February 27, 2005
Google Toolbar, One Useful Service Among Many

I was going to write about the Google Toolbar, and why I like it as I liked Third Voice way back when, but Cory beat me to it on BoingBoing:

It's not a service I'd use, but I believe that it's the kind of service that is vital to the Web's health. The ability of end-users to avail themselves of tools that decomopose and reassemble web-pages to their tastes is an issue like inlining, framing, and linking: it's a matter of letting users innovate at the edge.

An Internet that allows people to create these features and people to choose to use them is infinitely more useful than one where copyright or trademark bullies can prevent us from doing so. More nostalgia: Link-it-all.

Update: Scoble asks whether Cory would feel the same way if Microsoft tried its own proxy. I can't speak for Cory, but I would support a Microsoft tagger/linker/proxy alongside one from Google (and from EFF, and MPAA, and anyone else who wanted to write one). More options for end-users is a good thing. Provided users have market choices, and know about those choices, they should be free to exercise them.

Posted by Wendy at 04:29 PM
February 20, 2005
Ouch, There's a Patent in my Palm

The new Treo arrived, and apart from some SIM and Cingular issues, seems to work well. It seems that software patents have stopped it from being even better, though.

The Treo keyboard is very good, for something with chiclet keys, but there are times when Graffiti, Palm's early written-character-entry system, is easier. The Treo 650 doesn't provide out-of-the box access to Graffiti, but it turns out the device still has the character recognition buried inside. Installing the free Graffiti Anywhere enables you to invoke that capability by writing anywhere on the screen.

Great! but here's where patents get in the way. When I first learned Graffiti on the "Palm Pilot" (a name killed off by trademark demands), it used a set of single-stroke characters, with the exception of the standard "X". A pain to learn, perhaps, but quick to enter ever after. I start up Graffiti Anywhere, start writing this is a test, and wind up with 'hls. Hmm.

Then I remembered Xerox's patent infringement suit against 3Com. Xerox claimed ownership of a system for recognizing "unistrokes" -- characters written in a single stroke -- and sued. 3Com defended by arguing, among other things, that Graffiti did not infringe because the "X" took two strokes. A bit of Googling and Westlawing turns up a 1997 complaint against U.S. Robotics, a trip to the Federal Circuit, and finally, a 2004 judgment from the Western District of New York finding the patent invalid.

Good news, but in the meantime, 3Com decided to dot its I's and cross its T's (literally) to hedge its bets against potential damages or injunction: In 2003 it licensed from Jot the more cumbersome two-stroke Graffiti 2.

Or, as PalmOne explained in its 2004 Form 10K

We cannot assure that palmOne will be successful in the litigation. If we are not successful, we may be required to pay Xerox significant damages or license fees and pay significant amounts with respect to Palm OS licensees for their losses. It may also result in other indirect costs and expenses, such as significant diversion of management resources, loss of reputation and goodwill, damage to our customer relationships and declines in our stock price. In addition, Xerox unsuccessfully sought and might again seek an injunction preventing us or Palm OS licensees from offering products with Palm OS with Graffiti handwriting recognition software, even though we have largely transitioned our products to a handwriting recognition software that does not use Graffiti as well as to physical keyboards. Accordingly, if Xerox is successful, our results of operations and financial condition could be significantly harmed and we may be rendered insolvent.

Even now that the Xerox patent has been ruled invalid, no one seems to be rushing the original Graffiti back into production. Once again, end-users lose out. A seven-year patent fight leaves even big companies exhausted. So that's why I can't write an undotted "i" on the shiny new Treo. Yet another reason to be glad not everyone's rushing to join the software patent game.

Posted by Wendy at 02:38 PM
February 19, 2005
My PVR Serves Anonymity, Too (can TiVo do that?)

Having a general-purpose PC for a media center machine gives you great flexibility -- well beyond just watching TV. When I decided last week that I wanted to add to the Tor anonymity network, my MythTV box's spare processing power fit the bill perfectly.

I downloaded the Tor source, installed and configured as a server. Before the Janacek Quartet had finished playing Smetana, the "peppercorn" node was online, helping to onion route anonymized communications around the Internet. That helps journalists researching hostile sources and soldiers stationed abroad to use the 'Net without revealing their locations or identities.

Download Tor

The Tor network is now set up to take advantage of connections of all speeds, so my DSL connection doesn't bottleneck other, faster pipelines. There's far more demand for anonymity than supply, as I saw when my box shot up to 170+ open connections (and my browsing speed slowed to a trickle, until I added some rate limiting to Tor, which is also easy to configure). Every extra server helps. Download yours today!

All that, and I can still watch, record, and pause live HDTV.

Posted by Wendy at 10:58 AM
February 08, 2005
Palm: How to Lose Fans and Alienate Developers

As reported by Gizmodo, PalmOne has added $100 to the price of its unlocked Treo 650 GSM only a few days after releasing the product. Most likely, it did so under pressure from the cell phone carriers. I was lucky (or obsessive) enough to get my order in at the original price, but I'm less certain now that I'll want the device when it arrives.

I was willing to pay a premium over the Cingular-locked-subsidized version, because I'm tired of the petty tyranny of cell-phone providers who want to control what users can do with devices they've bought. After dealing with the TMobile-constrained Sidekick, I wanted a device that was open and customizable. Once I've paid for the service, I should be able to choose what data to send and receive, and how to use it.

What PalmOne doesn't seem to understand is that its customers are buying a platform, not just a phone. Those who buy the $400-600 Treo instead of a $100 phone (free with cell servitude) buy it for the rich set of applications available -- many of them developed by other users.

I don't develop for the PalmOS and probably never will, but I benefit from the "virtual network" around an open platform because I can add any of its array of third-party applications. Since every application written makes the platform (marginally) more functional, every developer who joins the network adds potential value. That value redounds to Palm -- without any extra work on Palm's part -- because customers still need Palm hardware to take advantage of this "network."

Raising the price of the full-functioned unlocked Treo turns away those user-developers. By making it more expensive for users to develop for the platform, Palm makes the device less attractive even to the non-developers. By alienating the "alpha-geeks," in Tim O'Reilly's term, Palm has hurt many more than the few hundred people who might have bought the unlocked Treo. It hurts every user of the platform, and its own bottom line. I hope I haven't just bought a $600 paperweight.

Posted by Wendy at 08:20 AM
Google Maps the U.S.

No doubt next we'll hear they've bought the whole country, not just mapped it, but until then, Google has created a very cool map and directions web service. See the route from Larchmont, NY to San Francisco, CA. Don't miss the click and drag to move around the map.

Posted by Wendy at 07:41 AM