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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



nat’s dashboard

Now I’m really peeved. I had to miss Miguel’s keynote to write NTK. I spent the rest of the day regretting it, because Quinn told me it was very funny, and I like funny. But now I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks regretting it, because apparently they demo’ed dashboard.

A couple of weeks ago, when Nat Friedman first started hacking seriously on it, he wrote “I think this project has a lot of dorky-blogger-meme-virulence potential”. I think it’s more than that. This looks like the sort of app my friends would happily murder me for.

In a nutshell, it’s a system-wide Remembrance Agent : a system that takes little clues from all the apps you’re using and throws up suggested links to other items. So if I’m talking on IRC to, say, mouthbeef, my IRC client will send a cluepacket to dashboard, announcing that. Dashboard then echoes the cluepacket around to other listening apps, and they’ll all chip in with their suggestions. “Mouthbeef”, says my address book: I’m sure that’s Cory’s nym. “Cory?”, says my mail archiver, “okay, here’s the last five mails from Cory”. “Right, I know that Cory writes for BoingBoing”, says my aggregator, “so here’s the RSS feed for that”.

I’ve seen work like this from Microsoft Research, but it’s always struck me as a bit too clever-clever. They always go for the angle of “well, you’re makiing a lot of noise and not typing, and the phone is off the hook, so there must be someone else in the room, so I won’t display these private messags”-type hints. It’s far too deductive: it’s smart for smart’s sake. And their set-up always makes what I think is a key mistake, which is to work too hard to delegate decisions to the computer. I see this a lot in agent tech; all that bullshit about “My preferences show that you like tasty burgers, and we’re in the neighbourhood of a Big Kahuna Burger joint. Let me show you the route.”. No. I may well like burgers, but you’ll show me the solution when I ask for it. Don’t act like a personal assistant, making decisions for me. You’re no good at that. Give me more information to make my own decisions. Increase my power, don’t bleed it away.

Also the Microsoft stuff continues to have its head stuck right up the ass of corporate America. One of my big bones with MS stuff is that it always makes me feel like I’m eating out of the trash bins outside a cubicle farm. All of their software is designed to help busy executives plan their lives. Everyone I know uses it to try and write birthday cards and chat with their friends. When people use Microsoft Office they use it anywhere but in an office. Microsoft knows this – but it also knows that the money comes from their corporate clients, so there’s a limit to how much it can bend its software toward a wider customer base. Ultimately when you use MS software, you’re not the end user MS perceives at all: we’re just living off the scraps Microsoft leaves out after feeding its big customers. This is especially true of their super-smart agent tech. Every demo I’ve seen presumes so much about how it’s going to be used in an office environment that I can’t imagine using it anywhere else. Actually, I can’t even imagine using it in a non-WASP, non-North American office a lot of the time. I’m sure they’ll try and fix this, but their hearts won’t be in it. WASP America is their heartland.

Anyway, back to Dashboard. I like the look of Dashboard partly because it feels very informative, rather than anticipatory. It’s not really making deductions about what you want to do, but throwing you extra information about what you’re doing now. Think status bars versus paper clips. Also, the very fact that it’s being hacked upon by the GNOME folk means that it’s already working in an environment much closer to my own.

The first of those is, I think, a permanent advantage. Ever since I saw the Remembrance Agent , I’ve wanted something like Dashboard. It just seems to be the right idea for me, and I think for others too. It’s what I liked about Lotus Agenda ; it’s what I anticipate liking about Chandler.

The second is selfish. Just because Nat and Miguel have usage patterns closer to me than to a CEO isn’t a universal good. The free software’s bias towards hackers is no better than Microsoft’s bias towards companies. But I do think there’s more of a chance of software like Dashboard gravitating towards other lifestyles. Not really because I think that the free software movement is particularly good at accepting different user behaviours, but because Microsoft is so spectacularly bad at it that there’s a real vacuum in the market. It’s the Achilles heel that Apple is so carefully exploiting these days. I think that the open source movement would have to positively work at being close-minded not to win here.

There now; I’ve written a huge amount on a piece of software that I haven’t even downloaded and run yet. I get the impression it’s not really in a workable state yet, and anyway I’ll have to get Mono back up and running before I can play around. And I’ll probably have to write a set of clue-generating backends for vim or something. I’ll do it in my copious spare time and let you know.

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petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.