The future of computing

About eight years ago I went with a bunch of colleagues from Reed Elsevier to visit the Microsoft campus in Redmond and was treated to a presentation from Rick Rashid, the head of Microsoft Research. The most striking thing I heard him say was that they knew exactly what to build, it was just that it was very hard to achieve. That “thing” was the Star Trek Computer – a pervasive, all-knowing computer with a simple interface always there to help bemused humans. (He’s still trying…).

Recently there have been leaps forward in pervasive computing which bring that future tangibly closer. The Google App for the iPhone is one such; pick up the phone, speak into it and search results come back based on your location and what you searched for.

This post points to another giant leap forward. Bring on the Star Trek future.

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Twitter power

There has been a sudden upsurge in public discussion of Twitter prompted by celebrity Twitterers such as @wossy (Jonathan Ross) and @stephenfry (guess who). This has deflected attention away from the hugely imaginative and creative developments which are taking place in the Twitter ecosystem.

There has been an explosion of apps allow access to Twitter and add functionality to the basic web service – Tweetdeck and Twhirl are two such.

But there are much more ambitious things going on: LibraryThing is turning Twitter into a kind of command line for the internet (tweet a book, ISBN and some tags and it automatically adds it to your personal library filling in the blanks with an Amazon search).

The Twitter story is far from over.

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The case for international co-ordination

There were several interesting (for different reasons) pieces in this morning’s Observer which gave me pause for thought.

The first was a glib piece on the “plans” for a Google “GDrive” which technology correspondent David Smith says prompts “campaigners [to] warn that it would give the online behemoth unprecedented control over individuals’ personal data.” It quotes Peter Brown, executive director of the Free Software Foundation as saying: “does it matter to you that someone can see everything on your computer? Does it matter that Google can be subpoenaed at any time to hand over all your data to the American government?”

But surely this is the wrong question. The issue is surely that the world is globalising and the institutions which govern it are out of step with that trend.

In an excellent comment Will Hutton says of the financial crisis:

Nor is there any conversation about how bank bailouts would work better if they were internationally co-ordinated and funded, which is of huge importance to our very exposed Britain. Instead, banks everywhere are retreating to their own backyards.

As the interconnected nature of the credit crunch becomes clear, it is difficult to see how some kind of international institutional response can be avoided. And we now have a president in the White House who looks like he might be in tune with this.

The fact is that for 15 years now the internet has been changing the world and the political institutions have failed to keep up. Copyright law is just one example of how out of step our historical frameworks have become.

Increasingly we need to look for global solutions which reflect not only the rights to privacy but the collective responsibility to build structures which benefit the whole planet. The British Library is warning that we are in danger of losing our collective memories as it laments the increasing difficult of archiving the digital world. The solution is surely to recognise that the Google books project or Flickr’s personal record, or the Wayback Machine are all much better bets to keep track of an online world than the individual efforts of national institutions like the British Library. They are more likely to be able to update en masse all files to the latest formats and to keep an increasingly large archive online and available for all.

Probably this will mean some kind of hived-off non-profit status for parts of their businesses, and probably it means putting these efforts under the wing of, say, the United Nations to ensure freedom from political interference. But so be it.

Some national laws look increasingly impotent in the face of the developing internet revolution. Perhaps this weeks Davos Economic Summit will start to address some of these issues?

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Web 2.0 and the search for a business model

Interesting post on Centre Networks on Web 2.0 business models in comparison to Web 1.0.

I think the post – and subsequent conversation – leaves out one more important business model: selling their cool technology to one of the big services. (It’s a perfectly reasonable business model – in a sense it’s what the biotech companies have been doing for big pharma for the past few years.)

The path is well-trodden: cool software freely available gets massive traction and a very good press; tech giants buys them to plug a functionality hole. There are numerous examples: Postini (Google secure corporate email), Groove Networks (collaboration for Microsoft), Writely (now Google Docs) … the list goes on.

Maybe this is an avenue that will close off a bit in the downturn (thought maybe not) but it goes some way to explaining why Web 2.0 companies have sometimes focussed less on business models and more on scale and user acceptance.

So, to the problem of what the Web 2.0 companies should do now?

Companies like LinkedIn who have had a long time in the game (it was founded in 2003 making it a real veteran!) have often had longer to experiment with business models. LinkedIn early on worked out that recruiters would pay for access to the pool of 34 million business people profiles and has moved on from there to build a compelling advertising proposition based on the enormously detailed demographics which are a by-product of the service.

Twitter, to take an interesting example from the … post, is in a different position. The growth (and influence) of Twitter has been notable (yesterday the service even got a mention on the BBC News at Ten!) but as yet there is no discernable business model. I suspect, with 25 employees and a growing, and very demanding user base (fail whale = uproar) there is a human bandwidth problem when it comes to business strategy, especially in an environment where VC money is forthcoming, and the ultimate option of selling out is still there.

That may have all changed now, so my advice is: hire a couple of smart people to work up some commercial options which add revenue without sacrificing the utility and increasing network momentum of the service. Here are a few starting points:

  • offer a Pro options for the prolific and earlier adopters – Guy Kawasaki surely would pay a few bucks for a special symbol against his name and some premium benefits?
  • consider the options for secure sub-networks in corporations – as the service goes mainstream corporates are looking to use microblogging services but Twitter has the advantage of network size
  • consider how to use the date from the network to build a metrics business
  • …and so on

I am sure there will be a big fall-out in the Web 2.0 world, but I’m also sure that what we are seeing now is just another phase of the incredible development of the web. After all, after the last big bubble burst, the companies that survived have in many cases gone on to weave themselves into the fabric of out lives – think Amazon and

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Twitter news

Very interesting development born from mashing up Yahoo’s BOSS service (roll-your-own search) and Twitter, as reported on Techcrunch. Called Tweetnews it was created by Vik Singh, a developer on the BOSS team, to find real breaking news, and was achieved, apparently, with 100 lines of (opensource) code. Apart from the fact that this is an interesting development in its own right, it is symptomatic of a Cambrian explosion of creativity around Twitter and the broader Web 2.0 ecosystem. It’s fascinating to watch….

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Grim views on publishing

Investors Chronical’s assessment of the prospects of the publishing sector makes grim reading. IC makes the point that many publishers have yet to reach the optimal balance between print and online (whatever that may be) and that even after the investments in online technology, digital revenues have been slow to build.

In addition, digital advertising, while still a growth area, is set to slow significantly this year. Media research specialist, Enders Analysis, says online advertising will grow at just 2.1 per cent in 2009, down from 20 per cent in 2008, before recovering to 9.3 per cent in 2010.

All sectors are expected to be hit, notes IC.

Business-to-business titles are expected to continue to struggle, while consumer magazines are forecast to see an 8 per cent decline in revenues and a 7 per cent decline in circulation, according to research group Billets. Claire Enders, founder of Enders Analysis, expects a third of all publications – including at least two national titles – to cease publication this year, while Billets expects Sunday titles to fare the worst.