Archive for August, 2007

Ning

August 16, 2007

Remember Marc Andreessen? Perhaps not. But he played his part in the history of the Internet. Way back in 1993 he built X Mosaic, the first widely used Web browser. He’s now involved in social networking – building the software that is, rather than the actual getting out and meeting people. Ning is his latest project and TechCrunch, a blog that devotes itself to news of deals in the computer world, reports that it has just secured major funding.

Ning is unlike the mainstream social networking services like Facebook and MySpace in that you can create your own networks, or what MIT’s Technology Review calls ‘mini-MySpaces’ or ‘social nicheworks’. Ning is one of the growing band of what TechCrunch describes as ‘white label’ social networking sites: ones in which Ning provides the networking infrastructure and then steps back, allowing the user to build, customise and brand their own network.
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House of Lords 2.0

August 10, 2007

Today’s report on Personal Internet Security from the House of Lords Science and Technology committee makes a small reference to the issue of the ‘openness’ of Apple’s iPhone, which I discussed on this blog last month. The first section of chapter 4 looks at usability vs security and presents an argument, based on expert evidence given to the committee, that there is always a trade off between security and usability (flexibility).

The report argues that interoperability with lots of different third party hardware devices and software products has been the priority for leading operating systems like Windows until very recently. This is Microsoft’s view of the system as ‘complex eco-system’. The report then goes on to note, however, that, because of the increasing level of concern about security, there may be a move towards locking users in to the products and software of one company in order to improve and guarantee security.

This ties neatly in to Apple’s approach, which the report summarises as: “Microsoft might seek to maximise flexibility at the expense of possible insecurity, Apple would sometimes make [security] decisions on behalf of users even if that made it more difficult to download and run third party applications” (p.36). It then notes that Apple plan to make iPhone a closed platform on which it is not possible to execute any non-Apple applications. But, as far as I can make out from Apple’s press release, the iPhone will support third party Web 2.0 applications. Indeed, Apple argue in the release that this allows them to extend the capabilities of the phone, via third party solutions, without compromising the security.

However, I’m not convinced about this. If the House of Lords are investigating Internet-based security, I think it’s highly likely that these kinds of applications represent some of the security worries the committee is looking into.

XML gets X-rated

August 8, 2007

XML is one of those technologies that usually goes about its business quietly, with hardly anyone noticing (a bit like me, I like to think). It is widely used for the exchange of data between applications and systems and it also provides the foundation of XHTML, the latest version of the mark up language that underpins millions of webpages. Recently, though, things in the XML world have got a bit heated, to say the least, and are likely to get more so in the next month or two. A new technical report by Walter Ditch, published by the UK universities’ JISC, and which I was involved with publishing, sets out to explain why.

It’s all to do with the seemingly mundane subject of how a computer goes about saving a word processed document or spreadsheet file and, in particular, which ‘flavour’ (format) of XML it should use.
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Fresh food déjà vu: salivating all over again

August 4, 2007

Another case of Web-related déjà vu this morning with news from the Guardian that Amazon are launching AmazonFresh, a trial service to deliver fresh food in the Seattle suburbs. Readers with a long memory may recall the froth, excitement and general salivation over the thought of the financial rewards to be had from Web-based, grocery shop-and-deliver schemes during the wild days of the dot-com boom. Names like WebVan, PDQuick and Streamline come to mind – all went bust, losing billions of dollars of investor’s money.

Indeed, my copy of Evan Schwartz’s Webonomics (1997), widely read at the time, lauds Peapod, one of the first online grocery services, based in Chicago. Schwartz’s later book, Digital Darwinism (1999) is more cautionary, warning of problems with the way in which the company bought their stock from supermarket shelves, rather than setting up agreements with wholesalers. To be fair to Peapod, they did manage to evolve and are now part of Dutch food retailing giant Royal Ahold (and recently delivered their 10 millionth order).

All this perhaps offers a warning from history. Delivering fresh kippers is not the same as delivering books. In the UK, online shopping delivery has been relatively successful, but only because the main supermarkets are running the services themselves (and so can benefit from their existing distribution infrastructure and general retailing experience). Peapod survives because of its close tie with an existing food retailer.

Although there is some evidence that Amazon may have done their homework (they are going to be working directly with wholesalers and farmers) it’s quite possible that they may have bitten off more than they can chew with this one. It may be coincidence, but the Guardian notes that the stock market took nearly a 2% bite out of Amazon shares on hearing the news.