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The answer is out there

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue July, July 1 - July 30, 2009 | BY Espen Andersen 

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Distributed problem solving on the cheap


Distributed problem solving on the cheap



I have a Palm PDA, or, to paraphrase the Beatles, the Palm has me. Into it goes addresses, appointments, expenses, and occasional writings (such as this one). To say I depend on it is an understatement -- should it stop working, I would in very short time be out of work. I would probably out of a family as well, since I (almost) use it to remember my kids' names and ages.

But it stopped working, one cold January morning a few years ago, and in a way I could not fix myself. For some reason, the synchronization feature (which moves stuff back and forth between PC and PDA) went cold. I could synchronize everything except the Datebook (i.e., the appointments and calendar). While I still could access and use the Datebook on my computer and on the Palm, the only way to keep them up to date would be to do it manually.

Palm's tech support was of no use. They took me through a standard list of obvious remedies and finally concluded that the only way to fix the problem would be to reenter the whole Datebook manually, since this was an error with the file itself and they didn't know how to fix the problem.

I had four years' worth of meetings and other events in the Palm, that's my personal history in there, and a manual reentry of past or even future events was out of the question. Muttering darkly, I resigned myself to use only the PC version for a while, thinking about what to do. Then I started hitting Internet search engines with terms like "Datebook," "Palm" and "problem" wading through oceans of false hits -- until I found Tobi Oetiker.

Tobi (at people.ee.ethz.ch/~oetiker/projects.html) is a Swiss hacker (in the original, positive sense of the word) who offered a Datebook fix page (at oetiker.ch/dtbrc.cgi). Here he described the problem (it sounded exactly like what I had experienced), gave the technical reason for it, and offered to fix the Datebook if I sent it to him. I considered what I had to lose (essentially nothing) and off it went. Three minutes later, an email arrived with a file named FIXED_DATEBOOK, which I copied over the old one. And lo and behold, it worked like a charm, and has since.

Now for the charge. Tobi's policy at that time was that users of this service could pay what they wanted, in Amazon gift certificates. I duly did, and this was apparently rare enough that Tobi sent an email thanking me. If you go to his site now, the setup is a little different: You can have the file repaired, but won't get it back until you have paid $7 through an online key-code system.

If you are as Palm-dependent as I am, $7 is less than peanuts. I suspect it is to Tobi, too, but then again, he hasn't had that much work with the site. He developed the fix because his father's Palm had the same problem, then generalized the solution and made it available to everyone. It largely runs itself, and he has the whole world's demand directed to him, if his potential customers could only find him.

So, a pointer from Palm would have been appreciated. In fact, I think they should buy Tobi's solution and offer it through their Web site. That would be admitting an error, something software companies are loath to do, but it would make some customers happy for a very small price.

The Larger Picture

So what's the point? Well, if you ever wondered about this new-fangled thing called Web Services -- now touted as the next big thing on the Internet -- this is basically it. A small routine that is available and callable on the Internet fixes your problem quickly and cheaply. It requires categorization, i.e., some search term or other way that will locate Tobi's, and only Tobi's site. It requires trust -- I read Tobi's description of himself and considered him trustworthy for that level of commitment. It requires a payment mechanism that allows for small, international, easy payments, i.e., with low transaction costs for both buyer and seller.

All of this is now possible, meaning that we will see a lot more Tobi Oetikers out there, fixing problems and making the fix available for small change. In fact, we are beginning to see a number of instances of on-the-cheap problem solving already. The whole Open Source movement is one example, where bug fixes to serious security problems show up one day after they are reported. Google, the search engine of search engines (quite literally, in many cases) has started a service called answers.google.com, where you can get answers to any questions for a price you set yourself -- an eBay of problem solving, if you will. Some of my students started a similar service a few years ago, called Interaport. Now at www.incapta.com, they use college students, all over the world, to do research on the cheap, acting as brokers between problems and problem solvers.

The hardest part of solving a problem is often formulating the right question. Distributed problem solving offers instant answers to well-formulated questions. The answer is out there, somewhere, if only you can find the fixer. Increasingly, you can.

Espen Andersen (self@espen.com) is associate professor with the Department of Strategy at the Norwegian School of Management BI (www.bi.no), and a research affiliate and European research director with The Concours Group ( www.concoursgroup.com), an international IT and management research and consulting organization. Based in Oslo, Norway, he has done research on topics such as mobile business, electronic commerce, knowledge management, digital business strategy and CIO-CEO interaction.

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