Google and Microsoft

NYTimes writes:

It is certain that Google intends to extend information-searching in many directions: mobile applications for wireless gadgets, more effective online shopping, and social networking are all obvious applications of its technology.

The contrast is that while Microsoft is moving up from its monopoly Windows desktop operating system to so-called Web-based services like its new SPOT watches (for smart personal objects technology), Google is moving down to confront Microsoft from its giant computing resource.

“Until now, most of our operating systems have been extensions of the desktop metaphor,” said John Seeley Brown, former director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. That metaphor makes less and less sense, he said, adding, “An information system that spreads over the whole globe is the way to go.”

Indeed, while much of the world has been pursuing a computer vision that is increasingly decentralized, Google is taking the opposite course – using the Internet to make its computer system, the world’s largest, available everywhere.

“Microsoft’s Windows could literally be reduced to being a window into a more interesting computing world which would take place elsewhere,” he said.

Extrapolate it further: thin clients on the desktop with centralised servers running the applications. While this may not be work in developed markets, it could be the computing platform for news users in emerging markets.

Virtualisation

ZDNet writes:

Briefly put, with virtualisation you can make one chunk of hardware look like multiple independent machines and thus run two copies of Windows, three of MacOS and a brace of Linuxes all at the same time..You can run lots of servers on one box where previously you were limited to one processor and one lot of software.

A common rule of thumb is that a PC-based server starts to run out of steam after about 30 percent of its resources are engaged: virtualisation can help here by allowing different tasks to use the underutilised resources that would otherwise be hanging around waiting for the overstressed stuff to finish.

Eventually there’ll be nothing left to maximise, and here’s where the benefits of virtualisation kick in. Say you’re running four virtual machines on a single piece of silicon — four web servers, for the sake of argument — and demand is such that performance is unacceptable. By moving just one of those servers off to fresh hardware, performance for all will be hugely improved — without having to touch three of them. By increasing the degree of control that managers have over where and how servers run, virtualisation should mean that you end up just buying the kit you actually need, not the amount you need to compensate for the basic inefficiencies of the PC architecture.

There are plenty of other advantages. A virtual environment is just a mix of software and data, so not only can it be moved from machine to machine, it can be backed up on disk, duplicated, transmitted across the Net and so on — making it much easier to handle in general. Even for individual users, the ability to run multiple operating systems or move complete set-ups from one computer to another will solve a lot of the headaches we have in our daily digital lives.

Both IBM and Intel are building hardware support for the idea into their processors, IBM into the Power range and Intel with its as-yet foggily described Vanderpool technology. Nobody wants to limit the market for their ideas, so it’s a safe bet that virtualisation will be available on all our desktops sometime soon.

Bridges.org

Fortune (David Kirkpatrick) writes:

No single issue in IT is more important than figuring out how to use technology in the developing world. That’s why you should know about Teresa Peters. Raised on a farm in Ohio, she now runs a group in Cape Town called Bridges.org, a unique nonprofit consulting firm on IT and development. “Our expertise is helping others use tech better,” said Peters.

Bridges.org consults on IT-related projects for governments, nonprofits, and groups such as the World Bank. It evaluates specific technologies, and advocates policy changes that will make it easier for tech to be useful in developing countries. The government of Rwanda created something called the Rwandan Information Technology Authority and put together what Peters calls an “excellent, phone-book sized” strategy. But the government brought in Bridges to help implement it. The group has focused almost exclusively on Africa, where Peters, normally modest, proclaims, “We know more about what’s happening on the ground than anyone.”

Many IT-related projects in Africa are failing. That’s because, Peters says, too many ignore the basic criteria for success: “Small, cheap, local, and relevant are the key things for IT here, with a suite of applications around the device.” Often, for instance, what’s appropriate is not a PC but a handheld, or even just a cellphone. (One of the main reasons for that? PCs are often stolen.) Assessments are not what’s needed, she says. Action is. “Our calculation is that 84 different countries worldwide have had their IT assessed more than 10 times.”

Peters says the most effective use of technology she’s ever seen was in a pilot project that gave doctors and medical students in Kenya Palm handhelds that contained a regularly updated set of medical reference materials. Drugs change frequently, as do treatment regimens. But, she explains, “Doctors are out all day seeing patients two to a bed and on the floorso many it’s unbelievable. They make notes on each patient but without a handheld they have to wait until the end of the day to check reference books for drug interactions and other information.” The program resulted in clear improvements in patient care.

But Peters says that despite the effectiveness of handhelds in such situations, it remains impractical to expand such programs. At present it is almost impossible to buy any kind of handheld in most of Africa outside South Africa, and even there it is hard to get one repaired. A simple thing like a handheld repair service might be the unexpected gating factor for a medical technology program. “It’s about more than just devices and connections,” Peters says.

An interesting comment on open-source and commercial software:

Bridges is now conducting a study comparing open-source software like Linux with proprietary software for community-access computer labs and Internet cafes. It is assessing the total cost of ownershipdoing what Peters calls a “reality check.” While the report is not complete and she says they aim not to take sides in a commercial competition, “today’s realities indicate that proprietary software is more suitable for most of these labs. Technical support is the absolute deal killer. The tech support is just not there for open source.” While she says most African governments are feeling pressure to move to the “free” open source, most projects will fail because, for now, there is simply no technical support in Africa for desktop Linux. (People aren’t having as much trouble with Linux for server installations, she says.) Microsoft, on the other hand, which is the de facto supplier of proprietary alternatives, has a well-developed support infrastructure in many places.

Latent Semantic Indexing

[via David Weinberger] A paper by Clara Yu, John Cuadrado, Maciej Ceglowski and J. Scott Payne:

In talking about search engines and how to improve them, it helps to remember what distinguishes a useful search from a fruitless one. To be truly useful, there are generally three things we want from a search engine:

1. We want it to give us all of the relevant information available on our topic.
2. We want it to give us only information that is relevant to our search
3. We want the information ordered in some meaningful way, so that we see the most relevant results first.

Improving our trinity of precision, ranking and recall, however, requires more than brute force. In the following pages, we will describe one promising approach, called latent semantic indexing, that lets us make improvements in all three categories. LSI was first developed at Bellcore in the late 1980’s, and is the object of active research, but is surprisingly little-known outside the information retrieval community.

Latent semantic indexing adds an important step to the document indexing process. In addition to recording which keywords a document contains, the method examines the document collection as a whole, to see which other documents contain some of those same words. LSI considers documents that have many words in common to be semantically close, and ones with few words in common to be semantically distant… Although the LSI algorithm doesn’t understand anything about what the words mean, the patterns it notices can make it seem astonishingly intelligent.

When you search an LSI-indexed database, the search engine looks at similarity values it has calculated for every content word, and returns the documents that it thinks best fit the query. Because two documents may be semantically very close even if they do not share a particular keyword, LSI does not require an exact match to return useful results. Where a plain keyword search will fail if there is no exact match, LSI will often return relevant documents that don’t contain the keyword at all.

Wikis Described in Plain English

By Lee Lefever: “A wiki is a specific type of website. A wiki is special because it allows a group of people to build, edit and modify a website with no programming or HTML whatsoever. Because it doesnt require technical expertise, all users of the wiki have equal ability to maintain and edit the site. Wikis are easy to learn and use, which makes them accessible to everyone.”

eBusiness Impact

Business Week has a report on how six new industries are being transformed: jewelry, bill payments, telecom, hotels, real estate and software. From the introduction:

As e-biz strikes again, key questions arise: Why these industries? And why now? In the first round of Net disruption, the online players were selling commodities: books, music, or stock trades. Customers didn’t need to see, squeeze, or sniff the stuff — all they cared about was price. Today’s Net upstarts are pulling together more complex information and boiling it down so consumers can become smarter purchasers of a broader array of products and services. In real estate, for instance, zipRealty and others have learned how to use software to show potential home buyers photos and floor plans for scores of potential houses. Because that reduces the agent’s work, zipRealty can save consumers 20% to 25% off standard commissions. In the jewelry biz, Blue Nile offers loads of educational information on diamonds so lovestruck men feel comfortable buying gems based on a collection of independent ratings on color, cut, clarity, and carat size.

Broadband has been instrumental in the Net’s advance, too. A critical mass of people around the world now have high-speed Net access, including 27 million U.S. households. That means consumers can handle the huge loads of information dished up by the second wave of online players. Lickety-split Net links let them browse through dozens of photos of hotel rooms, check out a variety of gold necklaces, or take virtual tours of scores of homes for sale. Speedy Net connections also have made it easier for programmers around the world to cooperate in developing new open-source software, which is changing the economics of the $200 billion software market.

The industries under assault have other more subtle characteristics in common, as well. Several, including jewelry and hotels, have long supply chains with many middlemen, each of whom takes a cut of the profits, driving up retail prices. A South African white diamond can pass through five different hands, including rough-diamond brokers, cutters, and jewelry and diamond wholesalers. Blue Nile connects over the Internet to its key suppliers, who buy their stones directly from South Africa’s powerful DeBeers Consolidated Mines Ltd. That eliminates three middlemen or more. “Businesses are learning to drive process change by combining it with technology,” says John T. Chambers, CEO of networking giant Cisco Systems Inc.

So, who will win, the upstarts or the established companies? This time, with incumbents attuned to the advantages of the Net, there will be victors on both sides. A Blue Nile here, a Verizon there. More important, though, is that the Internet will continue to have sweeping impact on the economy, giving consumers more choices and making everyone more efficient. “It’s going to be a wonderful mess,” says Al Lill, a fellow at tech-research firm Gartner.

There is also an interview with Paul Saffo. Excerpts:

Each time it gets cheaper to do something, you get more players. It’s irreversibly more complex. You get more than a value chain. You get a value web.

Ultimately, successful technologies have media expressions, but there’s a time lag. TV was invented in the ’30s, but its media expression was broadcast networks in the ’50s.

The media expression of the mainframe in the ’60s was e-mail in 1969, but it didn’t mature until it migrated to client-server computing in the ’80s, which made it much cheaper to provide. The media expression of client-server was the Web in the 1990s. The Web will mature when we can take it everywhere with us and when we have peer-to-peer systems to manage all the connections [more cheaply and efficiently].

And it isn’t about the same old Web stuff. The moment the Web fits into your pocket, you have a whole new set of applications and business opportunities that never existed before, such as location-based marketing.

We’ve reached the point where we’re trading in clouds of electrons.

TECH TALK: The Company: John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea traces the history of the Company from 3000 BC to now. From the description on the book jacket:

With their trademark authority and wit, Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge reveal the company to be one of historys great catalysts, for good and for ill, a mighty engine for sucking in, recombining, and pumping out money, goods, people, and culture to every corner of the globe. What other earthly invention has the power to grow to any size, and to live to any age? What else could have given us both the stock market and the British Empire? The company man, the company town, and company time? Disneyfication and McDonaldsization, to say nothing of Coca-colonialism? Through its many mutations, the company has always incited controversy, and governments have always fought to rein it in. Today, though Marx may spin in his grave and anarchists riot in the streets, the company exercises an unparalleled influence on the globe, and understanding what this creature is and where it comes from has never been a more pressing matter. To the rescue come these acclaimed authors, with a short volume of truly vast range and insight.

The Publishers Weekly adds:

Considering the astounding impact companies have had on every corner of civilization, it’s amazing that the development of the institution has been largely unexamined. Economist editors Micklethwait and Wooldridge present a compact and timely book that deftly sketches the history of the company. They trace its progress from Assyrian partnership agreements through the 16th- and 17th-century European “charter companies” that opened trade with distant parts of the world, to today’s multinationalsMicklethwait and Wooldrige point out that the enormous power wielded by the company is nothing new. Companies were behind the slave trade, opium and imperialism, and the British East India Company ruled the subcontinent with its standing army of native troops, outmanning the British army two to one. By comparison, the modern company is a bastion of restraint and morality. In a short, final chapter on the company’s future, the authors argue against the fear, in antiglobalization circles, that “a handful of giant companies are engaged in a `silent takeover’ of the world.” Indeed, trends point toward large organizations breaking into smaller units. Moreover, the authors argue that for all the change companies have engendered over time, their force has been for an aggregate good.

The authors write in the introduction:

The most important organization in the world is the company: the basis of the prosperity of the West and the best hope for the future of the rest of the world. Indeed, for most of us, the companys only real rival for our time and energy is the one that is taken for granted the familyCompanies have proved enormously powerful not just because they improve productivity, but also because they possess most of the legal rights of a human being, without the attendant disadvantages of biology: they are not condemned to die of old age and they can create progeny pretty much at will.

The company has been one of the Wests great competitive advantages. Of course, the Wests success owes much to the technological prowess and liberal values. But Robert Lowe and William Gladstone [with their Companies Act of the mid-nineteenth century] ushered in an organization that has been uniquely effective in rendering human effort productiveEconomists have elaborated on why such institutions are crucial to economic development. Companies increase the pool of capital available for productive investment. They allow investors to spread their risk by purchasing small and easily marketable shares in various enterprises. And they provide a way of imposing management structures on large organizations.

The history of the Company is a fascinating mirror on our past and present. Even as technology and globalisation expand markets and increase competition, the Company in its various forms remains as resilient as ever.

Tomorrow: Amar Bhide

Continue reading