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IBM sues Zillow over patents: Are they trolling, or should Zillow chill?

(TECHNOLOGY) Zillow has snatched up quite a few patents in the last couple years; IBM says they’ve had enough, and decides to sue. Are they right to?

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IBM sues Zillow

In a classic case of the big baddie against the little guy, two unlikely contenders–IBM and Zillow, respectively–duke it out over a patent. Their scuffle represents a much larger issue that, despite efforts by the Obama administration, still plagues businesses countrywide to this day.

Patent trolling is a practice we’ve discussed a few times on this platform, but here’s a quick refresh: Large companies, such as IBM, often find it more cost-effective to register for patents that they don’t use and then sue smaller companies for infringing on their patents rather than simply using the patents to develop.

While IBM is quick to justify its lawsuits in cases such as these, the fact that there are so many cases to begin with seems indicative of an overarching problem. IBM’s net worth–a cool $115 billion–absolutely crushes Zillow’s comparatively paltry $7 billion net worth; looking at this situation as anything other than bullying is disingenuous at best.

The problem is, IBM doesn’t see the situation that way.

According to GeekWire, IBM’s lawsuit alleges that one of IBM’s patents–software and computing attributes that “analyze the quality and desirability of a geographic area and [use] list-based searches that let users see the results on a map that fits within their screen”–precedes Zillow’s similar features, thus constituting patent infringement. As such, IBM finds itself positioned to strike.

IBM asks for two major concessions: that Zillow pay royalties based on the “billions” they have generated in revenue as a result of their search mechanics (a sketchy claim at best), and that Zillow be banned from using services that resemble the referenced patents in the future.

From a company that had over 110,000 patents registered to its name in the last 20 years, this is a bit rich–especially given that Zillow isn’t exactly encroaching on IBM’s clientele.

No one’s here to sing Zillow’s praises by any means. Zillow has proved that they aren’t against registering multiple patents; in the last 10 years, Zillow has logged 17 patents, one of which appears to reference searching within a site-embedded engine that takes into account multiple criteria. Sound familiar? It should–sites all over, from family-friendly options to decidedly NSFW ones, all utilize a similar feature.

So, in this case of bullies bullying each other, what’s the underlying problem?

Unfortunately, IBM’s example sets an uncomfortable precedent for patent trolling going forward. While the Obama administration’s patent reform addressed the issues of “overly broad patents” and required companies to provide specific details about the patents for which they apply, it appears that IBM’s lawsuit does little to skirt this legislation, instead plowing fully through it to make a point.

In other words, because of IBM’s monetary endowment, they essentially get to do as they please–and even a business as highly valued as Zillow can do little to stop their momentum.

Make no mistake: IBM is engaging in patent trolling, Zillow is taking the brunt of their attack, and it seems like IBM is only getting started as they leveled similar suits against other tech companies in the past couple of years.

If you think this doesn’t affect your tech startup, think again. IBM may be an exception in the wealth department, but if they win this lawsuit, it’s possible that patent-trolling companies countrywide will feel emboldened to take action of their own. Zillow may be the first high-profile victim of this kind of behavior, but it certainly won’t be the last.

And, as consumers, we should expect more from the companies that seek to innovate on our behalf.

Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

Real Estate Technology

This tab manager uses AI to organize and focus your web browsing

(TECHNOLOGY) Tabby isn’t the first tab manager we’ve seen, but it is one of the cooler ones. Who wouldn’t want AI to help you organize web browsing?

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Logo for Tabby, a new AI-based tab manager

At one time or another, we have all been a tab hoarder. They start adding up when we are doing research, online shopping, and managing work projects. No matter what it is, we have all let tabs pile up like a stack of dirty dishes. However, several tab manager solutions can help clean up that clutter.

OneTab converts all your tabs into lists that you can later restore individually or all at once. TooManyTabs lets you preview the tabs so you can quickly find what you are looking for. Google Tabs lets you group and color code the tabs for better organization. And now Tabby, an AI-based browser assistant, manages the tabs automatically for you so you are more productive and focused.

“We built it to help everyone navigate on their browser without feeling additional fatigue due to an excess of tabs,” said Merlin Laffitte, one of Tabby’s makers. Because of more online meetings due to the pandemic, Laffitte said that he, along with his colleagues, found it difficult to focus because of the clutter created by the open tabs.

Being in a handful of online meetings myself, I know what he is talking about. Too many open tabs can be distracting and time-consuming. I have heard many people say, “I have the document pulled up.” Then, they can’t find it because it is lost among the ten, twenty, or thirty tabs they have open.

Tabby attempts to solve the pain of tab hoarding by removing unnecessary tabs without a user having to click on anything. In doing so, it makes the browser “focus-friendly.” The way the AI-based plugin works is that it takes into consideration these three main KPIs:

  • The time spent on the tab.
  • The last time you viewed the tab.
  • The frequency of viewing.

Based on these interactions, Tabby scores each tab by relevance, and makes its decision on which tab to close. Whenever a tab is removed from your browser view, Tabby will send you a notification. On the tool’s homepage, you can find the removed tabs and choose whether you would like to restore one. From there, you can also set your preferences to customize Tabby’s behavior. As you continue using it, Tabby will adapt to your habits and learn when to remove a tab when it is not being used.

Tabby is “meant to help you declutter your browser view by removing unnecessary tabs.” Currently, the product has a 5/5 review on Product Hunt, and users seem to like it. With only 25 reviews as of this writing, Tabby is still in its infancy. It’ll be interesting to see how well it does among other tab manager tools as it gains more users.

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Real Estate Technology

This law-tech tool helps tenants navigate eviction notices

(TECHNOLOGY) Law-tech tool Hello Landlord helps struggling tenants meet the eviction moratorium’s rules, but it’s greatest benefit may lie in communication.

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Man seated in trunk of car, head in hands as he considers eviction. New tools may help.

For tenants behind on rent during the pandemic, being shielded from eviction for nonpayment requires strictly following rules in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium that began September 4 and runs through the end of 2020.

Now the makers of website Hello Landlord, which helps tenants give notices to their landlords, have updated their free tool to meet the CDC requirements.

At HelloLandlord.org, tenants submit their information and answer a series of questions, including their landlord’s name and how much money they owe. The site automatically generates a customized letter to the landlord that outlines the tenant’s circumstances and includes a promise to pay the back rent. Tenants also get a declaration document that follows the moratorium order.

In the declaration, tenants must swear they:

  • Earn no more than $99,000 annually (or $198,000 jointly).
  • Can’t pay their rent because of loss of work or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses;
  • Have done their best to get available housing assistance;
  • Would become homeless or have to move into a home with many people, potentially spreading the COVID-19 virus;
  • Will try to make timely partial payments.

No documentation is required, and there are no official forms.

If renters don’t qualify for protection under the new order, the site will create a letter that asks the landlord for flexibility with making rent payments.

Relationships between landlords and renters often start going south because of communication issues. That’s something Hello Landlord’s letters might head off by helping tenants communicate effectively. The letters meet the legal requirements but also sound, well, human, despite being automated. The language is informal, even conciliatory. The tenant empathizes with the landlord – acknowledging that this time is financially hard on them, too – and pledges to work together.

Some sample language: “Although the CDC’s Order may prevent my eviction, I want you to know that I am willing to work with you moving forward during this challenging time.”

Hello Landlord debuted in 2019 and was originally created by SixFifty, a software subsidiary of technology law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. They collaborated with LawX, the legal design lab at Brigham Young University’s Law School, and the Innovation for Justice (i4J) Program at University of Arizona College of Law to research causes of and solutions to the eviction crisis.

A second tool, HelloLender.org, helps homeowners create letters to their mortgage lenders asking for accommodation in payments under the CARES Act stimulus program.

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Real Estate Technology

Beef up your security against COVID with this new environmental sensor suite

(TECH NEWS) This new security sensor can help protect your company from COVID-19 and monitor the overall health of your building.

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Office setting, with spaced employees for security against COVID.

Verkada, the cloud-based physical security company, is modernizing the world of enterprise building security by enabling customers to proactively respond to COVID-19 in the office.

In June, Verkada introduced its COVID-19 Response Suite. Part of the this release included People Heatmaps. This new feature allows organizations to “identify areas that are prone to overcrowding, and find ways to disperse traffic”. In other words, it helps ensure employees are practicing social-distancing.

This week, Verkada announced the release of its new environmental sensor product line, and its product, SV11. This all-in-one environmental sensor monitors changes that are happening in your physical space. The product is made from photochemically engineered stainless steel mesh that filters out large particles. The integrated sensors measure air quality, temperature, humidity, motion, and noise. Then, all the data is reported back to users for regular monitoring and analysis.

“The SV11 sensor is a cloud-based sensor that seamlessly integrates with the Verkada ecosystem of products,” said Jeff Chase, a product marketing manager for Verkada, in a recent video. “The SV11 can be used across all indoor environments and can meet the needs for a wide range of use cases, including simple remote monitoring of facilities.”

In the security system’s web-based command platform, users can see all the sensors, and can quickly scan real-time data for each location. Live footage and current readings are easy to view. Custom thresholds can be set for each sensor so a user can receive alerts as they happen. This is helpful so you can know when a server room is getting too warm, or when the TVOC (total volatile organic compounds) level is too high.

“Our customers are responsible for the systems that keep facilities online, and our mission is to give those administrators the best possible tools to do their jobs,” said Filip Kaliszan, CEO and co-founder of Verkada. “Whether it be monitoring the status of a server room, the temperature of a patient room in a hospital, or the air quality of a school, the SV11 gives facilities and staff unprecedented visibility and control over the sites they’re responsible for keeping safe and secure.”

With more companies bringing their workforce back into the office, Verkada’s security system can give them visibility on what’s going on at work. And with the valuable information rendered by the sensors, they can gain insights into what they can do to keep their employees safe.

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