Towards the web of intentions

My colleague Paul visited Cambridge recently and gave an excellent talk around some of our emerging ideas about the role that Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web can play in taking us towards the ‘Web of Intentions’. Even though I work with Paul and these ideas are familiar to me, I was still amazed at how well he managed to illustrate those ideas in this presentation. You can watch the talk below:


Book: The Cult of the Amateur

I just finished reading Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, a highly provocative and controversial book that argues that the net’s user generated content is in fact destroying our culture.  Keen decries everything he believes to be wrong with the Web 2.0 which is namely the mediocre work of amateurs:

… democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent. As I noted earlier, it is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions. I call it the great seduction. The Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people—more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers. But this is all a smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.

Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced (“disintermediated,” to use a FOO Camp term) by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists. Meanwhile, the radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content.

Keen is an excellent and engaging writer and whilst I dont actually agree with his views I did find them interesting, thought provoking and quite entertaining. I have to be honest, his over the top vitriol against the collaborative and distributed nature of the content generated on the internet in this Web 2.0 world, is at times so over the top that I couldn’t help but laugh.

Keen does raise some very important points about intellectual property, authenticity, authority and even identity and whilst its easy to dismiss some of his vitriol as the rantings of a self proclaimed (although  he was being sarcastic at the time :p ) “disgraceful fascist luddite communist control freak monarchist failed dotcom entrepreneur” ,you can’t dismiss the fact that some of concerns he raises are not only valid but deserve thought – even if you have to dig to see it! 

I also took the time to read one of the articles Keen wrote for the Washington Post in which he likens the promise of Web 2.0 to Marx’s promise of Communism …

Just as Marx seduced a generation of European idealists with his fantasy of self-realization in a communist utopia, so the Web 2.0 cult of creative self-realization has seduced everyone in Silicon Valley. The movement bridges counter-cultural radicals of the ’60s such as Steve Jobs with the contemporary geek culture of Google’s Larry Page. Between the book-ends of Jobs and Page lies the rest of Silicon Valley including radical communitarians like Craig Newmark (of, intellectual property communists such as Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, economic cornucopians like Wired magazine editor Chris “Long Tail” Anderson, and new media moguls Tim O’Reilly and John Batelle.

You don’t have to like his views or even agree with them, but it would be a mistake to ignore them entirely. For that reason I think the  The Cult of the Amateur is a valuable text that will hopefully spur on some constructuve debates within the Web 2.0 community. 

Amazon attempting to patent S3

The US Patent and Trademark Office has disclosed Amazon’s latest patent application for a “Distributed storage system with web services client interface” here’s an extract from the abstract:

A distributed, web-services based storage system. A system may include a web services interface configured to receive, according to a web services protocol, a given client request for access to a given data object, the request including a key value corresponding to the object. The system may also include storage nodes configured to store replicas of the objects, where each replica is accessible via a respective unique locator value, and a keymap instance configured to store a respective keymap entry for each object. For the given object, the respective keymap entry includes the key value and each locator value corresponding to replicas of the object. A coordinator may receive the given client request from the web services interface, responsively access the keymap instance to identify locator values corresponding to the key value and, for a particular locator value, retrieve a corresponding replica from a corresponding storage node.

I’m guessing that in light of a recent supreme court ruling this application would not be granted under the strengthened obviousness test as such a patent for a distributed storage system with a web services client interface is about as obvious as you can get. It wasn’t too long ago Amazon failed in their attempt to patent one-click technology which again should have been rejected on the basis of the obviousness test but wasn’t largely because Amazon has a history of bullying the Patent Office … Tim O’Reilly summed up why in this excellent little article.

The more we move towards a Web 2.0 world with applications delivered as SaaS by its very definition were dealing with applications that require distributed storage which is accessible through web services. I’m not knocking S3, its excellent service and Amazon deserve our plaudits for creating such a successful service. S3 isn’t a unique invention it’s simply the putting together of a bunch of technologies already available, and Amazon aren’t unique there are other platform’s available similar to Amazon’s S3 .. Tim might have written the following in reference to the One-Click patent but I believe its equally applicable to this one…

Patents like this are also incredibly short-sighted! The web has exploded because it was an open platform that sparked countless innovations by users. Fence in that platform, and who knows what opportunities will never come to light?

I’m not sure whether Amazon would ever try to enforce this patent and I’m no expert on patent law, it just strikes me as a worrying development.

PhotoSynth at TED

PhotoSynth is a Microsoft technology that I have talked about before, it’s certainly one of the most impressive visual technologies I have seen.  Here’s a video of Blaise Aguera y Arcas at TED this March presenting PhotoShop to the conference attendees and getting a standing ovation … quite deservedly in my opinion. The video is also a great introduction to the technology and what its capable of doing.

I agree with Blaise when he says Simply put, it could utterly transform the way we experience digital images.

Google Gears – Building Offline Web Applications

Google has released Google Gears, a new technology that is designed to overcome the single major drawback all web based applications suffer from: they don’t work without an internet connection! Google Gears is an Open Source framework, which is essentially a browser extension that is powered by JavaScript API’s that enable data storage, application caching and multi threading technologies for offline browsing and application use.

I don’t find it at all surprising that Google have invested heavily in trying to find a solution to the problem of we can use online web based applications offline. Although they launched Google Apps last year the take up has been quite slow, I read a few months back that the Commonwealth Bank has suspended a trial of Google Apps which it was thinking of rolling out to its 50,000-strong workforce, and many analysts insist that one of the major reasons for this is that there is no offline availability of these applications. Or as Carl Sjogreen, Google Senior Product Manager, sums the problem up when says:

As more and more people are depending on web applications to manage their lives and get information about what’s going on, it becomes and increasing problem when you can’t access those applications when you’re offline.

Enter Google Gears! this new technology certainly strengthens Google’s  position in going after Microsoft’s lucrative Office franchise, which makes commercial sense, More importantly though the technology actually makes the web and browsers a more attractive platform for building applications that can be used anywhere, anytim regardless of whether you have a connection to the internet or not.

Or as Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, put it:

With Google Gears, we’re tackling the key limitation of the browser in order to make it a stronger platform for deploying all types of applications and enabling a better user experience

There decision to Open Source Gears is also quite an important one. By making the technology Open Source from a relatively early stage Google are inviting others to help improve the technology and build a community around it, and move towards developing with others an industry standard for these hybrid programmes that work both online and offline.

This is quite an exciting development.

Google Launches "Streetside View" and "Mapplets"

Google have revamped their 2D Maps with a new a feature they are calling Street View. When viewing maps of certain cities around the world you’ll get a street side view of the area your currently in, and it isn’t static! You can interact with the image to move along the street it even allows you to change your angle and move in a new direction.  Google have developed this new technology with Immersive Media, and all I can say is, it’s very very impressive.

If you want to try it out here’s a map of San Francisco that has side views, and here’s a map of Las Vegas , I really recommend trying it!

Google have also launched their new Mapplets service. Mapplets are a special kind of XML/Javascript based Google Gadget that you can add directly to Google Maps. Here’s a link to a special preview page where you can try out a handful of Mapplets. The official blurb from Google on this new feature is copied below:

Mapplets enables third party developers to create mini applications that can be displayed on Google Maps, much like Google Gadgets are displayed on iGoogle. These Mapplets contain a variety of information, from housing listings to crime data, and tools like distance measurement. Users can select from a wide range of Google and third party Mapplets to display on the Map, essentially creating their own “mashup of mashups” directly on the Google Maps site, while still enjoying the built-in functionality of Google Maps, such as local search and driving directions. A number of our partners, including WeatherBug, and Platial have already created Mapplets.

Terrorism in SecondLife … and some other thoughts

Came across this article … looks like vandals in Second Life blew up ABC Island. Unlike in the real world, in the virtual world of Second Life, creators Linden Labs, were able to “rollback” the island and restore most of what was destroyed. They aren’t the only commercial organisation that has been targetted in this way.

Whilst these incidents are both amusing and also a tad disturbing what I found was more interesting was this bit of research done by Tateru Nino that provides some numbers for how many SL users actually visit corporate sites created in SL. Perhaps it’s like I said before … people don’t want to visit Dell or Coco Cola in a virtual fantasy world.

Contrary to some people’s opinions I dont hate Second Life … there are some things its very good at …

Whilst I was at Xtech I listened to a very interesting talk by Matt Biddulph who demonstrated, something I’ve mentioned before, which is just how useful Second Life can be as a modelling tool particularly as Matt demonstrated, when you are able to link physical objects in the real world with objects in the virtual world.

Semantic web starting points

I’ve been getting to grips with SPARQL over the last week, probably more so than I have at any time over the last year. SPARQL is an RDF query language and one of the nice things about the Talis Platform is that you dont have to know SPARQL in order to retrieve data. So up until recently I really didnt have much need to write SPARQL queries, I could pretty much do what I wanted with the platform using its other RESTful services.

The platform however has extensive support for SPARQL, so whilst working on a spike this week it was apparant that some of the things I wanted to do would require writing some queries. I used it as an opportunity to brush up on my RDF and SPARQL – it’s amazing how easily we can take things for granted when the tools and services we use on a day to day basis hide us from low level implementation details.

If your anything like me when you want to brush up on something you you tend to scour bookshelves, or google for bits of information, which can be time consuming and sometimes a bit hit and miss. Fortunately Danny came to my rescue, he joined Talis recently and I think he’s a fantastic addition to the team. Danny sent me a link to his Semantic Web Starting Points, a collection of links he’s compiled that provide a great introduction to semantic web technologies, which obviously includes RDF and SPARQL.

Thanks Danny!

100 Web Apps for everything you’ll ever need?

Came across this earlier, its a list of the 100 web apps for everything you will ever need. When I consider some of the recent things I’ve written about this idea that applications are moving away from the desktop and delivered primarily over the web, then this list serves to illustrate how wide ranging web based applications are becoming.

The list organises the applications into a set of categories

  • Organisational
  • Calendars and to-do Lists
  • Your Money
  • Project Management & Productivity
  • Storage
  • Writing and Design Tools
  • Security and Privacy
  • Mobility and Contact
  • Meeting and Networking
  • Business and Legal
  • Client Contact and Feedback
  • Website tools
  • Printing and Packaging
  • Tools to give and take
  • Miscellaneous

In addition to the examples on this list there’s other pretty useful applications out there. I’ve been playing around with SnipShot, which allows you to upload images and edit, adjust them online. It doesn’t provide the full functionality of PhotoShop, but it is very simple to use and integrates with Flickr making it far more valuable as a tool than if it worked in isolation.

That’s the real strength of Web based applications? The ever increasing ease with which they can be integrated and used together?