Two Cultures Clash

Original image from bayerberg via Flickr (cc-sa2.0 license)
Original image from bayerberg via Flickr (cc-sa2.0 license)

Two recent events in the world of technology and the internet serve to bring into relief the diver­gence between two ways of viewing the devel­opment of technology in general, the refusal of GoogleVoice apps by the iPhone App Store and the grant of a patent to VoloMedia for “providing episodic media” which seems to mean podcasting.
The question boils down to, is the internet a new territory that will require new practices to flourish or is it an analogue of existing media that will accom­modate existing models and practices?

I feel this is a funda­mental division of perception of the medium. The internet and associated techno­logies are often seen through the frame of existing media like publishing, broadcast radio or television. That correl­a­tional viewpoint has some value but with a very limited scope. Web designers have been pulling their hair out for years trying to get web pages to behave like printed ones and the parlous state of internet radio is largely precip­itated by an attempt to apply a broadcast radio mindset to the levying of royalty payments.

TechCrunch reports that Apple is pulling all GoogleVoice enabled apps from the App Store. As Jason Kincaid states in his article this is probably being done to preserve Apple’s relationship with AT&T, the iPhone’s official carrier in the USA. The official reason reported is that these applic­a­tions, “duplicate features that come with the iPhone.” Though AT&T deny any involvement and put the blame firmly at Apple’s door.

The statement from Apple is weak. Yes, you can make and receive calls on the iPhone. You can even send SMS and use a voicemail service, but you can’t access the advantages GoogleVoice partic­u­larly free SMS and cheaper long distance call rates. Perhaps what rankles most is that this move seems to be about preserving a commercial partnership and customer service be damned.

Apple has traded success­fully on a reputation of fostering innov­ation built on a found­ation of phone phreaking in the 1970’s. The decision to make the iPhone, officially at least, a semi-closed platform is a signi­ficant move away from that core image. If the yardstick of duplic­ating existing function­ality was broadly applied we would be in a parlous state indeed. Would Microsoft have allowed Netscape in 1994 if it had a mechanism to force us to wait for IE?

Apple are attempting to control the scope of usage of their products, but at least it’s their products they are restricting. In a devel­opment that seems so absurd it is easy to ignore, along with flat earth theories and the work of Katie Perry, VoloMedia have been granted by the US Patent Office U.S. Patent 7,568,213 covering the provision of episodic media. This is just all kinds of wrong.

The groundwork for podcasting was well and truly laid by Dave Winer and Adam Curry in 2001. VoloMedia’s patent applic­ation was filed in 2003. Secondly the terms of the patent are so vague as to be meaningless, “providing a user with access to a channel dedicated to episodic media,” is open to wide inter­pret­ation. There is only one mention of “computing device” in the 185 word patent. Without that one slip the patent could cover the delivery of nitrate film by horse-cart with a record kept on a slate, as pointed out by mterenzio in the comments on Dave Winer’s blog.
Both the granting of the patent at all and the acceptance of the vague wording call into question the competence of the US Patent Office to judge such matters. The consequences could be disastrous for a wonderful channel for individual creativity.

Podcasts are wonderful things, a whole universe of creative and puerile outpouring accessible simply to individual users with the option to listen in a manner and at a time that suits them. Currently VoloMedia is claiming it will only be seeking to exercise its patent with large distri­bution companies, but it is conceivable that they could demand a licence fee from every podcaster out there. This may become a more likely method of gaining some income from the patent once the tussle with Hulu and Apple’s lawyers tangles into that knot of geolo­gical pace so beloved of corporate councillors.
Perhaps this whole farrago could have been avoided if Winer and Curry had applied for a patent in 2001 and used it to protect the open nature of the platform, but if you are working with an open mindset why would you seek to protect such an idea. Ideas, in this approach, are for sharing, combining and improving as part of a collab­or­ative effort to make a better world.

This is the funda­mental problem, there is a group of innov­ative people making the online world a wonderful place, but the impetus to continue to work in such a way will diminish signi­fic­antly if acquis­itive patents continue to be granted by an overmatched body that was initiated to protect physical inven­tions in 1790.

The intent of Aedanus Burke’s bill was to encourage innov­ation in a new world. The same body is now hampering innov­ation in an online world. There is a very real important question of how we will foster innov­ation and collab­or­ation in the online world as we move forward.

There must be a way to protect the intention of the creators of the techno­logies we enjoy every day. Their inten­tions for their inven­tions needs to be preserved whether that is to give pro bono publico or to make personal gains. The culture of building on previous work is hugely valuable. Perhaps we should do more than just protect this culture online. Perhaps it can show us a new way forward offline in meat-world too.

In the case of Apple and AT&T there is a clear mechanism for change, don’t buy and iPhone and/or complain to Apple (vote early, vote often). Corporations make decisions based on their profit­ab­ility. If keeping a platform closed will harm its profits and growth any sane company will change. The system is simple and can be gamed.

The second case is more complex, but there are things to be done. Don’t assume everyone is as nice as you. Use open licenses on your code like the GNU GPL or equivalents. It might not seem important now but I’m going to be very very cross if I can no longer listen to Coverville.

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.