Sunday, November 27, 2005


give me network computing that's flexible

Computers are more cheaper than ever, and more capable to boot. There is a strong temptation to put one in every room. A temptation tempered by the hassle of keeping these beasts up-to-date with patches for bugs and Trojan doors, security programs, latest plugs-in, extensions, compatibility problems, upgrades to new standards, etc.

Our household has three "active" computers, plus two moth-balled ones with valuable info that need occasional access. But I have become tired of being the in-house help desk. I want to outsource that function. Isn't outsourcing supposed to be the future?

Ten years ago Sun Microsystems talked up the idea of the network being the computer. It hasn't happened, really. Bandwidth has improved, Web apps are more capable, but the experience isn't the same as having programs on one's own PC. Even Ajax, valuable as it is, is just a workaround for the chasm between people wanting immediate interaction from quick devices and the cumbersome protocols of speaking to remote server farms.

Before I can ditch my computer for a dumb terminal that doesn't require my attention, several things need to happen. Connectivity needs to be fast - several orders of magnitude faster than current broadband. We seem to make content more memory-intensive as we improve connection speed. It is much like the phenomenon that the average speed of traffic in London is 10 km an hour in 1905 and 2005 -- nothing changes. We need things faster in the future to handle what the future will bring. I don't want to download anything -- applications or content.

Second, we need to let users choose what they want, not just have a standard package of software choices forced on them. Many of my personal dramas involve hiccups between minor applications, not the major ones. I want choice -- the grand promise of our market system -- and I want service too -- the other promise. I don't want to be stuck trying to figure what combination of configurations is causing the problem. I don't even want to buy a program to do these task automatically (the responsibility for fixing them is still mine.) I want a company to offer everything I might ever want, who guarantees it will make it work together. But the current model of the system administrator couldn't be further from my ideal. I don't want to be punished for expecting things to work well together, being told I have to use software that is five years out of date. I want the newest innovations, screened and patched for compatibility.

The first obstacle, speed, is at least partially technical (though there is a political element -- where there is a will, there is often a way.)

The second obstacle requires a radical rethinking of how the software industry works. I would like to see someone take responsibility to certify software for robustness. The "leave it to the market to decide" approach doesn't work well enough. Currently, if vendors offer incompatible software, they simply declare the birth of a new standard, and expect that others will follow it. If something doesn't work, it is someone else's fault, or vendors claim it a minor annoyance for the privileged of getting a preview of something innovative. Microsoft enforces some level of compliance, but since it is not a neutral party, it can both both act unfairly, or be ignored even if it is not throwing its weight around. Voluntary committees aren't fast, and don't produce consensus. What is needed are commercial, independent organizations that have credibility to disclose what applications don't cooperate with what. If companies knew there sales depending on it, they wouldn't be so eager to pass the time drain of compatibility on to consumers.

I don't want to buy (oops, rent) software directly from a vendor. I want, as a consumer, to have a "software maintenance organization" [SMO] do that for me, and supply what I need as I need it. Using a "dumb terminal" (today more likely just a screen), I don't care what server an application comes from. Different servers may speak different languages, but they can all speak to my dumb screen -- compatibility problems disappear. SMO's will bear the costs of dealing with upgrades and compatibility. When the real cost of incompatibility is accounted for -- SMOs will bargain hard with vendors to clean up their act. If consumers value the extra cost a disruptive change in software standards creates, then they will pay more their service. But otherwise, vendors will need to contain the disruption they typically unleash, by adhering to standards, and testing their software in real situations. Even the biggest names in software rarely do in situ user testing -- seeing how well their products work on the home PCs of average families loaded up with heaven knows what.

It seems a long way off, but maybe the network will someday be the computer.

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