|Volume 1: No. 28|
Apple and IBM have firmed up their joint venture. Apple's Ed Birss will handle day-to-day management, under the "evangelistic" leadership of Metaphor's David Liddle. Most of the 100-150 Cupertino staff members will be from Apple. [Rory J. O'Connor, SJM, 10/2.]
Silicon Graphics (Mountain View, CA) is licensing its graphics software to Intel, DEC, and Microsoft. The Intel and Microsoft links will help bring workstation graphics capabilities to PCs. This will also help Intel cut into MIPS' share of the ACE operating-system consortium. [Lee Gomes, SJM, 9/14.]
Industry is taking a step toward a unified UNIX standard for distributed computing environments (DCEs). The Open Systems Foundation's DCE is supported by 50 vendors (IBM, DEC, HP, ...) and development kits should be available by 1/92. A separate distributed management layer (DME) based on HP's Openview network management system will interface between applications and the DCE. Unix International has 20 vendors (Sun, NCR, Unisys, ...) behind its Atlas environment, which is a superset including both DCE and a DME. Although the two companies can't agree on a single standard, they have agreed to make the two systems interoperable. Programs on the two network operating systems will be able to communicate. [Joanie M. Wexler, Computerworld, 9/23.]
Jerry Speasl, former EVP of Mirage Systems, has joined SRI International (Menlo Park, CA) as VP of product development for the Engineering Research Group. [SJM, 10/2.]
John Doyle is retiring as HP's Executive VP of business development, after 34 years with the company. Doyle has also been chairman of the Open Software Foundation. [SJM, 10/1.]
The U.S. Copyright Office and the Justice Department have reportedly filed briefs supporting Borland against Lotus Development Corporation. Lotus claimed that the option of using a 1-2-3 interface within Borland's spreadsheet was a violation of copyright. The Copyright Office says that simple lists of commands (e.g., menus) are not copyrightable. (The court could disagree, of course.) [SJM, 10/1.]
A new ruling be the Supreme Court holds that Yellow Pages are not copyrightable, other than the subject headings and manner of organization. White-pages copyright protection was denied in a previous ruling. [WSJ, 9/24.] This is likely to segment the information industry into those who compile wholesale information and those who license, augment, format, and distribute it at retail. It opens the way to inexpensive niche-market directories excerpted from comprehensive compilations, with more attention paid to client needs. (There is ample precedent in the private republishing of government data. And if you're looking for a home-based business, consider desktop-publishing an industry directory that you can sell to the people in the directory.) Highly refined data could sell at premium rates, although competition will keep prices down. Data gatherers such as Gale Research and Who's Who may become "knowledge refineries," putting additional effort into data merging, validation, and classification. [Clifford Urr (email@example.com), PACS-L, 9/26.] Knowledge-based database cleaning may become a hot new AI research area.
IEEE reports that 50% of its members move every 18 months. I've heard that management job titles have a half-life of about 9 months, and that lists of corporate officers are 50% incorrect by the time they're published. If you're tracking individuals, how do you predict or validate job changes. What subtle clues help match new data with existing dossiers? (Example: a low- numbered check indicates someone who has moved recently.) Who will be the first to write an expert system named SHERLOCK?
I mentioned last week that TRW is having a terrible time keeping its credit reports accurate. Did anyone see that as an opportunity for knowledge-based expert systems? Every problem is an opportunity.
The "patient money" from Asia may be drying up. Most of the money has come from Japan (funding 160 U.S. electronics companies since 1986), with Taiwan as a secondary source. But Tokyo's stock market has fallen 40% in two years, and Taiwan's has dropped 60% since its 2/90 peak. Computer-related U.S. funding is down 53% from a year ago, according to the Ulmer Brothers' Japan M&A Reporter. [Evely Richards, Washington Post. SJM, 9/28.] (The U.S. has begun offering residency to anyone willing to invest $1M for two years, but there are very few takers. Canada and Australia got there first.)
Fujitsu Ltd. has just made its first investment in a software firm: 40% of Softway Pty. Ltd. (Australia), a developer of UNIX systems. [Computerworld, 9/23.]
There are rumors that Canon of Japan has pumped more money into NeXT, adding to its previous investment of $100M. Also that Steve Jobs is negotiating to get his Nextstep operating system running on Intel processors. [Tom Schmitz, SJM, 10/2.]
Have you considered working for Nintendo of America Inc.? This company has CPUs in more than 1/3 of U.S. homes. Its recent Super Mario Brothers 3 game brought in $430M, and they've just introduced a 16-bit system with 128K RAM and 64K video RAM. Animated characters can now be 128x128 on a 512x448 screen, with 32,768 colors available. Nintendo has only produced trivial games so far, but look at the trend: Nintendo's John Madden Football, from Electronic Arts (San Mateo, CA), displays detailed characters, lets you move the camera view around the field, has a full roster of 28 NFL teams, and lets you program the teams under varying weather conditions. The company has also been developing games and information/investment services for telecommunications access. [Mike Langberg, SJ Mercury, 9/15.]
Nintendo's real power is not in technology, but in marketing. This company knows how to relate to individual customers. Its magazine, Nintendo Power, has received as many as 47,000 letters per month -- each personally answered. Paid circulation is over two million, with a 70% renewal rate [very high]. Their 900- number information line is called by 10,000 kids per week. (Prior to starting the magazine, their help line was getting 120,000 calls per week.) Calls and returned questionnaires are logged in a database of over 5 million names used to develop advertising, products, and sales forecasts. Such responsiveness, unmatched in any industry, works: 1990 sales were projected at $4.1B, and customer loyalty is very high. [Stan Rapp and Tom Collins, The Great Marketing Turnaround: The Age of the Individual -- and How to Profit from It, Prentice Hall, 1990.] So if anyone would fund data-mining research, wouldn't it be Nintendo?
IEEE is looking for members to serve for a year as Congressional Fellows. [IEEE Spectrum, 10/91, p. 40.]
Siemens is advertising for PhD CS/EE researchers at its Princeton lab. Topics include machine learning and knowledge acquisition, image processing, and software engineering. Positions may also be available in the Munich and Erlangen labs. [IEEE Spectrum, 10/91, p. 35.]
A lead scientific visualization analyst in Research Triangle Park, NC, is sought by supercomputing headhunter Stuart D. Abramson (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). The application is in weather modeling, and requires an experienced Ph.D in CS or the physical sciences. [m.j.o, 9/26.]
GO Corporation (Foster City, CA) needs several senior software engineers to develop pen-based notebook computers. One such position involves handwriting recognition. [brian_hurley @go.com, ba.j.o, 10/2.]
Hong Zhang (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Zhang Hong in the Oriental fashion, came to Japan about 7 years ago. Japanese call him Chou, which is the same Kanji as Zhang. He's working at NTT Software Corporation in Yokohama, and is learning English and system engineering. Hong is particularly interested in neural networks and machine learning.
Kevin Thompson (email@example.com) is working in the AI Research Branch at NASA Ames while getting a Ph.D. in AI from UC Irvine. He's still deciding on a thesis, but has been studying concept learning in relational domains.
John McInerney (firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com) is a UCSD CS graduate student under Richard Belew. He's been working in function and combinatorial optimization on a hybrid Connection Machine system, and will defend his thesis in December. John enjoys teaching as well as research, and is an active member of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). He is also the lead systems administrator for the Marine Physical Laboratory's computing environment -- 80 Sun workstations and servers plus PCs, Macs, PDPs, and a variety of real-time systems -- a position involving personnel management and technical advising.
Many companies are converting from in-house DP services to outsourcing vendors. Joining such a vendor can be a good career move, as technical skills are valued and education programs are common. Large service companies offer both horizontal and vertical mobility for people skilled in consulting, R&D, product development, and product management. On the other hand, it's a high-pressure job with less security than at a smaller firm. You will not be a unique resource, and can be moved or replaced at whim. [Emily Leinfuss, Computerworld, 9/23.]
Another good career is database manager, sometimes combined with data analyst. Starting salaries are near $50K, and demand is high enough that employers can't always insist on experience with Oracle, DB2, or Adabas. Something like three database administrators are needed per 100 information-systems staff. Duties include maintaining the integrity, consistency, and accuracy of corporate data, as well as testing, tuning, training, modeling, and also dealing with users. [Julia King, Computerworld, 9/23.]
Databases aren't abstract; they exist because someone needs the information. A sales database lists companies you ship to; a marketing database lists contacts for future sales. Marketing managers can be flooded with information about sales contacts, demographics, media response rates, and salesmen's activity profiles. Inferring buyer motivations from such data is a real challenge -- the perfect opportunity for an AI/Statistics career. Gordon Gossage, at MathSoft (Cambridge, MA), says he tracks only four ratios: cost per lead, conversion rate, revenue per telemarketing sales hour, and daily phone time per sales rep. The first two tell him how mass advertising and direct-mail offers convert to sales; the latter two help manage his phone sales force. (A good salesman can bring in more than twice the revenue of a neophyte, but even good salesmen need feedback.) "It's better to monitor a few things well than to look at masses of meaningless numbers." [Soft.letter, 9/24.]
Lance Eliot's AI Insider column (AI Expert, 7/91) makes a very important point: if you do want to do business with managers of information systems, you must sell something that they want. They don't want distributed AI, fuzzy pattern recognition, or NLP -- per se. They want to simplify operations, reduce costs, cut training time, and increase responsiveness to management and customer data needs. Lance lists 20 issues identified by the Society for Information Management, then discusses potential AI contributions to the top 10. I'll stand on his shoulders and state my own opinions. The following are the ten most important MIS concerns.
Reshape Business Processes: Information management on mainframes is terribly baroque, and keeping up with the latest vendor modifications, tax-law changes, and user demands is a difficult job. MIS managers know that better solutions exist, but can't abandon their current systems. The only hope for change is a radical new technology that slowly replaces the existing system -- all without increasing costs, switching hardware vendors, or becoming dependent on irreplaceable "wizards" who could leave for new challenges and better pay. Fat chance, but that's the hope when MIS people investigate AI. Fourth-generation languages (application shells, database systems, report generators, etc.) and CASE tools have the greatest promise, but suffer from wizard dependency. Expert systems can automate particular tasks, but are unlikely to reshape major business processes. (DEC's experience is an exception.) Neural networks are even more limited. Distributed databases and distributed AI seem the only real hope for restructuring MIS operations. Just getting terminals with good user interfaces onto everyone's desks is a good first step -- and by no means an easy one if you're locked into a mainframe culture.
Educate Senior Management: MIS people depend on service and visibility to get budget, but executives don't want contact with baroque systems. Executives want simple tools for accessing powerful data, not powerful tools for manipulating simple data. AI could improve interfaces and service, but only if AI people work within mainframe environments. Building an expert system with a CICS-based GUI is not something AI people would do, and it's not something most companies would pay for -- unless it were brought in as a commercial product.
Senior management will not welcome "lessons" about intelligent information access unless you can show competitive advantage. The key is to show that you can reduce the workforce. (Avoid labor problems by displacing contractors and outside service people.) Capturing the knowledge of a few expensive experts is also a good sell, but make sure you have the cooperation of the experts. You must show that your application can be integrated with daily operations before you get funds for a feasibility study, so work in the local languages and try to deliver on the available terminals. Make sure your platform can communicate in real time with the existing mainframe. (Taking two seconds to flip to the next page of an online calendar may not be acceptable, even if the delay is inherent in the communication channel.) And don't take so much CPU that competing operations are degraded.
Create Cross-Functional Systems: Some of the AI work in distributed databases may be applicable. Note that companies need "real" solutions linking heterogeneous commercial databases on existing mainframes, not demonstration systems that link networks of workstations. You will not be allowed to tamper with the underlying storage mechanisms (ISAM, or whatever) or the database code, so you will have to achieve adequate response by intelligent caching. Call it object-oriented development.
Align IS and Corporate Goals: Alignment may require changes on both sides. PC-based AI, especially expert systems, can help bridge the gap between management needs and MIS capabilities. MIS departments need to rethink their operations, giving users tools that are really needed instead those made available by vendors. Unfortunately, they lack budget for systems analysis and can justify experiments only when a "buzzword" technology draws the attention of upper management.
Do IS Strategic Planning: I really don't see AI of use during brainstorming, nor is access to previous plans and condensed corporate expertise particularly desirable when looking five years ahead. A good word processor is all you really need. AI is valuable here as a goal, not a tool. (My own definition of an expert system is "Any application you couldn't have thought of in a COBOL shop.") MIS people must WANT advanced systems before they can plan a way to achieve them. The best way to sell AI here is in the form of seminars or short courses describing what can be done and what has been done by competitors. You may then get the follow-on development work.
Boost Software Productivity: Lance points to the contribution of AI in modern CASE tools and in specific applications. CASE tools are problematic: they do work for very large shops (Boeing, say), but they can lead to wizard dependence or to decreased productivity as people struggle to master complex tools. (A value of COBOL is that it enforces simple code than can be maintained by unskilled programmers.) AI is needed in MIS to help people do dumb things easily. An AI system for interpreting core dumps would be very useful. A program to convert assembly language to any high-level language would be useful. Just don't get too fancy -- an AI consulting system that helps tune MVS or VMS is useful, but one that does the tuning automatically needs a wizard to maintain and modify the expert system.
Utilize Data Fully: It's natural that MIS managers want to get more mileage out of their hard-won databases, but there's no payoff in circulating DB summaries to people who don't care. Let managers define and buy the data they need, with the MIS department being only one of several suppliers. Then create expert systems to help with the filtering, merging, and presentation so that each manager sees a customized view of the information world. In addition, analyze what information people really do access. Knowledge engineering techniques and AI programs might help with the analysis and with prototyping of custom interfaces to be "sold" to users.
Seek Breakthroughs: New services must be needed by the corporation or its clients. And, to be of interest to MIS directors, they must use available corporate data. The best bet is to provide upper management with intelligent interfaces to internal or industry data. (A geographic information system is a good example.) The AI component would be the agent that integrates data or estimates missing data. Future AI systems will analyze and even request spatial/temporal data in a manner that now requires human intelligence. These will not be exploratory statistical systems, but models tightly coupled to individual corporate operations. The difficult part will be developing such models without laborious programming and without creating a dependence on wizards. Case-based reasoning is a likely start, but it's easy to find cases where past solutions failed to adapt to new conditions. Explanation-based reasoning will be required.
Develop IS Architecture: Speaking of distributed architectures, MIS managers are starting to despair of ever seeing IBM's long-promised SAA integration. (IBM developed its machines and operating systems with little concern for integration, then put 30,000 programmers to work for several years trying to create post hoc communication paths.) Where AI is REALLY needed is in the communication links, monitoring network data flows, and fixing problems the way that human operators now patch them. Another level of AI is needed to design (or configure) the networks. This is adding complexity on top of complexity, but it's the only practical solution unless the Fortune 1000 phase out their massive investments in trailing-edge operating systems.
Cut IS costs: Lance suggests that AI be used for scheduling DP jobs, and that AI sometimes be substituted for other development methodologies on new projects. Maybe. But languages such as COBOL and RPG, as well as operating systems like MVS, are very well suited to record-oriented transactions, and the hordes of DP programmers will not be more efficient if forced to code in LISP or in rules. Cutting costs on existing DP operations can only be done by eliminating or replacing services, and that means introducing interactive query systems throughout the organization. Perhaps scheduling, CASE tools, and other AI-related technologies will help reduce programmer manhour needs, but they are more likely to look like additional layers of complexity written in unmaintainable languages.
In short, I don't see much hope for current AI to invade the mainframe world or for MIS departments to abandon their current investments. AI's hope is to make use of the desktop power being installed throughout most corporations, eventually off-loading so many functions that mainframe programs become a small part of the corporate software structure. MIS managers will then be free to experiment with new brands of hardware and to tap new pools of commercial applications -- all routed to the same desktop PCs, and giving the appearance of tremendous DP-shop productivity. AI won't get the credit -- database technology will, along with HCI and other CS domains -- but there's room for AI researchers if they know how to sell themselves.
John Walker, retired founding president of Autodesk, has been commenting on the Autodesk culture. Among his points: "A literal search for 'The Next AutoCAD' always ends up with dorky stuff like overpriced high-end project management software. What a concept: ... slugging it out with a company five times our size, ... at more than twice the price, through a distribution channel a fraction as large. ... When we find 'The Next AutoCAD' it will look just like the last AutoCAD did in 1982 -- a non-obvious product in a market waiting to be created, with a large body of potential users who haven't ever really thought about how useful such a product might be." [Soft.letter, 8/25.]
One of the big software hits this year is likely to be the Far Side Computer Calendar from Amaze Inc. (Kirkland, WA), with illustrations (some animated) by Gary Larson. It's a rather mundane $69.95 calendar program, but may top 300,000 copies in six months. [Jeffrey Tarter, Soft.letter, 9/24.] The two founders left their proposal on Larson's porch, with a strange bouquet loaded with labeled insect specimens.
When you sit down at your terminal, does it stare back at you with an impersonal Login: prompt? Robert Elton Maas (firstname.lastname@example.org) suggests that it could draw a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom smoking a hookah, blowing smoke-ring letters as it asks WHO ARE YOU?
Your Mac may not say "Good Morning" when you sit down, but for $19.95 you can buy a screen personality to give you reminders and announce your mail. Bright Star Technologies (Bellevue, WA) has six personalities in its At Your Service catalog, and will be introducing additional "human interfaces" later on. Laura is warm and friendly, Gabrielle is French, Jeeves is British, Mack has an attitude, Madeline is a star. You can also get The Boss -- great for the home worker who misses the office. (206) 451-3697. [Naor Wallach, Newsbytes. CC, 8/13.]