If you’ve ever set your email account to send out an I’m on vacation and you’re not auto-response, you might have just dodged a bullet. The U.S. patent office granted IBM a patent on an “out-of-office electronic mail messaging system” that is indistinguishable from the vacation auto-responder that’s been baked into every email platform on the planet for the past 20 years.
Asked about EFF’s criticisms of the patent, an IBM spokesperson said that “IBM has decided to dedicate the patent to the public.” The company notified USPTO today that it will forego its rights to the patent.
In an EFF blog post, Daniel Nazer gives a run down of the ways that the patent office screwed up while reviewing the patent application. First, patents are not supposed to be issued for obvious uses of existing technology or, particularly, for so-called innovations that are actually commonplace practices for which no one had bothered to file an application. That’s simply a major fail on the part of the patent office employees responsible for the bogus decision.
Second, granting the patent directly contradicts a U.S. supreme court ruling – the Alice decision – that says that abstract ideas that can be implemented on any generic computer aren’t eligible for patents. The patent examiner on the case was aware of that, but, as Nazer writes…
At one point, the examiner did reject some of the application’s claims under Section 101 of the Patent Act (which is the statute the Alice decision applies). But IBM overcame the rejection simply by arguing that the patent’s method was implemented in computer hardware. In January 2013, IBM noted that “it was agreed [between IBM and the patent examiner] that the rejection … under 35 U.S.C. § 101 could be overcome by reciting that a hardware storage device stores computer readable instructions or program code”.
This fiasco ended well because IBM is a big company with a reputation that’s worth far, far more than a undefendable patent. But if, instead, patent office employees had granted it to a typical patent troll – companies that exist only to extort settlements from small businesses that can’t afford to defend themselves – the effect could have been devastating.
There doesn’t seem to be much in the Secutablet that comes from Blackberry itself. The device is made by Samsung (which is also integrating Blackberry technology into its enterprise products), the operating system appears to be Android (although that’s still to be confirmed) and the apps, or at least the secure shell that the apps run in, come from IBM. Presumably, the secret sauce that Blackberry adds to the mix is its secure telecoms system.
That system, and the proprietary technology it’s based on, is Blackberry’s crown jewel. If they’ve finally figured out how to usefully integrate it into the devices and operating systems that have won the battle of the marketplace, then it means Blackberry has a future, albeit one’s that’s greatly diminished from the days when it was the top dog of mobile data.
The Secutablet itself is a niche device that will appeal to people that need access to very secure documents and other data. It’s a media consumption device, because that’s what tablets do well. Think of it as a substitute for paper copies of documents. I’d bet that a key feature is that a document cannot leave a device that it’s sent to (or be intercepted en route, of course), preventing unauthorised sharing. That kind of network security is an additional protection on top of the encryption and access control that any tablet could support, and it’s Blackberry’s sole remaining competitive advantage.
The set top box is on the run, harried away by television manufacturers. Toshiba sounded the hunting horn this morning, unveiling its Cell TV product line. Don’t be fooled by the name, it’s a classic case of branding in a vacuum. It has nothing to do with mobile phones. It’s a computer morphed into a set top box and wrapped with a big screen TV. The set top box is the TV.
Spot the set top boxToshiba calls the chip that powers it the Cell TV Broadband Engine, which was developed in a joint venture with Sony and IBM. Details were sketchy at the press conference. All Scott Ramirez, Toshiba’s marketing VP for television, could say was “maybe you can ask one of the Japanese guys.” That I’ll do at their booth tomorrow.
They did know that the chip has 8 cores and is capable of 200 GFLOPS. The TV set that’s built around it also has a 1TB hard disk drive and all the networking capability – wired and wireless – anyone could want. It does Internet TV and social networking, works as a home media server and a video phone, and, they say, can convert standard 2D television into 3D. One highlighted feature is its ability to filter Internet noise and process video streams in real time, to narrow the gap between cable/satellite and Internet delivery.
Quite the change from last year, when all the TV set guys said they were putting an Ethernet port into all their products, but didn’t quite know what anyone would do with it. This year, it looks like Toshiba, at least, is getting it right. Take a ton of computing power, use most of it to enhance video quality, save a tiny bit for networking, navigation and sharing, and give it a consumer-friendly user interface that actually does the job.
They’ve turned set top box technology into just another feature set, and integrated it into their product line. Fewer gizmos in the living room and fewer start-up plays in the consumer video space mean content creators and online services will have the same direct path to the living room television that they do to a desktop computer.