March 13, 2003
Follow me on Twitter

Ecology of Tools

Casual users (and lots of journalists) are still looking for grand applications that do everything, but the real world is finally learning to use software tools that work together.

I just received a nice email from Amazon (whose CEO, I learned from Net News Wire, just survived a helicopter crash in Texas). Amazon is scanning all its affiliate sites for broken Amazon links, since broken links don't make them any money. Did Amazon build a powerful custom tool to do this? No: they just use Alexa.

Fixing broken links on archival pages is dull work, and might not be cost effective. Before discarding the message, I realized that all the tools were sitting right in my dock. The weblog pages are all in Tinderbox; I open the file, pop up the search window, and select the ISBN attribute. Next, I type three our four digits of the ISBN from one of the bad links; since I only mention a few hundred books in the weblog, typing three our four digits is enough to located the specific note. Tinderbox uses incremental search: as soon as I type the third digit, it starts scanning for possible matches. The result appears before I can hit return.

Clicking on the note shows me the title and author. Now I need to find the correct Amazon link: in most cases, the publisher has changed editions and so the old ISBN had been replaced. I pop up a Watson window and feed the Amazon tool the the title; it finds the actual link using Amazon's web service. Double-click to verify that it's the right book, copy the ISBN, paste into Tinderbox. Fixed. Export the site; Tinderbox figures out which pages have changed and rewrites them. Visit the Drop Drawers dock where I keep my maintenance files, click a Fetch icon, and the changed files are swept up to my server.

Notice how many different computers and corporations are cooperating here. No custom applications are involved, anywhere along the line -- not even for glue. It's all off-the-shelf. About a dozen companies have worked together on this little ten-minute task that doesn't generate any immediate revenue but makes the Web a nicer, cleaner place.