Innovations via Intersections

From the Harrow Report come a nice thought:

In my opinion, the real magic [of innovation] will indeed come from these intersections,” as scientists and engineers from formally disparate fields come together and develop new questions and totally new ideas, sometimes getting “ah ha!” insights into how to do today’s things better, and how to do new things that were only yesterday firmly in the realms of our imagination. This mixing and mining of previously stovepiped ideas and knowledge will be the catalyst that opens our collective eyes to fascinating new visions.

I very much agree with what Jeffrey Harrow says. That is why reading and interacting with people who can help provide “short-cuts” to different worlds is so important.

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Linux on the Desktop

Russell Pavlicek of InfoWorld writes that “features such as virtual desktops and solid e-mail clients help to make Linux desktops viable for business.”

I normally work with six virtual desktops enabled (KDE allows you to configure as many as 16, and last I checked, Gnome allows 100). I populate each one with applications relating to a different task. One has a Web browser; another has the applications I use while writing; another has multimedia apps so I can listen to music while I work. If I’m doing extensive word processing, as I did when I was writing my book, I’ll leave my office application up in another desktop. And another desktop will have e-mail.

For a more complex e-mail client with support for calendaring, task lists, and contact lists, there is Ximian’s Evolution. The application even features a customizable summary page which can show you local weather reports and news headlines from various sources. People accustomed to Outlook will probably find Evolution comfortable to use. Evolution sports some notable goodies, including virtual folders. Database people might understand this as “views for e-mail.” Instead of using the old paradigm of placing a physical piece of paper (the e-mail) in a physical folder, virtual folders are more like database queries that select messages based on specified values.

With this feature, you can group messages according to content rather than just placing a message in a single folder. So when you need to find an old e-mail from your boss about the policy change affecting a new project, you no longer need to remember whether you filed it under Boss Memos, Policies, or New Project. With virtual folders, the same message can be located under all three categories. And that can save precious time.

Communication Centres

Slashdot: “Peace Corps Online has published an article by a volunteer who taught computers in West Africa for two years who recommends that the White House’s Digital Freedom Initiative (DFI) abandon the Western paradigm of ‘a computer on every desk’ and borrow a lesson from telephony in third-world countries.”

Trying to provide a computer for the majority of families in a developing country would almost certainly be a non-sustainable effort.

Instead, the DFI should look to an existing model that has already been proven to work for another kind of expensive technology: the telephone. A residential telephone line is a luxury item in West Africa, and as a result, the so-called “communication center” has flourished even in the smallest of towns. These centers are nothing more than small shops that include at least one telephone (usually a fax machine, as well) and offer pay-per-minute telephone service to many who could not otherwise afford it. More than just payphones, these centers are private businesses that generate profit for their owners while sharing among the whole community the high cost of telecommunication.

With so many of these businesses already in place, the DFI could “leverage existing infrastructure” by promoting the use of computers at communication centers. Indeed, some centers located in the cities have already installed a computer or two, but the smaller centers, especially those in more rural areas, are still struggling to upgrade their services with computer technology. DFI could play a role here by providing computer training, installation support, and perhaps some type of financing to help local entrepreneurs overcome the steep cost of computer hardware. It could also promote open-source software, such as Linux and OpenOffice, as a cheaper alternative to commercial software packages costing hundreds of dollars each.

The idea seems similar to the TeleInfoCentres concept I have discussed in my “Transforming Rural India” essay.

Personal to Joint Productivity

Ray Ozzie has a commentary on how our personal lives and tools we are using are evolving. It is a point I had made a couple days ago in a slightly different context. Ozzie takes it further:

Just as the first generation of personal computers was mostly about personal productivity, the first generation of the Internet has largely been about centralized Web sites, used for publishers, transactions and e-mail. For the most part, all seems well and good. At a personal level, however, many of us are overwhelmed. We’re chained to e-mail and the Web, drowning in an information flood that leaves us feeling more and more like human message-processing machines.

Each of us will soon face hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of “inputs” that we’ll need to continuously absorb and coordinate. A world with complex social, economic, organizational and personal interdependencies is inevitable. And as we near this linked future, systems and technologies must evolve or we will simply be unable to cope.

Ozzie describes a notion of a “virtual workspace” (which is what his company – Groove – focuses on).

A distinct third layer will emerge between the operating system and productivity layers. Think of it as a “virtual workspace” layer that links together all of your own computers and those operated by people with whom you work. The workspace will become as common in our lexicon as is the folder today. But more than just a container of files, the workspace will be a flexible container that brings together people, information and the tools relevant to the nature of your work. Many of today’s operating system concepts will migrate into this layer as most of what you do will involve other people and computers.

The next 10 years will find us moving decidedly from an era of personal productivity to one of joint productivity and social software. That will involve a move from tightly coupled systems to more loosely coupled interconnections. It will be an era of highly interdependent systems and relationships, with technology continuing to reshape the nature of organizations, economy, society and personal lives.

My perspective is that now, more than ever, we need the Memex. This is a vision first articulated by Vannevar Bush in 1945, and one I am writing about in my Tech Talk series in the context of the tools and technologies we have available today. Within enterprises, the Memex will need to be extended to work with enterprise events.

Cheap Revolution

Rich Karlgaard writes in Forbes about how the world is moving in the direction of the cheap revolution, and Christensen’s suggestions on how to escape it:

  • Improve your product offering faster than anybody else can. This tactic works, generally, only for market leaders with a good brand name, a greased distribution channel and financial might. (Think Intel.) And it works only as long as the market wants the added functionality and is willing to pay for it.
  • Sell fast custom solutions that answer a customer’s needs. Xilinx, with its programmable logic chips, does this. So does IBM, despite its size. IBM’s trick has been to go modular and bring into its Big Blue tent an army of third-party solutions providers. The old, highly integrated IBM would never have been able to react quickly enough to customers’ needs.
  • Find an unserved market and serve it cheaply. This is the way of the disrupter, says Christensen. The product or service should be so cheap, in fact, that the industry’s old guard thinks there’s no money to be made and walks away.
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    TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: to Google

    As Yahoo prospered, along came search engines like Altavista, Excite, Lycos and Webcrawler. They had programs which crawled the web, bringing with them whole sets of pages. They would index the words in the pages. Now, the granularity went from searching for a site to a page, which helped get us to the content we were looking for much faster. Or at least that was how it should have been. But faced with a result pool of tens of thousands or even millions of pages which had our search terms, it was difficult to know where to begin (or end). And so, even as the Web grew, the search industry stagnated as it was weighed down by its own weight.

    Into this world came Google. Google also crawled the web. What was different about Google was the way it used to present the results. It used a technique called PageRank analysis, which ranked pages based on their incoming links and which pages linked to it. If an important page pointed to another page, then it was likely that the page pointed to was also quite authoritative. This is somewhat akin to people giving references to others. Who gives the references carries a lot of weightage.

    The turning point in the industry came when Yahoo decided to replace its outsourced search provider Inktomi with Google in June 2000. Inktomis stock fell 18% on the news. It is interesting to read a Red Herring article of that time:

    Up until Monday, Inktomi was the lead search engine provider to the top four Internet portals. Inktomi still provides primary search engine capabilities to Microsofts MSN, America Online and Lycos. And Inktomi has been in a similar situation with one of those companies before.

    “I wouldn’t be surprised if Yahoo bought Google,” says Tomas Isakowitz, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott. But despite the acquisition rumors, Mr. Isakowitz thinks that Yahoo switched to Google just to distinguish themselves from the competition.

    The story three years hence is very different. Yahoos 2003 revenues from all its services are expected to grow nominally to about USD 1.2 billion. Inktomi was bought by Yahoo recently. Privately held Googles 2003 revenues are expected to be USD 750 million, a 150% increase from 2002.

    The passing of the baton from Yahoo to Google over the past few years is symbolic of the evolution of search. This is a point made by Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch: “In October 2002, Yahoo made the directory secondary to Google. Suddenly the value of getting listed in Yahoo seemed to disappear. Now, if you’re not listed with Yahoo, it may not matter.” Elwyn Jenkins of Microdocs makes a similar point: Yahoo rested on its laurels as a great Internet Directory, not thinking that search would overtake a directory service at some time. However, what searchers seem to want is the immediacy of search rather than the hand documented web that Yahoo gives.

    News.com highlights the transition from directory to search engines as the navigation norm on the Internet.

    Once the primary road signs to navigating the Internet, directories have moved to the shoulder. They are being displaced by algorithmic search tools and commercial services that many people now believe do a better job in satisfying Web surfers and advertisers. The transformation is bringing to an end an altruistic era of human editors, who once wielded significant clout in driving traffic to Web sites through recommendations made without regard for commercial considerations.

    How did Google come to dominate the search industry?

    Tomorrow: Googles Domination

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