Sailing through the perfect storm

The CTO Forum was a blast. (Here are the keynote slides.) Yesterday's mid-day speaker, Greg Papadopoulos, delivered the message that Tom Yager has previously reported. The nodes of the network that is the computer will soon multiply beyond number and vanish into the woodwork. Sun intends to manage that network. When Tom and I got a few minutes to chat with Greg later in the day, I mentioned that I'd heard the same thing from Novell's Bob Frankenburg, at BrainShare 1995, when he talked up the idea of billions of Novell-managed gadgets ranging from Las Vegas slot machines to refrigerators. Yup, Greg nodded. Right idea, too soon. Low-power network-intelligent devices weren't dirt cheap then, and they couldn't communicate wirelessly. But the inflection point is now arriving.

The bottom-line reason to care about this stuff is often not spelled out. But years ago, during a BYTE demo, an Intel guy whose name I've long forgotten -- if you are that guy, please stand up and be recognized -- made it crystal clear by asking a profound question: "Why don't I have an itemized electric bill?" Why not, indeed? My cellphone provider bludgeons me with 15 pages of line-by-line detail. But my electric bill is a single number. Why can't I know that a new refrigerator would pay for itself in 12 years? How can I evaluate whether to keep on heating water with electricity, or recruit the oil furnace for that purpose? Astonishingly large sums of money depend on answers to these questions.

The conference wrap-up was a three-way conversation with me, executive news editor Mark Jones, and Ray Ozzie. Here's Cathleen Moore's writeup. Here are a few other bits I remember:

On cryptographic key management. Ray recalled the case of an organization-that-shall-remain nameless whose master passphrase was found posted on a company bulletin board. Oops. 100,000 workstations had to be rekeyed. The larger point, with which I violently agree, is that we still don't know how to manage keys, and WS-Security doesn't (can't) solve that.

On awareness of human interruptibility. Security isn't the only challenge for IM in the enterprise. I argued that constant interruption (see Ole Eichhorn's Tyranny of Email) is equally problematic. The prospect of using your phone as a proxy for presence is, therefore, both compellingly cool and very scary. Ray's notion: you thumb a switch on your phone to dial your availability up or down (not just on or off); apps and other devices tune into that preference. Obviously, we all need that yesterday.

I really enjoyed the conversation, and indeed the whole event. If anyone else has blogged the conference, please let me know. Meanwhile, here's a oddball bit of closing perspective. Suppose a certain panel discussion were scheduled for the doldrums between lunch and cocktails. And suppose, just hypothetically, you were using EtherPEG to gather the Web images flying through the air. Here are some of the things you might have seen:

snow white and the seven dwarves, siamese cat, team of engineers, harry potter dvd, desert scene, b52 bombers, dell dimension 2350 ad, mountain biker, cnn reporter headshot, marriott rewards program banner, snow white and the seven dwarves (again), french fries, blue sky and clouds, wolf blitzer, cellphone, john mccain, iraqi military official, crn test center logo, abrams tank, dow jones stock chart, crescent wrench, eweek cover, bill gates, baseball players, patty hearst, brie cheese ad, joseph lieberman, apple wwdc 2003 ad

When Rob Flickenger tapped into the geek noosphere at last year's ETech, he observed a progressive downward spiral into images of horror and destruction, and concluded:

I have stared at the sun, and for the sake of my sanity, will never again look directly at the consciousness of the online uber-geek collective.
The CTOs assembled at our conference are commanders of ships that are sailing through what InfoWorld CEO Kevin McKean calls "a perfect storm." But I judged the mood of the conference as one of determination and pragmatic optimism. And my peek into the collective subconscious of the group -- or rather, those not tunneling through a VPN -- did not contradict that impression.

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