One Person Many Machines

One Person, Many Machines --- JoshuaKerievsky 03 Dec 2001

. . . Our communications software must be responsive to TheContextOfOurLives. One such context is the ever changing landscape of machines we work on. Good communications software will give us universal access to our textual electronic communications, freeing us from dependencies on particular machines.

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If you routinely communicate with people from different machines, it's likely that your communications will be scattered around on various hard-drives, unreachable when you aren't near a particular machine.

The vast majority of us who do communicate with people from different machines are compelled to invent ways to cope with our scattered messages:

  • Linda is going on a trip with her laptop and she needs access to some important messages she's exchanged with her client. She doesn't know how to easily copy message from her desktop to her laptop, so she spends the time to print out each message and stows the paper documents in her luggage.

  • While on her business trip, Linda uses her laptop to communicate with clients, loved ones and friends. When she returns to her office, she goes back to using her desktop. One day she needs to recall what she had quoted to a her client. She can't find the quote in any email on her desktop machine, so she goes digging around for it on her laptop.

  • On another trip, Linda's screen on her laptop never turns on, making her machine useless. When she returns from her trip, she finds out that the cost to repair the machine is close to the cost to buy a new one. She decides that it would be better to buy a new one, even though she'll loose many important messages and documents on her laptop.

Stories like this are commonplace when people interact with communications software from many machines. Of course, some figure it all out---they come up with just the right way to use their machines and software to make all their messages accessible to them. But these folks are in a tiny majority of folks who either learned how to do this from a someone else, or had the technical expertise to make it work.


Make textual electronic communications accessible from our various machines, but not dependent on those machines for the storage of our messages.

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Machines can often fail us in remote locations, when access to our messages can be important. At such times, communications software systems can cooperate with non-software systems---like faxes, phones or even postal mail---to give us access to our messages.

Good communications software will know how to interact with us as we move from machine to machine---UniversalAccess, AwarenessOfPresence, ?TimeSensitiveAndLocationSensitive.

Electronic Nomads (was One Person, Many Machines) --- ?RonGoldman 6 Dec 2001

. . . the pattern TheContextOfOurLives provides for programs to act appropriately in different contexts. This context goes beyond the here and now, as tasks we are engaged in extend over days, weeks and even years. As we move about it also extends to the many different computers and electronic devices that we encounter and use.

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To fully function in the world we rely on external artifacts.

As we work and play we do not attempt to remember everything in our heads. Instead we depend upon address books, calendars, notes, drafts of work in progress, filed copies of our correspondence, books, and other external memory aids. Likewise we have our favorite tools, be it a fine pen or a power saw.

Depending on external technology creates a problem when we move about in the world. We either have to take our artifacts with us or hope to make use of those available wherever we are going.

The same is true in the electronic realm: when we move from one computer to another we need to bring with us copies of our letters and notes, along with the programs we have learned to use.

When we start interacting with a new computer, it has no knowledge of the context of our lives. We must start from scratch, copying our world to it. We must install the software we wish to use, copy the information of who we are and what we are working on, and re-establish our preferred working environment.

If we only seldom needed to shift to a new machine then the problem, while an inconvenience, would be bearable. However people often use many different machines in the course of a single day. They may shift from a computer at work to their portable laptop or to a smaller PDA. They may sit down at a coworker or friend's machine. They move from home to work. Over time old machines break or become obsolete and are replaced with newer designs.

This nomadic lifestyle leaves us with information about our lives scattered amongst all of the machines we use. A letter we just received is on our home machine, our latest notes concerning a recent meeting on our laptop, but now we are at our work machine and need access to both.

We need to enable our machines to talk to each other in order to always allow us access to our work. This inter-machine communication should occur automatically rather than force us to attend to the details manually. There might be some central---possibly web-based---place that contains our online lives, or just a way for one machine to inform or synchronize with another. The idea of turning off my home computer when I'm not using it may no longer make sense, if when I am at work, my work computer needs to retrieve information from my home one---when I use any computer, I may indirectly need to use my home machine.

Similarly when we approach a strange machine, it should be able to "learn" our preferred work practices and be able to access our information. It needs to be able to converse with some other machine that already knows us that can tell it about us.


Build into every program a way for it to update and be updated about work we do on other computers. When we change our online world on one machine that change should be propagated to any other computer we use.

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Making it easy for our machines to share information about us must be balanced with concerns about our privacy---PrivacyGradient---and our safety---SafeToUse. Being able to use the same tools wherever we are ties into EditingEase.

In the longer term as our older machines cease to serve us, we face the loss of the tools (software) we know and (possibly) love. Shiny new replacements are unlikely to run the old applications, and we will be lucky if the new versions can make sense of the old formats that our lives are stored in---RosettaStone.

One Person, Many Machines --- RichardGabriel 7 Jan 2002

. . . Machines form part of TheContextOfOurLives as important tools, more important in some ways because we communicate so much with them, and the RhythmOfConversation doesn't heed how we switch from one machine to another, just as it doesn't heed one pen replaced by another . . .

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Many people work from many computers, even during the same day. We like to work particular ways, and like dogs pressing down straw to make a nest we spend time customizing our machines for our best and most comfortable use. What data and information we keep on each machine is part of our context, but most of the time we don't associate that context with the machine.

When I spend a week away from home, using my laptop to communicate, the people I communicate with don't care or even know something is different from when I am home, or even that I am away and not at home except that my rhythm might be off or the hours I communicate are different by time zones, travel, and meetings.

A machine is a machine, but I and my context is what matters.


Arrange the textual electronic communications system so that when a person moves from one computer to another, all the personal preferences for how to communicate are moved from the one computer to the other. Further, make it so that all the archives, saved messages, partially composed messages, address books, presence settings, filters, and everything else associated with a person's use of the communications system is automatically moved from the one computer to the other.

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Some systems call this synchronization, but it needs to go beyond data files to include personalizations and executable code that implements preferences. This will undoubtedly be a security nightmare since one needs to distinguish between synching up and someone stealing information (PrivacyGradient). Sometimes this will hard to do because we are not using our machines, but someone else's to read email or chat (UniversalAccess). AwarenessOfPresence will be difficult as well since we will be present on one machine which is representing us but perhaps not on others, or we want to appear less present only when connected by slow mechanisms to the Net. Some form of intermachine communication might be needed to make awareness of presence transparent. The system's awareness of urgency will depend on where you are and perhaps that depends on what machine you're on, so total machine transparency for context might be counterindicated (?TimeSensitiveAndLocationSensitive).


Last edited December 24, 2002
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