New software from I.B.M. can suck up huge volumes of data from many sources
and quickly identify correlations within it. The company says it expects the
software to be useful in analyzing finance, health care and even space weather.
Bo Thidé, a scientist at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, has been
testing an early version of the software as he studies the ways in which things
like gas clouds and particles cast off by the sun can disrupt communications
networks on Earth. The new software, which I.B.M. calls stream processing, makes
it possible for Mr. Thidé and his team of researchers to gather and analyze vast
amounts of information at a record pace.
“For us, there is no chance in the world that you can think about storing data
and analyzing it tomorrow,” Mr. Thidé said. “There is no tomorrow. We need a
smart system that can give you hints about what is happening out there right
I.B.M., based in Armonk, N.Y., spent close to six years working on the software
and has just moved to start selling a product based on it called System S. The
company expects it to encourage breakthroughs in fields like finance and city
management by helping people better understand patterns in data.
Steven A. Mills, I.B.M.’s senior vice president for software, notes that
financial companies have spent years trying to gain trading edges by sorting
through various sets of information. “The challenge in that industry has not
been ‘Could you collect all the data?’ but ‘Could you collect it all together
and analyze it in real time?’ ” Mr. Mills said.
To that end, the new software harnesses advances in computing and networking
horsepower in a fashion that analysts and customers describe as unprecedented.
Instead of creating separate large databases to track things like currency
movements, stock trading patterns and housing data, the System S software can
meld all of that information together. In addition, it could theoretically then
layer on databases that tracked current events, like news headlines on the
Internet or weather fluctuations, to try to gauge how such factors interplay
with the financial data.
Most computers, of course, can digest large stores of information if given
enough time. But I.B.M. has succeeded in performing very quick analyses on
larger hunks of combined data than most companies are used to handling.
“It’s that combination of size and speed that had yet to be solved,” said Gordon
Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, a technology industry research firm.
Conveniently for I.B.M., the System S software matured in time to match up with
the company’s “Smarter Planet” campaign. I.B.M. has flooded the airwaves with
commercials about using technology to run things like power grids and hospitals
The company suggests, for example, that a hospital could tap the System S
technology to monitor not only individual patients but also entire patient
databases, as well as medication and diagnostics systems. If all goes according
to plan, the computing systems could alert nurses and doctors to emerging
Analysts say the technology could also provide companies with a new edge as they
grapple with doing business on a global scale.
“With globalization, more and more markets are heading closer to perfect
competition models,” said Dan Olds, an analyst with Gabriel Consulting. “This
means that companies have to get smarter about how they use their data and find
previously unseen opportunities.”
Buying such an advantage from I.B.M. has its price. The company will charge at
least hundreds of thousands of dollars for the software, Mr. Mills said.
FRANCISCO — On sabbatical in 2001 from Macromedia, Kevin Lynch, a software
developer, was frustrated that he could not get to his Web data when he was off
the Internet and annoyed that he could not get to his PC data when he was
Why couldn’t he have access to all his information, like movie schedules and
word processing documents, in one place?
He hit upon an idea that he called “Kevincloud” and mocked up a quick
demonstration of the idea for executives at Macromedia, a software development
tools company. It took data stored on the Internet and used it interchangeably
with information on a PC’s hard drive. Kevincloud also blurred the line between
Internet and PC applications.
Seven years later, his brainchild is about to come into focus on millions of
PCs. On Monday, Mr. Lynch, who was recently named the chief technology officer
at Adobe Systems, which bought Macromedia in 2005, will release the official
version of AIR, a software development system that will power potentially tens
of thousands of applications that merge the Internet and the PC, as well as blur
the distinctions between PCs and new computing devices like smartphones.
Adobe sees AIR as a major advance that builds on its Flash multimedia software.
Flash is the engine behind Web animations, e-commerce sites and many streaming
videos. It is, the company says, the most ubiquitous software on earth, residing
on almost all Internet-connected personal computers.
But most people may never know AIR is there. Applications will look and run the
same whether the user is at his desk or his portable computer, and soon when
using a mobile device or at an Internet kiosk. Applications will increasingly be
built with routine access to all the Web’s information, and a user’s files will
be accessible whether at home or traveling.
AIR is intended to help software developers create applications that exist in
part on a user’s PC or smartphone and in part on servers reachable through the
To computer users, the applications will look like any others on their device,
represented by an icon. The AIR applications can mimic the functions of a Web
browser but do not require a Web browser to run.
The first commercial release of AIR takes place on Monday, but dozens of
applications have been built around a test or beta version.
EBay offers an AIR-based application called eBay Desktop that gives its
customers the power to buy wherever they are. Adobe uses AIR for Buzzword, an
online word processing program. At Monday’s introduction event in San Francisco,
new hybrid applications from companies including Salesforce, FedEx, eBay,
Nickelodeon, Nasdaq, AOL and The New York Times Company will be demonstrated.
Like Adobe’s Flash software, AIR will be given away. The company makes its money
selling software development kits to programmers.
Mr. Lynch and a rapidly growing number of industry executives and technologists
believe that the model represents the future of computing.
Moreover, the move away from PC-based applications is likely to get a
significant jump start in the coming weeks when Intel introduces its low-cost
“Netbook” computer strategy, which is intended to unleash a new wave of
inexpensive wireless connected mobile computers.
The new machines will have a relatively small amount of solid state disk storage
capacity and will increasingly rely on data stored on Internet servers.
“There is a big cloud movement that is building an infrastructure that speaks
directly to this kind of software and experience,” said Sean M. Maloney, Intel’s
executive vice president.
Adobe faces stiff competition from a number of big and small companies with the
same idea. Many small developers like OpenLazlo and Xcerion are creating
“Web-top” or “Web operating systems” intended to move applications and data off
the PC desktop and into the Internet through the Web browser.
Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox Web browser, has created a system known as
Prism. Sun Microsystems introduced JavaFX this year, which is also aimed at
blurring the Web-desktop line. Google is testing a system called Gears, which is
intended to allow some Web services to work on computers that are not connected
to the Internet.
Finally, there is Microsoft. It is pushing its competitor to Flash, called
Silverlight. Three years ago, Microsoft hired one of Mr. Lynch’s crucial
software developers at Macromedia, Brad Becker, to help create it. Mr. Becker
was a leading designer of the Flash programming language.
The blurring of Web and desktop applications and PC and phone applications is
further encouraged by the cellphone industry’s race to catch up with Apple’s
iPhone. The industry is focusing on smartphones, or what Sanjay K. Jha, the
chief operating officer of Qualcomm, calls “pocketable computing.”
“We need to deliver an experience that is like the PC desktop,” he said. “At the
same time, people are used to the Internet and you can’t shortchange them.”
Much software will have to be rewritten for the new devices, in what Mr. Lynch
said is the most significant change for the software industry since the
introduction in the 1980s of software that can be run through clicking icons
rather than typing in codes. This upheaval pits the world’s largest software
developer groups against one another in a battle for the new hybrid software
applications. Industry analysts say there are now about 1.2 billion
Internet-connected personal computers. Market researchers peg the number of
smartphones sold in 2007 at 123 million, but that market is growing rapidly.
“There is a proliferation of platforms,” Mr. Lynch said. “This is a battle for
the hearts and minds of people who are building things.”
The battle will largely pit Microsoft’s 2.2 million .Net software developers
against the more than one million Adobe Flash developers, who have until now
developed principally for the Web, as well as a vast number of other
Web-oriented designers who use open-source software development tools that are
referred to as AJAX.
Microsoft executives said they thought the company would have an advantage
because Silverlight has a more sophisticated security model. “Desktop
integration is a mixed blessing. There is potentially a gaping security hole,”
said Microsoft’s Mr. Becker. “We’ve learned at the school of hard knocks about
Microsoft’s competitors challenge its intent and assert that its goal is
retaining its desktop monopoly. “Microsoft is taking their desktop franchise and
trying to move that franchise to the Web,” said John Lilly, chief executive of
Mozilla. He faults the design of Silverlight for being an island that is not
truly integrated with the Internet.
“You get this rectangle in a Web browser and it can’t interact with the rest of
the Web,” he said.
He said Mozilla’s Prism offers a simple alternative to capitalize on the
explosion of creative software development taking place on the Internet. “There
are jillions of applications. A million more got launched today. The whole world
is collaborating on this.”
Up to now, it has been a low-level war between Microsoft and Adobe. Silverlight,
for instance, got high marks from developers for its ability to handle high
resolution video, but Adobe quickly upgraded Flash last year in response.
“We said, ‘Let’s put this in right now,’ ” Mr. Lynch said. With revenue last
year of $3.16 billion, Adobe is large enough to fight Microsoft.
Adobe, the maker of Photoshop, Acrobat and other software, also has a strong
reputation as a maker of tools for the creative class. "We’re one of the best
tool makers in the world," said Mr. Lynch, who worked on software design at
MicroPro, the publishers of the Wordstar word processor, and at General Magic,
an ill-fated effort to create what could be called a predecessor to today’s
smartphones, before joining Macromedia.
“Adobe’s known for its designer tools, but they realize that development — for
the browser, for the desktop, and for devices such as cellphones — is a huge
growth market,” said Steve Weiss, executive editor at O’Reilly Media, a
technology publishing firm.