Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Thursday, October 21, 2010

  Who invented the embedded Linux based wireless router?

In December, 1998, Greg Retkowski and I published the Arlan Wireless Howto. The wireless router we started building in March of that year, and later documented so extensively, is now considered by CISCO's lawyers to be prior art to the Linux based wireless access point, in the court case Optimum Path vs Cisco/Belkin/SMC/Netgear.

I was deposed in August, 2010 to talk about it.

Optimum Path is now suing basically everybody making an embedded Linux based wireless router for infringing on patent #7035281, filed September 13, 2000. This patent covers many features of the WRT-54G series (first shipped in Dec, 2002), and related products, from multiple other manufacturers, features that were built into the Linux mainline code, long before the patent was filed. Optimum Path now also holds a second patent - filed in 2005 - granted in July 2010 - which covers not only the ground covered by the first patent but includes content filtering (!?). I'm told this latter patent is not currently the subject of litigation, but it bothers me as much as the first - we were doing content filtering in Linux in 1999, also... Everybody was doing it.

In looking back on the heady years of 1998-2002, I'm now nearly certain that back in July of 1998, we actually created the first recognizable "embedded Linux wireless router". PLEASE: Note the word choice, there - embedded, Linux, wireless, router. Eliminate any of those words and you end up with a different product, from a different person.

Our first wireless router ran code from the Linux Router project, had 16MB of ram, a pair of wired networking cards, a wireless card, a 486SLC processor, and booted from a floppy. Later iterations booted from a hard disk or flash. While getting all that to work was hard, all the heavy lifting had been done for us:

Linux did routing almost from its inception. The firewalling code and the ip masquerading code were in version 2.0, maybe earlier than that. The first "Linux wireless routers" came from the authors of the wavelan and arlan drivers. The first "embedded Linux router" came from the Linux Router Project - and the truly heavy lifting came from the math guys that came up with the signal processing software/hardware that ran on a small board that could send and receive the data signals over the air, reliably.

But... as best as I can tell, from looking back on the emails, mailing list postings, and archive.org, the first "embedded Linux Wireless Router" came from the minds of Greg Retkowski, myself, and Everett Basham.

Our wireless howto, my wireless diary, and the June 2003 retrospective I wrote about the project are now part of the court case.

I'm bemused. My diary - and blog - and our internal emails over that period - jokes, misspellings, foul language, personal conflicts and all - are now in the public record!!?? Over a patent suit?

It's weirdly pretty cool, though, that someone would think what we'd built 12 years ago, was still important and interesting, here in 2010. It's upsetting to see Anthony Spearman and Anthony Tompkins attempt to patent so much work that was created by others. Did they ever try to build what they described? Make it work?

We'd started our wireless router project back in March of 1998 , and only got around to documenting it after it worked. We'd built the thing out of spare parts, to solve a specific need, and we never once thought about patenting the idea. Not once! We did spend a lot of time trying to figure out commercial applications for wireless, as you'll see from some of those emails.

In 1998, we didn't solve all the problems that patent #7035281 covers, but we did build a working device, then, that was very close to what was described in it. Later versions of our stuff - for example switching to 802.11b, and Linux 2.2, which had bandwidth shaping built in, came even closer - but we never got around to publishing anything about those versions. Others got even closer...

CISCO's lawyers have a stack of paper a foot+ high - that hopefully covers the features that were missing from our published efforts in 1998 and 1999. So many other people were working out the problems everywhere else in Linux! We had day jobs!

After giving my deposition, I've thought deeply about what happened in wireless and Linux from 1998 forward, and done a bit of independent research. I figure, maybe, by publishing what I know so far, more of the history and prior art behind the "embedding Linux in a wireless router" idea will come to light, and head off the second patent at the pass.

Or maybe it won't. I don't honestly know what constitutes an original, patentable idea in my field! I'm patently aware of where all my ideas came from, and I'm certainly ignorant (though learning fast!) of the legal processes involved both in filing and contesting a patent.

The initial legal processes and paperwork for contesting patent #7035281 are nearly complete. In February, the case goes before a judge to decide whether to continue, and a jury trial, if needed, is planned for the spring.

My mental question remains. Did Greg, Everett and I really invent the embedded Linux based wireless router?

All we did, basically, was take code that already existed, compile a new driver, install a board, make a few cables, and prove such a box could stay running in a world where people trusted IOS. We're just the first people that bothered to plug in a wireless card into a junked PC, boot Linux off of a floppy, run wirelessly 13.1 miles and then publish how to make it work, in plain english, a howto a more general public, and even a patent lawyer, could understand.

Amusingly enough, our little howto hung off the far end of that wireless connection for years, dissipating electrons in the airwaves, for every one of the tens of thousands of hits we ultimately got. Everybody ate from our dogfood, in other words.

I've helped do way cooler stuff than this in my life, but I don't think anything I've ever done occurred at such an inflection point, almost a singularity, of the history of networking. In 1998, only a rare few had a wireless connection to the Net. Today - 2010 - wireless is everywhere. Wires are passe'. How did that happen? What will happen in the NEXT 12 years?

The intersection between the legal system and the coding process is fascinating - what was obvious then? What was not? Does something have to be turned from code into English before it's prior art? It's been difficult to figure that stuff out. 1998 was the last year of the prehistory of the modern Internet. Archive.org was barely archiving at the time, USENET was dying, email was overwhelmed by spam, Netscape had just released Mozilla, and many of the modern services of the Internet, such as Google, were just getting off the ground. Trying to figure out who did what, when, ate a lot of my time last month.

So I ask - Who followed our recipe to build and deploy one? Who made it do more stuff? Who went their own way? Who made the jump to 802.11b before we did? Is there anybody out there that remembers what happened inside the 802.11 and 802.11b standardization processes? Who built businesses on wireless Linux? Who, at linksys, ultimately, decided to adopt the broadcom MIPS chip - how did their WRT54G come to be? When did that chip first boot Linux? Who at Broadcom got that to work? What OSes drove the other wireless routers that came out at the same time? Were Arm or PPC chips ever a contender? When did DHCP get radius support? What drove - who funded? - the people behind Busybox, dnsmasq, ipchains/iptables, - the core features that are in every Linux based wireless router today?

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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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