Welcome to the Trans-PC World

My confidence in EMC Software has been growing over the last year.  Now that Lewis is out, I generally like the things I’m hearing from Gelsinger, Patel, and van Rotterdam.  What still bugs me is their fetish for the term post-PC which implies that the PC has no place in the workplace of tomorrow; I don’t think they mean it that way, but I’m a bit of a semantics geek and would suggest trans-PC instead.  Honestly, the iPhone is really just a personal computer in mobile phone drag.

You Better Work

I've just got one thing to iMessage...

My problem with the idea of a world without PCs is that people still need to get work done.  Tablets and phones make nice consumption devices, but I’m not going to code or pen my first novel on one.  It’s not a matter of CPU speed, storage capacity, or network access; a current-day smart phone is more powerful and connected than a PC ten years ago.  You may remember we got work done back then on those quaintly obsolete big beige boxes and monstrously-heavy cathode-ray tubes.

Two things make the PC the place where work still gets done: screen real estate and rich input devices (i.e., keyboards and precise pointing devices). I’ve posted before on the mistaken assumption that one thing must replace another [Reports of Mouse’s Death Greatly Exaggerated].  There are appropriate contexts for smart phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop PCs.  I often use two computers (1 desktop, 1 laptop) and my iPhone “simultaneously” exactly because it’s a physical way to define contexts for easy monitoring, switching, and sometimes ignoring.  Put in simple terms:  “Right tool for the job” necessitates having more than one tool in your toolbox.

Don’t expect the PC to go away; just expect it to cost more.  People generating serious content and playing serious games will still need real workstations and top-of-the-line gaming rigs.  However, the general demand for such devices will go down since tablets and phones are already seen as good enough for daily tasks like email, chat, and web browsing along with their superiority in portability-related domains like music and eBooks.  Lower PC prices have been as much about demand as technological advances, and demand is shrinking enough that industry players like Dell are trying to abandon the consumer PC market that made them [Dell unveils new servers, says not a PC company | Reuters].  The logical consequence is flattening or rising prices as overall demand shrinks and the remaining demand is focused on higher-end devices.

New User Is Old Hat

Game Changer

The fact is we’ve been in the trans-PC world since 1997 when the PalmPilot debuted.  It wasn’t that people hadn’t tried to make palmtop computers before–we had a few wacky prototypes at Commodore in the early 90s.  The PalmPilot succeeded because it was the first device that didn’t try to be a PC itself; it was something that augmented your PC by sharing data (via cabled synchronization) and being mobile.  Unboxing my first PalmPilot was the moment where I really got the idea of the context a device brings to my data.  With everything living in the cloud, PCs aren’t the personal data overlords they once were.  They are one among many devices available for us to find, use, or create content in the most appropriate context at the moment.

Social (In The Enterprise) Like a Disease

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Social in the Enterprise isn’t an automatic win.  If you wondered if buzzword compliance was the driving force rather than compelling use cases, Virginia’s article in CMS Wire yesterday [Social Business in 2012: Like Having a Party and No One Shows Up] will likely confirm your suspicions.  Social fever has come to the workplace, and the prognosis so far isn’t great.

First, my personal experience with being in the Social driver’s seat. Then, a case where I’ve seen Social in the Enterprise be the cure instead of the disease.

Back on the Chain Gang

My next Linkedin profile picture

Part of my community service for being between is serving as chair of my condominium association’s communications committee. In that role, I attended a breakfast seminar sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Condominium Managers Association (GPCMA) on social media awareness in January.  There were three speakers:  a lawyer raining down real-world worst-case scenarios who advocates making new residents sign online anti-defamation agreements; an insurance professional explaining that there haven’t been any real test cases so the industry has no benchmarks for insuring against social-media-related liabilities; a social media expert saying “it’s great, you have to do this” but not really explaining why.  The take-away for most people that day was “protect yourself” instead of “let’s make beautiful music together”.

Having worked in the realms of regulation and compliance, I’m conditioned to be cautious (ok, paranoid).  After that meeting, I’ve been reluctant to pull my building into the 21st Century for fear of demonstrable risks, no clear remedies when something bad happens, and a nebulous value proposition.  Some residents are part of a years-old Yahoo! Group already, and observing the level of discourse (ok, lurking) makes me doubly-reluctant.  Still, I feel the pressure from my “board” to do something because of the condominium Council’s broad, vague mandate to “have a website or something”.  So, here’s my plan so far:

Perform an owner/resident survey to assess the interests and capabilities of the community. Making decisions, especially ones that affect my building’s budget, is something I don’t like to do blind.  Also important is generating a participatory feeling: I’ve seen enough good-idea projects flounder because they failed to involve their target communities in the beginning.

Get building notifications to people electronically, via their preferred medium, to supplement the current memo-under-the-door method.  Push isn’t social per se, but it’s a step along the way to getting residents to think about the building as a place online as well as in real life.  Unlike a workplace, I have to deal with inconsistent tools and capabilities–we don’t have email addresses for all of our residents, and there are probably some who don’t even have email at all! I have to accomodate 80-year-old retirees who’ve lived in the building since it opened as well as 20-something professionals moving in tomorrow.  This is definitely a frog I need to boil slowly.

Think a step ahead of the Council.  My mandate is a curious artifact of politics and years of “we should have a website” not leading to results.  The problem is I don’t think a traditional website makes sense anymore.  Leveraging public, cloud-based solutions when I don’t have an IT staff or dedicated community managers on hand is a more sustainable approach, and this is a case where I have no desire to reinvent the wheel with a local website developer.

I sympathize with executives who feel compelled to “do Social” from above and where expectations below come from the not-obviously-relevant personal realms of Facebook and Twitter.  It’s a 360 mismatch of expectation and reality, but there may be a larger problem with smaller networks: Part of Social’s value equation is Metcalfe’s Law, and a corollary would be that there’s some critical mass of active connections required for a social network to sustain itself.  Chat and dating sites (and now MMOs) need to have plenty of free participants in order to make their services worth it to their smaller base of paying customers.  A pure-paid chat site isn’t going to work, and the subscription-only MMO is becoming a rare thing only feasible for the biggest intellectual properties.

What if most companies aren’t big enough to have a self-sustaining network?  Without dedicated evangelists, there may not be enough regular traffic to keep people interested.  That’s one of my big concerns as chair: My building is large as buildings go with almost 600 units, but it’s microscopic from the Social perspective.

Hailing Frequencies Open

I always thought of myself as Spock, but...

Virginia references a Harvard Business Review blogger who seems to confuse collaboration with Social; they are different but not mutually exclusive things. Collaboration’s about projects, about people coming together to produce a result. Social doesn’t have a clearly-identifiable objective; e.g., sharing pictures isn’t an objective, it’s an activity.  On the consumption side, it’s more like discovery than development, and it may produce collaboration as a by-product. I recently saw the two dove-tail nicely.

A former client is switching from Lotus Notes to SharePoint.  They were a big Notes shop with a massive, highly-customized installation.  Despite its age, their Notes platform is still the best collaborative environment I’ve seen professionally, and I miss it when working at other clients with more COTS solutions.  SharePoint itself is a very different beast, and their implementation being COTS is generating lots of head scratching after years with such a custom-fitted solution

These are IT people in Pharma R&D, so it wasn’t surprising when some of the collaboration tool mavens started documenting hacks, work-arounds, and equivalents on their somewhat-informal wiki farm.  This kind of living documentation is a great way to manage the early adoption stage where understanding is low and the delivered functionality changes rapidly.  I love wikis for things like this; it works amazingly well in the world of poorly-documented, frequently-changing MMOs.

Social factored into the equation when people started posting questions and complaints to an internal Twitter-like tool.  Before, most people found those excellent wiki resources by the luck of their acquaintance with a maven or other person in the know.  Now, those “help me” posts would get “follow this link” replies.  I suspect another thing was going on here; the questions probably began shaping what was on the wiki, especially when a new release introduced new bugs or changed functionality.

The mechanism here may be that Social identifies the problem and collaboration solves it, both working much faster than traditional channels. I have to wonder how much the “semi-supported” status and informal, undirected tone of those services contributed to the positive outcome.  It requires a hands-off approach–and trust–from management that I can understand as an information professional.  But, can I embrace it as management in my role as committee chair?  That’s proving to be surprisingly difficult.

Traits in #NGIS: Cautious Optimism on the #Documentum Back End

Traits are a total break from the traditional object model in Documentum.  With the Next Generation Information Server (NGIS) being built from the ground up with new technologies and design principles, EMC could seize the opportunity to transform rather than merely update server-side Documentum as we know it.  However, such breaks are rarely clean and can penalize existing users with migration, training, and change management issues.

Previously on DCTM: The Next Generation

Yesterday’s Docbase

There has been a growing disconnect between how we design for the back end and the front end. The front end developer can apply agile methodologies, use new patterns like composition over inheritance, and organize data based on tags and facets instead of deep hierarchies.  Back-end developers are getting these benefits from new systems like NoSQL databases, but Documentum architects are stuck in the 90s with the current content server–in no small part because it runs on relational databases like Oracle.  Documentum did an excellent job marrying objects and tables before ORM (object-relational mapping) was a catchy initialism; the inherent disparity between the models that was inconvenient before, but now it actively hinders new ideas on the back end.  Basing NGIS on EMC’s XML database xDB changes all that, and traits are a windfall from that decision.

The latest details on traits comes from a video by Jeroen van Rotterdam, IIG’s Chief Architect.  There are two basic constructs for designing with traits:  Trait definitions group data definitions, services, and event models into packages that are attached to objects at runtime.  Type definitions control which traits can or must be attached to objects and how those traits resolve conflicts; e.g., order of precedence or mutual exclusion.  Objects end up being truly lightweight–only an ID attribute for sure and very probably a type attribute as well.  This will be a very different world than the present-day Documentum schema of data-only inheritance, tacked-on type-aware behavior, and a bloated base object type with every possible attribute stuffed into it.

For Documentum architects and server-side programmers, this is the first exciting thing to happen to Documentum since, well, forever.  The model is one of the things that made Documentum stand out; it painted a rich, complex picture of what a document could be. Instead of document as file, a document included versions, renditions, and complex structures with flexible binding (i.e., virtual documents).  A document was a different thing (or collection of things) based on context and function.  It also stepped beyond the straight jacket of the relational model to include multi-value (repeating) attributes and SQL extensions that recognized the world is more like objects than tables.  Although this perspective on document management is still valid today, the methodologies to realize it feel outdated. Traits represent almost two decades of lessons learned since the first docbase schemas struggled out of the primordial scanned-document/shared-folder ooze.

Changes of this magnitude don’t happen often in software systems.  A mature market doesn’t take well to fundamental shifts that aren’t backward compatible, so there’s significant risk here assuming EMC wants to keep its current customers happy. Discussion about migration paths from the current content server to NGIS are still little more then speculation. Given how many customers are turning to other options, being bold may be the solution if EMC can make a better product with a less onerous migration path.  Let’s put aside those messy details for now and consider what traits may mean for the Documentum architect.

Will this become my new Linkedin profile picture?

A  Few of My Favorite Things

It’s hard to say if the implementation of traits will live up to the potential from what we know so far.  I had similar high hopes for DBOF, light-weight objects, Aspects, and DFS when talked about in theory, but they all fell short in implementation either in outright design or by being born prematurely.  Letting my inner optimist out of his cage for a moment, these are some things I hope to see the implementation of traits bring about:

Attributes become rich data rather than columns in a database. Defining and constraining attributes using XSD is an easy win since NGIS sits atop EMC’s XML-based xDB instead of an RDBMS, and it gets rid of the stapled-on data dictionary in the current Documentum toolbox.  I hope this means that attributes can contain complex data–perhaps small XML documents and certainly associative arrays–but removing size constraints and character set problems (odd escape characters, special characters, unicode, etc.) is a huge win regardless. Maybe this will help people realize that attributes aren’t all metadata.  Sometimes, they are the data; e.g., non-content objects.

The broken promises of DBOF and Aspects can finally be fully realized.  A weakness in Documentum’s original model was the separation of data and behavior.  Being object-based, there were familiar ways to organize data (e.g., inheritance) that fell short of real OOP because they didn’t equally apply to behavior.  DBOF was the first attempt to relate code to the type hierarchy; it was hobbled by being duct-taped onto the side of the client libraries (DFC) instead of integrated into the server directly.  Then Aspects repeated DBOF’s same fundamental mistakes.  Traits appear to marry data and behavior nicely, and I can’t imagine them being handled anywhere but together on the server.

Traits eliminate the need for inheritance and fat objects.  Inheritance as a design principle has been under fire for years:  Single inheritance is restricting; multiple inheritance introduces pitfalls along with greater flexibility; both are difficult to refactor.  The single inheritance nature of the Documentum object model wasn’t as restrictive then because it only included data.  With behavior coming along for the ride in NGIS, it becomes a bigger issue.  Just like in programming, it looks like EMC is favoring composition over inheritance.  I haven’t seen anything showing inheritance for types or traits in NGIS yet, and I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t.  Another consequence of this composition-based approach is the object becomes really, really lightweight–little more than identity on one end and trait container on the other.  That looks surprisingly like the really, really lightweight document in MongoDB with it’s single _ID default attribute.

The Documentum architect gets a whole new (NoSQL) toolbox to build and extend systems. Although Documentum grew out of the relational database culture of the time, it broke major relational conventions because the document management problem space felt more object-oriented than table-oriented; i.e., repeating attributes, virtual documents, object-ish extensions to SQL.  Now that NoSQL is here, it’s obviously a better fit:  Documentum architects taking a look at 10Gen’s webinar on schema design in MongoDB should quickly recognize the familiar ground.  What’s new is how dynamic, real-time the data model becomes with traits because they are only attached as needed at runtime, and objects can have different versions of a trait at the same time allowing for upgrades in a conditional or rolling manner.  The docbase will no longer be where content goes to die; it becomes a Livin’ Thing. Hopefully sizing, deploying, and scaling NGIS systems will also look more NoSQL than relational, but traits don’t give us any hints there.

Me if dm_history repeats itself

Cautious Optimism

I’ll admit to some cautious optimism here; traits may be a sign that NGIS will make Documentum architecture interesting again.  Beyond just updating the toolbox, the new capabilities may inspire organizations to start solving new, interesting problems again. Documentum did a good job of getting people to think about document management the first time around, but now everybody “knows” what document management is and what Documentum is “good for”.  Traits hint that NGIS could be a game changer on the much-less-talked-about back end; it won’t directly delight the New User, but a pretty front end on a shaky server foundation won’t be particularly useful to the New User. It’s up to EMC to get the implementation right and get the word out.

 

Based on the blog post Next Generation Information Server: Traits Explained | Jeroen’s Crazy Content and video:

GooglePlus versus Google Profile?

I’m wondering if Google+ is going to negatively impact other Google products given what I’ve noticed with Profiles and Buzz.

My profile URL [profiles.google.com/kominetz] now redirects to plus.google.com/{ugly-long-id}. I’m not sure I like the implication of this, because I use my profile for OpenID, and I’d like to use it as a homepage that links to everything so I can just tell people “go there, and you’ll find me anywhere I am on the Internet.” That URL going away would make me rather unhappy.

Buzz is still a tab there, but it seems totally disconnected from Google+. It might be good to have some separation between Buzz and Posts because they post/notification frequency on Buzz can be pretty high on a Google Reader catch-up day, but Buzz feels too disconnected–and somewhat redundant. Also, oddly, there’s no RSS feed on the Buzz, tab but there is on the Posts tab. I don’t pay attention to things on the web that don’t have feeds.

Finally, I just noticed that the would-have-been convenient “Send an Email” button on my profiles/plus page only works if I’m signed into another Google account. That’s probably a spam avoidance tactic, but it’s still a let-down since I was hoping to use it as my About/Contact page that doesn’t expose my email address.

Reposted manually from Google+ since it can’t do that …

Google Circles: Aunt Ruth Doesn’t Need to Know

This Google Video sums up the philosophy of Circles perfectly in the last line: “Aunt Ruth doesn’t need to know.” Therein lies my problem with the motivation of circles: It’s preventing people from seeing things they shouldn’t, not necessarily showing them things they’re interested in, and not providing them any way to categorize incoming posts (i.e., streams). That’s where circles really fall down, on the streams side. I can put you as a poster in any circle–more than one circle–but there’s no real link between how I categorize you and what you’re actually going to talk about.

Reposted from Google+.

There’s an Evernote podcast?

EvernoteI’m a pretty light user of Evernote; it was a good dumping ground for the accumulated snippets of text I carried around first on my PalmPilot and then on my Blackberry. Useable notes came late to the iPhone; frankly, they’re still a little less than indispensable.  That’s why Evernote landed on my iPhone, my Macs, and my bookmarks list last year.

I’ve been satisfied with the free account so far but haven’t taken Evernote to the next level because tools like OmniFocus, VoodooPad, and Google Docs are more integrated into my daily routine. That might change a little thanks to The Evernote Podcast. A podcast about a single app? I couldn’t imagine having enough to say about Evernote in a long-form podcast; something short form like Quick and Dirty Tips might make more sense. Then again, a show about nothing could be entertaining from time to time. I gave it a try, and it paid off.

Podcast #10 mentioned how to send blog posts from Google Reader to Evernote, a way to archive entire articles without leaving Reader. I live in Reader, so the odds of me using Evernote more–and listening to more Evernote podcasts–just shot up dramatically, especially because I added The Evernote Blogcast to Reader. The feed includes links to the podcasts, so I’ll probably delete the iTunes subscription and listen from the web when a summary catches my attention.

The podcast also mentioned using Evernote data as a screen saver since each note has a thumbnail image rendition. It’s not terribly practical since I can’t imagine anybody (sober) watching their screen savers anymore; flying toasters are so 20th century. Still, it’s a neat hack, and chance picked a relevant reminder about last week’s gay rights victory in New York and tomorrow’s distinctly Philadelphian holiday:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.

— John Stuart Mill

How to use Evernote as a Screen Saver in Mac OS X:

  1. Open “System Preferences”, choose the “Desktop & Screensaver” icon, and choose the “Screen Saver” option in the tabby thingie.
  2. Click on the “+” under Screen Savers pane and choose “Add folder of pictures”.
  3. Navigate to “{HOME}/Library/Application Support/Evernote”, choose the data folder, and leave that folder selected in the Screen Savers pane.
  4. Choose the middle option from the Display Style option bar.

Google Plus Circles: Conjunction of the Spheres?

Conjunction of the Spheres Kepler imagined the solar system as a series of nested Pythagorean solids. It was an elegant notion, but we live in a more complicated (Einsteinian) universe. Is the same true of current social networking models?

GooglePlus is dominating my RSS feeds today. My excitement about Circles has faded a little because of articles like this:

Google Plus’ Circles System May Not be Sustainable — ReadWriteWeb

I posted an abridged version of the following in the article’s comments:

Good categorization is an expertise most people lack: “Work” isn’t particularly meaningful, but “Coworkers”, “Headhunters”, and “Professional Acquaintances” are. It’s more work to apply and maintain a richer taxonomy, and I’d imagine even fewer people will get equivalently greater value from such effort in social networking. We’ve been trained away from finding exactly what we want by the search-and-browse approach of unstructured searches like Google, so wading through irrelevancy is a more common skill.

Grouping mechanisms in other social networking systems also have upkeep problems; I suspect most people just don’t bother doing it, and the same will probably be true with GooglePlus. Maybe adding a feature to display circles as Venn diagrams would help data geeks like me.  For most people, public versus private might be just enough categorization to avoid social networking faux pas without making the posting process feel like taking the SAT.

Existing social networks don’t have the concept of categorization on both ends, posting and reading, and I wonder if GooglePlus Circles has the same deficiency because it hides the names of circles I’ve been added to. I’d like to subscribe to (and filter out) people’s circles instead of people themselves to control the noise of their posts about unshared interests; I’d probably disagree with how most of my non-professional acquaintances would categorize me. It doesn’t sound like GooglePlus makes the distinction of subscribing to people’s interests or topics instead of people themselves. Relevancy has to be a two-way street.

Or, perhaps, a four-way intersection.

GooglePlus Venn Diagram
GooglePlus Venn: Relevancy is an Intersection

With all those brainy data geeks at Google, I’m optimistic that they could create a Venn diagram of Circles, Sparks, +1’s, Reader Likes/Shares that could define social graph relevancy in that oh-so-Google statistical way. How many licks would it take to get to the center of that tasty relevancy tootsie-pop?  Lots, probably, but it creates a new kind of payoff that Twitter and Facebook are incapable of delivering.

Hey, Google, are you listening?

On a related note, I tried posting my comment using my Twitter account. Twitter on the web is totally brain-dead about multiple identities, so of course I posted my comment using the wrong account. It’s a perfect example of the mis-post problem I referenced in the preceding post. Then I reposted my comment using Google, and Disqus allowed me to choose from the three Google accounts I’m logged into right now. Google gets the issues of identity and context more than anybody else in the field, so I’m (somewhat) optimistic about GooglePlus.