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And the Future?
Thursday, January 01 2004 @ 11:10 PM EST

Of course, everyone is writing about the year that was and trying to predict the future. I thought it was significant that Invester's Business Daily made up its Top 10 Tech Stories of the year without mentioning Microsoft in any context. (You need cookies on to access the story, by they way. Without cookies enabled it will show you a 404, which seems a little dishonest, or maybe they are just monetizing their little hearts out.)

They do mention SCO as part of their number 10 item (how could you not?) but in the context of the big story being the commoditization of software, not the lawsuits:
10. Information technology as a commodity.

Makers of information technology saw their wares becomes more like commodities in 2003, as business buyers scooped up cheap Intel-type machines and embraced the Linux operating system.

Despite threatened lawsuits and license fees from SCO Group Inc., (SCOX) which calls Linux an illegal copy of its Unix software, the renegade software got big backing from IBM Corp., (IBM) Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) and others.

Best known as a network software firm, Novell Inc. (NOVL) made a big bet on Linux by buying Ximian Inc. and Germany's SuSE.

Even Sun Microsystems Inc., (SUNW) hit hard by the shift away from pricier Unix systems, took a stab at the lower end. It announced systems that use x86-type chips from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD)

Two developments may hasten the trend.

Virtualization promises to make it easier to manage groups of computers as if they were one big machine. The concept pools computing power, storage and other resources. That squeezes more power from hardware and makes it easier to add more capacity as needed.

And blade servers caught on to become the industry's fastest growing segment. These superthin, modular systems can fit more computing power into standard IT cabinets. This saves power and space. Most blades use Linux, and many run with virtualization software."

Chris Gulker in IT Managers Journal predicts that Longhorn will never ship. Instead we will see a Microsoft Linux, he thinks:

IBM, Sun, HP, Apple, Novell, et al. -- nearly very major technology company except Microsoft -- has embraced open source, and ditto for many, if not most of Microsoft's major customers. Pretty soon, it won't take strategic genius to see that MS' options for another round of proprietary "rinse, repeat, buy upgrade" are dwindling. MS will face the high cost of proprietary software development and maintenance at the same time as its pricing is under increasingly heavy pressure. Even with $50 billion in the bank and 80% margins, something eventually will have to give.

Meanwhile, the competition is free to concentrate on value-added services without having to foot the bill for all of the components that come free from the open source world. Bug fixes are faster and security holes get patched quickly; no waiting, or paying for, the next rev. Each of Microsoft's competitors benefits from code that others contribute. Only Microsoft, once the undeniable master of the lock-in, is locked out.

A Microsoft Linux seems impossible. A Microsoft 'Brand X' Linux maybe. But they'd have to have their memories wiped and replaced with new thinking to surf the GNU/Linux wave.

Here's an example of what I mean. They had a product, Smart Displays, a kind of hybrid handheld and almost-tablet that connected by wireless Ethernet to a host PC. They have just dumped the product overboard. What went wrong? The idea was a good one, making it possible to access your data from the comfort of the couch instead of having to plant yourself like a mushroom on a log, in front of your computer, a product with a bigger screen than a handheld and the ease of access to your computer's data that wireless offers, at a cheaper price than a tablet or laptop. As a MS spokesman put it:

These Windows Powered Smart Displays will extend the consumerís Windows XP experience out of the home office or den into more relaxed settings, providing access to their personal data, applications and services from any room in the home.

I actually priced one when I saw it in a store, because I thought it'd be nice to sit on the couch or prop myself up in bed and do my email or whatever, and it was cheaper than what I really want, which is an Apple Power Book. But when I saw it was XP-only, and unchangeably so, according to the sales guy, I decided against it.

I had no desire to have an XP experience, let alone extend it. I have issues with the XP license.

There were a number of problems Microsoft eventually decided, mainly price issues and tweaking issues, but one problem mentioned by The Register tells you that the biggest hurdle Microsoft faces is its own mindset. This wireless product, because of Microsoft's policy decisions, could only hook up with one licensed PC, you dastardly pirates:

The final nail in its coffin was Microsoft's absurd decision to kow-tow to the tin god of its licensing agreements. If you took your smart display downstairs, nobody in the den with the computer could use it. Single user licence, repeated Microsoft marketing droids. "We can't compromise our standard licensing policy."

They didn't get the Internet until it was almost too late for them, and they are doing the same thing all over again with wireless. Protecting your IP with drawbridges and moats interferes with effective use, not to mention innovation.

For a contrast, take a look at what a teacher and performance artist, Yury Gitman, and some of his Design and Technology students at Parsons School of Design, just pulled off, MagicBikes, bicycles equipped with off-the-shelf wireless equipment, which makes them not only internet-able for the bike rider, but a wireless enabler for anyone nearby. (Newswise has the story also here but they don't seem to let you link to the story directly, speaking of not getting the internet, so I'll leave it to you to either trust me or to try to find your way around their site.) The students sent the first email from the subway in NYC in the middle of December. Yes, the subway, two layers below the earth. Innovation for fun. It shows you what innovation can occur when you combine creativity, a little tech knowhow, some ingenuity and some freedom:

"What the students and I did was part performance art, and part technological breakthrough: we showed people that the technological boundaries we live with are conceptual and not actually technological," said Gitman, an advocate of free wireless access in public areas. "Bringing Wi-Fi [wireless technology] underground is the next logical step for internet users. Imagine sending emails while waiting for the subway! Itís a future weíre working towards."

The project is fueled by Gitmanís belief that technology need not wait for corporate funding to make great advances. Gitman believes that in an age of technological overload, more technology is not always the answer. MagicBike playfully establishes that sometimes all people need is more imagination and creativity for meaningful breakthroughs.

"The project is thrilling," says Parsons Chair of Digital Design, Colleen Macklin. "Not only does it demonstrate how simple technologies can be harnessed to democratize internet access, but itís doing what only truly clever design can do: reinventing the way we interact with our world."

When asked why he chose to outfit bikes, Gitman, a bicycling enthusiast explains, "Bicycles are one of the best forms of transportation in New York City. By meshing two of my favorite interests, Iíve created something uniquely fit for today's city."

MagicBikes can be scheduled for appearances at http://www.magicbike.net and can be used to set up ad-hoc Internet connectivity for emergency access, public demonstrations, cultural events, and communities on the struggling end of the digital-divide.

The idea is, when everyone gets to play, innovation is the result. Innovation doesn't come from money or walled-in projects, although money can help implement ideas. Innovation comes from people, and as George Bernard Shaw once pointed out, talent can show up simply anywhere, where you least expect it. The lower the barrier to entry, the more likely you are to get wonderful ideas. It's one reason I keep it possible to leave anonymous comments on Groklaw, despite the down side to that.

Here is how they did it:

They used two bikes: one above the stairs which used a cell phone network for backhaul and a second below on the subway platform which delivered the signal to a nearby laptop.

Here's the email they sent to the mayor. Some companies may be upset about wireless, but of course, IBM is all over it already.

Another interesting look at the future from Vint Cerf, who is thinking a bit bigger. He suggests, according to a photo blurb on this article, extending the net to other planets. In the more immediate term, he sees this:

The Enum initiative attempts to turn phone numbers into net addresses and give people a universal way of contacting anyone, provided they know at least one e-mail, address, phone or pager number for them.

Allied to this is the work on Naming Authority Pointer Records (NATPR) that broadens the net's reach considerably.

"It allows you to take a domain name and map it into whatever ID space you want to," he said, "I think that's a sleeping giant because it allows you to escape the bonds of the DNS and move into new naming spaces that have very different characteristics."

NATPR allows almost anything, such as book or magazine ISBN codes, to become an address space that the net can work with.

There were also likely to be significant social changes powered by the spread of the net, said Mr Cerf, even though some of the changes may be fought by some.

"I think it is hard to stop the proliferation of these technologies," he said, "I feel like typhoid Mary, I want to spread it as far as possible."

Yes, hard to stop. Hard for SCO. And hard for Microsoft, who must adapt in order to be part of the future. I think it's a given that no one wants a wireless product that can only legally connect to one PC predetermined during setup. Not after somebody sent the mayor an email from a bike in Union Square station in NYC. Or even read about it. Once you have the concept and you see what is possible, you know what you know, and Brand X doesn't work for you after that. Like the song says, there's nothing like the real thing.


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