Welcome to This Week in Modern Software, or TWiMS, our weekly analysis of the most interesting and important news, stories, and events in the world of modern software and analytics.
This week, from a huge court win that may have saved the API economy to pressuring phone makers and carriers to update Android more often, it’s (almost) all about Google!
TWiMS Top Story:
Google Beats Oracle—Android Makes ‘Fair Use’ of Java APIs —Ars Technica
What it’s about: A jury in a federal district court determined that Google’s use of 37 Java APIs in Android constituted fair use, ending the latest chapter in the six-year Google v. Oracle case that threatened to upend a huge part of how the software industry works. Oracle acquired Java when it bought Sun Microsystems back in 2010. Later that year, Oracle sued Google, claiming that Google infringed patents and copyrights with its use of Java in Android. Google had already won the patent battle, but the copyright fight—at the heart of which loomed the question “Are APIs copyrightable?”—dragged on. A federal appeals court ruled in 2014 that APIs can indeed be copyrighted, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2015, sending the fair-use question back to the lower courts. Fast-forward to Thursday’s verdict, which gives both Google and software developers at large an enormous victory, tamping down (but not eliminating) fears that the reasonable use of APIs in programming carries significant legal risks.
Why you should care: It’s a win for Google, sure—Oracle was seeking $9 billion in damages. But as IDC analyst Al Hilwa told Bloomberg, “a lot of people have sort of breathed a sigh of relief” as a result of the jury’s verdict. As many observers have noted, a ruling in Oracle’s favor might have jeopardized one of the staples of modern software development, potentially crippling the so-called API economy. This is certainly a pro-developer ruling, but it comes with some reasons to temper the celebrations. First, Oracle’s general counsel indicated in a statement that the company would pursue appeal options, so it’s possible Google v. Oracle still ain’t over. Moreover, the 2014 federal appeals court ruling that APIs were indeed copyrightable still stands. This week’s verdict merely determined that Google’s use of Java APIs in Android constituted fair use under copyright law. Santa Clara University School of Law professor Tyler Ochoa tells Bloomberg that the copyright ruling could still scare smaller companies that don’t have Google’s resources to defend lawsuits. But Ochoa and others also point out that Thursday’s ruling should reassure companies and developers that their reasonable use of APIs will stand up to litigation, and may deter lawsuits in the first place.
- Google Doesn’t Owe Oracle a Cent for Using Java in Android, Jury Finds—WIRED
- Jury Finds Google’s Implementation of Java in Android Was Fair Use—TechCrunch
- Google Beats Oracle in $9 Billion Android Trial—Reuters
- How Google’s Big Court Win Just Made History—BGR
- Google Beats Oracle on Copyright, Defeating $9 Billion Claim—Bloomberg
- Google Cleared of Infringement in Oracle Lawsuit Over Java—Computerworld
What it’s about: Pressured by ongoing changes in the technology industry, Hewlett Packard Enterprise continued to reinvent its massive business, this week announcing it would spin off its enterprise services unit and merge it with Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC). The deal will create a new IT services giant with $26 billion in annual sales. The stock market cheered the news, which was revealed with HPE’s first quarterly earnings report. The “spin-merger” is HP’s latest turnaround transaction under CEO Meg Whitman. In 2015, the company effectively split into two, creating what is now called HPE by jettisoning its PC and peripherals business into a wholly separate company. Computerworld’s Blair Hanley Frank writes, “Since then, HPE has positioned itself as a ‘transformation’ partner for large businesses, promising to help them adapt to emerging technologies like big data analytics, mobility, and the cloud.”
Why you should care: Software changes everything, and even a longstanding tech bellwether like Hewlett Packard must evolve and adapt. Specifically, the new-new HPE, now free of its hardware and consulting units, is better positioned for the sea change that cloud computing has wrought on enterprise IT. Gartner analyst Tom Bittman, for one, tells USA TODAY that the services spin-merger indicates HPE will concentrate more on helping enterprise customers evolve with cloud-based infrastructure and services. But he wonders aloud in Computerworld whether getting rid of HPE’s services unit is the right move: “Without a strong services business, how do you be a partner in strategic transformation?” This is a “time will tell” situation for HPE, but in the meantime the deal is another demonstration of how cloud computing is fundamentally reshaping the tech world.
- HP Enterprise to Spin Off, Merge Services Business—The Wall Street Journal (Paywall)
- HPE Spins Out Enterprise Services Business Into CSC—The Register
- HPE to Spin Out Its Huge Services Business, Merge It With CSC—Computerworld
- Is HPE Done? CSC Deal Another Nail in the Coffin—IT Business Edge
- What the HPE and CSC Deal Really Means—24/7 Wall Street
What it’s about: It’s official, sort of: Twitter announced this week that it would modify its signature 140-character limits on tweets. It’s not quite as drastic as the long-running rumors suggested—Twitter’s not getting rid of the character limit, or even increasing it, per se. Rather, the social site will no longer count certain elements of a tweet toward the cap, including @names and photos (and other media attachments), thus freeing up more space for your internet wisdom and wit. Twitter will also enable retweeting and quote-tweeting on your own tweets (narcissists, rejoice!), and effectively get rid of the need to use the “.@name” convention for broadcasting tweets that begin with a username. The changes “will be available over the coming months,” Twitter said, in part so that developers using the Twitter API have time to ensure their apps don’t break as the new changes roll out.
Why you should care: In a sense, this shouldn’t really be headline news. But what Twitter actually did isn’t as important as why it did it. As has been well documented in the press, Twitter has struggled to impress in both audience and financial terms as a public company, especially when compared (perhaps unfairly) to Facebook. In the software world, there’s often a gap between “internet phenomenon” and “successful business.” Twitter might be integral to the Digital Age’s cultural fabric, but that hasn’t yet turned into results that please its investors. To be both, it has to balance the things that made it great while also remaining open to bold changes that might hold the key to its future. That’s never easy, especially when—as demonstrated in the news out of HPE and Microsoft this week—those choices have the potential to alter a company’s very identity.
- Coming Soon: Express Even More in 140 Characters—Twitter Blog
- Twitter’s New Tweaks Make the 140-Character Count Less Limiting—Fast Company
- Twitter Moves Away From 140 Characters, Ditches Confusing and Restrictive Rules—TechCrunch
- Why Is Twitter Still So Hard to Use?—Barron’s (Paywall)
- A Brief History of Twitter’s 140-Character Limit—Fast Company
What it’s about: Could Apple face a similar fate to RIM, the once-dominant smartphone maker that the iPhone effectively put out of business? That’s the operating premise of a widely discussed blog post from Marco Arment, the influential former lead developer for Tumblr and creator of Instapaper. Arment isn’t saying that will happen, but if the big bets that Google, Facebook, and Amazon are placing on AI, chatbots, natural language processing, and related areas pay off, they could change how we use our smartphones and what we use them for. And that’s exactly what the launch of the iPhone did to the BlackBerry.
Why you should care: BlackBerry didn’t crater because RIM started making crummy devices or grossly mismanaging its business. Rather, as Arment points out, the iPhone completely changed what we use smartphones for. Apple’s still very good at what it does—but so was RIM when the iPhone hit the market. And that may not be enough when the game changes: “Where Apple suffers is big-data services and AI, such as search, relevance, classification, and complex natural-language queries. Apple can do rudimentary versions of all of those, but their competitors—again, especially Google—are far ahead of them, and the gap is only widening,” Arment writes. “If Google is wrong, and computing continues to be defined by a tightly controlled grid of siloed apps that you poke a thousand times a day on a smooth rectangle of manufacturing excellence, Apple is fine…. But if Google is right, that’s a big problem for Apple.”
What it’s about: Remember that “tightly controlled grid of siloed apps” that Arment describes above? Google’s Android has long struggled to match Apple’s level of control, even in basic things like which version of the operating system is used. While 84% of iOS devices already run the latest version (iOS 9) according to Apple, as of May 2, Google reported that just 7.5% of Android devices are running Android 6.0 (aka, “Marshmallow”), which came out in October 2015. And it gets worse: 19.4% of devices run Android 5.1, 16.2% run 5.0, 32.5% run 4.0 … you get the idea. Bloomberg this week reports that Google is finally fed up, and will step up pressure on its hardware partners and wireless carriers to push updates to devices faster.
Why you should care: OS “fragmentation” produces a variety of security concerns and other issues, but it’s especially painful for developers, who have to worry their apps will run well across all versions Android. That problem helped make iOS the platform of choice for many mobile developers, in spite of Android’s large and growing advantage in overall user base. Devs should be rooting for Google’s efforts to succeed, and perhaps wondering what took the company so long. Google is taking a variety of approaches here, Bloomberg reports, including bypassing wireless updates altogether by releasing new features—such as the Allo chatbot that debuted at Google I/O last week—as standalone apps rather than baked into Android. But here’s one tactic that frustrated devs might like the most: Sources told Bloomberg that Google has ranked Android phone makers on how current their devices are in terms of OS and security updates, and it is considering making that list public to shame the slowpokes and steer consumers to the high-performers.
- Dashboards—Android Developers
To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf—The New York Times
What it’s about: J. Bradford Hipps’ Sunday Review op-ed in The New York Times doesn’t start out so well for English and philosophy majors: “The humanities are kaput. Sorry, liberal arts cap-and-gowners. You blew it. In a software-run world, what’s wanted are more engineers.” That stings, but it’s a ruse: Hipps actually offers a compelling rebuttal to the STEM-above-all-else education mindset. “Software powers the world, ergo, the only rational education is one built on STEM,” as Hipps describes the thinking. “As a liberal-arts major who went on to a career in software, I can only scratch my head.” Indeed, drawing from his own professional experience, Hipps crafts a convincing argument that great software needs more humanities, not less, and that downgrading the liberal arts in favor of STEM in higher education, an approach favored by influencers like Vinod Khosla, is actually dangerous for the future of technology innovation.
Why you should care: There are big downsides to a software monoculture. Modern software is about creativity, innovation, and solving complex problems: “As a practice, software development is far more creative than algorithmic,” Hipps notes. “The developer stands before her source code editor in the same way the author confronts the blank page. There’s an idea for what is to be created, and the (daunting) knowledge that there are a billion possible ways to go about it.” Software’s not just about code, just as data science is not just about numbers, which is why we might want to ask someone other than an engineer how to build a chatbot. Hipps counters Khosla’s perspective with the words of Steve Jobs: “Technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” Required reading for aspiring developers, hiring managers, engineering leads, and, frankly, anyone in the technology or education sectors. And perhaps a source of hope to humanities majors.
- How to Make Chatbots That Are Actually Worth Talking To—Fast Company Co.Create
- Why Data Science at Change.org Is Not Always a Numbers Game—The Signal
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