A place to be (re)educated in Newspeak

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Brave New World of Full Service Computing

I’ve been trying to explain this for some six years with little success, but I’ll try again. It may be easier this time.

For the past generation, we have been living in a world of self-service computing, more commonly knows as personal computing. The person using/owning a personal/self service computer is responsible for managing that computer themselves. All the digital chores - installing and updating software, preventing malware infection, backing up storage etc. are the user’s responsibility. Most users hate that.

Worse, most users really can’t handle these chores at all. They run ancient versions of applications because they are deathly afraid to tamper with anything that somehow works. Their computers are warrens of digital disease, crawling with viruses. Their data is rarely backed up properly.

The evolution of network technology enables a new model: full service computing. Full service computing means that you abdicate a level of fine control over the computer to a service that handles your digital housekeeping. I discussed some implications of this in a post back in January.

You still choose applications that you want - but you must get them from the service; the service installs these applications for you; it keeps them up to date as long as you use the service; and it it ensures that they are safe to use. The service also backs up your data automagically, allowing you to easily search through old versions as needed. In the extreme case, the service actually provides you with the computers you use. That helps it ensure seamless software/hardware compatibility.

We can increasingly see vignettes of this brave new world. Web apps running in the cloud are one step in this direction; web apps storing data locally are a step further. A complete platform designed to hide the raw machine from the user is even closer to this vision. Such platforms started out in the world of mobile phones, and are clawing their way upwards from there: Android and iPhone/iPad. Windows 7 mobile is quite similar to the iPhone model (odd, isn’t it?). And ChromeOS is not dissimilar.

Tangent: How does Google keep Android and ChromeOS aligned? It doesn’t - I believe they are making it up as they go along. Eventually they should converge.

We still haven't seen an integration of the app store model with backup, but it can't be that far off. An option for MobileMe(insert Apple trademark here) subscribers to have an image of their iPad backed up on Apple's servers and browsable via a Time Machine (and again, Apple trademark) style interface is easy to imagine. This can then extend to data you want to share collaboratively, while still retaining a local copy for offline use.

In time, most users will gravitate away from the self service computers they use today to software service platforms. This goes hand in hand with simpler UIs such as the iPad’s. One of the technical features in this evolution is the disappearance of the file system in favor of a searchable database of objects, as I mentioned in a previous post.

Tangent: The move from personal computing to software services accessed via simpler devices is what is truly significant about the iPad. Those who worry about details such as whether it has a camera or Flash are completely missing the point.

All this is already happening, which makes it easier to explain the idea of objects as software services (see the video) now than in 2004/2005. Consider the trend of programming languages toward a pure object model: all data are objects.

Tangent: This is orthogonal to functional programming. Objects can be immutable, as in, e.g., Avarice.

So, we now have programs dealing with objects in primary storage running on platforms whose secondary storage consists of objects as well. Initially, programmers find that they must explicitly manage the transition of data from primary to secondary storage.

The programmer’s task is simplified if that transition can be automated. This is an old idea known as orthogonal persistence. The Achilles’ heel of orthogonal persistence was the divergence of in-memory data representation and persistent data representation. This argued for manual management of the transition between primary and secondary storage.

However, circumstances are changing. The difference between transient (in-memory) and persistent (secondary storage) representations was driven by several factors, none of which apply in the full service computing model.

The first factor was that programs changed their internal representation while persistent data lived forever. Orthogonal persistence broke down when old data became incompatible with program data structures.

In our brave new world, programs co-evolve with their data so this is not an issue. The service manages both the application and secondary storage, updating them in lock step. Thus, we have data that is not only orthogonally persistent, but orthogonally synchronized.

The second factor was that persistent data formats were a medium of exchange between different programs with different internal data representations. This relied on the file system, may it rest in peace. The new applications are in fact compelled to keep their persistent data in silos tied to the application, and communicate with other applications in constrained ways.

This sets the stage for a model where programs are written in a purely object oriented language that supports orthogonal synchronization of both programs and data. This model eases the programmer’s task, and sits perfectly in the world of full service computing.

I have been discussing language support for this vision of software services publicly since my talk at DLS 2005, and privately long before. Newspeak’s modularity and reflection features dovetail perfectly with that.

Newspeak allows programs to be represented as objects; these objects are compact and self contained, thanks to the modularity of Newspeak code. Newspeak programs can be updated on the fly, atomically. Together, these two features provide a foundation for synchronizing programs. And the Newspeak VM supports shallow object immutability, which helps us synchronize data. On this basis, we have implemented experimental support for orthogonal synchronization, though it is very immature. I hope that in the future, we can provide an open software service based on this idea.

Of course, the radical edge the objects as software services vision is the complete abolishment of versions for libraries as well as applications. That is, I admit, untested, controversial and futuristic. However, with respect to applications, it is already starting to happen.