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OS/21st- by Sam Henwrich

As a new regular column here at OS/2 e-Zine! I'll be discussing new ways in which OS/2 can be used in both the consumer and corporate world, with technology that exists both today and which may be developed in the future. The purpose of this column is not to say what should be done, but what could be done, to feed a steady stream of ideas out there that may be picked up by others with the means to see them through, or merely to underline the fact that OS/2 does have a future.

But these won't be just my ideas. If you wish to contribute your own ideas, discuss ideas already presented here, or read what others have to say, then jump into our Hypernews forum. I'll be checking it regularly to see what you have to say.

The Special Agent

Agent technology was a brief fad around the mid 90s, with companies like General Magic talking about intelligent personal software robots that would scan the 'net for the best shopping prices, tickets for your favorite performers, news articles pertaining to your interests and so on. The idea is that you'll be able to issue a command to your agent such as "Find me tickets to see Pink Floyd perform within 3 hours drive from here and buy them if the value is $50 or lower" or "Find me a mixer for my Sound Blaster card and register it if it's worth $20 or lower" or "Find me any article on the web, Usenet or mailing lists related to Lotus SmartSuite and print out any that relate to Organizer" and so on. As you can see, it's a little bit like matching a search engine with a robot that can do tasks for you with the results of the search query.

As hinted in the examples, authorizing an agent to actually make purchases for you could be possible and even desirable, but obviously only if they're good enough to earn that kind of confidence. By restricting the dollar value that the agent is allowed to spend, you minimize your losses in case the agent makes a mistake and orders the wrong thing or from the wrong source. But even with that, we may also be able to take advantage of the various "trusted vendor" rating services already out there to narrow down who you allow the agent to buy from. More about that later.

The Technology

As I see it, OS/2 already has almost everything needed to take a two-prong approach to this problem. These 'prongs' being: an agent that runs on your computer, using your resources; and an agent that runs on a web server, programmed from a web page form and using the server's resources.

First and foremost is the ability to get out there on the Internet and actually do the work of searching. IBM has been admirably dedicated to the maintenance of OS/2's TCP/IP stack (the part which handles connections to sites on the Internet), sometimes putting out three or four updates a month in their most prolific periods. Why is a sturdy connection important? Since the agent will be visiting a lot of sites during its quest for the wanted information it's going to come across a lot of duds. Without a human operator's judgement helping it pick sites, it's possible that it'll stumble across any number of unsavoury locations. Normally these would be rejected and forgotten about in the course of the search. But as seen with Windows, security holes and flaws in the browser or operating system open up the possibility that your data might be stolen, or the machine crashed. OS/2 hasn't suffered in this regard, making it ideal as the base for the unsupervised browsing of an agent.

Second is the Rexx scripting language. It's versatile enough and simple enough that powerful search queries and 'bots' can be constructed out of it. As shown in OS/2 e-Zine!'s regular Rexx column, "The Rexx Files", it's possible to write a Rexx script that can formulate, transmit and receive the results of a query from a major search engine like AltaVista. In the same way, it can also be used to issue orders to an e-commerce site should you have authorized it to buy items for you. Lastly, Rexx is capable of assembling the data it collects from its various searches into an easily browseable web page.

Making it Easy

The idea of writing complex Rexx scripts may be fine for those Rexx programmers with the skills to do it, but not a lot of fun for the average person who just wants to be alerted when an affordable airfare to Warpstock has come up. What's needed is an interface that presents to the user a simple way of programming the agent. This can probably be served easily with a form for filling in the search criteria, any limitations such as price and dates, and what it should do when a suitable match has been found. The programmer can provide a number of templates too, such as ones for finding an airline ticket (with destination, arrival and departure times), concert tickets (artist, distance in driving hours and seating), restaurants (cuisine, "star rating", proximity to a venue) and so on to minimize irrelevant hits.

The Rexx scripts themselves would also be constructed and customized from pre-written modules by the front end, saved, and run in the background seamlessly and transparently to the user.

This is also where Web-Site based agents step in. A large shareware archive such as the OS/2 Supersite, Norloff's OS/2 BBS or Hobbes could create a database of 'listening agents', programmed by users, that wait for perhaps months until a file or application matching the search criteria is finally uploaded. The agent then jumps to life and sends an e-mail to the user who programmed it, purges itself from the database once the task is completed or waits a couple of days to see if the user wants to come back and tell it to keep looking. The benefits in return traffic and user satisfaction could be enormous for the host site that implements this.

These server-based bots wouldn't be lots of individual scripts (something that would bog down the server after the first few hundred visitors who use it), but simply a database and one script. Each time a file is uploaded, the script checks it against the search queries stored. If one matches, the script takes action, then sets the database entry to expire.

Problems and Squeamishness

Security is likely the biggest concern for an 'Agent' given authority to search the 'net in your name, organize the results and possibly even make a purchase for you. What if it makes a mistake and orders the wrong thing? What if the popularity of such agents prompts swindlers to set up deliberately deceptive "agent magnets" that take your credit card number but disappear with the money? And how does a simple Rexx script handle a secure web site? All of these problems conspire to make the average user wary of placing their trust in a dinky little computer program.

First of all, we could ignore the possibility of letting the agent perform purchases by itself, and instead have it give the user a list of all the likely candidates it has found, linking to the appropriate order forms and letting the user have final judgement.

Second, if agents become popular a non profit group might be established that rates vendors on accountability and trust, issuing them certificates. The user can then tell the agent not to purchase anything unless it comes from a certified vendor. Something like this is already at work, for example, The Public Eye's safe-shopping sites.

Likewise, you could maintain your own list of approved sites, giving the agent permission to register shareware for you only if it goes through BMT Micro or the OS/2 Supersite.

For secure web sites (ones that encrypt the transaction information before sending it over the Internet), we would need a Rexx function library written to handle all the encryption both to and from the server. Until then, our agents would be restricted to non-secure sites and non-monetary transactions (like ordering free samples of something it thinks you'd like).

This combination of techniques, and the successful 'tuning' of agents that increases their success rate could be enough to satisfy the fears of squeamish users. Like a good secretary, they may one day book an entire vacation for us with only a few hints on our preferences.

Comments? Ideas of your own? Join in the discussion with our Hypernews forum.


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