Friday, 8 July 2011

The Space Shuttle? It's been emotional

Am I the only one who felt emotional watching Atlantis lift off on the last ever space shuttle mission this afternoon? I remember watching the first launch as an excited 6 year old, went to see the test orbiter Enterprise on its visit to the UK when I was 8, and cried when Challenger exploded when I was 11. For a geeky kid, the Shuttle was an important part of my childhood. So watching the final launch with my 4 year old today felt pretty special, and I definitely welled up as Atlantis cleared the tower.
Looking back over the 30 years of the Shuttle programme, it's amazing how much has changed in the world and in technology. In 1981, who could have imagined that part of the contingency in the event of problems with the last mission would involve a Russian Soyuz, or that I'd be watching the buildup to the launch on my computer and writing about it on a touch screen tablet.
The Shuttle was definitely of its time and I guess I have to grudgingly admit that it's run its course - there isn't really the appetite for spending billions of public money on sending a glorified plane into orbit any more.
But I feel it has given us two key things, apart from the obvious scientific advances of things like the Hubble space telescope and the International Space Station. First, it's shown that mankind still has the curiosity to explore things for their own sake. That's how we produced science and engineering and got to where we are now, so long my it continue. Secondly, it's paved the way for the commercial exploration of space. Will that be the big area of technological change this century?

Monday, 4 July 2011

The broken US patent system is damaging innovation and needs to be fixed

Reading through the tech news sites this morning, I noticed yet another patent spat, this time between Samsung and Apple, who are each trying to claim the other has stolen their intellectual property and to block each others' imports into the US.

This is yet another example of large technology companies trying to beat each other up with patents of questionable value. One of Apple's patents is about the basic design of a touch screen phone, which rather seems like Ford trying to sue Volkswagen for selling a car with four wheels and an engine. In another development, a consortium of companies including Apple and Research in Motion (the people behind the Blackberry) has just agreed the purchase (to the tune of $4.5bn) of a portfolio of patents from the bankrupt Canadian telecoms giant Nortel.

The original idea of patents was to protect inventors and entrepreneurs, so that they were safe from having their ideas stolen by large companies. What we now have is the opposite. Small companies can struggle to innovate because some large company or patent troll (companies who buy up patents and then launch legal actions based on them, who don't actually make anything) will threaten them with a law suit which they'll struggle to fight. In the end we have out-of-court settlements in which the big boys pay each other money, and all that happens is that lawyers get rich. We end up with ridiculous situations like the fact that for every mobile sold which runs Google's Android system, a few dollars is paid to Microsoft, who have always been the antithesis of Android's open source roots and certainly haven't made any contribution to the core Linux operating system which it's built on. These patents often only apply in the US, but given the size of that market they have a global effect.

The USA seriously needs to address its patent system. I would suggest two measures. First, in order to enforce a patent, a company must have made and sold a product which used it within the last 5 years. This would get rid of the patent trolls, while protecting businesses who actually innovate and use their patents. Secondly, and this would be much harder to get past the big corporate lobbyists, companies over a given market capitalisation should not be able to enforce patents. This would mean patents protect small and growing businesses who actually need the protection, not large established players trying to cement their domination of a market.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Tablet wars and the shape of things to come

So, HP has just released its first tablet computer since it bought Palm and webOS a year or so ago. Generally it's had good reviews, and is apparently almost as slick as the iPad. The main complaint is that it lacks the number of apps that Apple, or indeed Android, have available.

What's really interesting though is that it is basically one big web browser, with some really nice effects thrown in. This means that apps are written, like web applications, using HTML and Javascript.

Why should you care? Well, the implication is that an app made for webOS should work with just a little modification in a normal web browser or other system built around web browser principles, which is exactly what Microsoft appears to be planning if the previews of Windows 8 are anything to go by. This would mean that apps would run on anything and the vendors have to compete on the quality of their products rather than how much software runs on them, as Microsoft have certainly done in the past.

Won't it be refreshing if you can run the same app on Windows, Apple, Android, webOS or whatever just as it doesn't matter if you're reading this blog in Firefox, Internet Explorer or Safari? That's the future of computing...