On patents as a business tool

After doing some early research into patents, I concluded that:
  • they’d cost me $10k or so per patent
  • this would be a huge amount of time and effort for me
  • it would take at least a couple of years for the patents to be granted
  • I wouldn’t have the money to enforce them
  • small companies would probably ignore them anyway
So I was confident in asserting that patents were a waste of time (for my needs).
In the 6 months since, a few things have conspired to change my mind:
  • we’re close to raising investment, and investors care about patents because they provide evidence of value
  • likewise, they make you more acquirable
  • I’ve started to realize that patents’ primary value is as a deterrent against large companies who might otherwise lumber into competition
It’s this final point – that patents provide a watered-down ‘mutually assured destruction’ kind of deterrent against incumbents and larger companies that seems most important now. If you can protect yourself with patents, you make it much more likely that larger companies will partner with, license from or acquire you, rather than compete with you.

Sssssssshhhhhhhhhhh… for now

I suppose I must really care about mobile phones ringing, since this is the third piece I’ve written about it. Maybe it’s just that I really care about auditory pollution. Or that it seems like a problem that affects billions of people and hasn’t been given enough thought.

I often want to silence my phone for an hour or so, while in a meeting or class. However, I know that I’ll forget to turn the ringer back on afterwards. This is a failure of prospective memory (‘remembering to remember’), and it’s something I feel I have almost no control over.

Wouldn’t it be great if one could set one’s phone to be silent for an hour, safe in the knowledge that soon after the meeting ended, you’d be back in business? Isn’t this what we always want?

Mobile phones should be felt but not heard

I can never hear or feel my phone when it rings, no matter how loudly or how insistently hornet-like the trilling and shrilling and buzzing and fuzzing.

For this reason, I got very excited when I heard that they now make a Bluetooth bracelet that buzzes when your phone rings.

Better still though, I’d like a sticky Bluetooth (Gluetooth?) doodad that you could affix to a watchstrap or a belt or a ring that stayed charged by dynamo from the kinetic energy of my movements – that would be much less obtrusive.

Open source the Drobo data format

The Drobo is an amazing device – it allows you to pop in a handful of old hard disks, and it effectively pools them so that they show up as a single drive to your OS. It even distributes data redundantly across them to give you peace of mind with old disks. And it’s hot-swappable.
When our lab was seeking an archival solution, this sounded perfect. But unfortunately, the Data Robotics people are trying to solve a hard problem, and there are a good number of unhappy people on the internet complaining about losing swathes of data. The really unfortunate part of this is that all the data on the hard disks that you add to the Drobo unit are stored in some kind of proprietary format that presumably facilitates the distributive algorithm at the center of Drobo’s cleverness. As a result, the only way to read the data on those Drobo’d disks is with a Drobo. So if things get hosed, then there’s no recourse but to send it off to them.
So here’s my proposal. Open source the Drobo data format. Keep the hardware and the distributive algorithm proprietary. But make it very easy for other people to build apps that talk to Drobo boxes.
  • Maybe a cottage industry of hardware repair shops and that specialize in Drobo maintenance and repair will spring up. All to the good. Data Robotics’ expertise and value lies in building products, not providing services. These repair shops customers with reassuring alternatives, become evangelists for the product, and might even add value by building good third-party add-ons.
  • Likewise, encourage a developer ecosystem. Someone might even come up with their own distributive algorithm that’s better than Data Robotics’.
  • Paradoxically but importantly, by reducing the barrier to exit by making it easier for people to get their data off the Drobo, you actually reduce the barrier to entry.
The value of the Drobo is in the hardware, and maybe in the distributive algorithm, but not in the data format.

Mobile phone ringing

Everyone hates it when a mobile phone rings in a cinema, classroom or restaurant. Especially if it’s yours.

It’s so easy to forget to mute the ringer. It’s even easier to forget to turn the ringer back on at the end of the lecture. Turning ringers on and off seems beneath us, and beyond us.

Clearly, it would be better if our phone could decide when to ring for itself. This kind of ‘context-awareness’ is actually a very hard problem. Here’s one simple algorithm that might go a long way towards helping.

If my phone can pick up lots of other mobile phones in close proximity, and they’re not moving away, then assume it should be more silent. This covers most of the cases we’d want, where lots of people are sitting together, and no one wants to be disturbed. It excludes cases where we’re walking down the street surrounded by lots of other people, but none of us are sticking around.

I can think of a few cases where this might fall down. If I’m anxiously awaiting a call from the hospital about a loved one, I want the phone to ring wherever I am. If I’m sitting in a noisy coffee shop, I want it to ring loudly, and no one will be particularly disturbed.

But on balance, this seems like a good heuristic. Instead of having a manual ‘mute’ button, we might just let the phone guess, and have a manual ‘loud override’ button for the above cases.
The problem is that often, we’d rather our devices be dumb but predictable than smart but surprisingly and unpredictably tricksy.

Spacetime alarms

Alarm clocks are temporal. They tell you when some time criterion has been reached. They’re very useful.

But often, I really want an alarm with a spatial criterion – a location alarm. Let’s consider some possible uses:

  • Beep shrilly if anyone tries to steal this device from its current location. [I think there are accelerometer-based programs for laptops that do this]
  • I’m snoozing on the train – wake me up when we get near Penn Station. [This is where I first came up with the idea].
  • Give me a kick if I’m still in my office when I’m supposed to have left for that meeting. After all, I don’t need the alarm to go off if I’m already on my way to the meeting. [though that’s a combination space + time criterion]

This would make for an obvious and delightful iPhone app. I haven’t found one yet, but I haven’t looked hard either.

UPDATE: there are some really superb suggestions in the comments, and in Hacker News that take this idea much further. I particularly liked these:

  • R.J.Google Maps needs this so when I’m walking down the street I don’t have to pay attention to street address numbers/keep my eyes glued to the screen.
  • FrankusMaybe something like that could tell me when I’m close to the grocery store that I need to buy milk.
  • Frankus: A game where you try and assassinate your friends by setting imaginary time bombs to go off at a particular location when you think your friend will be there.

The wallet washkit for the man about town

Have you ever charged out into the night like an angry banshee in search of entertainment, only to have your forwards momentum sapped from you by the bulkiness of your encumbrances? Then look no further than the Wallet Washkit For The Man About Town, available only at ThinkChic.com.

No thicker than an ordinary wallet, but packed with:
  • micro-toothbrush and paste, designed by NASA to function in zero-G, and employed by astronauts on Apollo
  • chewing gum that would make even Willy Wonka giggle with delight at its olfactory potency
  • oozing gel that turns your wallet into a roll-on deodorant
  • aphoristic reading material that fits on credit-card-sized pages.

If I were to write a novel

How much time gets spent staring in a placidly bovine fashion at a concrete wall while waiting for subway trains every day? If we consider London, there are roughly a million people travelling a day, each waiting for maybe five minutes – that’s 100,000 man hours a day. While chewing the cud in this manner, one finds oneself wearily reading and re-reading the same inane advertising drivel.

If I were to write a novel, I would spend all my meagre advertising budget on renting out all the billboards for a single platform for a day. I would display the first chapter of my book piecewise, starting at one end of the platform, so that people could begin reading, progressing crabwise in lockstep from billboard to billboard, hungrily seeking the next installment. At the very end of the platform, I’d hand out free copies of my book.

Googling for ‘boobies’

You’re drunk, you’re horny and you’re wandering around Atlantic City at 3am. It’s time to put your money to even better use than gambling – clearly, you need a strip joint, stat.

Given your urgency, and your boozy clumsiness, you don’t want to have to go far, but being a discerning consumer, you’re willing to go a little bit if it’s going to really improve things. You need a guide that’s right at hand, quick to consult, and knows what they’re talking about. Ideally, you want a randy and helpful local, but an iPhone app with very big buttons would be next up. If it had reviews from other discerning consumers, that would be an excellent way to decide between the various possibilities.

If I were to ever write such an app, I would be torn between calling it The Very Lonely Planet, Vagat’s or The Muff Guide.