Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Good Results So Far For Google RAM

A week ago I had 4GB of RAM die (well, part of matched pair anyway) in my main desktop PC.

I’m currently awaiting replacement under warranty from Corsair, but meantime it’s hard to run dev tools and big virtual machines with the measly amount of memory I have left. So I thought it was time to give the new Google network-attached RAM a try.

I had to flash the motherboard BIOS of course and upgrade the chipset driver and the on-board network controller firmware. Google RAM, just like wake-on-LAN, has to interact with the network card at a hardware/BIOS level. In this case, the purpose is to ensure that any OS I boot sees the new space just like local memory.

Then I rebooted and … nothing.

Where is my free 4GB of storage?

Then I remembered that Google’s revenue model for this product requires you to run a Windows service that in turn interacts with a Google-provided kernel patch for PAE.

In addition to providing checks in real time – as my machine accesses RAM – for any security threats, this service displays Google ads as 5 new icons on my desktop.

Apparently they are context-based, and determined by Google’s analysis of what I have in RAM at the time.

And they are surprisingly accurate. I had a picture of a Corvette open in Photoshop, and the G-RAM icons turned into links to car dealerships, new-car financing, and a discount oil change.

Google’s FAQ insists that it does not look at my clicks or the image file metadata – instead, its server analyzed the image in real time (since the network RAM is in their datacenter) and determined I was looking at a new Corvette.

The only downside was that my cable modem signal dropped out for a couple of minutes, and the local service warned me not to touch any processes using G-RAM until it could sync back up, or those apps would immediately crash.

No matter, overall it’s great technology, and I think my RAM replacement will arrive from Corsair tomorrow.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Quick Hit and a Deep Hit on Social Nets and Identity

This article from the WSJ is neither deep nor particularly novel, but I like it because if focuses a laser on propagation of identities and the history of identities in popular social networks. This is the most important metatopic for social networks.

If you have a few more minutes, this article by MIT Media Lab prof Judith Donath gets a lot clearer on the signals that make up identities online, and how the mechanics of those signals can function.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Harm Reduction in Windows 7

Guest mode … kid mode … whatever you want to call it, is brilliant.

But more than that, it’s an interesting admission that (1) you can’t fight the power of the darknet and (2) you might as well empower people to behave in a way that minimizes the damage, whether or not you approve of what they’re doing.

If I had a dollar for every individual who ever swore they never go near warez or pr0n or questionable media downloads, and ended up with a mucked up machine … or worse, a machine that transmits their passwords and SSN to a bad guy …

Even with an older OS, like XP, one can achieve a fair degree of isolation and protection by using a patched up Firefox or Chrome on top of a plain user (not admin) account. There are still holes by design; e.g., a user could fill up the hard drive or install software that persists in certain places. And I’m sure there are serious security flaws that allow code downloaded as user to escalate itself to admin … perhaps even coming from a “drive-by” Javascript source via Firefox/Chrome … but such threats seem to be pretty darned rare if everything is patched up and prophylactic protections are applied (e.g. Spyware S&D’s “immunization”).

Guest mode (and IE 8 “In Private” browsing) appears to close many of the remaining holes.

What we need now is an education campaign to convince people to segregate their online activities. But besides not knowing how to create these low-privilege accounts, a lot of people I know refuse to admit they ever visit the darknet. Or the visits are rare and they “hope for the best.”

Let’s pre-configure – by default -- a second account for ever power user (or admin) on a machine. At login time, offer the guest (more protected) account along with some description of when it might be a good idea to use it.

I’m not sure the best way to label the buttons, because it’s a bit hard to explain how the more secure, more protected mode is paradoxically for the more anonymous, more dangerous behavior; while the “less protected” mode is for normal operation which might involve vital personal data. I’ll let the UX wizards sort this part out.

Monday, March 23, 2009

(Semi) Portable Comet Framework

I meant to reblog this at the time of the announcement: Sun has released a first alpha of their atmosphere project. The project was about extracting useful comet-y bits from Grizzly and making a standalone pluggable kit for comet.

It is its own small framework, and autodetects where you drop it.

Here’s a nice article. It looks to be Jean-Francois Arcand’s project – follow his blog and the project’s twitter.

How Much Would You Pay to “Learn to Pitch Big [Failing] Newspapers”

If you’re in SF next week, and you don’t mind paying $15-20 for the privilege, you can come hear some people from the SF Chronicle and NY Times talk about how to pitch your (probably tech) company to them.

So they’ll write a glowing and informed article about you.

Wait, wait, wait … this is all wrong.

First, these are “reputable” newspapers, meaning they won’t necessarily write anything good about you. At most, they’ll theoretically assemble a balanced story, interviewing your competitors, talking to customers, maybe even your employees … or ex-employees.

Oh, wait, I’ve got this wrong again.

They aren’t going to anything like that … unless, maybe, you were already a big news-section story already. Else they will write something that’s like a watered-down blog post, without any specific expertise or authority, but with a couple of quotes. Newspapers like to quote because they can’t link. They’ll also mention twitter in the story, they can’t help themselves.

These papers do have a big circulation though, maybe that’s the appeal.

But it’s hard to tell their attention reach, or the “effective circulation” of your story buried in the tech or lifestyle section. How many people really read that? Are they influencers? Customers? Relevant at all to you?

It’s hard to tell. I can tell you that the people who are really interested might find the story … when it comes to them through the backdoor via some RSS feed or Google alert. But if they care enough to do the RSS thing and find you, then they’ll also have all the other, better, material about you that comes from all of the experts in your field who blog about you and also turn up in RSS and Google alerts. Ironic.

Next, these two newspapers are in dire financial straits. At this point, $20 probably keeps the Chron publishing for another couple of days. And why are they in trouble? Not just because people can read their content online for free – rather, it’s because in most areas of reporting, the big organs have no specific interest, capability, or credibility, and so no one cares what they write. The one thing they can do is send a foreign correspondent to Iraq or the White House, and maybe the correspondent has some credibility…

Wait, there I go again, the Times sold out on Iraq years ago, by their own admission, and so did most of the rest of the traditional press.

Ok, I give up.

I’m going to sponsor a meetup where newspapers can send people, who will each pay me $15-20, buying my attention long enough to tell me why I should care.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Silverlight Sound And Fury (You Know the Rest)

So as not to bore regular readers, I’ll skip the jeremiad.

Bottom line: despite the hoopla at MIX over Silverlight 3 – which is an incredible platform – there were still no meaningful penetration numbers presented.

And while it’s great to see the platform revving and maturing, the various version make a development decision that much harder. If you have a new idea for a Silverlight app, and you imagine your target audience will have the plugin or is able to install it, do you aim for v3? v2? v1?

I also haven’t heard a word about any explicit program to drive Silverlight client installs.

According RIAStats.com – perhaps not the best source of detected install info, but … wait, I guess if it’s the only source of information, that automatically makes it the best – Silverlight is on 22.3% of their observed clients.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Microsoft SDS Change Eerily Reminiscent of WinFS Fate

Last week Microsoft announced that they would be abandoning the ACE and dynamic entity (“property bag”) model for the SQL Server Data Services cloud data storage system. They would also switch from their REST data API (used in ADO.Net Data Services) to the old-school “Tabular Data Stream” wire protocol.

While Microsoft’s promise of more relational support was always a distinguishing feature of their cloud DB service, and while they tried to spin the news in that direction, it feels a lot more like when they abandoned WinFS and announced that, really, everything you could do with WinFS would work fine using NTFS and a whole heck of a lot of indexing. Maybe sorta true … but feels like a big step back.

Of course, big customers – large enterprises with SQL Server databases and lots of SQL code – would not want to see a change in their data layer and would prefer this move. But accommodating them is assuming that they are ready to become first-version customers of the data cloud at all. And I doubt this for two reasons.

First, any move to the cloud involves a trade-off of control which some companies are loath to make even if they are confident the system will work. Which is problematic because:

Second, anyone who has dealt with big databases knows that there is no magic. Despite the quest for automagic autoscaling self-tuning databases, no one, so far as I know, has made one that does all of this for really large enterprise applications. There are just too many application specific variables, not to mention poorly written app code that can cause trouble in proportion to the amount of resources you give it access to.

I do believe Microsoft has the engineering brainpower to try the problem, and are as likely as anyone to succeed. It’s just that I haven’t seen any evidence of a specific strategy or technology. Maybe if I were a bigger customer … but seriously, if Redmond had this problem solved (and it’s one of the biggest out there), they would either patent it or publish lots of white papers. Either way, it would be publicized and reviewed. A trade secret? maybe, but which Fortune 500 CIO is going to jump on that bandwagon and the cloud and the outsourced data stuff all at the same time?

To the extent that these large database apps could be made to behave without human intervention, there is likely to be a tradeoff in resources, and when you’re paying per GB or per compute-cycle, that equals a side order of more cost to go along with the entree of new greater risk.

The point is that the ACE/dynamic entity/REST model is well understood, performs, utilizes resources in a known manner. Not appropriate for every app. Not relational in the formal sense if at all. Not easy to migrate to. But it goes like the devil. So you’re getting something concrete in exchange for your risk and your dollars. Unlike a magical SQL Server instance in the sky.

Maybe there is magic in there, and I’ll be proven wrong. Or maybe 99% of the customers’ database needs are so small that it’s a non-issue, and Microsoft is really just competing with the thousands of hosting providers that will host actual individual SQL Server instances for you on a large server. But this change still seems to raise more questions than it answers.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Way to Compete, Guys…

Microsoft’s app store … sure, why not? But that’s not the bit they need to take on Apple.

Microsoft and the smartphone is really a funny/ironic/sad story depending on who you are.

They had a true next-generation mobile OS starting back in ‘01 … It was really easy to code for – like GUI-builder, point-and-click web services, run-your-regular-.Net-code easy. And they were outselling pretty much everyone in total device count a couple of years later. By ‘06 they even had consumer friendly devices, in the Moto Q series and then the Samsung Blackjack. They were poised to challenge RIM for the big shiny belt.

And then Apple came along and wiped the smirk off everyone’s faces. What’s surprising is that no ‘softie seems to have circulated an “Internet Tidal Wave” memo about mobile. Or, if they did, no one paid any attention.

In the last two years, we’ve seen a continuing proliferation of Windows Mobile devices, but no fundamental change – or even speed-up – on platform evolution. If anything, we’ve seen a slowdown, as Mobile 7 devices seem to be at least a year away, and the “app store” is going to launch on Mobile 6.5

In case anyone didn’t already notice, v 6.5 is a great OS if it’s 2005, but a non-entity in the iPhone era. An app store? well, maybe … but a store by itself has never been the magic sauce in mobile (remember Verizon’s “vending machine”).

And with a “logo validation” scheme for each app? Developers violating the logo cert guidelines is not the problem. The problem is that there are too many different form factors for Win Mo devices. Used to be, practically anything could run the OS. Around the 5.0 era, they reduced the number of supported screen configurations, and a few other things.

But there appears to be little escape from the compromise Microsoft made to be successful on the enterprise side: it’s really easy to code a simple utility/productivity/line-of-business app that will run great on almost any Windows Mobile device. And it’s equally hard to write anything really cutting edge, because there is simply too much variation in device capability and performance, and that genie's not going back in the bottle.

Perhaps Microsoft’s best chance lies in forking a “consumer” mobile OS, with stricter controls over the handsets. On the other hand, Apple is clawing into the enterprise, so an artificial separation of consumer vs. enterprise offerings may be hopeless at this point.