The ambiguity of old and new

A colleague once told me that Native American elders believe there is no new way of saying things. From ancient to contemporary times, language has evolved by integrating new technologies with old expressions. And when old ideas resurface, and older ways of describing them come back into vogue, they are sometimes disguised as something new.

While western thought presumes linearity and forward movement driven by innovation, traditional Native American thought presumes circularity. I believe this ancient wisdom can shed light on an ambiguity explored in this issue - the ambiguity of old and new.

This month's issue explores a mix of old and new ideas. Our cover story, John Waters' "Peer-to-peer computing: The new old thing," presents one example of the ambiguity of old and new. Peer-to-Peer (P2P) is described in the article by Tim O'Reilly as "a new name for something that has been going on for a long time." Waters describes P2P as an "old expression that has been recently revived," and to illustrate this revival, we have designed a cover illustration featuring a symbolic archaeologist—styled after Indiana Jones—unearthing long-buried icons of network computing and the "lost ark" of P2P computing. The revival of P2P computing is but one reminder that there often is no new way of saying things, forcing us to recycle old concepts and the language we have built to describe them.

Lana Gates, in her story "The second portal wave", observes the evolution of intranets since 1994 into full-blown Enterprise Information Portals (EIPs), showing how a new thing can have roots in something not so new. Rich Seeley, in his "The bloom is off the Web site rose", observes how first-generation Web sites, considered cool and innovative a few years ago, must now be "redeveloped" to keep pace with the times and the expectations of today's users.

Ziad Kaakani and Krishnamurthy Srinivasan, in their "Can mobile OSs meet e-business needs?", explore the evolution of operating systems for wireless handheld devices and the comparative benefits of four leading wireless platforms, showing how well a new thing affects something as old as commerce itself—the needs of vendors and customers. Sally Cusack and Stephen Hendrick, in their "Agents as catalysts of economic change and beyond", examine how action-oriented software components used to automate systems create new efficiencies, benefiting all members of the value chain.

At one level or another, all of these articles confront the riddle of old and new and the ambiguity of reinvention, forging a common, unifying theme to this issue. Examining this ambiguity of old and new is well timed, as we celebrate the start of a new millennium. For those of us who thought we already crossed into the new millennium a year ago, we face our very own ambiguity of old and new. Were we not already here, at this millennial moment in time, one year ago? In either case, I wish everyone a happy new year.