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03.19.13

How Apple Attacked (and Marginalised) the Linux-powered WebOS

Posted in Apple, GNU/Linux, Patents at 11:57 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Palm Pre with WebOS and Palm OS

Summary: Professor Michael Risch talks about WebOS, responds to our criticism

There is a fascinating story about WebOS, the operating system built on Linux and optimised to work well on the Web, using some portable framework that is Web-compatible (a growing trend in SDKs). Apple’s devices are poor at Web browsing, so WebOS (now open source as we hoped but unfortunately patents-encumbered) and some platforms like Android, which now has Chrome, have had a huge potential for growth, mostly at Apple’s and Nokia’s expense. Android is well ahead of Apple in technical terms and “Samsung [is] Innovating Faster Than Apple” claims a minister. So anyway, after Apple threatened Palm with lawsuits [1, 2] we find out in Risch’s rant about the already-controversial SHIELD act that WebOS was derailed by Apple:

Consider Palm, which developed WebOS, and made stuff. Consider HP, which has spent billions of dollars in research and development. HP bought Palm, and made WebOS tablets. For various reasons, maybe in part due to patent claims from other tablet makers like Apple, HP decides to stop selling WebOS tablets. HP then decides to enforce Palm’s patents. Mind you, HP didn’t just buy the patents, it bought the company. And then it made stuff, it researched, it developed, and it has even licensed WebOS out to LG try to resurrect it for televisions. Is HP a troll now? It falls under the text of this act. I think that just cannot be right, and yet there it is, in black and white.

Pamela Jones wrote: “Apple did that? I didn’t know that. If so, then I spit in their general direction. I love WebOS, and Apple needs to cut it out. It can’t be the only tablet maker in the universe. The more they sue and threaten, the more determined I am never to buy anything from them again.”

Wired had Risch (prominent in the debate over patent trolls) as a guest in a debate full of lawyers whose opinions omit the obvious solution (here is
another recent example) and after our criticism of his suggestions he wrote to me to say: “Thanks for reading, even if you don’t agree. I’m glad to hear that I’m even slightly controversial, as I usually see myself as plain vanilla.

“I outside us was a bit surprised by your characterization of the op-ed, though. For one thing, I quote Stallman’s editorial. For another, my very first suggestion was: ” More patents should be rejected, and especially weak software patents. Limiting these should continue regardless of who – troll or product company – owns those patents.” I realize that this doesn’t go far enough for those who would abolish software patents, but it’s hardly a defense. Indeed, at least one person shared this sentiment as the takeaway from the op-ed on twitter. I actually had a lot more written about software patents, but they limited me to 1100 words, so anything not core to the primary argument got slashed – so it goes.”

I replied by saying that “I do believe that we need to end software patents as a whole.”

“I hear you,” he said, “I know a lot a people feel that way. Even though I disagree, at least that would be owner neutral!”

That’s why it’s a debate. Every debate has some factions on each side. Anup Malani, writing this paper about patents, says: “Counter-intuitively, we propose raising the stakes of patent litigation by providing enhanced rewards to victorious patent holders and imposing enhanced penalties on owners of patents that are invalidated at trial.” This is not the obvious solution, either. It evades the obvious fix which is related to scope, not legal action.

Stephen Ornes, a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote this article in the New Scientist yesterday. He opposes software patents on the ground that they are akin to patenting mathematics. To quote:

AT SOME point in their career every mathematician comes up against the question, is mathematics invented or discovered? The query makes some cranky. The answer doesn’t directly affect their work, after all, and the discussion often leads nowhere useful. Spending time debating the ultimate nature of mathematics takes away from actually doing it.

Some scholars take issue with the terms themselves. In his 2008 essay Mathematical Platonism and Its Opposites, Harvard University mathematician Barry Mazur called discovery and invention “those two too-brittle words”. One might be tempted to defuse the question altogether with a merger: perhaps maths involves inventing new relationships between things we have discovered.

It’s a metaphysical query, a nerdy way to ask whether or not some pre-existing truths underlie our existence. Here we bump up against theology. If mathematical ideas are discovered – the Platonist position – then a proof is a real-world encounter with an immortal truth. But then where, exactly, is this ethereal pool of truths? Did prime numbers exist before the big bang?

If, on the other hand, mathematics is invented, then proofs spring from human intelligence a bit like art or law. But then why do mathematicians across time and space always agree on what’s right and wrong?

The question about invention versus discovery flares up every few years, often in a different guise. The latest incarnation concerns something very down to earth: money. In this case, the discovery versus invention question has profound consequences. In fact, there may be no mathematical question with higher stakes. That’s because mathematics powers the algorithms that drive computer software, and software is big business, worth over $300 billion a year to the global economy.

If we start with the hypothesis that algorithms are reducible to maths — which they are — then it becomes apparent that the patent system is inherently broken in the scope sense. Talking about damages in litigation is not the point. We must identify and address root causes, not symptoms.

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