Life in Six Degrees: Confessions from a Beta-tester of a Killer App

Six Degrees is a remarkable new piece of software for Mac OS X and Windows. This article describes my experiences with the application and discusses some of its implications for the future of all software.What it Does

I first heard about it in a stray comment at the Joel on Software website. As a power user of email, I was very intrigued by Joel’s comments and the concept I found described on the Creo website. I submitted an email stating my desire to participate in the beta program and to my surprise was rewarded with a restricted URL to download a copy of Beta 2. I’ve had the rare luck to use it through the several beta releases of the development lifecycle. And when I say “use” here, I don’t mean simply “install, tinker, forget.” This application has been up and running each and every day since I received the first beta copy. It’s already that solid. It’s already that good. It’s so good, in fact, that I was a terrible beta-tester, submitting no negative feedback whatsoever.

It’s not an entirely new breed of creature as it closely resembles a Unix daemon, running quietly in the background while providing a simple, elegant service. This service, however, is fascinatingly unique; it analyzes the inbox of your Outlook, Entourage, or email client, drawing associations between your email, your attached files, and your contact list. These associations are presented to the user in an elegant three-paned interface – one for each of these elements of information. Even when this paneled window is minimized, a small semi-transparent “Legend” window floats at the top of the screen. This rectangle holds three colored dots, red for mail, blue for files, and yellow for contacts; tick marks rise vertically with the number of associations for a given piece of information.

It’s an amazingly subversive concept that is near flawlessly executed. Six Degrees completely bypasses the organizational hierarchy imposed by the underlying operating system, allowing navigation and access to content without moving up and down an inverted tree structure. While other applications have attempted similar feats, they’ve all required additional steps of work on the half of the user. For example, how many times have we seen knowledge management systems that required all files to be stored in special directories within a special system? Six Degrees, however, quietly hides in the background, paying close attention to new information as it arrives or is shipped off. It carefully draws potential associations between these bits of information and presents them in a clear interface.

In other words, it draws together the connections between some of the most immediate, relevant pieces of information to the present-day knowledge worker.

The Future

As a 1.0 release, Six Degrees is already surprisingly powerful. It’s so profoundly aggressive, it’s approach is so terribly innovative, that I imagine the principle architects wisely restricted the design scope early on in the development. As such, today Six Degrees draws from only three distinct types of information in the gross morass of files and file-formats created within the mesolithic operating system; the derived associations yield definite, immediate results for any knowledge worker. However, the design scope will necessarily increase to include and analyze more pieces of information (i.e. meetings and other calendar entries, assorted bits and pieces of multimedia, recently visited websites, etc.). Even more meaningful associations and relationships are likely to emerge.

With the predictable increases in available CPU resources and forestalling a paradigm shift in the general execution of operating systems, I predict we’ll soon see a product like “Six Degrees Services” emerge. These services will reign in the entire churn of content, drawing it together into a much, more coherent web of meaningful associations and make them available to other pieces of software.

Remember the first time you used a copy of the Netscape browser? Download and install a copy of the demo today. Standback and watch all your cognitive structures unravel into a pool of grey muck.

Go on. Enjoy yourself.

About the author:
Christopher Murphy is the president and a senior consultant at grueTech Studios, a company focusing upon delivering edge technology solutions to small and medium sized businesses. He’s currently in a quandary as to what his next antiquarian computing project will be: cobbling together a Next Cube workstation from assorted parts on eBay, constructing a full-size MAME-driven arcade console, or building an aquarium out of a Macintosh SE shell.


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