Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Event Driven Life

A few years ago the Smithsonian did an exhibition on time. It explored the changing way in which Americans have measured, used and thought about time, with a movement from time marked by the Sun's cycle to time marked by the tolling a clock bell to time marked by a personal watch.

The watch revolutionized our relationship with time. Before the watch everyone got up at sunrise, ate when the Sun was at its highest and retired when the Sun went down. The clock tower with its bell marking out the hours allowed a slightly better control of time. For example, it meant that everyone could arrive for the Church service at the right time.

In the 19th century mass production and improved manufacturing techniques reduced the cost of a watch to the point where everyone could afford to own one (does this sound familiar?). In a world where everyone has their own timepiece, people could schedule their own use of time, and now they are expected to. So instead of the time being broadcast by the clock tower bell with the granularity of an hour, we each keep our own time to the granularity of a few minutes.

With a watch, we have to keep a list of appointments and constantly look at the watch to keep on time. It is well known that polling is an inefficient algorithm, and constantly checking a watch is very distracting for everyone. We all know a type-A person who never seems to relax or even listen to what we are saying because they constantly looking at their watch, indicating with their body language that the next appointment and keeping on schedule is more important than whatever they are doing now.

The next stage in the evolution is to eliminate the distraction of looking at a watch and polling it by giving the job of managing out personal calendar to an information appliance. This is a portable device that knows our calendar and the time and lets know what we are supposed to be doing now. With this device we can lead the event driven life, the machine tells us what to do and when to do it. The evolution is complete when we stop thinking about time because we never have to know the time, only what we are supposed to be doing.

Some of this exists. In my estimation we are about a third of the way there. You can buy a PDA and synchronize it with your corporate calendar. Within the corporation others can see your calendar and organize events with your schedule in mind. However synchronization is weak and the corporate calendar is a closed system that does not interoperate with other calendar system.

Moreover, calendar applications are very primitive, lacking many useful features. For example, if I have to travel to an event and want to ensure that I am not scheduled for something else when I am supposed to be traveling, I have to calculate travel time and add that to the event, so I lose the event starting time. If I create the travel time a separate item it is not associated with the event and does not change when the event changes. Another example is that there is no function to buzz me 5 minutes before the end of a meeting to remind me to wrap up so that I can make the next meeting on time.

Interoperability is another problem. The real problem is that there is tight integration in the closed corporate system and no outside integration. If I arrange a dental appointment, I have to enter the appointment in the calendar by hand. Later on the dental receptionist will call me to remind me of the appointment which I again have to check by hand. What should happen is that the dentist sends me an email confirmation of the appointment and I right click on the email to add it to my calendar. This should just work between all email clients. Again, if I go to a web page that announces an interesting event, or I use the web to register for an event, I should be able to right click on the web page and select "add to calendar" using the browser plug in for my calendar application.

The good news is that there are clever people who realize that there is a problem and are trying to solve it. The bad news is that the solutions are closed systems. What we need are open standards that allow for interoperability. Again, clever people have realized this, but so far the standards have not stuck.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Blackjack and Hookers

My culture antennas started to twitch. There was something about what I was reading that touched a chord. I immediatly did a search on the phrase "blackjack and hookers. In fact, forget" and got about 5000 hits! Is this the new "All your base are belong to us"?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Information Appliance

Tools and appliances are best when they are designed for one purpose and only used for that purpose. We buy many tools to help us with our daily tasks. I have 4 hammers in my garage and each is designed for a specific purposes. Likewise, in the kitchen there are 6 or 7 different knives, again each with their own purpose. However there is always someone out there trying to sell you a "bargain", the multi-purpose gadget.

Multi-purpose gadgets always turn out to be useless at doing the many tasks that they are supposed to cover. A long time ago Mad magazine send the concept up by proposing a coffee grinder/pencil sharpener/garbage disposal. (Imagine how your coffee would taste from this machine!) After many experiences with eagerly buying a multi-purpose gadget and then being disappointed I have firmly forsworn the whole concept. Each tool for one purpose and one purpose for each tool. When I was looking for a coffee maker recently, my main selection criteria was to avoid the models with a built in clock radio.

On the other hand, information is different. We have entered a new era, the digital age where all information is represented digitally: sound, pictures, video, text, diagrams, charts. We create, massage and consume all information in digital form. In the digital age we do not have, need or want separate appliances for each form of information. One type of appliance, the information appliance is sufficient to handle all our information needs. Here are some of the information tasks that I do at home:
  • Personal communication by email and instant messaging.
  • Track home finances and do taxes.
  • Edit pictures and video, create slide shows and home videos.
  • Consume media, magazines, music, video.
  • Play games.
  • Shopping and research for shopping/living.
  • Research for hobbies.
  • Create presentations and writing for non-work activities.
  • Analytic research of stocks.
  • Write blog.
This does not include work activities, and all these activities are done with the same information appliance. Now I know that there are a different definitions of what an information appliance is. There are also people out there who want to sell us a different appliance for every purpose. We will get to all that, but for now I want you to contemplate the fact that one suitably specified information appliance is sufficient for all your information processing needs.