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Comments from Frankston, Reed, and Friends

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

DanB at 2:49 PM [url]:

Gillmor on AOL/AT&T

Dan Gillmor wrote a really great column in reaction to AT&T's deal with AOL.

Monday, September 02, 2002

DanB at 6:35 PM [url]:

The future of applications -- why do we need all those MIPs?

Bob Frankston just mentioned Keyhole's EarthViewer 3D program. I want to second his suggestion that you take a look at it. (Actually, Bob and I both started using it at the urging of David Reed...) It is such a great example of the richness we can get with today's technology and a hint of tomorrow's. It requires a PC with an appropriate 3D graphics card. I used the nVidia GeForce2 MX that came on an inexpensive Dell, and nVidia has a special offer in conjunction with Keyhole with a 30-day free trial and then a $50-$80/year subscription (more "professional" versions cost $600/year or more). If you don't have a suitable graphics card, find someone else's machine on which to try this. It's worth it.

What you get is a seamless, and I mean seamless, zooming and rotating of the world. As you zoom down to a resolution that lets you see individual houses and trees, a server streams the images from the Internet, with detail filling in (and being cached) in seconds. (One meter or better resolution in some cities, 15 meter for the entire USA, and at least 1 km for the rest of the world -- you'll more likely subscribe if you live in or frequently visit one of the 1-meter cities...) Click a checkbox and street names overlay the images of the streets. Another click and you can locate Italian restaurants on your view or see city borders or zip code boundaries. Click another box and, when you "tilt" the view, mountains and hills stick up, with the aerial images texture-mapped onto them. "Bookmark" places to return quickly, or compare "push-pin" locations.

I was talking to a co-worker preparing to make a sales call in another city a couple of weeks ago. It came up that he needed to find the nearest Kinko's to use a web browser first. I used the Kinko's web site to find the nearest one, and then copied the address into the EarthViewer "Take me to:" form. When I pushed "Go", the screen looked like I was diving from far in space down to almost street level. I could see the shopping center and parking lot. My co-worker told me his address, and I said "Oh, I see you're in a building set back behind a big parking lot..." He was surprised. Then I zoomed in and out, and panned around a bit and gave him directions, telling him about the big grassy area he'd pass right before he got to his destination, which streets were wide and which narrow, etc. The feeling of control you get when you can zoom and pan so smoothly, with so much information streamed so quickly from huge databases, is amazing. I also used EarthViewer to help my mother compare different apartments she was considering for her move to Boston. The images are good enough to clearly recognize the buildings we had been visiting. Exact zoom control quickly let me frame multiple locations so she could see distances.

What's special here? The smooth interactivity, the integrated and varied data, and the access to huge amounts of data by integrating the Internet connection. Sure I could eventually have the same display on my screen with a browser after many clicks (other mapping systems are starting to add the aerial photos), but that smooth integration and automatic streaming shows you that computing can be so much more.

BobF at 4:57 PM [url]:

Trapped by the Web!

If all you have is a hammer then everything is a nail.

How else can you explain why web sites are so incredibly painful to use? If I were paranoid I'd assume there was a conspiracy to assure that the Internet is kept lame. But perhaps it is a combination of ignorance and laziness.

Reservation sites are just one example. I have to specify dates by clicking through separate pull down lists for month, day and year. Those boxes themselves are pretty dumb. If I want to be quick I type JJJ to get to July (January, June, July -- the pull downs usually search on the first character) but maybe I'm supposed to type 0000000 to get there (month 01, month 02, month 03, etc.). Or I can type 2{up} to get to 19. Maybe there will be a calendar popup which does it for me once I wait for it to appear and navigate through its buttons. And that's just for one day. After I fill in all the other fields (and make sure I don't use the scroll wheel because that will change the last listbox I visited even though I, the user, don't even see that anymore on the screen). I finally press some other button and then wait to be told I did something wrong and then can correct it and wait again. If I want to go back to make a change I may be able to use the back key or else wait for the page to be regenerated only to discover it has been reinitialized or perversely altered (including reselecting the "send me lots of email" box). If I want to compare two options I'm generally out of luck unless I'm allowed to clone the view and then I may discover that the two reservation views get hopelessly intertwined.

To get an idea of how different things can be, look at Earthviewer (http://www.earthviewer.com). You do have to download the application and it does currently depend on the nVidea GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) but the demo should give you some sense of what is possible. You can quickly flit around satellite images rather than waiting for a map site to generate a small view and then waiting again for each change.

The web protocols are still wonderful for sharing documents and other information over the Internet. They are also very simple and adequate for creating page-based views without much effort. With a little JavaScript and some applets we can even wrestle them into some semblance of interactivity.

But when you spend big bucks and instead of creating a useful service all you get is a website, we've both lost. I'm frustrated and angry because I've got to waste my time fighting the site in order to buy your product and you've lost sales and have to support those who still want to buy but need hand holding. Unfortunately you don't even know about those who simply give up or don't persist and those who would've bought more if they didn't scurry away as soon as they accomplished the feat of making the first purchase.

If you've read this far you know that the Web is not the Internet. The Web is just a set of protocols and tools just like email. And if you know that you should share my anger and frustration. For those who don't know, think of the Web as a bus and the Internet as the road. Sometimes the solution is to give people cars rather than just making the buses prettier.

Even then you may share the fixation on portability and fear taking advantage of the PC because the application won't run everywhere. But that's nonsense; at best the application crawls everywhere and runs nowhere.

Unfortunately the goals are framed in terms of creating web sites rather than finding a way to deliver a service that may include the use of the web.

This net-fixation even affects Microsoft. I've found that the so-called ".NET" tools and languages have reinvigorated PC programming. I am no longer limited by VB on one side and discouraged by the housekeeping burden of C++. Yet Microsoft uses the moniker ".NET" and tries to position the PC as a lame browser with every click invoking a procedure on an already overburdened network and server. Even if there weren't performance problems on today's Internet the local PC is where the high performance interactions take place. And the PC should act as your agent in dealing with the remote services rather than burdening you with the quirks of the raw Internet.

There is a vast difference between taking advantage of the Internet and protocols like the Web and being limited by them.

As users it's time to stop tolerating incompetence and demand real services.

As professionals we should get over web-fixation and rediscover the power of local computing. Sure, you may want to provide some downscale interface for those limited to old browsers just like you may want to support those silly WAP phones. Or maybe not.

The priority is on serving your customers and creating services, not sites. You don't have to fire all those web people. You can recycle those who are capable of creating real services and keep a few of the remaining ones as a small group within the services department.

And now for the good news, you shouldn't have to write the PC-based part of the service. Unless that's your business as in the case of Keyhole, the creators of Earthviewer.

Just provide the programmatic interfaces (such as XML RPC) and let others create the services for you.

Finding the balance between building highly tuned applications, between providing the complete service or the enabling technologies, and all the other choices is a challenge and there is no one right answer.

But there is a wrong answer -- limiting yourself to lame and painful web interfaces. The web is wonderful but you must not let it be a trap.

BobF at 4:40 PM [url]:


Perhaps I'm jaded but the arguments over ICANN seem to be fairly pointless since the problems with the organization are primarily symptoms of the underlying flaws in their mission.

My goal is essentially the same as it was when I wrote my "Safe Haven" essay but I realize that there is no need worry about convincing the .COMers that the concept of using the DNS as a directory is fundamentally flawed. The dotDNS proposal is simple and modest. We simply need to create a new TLD that hands out identifiers that have no intrinsic meaning, essentially long random numbers. Since most URLs are used for internal linkage this is enough. Over time we can improve services such as search engines so that we no longer need to worry about people typing URLs.

In fact, the browser address line is already more of a searching mechanism than a place to type in URLs. To the user this means that one can type in a company name without worrying about whether it is .COM or .BIZ or if there is a hyphen or other idiosyncratic change necessary to distinguish it from similar names. Typing errors could be caught instead of resulting in surprise visits to sites that exist only to trap such errors and hijack the visit. The .DNS names would allow schools and others concerned with the stability of their pointers to safely link and not worry about their students finding pornography instead of a children's story.

To better understand the simple concepts underlying the DNS and dotDNS in particular, you can read "About Binding".

DanB at 4:32 PM [url]:

Copyright protection is not "super simple"

In response to some discussion about duration of copyright protection for software, Dave Winer wrote: "...it's super simple. If I build a house I can live in it as long as I want. If I want to rent out rooms I can do that too, as long as I want." Copyright law should only be so simple, but since it deals with the real world, there are lots of complexities. (Even with a house, can you really live in it as long as you want? What if you don't own the land, or don't pay your taxes, or if the town wants to build a road through it, or if you abandon it, etc. Each of these conditions can affect your rights.)

Drawing fine lines to determine what you control and what you don't is very hard. Suppose I paint a painting. If you take it from me without my permission, I no longer have it. That's often called stealing. What if you take a photograph of it? I still have the painting. Is that "stealing"? What if you sell copies of that photograph? What if you see my painting and, remembering what you saw, paint a similar one? What if you peered into the window of my house to see the supposedly hidden painting? What if it wasn't a painting, but was a sculpture? If you take a photograph of a sculpture, that's a different medium -- is that "stealing"? What if it wasn't a sculpture, but rather a building? Does it change things if it's useful and not a "work of art"? Can you take a picture of my building? Can you "reverse engineer" my design from the photograph and make a building like it? What if my building is really big and stands out in the skyline? What if it doesn't? Can I control pictures of the skyline that happen to have my building in it? What if I paint my painting on the side of the building? All of these relate to various "intellectual property" issues. In all cases, the person whose work is being "taken" in some way worked really hard to create the work. Does all work (effort) "deserve" to be rewarded? What type of "work" does and what type doesn't?

"Pirates" of old took physical property by force. The one pirated from, if left alive, was left without something they physically had before. Dave talks of renting a room in a house. Once rented, he cannot rent it to others, nor use it himself for that period of time. "Pirated" software does not consist of software that was physically taken. It is a copy that does not diminish the original except in the predicted potential sale that may or may not have been lost. The author most likely does not even know of the copying, unlike the occupants of a ship that has been boarded by pirates.

These issues are very tough and these differences matter. Saying "what I do should be protected" isn't enough. There are many links in a chain, and each seems to think their link is the last one needing protection (with whatever definition they think "protection" should have). Getting this clear enough so that laws based on this understanding will work with ever-changing technology (as David Reed pointed out last week here on SATN.org) is hard. Discussing proposals, even those that may put "my work" on the "wrong side" of a line, is important. However, our Constitution, with its call for granting "...for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries", makes the quest for appropriate laws something that must be done.

Sunday, September 01, 2002

DPR at 12:23 PM [url]:

Ray Ozzie on explaining control of content

My old friend Ray Ozzie posted a thoughtful article recently on his weblog about "non-discretionary controls" of content on collaborative systems. What I liked about what he said is that it is very hard to help the users understand what they control and what they don't in these collaborative systems.

Ray points out that this is a big problem for the designers of systems, and is planning to work hard to fix it, making controls more explicit to users. That's great.

But I think the real problem is in our culture. The term "intellectual property" is not very old. It was originally a descriptive term for a collection of unrelated, narrow laws called patent law, copyright law, trademark law, and trade secret law. There was no presumption that anything intellectual ought to be considered as property. There was no unified model that defined what "intellectual property" was.

Fast forward to 2002. Now "intellectual property" is a cultural term. And the presumption is that all information should be property of someone. But since we don't have laws that cover most information, people imagine that we need to close the gap - if patent law doesn't apply, copyright doesn't apply, etc. then "there oughta be a law" and we ask Congress to close the gap. Usually the assumption is that we should just work from analogy with real estate law or personal property laws.

Hardly anyone asks the question: "why should we think of information as property at all?"

The problem that users have is that they have absorbed a very odd notion (the idea that "intellectual property" is a natural concept) from the culture around them. Maybe it isn't so.

For more, see the Archive.

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