Relay #70, Panel F

don't just know technology, understand it

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Do No Evil...yet

Google is a phenomenon. The amount of information they've amassed, services they control and brainpower they have at their disposal would astound you.

Never before has a force like this been witnessed and I don't think we're prepared for what they may one day do.

They know you

If you've been a netizen for any length of time there's probably enough information indexed on Google to put together a pretty decent profile of you. I've done this myself and using nothing but Google's own services, was able to get my full name, a usable address and contact information, and a picture of my house with my car parked in the driveway. Scared yet? You should be.

I may not be the best example since I don't really have a pseudo online identity as many others do, but all it would take is a little more effort to unearth all the John Browns and Jane Doughs criss-crossing the web.

Google's mantra is _do no evil_, but I'm reminded of the adage _power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely_. No matter how non-evil Google has been thus far, what's to stop them from switching on a dime tomorrow. Who's to say that they haven't already crossed that boundary?

Once upon a time in Googleland

One of Google's latest endeavours is a service called Google Print. The purpose of this service is to provide scanned, indexed versions of printed texts that can be searched via their engine. This sounds like a great idea, and perhaps it is, but there's a problem; the authors and publishers of many of these titles aren't in Googles camp.

In such a scenario, what does a _good_ company do? Discontinue the practice? Perhaps. Ask for publishers to put forward the works that they would like scanned? Maybe. Google's approach however, was to temporarily discontinue scanning and provide publishers with a window in which they could _opt-out_ of the program. To simplify, Google stated that they will scan all books as planned unless you tell them not to scan yours. This now put the onus on the publishers rather than on Google, which will of course, result in many more books being scanned than if they had taken the _opt-in_ approach.

According to many lawyers this is perfectly legal, but good and evil aren't defined by laws, but by moral and ethics. The last time I checked I was no expert on that topic so I'll reserve my opinion, however it strikes me as interesting that Google, in an effort to launch this service and of course pull in more ad revenue to feed their ever growing company, would go against the interests of the very people who provided the content that they propose to use. Food for thought.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Social Web

We are all social creatures who take pleasure in the company of others. So much so in fact that isolation is many times used as a form of punishment.

For the most part the web has been a lonely place. It's just you, your monitor, a keyboard and mouse. Our inert need to interact however, inevitably surfaced. This drove the popularity of chatrooms and IM for many years. Now we have reached a turning point. A new level of interaction is taking over. One that though passive in nature, is proving to be more relevant, useful and integrated with our daily use of the web.

The social web is simple. It gives you the information you want based on the information those who came before you chose. It allows the filtering of information based on what others think of it. To maximize the relevance of this information, you simply filter based on those people you know and trust or those that share your interests.

If you're a Hi5 member, you've been using the social web. If you've used digg, or any other social bookmarking site, you're involved in it's growth.

If you hadn't totally grasped the concept before, I hope the examples above help cement the idea. If not, lets take a detailed look at one of them.

Hi5 is an extremely popular site for meeting and keeping in touch. Many use it to find old friends or schoolmates, but the general idea is to build a personal network of people.

The growth of your network is managed by a simple rule. To add a person to your group, or for you to be added to theirs, there has to be a mutual friend. To put it another way, for you to be my friend you have to be a friend of a friend.

This kind of filter ensures that only people you're likely to interact well with will fall into your network. If I like Kate and you like Kate, chances are I may like you. This is the social web version of online personals. Everything is filtered based on those who came before you.

The ramifications of this are far reaching, and there are both pros and cons. The positives are obvious of course; who doesn't want more relevance in the information they request? A human filter is probably the best way to get this and it's made better by the fact that those who have sifted through probably wanted the same information you want right now. Less time sorting and more time interacting.

On the other hand, this same scenario also presents the biggest problem with the social web; it limits your exposure. When all your content is filtered for you, there is the obvious risk that information that may be of some interest will be cast aside because it fell outside your predefined categories of interest. Be it a person, a news story or a cooking recipe, you'll be less the wiser because of it.

The social web had to happen. It's a natural progression and will only evolve further and incorporate more aspects of our web based lives. The net is growing up.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Rediscovering the web

I'm falling in love with Firefox all over again.

I'm not an internet power user by any stretch of the term. I use the net to shop, stay in touch with friends and business contacts, and keep on top of happenings in the world with a news site or two.

With my limited needs I of course only require limited resources. I still don't have broadband at home...matter of fact, I'm making this entry using my motorola C333 as a GPRS modem (read: sloooow), my laptop is a 1GHz P111, and my browser of choice is, of course, Firefox. The last item on my list is the subject of today's entry.

I originaly made the switch to Firefox because it was touted as being a lighter version of the now discontinued Mozilla Suite, which I thought was the only browser worth using on Linux. Firefox is a great browser (tabs) and it's not a breeding ground for virus (strictly speaking, Virus doesn't have a plural form) and trojans (many will say that this is simply because it has not reached critical mass, but that's debatable and not the purpose of this post).

As I said, I'm a simple man, and Firefox is a simple browser; simple and fast. I thought that was all I needed, and life's been good up until now.

Having too much time on my hands one evening, I decided to visit Firefox's extensions site. This exposed me to the true potential of this amazing browser. An extension is an addon. It extends the browser's functionality in any way the designer sees fit. Some I would classify as _nice to have_ (coloured tabs), others fall in the _useful_ category (AJAX yahoo, tab switching) and others are in the _what was I doing with my life before I found you_ genre (SessionSaver).

Now Firefox is a whole new browser to me. I've rediscovered my love. It's like that song, Escape (or the pina colada song, as it's affectionately known). All along it had the potential, and I was blind to it. More seasoned adventurous users may simply read this and laugh. Extensions are nothing new. They've been around long before Firefox was even thought of, but as I expressed before, I had never considered using them as I figured they'd be overkill for my needs.

In closing, if you're not using Firefox, get it. If you're using Firefox, but no extensions, get some. If you already have Firefox and all the extensions you can handle, then you've just wasted 5 minutes of your life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Computer Science doesn't get it's due

A common misconception of the field of technology is that we who are in it are all the same. Unless you're a Computer Scientist or an IT professional yourself, there seems to be this overwhelming conviction that one is as good as the other which has lead to the general label of "Computer Guy".

Many find the labelling offensive. Maybe offensive is too strong a word, but the stereotype attached to this label in no way reflects the true knowledge, understanding and maturity that one must posses in order to acquire even the smallest of qualifications at a professional level. To class a computer scientist in the same way you'd refer to your neighbourhood computer wiz-kid is like mentioning Evel Knievel in the same sentence as your 5 yo on a three wheeler.

I too am guilty of such generalisations within other disciplines. I refer to anyone who deals with vision as an eye doctor; anyone who deals with teeth a dentist; and anyone who cuts you open a surgeon. I have no time to take note of the distinction so I suppose I should not expect anything more of others.

File this under pet peeves that will probably never be addressed, but then, I don't think peeves were ever meant to.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Databases are cool again

I'm not exactly sure what's happening, but there's been a flurry of DB related activities making headlines recently. With MySQL going mainstream with enterprise essential features such as stored procedures and triggers, Oracle drumming up interest in smaller markets with their feature limited free edition, and MSSQL digging into the pockets of traditional BI vendors with the 2005 release, it’s almost as if someone hit these people over the head with a clue stick. All of a sudden DB vendors are wising up to what’s needed in the industry, it’s just a bit odd they’re all doing it at the same time.

Even PostgreSQL is getting into the mix with an incremental release of their product touting a few improvements.

There’s interest in databases again. With the focus of the tech community being on everything from wireless to security to operating systems over the past year or so, it’s good to see such an important component of any system architecture getting some airtime.

Microsoft is probably making the biggest splash with their latest version of SQL Server. With a new push into Business Intelligence it’s making a lot of people stand up and take notice. BI vendors are threatened, while end users are very interested in what this new version will allow them to leverage. One case in point is Excel. MSSQL 2005 will have a new feature called Excel Services, which allows Excel to act as simply a front end to a MSSQL data store, thus allowing centralized data and more controls.

MySQL is next in line with their 5.0 release. With it comes features that many in the industry thought was holding MySQL back. With stored procedures, triggers, views, a proper data dictionary and support for sub queries, MySQL has finally put itself in the ranks of established RDBMS’s. It will be interesting to see if it will now make greater inroads into enterprise environments.

Next is Oracle with their _free as in beer_ release. A limited feature version that is meant to introduce developers to the platform. This may prove to be a direct competitor to MySQL and PostgreSQL that for the most part has been adopted by small to mid sized companies with limited data warehousing needs.

All these new developments have breathed new life into what has for many years been a pretty mature and established industry. Sufficed to say these aren’t new concepts (with the exception of MSSQL), but to have the vendors embrace these new markets and in the process making their products more attractive to a wider audience is a refreshing breeze in what had been an otherwise dark and musty backroom.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Ajax: The next generation of web applications

Why isn't everyone and their mother using Ajax? Is this new way of thinking so arcane that onlookers can only peer in terror? I certainly hope not.

I myself have not delved into the deep end, but then, I've been on a quest to disassociate myself from the title of "programmer" for the past few years (more on that in a later entry) so you'll understand my reluctance.

It's basic math; The web is the application delivery platform of the very near future, Ajax is the best framework available for the delivery of said applications. Yet adoption has been slow and many still look at it as just clever javascript trickery? It's a non sequitur.

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. In years past many Java zealots probably thought the same thing about their platform of choice. Superior technology with the promise of many advances to come, but yet people were slow to buy in. Today, many companies that could have benefited from the cross-platform nature of Java are today limited by legacy VB (for argument's sake) applications that'll take a pretty penny to strip out and update to .NET, which is of course where these companies will go, because they won't buy in to Ajax*.

It is however, inevitable. When google, yahoo and many other net "trend setters" are moving to Ajax because of the new playing field it presents, it's only a matter of time before the rest of the coding world picks up the "fad". I just can't see what's taking so long

*Let me not be misleading. Ajax is simply a framework and can be adopted by practically any conventional web technology, but by far the majority of Ajax enabled applications have been built on non-.NET platforms. Perhaps this is because it's a little more difficult to implement, or perhaps it's because .NET has so many bells and whistles of it's own that developers just haven't gotten around to Ajax as yet. Without looking into the reasons, I'll just leave it as an observation.