Wiki Ways

Business Week [1 2] writes:

When software developer Nicholas Pisarro Jr. saw his first wiki late last year, he knew it was unlike any Web site he had ever seen. On the site, a free online encyclopedia called Wikipedia, thousands of volunteers had written a breathtaking 500,000 articles in 50 languages since 2001 — all thanks to the defining feature of wikis. To contribute, all they had to do to was click on an “edit this page” button and start typing.

Now, Pisarro has wikis transforming the way people work at the company he founded, software maker Aperture Technologies Inc. Two dozen of the Stamford (Conn.) company’s 100 employees use them to brainstorm, track projects, write and edit documentation, and coordinate marketing. That has eliminated countless meetings, conference calls, and back-and-forth e-mails. Says Pisarro: “Wikis allow this collaboration much better than anything else, so we get things done faster.”

The amazing thing is that wikis work at all. Created in 1995 by Oregon programmer Ward Cunningham, who named them for the “Wiki-Wiki,” or “quick” shuttle buses at Honolulu Airport, wikis are special Web sites on which anyone can post material without knowing arcane programming languages. Likewise, anyone can edit them. This can lead to mischief: Jokers have posted images of male anatomy on Wikipedia. But graffiti is usually gone within minutes, because the previous version of a page can be restored with a click. In sensitive corporate situations, access can be controlled, too.

Like open-source software, wikis may make their biggest mark less as a business than as a potent force for change — in this case, in the way people work.

Nowhere is that potential more apparent than in today’s far-flung, time-pressed corporate teams. Aaron Burcell, director of marketing for e-mail software startup Stata Laboratories Inc., says working on a wiki has cut the daily phone calls he made on a raft of projects to one a week. It also has allowed Stata to outsource more work, such as engineering, to India. Says Burcell: “I could justify the cost of the wiki just from the lower teleconferencing bills.”

Verizon’s Challenges

I once worked at NYNEX, a Baby Bell, which evolved into Verizon, “which dominates the Northeast with 35 million local phone customers, $68 billion in annual sales and a market capitalization of nearly $100 billion.” So, reading about what’s happening in the US telecom industry is quite fascinating as competition comes in from multiple sides. WSJ writes about how cable and Internet players are targeting Verizon’s customers, and what Verizon is doing:

The rapid spread of new technologies is upending the Bells’ dominion. Increasingly, the telecom market is turning into a Hobbesian war of all against all as every company tries to offer every type of service across the country. The Bells are even beginning to steal one another’s local customers, after two decades of generally respecting regional boundaries.

That’s why New York-based Verizon is going after the business of law firms in Los Angeles, and San Antonio-based SBC Communications Inc. is dusting off a switching hub in Manhattan to serve Wall Street financial firms and other companies. At home, consumers are likely to hear pitches from cable-television companies, Internet telephone companies, long-distance providers and any other business that thinks it can grab a piece of the Bells’ pie.

This week, cable giant Comcast Corp. said it plans to make phone service available to 40 million households in the U.S. by 2006 — a direct challenge to the Bells. Comcast’s service will use Internet technology to deliver the calls instead of the traditional circuit switches favored by the Bells.

Verizon has cut more than 21,000 jobs through buyouts since December and is racing to automate processes that used to require fax machines and thick binders of documents. Verizon sold thousands of phone lines in Hawaii for $1.65 billion and has put others in upstate New York up for sale in an effort to cut its $44.5 billion debt and invest in new technologies. It’s also phasing out free weather-information lines and selling real estate vacated by laid-off employees.

“What’s happening right now at Verizon is a total change that is bigger than all prior changes of the Bells’ past combined,” Paul Lacouture, the company’s president of network services, told workers [recently].

This month, Verizon also announced a multibillion-dollar plan to bring high-speed fiber lines into millions of customers’ homes. The lines could eventually carry TV programs, turning Verizon into a direct competitor of cable companies such as Comcast.

Verizon is also going after business customers. Traditionally, they gravitated to long-distance companies such as AT&T or Sprint Corp., which have nationwide networks of optical fiber to carry calls. Now Verizon is telling those customers that it, too, is a national player.

Verizon has put 300 miles of fiber in the ground in Los Angeles, Seattle and Dallas, reaching into the territories of SBC and Qwest. It has built a national network that can accommodate the huge amounts of data that corporations send between points of their empires.

The new investments are beginning to pay off. In the past 18 months, Verizon has persuaded hundreds of corporate customers who previously used only its local service to sign up for Verizon services in other Bells’ territories. The new services bring in $250 million a year, and Verizon hopes that will rise to $1 billion a year by 2007.

Next-Generation CommPuting Devices

Business Week reports on learnings from Cebit America:

In a few years, the idea of the big desktop-computer flanked by a clunky keyboard, monitor, and printer may seem just as antiquated. That setup is being replaced by a new generation of wireless phones, handheld devices, and tiny digital sensors that will soon outnumber PCs by a margin to 10-to-1. “As these devices catch on,” says technology analyst Crawford Del Prete of researcher IDC, “they will redefine the very meaning of computing and change the way people work and live.”

The range of new, hybrid computing devices is staggering. The trend began a few years ago with the appearance of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, which allows users to send and receive e-mail, surf the Net, and manage their contacts with a pocket-size communicator. It continued last year with the appearance of PalmOne’s Treo 600, which added a mobile phone and a keyboard to a Palm organizer.

The next step will be devices that combine these features with the power of a laptop. OQO, a San Francisco outfit created by veterans of Apple Computer and IBM, set out to build the world’s smallest laptop. Less than 5 inches wide and weighing only 14 ounces, the OQO is easy to drop into a briefcase or even a purse. But it has the power of a full laptop loaded with Windows XP, and it includes Wi-Fi for high-speed wireless Internet access. The device will be available in the second half of 2004.

Indeed, mobility is redefining the world of tech. As small Wi-Fi enabled devices like the OQO hit the market, they’re becoming an increasingly viable alternative to regular phones. Simply plug a headset into the OQO within range of a Wi-Fi connection, and you can make free phone calls with Internet technology.

Over the next 15 years, tiny wireless sensors will be embedded in almost every product, from light bulbs to tubes of toothpaste. These miniature transmitters are based on radio-frequency identification technology, which is familiar to many drivers who use windshield-mounted RFID tags so they can slip through highway tolls booths with a minimum of delay. A scanner at the booth reads the driver’s tag number and automatically bills a credit card.

Big changes in the software sector are necessary, too. As the range of devices and data becomes ever larger, companies are consolidating the number of systems they use to manage the traffic. Holland-based outfit Exact Software is helping customers eliminate layers of incompatible software by rolling out a single product to handle a whole range of business functions, from sales and marketing to administration and human resources. That means customers will require fewer vendors or technology platforms. By using a bundle of software from a single supplier, customer can reduce costs and make it easier for employees and customers to communicate.

As this new technology enters the market, people will have the ability to work from almost anywhere using tiny, powerful mobile devices. When that happens, who’ll need a big desktop PC?

InfoWorld’s Innovators for 2004 and 2005

InfoWorld salutes those who are creatively pushing the boundaries to accelerate the evolution of IT:

E-mail encryption as easy as remembering who you are: Dan Boneh and Matt Franklin

Lumeta chief scientist checks for network leaks with IP Sonar: Bill Cheswick

Revolutionary protocol takes pain out of sharing large files: Bram Cohen

Open source’s usability champion narrows the gap between Linux and Windows:
Miguel de Icaza

Shaping forms for an XML-based future: Micah Dubinko

Security as an immune system: Dr. Steven Hofmeyr

Spearheading advanced encryption: James Hughes

CoreStreet targets massively scalable validation: Phil Libin

Blue Titan orchestrates Web services: Frank Martinez

Intel VP jump-starts mobility with a platform approach: David ‘Big Dadi’ Perlmutter

RNA sniffs out network intrusions: Martin Roesch

IBM’s go-to guy developed PowerPC 970FX processor: Norman Rohrer

Another section looks ahead to 2005’s innovators. Among them:

Dr. Paul Terry, CTO of Cray Canada, wants to bring high-performance computing to the masses, or at least midlevel enterprises, with the Cray XD1 high-performance computer.

Suns HideyaKawahara [who is working on] Project Looking Glass, a 3-D desktop interface, primarily written in Java and intended for Linux and Solaris x86 PCs

Mark Maiffretis, co-founder of eEye Digital and also the companys chief hacking officer, helped develop Retina Network Security Scanner, which scans each machine on a network, reports vulnerabilities and offers fixes.

NiklaasZennstrm and JanusFriis, who created the file-sharing company Kazaa, believe Skype will change the nature of telephony.

Pete Mancaand Ben Sprachman, senior vice presidents at Egenera, lead a group that created hardware and software that virtualizes datacenter infrastructure.

Cellphones in Latin America

NYTimes writes about the growing use:

Subscribers jumped from fewer than 40 million in 1999 to 118 million today, turning one in five Latin Americans into a cellphone user and making this a $20.4 billion market, according to Pyramid Research in Cambridge, Mass. Economic powerhouses like Mexico and Brazil have the biggest number of subscribers, but competition is fierce here in Venezuela, where cellphones are both a status symbol and a necessity.

Even after its economy contracted 8.9 percent in 2002 and 9.4 percent in 2003, Venezuela still has Latin America’s second-highest rate of cellphone use, after Chile.

Driving the boom is an explosion in prepaid service that has made cellphones available to millions of low-income users, once excluded by monthly payments and credit checks. While in 1995 fewer than 2 percent of people in most Latin American countries had cellphones, the introduction of prepaid service has sent use skyrocketing, to 29 percent in Venezuela and 48 percent in Chile.

“Given Latin America’s demographics, the cellular business couldn’t take off until prepaid service made it possible” for everyone, said Patrick Grenham, a telecommunications analyst with Citigroup Smith Barney in New York.

Although the cost of prepaid service can be 10 times that of traditional service, it attracts clients whose incomes are frequently too erratic to make a monthly payment.

Also driving cellular growth is a system that charges users only for outgoing calls, allowing them to receive unlimited calls free – and thus keep their phone active even when the budget is tight.

With the right cost structures, providers can turn a profit within a year, even from users who make only a few calls. While Latin America’s cellular providers once depended on upper-class users, revenues come increasingly from millions of low-income clients.

Fixed-line phones are found in close to 11 percent of Latin American households, according to figures from IDC, the research group. Many people simply do without fixed-line service to avoid large upfront payments, enormous delays and onerous monthly charges. To bring in users interested in having a home phone, providers in several countries now offer a home telephone that operates within a cellular network but at lower prepaid rates than mobiles.

The business of prepaid services has considerable drawbacks, like declining use during hard times and the constant cycle of users whose service is cut off because of inactivity. Providers still rely largely on revenue from customers with credit cards, many of them now using a service that allows paying bills by phone and creating closed-circuit group conversations.

Status seems to play a big part in Venezuelans’ use of cellphones. “Venezuelans have always needed a public way to show their status,” said the Venezuelan sociologist Leoncio Barrios. “Thirty years ago, people would buy the fanciest car on the lot. But since times are tougher now, the best alternative is to have the newest mobile phone clipped to your belt.”

India’s IT Policy Plans

Rediff writes about the 10-point plan of Dayanidhi Maran, India’s new Union Minister for Communications and IT, to boost IT in the country:

1. Achieve convergence of information, communication and media technologies: He will expedite the convergence of technologies and prioritise PC penetration, thereby bringing cyber connectivity to every citizen.

2. Bring about transparency in administration: Maran plans to make government functioning more citizen-centric. He will stress on e-governance and quick implementation of a National E-governance Plan.

3. Broadband connectivity: Maran said he will look to providing broadband connectivity to all, at the most reasonable prices.

4. Next generation mobile wireless technologies: “I plan to leapfrog from the current generation of mobile telephony to the next 4G. India is currently using the technology of GSM (2.5 G) and CDMA for mobile telephony. The 3G standard has been evolved, but has not proved cost-effective. I therefore plan to leapfrog this generation and develop 4G technology. We will also set up a National Center for Excellence in this area,” he said.

5. National Internet Exchange and Indian Domain Name: He plans to connect all ISPs in India to a national Internet exchange in order to achieve efficient Internet traffic routing, cost reduction and improvement in the quality of service for the Internet users in India. His aim is to bring about improvement in Indian Internet Domain Name with a greater market focus to proliferate the Internet and will encourage multinational companies to host their mirror sites in India and encourage Indian enterprise to host sites to promote business and trade in India.

6. Migrate to new Internet Protocol IPv6: Worldwide the new IPv6 is being implemented on the Internet to accommodate increased number of users and take care of security concerns. Maran plans to bring about migration to IPv6 in India by 2006.

7. Security & Digital Signature: He will concentrate on Cyber Infrastructure Protection. All efforts shall be made to promote the use of digital signatures in the financial, judiciary and education sectors.

8. Media Lab Asia: He plans to ensure that the programme of Media Lab Asia of the government focus on the following areas of importance to the large Indian populace:
– Providing seamless communication connectivity to rural areas and promoting value-added services and micro enterprises to double the village GDP in a couple of years.
– Extend quality healthcare services to remote areas using the technologies of telemedicine and Internet access.
– Use information and communication technology tools to improve literacy through distance education.
– Promote development and availability of low-cost PCs and communication access devices to increase internet penetration 10-fold in a few years.

9. Language computing: Maran’s plan is to accelerate dialogue with state governments, linguists, R&D labs and industry for increased deployment of language computing solutions in government, industry and the society at large.

10. Outsourcing skilled manpower and R&D thrust: He plans to make India the world’s hub for outsourcing skilled manpower in the IT sector.

I think the government should play the role of an enabler – set the right, pro-competition policies. It needs to remove silly regulations (like the limits that are there on WiFi usage and VoIP), and create an unfettered environment in which innovation and entrepreneurship should thrive. I had earlier written a Letter to Arun Shourie about what needs to be done, but it equally well applies to what the new IT Minister should do.

Windows and Linux for Supercomputers

News.com writes about the looming battle as Windows tries to attack Linux in cluster computing:

High-performance computing once required massive, expensive, exotic machines from companies such as Cray, but the field is being remade by the arrival of clusters of low-end machines. While the trend could be considered an opportunity for Microsoft, which has long been the leading operating-system company, Linux has actually become the favored software used on these clusters.

In a recent interview, Bob Muglia, a Microsoft senior vice president who leads the development of Windows Server, said the company is interested in two particular areas: building high-performance computing clusters and harvesting the unused processing power of PCs.

Linux, boosted by low-cost servers using processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, now is used on prestigious machines. Thunder, a machine at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with 512 Linux servers running Red Hat Enterprise Linux, can perform more than 19 trillion calculations per second, second only to Japan’s Earth Simulator.

Dozens of machines in a list of the 500 fastest supercomputers run Linux, including five of the top 10. Only two on the list are identified as Windows machines.

One reason Windows has been slow to catch on is that Unix and Linux were bred to be administered remotely, a necessary feature for managing a cluster with dozens or hundreds of computers.

In Windows, “the notion of remote computing is significantly more difficult than in Unix,” Papadopoulos said. “Because Windows was born out of the desktop, (it is) deeply ingrained in the Microsoft culture that you have somebody sitting in front of the machine to do work.”

Ambidextrous Chip

WSJ writes:

Many semiconductors today are primarily one-trick ponies, specializing in particular tasks such as graphics or networking.

But an experimental computer chip under development at the University of Texas instead could be likened to a chameleon, able to change its color — or in this case, function — according to the task at hand.

“It can configure to [perform] very much like a specialized chip” for devices such as cell phones and digital music players, or it could serve as a powerful central processor in a desktop or other general-purpose computer, said Steve Keckler, a UT computer scientist and a leader of the design effort.

Mr. Keckler hopes to have a prototype of the device, which currently exists primarily in software simulations, finished in about a year. He expects a completed chip to be ready for commercialization around 2010.

If the chip works as planned, it will run at a top speed of 10 gigahertz and perform one trillion operations, meaning individual computing tasks, per second. In comparison, Intel Corp.’s current top-speed Pentium 4 processor runs at 3.4 gigahertz and delivers 6.8 billion operations per second. The anticipated performance has led Mr. Keckler and his design team — which includes collaboration with International Business Machines Corp. — to dub the device a “supercomputer on a chip.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency a Defense Department agency, is funding Mr. Keckler’s effort, as well as efforts under way at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Southern California that have similar goals but are taking different approaches.

Darpa program manager Robert Graybill said he considers the preliminary work by Mr. Keckler’s group to be unique, even among the other efforts under way in the agency’s so-called polymorphous chip program.

Mr. Keckler and his team have dubbed their design “Trips,” for Tera-Op Reliable Intelligently Adaptive Processing System. The term tera-op refers to the targeted one trillion operations per second.

Simply put, the system would divide individual processing cores on the chip into tiny sections that could change automatically for several predetermined functions. The idea is that the processing cores would morph — taking graphics or memory configurations, for instance — as instructions flowed in.

Each chip could contain many processing cores, as many as 16, enabling a single chip to perform multiple functions simultaneously while optimizing for each. Conventional chips generally do only one thing at a time.

In addition, this distributed architecture of Mr. Keckler’s design would reduce what is known as clock delays because parts of the chip performing related functions would be in close proximity on a core. Clock delays, a limiting factor in the performance of conventional chips, refer to the decline in computing work done per chip clock cycle as chips are sped up.

TECH TALK: Crucible Experiences: My Crucibles (Part 2)

I returned from the US to India in May 1992, thinking of myself as Gods gift to the country. I had great dreams of building a software company that would be among the best in the world in 5 years. After all, I had great credentials an IIT and Columbia education, work experience at one of the foremost telecom companies in the world, and some wonderful ideas. All I had to do was conquer. Or so it seemed.

Two years later, all the dreams lay in shambles as I experienced failure after failure in all that I tried. Nothing it seemed could go right. I withdrew into a shell. Each day, I had to force myself to wake up and go to work. All that I did seemed be only making matters worse. I had let down my staff and family. I wallowed in self-regret. I could not see a way out of the hole that I had dug. I was a failure as an entrepreneur and that was almost impossible for me to accept, as I thought of myself brighter, even superior, than everyone else I saw around me. Something had gone wrong big time, and I just couldnt figure out what. My pride prevented me from talking to others even my family. And yet, I began to realise in that summer 10 years ago, that the company I had wanted to build was all but dead. I would have to re-start.

When one is in a difficult situation, it is very hard to think straight. One encounters, what I call, paralysis by analysis. Because one is smart (too smart for ones own good), there is a tendency to keep analysing the situation replaying events and getting lost in an infinite maze of what-if scenarios. The need of the hour is for tough decisions and surgical actions, but thats the last thing one makes, because of the belief that there has to be a logical way to remove the bugs one-by-one from the system. This inaction compounds the problem. I went through such a phase for many months. Outwardly, I had to act normal and optimistic because of the other people who looked up at me for direction and guidance. Inwardly, I was coming apart.

It took me many months to act. I spent two months in the US at a friends place. It was only then that I started coming to terms with the reality and the monster that I had created. I came to grips with the situation, built out a business plan for a new venture (what later became IndiaWorld), returned to India, laid off most of the staff, decided to focus on a single business with the aim of making it profitable as quickly as I could, and got started with gusto. The crucible experience had made m even more determined. I had seen failure first-hand. There was little else to lose. There was a life to be lived. If I didnt conquer my own inner self, I would be a nervous wreck for time immemorial. I figured that it couldnt get more worse than what it was. From where I was, one could only make things better. As so it turned out.

These three experiences in their own way shaped part of me. As I went through these experiences, it was very hard to imagine why God was making me go through it. But, as someone once told me, There is always some good which comes out of every experience. One does not know it then, and it may take a long time to see that good. At some stage, we will all be grateful for our crucible experiences for it is these that come together to make up Life.

Continue reading TECH TALK: Crucible Experiences: My Crucibles (Part 2)

Interview Qestions

William Morin and James Cabrera write about how to prepare for a job interview. A list of 25 questions (useful for interviewers also):

1. Tell me about yourself.
2. What do you know about our organization?
3. Why do you want to work for us?
4. What can you do for us that someone else can’t?
5. What do you find most attractive about this position? What seems least attractive about it?

6. Why should we hire you?
7. What do you look for in a job?
8. Please give me your defintion of [the position for which you are being interviewed].
9. How long would it take you to make a meaningful contribution to our firm?
10. How long would you stay with us?

11. Your resume suggests that you may be over-qualified or too experienced for this position. What’s Your opinion?
12. What is your management style?
13. Are you a good manager? Can you give me some examples? Do you feel that you have top managerial potential?
14. What do you look for when You hire people?
15. Have you ever had to fire people? What were the reasons, and how did you handle the situation?

16. What do you think is the most difficult thing about being a manager or executive?
17. What important trends do you see in our industry?
18. Why are you leaving (did you leave) your present (last) job?
19. How do you feel about leaving all your benefits to find a new job?
20. In your current (last) position, what features do (did) you like the most? The least?

21. What do you think of your boss?
22. Why aren’t you earning more at your age?
23. What do you feel this position should pay?
24. What are your long-range goals?
25. How successful do you you’ve been so far?

The article has suggestions on how to tackle each of the questions.