May 2006 Archives

Gates' Memo: 'Beyond Business Intelligence'

To deliver on the promise of this new generation of solutions, Microsoft is focused on creating software that addresses specific businesses priorities:

Productivity: Information fatigue is one inevitable result of information overload. We are working to develop tools that help information workers prioritize their work and focus on the tasks that are truly important. At the same time, we are working to create unified communication solutions that provide a single entry point to all of the tools we use to communicate with coworkers and customers.

Collaboration: New meeting technologies will make distributed meetings simple and cost effective, and provide rich tools that enable team members to work together to create documents and plans. In addition, companies will be able to capture all of the interaction in meetings and preserve institutional knowledge that is often lost today.

Business intelligence: Powerful yet intuitive software that supports advanced visualization and modeling of information will be used every day by information workers to find meaningful patterns in the vast sea of data they collect. This software will also help employees use the insight they gain to trigger processes that enable organizations to respond quickly as business conditions change.

Workflow optimization: Smarter workflow software will eliminate friction points that hamper organizational agility. These tools will automate the movement of approvals, alerts and exceptions. They will also have the intelligence to recognize inefficiencies in existing processes and make improvements.

Microsoft is also devoting particular attention to the problem of enterprise information access. In a world where information can be stored on the desktop, the intranet or out on the Web, and where the right people may be located in an office halfway around the world, enabling seamless access to enterprise information is a complex problem.

An ambitious vision, and throwing an awful lot of different ROI scenarios into a single initiative ("It's a floor wax! It's a desert topping!"). Look at the spectrum of companies they're taking on: Google, Autonomy, Tacit Software, EMC, Hummingbird, Business Objects, Cognos...the list is pretty extensive.

Whether or not these companies understand it, and no doubt some of them do, they're fighting for one of the few remaining large scale IT infrastructure opportunities: information management. Until now, nobody has been able to embed structured processes around unstructured data—the kind that lives on desktops, file shares, in email accounts, on web sites, and, yes, in SharePoint servers. The previous pitches for things like enterprise content management or knowledge management all centered around very squishy ROI stories (making your company "smarter") or very limited payoffs (standardizing document-centric and form-centric processes, and making them more efficient). On the other side of the value equation, most information management solutions were too brittle—top-down, role-based, taxonomy-heavy—or too steeped in risky rocket science to really take root. Two things have changed this picture: compliance (not just SOX, but HIPAA, GLBA, etc), and Google.

Regulatory regimes like SOX mean that you can no longer afford to allow information, structured or not, to continue to go unmanaged, and Google (and, to be fair, del.icio.us, Technorati, and a host of others) has shown us that you can manage information from the bottom up, finding implicit structure in the many decisions made by individual users of information every day.

The requirement for internet-like searchability is being smuggled into the enterprise from the bottom-up, too. As Jonathan Schwartz has asked enterprise IT execs, "who decided on which search engine you use?" So the requirements for information manageability are getting more defined, and the big enterprise IT suppliers can see what they have to deliver: easy searchability, without complex or restrictive classification and workflow being imposed on the people creating information.

The funny thing is, the benefits to the enterprise remain the same: companies will get smarter when everyone can leverage their colleagues. Companies will be able to assure compliance with visibility into the flow of information. They will also use the knowledge to become more efficient.

Information infrastructure is the key to making all this happen. It's a high-stakes battle with a number of legitimate contenders. No wonder Microsoft is spending precious capital—time with key CEOs— to make the case that they're in the best position to make it happen.

Official Google Blog: Making AJAX development easier

AJAX has the power to make your site more compelling and more dynamic, but AJAX development is often complicated, with much of the development time spent working around browser quirks and the fragility of AJAX components. Trust us, we know--the development of our own AJAX apps, like Google Maps and Google Calendar, caused us no small amount of AJAX-induced frustration.

That's why we're bringing you Google Web Toolkit. GWT is a new publicly available software development tool that makes creating AJAX applications much easier. With GWT, you can develop and debug your own AJAX applications in Java code using the Java development tools of your choice. When you deploy your application to production, the GWT compiler simply translates your Java application to browser-compliant JavaScript and HTML.

I've only skimmed this post (and the GWT sites), but it looks pretty significant.

The knock against AJAX apps (and what stopped adoption of JavaScript-driven, dynamic HTML applications in the past) has been the inherent complexity of coding (and managing) cross-browser UIs. Other toolkits, like Ruby on Rails, do a great job addressing the issue of minimizing the work involved in creating the back-end of web applications, addressing the challege of making the various parts of the stack (the database, the application logic, the application server, etc) work together, but we've only had minimal progress on the "last mile" of the user interface. What has been lacking has been a tightly-integrated, visual IDE like Visual Studio, that allowed developers to quickly draw-and-code an application from front-end to back.

While the GWT (how do you pronounce that -- "gwat?" "gee-what?") doesn't get us 100% of the way there, releasing a set of proven cross-platform, cross-browser presention-layer clases and controls as a coherent package is a huge productivity boon for developers. Helping developers, of course, is what platform companies like Microsoft do to ensure the popularity of their platforms with independent software vendors, so it's always interesting to see companies like Google (or Amazon, or eBay) doing the same sort of thing.

As best as I can tell from a cursory glance, GWT assumes a Java back-end to your application, as the RPC mechanism passes Java objects, but I assume you could use HTTPRequest to call any back end that can process HTTP headers (a scripting language such as PHP), to spit out the data you need.

USATODAY.com - NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

I'm not surprised, but I'm still outraged.

Given the way this administration has acted in the past, I also won't be surprised when we find out that the NSA actually is capturing the content of conversations. They just haven't been caught yet.

Apple Fights to Hold 99-Cent Download Line - Los Angeles Times

Apple did consent to some changes in the latest round of contract negotiations, label executives who participated said. For instance, the computer company agreed to make technological changes that would allow labels to post music videos more quickly, and consented to continue variable pricing on full album downloads. Moreover, Apple agreed to improve the digital rights management software that makes it difficult for hackers to copy or post songs purchased on iTunes to Internet file-sharing networks.

Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, agreed with Apple that it was unwise to charge more than 99 cents for the most popular tunes.

"We want to get more people discovering and enjoying digital music and grow the marketplace," said Rio Caraeff, a Universal Music executive who helps oversee the company's digital strategies. "The wrong way to do that is to charge early adopters higher prices."

Others say that even if Apple permitted variable pricing, a sliding price scale would wreak havoc with music company's current accounting systems. Executives at some labels say it would take them as long as 12 months to develop necessary databases to sell songs at variable rates.

"It's really complicated to track royalties and copyrights and other payments for online sales unless everything costs the same amount," McGuire said. "And if you decide you're going to charge more for new songs, but once they're 18 months old they revert to the price for older songs, its complicated to track all of that."

I don't love the idea that FairPlay will somehow get more restrictive. Since I haven't had a catastrophic data loss, and since most of my iTunes library has been ripped from my CD collection—it's where 1994 went to die—it's been relatively transparent to me until now. Perhaps this is in reference to the multiple times FairPlay has been nullified by tools like SharpMusique, forcing Apple into a leapfrogging race against programmers reverse-engineering FairPlay.

With regard to variable pricing, I think there are two major reasons to stick with a universal pricepoint. First, it contributes to the simplicity of the customer experience. I can't back this up with numbers, but my guess is that very few people make variable value distinctions between new releases and back catalog. To a regular guy, a new release has value because it's new, he heard it on the radio, and it's been bouncing around his head all day. Back catalog has value because it's got "the classics," (at least in his mind). In any case, the yield-maximizing pricing sought by some labels (where new releases are more expensive than back catalog) might only serve to push more of the buying into the back catalog category (or, worse, into the free file sharing category). Flat pricing removes this extra element from the decision made by the buyer.

Moreover, I happen to agree that the labels asking for variable pricing are probably underestimating the difficulty and expense of creating sufficiently robust back-end systems to track things like pricing over time and royalty payments due. Ask any artist—it's notoriously difficult to get a straight answer on royalties owed out of a record label, and that's only partly due to outright greed; there's an element of sheer technical ineptitude, too.

Boing Boing: UN cooking podcast-killing treaty

The UN's World Intellectual Property Organization has reconvened to discuss a treaty to kill innovative Internet audio/video offerings -- like podcasting, YouTube, Google Video, and Democracy Player -- in order to protect the business models of a few entrenched broadcasters. This is the Broadcast Treaty, and the process -- never pretty -- got uglier than ever today.

The Chairman of this treaty committee has colluded with the US to bring this treaty to the Web, and to be sure that it contains a clause that will give DRM even more mandatory protection than it enjoys today. As the committee reconvened today, the Chairman revealed that he'd gone even further in giving the US what it wants, at the expense of the will of the rest of the world, particularly developing nations like Brazil.

The copyfight never ends.

WIPO is playing lapdog to corporate interests, but very few powerful parties are interested in protecting the commons. That's unfortunate, because the commons—from the public domain to liberally licensed content—is the seedcorn for innovation in media and technology.

The Broadcast/Webcast Treaty wants to give signatory countries the option of granting x-casters (broadcasters, cablecasters, webcasters) a 50 year copyright protection for their 'casts, supported by mandated DRM to enforce those exclusive rights. This expanded right applies even when the 'cast contains material in the commons. For webcasters, that means that the author isn't in control of their copyright, the host is.

This is absurd.

If I author some material and release it under a Creative Commons license or into the public domain, then I damn well want it to be free. If I want some middleman to exercise some control over my work, I'll write up a contract.

Granting expanded webacast copyright is the "optional" part, but you can be sure that, once the US excercises the option (and they will), other countries will follow suit under the guise of "harmonizing" their intellectual property laws with their most important trading partner.