Monday, January 23, 2006

Crackberry Infringement

     I'm not a Blackberry user. I have a Palm Treo, but I'm too cheap to pay Verizon $45 a month for slow wireless internet. I already have Comcast's slow, wired internet at home, thank you very much. And I didn't even get my first cellphone until 2001. So maybe I'm not the right person to comment on Backberry's impending cycle of destruction. Full disclosure: I do get a little annoyed when everyone asks if my Treo is a Blackberry. It's petty, I know, but I have no interest in being associated with Crackberry Addicts.
     Anyway, I'm a little torn on this story. Like any American, I feel compelled to take sides so I can, you know, root for someone. But since this issue is mainly between one business, another business, and business-people, I don't really have a dog in the fight. Besides, it's much more fun watching Right-wingers battle it out with their unworkable dogma: Capitalism (and by extension business) is the best thing ever and we should let businesses do whatever they want.
     If you're not familiar with the case, on one hand you have RIM, the makers of Blackberry. On the other, you have NTP, a holding company for the patents of the late Thomas Campana. Campana came up with a method to integrate email systems with wireless networks back in the early 90's. He patented the system and put the patent in a file cabinet and waited. Along comes RIM with their Blackberries and their ability to access email on wireless networks. NTP said, "We own the patent, you have to license it from us." RIM said "Go to hell." And the war was on.
     Pro-Blackberry Right-wingers say that it's not fair that some stoopid little "company" that doesn't even make anything should be able to tell a big corporation like Blackberry what to do. They emphasize the fact that NTP is not a manufacturer in order to discredit them. Never mind that people like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Ben Franklin all invented things without manufacturing them - their strengths were in creating products and not necessarily in overseeing someone operating machinery.
     On the other hand, Pro-NTP Right-wingers say this is just Capitalism in action and if NTP can extort $1 billion from RIM, then so be it. Forcing companies to license their technology to anyone who wants it and whatever price they name smacks of Socialism, and the Pharmaceutical companies are inclined to agree with that position. Granted, this group is considerably smaller, given that NTP requires the courts to collect. Wild West justice never used the courts (except as a handy place to lynch outlaws) and NTP seems to fit the Liberal whiny model.
     Some commentators complain that since NTP wasn't actively using its patent, there's no harm done. They say there's no proof that RIM ever actually copied NTP - maybe they developed the idea on their own. Of course, this is irrelevant. When NTP filed its patent, it made a deal with the US government that it would give out the details of its idea to anyone who wanted it, for free, in exchange for protection from unauthorized use. Without this protection, how many of our tools of everyday life would be little more than sketches sitting in someone's drawer? I might be a brilliant physicist who comes up with a way to copy matter and "reprint" it somewhere else. I don't really care, because I was being paid to look for something that would turn lead into gold. Without patent laws, I might just stuff the idea in my desk, hoping to be able to work on it someday in the future. With patent laws, I file for a patent, giving my idea to the world. Some engineer, reading the patent, realizes I discovered teleportation and creates a trillion dollar industry, wiping out UPS, the Post Office, and private school carpool lines. Because of this, every parent who picks up their kids from school should support strong patent laws. Our country (and economy) relies more than ever on innovation.
     On the other hand, the sheer number of ideas out there are simply overwhelming the system. The patent office is little more than a rubber stamp on patents, even when they have no merit. You could patent a method of rubbing peanut butter on bread before putting on jelly and then sue every elementary school for infringing. If innovation becomes too expensive, nobody will innovate.
     So who am I rooting for? I haven't decided yet. In my bitter old age I am enjoying the pain and panic of Blackberry users. But that scheudenfraude aside, it will be very interesting to see how this works out.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Holy Crap, I Missed It!

     I thought I was getting busy, after leaving my last job that gave me about 8 hours a day to read news and blog. But then my wife decided it was time to move, and I've even fallen behind on reading important (to me) blogs, much less writing them. I was reading Johnny Virgil's blog with Thunderbird when I came across his January 14th post in which he said, "Wow. I almost missed it. I just realized that exactly a year ago today, I started this here blog."
     Hmmm. When did I start blogging? It turns out that Johnny and I share an anniversary (blogiversary?). My one-year anniversary of blogging was also January 14th. So for anyone reading this, get up from your computer, drive to Publix (or Kroger or Piggly Wiggly or wherever you shop) and buy a little birthday cake and one of those cool candles shaped like the number "1". Light it, blow it out for me, and eat some cake. Thanks!
     In all seriousness, it's exciting to hit this milestone. 2006 looks like it will have less post-election angst than 2005, but it looks to be no less disappointing for those of us who had high hopes for our leadership. I'm sure I won't have any shortage of material to bring us to 2007. Thanks for staying with me, especially through my October disappearance. Anyway, here's to another great (belated) year of blogging!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Raison D'Etre

     A lot of people ask the question, "Why am I here?" The answer to this, of course, is called "The Meaning of Life". (The question is affectionately asked as "What do you get if you multiply six by nine".) Apparently, just being isn't enough for many people. There has to be a reason.
     What's funny is this issue came up in the recent science vs science fiction debates in Dover, PA, Cobb County, GA, and the state of Kansas. Some of the arguments against teaching science in school have been to the effect of "Human Beings couldn't have been created through random genetic mutations" and "I can't believe in an existence that has no purpose". Unfortunately, even if the Truth is that God (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) created us, there's no reason to believe He did it on purpose, any more than Gary Cismesia hit the goalpost on purpose in Florida State's loss to Penn State. You could just be the funny-looking result of a batch of DNA brew God mixed up while he was distracted by the latest Desperate Housewives. Oops. Would it really be a comfort to learn you were just a reject in a long line of rejects in God's quest to build Natalie Portman?
     Anyway, people are good at that sort of self-doubting and need for outside affirmation. But apparently we have no such qualifications for the things that we create. Who asks, "Why do toaster ovens exist?" Who asks, "Why does IBM exist?" If we really must ask these Why questions, should we at least ask them about the items and institutions that we at least have a little control over? For example, it's been long said by greedy short-term stockholders that corporations exist for the benefit of their shareowners. Their entire purpose is to create value for the people who purchase shares of their stock. But is that really true?
     Name one successful public company that started out life as a public company. Name one successful company that started out in a situation in which the original owner(s) were not also employees. What's my point? The reason these companies exist could not possibly be to enrich stockholders, when there were no stockholders at the moment of the company's creation. Let's look at UPS for example. In 1907, Jim Casey borrowed $100 from a friend and became the first employee of a company that delivered messages and parcels around Seattle, Washington. 98 years later, that company has expanded into a global giant with over 400,000 employees moving over 3.6 billion packages a year (2002) to over 200 countries. Today, UPS is a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange and a member of the S&P 500 worth over $83 billion. Why does this company exist? What is its raison d'etre? Ask its largest institutional shareholders and they might say it's them. If you could ask Jim Casey, however, he would tell you it was him. And his brother and his partners. They wanted to make a living and they saw an opportunity to do so by forming their own company. You could say that one of the initial reasons for existing was for its employees' sake. Also for its owners' sake, since they were the same people. And for the sake of its customers, without whom there would be no UPS. But basically it exists because Jim Casey needed a job.
     IBM has a similar history. In 1888, Dr. Alexander Dey invented the first dial recorder (whatever the hell that is). His business formed one of the three initial building blocks of IBM. This business existed because Dey wanted to earn money by building and selling his gizmadoodle machines. His company existed to earn its employees money. Which is funny, because last week (free login), IBM announced that it was ending its pension program. I'm sad to see pensions go. I firmly believe they are a great tool to retain qualified workers throughout their career. However, it's this money quote that really gets to me:
Companies with pensions are facing tough competition from newer firms and from global companies that aren't saddled with that cost, said Richard Brownlee, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia. When pensions were being formed in the middle of the last century, he said, "we didn't expect the kind of global competition we see now."

     So basically, pensions are now considered a "cost" that is saddling US business. That may be, but pensions are really a part of compensation. What IBM and this guy Brownlee are saying is that American workers make too much to compete globally. And they have a point. But what is dishonest and destructive about attacking pensions this way is that instead of admitting to people that their compensation is dropping, they are taking away money that employees won't see for another 10 or 20 or 30 years. If IBM took $50/month out of an employee's paycheck, there would be some serious morale problems for the company. But if it can sneak that same money out of the retirement plans without anyone really noticing the difference in their paychecks, well, all the better. The other downside is that pensions really are an effective compensation tool. 401k's are portable. And yet companies can't seem to figure out why their best employees leave for other companies each year. When you give every incentive to leave and none to stay, people are going to leave. Pension plans give an incentive to stay. In order to sneak money back out of compensation, these companies are mortgaging their futures. They are creating a system by which they have to rebid annually for talent, driving up compensation costs, training costs, and recruiting costs.
     Of course, IBM's puppetmasters aren't concerned. As soon as the stock price lifts a little from this new infusion of cash, they're going to sell. They won't be around in 10 or 20 or 30 years when IBM is crashing and burning from a lack of talented employees. So what is the reason for IBM's existence today? To satisfy day-traders and short-term stockholders? Or some combination of the logical descendents of the founder (employees), customers, and long-term owners? From where I'm sitting, the day-traders are eating everyone else's lunch. Sorry Dr. Dey.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy New Year!

     Happy, uh, what's today's date again? 2006? Whatever.
     I mean no offense to any New Year's Eve revelers out there. I'm sure you enjoyed every last second of 2005, including your bonus second granted by the US Naval Observatory in Washington. One more second of a slurring, pained Dick Clark keeping Ryan Seacrest off the air is certainly worth drinking to. And I mean no offense to those of you looking forward to a 2006 that will most certainly include President Bush admitting to all of his mistakes and then promising very, very hard to try not to make too many more. I myself enjoyed a wonderful "Pimp's & Ho's" New Year's Eve party at a friend's house. Remind me to post the pictures someday.
     However, it seems to me that ringing in the new year is a lot less significant than it used to be. First of all, I'm getting older, which means that as I personally slow down and get fatter, time is speeding up. So I feel like I'm experiencing New Year's Eves at the rate I used to experience Tuesdays. But that doesn't explain everything. I just don't feel any compulsion to ponder the new year anymore, to make resolutions, or eat black-eyed peas. (Although I do eat them on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year) This week is just a continuation from last week, which was a continuation from the week before. It's sad, sure, but you know what I really blame for this annual malaise? Online billing.
     I mean, you used to be able to rely on having guaranteed non-weather related small talk in January, talking about how you keep writing the old year in your checkbook, hardy-har-har. When was the last time I wrote a check instead of relying on online bill pay? (It's not a rhetorical question - I really want to know!) I did some research for this post, digging my checkbook out of my desk at home. It was buried under dusty $0.32 stamps, rubber bands that crack if you touch them, and some tic tacs I bought in high school (and yet were remarkably still good). The 25-check book was half completed, although I started it in 2002. There was not a single check stub from 2005.
     When I think about it, not only do I not write checks, I never write the date on anything anymore. Part of that is because I'm not in school anymore and don't have to turn in assignments. But even when I was last in school, I was more likely to turn in a paper written on the computer, which automatically attached a date. More and more, students are submitting assignments electronically, preventing the need to write either the date or their names. Imagine if you forgot how to sign your name? Your signature would get so sloppy it would look like.... your signature.
     2000 was a big deal for the simple jarring fact that for the rest of your life, you would be looking at a '2' staring you in the face instead of a '1'. But even then, there was little in life that was seasonal and there's less today. There used to be a time when you couldn't eat fresh fruits out of season. Now you can enjoy oranges and strawberries 365 days (plus one second) every year. How about football? Arena football starts in January, so you never have to suffer through summers that only feature the most boring "sport" ever devised - baseball. With the invention of Las Vegas, humankind mastered the 24-hour day. Online bill payments are finally helping us master the 365-day year. Happy Two-thousand whatever.