Anand on Emergic Software

Enclosed below are two emails I received from Prof. Anand Patwardhan (School of Management at IIT-Bombay), who also happens to be a very good friend. The emails provide a lot of food for thought, especially in the context of what we want to do in Emergic and John Robb’s post on the Next Generation Desktop:

Most of the time we need to do very simple information processing tasks – write a letter, send an email, do some arithmetic, play a game. Sometimes, we need to do something more complex. This is as true with software as it is with hardware. And it is as true for enterprise software as it is for application software.

First thing we need to do is to separate the function from the application. That is, separate the task (or function) of writing a letter from the use of MS Word. To do this we need a different architecture for the applications, one in which functions can be invoked as required (again, server side computing will help here). Having done, this we perhaps also need to change the front-end completely from a computer-oriented desktop to a task or function oriented desktop. The digital dashboard should actually become a functional tool. Perhaps one could use a diary (personal blog format) to maintain the context, rather than a file system. So that even when I’m writing a letter, the previous context is available to me. Actually, I’m not completely sure about this – to the extent that we have migrated the office metaphor to the computer – tasks, corresponding to folders, individual items to files, I dont know if we can move completely to a diary orientation.

Second, we need to have a lot of application integration at the back end. So, that many things can happen automatically on the server side. For example, format conversions, or other kind of processing (virus checking etc.).

The second email:

It is actually very hard for developers to think of a user who is not like themselves. We are actually not representative users at all for Emergic. We have been used to a situation where we had to end up knowing a good bit of computers to really use them, and in situations where we dont, we are almost at the mercy of the machines, or the support people / system administrators. For a “real” user, the computer is a tool, to perform tasks or functions. Ok, so this is nothing new (Don Norman – Invisible Computer, Dertouzous – Unfinished Revolution), but what does it mean for us, and what can we do about it in practical terms?

So, with this in mind, let me try and put down what I think the Thin Client (TC) desktop should look like and do.

The TC desktop should have a diary, a writing area and a set of icons for functions, and a “command interpreter” of sorts for non-standard tasks. What might the standard tasks be? Depends on the user segment. I can think of groups of tasks, for example, communication tasks (email, chat, message), daily tasks (these are all related to the “diary” metaphor – would include, for example, to-do lists and appointments, daily accounts, and notes). Accounts is actually important. By this I dont mean Tally, nor do I mean MS Money and Quicken, but a simple tool where I can enter expenses and receipts and which understands what is being put in. MS Money and Quicken are good examples of what happens when we put everything but the kitchen sink in the application.

There is also a group of “common tasks” – this really depends on the context. Might include writing by default – but even there, customization is possible, for example, for secretaries there may be a separate button called write letters. This button might invoke the same application, but with a letter writing module, but in any case, the user should not worry about what is being run. If we really go segment-wise, I think we will find that are are a fairly limited number of tasks in all, spread over these three groups – communication, daily and common.

When it comes to the UI, in a sense, the advantage of Linux for us is precisely that it is modular and customizable. That is, we can layer our own UI over the X server.

Many of these ideas have been tried by Apple, but then it is a single piece – you cannot take apart the hardware / software bundle and reconfigure and reprice it the way you may want for the particular set of users you want to address.

This brings me to my next point, going beyond the UI to the application architecture and design. A product like MS Word is extraordinarily powerful and feature-rich. This is because the designers have had to figure out in advance all of the ways in which a user might use Word, because once the application is out there, it has to function by itself in whichever environment it is and for whatever use it is being put to. Emergic needs an application architecture which on the other hand, caters to really the least common denominator, only the core set of
features that all users will need. It needs a unified way to store data (perhaps XML), so that other applications can also access it and work on it for special purpose tasks. We need to be able to customize the application very rapidly – server based computing is an advantage here, as we dont have to worry about modifying the application on 100’s of clients.

We need to replace feature-richness and consequent design costs by rapid specialization for particular settings.

So, as I see it, Emergic really starts looking like a software solution now, with a UI component (partly server based and partly on the TC), an XML-based data model for data storage and handling, and core and extended applications invoked by the user. There is, obviously, an OS there, but completely transparent to the user on the TC.

Many enterprise (and even consumer) applications are based on the notion of “automation”. Sure, some things can (and should be automated). But what I think is more important is for IT to assist the user, and not only automate. In trying to automate, we are in fact making it more difficult for people to use IT in the first place. Because, for example, we are asking business logic to conform to the information model embedded in the ERP. If you recall, this was exactly the difference between a transaction processing system and a decision support system that was brought out during our SME survey.

Whew, I think thats it for now! Btw, feel free to put the emails I’ve been sending you on Emergic – I’ve no idea how to create a blog, but I’d be happy to get and respond to comments.

Crucible of Leadership

From the WSJ:

Leadership advice is easy to find these days: workshops, conferences and private coaching sessions, often for a hefty price, on how to make the leap from executive to leader.

Yet those who have proved their ability to inspire rarely say they were guided by formal instruction. Instead, they point to life experiences that were pivotal in helping them recognize a capacity to make things happen and to get others behind them.

Many of these people show some qualities of young children: curiosity, boundless energy to put into practice what they learn, and a willingness to pick themselves up and keep going when they fall.

Warren Bennis , founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, and Robert Thomas, senior research fellow of Accenture’s Institute for Strategic Change in Cambridge, Mass., believe all leaders have undergone at least one crucible experience that unleashed their abilities and taught them who they were.

The two professors studied 43 leaders — half of them 70 or older and half 35 and younger — for their book “Geeks and Geezers” (Harvard Business School Press) due out next month. Their transformational experiences varied from being mentored, to climbing a mountain, to losing an election, but ultimately proved more important than the person’s education, intelligence or birth order.

“Sometimes it is an event, sometimes it is a relationship … sometimes joyous, sometimes tragic … but it’s always a powerful process of learning and adaption,” they write. “It is both an opportunity and a test.”

Continue reading

Desktop Linux

Quite a few articles on Linux on the Desktop on ZDNet as part of its special report: “Fueled in part by Microsoft’s grip on the desktop market, corporate interest in Linux as a desktop alternative continues to gain momentum. Though there are still hurdles to face for corporate adoption, products such as Ximian Evolution and StarOffice are helping to make the Linux desktop a corporate reality.”

Another viewpoint comes from Freezer Burn with an Apple OS centric viewpoint: “Linux has no future on PowerPC hardware as a desktop. Apple has that covered. Unless you’re absolutely against commercial software, you don’t need to use Linux…One has to think that the current situation of Windows dominance has done some good for the computer industry. Because of this, there are far more x86-based computer being used by people than PPC computers. And for this, Linux is still viable for the desktop….So Linux definately has a place on the desktop.. but not on PowerPC hardware. OS X has taken care of that.”

Still no mention of Linux on Thin Clients. Linux TCs are disruptive. Everyone today thinks of thick, new desktops. That is because the context is either US, Western Europe or Japan. Change the context to India, China, Brazil and see how the picture changes! It opens up a new world of opportunities and ideas, which is exactly what the tech world needs today.

RSS helps Udell’s Re-entry

Jon Udell went off on vacation for a week without his computer and re-entered the world spending more time in Radio’s RSS Aggregator than email: “You’d think a week’s worth of almost a hundred RSS feeds would be overwhelming. To my surprise, it wasn’t. I spent more time looking through this stuff than my email — and I suppose this made my total reentry time more than it otherwise would have been — but the process was enjoyable. There were no demands, no requests, just information useful in varying degrees. Crunching through an email backlog is a stressful experience. But nothing in the RSS haul raised my blood pressure. It was like eating a good dinner. I went for a walk afterward to digest it, and felt well-nourished.” Good food for thought!

TECH TALK: Tech’s 10X Tsunamis: A Review

In this series which has spanned 5 weeks, weve looked back to some of Techs 10X Tsunamis, and looked at the present and the future at what we can expect. Heres a quick round-up of the 14 Tsunamis we covered:

1. Google: Google has become the info utility for many of us. Any information that I am looking for on a topic, Google is the first place I will look. Even if I am searching for a person, an address, a phone number, Google finds it for me. Google has become an extension of my brain it remembers things for me. It has, in effect, become my other memory.

2. Wireless: While wireless has revolutionised voice communications over the past few years (there are now estimated to be a billion cellphone users worldwide), the world of data is also starting to get impacted by WiFi. Wireless technologies are providing the fabric to build a real-time communications infrastructure.

3. Web Services: Websites are turning themselves into programmable components, using XML and SOAP standards. This is the world of Lego-like software, where it becomes possible to build complex software applications from simpler building blocks which exist across the network.

4. Open Source: The next 500 million users who will come from the worlds emerging markets are the opportunity for Open Source software. An integrated collection of software applications needs to be made available at a low, affordable cost to double the base of computer users worldwide.

5. Outsourcing: As companies worldwide focus on cutting costs in the face of slowing growth, Outsourcing is coming to the fore. Manufacturing, Software Development, Web Hosting, Customer Support, R&D all are being outsourced as companies focus on their core competencies.

6. The East: Armed with their masses of people creating the domestic markets and the workforce, its low-cost infrastructure, a capitalist fervour for wealth creation, along with technological innovations, the Eastern dragons and tigers are not just catching up, but have an amazing opportunity to leapfrog.

7. Networks: Networks are everywhere. They help us connect to people, to places, to computers, to utilities, and even to memories hidden deep inside the ultimate network of them all, our brain. Networks and connections have existed since time immemorial. It is not networks by themselves that are the 10X force, but our understanding of how networks work which is the real tsunami.

8. Intellectual Capital: Intellectual capital has increasingly become the biggest differentiator in business. As knowledge-intensive industries like infotech and biotech permeate more of the world, the challenge before organizations is going to on how to build and grow their intellectual capital.

9. PCs for USD 100: As the users in the worlds developing markets buy new computers, their old computers need to find their way to the worlds emerging markets. recycling older computers and converting them into Linux Thin Clients can bring down the cost of the desktop to USD 100 or less.

10. Tech Utility: In the developed world, it takes the form of grid computing. In the emerging markets, it means making technology affordable by pricing it on a monthly installments basis.

11. Blogs and RSS: The combination of weblogs and RSS is what can dramatically amplify our ability to process information. They form the foundation of what I call the Information Refinery.

12. Business Process Standards: The standardisation of business processes will streamline intra- and inter-enterprise interactions dramatically in the coming years, laying the foundation for real-time enterprises.

13. RFIDs: The next leap in communications will be objects talking to other objects. Unlike bar codes which can carry very limited information, smart tags can store and broadcast object-specific information, giving each item its own unique identify and history.

14. Displays: As specialised graphics chips from companies push the envelope, it is now becoming possible to think of a more realistic 3-dimensional display. In addition, companies such as eInk are also experimenting with providing an electronic paper where the display ink gets dynamically configured based on what needs to be shown.

Tomorrow: Marching Ahead