Computing in a (really big) box

A skip
Sun’s big black shipping container is the most exciting thing to happen in computer hardware since they stopped shipping them with casters..

I remember sitting around rapping with my friends (my less fashionable friends, obviously) ten years ago about how, one day, you’d be able to rent computing power like you rent a skip or a generator or a portakabin or some other very basic unit of business capacity. I seem to remember wondering if it might come on a flatbed truck in a sort of anonymous-looking box and that you might just have to plug the thing in, attach it to the Internet and forget about it.

We speculated that the thing would probably ‘virtualise’ its capacity so that it appeared on your network as a single (huge) block of CPU and storage, no matter what was actually in the box.

Of course it didn’t occur to us that this thing might help with the kind of capacity crunch that hits a Web 2.0 business when its trendy site goes viral or gets onto the Yahoo home page. Nor did we really worry for a minute about the disastrous environmental impact of the vast datacentres serving YouTube and Google and MySpace (it didn’t occur to me that it might need its own water supply, either, I suppose).

What I like about The Black Box Project is that it’s evidence of Sun‘s continued creativity and defiance of the apocalyptic commoditisation of their core business. Sun ought to have gone bust three or four years ago: fast, flexible CPU is now cheap as chips, the UNIX workstation is no more. Not one of Sun‘s unassailable differentiators turned out to be defensible. Sun is proof that brains can reverse the ugly trend towards zero in the hardware business. Well done to Sun. I’m going to be looking out for Black Boxes round the back of all the big businesses I visit.

Thanks to Eastern Waste Disposal for the picture of a skip.

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The survivor…

In May 2002 I wrote this piece for The Guardian. In it I celebrated the unlikely survival of the big, dumb, general-purpose PC – over-determined, over-specced and over here. Four years on… Gordon Bennet. Would you credit it… it’s still here… Not so big, slightly less dumb but even more general-purpose.

As before, though, there’s no rational reason for the survival of the PC as a product category. All of its functions should by now have migrated into a cloud of special-purpose intelligent chaff floating around your home and your person. But no, it’s still here, and treasured by its fans more than ever – the PC looks likely to be around for a while yet…

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Tivo for experiences

The wearable Deja View Camwear
Finally, a gadget that allows you to rewind life. A tiny video camera (the manufacturers expect you to clip it to your glasses – but if you got used to that Bluetooth headset this should be easy enough) that records continuously and retains a 30-second buffer. Pressing record writes the last 30 seconds to disk – in principle, you need never miss anything again. In practice, of course, you’ll find yourself needing a larger and larger buffer. I think I’d need about thirty-five years…

The wholesale Tivo-isation of life is under way. There’ll soon be no need to actually experience anything – you can just wait til you get home and replay the whole thing on the big screen in your living room. Once we’re all time-shifting life, the disconcerting feeling that your companion is experiencing things a couple of minutes behind you (because they put life on pause while they went for a smoke) will become commonplace…

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More about Creo’s Tokens

A gorgeous Alfa Romeo merry-go-round rideA beautifully painted fairground sign: 'Britannia'The Duane Eddy dodgem car
I’ve been thinking about Creo’s interesting attempt to improve on P2P file distribution – a product called Tokens (I blogged it here the other day). If you want to try a Tokens transfer yourself, email me and I’ll send you a token. You’ll need to download the free Tokens Redeemer but, once you’ve done so, you’ll be able to snaffle a set (or should I say a ‘limited edition’) of three photographs taken by me at the wonderful Carters Steam Fair when it came to St Albans in August 2003.

The photographs were all taken on 35mm Kodachrome film and scanned at 6MPixels so you’re getting a total of about 7MB of high resolution JPEGs (you can click the small pics above for larger previews to see if you like them).

I’ve published the photographs under a Creative Commons License that allows you to do pretty much what you want with them except modify them or make money from them (like you’ll bother).

Wouldn’t it be interesting if Creo integrated a Creative Commons licence creator with Tokens? That way, creating (or deciding not to create) your CC licence would be part of the Token Creation process and, if Tokens catches on, it could become an automatic step in the distribution of creative works in this machine-to-machine way. Tokens could become the default application for distributing files with embedded rights (but not for ‘DRM’ which is a totally different animal).

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Solution seeks problem, finds problem…

Things change at different rates. Bandwidth, for instance, is all over the place. At the net’s core – in the trenches between ISPs and data centres – aggregate bandwidth in the last decade has multiplied by… ooh… a million? Up the path to your house, though, it’s barely doubled. What have you got, right now? 56K? Pathetic. Even ADSL gives you barely twenty times what you got from Demon in 1993. Meanwhile, your hard drive is filling up with bigger and bigger files – 3MB for a 6MPixel JPEG, 50MB per album for MP3s, 4GB for a DVD movie, 60GB for an hour of DV – but the tools we use for moving these enormous files around are as old as the hills and either inadequate (email) or inaccessible (ftp). We need new tools.

So I’m testing Creo’s Tokens – a tool for moving huge files around machine-to-machine without having to set up ftp accounts or worry about email attachment quotas and other annoyances. It works on the Adobe Acrobat model – if you want to create and send big files you buy a product called Token Creator (analagous to the Acrobat authoring tools).

You drag-and-drop your files onto the Creator app which makes a pair of new files: a ‘bundle’ which contains the original data (compressed and mashed into a single file) and a ‘token’ which is a tiny pointer designed to be sent in email. Recipients need to download a free app called Token Redeemer (analagous to the Acrobat Reader but with a slightly more religious name). Once you’ve got the Redeemer installed, double-clicking on a token starts a direct transfer from the Creator’s machine. Bingo. Creators can time-limit their tokens so that storage-eating bundles disappear automatically after a few days or weeks.

There’s a server app for people who intend to distribute lots of files and if a firewall gets in the way of a smooth transfer Creo’s own server cuts in and relays the file via http (a service Creators pay for).

I like the product and I certainly have a use for it (mostly swapping Laurel & Hardy MP3s with my friend Paul). I can also imagine lots of cool new uses once it becomes more widespread. I’m worried about the business model, though. Creators pay $49 to play which doesn’t seem unreasonable until you examine the product’s likely uses. If it’s strictly a business product then charging to create is fine, but if, as I suspect, there’s a ready audience among consumers swapping those big media files it’s hard to imagine it taking off.

The model already has three tiers: Redeemer (free), Creator ($49) and Server ($395). Adding a free Creator (perhaps limited to n transfers per month or with the relay service switched off) would jump start the creation of tokens and that might be enough to get the product onto the web adoption curve properly. With creation choked off, though, getting to critical mass is going to be take a long time and cost a lot of money.

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Endless deferral

Voodoo Pad is one of those applications that promises to get me organised. Of course, I long ago resigned myself to never actually getting organised – in fact, downloading and trying organisers like this one is my substitute for actually getting organised. My Powerbook’s hard drive is a graveyard for PIMs, contact trackers, unstructured databases, brainstorming tools, outliners and freeform doodlers – going all the way back, while I’m being honest, to Hypercard in about 1985. Each carried with it the tantalising promise of actually getting organised. None delivered.

The latest crop look like they might be going in the right direction, though (but I’ve said that before). ‘Unstructured’ seems to be the keyword these days. Simson Garfinkel’s groovy NeXT-derived SBook (if it did Bluetooth I’d dump Apple’s Address Book), Casady & Greene‘s evergreen iData Pro, the classic data shoebox for the Mac (used to be called InfoGenie for you old Macheads – and the admirable C&G just went bust, by the way), Creo’s Six Degrees (now available in an IMAP version that’ll turn your mailboxes into a fast filing system) and now Voodoopad (all resident on my hard drive right now): they all promise to get out of my way and not try to impose any kind of nasty structure on my information.

The whole category plays to the very human desire (a real Freudian fantasy) to get a grip, be in control, impose structure on the increasingly dense and fugitive world of information and, as such, they really rely on the final impossibility of actually getting organised (it’s the entropy, stupid). So, since satisfaction is, by definition, impossible, the category has unlimited potential, and Voodoopad’s elegance and trendy Wiki structure will win it lots of Geek fans but I’m pretty sure it’s just another stop on my endlessly delayed journey towards actually getting organised. Thanks to Azeem for showing me Voodoopad (he reckons he’s actually getting organised).

Good books

Some really good books from O’Reilly have arrived lately. The Hacks series is going to some really interesting places, taking in Google, Amazon, TiVo and now eBay (I reviewed the Google book in The Guardian a few months ago). David Pogue’s Missing Manuals series is also getting more and more useful. Standing permanently next to the Near Legendary Kitchen Cube (it’s a Cube and we keep it in the kitchen) are the latest on iMovie, iDVD and iPhoto plus the essential iPod text and two little handbooks ? one on Digital Video and one on Google.

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OS X wisdom

I’ve been using Macs since 1985 (I make that 18 years) so I’ve felt at home there for a long time but OS X is a fascinating and foreign place for me, even a couple of years into the experience. So now I’ve got a copy of O’Reilly‘s excellent Mac OS X Hints next to the bed. So far I’ve learnt how to speed up iPhoto on our very old kitchen Cube (turn off the drop shadow), how to cd by dragging a file into Terminal (is that cool or what?) and how to speed up iMovie rendering (hide the app). This is a useful book.

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Hacking networked reality

google_hacks.gifThe Last Whole Earth Catalog, 1971
I think Google Hacks is an important book. It’s important because our lives are increasingly dependent on the Internet and because the fabric of our networked lives – from the web to wi-fi to mobile phones – is getting richer, more meaningful and more tightly woven. Content, applications and communities are more interconnected than ever and a new layer of interconnection is emerging on top of the infrastructure we’ve taken for granted for most of a decade.

As the usefulness and accessibility of the network climbs, its value to us all is necessarily always at risk – from growing complexity, from the opacity produced by proprietary dead ends and from old-fashioned corporate and political short-sightedness. Google Hacks is a tool. It reminds me of The Whole Earth Catalog, a hippy resource book subtitled ‘Access to Tools’ and inspired by the legendary Buckminster Fuller. The Catalog, first published in 1968 (and edited by Stewart Brand), was all about taking control, making interventions – hacking real life. It was stuffed with the most practical of tools, from composting toilets to the early personal computers; from personal aeroplanes in kit form to really useful pen knives you could build a house with. Google Hacks is a tool for hacking the new, networked reality.

The book contains 100 specific, clearly worked examples of ways to take advantage of Google’s openness (the Google API) to achieve concrete results – some projects are useful, some intriguing and some just playful. I’m no techie (You’ll certainly find better technical reviews elsewhere) and most of these hacks are entirely beyond me but the book has loads of insights into the way Google works for non-techies and plenty of low-tech projects I could try for myself.

Since I can’t pretend to be reviewing this book properly and since you’ll be reading about it everywhere, here’s O’Reilly’s press release for some background information (click ‘more…’)