Technology: May 2007 Archives

Because that's how it feels, what with the uninspiring Palm Foleo and the Microsoft Surface. It's as though vendors are trying to clear the decks of the product-development chaff they have accumulated so that it can get lost over the summer silly season.

Microsoft wants to sell its Surface to hotels and bars. What a cracking idea. You could run Space Invaders or Asteroids on it. No wait, that's been done. Or arrange your photos and download stuff from your phone. Fine applications and were quite original maybe 20 years ago. However, in the meantime, I've lost count of the mock-ups of those kinds of active tables from design students that have appeared at final-year shows in the intervening years.

The demos of people pulling photos around on the table remind me of a colleague years ago who was being told about the coming wave of PDAs (this was a long time ago). Breathlessly, the marketing veep described how you could write on the screen with a pen and push a button to save what you had written. "Push to save, you say," he remarked. "Why, that's almost as good as paper."

Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm, has a company that is building a machine to model the thought processes of the brain. It's not going to be a very big brain because you couldn't get all the chips needed for anything close to a human brain into the room right now. It is just possible, however, that the artificial brain came up with Palm's latest product, the Foleo.

Techdirt decided that the launch of the Foleo signals only one thing: that Palm's time as a supplier of portable computers is just about up. It's hard to disagree. I took one look at the Foleo and thought immediately of its ancestors: the Cambridge Computers Z88; the LG Phenom; the Psion Series 5. All quite dead with the exception of the Series 5, which lives on, in a fashion, inside big rubbery cases designed to bounce off the ground. It's a small market, the worker's portable computer, but it's the only one that has ever spelled any form of success for things that look vaguely like a small PC.

When the Phenom came out, I thought it would be a far better bet than a PC for writing stuff on the move. It had a near full-sized keyboard. It had a modem and claimed to be able to do email. It ran Windows CE 2.0, so was meant to be able to run cut-down versions of Word and Excel. And it weighed far less than a regular laptop. There was only one small problem. It didn't really do all those things at all well. To get Word files in and out of it, you needed a PC. And the email client was Pocket Outlook, which didn't really like sending or receiving emails. Nice idea; hopeless implementation.

Ten years on, enter the Foleo.

OK, there are no lawsuits, so they can't really have died. But MRT is keen to make the sending of a bunch of cease-and-desist letters to several large computer and software companies look like the opening salvo in possible litigation. They argue that Adobe, Apple, Microsoft and Real are somehow in breach of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) by not using a copy-prevention technology like the one sold by MRT (natch). Even in the context of a publicity stunt, you have to wonder whether there is a masochistic streak in the company's upper management. You can imagine the boardroom discussion:

"You know, people hate Macrovision far more than us. But our stuff makes it nearly impossible to play music or videos. Macrovision only make it unpleasant."
"Yeah, Macrovision are pussies."
"You know why? People have heard of Macrovision."
"Yeah, those f**kers in Hollywood actually licensed their stuff. People have to go on the Internet to work out how to get around Macrovision just so they can have a copy that little Timmie is OK to cover with jam."
"That's our problem: nobody's licensed our stuff, so nobody's heard of us, so nobody hates us."
"I know what we should do. Ever hear of this company called SCO? They sued a bunch of people and, now, everybody knows their name."

Somehow, I think Apple, Microsoft, Real and Adobe can rest easy in their beds. Not that I think they were actually worried in the first place. MRT's position is curious in that somebody there read at least part of the DMCA: "It makes illegal and prohibits the manufacture of any product or technology that is designed for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure which effectively controls access to a copyrighted work or which protects the rights of copyright owners."

MRT then goes on to claim: "Under the DMCA, mere avoidance of an effective copyright
protection solution is a violation of the act." Please show me the section of the DMCA that says that.

The DMCA is a flawed law but it contains some significant caveats that, had they not been in place, Apple would have been forced to kill off the iPod years ago. In reality, the DMCA explicitly allows for copying because the intention of the DMCA was not to deny the US consumer fair-use rights they have enjoyed for years.

The DMCA only comes into force if equipment can be proven to infringe the act in any of these three cases:

"they are primarily designed or produced to circumvent; they have only limited commercially significant purpose or use other than to circumvent; or they are marketed for use in circumventing".

I'd love to see MRT's lawyer arguing that Microsoft marketed Vista as a copy-protection circumvention system. No, really, I would. I could do with a laugh. However, unlike the situation with SCO, I can't see this one going far beyond the press release about cease-and-desist letters.