Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Where are My Pixels Going?

I have a Dell Inspirion 1520 that is more than three years old. Recently I've started thinking about a replacement. The 1520 is a 15.4" laptop with a 1680x1050 display. Don't ask me what meaningless combination of letters from the end of the alphabet describe this resolution. 1680x1050 means something. Something-GA means nothing. Anyway, this laptop cost me about $1,600.00, including tax and shipping because I bought ALL the options. Had I just taken a standard 1520 and added the better display, I'd have been well under $1K. Today I visited the Dell website and discovered that the only laptop that has better than a 1600x900 resolution display is in their Alienware line and starts at $1,700.

I use my laptop primarily for programming and system administration. Unlike 10 or 15 years ago, programming no longer requires anything resembling a top of the line computer. What I was hoping to find was a $600 or so 17" laptop, add a $100 display upgrade and have a better machine for something slightly over $700. Actually, I'm lying. I was thinking that there might be a chance that the $600 laptop might actually come with a better screen than was standard three years ago, giving me my 1920x1200 display in a stock machine. I never imagined even for a second that the best resolution available in a 17" laptop would not even match the first optional resolution from three years ago.

Furthermore, what's the deal with computer displays with TV resolutions? I know nobody who doesn't have at least three television sets that they can watch if they need to catch up on their shows. I also know nobody who wants to use their laptop as a primary or even secondary TV watching device. If you do any work on a computer, you are probably creating documents of some sort. Rather than a display with a 16:9 aspect ratio, computer users would be better served with a display with a vertically oriented aspect ratio of 2:3 or so. Since that would be a bit unwieldy, the old 4:3 is actually pretty good if there are enough vertical pixels, but I'll take the 16:10 displays as a reasonable compromise. 16:9 is just not the optimal aspect ratio for office productivity. Programming tools are a bit wider, so they can use some horizontal pixels, but source code files are even longer than office documents as they are not paper page oriented, but rather just long files of hundreds of lines or more in length. A display with the aspect ratio of a horizontal slit is just not appropriate for getting stuff done.

Please, laptop manufacturers, offer me a laptop with a display sized for working on documents, not for watching TV. I have a very nice 42" TV that I can use for watching the History Channel. It is much better than my laptop for that job.

Trivial Patents are Killing Our Economy

I have been a software developer for nearly 30 years. During this time, I have seen the number of software patents and business process patents increase by huge numbers. Rather than protect innovation, as is the intent of patents, these patents create a minefield for business, strangling innovation and severely weakening our economy. Most software and business process patents do not cover inventions that took any major effort or investment to create. Many, perhaps most, are nothing more than the obvious solution to a specific problem encountered by a programmer or engineer during the course of solving normal, daily business problems. Since we do live in a changing, technological world, it is natural that there are new problems to be solved. Generally, for an experienced technician, these solutions to these problems are obvious or at least easily arrived at after only a small amount of consideration. Worse still, it does occur that some of these patents are issued to an entity that did nothing more than document an existing solution that nobody else had previously bothered to patent.

Unfortunately, it is easy for the patent applications for these "inventions" to expand to many pages of eye watering technical jargon that disguises their triviality. As a result, the Patent Office generally grants these patents that seem counter to the standards of patentability to any honest and only slightly experienced technician. The problem of the existence of these patents is obvious without much investigation. However, the scope of the problem is many times greater than is obvious, as these patents are seldom invalidated even when they should be. The reason for this is the huge expense and effort involved in fighting them. Most businesses are in business to do business and avoid litigation as much as possible. Generally, companies either waste time coming up with new, slightly different solutions, or simply resign themselves to license deals they should not have to suffer. Paying a license fee, even one that should not exist, is usually much, much less expensive than litigation. More importantly, these invalid but all too real license fees are a known cost, whereas litigation cannot be predicted in either the dimensions of cost or outcome. Unfortunately, this environment serves only to strengthen invalid patents, causing them to drag on an industry for years.

This issue has been on my mind for years, but recently I read this article:


In short, the problem being decided is what effect the discovery of previously unknown prior art should have during patent litigation. To me, it is shocking that previously unknown prior art should even come up in litigation. Rather, there should be an administrative process by which an entity that has knowledge of prior art can simply provide this information to the Patent Office. The Patent Office will then consider this new information, and when appropriate, terminate a patent that should not have been issued. It is a horrible drag on our economy that the courts are the only venue that can be used to correct for the existence of an invalid patent when a patent clearly should never have been issued in the first place.

In these difficult economic times, serious patent reform that limits patents to their intended purpose of wholly new and revolutionary innovations would go far to helping our economy. Businesses would not have to suffer the taxes of litigation or license fees for trivial patents. The most important benefit, though, would be that the attention of businesses could be focused on doing business rather than worrying about these trivial patents. I believe the effect of this would be a surge in true innovation and a huge boost to the economy.