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Internet Application Workbook

Albert EinsteinThe concern for man and his destiny must always be the chief interest of all technical effort. Never forget it between your diagrams and equations."
-- Albert Einstein
A twelve-year-old can build a nice Web application using the tools that came standard with any Linux or Windows machine. Thus it is worth asking ourselves, "What is challenging, interesting, and inspiring about Internet-based applications?"

There are some easy-to-identify technology-related challenges. For example, in many situations it would be more convenient to interact with an information system by talking and listening. You're in the bathtub reading New Yorker. You want to know whether there are any early morning appointments on your calendar that would prevent you from staying in the tub and finishing an interesting article. You've bought a new DVD player. You could read the manual and master the remote control. But in a dark room wouldn't it be easier if you could simply ask the house or the machine to "back up 30 seconds"? You're driving in your car and curious to know the population of Thailand and the country's size relative to the state of California; voice is your only option.

There are some easy-to-identify missing features in typical Web-based applications. For example, shareable and portable sessions. You can use the Internet to share your photos. You can use the Internet to share your music. You can use the Internet to share your documents. The one thing that you can't typically share on the Internet is your experience of using the Internet. Suppose that you're surfing a travel site, planning a trip for yourself and three friends. Wouldn't it be nice if your companions could see what you're looking at, page by page, and speak comments into a shared voice session? If everyone has the same brand of computer and special software, this is easy enough. But shareable sessions ought to be a built-in feature of sites that are usable from any browser. The same infrastructure could be used to make sessions portable. You could start browsing on a desktop computer with a big screen and finish your session in a taxi on a mobile phone.

Speaking of mobile browsers, their small screens raise the issues of multi-modal user interfaces and personalization. With the General Packet Radio Service or "GPRS", rolled out across the world in late 2001, it became possible for a mobile user to simultaneously speak and listen in a voice connection while using text screens delivered via a Web connection. As an engineer, you'll have to decide when it makes sense to talk to the user, listen to the user, print out a screen of options to the user, and ask the user to highlight and click to choose from that screen of options. For example, when booking an airline flight it is much more convenient to speak the departure and arrival cities than to choose from a menu of thousands of airports worldwide. But if there are ten options for making the connection you don't want to wait for the computer to read out those ten and you don't want to have to hold all the facts about those ten options in your mind. It would be more convenient for the travel service to send you a Web page with the ten options printed and scrollable.

On the personalization front, consider the corporate "knowledge sharing" or "knowledge management" system. Initially, workers are happy simply to have this kind of system in place. But after a few years the system becomes so filled with stuff that it is difficult to find anything relevant. Given an organization in which one thousand documents are generated every day, wouldn't it be nice to have a computer system smart enough to figure out which three are likely to be most interesting to you? And display the titles on the three lines of your phone's display?

A more interesting challenge is presented by asking the question, "Can a computer help me be all that I can be?" Engineers often build things that are easy to engineer. Fifty years after the development of television, we started building high-definition television (HDTV). Could engineers build a higher resolution standard? Absolutely. Did consumers care? So far it seems that not too many do care.