Sunday, July 14, 2013

Content Management and the Desktop Manufacturing Revolution

I had the opportunity recently to attend a keynote by Chris Anderson, the former chief editor of Wired magazine and now CEO of 3D Robotics and author of books such as The Long Tail and Makers. His inspiring presentation was about the advent of 3D printing which he says will revolutionize manufacturing and ultimately change our lives the same way computers did. Just as desktop publishing and desktop printers revolutionized printing and as computers changed music recording, video production, photography, publishing, and other creative activities, manufacturing of physical objects will go through a similar disruption as a result of “desktop manufacturing”.
Chris Anderson
Let’s be clear, 3D printing is still in its infancy. What you can create on the $1,000-$2,000 home printers are mostly some cheesy plastic toys with little practical use. Even the professional grade 3D printers which cost many thousands of dollars are very much limited by the choice of materials, colors, and shapes. But Mr. Anderson is making the point that the first desktop printers were also quite limited in what they could deliver. Just a decade or so later, however, the laser and inkjet printers could handle photo-grade colors and resolutions at a very affordable price. Based on that, we should see some amazing manufacturing capacity in every office and every home within a decade!

What I find interesting about the desktop manufacturing revolution is its likely side effect - the need to manage CAD files. Today, CAD files created by applications such as Autodesk's AutoCAD or Bentley Software's MicroStation are the domain of a relatively small world of highly skilled specialists. Sure, there may be hundreds of engineers and designers using CAD software at companies such as BMW or GE but most of us never touch a CAD file. Now, 3D printing may be changing that.

There is a new generation of CAD tools emerging that enable much easier creation and sharing of CAD drawings. New software such as Autodesk's 123D Catch enable regular users like you and me to create our own computer models of physical objects by simply 'scanning' them with an iPad. There are also new sites that facilitate the sharing and selling of such computer models. If we have a 3D printer on every desk ten years from now, all of us will be managing our CAD files the way we manage our music or video files in iTunes today.

This is exciting news for the enterprise content management (ECM) industry which included engineering content management solutions for many years. This type of software is really a niche subcategory of ECM today. However, that may be changing soon! CAD files tend to be very complex with many layers of data stacked upon the core structural model of a given object.

Just think of a car with its electrical system, fuel system, cooling system, heating and air conditioning, etc. Each of these systems represents multiple layers that all comprise a CAD drawing. All these layers need to be managed separately because they are worked on by different engineers and they need to be shared with suppliers and subcontractors. However, the entire project also has to be managed as a single entity to make sure all of the systems are delivered on time for the actual product release. All of this leads to a lot of complexity that can only be solved by an enterprise content management system.

Soon, all of us will need some type of a content management solution with the ability to manage CAD drawings natively. In the consumer space, that may be still relatively simple - just like iTunes does an acceptable job at managing my music connection (well, it does a rather poor job, really, but that's a different topic). In the enterprise, however, we will need an entirely different type of a solution with enterprise-grade requirements for versioning, security, collaboration, process management, compliance, etc. That is good news for the ECM vendors.

Besides the need to natively manage CAD files, I also expect the emergence of another type of software - security and intellectual property management. Digital CAD drawings and computer models are easy to share - and easy to steal. This will lead to a massive black market for original CAD plans of expensive physical products. Indeed, as the 3D printers become capable of reproducing complex, high quality objects, the day will come when it will be much easier to get the plans for a new Rolex and print it yourself rather than buying one.

To avoid going down the same path as the music industry, the CAD industry will need a lot of enterprise content management.

Monday, July 1, 2013

My Thoughts On PRISM

Front page of The Guardian on June 10
The British newspaper The Guardian published for the first time on June 7, 2013 information about a large-scale data surveillance program called PRISM. Based on the information obtained from the former CIA employee Edward Snowden, the US government has been collecting vast volumes of personal data from cloud based services provided by US companies that represent the who-is-who of the high-tech world: Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, etc. Based on the recent news updates, it looks like other governments have been doing the same.

This is very worrisome.

I am not surprised that the government is collecting all this data. It is too easy and too tempting. With the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, it is probably even legal - at least based on the intelligence agencies’ interpretation of the law. Comparisons of how the government respects our paper mail while snooping our email are complete nonsense. The government respects the paper mail because it has no ability to snoop it. US Mail is a highly distributed system that handles data that is hard to duplicate - paper letters. Intercepting them all is practically impossible and copying them is difficult. Even if they did, they would end up with warehouses full of paper that would be highly impractical to search through.

Compared to that, collecting our electronic data is rather easy. The data is highly centralized and accessible through a few central choke points called Google, Facebook, etc. It is very easy to copy, and when stored, it is relatively easy to search through - just search for your name on Google and you get the idea of what the government has to do. Sure, storage and organization of all that data represents a challenge - a real “Big Data” challenge - but nothing that can’t be solved today.

As for privacy, let’s not kid ourselves. The government, the intelligence agencies, and the law enforcement don’t have much regard for our privacy. Have you flown on a plane in the last decade? They make you take off your shoes, your sweater, and your belt. They capture a picture of your naked body. They look through your luggage and make you bare your toiletries. They have an extensive data profile on you with all the info from your passport and often also your fingerprints and retina scan. They keep a record of all your flights and border crossings. If they like, they give you a thorough pat down. What makes you think that they would hesitate to search through your email - your data that you are not even keeping on your own premises?

Now, let’s consider the other side of this coin. So, the government has a copy of all our emails, Facebook posts, tweets, and then some. That’s billions and billions of data records. There is no way that human eyes could possibly review all these records. In fact, when a human review is  needed, it can become pretty daunting - I wrote about this type of big challenge in my article The Only Hope for Privacy? The point is that only computer algorithms are looking at your personal data and they will only raise a flag if your data pattern suggests a behavior of interest - terrorist related activities, tax evasion, drug trafficking, etc. You could argue that if you are engaged in any such activity, the feds should be looking at your data. Right?

Well, no. This is exactly the type of an orwellian surveillance state that knows too much about its citizens and it doesn’t take long to start flagging any behavior the state deems adverse. It takes a frighteningly small step from snooping your data to killing your freedom of speech. That leads to the state telling citizens what to do and how to behave which is called dictatorship. That’s not what the US Constitution is about. That’s not what freedom, liberty, and justice are about. This is not the ideal upon which the United States have been founded. We must not allow this to happen. That’s what Edward Snowden was thinking when he decided to blow the whistle.

Now let’s be clear, there are some concerning questions about Edward Snowden that should be answered. I don’t blame him that he went public with classified information. While that is against the rules (against the law), he obviously didn’t have the option of blowing the whistle the proper way - by informing to his supervisor, HR department or Chief Legal Counsel. Those are the guys behind the mass surveillance. But he did have the option to disclose the information anonymously and I wonder why he didn’t. I also wonder why he ended up hiding in China and Russia which are officially friendly nations but, honestly, I’d feel better if he was hiding in the United Arab Emirates or Indonesia which are also non-extradition countries. Going public in his own name and doing it in China rings a little alarm bell for me. But still, Edward Snowden appears to have done the honorable thing, albeit illegal.

So, where do we go from here? Well, this is a tough one. Our technology has created a monster by making all of our data readily available to snooping. We have also created a climate of public paranoia that places security above privacy. At least perceived security as there is no real evidence that all those security measures such as airport security controls or cameras on city streets yielded any tangible security increase for the citizens. The number of terrorists that the TSA caught in the last 10+ years is exactly zero while the annual TSA budget is $8 billion (source: BusinessWeek). Both of these things are a genie that won’t easily go back into the bottle.

In the end, I hope that we will educate ourselves enough to better understand how to handle our information to keep at least some of it private. Maybe, not all the data should end up in the Cloud after all! I also hope that the security vs privacy pendulum swings back and finds some point of equilibrium that will make our lives more pleasurable. The excessive security that has become part of our daily lives is the kind of asymmetric response that I wrote about two years ago. Because every time I get a thorough pat down at the airport, I can’t help thinking that the bad guys might have won when they set out to make our lives miserable.