SBC shaking down small businesses with patent for icon-based navigation

SBC Communications was wrongfully granted a patent on icon-based navigation (based on an application made in 1996, no less). But now so desperate for any income whatsoever, they’re becoming as dangerous as a wild animal backed into a corner — now they’re shaking down small businesses, which generally can’t afford to fight a bloated telecommunications company.

We recently observed several useful navigation features within the user interface or your site www.museumtour.com. For example your site includes several selectors or tabs that correspond to specific locations within your site documents. These selectors seem to reside in their own frame or part of the user interface. And, as such, the selectors are not lost when a different part of the document is displayed to the user — see screen shots from museumtour.com enclosed. By sperating the selectors from the content, Museumetour has truly simplified site navigation and improved the shopping experience for its users.

As you review the Structured Document Patent you will notice that the above-discussed features appear to infringe several issued claims in our patent. In light of Museum Tours presumed respect for the intellectual property rights of others, we are pleased to offer you a Preferred Rate license under the structured Document Patent — see enclosed rate schedule.

If you’re a small business owner that’s an SBC customer, note that you don’t have to use them for local telephone services anymore — you owe it to yourself to check out alternatives. [via the Interesting People list] | Letter from SBC to MuseumTour.com | SBC patent #5,933,841

A look behind BBCi's 2002 BBC homepage redesign

A thoughtful bloke by the name of Matt Jones has posted The Glass Wall, a BBCi Design Process Document that provides some fascinating insight into the 2002 redesign of the BBC homepage.

One of the aims of the 2002 homepage redesign was to inject a little more ‘soul’ into the page. This idea emerged from feedback about the 2001 homepage which was labelled functional but perhaps a little clinical in look and feel.

In order to do this we wanted to go beyond function and pursue the emotional, expressive, suggestive and engaging aspects of the user experience, possibly something beyond visual aesthetics and brand.

There are many reasons why people love a website apart from how it looks. We wanted to find out whether individuals like, love, hate or were indifferent to our homepage and why. Ultimately, we wanted to identify things to guide us in designing something to which people might say — “I love this homepage!”

This is a unique opportunity to get a peek behind a redisign process for a world-class site. Download the PDF before somebody in a suit gets nervous. [via Kuro5hin] | blackbeltjones.com: The Glass Wall

SMIL, Europe!

SMIL (Synchronised Multimedia Integration Language) is to web media what HTML is to web pages. It’s an XML language that lets you spatially and temporally compose media types like MPEG-4, MP3, PNG and SVG.

SMIL Europe 2003, the first European conference dedicated to SMIL, is being held in Paris on February 12-14. SMIL experts from all over the world will be there, and sessions will include demonstrations of the wonderful tools now available for creating SMIL, a session on using SMIL in XHTML with XHTML+SMIL, advanced tutorials on SMIL 2.0 and SVG, examples of real-world SMIL, and more. Besides, do you really need an excuse to go to Paris? | SMIL Europe 2003

Clumsy copy protection puts TurboTax franchise at risk

This year, Intuit decided that its entire customer base needed to suffer in order to shakedown a small percentage of low-lifes (a.k.a “potential customers”) who were using TurboTax without paying for it. Intuit’s customers are questioning their loyalty to the company, and I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that the once-unshakable TurboTax franchise is now vulnerable. From an email to ExtremeTech:

I’m one of the long time TurboTax users who will use it no more. I shouldn’t have to wait for what Intuit laughingly refers to as “Customer Support” to get help when the program will not activate. I shouldn’t have software installed on my machine without my knowledge. I shouldn’t have to worry about a hard drive failure forcing a re-purchase of a license.

It turns out that when you install this year’s TurboTax, you’re also unknowingly installing Macrovision’s SafeCast, a.k.a. C-Dilla, on your computer. SafeCast is an invasive monitoring service that’s always running in the background, even when TurboTax isn’t. When you enter your TurboTax serial number, SafeCast registers your computer on a server. The upshot is that you’ll be unable to use TurboTax on a different machine or make significant changes to your own machine without having to prove to Intuit that you’re legit. As a customer on FatWallet.com puts it:

If I need to amend a return 12 months from now, I am screwed unless I jump through hoops with Intuit.

Although most TurboTax don’t realize that SafeCast is now watching what they do, Intuit is currently being hit with complaints from a small but significant portion of their customer base. So far, Intuit has responded by including software that uninstalls the SafeCast monitoring services from Windows. Meanwhile, many customers are responding by moving to H&R Block’s well-reviewed alternative to TurboTax. | News.com: Intuit pours oil on TurboTax woes | News.com: Complaints mount from TurboTax customers | PC Magazine: Intuit’s TurboTax activation scheme irks users

Sony speaks softly, carries bigger Memory Stick

This week Sony announced three variants of their Memory Stick solid-state memory format. Memory Stick Pro is a higher-capacity, faster (160 Mbps read, 15 Mbps write), high-priced and incompatible update to Memory Stick. Memory Stick Select is a backwards-compatible, bank-switched (!) enhancement to Memory Stick for old (i.e. current) devices — and yes, you actually slide a teensy switch on the back of the Memory Stick Select to choose the active bank. Memory Stick Duo is a tiny(er) format for portable devices.

Memory Stick is currently the second most popular solid state media format, behind Compact Flash. But since Memory Stick Pro isn’t backwards-compatible — let’s face it, Memory Stick Select is just to keep customers who bought into the Memory Stick format from going insane — Sony is effectively starting over, giving the Matsushiti-based Secure Digital format a rather large window of opportunity. Eli Harari, president and CEO of SanDisk (which helped develop both formats), says:

In my opinion the market will bifurcate between SD and Memory Stick Pro because Sony and Matsushita are both so powerful and so dedicated to their own formats.

Memory Stick Pro media will come in 256 MB ($190 USD), 512 MB ($440 USD) and 1 GB ($880 USD) capacities — in contrast, 512MB Compact Flash media costs half (!) as much — and will be available from Sony, San Disk and Lexar in April. Sony said that 2 GB Memory Stick Pro media (the format has a theoretical maximum capacity of 32 GB) should be available next year. | EETimes story | InfoSync story

Big Media wins, innovation loses

In 1790, the founding fathers of the United States gave authors a copyright that lasted 14 years. Over the years, Congress has repeatedly extended copyright terms. In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended existing and future copyrights by 20 years. Today, copyrights extend to 70 years beyond the death of the creator of a work, and 95 years for corporations.

Recently, Lawrence Lessig and others challenged the Sonny Bono act. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court firmly rejected their challenge. This means that not only has Congress repeatedly failed to put the public interest above the interests of corporate lobbyists, but that the Supreme Court is happy to give them carte blanche to do so. Lawrence writes in his weblog:

…if there is any good that might come from my loss, let it be the anger and passion that now gets to swell against the unchecked power that the Supreme Court has said Congress has. When the Free Software Foundation, Intel, Phillis Schlafly, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, Kenneth Arrow, Brewster Kahle, and hundreds of creators and innovators all stand on one side saying, “this makes no sense,” then it makes no sense. Let that be enough to move people to do something about it. Our courts will not.

Irony #1: Disney is terrified of the public domain and has shows that they will go to any lengths to keep even their earliest works out of it. But as Dan Gillmor points out in his column:

Walt Disney understood the value of the public domain, and used it precisely as other great artists had done. He updated an out-of-copyright character to create Mickey Mouse, for example, and launched an empire.

The company he founded later used French writer Victor Hugo’s work, which was also no longer owned by anyone, to create a cartoon based on the Hunchback of Notre Dame saga. The Disney animators had every right to build new works on old ones — and the public also got the benefit. Try the same thing with Mickey Mouse and you’ll be hauled into court faster than you can say ”Goofy.”

Irony #2: Yesterday, CNN’s Lou Dobbs Moneyline asked, “Should we be concerned that a small number of companies now own or control almost all national network television, radio, newspaper and Web properties?” [I updated this to reflect the exact question after finding this transcript of the show.] Today, Lou reported that 96% of respondents said “yes”, noting:

…in the history of this broadcast, that is the largest margin of preference in any poll that we have ever conducted. Not scientific, but very interesting.

CNN, of course, is a property of Big Media behemoth AOL Time Warner. | Associated Press story | News.com story | Reuters story | Eldred v. Ashcroft site | Dan Gillmor: Supreme Court endorses copyright theft | Wired: Court deaf to public-domain pleas

RIAA, computer industry unveil dubious "landmark agreement"

Yesterday, the RIAA and two computer industry trade groups announced a self-proclaimed “landmark agreement”. In it, the RIAA agrees to (mostly) stop asking the government to burden the computer industry with enforcing copyright controls in hardware/software, on the condition that the computer industry agrees to not support anything that would reinforce (and especially improve) your digtial media fair use rights for. As Dan Gillmor remarked:

This “landmark agreement” seems mostly an endorsement of the status quo.

As Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney for the EFF, told Salon.com:

I don’t think this agreement marks any particular global settlement of the debate. The agreement doesn’t mention “fair use” at all. I think that it’s a great example of why letting inter-industry negotiations dictate our rights is a bad idea. In this day of copy-protection and the DMCA, to not address fair use head-on is, I think, a big mistake.

Weakening its impact even more, the MPAA and CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) are notably absent from the agreement. The MPAA isn’t interested because they want to retain the right to — heck, they intend to — use technology to trump fair use. The consumer electronics industry aren’t interested because they know they won’t be able to sell products that impede fair use. Even Intel, who agreed to agree on the agreement in principle, told the New York Times that they continue to support Rep. Rick Boucher’s proposed Digital Media Consumers Rights Act (which, DMCA be damned, preserves your fair-use rights for digital media even if you have to crack DRMs to get it). | Associated Press story | Dan Gillmor’s eJournal | New York Times | Salon.com story | Wired story

SVG 1.1 graduates to official W3C recommendation

SVG is Scalable Vector Graphics — think Macromedia Flash, but standards-based. Today the W3C approved SVG 1.1 along with two “Mobile SVG” profiles — SVG Basic and SVG Tiny — as official recommendations. SVG Basic is intended for devices like handhelds/PDAs, and SVG Tiny is intended “highly restricted” devices like mobile phones.

Macromedia, through strategy, a good authoring tool and player, and — let’s face it — luck, has a defacto monopoly on web vector graphics with Flash. This is a problem, because (1) Flash is proprietary and because (2) Macromedia is basically a one-trick pony at this point, ripe for acquisition. (Rumors persist that Microsoft will be buying them.)

So far, it appears that mobile phone makers don’t trust Macromedia with their vector graphics any more than they trust Microsoft with their OS. Look for SVG to gain a beachhead in the mobile device market first.

Shame on Adobe for not open-sourcing their SVG viewer, and not understanding their business imperative to do so. If SVG was everywhere, Adobe wouldn’t be getting the crap beat out of them by Macromedia in the vector-media-for-the-web authoring space. | News.com story | W3C PR | Adobe SVG Viewer 3