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Your Spreadsheet is Calling: How CastBridge Promises to Bring Accountability to Business

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Even in the worst of economies, big shots in the personal computer industry get together several times a year at expensive conferences where new technologies are introduced, and deals are done behind closed doors. The most interesting of these conferences to me is DEMO, which is dedicated to showcasing a couple dozen new companies that have what the conference organizers believe are exciting new products. And of the products shown for the first time at DEMO 2003, held this week in Scottsdale, Arizona, my favorite was CastBridge, which brings instant messaging to computer applications with results that just might change the way many of us work.

Since CastBridge was the very last demo at DEMO, most reporters missed it, judging from the early press coverage. This column may well be the first time the company has ever been mentioned in print.

CastBridge, the company, is almost as interesting as CastBridge, the product. The CEO, financier, and sole U.S. employee of CastBridge is Kumar Thiagarajan. Kumar is a very experienced techie, having started a couple of previous companies following nine years in technical management at Sun Microsystems, the subject of my column last week. Kumar knows what he is doing, which is a good thing since for the last 18 months, the money he has been spending has come, for the most part, from his own bank account. The other half-dozen CastBridge employees are all in Bangalore, India. CastBridge has no real office either in California or India. Everyone works from home. It is a true virtual company.

CastBridge the product is based on Kumar's belief that instant messaging technologies like AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, and MSN Messenger can do more than provide a forum for teenage flirting. Developed over the last decade, the instant messaging protocols allow very quick text communication to take place between individuals using different types of computers on different continents. If you squint and tilt your head a little, it is easy to see that what is passing between the two typists in an Internet messaging session is data — not the traditional structured data of a SQL call, but data nonetheless. And with the spirit that says, "Bits are bits," Kumar began to see instant messaging as a kind of ad hoc data pipe that could be put to new uses.

One of the great problems of computing is that people do it, and people don't think like machines. Most of the data that each of us use in our work lives won't fit in a classic database — telephone numbers, names scrawled on scraps of paper, Post-It notes, hunches, and the odd cell retrieved from a spreadsheet. This is unstructured data, and it generally doesn't make it into our computers in a manner that is very useful. And unstructured data almost never makes it beyond our computers to perform any function in the greater world. Where do we put it? How do we use it? Nobody knows.

XML, the eXtensible Markup Language, is an attempt to make data that somehow finds its own way in the world, but actually doing that and making it look easy at the same time is very, very hard. Look at Microsoft's .NET. Look at all the XML startups that have already failed. And even those XML startups that will probably succeed — companies like KnowNow, which I have written about before — have a very difficult technical job to do. As Kumar says, "XML is making an elephant look like a deer."

CastBridge is a deer.

Here is what CastBridge can do. Say you are the Chief Financial Officer of a company like Enron, Worldcom, or any of the other recent high-profile mega-bankruptcies. These CFO's have done a very good job of maintaining deniability, and that deniability is generally based on latency and friction within their business systems. It simply takes data a long time to become information and then knowledge, especially when lots of different systems and applications are involved. It generally takes 30 days for a CFO to really know anything, and 60 days to be sure. Imagine being 60 days out of touch with how much money is in your wallet. But using CastBridge, the CFO can have instant messaging links created from every financial spreadsheet and every accounting program in the company, all leading to a master spreadsheet on the CFO's desk. When money comes into or goes out of the company, it will be reflected in the CFO's spreadsheet AS THE TRANSACTION TAKES PLACE.

Instead of wondering what shape the company is in today or knowing pretty well what shape it was in 60 days ago, with CastBridge the CFO can know EXACTLY what shape the company is in at that very moment. In this era of corporate finance scandals that have brought down not only big corporations but also at least one major accounting firm, you can see how attractive CastBridge could be to accountants. Whatever the CFO could know, so could the company's auditors, and presumably, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, too. And rather than being the result of some multi-year, multi-zillion dollar development project, each of those IM-like data links takes about a minute to set up. And once set up, they can persist as long as needed with no additional effort.

The way this all happens is through an extension to the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) that talks to CastBridge-developed plug-ins for popular applications. All this is patent-pending, of course. With CastBridge, your computer can send you an e-mail, then page you, then call your house, your office, and your mobile phone just to tell you that the stock you want to buy or sell is at the price threshold you set. You set this up and make it happen, not your broker. Other approaches can do this too, but they generally can't be programmed in under a minute.

With 150 million Microsoft Office users in the world, which plug-ins to do first is obvious. And what it leads to is subliminal organizational communication as our systems — all on their own — report and consolidate data, creating information leading to knowledge. CastBridge means the end of deniability.

It isn't often these days that we come up with an application that is, in itself, both a new way to do things and a new thing to do. CastBridge is going to have major impact once people come to understand it.

Yeah, but what about the disgruntled employee who is fired, then uses CastBridge to steal information from his former boss? CastBridge uses the Light Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) for address confirmation, just like your company e-mail system does. So when someone is canned and they lose their company e-mail address, all their CastBridge persistent links die, too.

This is great stuff — so great that the really important uses probably haven't even been thought of. But just sitting here I can think of plenty, mainly having to do with notification. A school district might spend hundreds of thousands on a system to notify parents when schools will be closed OR they could use CastBridge to program that same application in a few minutes at almost no cost.

But how does CastBridge make money? In the days of Internet fervor, they wouldn't have bothered to, but back then they also would have had venture capitalists fighting to fund them, which CastBridge, amazingly, has not. Today, CastBridge might go for corporate licenses of some sort, but I think the best revenue opportunity is defined by the structure of Instant messaging, itself. There is nearly always another computer in the middle of every messaging session, acting as a kind of post office or router. That means CastBridge, in the role of post office, could turn its service on and off.

Would it be worth one dollar per year for those 150 million Microsoft Office users to be able to have unrestricted use of the CastBridge service? Would it be worth $10 per year to a business? Whatever the eventual price, once the plug-ins are ready the system will pretty much run itself.

I think Kumar Thiagarajan is about to make a lot of money. Next time he goes to DEMO, they'll probably make him pay.

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