WSJ on RSS

RSS is beginning to hit mainstream consciousness – you that when the Wall Street Journal writes about it! Jeremy Wagstaff writes:

what if all that automated stuff was somewhere else, delivered through a different mechanism you could tweak, search through easily, and which wasn’t laced with spam? Your inbox would just be what is e-mail, from your boss or Auntie Lola…Enter the RSS feed.

This also makes sense for those folk who may not subscribe to e-mail alerts, but who regularly visit any number of Web sites for news, weather, movies, village jamborees, books, garden furniture, or whatever. Instead of having to trawl through those Web sites each morning, or each week, or whenever you remember, you can add their RSS feeds to your list and monitor them all from one place.

RSS feeds aren’t just another way to deliver traditional information. RSS feeds have become popular in part because of blogs.

RSS’s strengths are simplicity and versatility: It can be added on to other programs — the browser, Outlook, or be delivered to your hand-phone, hand-held device, or even as audio on your MP3 player. It’s a lot more powerful than e-mail, and — we hope — will be guaranteed spam-free.

Was a little disappointed that there was no mention of BlogStreet (we have plenty of RSS-related stuff: RSS Directory, RSS Discovery and RSS Generator) or the Info Aggregator. Not to worry – our time will come.

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Alsop on Longhorn

Stewart Also, writing in Fortune, says that Microsoft has become uninteresting, as many of its recent forays outside of the PC business have not yet yielded positive results. Why does Microsoft need to look beyond? “Microsoft can’t make itself much bigger on the desktop because it already provides the operating system (and virtually all the word processors, spreadsheets, e-mail programs, and other key applications) for some 95% of the PCs sold around the world. The market for PCs isn’t growing very fast simply because it’s already so big.”

The big bet is Microsoft’s next-generation OS, Longhorn. Its prospects:

Microsoft’s greatest hope for growth is the next version of Windows, called Longhorn, which the company sees as its competitive response to Linux. More than that, Gates, who is pouring his soul and the bulk of his worktime into Longhorn, sees it as a revolution: an easy-to-use operating system for normal (i.e., non-computer geek) people. There’s a lot about Longhorn that Microsoft isn’t telling yet, but the company’s most ambitious goal is to build into the software a kind of universal file system that organizes all digital informationspreadsheets, e-mails, digital pictures, home videos, MP3s, all of itinto one big, user-friendly database.

Will Longhorn rock the world? I don’t think so. For one thing, the computer industry has dreamed of universal file systems since the days of the Nixon administration or even earlier. Microsoft won’t be any better at achieving that dream than IBM, Digital, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, or any other company that has attempted the same thing.

Even if Longhorn is a big improvement over Windows, it still won’t ignite a revolution. Why? Becauseand believe me, I never thought I’d say this in a million yearsMicrosoft’s software is good enough. We all bitch and moan about one shortcoming or another, as I’ve often done in these pages over the years. But there’s not a whole lot Microsoft can do to make its programs so much better that they justify the suffering we have to endure any time we upgrade to something new. Longhorn might get geeks all sweaty with desire, but to the rest of us, it’s still just an operating system.

Nature vs Nurture

Edge has an article by Matt Ridley on how the “genome changes everything”:

The substance of what I’m interested in is that it’s the genes that are related to behavior, and how they work. The big insight is that genes are the agents of nurture as well as nature. Experience is a huge part of a developing human brain, the human mind, and a human organism. We need to develop in a social world and get things in from the outside. It’s enormously important to the development of human nature. You can’t describe human nature without it. But that process is itself genetic, in the sense that there are genes in there designed to get the experience out of the world and into the organism. In the human case you’re going to have genes that set up systems for learning that are not going to be present in other animals, language being the classic example. Language is something that in every sense is a genetic instinct. There’s no question that human beings, unless they’re unlucky and have a genetic mutation, inherit a capacity for learning language. That capacity is simply not inherited in anything like the same degree by a chimpanzee or a dolphin or any other creature. But you don’t inherit the language; you inherit the capacity for learning the language from the environment.

Human nature is indeed a combination of Darwin’s universals, Galton’s heredity, James’s instincts, De Vries’s genes, Pavlov’s reflexes, Watson’s associations, Kraepelin’s history, Freud’s formative experience, Boas’s culture, Durkheim’s division of labor, Piaget’s development, and Lorenz’s imprinting. You can find all these things going on in the human mind. No account of human nature would be complete without them all …. Butand here is where I begin to tread new groundit is entirely misleading to place these phenomena on a spectrum from nature to nurture, from genetic to environmental. Instead, to understand each and every one of them, you need to understand genes. It is genes that allow the human mind to learn, to remember, to imitate, to imprint, to absorb culture, and to express instincts. Genes are not puppet masters or blueprints. Nor are they just the carriers of heredity. They are active during life; they switch each other on and off; they respond to the environment. They may direct the construction of the body and brain in the womb, but then they set about dismantling and rebuilding what they have made almost at oncein response to experience. They are both cause and consequence of our actions. Somehow the adherents of the “nurture” side of the argument have scared themselves silly at the power and inevitability of genes and missed the greatest lesson of all: the genes are on their side.

Web Services

Business Week has a special report on Web Services, stating that “instead of exploding, the movement to help disparate computer systems easily communicate is gaining in fits and starts. Still, it’ll likely have a powerful impact.” It gives an example of Cigna is using it:

Health insurance giant Cigna has created novel ways to mix and match data that it believes helps patients and doctors. Its Web-services effort, called MyCigna.com, offers nifty tools such as financial-planning modeling. Visitors can track claims, order medications, or change doctors on the site. The portal also offers side-by-side comparisons of drugs by cost and side effects, as well as comparisons of hospitals by cost and success rates of certain surgeries.

A patient can also get a list of questions to ask a doctor about a drug or can enter symptoms into the system to get lists and descriptions of the ailment he or she might have — along with a hot-line phone number to ask more about it. To create all this, Cigna pulls together, on the fly, information from its various computer systems using Web services. “We built MyCigna.com so the participants can get the most out of their benefits,” says Chief Technology Officer Andrea Anania. “This tool allows them to manage their benefits any time, any place, in a very personalized way.”

Another company aggressively using web services is Amazon. Business Week writes that “by allowing friendly hackers to access its data and feeds, the e-commerce giant is creating a fast-growing ecosystem where buying and selling thrive.”

In an interview, Adam Bosworth of BEA looks at the future:

I think Web services will have a wide impact five years from now — and not one that most people expect.

As we move to a world of mobile devices, it becomes increasingly appropriate that the information comes to us, instead of us having to browse for it. Browsing doesn’t work well on mobile devices, but having information come to you does. So, consumers are going to expect every system out there to track what they need to know and send them the information when they need it. If I’m in Chicago, I’ll get information on Chicago hotels.

That sort of thing is going to be huge. Once people start to take it for granted, it’s going to be as big a change as e-mail. And Web services are going to be the mechanism by which information flows to mobile laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Business Blogs and Social Software

Dave Pollard writes: “the key technical elements of Social Networking Enablement (SNE) are business weblogs (the repositories of personal knowledge) and social software (the tools that connect people and mine their knowledge). Following is a high-level specification for commercial development of such software. In organizations with structured work processes (manufacturers, banks etc.) these elements would supplement centralized, filtered knowledge repositories of best practices, policies and methodologies etc. In organizations with primarily unstructured work processes (consultants, engineers etc.) these elements could largely supplant centralized, filtered knowledge repositories and the tools that access them.”

Dave identifies four tools for the enterprise:
– Expertise Finder
– Research Bibliography & Canvassing Tool
– Knowledge Creation Assessment & Biography Tool
– Knowledge Traffic Management Tool
– Debrief Tool

Adobe’s Strategy

Forbes writes:

Adobe’s traditional business is stuck in neutral. While gross margins still float above 90%, sales have gone flat. Last year the San Jose, Calif. company grossed $1.2 billion, down 5% from the year prior. Net was $191 million, off 7%. Despite all that Adobe’s stock trades at a frothy 35 times 2003 estimated earnings.

Companies that aren’t growing don’t hang on to such high multiples. Adobe Chief Executive Bruce Chizen says his firm can gross $5 billion a year, but to do so he has to stop selling software in batches of 50 to designers and start selling to governments and corporations at 1,000 seats per clip. That means coming up with a product used by every department in a company, familiar to interns, executives and all in between.

Adobe has worked the “everybody is a publisher” pitch before. Ten years ago it introduced Reader, a free program that allowed PC users to view PDF files created in Acrobat. The PDF technology gave anyone the ability to produce nice-looking documents that were easily searchable and navigable and printed exactly as they appeared when opened with Reader. Adobe gave away an astounding 500 million copies of Reader, nearly three times the number of Microsoft Office licenses. Yet it failed to convert that huge base into Acrobat buyers; Adobe has sold just 10 million copies of Acrobat. It was expensive, at $250 per copy, and consumers didn’t know the difference between the free Acrobat Reader and Acrobat, the program that creates PDFs.

Chizen, who has been running the company since December 2000, has learned from past mistakes. He’s spent the last two years redesigning products, replacing sales staff and buying up smaller firms to gird Adobe for a new assault on the corporate market. The grand plan: Convince companies that every single document they produce should be turned into an Adobe PDF.

It used to be that a document created in Acrobat was the only thing that could become a PDF. Now, with Adobe’s new software, a Word memo, an Excel spreadsheet, a Web site, a videoclip or a hybrid combination of all four formats can be converted to a PDF. Adobe has begun selling software that gives any of these documents the ability to be read by Adobe Reader, as well as tell company servers where to send itself, who can read it, who has made changes to it and what data within it should go into which part of the database. “The ubiquity of Reader means we can build more applications to take advantage of that platform,” says Chizen. “It’s like what Microsoft has in Office.”

I don’t know how Adobe will make it happen – OpenOffice has a free PDF writer in-built! And OpenOffice works on both Windows and Linux.

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TECH TALK: The PubSubWeb: RSS Revolution

The revolution goes by the unlikely acronym of RSS Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. RSS is a format for publishing information. It uses XML, and can be read and understood by specialised programs. It has so far become popular in the world of blogs, where many blogs have an RSS feed that is updated at the same time as the blog contents. The specialised program called as an RSS aggregator or a news reader can pick up these feeds, each of which has a unique web address. The program then splits the feed into its components and shows the most recently updated content to the end user.

RSS has been around for some time. So have the RSS aggregators. Why then has this not resulted in the PubSubWeb revolution we talk about? There have been two problems: the first, reading has meant requiring users to download a special program and install it on ones desktop, and second, RSS has been seen as a by-product of blogs, rather than vice-versa. So, what is changing?

The solution to the first problem is to use the email client itself as the news reader. Most news readers have a similar 3-pane look-and-feel; there is no need for a separate application. Email clients are ubiquitous and everyone knows how to use them. By creating an RSS aggregator which makes available the feeds as email in an IMAP account, the potential market for readers can be increased to every Internet user, rather than a small fraction which has downloaded and installed a special application. In a way, the RSS-to-IMAP service can be thought of as spam-free mail.

The solution to the second problem requires a change in outlook. The focus needs to shift from what blogs can do to what RSS can do. RSS is the harbinger of the revolution by providing a standardised way to publish and subscribe to information. What is needed is not tools to make publishing blogs easier, but publishing RSS easier. (If blogs are a by-product of the RSS publishing process, that is fine.)

There are other elements which are needed to complete the ecosystem. We need an RSS generator, which can take existing sites and create feeds for them at least till the next generation of content management tools and website publishing tools make an RSS feed (or even an XML file) as a standard, alternate representation. We need an RSS directory, to discover RSS feeds we need a Yahoo or DMOZ for RSS. We need support for authentication, so access to RSS feeds can be restricted.

We also need agents, which can be attached to RSS aggregators and wake-up to send alerts only when the specified conditions are met. This can also be thought of as a mechanism to monitor events and then report on the exceptions that happen (which are events which satisfy certain conditions).

The PubSubWeb is the next upgrade to the web as we know it today. The tools are almost there. What is needed is for service providers to aggregate these tools and integrate them in a seamless manner to build a complete information and events refinery. It will create for a richer view of the diversity that is out there in terms of content along with delivery of events and information to the people who need them most. The PubSubWeb is an idea whose time has come.

Tomorrow: Information Marketplace

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