Archive | August 2006

Google Apps vs. Microsoft Office: It’s All About Platform Dominance

Remember the browser wars? Netscape vs. Microsoft?

What was ultimately at stake technically?

Platform dominance.

Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen spoke frequently of browser-as-platform.

And let’s face it, the folks in Redmond have made a healthy business by owning the desktop platform. (In fact, based on the number of anti-trust suits against them, Microsoft may have been a tad too agressive in their quest for platform dominance.)

Why are software companies obsessed with platform dominance?

If you own the platform, you have a controlling influence in owning the software stack.

If you control/own the software stack, you own the customer.

How does this apply to Google Apps For Your Domain (GAFYD) vs. Microsoft Office?

Consider the Microsoft Office stack.

Microsoft

Individual applications like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel are ultimately built upon the Microsoft Windows. Common functionalities, tools and utilities, plus the interoperability that exists between applications, is enabled by Microsoft’s Component Object Model (COM). (Object Linking and Embedding, OLE, was superceded by COM.) Although third-party software providers can and do leverage Microsoft Windows and Microsoft COM, in the case of Microsoft Office, this is a wholly proprietary, single-vendor software stack. Own the stack, own the customer. Note also that any Internetworking capabilities are inherited by the applications in Microsoft Office via COM and Windows. Unfortunately, I don’t know to what extent Microsoft Office Live modifies this stack.

Now consider the GAFYD stack.

[Update: I’ve misplaced this figure. Please see the revised stack referenced in the comments.]

GAFYD exist within the context of a Web browser. GAFYD likely leverages various Googlisms made available via a Google API. Analogous to COM in the Microsoft case, this API can be and is being leveraged by third parties. The foundation for Google is based on a number of open standards:

  • XML for expressibility
  • HTTP and SOAP for exchanges
  • URIs for addressing

In addition to these underlying open standards, GAFYD has the potential to leverage emerging Web middleware such as Web Services, the Semantic Web and Grid Computing.

[Update: I’ve misplaced this figure. Please see the revised stack referenced in the comments.]

Along with his co-authors, Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has recently framed this context more completely elsewhere. The last two schematics are interpolated and extrapolated from the figure provided in the Berners-Lee et al. Science paper. The resulting unbundled, open-standards software stack is Web enabled from the outset. In striking contrast to the Microsoft case, GAFYD will likely result in a software ecosystem completely analogous to that developing around the Linux operating environment. This means that Google will battle Microsoft with only limited control of the software stack. They’ll need to rely on leveraging the rest of the stack, and ensuring that the promise of the Web (e.g., Web Services, the Semantic Web and Grid Computing) can be realized in GAFYD.

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Google Apps & Google Notebook

Although my enthusiasm for Google Apps for Your Domain (GAFYD) may appear lukewarm at best, I do hope that this venture leads to mass-market adoption.

Why?

Google’s intersection with office-productivity suites is likely to stimulate innovation.

For example, I’ve blogged a fair bit recently about annotation. Google has a mechanism for annotation in Google Notebook, as does Microsoft Word. GAFYD will allow annotations to be recontextualized for the Web-enabled office. In fairness, and to avoid the Google vs. Microsoft double standard, I expect all of this will also apply to Microsoft Office Live.

It’ll be interesting to watch this unfold.

Google Apps for Your Domain: The Browser-Based Version of the Network Computer?

Wikipedia states:

A network computer is a lightweight computer system that operates exclusively via a network connection. As such, it does not have secondary storage such as a hard disk drive – it boots off the network, but runs applications locally, using its own CPU and RAM. This set NCs as distinct from terminals, which act as a client for an application server.

During the mid to late 1990s, some commentators and industry players such as Larry Ellison of Oracle Corporation, predicted that the network computer would soon take over from desktop PCs, and that many users would use applications loaded via a network instead of having to own a local copy.

So far, this has not happened, and it seems that the network computer “buzz” was either a fad or not ready to happen. The NC can be considered to be another computing paradigm. Just as PCs did not replace mainframes, so NC will not replace PCs. The new technology provides a more appropriate alternative in certain areas and can co-exist with established systems through open standards.

Google has just announced an even-thinner paradigm, Google Apps for Your Domain:

… a set of hosted applications for organizations that want to provide high quality communications tools to their users without the hassle of installing and maintaining software or hardware.

Given that GAFYD is a browser-based version of the network computer, one wonders if history is destined to repeat itself.

Bohm’s Spiraling Thought Process

In the preface to the second edition of Science, Order, and Creatvity, F. David Peat writes of his co-author David Bohm:

… Bohm’s thinking was like a spiral – for a time he would focus on one area and then appear to leave it for some quite different interest, only to return, months or even years later, with a much deeper sense of the original topic.

I like to think that this is my thought process as well, as reflected in the breadth and depth of the WordPress categories I post to 😉

Microsoft Word: A Tool for Annotation

Not too long ago I blogged about Google Notebook as a tool for annotation.

Of course, annotation isn’t a new concept, and therefore there are other tools that allow for it.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft Word is one of these tools. By use of comments, Word allows for annotation. I’ve made available Word and PDF examples elsewhere. In addition to annotations via Word comments being author and date stamped, my example illustrates how annotations via Word comments:

  • Can indicate a specific point in a document – The start or end of the orignal blog post in my example
  • Can span a number of document elements – A few paragraphs and an item of a bulleted list in my example

My example also illustrates how annotations via comments are distinct from tracked changes, the latter being another very powerful capabilty in Word.

Although Word can annotate to at least the degree described here, there is one aspect that is limiting. To be wholly useful in the context of annotation, Microsoft needs to expose its mechanism of fragment identification. This is the Word equivalent of an XPointer entry. (The same applies to Google Notebook. Microsoft and Google may have already allowed for this through some API, Application Programming Interface. I just haven’t spent any time looking for them.) Using my Mac, I converted the Word example into HTML. (Sorry, WordPress wouldn’t allow me to upload it!) Comments become linked footnotes. Although this is understandable, aspects of the annotation are lost in translation. I’ll look at an XML-based representation next time I’m at my desktop PC to see if that does any better. Stay tuned.

In closing, it’s important to note that Word is representative of current office productivity software in its ability to convey annotations. In other words, I would expect that OpenOffice and others could do the same. Somewhat related Adobe Acrobat also allows for a similar capability in the case of PDF documents.

Alternate Mechanism for Earth’s Magnetic Field

About 3,000 km beneath our feet lies Earth’s third ocean. Quite unlike the water-based first and air-based second, this third ocean is an iron-based alloy. Because this liquid-state alloy (aka. Earth’s fluid/liquid outer core) is an electrical conductor, currents can exist. Owing to a well-known reciprocity between electrical currents and magnetic fields, this third ocean factors significantly in an observable known to any of us surface dwellers who have ever wielded a compass.

Although there’s no question that Earth possesses a magnetic field, there are a number of open scientific questions about this pervasive, natural phenomenon. A number of these questions are directed at the sustainability of this magnetic field over geologically significant timescales. Well evidenced in the geologic record over a few billion years, Earth’s magnetic field requires a self-sustaining mechanism (aka. a geodynamo) to account for its very existence and peculiarities (such as reversals).

The starting point for scientific investigators is that this electrically conducting region is under rotation. (Taken from the appropriate scientific perspective, a perspective that takes into account planetary scales and fluid dynamical properties, it turns out this region is rotating rapidly.) The same Earth’s rotation that causes deflection of trade winds in the atmosphere (via the Coriolis effect) also figures significantly in the energetics of Earth’s magnetic field. Rotational effects alone, however, cannot account for the existence, longevity and peculiarities of Earth’s magnetic field over the visible geologic past.

This conundrum has forced the scientists who study this phenomenon to speculate on mechanisms for Earth’s magnetic field. Many of the suggested mechanisms call from some degree of additional stirring. This additional stirring causes deviations from the otherwise steady state of solid body rotation. Simply put, these deviations cause motion in the electrically conducting fluid that in turn result in magnetic fields.

Since the late 1970s, the favored mechanism for additional stirring has been based on buoyancy. In the case of Earth’s third ocean, buoyancy is thought to result from solidification. More specifically, as Earth’s centremost region (know as the inner core) grows by iron crystallization, the residual light element(s) in the alloy is/are released buoyantly. This combined effect of chemistry and fluid dynamics is thought to result in compositional convection.

Compositional convection, however, can be challenged on a number of fronts. Rather than pursue that here, my present purpose is to relate another mechanism for Earth’s magnetic field. As with the previous mechanism, deviations from an otherwise steady state of solid body rotation are key in this case as well. Rotation enforces cylindrical symmetry. This enforcement even applies when the body that’s under rotation (Earth in this case) has an almost spherical symmetry to it. Almost is definitely the operative word here, as Earth isn’t perfectly spherically symmetric. In fact, Earth is an oblate spheroid that bulges at the equator and is depressed at the poles. This combination results in an opposition of symmetries, cylindrical (owing to Earth’s rotation) versus spheroidal (owing to the boundary that contains Earth’s third ocean). As has been demonstrated experimentally and theoretically, the introduction of deviations in the presence of such symmetry oppositions can cause significant instabilities. In Earth’s case, periodic deviations might originate from precession and/or tides.

Experimental, theoretical, numerical and observational studies of such instabilities have been one of Keith Aldridge‘s research themes for over a decade at Toronto’s York University. In addition to ongoing experimental studies with graduate student Ross Baker, Keith has been collaborating with post-doc David McMillan and I on supportive observational evidence. Because the instabilities we’re all interested in are periodic, we’ve been looking for indirect evidence in historical records of Earth’s magnetic field. Deep-ocean sediments, extracted as drill cores, are proving useful in our attempts to analyze relative variations in Earth’s magnetic field intensity over the past 70,000 years. In short, our analysis of variations in paleointensity allows us to further support fluid-flow instabilities as a viable mechanism for Earth’s magnetic field.

A scientific account of this investigation has recently been accepted for publication in an appropriate journal, Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors. A preprint is currently available online.

W3C Publishes New Editions of Core XML Standards

On August 16, 2006, the W3C published new editions of XML and Namespaces in XML that include various corrections and clarifications. By the end of the calendar year, they also expect to publish recommendations (their term for standards) relating to XQuery and XSLT. Revisions to XML Schema are also underway. Attention is also being devoted to improving the efficiency of XML storage, transmission and processing. (The W3C’s press release has additional information.)

Given my ongoing investment in the XML family this is expected, but nonetheless welcome, news 🙂

Although the increasing pervasiveness and importance of XML for the Web, Web Services, and even the Semantic Web (via RDF/XML) was mentioned explicitly, XPointer was not. (XPointer is an emerging W3C effort for the purpose of annotation that I’ve recently blogged about elsewhere.)