Thursday, December 07, 2006

SAF 2006 - A Retrospective View

It's a few days since the event now, the small details are beginning to fade away, and I can look back now and think about the overriding themes. Of these, one strikes me more than any other: a statement from Garry Flake which went roughly like "the Internet is an increasingly complete reflection of reality".

Garry's presentation ("How I learned to stop worrying and love the imminent Internet singularity") took a look ahead at the future. He picked up on an idea published in 1993 by Vernor Vinge: the idea that the exponential speed of technological improvements will produce super-human capabilities, making the future unknowable, an idea that I think harks back to Arther C Clarke and the concept that any sufficiently advanced technology constitutes magic. Vernor coined this occurence a singularity because we have no knowledge of the future beyond that point. This is an interesting thought, especially with respect to the Internet. Garry highlighted (as had Charles Fitzgerald in his earlier presentation, "Software and Services") that information technology is most strongly advancing in two areas: memory and networking. Both of these are improving well ahead of the rate of improvement of processing power. (But as for other areas of technology, I personally doubt we're making such significant progress. Don't you think that living from 1900 to 1970 would have been just as remarkable as living from 1940 to the present?)

With a near future characterised by a massive increase in easily accessible storage and network bandwidth it shouldn't be surprising that more and more information about our daily lives and the world around us will be stored and catalogued for later use. The stored information will increasingly reflect the detail of the real world and the Internet will increasingly become a reflection of reality.

To me this is a wonderful concept because it means that we have a representation of reality that's accessible, can be queried, and is an enabler to learn about our world and improve it. To business it should also be wonderful because it opens up opportunities in many more ways than are possible now: mining, characterising, segmenting, predicting, combining, and in general just responding better to customer needs.

The reflected electronic world of information and the services that operate on that information will also provide value from the integration across organisation boundaries. If you can spot the opportunity that links a group of disparate services together you could be clipping the ticket to your first billion. This is the basis of the mashup and we're sure to see making unexpected outcomes from the smart combination of diverse services and information.

The feflected reality was not the only nugget to come out from the SAF, there were also several other ideas that came through the presentations and roundtable workshops I attended.

Bill Gates highlighted the limitations and short life ahead of the existing web browser model; Ray Lane emphasized the uneconomic application development environment present in the US and the likely impact of globalisation; Norm Judah gave a great overview of how Microsoft manage their own internal services; Garry Flake presented on the Innovators Dilemma, and there was a lot of discussion across all presentations on the long tail effect.

Bill Gates' brief discussion of the future of the browser came up during the Q&A session at the end of the SAF. He made the point that the web browser was designed in the 1990s to fulfill a need to deliver an interface to a system over a limited bandwidth link. That environment is not true now and we know it will be increasingly invalid going forward. Network bandwidth is increasing rapidily so you can envisage a future where you connect to a system on the Internet and a much more functional application interface is downloaded and run on your device using some sort of application hosting environment (perhaps based on a virtual machine created for the session, or a sandboxed machine such as you get with .NET and Java). The standards for this form of interactivity have a long way to go but the direction is clear. I wonder how long before this will impact the next generation of Internet sites?

Ray Lane's presentation of the economic problems of the application development market highlighted the large number of existing small development companies, the available venture funding, the commoditization occuring in the development process and as a result the market contraction we can expect (up to 70% of existing companies going). However, Ray also highlighted the new opportunities created by the long tail and networking effects hence the name of the presentation, "The Personal Enterprise".

Norm Judah's presentation of "The Last Architectural Mile" showed us how Microsoft run their own services. This eye opener showed them using their own toolsets to manage their data centres with millions of servers. The use of the Business Scorecard Manager to present their current status was great as was the simple idea that success of failure occurs in the last mile. Delivering into production is so important and yet, while complex IT systems are designed with great thought and effort, the human processes that operate those systems are often not.

Garry Flake's singularity presentation also introduced the innovator's dilemma (first coined by Clayton M. Christensen and described in his 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma), that innovation comes from the bottom not the top. As companies become established new start ups innovate and then take over the entranched company's market. Companies that survive show an ability to sustain innovation by being prepared to make significant change (or destroy themselves as Garry put it). I wonder to what extent you can say that we've seen this with the likes of IBM and Microsoft? Certainly IBM have moved a long way from the days when the mainframe was their core deliverable. One thing that does mark both companies is their massive investment in R&D, billions of dollars per year. Garry is an example of the impact of Microsoft Labs, his team form Live Labs, a collaboration with MS Research that is developing the functionality you can now get now through

The concept of an increasingly accurate reality represented on the Internet was an overriding theme throughout the event. The impacts are diverse; the wealth of information, the potential outcomes from better analysis, providing richer choice, responding better to people, clustering, trending, making decisions at the edge, networked opportunities, the long tail. I've tried to put some order to these ideas in the bullet pointed list below and in the posts under this you'll see the notes I recorded at the time of the presentations. Some of these notes I posted on the Internet as soon as I'd finished writing them in the lecture rooms, and others I posted over the last couple of days from the notes I'd taken on my laptop. Hope it's helpful.

Change Drivers: Opportunity Creation from Changing Technology

  • Storage and networking improving much faster than local cpu
  • Parallel processing increasingly applied to overcome limitations in cpu speed increases
  • This is opening up new opportunities due to network effects
    • The long tail
      • The affect of the many in the tail can be greater than the few in the head
    • The internet is increasingly mirroring the physical world

The Internet as a Mirror of Reality

  • Responding to people
  • Understanding people
  • How?
    • You can't manage what you can't measure
  • Analytics
    • Application to numerous areas
      • Process improvement
      • Understanding and responding to human behaviours
      • Processing of different data types
        • Text
        • Numeric
        • Image data
        • Sound
      • The internet increasingly mirrors real life - the data on the net is becoming an increasingly complete representation of real life
        • Brute force statistical analysis
          • Trending
          • Clustering
  • Personal choice
    • Make options available
    • Natural selection and evolution
  • Beware human faults
    • The Innovators Dilemma
      • Look down as well as up
  • Take advantage of the masses - the long tail
    • Opportunities exist due to the accessibility of the many
  • Decision making at the edge
    • Responding to your customers at the edge of your organisation versus centralised product development
    • Responding at the edge is equivalent to greater customer focus
    • Create networked opportunities
      • Connect individual to individual
    • Great local example - Seattle traffic reporting via the internet

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