An interview with Microsoft's Steve Ballmer in the in the San Francisco Chronicle regarding Steve's thoughts about the future of technology, information, and Microsoft (including their competition) sparked a few things regarding the Personal InfoCloud and Local InfoCloud. It could be the people I hang out with and the stay-at-home parents I run across during the day, but the future Ballmer talks about is happening now! The future will more widely distributed in 10 years, but the desire and devices are in place now. The thing holding everything back is content management systems that are built for the "I Go Get Web" and people implementing those systems that see technology and not a web of data.
Let's begin with Ballmer's response to the question, "Ten years from now, what is the digital world going to look like? To which Ballmer responds:
A: People are going to have access to intelligence in multiple ways. I'm going to want to have intelligence in my pocket. I'm going to want to have intelligence in my TV. I'm going to want to have intelligence in my den and in my office. And what I may want in terms of size, of screen size, of input techniques, keyboard, handwriting, voice, may vary.
I think what we'll see is, we have intelligence everywhere. We have multiple input techniques, meaning in some sense you may have some bit of storage which travels with you everywhere, effectively. Today, people carry around these USB storage devices, but you'll carry around some mobile device.
The problem is people have the devices in their pockets today in the form of Blackberries, Treos, Nokia 770s, and just regular mobile phones with browsing and syncing. The access to the information is in people's pockets. The software to make it simple with few clicks is where the battle lies. My Palm OS-based Treo 650 is decent, but it has few clicks to get me to my information. My friends with the Windows version of the same device have six or more clicks for basic things like calendar and address book. Going through menus is not simplicity. Going directly to information that is desired is simplicity. A mobile devices needs simplicity as it is putting information in our hands with new contexts and other tasks we are trying to solve (driving, walking, meeting, getting in a taxi, getting on a bus, etc.).
Not only does the software have to be simple to access information in our Personal InfoCloud (the information that we have stated we want and need near us, but have structured in our personal framework of understanding). We also interact with the Local InfoCloud with is information sources that is familiar to us to which we have set a means of easing interaction (cognitively, physically, or mechanically).
This "intelligence" that Ballmer refers to is information in the form of data. It needs to be structured to make solid use of that information in our lives. This structure needs to ascend below the page level to at least the object level. The object level can be a photo with the associated metadata (caption, photographer, rights, permanent source, size, etc.), event information (event name, location, date and time, permanent location of the information, organizer, etc.), full-text and partial-text access (title, author, contact info, version, date published, rights, headers, paragraphs, etc.).
These objects may comprise a page or document on the web, but they not only have value as a whole, they have value as discrete objects. The web is a transient information store for data and media, it is a place to rest this information and object on its journey of use and reuse. People use and want (if not need) to use these objects in their lives. Their lives are comprised of various devices with various pieces of software that work best in their life. They want to track events, dates, people, ideas, media, memes, experts, friends, industries, finances, workspaces, competition, collaborators, entertainment, etc. as part of their regular lives. This gets very difficult when there is an ever growing flood of information and data bombarding us daily, hourly, consistently.
This is not a future problem. This is a problem right now! The information pollution is getting worse every moment we sit here. How do we dig through the information? How do we make sense of the information? How do we hold on to the information?
The solutions is using the resources we have at our finger tips. We need access to the object level data and the means to attach hooks to this data. One solution that is rising up is Microformats, which Ray Ozzie of Microsoft embraces and has been extending with his Live Clipboard, which is open for all (yes all operating systems and all applications) to use, develop, and extend. The web, as a transient information store, must be open to all comers (not walled off for those with a certain operating system, media player, browser, certain paid software, etc.) if the information is intended for free usage (I am seeing Microsoft actually understand this and seemingly embrace this).
Once we have the information and media we can use it and reuse it as we need. But, as we all know information and media is volatile, as it changes (for corrections, updates, expanding, etc.) and we need to know that what we are using and reusing is the best and more accurate information. We need the means to aggregate the information and sync the information when it changes. In our daily lives if we are doing research on something we want to buy and we bookmark it, should we not have the capability to get updates on the prices of the item? We made an explicit connection to that item, which at least conveys interest. Is it not in the interest of those selling the information to make sure we have the last price, if not changes to that product? People want and need this. It needs to be made simple. Those that get this right will win in the marketplace.
What is Standing in the Way?
So, the big question is, "what is standing in the way"? To some degree it is the tools with which we create the information and some of it is people not caring about the information, data, and media they expose.
The tools many of the large information providers are using are not up to the task. Many of the large content management systems (CMS) do not provide simple data structures. The CMS focusses on the end points (the devices, software, tools, etc.) not the simple data structures that permit simple efficient use and reuse of the objects. I have witnessed far too many times a simple web page that is well structured that is relatively small (under 40KB) get turned into an utter mess that is unstructured and large (over 200KB). Usable, parseable, and grabable information is broken by the tools. The tools focus on what looks good and not what is good. Not only is the structure of the data and objects broken, but they are no longer addressable. There are very few CMS that get it right, or let the developers get it right (one that gets it right is Axiom [open disclosure: I have done work with Siteworx the developer of Axiom]).
The other part of the problem is the people problem, which is often driven by not understanding the medium they are working within. They are focus on the tools, which are far from perfect and don't care enough to extend the tools to do what they should. Knowing the proper format for information, data, media, etc. on the web is a requirement for working on the web, not something that would be nice to learn someday. Implementing, building, and/or creating tools or content for the web requires understanding the medium and the structures that are inherent to building that well. I have had far too many discussions with people who do not understand the basics of the web nor the browser, which makes it nearly impossible to explain why their implementation fails. Content on the web has requirements to be structured well and the pages efficiently built. The pages need to degrade (not with an $80,000 plug-in) by default. Media on the web that is for open consumption must work across all modern systems (this should be a 3 year window if not longer for the "modern" definition).
So what is the take away from this? Content needs to be built with proper structure to the sub-object level (objects need the metadata attached and in standard formats). The content needs to be open and easily accessed. Portability of the information into the tools people use that put information in our pockets and lives must be done now. We have the technology now to do this, but often it is the poorly structured or formatted information, data, media, etc. that stands in the way. We know better and for those that don't know yet the hurdle is quite low and easy to cross.