I’ve been thinking about Professor Anthony Joseph’s talk at the CITRIS in Europe meeting in June. He talked about IP and Telco network convergence and presented the ICEBERG Universal Inbox system his research group had implemented at the UC Berkeley. In brief, the system transforms and redirects communications between cellular and landline phone systems, email, instant messaging and VoIP.
A system such as the ICEBERG Universal Inbox looks like a very potent cure for our communications frustration by removing our need to handle multiple systems and replacing them with “any-to-any” communications. The system makes the person the communication endpoint by doing transformations of
- Speech to text
- Speech to voice email attachments
- Call to SMS or email notification
- Email to speech
- And all combinations of those
So, User1 could contact User2 with any device she has at hand at the time, and the system would dynamically redirect the connection to any of User2′s devices, based on precense sniffing: desk phone, mobile, VoIP, or a voice Email attachment, whatever is most convenient to the recipient. Sounds like a nice, futuristic vision, but Anthony’s group has already implemented a working system with 80 users at Berkeley’s testbed site.
I chatted with Prof. Joseph afterwards over coctails and foamed over how cool it would be to see a commercial implementation of a similar system. I asked him if such a system would be feasible, and according to him it’s not “completely unfeasible”, and that it would “definitely be a commercial system.” What I’ve been thinking about lately, however, is Google.
Over the CITRIS cocktails, Anthony and I talked a bit about Google and how they are mixing Google Talk and Gmail in a manner not so different from Berkeley’s ICEBERG system, albeit not in such a comprehensive way. When I mused about how Google would probably enjoy a situation where your Google ID would be the key to your Universal Inbox, Dr. Joseph said, “Oh, Google would love that.”
I’m sure they would.
In fact, some people think Google would like even much more than that. Google already has my mail and my Jabber/Google Talk logs. I have even made backups of my entire home directory on Google’s servers with the handy Gmail Space Firefox extension. I don’t see why Google couldn’t do speech to text conversions and vice versa in the future, and store all my VoIP calls if i let them. My Google ID might very well become not only my Universal Inbox, but much, much more.
In his Slate article entitled “Where’s my Google PC?” Paul Boutin notes, “We might not realize it, but we all already have Google PCs,” and he might be right. Google is slowly gathering a pretty impressive combination of online applications that already are powerful enough to replace some of the regular home user’s desktop applications. “Technically there’s no reason Google couldn’t build the world’s best network computer.”
Boutin goes on to explain some of the clear advantages of networked computers, including one that may seem counterintuitive at first but if you think about it, it’s true: “Dollar for dollar, network-based computers are faster,” since
Home computers are marketed with slogans like “Ultimate Performance,” but the truth is they’re engineered to run cool, quiet, and slow compared to commercial servers. Google’s Web search is blindingly fast because your requests get handled by a sprawling array of loud, hot, power-hungry server racks that you’d never allow in your house. All your home computer has to do is draw the results of Google’s massive data-mining process on its screen—that’s the easy part.
There are problems with the Google OS too, of course. First, it relies on fast and reliable networks. We don’t have those, and the vast majority will not have them for a long time to come. The other, of course, is this simple question: Do you trust your data to Google? Microsoft holds the data of many people, companies, and even nations hostage with their omnipresent systems and proprietary file formats, but Google could actually host it on their servers.
Back at the CITRIS meeting, another of the more interesting talks came from Microsoft’s VP Jonathan Murray, who flatly noted that MS and others will inevitably build very powerful information systems but governments are not willing to deal with their implications. The questions are simple: If I opt out of integrating my life with computed environments, will I get health care when I’m old? Can I vote if I’m not on the online loop? Do I have access to the data my government gathers about me? How much data is it if the first place, and how can I be sure? Does my own government even control my data? What about Google Search itself? Should the Finnish government insist that if a search query originates from Finland, Finnish businesses and culture be given priority, or is it OK for Google to suggest the most popular American ones? And so on, enldessly.
How do you regulate such systems when they become even more powerful? According to Jonathan (who is responsible for Microsoft’s public sector relations), governments don’t even want to think about such things. Maybe such issues are too difficult, or maybe they do not seem pressing enough in the short lifetime of an elected government.
(Edited July 28, 2006. Fixed a couple of typos, expanded the Boutin quote a bit, added a couple of questions to the part about govenments and the lack of clue, made the text flow more sane by moving a sentence between paragraphs.)