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September 26, 2008

Wimsey's whimsy

One of the things about living in a foreign country is this: every so often the actual England I live in collides unexpectedly with the fictional England I grew up with. Fictional England had small, friendly villages with murders in them. It had lowering, thick fogs and grim, fantastical crimes solvable by observation and thought. It had mathematical puzzles before breakfast in a chess game. The England I live in has Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's vehement support for spiritualism, traffic jams, overcrowding, and four million people who read The Sun.

This week, at the GikIII Workshop, in a break between Internet futures, I wandered out onto a quadrangle of grass so brilliantly and perfectly green that it could have been an animated background in a virtual world. Overlooking it were beautiful, stolid, very old buildings. It had a sign: Balliol College. I was standing on the quad where, "One never failed to find Wimsey of Balliol planted in the center of the quad and laying down the law with exquisite insolence to somebody." I know now that many real people came out of Balliol (three kings, three British prime ministers, Aldous Huxley, Robertson Davies, Richard Dawkins, and Graham Greene) and that those old buildings date to 1263. Impressive. But much more startling to be standing in a place I first read about at 12 in a Dorothy Sayers novel. It's as if I spent my teenaged years fighting alongside Angel avatars and then met David Boreanaz.

Organised jointly by Ian Brown at the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Edinburgh's Script-ed folks, GikIII (prounounced "geeky") is a small, quirky gathering that studies serious issues by approaching them with a screw loose. For example: could we control intelligent agents with the legal structure the Ancient Romans used for slaves (Andrew Katz)? How sentient is a robot sex toy? Should it be legal to marry one? And if my sexbot rapes someone, are we talking lawsuit, deactivation, or prison sentence (Fernando Barrio)? Are RoadRunner cartoons all patent applications for devices thought up by Wile E. Coyote (Caroline Wilson)? Why is The Hound of the Baskervilles a metaphor for cloud computing (Miranda Mowbray)?

It's one of the characteristics of modern life that although questions like these sound as practically irrelevant as "how many angels, infinitely large, can fit on the head of a pin, infinitely small?", which may (or may not) have been debated here seven and a half centuries ago, they matter. Understanding the issues they raise matters in trying to prepare for the net.wars of the future.

In fact, Sherlock Holmes's pursuit of the beast is metaphorical; Mowbray was pointing out the miasma of legal issues for cloud computing. So far, two very different legal directions seem likely as models: the increasingly restrictive EULAs common to the software industry, and the service-level agreements common to network outsourcing. What happens if the cloud computing company you buy from doesn't pay its subcontractors and your data gets locked up in a legal battle between them? The terms and conditions in effect for Salesforce.com warn that the service has 30 days to hand back your data if you terminate, a long time in business. Mowbray suggests that the most likely outcome is EULAs for the masses and SLAs at greater expense for those willing to pay for them.

On social networks, of course, there are only EULAs, and the question is whether interoperability is a good thing or not. If the data people put on social networks ("shouldn't there be a separate disability category for stupid people?" someone asked) can be easily transferred from service to service, won't that make malicious gossip even more global and permanent? A lot of the issues Judith Rauhofer raised in discussing the impact of global gossip are not new to Facebook: we have a generation of 35-year-olds coping with the globally searchable history of their youthful indiscretions on Usenet. (And WELL users saw the newly appointed CEO of a large tech company delete every posting he made in his younger, more drug-addled 1980s.) The most likely solution to that particular problem is time. People arrested as protesters and marijuana smokers in the 1960s can be bank presidents now; in a few years the work force will be full of people with Facebook/MySpace/Bebo misdeeds and no one will care except as something laugh at drunkenly late out in the pub.

But what Lilian Edwards wants to know is this: if we have or can gradually create the technology to make "every ad a wanted ad" - well, why not? Should we stop it? Online marketing is at £2.5 billion a year according to Ofcom, and a quarter of the UK's children spend 22 hours a week playing computer games, where there is no regulation of industry ads and where Web 2.0 is funded entirely by advertising. When TV and the Internet roll together, when in-game is in-TV and your social network merges with megamedia, and MTV is fully immersive, every detail can be personalized product placement. If I grew up five years from now, my fictional Balliol might feature Angel driving across the quad in a Nissan Prairie past a billboard advertising airline tickets.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

September 19, 2008

Going places

"But what's it for?" I said. "I don't really see the point."

It was last March (2008). I was standing in front of the Starbucks at the hotel in San Diego during the etech conference, and I had just discovered that the guy standing next to me in line was Matt Biddulph, one of the founders of Dopplr, a social network specialising in travel. Like Flickr, only with a lot less to look at.

I joined Dopplr in June, 2007, a shortly after the service was founded. Not, I hasten to add, because I'm one of the cool people or because I'm a rapacious early adopter but because someone I knew who presumably knew a cool person or an early adopter sent me an invitation with the note, "This looks like a useful service." Like I say, it's a social network, so friends invite friends, who invite more friends. At least, they say they're friends. (Friends don't let friends join social networks.)

Pretty much the only thing you do on Dopplr is post trips: where you're going and when. So do your friends. You look at each others' travel schedules. You can write notes on your trips ("There is nothing whatever to do in..."). Dopplr can email you updates. Which is how, a couple of months ago, I discovered that a friend from Seattle was visiting London. It was, actually, nice to see her again.

These are people who meet in cyberspace and at conference; where everyone lives doesn't always stick in your mind. For this group, automating updates makes sense, even if, like me, you're in the habit of posting where you're going on your blog. And then there's FOAFs - making the network about travel plans gooses the basic social networking assumption that you and your friends' friends are likely to share interests and compatibilities. Since its founding, Dopplr has added a Facebook integration feature.

But that's not a business model. This week, Dopplr had a party - which attracted 400 users and investors from 25 countries - to celebrate closing its second round of funding. The phrase "intention-based" was tossed around a lot, not least by Biddulph, who seemed to remember our Starbucks conversation charitably.

"What," Tyler Brûlé from Monocle, which hosted the event, asked, "is the only thing that would make a long flight better? Sitting next to somebody you like." Most travel sites have, he said, been more obsessed with finding the right bag.

I think one reason Dopplr seems weird and of uncertain value to some is that it began as a largely empty site. In building an online community, this is actually a good thing. One of the fastest ways to strangle a new online community at birth is to build too much structure and content; it squelches incoming members' creative desire to contribute. Conversely, build too little and people stumble around wondering what to do (a problem that plagues Second Life for many people once they get past the novelty).

Dopplr seems to have gotten that balance about right, judging by the slow but steady growth in usage to date, and beginning with friends and friends of friends (the site opened to the wider world in December 2007) meant the early adopters began with the necessary mutual trust. People can write notes about their trips, add tips for other travelers to the same location (want to know the best Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas?), or see who among their friends has spent the most time in the city they're about to visit. (Dopplr has also added a carbon calculator, so that some of the world's geekiest and most prolific travellers can feel appropriately guilty.)

The site's next steps involve "partner brands" - less crass, I suppose, than advertising: sponsors who can help with up-to-date information (Monocle) or suggest niche hotels (the Chiswick boutique hotel specialist Mr and Mrs Smith). Talking to Biddulph, a couple of other ideas readily sprung to mind, such as a network of Swiss Army knife lenders for people who don't like to check their baggage.

Biddulph's point - and I suspect he really is right about this - is that knowing where someone is going to travel is a powerfully valuable piece of information. Eventually, the site will also probably produce the kinds of statistics that are valuable, but at the moment it's still too small and its users too closed a group to produce much of value. For example, it seems that one of the most popular destinations of the year is Montelieu, in France - it's where the World Wide Web Consortium held its plenary. Or consider the extremely popular Black Rock City, which only exists once a year (kind of like Brigadoon, only more often): it's where they hold Burning Man. These are not trends that are likely to prevail in a truly mass-market site, and Biddulph knows this: "We can't do business intelligence - not until we're really big."

Can it get really big before airports are filled with protesters who lobby gold travellers the way animal rights activists campaign against fur-wearers? It's still not clear to me whether it's an application or a feature. But Dopplr now has time to find out.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

September 12, 2008

Slow news

It took a confluence of several different factors for a six-year-old news story to knock 75 percent off the price of United Airlines shares in under an hour earlier this week. The story said that United Airlines was filing for bankruptcy, and of course was true - in 2002. Several media owners are still squabbling about whose fault it was. Trading was halted after that first hour by the systems put in place after the 1987 crash, but even so the company's shares closed 10 percent down on the day. Long-term it shouldn't matter in this case, but given a little more organization and professionalism that sort of drop provides plenty of opportunities for securities fraud.

The factor the companies involved can't sue: human psychology. Any time you encounter a story online you make a quick assessment of its credibility by considering: 1) the source; 2) its likelihood; 3) how many other outlets are saying the same thing. The paranormal investigator and magician James Randi likes to sum this up by saying that if you claimed you had a horse in your back yard he might want a neighbor's confirmation for proof, but if you said you had a unicorn in your back yard he'd also want video footage, samples of the horn, close-up photographs, and so on. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the necessary proof. The converse is also true: the less extraordinary the claim and the better the source, the more likely we are to take the story on faith and not bother to check.

Like a lot of other people, I saw the United story on Google News on Monday. There's nothing particularly shocking these days about an airline filing for bankruptcy protection, so the reaction was limited to "What? Again? I thought they were doing better now" and a glance underneath the headline to check the source. Bloomberg. Must be true. Back to reading about the final in prospect between Andy Murray and Roger Federer at the US Open.

That was a perfectly fine approach in the days when all content was screened by humans and media were slow to publish. Even then there were mistakes, like the famous 1993 incident when a shift worker at Sky News saw an internal rehearsal for the Queen Mother's death on a monitor and mentioned it on the phone to his mother in Australia, who in turn passed it on to the media, which took it up and ran with it.

But now in the time that thought process takes daytraders have clicked in and out of positions and automated media systems have begun republishing the story. It was the interaction of several independently owned automated systems made what ought to have been a small mistake into one that hit a real company's real financial standing - with that effect, too, compounded by automated systems. Logically, we should expect to see many more such incidents, because all over the Web 2.0 we are building systems that talk to each other without human intervention or oversight.

A lot of the Net's display choices are based on automated popularity contests: on-the-fly generated lists of the current top ten most viewed stories, Amazon book rankings, Google's page rank algorithm that bumps to the top sites with the most inbound links for a given set of search terms. That's no different from other media: Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Diana were beloved of magazine covers for the most obvious sale-boosting reasons. What's different is that on the Net these measurements are made and acted upon instantaneously, and sometimes from very small samples, which is why in a very slow news hour on a small site a single click on a 2002 story seems to have bumped it up to the top, where Google spotted it and automatically inserted it into its feed.

The big issue, really - leaving aside the squabble between the Tribune and Google over whether Google should have been crawling its site at all - is the lack of reliable dates. It's always a wonder to me how many Web sites fail to anchor their information in time: the date a story is posted or a page is last updated should always be present. (I long, in fact, for a browser feature that would display at the top of a page the last date a page's main content was modified.)

Because there's another phenomenon that's insufficiently remarked upon: on the Internet, nothing ever fully dies. Every hour someone discovers an old piece of information for the first time and thinks it's new. Most of the time, it doesn't matter: Dave Barry's exploding whale is hilariously entertaining no matter how many times you've read it or seen the TV clip. But Web 2.0 will make new money for endless recycling part of our infrastructure rather than a rare occurrence.

In 1998 I wrote that crude hacker defacement of Web sites was nothing to worry about compared to the prospect of the subtle poisoning of the world's information supply that might become possible as hackers became more sophisticated. This danger is still with us, and the only remedy is to do what journalists used to be paid to do: check your facts. Twice. How do we automate that?

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

September 5, 2008

Return of the browser wars

It was quiet, too quiet. For so long it's just been Firefox/Mozilla/Netscape, Internet Explorer, and sometimes Opera that it seemed like that was how it was always going to be. In fact, things were so quiet that it seemed vaguely surprising that Firefox had released a major update and even long-stagnant Internet Explorer has version 8 out in beta. So along comes Chrome to shake things up.

The last time there were as many as four browsers to choose among, road-testing a Web browser didn't require much technical knowledge. You loaded the thing up, pointed it at some pages, and if you liked the interface and nothing seemed hideously broken, that was it.

This time round, things are rather different. To really review Chrome you need to know your AJAX from your JavaScript. You need to be able to test for security holes, and then discover more security vulnerabilities. And the consequences when these things are wrong are so much greater now.

For various reasons, Chrome probably isn't for me, quite aside from its copy-and-paste EULA oops. Yes, it's blazingly fast and I appreciate that because it separates each tab or window into its own process it crashes more gracefully than its competitors. But the switching cost lies less in those characteristics than in the amount of mental retraining it takes to adapt your way of working to new quirks. And, admittedly based on very short acquaintance, Chrome isn't worth it now that I've reformatted Firefox 3's address bar into a semblance of the one in Firefox 2. Perhaps when Chrome is a little older and has replaced a few more of Firefox's most useful add-ons (or when I eventually discover that Chrome's design means it doesn't need them).

Chrome does not do for browsers what Google did for search engines. In 1998, Google's ultra-clean, quick-loading front page and search results quickly saw off competing, ultra-cluttered, wait-for-it portals like Altavista because it was such a vast improvement. (Ironically, Google now has all those features and more, but it's smart enough to keep them off the front page.)

Chrome does some cool things, of course, as anything coming out of Google always has. But its biggest innovation seems to be more completely merging local and global search, a direction in which Firefox 3 is also moving, although with fewer unfortunate consequences. And, as against that, despite the "incognito" mode (similar to IE8) there is the issue of what data goes back to Google for its coffers.

It would be nice to think that Chrome might herald a new round of browser innovation and that we might start seeing browsers that answer different needs than are currently catered for. For example: as a researcher I'd like a browser to pay better attention to archiving issues: a button to push to store pages with meaningful metadata as well as date and time, the URL the material was retrieved from, whether it's been updated since and if so how, and so on. There are a few offline browsers that sort of do this kind of thing, but patchily.

The other big question hovering over Chrome is standards: Chrome is possible because the World Wide Web Consortium has done its work well. Standards and the existence of several competing browsers with significant market share has prevented any one company from seizing control and turning the Web into the kind of proprietary system Tim Berners-Lee resisted from the beginning. Chrome will be judged on how well it renders third-party Web pages, but Google can certainly tailor its many free services to work best with Chrome - not so different a proposition from the way Microsoft has controlled the desktop.

Because: the big thing Chrome does is bring Google out of the shadows as a competitor to Microsoft. In 1995, Business Week ran a cover story predicting that Java (write once, run on anything) and the Web (a unified interface) could "rewrite the rules of the software industry". Most of the predictions in that article have not really come true - yet - in the 13 years since it was published; or if they have it's only in modest ways. Windows is still the dominant operating system, and Larry Ellison's thin clients never made a dent in the market. The other big half of the challenge to Microsoft, GNU/Linux and the open-source movement, was still too small and unfinished.

Google is now in a position to deliver on those ideas. Not only are the enabling technologies in place but it's now a big enough company with reliable enough servers to make software as a Net service dependable. You can collaboratively process your words using Google Docs, coordinate your schedules with Google Calendar, and phone across the Net with Google Talk. I don't for one minute think this is the death of Microsoft or that desktop computing is going to vanish from the Earth. For one thing, despite the best-laid cables and best-deployed radios of telcos and men, we are still a long way off of continuous online connectivity. But the battle between the two different paradigms of computing - desktop and cloud - is now very clearly ready for prime time.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site hasn extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).