Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Web services: towards the network computer


There have been a number of interesting observations made lately about the ways in which web services are starting to move us towards a world of accessible distributed computing
Gary Lawrence Murphy recently published a thoughtful essay Living with Webservices that picked up on Udell’s and Zawodny’s musings on Flickr and as “next generation infoware”

“These points form my essence of the next-generation network computer: webservices should vanish, become transparent, infrastructure plumbing, interchangeable or used in consort. Webservices should let me extend my own meagre computing environment, picking up bits of utility a little here, a little there, woven into a whole fabric, and as Jon notes, history teaches that I need to do so reservedly, staying in control and retaining my ownership, able to shift vendors at will and not become tied to any set of partner connections.”

What needs to change, as Gary realises, is that individual service providers need to open up and be ready to accept user content from other sources, rather than seek to “own” the storage and organisation of everything. This is what Gary calls the “smoking hole in the [network computer] topology”

“The moment they do, the moment they churn the spreadsheets on the market scale data, the economics of distributed co-operation will be so compelling, I’m willing to go out on a limb and predict that future webservices will follow the lead we’ve already seen in the amateur blog-item networks. After a brief and (to the users) frustrating fling with wanting to be all things to all people, all these services will see this light, give up on trying to own the shot-glass, open their fingers and let the universe spill through, and all of us will open our services in all directions.”

So far so goood, but apart from photo sharing and social bookmarks, what benefits can we expect from this kind of distributed architecture
Weblog conversations are (already) a good example of how this architecture promises to change the way that we interact online, manage our “presence” and the “permanence” of our content. Lilia Efimova has written a lot about this (most recently here), and she is currently publishing a short paper analysing one such distributed conversation – made possible by RSS and trackbacks – to learn something about its flow and structure. Perhaps she will link to the paper when it is released in the comments ;-
On a more ambitious scale, how might this distributed architecture and the concept of the network as computer change the way we work with computers in the longer term
Paolo Valdermarin mused this week on the growing rumours of a Google Browser and what this might mean

“Most probably their first step is going to be optimizing the applications for the existing gservices.”

But that’s not all, as Paolo realises. Google’s famous cluster of up to 100,000 low-end servers is, in a sense, a new type of Operating System that can and will support a range of powerful online applications, of which Gmail and Orkut are just the beginning
MIcrosoft, arguably the biggest barrier to progress in this direction, is facing big threats on several fronts. On one hand, Apple PCs and music devices are setting new standards in terms of usability and design, and OSX “Tiger” promises much of the functionality that Microsoft has announced and then retracted from the development of its next generation Longhorn system. At the same time, the Apple threat is linked with the more general Linux and Open source threat that Microsoft has faced for some time, because OSX is Unix-based. But while the consumer end of their market is vulnerable, the concept of a Google OS is a more fundamental danger to the Windows cash cow that Microsoft is based upon. A distributed system powered by Google’s computing and search power, but which is run through a browser and Web services, could simply render Windows obsolete
Web services are often referred to as the “plumbing” that joins together distributed applications, and without it, we can’t do much of course; but we also need to think long and hard about how we implement these applications. For example, what advice would we give Google if they really are emabarking on a master plan for a distributed OS? Joel Spolsky hits the nail on the head when he says

“When you’re writing software that mediates between people, after you get the usability right, you have to get the social interface right. And the social interface is more important. The best UI in the world won’t save software with an awkward social interface….

Over the next decade, I expect that software companies will hire people trained as anthropologists and ethnographers to work on social interface design. Instead of building usability labs, they’ll go out into the field and write ethnographies. And hopefully, we’ll figure out the new principles of social interface design. It’s going to be fascinating… as fun as user interface design was in the 1980s… so stay tuned.”

Where do you want to go today?

2 Responses to Web services: towards the network computer

  1. By Lilia on September 28, 2004 at 9:40 pm
  2. By Lilia on September 28, 2004 at 9:41 pm