[sociate] FW: NYT - Fallows - Working at the PC Isn't So Lonely Anymore

  • From: "Jerry Michalski" <jerry@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <sociate@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 31 Dec 2005 21:29:39 -0500

Hey there! Happy New Year! 

Jim Fallows has been writing about collaboration and mind-mapping technology
for ages. When Harlan Hugh (TheBrain's inventor) put my Brain on the web
again recently, I dropped Jim a note, and he said he might mention it in his
NYT column. 

He just did, in a paragraph about 2/3 the way down the following article. 

Too bad this is his last column in the NYT, and that he somehow worded the
paragraph on my Brain such that my Brain's tinyURL, merely an addressing
convenience, looks like a name I've given it. Ah, well. 

It's a nice way to start the year, nonetheless. 

Wishing you a fabulous 2006,



Working at the PC Isn't So Lonely Anymore By JAMES FALLOWS
Published: January 1, 2006

IN the beginning, personal computers were for loners. You sat at the desk
and stared at the screen. To involve anyone else in what you were doing, you
had to pull up an extra chair at that same desk, or carry a printout or
floppy disk containing your work to a friend's or a workmate's machine.

Working with computers became interesting, as opposed to merely useful, when
it became a social activity. E-mail was the first big step, and the Internet
the second. Now, with the BlackBerry and Skype and municipal WiFi and the
omnipresent cellphone, it is tempting to think that technology has given us
too many ways to stay in touch.

But if the history of communications shows anything, it is that the demand
for connectedness is limitless. (And round-the-clock communication makes the
occasional disconnected interlude, whether a vacation or a mere two-hour
airline flight, all the more precious.) So the most promising tech
developments are often those that offer yet another way to satisfy the
primeval human urge for contact.

I've recently learned about another such development by trying the
prerelease version of a program that will go on sale later this month. It is
called NoteShare, and it comes from AquaMinds, the company that produces a
popular Macintosh organizer, NoteTaker. The program is designed specifically
for the social aspects of computing, and its significance is how easy it
makes what has been a very complicated and challenging undertaking.

The purpose of NoteShare is to let people work together - on projects,
reports, Web pages, musical compositions or practically anything else they
might do individually at their own computers. Programs that seem similar are
already available from countless vendors, since the race to create the best
"collaboration software" has been under way for many years.

But most existing programs have one of two limitations. If they are easy to
use, they are not very powerful. And if they are powerful, they can be
difficult to use and especially complicated to create and maintain.

To illustrate the first problem: it is easy for me to send you a draft memo
in an e-mail message, and it is easy for you to send comments back by
e-mail, phone call or instant message. But we're not really "working
together" in real time.

To illustrate the second: if we both work at a company that offers the
complex and expensive software needed for true collaboration, we're at the
mercy of the I.T. department to configure it and to keep it running, and we
could never set up such a system at home.

Based on what I have seen over the last month, NoteShare genuinely does make
it possible for ordinary users to create collaborative systems, with little
muss or fuss. Here's the procedure, which for now is strictly for the Apple

One person, using a PowerBook, Mac mini or other Macintosh computer, creates
a NoteShare "notebook," the basis of the shared effort. On the screen, it
looks like a spiral-bound pad with pages that can contain text, drawings,
video or audio clips, Web pages, live Java plug-ins or other digital matter.
That person then presses a "Share Notebook" key. The Macintosh's built-in
"Bonjour" technology detects others running NoteShare on the local home or
workplace network, and lets those users read, edit and add to that notebook.
Via the Internet, Mac users elsewhere can share the notebook in real time.
At any given moment, only one user can make changes, while the others watch.
But the editing "pen" can be passed from user to user almost instantly.

NoteShare has been tested with up to 36 people using the same notebook at
once. (This version, which will cost $149.95, will be available later this
month. A version that will let PC users read notebooks and do limited
editing is planned for later this year.)

The result is that, with very easy setup procedures, people in the same room
or in different countries can watch one another edit the same document or
drawing. You add a paragraph, and I see it on my screen. I add a new title,
and you see how it looks.

"It's not just what you can do with the technology. It's how much effort and
time delay it takes to get it done," Marc S. Gerstein, a management
consultant, wrote to me, via a shared notebook. "People who trivialize the
importance of ease of setup have obviously never tried to get on the
priority list of a big company I.T. department."

The Berklee College of Music, in Boston, already supplies NoteTaker software
to all 3,850 of its students and plans to issue NoteShare to them, too.
David Mash, its vice president for information technology, wrote that
because "notebooks are immediately available without servers," students can
"collaborate on projects as the ideas hit them." For instance, they could
"drag their music into a notebook, add some comments and ask for criticism"
from friends and teachers on the network.

Whether this program will work commercially, I have no idea. Its Mac-only
nature obviously limits its market. But its design expresses two impulses
that are both the history and the future of the computing business: letting
people connect more thoroughly, broadly and richly; and making it steadily
easier for them to do so.

This is the 22nd monthly column I have done for these pages, and it will be
the last. The Atlantic Monthly, the magazine for which I work and in which I
first wrote about personal computing some 25 years ago, is expanding its
technology coverage, and I will write a similar column there.

In the English-speaking world there is no better platform than The New York
Times, and I have greatly enjoyed the response from readers in diverse
corners of that world. I've enjoyed most of it, anyway; the exceptions know
who they are. I've also enjoyed something that makes covering the broad
world of technology different from, say, covering Congressional politics:
each time you write about one development, you learn about five other
encouraging trends.

To ease my conscience, here is a partial list of items I had hoped to work
through, if I had been writing twice as often or if the columns were twice
as long.

A book by Jeff Hawkins, best known as the inventor of the Palm Pilot. The
book, written with Sandra Blakeslee, is called "On Intelligence," and it is
about the connection between deep brain structure and some peculiarities of
human thought. It asks, for instance, why the first few notes of a song you
heard decades ago can instantly bring all the lyrics to mind, when you can't
remember the computer password you created yesterday. His answers have
implications for the future of computing.

Tinyurl.com/9lsr9, a site created by the consultant Jerry Michalski, which
shows the possibilities that lurk in a program called the Brain. Mr.
Michalski has used this program to store everything he has noticed or
thought about over the last decade. The results are more intriguing than
practical, but intriguing they are.

The ins and outs of a tantalizing program called dtSearch, which brings to
Windows computers the same semantic-search possibilities as DevonThink, the
Mac program I mentioned last month. The contrast between them is a microcosm
of the contrast between the PC and Mac worlds. The PC version is much more
complicated and also more powerful.

A shift in the locus of innovation. Fifteen years ago, I took it for granted
that nearly all interesting software would be from America, and the
interesting hardware from Asia. The hardware still is Asian, but more and
more of the software is from across Europe: Ireland, England, Estonia and

An essay question for readers: "Spam filtering programs: Is the cure worse
than the disease?" Each week various anti-spam programs trap several
messages I want to receive. That bothers me more than the previous spam did.
What's the way out?

A business question: Will the tech world ever again create a "natural
monopoly" as perfect as eBay's? Once an auction site becomes popular, buyers
and sellers have an incentive to use that site only, for maximum exposure.
What would it take to dislodge eBay?

A final point, and no joke: The most important tech-related question of 2006
is whether America's electoral system will become more trustworthy, or less,
as it becomes more computerized. The technical steps needed to make
computerized voting fair, accurate and accountable have been spelled out
repeatedly (and discussed here), most recently in a report by former
President Jimmy Carter and James A. Baker III, the former secretary of
state. Many states have passed appropriate laws, but many other states and
the federal government have not. If anyone is looking for a political cause,
I suggest this one. VerifiedVoting.org is a good place to start.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.


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