Category Archives: Microsoft

googlesoft gets the brush-off

This is welcome. Several leading American research libraries including the Boston Public and the Smithsonian have said no thanks to Google and Microsoft book digitization deals, opting instead for the more costly but less restrictive Open Content Alliance/Internet Archive program. The NY Times reports, and explains how private foundations like Sloan are funding some of the OCA partnerships.

stunning views

Amazing. I’ve installed the Photosynth preview on my own machine (sadly it seems to work in IE only on a PC—not surprising, but a little disappointing), and I am zooming around in the Piazza San Marco courtesy of photos shot by a Photosynth Program Manager. The experience is incredible, and totally unique.
There are questions that arise: Is participation something that is voluntary, or is it something more ubiquitous and automatic that will just happen when you upload pictures to the web? (In the case of the preview that I’m running, we can assume it was a Microsoft sponsored trip. But the question is pertinent for future plans.) What are the mechanisms in place to provide privacy? What are the mechanisms to allow for editorializing; for instance, what if I wanted to see only shots taken at night? The images I’m looking at of Saint Mark’s Plaza were all shot by the same person on what looks like the same day with the same camera. How will this work with a different set of images taken with different hands, shutter speeds, attention to details like focus, lighting, foregrounding, etc.? And a larger, geographical and geopolitical question: how were these sites chosen? Will we (the public) be able to contribute models as well as photos so that I can make my city block a photo-navigable space? Or, more importantly, someone in São Paulo can make a map of their city block?
But aside from the questions, this is the most exciting way to view photos from the ‘net that I have ever seen.

the ambiguity of net neutrality

The Times comes out once again in support of network neutrality, with hopes that the soon to be Democrat-controlled Congress will make decisive progress on that front in the coming year.
Meanwhile in a recent Wired column, Larry Lessig, also strongly in favor of net neutrality but at the same time hesitant about the robust government regulation it entails, does a bit of soul-searching about the landmark antitrust suit brought against Microsoft almost ten years ago. Then too he came down on the side of the regulators, but reflecting on it now he says might have counseled differently had he known about the potential of open source (i.e. Linux) to rival the corporate goliath. He worries that a decade from now he may arrive at similar regrets when alternative network strategies like community or municipal broadband may by then have emerged as credible competition to the telecoms and telcos. Still, seeing at present no “Linus Torvalds of broadband,” he decides to stick with regulation.
Network neutrality shouldn’t be trumpeted uncritically, and it’s healthy and right for leading advocates like Lessig to air their concerns. But I think he goes too far in saying he was flat-out wrong about Microsoft in the late 90s. Even with the remarkable success of Linux, Microsoft’s hegemony across personal and office desktops seems more or less unshaken a decade after the DOJ intervened.
Allow me to add another wrinkle. What probably poses a far greater threat to Microsoft than Linux is the prospect of a web-based operating system of the kind that Google is becoming, a development that can only be hastened by the preservation of net neutrality since it lets Google continue to claim an outsized portion of last-mile bandwidth at a bargain rate, allowing them to grow and prosper all the more rapidly. What seems like an obvious good to most reasonable people might end up opening the door wider for the next Microsoft. This is not an argument against net neutrality, simply a consideration of the complexity of getting what we wish and fight for. Even if we win, there will be other fights ahead. United States vs. Google?

microsoft steps up book digitization

Back in June, Microsoft struck deals with the University of California and the University of Toronto to scan titles from their nearly 50 million (combined) books into its Windows Live Book Search service. Today, the Guardian reports that they’ve forged a new alliance with Cornell and are going to step up their scanning efforts toward a launch of the search portal sometime toward the beginning of next year. Microsoft will focus on public domain works, but is also courting publishers to submit in-copyright books.
Making these books searchable online is a great thing, but I’m worried by the implications of big coprorations building proprietary databases of public domain works. At the very least, we’ll need some sort of federated book search engine that can leap the walls of these competing services, matching text queries to texts in Google, Microsoft and the Open Content Alliance (which to my understanding is mostly Microsoft anyway).
But more important, we should get to work with OCR scanners and start extracting the texts to build our own databases. Even when they make the files available, as Google is starting to do, they’re giving them to us not as fully functioning digital texts (searchable, remixable), but as strings of snapshots of the scanned pages. That’s because they’re trying to keep control of the cultural DNA scanned from these books — that’s the value added to their search service.
But the public domain ought to be a public trust, a cultural infrastructure that is free to all. In the absence of some competing not-for-profit effort, we should at least start thinking about how we as stakeholders can demand better access to these public domain works. Microsoft and Google are free to scan them, and it’s good that someone has finally kickstarted a serious digitization campaign. It’s our job to hold them accountable, and to make sure that the public domain doesn’t get redefined as the semi-public domain.

u.c. offers up stacks to google

The APT BookScan 1200. Not what Google and OCA are using (their scanners are human-assisted), just a cool photo.

Less than two months after reaching a deal with Microsoft, the University of California has agreed to let Google scan its vast holdings (over 34 million volumes) into the Book Search database. Google will undoubtedly dig deeper into the holdings of the ten-campus system’s 100-plus libraries than Microsoft, which is a member of the more copyright-cautious Open Content Alliance, and will focus primarily on books unambiguously in the public domain. The Google-UC alliance comes as major lawsuits against Google from the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers are still in the evidence-gathering phase.
Meanwhile, across the drink, French publishing group La Martiniè re in June brought suit against Google for “counterfeiting and breach of intellectual property rights.” Pretty much the same claim as the American industry plaintiffs. Later that month, however, German publishing conglomerate WBG dropped a petition for a preliminary injunction against Google after a Hamburg court told them that they probably wouldn’t win. So what might the future hold? The European crystal ball is murky at best.
During this period of uncertainty, the OCA seems content to let Google be the legal lightning rod. If Google prevails, however, Microsoft and Yahoo will have a lot of catching up to do in stocking their book databases. But the two efforts may not be in such close competition as it would initially seem.
Google’s library initiative is an extremely bold commercial gambit. If it wins its cases, it stands to make a great deal of money, even after the tens of millions it is spending on the scanning and indexing the billions of pages, off a tiny commodity: the text snippet. But far from being the seed of a new literary remix culture, as Kevin Kelly would have us believe (and John Updike would have us lament), the snippet is simply an advertising hook for a vast ad network. Google’s not the Library of Babel, it’s the most sublimely sophisticated advertising company the world has ever seen (see this funny reflection on “snippet-dangling”). The OCA, on the other hand, is aimed at creating a legitimate online library, where books are not a means for profit, but an end in themselves.
Brewster Kahle, the founder and leader of the OCA, has a rather immodest aim: “to build the great library.” “That was the goal I set for myself 25 years ago,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in a profile last year. “It is now technically possible to live up to the dream of the Library of Alexandria.”
So while Google’s venture may be more daring, more outrageous, more exhaustive, more — you name it –, the OCA may, in its slow, cautious, more idealistic way, be building the foundations of something far more important and useful. Plus, Kahle’s got the Bookmobile. How can you not love the Bookmobile?

microsoft enlists big libraries but won’t push copyright envelope

In a significant challenge to Google, Microsoft has struck deals with the University of California (all ten campuses) and the University of Toronto to incorporate their vast library collections – nearly 50 million books in all – into Windows Live Book Search. However, a majority of these books won’t be eligible for inclusion in MS’s database. As a member of the decidedly cautious Open Content Alliance, Windows Live will restrict its scanning operations to books either clearly in the public domain or expressly submitted by publishers, leaving out the huge percentage of volumes in those libraries (if it’s at all like the Google five, we’re talking 75%) that are in copyright but out of print. Despite my deep reservations about Google’s ascendancy, they deserve credit for taking a much bolder stand on fair use, working to repair a major market failure by rescuing works from copyright purgatory. Although uploading libraries into a commercial search enclosure is an ambiguous sort of rescue.

google buys writely, or, the book is reading you, part 2

Last week Google bought Upstartle, a small company that created an online word processing program called Writely. writelylogo.gif Writely is like a stripped-down Microsoft Word, with the crucial difference that it exists entirely online, allowing you to write, edit, publish and store documents (individually or in collaboration with others) on the network without being tied to any particular machine or copy of a program. This evidently confirms the much speculated-about Google office suite with Writely and Gmail as cornerstone, and presumably has Bill Gates shitting bricks .
Back in January, I noted that Google requires you to be logged in with a Google ID to access full page views of copyrighted works in its Book Search service. Which gave me the eerie feeling that the books are reading us: capturing our clickstreams, keywords, zip codes even — and, of course, all the pages we’ve traversed. This isn’t necessarily a new thing. Amazon has been doing it for a while and has built a sophisticated personalized recommendation system out of it — a serendipity engine that makes up for some of the lost pleasures of browsing a physical store. There it seems fairly harmless, useful actually, though it depends on who you ask (my mother says it gives her the willies). Gmail is what has me spooked. The constant sprinkle of contextual ads in the margin attaching like barnacles to my bot-scoured correspondences. Google’s acquisition of Writely suggests that things will only get spookier.
I’ve been a webmail user for the past several years, and more recently a blogger (which is a sort of online word processing) but I’m uneasy about what the Writely-Google union portends — about moving the bulk of my creative output into a surveilled space where the actual content of what I’m working on becomes an asset of the private company that supplies the tools.
Imagine you’re writing your opus and ads, drawn from words and themes in your work, are popping up in the periphery. Or the program senses line breaks resembling verse, and you get solicited for publication — before you’ve even finished writing — in one of those suckers’ poetry anthologies. logo20.jpg Leave the cursor blinking too long on a blank page and it starts advertising cures for writers’ block. Copy from a copyrighted source and Writely orders you to cease and desist after matching your text in a unique character string database. Write an essay about terrorists and child pornographers and you find yourself flagged.
Reading and writing migrated to the computer, and now the computer — all except the basic hardware — is migrating to the network. We here at the institute talk about this as the dawn of the networked book, and we have open source software in development that will enable the writing of this new sort of born-digital book (online word processing being just part of it). But in many cases, the networked book will live in an increasingly commercial context, tattooed and watermarked (like our clothing) with a dozen bubbly logos and scoured by a million mechanical eyes.
Suddenly, that smarmy little paper clip character always popping up in Microsoft Word doesn’t seem quite so bad. Annoying as he is, at least he has an off switch. And at least he’s not taking your words and throwing them back at you as advertisements — re-writing you, as it were. Forgive me if I sound a bit paranoid — I’m just trying to underscore the privacy issues. Like a frog in a pot of slowly heating water, we don’t really notice until it’s too late that things are rising to a boil. Then again, being highly adaptive creatures, we’ll more likely get accustomed to this softer standard of privacy and learn to withstand the heat — or simply not be bothered at all.

powerpoint in transition

Hi, this is from Ray Cha, and I’ve just joined the folks at the Institute after working in various areas of commerical and educational new media. I also spend a lot of time thinking about the interplay between culture and technology. I read a small tidbit in this week’s Time magazine about PowerPoint and thought it would be a good topic for my first post.
Whether you love it (David Byrne) or hate it (Edward Tufte), PowerPoint is the industry standard presentation tool. Microsoft is gearing up to launch its long overdue PowerPoint upgrade in 2006. Time reports 400 million people use the application, and in a single day, 30 million presentations are given using it. Although the PowerPoint handout is still common, presentations are commonly created and showed only in a digital format. The presentation is a great example of how a medium goes through the process of becoming digitized.
When Microsoft purchased PowerPoint and its creator Forethought in 1987, presentations were shown on the once standard overhead projector and acetate slides. With PowerPoint’s Windows and DOS release, the software quickly replaced painstaking tedious letter transfers. However, PowerPoint presentations were still printed on expensive transparencies to be used with overhead projectors throughout the 1990s. As digital projectors became less expensive and more common in conference rooms, acetate slides became a rarity as the hand written letter did in the age of email.
Presentations were an obvious candidate to pioneer the transition into digital text. As stated, presentations were time intensive and expensive to produce and are often given off site. Therefore, a demand existed to improve on the standard way of creating and delivering presentations. I will also go out on a limb and also suggest that people did not have the emotional connection as they do with books, making the transition easier. In terms of the technological transfer, presentation creators already had desktop computers when PowerPoint was released with MS Office in 1990. By printing their PowerPoint output onto transparencies, display compatibility was not an issue. The PowerPoint user base could grow as the digital projector market expanded more slowly. This growth encouraged organizations to adapt to digital projectors as well. Overhead and digital projectors are a shared resource, therefore an organization only needs one project per conference room. These factors lead to fast track adoption. In contrast, ebook hardware is not efficiently shared, people have an emotional bond with paper-based books, and far fewer people write books than presentations. Only when handheld displays become as common and functional as mobile phones, will the days of paper handouts will be numbered.
Moving to a digital format has negative effects as mentioned by critics such as Tufte. Transferring each letter by hand did encourage text to concise and to the point. Also, transparencies were expensive as compared to PowerPoint slides, where the cost of the marginal slide is effectively zero, which is why we are often subjected to painstakingly long PowerPoint presentation. Although, these same critics argue that valuable time is wasted now in the infinite fiddling that occurs in the production of PowerPoint presentations at the expense of thinking about and developing content.
The development of the digital presentation begins to show the factors required to transfer text into a digital medium. Having an existing user base, a clear advantage in terms of cost and capability, the ability to allow users to use existing technology to either create or display the text, all start to reveal insight on how a printed text transforms into a digital medium.

microsoft joins open content alliance

Microsoft’s forthcoming “MSN Book Search” is the latest entity to join the Open Content Alliance, the non-controversial rival to Google Print. ZDNet says: “Microsoft has committed to paying for the digitization of 150,000 books in the first year, which will be about $5 million, assuming costs of about 10 cents a page and 300 pages, on average, per book…”
Apparently having learned from Google’s mistakes, OCA operates under a strict “opt-in” policy for publishers vis-a-vis copyrighted works (whereas with Google, publishers have until November 1 to opt out). Judging by the growing roster of participants, including Yahoo, the National Archives of Britain, the University of California, Columbia University, and Rice University, not to mention the Internet Archive, it would seem that less hubris equals more results, or at least lower legal fees. Supposedly there is some communication between Google and OCA about potential cooperation.
Also story in NY Times.

kurzweil’s techno-narcissism

Ray Kurzweil looks into the future and sees the singularity gazing back full of love. It whispers. It seduces. “Ray, take care. Preserve yourself. It will be another 50 years yet. Go. Preserve yourself with vitamins, fruits, infusions. Keep your body tender and vital, and soon enough you will be subsumed, you will transcend. The singularity is near!”
singularity.jpg Kurzweil’s book is out and it’s as big as a dictionary. A good friend of mine was given it as a gift a couple of nights ago for his birthday. After dinner, as we rode the crosstown bus toward a game of cards, I read the first few pages. Try holding this goliath in one hand! The bus was crowded and we were standing in the aisle, gripping the handles on the top rail. The bus lurched, and I cursed my physiognomy. If only I could download the damn thing into my brain! If only the singularity were here now!
Kurzweil’s theory, or rather, his unshakeable conviction, his messianic belief, is that we, the human species, are nearing the point (he predicts around 2045) when our tools will become more intelligent than us and we will merge – mentally, biologically, spiritually – with them. Computer processing, artificial intelligence, biotechnology are all developing at an exponential rate (the law of accelerating returns), and are approaching a point of singularity, an all-encompassing transformative power, that will enable us to eliminate poverty, eradicate hunger, and “transcend biology.”
The reason Kurzweil is preserving his body – “reprogramming his biochemistry,” as he puts it – is because he is convinced that in about a generation’s time we will be able to ingest millions of microscopic nanobots into our neural pathways that will turn our brains into supercomputers, and engineer ourselves to live as long as we please. We will become, to borrow a conceit from an earlier book of Kurzweil’s, “spiritual machines.”
I would like to say that I will take the time to read his book and engage with it in more than a passing (and admittedly reactionary) way. Perhaps we’ll make a project of reading Kurzweil here at the institute as a counterpoint to Neil Postman (see recent discussion). But I’m not sure how much of his flaming narcissism I can take. Kurzweil’s ideas of “transhumanism” are so divorced from any social context, so devoid of any acknowledgment of the destructive or enslaving capacities of technology, and above all, so self-involved (the fruit and vitamin regimen is no joke – and there is probably a black monolith at the foot of his bed), that I’m not quite sure how to have a useful discussion about them.
As an inventor, Kurzweil has made many valuable contributions to society, including text-to-speech synthesis and speech recognition technology that has greatly aided the blind. It is understandable that his success in these endeavors has instilled a certain faith in technology’s capacity to do good. But his ecstatic, almost sexual, enthusiasm for human-machine integration is more than a little grotesque. Kurzweil’s website and book jacket are splashed with approving quotes from big name technologists. But I don’t find it particularly reassuring, or convincing, to know that Bill Gates thinks

Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.

For a more reasoned, economic analysis of the possible outcomes of accelerating returns, read John Quiggins’ “The singularity and the knife-edge” on Crooked Timber. Another law – or if not a law, then at least a common sense suspicion – is that if the engine keeps accelerating and heating it up, it will eventually fall apart.