By Graham Crumb | May 17, 2013
In an online discussion concerning an ‘old-school’ geek’s fear of change, there was a lot of back and forth concerning luddism on the one hand and change for change’s sake on the other. At one point, someone chastised the poster for his trepidation.
“I’m going to guess he’s going to look back on his life and realize that he was dumb to think he’d seen it all at age 24. He talks as though the Third Age of Middle Earth is ending…”
In some important ways, it is. The process isn’t complete, but there is a fundamental change happening, and it will discomfit some of us.
The days of ‘Homesteading the Noosphere‘ (as ESR put it), are coming to a close. Scale, network topologies, business models and legal encroachment on the principles of individual online freedom are all conspiring to make the technological world we live in substantially more constrained than it’s been since the internet became part of our lives.
The land rush is over, the cowboys are gone (either buried or rich) and the homesteaders are being bought out by the speculators and tycoons. Community-based governance is under siege by national and international interests.
And this is being reflected in the tech world. The craftsman’s approach to software (always greater in repute than in reality) is decidedly more difficult to practice as a trade than it was. Toolkits are giving way to frameworks and apps replace applications. Backyard-mechanic roadsters and dirt-track races are swallowed up by Nascar – VCs get us excited by the prospect of building only big enough to sell out to someone bigger.
The physical networks themselves are being taken back by the telcos and proffered to governments for surveillance in exchange for ever more egregious rent-seeking behaviour. What we used to call sharing is now piracy. The word ‘copyright’ now means ‘don’t copy at all, ever.’
And in the midst of it all, we’re grateful to lockin-vendors who make Free software difficult, if not impossible, to use. We rent what we used to own. Even our identities are no longer our own.
I grieve to say it, but unless there’s a sudden and immense resurgence of the DIY spirit, especially in peer networking and distributed data, we’re going to fall back into the bad old days of the dumb terminal and the smart network. And that network’s smarts will not exist for our benefit.
I’m pushing 50 now, and do I fear change? Not really. I just regret the lost freedom, the creative anarchy of the ’90s, the ability to hack something cool and new, the chance to achieve things never before possible. It’s not gone yet. We could still turn things around. But every day we don’t brings us a day closer to the day when we can’t any longer.
By Graham Crumb | March 14, 2013
It’s like clockwork, really. Someone stumbles across a story purporting to show the benighted and backward peoples of some far corner of the world, and everyone jumps up, bemoaning the fact that, in this day and age, people are still capable of ignorance, superstition and occasionally, brutality to others.
This month’s installment comes to us courtesy of new media. Mobile phone photographs of the torture and execution of a woman from the highlands of Papua New Guinea caused a global furore, typified by the Global Mail’s supercilious headline: It’s 2013, And They’re Burning ‘Witches’.
Who is this ‘they’ you keep talking about?
It’s really hard to know where to begin with a story like this. Yes, witchcraft, magic and sorcery are still practiced widely – not only in Papua New Guinea, but in many parts of the world. To give you an idea how ingrained it remains in some societies, Vanuatu recently saw a man plead guilty to it. Yes, he himself believed that he had injured someone by magical means.
Happily, in the rest of the world, such superstitious folderol no longer exists, right? In place of magic, we have graduated to ghosts, angels and auras, terrorists, extra-terrestrials and illegal aliens. Honestly, do we even pause to see what’s on the (so-called) Discovery channel before writing headlines like this?
Sure, you reply, but at least we don’t lynch people any more. We don’t drag them from their home, cut them with bush knives, shave their head, douse them with acid and then burn them alive. That would be a fair point, if it were true.
Read any national news service long enough and it’s bound to come out – whether it’s a gang rape in India, an honour killing in Pakistan or in the London suburbs, murder of albinos in central Africa, race-baiting in the American south or gay-bashing in Moscow… it’s still there. Everywhere you look, the weak and the outcast are preyed upon. It’s not happening everywhere all the time, but it’s happening.
And yes, it’s unutterably wrong.
It’s also innately human. It may come from our most bestial nature, and rule of law does sometimes operate to curb it, but cruelty, victimisation and scapegoating remain essential, albeit shameful, parts of human nature. If you live in a society with a functioning police force and a more liberal set of social standards backed by solid legislation, you may be able to operate under the illusion that such inclinations have somehow been expunged from your nature. As someone who is dealing (not abstractly, but right here, right now) with the threat of violence in a society that condones it, let me assure you: it has not.
Good laws may help, if only to raise awareness and make it a matter of public record that violent abuse, no matter what motivates it, is simply wrong. But having laws on the books serves no purpose if society itself chooses not to reject this behaviour. And frankly, that won’t happen if one half of it is busy sitting back and castigating the other.
There is nothing easier than name-calling when someone’s already called you names. So my advice to you holier-than-thou commentators is to try a different tack. Start from the assumption that we are, all of us, beasts at our core, with only social opprobrium and the policeman on the corner to hold us back.
Napoleon’s famous observation about a world power built from a nation of shopkeepers can guide us to a useful next step. The more our day-to-day lives are invested in peace, politeness and order, the more reason we have to use the state’s resources to defend good behaviour. Never forget that, no matter how difficult it may be to accept, the violent abuse of vulnerable people is more often than not punishment for social transgression. The secret therefore, is to change what is seen as transgression. We achieve this by embracing others, welcoming them into the fold, and sharing our prosperity, wealth and values.
Facile, mocking headlines decrying the Other take us in exactly the opposite direction.
By the way, did nobody else remark upon the fact that, were it not for mobile technology, this killing –like the countless others that came before– would never even have been remarked upon? The very fact that the criminal act was recorded and disseminated speaks to an opportunity for change. If, that is, we get past our own prejudices and embrace it.
[This was originally published in Pacific Politics.]
By Graham Crumb | March 11, 2013
For years, the devil stood behind my shoulder,
More menacing than metaphor or fact,
And mocking, scrutinised my every act.
Strengthened by each sin, but never bolder,
He preyed on each miscue; and so bewildered,
I never knew so much as what I lacked.
The prism of his gaze was bright and cracked,
And through it, every failure fused and filtered.
No saint had ever such a close companion,
Nor misery as sweet, nor pain as dear,
Infallible, unflinching and sincere
Till hope, faith and belief were all abandoned.
In terror, in my guilt, I never crossed him,
But aged and bored, I find now that I’ve lost him.
Topics: literary | Comments Off
By Graham Crumb | February 6, 2013
Science doesn’t require a God of any kind to be complete.
Some people construe this to mean that they can keep God in one pocket and science in the other. But science is much more dangerous than that. In rationalising a space between the two, people implicitly accept Aristotle’s theory of the primum movens (or, unmoved mover). In other words, we can regress evolution, or cosmology or what have you back beyond the point of measurement, and beyond that resides the godhead. So Big Bang is okay, because God lit the fuse, as it were.
But the fly in the ointment is that you can actually push science past Big Bang and it still remains coherent (it’s not easily testable, but it’s theoretically coherent). Likewise, you can reverse engineer forces and causes of the evolutionary process past the origin of life. In other words, science doesn’t just end where God begins, and vice versa. No, science is complete - that is, it can conceive of the universe in its totality independently of any conception whatsoever of a Creator.
… Which doesn’t leave a lot of space for God, if you’re honest about it.
(And God, for his part, says, ‘I am that I am‘ and plagues me with boils. So, swings and roundabouts, I guess.)
By Graham Crumb | December 20, 2012
WordPress 3.5 has a very nice photo new gallery UI, and because I’m the kind of guy who just can’t be happy with nice, I had to go and hack it to make it run a slide show by default.
If you’re a wordpress.com user, you already have the slideshow feature – and I’ll bet money that it’s a damn sight more refined than mine – but for those of us running our own sites, here’s all you need to create simple, straighforward slideshows using any size of image:
Read the rest of this entry »
By Graham Crumb | December 8, 2012
Over the last year or so, we’ve seen a string of articles and papers about the small but sudden growth of the internet throughout the Pacific region. Ranging in tone between cautious optimism and untempered –and often uncritical– enthusiasm, few capture the essence of the struggle that Pacific island states face even keeping pace with the rate of change in the world of telecommunications and the internet.
When I first arrived in Vanuatu the better part of a decade ago, the entire country was sharing only slightly more bandwidth than I’d had at my personal disposal back in Canada. To add insult to injury, the cost was roughly ten times greater even for the paltry amounts on sale. Getting access to what would be considered even a nominal connection in the developed world involved expenditures equivalent to thousands of dollars a month.
Now, following years of consistent and determined effort, Vanuatu has widely available commercial internet in its urban areas. But prices remain high. As this piece is being written, the cost of a 2 megabit connection (the lowest tier of what is considered broadband in many developed nations) starts at about AUD800 per month, and rises quickly once usage fees are factored in.
In spite of this, internet service providers have found inventive ways to get people started, offering small (cynics might say paltry) connection speeds and bandwidth limits. Comparisons aside, such packages are at least sufficient to move the uptake indicator from effectively zero to… something slightly more than zero.
Make no mistake; that first step is a doozy. It’s allowed tens of thousands of people who never had any access at all to begin using the internet on a regular basis. As many a breathless commentator (including myself, on occasion) has noted, this has led to a vast increase in public dialogue online. This has led in turn to equally breathless speculation about the likelihood of a coming revolution in political awareness and activism, social justice, education and countless other shibboleths of progressive idealism.
With a few notable exceptions, commentators ignore key details about this incipient social revolution:
First, this ‘revolution’ resembles Iran’s Green movement more than Egypt’s uprising. In the vast majority of Pacific countries, price and availability limit access to all but a tiny proportion of the population. And these people are almost exclusively urban, affluent and educated. In short, they are already the best informed and most engaged. Simple arithmetic leads to the conclusion that limited access to internet limits the scope of its impact as well.
The internet is a ‘force multiplier’, in the sense that it renders many kinds of labour-intensive tasks vastly more efficient. While the impact on the minority who have recently begun to access it daily is immense, how much greater it could be if the other number in the equation (the sum of the population using it) were to rise even higher.
Second, the results of public dialogue, awareness and coordination on politics are measurable, but decidedly mixed. In Papua New Guinea, we saw a number of new faces in Parliament whose election can at least in part be attributed to the profile they garnered by participating in online fora such as Facebook’s Sharp Talk group. But we also saw many familiar faces returned, some of whom were widely reviled online. The same can be said of Vanuatu, where populist MP Ralph Regenvanu repeated his record-setting electoral performance, successfully expanded his base and managed to elect three other MPs under his Graon Mo Jastis (Land and Justice) banner. Regenvanu is the first politician since Independence to run an entirely issues-oriented campaign, and his appeal has only been amplified by his consistent presence online.
But popularity didn’t help Regenvanu on the tactical level. He won enough votes individually that, due to the vagaries of Vanuatu’s Single Non-Transferable Vote system (which elects multiple MPs in each constituency), he could have got three MPs past the post. Failures in messaging and on-the-ground organising, however, meant that his party’s second candidate in the capital constituency missed capturing the necessary votes to number him among the winners.
More to the point, Vanuatu too saw many familiar faces returned to Parliament. While its future seems uncertain, the current cabinet is nearly identical to the one that led the country to the polls only weeks ago. Even if it is ousted in the coming days, the champions and heroes of the small but growing online community can hope for a minority voice at best in any new government.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, commentators and researchers often underestimate the fragility of this flowering in the digital sphere and overstate its importance relative to other uses of digital communications. Despite the occasional public bun fight over self-censorship and media standards, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Fiji government has been quite successful in its efforts to, in its words, ‘raise standards’ across the spectrum of media, both online and off, and to introduce ‘balance’. The stifling effects of official disapproval on certain kinds of commentary and content in Fiji are making themselves felt throughout the online community. They reach so far that it’s becoming harder to engage writers to perform any kind of independent analysis of government policy, ironically, even to praise it.
But to express unmitigated dismay at this outcome would be naïve, to say the least. Given that Fiji has the most highly developed telecommunications infrastructure in the region, and that the current regime has presided over its significant growth and improvement, why should we be surprised if they prove adept at making sure it serves their purposes? There is a very real chilling effect generated by the imposition of state views on the public dialogue, that’s true. But simply to write off the region-leading gains that have been made in telecommunications pricing and availability –as a recent Lowy paper did– is a textbook case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
In last week’s budget speech, Voreqe Bainimarama committed his government to building ten new telecentres in the coming year, and to removing duties entirely from smart phones in order to encourage uptake across the board. Informal reports indicate as well that there are plans afoot to provide broadband access to ‘almost 100%’ of the nation’s schools within the next four years.
The plain fact is that Fiji is a regional leader in understanding and embracing the importance of broad and deep investment in telecommunications capacity. They see their role in the coming years as that of a ‘knowledge hub’ for the Pacific.
Improved communications capacity, therefore, does not necessarily equate to increased freedom of speech, nor indeed the flowering of a diverse and broad-based social dialogue. This should not be news to us.
Melanesian and Polynesian societies all feature tight familial bonds and a preference for dialogue over confrontation. It’s not at all surprising, then, to see online groups arise whose membership comprises the majority of the online community. Hunger for change is generally evident, but it’s not overwhelming. There are in fact deeply conservative aspects to Pacific societies that can counterbalance and often quash an individual’s ability to enact change. Wantok-ism and a long tradition of respect for the so-called Big Man can overwhelm the desire to challenge the status quo.
If only to view the development of internet in the Pacific more clearly, it’s useful to look at online discourse and the networks that make it possible as separate, but linked endeavours. Building out infrastructure widely and deeply are necessary preconditions to achieving the progressive ends we most commonly associate with social media. But in and of themselves, they are not sufficient.
When we look at the landscape through this split prism, we can learn important lessons about how to achieve the former. The same paper that was so quick to toss aside Fiji’s recent gains ascribed the massive expansion of mobile services in the region to ‘deregulation’. Actually, the opposite is true. Virtually every successful step taken in this sector has been the result of increased government engagement in telecommunications: by negotiating (sometimes foisting) competition on incumbent monopolies, intervening when players tried to ignore or alter the rules, by closing the door to the back room and by giving their regulatory authorities the ability to bite back.
This may discomfit some, but in the Pacific it seems that more government, not less, is the recipe for success in terms of making the internet a part of their peoples’ lives. While Digicel’s example may have shown that even small markets can be profitable, the relatively large investments required to build out international fibre-optic links and robust nationwide networks carrying more than token bandwidth to the entire country are enough to make even the most risk-loving enterprise blanch. Simply put, no matter how much demand ensues, the capital investment costs per customer are astronomical.
It’s been argued that the only way a commercial entity can countenance such an investment is through a monopoly arrangement –the very thing that Pacific countries have spent the better part of a decade getting out from under. But even when other approaches are tried, the numbers are daunting. Tonga’s undersea cable connection to Fiji is heavily subsidised by the World Bank, and it’s being developed on a consortium basis, but the government the largest shareholder by a wide margin. Even with all of these interventions, prices promise to remain extremely high.
Simply put, it’s nearly impossible to make a profit-based business case for the kind of connectivity that will be required to provide affordable, widely accessible internet services in the Pacific. And those voice and data companies who do invest in the region will go to great lengths to protect their investment, up to and including interfering in the political process. The Pacific’s success (or failure) in embracing information technologies, therefore, will be determined by the level of commitment and firmness of will shown by government.
Even under the best possible circumstances, any gains will likely be tenuous. Renesys, the internet consulting group that broke the news of national internet blackouts in Iran, Egypt and more recently in Syria, recently used their international traffic monitoring tools to find out which countries were most vulnerable to disruptions in internet service. Needless to say, Pacific island countries were over-represented among those faced with ‘Severe’ or ‘Significant’ risk. Not even Fiji managed to find its way into the ‘Low’ risk category.
Renesys was worried mostly about the ease with which a government could turn off the internet tap on its own people. That may be a worry for some in the region, too, but those very same attributes that make national networks vulnerable to political interference also make them vulnerable to systemic threats. In 2004, the failure of a single satellite resulted in numerous nations going entirely dark, some for days. As the Renesys survey shows, little has changed in the interim.
If –and as we’ve seen, it’s a big if– Pacific nations do somehow succeed in integrating the internet into people’s daily lives, we still have no guarantee a flowering of awareness and online dialogue will necessarily follow. Once again, those in power will play an over-large role. No matter what decisions they make, there will be winners and losers at the top. Canny politicians and parties will follow the example set both by the insurgents in Vanuatu and PNG and by the incumbents in Fiji. Those who are adept at messaging and dialogue will likely flourish. Those who remain aloof, who ignore or refuse to take up these new social tools, will slowly (too slowly for some) but inevitably find themselves pushed to the sidelines. But they may succeed in slowing development for years before that happens.
The revolution, in other words, may not be digitised; there may not be any revolution at all. Every outcome, for better or for worse, will be determined by the will of governments to act.
By Graham Crumb | November 5, 2012
This editorial piece was published in today’s Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper.
On Friday last week, RVS Tukoro arrived in Port Vila harbor and delivered its cargo of ballot boxes from the outer islands at Port Vila’s electoral office. Numerous (and sometimes contradictory) anecdotal voting results have already reached the public, but it’s clear that the official numbers could be released before the week is out. Assuming, that is, that there aren’t any signs of systematic malfeasance.
Be that as it may, one thing seems perfectly clear: None of the old guard political parties has a distinct advantage over the others. Neither have the insurgent parties managed to establish more than a foothold.
Speculation is rife about what this means for Vanuatu’s political future. Some have worried publicly about another hodge-podge government, ruled by maverick MPs jumping from side to side of the government fence, chasing the sweetest deals.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s a lot to ask, but let’s ignore for the moment the personalities involved and just look at the numbers. Assuming the unofficial results are at least ballpark-accurate, the combination of numbers from the first post-independence parties gets very close to the notional 26 needed to form a working government. If the VP, NUP and UMP parties were able, even for a while, to suspend their mistrust of one another and limit their individual ambitions, they could put themselves in a position where they could cobble together a working government.
(Note that I’m excluding Sato Kilman’s PPP from this equation for the moment, first because spokesman John Shing has been publicly stating that Sato’s intention is to reform his old cabinet, and because it’s inconceivable that, having betrayed him so recently, Kilman could reconcile with Natapei without significant loss of status. I know I said we should try to forget the personalities involved, but this one’s just too big to ignore.)
Doling out roles and responsibilities wouldn’t be an easy task. Serge Vohor’s now-famous portrayal of the Council of Ministers as one big PM and a dozen small PMs likely remains accurate. But the alternative – a crazy quilt of individuals and smaller parties – is much, much worse.
There are a few good reasons why the major parties might actually be able to achieve an understanding. The biggest is that the ‘cowboys’ are mostly gone. Both VP and UMP have seen their most rebellious members leave their respective parties, leaving a smaller but potentially more cohesive group behind. Secondly, their diminished numbers are a clear statement that they need to look to the future if they’re going to survive.
Achieving a working compromise would involve some pretty high-stakes horse-trading, and it’s likely that some involved would find it hard to resist the urge to derive maximum profit from such negotiations. But if somehow Natapei, Vohor and Lini were able to forge an understanding, they could create the one thing Vanuatu needs more than anything else: A buyer’s market for positions on the government side.
During the political spasms that led to Edward Natapei’s ouster as Prime Minister and the eventual elevation of Sato Kilman, one frustrated minister was reported to have complained that the price of a single MP’s support in a confidence vote had reached unprecedented heights (5 million vatu, according to the report). But with a cohesive core of MPs, and the ability to play the smaller blocks and individual MPs against each other, a NUP/UMP/VP government would be better positioned to resist such extortionist tactics.
The question then, becomes one of whether the leaders can hold their own parties together, whether they can moderate their own desire for primacy and, uncharacteristically, whether they can play a longer game in order to buy time to engage properly in party-building.
It’s a tragic/comic circumstance that we find ourselves working so hard just to conceive of a government capable of lasting more than a few months. This necessary fixation with numbers completely ignores questions that are fundamental to good governance: How capable are the ministerial candidates? What policies (if any) do they propose? What common policy ground can be found among such a motley collection of perspectives and personalities?
But we can’t afford to let cynicism rule our thoughts. Not now. An increasing number of Ni Vanuatu have expressed the fear that we are rapidly approaching a divide. Either we descend, perhaps irreversibly, into a chaotic system in which each MP looks no further than his own stable of supporters and funders, or we begin the painful, patient process of party-building, of charting a course towards a more national vision.
USP professor Howard Van Trease has written extensively about Vanuatu’s political history. In one paper, he detailed the Vanua’aku Pati’s significant grassroots network in the early days of the Republic. Though they are but a remnant of what they once were, they do still possess a more or less national structure (albeit heavily weighted toward the South). They’ve also made it party policy that party President Natapei will step down after this term.
NUP still needs to develop a succession plan. One option available to them is to consider a reunion with VP. NUP president Ham Lini was reportedly a reluctant candidate this time around, and a return to his family’s political roots might be one way not only to smooth his transition to elder statesman status; it would go a long way to providing him with an enduring legacy as a force for unity and stability in Vanuatu.
Serge Vohor’s UMP have historically been on the other side of the political fence, but on examination, there’s not much in their party policies to distinguish them from the other two. And in fairness, they have proved themselves useful (if somewhat mercurial) coalition partners in the past.
Couple these factors with the rise of newer, more vision-based parties such as populist Ralph Regenvanu’s Graon mo Jastis pati – who have already publicly stated their willingness to work with VP – and we find ourselves with the broad-strokes picture of a government that could actually present a common vision for development for Vanuatu.
Realistically, there’s only a small chance that all this will come about, and perhaps even less that individual ‘small PMs’ will be able to restrain their short-term impulses, but simply put, it’s the best chance we’ve got.
By Graham Crumb | August 31, 2012
Steve Wildstrom over at tech.pinions argues that the furore over the Apple v Samsung case has been driven in part by reductivist and simply incorrect reporting. He singles out the Washington Post, which published an article asserting that one of the patents at stake was Apple’s so-called Pinch to Zoom behaviour:
There’s one serious problem with the first sentence, which was repeated dozens of times in stories in print and on the Web. Apple only has a limited patent (US 7,812,826) on the pinch to shrink, stretch to zoom gesture that is a core element of touch interfaces. And the ’826 patent wasn’t in dispute in the Samsung case because Apple never asserted it.
That’s true enough. I too have grown a little tired of people pointing to 19th Century school slates as prior art. The whole ‘rectangle with rounded corners’ thing is a gross oversimplification of a much more subtle and complex claim. Apple isn’t contending that nobody else gets to make phones and tablets with rounded corners; they’re saying that the overall shape and dimensions of the devices in question is one of many factors that distinguishes their products from others – or should, anyway.
You can’t take a single claim from a patent filing and argue that its lack of originality negates the entire patent. That’s not how these things work. Quite the opposite, in fact. You have to take all of the claims together, and then decide whether they look like a unique creation. Patent claims use painfully obtuse language – often deliberately so. They attempt to perform the almost impossible task of using words to so clearly describing a physical object (or process, but more on that in a bit) that there’s no ambiguity when the questions of copying or originality come up in court.
The kind of patent that Apple’s been most intransigent about are what are called ‘trade dress’ patents. These describe the distinctive features of the device that Apple considers uniquely theirs; they’re used to protect the company from knock-offs and copycats. And copycatting is what Samsung is being accused of.
But when comparing a Samsung device to, say, an iPhone, they’re not just looking at the rectangular shape with rounded corners. They’re looking at that, plus the dimensions, the black front, the ratio of the screen to the border, the placement and colour of the icons on the screen… all of it at once.
Thanks to Steve Jobs, Apple as a company is notoriously painstaking and obsessive about the design and detail of every single thing they make. This hugely intensive creative process is one of the reasons there’s so little variety in Apple’s offerings. They are far more concerned with making one thing perfectly than making a bunch of things well. Apple’s corporate culture is more artisanal in philosophy than any other manufacturer I’ve ever seen. Taste doesn’t just matter; it’s the essence of what they do.
Contrast that with Google. They’re engineers all the way down. The thing that genuinely leaves me breathless when I think about them is their ability to simplify the stupefyingly massive scale of the World Wide Web and filter the entire thing through a single text box. Ask anyone who wrangles data for a living: this really is an astounding accomplishment, and Google are (so far) at the head of their class.
They do have taste, though, and occasionally they’re capable of creating things that are genuinely pleasing. The latest versions of the Android operating system are good examples. But they’re not particularly original. There’s not really anything in that operating system that provides any particular sense of novelty. It’s telling that their biggest effort in recent iterations of the system is something they call ‘Project Butter‘. It’s a system-wide effort to make everything smooth as… well, you know, butter.
If the rumour mill is to be believed – and I think it’s credible in this case – it was precisely this lack of inventiveness that sent Steve Jobs around the bend. He felt robbed because, after showing the world how to make an operating system, Google used it as inspiration for their own. To add insult to injury, Samsung used the OS to bootstrap their own efforts to make tablets and phones that so closely aped Apple’s iconic creations that customers were failing to distinguish between the two offerings. And this is what caused him to launch an all-out war to stop Samsung and to sully Android in the process.
It used to be that companies used their patent portfolios for profit rather than prohibition. IBM is famous for having a small army of lawyers who would appear in tech boardrooms armed with sheaves of patents and make corporate officers an offer they couldn’t refuse: Accept a cross-licensing agreement that allowed the company to continue its work, but also left IBM clear to take advantage of any truly interesting patents the company had in hand. Those companies whose portfolios were lacking in depth were typically required to pay a tithe to continue doing business. It added cost to the products, but it didn’t stop the companies from selling them.
Apple chose to think differently. As they made abundantly clear in their numerous suits brought against against Samsung across the globe, Apple had no interest whatsoever in licensing their ‘trade dress’ patents. They simply wanted Samsung to stop. They were deploying their patents as weapons, not as levers.
The resulting acrimony has so far had decidedly mixed results. The US suit, whose price tag has left most observers goggling, has largely been decided in their favour. In the UK, a judge acerbically observed that whether Samsung had ‘slavishly copied’ Apple was immaterial, because Samsung’s products were easily distinguishable from Apples. They simply weren’t as cool.
If you ask me, he was right. And the reason he was right is what prompted me to write this column.
Wildstrom is right in stating that most tech writers have lost the plot where this story is concerned. But in dithering over the details he too has missed something essential: Patents are designed to give inventors a time-limited monopoly over a particular creation as an incentive for them to share their inner workings. These in turn would inspire others to riff on these inventions, but the law would stop others from claiming the invention as their own.
In the physical world, this works pretty well. When an auto maker invents a new internal combustion engine, other manufacturers can lift the hood and use their understanding of these innovations to drive their own engineering efforts. But they can’t just throw together an identical assembly and call it their own. Take Mazda’s famous ‘wankel’ engine, for example. Patent law doesn’t prohibit me from making a rotary engine of my own; it just stops me from making the same one that Mazda makes.
But this principle doesn’t translate well into the world of software. One of the patents at issue was the behaviour of the user interface when the user scrolls to the end of a long list. Apple made the list ‘bounce’ a bit at the end. It’s a behaviour known as over-scrolling, and it’s a very pleasing, intuitive way, to let someone know they can’t scroll any further. It’s an elegant, more innately human, interaction that lets users know that the system knows what they’re trying to do, rather than simply becoming unresponsive (which is how Microsoft, for example, behaved).
But to assert, as Apple has, that nobody else is allowed to use this behaviour without their permission… well, that’s not what patents were designed for. If we consider how they were originally envisioned, almost the opposite is true. The patent system exists to encourage others to create their own, potentially better way to do it.
There’s a lot of validity to Apple’s desire to discourage copycats. But in their suits against Samsung and others they’ve lost sight of the fact that imitation is an integral part of invention. Edison didn’t invent the first filament lightbulb, he just invented the one with the best materials. Bell riffed on telegraphy and existing voice transmission technology to make voice over the wire possible. Then Marconi came along and effectively developed telegraphs – and later, telephones – without cables. The progression was so clear that for decades radio was known simply as The Wireless.
Yes, Samsung did do point-by-point comparisons between Apple’s interface and their own. But then they went ahead and, taking iOS as their inspiration, created their own. Apple’s objection to this ‘slavish’ copying is arguably an indictment of Samsung’s creativity, but their courtroom tactics are analogous to Alexander Bell taking Marconi to court for using diaphragms in his speakers and microphones.
Samsung’s devices may behave similarly to Apple’s. After all, a smart phone is a smart phone is a smart phone. But just because Apple made the first commercially successful one, or even because others have indulged in the sincerest form of flattery, that doesn’t give Apple any moral right over the idea. If Samsung were trying to pass off their products as iPhones, or if they had stolen trade secrets, source code or materials that were uniquely Apple’s, then the Company That Steve Build might have had a case.
But that’s not the issue here. Samsung’s products are indisputably their own. And yes, yer honour, they’re not nearly as cool.
By Graham Crumb | August 11, 2012
[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post]
Every morning I walk the 150 metres from my house to Freswota road beside the cemetery and wait for a bus. I always avoid looking at the nearest corner. For the first few weeks, I didn’t understand why that part of the graveyard unsettled and distressed me so. Then I realised what it was: The plots were half the size of normal ones. This is where they bury the children.
I’m going back there today to stand by two close friends as they lay a little box into the ground.
The parents are part of a young and promising generation of professionals. They each lifted themselves up by their bootstraps, worked hard and, little by little, rose from menial positions to shoulder real responsibilities. They met one another, built a solid foundation of love, respect and stability, and then began their family.
The baby died in childbirth. Her death was entirely preventable. Her life could have been saved a dozen times over in the days before the crisis.
There are excuses enough for everybody, if we want them. For the undertrained and overburdened staff of the maternity ward, who handle literally dozens of deliveries every day, and who do so in an overcrowded, dilapidated building using a hodge-podge of outdated and insufficient equipment. For the doctors who, despite their deep commitment, are left with no choice but to ignore the cries of some in order to sleep enough that they’re not useless to everyone else.
But I don’t care about excuses right now. I don’t care what the reasons are. I want to carry that little box with its heart-crushing cargo into Parliament and lay it on the floor. I want to tell the politicians: These are your numbers. This is your no-confidence vote. This is the product of your waffling, your picayune intrigues and faithless manoeuvrings.
I want to carry it into the offices of the civil service and tell them: This is the price of your complacence, your early knock-off and late arrival, your angling for the car and the subsidised house, your commitment to doing the minimum or less, your willingness to be seduced by the intrigues and venality of those in power.
I want to show it to the donors, and say: This –right here– is your bloody Millennium Development Goal. This is what you get for slipping into to that back-of-the-mind conviction that being wealthier and better educated makes you somehow superior, more valuable than those you claim to serve. You so-called experts who can’t string two full sentences of Bislama together, who have never spent even half a day in the muddy lanes of Ohlen or Manples Mango.
You wealthy expatriates who have the money to extricate yourselves entirely from the health and education systems, content to make it someone else’s problem.
You so-called investors, who would rather pay for a boatload of indentured workers than support the local people. Who call Ni Vanuatu ‘lazy’ because they won’t work 6 or 7 days a week for a pittance. Who cheat on wages and VNPF and VAT contributions, who take every shortcut available up to and including bags of money for the Minister, then cry in your beer about the weakness of the State.
And all you high-minded activists hell-bent on saving the nation from the chimera of the WTO because it’s easier to slay dragons than to take on something as mundane as planning, staffing, training and equipping a health system. Who can’t even conceive of a health system at all. Who bemoan the influx of advisors and donor money but who can’t begin to express how to actually, practically, fix things.
All you wittering elite who somehow think that passing inane platitudes and slogans back and forth on Facebook is how we fight for justice.
You holy rollers preaching intolerance, trying to remain impervious to change, casting aside your own children rather than accepting that the world is not what it was, that it was never what you claim it was.
You voters who think of your MP as nothing but a candy jar, a well to dip into whenever you need school fees, wedding or funeral expenses. Who will bicker and squabble endlessly over the MP allocation but never once ask him, ‘What have you done for your country?’
You people who can’t see beyond your own yard, who in your petty jealousy would rather drag down a successful neighbour than cooperate for the common good. Who would rather spite yourselves than allow another to profit. Your family alone won’t repair the road. Your family won’t build the new hospital wing.
And yes, you well-intentioned few who really try to care, who live life with your head up and your eyes forward, who try to get things done in a culture fraught with complacence and disaffection. Even you.
Even you. Because every time the future is torn away, banished to a little box, we have to know we’ve failed. We have to see how we’ve failed. We have to see it.
The couple at the centre of this tragedy represents the very best of Vanuatu: Young, intelligent, ambitious; mindful of tradition while they help define the nation’s future. They weren’t short-changed or tricked or cheated. They got the best treatment the country had to offer, vastly better than what they might have received in Lenakel or Lolowei or Sola.
But it wasn’t enough. Vanuatu gave the best it had to this couple, and it failed them. It wasn’t enough.
I don’t have any answers, because there are no simple solutions. There’s no lynchpin to unlock this mess of distractions and details and make everything right. All I know is that none of us have done enough. We need to see past the policies and principles and simply act.
Maybe all we can do is find one thing and fix it and move on to the next. I don’t know. But I do know this: We need to stop obstructing others with our jealousies and petty, small-town politics. We need to stop obsessing over who is Right and who is Wrong and get to bloody work.
I don’t care who you think you are or what role you play; you have to do more.
By Graham Crumb | June 30, 2012
[Originally published with a slightly longer title in the Vanuatu Daily Post]
It’s fairly natural in business to want a return on one’s investment. That’s pretty much the point of capitalism, after all. But investment implies risk, too; if you put your money into play, you are accepting at least a small likelihood that it will be lost. Normally, the riskier the venture, the higher the expected return if things go right.
In some endeavours, however, the risk is unavoidable and the reward is slow in coming – if it comes at all. Telecommunications infrastructure is one such area. Especially here in the Pacific, capitalisation can require investment levels that –rightly– make the average investor blanch. It’s no accident, therefore, that private sector players often seek institutional backing before embarking on large-scale projects.
The plain fact is that in this global marketplace, some sort of inducement is needed in order to make investment in the comparatively tiny Pacific market attractive. Pretend for a moment you’re an investor. Given the choice between backing a fibre-optic cable landing in Port Vila or one that lands in Jakarta, which would you choose? All other things being equal, you’d be a fool to choose the former.
Competitors have cried foul in the past when concessionary financing was used to induce increased private sector participation in various Pacific telecoms markets, but experience shows that healthy competition has raised revenue levels across the board. Competition, even with its attendant risks, is better for all concerned.
The challenge, then, is how to make the capitalisation phase, with its necessary reduction in risk, lead seamlessly into a competition phase, with a level of risk characteristic of a healthy marketplace?