Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cloudy Skies This Week

Recent blog posts and comments I made on Twitter might give some people the impression that I'm against cloud computing. I bet I've given some people the impression that I hate cloud computing. Despise it! Want to see it die! Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the idea of cloud computing. It's the cloud computing marketing that I take issue with.

Overall, what's not to like about the cloud idea? The promise of cloud computing (notice I say promise, not reality) is the ability to only buy what you need with the option to buy more later if you want to. In that respect, it deals with one of the key problems in computing: coarse granularity in systems. If I need 10 percent of a server, I might have to buy a whole server. Someday I might need that whole server but not right at the moment. Then again, maybe never. We have wonderful terms for buying more than you need such as underutilization. The best term is “a waste of money”. So, buying only what I need when I need it is a great way to manage my budget. Same goes for software. I no longer have to buy a software package designed for fifty people for just three people to use. It's efficient and cost effective. It also makes it easier to quantify the cost of running an application.

Cloud computing is also evolution not revolution. We have been doing limited purpose cloud computing for years. It's called web hosting. And email hosting. Oh. And application hosting. Do I notice when my hosting provider adds new resources in order to add more customers. Not really. I pay ten bucks and get a chunk of resources adequate to running my simple web site and that's how I like it.

So what's not to like? Well a couple of things really. Security of a cloud is no better than security in a non-cloud data center. You still have the problems of internal espionage, external break-ins, and other Dick Tracy stuff.

There is also a migration problem. When the day comes that your application needs to move to a dedicated system (don't kid yourself – it will happen), you might have a heck of a time moving it. Unlike moving up to a bigger piece of iron, applications may have to be rebuilt to live in a different type of environment. In that way, I suppose, it is different. It's worse... and nobody wants that.

This is especially true of clouds built around service frameworks like Amazon's. At some point the application might get big enough that it makes sense to bring it in house. Worse yet, you could find yourself dissatisfied with the service provider (like that never happens!) and forced into an acrimonious divorce. This is an especially nasty problem because they have you by the data stores if you get my meaning.

These are not reasons to forgo the cloud. They are reasons to be careful. Figure these issues out ahead of time and make good choices up front. And ignore the hype. If someone slaps “cloud” on something that seems not so cloudy, be suspicious.

Remember, cloud computing is a strategy and maybe an architecture. It's not a product no matter how many times the corporate talking head says so.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Green Clouds and Other Sickening Stuff

Last week I rented a car from Hertz that was supposed to be a “Green Collection” car. Since it was a Ford Fusion, I assumed they meant the Ford Fusion Hybrid. Hybrids are green. This car, however, was not a hybrid. It was a plain old Ford Fusion. I read the fine print and discovered that Hertz defines green as “ fuel efficient, environmentally-friendly cars”. The cars are all EPA rated at 28 mpg but no one gets that with normal driving. Now, a mid-sized sedan that got 23 miles to the gallon on average doesn't seem all that green to me. My fairly large crossover does better (and is rated better ) than that.

Which brings me to my latest pet peeve - meaningless and overused marketing terms that appear to have real meaning. Like “lite”, both green and cloud computing are overused and under defined. Both have come to mean almost anything some slick Willy marketeer wants them to mean.

Green, in the case of Hertz cars, doesn't mean really environmentally friendly. It means not as unfriendly as some other cars. Sort of a “we stink less” kind of promise. That's not what most people understand green to mean. Ask anyone what green is and they will tell you that it somehow helps or enhances the environment, like clean energy.

And all you computer geeks out there should not get too uppity since we have the same problem with cloud computing (and green computing for that matter). Steve Duplessie of ESG has the best definition of cloud computing that I have seen to date. He described it as a strategy for utilization and purchasing. That sentiment is a good description but drives product managers apoplectic. When you sell servers, storage, or software (or increasingly all three) you can't get people to buy a strategy. You need customers to buy stuff. Real stuff. Stuff that can be shipped in a box. You can't ship strategy.

So the response is to slap the word cloud on everything from hardware to software to services. Like green, it's meant to make people feel virtuous about buying something. I buy some VMWare software and slap it on a “cloud capable” server and I doing the cloud thing! Aren't I smart. I buy some offsite storage like Amazon S3 or rent a piece of software from Google instead of buying it and I'm the cloud king! Woo hoo!

There are two outcomes for this type of overheated terminology. One, sooner or later folks wise up and start to get annoyed at the labels, even when they are useful labels. Second, they get confused and stop buying the stuff we need to sell to stay in business. We came perilously close to that with SAN and NAS ten years ago and “Web 2.0” almost became a dirty word. Everyone get hurt when we do this sort of thing.

Here's my rules of thumb regarding marketing terms:

  1. When one term can mean many different things, it's a bad term.

  2. If you need white papers to simply describe what you mean, it's a bad term.

  3. If you start to see a term everywhere even where you shouldn't, it's a bad term. Or at least has jumped the shark.

  4. If you ask five people what something means and get three different answers, it's a bad term.

  5. If VC's are investing in something with that term, it's a bad term. Just kidding about the VC's. We love you guys. Give us money!

What I'm waiting on now is Pond Computing. You know, green and cloudy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

More on the Microsoft Word Patent Infringement

I am truly fascinated by the Microsoft-i4i patent infringement case. What's not to love. A small company takes on one of the biggest money makers from one of the biggest companies and wins! Today, Groklaw ( published links to the court documents along with some commentary. It's really good stuff.

As I have (repeatedly) mentioned before, I'm not a lawyer. I'm a technologist and business person. Some of the arguments presented in the documents are technical legal arguments. I won't even begin to comment on those.

I also won't comment on the whole idea of software patents. I'll let the folks at Groklaw do that. In this case it really doesn't matter because it's not what the case is about. The core issue is whether Microsoft should have known better and done something different before adopting OpenXML.

What caught my attention immediately was how the court got the subtle technical arguments presented to it. Clearly, this is not a case of some judge living in the DOS age. Despite Microsoft's protests to the contrary, the court understood the technical arguments and simply didn't agree with Microsoft. Too bad for the boys in Redmond – someone found a judge with the geek gene.

The opinion goes even further and says that there is no evidence that the jury didn't get it either. In a way, the court says that unless you can prove that the jury is stupid, you shouldn't assume they are. Truth be told, the technical aspects are not that hard to understand. Despite all kinds of obfuscation, it appears (at least to the judge) that the jury understood the issues well enough to decide rationally. As normal people become more sophisticated about software and computers, the “ jury is a bunch of technology dolts” argument will be harder to make.

Here are a few additional thoughts based on the court documents:

  1. The court understood that a metacode was like a programming instruction designed to manipulate content for display. The definition it used was “an individual instruction which controls the interpretation of the content of the data.” This is dead on. A file of codes mapped to the content is the metacode map called out in the patent claims. I do have to wonder if this definition could be applied to other types of instruction-to-content mapping schemes like CSS. However, the patent is pretty narrow (which is probably why it was defensible). Further study is required.

  2. The Finisar vs. DirectTV ruling popped up. The short form of Finisar is that if you sell a component of something that is important to the product and infringes, the whole darn thing infringes. You can't buy an infringing LCD component, put it in a TV and say “TV's aren't patentable!” Sorry. Doesn't work that way. It was used in legal arguments around contributory infringement. Finisar is something to watch out for when you buy components. If you put something in that infringes on a patent you might be hit over the head with it, even if you get it from someone else. Know the IP situation at your vendors!

  3. What is even better is that i4i's claim to infringement was proven, in part, by a Microsoft email! An email from an employee that indicated they knew they were infringing. From the court's opinion:
    i4i even presented an internal Microsoft email from January of 2003 containing i4i’s product name, the patent number, and a statement from a Microsoft employee that i4i’s technology would be made “obsolete” by the accused WORD product (which admittedly added XML functionality to the previous version of Microsoft’s WORD product).”

    It almost seems like a joke that Microsoft, who sells products to manage email for eDiscovery, could get hit over the head with a smoking gun email. Probably created in Outlook and sent from Exchange. For this alone, Microsoft should be embarrassed.

  4. I love the arguments about what a data structure is. It was almost Clintonesque, on the order of “depends what 'is' is.” Even Microsoft's own expert had to concede that their own previous arguments support the i4i definitions. And you wonder why the jury didn't believe Microsoft. That and the email maybe.

  5. Obviousness was obviously argued. Microsoft based it's obviousness argument on the inventors' own previous software. The inventors themselves disputed this and apparently the jury believed them. Again, who are you going to believe? They guys who invented it in the first place or the alleged thieves? Discuss amongst yourselves.

  6. At one point, Microsoft must have argued that since the USPTO was willing to reexamine the patent, that shows that it could be invalid. I like that one a lot. The judge, not so much. The court rightly points out that looking something over a second time is not that same as saying it's invalid.

In the end, reading the court documents provides a picture of a jury and judge who actually understood what the deep issues were. That's encouraging. You hear so much about juries and courts that give enormous awards based on emotion because they don't understand business, technology, medicine, or science. That does not appear to be the case here. Big message here – don't rely on stupid juries. They aren't so stupid.

A couple of other takeaways. One, even mighty Microsoft can be hit in the head with an email. Get control of that now. This is an example where someone has to train folks not to write this type of email in the first place. I'm still chuckling over this one.

Second, take software patents seriously. It is clear that Microsoft knew that this patent existed. They just assumed they could get away with ignoring it or beat i4i into submission. Such arrogance should not be tolerated in any company. All of this unpleasantness could have been averted. I bet Microsoft could have bought out i4i for much less than the litigation is costing them.

And finally, whether you like or dislike software patents, this is an argument in favor of them. i4i, a real company and not a patent troll, would have had their technology stolen from them without the protection of the patent. The system worked and protected the small inventor against the giant corporation. Huzzah for patents!

I promised I wouldn't comment on software patents, didn't I? Sorry about that but I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

i4i Pokes Microsoft In the Eye

Microsoft just a got a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. It was delivered by a company out of Toronto called i4i with the help of a judge in Texas. They have, in theory, halted sales of Microsoft Word 2003 and up and the Office bundles that contain them. How long this will actually hold, given appeals and such, is uncertain but the basis for the injunction is interesting.

i4i has a patent, US Patent 5,787,449“Method and system for manipulating the architecture and the content of a document separately from each other” , that describes how to finely format documents without embedding formating codes in them. The i4i method is to create a map of formatting marks associated with locations in a document. On the surface, this may sound like a common method but on closer inspection that might not be so.

The patent application itself gives a rather good history of document formatting starting with pre-printing press days through to the current electronic documents. You see, the most typical method for formatting electronic documents is to embedded formatting codes into the document itself. That's how the .DOC, RTF, and lots of other document formats work. You want a word to be bold, you embed a code for start bold text and end bold text in the document. In the old Wordstar days you actually saw the formats in the document. I guess I'm showing my age here.

The second most usual way to format an electronic document is to assign codes to parts of a document (such as a paragraph or header) which describe their structure. An external source file is then used to provide formatting for the document based on the structure. This is common on web sites since HTML describes the structure of a document but not its format. CSS describes the look of a document by defining the format of each type of content. So, in an HTML document, all <H1> tags define a header but not how the header looks. CSS defines how H1 headers look when displayed. These are further modified by embedding codes the old fashion way such as inline CSS. Separating structure from formatting has the advantage of allowing you to present different views of the same content. This is one of the ways that websites are able to give you a special view formatted for printing rather than viewing.

Both approaches have limitations. The first method tends to tie the document to a particular software package or API limiting it's openness. Like MS Word .DOC documents, the file might not look or print right when rendered in a different word processor or even a different version of MS Word. The second method tends to take a sledgehammer approach, coarsely limiting how the document is formatted. To get fine formatting you have to resort to kludges, such as using format types in only one place, or embedding codes the old-fashioned way and ruining portability.

What i4i came up with is a different method. It claims a system which creates a map, called a metacode map, which maps formatting to specific places in a document. It doesn't need to know anything about the structure of the content. In fact, it might have no structure at all other than what is forced on it by the formatting. The map is external to the actual document content allowing for different format files to be used with different content. This is apparently what Microsoft does in .DOCX, .XML, and .DOCM files. The i4i approach combines the fine formatting control of embedded formats with the portability and multi-view advantage of the external definition approach.

Since I'm not an expert on Word file formats, I can't comment on whether they infringe on the i4i patents. The judge seems to think so or he would not have ordered an injunction against the sale of the product. That means the judge thinks that Microsoft is infringing and doing harm to the patent holders.

What is Microsoft to do? They could try and get the injunction overturned. Likely they will try and do that no matter what. They might try and invalidate the patent but one usually does that before the injunction is handed down so I'm guessing they haven't had a lot of luck with that.

They can license the patent from i4i. I can't imagine why they wouldn't do that in the first place. No matter what it costs, it can't be as bad as this. At the moment, i4i has no real incentive to license anything to them. They have Word at a standstill and US$200M in Microsoft money. It doesn't get any better. Heck, if I was Google, I would buy i4i just to get the patent and kick Microsoft while they are down.

They could also change Word. To stop infringing, they will need to adopt another file format that is not tied to the patent. There are open source formats, like the ones that uses, or they could fall back on an older format. In any case, if they can't overturn the patent, they will need to change Word or pay more money to i4i.

There is a bigger problem looming and not just for Microsoft. How many other folks do the same thing? It is a logical thing to do. That doesn't make it legally obvious, especially in 1998 when the patent was issued. Most software companies tend to encode content in XML and use something like an XML style sheet or CSS to format it. However, if Microsoft could come up with this method for Word, why not lots of others. i4i should be emboldened to go after more infringing companies now. Once you have slain one big giant, the others do not seem so intimidating. Smaller companies will feel like easy pickings after Microsoft.

My advice to Microsoft – change Word now. Use the same format as It also helps you with your open source cred.

My advice to everyone else who writes document-centric software – check your products. i4i will now have a more solid patent. If you do something like this you might want to change it or come up with an alternative. Otherwise you have only yourself to blame.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Tom's Cheapskates Roll Call of Productivity and Multimedia Apps for the Truly Frugal

When I blogged about Microsoft and Netbooks, I made the statement that nobody uses because they already use Microsoft Office. While I still maintain that is true, it doesn't mean that you can't dispense with all those expensive software applications in favor of open source. That includes Microsoft Office.

In fact, it has become even easier to put together a sophisticated set of software for everyday use using only open source or freeware offerings. There is now a critical mass in productivity and multimedia applications that can be had for nothing. This is the good news.

The bad news is that the free stuff is rarely as elegant as the commercial versions. In almost all cases, the GUI leaves much to be desired and not just the eye candy part. Most free software seems to have been designed by and for computer geeks. There is a somewhat old school feel to much of it and, at times, can be downright confusing to use. If you compare software like Audacity, a sound recording and editing tool, to commercial software such as Pro Tools or even the software that comes bundled with a Mac, the interface falls woefully short. This means the learning curve is high, especially for non-professional users.

So, I now present to you my Cheapskates Roll Call of Productivity and Multimedia Apps for the Truly Frugal. The first thing you will probably note is that there is no video editing software on the list. I have never found a free video editing suite that is reliable (as in doesn't crash a lot) and so I stick with bundled commercial applications.

Office Applications:

Okay, they need to figure out the name problem. Because of trademark issues, the people have to tack on the .org to the name of the suite. That's stupid. Get a new name. No one will care.

Strengths: It's a complete office suite,with MS Office compatibility and native exporting to PDF. The Writer word processor application is a darn good word processor. The presentation and spreadsheet applications are also pretty good though not great.

Weaknesses: The Draw program is just plain lame, hard to use, and lacks features. The GUI is ugly and many icons don't look like anything. The database program seems more techie than Access and lacks application tools.

Email: Thunderbird from Mozilla

This is an example where the open source/freeware version far exceeds the commercial variety. Simply the best email client for most people with awesome anti-spam filters. Add the Lightning add-on for calendaring and you have everything you need.

Strengths: Manages multiple email accounts as one. Freely available add-ons give Thunderbird all kinds of features that are not found in other email clients without creating bloatware. The anti-spam and security features are unbeatable. It's fast and easy too. Lots of support for use with online services like Google Calender, Remember the Milk, and Trip It. Thunderbird integrates news feeds from RSS, ATOM, and Newsgroups into your email.

Weaknees: No native Exchange or Blackberry sync support. This kills it in the business environment. Yes you can have Thunderbird access the same LDAP compliant address books as a Blackberry and make Exchange available as a POP server but that's a kludge. Could also use IM support.

Browser: FireFox from Mozilla and Chrome from Google

This isn't fair of course since almost all browsers are free. Still, you don't have to live with Internet Explorer. As a side note, this is what I find so odd about the recent EU slapdown of Microsoft. They didn't seem to understand that you can install five other browsers with less effort than uploading photos to Flickr. I still don't get it. But I digress...

I could write for days about the strengths and weaknesses of these two browsers. Needless to say, they are better than IE and everyone knows it or doesn't care.

Image Editing: GIMP (Gnu Image Processor).

Despite another lousy name which makes it sound both broken and politically incorrect, GIMP is the best image editor this side of Adobe Photoshop. You can actually get an add-on that makes it look and act sort of like Photoshop.

Strengths: Up to your eyes in features and filters. You can pretty much do everything imaginable in GIMP. Lots of add-ons give you all kinds of additional image manipulation features.

Weaknesses: A lot of time add-ons simply don't work and they are always tough to install. The standard GUI is also quite hideous which is ironic given what the software does. It can be hard to do more complex manipulations that commercial software has wizards for.

Sound Editing and Recording: Audacity.

Gotta love the name which is clearly a play on words. Audacity is a sound recording and editing program with a host of features including the ability to use industry standard VST plugins. This makes Audacity a great tool for the amateur and a platform for the pro.

Strengths: Gobs of features. Does all the basics such as analog and digital recording plus lots of signal processing to clean up what you record. My favorite feature is the ability to mark places in an analog signal and export them as separate MP3 files. If you are ripping an old analog record, this is a very necessary function.

Weaknesses: No mixer. You can mix but it is not as simple of moving a bunch of virtual sliders. The interface is busy and complicated. Compared to commercial offerings like Pro-Tools, Audacity can be confusing. A lot of the plugins you find on the Internet don't work well or at all. You need to have a good grounding in signal analysis or sound engineering to do most anything.

Instant Messaging: Digsby

I've tried a lot of IM clients including Trillian and Pidgin. None compare to Digsby. What makes Digsby special is that it can handle a wide range of Internet-based messaging. Not only does it connect to every major IM system, it can also connect to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, POP email, and Online Email like Yahoo. Email support mostly allows you to preview messages and launch the real site or client, but that is more than most of the others do.

Strengths: Extensive support for all the major (and quite a number of the minor) IM networks plus social networks and email. Malleable and attractive interface with support for skins. Good Twitter support.

Weaknesses: Email support is not complete so it cannot be used as an all-in-one messaging platform. Digsby also lacks user created plugins which limit functionality compared to more open offerings such as Pidgin. It is also the only program mentioned here that is Windows-only. The website says that “ digsby is coming soon for Mac and Linux!” but that is not the same as now or even “November”.

I'm sure there are a bunch more if I took the time to think about it. What is most encouraging is that the ability exists to put together a complete set of desktop applications for nothing. You just have to compromise a bit, especially in terms of support for corporate systems and GUI. That is might be enough for some folks to pass. Too bad. They are missing out on a great opportunity in these frugal times.