The Network Really Is the Computer
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Automated Service Discovery

The final thing I'm going to talk about is wrapped up in the question:

What do ICQ, Jini, and Napster all have in common?

To me, the essence of all of these systems is an approach to service discovery that fosters informal, peer to peer networking, rather than hierarchical client-server computing. Napster is a kind of "instant messaging" where the question isn't "are you online to chat?" but "do you have Metallica's latest?"

We have to allow for false starts, for early ideas that don't quite work but pave the way for others that do, and for technologies that are designed in such a way that other people can surprise us by the way that they use them.

The role of a central server, if any, is not to return the data, but just a pointer to who has it. (And need I say it? That's an example of metadata.) The next step is to apply this model to the provision of more complex services.

As is often the case, Sun was one of the first to articulate this vision, of devices that expose the services they offer, and other devices that automatically discover and use those services. The initial focus of Jini has been on networked hardware devices, yet the same principles apply in the world of the web that I've been talking about for the past fifteen minutes.

What we're going to see are sites you can query for the services that they provide, and the methods they expose for calling those services. We'll see search engines and directories that help us find those services, and of course, lots of opportunities for companies like O'Reilly to document and explain them.

I'm seeing companies sprouting up all over the net who have a hold of some part of the same elephant. For example, there was an intriguing announcement in the past couple of days about the beta release of the infrasearch technology, based on Gnutella. (In case you haven't heard of it, Gnutella is a robust free software implementation of a Napster-like program.)

Whether infrasearch scales or not is unknown. But the idea is completely right on: build a search engine that looks for services, not for static pages, and ask questions of those services. The simple example they show, of putting an algebraic equation in the search engine, and returning the answer from a calculator, is just what I've been talking about.

I don't know which of these various architectures for service publication and discovery will catch on. It won't necessarily be the best one.

In fact, as Clayton Christenson pointed out in The Innovator's Dilemma, less is often more. It's the technology that's just good enough, and easier to use, that often wins. After all, going back to ecological succession: it's not until the lichens and mosses have had their day that it's time for higher plants and animals to arrive.

Read the Outtakes

Some material got cut as the talk evolved, but I thought I'd keep them in the written version as a small digression.

We have to allow for false starts, for early ideas that don't quite work but pave the way for others that do, and for technologies that are designed in such a way that other people can surprise us by the way that they use them.

This returns me to the theme with which I began my talk, open source. The real power of open source is that it lowers the barriers to entry, allowing people to participate more easily in development and invention. In the age of the network, which distributes the power of participation to anyone in reach of a computer, not just the people on your own development staff, the technology that makes it easiest for anyone to join in moving things forward will ultimately win.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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