blog article contained some other, equally dramatic, predictions. Well, let's call them "predictions" for now. One, which I've since admitted came from insider sources (in the first "I Told You So!"), was that Microsoft was porting Windows and Office to ARM. There were several more that are waiting to be proven.

Now here's another, just to keep your interest whetted. Rik Myslevski has written a well-informed article for The Register, titled "Intel's Tri-Gate gamble: It's now or never". In it, he adds a throw-away speculation near the bottom of the last page: "Intel could license the ARM architecture and start buiding its own ARM variants in its own fabs, using its 22nm Tri-Gate process. That's unlikely, but stranger things have happened."

Stranger things indeed. And I think that Rik is well and truly on the money. Intel's executives are very, very far from dumb. They are painfully aware of ARM's squeeze on their markets, both from above and below, as I'd outlined in that first blog article. Intel really has three obvious plays they could try:

1. Find a transformational technology that puts them in contention with ARM but retains x86 compatibility.. Intel's Tri-Gate announcement was clearly an attempt at this play.

2. Try to find a way to put ARM out of business, or at least weaken it. We've not seen this attempted seriously yet, and it's reasonable to wonder why that is.

3. License ARM cores for desktop use, and keep in the market by following the market..

I contemplated in the second blog post:

Here's a statement I never thought I'd make: with a stock and cash exchange, Apple. Could. Buy. Intel.

Now things start to add up.

* Apple needs a top-tier ARM supplier. Their relationship with Samsung, their current ARM fabrication partner, is reportedly getting a little rocky. Industry reports suggest that they're considering switching to Intel chip fabs.

* Intel needs an answer to the ARM squeeze on x86.

* Apple has tons of ready cash.

What it all adds up to is the possibility that Apple could invest in Intel, both commercially and financially, to license the ARM cores, and set up new fabs to make Tri-Gate ARMs, for both their iOS and MacOS products.

It would make a great deal of sense. It would also give Apple the power to put the squeeze on Microsoft. If only Apple has access to the Tri-Gate ARMs, it leaves Microsoft out in the cold - or rather, the far-too-warm - when MS start to produce the ARM versions of Windows, which will only be able to run on old-school pre-Tri-Gate hardware.

Microsoft will have to consider a very similar investment in Intel, for the same reasons, before Apple can lock them out.

Whichever way you look at it, Intel's prospects may well have brightened.

LATER NOTE (2011/05/18): it seems that one or two people may have read this blog, after all. :) Paul Otellini of Intel was put on the spot in an investors' meeting about the possibility of Intel using Tri-Gate to fab ARMs, and did his level best to dampen speculation: "The short answer is 'No'."

Mind you, if Apple came knocking, with barrow-loads of dollars in tow...? It's possible that Otellini's playing a wooing game, as his next comments could be construed as a come-on: "We have [...] an ARM architecture license. The important thing for us is to figure out how to get paid and how to be present. And we think the best way to be paid and present [...] is to build best-of-class chips."

EVEN LATER NOTE (2011/05/28): perhaps Paul Otellini wasn't reading from the hymn-sheet after all...Intel's CFO Stacy Smith appears to be a lot more positive to the idea of Tri-Gate on ARM, and specifically mentioned Apple as a possible buyer (of devices, not Intel!), according to a Reuters story this week.

Now, bear in mind that a CFO's words probably carry even more weight in the financial markets than the CTO's. After all, CTOs have been known to make some pretty daft comments - but the CFO is the person the money listens to. Smith said that an Apple deal was "Not in the works today". To the untrained observer, that's a flat denial, but it's more likely to be coded speech for, "We're not manufacturing yet, but a deal's cooking." We shall see. Keep watching this space!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Why Gov.UK funding goes to the big boys

[This came up in a discussion on Facebook in a friend's Wall, when it was pointed out that a large proportion of research and business development grant cash goes to big business.]

I'm not surprised that small enterprise doesn't apply for (or doesn't get granted) funding through these routes.

Firstly, the fund-matching criteria require an appropriate amount of liquid cash, whose expenditure must be carefully accounted for. Yes, there's the option of match-finding "in kind" through staff salaries etc. (where rules permit), but even that has bear traps. One friend who applied for such funding, and used his own (unpaid) labour as the funds match, discovered to his horror that he had to pay income tax and NI on the amounts he _hadn't_ paid himself in order to trigger release on the major tranche.

Secondly, the compliance régime can mean a lot of paperwork and effort. Fine when you've plenty of experience of what the funding body requires (as large concerns do); arduous and frustrating when you don't - and it ties up limited staff availability. And if an SMB hires someone experienced to help apply for and manage the funding*, the amount of funding that actually makes it to the project itself can make the game of raising it barely worth the candle. Big business doesn't have these problems. A large enough enterprise can retain someone permanent and experienced to deal with funding, streamline the process and the funding stream, and use its plentiful staffing to cover the funding matches.

It would be soooo nice if there was genuine Governmental effort to boost entrepreneurs and new enterprise, rather than lip-service, half-hearted follow-through, and an erratic drip feed of funding that's first in the list to be cut when times are tight. The only thing that'll pull the UK out of economic doldrums is SMB enterprise. Our present Government, and those that preceded it, talks the talk - and walks away.

(* Absolutely not trying to tread on anyone's toes, BTW. It's probably better to hire a funding consultant than not get any at all.)

Friday, 8 April 2011

Sir Humphrey and the Consultation

[This was inspired by the current Review of statutory duties placed on local government procedure. Anyone who's watched "Yes, Minister" should recognise the style.]


JIM HACKER is pacing, SIR HUMPHREY placidly watching.

This is preposterous! I don't have time to
be reviewing every bit of legislation that's
ever been passed, on the off-chance it
might be inconvenient for someone!

You don't have to...

I mean - how can we possibly manage an
exercise that big without inventing three
extra days in the week and abolishing sleep?

You might care to...

I just can't see how...



It's really quite simple, Minister. Announce
a public consultation.

But that'll mean even more work!

Not necessarily, Minister. It's all about
managing expectations.

Mine or yours?

The public's, of course. You announce the
consultation with fanfares and speeches.
Then you summarise all the primary
legislation in a couple of spreadsheets.
I think - oh, a thousand rows or so each
ought to do it. Then you publish the
spreadsheets and announce a closing date for
comments of a week later. Or two, if you're
feeling courageous. You're not feeling
courageous, are you, Minister?

Well, I have my...
(catches himself)
No, no, of course not, Sir Humphrey!

Delighted to hear it. So, by the time anyone
whose opinion is actually worth anything has
even started on the job, the consultation is
over, and you can plough ahead doing whatever
you were planning to do anyway.

Sir Humphrey, that is brilliant! You are an
absolute genius!

Yes Minister.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Intel's ARM replacement?

So Intel has announced their ARM-killer device: the "Medfield".

Medfield is a power-constrained dual core Atom. Although Intel hasn't said as much, it's reasonable to expect that they'll be making system-on-chip (SoC) devices using the Medfield core, particularly given recent acquisitions that enhance their silicon portfolio to include modern wireless and graphics support.

Will it be enough?

Unlike Microsoft, Intel doesn't have a great history of entering markets opened by its competitors
It's a hard one to predict. Unlike Microsoft, Intel doesn't have a great history of entering and then dominating markets opened by its competitors. In fact, it's often struggled to retain control of its own core markets. AMD, for example, has taken and retained a significant portion of Intel's market share with its lower-cost x86 processors. That's despite being a market follower, not a market leader, and hence always a generation behind its larger rival. (It's notable that AMD hasn't attempted to compete in the mobile device space, preferring to concentrate on CPUs for desktop and server products.)

ARM CPUs achieved their popularity because of three killer benefits: great processing power per watt, a really low price:performance ratio, and small physical size, all of which earned them a massive lead in the small embedded systems market.

But that's not why ARM dominated their competitors. The real reason has little to do with those benefits. ARM achieved their lofty position by moving from being a chip manufacturer to being a processor core licensor. At a stroke, they improved their cashflow, as intellectual property (IP), once created, doesn't have a lead time to manufacture, and you don't have to warehouse huge stocks of IP somewhere air-conditioned, waiting for someone to buy it: "dead money" until the customer orders them and pays the invoices. They made those difficulties, endemic to manufacture, someone else's problem.

That's why ARM survived successive boom-busts, but the real success came from the number of companies who licensed ARM cores and embedded them in their own products. It reads like a high-school register call of everyone in the embedded device space. I'm not going to list them here: go to ARM's site and read it. It's long - no less than 158 licencees and foundries - and very impressive.

Intel's biggest problem is going to be that it's going to be fighting a war on 159 fronts
Intel's biggest problem is going to be that it's going to be fighting a war on 159 fronts - including ARM, of course - if it wants to claim for itself some of ARM's market. It's going to be doing so against opponents who are well armed, well-entrenched and fanatical to their cause. It's going to be trying to make alliances with sovereign powers that are well-disposed to ARM, cynical of Intel, and little inclined to switch, unless the benefits over ARM are very, very compelling.

Intel's Atom offerings to date haven't exactly set the world alight - well, unless you count heat dissipation. Potential partners have responded to Intel's bugle with a resounding..."Meh." Those that did venture to make Atom-based products found that their netbooks, supposed to change the portable computing battlefield, instead met a "Meh" from the buying public too.

This has put Intel in a very difficult position. The Atom was specifically designed for portable computing devices, and the indifference that met netbooks has, by association, hit Atom too. Intel is scrambling now to find a niche in which Atom can play successfully, and my feeling is that Medfield is probably their last serious attempt to achieve a real share of a sector in which they've never really sat easily - and their partners, burnt in the netbook fiasco, are going to need a lot of persuading to put big money behind Atom a second time.

Intel's Atom customers have a single point of supply; a single point of failure
And let's not forget the point I made above, the biggest difference between the two companies. ARM is a licensor, with a huge number of partners all making their own devices, and a very healthy cashflow that can only be damaged if manufacturing problems hit all their licensees at the same time. Intel is a chip maker, and - as the recent $700m recall of the "Cougar Point" chipset demonstrates - its customers are very vulnerable to Intel manufacturing issues: a single point of supply (for Atom devices) means a single point of failure, whereas they can buy ARMs from almost anyone.

I have no doubt that Intel will be marketing Medfield aggressively - and maybe, just possibly, that might tip the scales. But I can't help but think that it's the wrong product, too little, too late. AMD seems doomed to be the Intel wannabe that can't win, but won't die. And now Intel tries to be the same thing to ARM.

Ironic, no?

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Why Steve Jobs' absence might help Apple's health

I'm not the kind of person who wishes ill health on anyone, even my worst enemy. I took no pleasure in the news that Steve Jobs is stepping back from Apple for the sake of his health. But I do have some hope that it might signal a new direction for a company I respect, but whose products I don't want.

Let me explain what I mean. I was at a friend's a few evenings ago. He's a big fan of Apple's kit. We were chatting, and listening to music on his Apple TV. There was a track on my mobile phone I wanted him to hear. The conversation went like this:

"Has the the Apple TV got Bluetooth?"

"No, sorry."

"OK, well, if I put my phone on your network and set it up as a UPnP audio streamer, it'll pick it up and browse it, right?"

"No, it doesn't do ordinary streaming. I can send files from the iPad, though."

"Huh. Look, the iPad has Bluetooth, right?"


"Well, my phone knows A2DP. You can pick up the file from there, yes?"

"iPad doesn't know A2DP."

"Well, how about I 'tooth the file to the iPad, then you can send it on to the Apple TV." (Getting desperate now; I don't like copying IP around.)

"It won't accept Bluetoothed files."

"And it can't browse my phone over wireless, using uPnP?"


"Right, well how about I hand you over the microSD memory card from my phone?"

"iPad doesn't support removable memory."

I played the song using my mobile's speaker.

Now, that's a couple of self-confessed alpha geeks, using every trick in their books to try to play a tune from my phone using Apple kit. What chance do mere mortals have? And every way was blocked because Apple decreed it so. It wouldn't have been difficult for Apple to have included those facilities, but they said:
  • Thou shalt have no streaming server support in Apple TV"
  • Thou shalt have no streaming server support on iProducts
  • Thou shalt not use Bluetooth the way God and Ericsson meant it to be, but only in the ways decreed by Us
  • There shall be no removable anything in our iProducts. What you've got, you've got. Be glad of it, and want no more. Or buy the next, bigger, one when it comes out.
See what I mean? Welcome to the world of jaw-droppingly expensive consumer disposables. When your battery starts losing capacity, pay a fortune to an Apple Centre to get it replaced, or buy a new device. When your battery pegs out on a long plane flight, be glad you had the use of it whilst you could. Don't expect to do anything other than what Apple decrees on its own hardware. Because you don't own the hardware really; Apple does, and Apple says what you can do with it.

Actually, I can tell Apple what it can do with it. I like being able to carry a charged spare battery on the place. I like to watch YouTube every now and then. I like being able to stream my phone's music to my Bluetooth-enabled car radio. I like to add to my device's memory when it's getting a bit full.

The annoying thing is that I want to buy Apple's stuff. I was an early adopter of the Mac Mini, and loved it. If the MacBook Air had a removable battery and a DVD burner, I'd have it. If the iPad were about half or two-thirds as expensive, and had a microSD slot, Flash support and a user-replaceable battery, my wife and I would probably have had one each by now. It's hugely frustrating to me that every time Apple comes out with a nifty new piece of kit, it doesn't meet my needs. And the decisions that dictated the specs that caused that problem arose, I believe, from Apple's Executive Office.

Jobs' illness is very unfortunate, and I genuinely hope he recovers and goes on to lead as long and healthy a life as any liver transplant patient could hope for. But I think it will be best both for his health and Apple's if he does what he promises, and stands back from the company now.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, his vision transformed the company and its products. But now I believe he's become a hindrance: a portcullis between the company and its customers, and a barrier to its growth - yes, Apple could grow faster, if its products were less encumbered by executive doctrine.

Get well, Steve. But let Junior fight his own battles now. It's time for Dad to step back.