Remote Possibilities

Distributed systems require rethinking of hands-on interaction.

When someone says that something is "remotely possible," most people take it to mean that something might happen but isnt likely. I wonder if application developers will soon find themselves hearing a different and more positive meaning in that phrase, along the lines of "Yes, you can make that happen anywhere, from anywhere."

My thoughts in this direction begin with Microsofts plans for a more general and much better abstracted approach to hardware drivers, as discussed by the company at last weeks Intel Developer Forum. Microsoft "device experience" manager Kosar Jaff accurately identified both the goal ("Applications writers dont need to know if devices are near or far") and the impediment ("ease-of-use issues will be overwhelming if we dont get ahead of them") that face developers.

Having worked with a variety of remote-control technologies, I join Jaff in emphasizing that life is different when were applying code across constellations of devices that dont offer users a readily reachable hardware reset button. Im inclined to give high praise, though, to any Microsoft manager whos willing to get up in public and say, as Jaff did, that "the fundamental model is broken."

The Windows Driver Framework that Jaff explored at the Intel event was scrutinized at length during the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference earlier this year, and I regret that I did not note it at the time. The advantage of a longer look back at the WinHEC presentations, though, is that it captures follow-up comments like those in an end-of-August memo from the self-described "single biggest critic of Microsofts new Windows driver framework push," in which independent developer Bill McKenzie analyzes not just the ideas but the refinement process and concludes that hes "beginning to believe that the WDF team just gets it."

Visions of a more modern driver model reinforce my positive impressions from my conversation last May with Microsoft XML Web services architect John Shewchuk, in which he talked about developing "a contractual basis" for network interactions. One of the mechanisms that I remember Shewchuk mentioning, toward that end, was Web Services Reliable Messaging, a multi-vendor standard prominently featured in a joint IBM/Microsoft demo about a year ago: WS-RM has now reached a critical milestone with the August 24th Committee Draft approval of version 1.1 for likely balloting in October. I cant improve on the concise description of this standards scope thats part of the 1.1 announcement, so Ill just quote it here: "WS-Reliability supports message reliability by defining: (1) Guaranteed message delivery, or At-Least-Once delivery semantics; (2) Guaranteed message duplicate elimination, or At-Most-Once delivery semantics; (3) Guaranteed message delivery and duplicate elimination, or Exactly-Once delivery semantics; (4) Guaranteed message ordering for delivery within a group of messages."

Rising above hardware interactions and network protocols are user interface issues, specifically the need to free people from keyboards and even touch-screens if theyre to interact with systems in a wider range of environments. Speech recognition has its limits in the office, but I believe its the critical technology for hands- and eyes-free operation in shop-floor and automotive settings, both of which are major growth opportunities. IBM will spur speech forward with its open-source release, to be announced today, of speech handling software to the Apache Software Foundation and of speech application tools to the Eclipse Foundation.

But speaking of remote possibilities, I couldnt help but notice that the fading-from-view Comdex is being complemented by the rise of IT expositions elsewhere—specifically, in early October, in Dubai, where IBM will use the Gulf IT Expo (GITEX) to place its vertical-industry initiatives before buyers who have, to put it mildly, excellent cash flow. As Ive said before, its essential for U.S. IT developers to get over the idea that we do the new stuff here first, then trickle it out to the rest of the world. Its vital to develop an international perspective on both technologies and markets if we want to stay on the leading edges, everywhere.

Tell me what edges youre keeping sharp at


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