Thursday, December 27, 2012

Are We Teaching Obsolete Skills?

This blog post is about education yet it has to do with technology in many ways. The issue at hand is the current educational system and the wrong focus we place on teaching obsolete skills.

Indeed, most of our education is wasted on learning the hard skills like calculus and memorizing the formulas for amino acids. Sure those skills are probably critical to those of us who go on to become mathematicians or chemical scientists but that’s only a very few of us. On the other hand, all of us need almost daily more of the soft skills such as effective communication, public speaking, negotiation and leadership. With a few exceptions, these skills are not taught today on any level of education.

Every engineer needs to know how to use one of these, right?
It’s ironic, if you ask me. We get all this education to be able to live more prosperous lives yet prosperity rarely comes from spelling or algebra. Prosperity usually comes from the ability to sell yourself, negotiate a decent salary and communicate well about what you have accomplished. Sure, you need to know some spelling and algebra to avoid looking like an idiot but we should accept the fact that most of us work in front of a computer all day long. That computer provides plenty of assistance for spelling and multiplication. However, the computer can’t take over conflict resolution, problem analysis or financial planning. Yet we all need those skills every day!

By the way, how is our current education doing at teaching us to use that computer? Well, not that great. In fact, most knowledge workers are expected to learn those skills along the way while doing homework. The results are knowledge workers with no concept of data structure, drowning in information overflow, and in general, suffering from some degree of technophobia. Today, the basics of PowerPoint design are much more marketable skills than calculus.

I watch my children learning their spelling and multiplication everyday - years of hard training that should be reduced by half. Technology is changing the learning needs and yet our learning system is adapting way too slowly. Nobody is teaching how to use an abacus or a slide rule anymore even though those skills were considered essential some 50 years ago. Yet our kids spend years learning to write in cursive which nobody uses anymore.

Russian abacus.
There is a difference in education between the continents today. Europe and particularly Asia are putting even more emphasis on the hard skills, producing brilliant engineers who struggle to land a job. America is at least a small step ahead in teaching the soft skills. In general, Americans appear to be much more at ease at public speaking than their European or Asian counterparts. Guess what, the US educational system teaches this soft skill from kindergarten starting with “show-and-tell” - something that European kids rarely do.

As much as America’s worried about losing its edge on the international scene, at least its educational system is a little more relevant. No wonder that American universities are always among some of the most prestigious in the world. Clearly, teaching soft skills is not just an American challenge and other countries might face it even more.

My point is that we are teaching skills today, that were relevant back in the 1950s. Or, back in the 1850s. Our education system has to keep up with the technical innovation of the present time. In fact, to be truly effective, we should be teaching a curriculum now that will be relevant when our kids actually enter the workforce. Today, they start their first jobs with academic skills that are irrelevant to actually do that job!

Images: Wikipedia Creative Commons and public domain.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Can We Solve the Security Dilemma?

I recently wrote a blog post about the need to strike the right balance between security and convenience. In this post, I'd like to examine the ways to find that balance amid ever raising security requirements. The challenge lies in the fact that the traditional security measures such as strong passwords are becoming increasingly insufficient. The computing power available to every hacker today is simply so immense that brute-force attacks are rather easy to execute. Note: a brute-force attack is an encryption decoding technique that uses vast computing power to quickly try all possible combinations of characters - until the right key is found.

So, how do we overcome this problem?

The solution isn’t easy, particularly given the security and convenience trade-off. Strong passwords force us to use longer passwords and passphrases that have to include a combination of letters, numbers, special characters, etc. that cannot be found in the dictionary. We all know that such passwords are less convenient, particularly when entering them on a smartphone but the benefit of this trade-off is higher security. Alas, not much higher, as strong passwords can be still broken with brute-force attacks.

Multi-factor authentication takes things to the next level by combining passwords with another authentication mechanism such as one time passcodes or tokens. My bank, for example, gave me a one-time passcode generator the size of a credit card that I use for some of the more important transactions. I don’t need it to check my account balance but I do need it for money transfers. That, by the way, is a good example of the security-convenience balance in a practical use case.

The next level of security can be provided by biometrics. Today, retina scans are the way the government identifies citizens at border crossings who use the Global Crossing or Nexus service. It seems to work and for a long time I thought this would solve the authentication problem for good. However, the biometric signatures can be falsified and even stolen which not only compromises the security but also introduces a new identity theft challenge. No, I am not talking about stolen fingers and eyeballs like we see in the movies - I am talking about the series of data points that biometric scanners look for. Same is true for a DNA-based authentication, by the way. I am not aware of any practical DNA authentication use cases outside of science fiction today, but the signature files for DNA samples could be falsified or stolen just like any password.

Biometric security could be even more vulnerable as a result of genetic research. There are various initiatives underway today to build an open source library of decoded human genomes for the purposes of genetic research. That is a great cause which I fully support. However, there may be a dark side to it - as there usually is with any scientific discovery. I am not a genetic scientist but I wonder if the human genome could be used to reproduce biometric features such as fingerprints, retinas, or DNA samples. After all, a lot of the genomic research is aimed at the ability to reproduce vital human organs...

One day, we might be voluntarily or involuntarily implanting chips into the human body for the purposes of strong, fast, and secure authentication. Some of this is already happening today. We are chipping our pets to find them when they get lost. We are tagging prisoners under home confinement. We are traveling with passports containing our biometric data. A chip using some type of RFID technology could transmit our identity to various applications to identify us. The chip could do so frequently - perhaps every few seconds - to continuously validate the identity of the user. That is, until someone finds a way to falsify the chip signature...

Clearly, solving the security dilemma is not easy. Just like any high stakes game, there may never be a perfect solution. Instead, it will be a race. We will keep inventing better authentication while trying to stay a step ahead of the bad guys. Every time the good guys invent a new security measure, the crooks will find a way to beat it. Hence a new level of security has to be invented - without completely sacrificing convenience. And so it will keep going round after round.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

2012 Predictions Scorecard

It’s the end of the year, the time when many pundits like to publish their predictions for 2013. I have already started working on mine but since I am not an industry analyst, I like to first revisit how I did with my Content Management Predictions for 2012. So, here is the scorecard for my 2012 predictions:

1. Big Data will be the hype of the year
Boy did I get this one right! There is hardly a day without some article published about the Big Data revolution. Throughout 2012, Big Data was the solution for the problem - any problem. You take 10 experts and you’ll get 10 definitions of Big Data. In reality, most people started saying Big Data when they just meant ‘data’ or when they meant ‘understanding the data’ which really means analytics. Yet, no conversation could go on and no press article could be written without mentioning Big Data. Big Data became the hype of the year.
Verdict: Hit, Score: 1/1

2. “Social” becomes a feature
This prediction has also come true. Salesforce already had released Chatter last year, now SAP has Jam, and Oracle has different social offerings integrated with the respective applications: Oracle Social Relationship Management, Oracle Social Network, Oracle Social Marketing, etc. OpenText (my employer) ships today OpenText Tempo Social as well as capabilities such as Social BPM which is a social-based decision-making step in a business process. The stand-alone social software market is being rapidly consolidated with players such as Yammer acquired by Microsoft and the once red-hot Jive trading below the level from 12 months ago.

My prediction that SharePoint 15 - now called SharePoint 2013 - would be the catalyst for this featurization of social software has also come true. Well, at least that was the message about Yammer that Microsoft offered at the SharePoint Conference 2012.
Verdict: Hit, Score: 2/2

3. SharePoint will solve every problem, again
My prediction was that Microsoft would freeze the market in 2012, with aggressive marketing of the not yet shipping SharePoint 2013. That’s what happened with every previous version of SharePoint and it was not a stretch to expect that it would happen again. Yet, Microsoft has had a different idea. They have bet the farm on Office 365, Windows 8, and Surface. SharePoint didn’t get anywhere near the attention of the years past. In fact, Microsoft recently increased the pricing of SharePoint by 15% which makes me speculate that they have reached the point of market saturation. This move suggests that Microsoft came to the conclusion that new features no longer help to add new customers. I’ve failed on this prediction as SharePoint is obviously no longer a strategic priority for Microsoft (I’m sure the SharePoint product team will disagree with me but well, my blog my opinion...Besides, I’m losing a point here, OK?)
Verdict: Miss, Score: 2/3

4. Rise of the hybrid cloud
Throughout 2012, it became apparent that the cloud is the way to go. Many original concerns related to cloud deployments such as security have been set to rest. That said, customers are in no rush to move their existing applications, and certainly not existing data into the cloud. That leads ultimately to discussions about what information should reside in the cloud and what should remain on premises. A private cloud is a popular alternative when concerns about issues such as legal discovery and data sovereignty arise - as the public cloud services are usually fairly ignorant about such issues. Finally, I also see that some of the mature cloud vendors developed many on-premises add-ons and integrations - just see how Salesforce is being integrated with on-premises ERP and Marketing Automation software. All of that mix of public, private, and on premises deployments is basically the idea behind a hybrid cloud.
Verdict: Hit, Score: 3/4

5. Cloudy outlook for open source
My argument here was that the cloud would obscure the open source argument - if I’m running my software in the cloud, who cares if it is open source or proprietary, right? On one hand, I stand behind my prediction. Customers using cloud services such as Evernote or Dropbox don’t care whether such services are based on open source software or proprietary code. That said, many of the clouds have been heavy adopters of open source technology, primarily motivated by the need to keep the cost as low as possible. That actually promoted open source to some degree in 2012. Also, my point above about integrating cloud applications with on-premises software makes open source cloud applications interesting for developers again. Hence, this one is a tie.
Verdict: Tie, Score: 3.5/5

6. Consumerization is here to stay
Oh yes, consumerization has taken hold in the enterprise. The new term is “bring your own device” or BYOD. If Big Data was the top buzzword on 2012, BYOD was a close second. Consumerization arrived and it is wreaking havoc in the enterprise. The plethora of mobile devices in the enterprise is actually a much lesser problem than the consumer-class services that are being used by employees with no regard to corporate policies, regulations, legal exposure or compliance. I expect that fixing this issue will be a major source of my paycheck over the next ten years.
Verdict: Hit, Score: 4.5/6

7. End of convergence
My argument was all those electronic gadgets will not be replaced by your smartphone. This is  one that many pundits might disagree with. I’ve been reading about how smartphones are replacing cameras and GPS devices. Yes, they do, when you don’t have a camera handy and forget to bring your GPS! Similarly, the iPad didn’t replace my laptop and I have my little Canon camera always with me. While the Swiss Army Knife is very cool and every guy wants to have one, it doesn’t replace your bread knife, butter knife, and carving knife.
Verdict: Hit, Score: 5.5/7

8. HTML5 won’t kill apps
On November 19th, Apple supposedly reached 1 million apps submitted to the App Store. Those are native apps. There is nothing wrong with HTML5 and it will gain a huge popularity but no, it hasn’t replaced the native apps in 2012.
Verdict: Hit, Score: 6.5/8

9. Tipping point for analytics
Analytics have been enjoying a big buzz in 2012. Mostly because of Big Data - analytics seem to be the universal cure for all aches related to Big Data. In fact, when people say Big Data, they usually mean “understanding the data” and that’s where analytics comes in. Analytics are hot and a lot of innovations occurred in 2012. At OpenText, we've released Auto-Classification - a new product based on a powerful content analytics technology. Other vendors are following suit. Yet, analytics have not quite entered the mainstream as I had predicted. It’s happening but it takes longer and I’ll call it a tie.
Verdict: Tie, Score: 7/9

10. ECM, what’s next?
I had predicted that the industry’s quest to find a replacement term for ECM would continue but that we would stick with ECM yet again. We did. The vendors tried various terms. AIIM’s “systems of record” and “systems of engagement” terminology actually stuck, but it didn’t replace ECM. In fact, even the hip new vendors like Box are now talking about Content Management. OpenText introduced its new positioning leading with Enterprise Information Management (EIM), but ECM remains a key EIM category. ECM is still the term that rules.
Verdict: Hit: Score: 8/10

Well, that’s it. The score of 8 out of 10 is not bad, is it? This has been an exciting year. The convergence of many technology trends continued and their impact on the enterprise started to take shape. 2013 will be even more interesting, I’m sure! I plan to publish my 2013 predictions in the first week of the new year. Until then, Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Microsoft at an Inflection point

The year 2012 will go down in history as a major milestone for Microsoft. The once dominant company started the year under tremendous pressure after continuously losing users, market share, and hipness to a new breed of vendors driving the perfect storm of change. This change is based on the shift to mobility, social software and cloud computing and companies such as Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Dropbox, and Amazon are Microsoft's new arch-enemies.

Microsoft wasn't sitting idly by watching the market forces unfold, though. In fact, it is hard to find any blemish on Microsoft's execution in 2012 and the company delivered on all key battlegrounds. With Office 365, Microsoft demonstrated that they are all-in at betting the farm on the cloud. With the purchase of Yammer (and Skype before), they are making great strides to become a force in social software. Microsoft Windows 8 operating system is attractive, innovative, and differentiated. With the help of Nokia, Microsoft delivered some impressive smartphones and the Microsoft Surface tablet is receiving good reviews (well, until they announced the pricing earlier this week).

Measured by their product execution, Microsoft turned things around in 2012 and the company is cool again. The problem is, however, that Microsoft continues losing users and market share. According to comScore, Microsoft mobile OS market share has continued declining and remains in the irrelevant territory with 3.2% (IDC gives them 3.6% which is about the same - really bad). Gartner predicts, that 90% of enterprises will skip Windows 8 and consumers are wishing for Apple devices under the Christmas tree. Finally, early indicators suggest that the Surface is not selling well either.

Why is that, you wonder? Microsoft designed a perfect combination of operating system, devices, social tools, cloud, and even enterprise applications. All of it is beautifully integrated and does (almost) everything you need. The problem is, that it only works with Microsoft.

That's right. Just like in the old days when the Wintel architecture used to dominate the market with well over 90% market share, Microsoft continues building products that assume we live in a Microsoft-only world. Do you want to access any of the Microsoft consumer services? Well, you need a Microsoft email account like Hotmail. Do you want to work with a Microsoft application from an iPad or an Android device? Tough luck, you will always be a second class user at best. Wanna search? Get used to Bing!

Microsoft's continued insistence on this puritanical approach to architecture is creating an interesting dilemma. A Microsoft-only environment may work great but you will only find such an environment on the Microsoft campus. If you use any non-Microsoft platforms, the appeal of Microsoft’s closely-integrated architecture diminishes fairly quickly. That includes pretty much everyone as over 96% of users today have a mobile device running something other than Windows.

Microsoft is finding itself in completely unfamiliar territory. The world is not all about Microsoft anymore. Do you want to share documents with friends? Chances are much higher that they have a Dropbox account rather than a Microsoft SkyDrive account. Do you want to create a professional community of interest? Everybody has a LinkedIn account while Microsoft Live has...does it still exist? Do you want to use SharePoint from a Mac or an iPad? Tough luck! You may be better served by another ECM vendor.

Microsoft’s finding itself on an inflection point. While they are delivering some very competitive products, those products have been built for a Microsoft-only world that no longer exists. To address this problem, Microsoft will have to open up and mandate all its groups to go multi-platform. That might be their only chance to start gaining market share again. That's a tough pill to swallow for a company that has single-vendor architecture in its DNA. It is a particularly difficult move, given that Microsoft's top competitor, Apple, has persevered through decades of single-digit market share to become the world’s largest company - based on a puritanical single-vendor architecture!