Saturday, December 23, 2006

It's all over now baby ... Orange

As the working year draws to an end, so too does my current employment contract, which started nearly seven years ago when I joined Freeserve - which re-branded to Wanadoo after France Telecom acquisition and then changed name again to Orange earlier this year.
Its been an interesting ride from fresh faced Dot Com to corporate monster. I initially joined Freeserve (after being pursued for some time by a rabid pack of recruiters) because it seemed like a place with pockets suitably deep enough to offer some shelter from the dot com bubble bursting. However, having made the transition from senior producer to Innovation and technology consultant early on in my tenure I must admit that it turned out to be far more fun than I anticipated.

But now, the time is right to once more venture forward under my own steam, so its back into the heady world of freelance consultancy and start-up stress.

So, I'm going to enjoy a Christmas break at get stuck in on Jan 2nd 2007 when the hang overs clear!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Le Web 3

Due to fatherly responsibilities I had to cancel my trip to Le Web 3 at the eleventh hour and I kinda feel that in the end I lucked out. Thus I legitimately get to avoid passing comment on the event which by all accounts was hijacked by French political agendas. There is little point my adding anything to the TCUK debacle 'cept to point you at a couple of posts from my homies.

Monoman: TCUK Farrago
Imran: Le Web day 1

I was however in IM contact with several of my friends and colleagues who were less than impressed. If you want to know more, tap into the blogosphere - it's rife with comment.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Backup, Back down

I have, at various times in my career, been tasked to look into the viability and functional specifications of backup systems for domestic computing. There are some pretty good technical solutions out there but this is never an easy sell to the end user. Until you have had a bit of kit go bang, you can't really appreciate the trauma of loosing its contents and capabilities. Would everyone really buy car insurance if it wasn’t compulsory or would they gamble on their driving prowess or the grace of St Christopher?

Even now, when the personal generation and collation of digital media in ever greater quantity on our computers suggests we have more to loose, few indulge in regular back up activities and fewer still are prepared to pay to do so.

To this end I am not sure that backup is something that can or should be sold to the domestic users (there are all sort of compulsions on the corporate world). Rather it perhaps makes sense to charge for retrieval or restoration.
Save for the obvious privacy paranoia (not to belittle these concerns – but this isn’t the time or place for that discussion), how compelling would a free automatic system backup service sound to an end user in this always-on broadband world? Delta indexing can avoid lengthy consumption of system resources for such purposes especially if the service was active from the moment a new system was unboxed and plugged in.
Simplicity is the key to end user adoption so Dell (named purely as exemplar of OEM provider) and their partner ISPs could have everything pre-configured.
The end user is then charged at the point of trauma for retrieval – it sounds cruel, but this is exactly the time in which the immense value of backup becomes blatantly obvious. Pricing would have to be none exploitative however.

Of course if backup were to be such an inherent system component, the model of adding a couple of quid a month to ISP charge for the piece of mind of free retrieval may also be viable.
Trustworthy computing anyone?

There are some steps towards a sense of data security. Photographic memory may be saved by Flickr, conversations forever archived in Gmail and MP3s written to CD (lets not get into a DRM debate now) but in many cases its not just the loss of media that can cause issues, and its not just computing disasters that we can address, what about computing mobility.

The problem I have with most backup systems is in what they encourage the user to back up. The focus in on media files; pictures, text docs, music etc
My biggest source of frustration when moving to a new machine is the sudden lack of those little behaviours to which I have become accustomed, the Firefox extensions, widgets, utilities and applications them-selves which are all part of my customised computer.
[There is of course no mystery why online back up systems don’t tend to encourage backup of applications, for one thing in the Windows world, who knows where to find all of those little library files etc let alone how to restore them into the correct folder structure and system settings tables.]

No, in short what I’d like is my system ‘DNA’ stored in a way which allows me to port it from machine to machine such that I can easily move my interfacing habits. Now, living a wholly online life is one solution, though this is not yet entirely practical, and much as I’ve tried to live like that, I still draw immense value from the customisation of the very browser I use to access those online resources. Now, not being technically inept I do upload my Firefox profile to a secure online locker so that pain at least is reduced – though this is hardly a mass market solution – again, simplicity!

What I want as a user is a stress free way of making any new or recently repaired PC feel like home. I don’t want to get into backup – but I do want the power of retrieval.

Kind of on topic, I just read Paul’s post and thinking about profile backup though my Digital Home research eyes I couldn’t help wondering if this model could be applied to equipment other than PCs. Just where can the Telco live in the data security space?

The Digital Home - The Grid Approach

For a few years now one of my research domains has concerned the Future of Home Networking. My interest in this area of technology was I guess, initially sparked as a geeky 10 year old hacking away at my ZX81 with an imagination fuelled by Lucas, Roddenbury et al.
So when I was asked to deliver a keynote at last week’s inaugural Wireless Grids Research Consortium Meeting on the topic of visions for the use of Grids in the home environment, starting with the mental exercise of deconstructing the Star Trek ship's computer seemed only too natural.

From HAL to the USSS Enterprise and beyond, the intelligent Star Ship Computer has become a cliché staple of Science Fiction writing and film. Be the question ‘Computer, what deck is Mr Spok currently on?’ or ‘How long before that planet explodes?’ the Star Ship computer has the answer.
However the computer doesn’t ‘know’ all the answers, it simply ‘understands’ the question, ‘knows’ where to find the information required to present a logic answer and 'understanrds' how to manipulate the physical devices which can supply information about the environment.
This glib (and over long) sentence is of course ascribing simplicity of concept to something complex in practice, but for the sake of illustration consider the oft utilized plot device of a stricken, powerless Star Ship in decaying orbit around a planet. The question ‘Computer, how long before the ship burns up in the atmosphere?’ would more than likely result in a prompt answer of the form ’37.2 minutes!’
If we examine this we can see that in order to answer this question the computer must:
  1. Understand the question and also:
    1. 1 Recognise the questioner
    1. 2 Recognise their context
  2. Locate information about current speed from ships sensors
  3. Locate information about planet mass from external sensors
  4. Calculate the mass of the ship from ship record and cargo log
  5. Find appropriate equations for planetary physics from some knowledge bank
  6. Apply all the information to the equation in order to calculate the answer.

We can also see here that even the method for calculating the answer, given the other data sources, can be discovered through an information source. The intelligence therefore lies in being able to aggregate the correct information and compile it accordingly.

Now, this may seem ridiculously geeky but it allowed me to make an important point. Home networking technologists are often so concerned with the networking aspect that they neglect to investigate all but the most trite and obvious use cases, such as moving files from one place to another or sharing an internet connection that the notion of what this new 'network/device gestalt' is capable of is often overlooked.
I've lost count of the amount of times some techno savvy type has piped up with an assertion that building a home network is easy and how simple the Windows Network Setup Wizards are etc. Indeed not being alien to technology myself, my own home has boasted some form of computer network for at least 8 years. However, these assertions always fall into the same traps of :
  1. Assuming that the average home user has any interest in building (and more importantly maintaining) a network
  2. Assuming that computers are the only thing that needs networking.
  3. Assuming that is other devices are to be networked it is so they can be exploited by a computer in some scriptable liner process
Beyond the expensive home automation and entertainment integration systems available at the high end market (which are very cool) I would go so far as to say that there is no such thing as a home network at this point in time. Sure, we can scale down an corporate LAN but to my mind any system that requires someone in the home to take on the role of a network administrator can not really be considered a 'home' network.
There is the argument that this could be set up by a third party expert much the same as the electrical or plumbing networks and this would be fine if not for the small matter or reliability. I have not had to touch the core electricity or plumbing networks in my house since installation, yet my computer network needs weekly attention.
I long since coined the term 'the family CTO' to label that person existent in many extended families to which all others turn when computing problems arise, but it is not really viable for network and technology suppliers to rely on their possible existence or assume that there is any interest in domestic systems integration. It is not a new idea that things sell better when they are easy to set up, use and above all understand.

So, getting back to the Star Trek Ship’s Computer, to me the point of home networking goes beyond the relatively simple aspect of connecting devices together- rather the point is to enable the end user to do something previously impossible but to allow them to do this in a simple way. By connecting the computers to other devices with (or potentially with) communications capabilities - games consoles, cell phones, stereos, speakers, TVs, white goods and even the family car - we can start to construct a network of capabilities (resources, in the Grid computing parlance) and think about how abstracting device capabilities from their physical boxes by way of the network generates new possibilities.

If we can some how place the intelligence for connectivity, identity, security, information retrieval and user orchestration into the network we can begin to extract values from the devices found in a home on a level greater than the sum of their parts. This may need some kind of hub, though the notion of making the network itself the ‘hub’ is personally more intriguing.

Maybe this is all science-fiction, I admit at least that this is a longer term vision, but through some of my work with the Wireless Grids community I am starting to see some real possibilities.

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