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Previously in Mindjack:

november 04, 2002
Smart Mobs
by Howard Rheingold
reviewed by Cory Doctorow

october 28, 2002
An Interview with Warren Ellis
by Melanie McBride

 


December 21, 2002 | Supernova 2002 was an ambitious conference and Kevin Warbach, the organizer along with pulver.com, acknowledged that from the outset when he said that he had crammed a three day conference into two days. The conference was touted as a glimpse into the decentralized future. Decentralized systems, as may be obvious, are systems that have no single point of control - the Internet is a perfect example. No one entity or agency controls it, no single server provides the service, and no single point of failure will bring down the system. Warbach sees these types of systems as the fundamental issue in computing for the next decade. By then end of day one, however, it became clear that the conference was going to be about one thing: blogging.

Speakers would approach the podium and within moments the sound of typing on 30 laptops would begin. Faster than you could say "FTP", there were comments, opinions and editorials posted to several weblogs. It was the clicking of a very geeky paparazzi. Some blogs were just commentary, but many disagreed with or substantiated the statements made by the speaker and provided links to more information. A commonly heard comment in the room was that while the best conferences may have good speakers, most information comes from conversations in the hall. In this case, the best information came from the posts of the attendees. In fact, the slow completion of this article, well over a week after the seminar concluded, is almost criminal. This was zero-day stuff.

Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold, resplendent in a Lucky Charms inspired moon-and-stars shirt, Pollack style shoes and a HandSpring Treo, took the podium as keynote speaker on the first day and gave what sounded like a standard speech summarizing his new book "Smart Mobs." He outlined the power of text messaging to mobilize crowds that have done everything from simply protest to aid in the overthrow of the Estrada government in the Philippines. The most lasting message he passed to me was to envision the future by imagining technology 1000 times as powerful and 1000 times as fast as we have today - especially in the form of handheld devices. Rheingold went on give prescient examples of this: attaching a UPC reader to an Internet enabled handheld device and scanning the UPC tag on a package of prunes. Plugging this information into Google yielded information that most consumers don't have access to: the lobbying efforts of the Sun-Diamond corporation regarding the use of chemical additives in their products and the pending litigation against the company. A similar scan of a box of Cracklin' Oat Bran yielded an FDA warning about the egg and dairy content of the product. The ubiquitous availability of this information would give the consumer an unprecedented amount of power.

The podium was then taken by Corporate VP of Microsoft, Dan'l Lewis, followed by Rod Smith of IBM. Dan'l spoke about the Microsoft .NET initiative, and I was glad to hear that he often had to first explain what .NET was. I wasn't the only one confused. The gist of the future from a Microsoft point of view should come as no surprise: they will control it, license it and allow interoperability as they see fit. IBM has a similar strategy, but it was received with less open hostility than the Microsoft plan. Despite their messages, I have to applaud both speakers for their courage - the animosity was open towards Microsoft, and only marginally less for IBM, taking place mostly in cyberspace.

Jeremy Allaire of Macromedia spoke via streaming video feed from his home in Newton, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the technology stumbled and most of his message was lost in the delay and buzz of a bad connection. What did get through was the need for more feature-rich clients to display internet data. He noted that over the past years, the quality of service has evolved much more than the clients used to view the content.

Next was a panel consisting of Jeremy Allaire, Mike Helfrich of Groove Networks, Karl Jacobs of Cloudmark and Doc Searls of the Linux Journal. The topic was "Beyond the Web," and among many other things, all the members pitched the growth of P2P networks, networks made up only of ends, not servers, and the growth of blogs. Doc Searls opined that the Internet was successful because the technology was created by the technologists and that to grow beyond the web, it needs to be more of the same - a system that no one owns, that anyone can use, and that anyone can improve.

Mitch Kapor

Mitch Kapor of the Open Source Applications Foundation then took the stage to pitch his new project, Chandler. This is a suite of tools that he tried very hard not to refer to as an Outlook-killer. The project was inspired by the need of his wife's small consulting firm to share their calendaring information. In an office that size, the functionality of Exchange was needed, but the cost for that software was "absurd." With security baked in from the start, and all the functionality of that other software suite, it sounds like he has a great product. As of this writing, though, it's a long way off.

The Collaborative Business Panel, Narry Singh, of CommerceOne; John Parkinson, of Cap Gemini Ernst & Young; John Hagel, consultant and author; David Weinberger, JOHO, spent a great deal of time telling us how bad current collaboration software is. Parkinson said that even after spending a billion dollars in search of this particular Holy Grail, there is nothing out there worth using. Others on both the panel and in the audience disagreed, noting that even bad collaboration software - such as e-mail - is in heavy use.

Kevin Werbach Introduces the Broadband Media Distribution Panel

The final panel on day one was the most fun to watch. The Broadband Media Distribution panel, subtitled "Can't We All Get Along?", answered the latter question with a resounding "no." Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Sean Ryan, Listen.com, sat next to each other, but each expended a great deal of effort trying to ignore the other. Morgan Guenther of TiVo managed to escape relatively unscathed, despite shouts from the audience that their TiVo thinks they're gay. However, all the sparks, and all the good sound bites came from Cory Doctorow's end of the table. In the face of the apocalyptic predictions of the impact of the DCMA, Ryan put chin in hand and seemed to give up. Despite their seemingly polar stances, however, it was obvious that both Ryan and Guenther revel in the freedoms that the EFF fights for. Listen.com and TiVo are not dedicated to freedom of distribution: they are in the business of making money on the freedoms that the EFF wins for them. While certainly not willing to blindly accept the obscene limits of the DMCA, they are more interested in finding a business model that will allow them to thrive under whatever freedoms are doled out.

Dan Gillmor

Day two opened with an inspiring speech from Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News. Had Gillmor given this speech on the start of day one, it would have been prophetic. As it was he validated the importance of the speed-blogging that was occurring in the audience. Dan spoke about the evolution of "Journalism 3.01b2: We Media," where the tools of journalism depend on decentralized services such as blogging. In the case of the attacks on September 11th, blogs and personal web sites played a vital part in helping to connect survivors and their families. Blogs and ubiquitous web access also offer an unprecedented amount of fact-checking capability and feedback from the readers. Ethical issues were raised, however, since the ethical obligations of a journalist are clearer than those of a blogger. In two cases at least - the KayCee Nicole story and a conference where bloggers were paid by Microsoft to report on the event - the obligations of a blogger to report truthfully were called into question. Gillmor also took a clear stand again the DMCA, summarily saying that Hollywood can't win: it would be Bad.

The final two sessions I was able to see at Supernova were the "From Web Services to Distributed Infrastructure" and "Are Weblogs the Next Platform?" panels. The web services panel was moderated by Brent Sleeper and staffed by Christian Gheorghe, TIAN; Anne Thomas Manes, founder of Bowlight; Graham Glass, The Mind Electric; Dick Hardt, founder and CEO of ActiveState. The panel was challenged from the start to even describe what web services were, and while there were good examples, there wasn't a consensus. Manes disliked even the name web services,hoping to find a phrase that emphasized the services and disassociated it from the web. Gheorghe was more concerned with the quality of the user experience and the ability of that user interaction to close the deal on the service. Hardt provided a valuable metaphor to describe the state of today's web services: Java was the write once, run anywhere dream, but the implementation was quite different. Web services suffer the same fate: the idea of web services is much more powerful than the current implementation. All of the participants agreed that there is a strong need for an identity service to drive the adoption of web services. An identity service would be a single, trusted entity that would provide identity verification services to subscribing sites. This would provide a single sign on site that would be able to verify your identity to all the sites you use: Amazon, the New York Times, and other vendors.

Blogging, which had proved it's importance before lunch on day 1, finally got a voice on day 2. Nick Denton, Weblog Media; Dave Winer, Userland; and Meg Hourihan paneled the Weblogs, which was the one discussion virtually everyone seemed to agree on. Both the panel and the audience grokked the importance of blogs, and no one argued that the popularity of them was only now ramping up. Various predictions bounced from panel and audience: in 5 years no member of Congress would be without a blog; in 10 years no one in the US would be without a blog. With nothing to argue about, Dave Winer solicited the audience for feature requests for his blogging software. The panel ended by happily proclaiming the end of the read-only web.

Unfortunately, my experience at Supernova ended there. There were several other sessions that I regret missing such as the session on Infrastructure. Looking back to Dan Gillmor's speech, I feel justified in pointing you toward the other reporting that covered these events. Here is some coverage of the "Why Stupid is Still Smart" talk given by David Isenberg, author of Rise of the Stupid Network. David Weinberger also had some good notes. The "The Great Wireless Hope" panel seems to be best covered at the Supernova site, as was the panel on "Rethinking Telecom."

For me, the best thing about Supernova was the entrepreneurial environment. Lunch conversations were like the good old days: everyone was pitching their start-up and talking about the next killer app. While everyone was more realistic about the chances of finding funding, at least they were optimistic about the future. In Silicon Valley, that is a rare and valued experience.

bio:
Doug Roberts
is the IT Manager for a cool company in Burlingame, California. He previously wrote about the Internet Archive for Mindjack.

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