Thursday, July 06, 2006

New old trends in software evolution

An otherwise unremarkable NYT article on Web 2.0 mashups ends with a review of some novel new projects. Similar projects were underway in the late 1990s, but they were derailed with the .com crash. I worked, for example, on an electronic medical record project that used some of these approaches. Now they're back. Very interesting. Now if only we could remove the relationship between employment and healthcare benefits. I think that's the single biggest block to new opportunities for many Americans ...
Software Out There - New York Times

... Another new idea comes from Amazon, whose Web Services group recently introduced a service called the Mechanical Turk, an homage to an 18th-century chess-playing machine that was actually governed by a hidden human chess player.

The idea behind the service is to find a simple way to organize and commercialize human brain power.

"You can see how this enables massively parallel human computing," said Felipe Cabrera, vice president for software development at Amazon Web Services.

One new start-up, Casting Words, is taking advantage of the Amazon service, known as Mturk, to offer automated transcription using human transcribers for less than half the cost of typical commercial online services.

Mturk allows vendors to post what it calls "human intelligence tasks," which may vary from simple transcription to identifying objects in photos.

Amazon takes a 10 percent commission above what a service like Casting Words pays a human transcriber. People who are willing to work as transcribers simply download audio files and then post text files when they have completed the transcription. Casting Words is currently charging 42 cents a minute for the service.

Other examples are also intriguing. A9, Amazon's search engine, is using Mturk to automate a system for determining the quality of photos, using human checkers. Other companies are using the Web service as a simple mechanism to build polling systems for market research.

The impact of modular software will certainly accelerate as the Internet becomes more accessible from wireless handsets.

Scott Rafer, who was formerly the chief executive of Feedster, a Weblog search engine, has recently become chairman of Wireless Ink, a Web-based service that allows wireless users to quickly establish mobile Web sites from anywhere via Web-enabled cellphones.

Using modular software technologies, they have created a service called WINKsite, which makes it possible to use cellphones to chat, blog, read news and keep a personal calendar. These systems are typically used by young urban professionals who are tied together in loosely affiliated social networks. In London, where cellphone text messaging is nearly ubiquitous, they are used to organize impromptu gatherings at nightclubs.

Recently, Wireless Ink struck a deal with Metroblogging, a wireless blogging service, to use its technology. Metroblogging, which already has blogs in 43 cities around the world, lets bloggers quickly post first-person accounts of news events like the July 2005 London bombings.

"Here are two tiny start-ups in California that care about Karachi and Islamabad," Mr. Rafer said. "It's weird, I'll grant you, but it is becoming increasingly common.

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