Saturday, June 26, 2010

In re Bilski

Monday is the last day for Supreme Court rulings to issue for this term. So far, no opinion in In re Bilski, the major patent case this term, has come down. Some people are thinking that it'll have to come down Monday, because the Court won't want it to hold over into the next term. PatentlyO makes that argument. They also make the argument that it'd be better for the appellant here to drop the case before the ruling issues, and that the only reason for the appellant to pursue the case is that they want business-method patents to suffer a setback. I think Crouch is wrong, Bilski is appealing only because it's the only way to overcome the setbacks they've suffered thus far (see the documents on the case at Groklaw).

Crouch does make an interesting point, though, and one that gives hope that the Court will uphold the denial of the Bilski patent and, by extension, support the Patent Office's new position that purely abstract things like business methods aren't patentable. That's that Monday is Justice Stevens' last day on the Court. He's also the only Justice who's short on delivered opinions, if he's writing the Bilski opinion it'd bring him right into line with the other Justices. If that's so, Stevens also has a track record in opposition to things like patents on abstract ideas and non-physical things. If he's writing the opinion, it's likely because the opinion was in line with his track record and not favorable to Bilski. This'd be good news for software developers. These days one major problem in software development are patents that are over-broad and vague, with their holders trying to apply them to everything in sight. Or patents on blatantly obvious or long-existing things like a shopping cart (but in a Web browser!). Between Bilski and KSR v. Teleflex, the courts and the USPTO have given opponents of over-broad patentability a lot of ammo. That's also another point in favor of the Court upholding the appeals court in Bilski, that'd be in line with it's thinking in KSR.

The alternative, of course, is that the Court decided to give Stevens a light load because he's retiring and the Bilski opinion will be held over for next term. But we can hope that's not the case.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tablets, netbooks, laptops and PCs

Forrester Research is predicting iPad sales will tank. I'm not sure about that. In fact I think Forrester is dead wrong. Here's my predictions:

  • Tablets will displace netbooks as lightweight mobile platforms. On their own they're lighter and slimmer than netbooks and work well for media playing, Web browsing and the like. Attach a lightweight Bluetooth keyboard and they're OK for light text entry without needing too many accessories hauled along. And mobile devices like tablets will show high sales because they tend to be replaced relatively often (mostly because they're sold through cel-phone services with 2-year contracts and hardware upgrade offers just before the contract expires to tempt you into renewing).
  • Laptops will keep on being the portable computing solution. You won't take them to the coffee shop, but a single bag's easy enough to haul to a hotel or on a trip where you can set up on a desk. They'll show sales growth but not as much as mobile devices, because the wear and tear on the hardware's greater and you tend to have to replace them every 3-5 years because they're breaking down. And if not, you're seeing big increases in capability (bigger hard drives, larger displayes, lower weights) that make a replacement attractive.
  • Traditional desktop PCs will continue to be a non-growth sector. Everybody who wants one already has one, and they only replace it when it stops working. CPUs and such are already fast enough for ordinary stuff, so there's no real push to upgrade the hardware. When it comes right down to it, though, desktops offer speed, display quality, keyboard quality, peripherals and security/safety that mobile devices lack. Desktops nailed down to a wired network aren't vulnerable to outsiders sniffing traffic. They can support bigger displays, because those displays are sitting on a nice solid desk and don't have to be carried around, and those bigger displays make for more comfortable reading of what's on them. But you don't buy a new desktop every 2 years, you replace them maybe every 5-8 years when they finally do start to break down.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Yes, names. And the computer systems that handle them. If you write computer programs that handle people's names, read this blog post. Then read this article. Then go back and check your programs for how many of the assumptions in the article they make. Yes, all of those assumptions are invalid. Yes, you will have someone breaking them. Many someones. You'll have more people than you expect using your system. Think about this: right now if something occurs for one person in a million, you can expect more than 300 of them in the United States alone (307 as of July 2009).

And yes, someone out there undoubtedly has in fact legally changed their name to "Robert'); DROP TABLE users" just to be a prat. Your systems should be able to handle him in a suitably boring manner automatically, without needing special coding for SQL injection.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Inertial mass != gravitational mass

One principle of modern physics is that inertial and gravitational mass are equivalent: it doesn't matter whether you're standing on the surface of an object with enough mass to provide a gravitational pull of 1g or on a flat surface being accelerated at 32 ft/sec², the effects of both frames on you is the same.

Well, it turns out that isn't really so. The paper's rather technical, but it turns out at the quantum level you can get things that behave as if they had different masses depending on whether you're looking at gravitational or inertial forces acting on them. This should lead to some interesting physics in the next few years.