The Three-Screen Problem

Om Malik writes:

Walk into any Silicon Valley gathering and all you’ll hear is one person after another pontificating on “the three screens that dominate our digital lives.” The three screens, of course, are television, the personal computer, and the cell phone, which these same people then posit will merge.

One cannot blame the chattering classes for thinking along these lines. After all, phones can display webpages, crusty cable companies are beaming more of their stuff digitally, and affordable HDTV plasma screens display it all with great acuity. There’s only one problem: Companies are thinking about it all backward.

Most companies are trying to impose the PC on the other two screens. But altering the form and function of these devices is just not going to work.

Brian Levin, president of Seattle-based Mobliss, believes that wireless networks need content that’s made specifically for mobile platforms. I couldn’t agree more. Want people to watch TV on tiny screens? Think of new types of content — funny shorts, quick news clips, movie trailers, the JibJab video, and, of course, Barry Bonds’s 800th home run.

My take: We are currently in a device-centred world of computing. What this means is that what we do is decided by the device we are on. For example, the office PC is mostly for office work. The home PC is mostly for personal activities. The mobile is also for personal and social interactions. This was fine so far when connectivity across these devices was not easily possible. Networks (and broadband) change all of this. We need to start thinking of service-centric computing where the devices are used to provide access to services independent of the device we are using.

In fact, this notion of service-centric computing can be extended to all the three screens in our life the PC, TV and mobile. While there will be no convergence across these screens, the convergence will happen at the back-end with respect to the data store. We will have different views to the same set of data across these devices. Today, this is not the case all three devices have their own private worlds they operate on.

A New Internet

Martin of Telepocalypse writes about PlanetLab:

Theres a stupid network spin to this. Instead of the stupid network connecting smart devices, it ends up connecting smart virtual devices. What that means is that the next wave of decentralisation is being hatched.

The Internet grew from the ARPANET et al. Planetlab is to Internet Mk2 as ARPANET was to Internet Mk1. Its an embryonic version of a future phenomenon. Lets say PlanetLab is commercialised, and also grows like the Mk1 Internet. Taken to an the same extreme, you can imagine there wouldnt be data centres filled with expensive fire supression systems and redundant power supplies. You just smear your data and processing across the virtual computing environment and let the natural redundancy of the Internet deal with the consequences of danger and disaster.

So if youre looking for futures giants of data storage or application serving, itll probably come out of an initiative very much like this. Instead of hording data processing or computing power behind the corporate moat, the next iteration will turn that world inside out the power will truly be at the edges. Some of the winners of the first waves of client decentralisation (Sun, Oracle, BEA, etc.) are likely to be hurt by this wave of server decentralisation. Probably too early to rejig your portfolio (and too late if you hold Sun stock). But one to watch.

Imagine if every corporation you dealt with had to store your data in a virtual data store under your own control? I look forward to the day!

Microsoft’s Elixir writes:

An effort, code-named Project Elixir, will take shape later this year as a way to promote Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail and contact program, with some additional fields, as a tool for viewing customer relationship data. Eventually, the plan could help the software giant elbow its way further into the customer relationship management market, where Siebel Systems, Oracle and SAP dominate.

While Microsoft doesn’t expect to generate revenue from offering Elixir, it does stand to benefit when companies tie Office deeper into their business processes. Since the Elixir code Microsoft has developed works only with Office 2003, the company sees the tool as a way to get customers to upgrade. Longer term, such tools may also spur sales of Windows Server and other software.

By making Office a de facto front end for customer relationship management systems, Microsoft hopes to boost sales of the software and slowly elbow its way further into the CRM market.

The Internet Stock Blog points to a Walter Mossberg review of

Suppose you want information on the city of Seattle. In Google, if you type in “Seattle,” you get a long list of Web links, starting with the city’s official Web site. At the top are links to maps of Seattle, and to news about Seattle.

Yahoo and MSN are worse, putting real-estate ads on top of their Web results. Ask Jeeves gives you a map and some local links, followed by a zillion ads. But other than the Ask Jeeves map, none gives you direct information. You must click on further links to learn anything.

The same search in is radically different. You see a well-formatted page that includes a definition from the American Heritage dictionary. That is followed by a longer, but still compact, article on Seattle from the Columbia Encyclopedia. And that is followed by sections on current weather, and the local time. Then, there is a very long article on Seattle, with detailed maps, from the public, open-source Wikipedia encyclopedia.

To avoid a lot of scrolling, provides a box at the upper left that allows you to quickly jump to each portion of the results page — Dictionary, Encyclopedia, etc. You can also click once to get a Google Web search on Seattle. It also offers links to relevant blogs on a topic, to image searches and other resources.

… is also a start toward a new search paradigm where the object is to provide real instant information, not just links to pages where that information may, or may not, be found. I urge you to try it.

Ramesh Jain adds:

As the sophistication of users improves, so should that of search engines. So far most of the improvements have been in providing better quality of sources. Also since search engines did such a terrible job in finding sources, they had to cover that by still providing millions of sources but trying to rank them such that top sources were relevant. And this worked initially, but people are now complaining.

Technology has to keep up with the expectations of its users. In case of search, because the problem was so serious for users that initially they were happy to see any solution. But now they are getting used to that level and asking for more. The expectation of users is not at all unreasonable.

The idea of providing answers not the sources of potential answers is going to become increasingly popular. And this will require changing nature of search results in many way. In fact, one interesting thing is that the search may no longer really be search as it is commonly known now it will be solutions. One can see some of that already in vertical searches where people expert much more precise answers rather than vague sources of potential answers. When I go to search for a home on real state sites or search for flight, I expect precise answers. Same is going to be expected from general searches. This starts changing the nature of search it starts becoming prospecting. In prospecting we will expect the system to go and study potential sources, do processing of those and come back to us with more precise answers if not exact answers.

Mobile Phone as Digital Music Player

J@pan Inc writes:

As phones with hard disks begin to enter the market in 2005, it’s only a matter of time before the mobile phone will have the capacity to store the thousands of songs that most portable music players are able to hold now. The question is ‘how much time?’. We think it will be at least a year, probably two or more before a mobile phone comes out with enough storage space to mount a serious challenge as a stand-alone music player.

A more immediate threat to the iPod comes from the full-song master-ringtone service offered by KDDI (with DoCoMo and Vodafone sure to follow). It took KDDI’s service only 48 days to achieve 1 million full-song downloads, despite being available on only four handset models. As with polyphonic MIDI-based ringtones, the key to success for master-ringtones has been the ease with which songs can be downloaded straight to the phone.

Another big factor working in favor of the mobile phone as a music download platform is the rate of subscriber growth. There are presently over 25.6 million 3G subscribers in Japan, and the number has been growing at a rate of nearly 1 million per month since January 2004. Contrast this with the present number of Japanese broadband subscribers (around 15 million) and the future for digital music on the mobile phone begins to look even brighter still. Given the choice of using a PC/player combination versus downloading songs straight to the phone, the average Japanese consumer is more likely to go for the latter, even if it means having fewer songs on the player.

TECH TALK: Microsoft, Bandwidth and Centralised Computing: The Arguments Against Centralised Computing

As could be observed with a reading of the comments on Mikes posts and Slashdot, there is strong opposition to the idea of centralising computing. I estimate that about two-thirds of the commentators opposed the idea. What were the arguments against centralised computing?

The three key criticisms (all somewhat related) were: lack of user control, concerns about privacy and confidentiality of data, and dependency on the telco or service provider. Let us consider each of these points.

In a centralised computing model, users have very little control on what they can do both on the access device and on the applications that are available to them. Some of these can be addressed by smarter technology, but there is a need for service provider concurrence. This is not very different from the world of mobile phones where the operator has significant control on what users see and do with their mobile phones. This is very different from the world of computers and the Internet as we know it now. In addition, since all of the users data will be stored on central servers, there is always the danger that something may go wrong (system crash, hacking, operator bankruptcy) which could make the user data inaccessible or, even available to everyone.

Localised (personal) computing allows users to customise their experience. Model T is not everyones idea of a car! Users can attach the peripherals they want and run the software they want without a perceived big brother having to approve. In a way, centralising computing is like asking car owners to give up their cars and start using public transportation. However good the public transport system is, people used to the freedom of their own cars are unlikely to switch.

Among other criticisms, there is the issue of latency the reaction time. No network connectivity can match the speeds of local disk access. Besides, for specific uses of the computer like gaming (which is very popular), the network response times may just not be good enough. After all, there is no such thing as infinite bandwidth. In addition, there is also a belief that people may be more comfortable with one-off payments rather than the thought of paying on a subscription basis.

And finally, there is the issue of history. Various previous efforts like the network computer and WebTV have failed. Users have spoken, say the critics of centralised computing. Why then do we revisit the issue? In tomorrows world, processing power and storage costs are available in plenty so why bother with anything other than the personal computer which has served us so well for more than two decades?

The answer to this lies not in the current users but in todays non-users. To understand the future of centralised computing, we need to think not of the first 700 million users of computers, but the next billion users.

Tomorrow: Utility Computing in Emerging Markets

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