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Computing At Chaos Manor:
May 2, 2007

The User's Column, May 2007
Column 322, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

The US Supreme Court has made an important patent decision (link to PDF) with implications for all of us. The first and most obvious effect is that it comes down hard on patent trolls — those companies that buy up patents, do nothing to develop them, and lie in wait for some company to bring out a product that just might infringe the troll's "property". The best example of this was the patent-holding company NTP shaking down RIM (Blackberry) for north of $600 million although NTP had never developed any products. Other examples are not hard to find. The court decision does not directly affect these practices, but it does make it harder to get patents for the trolls to hoard.

Peter Glaskowsky tells me that the term "patent troll" is unfair and demeaning to inventors and the patent process because it implies that anyone who enforces patents is a troll. I understand his point. Many patents are awarded for genuine invention, and the inventors deserve legal protection. However, the existence of deserving patent holders — and of venture capitalists who have invested in earned patents — does not negate the existence of investors and law firms who have made no contributions to knowledge, and who accumulate patents but instead of developing their potential, hold on to them — often in what amounts to secrecy — until they find a deep pocket to sue. See this link, for example.

For many years the courts have held that patents on incremental advantages, many of them painfully obvious, are valid. This unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court reverses a number of appellate decisions that have been increasingly generous in granting such patents. One observer comments that the Court is severely limiting the "litigation lottery", and that's all to the good.

Of course some of us wonder if patent law hasn't been far too generous for a very long time. The notion of patenting a "business practice" has always seemed absurd to me, particularly in the light of the history of patents.

Royal Monopolies

The right to issue patents of monopoly were among the powers of the English Crown. For example, after the Restoration, Charles II issued patents of monopoly on theaters, and only two patent holders were allowed to operate. Note this is akin to a business license, but went much further. Patents royal were regulated after the Glorious Revolution, but they remained an important part of Crown power, as well as a significant source of revenue. There were patents on the right to trade in certain commodities, as for example, matches, and for a time, rum and salt. Patents of monopoly were very much part of the package of grievances that inspired the American Revolution.

Patents were thoroughly discussed during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The Framers were afraid of them. At the same time they did worry about intellectual property rights and incentives for innovation. The compromise was a grant of power to Congress "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." Note that the purpose here is not to enhance the power of government; it is not to allow the President or any other official to reward friends; and it is not to raise revenue. Nor is it to empower patent trolls. The purpose is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.

Patent and Copyright

Both patent and copyright stem from the same constitutional power grant, but over time the rights granted under each diverged. At first copyright was very limited in duration: 14 years, with the possibility of renewal for an additional 14 years. This endured (with some extensions granted in 1831) until 1909, when the copyright period was extended to 28 years, with the option of renewal in the 28th year for an additional 28 years. If the work was not renewed in the 28th year it became public domain, and in any event all works older than 56 years could safely be assumed to be public domain and copied, reprinted, or sold without obtaining permission.

In 1975 writers' associations were invited to participate in Congressional discussions of copyright revision. While there was no universal agreement, in general US authors were not unhappy with the 56 year period; there was objection to the renewal provisions, which forbade renewal before the 28th year, and thus punished inadvertence or inattention with permanent loss of copyright protection.

Renewal provisions had already come under attack. Victor Hugo was highly critical of renewal requirements, and his influence carried the day when the Berne Convention on copyright was drafted and adopted. The US Congress in 1976 amended US copyright law with the intention of making it compatible with the Universal Copyright Convention and the Berne Convention, and the US later became party to those treaties. These provide for a minimum copyright protection of life plus 70 years, with no requirement for renewal, and that became part of US law.

Note that Copyright Law is fairly specific. You cannot copyright a story idea, or a title. You can only copyright a specific work. Your thoughts on the subject matter are not protected.

Patent law has had a less colorful history, and most Congressional revisions have been to change the organization of the Patent Office rather than to change the rights granted. Thus a great deal of Patent Law has grown by accretion through decisions of the Patent Office and Court decisions. The effect of all this has been to expand the scope of patents, and grant patents to software, business practices, concepts not reduced to practice, and a whole raft of categories arguably never contemplated in the Patent Law and almost certainly not considered in the original constitutional power grant.

One effect of the new generosity of Patent Law was the so-called "Plot Patent", under which patent trolls could obtain patent rights to certain literary plots, and sue authors for "infringement." Whether or not they could win those cases, few authors have the means to contest such lawsuits, and except for major best selling authors, most publishers will not take a chance on a work whose title is not clear. The worst of this was that the patent holder need not have written a story using the plot; it would be enough to have described it and applied for the patent. I wish I were making this up (link). Alas, there has been an application for a plot patent: read this.

Patent Attorney C.E. Petit, Esq., says of the recent court decision "I was right; the "plot patent" applicant was wrong; and his application which, due to the slow pace in the Patent Office, was still pending earlier this month, is due to be denied perforce."

This is very much a Good Thing. Patents are supposed to protect innovation, and reward actual creation; they were never intended to allow patent trolls to lie in wait for others to develop products, then see how much they can shake them down for.

We can all applaud the US Supreme Court decision in this matter. It should make life easier for real developers and innovators.

Dell To Ship With Ubuntu

Dell conducted a poll on what products customers wanted to see, and received more than 150,000 requests for PC's with desktop Linux installed. A large but lesser number requested Open Office. Poll responses are not actual customer orders, but Dell will begin shipping PC's with Ubuntu Linux later this month (link). Configurations and prices have not been announced.

In the bad old days Microsoft would have retaliated by lowering the discount on Windows to any company that shipped computers with anything but a Microsoft OS. Apparently that is no longer a consideration; it will be interesting to see what the same hardware will cost with Linux as opposed to Windows.

There has been considerable discussion among my advisors about when — or if — I should set up a Linux box and try to get all my work done on it for at least a month; this being the time most think it will take for me to lose my Windows habits and learn the fine points of Linux as a desktop OS. I have so far avoided doing this: just now the last thing I need is another time sink. I now have a couple of Vista systems. Most of my work is done on one Vista machine (this one, an Intel Core 2 Duo) and one XP system (an AMD X2). A third system, a ThinkPad, runs XP and gets carried upstairs to the Monk's Cell where, coupled with a wireless keyboard and 19" ViewSonic monitor, I do my fiction.

All this works reasonably well. I have managed to tame Vista Ultimate, and that works reasonably well. Eric Pobirs came over and set up some whizbangs to make it prettier; since all that takes place in the video card, it doesn't slow the system down at all. I still can't make Vista install some of my older games, but I am told that I shouldn't have any difficulty getting VirtualPC to solve all those problems. I hardly have time for games now anyway.

Several of those in my "kitchen cabinet" are Linux enthusiasts, and every time I mention something I may do on Windows they get that running on Linux; it's pretty clear I could do most — probably all — of what I do here on a Linux box.

We will continue this discussion another time. The important point is that a major consumer brand PC maker is contemplating shipping desktops with Linux. That may turn out to be important.

AMD in Trouble?

It began with a note from Robert Bruce Thompson with the subject "This can't be good!"

AMD running out of cash

<EE Times link>

At its current burn rate, AMD has enough cash to last it two quarters, but it won't be able to ship processors competitive with Intel models for at least a year. And, from another article, I see that AMD is planning to pursue a no-asset strategy that'll turn it back into a fabless company. After four years or so of gnashing their collective teeth, Intel must be enjoying this.

Ron Morse adds, "There goes the era of cheap processors. And if AMD goes, whither ATI?"

Dan Spisak jumped in with

It certainly is not good. After all, I think it's telling that when I built my new desktop I got a Core 2 Duo for it instead of an AMD even though the AMD was cheaper.

My Macbook Pro has a Core 2 Duo in it.

With laptops becoming an even bigger part of computers sold to people these days AMD's lack of an excellent notebook platform chipset and CPU combination has really been hurting them badly. Toss in the fact that someone at Intel started listening to the rantings and ravings of myself and countless other people who hit them over the head and said "Make it run cooler and don't sacrifice performance!" they finally realized they had a winner from their old Pentium M design group.

Since that day Intel has basically been making laptop CPUs into desktop CPU's. Peter will correct me if I am wrong, but really there isn't a lot of difference between the Core 2 Duo desktop and laptop chips beyond chip packaging and clock speeds. Unless we start to talk about the ULV parts Intel makes for the sub-notebook people in Japan and Asia perhaps then.

AMD's platform is by no means bad or a slouch. It still has a superior CPU I/O bus compared to Intel's. It also has better memory latency aspects as well. But Intel is simply crushing them on gaming benchmarks and in other non-gaming oriented fields too. But most importantly they are beating them in power consumption right now.

Intel has been kicking AMD's butt on chip process lithography improvements so far and has yet to have a major slipup. If Intel's transition to 45nm hits a snag that delays Penryn it will give AMD some breathing room but AMD has to execute its strategy and show it can make low power, high performance chips for desktops and laptops especially.

As far as the ATI side of AMD goes they are getting their butts handed to them by NVIDIA solely because NVIDIA's G80 GPU chip based cards have been out since about Nov 2006 and ATI/AMD has had to delay and re-tape out its R600 chip for a few reasons, one of which was ridiculous power consumption figures (think running an arc-welder with the power requirements for this chip). ATI supposedly has delayed its rollout of R600 based cards because they wanted to bring out all the chips at 65nm process so they could get the high-end cards out at the same time as the mid and low end range. But as I see it not having a DX10 capable card out isnt a real problem since there are exactly zero DX10 games out right now. This will change by summertime for certain I suspect. It also remains to be seen just how well NVIDIA's G80 chip is at doing DX10 graphics pipeline processing verses ATI's R600 doing DX10 duties.

-Dan S.

All of which began to look like panic. Peter Glaskowsky follows these trends. He says

I think Barcelona will make AMD more competitive within about three months, if it's everything they say it is and they deliver it on schedule. But then about four months later the Intel 45nm stuff starts to appear and AMD will be in bad shape again.

Intel will not let AMD die; that would be disastrous. But AMD may end up in the back of the bus with VIA.

That may be a good place to be, when the antitrust case goes to trial. If AMD is hurting, the judge or jury may be more inclined to favor it.

If an AMD fab is full of AMD parts, there's no reason to sell it. It's possible AMD is looking to get partners to share the cost of refitting its older fab (Fab 30 in Dresden) and building the new 32nm fab in New York state. I doubt AMD would go truly fabless unless it was planning to go out of business.

. png

On the other hand, there are the financials. AMD is borrowing money. Peter Glaskowsky again:

That was $1.8B plus another $400M for overallotments. In a company press release (below), the numbers have been adjusted to $2 billion plus $200M.

The $2 billion figure is reasonable for planning purposes.

AMD is paying some part of that for a "capped call" transaction to protect the stockholders in case these notes are converted to stock. That probably isn't going to be very expensive, since the conversion price is $28.08 per share and the stock is currently at $14.50.

Then AMD will spend $500 million of the proceeds to repay part of the loan from Morgan Stanley. Hmm, borrowing money to pay off loans...

What's left will more than double AMD's cash reserves, which are currently only good for about two quarters of losses like they suffered last quarter. Assuming things get a little better, this means AMD can keep going until roughly the end of next year without raising more money. But AMD has some big capital outlays planned, like the New York fab. That suggests AMD might STILL need more money this year. The terms are just going to keep getting worse.

. png

It's certainly not in Intel's interest to allow AMD to vanish. In this day and age you don't want even to look like a monopolist.

As I have noted before, of my two main systems, one is an AMD X2 and the other an Intel Core 2 Duo. If I build another machine, it will be a 4 MB cache Intel Core 2 Duo for under $200; a "sweet spot" machine. But before I do I will look at what AMD has to offer.

Sony DSC-T100 side by side with the Kodak V750
The Sony DSC-T100 side by side with the Kodak V750. [View larger]
A closer shot, dead Kodak viewer
The Sony's bright screen is visible everywhere. Alas, the Kodak's screen has died... [View larger]
Sony, sans zoom, catches oriole
The Sony without zoom catches the oriole at our feeder. [View larger]
Zooming in on a hummingbird.
Zooming in on a hummingbird. [View larger]

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T100

For the past couple of years I have carried a Kodak V570 pocket camera nearly everywhere I go. I loved that little camera, and it certainly proved to me that the camera you use is the one that you have with you. Alas, it ceased to work about two months after the warranty expired. Actually, the V 570 works fine in that I can take pictures with no problems: I just can't see what picture I am about to take, nor can I review the picture after I take it.

In other words, the little screen has died. It turns on, but it shows only an image collapsed to the side, the way old TV sets did after the horizontal control went out. I can download pictures from the V-570, and they are as good as ever, but clearly the camera isn't really useful.

On the other hand, I found I had got used to having a pocket camera. I carried the broken V 570 for a few days but clearly that wasn't going to work, so I looked around for something to replace it. After consulting with a number of people I settled on the Sony DSC-T100. This camera takes 8.1 megapixel shots with a 5X optical zoom at ISO 3200.

The bottom line here is that I love it. It's easy to carry, a bit taller but narrower than the V 570. I like the Kodak's menu and control system a little better than the Sony's, but either is easy enough to get used to. Picture quality is comparable, although the Kodak's dual lenses (one wide angle, one for normal to telescopic) make for slightly better pictures at the extremes; once again, though, either is better at recording images than I am at composing them.

The real advantage to the Sony DSC T100 is the screen. The Kodak screen was never bright enough to be visible in bright daylight; indeed, the screen was broken for hours before I realized that, because I was outside at the beach and I have never been able to see the Kodak screen under those conditions. The Sony's screen, though, is bright enough to see at least some details under all conditions.

I generally set the resolution at 5 megapixels, which is quite enough for the kinds of pictures I take. At that resolution I can get more than 800 pictures on the Lexar 2 GB Memory Stick I found on sale at Fry's for about $32 bucks. Do note: the DSC-T100 comes with no Memory Stick whatever, which means that you can take about 7 pictures on internal memory. I was horrified on first learning that, but the Fry's sale took care of the problem.

Peter Glaskowsky advises me to take a picture of myself in the internal memory and mark that as unerasable; that way I can easily prove the camera is mine.

Unlike the Kodak V570, the Sony DSC-T100 has a removable battery. I have not yet bought a spare battery, but I probably will so that I'll be able to have one battery charging in a hotel room while using the other. The Kodak required that I put the camera in the charging cradle. In practice it makes little difference: both cameras have enough battery life to last all day. The Sony box advertises 340 shots on each battery charge; I have yet to test that, but I have no reason to dispute the number.

All told I like this camera a lot. You'll be hearing a lot more about it in future.