Monday, December 20, 2010

What I want for Christmas

Not a hint for my nearest and dearest — rather some ideas on how I’d like next generation technology to be more human friendly.  I’d like automatic backup and secure plus easy networking for all our computers, phones TVs.  I want a magic server! This is what it has to do:

Backup without pain

Like everyone who uses information technology I have, from time to time, been plagued by data loss. Computers come to the end of their working life, hard drives fail, documents get overwritten and I sometimes forget to put important data in a location that will be backed up.

I want data to be backed up in structured locations which help impose the discipline for long term data integrity.  If I go to save a spreadsheet with financial information the magic server will limit my choice of saving locations to, maybe ‘work’, ‘personal finance’ and ‘other’. If the data is for a charity event I might create a new subfolder under ‘other’.

Ideally I want my magic server to be able to back up all the mobile phones and other devices that we use, without either extra network charges or me plugging in cables and hunting through unfamiliar file structures.

Version control

One of the great benefits of working in a software development environment is that when a file is saved a copy will always be kept. It does not matter if you later edit, or completely overwrite the file you can go back through the version history. It’s like having an eternal undo button!

I want my magic server to use version control for everything it stores, so it can save me from myself. When I overwrite my master address book with the blank one from the new phone, ignoring all the warnings on the way, I want to be able to get it back. Version control does that for you.

Unbreakable storage

One day I hope to get a real home computer — by that I mean one that will survive a couple of house fires and a flood, and still have the same data as readily available in seventy years time as when it was first stored. It has to compete with the metal tin that my parents kept all their important papers and photos in, which managed all that and more.

So seriously robust storage hardware will be required, some of it might need to be in a secure off site location.

Storage alone will not do the job. Long term data accessibility is a major issue. David Reed, best known for his group forming theory, outlines the problem in his first law. Keeping a, working, physical version of every data system is a tall order even for a museum. One useful halfway house will be if the magic server includes an, easy to use, version of VM Ware software for making and running a virtual copy of any PC that you have at the moment, even the broken ones. So your storage includes both a record of the machine, including all the data stored, and all the programs you used to access the data.  

Seamlessly Exchange Data

In my Christmas morning fantasy I get out my mobile phone and, with a flick of the finger, move a photo from the phone display to the television screen. If I do nothing else, after a few seconds, the TV then starts a slideshow of all the photos in the same folder on the phone. When and where the pictures were taken will form part of the show. Next Christmases update will use face recognition, so the text labels will include names of people in the pictures. It will be able to use available data from other sources, with the same level of data security to make a richer presentation. It will be my own private Facebook on steroids, which will link that fuzzy picture from the restaurant to the great online review I wrote, but will tactfully omit my great credit card bill.

To do this the magic server needs to be able to dynamically link all display devices in the room, or house. Then a push from one device screen would trigger a message to change display source on the screen being pushed to.

Next I want the magic server to negotiate agreement on data exchange. If I want to see an Excel file, from my PC, on my TV I want the system to agree on the format for file exchange, and handle conversion in the background. It should be able to move address books from one device to another, doing all of the field mapping so that when I want to send a text message my mobile phones first choice is a mobile number, not a landline or email address. This data exchange needs to be two way. I want to be able to pull an address from the TV screen into my address book, and then into the cars satnav.

To do this it will use a rich index of all the data stored locally, with device capability read from the device. The magic server could be acting as a local web server, and each device as a browser.

To do this it will have to be sophisticated in the way it handles networking.

Simplify local networking

In my ideal next generation home network I want the magic server to manage all network traffic. That is, I want it to be able to find and communicate with any device that comes into the house using structured rules to establish a series of virtual private networks.

If I bring in a new device into the house, one that uses a WiFi IP connection for example, then the magic server needs to be able to find a common band, and then get the new devices address into a shared range, if that is what is required to establish a communications link.

Most importantly I want it to use identity based trust in managing what data can be exchanged. Obviously I don’t want to let just any device that comes into my house deposit software on anything else. I don’t even want to allow stray devices that come into range to be able to exchange data with our equipment. Family members should have their devices connected and backed up automatically. But I don’t want any kids connections to be as open as an adults – they are far more likely to pick up malware from friends or the web – and I don’t want them passing on private information. The rules that say what can connect, and to where, should also say what will be backed up.

When I go to a hotel, for example, I want my phone to pass my name and address to the reception desk computer as I arrive at check in.  But I want to be sure that it will not pass over any other information, such as my income bracket, that the hotel might be interested in.

Therefore, in order to establish a connection, devices would need to have independently verifiable identity certificates which can be used to negotiate a trust relationship.  Local devices would have private local certificates. Roaming devices would need public certificates. Each device could have several different types of certificates.

So each device should have a hierarchy of trust for connection and data handling. Any network traffic that really needs my attention should be directed to me. What I want is, doing the same job as a firewall with all alerts turned on, making complex networking easy to understand and control for the non-technical.

What I want is for my technology to be more human focused in its workings. I know it’s a busy time of year for Santa, but I hope he gets the message.

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