Sunday, August 9, 2009

Back in the Saddle

I haven't had much time for this blog lately and a lots happened since I was last active here; professionally, personally in the IT world and in the world in general. Regarding the professional, I'll be dealing with that in my next post and as for the personal, well, that's personal - suffice to say I'm no longer based in the Republic of Ireland - yes I've gone international!

But first I thought it might be a good opportunity to look back on the last few months and the happenings in the world of IT and the world in general, so here goes....

The shambolic global economy pretty much dominated the news from the beginning of 2009 overshadowing Obama's supposedly-triumphant and historical inauguration. All those months and months slogging away on the campaign trail only to end up with the most unenviable job on the planet.

But then Springtime came and a breath of fresh air! We forgot all about the ailing economy and instead found a whole new thing to worry obsessively about - swine flu! Though swine flu did claim fatalities, it has not yet become the apocalyptic 1918-type pandemic the press predicted it would be. For those involved in tourism, however, it might has well have done.

The tourism sector took an almighty hammering this year. More people trying to save their money meant less people going on holidays and of those people that did, the majority tended to opt for all-inclusive resorts, budgeting carefully, with little if any of their money venturing outside the resort. Swine flu paranoia did not help matters.

Spain has a particularly bad time of it lately. With its construction industry in freefall and a severe drop in tourism unemployment continued to rise. The final nail in the coffin being delivered last month with the bomb attacks in Mallorca, one of Spain's most popular holiday destinations, right at the very height of the tourist season.

The worst hit countries in Europe are all those whose economies were over-exposed to the property market, including Spain, Greece and Ireland. Ireland, whilst it may not exactly be a hot sun destination, suffered from a dramatically diminished construction sector and saw its economy buckle badly. Tourism was one of the worst hit areas, in particular the hospitality sector with many companies closing down and many more doing all they can to battle through the bad times. (The Irish government, however, has clearly far more important matters to worry about.)

When the media wasn't driving us all into depression talking about terror attacks, swineflu, toxic assets, GM bailouts and Bernie Madoff it was prattling on about Twitter. 2009 was the year when the mainstream media turned on to Twittermania. Previously Twittermania had been confined to specific websites and publications such as IT or business journals but as more and more celebrities started to tweet the press, especially the tabloid press, pounced upon it ravenously. After all 140 characters per tweet may not seem like much to you or me, but, with the right accompanying photo, is way more than enough for a tabloid newspaper to fill two entire pages of speculations and/or complete fabrications on celebrity love affairs. 

Twitter was a word that seemed to crop up pretty much everywhere this year. When Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie Bruno failed to do as well as expected Time magazine blamed Twitter, and when Iran found itself on the brink of civil war a few months back, once again Time magazine cited Twitter, claiming it was the only way for not just the American press - but also the American government - to get a legitimate, on-the-ground picture of what was really going on there. And yet, whilst Time and sibling company CNN argued that Twitter may be the ideal way for the Obama Administration to gain real-world intelligence on Iran, it was not, they insisted, the place to get information about swine flu.

And that's where all this Twittermania has gotten us - to the point where what was once a website for freaks and shut-ins to deliver up-to-the-minute broadcasts about their cats has become so hyped by the major media companies that they now have to issue globally-telivised statements to the public that Twitter should not be considered an authority on health and medical matters. But then by that stage we'd forgotten all about Iran and swineflu anyway and the economy, too, was but a distant hazy memory because now it was all about Michael Jackson.

Jackson, who was planning his huge comeback gig apparently - though how huge it would have actually been we can only speculate - was found dead at some point in time. When, exactly, I really can't remember. In fact I can scarcely remember a time when we didn't have Michael Jackson headlines on every newspaper every single morning.

But anyways, yes the King of Pop popped his clogs and the net result was, seconds after the news broke, the Internet swarmed with Michael Jackson related spam emails and "click here to see pictures" viruses. Millions, perhaps even billions, of people woke up that morning (depending on their timezone) and, though they couldn't have given two hoots the day before, suddenly felt an overpowering urge to jump on the bandwagon and pronounce their undying love for Jacko. Amidst this Diana-esque blubfest there were, undoubtably, many who felt quite legitimatly choked up about it, but not nearly as chocked up as the actual Internet was.

This afforded journalists the sublime opportunity to combine their two favourite topics of the year - Michael Jackson and Twitter. Twitter was clearly not up to the task of serving all those zillions of Jackson-related tweets and has been suffering sporadic outages ever since with the famous Twitter "fail whale" becoming an increasingly familiar and frequent sight.

Another website that managed to create a stir this year was Hunch.
The new website uses a very clever system to answer questions like what book should I read or what album should I listen to. The concept is far from new, I've been using Gnod for this sort of thing for years, but the major difference is that Gnoosic, for example, will ask you for favourite bands and make suggestions on them based on other people's suggestions. So if I say I like Massive Attack I'm going to be asked whether I like Portishead and other suggestions will then be made based on my reply. Whereas Hunch asks you less direct questions and seems to be more deductive in nature, it asks you what sort of album would you like to hear, what styles of music do you like, whether or not you care what decade the album was recorded, etc, etc.

I put it through its paces and I have to say, it performed quite well, it recommended books, albums and movies to me that I either already liked or were very close to what I invariably would like - without actually asking me what bands/books/authors/movies/directors I actually do like. It also told me, based on a few simple questions, that I probably would not enjoy the new Star Trek movie all that much and it turned out to be correct, I was quite disappointed by it. Plus it managed to pick my favourite types of beer right on the nose.

In order to to get the full value of Hunch, the site says, you need to fill out what amounts to a very extensive questionnaire. Many of the questions I simply skipped on the basis that they were more geared towards a North American audience and therefore didn't really apply to me. Although a lot of the questions are pretty predictable personality test questions with others you do get the feeling you have somehow become the unwitting participant in some massive global focus group and the more questions you answer the more you start to feel as though you're being deliberatly profiled and separated into specific demographics.

My suspicions were first aroused on the very first question when it presented me with four pictures of different types of fries; 2 were generic, one was clearly from McDonalds and the other from Burger King. If someone at Hunch could explain the scientific theory behind that one I'd be delighted to hear from it. In fact, with Hunch, the hunch that I got - and it's probably because I'm a paranoid Internet conspiracy nut and all - was that a lot of the questions were put in at the behest of special interests, like, for example RIAA (the amount of questions I was asked about the morality of internet downloads was what really put me into tinfoil hat mode) or some political party or polling organisation (lots of questions about immigration also - the hell do I care if Mexicans take their jobs?) and in the end I started to feel like I was a character in a Neal Stephenson novel

And that's the thing about Hunch, you see, it's not just very clever piece of programming it's a marketing/public company's wet dream. Still I've no doubt in my mind that Hunch, or its successors, represent the future of search; a search engine that knows you as well as it knows the Internet and can sort through thousands of search results to provide you with exactly the type of website or information you are looking for. And by the time this techology truly comes into its own I'll probably just be some old fart tellin' the kids "in my day we had this thing called privacy!"

True, Hunch and Twitter made plenty headlines, they could never really hope to steal the spotlight from the Big Three, especially Google. Twitter in particular made big splash in 2009 but Google was to become a tidal force onto itself starting with the announcement of their new Google Wave system.

I strongly believe this is a killer app in the making - it's going to be absolutely huge - in fact I predict it's going to spawn a thousand copycats and create a movement which will change how people communicate in business, maybe not everyone's, but certainly my own. No more emails back and forth, no more attachments, just drag and drop files, images - everything basically!

I'm really sick of email, really sick of it. Sending text and attachments to someone@someplace.somewhere has been with us for decades now. Flared trousers and gold zodiac medallions are no longer hip, disco is dead and the Shah of Iran too, and yet here we are in the 21st century stuck with horrible emails - sending them, writing them, repying to them, waiting for replies to them...
When you think about it the process takes up so much time and we've only got so much patience and I haven't even mentioned all the spam yet!

Wave is going to change all that. It's going to make email obsolete, instant messanging obsolete and with integrated Google Talk and their new Google Voice it looks like they're going to blow my beloved Skype out of the water too. But the very best thing about Google Wave, I think, it is that right now legions of developer geeks are already beta-testing and tweaking it and developing little widgets for it it and so however excited I might be about Google Wave itself I'm even more excited about the inevitable mashups which are going to result from it. How many mashups have we seen with Google Maps? Yeah, you know the guys who made Google Maps? The same guys created Wave.

At Microsoft HQ, meanwhile, a plot was being hatched to steal Google's thunder. Firstly with the launch of their new Bing search engine, and secondly by taking on Google Docs by announcing that their new Microsoft Office 2010 would include free online versions of their popular Office applications - namely Word, Excel and Powerpoint. (Which, in industry terms, is sort of like witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall)

Google responded by really upping the ante announcing that they would be entering the operating system game themselves and why not, they've challenged Microsoft on pretty much everything else and I think all of us geeks, whilst surprised by the sudden announcement, weren't quite so surprised by the notion itself. Nor, for that matter, that it would neatly coincide with the release of Windows 7

Google Chrome OS is based upon the Cloud concept with everything happening inside the actual browser. Considering how much I love the browser I can't wait to see the OS! Don't expect it on your PC just yet, though, just on netbooks. So, for the foreseeable future at least, it looks like Microsoft will still be top dog of the operating system pack with the added advantage of being able to watch its closest competitors loose more of their market share. The move will give Google not one but two flagship operating systems - both based on Linux - Android it's phone OS and the new Chrome OS. Obviously this has created a little tension between the companies, particularly for one Eric Schmidt who, before recently resigning from Apple, was on the board of both companies. Many believe this split will become an all-out war. Fake Steve Jobs doesn't seem that worried about it though, but I somehow imagine the real Steve Jobs is.
Whenever I mention the Big Three, I refer, of course, to Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, rather than Apple. However I may well have to change that because another major landmark in the IT world has been the announcement that Yahoo are getting out of the search business and from here on in anyone searching on Yahoo will actually just be searching a Yahoo branded version of Bing. How this is going to ultimately play out for webmasters like Yours Truly remains to be seen but somehow I still don't see Microsoft dominating the search market any time soon any more than I see Google dominating the operating system market. But still there seems to be a lot of changes in direction recently within the major companies. Old alliances are breaking down and new ones are being forged with some companies jostling for more room at the trough by entering new markets whilst others step aside and make way for them.  

Interesting times indeed. And now that I've played catch-up with all the major external happenings let's now move on and allow me to tell you what we've been up to...

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