Archive for July, 2008

Microsoft runs with Apache

July 29, 2008

Last Friday, Microsoft announced that it was becoming a platinum level sponsor of the Apache Software Foundation, equivalent to 100,000 USD per year. Apache is a community of open source developers and users, famous for bringing together the team that built the first serious Web server (which is still used to deliver at least 50% of the world’s webpages).

So why does this matter? Outside the open source community, few people will have heard of Apache or even care too much about which software is delivering their webpages. What is of wider relevance is what this says about Microsoft’s attitude to open source code more generally.

For many open source types, Microsoft sits at the pinnacle of the proprietary software industry and are little more than the devil incarnate. In recent months though there have been big personnel changes at Microsoft, not least with the retirement of Bill Gates and the appointment of Ray Ozzie as Chief Software Architect. This has coincided with an increasing interest in open source software development, with staff participating in open projects and the launching of initiatives such as the Port25 blog, which is a conduit for the views of open source developers within the company.

On the face of it the sponsorship of Apache is a big step down the open source route, since it involves putting up cash. It is also interesting as Microsoft make IIS, Apache Web Server’s leading competitor. I’ll have a lot more to say about this once I’ve done the research for a new article I’ve just been commissioned to write, which is due this winter. In the meantime though, one thought strikes me. If you read Sam Ramji’s posting on Port 25 you’ll notice that he says: “[the sponsorship] is a strong endorsement of The Apache Way”. The Apache Way is the project management and governance process that Apache’s community of developers have built up over the years. I really do have an open mind on all this, but could it be that what Microsoft is really interested in is learning about how open development can be more efficient that traditional coding methods?

A slippery answer to UK’s energy needs?

July 15, 2008

A few weeks ago I wrote about plans to use the Pentland firth in the Orkneys as a trial site for marine-based renewable energy. I said at the time that it has always seemed plain daft that the sea-bound UK is not storming ahead with wave and tidal power systems. So I’m pleased to see that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has announced that UK scientists have been working on a renewable energy concept called the “Anaconda” – a sea snake shaped device that generates electricity from ocean waves.

What is refreshing about this device is that it seems simple and potentially very low-cost since it avoids the complex mechanical construction of most wave machines. The system consists of a long, hollow rubber ‘snake’, closed at both ends and filled with water. The snake is suspended a few metres below the surface of the sea. When a wave hits the snake it causes a bulge inside the tube which travels down the length of the snake. When the bulge reaches the other end of the tube the pressure of the water drives an electricity turbine.

The inventor’s website has full details of how it all works, including a video of a small-scale experiment. They reckon a full-scale device could generate 1MW for a cost of around £2 million, which is much less than other wave devices, and the EPSRC reckons sea trials could begin within just five years.

Google embarks on a second life

July 10, 2008

The concept of alternative reality worlds has been given a significant shot in the virtual arm by the news that Google is entering the field. The Search engine firm announced on Tuesday that it was launching Lively as a beta service through its Google Labs project.

Google has a different twist in that users don’t enter the alternative world through a special (and separate) graphical client. Instead, the Lively service operates through the browser and allows you to create a vast collection of different meeting places, or ‘rooms’, that are embedded in existing Web content like blogs and social networking sites. The company’s goal seems at this stage to be about providing a more dynamic, 3-D way of interacting with other viewers of a particular site’s content.

Google is not alone in trying this idea of embedding virtual rooms in existing content. A start-up company called Vivaty also went live this week with a similar concept.

Virtual worlds or meta-verses like Second Life and Warcraft already have millions of users, but Google’s ability to transfer users in from its various other activities should see it take off. However, not to be outdone, the increasingly venerable Second Life company, Linden Labs, issued a press release to announce that for the first time ever a user’s avatar (character) had been transferred or ‘teleported’ from one virtual world to another, as a result of research work that the company has been undertaking with IBM. You can see a hilarious (although possibly not intentionally) video which breathlessly describes the world’s first-ever inter-VR world teleport as if it were the moon landings.

All in all, the 3-D Web, which we wrote about last July, seems to be coming along nicely. I shall begin work on embedding a restaurant room into this blog as soon as time permits.

Microsoft’s future

July 2, 2008

Last week the BBC sent that well-known techno-geek, Fiona Bruce, to interview Bill Gates for the Money Program. The result was a fairly pedestrian plod through the history of the company, although it was interesting to see the bit where they recreated the original (and now infamous) photo of the Microsoft start-up staff in full, late-1970s regalia.

What the programme didn’t say much about was the far more interesting question of what happens next. Where will Microsoft go post-Bill? Although they did touch on the emerging threat of Google and the on-going Yahoo buy-out situation, they had little to say on the way Microsoft clearly has to change to deal with the post-PC era and the emerging Web generation.

One of the issues facing the Redmond-based behemoth is the rapid rise in free and open source code, open data, and associated new innovation development methods. On Monday I had the privilege of interviewing Justin Erenkrantz, who is the President of the Apache Software Foundation, a leading open source software development community. Amongst many interesting lines of discussion we touched on the changing nature of Microsoft and Justin expressed his opinion that, based on his recent experiences, there has been a ‘sea-change’ at Microsoft.

Justin is one interesting and busy guy – juggling a software job at online TV start-up Joost, undertaking a PhD and carrying out his role with the Foundation, but he certainly has his finger on the Silicon Valley pulse. As ever I have to disappoint and say you’ll have to wait until the full interview comes out for further details.