Monday, November 28, 2011

Are You Ready for the Cloud?

Cloud computing has been the marketing topic of 2011. You could hardly attend a conference without being bombarded by predictions of how cloud computing is going to revolutionize our technology landscape. Indeed, having your data in the cloud is quickly becoming a necessity in the time when we are dividing our computer time among multiple devices.

Yet companies have been a bit more conscientious rushing to the cloud. Sure, there have been stories about many users and departments signing up for various cloud-based services such as collaboration, file-sharing, or project management. But not many enterprises have ripped out their existing on-premise solutions in favor of cloud-based offerings yet.

There are reasons why enterprises are careful. Security concerns are usually being mentioned as the top concern. The data in the cloud is not under your control and so it is less secure, right? Actually, I’m not sure I buy that argument. In fact, the cloud vendor most likely has better security in place than most enterprises could ever afford to deploy.

A much bigger issue is the data control and ownership. First, there is the issue with employee-owned devices that end up containing corporate data. In case of a device theft or employee departure, the company isn’t allowed to wipe the device and has no control over the data. That is a problem for corporate security and legal liability.

The second issue related to data ownership is the protection provided by the cloud service providers. Take Google Gmail, for instance, which is being used by many employees. The Section 11 of the Terms of Service contains the following paragraph:

By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.

That clause alone made me think really hard about how much am I willing to use Gmail for communication with my tax accountant or investment advisor.  

And then there is the Patriot Act issue which forces US based companies to comply with law enforcement requests to hand over your data. Dropbox’s Privacy Policy, for example, includes the following passage:

We may disclose to parties outside Dropbox files stored in your Dropbox and information about you that we collect when we have a good faith belief that disclosure is reasonably necessary to (a) comply with a law, regulation or compulsory legal request; (b) protect the safety of any person from death or serious bodily injury; (c) prevent fraud or abuse of Dropbox or its users; or (d) to protect Dropbox’s property rights.

Good faith belief that disclosure is reasonably necessary” - that isn’t exactly the Swiss Banking Act, is it? While it may be the law in the US, it may also be beyond the tolerance threshold of many companies - particularly those from European countries that have a much less casual attitude towards data security and privacy.

As a result, companies are being very careful when taking advantage of cloud based services - particularly those that primarily cater to consumers. Such services will be likely supplemented by private-cloud based offerings that provide similar capabilities under the organization’s full control.

Also, a hybrid cloud approach might be used more often to address corporate concerns. One customer recently told me that they are moving their users to a cloud based email except for critical functions such as the financial and legal departments and their entire executive team.

This kind of approach may result in lower capital expenditures, but probably higher overall costs and complexity. Well, welcome to the Cloud Age!

Monday, November 21, 2011

When Algorithms Go Wrong

Earlier this year, PC World published an interesting article about the key algorithms that rule the World Wide Web. These algorithms include everything from the Google search and Facebook friends stories, to Amazon’s recommendations and even the eHarmony’s matchmaking algorithm. Very interesting stuff, particularly when you consider the economic impact of such Internet services today.

One of the algorithms is the algorithm that drives ad presentment - the idea is to present you with the most relevant ad based on your profile date. Or, actually, with the ad that you are most likely to click on. But a few weeks ago, I had an interesting experience with Facebook. First, Facebook decided, for no particular reason, to present me with ads all in German. My first reaction was actually positive. Among the few bits of information that I have volunteered to Facebook is the fact that I studied at an university in Germany and occasionally, I even respond to a friend’s post in German. And so I thought that Facebook is so smart that it is trying to appeal to the ‘international-man-of-mystery’ side of me.

But last week, all the ads turned into French. Well, I do happen to get by in French but I am pretty sure that I have not volunteered any info about my French connection to Facebook. Sure, I have friends all over the world, including France, but that’s not enough for even the smartest algorithm to label me as a target for French ads. Besides, I could hardly be expected to act on an ad offering me a skydiving experience in France next weekend. Clearly, something has been going wrong with the Facebook algorithm.

When an algorithm serving ads goes wrong, it is perhaps a laughable matter. After all, nobody gets hurt, right? Well, nobody, except for the companies that paid a ton of money for their ads to hit the right audiences. There have been plenty stories in the past about the innocent looking algorithm changes in Google that end up having a devastating effect on many businesses. If you build your online business that depends on the organic Google search driving your traffic, you can find yourself very quickly out of business when that stops working.

With their tremendous reach, it is perhaps time for the Web's Major League players to start realizing the economic power they have. With thousands and often millions of companies depending on them, Google, Facebook, Amazon etc. have to take their responsibility seriously.

This responsibility starts with the profile data integrity, customer privacy, information security and also the algorithm dependability. Algorithm changes can be very controversial as we've seen when Klout changed its algorithm a couple of weeks ago. It’ one thing to gamble with your own fortune, quite another thing to gamble with the fortunes of those who depend on you. Too many livelihoods are at stake. Abusing this responsibility may be perhaps the greatest risk Internet businesses face today.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Future Upon Us

All the innovation and converging technology trends will likely have a major impact on what we can do but also on our culture, our behavior, our ways of interacting with each other and with the technology itself. This presentation discusses some of such changes that we need to get ready for.

This a narrated recording of the presentation I have delivered as an OpenTalk on November 17, 2011 at the OpenText Content World in Orlando, FL.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I Want My iDishwasher

For years now, the world has been raving about the success of Apple products. Not just the computer platforms iMac, iPad and iPhone but also gadgets such as iPod and Apple TV have enjoyed a phenomenal success. Most pundits and consumers agree that the design, user experience and ease-of-use are key factors to their success.

For months now, the world is expecting the next line of devices from Apple that will surely yet again turn an established industry upside down. The device the iTV, or at least that’s what we think it will be called, is supposed to be an Internet-enabled TV set, no doubt seamlessly integrated with the iTunes store and all the other Apple gadgets in my house. iTV will most likely be a runaway success in an industry with many players, no differentiation and cut-trout margins. Apple will apply its magic and a boring TV set will become a must-have gadget at double the price of a regular TV set from Sony or Panasonic. My wife - who is not really the type of geek I am - is already planning on where to set it up in our house.

But I am seriously hoping for more. Looking around my house, I see many devices and appliances that need the Apple magic really badly. In our kitchen, we have a modern stove. It has 22 buttons plus a 10-key numeric keypad, not counting the knobs for the gas burners. I don’t know what all of those buttons are for. Nobody knows. Basic tasks such as preheating the oven require multiple button sequences which is usually done by trial-and-error. This is the MS-DOS v2.0 equivalent of a stove. I want an iStove.  

The iStove would have very simple controls, designed for what people do with a stove - cooking, baking, heating up food etc. The controls would be logically arranged and the operation would be easy to learn with no need of a manual. Think about the differences between the controls on the old MP3 players and the iPod. I want the iStove to be like the iPod.  

What’s more, the iStove would be cool looking. It would become the central point of the kitchen. I would love it just like I love my iMac, iPad, iPhone, and the iPod Nano that I’m wearing like a watch.

I want more than just the iStove. I want the iDishwasher. We have a brand new dishwasher that we absolutely hate. I want a dishwasher from Apple that I could love. I also want the iRefrigerator, iWaterSoftener, iWasher, iDryer, and iFurnace. I don’t want any more mysterious buttons, knobs and dials. I don’t know what they do and I don’t want to be spending hours figuring it out. I just want those devices and appliances to work. That’s all.

I am very encouraged by Nest and their new learning thermostat designed by former Apple designers. I’m pretty sure I will buy one as soon as it’s available. My current thermostat is very sophisticated with many programmable options but it is a pain to control. It is so hard that we rarely bother and instead either suffer in the cold or waste money and energy on heating. I love the idea of an iThermostat.

The way Apple has shaken up one industry after another is great for us consumers. Many of these industries have been piling up cash for years without ever caring about the customer. The home appliance and consumer electronics are such industries. For years, they have been competing with each other on useless features like a glass-top range (which sucks, by the way). As a result, it takes my ultra-modern TV set almost two minutes to boot up - longer  than it used to take those vacuum tubes to warm up. It’s time for the Apple magic to shake things up. I can’t wait and I will buy those gadgets!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Parallels between Document Capture and Voice Recognition

I was doing some research about the history of document capture last week. As I was reading about the early imaging machines capable of scanning 30 checks or lottery tickets per second, I came to realize an interesting parallel between the world of document capture and voice recognition.

At first, the purpose of document capture was just creating a readable image of a paper document which could be electronically stored and shared. That alone was a big improvement in efficiency. The analogy in the audio world would be the creation of the MP3 standard which allowed us to make inexpensive recordings of music and share them easily via services such as Napster. Too easily, complained the entertainment industry over and over, until Apple came and took over their business.

The next milestone in image capture was optical character recognition (OCR) which allowed us to extract the text from the image and make it searchable. Intelligent character recognition (ICR) augmented these capabilities by extracting hand-written text. That was particularly important to those high-volume imaging systems processing millions of checks or lottery tickets. In the audio world, the OCR and ICR capabilities are akin to the speech recognition software such as Naturally Speaking by Nuance or IBM’s ViaVoice. The purpose of this software is to convert speech into searchable text - just like OCR.
OCR and voice recognition are both about searchable text
Finally, document capture evolved to the point where it became possible to automatically detect the document type through document recognition (i.e invoice, application, job application, or travel expenses) and subsequently extract the actual data value from the document. Not just text, but rather metadata fields such as billing address, date, total, or payment terms. As a result, document capture can be connected directly with process automation software such as workflow or business process management (BPM) to gain even greater efficiencies from automated document processing.  

In the audio world, the analogous technology is voice control or the recently introduced personal voice assistant Siri by Apple. The idea of this software is to issue voice commands together with the dictation (voice-to-text capture). The commands can make the computer perform a task or a process step. Many phones understood basic voice operations such as “Call home” but those are just shortcut commands comparable to bar-codes and QR codes in the document capture world.

Understanding the meaning from natural language without learning predefined commands takes voice recognition to a different level. Such voice control has been featured in many sci-fi movies from Space Odyssey to Avatar but remains so far mostly in the experimental stage. Microsoft promised to ship a new version of Xbox with voice control for task such as movies or music search which could be extremely useful. Siri appears to be the first intelligent voice control-based software entering the mass market with capabilities such as scheduling appointments, searching for music, sending messages, or checking the weather.

The voice recognition technology has been following a similar innovation trajectory as document capture. Today, software such as Siri raises voice technology onto a level that is on par with the state of the art in document capture. It will be interesting to see what innovations will emerge in both of these worlds. In the mean time, we should practice the interaction with a computer in natural language because Voice Recognition is about to Re-Wire our Brains.