G(e)Mail as Platform

Rick Klaus writes: “All its going to take is for Google to add an RSS/ATOM reader to Gmail. Just like that, theyll create a killer app for e-mail, enhance their searching algorithms (think of all the rich data theyll have by aggregating feed reading behavior with search behavior), and start to seamlessly blend the web, messaging and syndication. And if they integrate Blogger into Gmail? Well then youve round-tripped searching, browsing, reading, writing – – and further added to the volume of content Google can index.”

Metadata for the Desktop

Edd Dumbill writes:

The amount of information we store on our computers is increasing rapidly. It’s not just the volume that’s increasing, either. Over the last few years we’ve added a significant number of new types of data we rely on computers for. Photographs, music, grocery shopping, banking, video. Add to this our increased reliance on data sources on the web. With a few exceptions, most of our interactions with companies, and increasingly government, can be carried out online.

With this increased reliance on our computers come associated dangers and difficulties. Leaving aside for the moment the problems of archival and obsolescence, two of the major challenges lie in findability and integration. Let’s look at findability first. In the real world we have many cues as to where to find things. We use special files or boxes, we leave things in particular places, we recognise the colors and branding on forms, we sort into piles. In effect we are attaching metadata to our information, or taking advantage of metadata already there. Metadata is data about data. It’s not the numbers on our bank statement, but everything else about it. The color of the ink, the typeface used, and so on.

Such real world metadata is very expressive. On our computers, the world is more restricted. We are mainly reduced to filing things inside a tree-structured filesystem. Imagine ordering everything in your house that way. Not only would it take a long time to do, it doesn’t really make a huge improvement to our lives. Pure formal organisation is no match for the blend of intuitive, cognitive and formal organisation we use in real life. Nevertheless, until now that’s the best computers have to offer, in general.

For findability, having extra metadata allows you flexibility of presentation and organisation of data, and extra parameterisation for search. Rather than making you do the filing, the computer can use the metadata to show you views according to your current needs. Though we can’t and shouldn’t try and ape the world, we can introduce different locality-based methods to make working with data on the computer easier. This can be done dynamically in many ways, as opposed to establishing a static filesystem hierarchy.

The integration story is even more exciting than improving findability. With sufficient metadata applications can deal intelligently with data they’ve not encountered before. For a really basic example of this, consider the MIME type of a document downloaded from the internet. The browser is most often capable of taking an appropriate action, rather than making the user do the work. Integration works best when there are agreed metadata standards, such as MIME types, filesystem attributes or EXIF data. The history of personal computing software has unfortunately been largely centered around creating isolated packages, with interoperability strictly controlled and used as a commercial lever. We have a long way to go.

My premise then is that more metadata is required to create a usable desktop for users and manage the increasing volume of information stored in our homes. That’s a conclusion other people are agreeing with, too. Microsoft’s next-generation operating systems will ultimately include WinFS, a file system supporting the attachment of arbitrary metadata to files. Mac OS X is acquiring similar functionality. ReiserFS has been trying to do it for ages. Closer to GNOME, there are projects like Dashboard, Storage and iFolder.

PHP Scalability

Chris Shiflett writes about scalability in general, and pHP in particular, in the wake of Friendster’s decision to shift from Java to PHP.:

How does scalability apply to the Web? First, you should ask yourself whether the Web’s fundamental architecture is scalable. The answer is yes. Some people will describe HTTP’s statelessness in a derogatory manner. The more enlightened people, however, understand that this is one of the key characteristics that make HTTP such a scalable protocol. What makes it scalable? With every HTTP transaction being completely independent, the amount of resources necessary grows linearly with the amount of requests received. In a system that does not scale (where “does not scale” means that it scales poorly), the amount of resources necessary would increase at a higher rate than the number of requests. While HTTP has its flaws (the proper spelling of referrer being one), there’s no arguing that it scales, and this is one of the things that made the Web’s early explosive growth less painful than it would have otherwise been.

The present discussion is about developing Web applications that scale well, and whether particular languages, technologies, and platforms are more appropriate than others. My opinion is that some things scale more naturally than others, and Rasmus’s explanation above touches on this. PHP, when compiled as an Apache module (mod_php), fits nicely into the basic Web paradigm. In fact, it might be easier to imagine PHP as a new skill that Apache can learn. HTTP requests are still handled by Apache, and unless your programming logic specifically requires interaction with another source (database, filesystem, network), your application will scale as well as Apache (with a decrease in performance based upon the complexity of your programming logic). This is why PHP naturally scales. The caveat I mention is why your PHP application may not scale.

A common (and somewhat trite) argument being tossed around is that scalability has nothing to do with the programming language. While it is true that language syntax is irrelevant, the environments in which languages typically operate can vary drastically, and this makes a big difference. PHP is much different than ColdFusion or JSP. In terms of scalability, PHP has an advantage, but it loses a few features that some developers miss (which is why there are efforts to create application servers for PHP). The PHP versus JSP argument should focus on environment, otherwise the point gets lost.

I actually disagree with George’s statement, “PHP doesn’t magically scale ‘naturally'”. Of course, I understand and agree with the spirit of what he’s trying to say, which is that using PHP isn’t going to make your applications magically scale well, but I do believe that PHP has a natural advantage, as I just described. Rasmus seems to agree with me, and George might also agree, despite his statement.

I think PHP scales well because Apache scales well because the Web scales well. PHP doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel; it simply tries to fit into the existing paradigm, and this is the beauty of it.

MeshCube

Slashdot discusses Meshcube, a “new wireless mesh routing device based on open source technologies.” From the wiki: “The MeshCube is a new hardware platform dedicated to WirelessLAN mesh routing, developed by 4G Systems, Hamburg. With a 400MHz MIPS processor, 64MB RAM and 32MB flash, and up to 8 MiniPCI cards, it is powerful enough to provide excellent security and encryption, and flexible enough for custom applications and modifications. The MeshCubeDistribution is the Linux distribution running on the MeshCube. Its main features are MeshRouting, autoconfiguration of networking, an emphasis on security (IpSec, VPN), and a compact design (to fit on the 32MB flash).”

Phone as Magic Wand

Forbes writes how we could be buying things with the “wave of a phone”:

A group at Philips Electronics focused on developing a technology called near field communications (NFC) that is based on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and could within a year start turning common mobile phones into the spendthrift’s best friend.

Consider the following scenario: Walking down a street, you spot a poster advertising that you can buy your favorite artist’s new single right then and there. All you have to do is hold your mobile phone up close to the poster, and the song downloads directly to the phone–which also happens to be a digital music player, for easy playback.

Or perhaps you’d rather listen at home. Just hold the phone close to the stereo system, and the right to listen to that song will transfer to the stereo’s hard drive, or becomes available on a favorite music subscription service. You can even share the right to listen to it with a few friends by holding your phone close to theirs.

And why not use the phone to buy concert tickets too? Not only will the phone handle payment but it will also become the ticket. Wave it in front of the turnstile at the concert venue, and the phone gets you in the door, where it can also be used to buy a T-shirt.

It is potentially the next force that will push forward the concept of “contactless payments.” Why bother with swiping a credit card with a magnetic stripe through a reader when a smart card inside a phone can do the transaction just as well, and with less hassle and less chance of the magnetic stripe wearing thin?

SimDesk

Business Week writes how “SimDesk may be closing in on one of tech’s Holy Grails: anytime, anywhere computing on the cheap.”

For years, Microsoft, IBM, and others have painted visions of a future in which people could easily tap into their programs and information from whichever computer they happen to be using. But SimDesk is the first company to provide that promise in an ultra-affordable way. Individuals can log on to the SimDesk Web site, use basic programs, including word processing, e-mail, and spreadsheet packages, and store their stuff on the company’s computers — all for just a few dollars per person per year. There’s no need to spend $399 to buy Microsoft’s Office suite of applications.

Microsoft dismisses SimDesk as little more than a gnat in its soup. “They’re just another competitor,” says Dan Leach, group product manager for Microsoft Office Systems. And the company denies that it has resorted to any dirty tricks to compete with SimDesk.

Yet SimDesk can’t be shrugged off. Thanks mostly to a $5 million deal struck in 2001 with the city of Houston, around 200,000 residents have signed up for SimDesk’s service.

SimDesk isn’t for everyone. While its applications are compatible with Microsoft’s ubiquitous Word and Excel, they lack some of the bells and whistles — including so-called pivot-tables used by spreadsheet mavens to crunch data. More important, people who are used to instant response from PC software may have to wait seconds as even the simplest commands travel to SimDesk’s servers in Houston and back. “Most people want the instantaneous response that comes from having programs on the desktop, not some faraway server,” says Stephen Baker, analyst at market researcher NPD Group Inc.

Still, SimDesk is creating a buzz with customers, particularly in state and local governments. The company is in talks with public agencies in 31 states, as well as Japan, China, and Germany, for a variety of projects. Many see it as a way to cut their technology costs. By giving SimDesk to government workers who don’t need Microsoft’s full-blown Office, they can avoid those licensing fees and outsource some of their existing server operations to SimDesk. The city of Houston, for example, has begun shifting 13,000 employees to SimDesk, some via cheap disk-drive-less terminals rather than PCs. Such contracts attracted the attention of computer giant Hewlett-Packard Co., which may supply the hardware for the Indiana project, says one Indiana insider.

Other government agencies see SimDesk as a way to bring their PC-less masses into the Digital Age. Rather than pour money into PC buying programs, they can pay far less to sign up for SimDesk, and then provide access by setting up PCs at libraries, schools, and community centers. That way, even people who don’t own a PC can communicate electronically for free, type up rsums, and do homework. Since all the programs and data are stored on SimDesk’s own servers, it’s no muss and no fuss for government tech managers.

TECH TALK: Tech Trends: India Action: Visual Biz-ic and BPM

Indian companies can definitely capitalise on the real-time trends. The focus needs to be on the business process. Considering that most Indian enterprises have a very limited legacy of technology usage, there is now an opportunity to leapfrog to the intelligent enterprise. How is this going to happen? Think Visual Biz-ic.

Visual Biz-ic (a term I have coined) is about creating a integrated development environment for business processes. Just as Visual Basic from Microsoft transformed software development, Visual Biz-ic can create the platform for a similar transformation in how enterprises in India manage information flows across their extended enterprise.

Visual Biz-ic consists of a forms designer, process designer, process engine and reports generator. The forms designer allows the creation of interfaces to connect with databases and display the necessary information to users. The process designer is a graphical environment where the business flows are encapsulated. The process engine is the run-time execution system, which makes the processes come alive. The reports generator creates the custom reports that provide the necessary information to users.

Visual Biz-ic is complemented by four other components: a digital dashboard, which provides all the information that a manager needs to know on a single screen; an events manager which provides notifications of exceptions; an information aggregator, which provides a way to manage subscriptions to event feeds and display the appropriate events (in an email client or a browser); and a weblog to help team members share tacit knowledge.

Taken together, these components create an integrated platform for the information refinery in an enterprise.

Visual Biz-ic needs a process library. This can be done by considering the key 10-12 industries and the 8-10 types of companies in each industry. The 100-odd process models will be sufficient to cover most enterprises. Unlike the large enterprises which needs uniqueness in their business processes, most small- and medium-sized enterprises need completeness and integration via off-the-shelf components. IT is indeed a commodity for them. Visual Biz-ics built-in process models provide the necessary platform to cover 80-90% of their needs. If needed, they can easily tailor specific processes to their unique needs via the graphical interface provided by the process designer.

Visual Biz-ic is a dream. It does not exist. But if created, it can herald a transformation for Indian SMEs in terms of technology adoption. I can imagine a day in the not-so-distant future when companies will go to a website, navigate through the industry classification directory, select their type, and instantly get all the business processes for themselves. They can either then modify some existing processes that are currently being followed to match the standard or suitably modify the inherited processes for their needs. Either way, they have an integrated eBusiness suite necessary to make them into real-time enterprises in a matter of minutes.

Tomorrow: Security

Continue reading TECH TALK: Tech Trends: India Action: Visual Biz-ic and BPM