Relationships are us

The central premise of WinFS, as originally planned, was embodied in its notion of relationships. Because these were first-class constructs in the database, you would be able to answer questions like "Where are the recent documents related to project X?" The relationship here, between documents and projects, can exist because both documents and projects (and people) are formally represented as first-class constructs in the database. But where do they come from?

Relationships among items begin as relationships among people that form in fluid and ad-hoc ways, across platform boundaries, mediated by open protocols. Today I find things mostly by recalling who, and then by searching email and the web -- ideally aided by self-assigned or group-assigned tags -- to discover what and when. Designed in the waning days of personal computing, WinFS failed to acknowledged the emergence of social computing and its transformative power.

If there must be an epitaph, let's write it for personal computing rather than for WinFS. The years of hard work invested in what Quentin Clark calls the object/relational/XML trinity of data-management technologies can still bear fruit -- if they're cultivated on common ground. Six months ago I'd have doubted that could happen. But now that Ray Ozzie has announced Simple Sharing Extensions for RSS, demonstrated LiveClipboard at ETech, and inherited Bill Gates' old job as chief software architect, I'm thinking maybe it can. [Full story at]

Microsoft's Matt Augustine recently advanced the SSE/LiveClipboard story in a presentation at Supernova that's nicely captured in this screencast. I watched it with mixed feelings. It's wonderful to see Microsoft working on two-way calendar synchronization based on open standards. But first things first. It's been four months since the debut of Live Clipboard. I studied the implementation and made my own screencast exploring how it works, but I've yet to encounter a single use of this excellent web-based copy/paste mechanism in the wild, either at or elsewhere. If I'm missing the boat, somebody please point me to a list of sites and I'll happily stand corrected.

Achieving viral adoption of the basic copy/paste technique -- by whatever means necessary -- must precede, and will crucially inform, efforts to establish more advanced techniques like two-way item sharing. The analogy to NetDDE resonates powerfully for me. Years ago a Microsoft executive told me (a bit patronizingly) that once in a while an unbeatable platform comes along, and when it does you had better join it. The platform he was talking about was Windows 3.1, a system that made great use of the local area network but was still fundamentally about personal computing. Its very cool NetDDE (Network Dynamic Data Exchange) technology was the spiritual ancestor of Live Clipboard and SSE, but NetDDE never amounted to anything because local area networks lacked the critical mass that powers social computing.

Today's unbeatable platform is the web, and I'm intensely curious about the ways in which Microsoft will join it. Today, Live Clipboard and SSE are in position to tap into an ecosystem that was never available to NetDDE. But that will only happen if the citizens of that ecosystem are truly stakeholders and co-creators. The human chemistry involved is tricky even when you approach the web in all the right ways, as Microsoft has laudably done this time around.

If you approach the web in the wrong way, as Microsoft did with WinFS, good luck. "Why would anyone want to build applications targeting a proprietary Windows-only file system?" asked Dare Obasanjo. What's more, how could such an effort even be possible? Relationships that form and evolve on the web will be systematized, to they extent they can be, by an iterative process that combines grassroots participation with exploratory top-down design.

I can't resist this illustration of the shift from personal to social computing:

The items collected by that query describe a story arc that begins with 2003's Replace and defend and will end (for now) with this coda. Pick up any piece of that thread, give it a shake, and you'll unfold a tapestry woven of connections among people and information. The loom on which that tapestry is woven isn't the personal Windows machine, it's the social web. When Microsoft truly embraces that model, it will be able to bring some great technology to the party.

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