Four Pillars: The Road From Damascus

When you see the sheer number of articles floating around on Microsoft versus Apple, or Google or, The Next Big Thing, it’s not surprising that there’s a tendency for your eyes to glaze over. A Road From Damascus Experience, where scales zoom upwards and attach themselves to your eyes.

I guess you feel the same about Net Neutrality. About IMS. About Viiv. About IPR and DRM in general.About Identity. About Ways to Deal With Spam. Touchy woolly amorphous partially-incomprehensible subjects, with enormous volumes of passionate literature and conversation, being machine-gunned at you from a variety of directions using diverse techniques and media.

I don’t blame you. In fact that’s part of the reason why I call this blog Confused of Calcutta. These are not easy times for anyone who is passionate about these things, about the magic that can be woven if the Information Age is allowed to reach and extend its potential.

Which is why I picked up the latest issue of New Scientist this evening, and started reading an article headlined Heavyweights fight for control of your computer. My apologies, this time around I could not link to the full text, it was hidden away behind yet another premium wall. And I read it with some loss of enthusiasm. Eyes suitably Krispy Kremed, glazed-over like doughnuts.

I’m just going to provide a commentary on the article, quoting directly as needed. Unless quotation marks are used, please assume the words are mine.

Gates called Microsoft’s competition with Google “hyper-competition”. Snore. Another antitrust lawsuit, this time brought up by Google, this time about default search engine settings on the next IE. Snore. Microsoft pours gazillions into going into direct competition with Google. Double snore.

“This time, the fundamental issue at stake is how we will use our computers in the future.” Whoa. Snores subside. Slowly wakening again.

“Underscoring the battle for domination are two visions for how and where our digital data should be stored, how we should access it and who else should see it”. Okay that does it, I am now wide awake. Metamorphosed From Dormouse to March Hare.

What had I missed? What had I not seen in its proper light? Google was a platform reliant on browsers, provided search, made money from advertising. Thinking hard about snoring again. Microsoft needed to protect the PC’s role and usefulness. Definitely a chance for some zees again…

Then wham! Saucepan and face meet. Hard. All thought of sleep gone. “The two alternative visions for the future are coming into conflict now because of improved browser technologies. Until recently, browsers could only be used to view web pages. Activities such as using word procesdsing programs, calendars, spreadsheets and viewing phots had to be done on the desktop because it took too long for conventional browsers to fetch data from a remote server each time a user wanted to access or update something.” The writer, Celeste Biever, now has my complete attention. [I’d seen some interesting work by her before, I particularly remember an article on Infocards and digital identity that Kim Cameron also commented on.]

There’s then some blurb about AJAX and broadband. About Writely and Google Calendar and Google Earth and Picasa. My simple summary: Google wants everything deliverable by browser; AJAX and broadband help, but not enough. Some Google stuff still needs to be downloaded and run locally. Nothing surprising there. Microsoft would prefer applications that “will run most effectively with a combination of browser and desktop”. Popes and bears.

The next bits started worrying me a bit. “Gary Flake, director of the company’s Live Labs in Redmond, Washington, says that not only will you have more privacy storing your digital data on your desktop than on a remote server, but certain things just cannot be done using a browser. Video editing would be frustratingly slow, for example”…..

The next bit of the article discusses how collaborative filtering could be done for music and for search by comparing personal stuff and why local disks are important for supporting all that. Fundamentally, the claim there is that local disk is good because it protects your privacy and remote storage does not.
Then we get to this: “Each user would have a file stored on their desktop that records keywords they have used for their searches. When one of their Windows Live Messenger buddies then enters the same keyword into a search, Microsoft could use what they know about you from your file to make assumptions about what your buddy is likely to be searching for.”

By the time I finished reading the article, I had reached an unusual level of concern, almost cynicism. Something I am not used to feeling.

I saw through a glass very darkly. Very very darkly.

I saw how identity and privacy and security and safety could be used to defend, even augment, bad decisions on net neutrality and on DRM. And I saw how easily it could happen. Lots to think about.

One thought on “Four Pillars: The Road From Damascus”

  1. Comment re-posted, thanks to coComment:

    “one of their Windows Live Messenger buddies then enters the same keyword into a search, Microsoft could use what they know about you from your file” – does this not imply that MS will be using your PRIVATE data (you know, that you’ve stored so carefully on your own disk to protect it from others), and combining it with your buddy’s private data, and drawing conclusions based on the two data sets? This is supposed to be better than storing stuff on GSpace? Kim Cameron must tear his hair out sometimes – this explains why people have trouble believing the Infocard story when it carries the MS brand.

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