GPLv3 – Yes, You Can Run DRM (If You’re Very Very Sneaky)

GPLv3 and DRM. Yes, we’ve heard it all before. The license says you can’t use it (essentially, if you use it, you have to show the code, which means people can remove it). The advocates from the Linux Foundation and their mouthpieces say you can. It reminds me of the policeman shrieking “Do not panic, all is well” at the rioting crowd in Animal House right before he’s trampled. Meanwhile, open source followers seem to be trapped in the alleyway…

So, does it ban DRM or doesn’t it? It does, but there is a big loophole, and Microsoft (and a few of us old hands at open source – after all, we helped invent it) know it.

Taking a Byte out of Cookies

When I wrote Memories and Cookies for Byte several years ago after the dot-com boom went bust, I got pushback from the editor. Why would anyone care about persistence, monitoring and cookies structures? As a Director at one of those Internet datacenter companies at the height (and fall) of the bubble, I knew that cookies were very important to bizdev and sales as an indicator to tracking unique visitors. Of course, the underlying assumption was that cookies were persistent even though browsers allowed one to selectively delete them. On my modern Firefox browser there is even a special “remove all cookies” button that makes non-flash cookie removal a snap (flash cookies, aka local shared objects in flash-speak, are persistent objects embedded in the flash plug-in, and not removed by the browser’s cookie mechanism; this is one reason lots of sites are going to flash). And remove them we do — up to 1/3 of computer users remove cookies at least once per month, according to comScore, and 7% of computers account for 35% of all cookies served.

While not surprising, this has serious implications for ad monetization.

Fun Friday – Electric Sportscars and Commodity Chips

From prototype electric sports cars to commodity chips, a few items of interest to round out the week.

Yesterday the much-hyped Tesla Motors Roadster prototype was seductively displayed outside of PARC, courtesy of JB Straubel, Tesla Motors CTO. While the motor was buttoned-down and just out-of-reach, the leather seats were quite accessible and comfortable and the light carbon-composite body with aluminum frame attractive and shapely. The TM salesman was carefully positioned with a towel to wipe off any drool and greasy fingerprints from careless admirers.

One of the primary objections to all-electric cars is that they require new battery technologies which are untested on a massive scale and can result in unpredictable and costly liability suits. Even Li-ion batteries have had their share of “combustible” announcements, like when Sony manufacturing standards slipped as laptops went up in flames.

Tesla Motors decided that the benefits of a standardized Li-ion commodity battery (the 18650) outweighed the risk, and developed a fault-tolerant battery architecture that isolates each battery in 6800 individual metal cells with microprocessor-mediated power management and monitoring. As batteries fail, capacity reduces safely over time.

With $30M in orders already on the books (the first 100 orders at $100,000 up-front, and follow-on orders at $50,000 up-front) and plans for a plant in New Mexico, Tesla Motors may be the first car company in 50 years to introduce a new car well under the half-billion dollar cost estimate that is routinely bandied about by modern car companies. Of course, if you want one you’ve got to wait in line. It isn’t a touring car (consider a 200 mile limit), and it won’t fit a trunk. It does fit a couple of golf clubs, but I’d rather take an overnight bag and a guitar and drive to Santa Barbara.

Here’s a quiz for our hardware guys. How long does it take to get delivery on a little 8-bit commodity processor sample for development from the manufacturer? A few days? A week? As Don Adams of “Get Smart” liked to say, “Would you believe six months?” Yes, six months. That’s the delivery time one engineer recently complained he got for an Infineon 8 bit Microcontroller (PLCC – 84). He set out the call pleading with people to tell him why a common part in appliance products with volumes of millions would be so hard to obtain in a timely way.

Like a Zen Koan, the answer to the question is the question. Because it’s a common commodity part. Infineon ships this little chip in volume with six month advance orders because there is no reason to do it any other way at the low cost per piece. So if your little company wants it too, but you’re not going for a million volume order, the manufacturer will think you’re getting “too good a deal” piggybacking off of everybody else’s big order because they made it so cheap. Want it fast? Go to Frys and pay retail.

We once did this at Symmetric Computer Systems with DRAM during the memory wars of the 1980’s. When 1mbit DRAM rose from $12 to $40 in a day, we went to Frys and bought every single piece they had at $19 to make shipment to the NSA. The next day, their price went up to about $50. About the same time, Apple’s CEO Scully went off on vacation and left CFO Debi Coleman minding the store. When the DRAM crisis hit, she and the other Apple execs went on a buying binge. The resulting oversupply nearly killed that company. It was very funny.

Buying retail isn’t the solution for every chip. Little guys are in the pole position for exotic or new parts, and manys the time I’ve had field service engineers sit in my office pushing their cool new I/O or multicore products. My philosophy is always go for the low end of the exotic parts for tests because the sales and FAEs hand them out to our eager design engineers like jellybeans. Then sell them on how your hot new innovative cutting-edge state-of-the-art startup is going to use their high-end product still on their drawing boards to drive both our sales. That’s something they’re never going to hear from the 8-bit chip big guys. And that’s how a smart small company deals with a big guy — even Intel or Infineon. Have a good weekend.

Models, Simulations and Bugs, Oh My!

A recent discussion on e2e focussed on the efficacy of mobile / wireless simulations. You see, in the world of computer academia, simulations are de rigor to getting a paper through the peer review process, because it can provide you with lots of neat numbers, charts and diagrams that look nice but may mean absolutely nothing in practice. But “in practice” means applied (or horrors, development) work, and that’s usually met with disdain in the academic world (see Academics versus Developers – Is there a middle ground?). In other words, blue sky it but never never build it if you want to get a paper approved.

Simulations and models are an important tool in understanding the behavior of complex systems, and they’re used in most every scientific discipline today. But there’s a delicate distinction between a model of an environment and using the model as the environment — one that is often lost in the artificial world of networks and operating systems.

Dealing with Mean People – A Silicon Valley Manager’s Perspective

I suppose it had to come — the inevitable “What made that poor boy do such a horrible thing?” brooding and hysteria after the Virginia Tech murders. Already people are seeking to blame culture, video games, racism, conjectured bullying / criminal exploitation in his past, and so on, as if that makes it all understandable. Sadly, no matter how you slice it, nothing will balance out with the horrible crime this kid’s committed — the murder of innocents — and to spin wheels trying to do so misses the point. No action like this is redeemable.

Instead of focusing on a hateful monster, we should ask a different question. Why, when the world perpetrated a terrible evil on one man, who witnessed murder on a mass scale, suffered deprivation and want — who literally witnessed the face of evil during the Holocaust — did he give his life to save his students? Professor Liviu Librescu did not give in to meanness and cruelty, although his life was shaped by the meanness and cruelty of others. If anyone should have had a “reason” to be bad, he was the one. Yet he is the model of all that is good in people. He was literally “good” in times of evil.

Speaking as a manager, I’ve seen my share of hostile angry employees. Silicon Valley is extremely competitive, and some people don’t thrive in the pressure cooker of high-stakes startups…

The American “Can’t Do” Culture

In the aftermath of the terrible slaughter of 32 students and professors yesterday at Virginia Tech, there have been a number of calls to action on staunching the proliferation of guns, and counter-calls for more guns. My son came home from school, and the first thing he asked me was “Is it true that the first thing Bush said after the Virginia Tech killings was he supported gun rights?” The answer was – Yes, he did. The blood was still wet on the ground and ideologues were commending the killer for possessing (although not using) guns.

If it appears like madness prevails in America to us Americans, it is a certainty to those outside of America…

When Bad Things Happen – Cellular and Internet Provide News, Experience Overloads

Today a gunman at Virginia Tech went on a rampage, killing and wounding scores of people at two locations on campus. Details are still emerging, but there are some examples of how the use of Internet and telecommunications technologies has impacted both the school and the country.

There were four technology issues that have arisen over the course of this event: 1) problems with notification of the crisis via email to students affected, 2) overloading of the local cellular network, rendering student cellphones essentially useless, 3) the overloading of the university servers during the crisis, preventing students from learning in real-time what what going on from their school, and 4) individuals cohering conflicting information on news sites via Wikipedia and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.

Fun Friday: Social Media in Silicon Valley

The Social Media Club held one of their renowned discussions on trends in social media in Silicon Valley this week (at NBC11’s new facilities). Discussions were held in a “round-table” fashion on topics such as ethics in Internet media, tracking accountability in reports, localization of reporting, the diminishing value of professional journalism, GenY’s and community media, and many others.

I spent most of my time in ethics and youth media, but one of the topics fascinated me – the problem of enticing and overcoming resistance to viewing in-depth media (like news stories and thought-pieces) in a sound-bite Internet-minute world. It’s no mystery that there’s a lot of stuff competing for your attention, from screaming banner ads to link farms loaded with trash. On most portals (especially video portals such as YouTube) the flea market prevails – maybe you’ll find something good, but mostly it’s junk. And as junk rises to the top of the charts, more junk is tendered, crowding out works that actually might be good for you. The Internet, instead of appearing as a rich knowledge base of the world degrades to a monoculture of junk food media. So if you do have something of value, how do you convince a viewer that it is worthwhile to spend the time? And this is where Jane Austen and the telcoms come into play…