by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume VI, No. VI
For the Week of February 11, 2001

This Week's Clue: FPGA

This Week's Clue: FPGA

SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)

SP (Shameless Promotion)

Are Keywords Extortion? 

Dominoes Start to Fall

Dispatches From the Copyright Wars

Clued-in, Clueless

FPGA stands for Field Programmable Gate Array . It's one of those little miracles of chip technology that leads to all sorts of interesting Clues to the future, once you understand it.

You can learn the basics of these chips (in layman's language) here or you can go to the field's general conference later this month if you want to be an FPGA head. 

Or you can simply read and understand this paragraph. FPGAs are shortcuts. They let a designer develop a prototype product in just a few minutes, putting the software that defines a new machine onto a chip. Thanks to Moore's Law, this can now be a very fast, very low-power chip. 

FPGAs are important right now because ubiquitous broadband demands a new way of looking at devices that connect with it. Today's Web is tied to wires, so the user interface of TVs (for output) and keyboards (for input) makes sense. But once you stand up your lap disappears, and thus conventional laptops become unwieldy.

The compromise has been the PDA. You hold it in one hand and work it in the other. If you have decent penmanship, you can take a few notes with it, and tap out commands to access internal databases. (My dysgraphia (bad handwriting) means I still have to sit down and connect the keyboard.) But the small size means today's PDA is limited in terms of its screen and its storage. (Putting Windows on it just adds cost without adding real functionality, because Windows is tied to the wired world.) 

More important, the wireless capability of the modern PDA is horrid. This is partly due to the limited speed and compatibility of licensed wireless networks.

But ubiquitous broadband, using schemes like UltraWideBand, HomeRF  and 802.11, changes the game. Once you find a "hot-spot," you're as in as anyone driving a desk. While licensed frequency owners may fight these systems, they're going to be beaten as other nations (such as Mexico) which have neither wired nor wireless incumbents build these networks and leapfrog us. (The Clue here: Market competition will force political capitulation.)

Even with all this, however, the device problem remains. It's primarily a usability problem. In the past the market has responded by throwing devices at users until they bit on one that worked. This can take a lot of time, and waste a lot of money. During the early 1990s this back-and-forth stalled the growth of mobile computing, because the early pen-based models were crotchety from a usability standpoint, and it took a half-decade for designers and the market to hit upon the Palm .

FPGAs let this kind of market development take place virtually in Internet Time. Clued-in entrepreneurs like Jeff Hawkins are on the hunt for what will replace the PDA (and don't mind admitting it)

There are three distinct problems to be solved along the way toward wireless broadband, and plenty of folks in the hunt to solve all of them:

Thanks to chips like FPGAs solutions to all these problems (even the last) can be engineered in Internet Time, tested in Internet Time, and delivered in Internet Time. That clock is ticking as you're reading this, so finish your Clue and get back to work. 
SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

You may have noticed that I've increased my coverage of 802.11 and wireless broadband technology lately. It's the coming thing. The markets for e-commerce, e-advertising and e-content won't boom again until we get massive acceptance of broadband. Wireless technologies offer the promise of cheap, universal (indoors and outdoor) broadband, with huge implications for every technology market. So you'll see more of this from me in the future - a lot more.

It's here! The Print on Demand version of "Living on the Internet" is available for purchase at BookSurge.Com , for $29.99. And you can get the PDF version for just $7.99 (such a deal). The December update to the book is out now, and it's easy to get on the list via e-mail

This month I opened a new market for my articles with Ray Fix of Wildwood Marketing. The first one appeared here . More exciting deals are on the way. You can join the A-Clue.Com discussion at I-Strategy , our shared e-mail digest produced with Adventive.Com. You can also read me at ClickZ , BtoB , and Boardwatch . I'm also on the mast-head at Bottom Line Personal , a great print newsletter.

Remember that it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...

Shameless Promotion

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Through I-Legions, Rob will create a totally turnkey operation that will turn your site into a branded community, and your users into your evangelists.

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Takes on the News

Are Keywords Extortion?

Are outfits like Overture, which sell their search results to the highest bidder, actually extortionists?

That's the view of Allen Baden , a litigation partner for Kenyon & Kenyon in San Jose. He's seeking to prove the point with a suit on behalf of Mark Nutritionals, which makes the diet supplement called "Body Solutions."

The claim is simple. Input the search term "Body Solutions" at a pay-for-play search engine site and you'll get one of Body Solutions' competitors. Baden calls this "extortion," (although he wisely let Mark Nutritional's in-house lawyer make the charge .)

This is far from the first suit involving search. Estee Lauder filed in 1999 . So did Playboy . The Playboy suits followed success in going after users of "meta-tags." . But a judge disagreed with Playboy , saying the word "playmate" was generic , and Estee Lauder settled , with the defendant agreeing to change their meta-tags.

The new case is more straightforward - the sale of a trademarked term as a keyword on a site that sells keywords. Body Solutions is demanding $440 million in damages against all the keyword sales outfits with money -- AltaVista, Overture, FindWhat and Kanoodle. While "experts" claim Overture and others could keep selling generic names if they lost, the fact is a loss would destroy this part of the industry.

The plaintiffs are relying on a preliminary order in Nissan Motors vs. Nissan Computer , a domain name case, in which the judge appeared to support the idea of trademark rights to keywords. So far, however, investors are siding with Overture , which is trading near its 52-week high .

Dominoes Start to Fall

MSNBC has figured out something this column revealed long ago, namely that wires are becoming a liability rather than an asset .

Chris Byron concentrated his attack on the Worldcom balance sheet, a roll-up based on a combination of small long-distance companies that wound up eating MCI. The debt involved in the roll-up can't be repaid, he says, and some of the deals involved convertible securities, where debt becomes equity. The profits can't repay the bondholders, and thus the common stock is worthless.

Worldcom's problems are bigger than that. Its ads are lies, for one thing. Just because you have a big IP backbone doesn't mean you are the "only" choice for software or hosting, and the vast majority of buyers know this. The big money is in serving smaller customers (who might buy lies) but even AT&T has figured out that's a losing game because it can't scale .

The Worldcom marketing budget has been regularly slashed, anyway, as has development, because this was always Bernard Ebbers' financing story. It was about gaining a big hunk of the long distance oligopoly and then squeezing out high prices as costs ran down.

The real problem is this. Moore's Law won't wait for depreciation schedules. Assets bought with the expectation they would last 30 years are being rendered worthless by new technology. Ebbers thought he was building a monopoly - he was building Unisys.

There is fiber, here, that will be worth protecting. Worldcom dominates the Internet backbone , and its failure could be catastrophic. Seeing it go into foreign hands - as Global Crossing did - would be irresponsible. Thus the question we should ask is who will step in, and at what price?

Dispatches From the Copyright Wars

Music companies continue to lose in the market what they're winning in the courts, the right to control how (and for what price) people listen to music. Ultimately the market (not the courts) will decide the winner here, but the music companies don't know this.

Ads for both PCs and (now) broadband services routinely mention music downloads as a key purchase driver. But a Dutch court forced Kazaa (makers of the leading software for PC music downloads) to briefly take its product off-line. (The software came back online when the company was sold, and thus the venue for a suit changed, to an Australian .)

The original headline was misleading - Kazaa doesn't know who its users are and thus can't halt their use of the software - but the international precedent was set. (Combine that with Norway's jailing of DeCSS-author Jan Johansen and you have a neat one-two legal punch).

But all is not golden for the record companies. Napster attorneys found out about their spotty record on copyrights and basically halted the suit against them at the goal line . If you're colluding and stealing copyrights, the law will come down on you , and the labels' record on this question shows they may not have the right to claim what they own as theirs.

Your Clue: The fat lady hasn't sung on the copyright wars.

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Rep. Rick Boucher for this well-reasoned attack on the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Clueless are the hackers who forced small ISP CloudNine to shut down. (Unless they were paid by an incumbent telephone company, in which case we have a whole 'nother story.)

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