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Archive for March, 2006

Is quite useful. Find it here.

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Useful for T214
And for Blogging paper and ecosystem essays.

[Link]

Excerpt:

The basic shape is simple – in any system sorted by rank, the value for the Nth position will be 1/N. For whatever is being ranked — income, links, traffic — the value of second place will be half that of first place, and tenth place will be one-tenth of first place. (There are other, more complex formulae that make the slope more or less extreme, but they all relate to this curve.) We’ve seen this shape in many systems. What’ve we’ve been lacking, until recently, is a theory to go with these observed patterns.Now, thanks to a series of breakthroughs in network theory by researchers like Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Duncan Watts, and Bernardo Huberman among others, breakthroughs being described in books like Linked, Six Degrees, and The Laws of the Web, we know that power law distributions tend to arise in social systems where many people express their preferences among many options. We also know that as the number of options rise, the curve becomes more extreme. This is a counter-intuitive finding – most of us would expect a rising number of choices to flatten the curve, but in fact, increasing the size of the system increases the gap between the #1 spot and the median spot.

A second counter-intuitive aspect of power laws is that most elements in a power law system are below average, because the curve is so heavily weighted towards the top performers. In Figure #1, the average number of inbound links (cumulative links divided by the number of blogs) is 31. The first blog below 31 links is 142nd on the list, meaning two-thirds of the listed blogs have a below average number of inbound links. We are so used to the evenness of the bell curve, where the median position has the average value, that the idea of two-thirds of a population being below average sounds strange. (The actual median, 217th of 433, has only 15 inbound links.)

Freedom of Choice Makes Stars Inevitable #

To see how freedom of choice could create such unequal distributions, consider a hypothetical population of a thousand people, each picking their 10 favorite blogs. One way to model such a system is simply to assume that each person has an equal chance of liking each blog. This distribution would be basically flat – most blogs will have the same number of people listing it as a favorite. A few blogs will be more popular than average and a few less, of course, but that will be statistical noise. The bulk of the blogs will be of average popularity, and the highs and lows will not be too far different from this average. In this model, neither the quality of the writing nor other people’s choices have any effect; there are no shared tastes, no preferred genres, no effects from marketing or recommendations from friends.

But people’s choices do affect one another. If we assume that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice’s blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past.

Think of this positive feedback as a preference premium. The system assumes that later users come into an environment shaped by earlier users; the thousand-and-first user will not be selecting blogs at random, but will rather be affected, even if unconsciously, by the preference premiums built up in the system previously…

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Some reflections by Marko Ahtisaari
What made this growth possible? Where did this massive scale come from? What was the structure of the mobile industry that made reaching this two billion mark possible? Three features stand out:
1. An object with a social function tied to a service. The primary human benefit driving the growth of the mobile industry was that of social interaction, people connecting with each other. Initially this meant calling people – a familiar activity at the time – but with a new twist: the cord had been cut. Over time this began to also mean sending short text messages.
2. Service providers – mobile operators – subsidizing price. To compete for customers those providing voice and messaging services subsidized – in markets where this was legally possibly – the price of the mobile devices in exchange for a longer term customer relationship. As a result end customers rarely saw the full price of the device and the infrastructure combining both devices and networks was rolled out at unprecedented speed.
3. The shift from a familiar collective object to a personal object.The last, and often overlooked, feature of the mobile industry is that it was based on a shift from a familiar collective object – the family phone – to a personal object, the mobile phone. The idea of a personal phone simply did not exist in the popular consciousness 20 years ago.
With this growth, this bigness, came a new communications mass market, some of the most valued brands in the world, and massive economies of scale. And with it came perhaps the strongest example of a hybrid consumer product. The mobile platform – because of it’s scale and it’s focus on the big human fundamental of social interaction – is a center of gravity for other familiar benefits and functionalities. Think of the clock. Imagine how many people wake up to a phone each morning, how many have stopped using a wristwatch. Or, to take a more recent example, the camera is now moving onto the mobile platform…

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More patent trolling

Online auction house eBay goes to the US Supreme Court on Wednesday to prevent one of its core services being shutdown over a patent dispute. It is up against small US technology firm MercExchange, which successfully argued in a lower court in 2003 that eBay had infringed two of its patents.

The dispute relates to eBay’s continued use of its popular “Buy it Now” tool. eBay argues that judges should be able to deny injunctions in patent cases and instead choose to fine the perpetrator.

The auction house says the current threat of firms having their services immediately closed down if they are found guilty of patent abuse is unfair.

It further adds that it leaves large technology companies such as itself open to victimisation and attack from small “patent trolls”, who use the threat of immediate shutdown orders to force out-of-court settlements for huge sums of money.

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Newsweek quotes a Yahoo! exec on why they bought Flickr: “With less than 10 people on the payroll, they had millions of users generating content. That’s a neat trick.”

From a sardonic Slate piece about Web 2.0.

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You asked whether the independent media can be trusted as much as existing Big Media. This is a case of conflict between the real and the ideal. When it comes to journalism, the ideal is a strong, dedicated, and fair media establishment that just wants to get to the truth and is willing to spend a lot of money and effort to do so. Compared to this ideal, bloggers, with their minimal resources and strong opinions, don’t look so good.

The real, however, is nothing like the ideal. The media today is an often flaccid, lazy, and unfair establishment more interested in selling advertising than in anything else. Compared to this reality, bloggers don’t look so bad. I’ve long said that the relationship between Big Media and blogs should be more symbiotic than adversarial. On the other hand, blogs are actually better at some things than Big Media—note the Iraqi document translation effort, for example. And as Reason’s Julian Sanchez noted regarding the Ben Domenech plagiarism affair at the Washington Post (in which a new Post hire was quickly found by bloggers to have been a serial plagiarizer, something that had eluded the folks who hired him), “The truth at the core of much often-tiresome blog triumphalism is precisely that the Post probably couldn’t have vetted anyone as effectively as a blogospheric swarm.” As Sanchez continues:

The same task would have taken a committed body of researchers days, but because the task was what Net theorist Yochai Benkler would call highly modular and granular—capable of being broken up into highly fine-grained microtasks—a distributed swarm of bloggers was able to accomplish it incredibly quickly, turning up many more instances in a matter of hours. The blogosphere’s virtues on this front are not necessarily the Post’s defects, any more than it’s a problem with the blogosphere per se that it’s less well suited to producing intensive, sustained investigative reporting on stories that aren’t similarly modular and granular. They’re different kinds of information systems with different comparative advantages.

That notion of differential competences seems to me exactly right. The question—discussed at some length in my book, of course—is whether the folks running many Big Media outlets will be smart enough to take advantage of this symbiosis and of their natural strengths in newsgathering. So far, the matter is still in serious doubt.

One good sign: The Washington Post is including links, via Technorati, to blogs that discuss its stories, allowing readers to quickly get multiple perspectives. The next step would be for the Post to assign some staffers to read those blog posts and look for errors in the story, correcting them and offering credit to bloggers when they’re discovered. That would transform an army of kvetchers into a powerful squad of unpaid fact-checkers. (And the word “unpaid” must surely ring sweet in the ears of today’s newspaper management.)

The next step would be to turn trusted bloggers into stringers, reporting on events in their areas (whether by geography or by expertise). As we’ve seen with news events like Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the Columbia disaster, there are lots of people with digital cameras and Internet connections who can provide useful reporting on short notice when something happens in their vicinity. There are also lots of people with deep expertise in particular topics who would be happy to share it when something happens. Maintaining a roster of these people in advance would be a smart move.

It would also address your concern (that bloggers are too weak to resist pressure from governments) as well as mine (that Big Media is out of touch). Instead of sniping at one another (OK, a more accurate formulation might be in addition to sniping at one another), bloggers and Big Media could become mutually supportive—helping to resist the pressures for censorship that your book describes. I think that would be a good thing.

From an email exchange with Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu.

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Patent trolling

Lovely example — from Tech Review…

Have Patent, Will Sue
A company makes its money by enforcing long-uncontested patents.
By Associated PressAUSTIN, Texas (AP) — While most technology companies make money by developing software, building hardware or providing services, Forgent Networks Inc. has taken a different route: It produces threats and lawsuits that try to cash in on ideas.

Forgent and other companies with similar strategies — often called ”patent trolling” by critics — amass intellectual property portfolios and file suits against other businesses, accusing them of infringement.

With a skeleton crew of 30 employees and the help of a law firm, Forgent has built a business out of suing — or threatening to sue — companies, even though it offers no related products and does no development of the technology itself.

Though critics say such tactics curb innovation and drive up costs for consumers, Forgent CEO Dick Snyder insists he’s merely providing maximum value to shareholders.

”This country was built on innovation, and in the Constitution there is a provision in there to protect innovation through patenting,” said Snyder, a former executive at Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. ”It’s the American way, and we’re just doing what we believe is the right thing to gain value from what we own.”

For Forgent and other companies, the business model is paying off.

In the quarter ended Oct. 31, 80 percent of Forgent’s revenue came from licensing deals on just one digital image patent it obtained years ago in an acquisition.

Elsewhere, Research in Motion Ltd., maker of the popular BlackBerry e-mail device, this month settled its long-running patent dispute with NTP Inc. for $612.5 million (euro503 million). The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to consider a patent dispute between eBay Inc. and patent-holder MercExchange this year.

Forgent’s biggest earner — generating $108.4 million (euro89 million) in settlements and licensing fees in the past three years — has been U.S. Patent No. 4,698,672, issued in 1987 and obtained years ago in an acquisition. At the heart of the so-called 672 patent is something ubiquitous in the technology world: the JPEG format for digital pictures.

Though used in countless electronic gadgets and software programs since the 1980s, it wasn’t until two years ago that Forgent sued 44 companies, including some of the high-tech industry’s largest players. It claimed they were using the patented compression technique covered in the 672 without paying a licensing fee.

Thirteen companies have settled, including Yahoo! Inc. Over 50 others not involved in Forgent’s lawsuit have agreed to pay unspecified royalties for using the patent, including RIM, and Forgent has notified more than 1,000 other companies they may owe royalties.

Though a dollar figure wasn’t disclosed, RIM spokesman Mark Guibert said negotiations with Forgent resulted in a ”reasonable agreement.”

The trial for the remaining defendants — among them Apple Computer Inc., Dell, Hewlett-Packard, International Business Machines Corp. and Microsoft — is still pending in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Dan Venglarik, an intellectual property attorney with Davis Munck Butrus in Dallas who is not involved in the case, said Forgent’s tactics have far-reaching impact. Many smaller companies especially will be more likely to settle than dispute Forgent’s claim because of the high costs of litigation, which could easily top $3 million (euro2.5 illion), he said.

”If the numbers make sense, companies are going to be inclined to settle to avoid the risk,” he said.

The issue has led some lawmakers to call for changes to the nation’s patent system.

Last year’s Patent Reform Act, sponsored by Reps. Lamar Smith and Howard Berman includes changes that seek to cut down on lawsuits by people who take out patents on products, methods or ideas just so they can sue a company for infringement if it eventually produces something similar.

A draft proposal remains under review by a congressional subcommittee chaired by Smith, a spokeswoman for his office said.

Forgent’s legal attacks haven’t come without a fight.

The New York-based Public Patent Foundation Inc. recently won a request to have the validity of the 672 reviewed by the U.S. Patent Office, a process that could take years. The group claims Forgent’s patent was incorrectly granted and should be revoked.

”I think it’s stupid that this type of policy is legal and profitable,” said Dan Ravicher, the group’s executive director.

Forgent dates to the mid-1980s, when it was VTEL Corp., a maker and designer of videoconferencing equipment. VTEL performed a series of acquisitions, culminating in 1997 with Compression Labs Inc., which created and owned the 672 patent.

In 2001, the company was renamed Forgent, and executives decided to focus on intellectual property.

”At that juncture we really decided it was best from a shareholder perspective to at least for the foreseeable future, focus ourselves around being a patent company,” Snyder said.

Forgent’s earnings, largely dependent on revenue from the 672, have fluctuated wildly over the years. The company’s stock has ranged from $1.10 to $3.27 a share in the last year and recently posted a second quarter loss of $500,000 (euro410,340).

Forgent, which has about 30 other technology patents waiting in the wings, is already moving ahead with its next potential profit generator: U.S. Patent No. 6,285,746, which relates to how digital video recorders to allow playback during recording.

EchoStar Communications Corp., Motorola Inc., TiVo Inc. and 12 other companies have been named as defendants in the case. A federal judge has set a mediation date for next month in U.S. District Court in Marshall, Texas.

On the Net:

http://www.forgent.com

http://www.pubpat.org

See also.

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