Try this at home?

An elusive goal of software development has been the invention of an easy-to-use platform that end users can write their own programs without having to rely on developers. Of course the very notion of “writing programs” is not exactly the kind of thing that you would expect your grandmother to do, not to mention business stakeholders who do not fall under the category of “power users.” To date, that goal has only been realized with the common office productivity tools that are equipped on just about every desktop which provide bare bones features for extending a spreadsheet or word processed document with a macro, and to varying extents, hobbyist programs like kinder simpler photo editors that are thrown in gratis with Windows or Mac platforms. But for the most part these are automation, not programming tools.

At the enterprise level, that of course has been the goal with BPM offerings, which are supposed to enable business stakeholders to model in business, rather than code executable terms, how their business processes run, or should run. Mashups in turn were supposed to provide extremely simple alternatives to integrating applications by focusing at the presentation rather than data, logic, or transaction levels. And the snowballing proliferation of enterprise mashup tools compete on a number of different features to make them safe for the business, the one common thread to most of them is that they minimize the need to drop down into coding JavaScript. However, no matter how visual mashup tools are, you still need developers or power users at some point of the lifecycle, whether it be to vet objects or sources than can be safely mashed up without violating some corporate policy, or to deal with some complexities of JavaScript under the hood.

Yesterday, the Mozilla Foundation fired the first shot in their attempt to transform the browser into a natural language mashup tool accessible to non-programmers. The project, appropriately titled Ubiquity, is supposed to enable anybody – not just JavaScript developers – to casually mash things up when you perform tasks like send emails. Let’s say you want to throw a party and invite a bunch of friends to a restaurant. Instead of signing up with a site like Evite, simply name the restaurant, hit an option key, type in “Map,” and voila, a Google Map with the location of the restaurant populates your email. Want some reviews or a display of the menu. Press the option key again and enter a command like “Yelp” and type in natural language that you want some reviews or display a menu. Of course, you can do similar things today by embedding links, but this makes the process a lot more direct.

Ubiquity is still at what Mozilla calls the 0.1 phase, which is the equivalent of a community preview alpha. In the long run, we’d doubt that Ubiquity will gain critical mass as standalone. Instead, we’d expect that third parties would write Firefox plug-ins that make the process much more graphical so you don’t have to type in a question, like “find me some reviews,” or more context-centric, such as party, meeting, or travel planners, and so on.

It’s a technology concept that could also lend itself to other leading portal sites like Facebook, Yahoo News, and so on for adding more context-centric productivity drop-down choices to embellish messaging, Wikis, micro-blogging, or other uses limited only by the imagination. Keep your eye on this. But on the other hand, don’t be lulled into the notion that Ubiquity will finally make developers non-ubiquitous at least in the enterprise, as at some point, companies still need to exercise adequate controls over the behavior of software and the data that it exposes.

Worldwide Wait 2.0

A hallmark of Web 2.0 is that the web is supposed to become more dynamic. That dynamism has been energized by critical mass broadband penetration, which in the U.S. now reaches over half of all households.

But unless you’re lucky (like us) to live within the Verizon FIOS service area, the future that’s supposedly already here is … not here yet. We’ve seen several fresh reminders over the past few weeks about the lack of connectivity, and how the issue is related to the fact that, while China is building cities, superhighways, metro lines, and networking, our physical and electronic infrastructure remains stuck in the 1960s.

No wonder that between 2001 and now, U.S. dropped from fourth to number 15 in broadband penetration. A proposed remedy by FCC chairman Kevin Martin to fund DSL-equivalent free WiMax access through royalties on wireless spectrum might contribute but a drop in the bucket.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been reminded of the penalties that the U.S. is paying for letting the ball drop when it comes to Internet infrastructure. We’ve also been reminded about the inertia of the media and entertainment industry in fully embracing the new technologies to revive what is a stagnant (in the case of music) or threatened (in the case of film) market. And we’ve been reminded about the resulting difference between hype and reality when it comes to the capabilities of the dynamic, location-based Internet that supposedly is already here today — but in reality is not.

Here are a few cases.

Basic Connectivity. About a month ago, we spent a lovely week up on the Maine coast. People who move to Deer Isle do so because they cherish the isolation — it’s 40 miles to the nearest McDonalds. But, unless you’re lucky enough to live on Highway 15, the main road, chances are, you’re still relying on dial-up Internet access. That is, if you’re lucky to get a dial-up line of any kind, because the copper wire phone system on Deer Isle is fully tapped out. You need to wait for somebody to move or die before getting a new line. About 18 months ago, Verizon sold off the landlines to Fairpoint Communications , which subsequently decided that the infrastructure was too obsolete to continue investing in. It promises — someday — to replace copper with fiber. You want mobile instead? Only a single minor carrier provides cell phone coverage. By contrast, back in 2003 we vacationed on the other side of the Gulf of Maine in Nova Scotia where virtually every town of any size had, not only broadband, but cellular coverage.

The hype of 3G. Adding 3G support to the iPhone was supposed to make it a true mobile Interenet device. Maybe it does — it certainly has a great UI and operating environment, but don’t take the Apple commercials literally, as this entry from agile development and Ruby on Rails tools development firm 37 Signals attests. Our mobile infrastructure — which was built on a divide-and-conquer rather than an interchangeable standards-based strategy, continues to deliver coverage that is spotty and inferior to the rest of the developed world.

Internet Home Media. There has been lots of press over the idea of dynamic movie downloads from the likes of Netflix. But when it comes down to old fashioned home entertainment — the stuff where you’re going to utilize home theater 100-inch flat screens and 5:2 sound, don’t count on internet streaming just yet, wrote colleague Andrew Brust recently.

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There are several issues here:

1. A national failure to mobilize to renew our nation’s infrastructure (we’re too hung up on keeping taxes low and letting the market sort it out to pay for it) that touches broader policy issues.
2. The inertia of certain sectors that feel threatened but could otherwise profit if they could only think out of the box.
3. Hype continues to outrace reality.

Politics and Architecture

An issue that constantly rears its ugly head is how you reconcile the ideals of architecture with the realities of organizational budgets, development priorities, and the existence of data and organizational silos. When selecting people with the right skills to implement SOA across their organizations, what is the right blend between skills and knowledge? More specifically, what is the best balance between organizational savvy and architectural/technology vision?

At the recent Open Group Enterprise Architects Practitioners conference held last month in Chicago, we sat with a panel led by Dana Gardner that included Eric Knorr, editor-in-chief of InfoWorld; colleague-in-combat Joe McKendrick; IBM Federal Software Group chief architect Andras Szakal; and David Cotterill, who has the enviable title but probably unenviable job as head of innovation for the U.K. Government Department for Work and Pensions, a social services agency.

You can read the transcript or download the podcast here.