23 February 2007

UK Government Science Investment

I was disappointed to read about the UK Government taking money from the science and medical research budgets to "soften the blow" of Rover's collapse.

That Rover was a dead duck was known for many, many years (decades even), and while I have sympathy with the workers there, I don't think they deserved anything different than any other worker laid off from a failed company.

But looking at it another way, the stupidity and short-sightedness of the government's moves seems clear: Does anyone for one minute think that Rover's demise came about by investing too MUCH in science and engineering research?

Once again, we have taken from the future to pay for past mistakes. Particularly nasty is the fact that medical research is reduced when clearly this has nothing to do with engineering.

As an aside, the article implies that the government has put a significant extra investment into research so it is merely taking back a little of that largesse. But I know that much of the money (like for the NHS) has gone on administration. For instance whereas a grant of £170k a few years ago would have been spent on the research, the grant is now topped up with "overhead" of, say £130k to pay for admin at the university. No more science is done than at the £170k level, but the cost is now £300k!

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Vista's mere 800 applications

I find this information from Computerworld somewhat surprising on a number of levels.

First is that just 108 applications have been certified to work with Vista, and another 683 have been awarded "works with distinction" whatever that means. Excluded from the list are applications such as all of Adobe's multimedia applications, most Symantec applications, and applications such as the latest version of Skype. Given Vista's huge gestation period, I can't help feeling that this is ridiculously low. I know this doesn't mean that all the other apps WON'T work, but I'm genuinely surprised.

The next thing that struck me as surprising - though perhaps it's a (major?) contributory factor to the above is that it costs $10,000 per app to get that certification. This is clearly a barrier to small software companies, and even larger ones if they are close to a new release of software. While I understand why this was probably a costly exercise for a 3rd party to undertake, I wonder whether Microsoft has been rather silly in making this barrier so high given the end result.

It's difficult to comment too much on whether it's the application vendors being slow, or cheap, or whether Microsoft has been very remiss in not putting enough backing behind making applications compatible with Vista out of the gate (let's face it, it's now almost 4 months since the release of Vista to business). But whatever the case, I think it's a poor state of affairs.

I think there would be a lot of fuss in the Apple camp if such a situation happened with Leopard, though a fair point against this is that there is no comparable certification step that I know of. But when I think back to the relative ease of transition from PowerPC to Intel with Rosetta and Universal apps seeming to deliver a very high level of compatibility from day 1, it seems Apple's approach to working with its developers* seems to have paid dividends.

But really, what was going on while Vista trundled along in prolonged development?

* I guess given that Adobe has also been one of the slowest to respond to Apple's Intel transition may indicate that it needs to look a bit closer at its development responsiveness

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19 February 2007

In praise of cycling MP's

I knew the moment I saw the headlines about politicians' expense claims that I was going to get exasperated.

"From £16,000 on taxis to £230 on a bike: politicans' travel expenses revealed" was the headline in the right-on Guardian. Perhaps I am just a little bit touchy, but that certainly seemed to be a dig at cycling MP's (and by extension, all cyclists). How else to interpret highlighting one of the smallest claims in an article generally criticising excess amongst our elected officials? Other newspapers also devoted column inches to the cycling claims of Jeremy Corbyn MP. Yet, it represents just 5 one thousandths of one percent of the total claimed by all MP's (0.0051%).

And, this weekend, Jasper Gerard, writing in the Observer under the headline "For our tireless MPs, no expenses are spared" sent me suitably over the edge with:
"But my favourite claim is Jeremy Corbyn's, who pocketed £230 - for cycling. Perhaps puncture repair kits are pricey."

Ha, bloody, ha!

Let's get this straight. The only logical and rational comment on Jeremy Corbyn's claims are to point out how much better the public purse would have been if other MP's made use of such transport. Diane Abbott's £2,235 in taxis is a start. And, boy, does she need the exercise. How about Mr Khabra's £3,007 (Ealing) and Mr Khan's £2,153 (Tooting) car expenses. And, perhaps Ms Janet Anderson and Mr Laurence Robertson (£16,612, and £12,015 mileage respectively), could at least get their fat arses out of their leather seats for SOME of their travel?

And, let's just look at Jasper's comment in more detail. The cost of cycling is actually the cost of a puncture repair kit is it? Just like the cost of driving is the cost of his in-car air freshener? Jeremy Corbyn cycled 1,100 miles in a year (on parliamentary business). I suspect his bike would need a good service after that amount of mileage with some new tyres, brake pads etc. That's probably about £100 or so a year based on my experience. Then there's the cost of the bike. And, lets not forget the cost of a decent lock, luggage carriers, waterproofs etc.

Cycling is considerably less costly than most other methods of transport, but it is NOT free. It's considerably beneficial for other road users who don't have their roads clogged up even more (please, this is not China - most cyclists cycle out of choice not economics). It's beneficial to our economy by not clogging up those roads. It's considerably more beneficial to the environment, and it's also beneficial to our health system (and the "health systems" of those cyclists too).

So, to Jeremy Corbyn, and those other cycling MP's: I praise you for your efforts and fortitude. Your £230 is the best value of the £4.5m spent last year.

And, to our unelected journalists who wouldn't know a crank from a cog: STFU!

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12 February 2007

Evil Jobs screwed Pixar Shareholders

Going the rounds are the latest in the options backdating scandal. Now, Steve Jobs is accused of choosing fortuitous dates for the granting of options to some key employees at Pixar Studios (FT subscription required, but story available elsewhere)

I am very much against bosses getting rich at the expense of shareholders, and I am also (obviously) against fraudulent behaviour in the corporate world.

But the options backdating issue has gone too far and its impact is now becoming severely detrimental to businesses (and their shareholders) caught up in it. First of all, most of the stories I have seen go back sometime. A time when options were not expensed, and they were considered a key part of an employee's package. There have been changes in thinking given all sorts of corporate scandals, and that is to be welcomed. But it is neither right (unless fraud was involved) or worthwhile to be revisiting today's thinking on the past.

Employee options have been part of Silicon Valley for a longtime. As a motivation factor, most bosses wish to issue those to employees at an attractive price (in-the-money, rather than under-water) for fairly obvious reasons. It takes a huge amount of time to process an options scheme and issuance from planning to getting board approval for the scheme and to deciding who gets what and writing the detail agreements. During that time, many circumstances will change. For the most part it makes sense to choose a date that serves the (motivational) purpose, and I would argue that as long as that date is chosen between the start and end of these processes, it is quite reasonable. It would NOT be reasonable if the effect was material, and/or if fraud was involved. It would also not be reasonable if management had conspired to artificially reduce the stock price for a short period (or issued them below any recorded stock price). For issuing options to senior management, it is also obvious that board approval is a part of that process. Jobs should not have been able to issue options to himself for instance (or his senior fellow executives) without that board approval. It is the board, not the management, that is ultimately responsible to shareholders. In the case of Apple, it is not yet clear what transpired as we have only Apple's (admittedly external and supposedly independent) report to judge by. I am not judging Apple and Jobs behaviour at Apple in this post. I don't know enough to do that and I suspect most of you reading this don't either.

Just before we look at Pixar, let's consider who the victims are of options backdating. If someone gets options at an "unfair" price, the people who lose out are the shareholders. They lose out because to make good on the options for the employee the company has to buy them in at the market rate (or issue more shares thus diluting existing shareholders). Only shareholders lose out - no one else, and usually only by small amounts. I have advised a number of companies with share option schemes. In all those cases, it has taken a period of several months or longer to get them issued, and I have advised choosing as low a price as possible for those options (in the UK, the tax authorities have to approve a price anyhow - another action that takes time). Scandal? No. These are private companies and the shareholders are the very same people making the decision on issuing options to those employees. In some cases, I too have been a shareholder of that company. We have chosen the price to serve as motivation, which is the prime purpose of the scheme in the first place. As shareholders, we want our staff to be motivated, and are prepared to carry that expense personally.

So, onto Pixar. Pixar is different from Hob's examples above isn't it? It was a public company (prior to being bought by Disney). But, and this is where it is interesting, who owned the largest number of shares in Pixar?

Steve Jobs did, of course. Not just by a small margin. He owned MORE THAN HALF the company, in fact, and, in that position has plenty of rights anyway.

So, who was the biggest "victim" of Steve's generosity with John Lasseter? Steve himself - by a massive factor. He wanted those staff to be motivated, and indeed it served both him and the other shareholders well. When Disney bought Pixar, a large part of the (huge) value it paid was for the people that came with it. If Steve had feathered his own nest at Pixar by issuing options to himself (whether at favourable rates or not) then that would be an issue. But Jobs (to my knowledge) was not a recipient of any options at Pixar. Steve was just doing his job, and probably thought nothing of it. In doing his job, he certainly helped John Lasseter, but if there's a Pixar shareholder out there that thinks Steve didn't do well for them, I'd be amazed.

Oh, and one more thing. Any retribution that is made here almost certainly is a case of Peter robbing Paul. If shareholders were the ones that suffered, then taking money from shareholders funds to recompense almost certainly makes no sense. While there are some worrying examples, it seems to me that the biggest beneficiaries of the options backdating scandal are in fact the lawyers and accountants drafted in to sort this out, and the careers of federal and state prosecutors.

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09 February 2007

DVD-Jon Hypocrisy

Edit to this entry: Matt in his comments made me do a bit more research on this subject, so I followed his link. Indeed, I think I have perhaps unfairly maligned DVD-Jon as in those entries he does not appear to promote DRM, and also obliquely refers to his interests being aligned to it. So, I will take back my calling of DVD-Jon as a hypocrite.

What is interesting is that all the reporting I came across which made reference to DVD-Jon seemed to infer that he was against the Steve Jobs proposal. None of that reporting made reference to his self-interest in the matter. So, once again, I am left with a bad taste about the reporting which I think took comments out of context, failed to note interests and generally used such comments to support their own case.

As for DVD-Jon and a few others, I still have one big gripe which is that they talk about this as a technical issue. It is not and never has been. It is a commercial and a legal one. Apple has podcasts downloadable from iTunes for free and without DRM wrappers. It is clearly technically straightforward to allow DRM-free music on iTunes. However, none outside a close coterie of music industry execs, lawyers and music download services has any knowledge of what has been agreed. I am more willing to give Jobs the benefit of any doubt here about his intentions and reasonings. And, I am willing to give him a lot more credit for taking the stance he has, even if at this time it is without real actions.

Thanks Matt for the link.

Back to the original post, left unedited:

Famous for breaking various encryption and DRM schemes, DVD-Jon (Jon Lech Johansen) is quite a cult hero for many.

I was however quite surprised to see his comments regarding Steve Jobs open letter as carried by a number of sites, this one being quite typical. Most sites I read on this covered DVD-Jon's history, and therefore appeared to give more credence to his views because of this, even though they appeared somewhat at odds with his past. Surely, even better with which to criticise Steve Jobs' letter?

But then, I remembered reading about what DVD-Jon is up to. He now lives in California and is a key employee at Double Twist Ventures. Their mission? Quoted from the Wikipedia entry for DVD-Jon:

DoubleTwist would license the ability to apply FairPlay to media companies who wanted their music and videos to play on the iPod.

In other words, Double Twist's business model is entirely dependent upon the continuation and prevalence of DRM, especially as relates to Apple's Fairplay. As usual, poor journalism is a contributor here and should have picked this up rather than just referring to his history. I see no hypocrisy in Jobs statement, but a huge wad of it from DVD-Jon.

In a further note of irony, it should be remembered that DVD-Jon's home country is Norway - perhaps the most aggressive country pushing for changes in Apple's policies.

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Even newer Getamac ads for UK (Humour)

I came across this video of comedians Lee and Herring back on the stage together. You'll have to skip to about the 1 minute 35 before it gets past the compere, but the sketch is hilarious, though not without some pretty strong language. If you know the two of them, read no further. For a bit of background read on...

I've posted here about Richard Herring before. Together with Stewart Lee (also infamous for his Jerry Springer - The Opera), they were a good comedy double act of the 90's with TV shows like "Richard, not Judy". Richard has posted a daily blog since well before blogs were fashionable, and shows up on the comedy circuit and on radio quite often. There is a bit of a long running joke of their careers nosediving a bit after their show was (unfairly perhaps) cancelled. Mitchell and Webb as featured in the new UK Apple ads are perhaps this decades closest duo to Lee and Herring, so there is a huge amount of irony in this sketch.

As an aside, its another example of how Apple is becoming so mainstream and talked about these days.

Thanks also to NotBBC for the link/video.

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07 February 2007

Well, Well, Well...(or, Steve Jobs comes out)

So, Steve Jobs (or probably one of his minions) has written a 2000 word essay articulating why we have DRM (clue: it's not Apple's requirement), and why it would embrace DRM-free music. If you've read this blog (and of course countless other intelligent sites), or you're just a rational technology follower, you will understand exactly what he is saying. Here are a few of the articles I've posted on this subject:

Link to FT article on EU/Norway anti-Apple stance
Apple's French problem with Fairplay
A discussion about interoperable DRM
More on France and DRM
DRM and digital music sales
(sidenote: an article written about a report on digital music sales stalling, which was not true; interestingly the same story was repeated later in the year after Forrester came up with some bizarre stats that also were just not correct)
One of Apple's challenges for 2006
I list DRM as one of the top 5 things to watch for in 2006
(ok, well, it's just 2007, but it WAS a hot topic in 2006 as well)

I have generally argued that Apple has had its hands tied with DRM; that, in general, it does not cause major restrictions to its users (certainly better rights than other ecosystems), and that it needs to succeed much further if it is to threaten a world in which Microsoft will inevitably take control, leading to far worse consequences to the consumer. I have also argued that certain EU countries are completely misguided in taking action against Apple.

Where I have been wrong is that I have for the most part assumed DRM was here to stay. While some commentators have felt it might be on the way out, I could not see that. What Steve's essay does above all, is to show that this suddenly seems plausible.

Of course, there will be conspiracy theorists out there (I've already seen a few comments from them). "Jobs is lying"; "why doesn't he sell non-drm music from the indie labels"; "his stats are wrong because I've bought x number of songs" where x is a number from zero to much higher than Steve's average figure! We'll no doubt see some industry bigwigs come into the debate with some point about Apple being disingenuous, and it's not THEIR fault after all.

Some might argue that this essay is somewhat defensive by Apple at a time it is under threat. It is also possible to argue that EU action has caused Apple to do this, so that is a good thing. But those are cynical views. Apple has done this at a time when it is still in the ascendancy in digital music, not when it is on a slippery slope downwards (this also shows Steve has learned the lesson of the Mac). And, if the EU had instead gone after the monopolistic labels, they could have forced this solution more directly and quickly, without causing confusion in the consumer base.

However, while I welcome this essay, the clarity it provides on why DRM is here, what Apple's contractual obligations are and its suggested remedies, one part of me worries that while we may end up with DRM-free music, there are two questions unanswered. The first is whether as a result, we will get a choice of formats so that more efficient open formats are offered (such as AAC rather than just MP3). More importantly, to an audiophile at least, is whether the solution will encompass digital offerings that are at least if not better than CD-quality (eg lossless, or even enhanced lossless), and if so, that they do not cost ridiculous amounts of money. My worry is that the industry will settle on a lowest-common-denominator solution (or a number of solutions around that level). Given a choice between (fair) DRM'd music in true audiophile quality and DRM-free music in lower quality, I might be in a small minority, but I would prefer the former.

Finally, it should also be pointed out that the essay makes no mention about DRM and video material, and indeed some of the arguments made for making music DRM-free would not apply to movies or tv shows. But, make no mistake this is still a BIG story with far-reaching consequences.

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