Collaboration Requires Foundation

Opinion: Net-based applications thrive on complexity but die on bad data.

The decoding of the Sober worm, as I noted last week on the Inside eWEEK Labs blog, is all the demonstration anyone should need that the Net has become an application platform. Using time services to synchronize the local clocks of infected clients, and using pseudorandom address composition and communication to download and execute the instructions for new attacks, Sober doesnt merely use the Net as a place to find targets: It uses the Net as a weapon against itself.

I found another, more positive example of the power of code to infuse new power into the Net in my conversation with Russell Glass, VP of products at Zoom Information Inc.: The company that operates, a site that calls itself "the search engine for discovering people, companies, and relationships." New to that site, as of last week, are generated lists of the colleagues of an individual and the competitors of a firm.

ZoomInfos brain trust got its start in scanning business cards and automatically extracting their information into contacts databases: You may have heard of that teams successful previous product, CardScan. A considerably scaled-up version of that idea crawls the Web, parses sites and makes inferences about the world that it finds out there: The well-packaged results on the ZoomInfo site may startle you with their ability to draw a picture of you or your organization.

Zooming my own name produced some interesting results. The engine accurately extracted my employment history from speaker biographies and other sources, except for a false association with Gartner Group that was not ZoomInfos fault: It found me thus identified on a software vendors Web page summarizing comments from its products reviews. Hey, at least I wasnt misidentified as a suspect in an assassination.

My last comment isnt meant to make light of the Wikipedia incident that unfolded last week, which has already spurred a regrettable but apparently necessary tightening of the rules for adding content to that groundbreaking experiment in collective knowledge. Ive certainly found that Wikipedia entries are often more timely, more comprehensive and more useful than either out-of-date books or incomplete and uninformed Web-site articles. I hope that an effective solution can be found.

Much more on the plus side of network-based collaboration is the NASA earth-science data clearinghouse project thats profiled in this weeks Road Map story in eWEEK, also already posted (though without the spectacular images and informative graphics of the print edition) on Note well the storys final comment from NASA system engineer Robin Pfister: "It may be too early to tell, but early activities show increased collaboration in the community where members are sharing solutions and services that may ultimately lead to more efficient solutions to science problems, applications and decision support." Likewise noteworthy is the collaborative approach of, attempting to fuse many researchers data sets into a repository that becomes more than the sum of the parts. Service-oriented architectures are continuing to prove their power in such applications, as further discussed in this weeks eWEEK Podcast.

For developers, meanwhile, the implications of these events and examples are as follows:

  • You cant afford to be afraid of complexity. If you dont confront it and turn it into new application power, someone else will do so--and will make your work look timid and feeble.
  • You cant afford to rely on Net-resident data to be worth any more than you pay for it. Theres a lot of information out there that can be innovatively processed to create new value, but the process has to be rooted in credible sources.
  • You cant afford to define your business on the Net as merely an extension of your business in the physical world. The economics of finding and using resources, and of seeking out partners and enabling new alliances, are different here--and youre laboring under a terrible handicap if you dont take full advantage of the differences.

Tell me what implications Ive overlooked at


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