Thursday, May 28, 2009

After the Cloud: Epilogue

After the Cloud:
  1. Prelude
  2. So Far
  3. The New Big
  4. To Atomic Computation and Beyond
  5. Open Heaps
  6. Heaps of Cash
  7. Epilogue

Though wildly exciting to imagine a future of computing where ubiquitous devices are more deeply integrated into the infrastructure we use to power our applications, the real purpose of these posts has been to explore possibilities.

Let's have crazy thoughts. Let's build upon them, imagining ways in which they could become a reality. Let's not only munch on the regular diet of the technical "now"; let's plant seeds in many experiments for the future.

This post is about thinking of small, mobile devices and cloud computing. But it's also a rough template. Let's do the same thing for a the desktop: how might it evolve? Where will users be spending their time? Let's do it for the OS and the kernel: what radical changes can we envision there? The technology behind health care. Education. Our new patterns of behaviour in a constantly changing world. All of these and more deserve our attention.

The more we discuss such topics in a public forum, the more thought will be given to them. Such increased awareness and attention might spark the light of innovation years ahead of time, and do so in the context of an open exchange of ideas. Let's have Moore's law for the improved quality of life with regard to technology; let's take it out of the chip and into our lives.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Canonical's Vision

Canonical's most recent AllHands meeting finished last night (this morning, really... I can't believe I got up at 7:30am), and I'm somewhat at a loss for words. In a good way.

But I'll try anyway :-)

As someone who was highly skeptical of the validity of Canonical's business model prior to working here, I can say that not only do I not doubt our ability to be a hugely successful company, but I am deeply committed to that success. Before AllHands, Canonical had earned my respect and loyalty through the consistent support and care of its employees. After AllHands, I have a much greater practical, hands-on understanding of Canonical's strategies and the various projects involved in creating a reality of success.

What's more, though, is the completeness of my belief in the people and the vision. This is thanks to the massive exposure we've had during AllHands to the collective vision; the team projects; all the individuals with amazing histories, skills, unbelievable talent and ability to deliver; and most of all, the dedication that each employee of Canonical has to truly making the world a better place for anyone who depends upon technology.

Ubuntu is free, and that's great. But Canonical needs to be a huge commercial success if its free OS distribution is going to have the power to transform the market and thus people's lives. This AllHands has given me a complete picture of how that will happen: we're all working on a different part of this puzzle, and we're all making it happen.

Success in the marketplace is crucial. Not because of greed or the lust for power, but because we live in a world where value is exchanged. As part of that ecosystem, we want to bring the greatest value to the people. This is not "selling out"; it's selling. This does not give away a user's freedom; it helps guarantee its continued safety in a competitive, capitalist society.

If we want anyone to embrace Ubuntu instead of a non-free OS -- without asking our users to sacrifice anything -- we're going to need to make very serious changes in design, usability, integration, and stability. To do this in a clean, unified manner really only comes with a significant investment of time, direction, and capital. Due to the seriousness of Canonical's altruistic vision, as we generate this capital, we're making the dream come true for the world.

At AllHands, I've seen designs that will seriously challenge Apple. I've seen a usability team's plans for true computing goodness. I've seen revenue models that have made my jaw drop. I've seen glimpses of the bright future.

And baby, it's exciting as hell.

Monday, May 18, 2009

After the Cloud: Heaps of Cash

After the Cloud:
  1. Prelude
  2. So Far
  3. The New Big
  4. To Atomic Computation and Beyond
  5. Open Heaps
  6. Heaps of Cash
  7. Epilogue

A One-Two Punch

Let me give you the punchline first, this time. Imagine a service that:
  1. Combines the cloud management features of EC2 for any system (in this case, mobile devices), the monitoring and update management of Canonical's Landscape, the buying/selling power of an e-commerce application, the auctioning capabilities of eBay, and the data of marketing campaigns.
  2. Seamlessly integrates all this into a cloud (Open Heap!) provisioning/acquisition system or as part of your mobile provider's billing and information web pages.
So where does the cash come in?

Power to the People

As usual, revenue would depend upon market adoption. That would depend upon appeal (addressed with marketing), usefulness (addressed by software engineering and usability), and viability. That last one's particularly interesting, as it's where people and the cash intersect.

A product suite and service, all built around open heaps, could have a long and fruitful life if implemented with the end user in mind. Users would have the opportunity to become partners in an extraordinary way: they would be consuming a service, while at the same time, being given the opportunity to resell a portion of that service for use in the cloud-like architectures of open heaps.

The first company that does this really well would have a continuously growing following of users. This company would be helping consumers earn immediate cash back on their property. This is something I believe deeply in; it's a positive manifestation of the continuing evolution of the consumer's role in the market. I'm convinced that the more symbiotic a relationship between consumer and producer, the healthier an economy will be.


In an open heap scenario, there are two providers: the mobile phone provider and the heap provider. Phone companies get to make money from the deal passively: through a partnership that provides them with a certain percentage of the revenue or indirectly through heap-related network use.

The heap provider (e.g., someone like Amazon or RightScale), would stand to make the most of everyone. Even though they wouldn't own the devices themselves (in contrast to current cloud providers), they would be able to assess fees on various transactions and for related services.

Imagine application developers "renting" potential CPU, memory, storage and bandwitdth from a heap that included 100s of 1000s of mobile users. The heap provider would be the trusted third party between the device owner and the application developer. In this way, the provider acts like an escrow service and can asses feeds accordingly.

Imagine a dynamic sub-market that arises out of this sort of provisioning: with millions of devices to choose from, a user is going to want to make theirs more appealing than 1000s of others. Enter auctions. Look at how much money eBay makes. Look at the fractional fees that they asses... fees which have earned them billions of dollars.

Throw in value-adds like monitoring and specialized management features, and you've got additional sources of revenue. There's a lot of potential in something like this...

Obviously, all of this is little more than creative musing. The technology isn't quite there yet for a lot of what is required to make this a reality. Regardless, given the shere numbers of small, networkable devices in our society, we need to explore how to best exploit untapped resources in mobile computing, providing additional, cheaper environments for small applications, decreasing the dependency we have upon large data centers, and hopefully reducing the draw on power grids. We need decentralized, secure storage and processing. We need smarter, more fair, consumer-as-beneficiary, economies.

Next, we develope a new segment of the market, where any user or company with one or more networked devices would be able to log in to an open heap provider's software and offer their machine as another member in that cloud. There's a lot of work involved in making that happen, much of it focused on the design and implementation of really good software.

If we can accomplish all that, we will have reinvented the cloud as something far greater and more flexible than it is today.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

After the Cloud: Open Heaps

After the Cloud:
  1. Prelude
  2. So Far
  3. The New Big
  4. To Atomic Computation and Beyond
  5. Open Heaps
  6. Heaps of Cash
  7. Epilogue


Up to now, we've considered technical explorations and possible related future directions for the technology surrounding the support of distributed applications and infrastructure. This post takes a break and returns to thoughts of provisioning resources on small devices such as mobile phones. As stated in To Atomic Computation and Beyond:
This could be just the platform for running small processes in a distributed environment. And making it a reality could prove to be quite lucrative. A forthcoming blog post will explore more about the possibilities involved with phone clouds...
But first, I'm so tired of the term "cloud," so I did some free-association... from cloud to clouds to "tons of little clouds" to "close to the ground" to cumulus to heap (Latin for "cumulus"). Heap! It's irresistible :-)

"Open" is such a terribly abused word these days (more so than cloud), but using it as an adjective for a wild collection of ad-hoc, virtualized process spaces satisfies some subtle sense of humor. Open Heaps it is.

Starting Points

Let's think about the medium in our example: cellular telephony. Is there a potential market here? Here are some raw numbers from Wikipedia:
By November 2007, the total number of mobile phone subscriptions in the world had reached 3.3 billion, or half of the human population (although some users have multiple subscriptions, or inactive subscriptions), which also makes the mobile phone the most widely spread technology and the most common electronic device in the world.
I think we can count that as a tentative "yes."

Can we do this the easy way and just use TCP/IP? In other words, what about using WiFi phones or dual-mode mobile phones as the communication medium for devices in our open heaps? Well, that would certainly make many things much easier, since everything would stay in the TCP/IP universe. However, the market penetration of standard mobile phones is so much greater in comparison.

That being said, how many currently operating phones are capable of serving content on the internet, running background processes, etc.? Maybe only a small fraction, perhaps even enough to justify supporting only devices such as handhelds, smartphones, MIDs, UMPCs, and Netbooks.

Two possibilities for ventures here might be:
  1. A startup that developed an Open Heap offering for any Internet-connected device.
  2. A company that formed a partnership with one or more mobile carriers, acting as a bridge between the carrier-controlled network/device-management capabilities and the Internet.

The Business Problem

So, let's say we've got the technology ready to go that will allow users to upload a process hypervisor to their phones, and that this technology provides the ability for users to allot process resources (e.g., RAM, CPU, storage). There are still a couple basic principles to address to justify a business in this area:
  1. How will people be better off with this than without it?
  2. How will this technology generate revenue?
In general, I believe that consumers are always better off with more choices. I also believe that balanced systems run better than those that are rigged to benefit just one group. As such, I have an idealist's interest in things like Open Heaps, as they will empower interested consumers to earn revenue (however small) on their own property (mobile phones and other devices with marketable resources). What's more, if there are billions of devices available as nodes in Open Heaps, and there is a computing demand for those resources, then there will inevitably be competitors aiming to capitalize on them. Generally speaking, I also believe that increased competition provides a better chance for improved quality of service.

Conversely, imagine that Open Heaps don't happen, that the idle resources of mobile devices (or any other eligible equipment) either remain untapped of their potential or, worse, are put to use by corporations that only desire the end consumer to have limited power over their own property and how it's used. Dire scenarios aren't difficult to imagine, thanks to various examples of anti-consumer behaviour we've seen from large corporations and special interest organizations in the recent past.

So, yes -- I think we can make a case for this being of benefit to consumers (and thus a marketer's dream!). The more prevalent mobile devices become, the more they will integrate into our daily lives... and the more important it will be that these are managed as the rightful property of the consumer, people that have the right to rent or lease and profit from their property as they see fit.

But, how could this generate revenue?

Next up: Gimme da cash!