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The Enabling Technologies

Three broad technology trends are making computing continuous. The first, as noted earlier, is easy, inexpensive Internet access. The second is the spread of inexpensive, wireless computing devices. Above all, this means wireless laptops. Only a computer capable of running a full-blown Web browser allows access to the full range of Web-based software applications, which are, as we’ll see in a moment, the third major source of technologies making computing more social. But laptops can’t be carried everywhere, and smaller devices such as digital cameras, video recorders, voice recorders, portable CD and DVD players, MP3 players, PDAs, pagers, GPS receivers, and wearable gear like Microsoft’s wireless SPOT (for “Smart Personal Object Technology”) watches have the important function of maintaining the information field when there isn’t a computer at hand. Then, of course, there’s the smart phone – in essence, a miniature computer juggling tasks that formerly required half a dozen separate devices.

Separate devices: PalmOne’s Treo 650, for example, is styled like a phone but also acts as a still and video camera, an e-mail and instant-messaging platform, an MP3 player, a game player, a personal organizer, a Web-browsing device, an e-book reader, and a short-range communicator (using the Bluetooth wireless standard).

The smart phone is “an ideal system for pervasive, supportive social computing,” writes Russell Beale, director of the Advanced Interaction Group in the computer science department at the University of Birmingham, England. It’s “a two-way device, creating and consuming information, is highly personal, and is almost always available… .”

The third trend nudging us into a new era of computing is probably the most important and the least expected. It is the emergence of the Web as a platform for personal publishing and social software. The examples are as diverse as informational sites such as blogs, craigslist, and Wikipedia

Wikipedia: An online encyclopedia built using wiki software, meaning that anyone may add entries or edit existing ones. With1.8 million articles written by 51,000 contributors in 109 languages, it is the world’s most comprehensive (though perhaps not its most reliable) reference work. It may, in fact, be the largest collaborative literary work in history. (See Larry Sanger’s Knowledge Free- for-All,” January 2005.)

and services such as Gmail, LinkedIn, Flickr, and Delicious. All of these are examples of what software developers and Internet pundits have begun to call “Web 2.0”: the transformation of the original Web of static documents

Static documents: Web 1.0 consisted largely of text files jazzed up with browser-readable HTML instructions on how to display the text and where to find related files. Web 2.0 is more like a collection of programs that talk to one another.

into a collection of pages that still look like documents but are actually interfaces to full-fledged computing platforms. These Web-based services are proliferating so fast because they can be built using shared, standardized programming tools and languages developed, for the most part, by the open-source-software community.

The list of popular social-software applications is almost overwhelming. The oldest examples include text messaging on phones and pagers, instant messaging between computers, and good old e-mail. But while these technologies may be familiar, they are being radically upgraded to work with the Web. Classic circuit-switched landline and cellular telephony, for example, faces growing competition from packet-switched systems, including Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) networks such as Vonage and Skype. Calls placed within Skype’s peer-to-peer network are free, which has made the service a favorite among startup companies with employees in far-flung locations. Adam Curry, a former television-show host on MTV who coinvented the idea of podcasting, gushes frequently about Skype in his own podcasts, saying it’s the main way he conducts business at Podshow.com, a podcasting network he is launching soon. “Skype is going to be the phone company,” Curry intones.

Wi-Fi cell phones that let people use Skype even if they’re away from their computers may soon hit the market, and new techniques for handing active calls from a cellular network to a Wi-Fi network will allow people with dual-band phones to switch to the lowest-cost service available at any given location. Meanwhile, the Short Messaging System (SMS) for text messaging is giving way to the Multimedia Messaging System (MMS), which can handle pictures, sound, and video in addition to text. Then there’s Google’s Gmail service, which offers a practically unlimited amount of storage online and an extremely efficient search mechanism for rummaging through it. Some users consider Gmail to be at least as powerful as client-side e-mail programs such as Outlook and Eudora (which store e-mail locally on a desktop machine), with the added advantage that it is accessible from any computer with a browser.

Tools that turn private individuals into Internet broadcasters are another booming application. When blogs were first emerging, publishing one was a tedious and forbidding process that involved rewriting HTML code and manually uploading files to a Web-hosting service. But with the advent of Blogger, LiveJournal, Movable Type, WordPress, and other services, the task of blog publishing has been reduced to writing something cogent and clicking on a couple of buttons. As a result, blogs have become the personal launching pads for millions of Web users’ social activities online–the place where they gather their own thoughts and artistic creations, invite others to react, and share links to and commentary about content they find elsewhere on the Web. Lately, it’s become cheap and easy to publish audio and video blog entries. And new tools for transferring audio blog posts to portable digital-music players like the Apple iPod have created a platform for podcasting,

Podcasting: Podcasters don’t agree on much about their craft – both Adam Curry and software guru Dave Winer claim to be the technology’s godfathers, for example – but they do seem to agree that the term “podcasting” was coined by Ben Hammersley, a writer for British newspaper the Guardian, in an article published February 12, 2004.

an entirely new form of personal publishing. In 2004 there were only a handful of regular podcasts; now there are several thousand, ranging from the sexually graphic “Dawn and Drew Show” to “The Catholic Insider,” in which Father Roderick Vonhogen, a priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, the Netherlands, ruminates on the new pope, run-ins with airport security guards in Rome, and Revenge of the Sith.

But bloggers and podcasters wouldn’t have much to publish without a constant stream of incoming information, and another set of Web technologies is helping Internet users to personalize that stream. Even before the Web, futurists predicted the advent of the personalized newspaper. Nicholas Negroponte, the founding director of the MIT Media Lab, called it “The Daily Me,” a collection of items plucked from a variety of media outlets by your home’s main computer, which would supposedly learn your preferences by watching what you read and what you ignore. But Negroponte’s future has arrived: one of the most earthshaking developments in information management in the past half-decade is a straightforward Web-programming hack called RSS.

RSS: There is some contention over who invented RSS and what the name actually stands for. In 1999, as part of the World Wide Web Consortium’s effort to build a Resource Description Framework (RDF) to support Tim Berners-Lee’s concept of the Semantic Web, engineers at Netscape created a document-mining tool called “Rich Site Summary,” but they abandoned it in 2001. Meanwhile, programmer Dave Winer wrote a script for publishing chunks of one site’s content on another, and called it “Really Simple Syndication.” This is now the most commonly accepted meaning of RSS, but the Netscape definition still has its proponents, and still others say RSS stands for “RDF Site Summary.”

It’s a way of packaging Web items such as blog entries in a stripped-down, XML-based format so that they can be imported into other Web pages. Most blog-hosting services automatically create RSS versions of blog posts. That means bloggers can “syndicate” their content across the entire Web, while readers can subscribe to RSS feeds

Feeds: An RSS feed can be created for just about anything. RSS is a key technology behind podcasting, which is essentially a method of delivering audio files via RSS subscriptions. And social-bookmarking services such as Delicious and Rojo let users subscribe via RSS to the links their friends save and annotate as they voyage around the Web.

from all of their favorite blogs or news sites, and view them in a single place using an “aggregator” service such as NetNewsWire, NewsGator, or Bloglines. These services make it easier than ever for people to monitor developments in their areas of interest. (On the downside, perhaps, aggregators also allow people to filter out news and ideas that don’t accord with their views.)

The most radical ideas in Web-based software, however, are flourishing in an area that might be called “social knowledge management,” represented in part by sites like Friendster, LinkedIn, and Ryze. Such social-networking sites

Social-networking sites: See “Internetworking,” April 2004.

generated a wave of venture investment and new users in 2004. At their best, they are like human search engines: they exploit the “six degrees of separation” concept to help people make connections with friends of friends of friends who may share similar interests or business goals. Now a twist is on the way: a Boston startup called Proxpro is testing a cell-phone-based service whereby a traveling businessperson can register a change in location with an SMS message; if a potential contact who matches the traveler’s prespecified areas of interest (say, Oracle databases) is nearby, both parties are notified, and they can use SMS to arrange a meeting.

The social-networking sites, in fact, were only a preview of what Web 2.0 technologies will make possible. Using a few basic building blocks such as XML, open-source database software, simplified programming languages and environments like Ruby on Rails, and protocols, like SOAP and REST, for exchanging data between Web applications, Web developers can build elaborate yet practical “social services” that collect and redistribute the knowledge of large communities of people. (See the box on page 52 for a tour of some of the most interesting new services.)

The more people who use the new services, the more powerful

More powerful: This is one manifestation of Metcalfe’s Law, the observation by Ethernet inventor (and Technology Review board member) Bob Metcalfe that the value of a network increases as the square of the number of nodes in the network.

those services become. That’s because they’re all about cooperation: people are usually happy to share their knowledge, experiences, creations, schedules, and locations if it means that they can learn what the people who are important to them are thinking and doing. The most successful services are always about shared interests; Jyri Engestrom, a PhD student in the Department of Organisation, Work, and Technology at the Lancaster University Management School in Britain, calls this the rule of “object-centered sociality.” “The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people,” Engestrom wrote in a much-cited entry on his blog, Zengestrom.com, in April. “They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object,” such as the photographs they upload to Flickr, the URLs they bookmark at Rojo or Delicious, or the articles they write for Wikipedia. Of course, social software can also be put to less community-minded uses: the same Internet-based services that keep businesses and families connected can be used to arrange casual sexual encounters, distribute pornography, or run terrorist networks.

Terrorist networks: See “Terror’s Server,” February 2005.

But in a way, the fact that the technology can support the full spectrum of human enterprises – whether socially productive or not – only underscores its power

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