What changes and what stays the same?

by Jack Seay

Feb. 9, 2006

On the web, when you edit a document, and replace the previous one, you lose that version. A little bit of history, which you may need to recall later, has been lost. You could leave the previous version there and just give the new one a new name, but that can soon lead to the links to your documents leading only to old versions, perhaps incorrect ones, and no trail pointing to the newer ones. This is usually not done, however, and the older ones disappear. Often this is just as well, but not always, especially for the author (who often changes his/her mind).

In Xanadu, each edit of a document creates a new version, but software can point links to the newest version of a document automatically without losing the previous ones. Since the formatting and viewing display is stored separately from the textual content, you could have hovering footnotes, links revealed in flying windows, different formats for different sized screens, side-by-side version comparison, and much more that is rarely done using today's methods. Versions are never deleted (except under rare circumstances), and always available for re-editing. Links don't depend on changing filenames and directories.

Since the content and formatting is completely separate and can be combined into whatever set is suitable for the user's purpose, endless possibilities arise. A chat could show each person's thread of discussion in a separate scrolling subwindow with translucent lines drawn to what was responded to and responses to this statement. Books, movies, or music referred to in a chat could open up (if desired) in separate windows.

Since permission to requote at length cannot be taken for granted on the web, there has been no big rush to create web "browsers" that can also edit what is being read. Readers are made into semi-passive mouse potatoes.

In Xanadu, before publishing, every author gives permission to quote anything said at any length, and combine parts of all published documents into new compendiums. This is not so bad as it may sound at first, as the original document is always linked to from the quoting document, and if the work is for sale * (by the byte, not as complete documents only), anytime my work is quoted by you, I get paid a tiny amount automatically. So authors benefit by being able to quote others as freely as others can quote them. And the automatic payment system and authorship tracking encourages as much reuse as needed. The readers (watchers, listeners) benefit from always being able to instantly access the complete documents referred to in footnotes and bibliographies. And since everything will be editable and annotatable into new versions, highlighting, adding comments, underlining, leaving exact bookmarks to specific phrases, etc. - all this will be taken for granted.

* I hear screams of protest from the back of the room, "Information wants to be free!". Well, what Information wants won't put food on the table and a roof over the head for the millions of people who work full-time providing Information of all media types. And Xanadu won't force people to charge for what they want to give away, as long as they have permission from all authors contributing to give away their content.

On the web, and even in online games like Second Life or Sims Online, there is one "interface" for all users. Browsers have only minor differences in appearance.

In Xanadu, once combined with the n-finite dimensional program zigzag into Floating World; you could be walking along talking to someone on your favorite hiking trail. They could be switched into a different "scenery dimension" and be hiking through Carlsbad Caverns or climbing K2 or the mountains of Mars. In reality, each of you would be walking or climbing the surface of a rolling rock that would adjust it's speed to present the appropriate slope up or down, vertical surface or overhang, and changing texture with nanotechnology (Sisyphus revisited). Nanotech clothing would also adjust the weather, gravity and air qualities. Satellite maps could allow you to zoom into a virtual re-creation of a mall. There you could shop the stores, pick up and rotate things, read the labels and get instant definitions of long chemical names and marketing mumbo-jumbo, read customer reviews (yes - even in the store! - see amazon.com), zoom into the patent drawings of what you hold, and show it to a friend on the other side of the world who is in a completely different virtual environment (with their permission).

The same database that tracks a store's inventory from every step of manufacturing to the point of sale will allow you find anything you want fast, know when it will arrive if out of stock, help notify the stocker that you want that item sitting on shelf 1534 of the stockroom (right now, or perhaps go get it yourself!), and it will do all this without revealing your personal buying habits unless you want them known to someone for a specific purpose.

Contrast this with the 1960's style interface on most retail checkouts and "inventory control" scanners, which are a constant hindrance to fast access of needed knowledge. Even the most advanced businesses have stone-age, incredibly dumb and expensive database systems.

Giving customers this much knowledge also gives it to your competitors, but when they see how it positively affects your sales, they will rush to do the same. Give the customer practically unlimited knowledge of your products before, during, and after shopping will make for happier, less frustrated customers, sales-people, and manufacturers. Let them put some item (on your shelf, stockroom, or truck) on reserve, even making a cash deposit in advance. All this will make everyone but slow adopters of the technology less stressed out.

You can tell I have spent most of my life in manufacturing and retail, and both have often been maddeningly frustrating experiences because I have known that so much better methods are possible.

Obviously, you won't be doing all this ubiquitous net-surfing (see, I can use the snazzy buzz words too:) while lugging around a wireless laptop, but most likely using a heads-up 3D display with variable transparency built into your glasses. But it will look like it is several feet in front of you, and combined with gesture technology finger and eye position sensors, will allow you to "handle" objects, take them apart without opening the box, and zoom in on microscopic, even nano-sized details.

OK, Xanadu isn't just a new and better "shopping network", but this will just be a small part of what can happen when you combine the features if offers with the best of hardware and software now available.