Saturday, November 05, 2005

Internet Operating System

In 2000 I joined Borland as the company's chief strategy officer. My job was to try and figure out what growth options were available to this venerable independent development tools vendor. During my first six months there I worked on a number of possible directions, ultimately settling for entering the market behind Rational as the number two provider of the system of record for software development organizations... its a long story. But what I was more excited about was something people were just staring to talk about -- an "Internet Operating System." Now in 2005, Google and Microsoft have both committed to this new vision, and perhaps eBay's purchase of Skype is an indicator that there will be at least one other company at the party...

I thought the Internet Operating System (IOS) was a good name for this next generation of the Internet, as it helps to get people thinking about it as a deployment platform. Think about what a disk operating system is (or became over the past 20 years) -- effectively a set of device drivers that perform three main tasks: input, output, and storage. On top of this you have layers of abstraction -- the mouse is one kind of input device, the keyboard another.

In the new Internet operating system, or what some people are calling the read-write web, there are similar input/output and storage mechanisms. Flickr is a particular storage mechanism for photos, for example. Shutterfly could be thought of as an output device.

The next generation of software developers will have this enormous sandbox called the Internet to build applications within, connecting all kinds of "devices" to each other in more and more interesting and powerful ways.

Now does the Ebay acquisition of Skype start to make sense?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Creative Commons Party

Last night I attended a party in San Francisco to celebrate and support Creative Commons and to welcome Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, to the board. The party was hosted by Chris Anderson, John Seely Brown, Dan Gillmor, Joi Ito, Brewster Kahle, Ellen Levy, and Mitch Kapor. It was great to get a chance to see and in most cases talk with all of these folks. The event was packed with the usual Silicon Valley suspects.

Mitch was talking up his latest project called FoxCloud which is not really ready for public beta until next week... but sneak in and take a look. It is a tool that synchronizes your Firefox bookmarks from machine to machine...

James Joaquin, founder of (sold to AOL) and Ofoto (sold to Kodak) was talking up the company he just joined as CEO -- XOOM -- which sounds like a great company. They are helping folks who would otherwise use Western Union to transfer money back to their families in foreign countries do so without the usurous fees... According to James Western Union will charge people as much as 25% to transfer their money. Xoom does it for about 5%...

Rob Labatt, ceo of ezboard was explaining how he is transforming that website into "community blogging" -- the closed trials of an entirely new version are about to open up on a GMail invitation-only basis in the next few weeks...

So many other people, what a great time! And a great cause. Now its time for you to click through to the Support Creative Commons page and donate money, or buy a t-shirt. As of now they have raised about $40,000 of the $225,000 they need to raise by the end of the year. Help them out!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What Separates the Sane from the Insane?

More research out this week demonstrating that the difference between those that our society judges to be sane and insane is optimism. Realists are the insane ones. Michael Parekh points to this article in the Wall Street Journal on the subject. A very wothwhile read:
"...brains have a remarkable talent for reframing suboptimal outcomes to see setbacks in the best possible light. You can see it when high-school seniors decide that colleges that rejected them really weren't much good, come to think of it."
I remember reading something a few years ago about a study of how individuals with mental illnesses view themselves, vs. how people in the general population view themselves. People with mental illnesses more often had a realistic view of themselves than "sane" people. Our sane citizens more often had unreasonably optimistic perspectives of themselves...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Passing the Turing Test

Back in September I linked to a very funny post by Jason Striegel about how he was encountering people randomly through IM and was having trouble convincing them that he was a real person. Here is the post by Jason again. Lately I have been thinking about this because I am increasingly encountering one version of the Turing test called Captcha.

You've probably seen these tests as well - an image that has certain letters in it which you must type in to prove that you are a human being. That is, for as long as computers can't do a good job analyzing these images and discovering the letters. Unfortunately, the Captcha project reports that this has already happened:
Thayananthan, Stenger, Torr, and Cipolla of the Cambridge vision group have written a program that can achieve 93% correct recognition rate against ez-gimpy, and Malik and Mori have matched their accuracy. Their programs represent siginifcant advancements to the field of computer vision.
But don't worry! The good folks at Captcha are hard at work on the next set of tests that will help separate the humans from the machines... Try out ESP-PIX for example, in which you have to evaluate four images and choose the best word to describe what the images have in common... Not only does it keep out the machines (for now) but it is also child-proof!

But there is an easier way to defeat these things. A number of people have already documented systems that parse out the problem of defeating a Captcha challenge to an eletronic sweatshop in India or China -- hundreds of people who go to work each day to sit there and defeat the Captcha challenges...

Why would anyone go to the trouble of having a room of people in India defeating Captcha? Unfortunately lots of reasons. The same reasons that companies like Google are now using Captcha on Blogger -- one example: if you can use computers to automatically generate web pages that link to your product, you can elevate the place that your prouduct shows up in results pages... ditto product rankings or the results of surveys... In factm Captcha got started because of an online poll about the best computer science school:
In November 1999, released an online poll asking which was the best graduate school in computer science (a dangerous question to ask over the web!). As is the case with most online polls, IP addresses of voters were recorded in order to prevent single users from voting more than once. However, students at Carnegie Mellon found a way to stuff the ballots using programs that voted for CMU thousands of times. CMU's score started growing rapidly. The next day, students at MIT wrote their own program and the poll became a contest between voting "bots". MIT finished with 21,156 votes, Carnegie Mellon with 21,032 and every other school with less than 1,000. Can the result of any online poll be trusted? Not unless the poll requires that only humans can vote.
So, where will this all end? Biometric challenges. It has to happen. How else will we be able to tell the machines apart from the people?