On Paradigm Shifts

Jonathan Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. He wrote as part of his most recent newsletter:

A key concept – one that is central to understanding the essence of the paradigm shift – is that the adherents of the old paradigm do not convert and become adherents of the new paradigm, that would be far too easy. During the period of a given paradigm, scientists (including computer scientists) tend to agree about what phenomena are relevant and what constitutes an explanation of these phenomena; they also agree on a general direction for problem solving, coming to a common understanding of what problems should be addressed and what constitutes a problem. Near the end of such a period, a crisis erupts as different and strange ideas come to the table. Existing theories are contradicted, resulting in an air of confusion. At some point, a revolution takes place and this resembles a religious conversion more than anything else.

Rich Browser Client Apps

Phil Wainewright discusses web-based rich client technology in the context of his prediction that “in ten years’ time, applications will run in rich browser clients, Windows will have settled into its legacy platform niche … and Microsoft will be working hard to re-establish the market position of Office having relaunched it as a web-based application.”

A lot can happen in ten years, and a lot is already being tried out in the realms of web-based rich client technology:

* IBM is working on Workplace Client Technology.
* There’s Macromedia’s work on its Flex architecture.
* DreamFactory is proving popular among leading-edge adopters of online applications.
* And BEA’s Adam Bosworth has written at length in his blog about what he’d like to see achieved with the company’s Project Alchemy.

Nobody involved in these and other similar initiatives is fooling themselves that they can do everything that’s required in the browser as we know it today. But they do believe that they can get there by building on today’s browser technology as a foundation, which is a route Microsoft explicitly rejected when it halted work on DHTML.

The other element here is the ‘good enough’ factor. Yes, Barry is right that individual creative activities like rich document editing and photo retouching need to execute locally. People who are seriously into those activities will want the appropriate base-level capabilities built into their client devices, in the same way that some people buy expensive digital cameras or invest in specialist publishing software. But the mainstream market is for simple, easy-to-use, cost-effective, multi-purpose (dare I say it, lowest-common-denominator?) client devices, because what matters most is being able to tap into network resources, and Microsoft is making the mistake of failing to prioritize that network readinesss.

Think sever-centric computing and low-cost thin clients. We can make these decisions in emerging markets like India because we still don’t have a large enough legacy that will prevent us from changing. Only 1% of the potential users actually use a computet today, so we have an opportunity to get the architecture right – one that is both affordable and manageable.

Desktop Dashboard

Technology Rewview writes: “These days, finding information on the Web can be easier than finding it on your computer’s hard drive. But Nat Friedman, a software engineer and open-source-programming guru in Cambridge, MA, is leading an effort to change that with a free program called Dashboard. Dashboard constantly combs through your e-mail, calendar, address book, word-processing, and browser programs and brings together information related to your current tasks before you even know you want it. Say you%u2019re reading an e-mail from a collaborator on a project. Dashboard automatically shows the person’s contact information, her last five e-mails, and your upcoming appointments with her. Programs like Microsoft’s Longhorn will have similar functions but are years from completion. Friedman, cofounder of open-source desktop software maker Ximian, which was acquired by Novell last August, says Dashboard will be ready as early as this summer.”

Solar Cells

Technology Review writes: “Breakthroughs in nanotech are making it possible to churn out cheap, flexible solar cells by the meter. Soon your cell phone may be powered by the sun.”

On the test benches of Konarka Technologies in Lowell, MA, a new kind of solar cell is being put through its paces. Strips of flexible plastic all but indistinguishable from photographic film bask under high-intensity lights. These strips, about 10 centimeters long and five centimeters wide, are converting the light into electricity. Wire a few of them together, and they generate enough power to run a small fan.

Solar cells, of course, are nothing new. But until now, solar power has required expensive silicon-based panels that have relegated it, largely, to niche applications like satellites and high-end homes. Whats remarkable about Konarkas power-producing films is that they are cheap and easy to make, using a production line of coating machines and rollers. The process is more akin to the quick-and-dirty workings of a modern printing press than to the arcane rituals performed in the clean rooms of silicon solar-panel manufacturing. The company literally has rolls of the stuff; its engineers plan to cut off usable sheets as if it were saran wrap.

Konarkas technology is just one example of a new type of printable solar cell, or photovoltaic, that promises to go almost anywhere, paving the way for affordable and ubiquitous solar power. Not only are the cells inexpensive to produceless than half the cost of conventional panels, for the same amount of powerbut theyre also lightweight and flexible, so they can be built into all sorts of surfaces. Flexible films laminated onto laptops and cell phones could provide a steady trickle of electricity, reducing the need to plug in for power. Solar cells mixed into automotive paint could allow the sun to charge the batteries of hybrid cars, reducing their need for fuel. Eventually, such solar cells could even cover buildings, providing power for the electricity grid.

Whats making all this possible is recent breakthroughs in materials science, including advances in nanomaterials. Some of the most promising solar devices are made from conducting plastics and nano-based particles, far too small for the eye to see, that are mixed in a solution. This solution can then be printed, in a process similar to ink-jet printing, onto a surface; there the nanomaterials assemble themselves into structures within the plastic, forming the basis of a solar cell. And all this is done with little human intervention. The fabulous notion here is that we may be able to put this active agent in some spreadable medium and basically print these things, says Rice University chemist Richard Smalley, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of soccer-ball-shaped carbon molecules known as buckyballs, a key ingredient in many nano solar cells.

Smartphones Future

News.com has an interview with Ya-Qin Zhang, VP of mobile and embedded devices at Microsoft. Excerpts:

If you look at the hardware, you are going to see probably half a gigahertz- to 1GHz-embedded processors. That is very powerful. Moore’s Law continues–but obviously with constraints.

The constraint is battery power, which is not progressing at a rate beyond 10 percent. The processing power, the storage and the communications bandwidth are going to continue to follow Moore’s Law. The more exciting part is really the software and the connectivity.

I don’t know if it’s exactly two years or three years, but let’s say in the foreseeable future that we will have seamless mobile computing. The first thing is really seamless connectivity, really making the transition from a single radio to multiple radios. It could be Wi-Fi, BlueTooth, WiMax, UWB (ultra wideband) and also other cellular radios. The important thing is to make sure that there is seamless roaming and handover and a consistent experience. That is a critical technology that we need to enable.

There are technical challenges, because the smart phone is very constrained. It’s constrained by the real estate, the battery power, the footprint, the screen size and the way you interact with it–you don’t have a huge keyboard.

A smart phone has to make phone calls in a way that is transparent to users. It should be transparent to users. Usability: I think we have a very nice user interface, but when you put in a lot of features, you want to create a very easy-to-navigate experience. I think that we can improve in all of these things. The features are there, but we need more.

Semantic Web to Global Mind

Nova Spivack writes in a fascinating essay:

I believe that the Internet (the hardware) is already evolving into a distributed global brain, and its ongoing activity (the software, humans and data) represents the cognitive process of an increasingly intelligent global mind. This global mind is not centrally organized or controlled, rather it is a bottom-up, emergent, self-organizing phenomenon formed from flows of trillions of information-processing events comprised of billions of independent information processors.

f the Web enables the World Wide File System, the emergence of XML enables The World Wide Database. XML enables agents in the system to define, store, retrieve, interact with, and interpret arbitrary data structures with arbitrary precision. Using XML any conceivable syntax and data schema can be defined and shared. XML adds more structure to the information in the memory of the global mind, enabling more sophisticated content and processes to be stored and accessed by agents in the system.

The recently emerging Semantic Web adds yet another layer of sophistication beyond XML. It enables agents in the system to begin to understand and reason about the meaning of information within the system. The Semantic Web enables software to work not merely with data but with concepts. Concepts are information structures that are connected to formal systems of ideas in other words they are meaningful information. The Semantic Web provides standards for transforming ordinary information structures into concepts that can be understood by software programs. Using metalanguages for defining semantics such as RDF and OWL, the Semantic Web makes it possible to connect data elements to concepts in formally defined systems of knowledge called ontologies. By doing this software programs are able to then reason intelligently about the information.

By connecting information to ontologies, programs can begin to process information more intelligently. For example, the content of a medical journal could be linked to a medical ontology that defines medical concepts and their interrelations. Using this ontology it would then be possible to do semantic searches of the journal that are far more intelligent than the primitive keyword searches that are currently used in most search systems today. A semantic search for information about the vascular system” would return articles and data records that refer to the heart, even though the word “heart” was not explicitly searched for. Furthermore, a semantic search for “organs connected to the heart” could make logical inferences across chains of concepts in the underlying medical ontology in order to return articles about the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, the brain, etc., even though none of those organs were explicitly named in the original query.

The Internet (the OS layer), the Web (the data layer), XML (the data schema and syntax layer), and the Semantic Web (the knowledge and reasoning layer) combine to provide the foundation for an increasingly intelligent distributed world-wide mind. They enable all the agents of the global mind to seamlessly share not just raw information, but even high-level concepts, knowledge and intelligent cognitive processes, in a manner that is open and independent of any individual system.

TECH TALK: Tech Trends: 4. Real-Time Enterprise

The dream of the real-time enterprise (RTE) has been there since the earliest software systems were written. Success has been achieved to varying degrees by different organisations. The challenge is what fuels the various business software companies and the looming consolidation in the industry (considering Oracles bid for PeopleSoft and the discontinued merger talks between Microsoft and SAP). The RTE is the Holy Grail of every business getting a snapshot of the business as it is at this instant across the extended value chain. Companies like Dell and Wal-mart have probably made the maximum progress in moving towards this vision, and this is reflected in their dominance of the industries in which they operate.

In business, the differentiator is increasingly not in the machines used for production, but in the processes that make up the information refinery. According to Vinod Khosla, Any business process within the enterprise, including relevant processes in use by its trading partners, must be reflected instantaneously in all enterprise systems. In other words, within a real-time enterprise, all information is real time. An example of a real-time enterprise is Cisco, which is known to be able to close its books every day. Service-oriented architectures are helping glue the various information silos within the enterprise to create an event-driven platform, built around business processes. SAPs Shai Agassi said: Ten years ago the challenge was to reduce the time a market opportunity was spotted to the time a company was able to develop an appropriate product, get parts from suppliers and ship it to the customers. By and large we have brought that down. Companies can do that in two weeks to a month. The next phase will be about change management.

An extract from the introduction of a book, Realtime, published by SAP as a tribute to one of its founders, Hasso Plattner says: Real time is a clear path from stimulus through decision to an effective enterpriseThe essence of the real-time enterprise is reducing the excise tax of inefficiency at all levels of a company.

Ram Reddy wrote on the Real-Time Enterprise in the Intelligent Enterprise, saying that the RTE offers operational more than strategic benefits:

The RTE concept has been around for many decades. The goal of early information systems was to capture transactional and operational data as it was created and share it instantaneously across the enterprise and its supporting supply chain. But technology limitations made RTE elusive. And although RTE technologies in some form or another have been around for a while, their use has been limited to a specific customer service function such as credit verification at point of sale. Even then, paying by credit card in certain parts of the world can take anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes. (Lacking real-time connectivity to a credit verification bureau, a store clerk must phone a credit bureau to get approval for the purchase.)

Now, the increasing availability of affordable high-speed network connectivity and extensible markup language (XML) and its derivatives is letting certain functions within the enterprise interact in real time. The business drivers for RTE technologies continue to drive adoption: Reducing the amount of time it takes for information to be transmitted between functional areas within an enterprise and its supporting supply chain will yield significant business benefits. RTE ideally would provide these business benefits at the operational, managerial, and executive levels.

RTE technologies promise meaningful and measurable business benefits as long as the focus is on reducing cycle times and improving operational efficiencies. In some instances, especially in service industries, RTE technologies also can deliver managerial benefits by automating routine decision-making, such as credit authorization and approval. For manufacturing enterprises and supporting supply chains that have been exchanging information using traditional mechanisms such as EDI, RTE technologies will have to demonstrate a clear ROI from incremental time reduction to zero latency. Until the difficult problems of data cleansing, integration, and supplier relationships are solved, strategic benefits from RTE technologies will be limited.

Called by various names Agile, Adaptive, Intelligent, Event-Drive the RTE dream is now coming true as applications software, service-oriented architectures, mobility, business process management and personalised dashboards all come together.

Tomorrow: SOA

Continue reading TECH TALK: Tech Trends: 4. Real-Time Enterprise