OPML and Directories

Dave Winer writes about a topic I will be covering in my forthcoming Tech Talk series (starting next week):

There’s no single root of the Web, so why should directories (like Yahoo, DMOZ, Looksmart) have single roots? And therein lies the problem with directories, and why we’re not effectively cataloging the knowledge of our species on the Internet.

A case in point. Last week I pointed to a great directory of RSS aggregators. So why not also have it available in a format that allows it to be included in other directories? I should be able to include it in the directory I keep for RSS developers. Why should I have to reinvent the wheel? Would he want me to? And maybe it fits into a directory of tools that are useful for librarians, alongside book inventory software; or in a directory for lawyers, alongside legal databases. See the point? There is no single address for a directory, every directory is a sub-directory of something, yet all the directories we build on the Internet try to put everything in exactly one place, which leads to some really ludicrous placements. My Windows software is categorized under Mac software because we were only available on Mac when it was first categorized. This one-category-for-all-information approach is a vestige of paper catalogs, not a limit of computer-managed catalogs.

I’m burning to get this idea broadly implemented. When we do, the Web will grow by another order of magnitude.

The challenge: Put all that we know on the Internet and give people the tools to present it in a myriad of ways. Let a thousand flowers bloom. No one owns the keys to knowledge. That’s Jeffersonian software. The Web, of course, was modeled after the printed page, with all its limits. This new Web is modeled after the mind of man.

Here’s a small snapshot of what I have started writing. Have titled it “Constructing the Memex”.

Imagine if each of us could build out personal directories outlines of topics and connections to other directories, people and documents. Much of this would happen automatically as we browsed and marked pages of interest, embellishing them with our comments. When we search, it would first scan our world of relevant information rather than the world wide web of documents.

In other words, each of us would have a microcosm of the information space, created and updated continuously by what we did. It would ensure that our ideas would have a context, that we would never forget something, and that we could leverage on similar work done by millions of others like us. This is the real two-way web linking not just documents, but people, ideas and information.

Vannevar Bush imagined just such a system in 1945. He called it the Memex.

It is where we want to take BlogStreet.

Affordable Computing Lab Launch

I was part of the launch function today at KReSIT (School of IT at IIT-Bombay) of their Affordable Computing Solutions Lab. We are a technology partner, having provided our thin client-thick server software (Emergic Freedom) along with VIA Technologies, who have provided the thin client hardware. The lab is a result of Prof. DB Phatak’s vision (which we echo) of ensuring that 100 million users have access to IT in India by 2010. I hope we can get there sooner.

Gramdoot in Rajasthan

An EcoTimes story on a project in Rajasthan which “signals a potential revolution in the field of rural communications.”

A fixed line exchange (say one providing 500 lines) has to be able to achieve a minimum number of subscribers to run optimally. However, the costs involved and the price of telephony makes it too expensive for rural users.

Aksh Broadband, a sister company of Aksh Optifibre Ltd, has apparently found a way around this problem. The strategy involves two elements.

The first is to bundle communication services with a number of other on-line facilities operated through Gramdoot kiosks. This opens up a number of services, including on-line land records, market information, certificates of caste, domicile, income etc., filing complaints on-line to the district center, on-line video-conferencing with other villagers, and not the least, cable TV.

Each of these services is provided at a charge of between Rs 5 and Rs 20, barring cable TV, which costs Rs 105 per month. A 3-minute web-conference with a neighbouring villager costs Rs 5, while applying for and receiving a copy of land records (patta) costs Rs 20.

Aksh is investing Rs 20 crore (USD 4 million) in the project, and has covered 400 gram panchayats. The future: “It will take roughly 80-90 cable connections per village for the company to recover the set up costs of Rs 20 crore for the Jaipur district. The agreement to connect another 14 districts (4,000 gram panchayats covering 13,000 villages) by 2005 has already been signed with the state government, and will roll out in the most populous areas of Rajasthan, thereby reaching some 1.5 crore people.”

LOTR: The Two Towers

I finally saw “The Two Towers” – the second in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Great to see everything come alive. Came back and read the summary since it was a year ago that I had last read the book. This is film-making at its best. The Helm’s Deep battle is quite amazing. Maybe it was the sound in the theatre but there were times that I couldn’t quite understand what a few characters spoke (Treebeard and Gollum, especially). Its another long wait for the final movie.

I still feel that the book is better. It captures the nuances and the actions of the characters better. Though now, I feel the book-movie makes for a terrific combo to understand the depth of what Tolkien constructed.

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Predicting Future Technologies

Lee Gomes (WSJ) makes an interesting point about technology:

Technology companies are often described as “inventing the future.” Maybe they do. But they aren’t very good at predicting it. That’s how it is with the future: You never quite see it coming.

Let’s not discount out of hand the idea that something unforeseen might appear on the scene to change things. Just don’t expect to recognize it for what it is right away.

People in the technology world are forever searching for the “killer app” — the must-have sure thing that the whole world will want to buy. Invariably, though, they never find the killer app; it finds them. You wake up one day and realize that you can’t remember how you ever got along without, say, search engines.

It’s a problem for technology companies. Most of the really transforming technologies bubble up in unexpected ways. More often than not, they require some sort of existing infrastructure, which they gently nudge in the direction of additional usefulness. The Internet, for instance, would never have happened without a vast and efficient telephone network, not to mention tens of millions of powerful PCs.

And these technologies are almost never envisioned in advance, but instead are appreciated after the fact, like the laser printer. Name your favorite technology. I’ll bet it wasn’t introduced with a big product launch. The typical pattern is that by doing something useful, simple and slightly new, it attracted customers and programmers who then began investing it with ever-more uses, many of them utterly unforeseen.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: Rural Tech Innovations

The TechInfoCentre can be created using todays technologies. However, a few innovations can be very helpful as we look at a large-scale roll-out, especially in some of the more infrastructurally-poorer parts of India.

  • Power: There is a need to use pedal power or solar energy or other alternate energy sources to power the computers and other devices at the TeleInfoCentre. Another idea which needs some thought is the use of a12-volt supply directly feeding the computers.
  • Connectivity: WiFi is undoubtedly the future. The question is: how can WiFi be made to work as a wide area network? Using directional antennae (or even perhaps Pringles cans as has been tried out in some cases) can increase the distance for line-of-sight communications.
  • Thinner Clients: The aim is to make the thin clients as thin and as cheap as possible. Ideas from embedded computing can be applied here to make for sub-Rs 5,000 (USD 100) devices, which come alive in the presence of a network.
  • TV as Monitor: The moinitor cost (Rs 2-4,000) is a significant component of the thin client cost. Can this cost be reduced? Cheap TVs are available in plenty. The question is: how can TVs be made into higher resolution (800 x 600 pixels or more) displays?
  • Server Redundancy: The thick server is now the most critical component in the TeleInfoCentre value chain. If it fails, then the entire centre is unusable. How can we introduce redundancy in the servers, and yet keep the costs low? Dual CPUs, two hard disks with data mirroring, two motherboards, clusters, and blade servers are some ideas which need to be explored further.
  • Client-Server Connectivity: At present, the assumption is that there is a LAN (10-100 Mbps) between the thin clients and the thick server. If the clients can be made to work on lower speeds, then it may become possible to use a thick server across multiple villages connected through WiFi, thus further simplifying management and reducing set-up costs of the TeleInfoCentres still further.
  • Desktop Interface: Video Games offer a natural inspiration for rethinking the desktop. How can desktops be made richer, more interactive, more 3D-like such that language and learning does not become a barrier to usage?
  • Multimedia: There is a need to go beyond just text for communications and interactions. With falling costs of peripherals like digital cameras and webcams, plentiful storage and broadband connections, multimedia is going to be an important driver in applications.
  • Visual Biz-ic: This is a term I have coined to denote a Visual Basic-like development environment for applications involving business processes and workflows. How can ideas from web services be used to create reusable libraries of governance processes which, with only little modifications, can then be leveraged across TeleInfoCentres for use in different states and countries?

    Thus, there is still plenty to do to bring forth the next generation of TeleInfoCentres, which will set new benchmarks in affordability, connectivity and usability.

    Tomorrow: Village InfoGrid

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