Monday, October 10, 2011

The Necessity of Steve Jobs: ...Inventor? ...or Necessitor?

The recent comparisons of Steve Jobs to Edison and Ford brought me back to an important point: Invention is the mother of necessity. We don't realize we need something until an "inventor" shows us what it can be, and what it can do for us.

Which came first? Is necessity the mother of invention? (as the saying goes) ...or is invention the mother of necessity? Is inventing unrecognized necessities the real heart of inventing? As Jobs famously said: "It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Jobs was more important as a necessitor, than as an inventor.  It struck me that the point some have raised -- that Jobs did not invent the technologies he popularized -- has some validity, but fails to balance the picture with this important point.  It is true that the mouse, the "drag-and-drop" graphical user interface, hypertext, music downloads, MP3 players,smartphones, tablets, touchscreens, computer animation, and many more key "inventions" applied by Jobs were not invented by him.  It seems widely recognized that Jobs' key contribution was that he saw how such things could be put to use in new configurations, and to serve needs that others did not see or saw less clearly (and also that he had the drive and resources to realize his visions...)

This resonated with me, because I have often felt that my own history as an inventor has a similar focus (even if hardly on the scale of Jobs').  The contribution is not so much in solving a recognized technical problem, but in seeing what technical problems should be solved, and why, and what else that would mean.  (That is why the theme of this blog is "user-centered media" -- that is pretty much the theme of much of my work.)

In a sense, this relates to innovation at the level of "systems thinking."  The necessitor does not just solve a problem, but creates a whole new system, within the larger system of people, technology, economics, and culture.  Jobs saw that what was missing in the music business was a new model for aggregated, simplified sales of music, and integration of an e-commerce system (the iTunes store) with a user agent (iTunes) and a device (iPod).  Once people saw that, they needed it.  No one created the wholistic vision that enabled that necessity to be recognized and acted on until Jobs did.

Similarly, some argue that Edison's real impact was not the light bulb, but the electric distribution system and related infrastructure that he recognized as needed to make the light bulb broadly useful.  It is perhaps more apparent that Ford was not so much an inventor of cars and mass production, but a necessitor, who realized that we needed simple black cars, and lots of them.  Often such cases are not simple inventions, but whole systems of invention.  One necessity/invention leads to other necessities/inventions, to whole ecologies of inventions.

So which came first? the necessity or the invention?  I suggest, as in most things, the answer is a non-dualistic "yes, both."  It is hard to separate the two.  Our patent system seems to think of inventions as the thing that matters.  The constitution defines patents to be for "any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvements thereof."  This has always seemed to me a limited view of what inventors do.

I suggest an equal form of "invention" is what Robert Kennedy spoke of:  "I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"  Once we take that step, we may need to invent some technology, but often what we need to do is take the vision, understand all that it entails, and assemble a whole system from technologies that may have previously existed, but not been combined and adapted in the right way.  This kind of systems thinking, is on a much different level than the more commonly recognized engineering tasks of solving the technical problems to meet a previously recognized need.

...This also has led me to questions about the place for such contributions in the patent system.  It seems to me that such contributions may be equally deserving of some kind of patent protection, to reward the creative thinking that advances our "useful arts" and our civilization in general.  Just as with more narrow senses of technical invention, this takes not just inspiration, but perspiration (to paraphrase Edison).  But just how this kind of invention of necessity fits (or could be fit) with our current patent system seems a bit unclear.

[Should anyone know of any good thinking by others on this theme, I would welcome references.]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Social TV -- The "Killer App" for Coactive TV -- Ready for Ubiquity

Social TV promises to be the killer app for coactive TV (CoTV).  (A "killer application" is an application that is so desirable to users that it drives the adoption of a larger technology.  The concept emerged when spreadsheets and word processors drove the adoption of PCs, which have obviously broadened to far wider importance.)

There are a number of signs that Social TV is emerging as such a killer app (some mentioned in previous posts).
  • IntoNow launched in January 2011 and was quickly acquired by Yahoo on 4/25/11, and Spot411 re-launched 7/18/11 as TVplus.  Both have gotten prominent press and both do fully automatic syncing to any program, without need for any involvement by the TV distributor. 
  • The Wikipedia article on Social Television was created in 5/07 with 3,244 bytes, grew to 5,528 by the end of 2009, then grew to 10,469 by the end of 2010, and to 16,851 by 8/23/11.  It now includes a list of 32 such systems (not all of which involve two-screens).
  • One of the most popular FIOS TV apps was the Twitter app.
Being a killer app does not mean it will ultimately dominate the use of the platform, but only that it drives early adoption.  I suggest there are other killer apps for coactive TV as well, and that the long term value will span a wide range of apps.
  • From a user viewpoint, EPGs (electronic program guides) are another important killer app, not least because it is one the MSOs (multi-system operators, TV distributors) are embracing along with users.  EPGs showcase the value of the companion device to allow interaction with a nice UI, and without interfering with current viewing.   The irresistible power of the iPad UI and relatively open ecosystem has finally convinced the MSOs that they must go outside the box (at least as to the set-top box and the TV screen).  Comcast and Time Warner Cable have moved quickly to offer tablet-based EPGs and DVR programming.  The coactive EPG will evolve into the full "Media Concierge" service that I have been blogging about since 2005). 
  • The real money to drive all of this is in advertising.  Obviously this will drive the service providers and advertisers, but I submit that users too will recognize and increasingly demand the value of well targeted ads that exploit the flexibility of coactive UIs to be unobtrusive.  Well targeted ads can be a valuable service, as long as they are no more intrusive than the viewer wants them to be (which may vary from time to time, and from ad to ad).  Coactive ads--driving from a short spot to a companion microsite (whether linked to live, or deferred using a bookmarking feature)--can be far less intrusive and far more useful than a longer TV ad with no coactive companion element. A good UI can give the user control over when and how such ads appear.
All of these promising killer apps have synergy with one another.  Coactive TV is at heart hypermedia, and thus "everything is deeply intertwingled." (Quoting Ted Nelson, who also coined the terms hypertext and hypermedia.)
  • Social TV apps can work both as program enhancements and to provide program guide/media concierge services.  
  • Social TV can also be about ads, such as during the Superbowl, or when any ad of interest to my social circle appears.
  • All of these will drive usage of enhancement content (such as IMDB pages), which will create further synergies.
But there is one more thing that is essential, and that is ubiquity. While full, ubiquitous coactivity is not central to all Social TV, I suggest it is essential to enabling it to reach scale.
  • Synchronizing Web browsing to TV can be done manually, and has for decades.  Viewers have created their own Social TV ever since the first two people sat with a laptop in front of a TV, and ever since the first online chat about a TV program.  It can also be automated with program specific apps.  ABC did it a decade ago with Enhanced TV for the Oscars and other shows, and now on the iPad for Grey's Anatomy, but program and network apps cannot create massive synergy.
  • What is essentially to enabling Social TV (and most other CoTV apps) to cross the chasm is ubiquity.  Siloing companion apps to a separate app for each network or program or advertiser is hugely self-defeating.  How many users will load more than a few apps, and how many will bother to open those apps more than once?  Just as the Web eliminated the need for separate apps for every content service, a ubiquitous CoTV service will require only a single context-linking app to reach services for every program, to every Web service. There will be all kinds of mashups driven by that context, but an effective context-linking service must be essentially universal.
A truly ubiquitous coactive TV service will be always on, and always aware of a viewer's TV context (except when disabled).  Such a ubiquitous service can activate any Web service and any application, in a rich ecology much like that on the Web.  That way a user can just set up the coactive companion context service just once, and get synchronized for any program or ad, to any social networking service, content service, or whatever -- whether directly, or via mashups.  (Just how such services can be structured to enable flexibility and user control was described in my published patent disclosures, and will be a subject of  future posts.)

It now appears that Social TV is the next big thing in TV, and will drive full coactivity -- but a whole lot of other functions will ride its coattails.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Intellectual Ventures Inventor Profile

Recently I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Intellectual Ventures for a story about my work as an inventor. I have been looking forward to seeing it posted in their new Inventor Spotlight area. Unfortunately, I still have to wait a bit. My story was one of the first to be written, but my deal was fairly complex, and they want to work up to that. So, while I wait for them to present the story, here is a teaser.

For those of you who have not been paying attention, Intellectual Ventures is remaking the patent business. They have gradually become less secretive -- having raised $5 billion to acquire over 30,000 patents since 2000, they are having a huge effect, much of it yet to be seen, and are still viewed with awe by some, and fear by others. Their story has been covered extensively in the press.

As an inventor, and a believer in what technology can enable, I think they are changing things very much for the better.

Some of my history as an inventor -- my twelve year struggle from conception to monetization of my first patented invention -- was outlined in a 2008 blog post. That did not get into how I partnered with others to develop my patents, leading to a sale for $35 million. I faced most of the challenges of the lone inventor, unable to get large companies to a reasonable deal without litigation, even with professional partners to lead and fund the effort. I always viewed litigation as a very unpleasant and wasteful prospect, and two years into a hugely expensive and draining case (even with other people's money), I was eager to end it as soon as possible.

That is where the market came to the rescue. The IV case study will give more details, but, in brief, I saw them change the game from a brutal, zero-sum battle (attractive only to lawyers) to a win-win business proposition that was beneficial to all. They brought unique insight into the market forces, great cleverness in structuring deals that I understand to have been first of their kind, and mastery in moving the warring sides to a deal quickly, overcoming many stumbling blocks.

The deal provided my company, Teleshuttle, with the resources to let me focus on my work as an inventor, which is the work I love and do best.*

I look forward to seeing the story of this landmark deal on IV's Web site, and to IV's contribution to developing the market becoming more widely known and understood. IV deserves credit for leading the way toward a world in which invention is more sensibly valued, rewarded, and stimulated -- to make life better for all of us.


*For example, there is my current work on the FairPay pricing process, described extensively on [the FairPayZone**] blog: I have patent filings related to this, but they may or may not ever have any value. Nevertheless, because some of my patents have brought in funds, I can develop FairPay essentially as a pro-bono project, just because I think it is an idea the world will benefit from.

There is a parallel here: Just as IV found a way to arrange a fair value exchange between me as innovator and those who benefit from my ideas, I put forth FairPay as a way to arrange a fair value exchange between those who create content/services and those who benefit from that.


[**This post was originally posted on the FairPayZone blog on 4/27/11, but has been moved here as more fitting. 

Comments:  a few comments can be found on the original posting at]

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Squeeze More In" for Video Devices -- Never get stuck again!

Wouldn't it be nice to have a video device with infinite capacity that never got full?
  • Have you ever shot so much video that your phone/camera got full and made you stop?
  • Did you miss getting something on video because the phone/camera was full and you did not have the time or opportunity to upload or delete some video to make space for more?
  • Has your DVR ever erased a show you wanted because you lacked space for a new recording?
  • Has your DVR ever failed to record a new show because all your old video was marked "do not delete"?
If so, what you need is Progressive Deletion -- a compression method that lets your device "squeeze more in."  Of course it is not infinite, but it can enable a lot of squeezing.

Progressive Deletion is a new spin on video compression that is the subject of one of my recently issued patents.  It is not yet available on any device, but I am seeking manufacturers who want to offer this new feature to their users.  If you are in the video industry and know people who might build this, please let me know -- and tell them!  If you are a user who likes the idea, I am interested in hearing that also.

Background on Progressive Deletion is on the Web, but briefly, here is the basic concept.
  • Many image compression algorithms allow for varying levels of compression, where the more you compress, the less the quality retained, and many cameras and DVRs allow you to set any of several levels of compression.
  • Generally you pick one, and are stuck with it.  But more flexibilty is applied in "progressive" video transmissions, where you might receive only a high significance layer if you have limited bandwidth, to get moderate quality, or additional lower significance layers if you have more bandwidth.  The added layers add more quality when combined at the video player.  
  • But either way, once you have the video saved on your device, it can't be made smaller without reformatting, and that takes time (if enabled at all)
  • Progressive Deletion methods take this one step farther by storing video in your device layer by layer, so that an entire layer can be instantly deleted if you want to sacrifice some quality to free some space.
Thus you can "squeeze more in" by simply telling the device to delete some low significance layers, and just keep on shooting or recording.  That could also be set as an automatic operation -- your device might indicate that you are reaching a deletion point, and just do it if you keep shooting or recording, with no interruption at all.  Of course you might also be given the option to select specific videos to be squeezed or not.

All of this is done without changing the compression method, just by changing storage order (from by time, to by layer). It maintains compatibility with standard formats by just exporting the standard ordering when video is uploaded or transmitted (or importing from standard ordering when downloading).

Friday, April 08, 2011

TVs, iPads, Time Warner Cable, and Viacom -- Copyright vs. Copyrape

The latest overreach of copyright owners over the Time Warner Cable iPad TV app is an interesting encapsulation of all that is wrong with the current excesses of copyright.

I see this as a key policy issue relating my theme of "user-centered media" -- one that gets to the heart of the social contract behind copyright and all intellectual property. The key question is the balance of what is good for users, and what is fair incentive to content creators. The Constitution wisely embraced that balance, but many have lost sight of it.

The case reported by the NY Times Media Decoder is a classic of overreach (and one in which I find myself in the surprising position of supporting the cable companies).  As the Times reports, Viacom pleads that Time Warner Cable’s actions “will interfere with Viacom’s opportunities to license content to third-party broadband providers and to successfully distribute programming on its own broadband delivery sites.”  Let's think about that, both from a technical and a policy perspective.  This is not really a question of TWC vs. Viacom, but of the public vs. the rights-holders.

First, an quick look shows how silly this is from a technical perspective:

  • Doesn't Time Warner's distribution of Viacom channels to TVs in the home limit "Viacom’s opportunities to license content to third-party broadband providers?"  If I could not get The Daily Show from TWC, I would certainly be much more inclined to use Hulu for it.  Why does Viacom allow that?
  • How is an iPad different from a TV?  (Answer keeping in mind that this is the 21st Century.) 
  • I have a Blu-Ray player and a Mac Mini both HDMI-connected to my TV, so I can watch any "third-party broadband provider" programming on my TV, and don't need TWC if Viacom is available through other providers. I can view such broadband provider content on any screen I like, and they are completely free to compete with TWC.  (Such any-screen connectivity will soon be the norm.)
  • Why should TWC be locked off the iPad when Hulu is sold rights to distribute Viacom programming to any Internet-connected screen, including both TVs and iPads.
  • Remember also that both TWC cable TV and broadband in TWC-served homes both arrive as RF signals running in different channels on the same coaxial cable!
  • Once more, what century is this?
But this is really a deeper question of policy, and both content owners and content users seem to forget the basic social contract that drives copyright.  Let's step back to those basics:
  • Copyright is designed to maximize social welfare by encouraging content creation
  • Copyright owners are given limited rights as their incentive to create content
  • The public pays to compensate creators for content.
  • The public also may pay distributors and device manufacturers for facilitating access to content, but that has nothing to do with copyright.  (I have to pay for a book of Shakespeare plays or the Bible, or to download it to my cell phone in Timbuktu, but the content is free.)
Thus various parties have rights to compensation:
  • The creators of Viacom content have rights to compensation for their content.
  • Viacom is entitled to collect such copyright-related compensation, as well as compensation for their contribution to distribution (as well as some profit).
  • Distributors and device providers are entitled to compensation for distribution and devices (which, again, has nothing to do with copyright).
But the viewer who pays for content has purchased the right to enjoy that content.  That can take a number of forms, but none are tied to what screen the viewer is using.  For a single viewer (or household, or whatever unit is bought):
  • I can pay for time-limited access (such as a streamed subscription) or for permanent access (such as a download or DVD).
  • Those costs may be bundled with distribution and device costs, but the underlying copyright fee is a simple and distinct component of that bundle.
  • Any copyright-based limitation to content by device or location or technology that goes beyond the simple distinction of time-limited or unlimited access is without foundation.  Such limitations might be forced by technical limitations, but once those technical limitations disappear, they have no basis.
So if I pay for a Viacom program (content) one time, for a month, or forever, I should have unlimited rights to enjoy viewing that content, one time, for that month, or forever.  There might also be software fees for apps, and bandwidth fees for distribution, but there is no basis for any further content viewing fee.*

The copyright owners seem to have forgotten that the maze of licensing that they have so many lawyers working on is mostly an accident of technological history.  Hopefully the courts will not lose sight of the basics and let the tail wag the dog, now that technology is liberating us.  Hopefully they will not let copyright turn into copyrape.

Content does not want to be free, if its creator wants compensation (subject to his limited copyright).  But once I have paid for a license, I should be free to view it as I like, for whatever amount of viewing I have paid the creator for.  Watching multiple times might be a multiple use, but watching on one screen rather than another is not a different use.

Ask not for whom the copyright tolls, it tolls for thee -- for the public welfare.

*A related issue is the current idea that cable-sourced access might be limited to in-home viewing.  That too is an artificial limitation,with no inherent justification.  It may be hard to prevent abuse of licenses, if I can let all my friends view my TWC content in their homes, but as long as TWC has the technical means to limit viewing to valid subscribers (and those viewing with them) why should there be any geographic restriction limiting out of home viewing? 

Monday, March 14, 2011

How do you explain something that's never existed before?

This is one of my favorite images, and largely speaks for itself.  So you can stop here (all else is commentary).  

A "better mousetrap" is easy to explain.  The first mousetrap, like the first wheel, is not so easy.  

This cartoon is from the October 1981 announcement of the Xerox Star workstation, the productized version of the Alto, the very first WIMP (Window, Icon, Menu, Pointing device) Graphical User Interface.  (To anyone who has the full advertisement this was clipped from, I would love to have a better, more complete copy.)

Relevant to my theme of user-centered media, this gets to the idea that the user may not know what he really would like.  In many respects, Steve Jobs is a champion of user-centered media (even if maybe not user-centered business practices).  Asked why Apple doesn’t do focus groups, Jobs responded: "We figure out what we want. You can’t go out and ask people ‘what’s the next big thing?’ There’s a great quote by Henry Ford. He said, "If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse.’"”  Of course we need to think of the user, and usually should listen to them, but to innovate, one must look far in front of them.

All the best really new ideas are simple at heart, but have many aspects and embodiments.  Like an embryo, it may be all there at conception at some level, but the details that work in the world unfold as you let it grow to maturity.  Depending on context, some aspects grow faster and are more apparent than others.  But explaining them is no easy task.  I have enjoyed seeing many new ideas in early stages, but am still trying to learn how to explain them.  Steve Jobs has the advantage of being able to build them and show them off.  I have not had his resources.  And sometimes no one has the resources until the time is right.

I tried to convince Mobil Corporation to buy a Star workstation to experiment with when I was in their technology planning group in 1981, but it was too expensive, even for Mobil (which was the first company to buy a Cray supercomputer)!  The workstation cost about $100K, but  as I recall, a useful single-user system also needed a file server, print server, and communications server, totaling about $250K minimum (about $600K in current dollars).

I watched hypertext unfold since 1969.  Ted Nelson did a masterful job explaining it (inspired by Vannevar Bush's 1945 vision in The Atlantic Monthly), and Doug Engelbart spectacularly demonstrated similar techniques in what was called "the mother of all demos" in 1968.  But it was slow to reach wide recognition until technology advanced, Berners-Lee simplified it, and Andreesen packaged it.  

As to my own inventions, I have struggled with the challenge of trying to explain online/local hybrids in 1994 (now in RSS, AJAX, and HTML5), coactive TV companion devices (now emerging for iPads) in 2002, and now for FairPay in 2010.  (A companion post is on my FairPayZone blog.

[Caption text:  "How do you explain something that's never existed before? ... He had a similar problem"]

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hyperlocal News symposium by MIT Enterprise Forum of NYC -- 2/24

Hyperlocal News: A New of World of Journalism, Sustainable Business Models, and the $30B Local Ad Market promises to be a very interesting NYC panel session.  As board organizer of the event for MITEF-NYC, I am pleased to have a very strong and diverse mix of panelists, and look forward to some stimulating dialog.  Aside from major players like the NY Times and Patch, we have a smaller startup, the Alternative Press, and, a technology/infrastructure provider.

A very nice preview article on the event, and on the MIT Enterprise Forum, was published today by The Alternative Press.

From my "user-centered media" perspective, hyperlocal is an interesting development, with farther to go in use-centered control of locality -- as to geography, time, and context.  Instead of just a newspaper focused on my community, I want to see more context sensitivity and control.  Sometimes I want to know:
  • why there are sirens in my neighborhood right now (more and longer than usual, this being Manhattan)?
  • what are the fireworks I see on the Hudson now, and how do I get advance notice of them?
  • what events match my interest profile (graded by distance vs. level of interest)?
  • about my home location, my work location, or a location I am visiting or passing through.
I don't know that the panel will get to these questions, but there are many other interesting ones they will address.  I have been involved in various online news services since the late '80s, and what I see as interesting is not always shared by the powers that be.

One of my recent projects (with impact yet to be determined) is a radically new pricing process for digital media called FairPay.  This has strong potential for news services, including hyperlocal ones.  More on that is on the at my FairPay Zone blog.

Of course I will be at the event, and will be happy to discuss FairPay, and other user-centered issues, with anyone there.

The Daily, iPad, and Apps ...or Web browsing with HTML5 -- Which paradigm?

The appearance of  The Daily from News Corp. is seen as a big step in the online journalism business, as described in a WSJ article.

I played with it briefly and it brings me back to some key questions about the future of media.  It will be very interesting to see how it does.  There are a range of important issues, and here are some impressions.

The interesting business issue is how app models are seen as a last chance to give publishers another bite at the monetization apple (pun intended) vs. free Web content.  This depends to some extent on whether Apple and other app stores let publishers keep enough money and enough control of the customer relationship (which Apple clearly hates to do, but Google is more open to).  But with HTML5 Web apps as alternative, that may become a harder sell than Murdoch now hopes.

Underlying this is the big technology question of whether the app fad loses out to HTML5 Web browsing.  In many respects, the app/widget model is a giant step backward.  Pre Web, there were "apps" for every online service, and they were all unique and non-interoperable with a clutter of invocations and divergent UIs.  The Web/browser brought a "World Wide Web" of consistency and interoperability that still enabled flexibility and varying look/feel.  A key issue is how to benefit from apps/widgets without going back to another age of islands and silos?  I built some of the first pre-Web publisher "apps" for TV Guide (hello again News Corp), Golf Magazine, Sierra, and others in the early '90s, and saw first hand how much the Web simplified things for both publishers and users.

The question is why bother downloading apps, when it seems HTML5 will soon give pretty much the same UI with no download?  Most of the current UI benefits of apps will soon go away.  The lasting benefit of the app store is central merchandising/sales (and a home page UI), and as Google shows with their Web app store, this can be done as little more than a Web site.  A few useful links are an Engadget article, the Chrome Webstore, and its FAQ.

Check out NY Times and SI Snapshot Chrome apps for an app-like experience in a browser, with little or nothing to download.  The NYTimes chrome site actually runs in Safari on the iPad and looks/acts much like the iPad app (but seems to give a different content mix).  The only essential thing the app store really adds is the home page array of icons (and maybe a different way to get people to pay).

I will bet on the browser.  It offers the best overall and most open user-centered experience.  And I think there are other ways to solve the monetization problem.  (One in particular is my FairPay pricing process, with an example of usage for a newspaper on my FairPay Zone blog.)