XBRL Is Cool

Just a very short one during my “lunch”. Ever heard of XBRL? Its short for Extended Business Reporting Language – basically a kind of sort of extension of XML or, perhaps more precisely, a subset of SGML. I like to follow developments on it because I think the potential ways in which XBRL will impact a variety of industries (primarily the financial sector) is huge.

To give you an idea, here’s a (rather old) excerpt from a speech that the CIO of the SEC gave at the last XBRL International Conference last May:

I think the agency can be proud of its use of electronic filing and information distribution. But we can aim higher. Today, the vast majority of EDGAR documents are filed in ASCII text, and another large fraction in HTML. That’s fine for reading about a company’s strategy and general issues, but if you want to do financial analysis or compare accounting policies between companies, you then have to do a lot of printing, searching, data entry, text parsing, and other mechanical work. Or, you can go to a third-party data provider, who can provide you with a database of financial information — but the data provider will have made a number of assumptions to simplify and standardize the financial information, and it may no longer be consistent with how the company intended to present its financials. And you won’t get any of the valuable information from the footnotes.

Since you’re at this conference, I know you can all envision the attractive alternative posed by XBRL and interactive data, so I won’t belabor the point. The potential benefits are persuasive enough — greater transparency of financial information, reduced costs for investors and analysts, potentially even deeper coverage of midcap companies by analysts, and ultimately more efficient markets.

Let me paint what I think is an interesting scenario. Wall Street types have been talking for a couple of years about algorithmic trading — basically, using computers to process real-time streams of market data and making fast, automated trading decisions. Today, that market data is mostly about stock prices and volumes, since that’s what’s available in real time. But at some point in the not-distant future, I envision a hedge fund starting to algorithmically trade with XBRL-based balance sheet and P&L data in real-time as it’s disclosed by companies. At that point, we will all know that interactive data has won the day.

Imagine that. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The number of tools that one can create to digest, compile, report and analyze numbers is limited only by one’s imagination. I can also imagine the potential impact that this could have on data vendors who charge quite a bit to provide archived financial information – often in rather archaic forms.

Surprisingly, I’ve not heard of many companies or startups that are working on new products (particularly on the software front) either to help in generating XBRL, translating information into XBRL, or crunching XBRL reports (though admittedly, I haven’t been following it that closely).

Anyway, if you’re in this space, and you haven’t yet looked into XBRL, you should certainly consider doing so.

The Virtues and Evils of Open Source – Part II

Found the article that triggered my previous post – was a piece written by Suzanne Dingwall Williams in her blog. The nub:

If you want to sell your own proprietary software, make sure you have a strictly enforced policy against using open source. Here’s why: even if you agree that open source has crossed the chasm in the lifecycle that is technology adoption, your investors have not. Even the inclusion of an inconsequential open source tool can cause headaches, or stop a deal altogether.

Here are the concerns often raised about open source at the due diligence stage:
– there is no meaningful warranty or indemnity for this portion of the product
– how do we know the open source license is enforceable?
– do the terms for this piece of open source contaminate the rest of your product?
– if this was inadvertently incorporated into the product, what else was?

I should emphasize that I don’t necessarily disagree with the concerns she notes. They are concerns. Particularly in the specific instance she notes – i.e. selling proprietary software (as opposed to using an open source business model). That being said whether or not the benefits will outweigh the risks will depend on many things, including the business model of the startup (even if one chooses to go the route of developing proprietary software), the license governing the open source code and of course how its used. I don’t necessarily think that companies (including startups) should just have a flat policy not to use open source. But I’ve already rambled on about this in my previous post.

But then again, I’m not a VC. And Suzie apparently used to be one. It would be interesting to know what VCs generally think. Are you a VC? If so it would be great if you could go to the poll at the bottom of the left column. Nothing super scientific, admittedly, but I’d be interested in seeing what the general sentiment is.

Changes in Daylight Savings Time

Most of you are probably already aware of the legislative change affecting daylight savings in North America. In any event, the nub from an internal note:

The U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, passed by the U.S. Congress July, 2005, extended Daylight Saving Time (DST) in the U.S. by approximately four weeks. This change was similarly adopted by the Government of Canada in order to harmonize time zones across North America. As a result, beginning in 2007, DST will start three weeks earlier on March 11, 2007, and end one week later on November 4, 2007, resulting in a new DST period that is four weeks longer than previously observed.

(slight correction by the way – time is governed by the provinces in Canada – see for example the relevant Ontario regulation).

Apart from changing your clocks, you should make a note of whether any patches or updates to your computer systems are required. I know I’ve already seem some traffic on how MS Outlook and Blackberry stuff might need patches as a result of the change. You might also want to highlight this when making appointments during the changed period.

In addition to that, there are also some articles, such as the one in Technology Review, that warn of other potential glitches:

Cameron Haight, a Gartner Inc. analyst who has studied the potential effects of the daylight-saving bug, said it might force transactions occurring within one hour of midnight to be recorded on the wrong day. Computers might serve up erroneous information about multinational teleconference times and physical-world appointments.

”Organizations could face significant losses if they are not prepared,” the Information Technology Association of America cautioned this week.

Dave Thewlis, who directs CalConnect, a consortium that develops technology standards for calendar and scheduling software, said it is hard to know how widespread the problem will be.

That’s because the world is full of computer systems that have particular methods for accounting for time of day. In many, changing the rules around daylight saving is a snap, but in others, it may be more complex.

”There’s no rule that says you have to represent time in a certain way if you write a program,” Thewlis said. ”How complicated it is to implement the change has to do with the original design, where code is located.”

…and don’t forget international stuff:

Also, the change originated in the United States and is being followed in Canada, but not most other nations. That could befuddle conferencing systems and other applications that run in multiple countries at once.

Update: A great and concise article on slaw with more details and better links on the changes in DST.

Alarm Bells Over Vista’s “Fine Print”

I like Michael Geist. He’s a law professor at the University of Ottawa and writes a column in the Toronto Star. Not that agree with everything he says, but I certainly do respect the fellow. He’s a sort of Lawrence Lessig of the Great White North, for those of you from the US. A lot of what he says has merit, or at least is worthy of debate. But when I read his last column on how Vista’s legal fine print raises red flags, well, it left me scratching my head a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Microsoft is the world’s saviour or anything, and from the perspective of a user I’m not that keen on all the DRM stuff in Vista and the headaches it will cause in using protected content, but OTOH I did raise a bit of an eyebrow to some of his comments on the Vista license. Such as:

Vista’s legal fine print includes extensive provisions granting Microsoft the right to regularly check the legitimacy of the software and holds the prospect of deleting certain programs without the user’s knowledge. During the installation process, users “activate” Vista by associating it with a particular computer or device and transmitting certain hardware information directly to Microsoft.

I don’t particularly like activation, but this is nothing new – Windows XP has activation and as for hardware information, I’m not sure how sensitive I would consider the make or model of my video card to be. I also find the reference to “deleting certain programs” to be a bit overstated. I wasn’t able to find anything about deleting programs in the Vista license I got from the MS website. It implies that Vista can suddenly go wild and start erasing other stuff you’ve installed. The only thing I was able to find was in Section 5(c), which says:

If, after a validation check, the software is found not to be properly licensed, the functionality of the software may be affected. For example, you may

  • need to reactivate the software, or
  • receive reminders to obtain a properly licensed copy of the software,

or you may not be able to

  • use or continue to use some of the features of the software,

Again, nothing particularly surprising – XP had the same thing – you don’t have validated software, you can’t use certain features of the software (i.e. Windows Vista, not other stuff).

Continuing on:

Even after installation, the legal agreement grants Microsoft the right to revalidate the software or to require users to reactivate it should they make changes to their computer components. In addition, it sets significant limits on the ability to copy or transfer the software, prohibiting anything more than a single backup copy and setting strict limits on transferring the software to different devices or users.

On revalidation, again, nothing new at least compared to XP – same complaints of course as well. As for backup copies – well, its pretty standard to only permit one backup. I’d prefer more but I don’t find it super-alarming to be limited to one. As for “strict limits on transferring” these are set out in Section 16:

a. Software Other Than Windows Anytime Upgrade. The first user of the software may
make a one time transfer of the software, and this agreement, directly to a third party. The first
user must uninstall the software before transferring it separately from the device. The first user
may not retain any copies.
b. Windows Anytime Upgrade Software. You may transfer the software directly to a third
party only with the licensed device. You may not keep any copies of the software or any earlier
version.
c. Other Requirements. Before any permitted transfer, the other party must agree that this
agreement applies to the transfer and use of the software. The transfer must include the proof
of license.

I gotta say I don’t find any of the above particularly strict, onerous or burdensome. Before you transfer, you must uninstall and not retain any copies. The transferee must agree to the agreement. You must transfer proof of the license. Hmmm. Doesn’t seem that bad.

Then, onto Windows Defender:

Vista also incorporates Windows Defender, an anti-virus program that actively scans computers for “spyware, adware, and other potentially unwanted software.” The agreement does not define any of these terms, leaving it to Microsoft to determine what constitutes unwanted software.

C’mon. There is a general understanding of what constitutes spyware and adware. And yes, “potentially unwanted software” is vague. But how then, should it be defined? “Bad stuff”? Interestingly he fails to mention the language that follows:

If it finds potentially unwanted software, the software will ask you if you want to ignore, disable (quarantine) or remove it. Any potentially unwanted software rated “high” or “severe,” will automatically be removed after scanning unless you change the default setting. Removing or disabling potentially unwanted software may result in
· other software on your computer ceasing to work, or
· your breaching a license to use other software on your computer.
By using this software, it is possible that you will also remove or disable software that is not
potentially unwanted software.

So Defender will ask you what to do (which he doesn’t mention), except for “high” or “severe” software, which it removes unless you change the setting (which he does). Well, I can understand the auto-removal thing. If it was left off by default (i.e. didn’t remove), then fingers would be pointed at MS at having lousy default security settings – a criticism often levelled (and, I think, justifiably so) at XP’s security settings – the rock on the other side of the hard place Michael identifies.

Then this:

Once operational, the agreement warns that Windows Defender will, by default, automatically remove software rated “high” or “severe,” even though that may result in other software ceasing to work or mistakenly result in the removal of software that is not unwanted.

C’mon Michael, that’s a bit over the top, isn’t it? Even “nice” spyware removers, like Spybot (highly recommended, btw) specifically warn that removing spyware might remove or cause other software not to work any more. Of course. Because many of the filthy, evil, nasty folks who distribute spyware or adware bundle it up with software that people actually want to use, and bundle it up in such as way that you can’t get rid of the spyware without killing the other software. Go figure.

Lastly:

For greater certainty, the terms and conditions remove any doubt about who is in control by providing that “this agreement only gives you some rights to use the software. Microsoft reserves all other rights.” For those users frustrated by the software’s limitations, Microsoft cautions that “you may not work around any technical limitations in the software.”

Grr. Of course. Show me a commercial license that gives anyone “all” rights to use the software without restriction. Actually, even the GPL doesn’t permit that – there are still limitations and restrictions even in open source code as to what you can and can’t do. I don’t think its fair to point to this type of language and imply that Microsoft is up to no good here. Same goes with the last sentence. Sure, you can’t hack the software. Doesn’t surprise me.

I never thought I’d be defending Microsoft’s licensing practices. Not to mention questioning Mr. Geist’s criticisms of same. But there you go. Not that I necessarily think, OTOH, that you should go out and buy Vista. Though it is pretty.

Patent Lawsuits Catch-Up

A nice summary of the 2006 e-comm lititation in the E-Commerce Times. Not surprisingly, they call 2006 the “Year of the Tech Patent Lawsuits”. An excerpt on one of my favourites:

For better or worse, patent attorneys can thank the NTP v. Research In Motion case for introducing the word ‘patent troll’ into the general lexicon and more fundamentally, highlighting how easy it is for an upstart to challenge an established company. In short, it made patent law sexy.

This and many other recent cases in with which an e-commerce patent has been challenged by a small company has led to a steady call for reform by the software industry, he said.

“At every opportunity, today’s software market-leaders have called for reductions in the power of patents, increases in the difficulty of obtaining patents, and an enforcement bias toward companies that practice the patent.

Some see the proposed reforms as improving ‘patent quality’ while others see them as a way to squeeze out upstart competitors,” he explained

Wow. I never thought I’d live to see the words “patent law” and “sexy” used in the same sentence, much less using the latter to describe the former. I’ve already ruminated about this topic previously so will keep this one short. Links to the articles below.

Part 1 Part 2

The Exciting World of Licensing Metrics

OK, off the policy/opinion track for a moment, and on to more technical stuff. Most of you will probably consider this topic rather dry, but it is something that lots of folks in the tech industry do think about (and should think about).

Just to quickly summarize, the article speaks briefly to the various types of metrics that can be used to price software, and the complexities that have arisen given things such as multi-CPU computers, multi-core CPUs, virtualization technology and clustering technology. Anyway, the article is a bit of a sales piece as it concludes that the answer to all the complexity is, of course, how the author’s company is doing it:

Subscription pricing models have become increasingly popular in the past few years. Open source software companies typically charge for support on an annual basis, rather than for one-time software licenses. But those contracts are still often based on the number of processors involved, leaving CIOs in the same bind. For our part, we at Sun want to simplify pricing and planning even more: Subscriptions for software are still actually subscriptions for support, as Sun’s software is now free and open-source. But pricing is based on the number of employees a company has. To simplify how to determine what that number is, we base it on what the company reports annually to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Nothing super new but worth a bit of a read, particularly if you’re a software developer thinking about pricing models.

My $0.02: This works fine for established, cashflow positive businesses, but of course smaller shops very often look at big upfront initial license payments as a type of financing – moving to a subscription model does of course impact this. Yes, I know, sort of stating the obvious. Then again, that does bring up the interesting question of capitalizing subscription/maintenance payments… But that’s a topic for another day…
The Software Licensing Debate, Round 2 – Weigh In – weighin – CIO

colophon

From time to time, you may notice that this blog isn’t working, or something is messed up, or you see an error message. One of the reasons I decided to setup this blog rather than using something like blogger, wordpress.com, etc., was to muck about with the bits and pieces from time to time. I find tweaking PHP code, looking at new plugins and editing themes to be a nice break from drafting 50 page master procurement agreements. In fact, I would have liked to do everything from the ground up (i.e. set up the box, linux, apache, mysql, php, etc.) but these days hosting service providers make the proposition of setting that up much less attractive. I figured taking care of some (but not all) of the bits and pieces would satisfy my tweaking desires. And let me keep somewhat acquainted with such things. Of course, not being an elite hacker inevitably leads to things that break from time to time.

Switched to WP Engine. Their service was too amazing to resist. I realized that I didn’t have time to do everything, after trying out Linode (great service, by the way).

Anyway, the great (and for the most part free) software and other stuff used to create techblawg.ca:

  • WordPress – amazingly great and overall very, very cool blogging software
  • Theme – Responsive by CyberChimps
  • MySQL – the stunning database engine that will one day take over the entire world, but which in the meantime serves as the back-end database storing all the bits and pieces for WordPress
  • PHP – the remarkably versatile scripting language that WordPress uses
  • Plugins – a whole bunch of little individual bits of code that plugin to WordPress to extend functionality in a million different ways. There is a long, long, long list of different plugins used on techblawg so for the time being I won’t be listing them all out here

Without the work and dedication of all the folks who created the tools listed above and made them freely available, many blogs (indeed, many sites) would simply not be in existence as it would have otherwise not been practical to create them. I guess this is the exact opposite of the tragedy of the commons.

Other things that power this blog are myself, David Ma, and huge quantities of coffee. Hope you enjoy it.