Subject: Re: New member intro and questions
From: Lynn Winebarger <>
Date: Mon, 6 Dec 1999 07:18:05 -0500 (EST)

On Mon, 6 Dec 1999, Crispin Cowan wrote:

> Lynn Winebarger wrote:
> >    I'm not a particularly big fan of taking open and public research and
> > then closing it up.  I want a different avenue, one that both allows some
> > measure of profit and allows the research to benefit everyone.  Perhaps
> > impossible, but still worth trying to find a solution.
> So now you're proposing yet another astonishing feat: making enough money to survive
> without proprietary intellectual property, when your primary business is intellectual
> property.  Yes, this is what Red Hat is achieving, but it's a fairly astonishing and
> novel feat.
   Maybe my expression above is misleading.  When I say "benefit
everyone", I don't mean that there will be no proprietary interest in it.
What I mean is that that interest won't be in the form of trade secrets.
I have no ethical problems with licensing software patents to proprietary 
software vendors and then plowing those revenues back into free software
research and development.  And actually, I think the primary business
would be based on expertise and the actual development. (not to mention
the potential for embedded software doing the kinds of things I talked
about below).

> I also suspect that the "all free software" business model is a big-money game:  it
> a service industry, and service works best when scaled.  Thus the one with the biggest
> pool of capital wins in the competative service business.  It is also fundamentally
> incompatible with your business model of developing new algorithms.  If what you do
> develop new algorithms, then you must license them in some form.  It is *far* too
> for your competitors to adopt your algorithms and incorporate them into their greater
> software systems without paying you a dime.
   On the contrary, I think free software is exactly the path to enable
small players on an even playing field.  It's true they probably won't be
serving the vast consumer market, but that's not the only market

> Playing the "open source" card won't help you here, either.  Imagine Red Hat adopting
> your algorithms.  Even if they completely GPL all the code that uses your algorithms,
> why should a customer buy anything from you, if they can get superior integrated
> software and services from Red Hat than from your tiny company?
   Actually, I would think Red Hat would be our customer, if we produce
useful products.  And there remains the question of whether the customers
we would be aiming for would get superior services from RedHat - our
services would be in the form of concentrated and in-depth expertise.
Even if RedHat weren't our customer, and had a research center competing
in the same area as we were, what about other smaller free software

> As a result, you'd be stuck providing customization services to particular customers,
> like the Cygnus business model.  But even here you're in trouble:  Red Hat now owns
> Cygnus, so they can probably provide customization better than you can.
   That depends on what they're customizing.  Cygnus' primary skill set
(at least as they advertise it) lies in development tools - not a lowbrow
skill, but not the same as the skills necessary for developing
mathematically intensive algorithms (eg codecs).  Not only do I think
the number of developers able to work out these kinds of algorithms are
scarce, but I think they will remain so, just because of the difficulty of
the subject.  

> > What I'm
> > interested in is using the current and future research in statistical
> > modelling/harmonic analysis (which can be looked at as finding algebraic
> > structure in infinite data and how to usably look at only finite portions
> > of it) to bear in problems such as codecs and pattern recognition
> > (including speech and video) - which is already being done, but finding
> > new codecs requires a certain amount of mathematical research; developing
> > methods for cleanly separating different kinds of information from a
> > single signal
> This actually sounds like a *very* active area of investigation.  Look to the
> literature in Multimedia research, such as the IEEE Symposium on Multimedia, the
> ACM Multimedia Symposium, and the NOSSDAV Workshop (Network & Operating System Support
> for Digital Audio and Video).  Newer & better forms of audio & video digital encoding
> compression are being heavily investigated by well-funded organizations.
   Oh yes, it's a very active area.  The question is not that it's active,
but at what level it's active.  What's the percentage of those researchers
that are working on applying current results from math vs. those
developing new mathematical models?  I'd wager it's fairly small; the real
area for productive research is in pretty abstract harmonic analysis (the
subject that's grown out of Fourier analysis over the centuries) and
developing new algebraic structures.  My contention is that those who
understand the underlying theory are going to be able to get better
results than those just hacking away at it (that conviction is why I
decided to study math first).  Not only that, but be able to see how to
take results and apply them to a wide array of problems.  
   Now, before I denigrate these folks anymore, I should go back and
actually get some results of my own.  I'm just trying to explain where I
think real advances come from, not to claim that I'm the deliverer fo such

> Actually, this does bring us back to your concern about open source.  A major problem
> in this area is the conflict between intellectual property and network standards.
> happens when someone owns a patent on an algorithm critical to a network standard?
> instance, the popular MP3 audio format is actually an encoding of an audio compression
> method that uses statistical sampling of the audio signal so as to preserve only those
> portions of the signal that humans are sensitive to.  The owner of the patent has
> use of the patent freely available for *decoders*, but not *encoders*.  This is a
> problem, because now one *cannot* produce a network encoder without paying license
> fees, making open source encoders effectively illegal.
   We still haven't seen this contested in court by a free software
developer.  Until we do, I'll reserve judgement on whether or not free MP3
encoders are illegal or not.

> >    I don't think this is quite accurate.  It's more about control.
> You get maximum control in academia.  Period.  There is no contest.  In private
> industry, whoever paid for the work wants to own the intellectual property.  In
> academia, you can get grants to persue pure research, and then the investigator co-owns
> the intellectual property with the academic institute.  Quite often, the institute
> share ownership with the investigator under quite generous terms.  This varies by
> institute, so choose your school carefully.
    If I get a job at a McDonald's, and do the research in my spare time,
then I have complete control over my work.  I'd prefer to find a more
optimal solution however.  For now, it's being a grad student.  Hopefully
by the time I'm ready to leave I'll have some IP to work with.

> Not that I know of.  This is just stuff that I learned in going from grad student
> postdoc -> faculty -> entrepreneur.
   It is kind of surprising to see it happen in fields like math or CS,
where the fiscal requirements for useful research are much lower than for,
say, chemistry or high energy physics.  
   Following John Shapiro's post about EROS, I'm getting a suspicious
feeling you're throwing things at me that've been gnawing on you for a
while now.  

> So I think you have to choose:
>    * Do you want to break ground in your research field, using conventional means
>      as academic or corporate research institutes?  Really, it doesn't suck that much
>      :-)
>    * Or do you want to break ground in research business models?  In which case, you
>      will necessarily be persuing a conservative research agenda to reduce your risk
>      factors from astronomical to merely difficult.
     * Make a living at McDonald's while spending my evenings and weekends
       at a well-stocked university library and grinding out math.

   I could live with the last, but I think it would be a sub-optimal way
for me to spend the majority of my time.