Thursday, 20 March 2008

IBM Master Inventor visits AlertMe

Just before Easter we had a visit from IBM Master Inventor Andy Stanford-Clark, who runs the Pervasive and Advanced Messaging Technologies team at Hursley Park. Hursley is home to several IBM products including Websphere MQ, which is middleware.

Middleware (which is also an interest of our friends in the Opera group) is software designed to move information around organisations, especially between other software applications. There are lots of ways software programs can talk to each other, but because organisations get things done by taking in raw materials - including information - and processing them into a final product, the movement of information through an organisation is extremely important. In fact, it is often their main reason for existing! When those information flows become very complex, and they usually do, it is hard for managers to know what's going on. Its even harder for them to change how things work. That's dangerous, because efficiency and being able to adapt quickly are vital survival skills for many businesses.

Middleware makes it easy to manage those information flows. It gets its name from where it sits, between the parts of the organisation that generate information and the parts that need information. It automates processes, makes sure applications can get information when they need it, translates between different applications' languages, keeps track of who's allowed to do what, and delivers messages reliably. That leaves application designers free to concentrate on doing what they need to do, instead of reinventing the wheel. Also, having all the business applications that share information talk to MQ and not directly to eachother makes it much easier to integrate new features and streamline the way things work. That gives business leaders more freedom to try things out and respond to change.

MQ was originally designed for corporate intranets, running on relatively powerful computers which could talk to each other via high speed links, but Andy and his team are busy extending it to work with lower bandwidth connections and less powerful devices. They're doing this with an MQ extension called Telemetry Transport (see In the world of small and cheap connected devices, information flows are often very local - around a home, say, rather than around a corporation - and are often considered an integral part of a larger application, rather than simply connecting distinct applications together. But middleware still offers the same advantages of transparent design and easy reconfigurability.

Being an IBM Master Inventor, a big part of Andy's job is exploring how how his technology can be used. He's already demonstrated many applications using things like embedded linux computers connected by GPRS, and now he's interested in really tiny microprocessors connected by ZigBee.

We first read about his work in Eureka Magazine, which recently featured his Power Orb. The Orb reacts to his rate of electricity usage by changing colour from cool blue to hot red as it increases. Andy showed us how he can also get this information on his mobile phone (using a Java MIDlet) and even publish it to a Twitter account (what's Twitter?) via Twitter's API (what's an API?). In fact, if you look at his Twitter feed, you'll see that electricity is only a small part of the information Andy collects from his house - there are also updates on lighting, heating, temperature, phone and water usage. Each update comes from a simple sensor, via MQTT. The system works both ways too - it is possible to turn the fountain, lights and heaters on and off by flicking switches on a web page.

We got a lot of good ideas from Andy's visit, including a bunch of cool things AlertMe could do in the future. The Power Orb is a particularly interesting one, because we already have a Lamp accessory that glows pretty colours according to whatever rules we build for it. Twitter feeds excite us too, because they seem like such a great idea and the world is still figuring out what to do with them. We'd love to hear what you think! Sign up to our forums and let us know. How would you feel about your house having a Twitter feed? Would it be amazingly useful or scarily public? Would you prefer it to use IM? (what's IM?), or email? What would you want it to say to you?