The New Mouse: Microsofts Aura Project and Personal Data

As the convergence of digital devices accelerates, the boundaries between private and professional worlds are blurring. With mobile messaging devices, whever you go there you are.

As the convergence of digital devices accelerates, the boundaries between private and professional worlds are blurring. People access networks for various reasons—including work, entertainment, education and collaboration—and often for many of these reasons simultaneously.

This time-slicing of life into fine-grained bursts of communication has benefited both employers and employees. Take the BlackBerry, for example. Although it drives my wife crazy when I check e-mail at dinner or the movies, doing so enables me to head off problems before they erupt into time-consuming crises.

In return, mobile devices allow workers to be productive while traveling. Instant messaging lets them keep in touch with family and friends without disrupting the flow of business. VPN and VOIP technologies virtualize the office, making it easier to schedule flextime and shift some work to home offices.

Each of these events—logging in to e-mail, answering a cell call, posting an item to a blog, saving a file on the office server via a VPN connection from home—leaves a trail of information that is potentially valuable not just to you but also to your company, its partners and its customers. Currently, managing these identity trails is a difficult, often- ignored task.

Microsoft Research sociologist Marc Smith sees gold in these hills for the enterprise. "Paying attention to social history has value," Smith said, in a conversation at the OReilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego two weeks ago. "The trick is getting people to recognize the value of sharing information."

Luckily, the advent of these devices is creating an opportunity to aggregate identity information and share it. These multipurpose devices—phone, camera, e-mail client, instant messaging, multimedia player, TV remote controller—are what Smith dubs "the new mouse." Just as a mouse leaves behind clicks that can be used to track a users Web travels, so these devices collect metadata that can give a more detailed picture of what users do. Aggregating this information can build identities far more vivid—and valuable—than previously possible.

Microsofts Aura research project uses a cell phone equipped with a bar-code reader to capture and annotate user interactions with the physical world. These events produce what Smith calls "the inscription revolution: the ability for things youre doing to leave metadata behind." When you flip through a print magazine, the pages you read are not recorded. But in the world of Google, blogs, e-mail and IM, identity is the collection of places you go, and what you write is the evidence you leave behind.

This metadata can deliver a payoff to the enterprise by contributing to a knowledge base of best practices, identities of experts and security modeling data.

Collecting the information can also provide an incentive for contributing, rather than hoarding, data. Its the same idea as "enterprise whuffie," or enhanced corporate reputation, that I wrote about in this space recently.

Identifying domain expertise can improve data mining results: Once youve determined who the experts are, you can weight searches by prioritizing the threads in which those people appear. For example, Smiths Netscan research project mines Usenet discussion posting patterns and creates a graphical representation of the behavior types that emerge, showing that flame-war threads produce large volume and occasional innovation; people who provide answers to questions, meanwhile, generate smaller threads with better signal-to-noise ratios.

When and if Aura services become available on ubiquitous devices, they will inevitably raise the kinds of questions HailStorm and Passport elicited. How do you share information selectively across firewalls or laterally between corporate counterparts with two degrees of separation? How do you protect the privacy of employees?

If you think this vision is just science fiction, like that scene in "Minority Report" where Tom Cruises character runs a gauntlet of personalized holographic ads, think again. Its coming soon to a theater and a store and a refrigerator near you. Its the new mouse—the mouse that will roar.

Contributing Editor Steve Gillmor is editor of eWEEK.coms Messaging and Collaboration Center. He can be reached at

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