The Software Patent War

Originally published in The Clarion | November 30, 2011

For the record, I am not a lawyer nor do I claim to be one online or in person. With that out of the way, there is a trend in the world of IT, predominantly in the Mobile Operating System industry, that is not only troublesome but could ultimately have serious implications on each and every one of us who use some sort of ‘smart’ device. A few weeks ago, I mentioned the practices by many large IT-related corporations who use their enormous stores of cash to gobble up their competitors rather than competing against them. A major factor in this gobble up the little guy scenario are software patents – and according to many in the IT industry, there is an ongoing patent war that is already adversely affecting consumers while padding the pockets of a few.

A brief look into the history of IT law reveals that software patents did not exist until sometime in the 1980’s. If anything, an individual or company might obtain a copyright on a piece of computer software prior to this time. Copyrights on computer software make quite a bit of good sense. Just like a novel, painting or musical composition the composer of said piece should have protection from someone else copying and benefiting monetarily from their work. Software patents on the other hand are extremely trivial at best, as they have evolved over the last few decades to include some of the most minuscule and in some opinions ridiculous scenarios imaginable. The result of software patents, and corporations purchasing others simply so they can obtain additional software patents, has resulted in an industry unto itself.

If you know me well enough or have read any of my articles over time, you are most likely to guess where (who) I’m going with this. Yes, Microsoft, a company whose products are forced on most all of us but truly loved by few, is in the middle of this patent war. Recently a few companies have come out against and even requested investigation into Microsoft for their software patent strong-arming. Each day it seems additional information comes out showing just how disgusting this entire situation is, and foreshadowing some truly ugly things to come. While my intent is not to (once again) bash on Microsoft, I do feel it is worth bringing this situation to the forefront as it is one ugly mess that will most likely get even worse as time passes. All things considered, I will be the first to say that it is most likely not Microsoft who is at fault, but the system itself. Microsoft is only using the system to their advantage and making a good living off of the downfalls of software patent law. Next week we will take a closer look at some of the specifics of the ongoing patent war.

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A Technologyless Thanksgiving

Originally published in The Clarion | November 23, 2011

It’s that time of the year once again, time to reflect on all of the good things in life and the so many important things we are thankful for. Outside of the truest blessings of life – family, friends and loved ones, many of us are also exceedingly fortunate to have wonderful jobs, comfortable homes and other luxuries that we simply could do without. Included in these unnecessary luxuries, for many of us at least, is technology. Even simple luxuries that we take for granted like electricity, clean water and sewage, and relatively clean air to breathe are benefits we receive thanks to technological innovation.

Recent technological innovations have both separated us and brought us closer together more than ever. Social media tools and websites, while fantastic means of keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives, have arguably separated us from one another. The same can be said for cellular phones and other means of communications that for a reasonable monthly rate (or even free) allow us to keep in touch and share our lives in an unlimited fashion. In this context, the technology is a catch twenty-two. I’m thankful that I can easily communicate with those I’m unable to see on a regular basis, yet at the same time the technology separates me from my friend on the other side of town.

Newer television technologies have also brought into our homes entertainment features that are a fifty-fifty on my thankful scale. Digital video recording features allow us to automatically record our favorite shows, eliminating the need to be home in front of the tube on a fixed weekly schedule. Sure the technology is great, but it has undoubtedly separated parents from kids when it comes to family time. No longer do we wait in anticipation for our favorite show to come on, we simply watch it after the fact, on our own terms. Am I thankful for this technology? Of course….but just like communications tools, I’m saddened by the separation it creates.

The Thanksgiving holiday is one as American as apple pie. Those of us who get a day or two off from work really ought to take the opportunity to put down our gadgets, silence the cell phones and enjoy each others company. From my experience, a few days off from technology is never a bad thing. Taking advantage of the opportunity to spend time with family and friends, read a book that has been collecting dust on the shelf or simply enjoying nature can instill an even greater appreciation for life and the things we have and take for granted. Doing so will open our eyes to even more things we have to be thankful for – and never fear – the gadgets and technology will be there for us once the holiday comes to and end.

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Internet Security 101

Originally published in The Clarion | November 16, 2011

From time to time, a little dose of common sense can be a good thing. Doing my best to get back to basics, this week I will bring a few reminders back to light that will hopefully get all of us (myself included) thinking about basic ‘net security. It is often so easy to overlook the little things in the massive entanglement of the Web yet often it is the little things that bite us the hardest. With this in mind, let’s have a brief Internet 101 crash course – with the intent of better protecting ourselves when online.

A majority of issues that come about while online begin with eMail. As much as I wish the traditional eMail mechanism would go away, we must all live with it until there is a more appropriate alternative. For starters, the old saying “If it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is” goes a long way when dealing with eMail messages we receive. Just like a pesky telemarketer or door-to-door salesman, unsolicited eMail deals almost always are some sort of hoax. Some try to get your eMail password, some your bank account information, others simply ask for you to send money. Whatever the case, the odds of you receiving huge financial gain by providing some sort of information or forwarding the message along to ten friends are virtually zero. Don’t fall victim to such scams, no matter how good they may sound. Times are tough and more people than ever are out there trying to prey on the vulnerable.

Staying on the subject of eMail, consider your password as the key that opens the door to your home. I am sure there are a few scenarios where someone would entrust their eMail password with someone else, but just like the key to your home, it should not only be cautiously guarded but also changed from time to time. Simple passwords should absolutely be avoided, a combination of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and even a special character or two are typically the best choice. Using an easy-to-remember sentence as a hint to the password is typically helpful as well. As an example, the sentence “Today is going to be my best day ever” can be modified to a password combination of t1G28m*d3.

A final reminder about basic ‘net security involves wireless routers. So many of us have one, yet I’m willing to bet not many of us configure them with security in mind. It is so easy to get home with a new wireless router and connect it up in haste, skipping the authentication section in all of our excitement. Doing so can be detrimental to both your personal files and potentially you and your family as individuals. Criminals are always looking for accessible ‘net connections to use as their highway to crime. Don’t become a victim by leaving your wireless networks open. Keep security at the forefront of all of your ‘net activities.

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DARPA’s Cyber Fast Track Program

Originally published in The Clarion | November 09, 2011

There is an old adage that has proven extremely and sometimes frighteningly true over the years – “If you can’t beat them, join them”. Such marriages by governments to enemies and countless other foes have proven both successful and miserably unsuccessful over the years. In IT, countless corporations have determined that purchasing the competition instead of fighting the battle makes good business sense. Some of these acquisitions have proven successful, many others resulted in nothing more than a waste of time and money. A recent announcement by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA – the original designers of what we now know as the Internet) fits this adage.

DARPA has approved and launched a new initiative called the Cyber Fast Track program. This program, as difficult as it may be to understand, will hire individuals, organizations and companies in the realm of computer hacking on traditional government contracts. Yes, you read correctly – the United States federal government is going to hire hackers. After overcoming the initial shock of this announcement, it doesn’t take long for this program to begin making a lot of sense. For starters, the term ‘hacker’ has an inaccurately negative connotation. Sure there are script kiddies who get their kicks out of wreaking havoc on computer systems. These individuals and groups of individuals have given the term ‘hacker’ quite a bad name.

Before we had Internet connections in our homes and businesses, hackers were actually the good guys. These individuals were the folks who typically struggled in social environments, yet were geniuses when it came to contriving and manipulating computer code. Without hackers, much of the hardware and software we all depend on daily would have never been developed. These hackers still exist today, probably in larger numbers than ever. Unfortunately though their label has gotten a bad rap thanks to those who enjoy creating turmoil on computing systems.

DARPA’s decision to hire the good amongst the bad may be one of the most sensible decisions by any government agency in decades. We all know how important computer and IT security has become over time. Once individuals, businesses and governments began connecting computing devices to publically-accessible networks, the door was open for the bad guys to get in. As hard as it is to accept the truth, no firewall is impenetrable. If an individual or group has the determination and skills, a firewalled network is nothing more than another challenge. By hiring what some of us would consider the bad guys, DARPA should have success in ramping up its IT security, enabling them to operate in more of a proactive rather than reactive way. Governments hiring criminals isn’t a new concept; doing so can actually result in very good results. Referring to hackers as criminals is really not fair, but I’m willing to bet that some of those hired by DARPA will have a criminal past – many script kiddies grow up to be some of the brightest and most successful IT professionals in the industry.

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RIP eMail

Originally published in The Clarion | November 02, 2011

The ability to efficiently communicate is a leading factor in the success of most businesses. Companies who succeed in accurately, politely and promptly communicating with their customers are most often the leaders in their business offerings, companies who fail in satisfying their customers’ requests typically pay the price by losing business. Methods of communication have greatly expanded over the years with the introduction of electronic tools into our homes and businesses. Catalog shopping is seemingly a thing of the past; taking a pencil to an order form and mailing it to a corporation is virtually unheard of today. Replacing the traditional means of business communications are tools most all of us are familiar with – online ordering, telephone (although in a sharp decline) transactions and yes, still a favorite, eMail.

Electronic mail is one of the oldest methods of communications in the IT realm. Early on, eMail proved to be an excellent method of communicating over wires, both commercially and personally. As the Internet intruded our homes and businesses, our reliance on eMail grew exponentially overnight. Before we knew it, what was once the de facto method of online communications became nothing more than a thorn in the sides of both users and server administrators. From personal experience, I can vouch that today 97% or more of all eMail is discarded before ever reaching the recipient’s mailbox. Systems upon systems must be used by eMail providers to filter out messages containing viruses, links to phishing websites and of course SPAM. How unfortunate it is that what was once such a convenient and reliable communications tool has declined to such a state.

A few months ago, a federal judge ruled that sending too many eMails to someone is, by definition, computer hacking. I personally am not sure what I think about this ruling, but I do know what it tells me. Simply put, eMail should no longer be the tool that businesses and individuals rely on for communications. Just like any other technology, eMail has had its run and it is time for it to be retired. Unless the core structure and methodology of eMail can be drastically redesigned and adopted, a new communications method needs to be devised. By using the basic ideas and structure of eMail, it shouldn’t be very difficult for someone (smarter than me of course) to build a new tool for effective, reliable, secure and efficient communications. In my mind, such a tool would use shared keys which are encrypted (the technology already exists) to allow the message to be sent to its recipient. By putting some sort of authentication mechanism at the border of the sender’s connection, unauthorized messages would never even get out the door. Such a tool would drastically reduce the amount of clutter on the ‘net and would keep our Inboxes nice and clean. I am no prophet, but personally I won’t be surprised if such a system is introduced in the very near future, resulting in eMail becoming just another technology of the past.

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