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The personal blog of Steve Jobs – that would be Apple’s Web site – saw its second entry last week, an open letter about the company’s environmental practices that appears to be a response to a Greenpeace campaign. Adam examines what Jobs wrote and the role that PR spin can play when it comes to environmental protection. He also contemplates audio-enhanced swim training with the SwimMan waterproof iPod shuffle, and looks at an egregious case of patent insanity whose solution might lie in the depths of Mac history. Elsewhere in this issue, Glenn Fleishman sees a promising future in connecting to public wireless hotspots thanks to Devicescape, and we note the releases of QuickTime 7.1.6, AirPort Extreme Update 2007-003, and Security Update 2007-004 v1.1.

Jeff Carlson No comments

QuickTime, AirPort, Security Updates Released

Responding to a security flaw discovered two weeks ago (see “Money Meets Mouth on Mac Exploits,” 2007-04-23), Apple has released QuickTime 7.1.6 for Mac (43.6 MB) and Windows (19.1 MB), available as stand-alone downloads or via Software Update. The update patches a flaw in QuickTime for Java that could enable a maliciously crafted Web page to gain access to a computer. QuickTime 7.1.6 also adds the capability to display timecode and closed captioning in QuickTime Player, adds support on the Mac for the upcoming Final Cut Studio 2, and fixes unspecified bugs.

AirPort Extreme Update 2007-003 is a release for Intel-based Macs that “includes compatibility updates for certain third-party access points configured to use WPA or WPA2 security.” It’s a 3 MB download, and is also available via Software Update.

Apple also released Security Update 2007-004 v1.1 for Intel-based Macs (15.7 MB), PowerPC-based Macs (9.1 MB) and Macs running Mac OS X 10.3.9 (36.7 MB). According to Apple, this update includes the contents of Security Update 2007-004, which arrived a couple of weeks ago (see “Security Update 2007-004 Released,” 2007-04-23), but also delivers two specific
fixes. An AirPort update corrects a glitch under Mac OS X 10.3.9 that appeared with the last security update, and an FTPServer update fixes problems with FTP under Mac OS X Server 10.4.9.

Adam Engst No comments

SwimMan Waterproofs the iPod shuffle

Although I run regularly and enjoy splashing around in our pond, I’m a thoroughly mediocre swimmer. The summer after my freshman year of Cornell, when I was 18, I did lap swimming several times a week with a friend who worked with my mother. At 36, Anne was twice as old as I was, and having been the Alaska state backstroke champion, she was also twice as fast. She could swim a mile in 30 minutes at lunch while I flailed hard to cover half that distance.

I’ve never done lap swimming since, because you can’t have conversations with friends while doing it, and also because looking at the bottom of a blue pool for 30 minutes while trying not to inhale chlorinated water simply doesn’t give me a rush like running through wooded trails. But I’m contemplating a triathlon next year, when I turn 40, so some lap training in the pond might be in order, and an iPod could help while away the repetitive back-and-forth time. I haven’t tried this yet, since the pond is still good only for cryotherapy.

“But but but,” you sputter, “you can’t swim with an iPod!” Ah, but it turns out you can, thanks to a company called SwimMan, which sells waterproofed second-generation iPod shuffles ($150) and waterproof headsets ($100), separately or in a bundle ($250). If you already own a second-generation iPod shuffle, you can send it to SwimMan and have it waterproofed for $75. SwimMan claims that a waterproofed iPod shuffle looks and works exactly like a normal one, but since the waterproofing is entirely on the inside of the case, the On/Off button and the Shuffle button will be rendered inoperative, and the other buttons will be a bit stiffer. The company says you can replicate the function of the
on/off button by pressing the center button for On and disconnecting the headphones for Off; the Shuffle button’s functionality can reportedly be controlled from iTunes when the iPod is connected to your computer.

Adam Engst No comments

Steve Jobs Talks Green

Steve Jobs has done it again, posting an open letter on the Apple Web site. The previous “Thoughts on Music” letter generated much discussion and coverage of Apple (see “Steve Jobs Blasts DRM,” 2007-02-12), and foreshadowed the Apple/EMI deal to drop DRM that followed shortly afterwards (which we covered in “Apple and EMI Offer DRM-Free Music via iTunes,” 2007-04-02).

In “A Greener Apple,” Jobs turns his attention to the criticism that Apple has received from environmental groups – most notably Greenpeace – regarding Apple’s manufacturing and recycling practices. In it, he runs down what Apple is doing to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals from the manufacturing process and then explains Apple’s recycling programs. In a departure from the norm, he also discusses Apple’s goals for the future with regard to further reductions in toxic manufacturing chemicals and increased recycling efforts.

Greenpeace’s Green Electronics Guide and accompanying Green My Apple campaign have garnered a great deal of media attention, and the organization’s sometimes-confrontational tactics at Macintosh conferences has been a source of, well, more media coverage. Although Greenpeace may have other data, my impression from talking with Mac users is that Greenpeace’s tactics have generally worked more to polarize than to persuade, with diehard environmental activists becoming all the more vocal about Apple’s ills and longtime Mac users
rising to defend
the company (as they’ve become accustomed to doing in response to criticism from PC users for so many years).

Adding confusion to the situation is the fact that neither Greenpeace nor Apple is necessarily motivated by the most noble of principles, despite what both say. And oddly, much of Greenpeace’s complaint and Apple’s response revolve not so much around what is being done in the here and now, but what will or should be done. Put another way, it’s largely a war of words, of plans, and of policies.

Orthogonal Motivations — An entirely rational outside observer might say that Greenpeace is acting in line with traditional environmental principles in its attempts to reduce toxic chemical usage and encourage increased recycling. I don’t think anyone questions that Greenpeace does have that as the overall goal. But it also feels as though Greenpeace is targeting Apple not because Apple is necessarily worse than other, much larger companies, but because anything surrounding Apple generates media attention and controversy, and that attention is good for Greenpeace’s ultimate goal. Therein, I think, lies the reason why many Mac users have reacted so defensively to Greenpeace’s attacks; it seems as though
Greenpeace is specifically targeting Apple for other-than-stated reasons.

Apple isn’t entirely free of culpability here either. As much as Apple fans sometimes lose track of this fact, Apple is a public company, and a big one at that. Above all else, Apple’s loyalties lie with serving its shareholders by improving the bottom line. There’s no question that many of the individuals who make up the company believe strongly in the goals of the environmental movement, but Apple as a company will always put the health of the company before the health of the environment.

That doesn’t mean that Apple as a company gives no thought to the environmental impact of its actions, nor does it mean that Apple will always take the cheapest approach, regardless of impact. That’s because Apple, much more so than companies like HP or Dell, lives and dies by its public image. Buying an iPod, and even a Mac these days, is considered cool, and any tarnish on Apple’s highly polished brand could drastically hurt the company’s fortunes. Thus, Apple must play a balancing act between trying to produce goods as cheaply as possible to bolster the bottom line and spending more to protect the environment and the company’s reputation.

He Said/She Said — When you read Greenpeace’s rating of Apple, the latest version of which predates Jobs’s letter, the most striking aspect is how many of the scores are based not on any quantitative measurement, much less on one that would be verifiable by an independent auditor, but on what the company has said it will do. Greenpeace was concerned that Apple hadn’t previously given a timeline for the elimination of brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride, that Apple’s published definition of the Precautionary Principle didn’t meet Greenpeace’s standards, that Apple hasn’t described its approach to “Individual Producer Responsibility” sufficiently explicitly, and so on.

What I find troubling about this approach is that, speaking as a writer, words are cheap. A company can say anything it wants. Realistically, how many people will notice if, several years down the road, those promises don’t come to pass? Heck, we (at least the cynical or realistic among us) assume that many promises made by politicians during their campaigns will never be fulfilled. Greenpeace itself might notice, assuming this thrust to reduce pollution from the electronics industry continues for the next few years. To continue down the cynical track, a clever company could essentially play with its public statements to spin the situation in its favor. Or, worse, the company could simply lie, saying it was meeting certain standards
without actually doing so. In today’s Internet, keeping that lie going might be harder than in the past, but there are certainly plenty of instances of companies sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug.

I am by no means accusing Apple of having done this in the past, nor am I suspecting that Apple will do so in the future. In general, I tend to believe that Apple is a pretty good corporate citizen, despite the company’s now-famous level of secrecy. But such corporate slipperiness has happened before at other companies and certainly could happen again, and I worry that even Greenpeace’s well-meaning scorecard could be subverted in this way. Perhaps the situation is simply too complicated, but I’d prefer to see an approach that would provide quantitative rankings that could be objectively and independently verified.

In the meantime, though, I’m pleased to see Apple deviating from tradition and being more forthcoming about the company’s current reality and future plans regarding manufacturing and recycling practices. Particularly interesting will be Greenpeace’s next scorecard. Apple is currently dead last, with only 2.7 points out of 10, although the main page for the Green My Apple campaign now features an interactive Flash animation that, when you mouse over the appropriate spot, claims a “preliminary calculation” of 5 points. (The fact that a public letter on a Web site could change a company’s environmental ranking in a significant way supports my claim that it’s all about rhetoric.) The main criticism Greenpeace has made in the wake of Jobs’s letter is that Apple’s recycling program operates only in the United States. However, Jobs claims that it operates in countries that account for more than 82 percent of all Macs and iPods sold.

Let me leave you with what I felt were the two most interesting details in Jobs’s letter. First, for the Apple product watchers, he said that Apple plans to introduce the first Macs with LED-backlit displays in 2007, and the speculation is already rampant as to which product will include such a display first. From the usability standpoint, of course, it’s mostly a detail; I don’t care much about how my LCD screen is backlit, just that it is, although if switching to LED-based backlighting results in reduced power consumption and increased battery life on laptops, I’m all for it. Second, while the entire letter is a textbook exercise in controlling the PR message, there’s an unusual sentence at the end, something you won’t often hear
from Apple: “We apologize for leaving you in the dark for this long.”

Glenn Fleishman No comments

Devicescape Aims to Ease Wi-Fi Hot Spot Connection Pain

I tire of hitting gateway pages at Wi-Fi hot spots that ask me to enter account information I’ve already set up. Shouldn’t there be a simpler way than what feels like a 1995 interface – you know, maybe some software that makes the connection easier? Devicescape has my number: Their eponymous Devicescape software and ecosystem lets your Mac connect with less tedium to Wi-Fi networks at which you have accounts. But there’s a lot more to their approach.

Boingo Wireless has long offered a software client for Wi-Fi network connection, although it came to Mac OS X several years after its introduction for Windows. Boingo aggregates many different hot spot networks worldwide and repackages 60,000 combined locations for a uniform per-session price (usually $8) or a flat monthly rate of $22 for unlimited access at North American locations and negotiated metered access in most of the rest of the world. Their client software recognizes Boingo partners and connects you with a single menu selection or automatically. (Boingo doesn’t yet support Macs with Intel Core 2 Duo processors.)

Devicescape has thrown out a rather larger net that aims to catch every possible piece of electronics that might want to make a Wi-Fi network connection. (Don’t count Boingo out, however; more on that in a moment.)

Browser-less Devices, Frustration-free Connections — Devicescape wants to make it simple for mobile devices to hop onto Wi-Fi networks without that tedious entry of user name and password, made even more tedious by the lack of an interface or a Web browser on most handheld devices. Devicescape sees a world full of Wi-Fi-enabled phones, cameras, game consoles, PDAs, and other devices that don’t even exist yet, and a world of frustration in connecting.

I share this frustration. I’ve tried some early Wi-Fi phones and music devices, and the pain in entering WPA network keys or logging onto hot spot networks – especially open networks that require a click-through on a Web page to agree to the terms of service – show me that there’s no way average users will make it past the first steps.

Connecting to a public Wi-Fi hot spot almost always involves a gateway page that intercepts your attempt to reach the Internet via a Web browser. Until you go through the gateway page in your Web browser, no other application can access the Internet. That gateway page is a login screen to which your browser is redirected and on which you enter account information, if you have it, or payment details if a fee is required, or sometimes just agreement to terms of service. If you don’t have a Web browser embedded in the device you’re using, you can’t get to the login page; if you have a browser, and you’re using a mobile device, it might be cumbersome to navigate and enter appropriate details.

Devicescape’s software and system go even further than just getting rid of hassle. The idea of one person, one account seems antiquated to them, when you might wind up with (or may already be carrying) several devices of varying sorts that each might need unique network access. In that device-centric approach, you might have a single overarching account with a network, and then a profile that lists all your associated devices under that account. Why would anyone pay $20 to $40 per month per device for unlimited Wi-Fi on for-fee networks? That adds up fast. In the Devicescape model, you might pay a small amount per month for each device or its usage, making networks affordable to use, while still profitable for the hot spot or network
operators. (A not-so-big secret in the services world is that managing accounts, presenting bills to users, and collecting payment costs as much as $10 to $20 per month; additional services added to existing accounts are gravy beyond the overhead of the service itself.)

In Devicescape’s outlook, you store all your authentication information, such as a user name and password or other tokens that a network might employ, on an account that you maintain via their Web site. You then use devices that have Devicescape software embedded. You pair these devices with your account in some simple manner, and then, when you roam, these devices communicate with Devicescape’s servers through a secured means to retrieve your account information and log your device onto a hot spot network.

Embedding the Software — There are a lot of stumbling blocks for Devicescape, which makes it all the more impressive how they have wired together their beta test so that it works.

The first stumbling block is getting software on so-called embedded operating system (OS) platforms. An embedded OS is what powers a piece of electronics that’s not designed to be a general-purpose computer. Typically, it’s a stripped-down or optimized version or offshoot of a larger OS, like Windows Mobile/Pocket PC or Linux – or an OS designed from the ground up, like those from VxWorks.

Devices that used embedded platforms are often closed to additional software, even if the platform they use supports third-party development. These closed devices require close cooperation with the maker of a device if you want to get your software into their product. Apple’s iPhone leaps to mind. The iPhone isn’t unusual in the larger device world, but it is strange in the smartphone segment, in which the major platforms like Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Palm OS allow arbitrary third-party-developed software to be installed by end users.

It’s the true gadgets that are hard nuts to crack. Devicescape has a proof-of-concept package with the Linksys WIP300 Wireless-G IP Phone, an expensive wireless IP phone designed for metropolitan-scale Wi-Fi network service providers to resell. This is the only closed mobile device for which Devicescape currently provides embedded software. To make real inroads in this market, Devicescape will have to form partnerships with companies like Nintendo, Kodak, and Nokia to get the Devicescape software pre-installed.

In these early stages, Devicescape’s software works on a handful of handheld devices, including Windows Mobile 5 smartphones and some Nokia tablets. They’ve also released software for computer operating systems, adding Mac OS X and Windows Vista support to existing Windows XP releases.

Smartphone users are a great audience, because they will be able to install Devicescape’s software directly, but smartphone users may also be bound to existing Wi-Fi networks run by their cellular providers through bundled deals, like T-Mobile HotSpot or AT&T Wi-Fi.

Sneaking onto the Network — The next nut to crack is the hot spot networks. Devicescape currently supports or is testing support for accounts that you may already have on a large array of major networks, including the two just mentioned, the grassroots network Fon, the major U.S. operator Wayport, the UK giant The Cloud, and several others.

Devicescape makes an interesting end run around the fact that they don’t have formal partnerships with these networks. When I was first briefed by the company in December 2006, I asked, “If you don’t have a relationship with a network, how do you get the software on your device to communicate over the Internet with your servers to retrieve the authentication information that logs that user’s device in?”

They hemmed and hawed, but I figured out what their trick was, and they confirmed it; it’s not illegitimate, just clever. They use DNS, the method by which any Internet-connected computer turns human-readable domain names into IP addresses. Hot spot networks block nearly all Internet traffic, but they do pass DNS queries to decentralized DNS servers, and thus Devicescape can pass small amounts of encrypted data back as a response from the DNS server. (At least two software packages exist that let you tunnel traffic via DNS queries to bypass this approach to access control!)

Many Networks, How Many Accounts? The final issue is the heterogeneity of hot spot networks, something Devicescape can’t control. There are now hundreds of thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots in the world, a good majority available on a for-fee basis. To use any arbitrary hot spot, you typically have to pay a walk-up rate or be a subscriber, paying recurring monthly fees that often come with a term commitment. Free hot spots have lower or no bars to usage; the highest bar might be viewing an advertisement or clicking on a usage agreement to gain access – something often difficult or impossible on a mobile device.

This melange of networks means that users can’t always predict where they will have access, nor what it might cost. Devicescape has the notion that by centralizing your account information on their servers they could aggregate access to networks and sell you discounted access without you re-entering credit card information at the network venue – the transaction would happen between their servers (where you’d stored payment information) and the hot spot network, reducing friction in gaining access in a strange location.

One scenario: You’re on vacation and want to upload photos from your Wi-Fi capable camera. You fire up the camera, which has Devicescape software installed, use arrows and a select button to choose “Find a network,” and then select “Pay $3 for 24 hours access” to use the network. Easy as pie, perhaps.

Another is the “obscene calling rate” problem: Your plane lands in London, and you find you have a five-hour layover. Making a call with your cell phone would cost $2.35 per minute or something equally insane. But with Skype and a Wi-Fi-enabled handheld, it’s just $0.02 per minute. You bring up the Devicescape software on the handheld, accept an 8 euro charge – seemingly cheap compared to the metered phone rates – and Bob’s your uncle. Rather, Bob’s on the other end of the line, hearing you clearly.

Devicescape and the Competitive Landscape — Devicescape will face competition, of course. Boingo has already entered the fray with their Boingo Mobile option, a new direction for the company that offers voice over IP (VoIP) access with Wi-Fi IP phones over their worldwide aggregated network for $8 per month. Where Boingo’s laptop access runs $22 per month for unlimited service in North America, most locations elsewhere in the world charge a metered rate for access by computer. The Boingo Mobile plan, by contrast, includes all voice usage in every supported location for that one $8 per month rate. (Not all Boingo laptop locations are included in their mobile plan yet,
but they’re working on it.)

Skype has worked with many handset makers to embed their software in Wi-Fi and cordless IP phones, and they also work with Boingo. I’ve tested an early phone from Belkin that combines Skype calling with Boingo service. You pay $200 for the phone and $8 per month for unlimited Boingo calling. (Skype charges nothing for intra-network calls, $30 per year for unlimited calls to numbers in the United States and Canada, and $38 per year for unlimited incoming calls to a “real” phone number; this includes voicemail.)

The ultimate result of Devicescape’s approach and the simultaneous emergence of cooperating partners and competing firms will be that it should become ever easier for these new devices with their fancy high-speed wireless adapters to, you know, actually do something.

I can’t tell you the frustration I experienced when I read that Microsoft’s Zune had Wi-Fi – but couldn’t connect to Wi-Fi networks, download music over Wi-Fi, or even synchronize over Wi-Fi (see “Zune Doom,” 2006-11-13). Apple is poised to force on us the same limitations for music (not Web browsing or email) and syncing with the iPhone (see “iQuestion the iPhone,” 2007-01-22). Devicescape wants to make sure that those crimes against technology don’t become the norm.

Adam Engst No comments

Busting the Disc Link CD-ROM Patent

As the last president of the now-extinct Info-Mac Network, I have several times in the last few years received requests from lawyers or their staffs for certain CD-ROMs, originally produced by a company called Pacific HiTech, containing snapshot copies of the Info-Mac Archive at various points in its history. (There were eight of these CD-ROMs, the first created in August 1992, the last in May 1996; TidBITS noted the first in “Internet CD-ROMs” 1992-10-19, and published a fairly extensive and historically quite interesting review of the second one in “Info-Mac CD-ROM II: The Monster Archive,” 1993-07-05.) I don’t have any of those CD-ROMs,
but TidBITS Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg, an inveterate collector, has the complete set, and he has on several occasions provided the lawyers a copy of a particular CD in which they were especially interested, namely Info-Mac CD-ROM III, from January 1994.

We have of course been curious about why these lawyers wanted this CD. We knew it had something to do with the presence of hyperlinks in documents on the CD; those hyperlinks are there because the CD contains, among other things, the ReadMe for Chuck Shotton’s Web server MacHTTP, which itself is an HTML document, as well as some issues of the Trincoll Journal, a Web-based magazine. These documents date from the very beginnings of the Web (HTML itself was invented about 1990, and the earliest Web browsers, such as NCSA Mosaic, were released in 1993), and thus this particular CD is one of the earliest known to contain a hyperlinked document. But the lawyers have always been circumspect about the exact details, merely saying that they
wanted the CD in order to defend against a spurious patent, and never identifying the client or acknowledging that a lawsuit had been filed. Attorney-client privilege and all that.

Thanks to a recent Information Week article, we’ve finally learned what’s going on. A patent infringement lawsuit was filed in April against a number of companies, including Avid Technology, Borland, Corel, Eastman Kodak, EMC, Novell, Oracle, and SAP, among others, by a company called Disc Link.

The lawsuit claims that these companies are infringing U.S. patent 6,314,574, which describes an “information distribution system.” The description is in nearly incomprehensible legalese – here’s the abstract:

“An information distribution system encodes a first set of digital data on a plurality of portable read-only storage devices. Additional information is stored in a database that is accessible by using a bi-directional channel. The first set of digital data contains a plurality of special displayable terms, a first non-displayable symbol, a plurality of linkage references, and a second non-displayable symbol. A user can select at least one special displayable term. The linking reference associated with the selected special displayable term is sent to the database via the bi-directional channel. The database uses the linking reference to search for information, and returns the resulting information to the user.”

If you’re a masochist with time on your hands, you can read the rest yourself at FreePatentsOnline. The translation would seem to be that the patent describes the use of hyperlinks to network-based resources from files or programs distributed on CD-ROM. Oddly, when you get down to the diagrams and the part of the patent that resembles English, the examples involve a satellite-based system for distributing newspaper content.

Making Connections — Disc Link turns out to be a subsidiary of Acacia Research, a company that buys up existing patents in order to make money licensing the technology. According to critics of the company, Acacia Research has developed a reputation as a “patent troll,” meaning that their approach to licensing revolves around suing companies who will agree to a licensing deal instead of suffering through a long and expensive court battle.

The inventor listed in the patent is a Dr. Hark Chan, an engineer and lawyer who has been granted a number of information technology patents, at least some of which have been purchased by Acacia Research. One of those patents – possibly this very same one – was used in a 2003 case surrounding updating a CD-ROM-based database over the Web. But Dr. Chan isn’t just an engineer who has sold patents to Acacia Research; according to the Web site of a company called TechSearch, he’s a member of their Board of Advisers. And although TechSearch describes itself as “a private company
primarily engaged in the business of purchasing, owning and licensing/enforcing patents,” if you click the Homepage link on the TechSearch Web site, you go to… Acacia Research’s Web site. It would seem that both Disc Link and TechSearch are essentially fronts for Acacia.

This isn’t even the first suit Disc Link has filed in relation to this patent. Back in December 2006, Disc Link sued Adobe, H&R Block, McAfee, Sage Software, and others for infringement of the same patent. Both Sage Software and McAfee settled with Disc Link in favor of contesting the patent in court, but other defendants are fighting the patent. An Ars Technica article quotes H&R Block as saying that Disc Link “sought to construe the ‘574 patent in an overbroad and impermissible way to cause an anti-competitive effect”
and that Disc Link “knew of the invalidity and/or unenforceability of the patent-at-issue when this suit was filed.”

Putting the Pieces Together — So all becomes clear. Although this patent was filed in November 1998, it’s a “continuation” of earlier filings that date back to April 1993; it will be up to the court to determine how those earlier filings affect the issue of prior art. The Info-Mac CD-ROMs are some of the earliest CD-ROMs that were widely distributed, and they contain software from the online Info-Mac Archive, some of which may have had programmatic or documentation links to the Internet. Clearly, the hope is that the Info-Mac CD-ROMs constitute prior art.

One potential problem is the software developers who submitted their work to Info-Mac intended it to be made available at the Info-Mac FTP site, and only contingently on the Info-Mac CD-ROMs produced by Pacific HiTech. However, developers were certainly aware that the Info-Mac CD-ROMs were being produced, because Pacific HiTech went to the trouble of contacting all authors of Info-Mac materials, explicitly requesting redistribution permission for each CD. Thus, it is possible that intent to put such Web-linked documentation on the CD-ROM could be proven.

We’ve finally touched base with a lawyer involved in the case, and after discussions with him, it appears that there may be three ways in which this spurious patent can be attacked with prior art, relating to the three basic aspects of the patent: CD-ROMs, hyperlinks, and a network.

  • Finding a CD-ROM from that time period that provides hyperlinks to a networked resource is proving a bit difficult, in part because it was nearly 15 years ago, and CD-ROMs weren’t all that common back then. But is a CD-ROM necessary? What, conceptually speaking, is the difference between a CD-ROM and a read-only floppy disk? Those were common back in the early 1990s, and finding one with hyperlinks on it might be significantly easier.
  • The question of what is meant by a hyperlink would also seem relevant. There were plenty of network-based games in those days, and tons of network-enabled databases. Would a FileMaker database that could communicate with a server over a network constitute prior art? What about the FTP bookmarks that shipped with the earliest FTP programs like Fetch from Jim Matthews and, even earlier, the Hypercard-based HyperFTP that was written by Cornell’s Doug Hornig?
  • Similarly, what counts as a networked resource? Early online services like CompuServe and AppleLink had graphical front ends that ran on personal computers and provided links to resources available only online. Apple even had a bug reporting program of some sort that integrated with AppleLink, and Apple Developer Relations shipped CDs to all Apple developers regularly during this time.

If you’d like to participate in invalidating this patent with prior art, the holy grail is a CD-ROM that was distributed before April 1993 containing an application with links to the Internet or another network. The links should consist of a visible portion (like the text of a link in HTML or a menu item) and an invisible portion (such as the hidden HREF tag in HTML, or the underlying code for a Go to Web Site menu item in a program). Apparently, it’s somewhat better if the application is meant to be copied to the hard disk instead of being run from the CD. If you have such a beast, let me know and I’ll make the appropriate introductions.

There is one other possible defense. In a very recent Supreme Court ruling in another case the Court said, “Granting patent protection to advances that would occur in the ordinary course without real innovation retards progress and may, for patents combining previously known elements, deprive prior inventions of their value or utility.” That’s a significant point, since many of today’s software and business model patents feel wrong because they encapsulate ideas that were in wide dissemination. Disc Link’s claim that it “invented” the concept of hyperlinks on CD-ROM certainly doesn’t deserve any protection as a unique invention – it’s merely a lumping together of
commonplace ideas and technologies of the time. Heck, thanks to my status as the author of “Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh” around that time, I once made a presentation to the publishers of all the Macmillan imprints proposing a CD-ROM-based visual interface to the most interesting Internet resources.

No matter what, it will be fascinating to follow this court case as all parties attempt to pull meaning from the nearly incomprehensible patent and the claims made by Disc Link.

Adam Engst No comments

Take Control News/07-May-07

Learn Smart Ways to Buy Cheap Airline Tickets — If you’re like us, nearly every airplane trip involves hours spent searching the Web to find a good deal, only to end up paying more than you wanted or feeling that the money you saved wasn’t worth the time and aggravation. To avoid this problem next time, check out the updated version of Sam Sellers’s “Take Control of Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket,” a 148-page ebook that helps you efficiently navigate the maze of travel-related sites in order to find the best deal without wasting a lot of time.

We just released version 1.1 of the ebook, which now includes detailed information on when and how to use Farecast to book U.S. domestic flights. Farecast, though still in beta, was rated by Popular Science as being among the best of what’s new in 2006, and the site received similar accolades from, PC World, Time Magazine, and Business Week. The ebook covers international and domestic flights originating in the United States.

Updates are free for current owners of the ebook; click the Check for Updates button on the first page of the ebook to access the free update.

TidBITS Staff No comments

Hot Topics in TidBITS Talk/07-May-07

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Moving Apple Mail Folder — A reader’s Mac still thinks the Mail folder is in the same place after a move, so how do you point it in the right direction? (3 messages)

APPLE-SA-2007-05-01 QuickTime 7.1.6 — The latest QuickTime update reveals an installation bug in Windows – dating back to Windows 95. (4 messages)

Jobs posts about Apple’s “green” credentials — Readers react to last week’s open letter from Steve Jobs, including discussions of computer equipment recycling and LED-based lighting systems. (15 messages)

Quicken 2004 “Sunsets” — As of 30-Apr-07, Quicken 2004 apparently won’t perform online transactions, a limitation built into the software. Is it a reasonable step to focus support on recent software, an annoying way to force upgrades, or both? (5 messages)

Filtering in Eudora based on Mac OS X Address Book Group — The latest version of Eudora can work with addresses from Address Book, but a reader is having trouble using the group features. (3 messages)

Accessing Financial Web Sites on a Public Connection — Is Walt Mossberg being paranoid when he recommends not accessing some Web sites on public networks? Once again, we learn that paranoia is all relative. (4 messages)