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Perspective: A mosaic of new opportunities

Groove Networks CEO Ray Ozzie takes issue with fellow execs mourning the decline of the tech industry--and Silicon Valley in particular. But in an increasingly connected future, computer systems and technologies must evolve or people will simply be unable to cope, he cautions.

In the late 1980s, the immediacy of CNN's 24-hour-a-day global broadcasts helped shrink the globe. Distances got even smaller after the Web allowed individuals to become more personally engaged in distant events shaping their lives--from crises over nuclear reactors in North Korea to the outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong.

Tech visionary Mark Anderson offers the view that we've since been building what he calls the "Global Computer," in which every transistor is connected to every other around the world through the two-way pipe of the Internet. Some might think we've already explored the depths of this vision, but the reality is we've barely dipped beneath the surface.

Just as the first generation of personal computers was mostly about personal productivity, the first generation of the Internet has largely been about centralized Web sites, used for publishers, transactions and e-mail. For the most part, all seems well and good. At a personal level, however, many of us are overwhelmed. We're chained to e-mail and the Web, drowning in an information flood that leaves us feeling more and more like human message-processing machines.

Unfortunately, mainstay tools are falling behind our needs. Software was conceived in an era with substantially different requirements. For example, e-mail emerged 30 years ago, when computer viruses, spam and e-mail overload weren't even on the radar screen. That era could not conceive of a future in which we'd deal daily with online documents and presentations, e-mail and instant messages, Web sites and blogs.

Each of us will soon face hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of "inputs" that we'll need to continuously absorb and coordinate. A world with complex social, economic, organizational and personal interdependencies is inevitable. And as we near this linked future, systems and technologies must evolve or we will simply be unable to cope. What will this coming transformation look like? Here are some ideas:

Personal productivity tools will become joint productivity tools designed for online use instead of a paper-only world. A rich cadre of collaborative online writing, media management, presentation and consumption tools will move to the forefront of our daily electronic lives.

The PC operating system will be transformed. Instead of serving as a manager of off-the-shelf software and files and disks, it will primarily focus on enabling untrustworthy Internet-based software to be loaded and used safely and securely. It will also superbly manage rich multimedia presentations, interactions and storage.

A distinct third layer will emerge between the operating system and productivity layers. Think of it as a "virtual workspace" layer that links together all of your own computers and those operated by people with whom you work. The workspace will become as common in our lexicon as is the folder today. But more than just a container of files, the workspace will be a flexible container that brings together people, information and the tools relevant to the nature of your work. Many of today's operating system concepts will migrate into this layer as most of what you do will involve other people and computers.

We're chained to e-mail and the Web, drowning in an information flood that leaves us feeling more and more like human message-processing machines.
Taken together, these changes will transform the personal computer into an interpersonal computer. This will be a rich, self-synchronized and readily interchangeable device focused specifically on people and what they do with one another online.

To cope with the dramatically increased inflow of information and online interaction, systems and tools also will adopt a new design and usage pattern.

• Most people now use browsers to pull information from the Internet or visit Web sites to check what's new. In the future, virtually every Internet information and transaction provider will expose a broad array of events--such as the availability of news or messages--that can be subscribed to using standard protocols. Higher-level subscription aggregation services will automatically filter and prioritize incoming events according to programmed criteria.

• Individuals will use a broad variety of desktop and server-based tools to manage and rank those subscriptions and resulting notifications. Knowing when you can and cannot be interrupted, some notifications will wind up on your pocket phone, while others will get sent to your PDA or desktop computer. Some might be aggregated for you to check on a daily or weekly basis while still others might be processed automatically.

After notification of something that requires a set of people to take a collective decision, you will be able to create a shared virtual workspace. These workspaces will instantly and securely bring together people with the information and software tools they need to work in a medium suiting the tempo of the interaction.

• Workspace participants will be able to converse and interact in whatever manner they need to get the job done. This might involve adding or changing participants, information or tools as appropriate. It may also require shifting from one medium to another depending upon work style requirements.

• When the action or decision is made, or in some cases even while the work is in progress, the status or result of the online work may be published to centralized databases or systems, enabling others to benefit from the results of the interaction. Of course, others may also have subscribed to the workspace awaiting its results; in this case the cycle repeats.

Even though our current use of PCs, productivity tools, e-mail and the Web seems quite sophisticated, we've only just begun to understand how to apply them and effectively realize their benefits.
Even though our current use of PCs, productivity tools, e-mail and the Web seems quite sophisticated, we've only just begun to understand how to apply them and effectively realize their benefits. The next 10 years will find us moving decidedly from an era of personal productivity to one of joint productivity and social software. That will involve a move from tightly coupled systems to more loosely coupled interconnections. It will be an era of highly interdependent systems and relationships, with technology continuing to reshape the nature of organizations, economy, society and personal lives.

At a time when many are mourning the state of the tech industry in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, I've never seen such potential. Both as technologists and as small, loosely joined voices, each of us has the opportunity to impact the nature of business as well as the nature of the commons in the decade ahead.