Archive for the ‘Business’ Category:


Replacing RSS

The death of Google Reader has made it clear to me that there is a gap in the market.

No, not a gap for another RSS feed reader, that has been well and truly satisfied by the mass of new contenders for the previously unloved RSS Reader throne.

The gap is a gap for control over your information.

You see, the reason we have to assume Google have dropped Reader is that they think Google+ is where all your reading should happen.  Facebook is much the same.  Like reader it is both a reading and a writing platform.  And when you develop a platform you can read and write to, you have very little incentive to keep it open so that other people can read from it, or write to it elsewhere.

Oddly, we tend to try to resolve this by imagining new read/write platforms that emulate Facebook and Google+, but are more open.  And any such system is destined to fail because of network effects.  Or friends and families are already using Facebook, so if we want to read what they have to say, and be read by them, then we have to go to Facebook.

But what if we decided to break the link between reading and writing?

Most of my Facebook posts are actually just copied from Twitter.  But Twitter is Read/Write,just like Facebook (and becoming more so every day).  Also, I don’t actually care where people read my posts – I just care that it is available to them to read.  But it would be better if it was also available to the world to read in other, better, more open ways.  Ways which are under the control of the author, not the reader provider.

Now, the way we used to do this was via blogs.  And blogs are a good thing – but I suspect blogging is to some extent dying, and the loss of Reader might, potentially hasten this demise.

My suggestion is that someone produce a write only microblogging, blogging, photo and video sharing platform.  The business model is simple – you charge people a recurring subscription for their account, and you ensure they are in control of their data.  But you make it easy for them to share the data they’ve provided.  You make the system automatically be able to post to Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Pinterest, whatever network you want.  You also make sure it provides RSS feeds so that people who want to aggregate content .  And you make sure it offers an ‘email people’ option, so you can push your content to friends and family who haven’t yet grasped what the internets are for.  You probably also want to allow people to read your content if they come to your site directly.  You could also provide the ability to be better at deciding who gets to see what content – by letting the publishing platform understand how private your various accounts on different social networking sites are.

This would never be popular.  Facebook and its kin are good enough for most people.  But every time they betray their users by tightening their locking, or tilting things further in favour of the advertisers, a social publishing platform would make it easier for people to begin to opt out.  And it would mean more content was available outside the gated walls of the big social networks, which would be good for those of us who prefer more powerful and personalised ways of accessing interesting things to read.

What I Do At Work

Normally I don’t post about what I do at work.  This isn’t due to it being any sort of state secret, it’s just that I want to try my best to avoid giving any corporate secrets away or otherwise upsetting the hand that feeds me.

However, things have changed.

As of today (well, actually as of a week or so ago… but we announced it today, so today is what counts) the corporate secrets we had are somewhat less secret.  Because Citrix have released XenServer as open source software.

This is both a huge deal, and not a huge deal at the same time.

Let me try to explain:

Xen is a hypervisor.  And Xen has always been open source.  As of a month or two ago Citrix passed the Xen hypervisor project management over to the Linux foundation.  Why?  Well mainly to get rid of the accusation that Citrix owned Xen and could take away their ball at any time.  This was a good thing – it wasn’t about making the code more open (it was already GPLed up to its eyeballs), it was about making the development process and governance more open.

But that’s in the past, and that isn’t what I’m talking about today.  Today I’m talking about XenServer being open sourced.

Now, XenServer is, in effect, a number of things.  Specifically its the brand of Xen – and the associated bits of software – that Citrix have sold and supported ever since they bought XenSource.  But thats all a bit unclear…

So lets consider XenServer the software

As of a week ago it consisted of:

Xen – the hypervisor.  Already open source and part of the Linux Foundation

XCP – which is most of the other tools that you need to actually use Xen.  This was also all handed over to the linux foundation.

Some privately owned bits of  code – including the Windows guest PV Drivers and tools.

 

And what has happened today is that we have rethought what XenServer is.  XenServer is now

“An open source distribution of Xen and all the tools needed to make Xen useful. “

So XenServer is to Xen what Ubuntu is to the Linux Kernel.

And all the tools that are part of XenServer have also been turned into their own open source projects.  You’ll find them on GitHub.  (Actually, this is a bit of a lie.  There are things that haven’t made it to github yet – the xeniface.sys windows PV driver, for instance, needs to have a chunk of code rewritten before we can open it up under a BSD licence.  But everything will get there. Eventually.  Citrix have been kind enough to dedicate a lot of manpower to let us do this)

You’ll soon be able to download and use a free, fully working version of XenServer.  No strings attached.

Meanwhile Citrix will have their own product plans based around this fully open XenServer model.

So thats the story – a free, enterprise grade, trusted virtualization solution that you can contribute to, based entirely on open source technologies, including the Xen hypervisor.  Thats a huge deal.  But most of it was actually already free – what has changed is how we develop it inside Citrix.  Thats a less big deal for you, but it has been quite a big deal for me and for my day job:

So.  What do I do at work all day?

I’m part of the Windows team for XenServer

In fact I’m the Dev Lead – which means I sit in more meetings than I’d like, worry more about bug numbers that I would like, and get involved in lots of discussions about process… which I actually do like… because I’m weird like that. I code and fix bugs.  And I write new bugs.  I scrummaster a little on the side.

Recently I’ve been handling our open sourcing efforts.  Writing our ReadMes and Maintainers files.  Moving our code out of Mercurial and into Git.  Changing out build system to cope with this.  Negotiating which licence we’ll be using.  And attending meetings.  Lots of meetings.

What the Windows team do is write the tools and PV drivers that you install on Windows guests running under XenServer.  And as of now all of these tools are open (except xeniface, like I mentioned above, and the installer, because we have some confusion as to what exactly should go in a clickthrough licence.).

We also do lots of the things that open source code alone can’t easily do, like sign drivers and get them to pass Microsoft’s logo tests and ensure our platforms are supported by Microsoft.

And this is what we’re going to carry on doing.  Windows 8.1 and 2012 r2 are looming on the horizon and we have some things we need to massage into shape.  But now everything we do you’ll be able to see on GitHub, download from XenServer.org and hear about on mailing lists (which haven’t actually arrived today – but word is they’ll be here soon)

Now, there are some caveats:  These new projects (Windows projects included) are not part of the Linux Foundation.  Just as some parts of Ubuntu are not part of the Linux Kernel.  And these new projects are not things we are used to maintaining as open source projects.  So we’re likely to make some mistakes (and quite possibly some enemies) as we make this adjustment to how we work.  But I’m planning on writing about it as much as I can in order to do my best to make sure we show as much of the working as possible.  I don’t know how easy it will be for us to take contributions, especially in the short term (but we’ll do our best).   Part of my contribution to this will be writing about what is going on – so you can see there is stuff going on.

This has been a lot of work and there is a lot more work to do in the coming days, weeks, months and years – but hopefully the end result will make using XenServer a lot easier, will make working with XenServer (both the product its interfaces and the people behind it) a lot easier, and will encourage more people to give it a go (and then, having fallen in love with it, to buy paid support and pay my salary)

As for me?  Well, that new other half of xeniface still needs to be rewritten.

The Rebirth of the PC

People are talking about the death of the desktop PC.  While Rob Enderle is talking about it’s rebirth.  I’m conflicted about both these stories.  I think they are missing the trends which will really shape how we come to think of the PC in the future.

Looking at the market now, there are desktops, there are laptops, there are tablets and there are phones.  We also have vague attempts to cross genre, with Windows 8 trying to reach between tablet and laptop, while IOS and Android reach between tablet and phone.  But this isn’t the future, this is a market still trying to figure itself out. I’m going to limit my predictions to a particular segment of the market – the segment which is currently dominated by the desktop PC.

The reasons we have desktops are:

  • They are more powerful than laptops
  • They are tied to a single desk, so that management can control where we work (and where our data stays)
  • They are more comfortable to use than laptops or tablets (at least for keyboard entry and pixel perfect design)

However, the game is changing.  The question of power is becoming moot.  Machines seem to be gaining power (or reducing power consumption) faster than applications are taking it up.  There is less and less need for more powerful machines.  And, where more powerful machines are needed in a company, it doesn’t make sense to hide them under individual’s desks.  It makes more sense to put them in the datacenter, allocating processing power to the people that need it.

In short, we don’t need computers under our desks, we need reasonably dumb clients.  Network computers.  Oracle could have told you that years ago.

That said, dumb clients never quite seem to happen.  And the reason for this is that is that smart is so cheap, there is in point in tying yourself down, limiting yourself to this year’s dumb.

Tying the computer to the desk is increasingly being seen as a limitation rather than a benefit.  It doesn’t just prevent working from home, it also prevents hotdesking, and simple team re-orgs. What is more interesting to companies are technologies which let them keep data in controlled locations – and again the same technologies which let people work from home are also keeping data in the cloud – but locking it there so that it is harder to misuse.  This argument for the desktop PC is gone.

Comfort is more important.  But by comfort we specifically mean comfort for typists, and mouse operators.  Tablets are going to cut into the market for mouse operators, and combinations of gesture and speech technologies will gradually reduce the advantage of the poweruser’s keyboard.  Text entry will probably remain best done by keyboard for the time being.  But the comfort aspects are changing.  My bet is we will see an increase in big, screens angled for touch rather than display, while tablets are used for on screen reading.  Keyboards will remain for people who do a lot of typing, but onscreen keyboards will be commonplace for the everyday user.

So – by my reckoning we will have (probably private) cloud data, applications running on virtual machines which live in the datacenter and being distributed to big screens (and still some keyboards) on the user’s desks.

This isn’t a particularly impressive point of view.  Its the core of a number of companies who are playing in that field’s business plans.

But what is missing from the view is the PC.  As I said : there might be big monitors acting as displays for clients, but clients doesn’t mean dumb.

Smart is cheap.  We could probably power the monitors running smart clients – and some local personal, and personalized, computing – from our phones.  We could certainly do it from our laptops.  But we won’t.  Because we won’t want to become tied down to them.

We will want our tablets and laptops to be able to carry on doing what we were doing from our desktops – but thats an entirely different issue.  Indeed, since I’ve suggested we might want to run some personal programs locally, it suggests we need something on our desktop to mediate this.

It has felt, recently, that the IT industry is moving away from letting us own our own devices.  That the Apple’s and Microsofts want to control what our computers run.  Some have shouted ‘conspiracy’, but from what I know of the people making these decisions, the reason is hands down ‘usability’ tied with ‘security’.  However, there is a new breed of entrant in the market which cares little about this usability thing – the Raspberry Pi’s and android dongles.  Smart, but cheap.  You – not any company – control what you do with these devices.  They are yours.  And in a company environment, they can quite happily sit in a DMZ, while they run software that gets full access to the corporate intranet.

The desktop computer could easily be something along these lines.  No need to make the devices limited.  No need to limit what they are able to do.  All you need to limit is their access to privileged data and privileged servers.  These devices become the hub that you connect whatever hardware and whatever display are appropriate for the job.  I can keep my keyboard. Designers can have their Wacom digitisers.

But you also make sure that these devices can be accessed from outside the corporate network – but only the things running locally on them.  This might require a bit of local virtualization to do well, but Xen on ARM is making significant progress – so we’re near.

This is my bet about the desktop.  Small, smart, configurable devices tied in with private cloud services, and whatever UI hardare you need.

But my next bet is we won’t even notice this is happening.  These devices wills tart turning up in the corporation without the CTO or CIO giving permission.  At first it’ll be techies – and the occasional person using an old phone or tablet as a permanent device.  But gradually it will become more common – and devices will be sold with this sort of corporate use in mind.  You’ll get remote client software preinstalled with simple user interfaces for the common user.  They’ll come into their own as corporations start mandating the use of remote desktops and sucking everything into the cloud – taking advantage of the same networks that the engineering services teams have been forced to make available for phones and pads.

The desktop PC will stay.  It will stay because we want more, better, personal control of our work lives.

When the network computer does, finally, make the in roads we have been promised, it will have been smuggled in, not ordered.

(Oh, and we won’t call them desktops, we won’t call them PCs.  We will think of them as something different.  We’ll call them dongles, or DTBs (Desk Top Boxes), or personal clients, or something else.  This is going to happen without anyone noticing.  It might happen differently from the way I’ve suggested, but ultimately, our desktops will be low powered, small devices, which give users more control over their computing experience.  They’ll probably run linux or android – or maybe some MacOS/IOS varient if Apple decide to get in on the game.  And while companies will eventually provide them, the first ones through the door will belong to the employees.)

I don’t want my, I don’t want my, I don’t want my Apple TV

In the late nineties, I worked for a dot com startup doing some early work in the digital set top box space.  Video streaming, personalization, web browsing.  It was the sort of thing which only became popular in the home about a decade later.  We were too early (and probably too incompetent).

These days its popular to think that the TV set is due for a change.  Some sort of revolutionary rethinking in line with what Apple have done to the tablet computer, the phone and the mp3 player.  Apple are usually considered to be the people who will lead this revolution (the rumours it will happen any day now have been around for years).  Others think Google might manage it.  And I’ve suggested Amazon could be the black horse.

But the more I think about revolutionizing the TV, the more I realise, I don’t want it to happen.  At least not like a TV version of the iPhone.

There are a few things I have realized about the television:

1. It’s a device for multiple people to watch at the same time
2. It’s about showing pictures and playing sound.
3. UIs for TVs are hard.  And generally ugly.  Your best bet up till now has been to control things with a IR remote control.  Ownership of the remote, and losing the remote have become the cliches of ancient stand up comedy routines.  We are just about entering the period when people might consider replacing their remote controls with mobile phones and tablet computers.
4. No one wants to browse the internet, read their email or post to twitter through their TV.  We might want to browse the web in order to get to YouTube or some other video playing site, but generally people prefer to read things they can hold in their hands.

It has gradually become clear to me that the home user isn’t going to be looking for a magic box – or for extra capabilities of their TV – which will allow it to take advantage of all the new content opportunities the web provides.  No.  They are just going to use their TV to watch programs with other people, together.  They won’t be installing apps on their TV. They won’t be browsing the web on it.  And they won’t be controlling their viewing with the TV’s remote.  They will be doing everything from their phone or tablet.

Think about it for a moment.  You can already watch TV on your phone.  And with airplay you can send anything you’re watching to your TV.  This is fine for an ‘all Apple’ household, but until lots of people get in on the game, I don’t see this as the future.

No the future comes with WiFi Direct and Miracast (plus a lot of extra work).

I’ve explained WiFi Direct and Miracast elsewhere, but to put it simply:  Miracast lets you beam video from your phone – or from any other device – to your TV.  Its like a wireless HDMI cable.

So imagine, if you would, the TV of the future.  It will be a box with no buttons, just a lovely display and a power supply.  Inside it will be WiFi direct ready.  (Hopefully WiFi Direct has some sort of wake on lan functionality, so that you can plug your TV in and put it in a low power mode awaiting a connection.  If it doesn’t, we’ll stick a discrete pairing button on the top)

You come in with your phone, or tablet.  You install an app – which might be something like iPlayer, Hulu or Netflix, but might also be a specialist app perhaps ‘Game of Thrones’.  How you pay for this (one off, or subscription) is up to the app publisher.  The app publisher can also decide if the app contains all the audio/visual data, or if the data will be streamed from some external source.  You play the app, and are offered a number of screens to play the video on.  You select the TV and you are away.  The video is streamed from your phone to the TV set… or better, the TV set.

This world is already (just about) possible with Miracast.  But it isn’t quite enough.  Here are some ways we can improve on things.

Your friend is also watching TV with you, and decides to turn the volume up a bit.  The volume is a feature of the TV, so your friend needs to tell the TV to play sounds a bit louder.  So your friend reaches for his phone.  Now, he doesn’t live at your house, so he won’t have an app for controlling your TV.  There are two solutions:
1. We insist every TV provides a common interface, so that lots of people will make TV control apps.  In which case, he can then just pair with the TV and control it that way.  But this sort of standardisation doesn’t seem to work well.  So the odds are low.  My preferred alternative is to encourage the following:
2. When your friend pairs his phone with the TV, he is told there is a web service available (providing a web server ought to be a common feature of WiFi Direct devices that need to be interacted with) and goes straight to the front page.  At the front page he is given a web ui, and a link to download a better app from whichever app stores the TV company have chosen to support.

What would be even better is if the web app worked by communicating with a simple web service.  Each Web service could be different, but so long as they were simple, hackers could work out how they functioned.  And as a result could develop control apps which work with hundreds of different TV sets – just like multi-set remote controls work today.  In short everyone would have an app which would quickly be able to decide how to control whatever TV they came into contact with – while also having a web app ui workaround in case of failure.

So, this is fine for controlling the TV.  But what about if my friend wanted to pause the show in order to say something?

My suggestion is that along with WiFi direct linking devices, you want to make some other information available.  Possibly provided by a web service as above – but ideally in a more standardized way.  I would want the TV to tell me which device was currently streaming data to it.  And I would want to be able to join that WiFi direct group, to communicate with the sender.  Finally I would like the sending device to also provide me with a web interface – so that I could control it remotely too.

In short, the TV becomes far more dumb than your average Apple TV box is today, and you rely on the smarts of the tablets that control it.  Especially since the apps on the tablets can ensure a far better user experience in the process.

From here we need to consider other devices.  I’m pretty sure the PVR as is will die.  Broadcast TV will gradually wither, and the PVR won’t be supported.  But until this happens, the PVR and cable box will be part of the home entertainment system.  And increasingly we will get video servers which will hold the video data of films we have purchased – or even, perhaps, caches for external video providers.  In any event, we will control these devices in the same way we control the TV: pairing via WiFi Direct, then a web UI and potential app downloads to get to the functionality.  These boxes will stream the video straight to the TV.

We also need to consider audio.  Right now many homes have a TV with speakers, and also a HiFi of some sort.  Let’s rethink this:  Add a few wireless speakers, and let them be sent audio by a protocol similar to Miracast (but perhaps with some additional syncing technology)  Your phone could even become a remote wireless speaker – especially useful if you want to attach some headphones without laying out wires.

At this point we have everything we need to allow app writers to revolutionise television.  I still feel there is a lack of a central TV guide – but perhaps that will be forthcoming now we know we have personal touch interfaces and no longer have to assume everything will be controlled via the screen.

Whatever, we don’t need smart TVs.  We just need good displays, and sensible use of wireless technology.  The Apple TV as is, both is too smart, and not up to the job.  Lets make it simpler, and make the interactions between devices work well.

The thing that killed HMV

I’m not claiming to be normal, but the thing which killed HMV (or more specifically Fopp) for me was Borders closing.

When Borders closed, I was less inclined to go into town for an afternoon of mooching around bookshops, so instead, I got myself an Amazon Prime account, and shopped for books online.  Later a branch of Costa Coffee opened in Bar Hill, so I no longer had to go to town to find a coffee shop to read in.  Then I realized amazon Prime could be used to buy all the other little things I would make one off shopping trips for.  Finally I got a Kindle, and my need for instant gratification book buying was over.

For me HMV and Fopp were mainly ever impulse purchases.  I wasn’t a big music or DVD buyer, so I probably didn’t keep them alive – but its an important note:  The things that drew me to the highstreet are gone.  The high street is an ecosystem – and for me, its a ecosystem that is quickly dying.

Training Marketplace

I am all to aware of the things I don’t know.  And, from time to time, I decide to do something about it.  Often, this involves me picking up a book and reading, and for pure learning of information, the site memrise is fantastic, but from time to time you cant beat actually getting taught something by another person.

We all have things we are capable of teaching – everyone has an area of expertise where they are better than most people.  In theory, therefore, we should all be picking up some extra cash by teaching others what we know.

But we aren’t.  Because at the moment, the cost of selling what we know, of reaching other people who want to know what we know, of realising there are people out there who want to know what we know, has been too high.

It used to be the case that we binned unwanted christmas presents.  Or gave them to a charity shop.  Now we flog them on eBay.  By creating a marketplace, the cost of getting rid of things we don’t want has gone down.  But marketplaces are not just for physical things – AirBnB lets you sell space, and, in its own way, Intrade lets you sell knowledge.  Kaggle is doing a roaring business in selling algorithm improvements.

I’ve not yet found something similar for selling training.

What I’m thinking about is something that starts off looking like TripAdvisor.  You search for the skill you want to learn, and then narrow down the search by what you are willing to pay.  You might also select a location you want to learn in, and consider features such as weather you want to learn on your own, or in a group, in person or via skype or a webinar system.  I can even see the potential of offering automated online training courses here, with or without the benefit of a human advisor.

You then sort and list the opportunities – by price, distance or rating.  And you allow people to rate any training they experience.

This, on its own, would be a fantastic resource.  A resource which could be monetized in all the usual ways - referral fees, sponsorship, advertising.

But you could take this marketplace further.  Perhaps there are skills people want which it might not always be worthwhile running training courses for.  Just as on the stock market you have both offers and bids, in a training market place you could have not only training offered, but training wanted – set up an advert of where you are and what training you want when, and let prospective trainers offer it to you (and provide a payment system so that the site can rake off 5%).  Make things even easier by making it possible for people to forward these skill requests to other people they know – via facebook, linkdin, twitter, whatever – let people get their whole network involved, because for a market to work well, you want as many eyeballs as possible looking at it.

 

The Ubiquitous Tablet

I’m not going to say anything about the new range of Kindles yet – that deserves consideration alongside whatever comes from Microsoft and Apple in the next month or so.  I do want to talk about the trend which is becoming clear with the pricing of the Kindle fire:  Tablets are becoming cheaper.  Tablets are going to continue to get cheaper.  We will stop considering tablets as expensive pieces of technology, and start considering them part of our lives – like we do with phones and wrist watches.

Here is my prediction:  Fairly soon, we will all own lots of tablets.  We will leave tablets littered around the house and workplace, and we will use whichever tablet is closest to us when we want to do something.

My key assumption here is that tablet UI development is not dead.  That one day, we will probably settle on a fairly common UI pattern for tablets – much as we have with the desktop metaphor for PCs – but it took us 15 years to firmly settle on the PC UI – and I’m going to guess there is another half decade before we come close to doing the same with tablets.

So what does this mean for how tablets should develop:

1.  We will not store our data on tablets.  We may cache our data on tablets, but the data will be stored in the cloud (or – possibly – on a server you own.  I think the cloud is more likely, but the geek in me likes the idea of being able to control my own data)

2.  Since I don’t think there will be just one brand of tablet, any more than there is just one brand of notebook (yes, you are allowed to use notebooks which are not Moleskines, just like you are allowed to use tablets which are not iPads), and since tablets will be interchangeably used, this brings into question native apps.  I don’t think native apps will die, but I think they will become less ubiquitous.  More and more, I foresee people using javascript and html based apps which they can access from any of their tablets.  Native apps will exist for a few purposes:

  • Games – assuming games are not streamed from your media centre box or somesuch, many games will remain native apps
  • Turning a particular tablet into a particular thing.  If I buy a 32″ tablet and decide ‘this will be my TV set’, then I might buy a specific native TV guide app for it.  In this case, the app will be an app you don’t want to move between devices – so it will be installed on a per device basis (perhaps with an access control list of approved users)

It is just possible that Android apps will become the default – but that seems unlikely.  Since you will want your personal collection of apps to move with you between devices (not having to install every app on every device), I think there will probably be initially space for an app which acts as an installer for these new apps in some way.  I don’t quite know how this will work – I’m guessing we’ll see it on Android first, followed by Windows, then Apple last.

3. Multi account tablets are not the way forward.  With tablets just lying around to be used this seems non-obvious, but my thought is that tablets should not be multi or single account, they should haves no account.  What I want is to go to a friend’s house I have never visited before, pick up his tablet and start using it – with all my apps there waiting for me.  If all the data (including your set of apps) is stored in the cloud, this isn’t a pipe dream, all it would take is some form of federated log in – I expect the best way to do this will be by bumping your NFC enabled phone up against the tablet.

You might worry that not having accounts with passwords might mean tablets get stolen.  I don’t share this worry.  Tablets are cheap, for most of the tablets we wil leave lying around and lend to friends, you won’t be bothered stealing them any more than you would steal the crockery from their dinner table.  Expensive tablets can till have some sort of pin locking mechanism before they let you in.

 

In thinking about this new, tablet, world, I’m wondering how far off we are.  Right now, I can’t see any reason why companies wouldn’t stick six iPad mini’s or Nexus 7s in each of their meeting rooms, to allow people to get to that email they need on the spur of the moment without having to bring in their laptop (and all the associated distractions).  Since these are special tablets with a special purpose (sitting in a meeting room), we might also want to install some sort of video conferencing app on them – each person having their own camera and being able to look whoever is speaking in the eye (or quickly go to another speaker and send a sidebar message), might well make multi-site videoconferences work.

We haven’t yet seem the impact of the tablet on the world.  It will be a different impact from the PC – more like the impact of the mobile phone, but without needing the mobility, since ubiquity and cheapness works just as well.  My predictions are probably conservative – but we’ll see them happening, and they’ll probably begin happening in the next few months. Give it five years, and the idea of not having a tablet to hand will be a strange as going anywhere without your mobile.

 

The Art of Being Invisible

Invisible Man

Recently Citrix commissioned a survey into the public perception of cloud computing and it went ever so slightly viral.  Which was presumably the intent – to get magazines and websites to publish articles which link Citrix with cloud computing, rather than actually to learn anything new about the cloud.  I have nothing against this – Citrix is a company that is a big player in the growing cloud, but anyone who hasn’t noticed this (and many haven’t) probably still consider them to be ‘Those metaframe people’ – so any PR that works is probably a good thing.

What I found out from watching this unfold was:

Not many people writing articles about surveys actually link to the original source

Even when I got to the original source, I wasn’t able to locate the survey people were give, or the responses to those questions – just the results, as digested by the company.  Which means I have absolutely no idea of the context in which to put the results.

Most people who actually reported on the article didn’t seem to care.  They pretty much parroted the press release data.  Again, as I would have expected – that seems to be what tech journalism is all about.  But it would be nice to see more people out there who get some interesting data and actually think about it – and its implications – before writing anything.

And finally, as the survey suggests:  Not many people know what cloud computing is.

Which isn’t a surprise, because it is a made up term which loosely describes a whole bunch of tech industry trends.  In short, I think we can safely say it comes from those vague technical drawings of infrastructure where you might draw a few data centers, each with a bunch of servers and storage inside, then link them by straight lines to a picture of a cloud – often with the words ‘The Internet’ inside to suggest the data centers were connected together via someone else’s infrastructure.  As people are increasingly hosting there technology on someone else’s infrastructure, rather than in bits of a datacenter maintain by company employees we say that technology is in the cloud.

The public don’t know about this.  And frankly they don’t care.

And also they shouldn’t.

My day job is developing a key part of the infrastructure for the cloud.  Without it big parts of what we call the cloud wouldn’t work – or at best would have to work in a very different and less good way.  You will almost certainly have used part of this product in some way today.  And you probably don’t even realise it, or care.  So why don’t I care that no-one knows about the cloud?  Why don’t I wish more people would love my work and sing its praises?

Because, if I do my job well, my work is invisible.  Every time you notice anything about my work, any time you worry that it exists in any way, shape, or form, you’re keeping me up at night because I’m not doing my job well.

I’ll give you an example:  Electricity.  To get electricity there are power stations, huge networks of wires, substations, transformers, all ending up at a plug socket in your house.  You don’t notice these.  You don’t care.  Unless – that is – it all stops working… or perhaps you have some technical problem like trying to run a 110 volt appliance in the UK.  If electricity wasn’t invisible – if we had to ring up and request enough power for our TV set to run, then we would care more – and enjoy our lives a little bit less.

Cloud computing is actually all about making computing into a utility, just like electricity.  It is about not having to worry about where servers are.  It is about not having to worry about where your data is.  Now, some people have to worry about electricity – if you’ve ever set up a data center, you’ll know that you need to start caring about all sorts of issues which don’t worry the home owner.  Similarly, if you work in the IT industry, you’ll have all sorts of worries about aspects of CLoud computing which end users simply shouldn’t ever have to care about.

So if you ask a man in the street about the cloud – he should remain more worried about the sort of cloud which rains on him.  And, to determine how worried he should be, he’ll probably ask Siri on his iPhone.  And not care about how Siri takes his voice input, and uses vast numbers of computers to respond to it with data generated by metrological offices who process big data over vast grids of computers.  He won’t worry about anything which goes in between, and more than he worries about how to charge is iPhone when he gets home.

Consumers already have their heads in the cloud.  They don’t realise it.  and they don’t care.  because they are already used to it.  To them the cloud isn’t anything new, its just how things are these days.  As for companies and programmers – we need to make the cloud less and less obvious, less and less difficult.  One shouldn’t need to think about doing something in the cloud, because that should be the easiest way to do things.  We have to take the blocks of code we put together, and make them blocks which work across the cloud as seamlessly as they currently work across CPU cores.  We need to stop thinking in terms of individual computers and individual locations – and those of us who build the code need to make it easier and easier to do this.

We are already on our way.  But would I want to be the number one clod computing company?  No, I would want to be the number one computing company – because once everyone is in the cloud, the cloud vanishes, and we ar back playing the same game we always played.

 

Rethinking Social Media : A Self-Contradictory Opinion

Stamp US 1977 2c Americana

Should the USA nationalize Facebook?  Um, no.

To be more specific, aside from it being the USA – a country which tends to believe in the market doing a better job of looking after people’s interests than the government – there are any number of reasons why you don’t want a state running a social network.  A good example would be “People from other states use it too”.

Should any other country nationalize Facebook?  Still no.  If you can explain why having a public social network is more important than good public transport, or good public healthcare, or good public education, you are a better person than me.  No wait, you are a far worse person than me, and you don’t deserve to have an opinion on anything.  Go away.

But the article makes a good point that it would be nice to have a trusted social network – one that would support people in countries where they don’t have freedom of speech.  Of course, no government would do this, because it would either involve being seen as siding with enemies of states you might want to still pretend to be friendly with, or it would involve coming up with a system which would be as useful to enemies of your own state.  The terrorists would have already won (even if all they won at was Mafia wars… which presumably some of them would be quite good at.)

However governments are not usually the protectors of free speech.  In general they tend to protect ‘the sort of speech we want, but not that other speech which tends towards the nasty and evil’.  To protect free speech, I would look instead towards various charities – the Amnestys, and EFFs and CPJs of the world.

And, in thinking of those charities, it occurs to me:

Would there not be some place in the world for a ‘free speech social network’, supported by a non-profit foundation, and presumably grants from both right on for-profit organisations and charities of the sort I’ve described before?

Here is my thinking – if I were to set up this sort of social network, it would have to have the following characteristics:

It would have to compete head to head with Facebook and Twitter and whoever else.  You want this network to be the place everyone goes to, the place everyone knows about – because you don’t just want freedom of speech for specially equipped activists, you want freedom of speech for absolutely everyone.  You want it to be easy and safe to say what you want as and when and why you want.

Because people wish to shut down free speech, and because there is no legislature that could be trusted with protecting a free speech social network, it would have to be distributed.  In saying that, I worry too much that I’m contradicting what I have previously said about social networks not needing to be distributed.  I would like, if I may, to plead a technicality:  There would be a core site for the social network (or perhaps a core site in each country).  All the sites would communicate to each other.  And all would interoperate with each other.  And, if you wanted higher levels of security still, you could run your own version of the site.  Now some of these sites may need to block particular content for legal reasons – but that wouldn’t be a problem, people could simply go to other sites (which would be well known about) hosted in other jurisdictions if they wanted that content.  So what I’m talking about here is not ‘lets build some distributed software, and try to get a network to take off based on it”, I’m talking about ‘lets build a good social networking site, and by the way, you can mirror some or all of the content, and interoperate with it in a distributed way if you want’

To achieve the goal of distribution, its going need cryptography.  Things like ‘only distribute this to my friends’ can only be done with crypto in a distributed system.  But crypto can also be used to solve other issues like ‘this proves who I am’.  The trick here would be to hide the crypto from the end user as much as possible – which is to say, they should never need to know that crypto is involved.

It should play well with TOR – some people who would want to use this network would need TOR – but the site that most people see would be hosted on the open internet, because that is the obvious place to host such things.

It would have to be free to everyone.

I’m optimistic that this could be done.  The wikimedia foundation has worked, and has managed to produce not just Wikipedia, but the software which powers it.  I see no reason why similarly generously spirited people shouldn’t get together to create the ultimate social network.  One which cares about its users, and which is free, because it is funded by people who care about freedom, not by people who care about adverts.

Will it happen?

It could.  And possibly it should. I think it might just be an idea whose time has come.

Rethinking Social Networks : Different Applications

 

Assuming we don’t want to replace Facebook, then we are left with trying to use social networks in other applications.  These need to be applications that lots of people are going to want to use (otherwise the social aspect is useless), which perhaps have a viral way of grabbing people’s attention (using social to sell them) and which fundamentally are made better by being social.

When I’m thinking of the sorts of application which come in and grow big, my first port of call is to see “What are geeks using right now which hasn’t caught on in the mainstream?”  There are two things that currently come to mind:

Bug Tracking Systems

and

Distributed Version Control

Now – clearly neither of these are new ideas (although I was thinking of distributed version control well before it hit the mainstream consciousness – but that’s another story).  And both of these exist to some extent outside of geekdom:  You have a certain level of version control is various word processing systems, and online data storage systems, and ticketing systems of various type exist in various industries (mainly industries with support desks).  So how do we make them different, and make them social.

Bug Tracking:

As I said, ticketing systems are used in many industries.  In my job I have to handle both the customer support ticket system and the internal bug tracking system.  In my time I’ve used quite a few bug tracking systems of various colours.  They have generally common characteristics:

Someone enters a bug into the system (we could generalise this as ‘someone enters a thing for you to do into the system’).  This raises a ticket.

They assign the ticket to the person they think is responsible

This person is made aware of the issue by an email arriving.

If they don’t think they are the person responsible, they pass the issue on to someone else (and that person gets an email)

 

Better systems let you say things like:

This particular tasks consists of multiple subtasks

and

Before I can work on this particular task, someone else must complete another task.

 

This is starting to look like a general ‘to do’ system.  Indeed, I’m astonished when I hear that most companies don’t use a system like this to manage their projects, and keep track of things that have to be done, and when they are to be done by.  That  also suggests to me that, given a more friendly user interface, we might be onto a winner.

So we’ll start with a single user ‘to do’ program.  They can enter tasks, and mark them as done.  They can also break them down into subtasks, and put dependencies between tasks.  All that requires is a friendly UI to make everything clear.  There are good examples on the net.

Now, lets take a leaf out of tripit’s book.  When you sign up to the todo apps site, you get an email address.  You can forward any email you get assigning you things to do to that address, and it will get turned into a todo within the system (which may well be a todo along the lines of ‘TODO: Generate todo tasks from this email”).  The first social aspect is that each task will be associated with the original email – which means you can send an automated email back saying something like ‘I’ve identified the following tasks from your email – if you want to see that I’m keeping up with them, please go to this web page’.  Moreover you could only allow someone with the email address you originally identified to log in to that site (using email based authentication)

We can go further.  What if you generated a task which someone else had to do.  Now, its pretty bad form to say ‘here is something you’ve got to do, which I’ve already put into a task tracking system’) – but you could add a task ‘wait for a response from this person’ and send them a querying email from your to do system.  Moreover, if that person is already using the bug tracking system, the email could be automatically redirected to their todo list box – which would mean they would have a task that you could monitor.  If they are not using the system, well, every email you send will have an advert encouraging them to give it a try.

Monetisation could come from apps (see passim), enterprise subscriptions (will walled gardens that won’t stay in someone’s account once they leave the company and mass email subscriptions), or premium subscriptions.

 

Distributed Version Control

The concept here is there exists some sort of document (or set of documents), wherein each person can have a copy and make their own changes, then pass the document on to someone else who already has a copy of the document, who can decide if they want to accept some or all of your changes into their copy.  There isn’t one true central copy.  Also, you can go back in time and see how the document has changed.

We geeks use it to keep track of our source code.

But in the real world it would seem great for managing that big collection of stuff you have to keep track of for a project (or, on a smaller scale, for a meeting)

I see it as being like this:

I have some sort of application where I can store various pieces of text, photos, lists, links to web pages, other documents etc, and keep them all together in one place.  In the old days that place would have been a file, these days it would be a web site somewhere.  Now, I might want to let someone else look at this collection of documents, while I might want to let others edit it.  Easy – I just set it to email them links to the document – now all those people have accounts where they can take a copy of the document, and where they can edit their own copy to their hearts content - and some will also have the ability to see what changes I’ve made since – and fewer still will have the ability to suggest I accept some of their changes (it would be something along the lines of ‘Show Ben These Changes’ in the ui.  To us Geeks, I’m talking about a github pull request)

Again, it is fundamentally social – and all the app I’m describing needs to actually be is something akin to a wiki – or HyperCard.

 

Go with either of these ideas, and you have the potential to exploit the still underexploited social arena

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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