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.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Take Your Hands Off My Hard Drive You Damn Filthy Ape!

If this is the future of computing, then I want out now.

Not something that I would typically say is it? I've had just about enough of the run to the cloud. The latest shove out the door is the announcement of Google Chrome OS. The name says it all. The entire OS will act like – basically be – a browser. No local applications. No local storage. While I'm confident that they will figure out how to cache data when you are disconnected (they do it now with Google Gears) it will still be completely dependent on the on-line applications and storage.

Am I the only one who gets what's wrong with this. Let's start with complete dependence on a service provider. We finally can choose broadband services from the cable people or the phone people or the cell phone people. Yet now we are supposed to become drones to Google. What happens if I don't like Google applications or have a problem with them holding on to my data? It's not like moving the data will be easy, if even possible.

And how comfortable are you with Google having sensitive data like a trade secret or the name of your doctor. That's what we are talking about here. Handing your personal or critical data to another company. Are we all confident that they are up to the task.

Can we talk availability? How many times in the last year has Gmail been out for some reason? Too many for anyone that isn't a casual user. So this probably isn't about the corporate folks but more on that later.

Do you mind tossing out all of your applications? That's what Chrome OS is all about. With Chrome OS, Google may well be able to control who you can get applications from. Like Google or their partners. So many people whine about how Microsoft dominates their lives. Okay. There are alternatives that don't require that you hand over your precious data to some company. Free ones at that. The proper reaction is not to hand over the keys to the kingdom to Google. Microsoft may own the application space but they don't own your data.

What worries me most is their approach to rolling out the software. So far, they are only releasing source code that is optimized for solid state devices. That reveals their strategy. Make this an OS that predominantly comes with consumer products. That way the great masses don't realize what they are buying into. Ooh. Look grandma! Cheap netbook/phone/blender doo hickeys. Sorry, but the “no local, persistent storage” aspect of this gives me the willies. Google wants our data and I'm not sure for what purpose.

So, call me a Luddite but I don't like what I see so far. Blindly handing over your data in exchange for a cheap device seems like a bad trade off for me. I'm not against cloud applications – in a controlled corporate data center. I am against people unwittingly handing over data to a faceless corporation with no guarantees. It's the dependency I despise.

The other night I envisioned a new Mac commercial in 2011. The first character is the slacker Mac guy (who never appears to have a job – just saying). The second is the boring PC guy who at least looks dependable. Finally, the Google Chrome guy who is a shadowy figure, dark, mysterious, and somewhat unsettling. As soon as the Mac guy starts to say something about the Chrome guy, the shadow reaches out and engulfs him. The last sound from slacker Mac is his muffled scream. The PC guy cries and wets himself.

And in the distance there is disembodied laughter. An eerie voice intones “Don't be evil” followed by maniacal cackling. Dissolve to black.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sudo You?

Whenever I write about patents, trademarks, and copyrights, I'm always careful to state two things up front. First, I'm not a lawyer. It is quite possible that I am missing some part of law that makes my opinion invalid. I try to understand the technical underpinnings of the patents and see what it means to the computer industry and economy at large. I'm not trying to be an attorney.

Second, I am completely in favor of intellectual property protection. I am not one of those folks who believes that patents are evil and that all software should be open source. The fact of the matter is, intellectual property protections provide motive to continue to innovate. They protect the small inventor from having their life's work pulled out from under them by a deep pocketed company. Same goes for copyright and trademark protections. History shows that if people can't benefit from their work, they'll do something else and we all lose out on the richness of life.

Patents are monopolies granted to an inventor in exchange for adding to the useful knowledge of the world. Without them, the world would be full of virtually permanent monopolies as inventors strive to keep inventions secret rather than disclose them. It is also well understood that without the time based monopoly, many inventors would not recoup their investment in innovation and wouldn't bother inventing in the first place. When it costs nearly US$800 million to develop a new drug, patent monopolies are the only way to recoup the costs and make a profit.

That's why I took it with a grain of salt when I saw the initial commentary on the new Microsoft Patent ( number 7,617,530 ) issued November 10, 2009 and originally filed in April of 2005. You see, there are a lot of people who hate the idea of software patents. In their eyes, no software patent is valid. I'm still not sure where I stand on software patents nor am I a Microsoft hater, so I tried to turn a critical eye to the patent. Once I read it (and read it and read it and read it...) I came to a very firm conclusion: What was the USPTO thinking? This is so obviously wrong that I can't imagine how this got through.

The patent is entitled “Rights Elevator”. It describes “systems and/or methods” to allow a computer user to elevate their rights from a lower, standard user account to higher level administrative rights. If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. It has existed in UNIX systems since at least the 1970's. In UNIX and Linux we use a command called su, for superuser, to obtain the rights of another user with higher level rights. There is even a short hand version called sudo which runs a command or program once with elevated rights.

All patents have to pass certain tests for them to be granted by the US Patent Office. For a patent to be granted the claims must describe an invention that is novel (new), useful, and non-obvious to practitioners of the inventor's art. These tests are important. Without them a lot of inventions would be granted patents that should not. That would, in turn, inhibit innovation.

It is hard to argue that this patent passes at least two of the three tests. I agree that it is useful. The ability to briefly elevate rights to install software or copy files to a restricted directory has been proven to be good method of balancing security with the need to do certain important functions. I have a Unix book from the late 1980's that tells a sysadmin how to do that using existing UNIX commands like su. Therein lies the problem. It has already been proven to work because it already exists. That kind of kills the novelty of the invention doesn't it. The patent makes the argument that remembering a user name and a password is too difficult. Part of what is says is innovative is not having to remember a user name. That's a load of hooey. How hard is root to remember?

Let's be nice though. The Microsoft patent also includes a component to select a higher level account with a GUI and ask for a password. You have to admit, given the prevalence of graphical operating systems today that seems like an obvious addition. Wait! Did I say obvious! That seems to run afoul of the non-obvious test. In fact, this is something that most Linux distributions do today. They even reference Ubuntu, Debian, and Red Hat in their prior art list. How is this method any different from what is already done in Linux and Unix systems.

To be fair, this method of elevating rights temporarily with a graphical interface may not have been used when the patent was filed in 2005. I don't think that's true but I'll give the USPTO the benefit of the doubt. The method outlined in the patent, however, doesn't move far beyond sudo (which is also referenced in the prior art listing). Certainly not far enough to claim novelty and non-obviousness. It doesn't take an expert in software and operating systems to see that, never mind someone practiced in the art of system administration.

This method is so ubiquitous that everyone does this. Everyone except Microsoft that is. Windows, in all it's forms, has always required you to either have administrator rights or log in as someone with those rights, when that was possible at all. The Windows Vista UAC allowed you to override built in restrictions not elevate your rights temporarily. The UAC never even kept you from doing something. It just nagged you that it was bad. Windows 7 finally catches up with the rest of the world and Microsoft is trying to patent it. Talk about making lemonade from lemons.

How did this one get by? There could be a lot of reasons including overworked patent examiners. The patent should be overturned and likely (hopefully) will. In the meantime the patent office needs to do something. Maybe independent panels who don't work for a vendor. I'm not sure. All that patents like this do is throw fuel on the fire for people who want to eliminate patents, especially software patents.

This one should never have been granted. But then, I'm no lawyer nor do I play one on TV.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Obfuscation through non-erudite terminology

I've spent a lot of time around both lawyers and engineers. One of the common complaints about either group is a tendency to say things in non-human terms. The assumption is that there an attempt being made to obscure facts through archaic language. Actually, both groups use their own language in an attempt to be more precise, as do scientists, police, and accountants. It is language designed to communicate to each other not to the world at large. The problems occur when they try and explain what they are doing to folks outside their profession using that same special language.

Marketing folks, on the other hand, are supposed to communicate in ways that customers understand. In my own career, I have often been employed as a geek who can speak, translating from technospeak into plain language. That is the heart of technical marketing.

Instead, we consistently find technical marketing people using language that no one understands. It's not that it's too technical. That would make sense if you are selling to techies. No, quite the opposite. A lot of the time, it simply doesn't make much sense. Let's look at the sampling below. In an attempt to not pick on any one company, I won't say who specific quotes came from. The list was a quick sampling from a number of company websites, technology news sites, white paper titles, and press releases.

  • Navigating to Customer Satisfaction

  • Innovations in Managing IT Service Quality

  • ... To Accelerate Innovation Across The Network

  • Improve Business Efficiency and Agility & Enables organizational agility. These came from two different web sites

  • Sustainability can help you unlock the value of green

  • Provides actionable knowledge

  • Reduce costs as you solve IT challenges across your information infrastructure.

Most of these don't make much sense do they? “Navigating to Customer Satisfaction” would kind of make sense if this were a shipping company (it's not). I'm hoping they really didn't mean “actionable”. “Actionable is a legal term that means an action that is grounds for a lawsuit. If the knowledge is actionable, then I don't want it provided.

My favorite is “Sustainability can help you unlock the value of green.” What does “green” mean here? Besides the color, it is often misused as an adjective to mean environmental friendly. That phrase is, I'll grant you, kind of an obtuse way of saying “good for the environment” but at least people get that. When did green become a noun? Can I have two greens to go? Maybe they mean a putting green. Building a golf course around my green will unlock it's value quite nice, thank you. Or salad greens, perhaps? In that case, the value comes from destroying (that is eating) them not from sustaining them. That sounds more like something I would need Ex Lax for.

I'm not against using language in a sophisticated manner. This blog has a plethora of SAT words like obtuse, obfuscation, archaic , erudite, and, of course, plethora. What I don't like is mangling language, especially in marketing. Marketing is supposed to make it obvious and clear why you should buy something. Instead, we are treated to tongue and mind twisting phrases that only confuse. I don't want to hear “optimizes performance envelope capabilities”. Say “It's much faster” or even “ higher performing” instead. I know what that means without my decoder ring.

Speaking of the decoder ring, here is a (tongue in cheek) glance at part of it. I hope this helps in the future.

TechnoBusiness Marketing Speak

What it really means?

Innovate, Innovation

To make something that is totally new. Or something that sounds new but isn't.


Helping... you to spend money.


Pushing... you to spend money.

Solution, Solutions

A fix to a problem. Or, a bunch of stuff thrown together into groups. We can sell you bundles this way.


Moving around. Like moving your money into our pockets.


To make something so that it is as good as it can be. Unfortunately, we seem to have to optimize constantly so it really doesn't make things optimal.

Efficiency (Attain Efficiency)

Using the least resources possible. Notice, that money is not included in this. Your money anyway.

Productivity (Boost Productivity)

Doing more with fewer resources... including your money.


Not doing stupid things. It does suggest that you are doing some dumb things right now doesn't it? Feel insulted?

Business Need

Stuff your business needs to keep going. As in “our business needs your money”

Sometimes though, you hear something that is pretty straight up. It doesn't mean you believe it but at least you understand it. So, from the front page of Microsoft's website comes “Windows 7 is pretty dope.” It's not hard to guess that someone likes Windows 7. If only we could always be that obvious.