Monday, February 28, 2005

February 2005 Early Indications II: Make Magazine review

Tim O'Reilly has always been an atypical technical publisher,
beginning with his training: a bachelor's in classics from Harvard.
For over 25 years O'Reilly Media has been in the vanguard of
computing, and it helped launch the open-source software community.
This was not altruism: O'Reilly both helped get the name into common
usage and demonstrated that there was a viable economic model
associated with Apache and Linux.  The company's guides to everything
from Google to Python to .net illustrate both a technical agnosticism
and the commercial realization of a simple fact: people want to make
technology work, preferably on the human's terms.  For some, this
means rewriting an operating system kernel, for others, getting a
printer to stop spitting out gibberish.

And then there is the hard core of hackers, in the MIT sense of the
word: people who create "an appropriate application of ingenuity."
The open-source ideal -- that anyone associated with a technology can
see into its workings and non-maliciously modify them -- is not really
new, either in connection with software or with the American made
environment in general.  (I won't generalize about other countries and
cultures because I lack context to do so, but clearly there are many
places where hacking is practiced and even venerated.)  While hacking
everyday objects in some ways gets harder in the digital age, the
practice builds on centuries of curiosity, adaptiveness, and

American publishers have appealed to this impulse for decades.  The
early PC magazines, by necessity, helped users untangle the
intricacies of command-line interfaces and often maddening device
driver issues.  Before that, the market supported magazines devoted to
modifying everything from radios to cars to guitars to hi-fis.  Such
titles as Popular Science (founded in 1872), CQ (for ham radio),
Mechanix Illustrated, Car Craft, and countless others were premised on
a readership that wanted to understand and modify its technologies.
But proprietary connectors, voidable product warranties, and
non-intuitive technologies such as engine-management chips curbed many
customers' desires for tinkering, and DIY readership plunged as some
publications migrated toward gadget worship if they survived at all.

Which brings us to Make, O'Reilly's new quarterly publication.
Combining old-fashioned re-use of everyday materials (a self-timer for
a disposable camera suspended from a kite for aerial photography is
made from Silly Putty) with serious but understandable computer
science, Make sets a high bar with its first issue.  Reasonably simple
projects answer both "I've always wondered about that" and "hey that's
really clever" impulses in the reader.  The common thread is access:
the magazine is devoted to the premise that users of technology are
makers rather than "mere consumers" of it, as the publisher's note
puts it.  It's no accident that Make devotes significant attention to
tools for unscrewing non-standard fasteners: getting under the hood is
harder than it used to be, but can be accomplished as a more than
symbolic first step.

The editors have open-source sympathies in that reader involvement is
invited, or perhaps even mandated, if the enterprise is to succeed.
Make has no standing team of experts, no labs or test kitchens; it has
instead a network of people who are both capable and eager to share
their competence.  A long section of the magazine is quite similar to
Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools blog: what are the essential, offbeat, or
otherwise noteworthy tools you particularly value?  Examples here
include a Delta benchtop sander, a $160 mil-spec LED flashlight, and a
CO2-powered drain plunger.  Fittingly, a supercharged Swiss Army knife
also makes an appearance.  Elsewhere, such commonplace artifacts as
iPods, Airports, and Excel are enhanced with clever tricks.

The quality of the contributors is outstanding; the trick will be to
maintain it at that level.   Neil Gershenfeld from MIT discusses his
work in small-scale fabrication labs set up in rural India, Norway,
Ghana, and Boston's South End.  Bunnie Huang, who made his fame
reverse-engineering a Microsoft Xbox, explains how to create,
electronically, the same effects made by a dancer whirling around in
the dark holding glowsticks.  Science fiction icon Bruce Sterling
explains the various schools of thought among modern re-creators of
Stone Age flint tools.

The flagship article on kite-borne aerial photography evokes both
sides of the Make duality: the Everyman "I could do that" and an
awe-struck "wow he's good"  admiration.  Kites are universal icons (as
evidenced by the recent prize-winning novel set in Afghanistan, for
example, not to mention their popularity from Cape Cod to Brazil to
Japan), and the eye-in-the-sky whimsy of the project combines with the
author's skill, on display in a gallery of professional photos, to set
up a lovely dynamic in the do-it-yourself instructions for using a
disposable camera.  The stakes are low, the appeal intuitive, and the
results potentially addictive.

For me, one of the foremost contributions of Make is its reconnection
to the hands-on, project-centric literature that has for a variety of
reasons lain fallow for the past decade or two.  Websites devoted to
hacking Furbies, Roombas, or TiVos (or Xboxes for that matter) have
never attracted wide emulation, and the over-clocker community --
today's inheritors of the hot rod legacy -- has failed, probably by
design, to escape from the lunatic fringe.  What Make should do is
drive people to their parts drawers, to eBay, and to the workbench,
emboldened by a notion that the made environment is plastic.  Knowing
that they can grasp a range of tools both analog and digital, hard and
soft, readers can reclaim their share of the creative identity that
has birthed multiple waves of technical progress.  Hats off to the
O'Reilly team for a great launch of a valuable publication.

Friday, February 18, 2005

February 2005 Early Indications I: Demo trip report

Demo trip report

The mood in Phoenix was celebratory this year as the Demo conference put on a party to mark 15 years of innovative product launches. The final dinner honored industry deities including Dan Bricklin of Visicalc fame, Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins of Palm, conference favorite Kai Krause (Kai's Power Tools), and Demo founder Stewart Alsop. Before that, however, the 700 people in attendance got a close look at over 70 new products, many of which were both exciting and substantial, and few of which could be clustered in the same sector.

These two factors made the conference noteworthy in my view: I witnessed little "just out of beta" bugginess, and it was refreshing to see everything from cell phones to explosives detection and video production to haptic interfaces represented. Thus the combination of quality, breadth, and outright cleverness, along with the march of the legends at the final ceremony, made this a Demo that stood apart.

To begin, let me tip my hat to the four products that stood out for me as extraordinarily slick and/or important. In no particular order they were the following:

-MDA is a Canadian aerospace contractor that builds among other things robot arms for the space shuttle. They demonstrated an infrared camera to detect wing icing at airports, as well as a stereo camera that captures a scene and generates a 3-D graphical model of, in the case of their demo, a crime reconstruction or an underground mine. What would have required long renderings on a Silicon Graphics box not that many years ago showed up in seconds off a laptop. Demo crowds are anything but naive and can be pretty hard-boiled, but this was one of the few technologies that has generated an audible gasp from the audience in my years of attendance. The products aren't for sale - the company seeks commercialization partners.

-Digital Railroad is attacking the entrenched powers, namely Corbis and Getty, in the stock photography market. In a clear case of disintermediation (remember that?), the company uses RSS as part of a push and pull combination to connect photographers with editors, who can request feeds of low-resolution images for review based on rules, themes, or keywords. Photographers in turn have electronic storefronts where the high-rez images can be purchased. It was invigorating to see such an apt combination of technology and business-model innovation - it's been a while.

-Another nice piece of business-model innovation came from Smart Online. Their OneBiz Conductor is a one-stop ASP model for small businesses. One reason they've got a quiet brand despite being around for over a decade is that their software and services power big-name sites: JPMorgan Chase, Union Bank of California, and Inc. magazine under a private-label model. Such key functionality as audit trails, access control, and internal and regulatory reporting is now available to small and medium business who don't want to be distracted from their main mission in life, which is rarely to be a systems integrator.

-The one product that for me has the most potential to define a whole new market is Streambase. The company has devised and implemented a feed-based model for data handling: the goal is to react to time-based data, not to store it. To this end, Streambase can handle 100,000 messages per second on commodity hardware, using a model that eschews input/output for sophisticated caching: cheap memory is a boon for this company. In addition to stock ticker feeds, the technology is envisioned for network traffic analysis, manufacturing systems, and credit card fraud monitoring. Lest anyone question the company's pedigree, the CTO is Mike Stonebraker, who merely invented key variations of the relational, object-relational, and federated database.

An education breakthrough
As a former professor, I get tired of many well-meaning but uninformed discussions of how computers are going to transform education, and have seen few technologies that showed much promise of improving on well-executed classical pedagogy. A stunning exception is an Australian spinout from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra called In the Chair. It's a video game format for classical musician students that blends a "follow the bouncing ball" score with a video of a conductor and feedback on the musician's performance: timing, pitch, volume can be compared to those of a professional player. Theory, composition, and reading can be taught through layers of information embedded in the score. The original In the Chair was a physical program for music students that's been hugely successful, and the Digital Monkey web design firm has done a nice job creating a software version.

Consumer stuff
Demo producer Chris Shipley noted that this was a particularly expensive Demo in that she wanted to buy many of the technologies. I concur.

At the top of the list is Novint, which is bringing the same touch-based technology used in $15,000 surgical simulators to the gaming market for about $100. Being able to have visual elements push back and possess the elements of mass and velocity through your fingertips is amazing, and the company's demo station was constantly busy. VKB uses Bluetooth and laser projection to put a virtual keyboard anywhere there's a flat surface - and the big news is that it will be available at Radio Shack sometime soon.

AutoXRay is the first Demo product I've seen whose channel is Autozone and Pepboys. The OBD II diagnostic port on every car manufactured in the past decade or so can now be read by mere mortals rather than by $100/hr mechanics. The suggested retail for the hand-held device is about $150, which will sell well, I imagine. The other unlikely channel for a Demo technology is Macy's. Intellifit makes a body scanner that derives a clothed person's fit information while they stand in a 6-foot cylinder. The company gave everyone at the conference a free pair of custom-fit (not custom-tailored) Levis, and the response was overwhelming: there was a line all the time for people to get measured. It was fascinating to hear how people trusted or doubted the system: several attendees I polled said that they over-rode the scanner measurements on the website where you place the order, while I took it at its (disappointingly generous) word and will see how well the technology works.

Photoleap is the best picture-shaping application I've ever seen. Based on an e-mail client metaphor, it compresses big files then unzips them upon receipt through a similar interface on the other end. It's dead easy and so appealing that it's prompting a new digital camera purchase in this household. Mirra isn't a new company, but was showing (as a sponsor) an extremely simple and reassuring network backup server: you just plug it into a Windows environment and it takes case of automatic backup, secure remote file access, and file versioning.

Motorola seems to be on a tear under new CEO Ed Zander. The Razor cell phone is selling well, and the company showed a somewhat mysterious music service that connects home, car, and walking modes via the cell phone. The presenter smiled but said nothing except "I've seen some amazing things in our labs" when I asked about the iPod agreement Moto signed last year, as well as the prospect of cell phones managing miniature hard drives later this year. iRadio certainly looked appealing: digital Internet radio (whether wired, terrestrial, or satellite wasn't clear) connected by Bluetooth to whatever player you chose, including TiVo-like pause and resume across devices: park the car, walk into the office, and pick up the same song where you had stopped it.,,5178_5172_23,00.html

Finally, in the web client enhancement department, Browster pre-loads list results: imagine mousing over the first entry of a Google list, having the page pop up, seeing that it didn't apply, then rolling off the image and having it disappear. Pluck and Onfolio (JJ Allaire's new company) are designed for researchers - supercharged bookmarking, filing, and sharing tools. XFire is a tool for gamers that allows in-game instant messaging as well as managed patch and upgrade deployment: they asserted that gamers download 500 MB a month, so there's a lot of bandwidth consumption to optimize if that's the case.

A brief tour of enterprise offerings
Elliott Spitzer was the unspoken presence for several demonstrations: the Enron e-mail evidence is somehow available, and two companies used it to demonstrate products aimed at curtailing messages that could get a company in trouble. Fortiva and Inboxer both had products in the e-mail security neighborhood; Cloudmark demonstrated a community-based approach to identifying phishing attacks. Cenzic and IPLocks test and monitor web-based applications for security, the former from the outside in and the latter from the inside out. Satori Labs has a nice PDA-based handwriting capture system for doctors who resist kiosks and other intrusions on the patient care process. Adomo lets telecom administrators manage voice services with tools like LDAP that are typically more robust and automated than conventional PBX technologies - e-mail and voicemail are integrated (good) within Exchange (questionable from a security standpoint).

Stan Davis has long argued that the currency of the 1980s and 90s -- words and numbers -- would be joined by sounds and images as richer tools for business communications in the new century. Several tools aim to accelerate that process. Infomersion facilitates live graphing within Powerpoint with interactive sliders to allow "what if" assumption testing. Blazent maps enterprise hardware and software assets so CIOs can manage important things (like software licenses or antivirus updates) that are usually poorly measured. Impact Engine and Serious Magic both ramp up Powerpoint's look and feel. NewTek's Tricaster is a $5000 miniature video production truck with stills, fades, B-roll, audio, and many other pro-grade tools that can be easily ported to webcast, projection, or video (hence the name). Similarly, Serious Magic also showed a $99 production suite for video blogging that was fun and easy, using a variety of imported backgrounds and a teleprompter metaphor to synch graphics and audio.

In terms of social software, I continue to have major skepticism about the prospects for mass adoption of enterprise blogging, particularly in industries undergoing Spitzer-like scrutiny. But Jotspot, about which I wrote in October, is getting better every time I see it. The tool uses wikis, e-mail, and very clever scripting to create a lightweight, flexible management platform for many types of projects. While Groove has its place (particularly in high-security distributed projects), my sense is that Jotspot will suffice in most settings.

If you have further questions, don't hesitate to contact me.