Tuesday, May 6, 2008

i360 Adds Semantics to Everything

Tony Sukiennik believes the power of the
people trumps the power of the algorithm when it comes to the
development of semantic technology. His company, infoGenome,
a startup that has been in stealth mode for about four and half years,
wants to harness that power by making semantics easy via its innovative
drag-and-drop functionality. The i360 software he's developed is
essentially the "Mahalo of semantic apps," relying on human knowledge
to add meaningful layers of metadata to the information we work with
every day. With i360, you can add semantics to everything.

People-Powered Semantics

When you're doing a web search, you instantly know what information
is relevant and which isn't. At i360, they call this flash of
understanding an "instant of information insight." In
a split second you can identify something as being useful, but the
problem in today's world is that there are too many ways to store that
information - you can tag it, bookmark it, save it to file, email it,
blog about it, share it with others, and so on. Overwhelmed by choices,
busy people often choose to "just remember it," a decision that leads
to the inevitable: forgetting. The human mind is already
overloaded with input, so isn't the ideal repository for storing all
the complexities of our information-filled lives.

Instead, software should be doing the remembering for us. That's
where i360 comes in. The application itself, self-funded but seeded by Bill Campbell,
Google advisor and chairman of Intuit, is really just a prototype of
this conceptual idea, but one that Tony hopes Google might be
interested in. Or maybe Microsoft. (He plans on proposing his ideas to
both companies to see who bites.)

What the i360 software does is provide a way quickly add mark up and
add meaning to the data you're working with - be it a link on the web,
an email, a file, or anything - with semantics. This process is done
via a quick drag-and-drop into the app.

That isn't to say that this technology is using semantics in the
technical sense of the word - it's not about converting everything into
machine-readable formats for use on the semantic web; what it is doing,
though, is adding semantics to everything by
assigning meaning to that email, that PDF, that link, that note, that
spreadsheet, etc. Meaning that only you, and not a computer or an
algorithm, could know. In doing so, the technology is not focused on a
semantic web per se, but a semantic database of your own, made up of
not only web links, but also files, contacts, emails, keywords, and
more, and knowing how they all are associated with each other.

Although Tony believes that we shouldn't give up on the algorithm -
by all means, research should continue in that area - he feels strongly
that his technology, which taps into the power of the human brain,
gives people the ability to organize and assign value to information in
a way that a machine cannot.

How It Works

What i360 does is complex and sort of hard to understand if you're
not working with it directly. In fact, it's easier to understand if you
work backwards from the end result of using the technology.

For example, imagine you do a Google Desktop Search or a Google
Enterprise Search, and, instead of just links to items that match
keywords, you get something a little more like this:

Augmented Search Results

You can see that by using the software, you've managed to associate people, documents, notes, and more with the original file.

The process of making these associations is via a "fire and move on"
drag-and-drop methodology. See a useful link? Drag-and-drop it into
i360. Highlight some text and drag and drop that as the item's
description. Click a button and a screenshot is added automatically.
Now associate that link with a person. That person with a Word
document. That document with a search and an email...and so forth, and
so on.

Saving a Web Page

Within a company, the i360 technology can also be used to work with
internally running applications, like Microsoft's SharePoint, for
example...or any other application to which you have the cooperation of
the vendor or access to the app's code base. With 100 lines of code,
information from these applications can pass data from the app itself
back to the i360 environment as just another informational nugget that
can be associated with a person, a file, or anything else.

There's more this application can do, too. For example, searches
themselves could begin in a more structured format - focusing on just
what you're interested in finding (see example below). Each item you're
researching can be available with one click from a sidebar - no saving
to del.icio.us required.

Focused Searching

The results of your searches can then be transformed into a new file
with links (see below), retaining the same structure of your own
headings and listed items, and that file can then be emailed to someone
else or published as a page available publicly on the web. If you find
something new to add to it, be it another link or a file or anything
else, you can just drag-and-drop that new item to i360 to update the
results on the fly.

Formatted Results Can Be Shared With Others

A project team in the workplace could use the application together,
associating people and emails and files and searches with each other,
creating a database of content surrounding their project. A year later,
an employee in another department could search via their company's
enterprise search and find all the information in that project and how
it all interrelates, even if all the original team members had moved on
to other jobs in other companies. No more would "everything is stored
in that one guy's head" be the norm. Employees could move on, but the
data they created or found, and the way that data relates to other
data, would remain.

Where It Needs Improvement

As a concept - simple drag-and-drop semantics - the technology is
fascinating. In practice though, it's still very rough. You couldn't
install i360 and be off and running in minutes - you would still need
training to know how to use it as it exists in its present form. It
today's world of bubbly web apps, anything that isn't immediately
intuitive isn't going to be adopted by the majority of users. The whole
Enterprise 2.0 trend is about bringing the simplicity of consumer
applications into the corporate world, and, although that is this
software's goal, unfortunately, I can't say that it achieves it.

The UI itself is confusing. They've made some interesting choices -
the address bar is at the bottom, for example; buttons are labeled with
things like "E+" - a reference to the name of a portion of the software
suite, but one that is meaningless to the new user. The graphics and
fonts used look ancient.

The UI


However, that being said, if you can look past the UI to the
underlying idea, there's something about this concept - human-powered
semantics - semantics over everything - that could be great, if someone
could just make it pretty. It could even be the future.

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