Apr 6, 2021

Axios Login

I have a few more details on Doug Redding, the winner of this year's Axios Login women's hoops bracket challenge. Redding, who graduated in Stanford's class of 1976, is a retired startup executive/investor and was briefly CFO of DraftKings, perhaps explaining his bracket-picking prowess. Congrats to Doug — an Axios hat is on its way to celebrate your victory.

Today's edition is 1,312 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: What Google's Supreme Court win means for tech

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Monday's Supreme Court ruling in favor of Google over Oracle left much of the software industry feeling like they'd dodged a bullet, Axios' Ashley Gold and I report.

Why it matters: By resolving an 11-year-old dispute over rights to program code in favor of Google, the Supreme Court is allowing tech companies to largely continue with their practice of building on past software advances in creation of new technology.

Driving the news: The court ruled 6-2 Monday that Google's use of a portion of Java programming code owned by Oracle was allowable under the rules of fair use.

The big picture: Software companies have always invented new products by building on others' work — sometimes aggressively enough to evoke cries of "thief!"

  • Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system was a rewrite of a competitor's very similar system. Apple expanded on ideas from Xerox to create the Macintosh. Windows, in turn, drew heavily on approaches used by the Mac.

Between the lines: The dispute centered on Google's reuse of the application programming interface (API) for the popular programming language Java.

  • APIs are essentially directions for different pieces and kinds of software to talk directly to each other.
  • By incorporating Java's API in the Android smartphone operating system, Google made it possible for legions of Java experts to write Android apps.

The long legal battle centered on whether an API is copyrightable.

  • Lower courts divided on that question, and the Supreme Court punted on it.
  • Since Google's use of Java was covered under fair use, the justices ruled, they didn't have to make a final call on whether you can copyright an API.

What they're saying: "A ruling in the other direction would have been a tectonic shift in the way we've all dealt with software," Google senior vice president of global affairs Kent Walker told Axios, adding that the decision will help enable the next competitor to Google, too.

  • "From a policy standpoint, there is some logic to not making software developers reinvent the wheel, and spend money to create identical functionality using different forms of expression," said Bill Frankel, chair of Brinks Gilson & Lione's copyright group.

The intrigue: Oracle has agitated for regulatory action against Google for years, funding anti-big tech groups, lobbying states and members of Congress directly and taking shots at Google's business practices.

What's next: Oracle continues to support strong regulatory action on privacy, content moderation and antitrust targeting Google and other large tech companies, Ken Glueck, the company's vice president, told Axios.

  • "The U.S. software industry is going to be weaker as a result ... I will guarantee you — it may not be me, but the software industry is going to go to Congress and reverse this decision," he said.

The other side: "I would say the decision supports the use of Android and others in free and open source ways that benefit competition and consumers," said Walker.

2. Oracle-Google was a software fight for the ages

The epic legal fight between Oracle and Google took place in the technical trenches, but it captured Silicon Valley's imagination because it dramatized deep tensions that the software industry has never resolved, Axios' Scott Rosenberg writes.

The big picture: A software program is a machine that's written. Because of that, software has always held a precarious position within the legal system.

  • Sometimes it seems to fall under the copyright rules that govern creative work.
  • Sometimes it seems better suited for the patent system that covers inventions.
  • Sometimes it doesn't seem to fit any legal regime at all.

Flashback: Before the 1970s, nearly all software was custom-made for specific systems and often shared for free.

  • The rise of personal computing brought an explosion of small startups selling software in shrink-wrapped physical packages and controlling it with licenses. Some of these companies — Microsoft first and foremost — became wealthy giants in the process.
  • But the culture of software sharing carried on at universities. In the '90s, the web enabled new kinds of large-scale collaboration under the banner of open source, which came with its own licenses focusing on enabling reuse rather than restraining it.
  • Open-source code and tools in the hands of programmers at companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook made possible much of today's software wealth in an industry that's increasingly built around selling services or ads instead of licenses.

Be smart: Computer programs don't break neatly into two simple categories like "open" and "closed" or "free" and "proprietary." They fall along a spectrum, and most of the software we use lands somewhere in the middle.

  • Most products depend on open-source systems and code — like the internet itself — for some aspects of their functioning. Then they try to provide extra value and maybe make some money by adding cool new ideas at the edges.

The programming language at the center of the Oracle-Google fight, Java, is a perfect example.

  • It was conceived at Sun Microsystems in the '90s as a "write once, run anywhere" platform that would relieve programmers of the labor of rewriting programs for different systems.
  • Sun kept the rights to Java's code but gave it away free. In the late 2000s, it released the whole thing under open source license.
  • Then Oracle bought up Sun, and soon after launched its crusade against Google.

The complexity of this spectrum is probably what led the Supreme Court justices away from a definitive ruling on API copyrights that could upset the industry's equilibrium.

The bottom line: As Walter Isaacson once put it, "Innovation is most vibrant in the realms where open-source systems compete with proprietary ones."

3. LG didn't sell a lot of phones, but it did innovate

LG's 2013 G Flex was among the first phones with a flexible display. Photo: LG

In a world where smartphones have become increasingly homogeneous, Korea's LG was notable for being willing to take risks, even in its flagship models.

Why it matters: LG's exit from the smartphone business doesn't put a lot of market share up for grabs, but the firm's penchant for trying new things will be missed.

Driving the news: LG said Sunday it would exit the smartphone market globally.

The big picture: LG was an innovator in phone designs, especially in the final days before the iPhone. Well before Apple had entered the market, the LG Prada offered an all-touch phone with a capacitive screen.

  • Its final major flagship, the LG Wing, was also a gamble, combining two screens in an odd, swivel design.
  • In between, LG was among the first to use a flexible display, with 2013's LG G Flex. Although the screen was flexible, other components, like batteries, remained unbendable — leaving an end product that, while curved, was pretty darn rigid, as I wrote at the time.
  • In 2016, LG made its G5 flagship customizable, so that the base phone hardware could be upgraded with add-ons like improved cameras and speakers. It abandoned its approach a year later, leaving customers and partners feeling burned.

The bottom line: While the company had a penchant for novelty, its product roadmap was too often a zig-zag without a clear destination.

What's next: What's next: LG still sells components including displays and batteries. That means another company could create the rollable-screen phone display.

4. Clubhouse teams with Stripe on payments feature

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Clubhouse, the audio chat app, is rolling out the ability to send payments directly to other users, partnering with digital payment company Stripe to facilitate the feature, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Why it matters: Clubhouse has touted plans to help conversation hosts generate revenue on the app. Hosts receiving money will get to keep the entire amount for now.

Details: The company says that all users will be able to send money, but only a small number will be able to receive payments while it's still testing the feature.

Between the lines: Clubhouse will eventually have to generate revenue of its own, and has said in the past that it doesn't want to rely on ads.

5. Take note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • The San Francisco Examiner named Carly Schwartz as editor-in-chief. Schwartz was at Google, where she launched and ran an internal publication called Google Insider.

ICYMI

  • Uber may discontinue a feature that let drivers have more say over which rides they choose, saying it is hurting the overall business and leaving some customers stranded. (SF Chronicle)
6. After you Login

This stunning photo definitely offers a birds' eye view, just not in the traditional sense of the phrase.