google open sourcing vp8 codec

Interesting but perhaps not surprising news that Google will make the VP8 video codec open source. You can read in more detail by following the link but here’s a quick rundown: Many companies have decided to support H.264 for video streaming, including Google, Apple and Microsoft. Others, like Mozilla (the creator of Firefox), have not, as they are concerned about adopting, as a standard, proprietary technology that may one day require payment of royalties. Instead, they have chosen to support Ogg Theora, an open source codec based on a much earlier version of VP8. Making VP8 open source will remove this divide and will likely encourage the adoption of VP8 as a standard in place of either, as VP8 appears to be technically superior to both H.264 and Ogg Theora (which was developed from a much earlier iteration of VP8) and presumably would be free of potential licensing issues (and fees) associated with proprietary solutions such as H.264.

Perhaps not surprising given Google’s approach in mobile (i.e. the Android open source platform). Though it is worth noting that Google isn’t enchanted with all things open source, as evidenced by the hubbub about it and the Affero GPL a few years ago…

feld on directors meetings

Helpful piece by Brad Feld on the characteristics of effective board meetings. A small excerpt:

What I mean by this is that most board meetings are 80% status updates, 10% strategy / issues, and 10% administration. I’m fine with the 10% administration, but the 80% / 10% split on status vs. strategy should be reversed. There are plenty of different ways to organize the “strategy” (I’m using “strategy” as shorthand for “forward looking discussion”) and strategy includes a blend of short, medium, and long term issues, as well as plenty of “tactical stuff” (for those that think “strategy” is too specific a word), but I imagine you get the idea.

He also sets out a detailed list of steps that contribute to successful meetings which certainly is worth a read.

One suggestion in particular that he echoed from Fred Wilson was that board meetings should be in person to be most effective. I’d perhaps go a bit further than that – wherever possible and where the issues to be discussed warrant the time and expense I always recommend that any meetings, discussions, negotiations, etc. be done in person or alternatively by videoconference and only by teleconference as a last choice. I recall reading somewhere in the past about studies that have concluded that the vast majority of communication at such meetings are non-verbal in nature – gestures, expressions, body position, etc. In my experience this is definitely the case. And perhaps for this reason negotiations done face to face typically yield better results – greater relationship building, fewer arguments and, generally, more diplomatic behaviour. My own personal theory on the latter is that people are much less inclined to be rude, snarky, argumentative or simply impolite when meeting with someone face to face – it’s much easier to behave that way to a disembodied voice. In addition to the fact that people are more likely to focus and less likely to “multitask” in face to face meetings than they are in teleconferences.

On a somewhat related note, on several occasions where I have seen board minutes drafted by clients, they have gone into a significant amount of detail regarding what was discussed, by whom, who agreed, who disagreed and so on – almost a blow by blow transcript of the entire meeting. Not recommended. Minutes should be short and concise, not a complete record of the discussion. A note that a discussion occurred is sufficient. Of course, if a decision is made, then the resolution should be recorded, including those voting in favour, against or abstaining. Consider picking up a copy of Wainberg’s Company Meetings, or ask your lawyer for sample minutes if you plan to record minutes yourself. You’ll likely be glad you did a few years down the road, when a small army of lawyers comes in to do due diligence before your major financing, IPO or acquisition, and crawls through each and every sentence in your minute book.

(hat tip to @RuddockMH for pointing me to the feld piece)

Thoughts on Quantum Computing

Interesting article in Wired News where they interview David Deutsch who they refer to as the Father of Quantum Computing. He has a kind of low key but interesting take on the recent demonstration of a real, live 16 qubit quantum computer by D-Wave, a Canadian company based out of Vancouver.

Low key insofar as he doesn’t seem particularly enthused about the potential of quantum computers, other than perhaps their ability to be used to simulate quantum systems and of course encryption:

Deutsch: It’s not anywhere near as big a revolution as, say, the internet, or the introduction of computers in the first place. The practical application, from a ordinary consumer’s point of view, are just quantitative.

One field that will be revolutionized is cryptography. All, or nearly all, existing cryptographic systems will be rendered insecure, and even retrospectively insecure, in that messages sent today, if somebody keeps them, will be possible to decipher … with a quantum computer as soon as one is built.

Most fields won’t be revolutionized in that way.

Fortunately, the already existing technology of quantum cryptography is not only more secure than any existing classical system, but it’s invulnerable to attack by a quantum computer. Anyone who cares sufficiently much about security ought to be instituting quantum cryptography wherever it’s technically feasible.

Apart from that, as I said, mathematical operations will become easier. Algorithmic search is the most important one, I think. Computers will become a little bit faster, especially in certain applications. Simulating quantum systems will become important because quantum technology will become important generally, in the form of nanotechnology.

(my emphasis). Interesting thought about being retrospectively insecure. Particularly given spy agencies have, in the past, been sufficiently bold to transmit encoded messages on easily accessible shortwave frequencies.

I imagine the spook shops already have their purchase orders in for quantum crypto stuff (or have developed it already internally). Was a bit surprised by the statement above regarding existing technology for quantum computing. I had heard of some demos a while back, but didn’t realize that there are actually several companies offering quantum cryptography products.

The Virtues and Evils of Open Source

Yes, I know, I’ve been behind lately. A ton of very interesting things to catch up on. But I’d like to put in one quick note about open source code. I recently came across an article, written last year by a lawyer, generally advising development companies not to use open source. I don’t quite recall where it was (if I did I’d link to it) but I do remember it being quite clear in stating that using open source is A Bad Thing and to avoid it altogether – not just to be careful, but rather to treat it as one would radioactive waste.

With respect, I don’t quite agree. I certainly advise my clients to take a great deal of caution in using open source code, particularly the GPL variety, and very particularly if they have a desire to keep some or all of their own secret, proprietary code secret and proprietary. That being said, I do have many, many clients who have used open source code to great advantage in various ways. Some have simply used existing open source code to avoid reinventing the wheel (and saving on costs), while taking care to keep viral elements out of their proprietary code. Others have been more aggressive with the open source model and have intentionally decided to use open source as the basis for their business model and making their very own code, or parts of it, either open source or subject to a dual-licensing model. As the Red Hats, JBosses, Sleepycats, MySQLs etc. etc. of the world have demonstrated, you can go open source and still have a pretty viable business. And, of course, there are the “old world” companies like IBM who have decided to go open source (in some limited ways – e.g. IBM’s DB2 Express-C thing).

Of course, this is not to suggest that anyone through caution to the wind and just start pulling down stuff from Sourceforge and whacking it into your product. Use of open source definitely requires some planning ahead and consideration of what the business model and value proposition of your business will be. Optimally, enlist the help of a lawyer who’s familiar with open source licenses to discuss what you plan to do and the packages you plan to use. Or, if that’s not feasible, try at least to read the applicable licenses yourself and ensure you comply with them, because if you don’t think that anyone will notice, or that no one will actually sue you, you may want to pay a visit to the GPL Violations Site and reconsider, in addition to the questions that will be asked of you when the due diligence starts on your next round of financing or, even worse, your (aborted) exit event. Can badly managed open source usage (and I emphasize badly managed, not simply open source usage) kill a deal? Definitely.

In short – I don’t think open source is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a pretty good thing, not just in the social good sense and all that, but also as a business. But it need to be used taking into account its terms of use and ensuring that its consistent with the strategy you plan to take.

If perhaps there’s one thing I’d recommend it would be for shops to make absolutely sure they have a disciplined approach in tracking where code comes from and the terms under which its being used and why its being used. That applies not only to open source stuff, but also, for example, your programmers taking neat snippets of code from Dr. Dobbs or something else, or coming across a nice little script somewhere on the Web and saying “Gee, that’s neat, let’s use it in our product”.

Anyway, if I remember where the article was I’ll update this to include a link.

Top Ten Twenty Lies

Yes, this is a bit old, but quite good. I was wandering around and found these two articles on Guy Kawasaki’s website, about The Top Ten Lies of Venture Capitalists and The Top Ten Lies of Entrepreneurs. Great, great reading. One small snippet from each. On the VC side:

“This is a vanilla term sheet.” There is no such thing as a vanilla term sheet. Do you think corporate finance attorneys are paid $400/hour to push out vanilla term sheets? If entrepreneurs insist on using a flavor of ice cream to describe term sheets, the only flavor that works is Rocky Road. This is why they need their own $400/hour attorney too–as opposed to Uncle Joe the divorce lawyer.

and one on the Entrepreneur side:

“Oracle is too big/dumb/slow to be a threat.” Larry Ellison has his own jet. He can keep the San Jose Airport open for his late night landings. His boat is so big that it can barely get under the Golden Gate Bridge. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are flying on Southwest out of Oakland and stealing the free peanuts. There’s a reason why Larry is where he is, and entrepreneurs are where they are, and it’s not that he’s big, dumb, and slow. Competing with Oracle, Microsoft, and other large companies is a very difficult task. Entrepreneurs who utter this lie look at best naive. You think it’s bravado, but venture capitalists think it’s stupidity.

Great stuff.

Microsoft Patents RSS. Or Tries To. Maybe.

Interesting post on someone else’s blog about Microsoft apparently trying to patent RSS:

The applications, filed last June but just made public yesterday, cover subscribing and discovering what Microsoft calls “Web feeds.” That comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who’s been working on RSS, which has its origins in a format developed seven years ago at Netscape Communications.

Microsoft executive Don Dodge, while not involved in the patent applications, says he suspects the filings were made to defend the company against “patent trolls”. (The filings were made shortly before Microsoft announced plans to build RSS technology into its upcoming Vista operating system.) Still, if granted, the patents would give Microsoft a legal cudgel to wield against other companies using RSS.

Well. They do have a point. Generally speaking, I don’t think patent trolls (those that basically file overly broad patents and then sit on them in a dark cave until someone who actually does something useful, and therefore has deep pockets, unwittingly infringes, at which point the troll comes out and clubs them over the head with a lawsuit or settlement) are a good thing. That being said, its ironic that Microsoft feels the need to abuse the system in the same way as patent trolls in order to proactively defend itself. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

Unfortunately, I’m not necesarily sure that prior art would necessarily invalidate these patents – after all, most of NTP’s patents were more or less considered invalid, but that didn’t stop them from collecting several hundred million from RIM. And its not like there haven’t been other, um, rather broad patents asserted in the past. You know, like back in 2002, when British Telecom asserted ownership of hyperlinks (which they lost) though of course BT doesn’t quite fit the description of a patent troll.

Then again, it begs the question as to who or what should or shouldn’t be considered a patent troll – for example, its well known that IBM has a huge, gigantic, enormous arsenal of patents at its disposal. IBM also actively licenses these patents (and of course threatens litigation where it believes its rights are being violated), but it isn’t necessarily the case that IBM would otherwise have exploited these patents in what I’ll call “active” business – i.e. making and selling something based on the patent as opposed to primarily seeking royalties and licenses from those do – even though IBM does do so in some cases. So does that make IBM a patent troll? What about Philo T. Farnsworth who, arguably, never started producing televisions but instead sought legal claims against others?

My perhaps overly simplistic take on this is that patent trolls are not inherently the problem, but rather the ability, primarily in the US, to register patents that should have never issued in the first place. If someone comes up with a smart, cool, inventive, and truly novel way of doing something, then they should certainly be free to either produce something with it, or sue the living daylights out of someone else who comes along and infringes the IP even if they don’t (or can’t) make productive use of it themselves. Not actively exploiting a patent is not necessarily tantamount to being a bad guy, IMHO.

It will be interesting to see what happens on this front, if anything. If nothing does, then I may well turn to drafting patents, the first being “Method of Utilizing a Rhythmic Cadence in the Expansion and Contraction of Multiple Muscular Groupings to Faciliate Indefinite Continuation of Metabolism of Cell Structures.” I like the sound of that. Yes indeed.