The Treachery of Names

Would any other smell as sweet?

We changed the name of the company today. The geeks formerly known as Qwaq are now Teleplace.

I like it. Qwaq was a kind of goofy Google/Twitter/Yahoo sort of thing into which you could project whatever you wanted. At first it was (theoretically) just as plausible that something would be made for kids as for companies. But the Qwaq named didn’t really play well. It was too empty a vessel — not suggestive of anything we did. Even our friends spelled it wrong. I often told people it was the corner letters of their keyboard, but they tended to just tilt their head at me like a confused dog. We have a great set of photos in the office of David, Andreas, and the gang discussing potential names with Alan Kay. “Oink? No. Too obvious.” Anyway, now we’re respectable, and the name suggests something about what we do.

Oh, and the new client is out, too.

And the new server.

Off to sleep.

3D vs 2D for Legacy Applications

When Alan Kay’s team at Xerox created the overlapping window user interface, they were working for a document company. Everything was organized around documents mimicking paper, sitting in folders except when being operated on by one application or another.

We don’t need the paper metaphor anymore, but we sure have a lot of 2D paper-oriented legacy stuff laying around. While 3D is pretty clearly winning for new applications in which people work together(*), it hasn’t yet demonstrated something so much better with which to replace all the existing 2D docs and their applications.

The state of user-interface design has provided two ways to deal with this: virtual computer displays embedded into the 3D world, and floating 2D windows. Both are pretty good and have their place.

Intensive Care Unit
One avatar is operating an in-world bio-signs display, which is also being shown in the lower left as a 2D panel floating over the view of the virtual room. The text chat is a 2D floating panel in the upper left, while the procedure timer and other applications are in-world.

(*)Without people, there is no realtime collaboration. 2D includes people only as second class abstractions rather than reifing them as first class objects in the communications model. For teaching, training, and working meetings (as opposed to mostly unidirectional sales presentation meeting and lectures), 3D has emerged as the most natural way to show individual presence, and the simplest way to provide enough immersion to give a sense of shared presence.

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Child's Play

Croquet leader Alan Kay has noticed that making technology work well for children is often a good way to make technology work for everyone. This concept has informed his recent work with VPRI, SqueakLand and the One Laptop Per Child project.

We’re starting a project in Croquet called KidsFirst, in which we push the limits of ease-of-use and collaboration to the extreme by focusing on the three legs of an early-education community of practice: very young children, busy teachers, and non-specialist parents.

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I’ve admitted that I didn’t immediately get the point of the One Laptop Per Child project, but now I’m now very excited about the ideas behind this non-profit effort to build a $100 mesh-network computer to be owned by children in the developing world. This essay captures a lot of what I feel and wonder about it, including some fears of dystopian unexpected consequences.

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Them's Fitin' Words, Craig

When I first heard about the $100 laptop project, I didn’t get it. Sure, I saw the value in having one laptop per child worldwide – I’m not stupid or mean – but I didn’t see why it wouldn’t just happen on its own. Prices are falling all the time. To make this project happen, it didn’t require a world-class engineering team, it required a team of world-class shoppers, I thought. My mother-in-law should run this project. I even argued with Alan Kay about it, to the point where folks had to come take him away before I was able to understand why so much effort needed to be poured into this right now.

I was wrong, and Alan was absolutely right. (Big surprise, no?) I have been convinced by these dismissive remarks by Intel Chairman Craig Barret.

More links: UN, tech and good discussion, historical background, interview.

ICANN Considered Boring

Last week was the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia (“the land of civilization, culture and enlightened thinking”, according to the official Web page). It has been reported that the conference was supposed to be about narrowing the digital divide. Croquet architect and all-around Computer God Alan Kay presented a model of the dynabook, er, $100 laptop to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, while his buddy Nicholas Negroponte presented one to the Pope. Picture here. (And there was much amusement in the Stearns household when we realized that this made me one degree of separation from Annan and two from the Pope.) A lot of world leaders were taking this theme very seriously, but I hear the conference turned out to be all about US control over the ICANN system for Internet domain names. Even more leaders were taking seriously this idea, as argued by countries like China and Iran, that the world can’t accept ICANN to be under the control of a rogue state that practices state censorship, executions, unilateral invasion, torture, use of chemical weapons, etc. President Bush chose not to attend, in order to that he might visit Asia and criticize China regarding human rights.

The ICANN flap is interesting in several ways. There’s the timely main story in the news about the relationship between the US and the rest of the world. Then there’s the timeless backstory about the idea that progress is not achieved by consensus or committee, but by someone actually doing something that works. That’s what the US did. We only got into trouble because it was successful. I’m fascinated by this idea lately as it relates to development within Croquet. It’s hard for people who feel excluded to do other than to demand sharing, and particularly hard for them to realize that nobody “anointed” the folks who are producing the stuff they want to be shared. People do stuff and it works. Then other people want it. The trick, if it were possible to optimize such things, would be to share when things aren’t yet working so that others might join in the creative fun. But too many cooks and the management cost of such “optimization” can easily spoil the soup. It’s a dicey thing. I know, because I’m on both sides of the problem right now.

But the most noteworthy thing of all, to my mind, is that the ICANN flap is all so unecessary. US officials say the current system works just fine, technically, and they’re sort of right, except that the rest of the world says it doesn’t, and they’re right too. But I think there’s a much better way to handle the mapping of addresses, which we’re currently trying to build out in Croquet. Whether we’re the ones to do it or not, there’s no technical reason that the whole thing can’t be done in a way that makes the whole political argument moot.

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The Imagination Age

This month’s Tech Review has an editorial that begins “Inventing the future…” and end with these two paragraphs:

“Traditionally, Technology Review hasn’t written that much about society. Our subject matter is emerging technologies, and they have historically been purchased by corporations, universities, and governments. That’s because emerging technologies used to require an extraordinary capital investment, one well beyond the means of most people in their private capacities. Nor did most people see the need to experiment with really novel technologies. Thus the personal computer, the local-area network, the Internet itself were all first used in commercial, government, or academic settings.

”But this is changing. The spread of cheap laptops, handheld devices, affordable Internet access, Wi-Fi, and a dozen other consumer technologies has led to a wonderful explosion of new social applications for them. But here’s the really interesting thing: most of these social technologies have simple editing and programming tools that let ordinary folks do innovative things that risk-averse corporations and government agencies would be hesitant to try. We suspect that Technology Review will be writing about the impact of new technologies on society much more frequently. Besides, social technologies are more fun.”

Here’s the letter to the editors that I just sent:

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The computer spreadsheet doesn’t get enough credit among computer programmers. I think that more than any other one concept, VisiCalc, 1-2-3, and Excel were the killer app for the personal computer. As a programmer, I have tended first to think of formulae and calculation mechanisms when I think of spreadsheets, but the UI and development style are perhaps more significant. For each individual cell, you can look at the value, the formula, or the formatting, and change each through a menu. You can incrementally build up quite a complex application all on your own, never leaving the very environment you use to view the results. Why doesn’t all software work this way, only better? That’s what I’m working on.

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