Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Proposal for an "Open Device" License

There is an interesting read about an "open hardware" license here:

But I am interested in something that goes much further in several ways.

First off, my license would enforce the right and ability to modify a product and (especially) its firmware/software after it has been produced. This is what I mean by "open device" as opposed to simply "open hardware". In a world where the PC is increasingly pushed into a niche market, it is very important to protect the right to run software on other hardware, cell phones for example. I believe that the openness of the IBM PC is what created the personal computer revolution -- and why Apple lost out... as much as I love what Apple is doing on the physical side with the ipod, iphone, ipad, we need to ensure that Apple's restrictive policies do not prevail in devices or we will lose innovation in the personal device marketplace to the detriment of everyone who uses the devices.

This "modifiable device" restriction is also nice because it lets the original producer (and others) can use a high volume producer's hardware, so long as its functionality is accessible.. I believe that this would satisfy many open hardware developers since some are not motivated to make money; they are simply building a device that does not currently exist, and would be happy instead to buy it at Wallmart for significantly less cost. On the other hand, the greatest IP "theft" would be for a company to take a piece of open hardware and inaccessibly embed it within some consumer product, thereby reaping all the rewards of the open hardware communities' efforts and giving nothing back in return.

Secondly, I disagree with the TAPR's reliance on the GPL license to protect software, since (as I said above) it does not protect the ability to run that software on some device. It is very common for a company to comply with GPL by releasing the source of a Linux port onto a new CPU but in fact have no way for the end user to actually upload that release onto the CPU within the company's product! And generally other available hardware will not exist for the new CPU... Ironically, this effect is what drives some open hardware development, because the community then must produce (at great personal expense) custom hardware to utilize the Linux port...

There is one instance that I know of where in fact the software was released and the hardware fortuitously provided an update mechanism. This was the WRT-54G router. This device was a tremendous market success, and open source community's modifications to this router were so popular that some features were actually pushed back into the commerical release, AND even though the company eventually built a cheaper version on vxworks (a different operating system), they continued to sell the original under the product name WRT-54GL (more...). What if this phenomemon was the norm instead of the exception!?

Therefore, I believe that the hardware and software in embedded devices is intrinsically related -- one is almost worthless without the other. And finally, my experience as a software architect within the telecom industry and my experience as an open hardware developer is that in fact the software/firmware is 90% or more of the time effort. Since it is the major cost, it provides great leverage to pry off the lid of "closed" devices.

When you add these and a few other ideas together, you end up not with "open hardware", but something that looks a lot more like an "open device".

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Success, Wall Street Style

I just finished reading "Den of Thieves" by James Stewart which is about the junk bond scandal that hit wall street in the '80s. What is fascinating about it is the similarities between it and the recent financial meltdown. Just swap "toxic asset" mortgages for corporate loans (AKA junk bonds) and hit the fast forward button.

Since this is a blog, I'm going to skip all explanations (read the book) and just hop to my observations:

First off, the financial system essentially and intrinsically encourages abuse. Capitalism trends towards perfect markets -- therefore there is an ever decreasing profit spread for financial guys to take advantage of. But wall street types are self-selected to not be happy with ever decreasing profits. They will find or create an edge.

Second, the junk-bond related crimes were totally unnecessary; they just added a buck or two per share to an already over-inflated, highly profitable transaction and sometimes "encouraged" a deal to go through if it was stalling. Judging by the lack of major arrests in the toxic asset meltdown, Wall street learned that crime in fact doesn't pay nearly as well as the long, legal con.

Third, never trust finance guys even as part of a reputable institution! [In fact, let me go on a limb and say, its your life, don't trust anyone! For major life issues like financial and medical, respect the expert opinions but learn their biases (for example, surgeons LIKE to do surgery, duhh!) and then spend the time to figure it out yourself!]

Around 2007-2008 a couple of my friends were buying a house and I was alarmed at the tendency for people to trust the bank's evaluation of how large a loan you could bear. Essentially they ceded responsibility for picking a reasonable load to the banking "experts", and did not bother to do even the most basic math. "If the bank is willing to offer me that much I must be good for it" is how the thinking goes. I think that this happened on a nationwide level. But I would tell my friends "yes but the bank's goal is for you to be in debt for the rest of your life, your goal should be to not be in debt. Because when you are in debt, you are paying 10% or more to your creditor. You are going into debt to buy more stuff, but ironically you'll end up with less".

Little did we know that many banks did not even care whether the loan could be repaid...

Recipe for Wall Street Mega-Success
(slashdot style)

1. Identify an information advantage. Look in unregulated areas of finance. For extra credit, artificially create an information advantage in your favor. For example, bundle financial instruments so the underlying entities are hidden. Write contracts that only finanical lawyers can understand (insurance is a great area of opportunity for this method). Transform an out-of-favor, high-risk financial instrument into one that is "in-favor". Take advantage of people's trust in "experts" -- i.e. yourself.

2. Market, market, sell, sell, sell. Get college professors to write papers about how low risk your market historically was (before you entered it).

3. Jam increasingly ludicrious and high risk underlying entities into your framework since that maximizes your profit by reducing the base cost.

4. Use recursion to keep the aura of good times going -- if an issue is about to fail, grab it up, twist it around, and jam it back into the system (AKA refinancing).

3. ??? (this is where the optional crimes are committed)

4. Profit!!!

5. You have 3-7 years; the fall will be from the summit, sudden and hard. be ready to bail.