Friday, January 4, 2008

Computing Utility - the Next Big Thing?

The recent cover article in Business Week about Google becoming the foremost computing utility reminded me of an article by David Warsh in the Boston Globe circa 1990 as he described research by Paul A. David, a Stanford Economist. The Business Week article and the new book by Nicholas Carr entitled The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, build on the theme that Paul David described in 1990.

One of David's key points is that this kind of transformation from one technology paradigm to another takes a minimum of 20-30 years. The Warsh article is particularly interesting as since that time the and the Dot.bust have occurred.

Let's look at what Warsh and Paul David had to say in 1990:

"Many people in the computer business are feeling a little blue as the new decade begins, and not just International Business Machines Corp., either. Earnings at Digital Equipment Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. are down, too. IBM's plans to seed a merchant semiconductor consortium have collapsed, the Japanese are said to be tightening their hold on the market for commodity chips. The software industry is out of the headlines. Maybe the good days are over.

"That means it's a good time to step back and search for a little perspective. That's what Paul David has done. In a recent study, the Stanford economic historian has drawn a relatively tight historical comparison between the way the computer has made its way into everyday life so far in the 20th century, and the way the electrical revolution unfolded through the advent and adoption of the dynamo, starting in the 19th.

"The episodes lend themselves to analogizing, he says, for both the computer and the dynamo are "general purpose engines," capable of being engineered in sizes ranging from tiny to immense, the computer tossing off information as the dynamo tosses off power. Moreover, we have travelled just about the same distance today from the invention of the idea of the computer as the world stood in 1900 from the first mechanically generated electricity - about 60 years on.

"So what does David's analysis of the coming of the age of electricity tell us about what to expect of the computer revolution?

"Well, for one thing, it suggests that much of the unfolding of the benefits of the information age still lies ahead. And it casts intriguing new light on the riddle of lagging US productivity as well. Indeed, his very use of the quaint old fashioned word "dynamo" for what today we know as an electrical generator, suggests that we may have to say goodbye to the very word computer, before we know its age has truly arrived.

"A little history is in order.

"Electricity clearly dominates the story of the last third of the 19th century, but (as with computers) the initial run-up from idea to practical invention took just as long - about 30 years. At first there were chemical batteries and telegraphy, but only after mechanical generators - "magnetos" and "dynamos" - were created did the technology begin to truly gather force. The first direct current magneto was invented in 1841; a more efficient version in 1856 - the first light was generated in a lighthouse in 1858. Soon thereafter followed a series of dramatic breakthroughs. The ring-winding dynamo was invented in 1870; the incandescent light bulb dates to 1879; and Thomas Edison had the first central generating stations up and running in New York and London in 1881. The first electric tram service began in 1885.

"At first dynamos were confined to the sites they served. But the superiority of alternating current was demonstrated in the 1890’s, and the electricity business began to evolve into a series of centralized power sources and decentralized systems with many customers, many uses. Thus dynamos were not a novelty by the turn of a century but a ubiquitous urban fact - even if the universal utility form the system would soon take wasn't apparent to many outside the industry. Surveying the great Paris Exhibition of 1900, Henry Adams felt he was standing at the pinnacle of the age. He wrote, "It is a new century and what we used to call electricity is its God."

"Yet if you looked at the situation in 1900 through the lens of present-day economists, you might have had reason to worry then, David notes. Labor productivity had sunk to its lowest levels in England since the 18th century; it was declining in the United States, too, as waves of immigration from southern Europe entered the labor markets. Financial wizards were engaged in a binge of "paper entrepreneurism," peddling stock and arranging mergers, rather than pursuing technological improvements or bringing new products to market. True, the science and technology establishments of the industrial nations were expanding vigorously. But the industrial and economic leadership of the world was shifting from England to the United States, and the "Edwardian boom" of the first 15 years of the century was interpreted as a kind of Indian Summer by many commentators at the time. In short, it was a period very much like today, and those who, like Henry Adarns, felt they had already seen the fulfillment of the promise of electricity, had some reason to be disappointed.

"According to economist David, Adams was suffering from a tendency that might be called "technological presbyopia," or far-sightedness. It is a diagnosis deserving wider fame, for it is frequently to be found in the vicinity of new "generic" or systemic technologies - biotech, say, or the revolution in materials science. Its central symptom, according to David, is its misplaced focus: "on the arrival and not the journey," is the way he puts it. Technological presbyopia causes analysts to lose sight of the enormous complexity of the processes they are studying - the ways that new businesses tie into the economic, social, political, and legal transformations that they trigger. His prescription is for a set of economic lenses designed to correct for buoyant techno-optimism on the one hand, for the "depressing conviction that something has gone awry" on the other.

"For in fact, the "dynamo revolution" was just getting started in 1900, David writes. The building of the great grid that would connect cities and whole continents had barely begun. For a time, innovative businesses installed electrically-driven systems on top of pre-existing power trains, with thoroughly mixed results. Power costs didn't begin to fall sharply until 1907-1917. The great productivity-enhancing powers of the new techniques became unmistakable only after World War I. Then, at last, businesses went on a building binge. Not until the great investment boom of the 1920s did electrical power - secondary motors, in particular - penetrate deep into modern factories. It was then that productivity began to soar.

"In his essay, David takes pains to locate his comparison of computers and electrical generators in the context of the current debate about lagging American productivity. It's well-known that American productivity fell well behind its post-war trend during the 1970s. And though many experts see the brilliant record of the 1950s and 1960s as a kind of unrepeatable "great leap forward" stemming from the sustained doing-without of the Great Depression, combined with World War II, there is still widespread puzzlement about the effect of computers on America's economic strength. "We see computers everywhere but in the economic statistics," as MIT's Robert Solow has put it. Does that mean that the much ballyhooed productivity-enhancing effects of computers are so much hot air? Not necessarily.

"On the experience of the coming of electricity, David thinks the good news on productivity may be yet to come - that is, when manufacturers begin truly switching over from present-day methods of record keeping and control to fully electronic systems, in everything from airplane and automotive controls to bank accounts. "You don't get the full productivity effects until about two-thirds of the way into the diffusion process," he told a session of the American Economic Association last month. “The productivity surge is located in that period.”

"If David is right, of course, it means there is good news up ahead for the computer industry in particular – and for the United States in general - though not necessarily for the companies that dominate the industry now. Hardware makers could see their opportunities subside as quickly as did the big dynamo manufacturers in the 1930s. Does anybody now remember General Electric's many competitors at the turn of the century? Mightn't IBM someday become as slim a splinter of the total market for computer gear as Thomas Edison's GE is in the electricity business today?

"As memories become cheaper, and architectures become more complex, and fiber-optic transmission becomes more efficient, computing could follow the example of electricity: towards utility-style organization, with artfully distributed processing nodes scattered wherever needed. "Computers" then might be everywhere and nowhere; networks might become the economically important item. Who knows, in time, maybe the most basic everyday terminology itself may change. If everything you buy has a certain degree of computer "smartness" built into it, maybe your monthly "processing" bill becomes the important thing.

"Whatever the case, it seems likely that there will continue to be plenty of demand for new information-processing goods and services. That means investment opportunities and jobs, if not tomorrow, then in due course. As the computer revolution proceeds, manufacturing employment as a percentage of the total American work force might then be expected to come down from its present 25 percent, with no more ultimately adverse consequences than were suffered during the dramatic decline in farm jobs from around 40 percent of the total in 1940 to less than 3 percent today. If Paul David's analogy with the history of the electrical revolution is as fruitful as it seems, then it is merely half-time in the information revolution. The biggest opportunities (if not the greatest hoopla) are still ahead. "

The original source articles by Paul A. David are:

One of the major challenges that Google has is getting its new software engineers to understand the scale of a computing utility. Christophe Bisciglia illustrates the problem by sharing a question he asks in interviews "Tell me what you would do if you had 1,000 times more data?" Since that time Bisciglia has developed courseware to help develop these skills while young engineers are in college. An overview of this courseware is online at Google.

This notion of the the "cloud" is the new computer yields an insightful observation captured in the Business Week article:

"As the sea of business and scientific data rises, computing power turns into a strategic resource, a form of capital. 'In a sense,' says Yahoo Research Chief Prabhakar Raghavan, 'there are only five computers on earth.' He lists Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon. Few others, he says, can turn electricity into computing power with comparable efficiency. "

Carr in The Big Switch points out that what is making the computing utility come to life is the repeal of Grove's Law. Grove's Law stated that telecommunications bandwidth doubles only every century. Carr states:

"The network barrier has, in just the last few years, begun to collapse. Thanks to all the fiberoptic cable laid by communications companies during the dotcom boom - enough, according to one estimate, to circle the globe more than 11,000 times - Internet bandwidth has become abundant and abundantly cheap. Grove's Law has been repealed. And that, when it comes to computing at least, changes everything. Now that data can stream through the Internet at the speed of light, the full power of computers can finally be delivered to users from afar. It doesn't matter much whether the server computer running your program is in the data center down the hall or in somebody else's data center on the other side of the country. All the machines are now connected and shared - they're one machine. As Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, predicted way back in 1993, when he was the chief technology officer with Sun Microsystems, 'When the network becomes as fast as the processor, the computer hollows out and spreads across the network.'"

Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century also chronicles the repeal of Grove's Law and looks at the many ways business has gone global as a result of cheap network bandwidth.

The challenge for those of us creating disruptive business plans for our clients is how to think differently about the impact on our business models with the interaction of not having to invest in an IT infrastructure combined with having far more than 1000s of time the data that I have access to today. It's rare for a business when an innovation can affect both the expense side of the equation (reduced IT expenses) and the revenue side of the equation (scaling to a far higher level of useful data). This intersection of insights is what Ian Ayres describes in SuperCrunchers: Why Thinking by Numbers is the New Way to Be Smart.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Knowledge versus Information

As I was wandering into a client today, Greg asked one of those questions that lead to a teachable moment: "So Skip, it's clear from our working sessions that you think that knowledge and information are two different things. I've always thought of them as interchangeable. What is the difference?"

What a great question. It took me a long time and a lot of work by one of my mentors, Russ Ackoff, to help me see that these two concepts are very different. My simple definition of information versus knowledge is that information is structured data and knowledge is information in action. However, to put the question in a larger context, I then introduced Ackoff's hierarchy which I've come to call WUKID - Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Information and Data.

The following are my practical definitions of WUKID:

  • Data - the raw stuff of the world. It could be a temperature reading 67 degrees or the price of a book or any of the raw things that we encounter each day.
  • Information - provides structure for data. A weather report puts the temperature (data) in context. The outside air temperature in Seattle, WA on July 10, 2007 was 67 degrees at 2PM and the sun is shining. Each of the components of the previous sentence is data put together to form a glob of information.
  • Knowledge - is actionable information. Given the above weather information string I would know that it is going to be a nice day but cool for that time of year so I would carry a light sweater or jacket if I were to go outside.
  • Understanding - is seeing patterns in knowledge and information. If the above weather string were combined with 20-30 days of similar strings of information and I had lived in Seattle for 10 or more years, I would be able to see a pattern of it being a cool summer. Understanding has a longer time component than information and knowledge. Understanding incorporates double loop learning as described in Schon's The Reflective Practitioner.
  • Wisdom - is going beyond the levels of understanding to see larger scale systems and be able to predict behaviors and outcomes in the longer term future (5-15 years) based on seeing the patterns that arise through understanding. When lots of data over many years was refined into information, knowledge and understanding patterns, scientists were able to see long term weather patterns like el nino and la nina. Based on these patterns weather forecasters can predict longer term trends in Seattle and act accordingly.

Elizabeth Orna in Making Knowledge Visible: Communicating Knowledge Through Information Products describes the process whereby information is transformed into knowledge and vice versa. She claims that information lives in the outside where it becomes visible and available to others and be able to feed their knowledge. But knowledge is not something that I can give to someone else, because information has to be transformed into something that lives only in a human mind. We are constantly and generally invisibly transforming information into knowledge and back into information for others to consume. Orna's diagram of this transformation can be seen in Slide 2 of a presentation I gave at the KM Summer Institute.

Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh go further in their distinctions between information and knowledge claiming that knowledge only results when we have a physical body that can sense and act in the world.

Greg wrestled with these ideas for a few minutes and then it was clear that an "Ah Hah" experience dawned. "So if I understand these definitions, then what you did with Attenex Patterns was to design and create software that functioned at all of the levels of WUKID. Am I missing something?"

I love it when somebody connects information from multiple discussions and then achieves a meta level of understanding. I shared with Greg that we intentionally designed the system to work at the UKID levels of operation with the proviso that we couldn't provide the knowledge layer directly. Rather we had to design the system so that it takes very little time for the user to be able to act on the patterns of information and understanding that the system generates. However, as much as I would like to, the Attenex Patterns software does not act at the Wisdom level.

To help Greg continue his transforming information into knowledge, I pointed him to other resources online that provide additional information and context on WUKID:

The real test for Greg will be to see if he can transform the insights, information and knowledge of this discussion into designs for the software products that he is working on to incorporate the many layers of WUKID.

Upgrading my Notebook

For the last four years I've carried a desktop masquerading as a laptop causing no end of shoulder and back pains from lugging the thing around. While I valued having a wide screen (1920 X 1200) the weight was just getting too much to carry. Having recently acquired an Amazon Kindle to reduce the weight of having to carry lots of books, I decided it was time to get a new lightweight laptop.

I finally settled on the Sony Vaio VGN-SZ660 series. In reading through the reviews and testing what was in stock at local Best Buy and Fry's Electronics stores, it was clear that the tradeoff was between weight and performance. The Sony Vaio was right in the middle of the tradeoff. It wasn't as light as the 2 pound laptops, but they only had 1GB of memory and a 40GB hard drive. The selected laptop came in at four pounds with a core 2 duo processor and a 160GB hard drive.

The real selling point was the integrated Sprint Broadband WWAN card and a free month of services. I'd been wanting one of these devices for a while as no single local wireless seemed to be dominant enough to buy a monthly service. With a free month of services I could try it out on several business trips to see if the Sprint coverage was nationwide enough for my travels.

The hardest part of going through the acquisition of a new computer is getting everything copied over to the new system and getting all my core applications of installed. The first crisis came when I tried to find the license keys for my home version of Microsoft Office. The system came with a trial version of Microsoft Small Business, but I already had a copy of the Student Edition which allows for multiple installs as my wife is a school teacher. After several hours of trying to get it to work, I realized that I was going to have to un-install all of the trial office versions before I could install the Student Home version. That was fun.

Then I hit the most frustrating customer support problem I've ever had. I followed the directions to get the Sprint service enabled. For several hours I tried to get all the way through the process to get to the activation code session. I kept getting different outcomes. No luck. I finally read the fine print and saw that you could activate by phone. I tried that route but it was a Sunday and therefore outside of normal business hours. So I waited until Monday to call. Same message. So I tried the technical support line and explained my problem. The support engineer was nice but after a half-hour he said that I would have to call the activation line. I explained that they appeared to be closed so that was why I was calling him. He gave me another number and there was somebody there. The first words out of her mouth were "Oh, the online activation doesn't work. Don't beat yourself up. It just doesn't work." There went three wonderful hours of my life I'll never get back.

So the nice Sony Vaio activation lady led me through the steps to get the right serial numbers and then asked me to hold on while she called Sprint. After three tries at getting different activation numbers from Sprint (which took 45 minutes), she threw her hands up and said "You'll have to call Sprint directly." In the middle of this process, I heard one of the all time great excuses - "it seems that things are taking so long on the Sprint side because the Phillipines (where their technical support is) are experiencing severe winter storms and the support centers power went out." You have to love Tom Friedman's The World is Flat.

I then called Sprint and went through their layers of support and finally found someone who would help me out. After several lengthy reboots, she couldn't figure out what was going on so she passed me to the super duper technical support folks. This super expert led me through the same things that the previous person did and somewhere in the process it started working. Clearly, this activation process is not ready for prime time consumer usage.

I then tried to install my Outlook/Exchange application that is hosted through 1and1. I'd installed it on two of my other computers and the first time took 45 minutes with technical support to get everything just right. I went through the same process and couldn't make the connection. Argggh! I just don't have the energy to work through this process with 1and1's technical support right now.

Forgetting about technical support for the moment, it was time to test the Sprint Broadband WWAN out on my commute from Bainbridge Island to Seattle. The Washington State ferry system had recently installed a wireless LAN system but they wanted $30 per month for the service. For $59 a month I can get Sprint's unlimited U.S. Wide capability. The only question was whether it would work on the ferry as there are several cellular dead spots on the trip across the sound. I was astounded - the network stayed connected all the way across the sound and I was able to get blogging and email done on the trip.

Next I took the laptop into a client meeting and was pleasantly surprised to see that even in an inside conference room I had a good signal. I was able to stay connected to the Internet for the entire three hours of the meeting. On the way back to Bainbridge I sat on the other side of the boat and was able to access the network the whole way across.

All in all, the purchase was a big step forward in lightening the load of my backpack while providing constant access to the Internet. Now if I could just get Outlook/Exchange working.