I've been somewhat vague about the work I've been doing at Microsoft this year, for a couple of reasons. First, much of the work was vague...I spent a lot of time talking to people, acting as consultant and catalyst, rather than creating things. Second, some of the projects I worked on were (and mostly still are) still not public knowledge.
There's one project, though, that's really my baby. I conceived it, spec'ed it, and am in the process of seeing it get built. And I've reached an agreement with MIcrosoft about the IP for this project that means I can now blog about it unfettered. So, for those wondering what I've really been working on, here it is.
It's called PULP...for "personal ubiquitous library project." (It was originally just "personal library project," but I added the "ubiquitous" so it would have an easy to remember name.) And it's the result of mashing up features from social bookmarking tools like del.icio.us and CiteULike and LibraryThing, personal library tools like Delicious Library and MediaMan, and mobile scanning and annotation tools like Aura.
So, why does the world need another social bookmarking/library tool? I'm not sure it does. But this one is intended to address some problems I've had with the tools listed above.
First, it's going to be an enterprise-based tool, that will be installed and managed on your own server. That's because centrally-owned and managed social bookmarking tools present a problem for people working on non-public projects. I was made aware of how much of a public trail I can leave in my bookmarks when one of my students knew about my plans to come to Seattle before my department chair did--all because he'd noticed what I was bookmarking and how I was tagging it. When I started working here at Microsoft on competitive projects, I cut way back on my use of del.icio.us, because I was concerned that I might give away too much of what I was working on to competitors.
Second, it's going the leverage the extreme coolness of Marc Smith's AURA project to enable SmartPhone and PocketPC-based data entry. I love that Delicious Library and MediaMan let me use a webcam to scan barcodes. But that's not useful when I'm walking through a bookstore, or visiting a friend's house. I want to be able to scan in the barcode of a book with my mobile device and add it to my collection.
Third, it will distinguish between items that I have (or have access to), and items that I'd like to have but don't. I love the idea of being able to browse a colleague's virtual bookshelf...but it's much more helpful to me if I know that these are items that s/he actually has and that I can therefore look at or borrow. That's even more helpful when I'm in a bookstore, since I'll be able to find out immediately if the book I'm considering purchasing is one that someone I work with already has a copy of.
That's all planned for the first version of the system, which I'm hoping we'll be able to deploy at RIT and MSR this fall so that we can do some research into how people use the system.
In the second version, I have a more ambitious plan. I want to develop a rich desktop client for the data that will incorporate p2p sharing, much like iTunes does for music. That way, even if my server is at RIT, and yours is at, say Yahoo, we can meet up at a conference and share items with each other. I can browse the stuff that people near me have marked as public, and I can share out items tagged for a talk I've given or a topic I'm studying. (I was delighted today when I came across this post describing how someone essentially turned iTunes into a paper-sharing tool.)
The way this is going to work from an IP and development resources standpoint is that MSR is developing the backend database for the service, and the mobile client will be based directly on the AURA client that will be made widely available in the foreseeable future. Everything that my students and I create--the UI, the web pages, the code to make the interface talk to the database--will be in the public domain. MSR is quite generously funding my students for this work, with sufficient funds for me to be able to get some great RIT students working hard on it all next year. So really, everybody wins. And I'm very grateful to Marc Smith and Turner Whitted at MSR for supporting this project, and making it possible for me and my students to continue working on it even after I return to RIT.
As we get further along in development, I'll be posting more information about the project.