Search Action

Three articles on the action in the search engine space:

News.com writes about how “some major Web portals (Microsoft, Yahoo and EarthLink) are trying to get an edge in the competitive Internet search market by thinking outside of the browser…and providing access to online searches through a ‘taskbar’ displayed to the side or at the bottom of a PC screen…Advocates of the technology say it offers a simple and direct way for people to call up information such as stock quotes, dictionary definitions and other data without going through the added step of opening a full browser window.”

A second report in News.com discusses Yahoo’s plans to allow external RSS feeds to be added on to the MyYahoo page: “RSS would let MyYahoo users transport feeds from third-party content sites onto their personal pages, intermingling outside links with tailored news, video and financial information from Yahoo. The outside links then direct the reader to content on third-party pages. Such a layout would be a first for Yahoo.”

WSJ reports on Google’s continued expansion of what the search box can do: “Google expanded the types of information that Internet users can search for on its Web site to include such things as area codes, product codes, flight information, vehicle identification numbers and U.S. Postal Service tracking numbers…Computer users, for example, can type in an area code in the search query bar and the top result will show a map of that geographic area. Users can also plug in a vehicle identification number into the search query box to get a link for a Web page with more information about the year, make and model of a specific type of car…Google sees its mission as connecting Internet users to the world’s information, which it hopes to organize and make more accessible.”

So, what it looks like is that we can expect a Unix-style command line interface to search engines, accessible via a desktop taskbar.

Open-Source Dilemma for Governments

Consulting Times writes (in the US context):

To operate a local government requires approximately 200 separate software applications. These include programs running under the following functional areas: City Management Systems, Selective Public Information, Technical Databases, Emergency Systems, Criminal Justice and Courts, School Administration, Law Enforcement, Public Works, Social and Public Services, Capital Assets and Associated, Selective Public Information.

In areas such as finance, accounting and human resources Open Source Software can at present only provide a stable, low cost infrastructure on which ERP programs can run. Local governments in the suite spot of the market require ERP software like Oracle Financials, SAP, PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, Lawson and other proprietary systems. Those programs account for approximately half of a local government’s budget. No open source equivalents exist.

Additionally, of the approximately 200 applications needed by local governments, only 25 or so exist in the market. Of the remainder, local governments must write their own or hire a contract programming firm to create them. Every time a local government unit pays for a separate “build-to-suit” application, they waste the public’s money.

Open Source Software does not provide a total answer to all solutions needed in any enterprise. Open Source Software does not provide a cure-all and simply put it’s not a panacea. However, OSS provides an excellent model for collaborative development. In that case, university research departments and local government units can join together to obtain public financing and build the software needed using existing standards created by the multi-state working groups.

Indian engineering colleges need to take up the challenge of creating software applications for the government needs. This will be a win-win for everyone: for students, it will give them first-hand knowledge of real-world problems, and for the govenrment, it will create solutions for the paperwork problems. What’s needed is a few good people to co-ordinate this initiative.

WSJ Technology Report

WSJ has a collection of articles as part of its Tech report. Two interesting ones:

Visualisation Software: “Executives in a broad range of industries around the world are finding that information-visualization software helps them make critical business decisions by cutting through information overload. Instead of wading through endless spreadsheets and text analyses, executives can get a quick overview with the graphics offered by visualization software, and still find whatever level of detail they need with a few clicks of the mouse. Some are even finding that the visual presentations allow them to see patterns they wouldn’t have noticed otherwise…The market for visualization software is heating up for a number of reasons. More-powerful PCs are able to use the software on desktops. The new emphasis on corporate governance means that top executives have to have a better fix on all aspects of corporate results — and visualization software helps them do that. And corporate cutbacks mean that companies don’t have the staff to analyze a lot of data coming in, so visualization software enables those left to be more efficient.”

Wikis: “Wikis are Web pages to which anyone can make changes. They make it easy to add, change or delete online material without having to learn a complicated programming language — or get anyone’s permission. As a result, they allow companies and work teams to trade ideas, share intelligence and track projects. Wikis are a modest version of one of the hottest product categories in technology today: collaboration software…Their simplicity has enabled wikis to spread informally within organizations, much in the way that instant messaging first took off. Individuals or departments install them, often without the help or knowledge of the corporate information-technology department, and they gradually spread as more people see their benefits…A wiki page looks like any Web page, but with a difference: With the click of a button, a visitor can add new material to the page or change what’s already there. Others can see it once they refresh the page. This isn’t as disruptive as it sounds; all changes are tracked, and earlier versions can be restored if important information is deleted.”

US VoIP Tipping Point?

The recent decision by Verizon to give an exclusive 18-month contract to Nortel to supply VoIP equipment. Both New York Times and Wall Street Journal write about the importance of the deal.

NYTimes: “Verizon, the nation’s biggest phone company, had given a huge lift to a technology that some industry executives say could be the most important development in public telecommunications networks since analog switches made way for digital equipment two decades ago…So far, most of the equipment sold for Internet-based phone communications has been to big corporate users. And the extent to which Verizon or other big carriers will actually back up their visions with money depends on how quickly customers embrace Internet-based telephone services.”

Adds WSJ:

The 10-year-old VOIP technology implemented successfully on a widespread basis only in recent years is expected to take corporate America by storm this year, and consumers sometime thereafter.

“We believe that VOIP could be the most significant technology trend in 2004,” says analyst Casey Ryan at Wells Fargo Securities in San Francisco. He predicts that overall VOIP sales will soar by 100% this year.

Always-on Software Battle

Dana Blankenhorn writes about how Linux and Windows are fighting it out for the world of tomorrow, and predicts a winner:

The big battle in Always-On software starts this year. It’s between two paradigms, the American paradigm of computing and the Japanese paradigm of consumer electronics.

What may be most interesting is where these two paradigms are lining-up.

The American paradigm will be centered on Windows. It now has a kernel, the company is searching out deals in the embedded systems market, and Bill Gates has been talking about “Always-On” applications like managing your home entertainment.

The Japanese paradigm is lining up behind Linux. There are several versions of embedded Linux out there. No Linux vendor has the marketing power to challenge their customer’s paradigm. And it’s slowly dawning on vendors that the simple, embedded-only operating systems like VXWorks just don’t have the scalability to handle these really complex applications.

I’m saying, here and now, that the Japanese paradigm will win-out, which leads to an interesting paradox.

You see, consumer electronics is based on simplicity. You have a lot of default settings. Each box does one thing in one way. This makes it easier to use. Yet I am saying it is this paradigm that will win in the increasingly-complex world of Always-On.

Doug Engelbert’s Creations

Wired features Doug Engelbart whose 90-minute demo rolled out virtually all that would come to define modern computing: videoconferencing, hyperlinks, networked collaboration, digital text editing, and something called a “mouse” — in 1968! Said Engelbert: “We weren’t interested in “automation” but in “augmentation.” We were not just building a tool, we were designing an entire system for working with knowledge. Automation means if you’re milking a cow, you get a tool that will milk it for you. But to augment the milking of a cow, you invent the telephone. The telephone not only changes how you milk, but the rest of the way you work as well. It touches the entire process. It was a paradigm shift.”

Stephen Downe’s 2004 Predictions

[via Roland Tanglao] Here. Extremely well thought out. Among the predictions: Email redux, A population in search of a community, Blogging without writing, Personalization finally works, Learning objects at last, New hype: simulations, Attacking Open Content, IP Communications, finally. A few pointers:

A suite of tools, ensuring bloggers not only the capacity to write, but also the chance to be heard, will begin to evolve through the new year.

What if you could control the results [of browsing], wearing different profiles for different browsing routines, clicking on an evaluation as you read, adding a comment or annotation if you felt like it, capturing and collecting your own personal library as you went along? Not a blog, because a blog is about writing, but a way of communicating what you think is important. The early indications are already out there, and in the next twelve months we should be watching for some form of non-blog blogging to emerge.

By combining the information provided by non-blog blogging with tailored feeds drawing resources from hundreds or thousands of sources, readers will be able to be presented exactly what they want. Into this same environment will be piped whatever replaces email, so that all a person’s essential web reading (and very little non-essential web reading) will be available through a single application.

TECH TALK: Good Books: Why Not

Nalebuff and Ayres take the view that innovation can be learnt, and there is a framework for thinking out-of-the-box. The book, through a series of examples, shows the way in which we can implement innovative thinking as part of our normal course of work, giving a platform for coming out with ideas and hopefully, solutions to challenging problems. Why Not describes four approaches to problem solving.

The first is WWCD What would Croesus do? Croesus was a very wealthy king and in this context it is taken to mean infinite resources. So, how would we solve a problem if there were no constraints. What this does is show that a solution exists, and then we can work on refining it. An innovator might produce 99 percent of the benefit for 1 percent of the cost.

The second approach is to internalize the externalities Why arent you feeling my pain? This focuses on creating the right incentives. The trick is to look at some choice that buyers or sellers make whereby the decision makers benefit from the value is less than the cost it imposes on othersIf the decision maker is made to feel your pain, she will end up doing the right thingFigure out what you like the person to do differently, and then provide the right rewards and punishment, accordingly.

The third approach involves idea arbitrage Where else would it work? In this case, the tool starts with a solution and looks for other problems the solution can be translated to. Translation often requires adaptation not just brute arbitrage, but arbitrage with a twist. The translated solution needs be well translated or blended to fit the context and institutions of the new setting.

The fourth tool involves symmetry Would flipping it work? This means trying things the other way around. It takes an existing solution in a given context and turns it around to get a new perspective.

The goal, as the authors put it, is principled problem-solving, [which can] help you see the solution more clearly. While we typically think of filters as constraints, we want to convince you that identifying the underlying attributes of any solution can be liberating and can actually help you generate ideasPrincipled problem solving means that you take into account the principles that any solution must satisfy. The more of these principles you can identify, the closer you are to the solution. There may be fewer options to explore, but those are the right ones to focus on.

As I read the book, I thought about the challenges we face in our quest to tap the SME and rural markets. The key is to frame the problem correctly .For example, in addressing the issue of making computers more affordable, one should ask not how do we provide a computer to every employee? but how can we provide computing to every employee? The former question will invariably point us to a low-configuration computer (use one with a lower-end processor, or use a refurbished computer), but the latter will point us in the direction of thin clients and server-centric computing.

So, here are two practice exercises that Nalebuff and Ayres discuss to show how to apply the principles. (Read the book for the solutions.) The Four Seed Puzzle: The task here is to plant seeds so that each seed is equidistant from the other seeds. The Ten-Seed Puzzle: The task is to plant ten seeds in a way so that they form five distinct rows, each with exactly four seeds. Happy thinking!

{Postscript: A book on a related theme is How would you move Mount Fuji? by William Poundstone. It focuses on puzzles asked during job interviews at Microsoft.]

Tomorrow: Why Things Break

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