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A Patent Reduction in IP Squabbles

A rumor that OSDL (Open Source Development Labs) and IBM were planning on rewriting portions of the Linux kernel to protect the Linux operating system from Microsoft’s patent infringement accusations provided short-lived hope for the Linux community. “Operation Open Gates,” as it was called, later turned out to be at best a confusion of facts and at worst a pure fabrication.

But some companies are taking real steps that might defuse these ever-escalating patent and IP (intellectual property) battles. IBM, which is ensnarled in its own well-publicized IP dispute with SCO, took the high road recently when it released 500 of its software patents to the open source community. It’s no great shakes, considering the company has more than 10,000 software patents on the books, but it’s certainly a step toward greater acceptance of the open source ethos. Another software giant, Sun Microsystems, made headlines when it finally open-sourced its long-proprietary Solaris operating system, providing further evidence of the trend.

So have these companies begun embracing the open source philosophy, or were these just strategic business decisions made to gain traction in the growing open source/Linux space? Most bets are on the latter—no one foresees either company giving up all of its patents—but either way, we hope the result is that everyone returns to writing fewer lines of legalese and more lines of code.

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Widgets, Macintosh Style

In a move to attract more developers to OS X, Apple recently held a contest to see who could develop the best mini-application, or “widget,” for Dashboard, an application environment that’s part of the new Tiger update to OS X. The prize? What else than a shiny new 40GB iPod. An added incentive was that widget writers can create these Dashboard-ready mini-apps using only basic Web development skills (HTML, CSS, JavaScript). Examples include a calculator, a stock ticker, a picture viewer, etc.

The idea of opening an operating system’s desktop GUI to user-authored programs is nothing new (just ask the creators of Konfabulator, or anyone who has built a stock ticker for Microsoft’s Active Desktop), but it could be a way to attract more budding programmers to the Mac platform. One thing is clear: Apple is not going to attract developers from outside the usual Mac developer community by holding contests like this. This one was open strictly to paying members of the ADC (Apple Developer Connection). These memberships start at $500 per year, a full $100 more than the value of the prize. Could be enticing to someone who’s already an ADC member, but to anyone else? Probably not. And don’t most ADC members already have iPods?

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Biometrics Goes 3D

Biometric technology has been gaining steam lately. The most recent example? The Department of Defense is now exploring the use of 3D biometric facial recognition technology along U.S. borders. The technology, developed by Unisys and A4Vision, uses the distortions caused by the human head and face in an infrared light grid to map points in 3D space on a computer. This so-called “cloud of points” is then converted to a “mesh” that accurately depicts a face’s structure. This data is then stored in a relational database for one-to-many matching against incoming 3D facial scans.

The technology certainly ups the ante vis-à-vis the old 2D stuff, but do we really want to use it? Aside from the obvious privacy issues, questions remain about the technology’s effectiveness. For example, cosmetic surgery—one need not look far to see that these procedures are hardly the province of the rich and/or those on the lam anymore. So can the scanner detect some essential “you” behind that nose job? We called A4Vision, which said that cases of extreme facial reconstruction could possibly fool the system, but that more testing is still needed. “Extreme Makeover” contestants await your call.



Originally published in Queue vol. 3, no. 2
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