Friday, January 14, 2005

Croquet, Everyone?



The following article written by Quentin Hardy and entitled "Croquet, Everyone?" just appeared in the technology section of Forbes Magazine's January 31st issue:

"Alan Kay, a legend in computing, thought it was time for something better. So he built it.

Thirty years ago Alan Kay oversaw the creation of many of the personal computer's clever innovations, among them windows, point-and-click file opening and networks. His lasting success irks him. "Except for the silicon, we've only gotten 5% of the potential of the PC revolution," he says.

Kay wants to take computing forward with his next great invention, an operating system that puts the user in a three-dimensional graphic world with scores of other users, all computing collaboratively and communicating through audio and visual messaging. Called Croquet, it runs on top of operating systems like Windows, Linux and Apple. Its innovation is in relocating the now-decades-old interface of windows and folders to a shared virtual world. You can landscape it any way you want, with mountain ranges, oceans or meeting rooms. Users become color icons or, if you'd rather, 3-D characters such as fish or bunnies. You zoom around in this rich, icon-filled space and call up digital photos, Web pages, science projects or PowerPoint presentations.

You can view and alter other users' files in one place, chat with those other users over the Internet and then move on to far-off objects and people, if they seem interesting. A budget report's graphics, say, might be made a figurative 10 feet tall, then changed by one user to reflect new sales data, then recolored by someone else for sharper resolution. You can do all this even if your Internet connection is a creaky-slow dial-up modem.

Croquet packs a lot of power for a little piece of software, one with but a single line of code for every 300 in Windows XP. Kay built Croquet with help from six crack programmers, funding it first with his own money and then through Hewlett-Packard's research labs, where he is a senior fellow. The total cost for the project, released for free last October, is less than $10 million, a drop in a Microsoft bucket. Says Kay: "Good math and small teams win."

In the 1970s Kay, now 64 years old, was an early member of Xerox's famous Palo Alto Research Center. Some of his inventions from that time, including an object-oriented programming language called Smalltalk, went into Croquet. He later worked on 3-D graphics at gamemaker Atari, compact computing systems at Apple Computer and easy-to-use interfaces at Disney.

Croquet comes as many institutions struggle with large, spread-out teams. The U.S. military is evaluating Croquet for training radio technicians to build field communications systems in virtual terrain replicating the landscape in Iraq. This spring the universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin will try Croquet for collaborative classroom labs. Intel, whose average employee is at any time on three different projects, is looking at Croquet as a way to make juggling work projects gamelike.

HP is playing Croquet by giving it away as an open-source project to build a user base quickly and to get an early read on what this sort of software will be useful for. "We don't get too focused on how to make money yet," says Patrick Scaglia, Kay's boss at HP. "We'll know within a couple of years. Good ideas take off rapidly, or they die.""

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