back to article IBM tries its hand in the lawn sprinkler biz

IBM's patent portfolio is a terrific source of the curious and bizarre. From patents for "dealing with chaos," to automating the process of informing a clerk whether you want paper or plastic, Big Blue certainly has a knack for wrapping its IP tendrils around some strange stuff. This week, IBM is in the lawn sprinkler …


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  1. Steven Raith

    If there are cows nearby....

    ...then a rheostat/sensor attached to their knees can determine if they are sitting down or not - isn't that the traditional way of telling if it's going to rain?

    Or have I been out of the countryside in in London too long?

    Steven R

  2. Anonymous Coward

    All your base are belong to us

    There is *nothing* that Big Blue won't try and get its hands on. I learnt this at personal cost earlier this year. I had an idea for a piece of consumer software that I thought was completely unrelated to IBM's business. I asked for permission to develop this on my own time, and was basically told that IBM reserved the right to take my IP at any time if they thought that it was even vaguely related to IBM's business *or future business*.

    I mean, fair enough, if I was building a new app server or database, then that would be competing with IBM. The thing I wanted to do was in a completely different field, that IBM had never been in or showed any sign of wanting to be in. But no, the thought that one of their employees might make a buck or two was just too much for them.

    So I quit and started my own company.

    The poor sod who came up with this idea probably got a laminated bit of A4 saying "well done", while the idea will never be put into practice because IBM is not in that line of business - and heaven forfend that the chap should actually go ahead and build it anyway.

  3. tony trolle

    one company has "computer" on board

    prinklerIQ automatically adjusts and postpones watering cycles based on an on-board weather forecasting device therefore ensuring that the unit will not water prior to there being rain.


  4. Chris G

    It's worse than that Jim

    I think you'll find that the likes of Sony,Philips and Electrolux to name but a few do exactly the same thing. They all want to rule the world.

    AC be careful that they don't come after you in retrospect, saying that you having the idea in company time makes it theirs, it's been done before.

  5. Tony W

    Remarkably sensible

    Seems a very sensible idea, but I'll be surprised if at least part of it isn't prior art.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    @AC (All your base..)

    You signed the employment contract which spelled that out, take some responsibility and deal with it. You don't get to decide what is in big blue's interests and what's not. Incidentally, should you go forward on your own, if it turns out to be a success IBM would have reasonable cause to come knocking on your door.

    - Another AC

    ps. Scull&Crossbones because you're their wench, matey. Ha-aar.

  7. Francis Vaughan

    Little sense

    What bugs me about these utterly silly patents is that they don't come cheap. Patents are not free to file. Over the life of a patent it will cost many 10's of thousands, Just the sheer cost of filing will be some 10's of thousands as well. The idiot who thought it up will have been paid, when he dreamt up the idea, paid whilst drafting the patent, the patent attorneys cost money (even if IBM is big enough to do it in house, the costs are not small.) So it might cost IBM circa $100,000 to fully follow up on this patent. Since you have already been able to buy sprinkler controllers with rain detectors for many years, it seems the only thing this massive investment in IP has protected is the rather dubious idea of a controller that believes the weather forecast when it is transmitted to it over a radio link. Not even if it got the forecast over the internet (or does the patent cover control over WiFi?) Anyway, it is clearly ridiculous. The likelihood of there ever being a cent returned over the life of this patent is vanishingly small.

    So what on earth is going on? Probably there is an internal reward system for patents, with nice bonuses, and more importantly, some idiotic quota, perhaps on a per-division basis. So someone needs to make up the numbers to meet some quarterly target and make the company profile look good to the board. Everyone knows it is crap, but no-one rocks the boat because everyone is happy. Sounds an awfully familiar story for many overly large companies or organisations.

  8. jake Silver badge

    Prior art?

    There has GOT to be a ton(ne) of prior art ... I personally did similar work back in 1978 or '79 for a green house in Menlo Park (implemented on a PDP11-based Heath H11A) ...

    On another note ... is it just me, or has the quality of ElReg reportage gone down with the quality of the mast-head? I mean, seriously, it's WAY past silly-season, so what's with all the tabloid shit? Is it to match the archaic fixed width format?

    The stupid comment icons and the OMFG! LOOK! AT! ME! doohitchies on the right third of the screen are all a right click from oblivion ... but without content, what's the point?

    Y,y,y, I know, if I don't like it don't read it.

    It might happen. I predict a revival of Usenet ... News at 11 ...

  9. Darren7160

    They have to be kidding?

    I worked for the TORO company many years ago. Back in the very early 90's we were building a device that measured the moisture of the soil and determined whether or not to water. The NET8000 system did everything that this patent is supposing 20 years ago. It took national weather information, types of grass and degrees of slope on the courses and automatically adjusted run times.

    Oh well. TORO long ago decided they didn't care about the controllers they built and sent them to China. They would rather focus on making the little water poppy-up thingys.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    @AC: Muppet

    To the AC who approached management about this idea:- how naive and stupid are you? You develop it on the side, get it good and ready and then quit to develop it yourself, if its any good. Or transfer it to a partner/spouse etc etc.

    Never mention it to the employer (IBM is not special in this regard)

    and "a piece of consumer software" ? well yes, that would fall into IBM's remit.

    There's probably some open source project already doing it any way - join them if you want.

  11. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Thumb Down


    Don't tell me that there aren't any sprinkler systems currently in use that are built according to that principle. How obvious can you get?

  12. John

    Fore !

    Someone at IBM really really loves their golf then!

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    @AC - Not unusual at all

    I work for a different enormous corporation and my contract also says that any IP I dream up is the property of my employers, whether or not I dream it up at home on my own time.

    I recently discussed it informally with a lawyer, who thought it was quite legit if it related to the business area I work in, but probably unenforceable outside that. So if I do invent the next mousetrap I can claim the rights to it. That's UK law, apparently.

    Mind you, it's probably a lot easier to do the right thing (as you have) and quit to pursue it on your own. These things can get kind of tetchy - and you certainly don't want to face IBM in court, even if you are in the right.

    By the way, I wouldn't want to give the impression that I ever do dream up nifty ideas at home. By the time I get in at night my brain is like cheese, thus proving that my employer is getting their money's worth anyway and don't need to waste their time dreaming up dubious contracts like this.

  14. Bill

    Weather Rock

    * If rock is wet, it is raining.

    * If rock is green, it rained a while ago.

    * If rock is white, it is snowing.

    * If rock is shaking, there is an earthquake.

    * If rock is dry, the weather is fair.

    * If rock is swinging, it's windy.

    * If rock is warm, the sun is out.

    * If rock is not visible, it's dark outside.

    * If rock is under water, there is a flood.

    * If rock is gone, there is a tornado (Run!!)

    About as reliable as the person at the meteorological department.

    Sure it's predicted to rain in my area today, but that doesn't mean that it will.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You're lucky...

    You're lucky that you could do this. I previously worked for Nokia. If you were a European employee and had a non-core business idea, you could quit and work on it yourself. If you worked in the U.S., it was not allowed. I had many ideas passed over. But of course, when they were "invented" in Finland several years later, they finally got patented and some put into phones.

  16. Andy Dent

    Prior Art - Aussie Imagine Cup 2008

    This sounds a lot like the winning project for the Imagine Cup 2008 - Project SOAK

    "Oz-dream team’s SOAK (Smart Operational Agriculture toolkit) is a combination of hardware and software designed to help drought-affected farmers better manage their limited water resources. It uses sensors around a farm that measure everything from dam depth to soil moisture, adds external data such as weather forecasts and combines it with crop lifecycle information to create a highly sophisticated watering system. It controls farm sprinklers and prioritises water use to where and when it’s really needed. "

  17. loren massie

    to "All your base are belong to us"

    With your language skills, I hope you've employed a good secretary.

  18. Matt
    Thumb Up

    @ Bill - re rock

    that looks like just the ticket mate! Ive been looking for a reliable means of weather forcasing for some time now, where can I purchase said machine from? what sort of warranty does it have, is it Mac compatible and does it have USB/serial or firewire connection for me to blog the changes in climate?! :)

  19. Adam Foxton
    Thumb Down

    @Matt's @Bill - re rock comment

    The battery life is where they really get you. Seriously, I had this awesome high-iron-content rock, guaranteed to last pretty much forever. Put a pair of high-capacity double-As in there and a couple of hours later I had a warm rock with two electrolyte-encrusted batteries in it.

    Thumbs down from me!

    A more on-topic point- surely anything saying "Radio" is now pretty old-hat? You'd have thought IBM would have at least allowed for the idea of using WiFi- but that's microwave frequency radiation rather than radio so a WiFi enabled version wouldn't be covered by their patent!

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