Bluestreak and the birth of a collaboration kernel

Successful Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) collaboration depends on the timely dissemination of relevant information throughout the project team. This task is made difficult by the number of collaboration interactions that occur and the diverse range of digital tools used to support them. To improve this process it is proposed that a collaboration kernel could weave together these disparate interactions and tools. This will create a more productive and efficient collaboration environment by allowing design discussion, issues and decisions to be efficiently and reliably exchanged between team members and the digital tools they currently use. This article describes how Project Bluestreak, a messaging service from Autodesk Labs, can be transformed into an effective collaboration kernel. To guide this transformation, the principles of the Project Information Cloud have been used to evaluate the existing service and identify areas for future development. These fundamental digital collaboration principles are derived from lessons learnt in the formation of the World Wide Web. When these principles are embodied within a digital collaboration tool, they have demonstrated an ability to improve the timely delivery of relevant information to members of the project team.

Seamless collaboration within a fragmented digital environment

A successful AEC digital collaboration environment brings multiple parties together so that they can productively work towards a satisfactory and achievable design outcome. During this process participants must engage in a variety of interactions between team members and the digital models used to describe the design. These interactions, and the technologies commonly used to enable them, are summarised in the following diagram and table.

Note: The term 'model' refers to a CAD or BIM digital model that represents the proposed design. Digital models play an important role in the collaboration process as they communicate ideas, impose restrictions and can be manipulated to reflect a participant's opinion.

Doom & gloom programmer keynote by Tim Bray

Tim Bray's Future of Web Apps 2008 keynote has been published to the web. Unfortunately he does not paint a rosy future for developers given the current economic climate. Entitled "The Fear Factor", according to Tim he rewrote the script the night before after spending a couple of depressing days with London bankers and watching television news.

Tim gives a very down to earth presentation that sits in stark contrast to most bright and breezy keynotes you see posted to the Web. The underlying concept is that the credit crunch will force many companies to suspend broad, big budget development in favor of small, low-cost projects. In this environment there will be project cancellations and job losses, so if you are a programmer it is a case of staying competitive through learning and networking more than your competition.

Some of the interesting points raised in the half hour keynote were:

  • Monetisation will occur at the point of value. Rather than $100,000 up-front licenses, companies will be looking to pay only once a system is in production i.e. Open source will hold a significant business advantage.
  • Waterfall is dead. In an uncertain, credit-poor economy the idea that a project can go for 14 months without delivering value will be seen as unacceptable to decision makers.
  • The Cloud is good, but lock-in is bad. Companies will value the cost savings from on-demand services like Amazon Web Services and Google App Engine, but be wary of the pitfalls of vendor lock-in (we do not want another Windows monopoly).
  • With regulation comes business opportunities. Governments around the world will be passing legislation to ensure another financial crisis is avoided. From a software development standpoint this will create a significant opportunities for those in the right place with the right abilities.
  • Mobile technology and micro-transactions are the new fertile ground. Apple iPhone and Google Android have realised the development potential of the mobile device. Their application marketplaces are vibrant economies where micro-transactions of $1-$5 rule.
  • Build something for yourself. You will only be truly successful at building something that satisfies your own needs. Steve Yegge has said it best in "business requirements are bullshit".
  • Do not be a [insert language here] developer. The idea that someone can ever learn and use one computer language (e.g. Java, PHP, Ruby, etc.) in a competitive marketplace will not cut the mustard. Be a 'web developer' who is prepared to explore anything, even legacy code - you never know where it will lead.
  • Network, network, network. Nine times out of ten work will come from people you know rather than what you know. Do not expect the plum jobs to land in your lap if you do not participate in communities. e.g. conferences, mailing lists, blogs, Twitter, etc.

Overall it is a very good, down to earth talk that provides a valuable reality check in these "interesting times".


Google Chrome rethinks the browser

Yesterday (after a comic strip teaser) Google finally took the plunge and released their own web browser named Chrome. For years they have had a defacto relationship with Mozilla Firefox, but now they have decided to go it alone with their own, radically different offering. How this affects the Firefox/Google relationship is anyone's guess, but presumably for Mozilla having your number one revenue stream release a competing product is not a good sign.

So why should I care?

Rather than a simple re-branding of Firefox, Google Chrome is a completely new beast built on top of the WebKit rendering engine (the same engine that drives Apple's Safari). Innovation is a term used pretty lightly in the technology industry, but in this case Google has really tried to break conventions and create something that is genuinely a generation better than the competition.

Process isolation comes to tabs

The biggest conceptual leap the developers have made is thinking of each tab as its own distinct process. Traditionally your browser has run as a single process, which means when one tab or window goes haywire the whole thing goes up in a puff of smoke. By running each tab as a distinct, protected process the browser gains a level of robustness never considered possible. In fact in some respects Google Chrome is a lightweight operating system unto itself, it even has its own Task Manager for monitoring and selectively killing errand tabs.

Harvard Critical Digital Conference 2008 paper

In April I presented a paper at the GSD Critical Digital Conference at Harvard University. The paper was co-authored by my supervisor Mike Donn. The conference itself was pretty good considering it was the first time it had been run. You can find my paper along with all the others online at the Critical Digital website. However for posterity (and Google) I have included the text of my paper below.

Using Project Information Clouds to Preserve Design Stories within the Digital Architecture Workplace


During the development of an architectural design a series of design stories form. These stories chronicle the collective decision making process of the diverse project team. Current digital design processes often fail to record these design stories because of the emphasis placed on the concise and accurate generation of the virtual model. This focus on an all-encompassing digital model is detrimental to design stories because it limits participation, consolidates information flow and risks editorialisation of design discussion. Project Information Clouds are proposed as a digital space for design team participants to link, categorise and repurpose existing digital information into comprehensible design stories in support of the digital building model. Instead of a discrete tool, the Project Information Cloud is a set of principles derived from a proven distributed information network, the World Wide Web. The seven guiding principles of the Project Information Cloud are simplicity, modular design, decentralisation, ubiquity, information awareness, evolutionary semantics and context sensitivity. These principles when applied to the development of existing and new digital design tools are intended to improve information exchange and participation within the distributed project team.

A great Web 2.0 Dilbert strip

Sad because it is true...

Yahoo Pipes brings mashups to the masses

Yahoo Pipes is aiming to be to Web mash-ups what Microsoft Access was to relational databases. Prior to Access, relational databases were primarily the domain of the highly trained database administrator and software programmer. Microsoft Access significantly changed the game by providing a relatively powerful database experience in a manner that the mainstream audience could comprehend and be productive with. As a consequence the business world is now saturated with mission critical Access databases put together internally by the employees themselves to meet a set of data challenges unique to that particular company or department. With Pipes, Yahoo is attempting to become the Microsoft Access of the Web 2.0 market space.

Google to replace Microsoft Exchange & Office at Pixar?

This Business Week article 'Google Steps Into Microsoft's Office' is interesting because it is the first time I have seen a rather large corporate entity (Pixar/Disney) express an interest in moving to a non-Microsoft, Web-based platform like Google Apps for your Domain. The other interesting point to note is published user-base of Microsoft Office Live which is sitting at 250,000 businesses, quite a respectable number for a new, non-free service.

I have been a user of Google Apps for your Domain for a while now on a number of domains and have got a few other well entrenched in-house email fans to sign up as well. By far and away the best things about it has been the spam protection and the fact that within an evening you can have a fully functioning email and calendar service up and running with no fuss at all. It has been slightly disappointing that the applications list has not grown to cover the Docs and Spreadsheets products already and many of the new GMail features such as the very handy retrieve mail service or increased storage sizes have not become available to Apps users sooner.

What is the answer to HTML, Web 2.0 and everything?

Well it may not be 42 but this great video by Michael Wesch an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University does an excellent job of visually explaining what Web 2.0 is all about and how it differs from conventional media and the Web we all go used to prior to this Century:

Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us

An identity presentation that is not boring

Identity presentations can be boring because by and large it is a boring topic full of acronyms, complexities and unresolved issues. This presentation by Dick Hardt at OSCON 2005 breaks the mold so to speak by talking about complicated issues in a very interesting and visual manner. It is worth watching if you are interested in identity or looking for an interesting visual presentation technique for your next Powerpoint/Keynote.

Dick Hardt at OSCON 2005 - Identity 2.0 

The Search for Web 3.0

The buzz around Web 2.0 may have only started in the last year or so but already industry commentators are putting their opinions in the hat for what will constitute Web 3.0? Such talk strikes me as more than a little premature and what is being discussed appears to be a regurgitation of the technologies proposed during the dot-com boom of the mid-nineties rather than original ideas on how to take what we have learned from the previous two incarnations of the Web.

Discussing Web 3.0 is premature because no one has come to grips with what exactly what the concept of Web 2.0 is right now. There are loose ideas of community, interaction and the writeable Web but no simple, easy to understand description has yet crystallised. Until this occurs its hard to tell where one set of conceptual ideas finishes and another begins. The bursting of the dot-com bubble signaled the end of one distinct period of Web development much like the K-T boundary marked the end of the dinosaurs (mostly). This intense moment of destruction followed by relative calm gave those on the Web time to pause, disseminate what came before and evaluate the best way forward.

To make matters worse discussion about what Web 3.0 could be appears to be centered around the relatively old concepts of the Semantic Web. Whilst a nice idea such arguments ignore the fact that Semantic Web ideas existed well before Web 2.0 concepts and in terms of realising these grand ideas not a great deal has changed. From a technical perspective the enabling technologies are still overly complicated and at a practical level no clear upgrade path exists from our current dumb Web to this idealised space (apart from millions of hours of painful, manual classification). Of greatest significance the Semantic Web relies on our ability to generate classification systems for many different forms of data. Given that a single office document standard cannot be agreed to and development of in-depth, domain specific semantic languages such as Industry Foundation Classes are stalled such a proposition seems far off.