If ‘semantic web’ annoys you, read on…

Say "semantic web" to a lot of people and the shutters on their brains come down. They may have lived through the disappointments of the AI or expert systems eras. Or they may simply know how impossibly tedious it would be to retrofit their web pages with semantic data.

Say "linked data" to them and they might ask "what's that?" with a reasonably open mind. At some point during the explanation, it will dawn on them that the terms are identical to those used in the semantic web. By then, of course, it's too late, they're hooked.

The basic idea is that web pages, html or otherwise, contain some information that links them to other web pages in a meaningful way. Nothing particularly new in that, you might say. But the meaningful bit in this context is not what the human reads – a bit of clickable text that takes you to another web page – but what a computer application can read and make sense of.

An example might be understood as: 'The prime minister is Gordon Brown'. This might be expressed as prime minister:Gordon Brown. And these elements, in turn might point to well-defined explanations of the two concepts elsewhere on the web. In dbpedia.org/page/ the links would be Prime_minister and Gordon_Brown, respectively. Other authentic sources include Freebase, the Guardian or the New York Times. The application might drill into these pages plucking out useful information and following other links, which would have been defined in a similar fashion.

Of course, because this page has been published, it becomes a potential resource for others to link to. It rather depends what the page was about. The Gordon Brown entry, in this case, was just one element. It might have been 'The British Cabinet in March 2010', for example. And others might have found that information useful.

(If you want to experiment a bit, go to <sameAs> where you can whack in terms and read their definitions in plain text.)

Many public and not-so-public bodies have been making their resource or link information openly available. Friend of a Friend (or FOAF) provides a means of defining yourself. The National Library of Congress has published its Subject Headings – a list of standard names which everyone may as well use to ensure consistency. But it's not essential, you (or someone else) can always declare equivalence using a SameAs or exactMatch type of relationship. e.g. 'Brown, Gordon' can be equated to 'Gordon Brown'.

As you rummage, you'll come across terms such as RDF, URI, graphs, triples and so on. These exist to clarify rather than confuse. The resource description framework (RDF) defines how information should be expressed. Fundamentally each item is a triple comprising: subject; predicate (or property); object, as in Gordon Brown; is a; politician. A uniform resource identifier (URI) might define each of those elements. And the collection of triples is referred to as an RDF graph. Of course, you'll get exceptions, and finer nuances, but that's the basic idea.

The point of all this is that, as with the rest of the web, it must be allowed to flourish in a decentralised and scalable way, which means without central control, although open standards are very important and make life easier for all participants.

With this general introduction, it's possible to see how data sets can be joined together without the explicit permission or participation of the providers. You could find a URI and, from that, find all the other datasets that reference it, if you wanted to. Because of the common interest, you (or your application, more like) would be able to collect further information about the subject.

Talis is a UK company that's deep into this stuff. It's been going for around 40 years and was originally a library services provider. It has spread its wings somewhat and now divides its attention between education, library and platform services. The platform element is the part that's deeply into linked data. It recently set up a demonstration for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to show some of the potential of this stuff. It takes RDF information from three sources – the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) – and produces a heat map of activity in mainland Britain. You can see how much investment is going in, how many patents are being applied for and so on. You can zoom into to ever finer-grained detail and use a slider to see how the map changes over time. You can play with the Research Funding Explorer yourself or follow the links in this piece by Richard Wallis to see a movie.

For you, the question in your mind must be, "All very well, but what's in it for me?" For a start, you can get hold of a lot of data which might be useful in your business – information about customers, sources of supply or geographic locations, for example. So, you may find value purely as a consumer. However, you may be able to give value by sharing data sets or taxonomies that your company has developed. This might sound like madness, but we've already seen in the social web that people who give stuff away become magnets for inbound links and reputational gains. In this case, you could become the authoritative source for certain definitions and types of information. It all depends what sort of organisation you are and how you want to be seen by others.

Mind-mapping with MindJet and MindGenius

Ever since Tony Buzan started popularising mind-mapping in 1974, it's had a bit of an uphill struggle to reach the mainstream. Over sixty commercial applications are available for the PC, the Mac and the web. A sprinkling of others are available for the Pocket PC, iPhone and BlackBerry. And you'll even find open source and freeware versions.

So mind-mapping is an industry, albeit a bit of a niche one. And the products/services keep on coming. October saw announcements from two well-known players, MindJet and MindGenius, which suggested that the mind-mapping world has yet to run out of puff.

MindJet has blended communications and mind-mapping into a single web-based collaboration service with Catalyst. Its premise is that most so-called collaboration tools are actually communication tools, completely lacking an application at their heart with which participants can engage. It feels, with some justification, that a mind-mapping application is exactly the right thing for this. It's useful, easy to understand and the nodes can activate files inside their own applications.

The counter to this might be that a generalised voice-video-IM-screen-sharing communication service allows you to run whatever applications you like at the desktop. Either a scribe can do updates or, more clunkily, control can be passed between participants.

The second announcement of the month fits the latter category. It is a desktop application. MindGenius claims that, with an addressable market of 400 to 500 million English-speaking users, it can focus uncompromisingly on improving the mind-mapping experience for this particular market. And it does a good job. Information entry is slick, navigation can be through the graphical image or through a separate 'outliner' pane (called Map Explorer) and any notes attached to the selected entry are visible in another pane. It offers smooth two-way integration with Office applications such as Word, Excel and Project.

Mind-mapping started out as a very personal thing. The aim was to enable you to take notes effectively, learn quickly and plan easily. When personal computers came along, outliners grabbed our attention first, then the more graphical mind-mappers came along. As screens got bigger and resolution improved, so the visual mappers came into their own. But most people were either ignorant of the technique or they saw nothing wrong with sticking with paper and coloured pens.

Once the vendors twigged that they could be used for project work and for effective communication, the brakes came off and MindJet, MindGenius and others offer some good tools for facilitating projects from inception to completion. They also offer varying degrees of data exchange with other applications.

The thing to watch out for is how many brain cycles are consumed with actually operating the application as opposed to getting something done with it. Ideally, you want the program to more or less fade into the background while information is quickly transferred to the screen, moved around, navigated and absorbed.

Bearing this in mind, of the two applications mentioned, I must confess to a slight leaning towards MindGenius.

Am I qualified to comment? Well, I started using mind-maps in the mid-70s and wrote a mind-mapping program in 1981 which, incidentally, is still being published today from somewhere deep in Colorado. I've been using my own program habitually for 28 years and others as and when they find their way into my computer. If you'd prefer to follow a couple of subject experts, then I'd recommend Chuck Frey and Vic Gee.

Collaboration and Control

Once upon a time, the boundaries of IT management were fairly straightforward. All your customers were inside the company and exchanging digital information with the outside world was highly controlled, if it happened at all. Not only that, but you sat down and figured out the business needs and then bought or developed the appropriate software which you then ran in-house. The users were obliged to take what they were given. Not quite easy peasy, but close.

Nowadays, users have their own views. They want to collaborate electronically with each other and with the outside worlds of business partners, suppliers and customers. They want to hold webinars, share screens, instant message each other, maybe even work on wikis together and comment on each others' blogs. You have to decide whether to allow these things to happen formally or informally. If formal, at least you have some control over what holes you allow in the firewall. If informal, you've probably given them web access and told them to behave themselves. Although the social media brigade will say, "Trust everyone," only you will know if that's going to work in your organisation.

If you do try to restrict what users can do, you'll be surprised at how inventively they'll sidestep your controls. Research suggests that if they can, they will. You are driven by the need to keep the enterprise system secure. They are driven, usually, by achieving results in the most effective way. These two drivers are not usually compatible.

Knowing that 'collaboration without travel' is at the heart of their needs, you start looking around at what's available. Broadly speaking, the bottom line is a choice between an externally hosted service and one you look after yourself. The externally hosted approach is a bit nerve-wracking because all your company's digital collaborations will be stored on someone else's servers. What if something goes wrong? The service provider could fold or you could simply fall out with it. Can you get all your records back? Will they be in a usable form? This is the stuff nightmares are made of. Some very major vendors are beginning to offer such hosted services. Perhaps you'd feel more comfortable entrusting your data to an IBM, a Citrix Online or a Microsoft, for example.

But the alternative, hosting it all yourself, brings its own problems. Scaling is one, but that's probably fairly easy to address. What about your own users, who are now merrily collaborating with each other, being able to collaborate with external partners of various kinds? Your lock down could end up as a lock-out. And, in these days of close collaboration between organisations, this could be greatly to your detriment.

If partners, suppliers or customers are running different collaboration systems to you (as many will), be wary of the glib salesperson who assures you that interoperability is a piece of cake. Ask to talk to real users with similar needs to your own. Find out if your licence terms allow you to extend membership of your collaboration systems beyond the firewall. Ask a few of your business partners if they would be happy to work in this way. After all, they may be just as nervous about engaging beyond their own firewall.

It's so easy to find private systems that satisfy internal collaboration and security needs. The danger lies in forgetting that, over time, the constituency you serve is increasingly likely to involve ever larger numbers of outsiders.

The truth behind the Google/Microsoft/NHS rumours

Before Monday July 6th, did you know that Google and Microsoft had services for storing health records? Thanks to an article in the Times and some related hysteria in other media, just about the whole country discovered that, "David Cameron was going to replace the bloated and expensive NHS computer system with a free one from Google. Or maybe Microsoft."

Except, of course, someone got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Let's face it, whatever we think of the NHS and its evolving computer system, it's not going to be replaced by a packaged service from anyone. Never mind that Google and Microsoft (and maybe BUPA) are supposedly the front runners.

No-one likes overspends on computer projects. And the NHS one due for delivery in 2014 – four years late and at a cost of £12.4bn – presents a wonderful target for the Tories. This seems to have been what caused all the excitement. From £14.2bn to 'free' at the stroke of a pen. Wow!

Who on earth thinks that commercial organisations like Google, Microsoft or BUPA will do anything for free? And who but the most naive will think that moving shedloads of detailed health records from one system to another is going to happen without horrendous cost and risk?

Still, it was a great headline and it, rather unexpectedly, put 'Google Health' in the frame. Whether involved or not, Rachel Whetstone, Google's Vice President, Public Policy and Communications, must be feeling jolly pleased with the outcome. (Incidentally, she's married to Steve Hilton, one of David Cameron's closest advisors. She dropped out of politics after a spell as Michael Howard's chief of staff during his failed election campaign. Oops, wrong horse.)

So what's the reality? The Google (Health) and Microsoft (HealthVault) systems both manage personal health records, or PHRs. They provide somewhere to create, store and share your personal health information and allow you to find related infomation, engage with health professionals and manage your medications. Both put the user in control of content and both are free to the user. This has little to do with the £14.2bn NHS system. At best it would take care of one element of it, the so-called 'Spine' Care Record Service (CRS) but with less information and more restricted access. Medical professionals need access to all manner of detailed information if they're to do their jobs properly and they're simply not going to get that from the personally-filtered subset of a person's medical information that the PHRs represent.

What's on offer smacks of a, "let's get to know your medical issues so we can fire appropriate ads at you". If not, one has to ask what the commercial motivations of Microsoft and Google are. Maybe it's to flog extra services: "Monitor your blood pressure, madam?" or "Remind you to take your pills, sir?"

With the baby boomers reaching retirement age, the market for health-related products and services is exploding. An increasing proportion are computer literate and have their own PCs and internet connections. And nothing is on their minds more than their health. (Okay, maybe their grandchildren and their pets.)

But let's not get carried away by recent newspaper reports. This is not David Cameron single-handedly demolishing the NHS IT budget. Sure, we'd love to enter what the Tories call a "post bureaucratic age", but let's start by getting rid of all the deeply intrusive information that the government already stores about us first.

Virtual events aren’t real events shoved online

As you know, most of us are facing financial difficulties and some of us are becoming concerned about our environmental impacts. Or we may actually find ourselves being pushed in that direction by customer pressure or legislation.

We still like the idea of jetting round the world, or even driving round the country, in order to meet our suppliers, customers and work colleagues. But, faced with the aforementioned issues, we’re increasingly turning to online meetings and events. And, for many, the experience falls short of expectations.

Of the whole panoply of virtual engagements from webinars to telepresence, one type probably sticks out as the most likely to disappoint and that’s the virtual exhibition and conference. And this is probably because we all know what a physical event should be like, so we expect the same or something very similar with the online version.

This is a mistake.

They are not the same and each has its strengths and weaknesses. To ignore this, when planning to present, exhibit or visit, is to invite disappointment.

We are all familiar with the physical event, so perhaps it’s best to focus here on the good and the bad of the virtual. You may have your own views in which case we’d love to hear them.

Primarily, a virtual event (subject to some technical and localisation caveats) is available to all, anywhere in the world. And it involves no travel or accommodation expenses. It will still, of course, take up some of the delegate’s time, but they can generally choose when they want to visit. (The events usually remain online for a while after the initial event closes.) If you visit in real-time, you can probably participate in live Q&As, for example, but you may put a higher value on personal convenience. Because of the social networking tools wrapped round a virtual event, you will still be able to reach out to speakers, exhibitors and fellow delegates as long as the event site remains live.

Exhibitors and speakers also benefit from lower costs, although these are mostly staffing, travel and accommodation savings during the event itself. They still need to prepare and adapt their approach to suit the online world. Making a recorded 90-minute PowerPoint presentation available online is really not taking advantage of the new medium or, indeed, the attention span of an online visitor. Remember that, just as with the web, escape for the visitor is just a mouse click away. In theory, a virtual event should be able to pull together a high calibre of speaker or panellist because of the smaller impact on their time. They would probably be happier to do shorter presentations too if they don’t have to travel thousands of miles for their appearances.

A hierarchical approach to exhibit materials would make sense. Exhibitors could offer a cascade of presentations from short and sweet down to whatever depth they feel is appropriate. And back this up with a menu of downloadable materials such as case studies, product/service information and white papers. This is similar to real life, except that shelf space is infinite, different languages can be accommodated and the materials can include podcasts and movies as well as documents and links to web pages. This self-service approach has the advantage for the delegates that they don’t have to run the gauntlet of the sales team in order to lay their mitts on the collateral. They’ll come back soon enough if they’re interested. And, because they’ve prequalified themselves, their value is much higher than that of the average booth visitor at a physical event.

From the organisers’ and exhibitors’ perspective, they can collect an incredible amount of detailed business intelligence during the event. All the conversations a company has with its visitors and who downloaded what collateral could be captured. At a more anonymous level, all the visits, engagements and downloads made by delegates show the organiser which parts of the event are working well and which are not.

At real events, ‘networking’ is probably claimed as the number one payoff for the delegates. And it’s true that this physical, “look ’em in the eye and shake their hand”, contact is missing from online. This is an incredibly important facet of our everyday lives but, if you can’t afford the time or money to participate in an important event, then a virtual equivalent might be better than no event at all. Having said that, in some respects the virtual event is better because of the ability to check out companies and individuals through the event directories and make appointments to meet them virtually. It is also theoretically possible to stimulate serendipitous meetings by having lounge areas for people to virtually mingle, backed up by on-the-fly created chat rooms if they need privacy. This does, however, miss all those body language cues which tell us whether we want to make contact or not. But some things things we’re just going to have to do without if we’re concerned about our budgets, our time and the environment.

Is telehealth coming at last?

Yesterday at Cisco's C-Scape analyst briefing, we were treated to a
presentation by one James Ferguson. And what a treat that was. Cisco
chose wisely. He was a good speaker, passionate about his subject
(telemedicine, which he prefers to call telehealth) and a medical
practitioner to boot. It was a real person talking about real things,
not some propellor-head from technoland or, worse, a marketeer. This
background, of course, made him a devastatingly effective salesman, and
it wasn't until the Q&A that some of my (Scotch?) mist of
enthusiasm started to clear.

His pitch was essentially
simple. Because the coverage of the Aberdeen-based Scottish Centre for Telehealth (SCT) includes highlands, islands and oil-rigs, it faces
some rather unusual problems. Popping into the local hospital is hardly
convenient. And doctors can't easily get to where they're needed. Not
always in time, anyway. So SCT's been working on getting diagnoses done
remotely in order to a) help people to get the right treatment locally
and b) to identify those who need hands-on professional treatment
urgently. The filtering questions are: "Is this time dependent?"
(urgent), "Is it experience dependent?" (need an expert) and "Is it
facilities dependent?" (need particular facilities).

We saw
people sticking their tongues out and waggling their tonsils in kiosks
while remote experts tried to figure out what's wrong. Apparently
ninety percent of diagnoses can be done by looking at someone,
listening to their chest and looking in their ears, noses and down
their throats. It's a slightly dehumanising way of doing medicine: in the
same way that we all like to meet in person rather than through a
computer screen or over the phone. The truth is, when you're ill and
you're far away from help, anything is better than nothing at all.

was not afraid to mention the dangers of turfing up at hospital. He'd
rather sit on a telepresence or videoconference consultation than face
God-knows-what in person. And patients eliminate the risk of
catching hospital-borne infections if they don't have to go near the

The benefits are piling up.

The downside, of
course, is that this stuff has to be paid for and the bandwidth has to
be there. On payment, Cisco has a cash mountain so this, presumably, is
why it's happy to consider spreading payments over time, essentially
turning the customer's capital expenditure into operating expenditure.
It can still recognise its own revenue at point-of-sale. Although it's
a different issue, we're also seeing gradual acceptance this
pay-as-you-go approach in the various kinds of cloud-based services.

harder part of the equation is the communications infrastructure.
Covering highlands, islands and oil-rigs with high quality broadband
connections is a political and economic challenge, given the relatively
sparse populations. Oil rigs have, apparently, been trialling a
satellite-based facility called OPTESS. And some of the ground-based
services have been using ISDN but, of course, the higher the bandwidth
and the further the reach, the more services can be provided remotely.

pointed out that medicine is now so good at patching us up when we get
a major illness, we keep on living only to get more and more illnesses,
until we end up with some chronic condition. All of this puts
increasing demands on an already overstretched health service much of
which, in theory at least, could be alleviated with some kind of home
monitoring and self-treatment service, escalating to the professionals
as and when needed.

But that's to get ahead of ourselves. Right
now, the SCT has run trials inside hospitals running telehealth
'kiosks' in parallel with conventional assessments, in order to compare
the quality of results. (It has a clever way of eliminating bias.) It
is extending this facility to multiple hospitals and has started home
monitoring trials. All of which are testing the principles of
telehealth and capturing feedback from users on the experience.

with so many things in the computer world, the big question is whether
it will be able to scale. And that depends largely on either an
appropriate infrastructure or a system which can adapt successfully to
lower bandwidth connections.

Screen and voice recording/publishing for free

Any company that makes life easy for its customers gets my vote. And one company that tries hard to achieve this is Citrix Online. It is driven by a desire to simplify the previously complex. It also likes to undercut the prices of its major competitors.

Right now it has a free service in beta, called GoView which lets anyone create a screencast (voice and screen recording). Since the most popular screencast programs are desktop products, its traditional pricing model – a monthly fee – must have presented a bit of a challenge. So its solution was to go for an ad'-supported model. At the moment all the advertisements are for the company's other services and they don't in any way interfere with your own screencast creations.

True, it lacks the sophistication of Techsmith's Camtasia or Blueberry Software's FlashBack products, for example, but this is largely its point. It's good enough for the majority of existing and potential screencasters. A few clicks and your movie ends up online and you have a URL to share. If you prefer the extra control a desktop application gives you, you might want to check out Techsmith's Jing – a mini-Camtasia and screen capture program or FlashBack Express. Both are free, although the licence terms for Express appear to contradict this.

Returning to the GoView service, once the desktop element is downloaded, a couple of clicks start a three second countdown. Anything you then do on the screen or speak into the microphone gets streamed to the Citrix Online server. When finished, you can edit out the bad bits of the end result, add captions if you want, then share the URL with others. As Aleksandr in comparethemeerkat.com would say, "Seemplz."

GoView is currently in beta and some simple improvements could be made, such as being able to select an area of the screen for recording, rather than the whole screen. But the whole point of a public beta is that the developers get tons of feedback like this quickly and more or less for free. I, and many others, have probably spent hours buggering about with the software and the service. This gives the company a fairly massive free testing resource. The other point of a beta approach is that the service provider is more or less forgiven for flaws. It's how Twitter got so successful. Its 'fail whale' almost became a friend in the early days of the service. I had issues with sound and screen size on Vista at first, but it worked a charm on XP. Once underway, GoView seemed pretty robust.

I think the key to the Citrix approach, and that of many other disrupters, is that it realises that part the world needs sophisticated software and services, but a much larger chunk actually craves a simpler life and lower costs. Professional screencasters will still want 'proper' products which let them massage and publish the outputs in various ways. But regular end users who just want to just grab what they're doing on the screen, twiddle with it a bit, then send it off will be perfectly happy with a simple service which automatically stores the recording online and gives the user a URL which they can share via email, blogs, tweets or whatever. Jing, by the way, comes awfully close in this respect.

GoView is just one of Citrix Online's recent crop of disruptive services. It is taking a pop at the lucrative online education market with a new GoToTraining service. Its fairly new HiDefConferencing offers voice
conferencing which can mix up to 500 PSTN and IP participants together. As with its GoToMeeting and other GoTo products, the terms for both services are based on unlimited usage per licence. This is the computing equivalent of one of those 'all you can eat' buffet lunches so beloved of certain ethnic restaurants.

While I don't care much for concentrating on single companies, it has to be said that Citrix Online is a bit of a one-off. It's a successful business which relies on simplicity and an absence of financial surprises for its customers. The first appeals to end users and the second to everyone.

Not a bad recipe at all.

Cloud: evolution not revolution

Fed up with ‘cloud’ yet? You ain’t seen nuthin’. It’s not going to go away. But, with a bit of luck, it’s going to start falling into place.

When Microsoft announced its ‘Software Plus Services’, many people, including me, scoffed. We assumed that this was just a way of preserving its profitable fat client software business while nicking whatever advantage it could from cloud-delivered services.

Microsoft has sunk its Office hooks deep into the corporate marketplace. But that won’t surprise you. For better or for worse, people actually like using the same applications as their colleagues inside and outside the organisation and, in enterprises, the most popular ones are from Microsoft.

It doesn’t matter how hard competitors try, the compatibility just isn’t there. And, with products like Word, useful capabilities like Track Changes are just not portable. The wiki brigade will point out the nonsense of Track Changes and argue that a single workspace with multiple authors and a proper version history makes so much more sense. And in a pure academic sense, they’re right. But, in the main, wiki products are lightweight and alien compared with the richness and ubiquity of Word.

What many organisations really need is concurrent editing of single instances of Microsoft documents. Some companies are working on such things, but that’s tomorrow. They will have to climb the curve of evangelist, early adopter and early majority before they get anywhere near mainstream acceptance. By which time, who knows?, maybe Microsoft will have extended Word into a Microsoft-hosted wiki-like environment.

But Word is only an example of what’s going on. Plenty of other applications deliver tremendous capability at the desktop and their online cousins less. A long time ago an industry pioneer called Adam Osborne used to claim that, “adequacy is sufficient, everything else is irrelevant.” He probably said it in order to foist a portable computer with a five-inch screen on an unsuspecting world. But, for many, especially in the lower reaches of the market, his observation is true. There, OpenOffice, Google Docs and other products/services will continue to steal desktop business from Microsoft.

But, despite claims to the contrary, we’re not about to experience a cloud revolution. The world isn’t going to suddenly put all its eggs in the cloud basket. We’re going to see a wide range of engagements with cloud. We’ve seen the start with SalesForce.com – a massively popular niche application which can be tapped into from anywhere. The same goes for email, online storage and credit card payment services. These are all cloud-based and require little thought to implement. They sit well with existing business processes.

Other cloud services act as an extension of the IT department, providing physical expansion (and contraction) without wrecking budgets and causing chaos in the data centre. As we move forward and we think of entrusting more of our IT to the cloud, we will need to tread carefully, lest we create hard-to-manage interdependencies between service providers. Nothing new in priniciple, but this is our own business we’re entrusting to outsiders. SLAs and responsibilities need to be nailed down carefully.

It seems pretty obvious now that cloud services will sit alongside existing applications and services and be called upon when they provide genuine incremental value. But this wasn’t so obvious a little while ago when the evangelists were screaming ‘cloud is the future’ and Microsoft, in what looked like a rearguard action to save its traditional business, was arguing that ‘software plus services’ is the future.

It sticks in my craw to say it, but I think Microsoft got it dead right.

Salesforce/Twitter: genuine help or fake sincerity?

Interesting that Marc Benioff (boss of Salesforce.com) should choose to announce the addition of Twitter to its Service Cloud on Monday. Why? Because it won't be available until the summer. Part of me suspects that the reason was simply because Twitter is a very hot topic today and it might be tepid by June. The official reason, I think, is that the deal with Twitter had just been inked.

The news might have passed me by had we (Freeform Dynamics) not received an official announcement from the company. The covering letter said, "…enabling companies to search, monitor and join conversations taking place on Twitter…" Without being a Salesforce.com expert, I was worried that a whole bunch of sales types or, worse, machines would start trying to insert themselves into Twitter conversations.

In fact, the pitch is somewhat more genuine than that. It suggests that organisations can monitor Twitter (a free addition to the $995/month 'Service Cloud' which already provides access to a number of online services such as Google Search and FaceBook) for mentions and, when they relate to problems, do something about them. That something will end up as either a comment to the Tweeter with a link to a solution to their problem or, if lots of people have the same problem, a general announcement-type Tweet. (Or maybe a bunch of direct messages – I don't know if the Service Cloud can do that. Nothing, apart from the tedium, to stop the help desk people doing it though.)

All sounds pretty reasonable, right? Back there in Salesforce.com land, the client organisation will have a whacking great database of customers, prospects, queries and answers. Each can be clothed instantly with relevant Tweet threads. I quite often appeal for help online. If someone were to help me, and I said "hooray, it worked!" or similar, then this thread would be collected for future reference by support staff. A bit cheeky perhaps, but quite understandable. It expands the company's own knowledge base at little extra cost.

Getting a bit more sinister, it would be possible for a sales person with access to the Service Cloud to hoover up personal information about a prospect before making a call. ("Sorry to hear about your recent illness. How are you feeling now?") These things aren't impossible today, but because it's built right into the Salesforce system, it is actually quite powerful. A tremendous aid to fake sincerity.

And this is the point, isn't it? If the service is used for the genuine benefit of the customer, then people will welcome it. If, however, it's used to exploit the Tweeting public, then the backlash will be swift and unstoppable.

But who will the backlash be aimed at? Twitter for allowing access? The Salesforce customer for abusing the system? Or Salesforce itself for providing the Service Cloud?"

Any thoughts on that, Twitter?

Will the BPOS cloud ensure Microsoft’s future?

Yesterday, Microsoft announced ‘worldwide’ availability of its Business Productivity Online Suite. And it barely mentioned ‘cloud’. Hurrah. But it did mention software plus services which is Microsoft’s way of coupling power at the desktop with online services. The service, by the way, was introduced in the USA last November.

‘Worldwide’ to Microsoft means nineteen countries (listed below) and five languages. And it runs in four data centres: Two in the USA, then one each in Dublin and Singapore. Amsterdam and Hong Kong data centres provide what Microsoft calls ‘geo-redundancy’.

This may be a strange way to start talking about a new service, but some organisations are very fussy about where their information is stored and processed. For those who aren’t, then Microsoft claims the “best-in-class SLAs and IT governance”. 99.9 percent uptime, for example, and nine levels of security.

The countries served by this new announcement are:  Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and UK.

What’s on offer is hosted versions of some well known software from which you can mix and match according to your needs: Exchange, SharePoint, Office Live Meeting and Office Communications.

The benefits are the usual ones associated with moving to a reliable cloud service: someone else takes care of the headaches associated with installing and owning equipment, keeping the applications up to date, backup and security, and so on. And, of course, you get the usual benefits associated with collaboration and communication applications. Neither of these is specific to Microsoft or to its hosted services, but if you’re already a Microsoft shop then it’s a much shorter step than changing software vendors.

Microsoft introduced the concept of the ‘desk-less’ worker. Someone who maybe works on a factory floor but who needs periodic access to basic services, perhaps through a shared PC or kiosk. They’re not what you’d term ‘knowledge workers’, the sort that would benefit from the full capabilities. Each counts as a ‘user’ from the billing perspective but the monthly cost is much less than for regular users.

Pricing is per element per user, by number of elements signed up for and additional data storage. You can learn more on the UK pricing and availability page.

The ‘worldwide’ system started trials yesterday and will be available for purchase next month. From April Fools Day, as it happens. Microsoft is offering a 30-day free trial. Depending on factors such as company size, it can be bought directly from Microsoft or through its resellers.

There’s a lot to be said for going the Microsoft route – not least the ready availability of people already familiar with the software elements. Setting up an effective SharePoint system, for example, still requires some skill and effort. It is, however, an inflection point and other vendors are putting together some decent online offerings. The obvious ones are Google and IBM, although the brave might prefer to assemble a ‘best of breed’ solution. Microsoft, however, has the huge benefit of customer inertia. But will that be enough to see it through?