Sharpened Knowledge Gives You an Edge

Opinion: The "edge" part of "knowledge" may come from what you own.

If this issue of eWEEK were dated April 1, you might think that Im just making up this news hook. Even in this less frivolous time frame, you might think that the flowers that bloom in the spring have been replaced in my garden by exotic varieties of hallucinogenic mushroom. I give you leave, therefore, to seek independent confirmation—go ahead and Google "Vexcel"—that Microsoft is getting into the business of remote sensing.

Yes, Microsoft recently announced that its acquiring Vexcel, a 20-year-old Boulder, Colo., company with expertise in advanced radar, mapping, aerial and satellite photograph analysis, and satellite ground systems technologies. Any well-versed science fiction buff who reads this may suddenly be gasping for breath, as the brains intensive processing of life-imitates-art parallels threatens to swamp both the conscious and the unconscious nervous systems.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read about the merging of Google Maps and Google Local.

For example, as this month began, I ruminated here on the pervasive "Star Trek" plot device of commanding the ships computer, "on screen," and seeing anything, anywhere, in real-time display.

There you go: remote sensing. Neal Stephensons 1992 novel, "Snow Crash," offers a less-benign vision, with its character of the fictional software and media baron who runs the worlds largest radio astronomy network—as well as funds archaeological digs—in search of fundamental tools, earthly or otherwise, to manipulate peoples minds. Remote, indeed.

Dont even get me started on the various story lines, in movies as well as in books, that have human and otherworldly systems swapping viruses back and forth. Perhaps the best literary reference, though, comes not from fiction but from the journalistic genre.

Im talking about Steven Levys 1984 book "Hackers," from which Ive quoted this question at least twice before: As Bill Gosper said at the MIT AI Lab at least 30 years ago, "Why should we limit computers to the lies people tell them through keyboards?"

As I said almost three years ago, "When we look at the difference between how we live today and how we lived 30 years ago, its clear that Gospers challenge has been addressed with massive investment in automating or streamlining data entry.

We buy gas at the pump by swiping a magnetic-striped card, not by waiting for a person to write down a number or run a mechanical roller over a piece of carbon paper; we get our groceries tallied by a bar-code scanner, not by someone trying to read a price tag."

When people talk today about using technology to make your life more enjoyable, theyre often talking about using remote-sensing data feeds to build the next-level version of the sensor-rich environment that I described in that column in July 2003.

People want to sell you a car, for example, that uses highway traffic sensors to tell you which of several routes will get you somewhere in minimum time, not just something like Google Maps to tell you the shortest driving distance.

Microsoft wants to work with partners like Amazon or UPS to put a shipment tracking monitor at the edge of your PC display, warning you immediately if something that you were expecting this afternoon is not on a truck in your neighborhood by this morning.

IBM wants to offer companies a dynamic application-building environment, based on a collaborative, Wiki-like technology that lets developers integrate weather, road condition reports and natural-disaster response information into real-time situation management tools—of use, for example, to companies with widespread supply chains during rapidly evolving situations like a bird flu pandemic.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read about Suns public computing grid.

Computing capacity, as such, is no longer a strategic investment—not when Sun, as of March 22, is offering grid-computing cycles by the CPU hour to anyone with an Internet connection and a credit card.

Where it once made sense to own your own computers or to build or lease dedicated network lines, the "edge" part of "knowledge" today may come from what you own—or what you have the specialized expertise to use—in the area of turning reality into usable data and thence into strategic information. And Microsoft gets it.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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