Mathcad Inventor Reveals New Startup’s True Ambition—Numbers That Mean More and Don’t Make Mistakes
Engineering may be a numbers-driven profession, but it’s the context surrounding the numbers that makes all the difference. NASA learned that the hard way in September 1999. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory programmed thrusters on the Mars Climate Orbiter, which was designed to take up a permanent orbit around the Red Planet, to expect data in metric units. But as the craft approached Mars, engineers from contractor Lockheed Martin sent final navigation instructions in English units, causing the thrusters to fire with 4.45 times too much force. The $327 million craft went off course and burned up in the Martian atmosphere.
If the raw thruster-firing data supplied by Lockheed had been inherently tied to a unit of measurement—pounds of force in this case, as opposed to the newtons that the software expected—then flight controllers, or the software itself, might have detected the confusion before it was too late. But ten years ago, the concept of metadata, or associating numbers or other data in their raw form with external data about that data, was still fairly new. Only in the era of the semantic Web have a few people started to think about ways to indelibly couple numerical data to contextual data, thus providing every individual number with a kind of credential or pedigree.
Allen Razdow is one of those people. The creator of Mathcad, a software package widely used by engineers to display equations and perform calculations, Razdow has started a new company called True Engineering Technology to promote the idea that numbers in digital documents should be “live” and “connected”—that is, they should be illuminated by adding a bit of semantic information, in much the same way that text snippets are associated with URLs in hyperlinks.
True Engineering, based in Cambridge, MA, came out of stealth mode today, debuting a Web-based system that can turn a plain number into what Razdow calls a “truenumber.” Just like a hyperlink with an embedded URL, a truenumber includes an ID pointing to a record stored elsewhere, along with tags pertaining to properties of the number such as units. But unlike a hyperlink, a truenumber can do more than just send you off to another document. The metadata contained in a truenumber can also be grabbed and used by local applications—browsers, spreadsheets, e-mail clients, or presentation software, for example—to make the raw number more informative.
Here’s an actual truenumber, representing the approximate driving range of the Nissan EV-11 electric car: 150 mi. To get a sense of how a truenumber works, hover over the quantity, then click on it (then come back here).
The original goal of the project, says Razdow, was “to create a technology for numbers that allowed engineers, as they type numbers into things, to get some assistance formatting them and getting the units right, doing unit conversion, and making sure the number is correct and traceable back to the original number, whatever format it was in.” He says he sees the rise of markup languages like HTML and the semantic Web as the restoration, in a sense, of human language to a computing universe long ruled by graphical interfaces. “But it struck me that there was no special treatment for numbers,” Razdow says. “We have formatted text for headings and tables and everything else, but numbers are still just strings of characters. I began to think about what it would take to create a technology of numbers that would be sufficiently semantic that it wouldn’t be just digits, but would show what this number is, and where it came from, and how we can describe it.”
All of which sounds like it will appeal to the thousands of professionals who use programs like Mathcad—and would certainly have helped the engineers on the Mars Climate Orbiter mission avert their fiasco.
But Razdow believes truenumbers will quickly develop another use. “I think the bigger reason people will use it is for a kind of visibility,” he says. “What we’ve heard from [beta] customers is that a lot of numbers that are critical to their projects are just ‘hanging in the air’—all of the engineers are thinking about them but they don’t live anywhere, they just get passed around in e-mails and interim reports. What customer say they love about [the truenumbers system] is that it’s going to give these numbers a place to live.”
That place might be a repository or “numberspace” hosted on a company’s local servers, or it might be True Engineer’s free, public numberspace. Any Web user can create a truenumber at www.truenum.com. It’s free to sign up for an account that allows you to store your truenumbers in the public repository—but if you want more privacy, you can buy True Engineering’s enterprise appliance and install it in your data center.
How exactly does the technology lend numbers visibility? Razdow gives the example of a hypothetical sports equipment company developing a new, lightweight bicycle. A number like the maximum target weight for the bike—say 9.5 pounds—would be critical to many people in the company, including designers, engineers, machinists, marketers, and executives. But as the product evolves, documents circulate, and more people get brought into the project, it might become more and more unclear where that number actually came from or why it’s important.
It would be useful, Razdow says, if everyone could pinpoint the origins of the number and its variants. Maybe “9.5 pounds” was just something somebody randomly tossed out in a brainstorming meeting—or maybe there’s a competitor with a 9.75-pound bike, meaning there’s an important reason behind it. If the quantity were a truenumber, its provenance would always be just a click away, whatever document it appeared in.
“You may have an engineering organization that works for years using the wrong numbers,” says Razdow. “We haven’t changed the fact that there are multiple numbers floating around, we have just captured them and made sure there is visibility of that fact, so you no longer have the confusion.”
True Engineering, formerly called Beehive Engineering Systems, is an angel-funded startup with Razdow as its only full-time employee. To make his technology compatible with Web browsers and desktop applications like spreadsheets and word processors, Razdow build the truenumbers scheme around standard XML—the eXtensible Markup Language, the universal scheme for formatting data in the Web 2.0 world. Like the hCard format for storing business-card information, the hCalendar format for event information, and the RSS format for news stories and blog posts, the truenumbers scheme is a microformat, a way of unlocking the data stuck in digital documents by adding machine-readable context.
The truenumber idea seems predestined to appeal to engineers, Web developers, and geeks of many stripes. To understand its potential to enhance all things quantitative, all you have to do is look at the way hypertext has changed the way we communicate in written language. But will the concept start to spread at anything like the pace with which HTML was adopted in the early 1990s? That depends on whether Razdow’s first target market for truenumbers, engineers inside numbers-driven organizations, see the merit in the system and start to build private and public repositories of tagged numbers that others can then refer to.
“It’s the whole chicken-and-egg problem,” says Dan Bricklin, who knows a bit about numbers—he founded Software Arts in 1979 and co-created VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program. (Software Arts was eventually bought by Lotus; Bricklin, who now runs a Newton Highlands, MA, software consultancy called Software Garden, has been briefed by Razdow on the truenumbers technology.) “There are multiple ways of delivering the data, and he went with a URL-like one that has the least friction, to start, for engineers,” Bricklin says. “But will they adopt anything new? Did he choose the right path to start? If the values are put in by people that matter, so to speak—scientists and materials people, in areas you can trust—that will jumpstart it in a certain way. Those will be the questions. But Allen knows the users in this space pretty well.”
Another question, says Bricklin, will be how far to open up the technology, and how much to keep proprietary. The format for URLs, obviously, isn’t owned by anyone—which was part of the key to the Web’s phenomenal growth. True Engineering, by contrast, has already obtained trademark protection for the terms truenumber and numberspace. To make money, the company will need control over at least part of the number-ecosystem it hopes to create—but the lower the barriers to adoption, the bigger the ecosystem might grow.
Razdow says he’s open to different ways of collecting revenues on the invention. “Say National Instruments [which makes testing and measurement equipment for hardware engineers] decides that all of their instruments are going to have the option of writing their numbers in plain text or truenumbers format,” says Razdow. “That would be great. They’re a big company. But I don’t think they are going to want to pay me royalties for every number their machines spit out. It might be better for me to just let them do it, and let all of the companies that use test equipment buy a server from me to keep their numbers in.”
As time goes one, Razdow will have to pick his way between the open and proprietary approaches carefully—and may well wind up changing course a few times before he’s done. Right now, though, he’s more concerned with lining up investors. So far, the company’s main support has come from angels and a few customers who were interested enough in the truenumbers concept to fork over advance payments. “The notion that you are going to have metadata about numbers—I don’t think you can control that. That’s why the whole notion of taking investment is important, so that we can grow up to become a Lotus.” In a numbers-driven world, that just might happen.
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