From Research to Product… and More Research

The LIP6 (one of my host labs in France) received Alisson Sol, from Microsoft Research, who gave us the talk “AutoCollage: From Paper to Product”. Alisson and I had the same supervisor for our M.Sc. in Computer Sciences at UFMG, Prof. Arnaldo Araújo, who was also present at the talk (we were four Brazilians in the audience!).

It was a very interesting talk, where Alisson explained his ideas on how developers can work in cooperation with researchers in order to bring their concepts to market, and how Microsoft is working to streamline this process, and to maximise the number of innovative ideas which get to see the light of day, without plaguing existing products with feature creep.

It was also a good glimpse at the radical new way Microsoft is thinking their user interfaces. The trend, which is clear in Microsoft Office 2007, reaches a pinnacle in AutoCollage: minimal, unobtrusive interfaces, and less features (or at least, less immediately visible features; following the principle that screen space is a valuable resource).

The product is available at Microsoft Store (at the moment only for the US and the EU).

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Two bonuses from Alisson’s visit:

First, he showed me Windows Live Sync and Microsoft Live Mesh, which add a lot of interest to the “Live Services” platform, and might be an alternative to Microsoft Groove in an environment were people use both Windows and MacOS. As you might remember, I am shopping around for e-cooperation solutions for our research team, and especially, for our Franco-Brazilian partnership.

Second, he’s sent me the announcement for the Forum 2009 of the Microsoft Research-INRIA Joint Centre. In the detailed program, I’ve found this abstract:

Mathematical Components
Georges Gonthier, Microsoft Research Cambridge
Formalized mathematical theories can, like modern software, be built out of components. By components we mean modules that comprise both the static (objects and facts) and dynamic (proof and computation methods) contents of theories. We develop a general platform for mathematical components, based on the Coq “ssreflect” extension that was used to carry out the formalization of the Four Colour Theorem. We would validate the platform on two significant developments: a theory of efficient arithmetic, and the proof of the Odd Order theorem.”

Intriguing, isn’t it?  Hilbert’s program two dot oh?

What is worthy and what is puffy ?

The only other scientist in the family is my cousin Laila, and as I try to navigate my way around this “web two dot oh of science”, I can hear in my mind her thoughtful advice: “before you dive into something, you should check how deep the water is”. Wise words: after all, people experience many times the metaphorical broken neck after investing energy into “the next big thing”, which later reveals to be a shallow pond.

Of course, it’s often impossible to know precisely the depth of the waters, especially in the cases that much will depend on the contributions of the user community. What I ask myself is when can we start to foresee the tendency of success or failure of a new technology, for a given purpose?

Take Google’s Orkut, for example. When I’ve first heard about it, my colleagues were talking about a professional network, something like what LinkedIn is today, but quickly it became clear that it would not work for this purpose, and at least from this point of view, it failed. But as a social “for fun” network (like MySpace) it became a major success in Brazil.

For the last few months I’ve been trying a lot of stuff (web 2.0, web 1.0 or not web at all) which I think could be useful for my research team:

Google Tools

I’ve recently consolidated all my mailboxes into a single Gmail account and I am finding the service incredibly convenient. The Calendar is also fantastic, though I can’t believe they’ve left out such an essential item as the Task List. As for Google Docs, I find that they are much too rudimentary, even for lowbrow daily use.

Microsoft Groove

I liked the concept of Groove very much (and the little video demo is really really seductive), but I quickly bumped into the harsh reality that in the academic world, few people like to use Microsoft Office. What’s the use of using a communication platform and then having no one to communicate to?

I’ve considered starting a major evangelising campaign (helped by the fact that MS Office is very cheap for students nowadays) but when I realised that Groove wasn’t available for Mac (trying to evangelise someone into MS Office is hard but possible, but trying to evangelising someone out of a Mac is just a waste of time) and after two or three “sorry, the service is experiencing some problems”, I’ve given up. When evangelising people into a new product, it’s crucial that it works perfectly.

ThinkFree

I’ve been really captivated by ThinkFree. Feature-wise, it is much behind Office 2007 (or LaTeX, for that matter). But it’s way beyond Google Docs, and, since it offers a decent (but by no means perfect) conversion to and from MS Office, and very good web integration, it really deserves a second look. The fact that it is available for three major platforms (Windows, Mac and Linux), helping to avoid religious wars in the lab, is also a major selling point. I’ll be trying it for the next weeks and keep you updated.

CiteULike

I had great expectations for CiteULike, and I still find it is a neat idea: putting your citation database online, sharing it with other researchers, and even creating groups of interest to share and discuss about the papers. However, it seems that most users just use it as a online reference manager, and it there is not much “two dot oh” synergy (discussion, active sharing, blogging, feedback…) happening on the groups I’ve visited so far. But I’ll keep my eye on it.

Zotero

My (silly) prejudice against applications implemented in the form of Firefox extensions has been greatly dismissed by Zotero, a fantastic reference manager. Migrating the medium sized database (about 160 entries) I’ve created in Endnote for my thesis was somewhat tricky, because of my extensive use of custom fields, but after half an hour of adapting Endnote’s Export Output Styles, everything went well. Now, I want to see how well Zotero will work in cooperation with word processors like MS Word, LyX and ThinkFree Write. I also want to see if Zotero + CiteULike can work along well.

LinkedIn

This one seems to be all the rage in the States. After creating my profile on LinkedIn, I was surprised to see that all my past classmates at UFMG, Brazil were already there. But I am still a little sceptical about the usefulness of the concept. I recognise the importance of “networking” but I am more doubtful about putting it online. I suppose that networking is a zero-sum game. If everyone is connected to everyone, the global effect is levelling the game.

The “get introduced to” feature seems interesting, but do people use it?

Academia.edu

Like its own advertisement says this one is “a Facebook for academics”. The idea is not bad, but the current implementation is dreadful: the Flash interface is slow, everything is organised in a rigid hierarchical way (what happens to labs shared by two Universities?) and an information model which favours painstaking “tree-like” browsing instead of direct search. After some hassle I was able to put my profile in Academia.edu, and the site seems to be gaining momentum. Maybe we can hope for a major UI improvement?