David Weinberger
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Pornographic intranets

01 October 1999

I've griped about Microsoft's Digital Dashboard (DD) before, but, heck, the right to gripe endlessly about the rich, powerful and obnoxious is the very basis of democracy.

At KMWorld '99, Charles Stevens, Microsoft's VP of Business Solutions (the meaningless CorpoSpeak title apparently actually means that he's in charge of Microsoft's partner relations) gave a keynote presentation on Redmond's position on Knowledge Management. It sounded as if someone said "Ok, let's see what we have that we can say is a component of a KM system. Ok, we've got email, we've got scheduling ... does Flight Simulator count as KM?" To be fair (much against my better judgment) the history of KM has been marked more by this type of relabeling than by innovation. How many KM systems or widgets exist that wouldn't have existed if KM hadn't been invented?

Here's the Microsoft KM strategy, as presented by Mr. Stevens. The Digital Nervous System is a common infrastructure for the Four Horseman of the Knowledge Apocalypse: the Digital Dashboard ("delivering the right information at the right time"), WebStore ("opening apps to all kinds of knowledge"), Mobility and Wireless (access to information "any time and anywhere") and Intelligent Interfaces ("transforming the way people use computers").

The centerpiece of Microsoft's KM strategy continues to be the DD judging by the amount of time they spent on the rest of the pieces. Too bad. While there will certainly be many useful applications of the DD -- no, really, there will be -- in two ways it's a step backward.

The stifling, hermetic demo Microsoft did from the stage was an indicator of the first backward step. Inside of Outlook we saw the email inbox, a list of appointments, an external Web page and a SQL Server report expressed as a bar chart (the mark of a gen-yoo-ine business application). Big deal. Is Microsoft really that removed from what's going on? People have been building beautiful, complex web pages that integrate data from all over for years now. They're called "intranets." Netscape was demoing this stuff 4 years ago.

But Microsoft thinks this demo is impressive because it's all occurring inside of Outlook. And that's one big step backwards. Living inside of Outlook is Microsoft's dream, not most of ours. We want this stuff inside of a browser, not inside of a large, complex, proprietary client. I asked Mr. Stevens, during the Q&A period, what Microsoft is doing to make it easier for us to integrate Outlook components into our own browser-based portals and it was as if he genuinely couldn't hear the question. Three times he told us all how easy it was to bring external components into the Outlook portal. But not every screen runs Outlook 2000. Some of them don't even run Windows. Microsoft seems genuinely blind to this, or maybe the PR handlers have over-trained the Microsoft execs. Either way, for a company that is impressively in touch with customer requirements when it comes to its applications, it is remarkably short of peripheral vision when it comes to the operating environment.

Here's the second step backwards. They showed four different apps running inside of Outlook and declared that the Digital Dashboard. I could just as easily have tiled four windows. I like windowing operating systems. Unless you're a weird, Jolt-drinking, Unix-based graphical luddite, you like 'em too. But the whole point of the DD is to take those four windows and combine them into one. Why bother? If there were some integration among the apps, it'd be a different story. But the DD doesn't provide any extra integration at the app level, or at least they didn't bother to mention that.

While I'm venting, let me add one more note. In response to a question about thin client computing, Mr. Stevens made the outrageous claim in a normal tone of voice that there is actually no difference between thin and thick clients because the thin clients are the largest apps on our desktops because they come with email readers, NetMeeting, etc. Despite Microsoft's Orwellian attempt to twist our langage, a thin client is a Java-enabled browser and Microsoft's "thin" client is only so fat because Microsoft has larded it up. Microsoft hereby earns the Chutzpah Award, a Yiddish word the canonical example of which is the boy who kills both his parents and then pleads to the judge, "Have mercy on a poor orphan." Jeez Marie!

The DD is, Mr. Steven said, "the best sales tool we have...". Why? Presumably because it visualizes a world in which information is calm, orderly and in its jammies ready for bed at 8pm sharp. But the world is bigger than Outlook -- how many hundreds of megabytes are in your Outlook PST file that you can't even search using the included tools? -- and even bigger than Microsoft. The Redmonians genuinely seem not to understand that. It's, frankly, sort of depressing. And, worse, not at all surprising.

David Weinberger is publisher of the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization (JOHO) newsletter and a frequent contributor to KMWorld Magazine