12 crackpot tech ideas that could transform the enterprise

These technologies straddle the divide between harebrained and brilliant as they promise to shake the pillars of tomorrow's enterprise

"Another issue, besides the prohibitive cost and cumbersome nature of e-documents, concerns the vast portion of the contracts that were signed and agreed upon before e-books came onto the scene,says litigation lawyer Esther Lim, a partner at Finnegan Henderson. "That raises questions not just in terms of what rights the user has, but what rights the publisher has vis-a-vis the copyright holder."

If these issues aren't resolved, the e-book market may fail to attract the kind of vendor investment necessary to overcome the technology's lingering cost and usability concerns.

So, until e-books have their day in court, the jury remains out on their viability for the enterprise.

-- Richard Gincel

8. Desktop Web applications

When asked whether a full-featured desktop app can be delivered via the Web, most people picture standard HTML forms, possibly with Java or JavaScript thrown in for aesthetics and minimal functionality, and laugh the idea off. But the full-scale apps being built for the browser using scripting languages and Adobe's Flash and Shockwave development tools will soon prove them wrong.

Flash apps started out as rudimentary games with lackluster input methods and a cartoonlike look and feel. More and more, however, they resemble native apps. Take Gliffy, for instance -- a very attractive, stable Flash app that drives like Microsoft Visio, providing full diagramming capabilities in the browser with nothing more than Flash 7 required on the client side.

Another worthwhile example is EyeOS, which looks like a Flash app but is built on PHP and JavaScript and runs off a standard Apache Web server. The array of options and eye candy in EyeOS is staggering for such a new project, clearly pushing the envelope of what such apps can do.

These projects, and others popping up all over the Net, represent the next step in Web app delivery, one that will break free of the HTML form and into interfaces that resemble fat apps. Vendors such as Scalent are already writing their UIs in Flash -- and are reaping the benefits of a simpler deployment, arguably greater cross-platform support than Java, and a more seamless, attractive user experience to boot.

As the options diversify and improve, it's a safe bet that Web-based desktop apps will reshape the enterprise soon.

-- Paul Venezia

9. Project Blackbox

A portable datacenter may seem like pie in the sky, but in fact, Sun Microsystems has already constructed it. Whether Project Blackbox, which Sun calls the first virtualized datacenter, catches on remains to be seen, but for some, the concept is compelling.

Take a 20-foot shipping container; provide it with integrated cooling, networking, and power distribution; add external hookups for hot and cold water, 208-volt three-phase AC power, and Ethernet networking; integrate sensors, alarms, and GPS; fill its eight 19-inch shock-tolerant racks with servers -- either 120 Sun Fire T2000 servers or 250 Sun Fire T1000 systems -- and you've got one or two thousand processor cores, 7TB of memory, and more than 2PB of storage. Connect them all as a grid, for simplicity.

According to Sun, this configuration can support 10,000 simultaneous desktops without requiring an administrator, and it can be located almost anywhere: on a rooftop, in a parking garage, in a secure warehouse. It can be delivered rapidly, even to theaters of operation or catastrophe areas. What's more, Sun claims that a Project Blackbox datacenter is a tenth the price of a standard datacenter and that it can be turned on and configured in a day.

So if you find yourself unable to build or power or cool a datacenter fast enough to keep up with your enterprise's growth, or you're in need of a server farm on the go or at a hard-to-reach outpost such as an oil rig, you may find yourself in the market for this deliverable soon.

-- Martin Heller

10. Quantum computing and quantum cryptography

The manipulation of subatomic particles at the quantum level has raised eyebrows in computer science research departments lately -- so much so that several approaches to incorporating quantum mechanics into computing have been launched to varying degrees of success.

The most advanced field of research is quantum cryptography, a bit of a misnomer given that it doesn't rely on anything resembling traditional codes or ciphers. Instead of locking up data in a mathematical safe, the technique encodes messages in the clear by tweaking the quantum properties of photons -- a 1 may transform into a photon with "left" spin; a 0, into a photon with "right" spin.

The technique offers security because it is believed to be impossible to detect the spin of a photon without destroying or significantly altering it. So any eavesdropper would annihilate the message or change it enough for the recipient to notice. Two leaders in the field, IBM and Los Alamos National Laboratory, have built working devices and have demonstrated the transmission of photon streams through fiber optics and even the air.

Another technology based on the principles of quantum mechanics, quantum computing, attempts to model computation with quantum states. The field has produced tantalizing theoretical results that show how such a computer instantly could solve some of the most complicated problems such as factoring exceedingly large numbers.

Quantum computing is much further from having an impact in the lab or the enterprise than quantum cryptography. No one has built a particularly useful quantum computer yet, although some researchers have built machines that work with one or two bits. One group recently announced it is building machines that work with problems that take around 1,000 bits to describe.

-- Peter Wayner

11. Semantic Web

Originally designed for document distribution, the Web has yet to realize its full potential for distributing data. XML has done its part. Yet every XML document requires an XML Schema -- and relating them isn't easy. Until a viable means for surfacing and linking data is established and adopted, humans will remain the Web's core categorizing agents.

Enter the Semantic Web, an effort spearheaded by Tim Berners-Lee in 1999 to extend the Web to enable machines to take this mantle. At the outset, the idea -- to transform the Web into something machines can readily analyze -- seemed hopelessly academic. Yet with significant public data sets surfacing in Semantic Web form, the once crazy notion now stands to revolutionize how enterprise IT accesses and disseminates data via the Web.

RDF (Resource Description Framework) -- the Semantic Web's standard format for data interchange -- extends the URI linking structure of the Web beyond naming the two ends of a link, allowing relationships among all manner of resources to be delineated. But the key to the Semantic Web -- and where most people's eyes glaze over -- is its use of ontologies. If specialized communities can successfully create ontologies for classifying data within their domains of expertise, the Semantic Web can knit together these ontologies, which are written using RDF Schemas, SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organization System), and OWL (Web Ontology Language), thereby facilitating machine-based discovery and distribution of data.

Buy-in is essential to the success of the Semantic Web. And if it continues to show promise, that buy-in seems likely.

-- Martin Heller

12. Total information awareness

When the DoD's Information Awareness Office rolled out its high-tech scheme to track down terrorists in 2002, the program had all the hallmarks of a government boondoggle, invoking imagined -- and sometimes unimaginable -- future technologies to solve an immediate problem.

First, there was the hyperbolic, Orwellian name, Total Information Awareness (TIA); then there was the project leader, convicted Iran-Contra felon Rear Admiral John Poindexter. And finally there was the bloated goal: To aggregate, store, and analyze public and private data on an unimaginably massive scale, applying a predictive model that would correlate past activities to predict future acts. Minority Report, anyone?

The project eventually got a PR makeover, emerging as "Terrorism Information Awareness." Even so, the idea was still technically far-fetched. To create a system that could scoop up and analyze citizens' or foreign nationals' credit card transactions, medical records, Web site activity, travel itineraries, e-mails, or anything with an electronic fingerprint, Poindexter called for a "total reinvention of technologies for storing and accessing information." That's the IT equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

Ultimately, the technical hurdles became moot. Privacy advocates howled, public sentiment turned, and the Feds officially pulled the plug in 2003. Yet for all its sci-fi underpinnings, many of the technologies that constituted TIA aren't as nutty as they sound.

For instance, companies such as Teradata offer solutions that can migrate petabytes of data from disparate databases to a massive, integrated data repository, where customers can employ sophisticated data mining. Meanwhile, CallMiner and other speech analytics software enable companies to mine customer phone calls for business intelligence. And although today's predictive analysis tools may not be able to foretell a terrorist attack, they can, for example, analyze the failure rates of mechanical parts so that companies can adjust their inventories accordingly. Not too bad a technical legacy for such a mixed bag of seemingly crackpot notions.

-- Steve Fox

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