US 20050004978 A1
A computer implemented method for on-line purchasing via the global Internet. At a node connected to the Internet, customer data usable to automatically complete an on-line purchase by the customer of an item from a seller is received and stored. From a server, via the Internet, information is published to a computer of the customer, from the seller, with respect to an item, including metadata for use in associating said customer data with a customer action to purchase said item. A purchase indication is received from the customer computer, including at least a portion of said metadata for use in associating a customer purchase action with the item and metadata for use in associating said customer data with said transaction. In response to receiving said metadata for use in associating a customer purchase action with the item, the purchase is automatically completed by processing said metadata associating said customer data.
1. A computer implemented method comprising:
receiving and storing at a node connected to the global Internet customer data usable to automatically complete an on-line purchase by a customer, ordering over the global Internet, of an item from a seller;
from a server communicating with the global Internet, publishing to a computer of the customer, also communicating with the global Internet, information from the seller with respect to an item, including metadata for use in associating said customer data with a customer action to purchase said item;
receiving from the customer computer via the global Internet an indication to initiate a purchase transaction for said item including at least a portion of said metadata for use in associating a customer purchase action with the item and metadata for use in associating said customer data with said transaction;
in response to receiving said metadata for use in associating a customer purchase action with the item, automatically completing the purchase of an item from the seller by processing said metadata associating said customer data.
This application is a continuation of prior application Ser. No. 10/068341, filed Feb. 5, 2002, now Allowed, which is a continuation of application Ser. No. 09/570,675, filed on May 15, 2000, now U.S. Pat. No. 6,345,288, which is a Continuation of application Ser. No. 09/143,888, filed on Aug. 31, 1998, now U.S. Pat. No. 6,088,717, which is a Continuation of application Ser. No. 08/722,314, filed Sep. 27, 1996, now U.S. Pat. No. 5,862,325, which is a Continuation-in-Part of application Ser. No. 08/609,115, filed on Feb. 29, 1996, now U.S. Pat. No. 6,044,205.
The present invention relates to data communications systems. More particularly, it relates to an automated communications system which coordinates the transfer of data, metadata, and instructions for on-line transactions.
All communications consist of a mechanism for exchanging information between one entity, a provider, and another, a consumer. The terms “provider” and “consumer” are used to designate separate functions in information transfers. Typically an entity, at various times, operates as both a provider and a consumer in any communication relationship. These relationships may be one-to-one, such as between two individuals; one-to-many, such as between company and its customers; or many-to-many, such as between the members of a workgroup. These communications relationships may also exist over multiple communications networks, such phone networks, LANs, public data communications networks, radio and TV networks, wireless networks, and conventional postal mail networks.
Establishing, maintaining, operating, and even terminating any one of these types of communications relationships involves significant work on the part of both the provider and consumer. For example, to initiate any type of communications relationship, providers must first locate the consumers with whom to communicate and vice versa. Solving this problem is subject of several entire industries, such as the directory industry, the mailing list industry, and the advertising industry. Once a provider or consumer has been identified, contact information (e.g., names, titles, addresses, telephone numbers, electronic mail addresses, etc.) must be exchanged between the provider and consumer. This contact information must be maintained by both parties so that future communications can be effected as needed. When the contact information changes for an entity, all providers or consumers having relationships with the entity must be notified of the changes, who in turn must update their own records. This work also extends to other data and records exchanged in the context of the communications relationship, e.g., orders, receipts, product numbers, invoice numbers, customer numbers, notes, brochures, reports, etc. Maintenance of this information requires significant human time involvement for receiving information, storing information, indexing information, searching for desired information, and retrieving information. The human component of record maintenance also creates a potential for error, which can cause the information to be faulty or to become lost.
Once the communications relationship is established, the next major workload is the active use of the relationship to accomplish communications objectives. The problems here take different forms depending on the type of communications relationship. For example, in a one-to-many relationship, particularly a mass-market relationship such as a company and its customers, the problem is how to efficiently disseminate information about products and services to consumers. Optimally, such information would be disseminated only to the consumers who need the information, only at the precise time they need it, and only via the communications network the consumer preferred. However, knowing who needs what information, when, and how can be very difficult. Therefore, providers typically disseminate information widely in the form of mass advertisements and mailings via all possible communications mediums in order to reach all likely consumers. Because of this broad dissemination by providers, consumers receive large amounts of information, much of which is irrelevant to them. Consumers are forced to sort and filter through this information, and frequently much of it is discarded. Information which is kept may not be immediately useful, but may be needed at a later time. Unless the consumer expends a great deal of work to store, catalog, and index this information, the information can be difficult or impossible to find when the consumer actually needs it.
This same problem of efficient information distribution is exacerbated in many-to-many communications relationships, such as among the members of a workgroup. Here, communications are much more frequent and timely, and there is much greater quantity of information to be shared, stored, archived, and indexed. Members of a workgroup also have a strong need to employ communications for group coordination, such as scheduling meetings, conference calls, project deadlines, etc. These communications involve time deadlines and feedback requirements which are not typically present in one-to-many communications relationships.
With one-to-one communications relationships, the problem of efficient information dissemination is lessened because the parties typically have a much higher knowledge of each other's needs and interests. Conversely, the need to use communications for coordination purposes is greatly increased, largely because between individuals the need for real-time communications sessions such as phone calls and personal meetings is acute. Thus the universal problem of “phone-tag”, when both parties exchange numerous messages trying to coordinate the opportunity to communicate in real time.
The next workload involved in communications relationships is when the parties need to exchange, process, and store structured data. In a one-to-many communications relationship, a common example is a consumer ordering a product. The consumer must place a telephone call, locate a salesperson, and then manually transmit the necessary ordering information, which the salesperson must manually record. Paper or electronic product order forms can help automate this process for the provider, but they still must be filled out manually by the consumer. Many of these forms require the same standard information from the consumer, which the consumer must enter repeatedly. All of these information transfers require human involvement and thus create the potential for data errors. On the provider's part, more work is required to perform error checking on the order, process it, and in many cases return an acknowledgment to the consumer. Many providers invest heavily in data processing and electronic communications systems for automating these functions. However, the lack of a standard communications system for exchanging common data means that providers adopt largely proprietary systems, increasing the investment necessary for every provider. In addition, consumers must still interact with each these systems manually.
In a many-to-many communications relationship, such as a workgroup, the need for structured data exchange is even higher, especially when automated data processing tools such as computer software are in widespread use. Also, the need for structured data exchange for workgroup coordination activities, such as scheduling and planning, grows significantly.
One-to-one communications relationships may also involve strong needs for structured data exchange. For example, two individuals from different companies may need to review and revise a document involving both companies. The ability to do so electronically, using a secure method of exchange over public data networks, would make the task considerably easier. Individuals involved with one-to-one communications relationships also have an acute need to use structured data exchange to solve the problem of scheduling communications sessions, i.e., the phone-tag problem.
Since all communications relationships are inherently dynamic, they involve three other common tasks involved for providers and consumers: copying the relationship, transferring the relationship, and terminating the relationship. Copying is when one consumer wants to share a particular communications relationship with another consumer. For example, a mail-order catalog customer may wish to give a copy of the catalog to a friend, or a businessperson may need to share the phone number of a colleague with a customer. Transferring is when one provider assumes a consumer communications relationship from another, or one consumer assumes a provider communications relationship from another. An example would when a company changes the salesperson responsible for the customers in a sales territory, or when a customer transfers ownership of a product. Termination is when either a provider or consumer wishes to end a communications relationship, i.e., a provider no longer wants to distributes information, and/or a consumer no longer wants to receive, process, or store the information. A widespread example is consumers who wish to be dropped from direct mailing lists, and the providers who wish they could efficiently identify such consumers to save mailing costs. All three of these common, everyday communications relationship operations involve considerable effort on the part of the provider and consumers to carry out.
Therefore, a need exists for a communications system which allows providers and consumers to quickly and easily establish an automated communications relationship, one in which the data necessary to operate the communications relationship is exchanged and updated automatically, and which can control all types of communications via all types of communications network common to both the provider and consumer. A need also exists for a communications system which allows a provider to actively notify a consumer of new information in which the consumer may be interested, and which allows the consumer to precisely filter the information being sent by one or more providers. A need also exists for a communications system which allows providers and consumers to automatically structure, exchange, and process incoming or outgoing communications to the greatest extent possible. A need also exists for a communications system which allows providers and consumers to easily share access to many common communications services. Finally, a need exists for a communications control system which allows providers and consumers to easily copy, transfer, and terminate communications relationships.
Various computer-based systems have been created to provide mechanisms for communicating information. The Internet and World Wide Web provide a network of a large number of information sources, providing a voluminous amount of information. Computer programs exist which can be executed on Internet-connected computers to search these sources to obtain desired information. Additionally, through the medium of hypertext, providers of World Wide Web pages can create links in their pages between items of related information which can significantly aid consumers in finding desired information. However, the links to the information source are neither dynamic nor persistent; in the sense that they do not provide new or updated information once the consumer has found a topic of interest. “Bookmarks” in a web browser program can facilitate subsequent access to a particular web page to determine if new information is present. However, if the web page referenced by the bookmark is removed, the bookmark is no longer valid. Bookmark polling programs, such as Smart Bookmarks from First Floor, Inc., can also be used to determine whether a web page has changed since the last time the consumer viewed it. In addition, Smart Bookmarks can examine a changed page and automatically transfer to the consumer a text string embedded by the author of the page informing the consumer of the nature of the change. However, Smart Bookmarks' capability is limited to single text strings on single web pages. Therefore the consumer must locate and bookmark every Web page of interest. Smart Bookmarks does not provide a way for the consumer to filter the update messages, nor does it provide the consumer with any mechanism for exchanging structured information or managing a communications relationship with the provider.
A different type of Web monitoring solution is provided by Revnet Systems Inc. With its GroupMaster software, Web providers can create and insert special hyperlinks representing interest topics on the pages of their Web site. When a consumer clicks on this link a special data file is transferred to the consumer's GroupMaster client software. The client software then polls the Web server for updates to the interest topic input by the provider. Unlike Smart Bookmarks, all interest topics at the site can be checked in one update polling action. Update messages can be delivered to the consumer via the client software. However, these messages only contain links back to pages with follow-up information at the Web site. They do not store or index information from the provider, nor do they provide a mechanism for the consumer and provider to automate other types of structured data exchanges or manage a communications relationship.
Online navigation or “auto pilot” software, available from various commercial online services or software companies, can help the user automate access to online services, the Internet, and other public networks. The software provided by these services or companies can include capabilities such as automatic logons, automatic navigation of the online system according to consumer preferences, file searches, uploading and downloading data, and storage of data. Some systems can also automatically download the data necessary to update their own operation. However, the navigation software available from the online services typically requires that the consumer first establish an account with the online service, and may also involve establishing accounts with specific providers on the service. In addition, these navigator programs are specifically designed to work with the architecture and communications protocols of the online service, and cannot be easily adapted to other data communications networks, thus preventing other providers from using the functionality of the online service to create and distribute data in the same manner. Finally, they require that the consumer set up and maintain a communications relationship with each information provider on the service. If the provider changes its information offerings, the consumer must reprogram the autopilot or navigation software. This last disadvantage also applies to online navigation programs designed to work with the Internet and other non-proprietary public data networks.
Electronic mail (e-mail) systems are another electronic communications system that provides some communications contact persistence. E-mail addresses and messages can be stored and indexed within e-mail programs, or externally in other locations. E-mail rules engines allow for some degree of automated storage or response to certain message contents. However, these rules engines are typically constrained to acting on certain known information about the messages, such as the address of the message provider, or on semantic rules such as keywords which must be guessed by the provider and consumer. There is no common communications frame of reference, i.e., a structured data format and operations methodology, against which both the provider and consumer can operate to filter, classify, and organize messages. The lack of a common frame of reference also severely limits the capability of either the provider or consumer to automatically process the contents of an e-mail message, or to automatically respond to the message besides the capability to automatically address a reply message.
E-mail systems which support electronic forms overcome some of these limitations. Electronic forms allow the provider to control the content of a forms submission and to automatically or semi-automatically route that data around a network. Electronic forms also allow message consumers to automate a response to the forms provider which can be automatically processed by the provider. However, these forms must be received and processed by the consumer in the same manner as conventional e-mail messages. In other words, they do not provide a means for the consumer to control or filter messages from different providers. Forms also do not provide the consumer with a mechanism for automatically storing, indexing, or processing information from the provider. In addition, while they may automate the provider's ability to process the data returned from the forms, the consumer must still manually enter information in the form.
Specialized e-mail systems have been developed that combine the use of electronic forms with a system-wide data processing model. Examples are The Coordinator from Action Technologies, Inc., or OVAL from the MIT Center for Coordination Science. These systems allow providers and consumers to share a frame of reference for messaging such that messages can be classified into specific categories and actions. This allows message providers and consumers to automate the routing, storage, and processing of messages based on these category and actions. However, these systems require that all providers and consumers share the same frame of reference. They do not provide a generalized means for each provider on the system to establish and update their own frames of reference with one or more consumers, nor a generalized means for each consumer to coordinate the frames of reference they have with different providers.
A different approach to the problem of automating communications is the category of software that is commonly referred to as “software agents” or “mobile agents”. An example is a platform for communications applications developed by General Magic, Inc. called Telescript. The Telescript language is an object-oriented, remote programming language with three core concepts: agents, places and “go”. Agents “go” to places, where they interact with other agents to get work done on a user's behalf. Agents are mobile programs capable of transporting themselves from place to place in a Telescript network. The language is implemented by the Telescript engine. The Telescript engine is a multitasking interpreter that integrates onto an operating system through a programming interface called the Telescript API. The Telescript engine operates on server computers connected over a communications network. Telescript agents can operate independently anywhere within these server computers to control the transfer of message data and perform programmable actions upon that message data. For example, if a message recipient is not available, the message could be rerouted to a different location, rather than being returned to the sender undelivered. Telescript is similar to other agent technologies in that the architecture is based on agents interacting with other agents on server computers running agent “engines” or interpreters. In this architecture, the establishment of a communications relationship requires two agents: one to represent the provider and one the consumer. Although agent programming systems like Telescript provide the necessary tools for creating these agents, it is still necessary for both the provider and consumer to create and administer the necessary agents. Furthermore, Telescript does not provide a specific model for the filtering, storage, and indexing of communications between a provider and consumer via agents. Lastly, agent architectures require the addition of servers running agent interpreters to the communications network in order to operate, increasing the expense and complexity of the network.
A more specialized type of agent technology is delivery agents. Examples include Digital Delivery from Digital Delivery, Inc. and PointCast from PointCast Inc. Delivery agents do not require a network of specialized servers, but instead operate directly on a consumer's computer to retrieve information of specific relevance to the user over a network. They are created by a particular provider to supply information from a server or servers under that providers control, or from a more generalized news source such as a wire service. Delivery agents allow a consumer to specify his/her topics of interest, which the delivery agent then uses to filter the available news stream and show the user only the information of interest. Delivery agents are also capable of storing and indexing the received data for the consumer. Other than communicating the consumer's topic preferences back to the provider, however, delivery agents do not provide a way to control or process other communications between the consumer and provider. In addition, since each delivery agent is typically designed as a separate executable program which must be installed and run separately, the consumer is limited as to the number of delivery agents the consumer can manage and run.
Another approach to automating communications and data transfers is shared replicated database systems such as Lotus Notes and Collabra Share. With these systems, information to be communicated is entered via a client program into one or more databases which may reside locally on client computers or on network server computers. These databases are then replicated to other server computers or local client computers throughout the system so that the data can be easily accessed by any other user of the system who needs the information and has the proper access privileges. Access privileges are controlled by one or more system administrators via the system servers. Some of these systems, notably Collabra Share, also allow users to “subscribe” to specific databases. These users can receive an e-mail notification from a database agent monitoring the database when a new entry or a certain condition has been made in that database. These systems may also employ electronic forms and forms processing languages to structure the data being entered into a database, and to take programmable actions based on the data entered. The architecture of these systems is designed for groups of users to share information related to specific topics, and to automate the transfer of data between different computer applications used by an organization. For this reason the core data structure of the architecture is a subject database or “forum”. Each subject database covers a number of related interest topics under which all entries in the database are categorized. All copies of any subject database are synchronized throughout the system when data in any one copy has been changed.
While suitable for information sharing amongst the members of a group, this architecture is not well suited for automating communications relationships among a large number of information providers and consumers. First, all the providers and consumers need to be interconnected through the system in order to communicate. This could be done by having all providers and consumers enroll in one large system in which they all had access privileges. In such a system each provider would need to have at least one subject database for communicating with his/her consumers. This enormous number of subject databases would then need to be replicated among the large number of servers required to service the complete population of the system, which would quickly overwhelm the capacity of the servers or network to handle replication. A more realistic alternative would be to have each provider or group of providers operate and administer their own system, making their internal subject databases available to consumers via public data networks such as the Internet. Consumers would use the system client software to “subscribe” to the subject databases of each provider with which they desire to communicate. Only the subject databases a consumer subscribed to would be replicated on his/her desktop. This solution would spread the replication load to a large number of servers, each handling a smaller amount of traffic. However, each server would now have to manage replication for a large number of external consumers as well as internal group members. There is no easy way to distribute this replication load to the consumer's computer. Second, subject databases do not allow the consumer to control and filter the incoming communications from providers. Consumers must still scan the databases for items of interest. Providers could overcome this by creating a subject database for each interest topic, but the additional administrative and server replication overhead would strongly discourage this. Third, because notification of new information is handled via a separate application, e-mail, the consumer is forced to coordinate notification and data storage/response among two communications systems. Fourth, since subject databases are replicated from the servers, they do not give consumers an easy way to copy or transfer them to other consumers. Finally, because the entire system depends on server-based replication, administrative changes or reconfigurations of these servers such as system name or address changes require administrative updates to all subscribing consumers, a job which consumers must handle manually.
Consequently, a need exists for a communications control system which allows providers and consumers to quickly and easily establish an automated communications relationship; which automatically updates both parties with changes in communications control data from the other; which works with all communications networks shared by the provider and consumer; which allows both parties to automatically control, filter, store, index, and process communications from the other; which allows both providers and consumers to share many common communications services; and which allows both parties to easily manage, copy, transfer, and terminate the communications relationship.
The disadvantages of existing communications control systems are significantly overcome by the present invention in which software programs being executed by a provider computer and consumer computer communicate directly in order to maintain a communications control structure. This structure originates at the provider computer and is transferred to the consumer computer. Changes to the structure on the provider computer result in an updated version being transferred to the consumer computer. The communications control structure contains a combination of data, metadata, and instructions which are used by the respective programs to control the origination of outgoing communications and the processing of incoming communications between the provider and consumer.
In one aspect of the present invention, a communications system is used to coordinate communications between providers and consumers. Provider computers transfer information stored in the provider computer through a communications network to a consumer computer. The information includes processes for updating the transferred information in the consumer computer when the information in provider computer has changed. For “push” processes, the provider computer maintains address data necessary to transfer updated information to various consumers. For “pull” processes, the consumer computer uses information transferred from the provider to access a location where the provider information is stored to determine whether it has been updated and to retrieve it if necessary.
According to another aspect of the present invention, existing communications networks and network accessing programs are used to increase the functionality of the communications system. The Internet and World Wide Web, or similar type networks, are used to access and transfer the information. According to this aspect, information is created and maintained according to a recognized protocol, such as HTTP, MIME and HTML, which can be used to access other information. An appropriate display program, such as a web browser, is used to retrieve and display the information.
According to another aspect of the present invention, programs operating on the provider computer and consumer computer operate as state machines in connection with an appropriate display program. The programs operate to receive information requests from a display program and to generate a next display containing the requested information.
According to another aspect of the present invention, information is organized in a form which simplifies transfer of data, metadata, and instructions. Object oriented programming is used for combining data, metadata, and methods for storage and transfer. Specialized object classes and type definitions are used to provide intelligence in processing of transferred information. Elements in an transferred object can be used by the consumer computer to filter information and provide selective notification to a user of changed information. The combination of methods and data permits joint control by the provider and consumer over the information transferred, together with how updates, responses, and acknowledgments are processed.
According to another aspect of the invention, a provider program is used to create, edit, and maintain data, metadata and instructions in a provider database. The provider program also controls distribution of the information to various consumers. Different information contained in the provider database can be transferred and used in communications relationships with different consumers. The provider database includes information associating the information with each potential recipient. The association information is used to selectively distribute information and information updates. The provider program also receives and uses information from the consumer computer to control encoding and transfer of information to the consumer computer. According to another aspect, the provider program uses a markup language to format the information for transfer.
According to another aspect of the invention, a consumer program is used to receive and process the transferred information. The consumer program receives information from the provider or polls a location identified by the transferred information to determine when information has been updated by the provider. The consumer program then retrieves the information from the proper source and compares it to the existing information to determine what has been updated. The consumer program maintains a database of information from different providers. When updated information is received, the consumer program executes instructions associated with the information to store the updated information, notify a user of updated information, and generate responses for the consumer. The consumer program also can transfer the information to second consumer computer. The second consumer computer can obtain updated information from the provider computer or have it forwarded by the first consumer computer.
According to another aspect of the invention, methods in the communications objects are used to automate control of underlying communication operations. When certain actions are taken by a user, or when certain types of messages or objects are received, the respective consumer and provider programs can operate automatically based upon selected methods and operations in order to act with or without input from the users. For example, acknowledgements can be automatically formatted and sent. Also, objects can be automatically transferred to others. The consumer program can transfer the information to a second consumer computer, with or without notification or approval of the user of the consumer program. The second consumer computer can then obtain updated information from the provider computer or have it forwarded by the first consumer computer. Exchange of significant data, metadata, and methods, and archiving or retrieval of changed objects can be automatically carried out by the programs. Methods can also be used to coordinate suspension or termination of communications relationships.
According to another aspect of the invention, service objects and partner servers are used to provide data, metadata, and instructions which can be used by providers and consumers to automate various communications services desired by both. The data, metadata, and instructions are received by the provider and consumer computers in the same manner as information is received by the consumer computer. The provider can include data, metadata, and instructions in the service object in the information transferred to the consumer computer. The information transferred from the service partners also controls communications with the service partner for both providers and consumers. Both providers and consumers can use service objects to communicate with a partner server in order to obtain communication services provided by the partner server.
According to another aspect of the invention, the provider and consumer programs and databases are combined to obtain additional functionality. The communication system can allow multiple users for a single program and database. The data, metadata, and instructions coordinate the operation of the programs for each user and allow for communications between users of the single database.
According to one specific aspect, the invention includes a computer implemented method for on-line purchasing via the global Internet. At a node connected to the Internet, customer data usable to automatically complete an on-line purchase by the customer of an item from a seller is received and stored. From a server, via the Internet, information is published to a computer of the customer, the seller, with respect to an item, including metadata for use in associating said customer data with a customer action to purchase said item. A purchase indication is received from the customer computer, including at least a portion of said metadata for use in associating a customer purchase action with the item and metadata for use in associating said customer data with said transaction. In response to receiving said metadata for use in associating a customer purchase action with the item, the purchase is automatically completed by processing said metadata associating said customer data.
With these and other objects, advantages and features of the invention that may become apparent, the nature of the invention may be more clearly understood by reference to the following detailed description, the appended claims, and the several drawings attached hereto.
There is illustrated in
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The second method, referred to as “pulling”, occurs when the consumer computer 2 requests and initiates a transfer of information directly from a provider computer 1 or from another server computer 32 located on communications network 3 on which a copy of the information has been placed for distribution. An example of such a distribution server 32 is when a copy of the information is placed on a web server and accessed by the consumer computer 2. In the pulling method, the provider and the provider computer 1 or distribution server 32 do not need to know ab initio, the identity or location of consumer computers 2. Rather, the consumer computer needs to know the location of the provider computer 1 or distribution server 32 and the location of the desired information to be accessed on such computers.
Basic Operation of Programs for Communications
Appropriate programs executing on the provider computer 1 and the consumer computer 2 perform the functions necessary to transfer, maintain, and update the information at both locations. A program represents a set of stored instructions which are executed in a processor of the computer to process data, transmit and receive data, and produce displays. The provider program 12 operates to transmit changes in information stored in the provider database 11 at the provider computer 1. When changes are made to the information and the database, the provider program 12 operates to disseminate the changed information through the communications network 3. In the pushing method, the provider program 12 transmits the changed information, for example through e-mail, to the consumer computers 2 of all intended recipients. In the pulling method, the changed information is stored on a distribution server 32, such as a web server, which then can be accessed by the consumer computer 2. Any type of distribution server may be used, including network file servers, FTP servers, gopher servers, and so on. The type of distribution server used is not a limiting feature of the invention. The consumer program 22 will typically poll the distribution server 32 to determine whether the information has changed. This polling operation can be as simple as issuing a Web server HTTP file date request and comparing this with the file date of the last update. Polling is controlled by the information transferred from the provider program to the consumer program as further described below. Upon receipt of changed information, the consumer program 22 operates to perform certain functions with regard to that changed information. Principally, the information is stored in consumer database 21 on the consumer computer 2 for future reference and usage in controlling and automating communications between the consumer and provider. Furthermore, the information may be presented to a user at the consumer location, so that the user will be notified of the changed information. The information can be presented in a number of manners, including display or printing by the consumer program, sending an e-mail or voice-mail message to the user, paging the user, and other notification methods.
Since the provider knows what the changed information is and how consumers would likely prefer to be notified of the changed information, the transmitted information can include instructions on how the consumer program 22 should process the information for purposes of notification. For example, information from a provider may include the provider's telephone number. If the telephone number changes, the provider needs to supply everyone with whom it does business with the new number. The present invention provides a simple mechanism for carrying out such a data transfer, and of controlling which consumers receive overt notification. When the telephone number is changed in the distribution database at the provider computer 1, the information is transferred to the consumer computer 2, through either the push or pull method. Upon receipt, the consumer program 22 will process the changed information and store the new telephone number in the consumer database 21 for later access by the user or by other programs operating on the consumer's computer 2. At the consumer computer 2, the consumer may or may not be interested in overt notification of the new phone number; this depends on the consumer's relationship with the provider and how often and in what manner the consumer makes use of the phone number. This invention provides a way for notification to be cooperatively controlled by both the provider and consumer through the use of notification elements, which are described below.
Additionally, receipt and storage of the new or updated information can trigger other actions, such as automatically forwarding the information to another consumer, exchanging data with the consumer database 21, sending an automated response to the provider, or sending a message to another software program on the consumer's desktop. Again, this invention provides a means for such actions to be cooperatively controlled by both the provider and the consumer through the use of receipt methods, which are discussed below.
The information stored in the consumer database 21 can also include data, metadata, and instructions to be used by the consumer program 22 for controlling and automating communications between the provider and consumer. Again, because the provider of the information knows what communications response options are available to the consumers of the information, the provider can include the necessary data, metadata, and instructions to simplify and automate specific responses from the consumer to the provider. For example, the provider can include Web URL (Uniform Resource Locator) links to Web pages or forms on the provider's Web server. Or, the provider can also include special forms to be processed by the consumer program 22 that allow the consumer to automatically or semi-automatically transfer data from the consumer database 21 back to the provider. Examples include product order forms, survey forms, customer service request forms, scheduling forms, etc.
In the most general case, the provider knows what communications networks, network addresses, languages, encoding formats, data structures, and other communications processing data and methods are supported by the provider. Thus, the provider can include in the transferred information the data, metadata, and instructions necessary to control and coordinate general communications from the consumer to the provider or to parties related to the provider. For example, data, metadata and instructions in the transferred information can be used by the consumer program 22 or other computer programs running on the consumer computer 2 to automatically format, compress, encrypt, address, and transmit copies of a word processing document, spreadsheet, database or database query, or other computer file format. Corresponding data, metadata, and instructions in the provider program 12 can control and automate the reception of the received message, including decryption, decompression, notification of the provider, and acknowledgment of receipt to the consumer. The same control technique can be applied to the execution of real-time communications, such as telephone calls, videoconferencing, or whiteboard applications.
HTML and HTTP Server Program Format
Although any kind of data communications network and any kind of user interface can be used, the system can be constructed to work with existing Internet or World Wide Web protocols for data communications and display. In particular, the provider program and the consumer program can be designed to use HyperText Mark-up Language (HTML) for display and editing. HTML is discussed in Internet Request for Comment No. 1866, which is incorporated herein by reference. The use of HTML allows links to be made to other transmitted information or to other information accessible anywhere on the World Wide Web. Also, HTML forms can be used as an input mechanism. Standard Internet protocols for accessing the Web can also be used for accessing the information in the provider or consumer databases. To do this, the provider program and consumer program are designed to emulate a Web HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) server. Then, any Web browser program conforming to the HTML/HTTP standard can generate Uniform Resource Locator (URL) requests to retrieve information from the provider and consumer programs and databases. A Web browser program is a set of instructions which causes the computer to execute information requests to various kinds of servers. The servers responded by transferring HTML files or other data files back to the browser program for display, processing, and storage. Protocols or formats other than HTML/HTTP can be used in the same manner, with an appropriate interface program for requesting, receiving, processing, and displaying data in accordance with the selected protocol or format. The operation of the provider and consumer programs in connection with the Web browser program is illustrated in
As illustrated in
The user enters information to be operated upon or stored by the consumer program through the use of HTML forms. If the HTML page generated by the consumer program (step 53) includes a form, then the user can enter information in designated locations in the form. When the information has been entered, the form is submitted by selecting a button on the page, and a set of program instructions (method) designated by this button is executed to process the inputted information. Many browser programs can cache HTML documents, so that a user could have several forms open at one time. Since the consumer program works as a state machine, it expects the last form generated to be the next one returned. If the user switches the order of the forms, a state error could occur. To prevent errors, each form produced by the consumer program can be provided with a state version value. If the version value of the returned form does not match the current state of the consumer program, then an error message can be returned rather than processing the forms out of order.
Alternatively, the provider and consumer programs 12, 22 could include separate native interfaces which include the display and processing functions found in a browser program, as well as the ability to provide additional functionality, such as that available in advance graphical user interfaces like those of Microsoft Windows, Windows 95, and Apple Macintosh operating systems. The use of an object-oriented graphical user interface will be specifically discussed below. The provider and consumer programs 12, 22 may also call other Web helper applications or “applets”, such as those produced with Sun Microsystem's Java programming language or other programming languages, to provide additional interface functions.
Basic Data Structures
Information can be stored in the provider and consumer databases 11, 21, transferred between the provider and consumer programs 12, 22, and processed by these programs in a variety of ways. The use of software objects and object-oriented databases, and in particular their ability to encapsulate data and methods for operating on that data in a single structure, provide certain degrees of functionality which are useful in the storage, transfer, and processing of information. For example, by using objects for transmission of the communications control files, and an object-oriented database for storage of these files, the received object can be stored by the consumer program 22 in its database 21 without having to disconnect and store the object's variables and methods independently. In addition, the data and methods of this object can be made available to other objects in the database or program for processing operations. Object oriented data structures, databases, programs, and processing are generally discussed in Grady Booch, Object Oriented Analysis and Design with Applications, (2nd ed. 1994) and James Rumbaugh, Object-Oriented Modeling and Design (1991), which are incorporated herein by reference. Thus, the following description of a preferred embodiment will discuss the use of objects. However, other methods for storing, transferring, and processing information, such as relational databases, binary files, or procedural programs, could be used.
As discussed above, the provider computer 1 includes a provider database 11 operated on by provider program 12, and the consumer computer 2 includes a consumer database 21 operated on by consumer program 22. However, since “provider” and “consumer” are merely functional distinctions, in a preferred embodiment, a single computer and computer program would be able to operate as a provider computer 1 in executing instructions of the provider program 12 and as a consumer computer 2 in executing instructions of the consumer program 22. In this instance, only a single database may be used, if desired, to hold all of the data for transmitted objects and for received objects. The database structures described below could apply to a single database, or to separate databases if the programs operated separately. For ease of reference in describing operation of the provider program and the consumer program, separate databases will be illustrated.
There are seven principal object classes: communications objects 110, recipients 120, rules 130, methods 131, pages 132, elements 133, and type definitions 134. Communications objects are the primary data structure transmitted from the provider program to the consumer program to control communications between the provider and consumer. Like any software object, a communications object consists of attributes and methods. The type definitions class is used together with the elements and pages classes to specify the attributes of the communications object. The methods class and rules class are used to specify the methods of the communications object. By using separate object classes to define the attributes and methods that will be included in a particular communications object instance, a wide variety of communications objects can be created and managed within the same system.
Recipients include all the consumer computers 2 who receive a copy of the communications object via push distribution, or the distribution servers 32 who receive a copy of the communications object for pull distribution.
The rules 130, methods 131, pages 132, elements 133, and type definitions 134 classes are all special container classes of the rule 140, method 141, page 142, element 143, and type definition 144 classes. These special container classes are used to facilitate the rendering of an instance of a communications object in the object markup language used for object transmission, as described further below. For this reason the descriptions following will discuss only the rule 140, method 141, page 142, element 143, and type definition 144 classes. Collectively this set of classes will be referred to as the “component” classes of a communications object.
The type definition class 144 is used to define the various data types which may be used in the elements of a communications object. Type definitions can be of primitive type 154, aggregate type 155, or composite type 153. The inheritance tree for the primitive type 154 class is shown in
Type definitions provide a powerful tool for structuring the data included in a communications object, object update, or object message. This structured data provides the common “frame of reference” necessary to automate communications operations between a provider and consumer. It also allows communications objects to call each other's methods, and for other software programs to call the methods contained in communications objects stored in the consumer database 21. The latter technique requires the use of an Applications Programming Interface (API) which will be further discussed below.
“Elements” are the primary attributes of a communications object. An element 143 might be a phone number, a postal address, an e-mail address, a text field, and so on. As illustrated in
Many elements with defined composite data types and composite values are specifically useful in the context of communications automation. Standard element composite types can include standard types of contact information that might typically be shared between providers and consumers in the context of a communications relationship. These include names, titles, phone numbers, fax numbers, postal addresses, e-mail addresses, URLs, and customer numbers. Nested composite types, such as the business card, allow for powerful combinations of smaller composite types.
Other element composite types are useful for the storage, transmission, and display of communications content between the provider and consumer. Elements of this type include text blocks, graphics, and HTML. HTML elements are especially useful in the preferred embodiment as they can contain standard HTML documents which the consumer program 22 can pass directly, or with minor modifications, to the Web browser 50 for display. This allows the provider to control the appearance of data on all or a portion data being displayed, and also allows the provider to include URL links to the provider's Web server or any other related Web documents. These links can be activated immediately by the consumer when viewing the communications object using the Web browser 50 just as with conventional HTML documents. HTML elements may also include the provider's own HTML forms for acquiring information from the consumer when the object is transferred. Just as nested composite types of contact data elements can be combined into more comprehensive types such as business card elements, nested composite types for communications content can be combined into more comprehensive types such as message elements. Message elements combine text headlines with graphics, HTML, and other body content into full multimedia messages which can be filtered, sorted, and displayed by the consumer program 22.
Elements 143 may also be associated with methods 141 or rules 140. This is particularly useful for data exchange elements, which control the process of exchanging data between the consumer program 22 and the provider program 12 or another server program. Two specialized types of data exchange elements are useful for controlling the transmission of data external to the provider database 11. Attachment elements allow a provider to specify external files, objects, or other data stored in the provider's local or network computing environment to be included in the transmission of a communications object, communications object update, or message object. Query elements allow a provider to execute a query against a local or network database and have the results included in the transmission of a communications object. Data exchange elements, attachment elements, and query elements will be further explained in the description of data exchange control below.
Another category of element composite types is link elements. Link elements within a communications object are the equivalent of URLs within a Web document. They create associations between different elements of an object, different pages of an object, or different communications objects. A link element can also be a URL, linking the element to any Web page or other resource available on the World Wide Web. By associating a link element 143 with one or more link methods 141, even more powerful “link components” can be created. Component objects and link components will be explained further below.
Special element composite types, called preference elements, are used to control communications object processing. Preference elements specify object attributes that are editable by the consumer. For instance, a preference element of a composite type RefreshInterval could govern the polling interval used for object updates using the pull method of updating. An element of type RefreshInterval can consist of three fields 152: Minimum, Maximum, and Setting, all of which could be primitive integer values representing days. The Minimum field specifies the shortest allowable refresh interval (to help reduce the load on the provider's Web server), the Maximum field specifies the longest refresh interval (to limit the total time one full object update cycle can take), and the Setting field specifies the actual interval to be used (the provider's recommended setting would be used by default). The provider would initially fill out these three fields, then the consumer would be able to edit the Setting field within the Minimum and Maximum allowed. (Enforcement of this requirement could be provided by a rule 140.)
Another example of a preference element is a notification element. Notification elements are used to control how a consumer is notified of new information when the object, object update, or object message is transferred. The format and structure of notification elements are discussed below in connection with the special processing notification elements receive. Any other consumer-editable preference regarding communications object attributes or method processing can be expressed as an preference element. Preference elements receive special processing by the consumer program 22 and storage in the consumer database 21 which will be further described below.
In addition to its composite type and composite value, each element 143 includes standard attributes such as system ID, name, description, version value, NewFlag, and HoldFlag. The system ID is a unique identification value in the database 100. Identification number assignments throughout the database are discussed below. The name is a label used to identify the element to the provider or consumer. The version value is used to coordinate updates each time the element is changed. The NewFlag is set to TRUE each time an element has been changed by a provider so that new information can be indentified for distribution by the provider program 12, and identified for updating when transferred to the consumer program 22. The HoldFlag is used to identify changed elements which are not yet to be distributed. The structure and content of elements may be more fully understood in connection with the description of notification elements discussed below.
In order to organize the many elements 143 which can be contained in a communications object 110, one or more container classes may be desired. Container classes allow the grouping of elements for purposes of display, editing, or other program operations. Container classes are also useful for distribution control, which will be discussed below. Different types of container classes can be implemented, and container classes can contain other container classes.
The method class 141 is a form of metadata used to store methods which may be included in a communications object instance when it is transferred to a consumer. These methods should not be confused with the methods belonging to each of the other object classes in the system. A method object is primarily a mechanism for storing a method in the database for later inclusion in a communications object instance, at which time the method becomes a formal method of the communications object. Communications object methods are one of the most powerful aspects of communications objects. They allow the provider to specify processing instructions which will execute on the consumer's computer when certain conditions exist in the consumer program. For example, when a communications object is first received by the consumer program 22, a “receipt method” can automatically execute to return an acknowledgment message to the provider with information about that consumer transferred from the consumer database 21.
A second purpose of instances of the method class 141 is to execute procedures in the provider program 12 or consumer program 22. These procedures can be instructions involved with the process of creating and publishing communications objects, or they can be instructions to be executed when a message object is received from a communications object. Message objects are discussed further below.
Instances of the method class 141 may implement communications object methods in several ways. The method can simply be a call to execute a system method included in the consumer program 22. The method can be actual instructions included in the object as program code in an executable format or an interpretable format, such as a script format. The method can be a call to the methods of another communications object located in the provider database 11 or consumer database 21. The method can also be a remote procedure call to another object or application located elsewhere on the consumer's computer or on a communications network 3 accessible from the consumer program. This remote procedure call can be executed at the remote computer, or it can be downloaded by the consumer program for local execution. The application of communications object methods to automating operations in the provider program 12 or consumer program 22 will be further discussed below.
Methods 141 may be of specialized types. Method types can be determined by a type attribute, or by method type subclasses to which methods 141 are associated. Methods types include receipt methods, public methods, private methods, and system methods.
Rules 140 work in conjunction with methods to provide the operational functionality of a communications object system. Rules allow the provider database 11 and consumer database 21 to operate as active object databases, capable of initiating communications, database processing, or other procedures based on time, system variables, system events, or other conditions. Rules also supply constraints under which methods operate. The usage of rules to control the operation of an active object database is discussed generally in Jennifer Widom and Stefano Ceri, Active Database Systems (1996), which is incorporated herein by reference.
Rules 140 consist of one or more conditions to be tested against. Rules 140 are associated with methods 141 to execute when the conditions are met. Rules 140 are typically expressed in Boolean logic using standardized query languages or other appropriate formats. Rules can govern the behavior of individual communications objects, groups of communications objects (such as all objects from a particular provider), all objects in the database, or general system actions. Examples of common processing actions governed by rules include backing up the database after X days or X number of changes, deleting or proposing for deletion communications objects that have not been accessed in X days, archiving X number of previous copies of a communications object or object component, using X amount of system resources when Y conditions are present, and allowing X number of communications objects or recipients under a particular software license. Rules may be understood further in the discussion of communications object control functions below.
Communications objects 110 are the highest level data structure because they serve as the container for type definitions, elements, pages, methods, and rules. Each of these is a one-to-many relationship. A type definition 144, element 143, page 142, method 141, or rule 140 must be assigned to an object 110 in order to be transferred to a consumer, however each type definition, element, page, method, or rule may be included in more than one object 110. Communications objects have many of the same standard attributes as elements, pages, and methods, i.e., SystemID, Name, Description, VersionNumber, NewFlag, and HoldFlag. In addition communications objects also have attributes that apply only to communications objects as a whole. These attributes can include the markup language version used to generate instances of the object, the objects' age, and the number of published updates to the object, receipt acknowledgment preferences, and other universal attributes.
Communications objects can be of specialized types. There are several approaches for accomplishing this. One approach is to define communications object types using a special CommObjectType element included within or referenced by the communications object itself. The preferred embodiment of the present invention is to define communications object types as subclasses of the communications object superclass. These subclasses are illustrated in
The Recipient class 120 is used to determine the distribution of a communications object. Each communications object 110 is associated with one or more recipients 120 who receive an instance of the object when it is first created or when changes are made to it. Recipients are of two types: consumer programs 22, or distribution servers 32. A distribution server 32 may also be represented by a distribution service object. Distribution service objects are further discussed below. Transfer of communications objects 110 to both types of recipients is typically via the push technique. However recipients may also be tracked in the provider database 11 even if they use the pull technique of updating via the use of receipt acknowledgment messages. Acknowledgment messages are further described below. The push method may involve a fully automated transfer via a communications network 3, or it may involve a manual transfer such as a file copy over a network or via a computer floppy disk. Recipient objects 120 include the attributes necessary to generate and transmit an instance of the communications object to the recipient. To uniquely identify recipients even when names change, a SystemID attribute can used in addition to a Name attribute. System IDs are discussed below. Other attributes include the recipient's communications network address, such as an e-mail address, the type of encoding that should be used (e.g., MIME, BinHex, UUencoding, etc.), and the maximum attachment file size the recipient can accept (to determine if multiple attachments need to be sent). Recipients 120 have an association with methods 141 in order to allow different methods to be assigned to different recipients. An example is the communications object's update method. Communications objects transmitted to consumers via e-mail push may use one update method, while those transmitted to distribution servers may use a pull update method. Encoding methods, transmission methods, and other recipient-specific methods may also be assigned in this manner.
Recipients 120 also has an aggregate association with acknowledgment 121 and page subscription 853. Acknowledgment 121 has a one-to-one association with communications object 110. Acknowledgment 121 is where consumer acknowledgment of the receipt of a communications object can be stored. Page subscription 853 is the mechanism by which a provider can control distribution by specifying which pages are transferred to a recipient. Alternately, by including in communications object 110 all instances of page subscription 853 for all pages 142 associated with the object but not necessarily transmitted to the consumer, the provider can allow the consumer to choose which pages the consumer wishes to receive. Distribution control is further described below.
Four other classes in the database significantly involved with program operations are global preferences 103, report 105, folder 115, and event 116. Global preferences 103 provides a means for storing the preferences of a provider or consumer for general operation of the provider program 12 or consumer program 22. This may include attributes such as the default menu to display upon program startup, the default refresh interval to assign to new objects, the user's preference for notification when new objects arrive, the number of object archive copies the user wishes to keep, and other such preferences. Global preferences 103 may also include method preferences, such as the notification method to use when new objects are received, the method to use for archiving versions of objects or object components, and the method to use for backing up the database.
Report 105 is a class for storing report definitions and report display or printing preferences. As in many database management systems, reports may be defined by the system or by the user, and can include any listings, statistics, or analysis of value to the user.
Folder 115 is a container class useful for grouping objects, particularly for consumers. Folder groupings allow groups of communications objects to be referenced simultaneously for analysis, display, sorting, searching, reporting, and transmission. Alternatively, although not shown, folders or other container classes can be applied to other classes, such as pages and elements, for similar purposes.
The event 116 class is an abstract class defining the attributes for scheduled events 117 and logged events 118. The scheduled event 117 class is used to create a queue of events for the provider program 12 or consumer program 22 to execute at some time in the future. An example is the polling operation necessary to update communications objects via the pull technique. The logged event 118 class is the counterpart used to create a log of past events. System events may need to be tracked for purposes of accumulated statistics, tracking user or communications object activity, documenting errors, providing payment transaction receipts, etc. Scheduled event and logged even objects can be further understood in the discussion of event loops, event logging, and event scheduling below.
Object Markup Language
In order to transfer a communications object instance or object update instance from a provider program 12 to a consumer program 22, the object must be output from the provider database 11 into a format suitable for transport via a communications network 3. Any type of machine readable and writable format could be used, for example a compressed binary file such as that used by most relational or object-oriented database management programs. However, for maximum compatibility with communications networks 3 and other data processing systems, object instances can be written or read in an ASCII markup language, which is a superset of HTML. As with HTML, or other standard markup languages such as SGML, each item of structured data such as an object class or container class is expressed within a set of delimiters or “tags” defined in the markup language. Certain classes in the database structure exist specifically to provide the necessary container tags for other classes. For example, in
Basic System Processes
System ID and Naming Services
Because communications objects and their component type definitions, elements, pages, and methods are exchanged among multiple providers and consumers, the instances of these objects and components need to be uniquely distinguishable in each provider database 11 and consumer database 21. Name attributes alone cannot be relied upon to guarantee uniqueness. Other unique identification numbering systems could be employed, such as the provider's or consumer's U.S. Social Security numbers, U.S. Federal Employer Identification Numbers, passport numbers, etc. However, in a communications system which may be used globally, not all users may be assigned unique identifiers under one of these identification systems. A separate global identification system could be employed, such as the domain naming and e-mail addressing system used by the Internet. Although not all Internet users have their own Internet domain names, all of them have unique e-mail addresses. However, since users can and do change e-mail addresses, this would require that their system ID also change. The ideal communications system allows complete separation (or “abstraction” in object-oriented terminology) of a user's communications system ID from any real world names or physical communications network addresses with which the user is associated. In this way, users can change any of his/her names or physical communications network addresses while still maintaining complete continuity of his/her communications relationships. In addition, any changes to the user's name or physical communications network address can be automatically distributed by the user's communications object(s) to all other consumers with whom the user has a communications relationship.
To achieve this objective, a preferred embodiment of the present invention assigns a unique system ID value to each unique communications object and communications object component. This function is the equivalent of an automatically-generated unique key field ID in many conventional database management systems. This objective can be achieved in several ways. A first technique is to employ an algorithm that uses system state information together with data unique to the computer on which it is being run to produce system IDs whose probability of uniqueness is so high that for practical purposes they can be treated as unique. The use of such algorithms for creating globally unique object IDs is discussed generally in Kraig Brockschmidt, Inside OLE (1995), which is incorporated herein by reference. Standard industry algorithms and functions that have been created for this purpose include the Universal Unique Identifier (UUID) specified by the Open Software Foundation (OSF) Distributed Computing Environment (DCE) documentation. This algorithm is fully documented in Steven Miller, DEC/HP, Network Computing Architecture, Remote Procedure Call RunTime Extentions Specification. Version OSF TX1.0.11 (1992), which is incorporated herein by reference. The use of a generally accepted industry UUID has the advantage of making a communications object identifier system directly compatible with other industry standard distributed object system specifications. Examples of such standards include the DCE and CORBA specifications from the Open Software Foundation and the OLE and DCOM specifications from Microsoft Corporation.
The second alternative is to use a centralized server or set of servers to produce unique system IDs as required. This approach has the advantage of creating a centralized registry of unique system IDs. Such a registry has other applications within a communications object system, as further described below. The architecture for centralized system ID assignment is illustrated in
It can also be desirable to be able to assign provider groups within the communications system. Group identifiers allow providers to be classified for purposes of program licensing control, system attribute or system method access permissions, object attribute or object method access permissions, statistics gathering, or other purposes. For example, each employee of a large corporation would need a unique provider system ID, however the corporation would also need a group ID to identify the employee's communications objects as part of the corporation. The corporation may further desire to identify employees by subgroups such as division and department.
The system ID assignment function can be modified to provide this capability by including nested system IDs for each group association within the system ID database 41. The object class model for nested system ID associations is shown in
Each system ID 251 also includes a key attribute. This could be a password, encryption key, or any similar value. This value could be used in conjunction with an Authentication method of the system ID 251 to verify that the user applying for the group ID is authorized to be in that group. For example, a corporate administrator could establish a group ID for the corporation. The administrator would receive the initial key for that group ID. The administrator would need to communicate that key to each employee who would supply it in the request 44 (
The system ID server 40 shown in
The system ID assignment function can be further improved by using communications objects included with or downloaded by provider and consumer programs 12, 22 to control the access of the provider and consumer programs 12, 22 to the system ID server 42. For example, if a group of system ID servers 42 was employed for performance or loading reasons, a communications object could determine the optimal member of the server group to access. Such specialized communications objects are referred to as service objects and will be further explained below.
Basic Object Transfer Processes
Besides using HTML as a display protocol, the Internet and World Wide Web also offer suitable protocols for accessing and transferring communications objects. A Web browser program 50 can be used both to retrieve the communications object and display it for viewing and editing to the consumer. The transfer of an object using a Web server 32 is illustrated in
In the case of a automatic HTTP request 37 from the consumer program 22 to the web server 32, the same MIME object transfer takes place, only the object is received directly by the consumer program 22. In either case, the transfer to the consumer program 22 principally results in the execution of a set of processing steps. These steps typically include decoding of the MIME object, reading of the object, and storage of the object in the consumer database 21. The consumer program 22 can also execute other processing steps based upon the version of the object, the consumer's settings for preference elements in the object, other consumer preferences, and other methods in the object. The processes for storing and processing communications objects are discussed below.
Alternatively, all e-mail from a server can be filtered through the consumer program 22. In this process, the consumer program 22 acts as a proxy server. The e-mail program 62 polls 68 the consumer program 22, as the proxy server, for new mail. The consumer program 22, in turn, polls 67 the e-mail server 31. The resulting mail response is filtered for communications objects directly by the consumer program 22 before being transferred to the e-mail program 62.
Communications received via other types of communications networks can also be filtered for communications object transmissions in a similar manner. For example, telephone calls originated by a communications object can carry a distinctive tone or tone series which can be recognized by a receiving consumer program 22 in the same way a fax tone is recognized by a fax machine. This tone could be universal for all communications object types or could vary by special communications object types. Once the tone was recognized by the receiving program, a communications object transfer negotiation could take place between the calling provider program 12 and the receiving consumer program 22. This could be used to accomplish the transfer of communications objects, message objects, or other data independently, or to control or augment a voice telephony session.
Communications via postal mail networks can also be controlled by a communications object system in the same manner. The originating provider program 12 can control the printing of envelopes or enclosures in a machine-readable format such as bar codes. It can also control the production of transportable data files such as floppy disks or tape cartridges for transport via a postal mail network. At the receiving end, the mail or package envelope or contents can be machine scanned for data that can be interpreted by the receiving consumer program 22. Alternatively or in addition, the transported data files contained in the postal mail can be read by the consumer program 22 to process messages contained therein or to control the receipt and processing of accompanying physical goods or information.
Broadcast networks such as television or cable systems can represent particularly efficient means of transmitting communications objects or object updates via the push technique if the consumer computer 2 is equipped with a device for receiving and decoding the broadcast signal. By applying the filtering techniques described above to “listening” on a broadcast network, a consumer program 22 can receive only the communications object updates intended for communications objects in the consumer's database 21. Because broadcast networks are transmit-only, communications back to the provider must be accomplished using a “back channel” such as a telephone network or computer network. e.g. the Internet.
Provider Program Operation
As described above, the provider program 12 operates as a state machine in generating HTML screens and forms which are displayed by the user's browser program. The provider program 12 is used to create and edit instances in the provider database 11 of the object classes described above. The provider program 12 is also used to publish and distribute instances of communications objects to one or more consumer programs 22 or distribution servers 32 through the communications network 3.
The first five choices on the main menu 300 allow the user to work with the communications objects, pages, elements, type definitions, methods, and rules stored in the provider database. The provider program is primarily creating, displaying, editing, and reporting on objects in the provider database. Therefore, the menus and forms used by the provider program are similar to a the menuing, browsing, editing, or reporting modes of any conventional database application. Initially, there are no user-defined communications objects, pages, elements, type definitions, methods, or rules. (System-defined communications objects, pages, elements, type definitions, methods, or rules may exist but are not editable by the user). Upon selection of one of the menu choices, a HTTP request is generated to display the requested HTML page. The communications object 320, page 330, element 340, type definition 350, and method/rule 360 forms include similar functions: create, edit, delete, and preview. Although the functions are similar, each menu has links to different HTML forms used for performing the functions on the different types of data (communications object 321-324, page 331-334, element 341-344, type definition 351-354, and method/rule 361-364). In addition to the menu choices, a list of the appropriate class instances from the provider database 11 is displayed in order to select the data to edit, delete, or preview. In one embodiment, hyperlinks or form buttons for editing, deleting, and previewing are associated with each data item in the list. Alternatively, a single link to the edit, delete, or preview forms can be used and the data item can be selected from a list when the appropriate form is displayed.
The create forms 321, 331, 341, 351, 361 are respectively used to create a new communications object, page, element, type definition, or method/rule instance. A form is displayed having entry locations to input the necessary attribute data and create the desired associations. Association choices can be shown as lists of the associated class instances with checkboxes or input fields for each instance. For example, when a new page is created, the page create form 321 that creates a new instance of a page (142,
The submission of any new or changed data in an communications object component class triggers the update association rule. This rule can be stored as a rule 140. The method associated with this rule is illustrated in
The edit forms 322, 332, 342, 352, 362 shown in
Second, edited instances do not necessarily replace the previous instance when stored in the database (steps 415, 425). Multiple versions of object instances may be maintained in the database so that the user can revert to previous data. The number of previous versions stored is controlled by a global preference attribute (103,
The delete forms 323, 333, 343, 353, 363 shown in
The preview forms 324, 334, 344, 354 shown in
The recipient form 310 accessed from the object menu 320 is used to assign the recipients (120,
The reports form 370 is used to create, edit, delete, and display reports (120,
An object is published by using the publish menu form 326. Publishing refers to the process of reviewing and finalizing changes and initiating distribution. When selected, the publish menu 326 provides a list of communications objects, pages, elements, type definitions, methods, rules, and recipients which have been changed since the previous publishing operation. The items on the list can be selected, edited, and previewed in a manner similar to that under the respective communications object, page, element, type definition, and method/rule menus. One editing action a user might typically take at this time is to set the HoldFlag attribute to TRUE. When this is done all other editing changes are preserved but the class instance will be withheld from distribution until the HoldFlag attribute is reset to FALSE. Once the user is satisfied that all the information is correct, the user selects the distribute form 336. This form first provides the opportunity for a final confirmation that the new information is ready to be published. It also allows setting of various parameters relating to the distribution process. One such parameter is the date and time the actual distribution operation should occur if it is not to take place immediately. Another parameter is an acknowledgement setting and acknowledgment interval, which are described below. Once the distribute form 336 is submitted, the communications object generation and distribution process is initiated.
Basic Communications Object Distribution Process
In the communications object distribution process, instances of the communications object (110,
The entire communications object, including all of the changes, can be transmitted each time it is distributed. Alternatively, only the component class instances which have been changed may be sent. The only difference is that in the second technique the distributed communications object only contains the class instances and associations where the NewFlag attribute is set to TRUE. Instances and associations which have not changed are ignored. Therefore, whether the unchanged data is sent to the consumer program is irrelevant. Whether to send a complete object or only changed components depends upon the complexity of the object and the potential for communications objects to become desynchronized due to transmission errors. Complete-object transmissions can also be intermixed with updated-components-only transmissions on a periodic basis to prevent dysynchronization errors. The type of update distributed can also be controlled on a per-recipient basis by the attributes of the recipient's object (120,
At this point all new or changed communications objects have been distributed to their assigned recipients. However, a new or edited recipient may need to receive an existing communications object that has not changed. To account for this case the provider program queries the database for all recipients 120 whose NewFlag attribute is TRUE and HoldFlag attribute is FALSE (step 511). The program then loops (step 512) through each of these recipients 120, quering for the associated communications objects 110 where the NewFlag attribute is FALSE (step 513). The program then loops (step 514) through each of these communications objects 110 executing the object generation and transmission routine for each object (step 515).
After all communications object instances 110 have been transmitted, the program does another query of the database for all class instances where the NewFlag attribute is TRUE and HoldFlag is FALSE (step 521). The program loops through these instances and resets their NewFlag attribute reset to FALSE (steps 522, 523). This prepares the database for the next round of editing and publishing.
The procedures for generating and transmitting the communications object instance for each recipient are illustrated in the flow chart of
The program then retrieves the communications object's methods and rules (step 534) which are associated with the recipient (120,
If only changed components of the communications object were to be transmitted, rather than an entire object being resent, only the type definitions, elements, pages, methods, and rules which have changed, i.e., those having NewFlag attributes set to TRUE, would be stored in the markup file. Unchanged pages and elements would be omitted.
Because the actual transmission may include additional data besides the communications object itself, the following two steps involve executing any queries indicated by query elements (step 545) and reading any attachments specified by attachment elements (step 546). These two processes will be further described in the discussion of data exchange control below.
At this point all the parts of the message are ready to be encoded for transmission. Encoding attributes and methods are associated with the recipient 120. This allows communications object transmissions to be encoded in an optimal or desired format for each recipient. For example, e-mail recipients who use MIME attachments can receive MIME objects, while e-mail recipients who cannot read MIME can receive BinHex attachments or have the communications object markup file encoded directly in the ASCII text of the e-mail message. Compression, encryption, and other encoding methods can also be applied. Encoding service objects may also be employed. Encoding control and encoding service objects are further described below. The recipients encoding attributes and methods are read (step 547) and the encoding methods are executed (step 548).
After encoding, the communications object is transmitted to the recipient according to the attributes and methods of the recipient (steps 550-551). As discussed previously, according to a preferred embodiment, objects sent directly to consumer computers 2 using the push method are sent as e-mail messages or message attachments to the addresses of the recipients. These transmissions can be queued using scheduled events 117 to reduce system load. Objects sent to a distribution server 32 for distribution using a pull method are saved to the appropriate web server document directory. Alternatively, based upon the access the provider has to the provider's web server, the object could be mailed to the Web server administrator, uploaded as an HTTP form to the Web server, or otherwise stored for later posting by the Web server administrator. The transmission steps could also include an e-mail message, voicemail message, or other notification to the administrator that the object is ready to be stored on the server. Alternatively, transmission to a distribution server 32 can be automated through the use of a distribution service object. Distribution service objects will be further discussed below.
The final set of steps is to record data about the distribution in an acknowledgment association (121,
Consumer Program Operation
One advantage of the communications system of the present invention is that the transmitted communications object instance can be automatically received, processed, stored, and indexed by the consumer program 22. Since the data is structured as an object and stored in an object-oriented database 21, the data it contains can be easily searched using the consumer program 22 in order to locate specific information or perform certain functions.
The consumer program 22 may also coordinate with operation of other applications on the consumer computer 2 in order to provide the data to those additional applications. For example, name and address information may be transferred to a personal information management program. E-mail address information can be transferred to an e-mail program for its address book. Similarly, data can be transferred to word processing or spreadsheet programs to be incorporated into documents. Also, the proper information can be used for standard electronic data interchange (EDI) formats or other types of electronic information exchange. Alternatively and in most cases preferably, these other applications can access the consumer program through an API to retrieve communications-related data when needed. These applications can also call the methods of the communications objects to automate data interchange with the provider of the object. This has the advantage of storing the data and methods only once on the consumer's desktop, saving storage space, decreasing complexity, and increasing the accuracy of the resulting communications. The use of an API for communications object access will be further discussed below.
The main menu 600 lists the principal types of functions which can be performed by the consumer program 22. The object list form 610 provides a directory to the communications objects in the consumer database. A name or other identifying information for each object is displayed in a list format. The name or identifying information also functions as a hyperlink to the object. The user can set various attributes of the display, such as formatting of characters, amount and order of information identifying the object, and organization of the communications objects in the list, using the preferences form 650. The choices in the object list form provide access to forms for performing functions with respect to the attributes or methods of one or more communications objects selected in the object list.
The search form 620, as illustrated in
Referring back to
The sort form 634 presents a set of options for displaying communications objects, pages, and elements. Choices include sorting by container (such as a folder), order (ascending or descending), and unit (object, page, element). The class instances in the consumer database 21 are then sorted according to the selected criteria and redisplayed.
The export form 645 operates to transfer data from the database to be used by other applications, such as a contact file for a personal information manager or a mail merge list for a word processor. First, a search or sort is performed to select a group of communications objects, pages, or elements to be exported. The export form includes choices to select the elements to export, the destination (such as a disk, file, clipboard, etc.) and a format. Upon submission of the completed form, the data meeting the export form criteria is transferred to the selected destination in the selected format. The data can then be used by the other application. A screen identifying the results of the export is then displayed.
The print form 646 is used to print information in the database. Some routine print functions can be performed by the browser program 50. However, other printing functions, such as printing selected elements or pages or using special print formatting, can be performed directly from the print form. The print form requests information relating to the selection of elements to be printed and the format for printing. A results screen can also be displayed after the print operation.
The select object function results in a display of the selected object form 611. An object may typically be selected by selecting its name on a form, which is hyperlinked to the object. In the selected object form 611, the names of the pages of the object are displayed in a list, with hyperlinks to each page. From the selected object form 611, the user can sort, search, export and print using the forms as discussed above with respect to the object list form 610. Other choices are also possible with respect to the selected object which will be discussed further below.
An edit object form 622 can be used to edit a communications object's attributes, including its component elements. Most attributes and elements of a communications object are defined by the provider and are not editable by the consumer. However, certain elements are defined by the provider specifically for editing by the consumer. These preference elements may include polling refresh intervals, return receipts, subscription elements, and notification elements. A consumer may also assign other attributes and associations to a communications object. These include folder assignments, nicknames, notes, notification priority, expiration date, and archive method. All communications object attributes and element attributes edited by the consumer are stored separately from the object in the consumer database 21. This is accomplished by use of the CommObjectPrefs class 127 and ElementPrefs class 147 shown in
The delete object form 623 shown in
The select page option displays the selected page form 612 which provides a listing of the elements on that page. Typically, the page (142,
The notification report form 630 is selected from the main menu 600 in order to provide information about new communications objects, updates to existing objects, messages received by objects, database status messages, and other news of which the user wishes to be informed. The notification report form provides the user with the capability to select and filter information received from a provider. Operation of this form is discussed below in connection with notification element processing.
The user can generate other reports relating to the consumer database using the other reports form 640. Standard reports might include database statistics (total objects, pages and elements; database file size; and size of objects being held), object statistics (frequency of use; last use; age in system; total age; size; number of updates; and last update), and transaction logs (number of updates; percentage of CPU time used, online time used; percentage of errors; and types of errors). Additionally, consumers could specify their own database reports to be added to this form.
The preferences form 650 allows the user to edit operational preferences that apply to the consumer database 21 or consumer program 22 as a whole. These can include configuration options such as the initial menu to display upon startup, the colors and fonts for the forms and data, and field defaults. The user may also select options such as a default refresh interval to use for new objects, a default expiration period, and default settings for editing or preference forms.
Basic Communications Object Reception Process
For new objects, the consumer program 22 first executes the consumer's GlobalPrefs NewObjectReceipt method (step 703). This method allows the consumer to control the processing of new communications objects. Typically this method will store the object to the consumer database 21. However, the consumer may wish to discard objects received from any provider system ID on a list maintained in the consumer database 21, commonly referred to as a “kill file”. Additionally, the NewObjectReceipt method controls the permissions the consumer extends to the new object to execute its own receipt method(s). For example, new objects from providers whose system ID is not in the consumer database 21 may not be allowed to execute their receipt method, while new objects from known providers may be extended this privilege. Receipt methods trigger automatic actions taken when a communications object or object update is first received by a consumer program 22. For example, a receipt method may automatically return an acknowledgment message back to the provider confirming the consumer's receipt of the object or object update. Receipt methods and acknowledgment messages are further described below.
Once the NewObjectReceipt method has been executed, the consumers notification preferences for new objects are retrieved (step 704) from the NewObjectNotify attribute of the GlobalPrefs class (103,
After any notification methods have been executed, the consumer program 22 executes any other system methods that may apply to new communications objects (step 708). For example, a Register method would check to see if the updated object wished to register a new public method (141,
In step 702, if an object already exists in the database, then it is processed to determine what changes have occurred and what actions should be taken by the consumer program 22 because of those changes. In this way the communications control system of the present invention functions not just as an information transfer system but as an event processing system. Both the provider and consumer share control over the processing that takes place when knowledge of an event is transferred from provider to consumer. The first event, the arrival of a communications object update, is processed in step 714. The version value of the updated communications object 110 is compared with the version value of the most recent version stored in the consumer database 21. In the authoring process, the update association rule and method (
If the newly received communications object's version value is newer than the last version stored, the consumer program 22 first stores the updated object in the consumer database 21 (step 715). The next set of steps involves updating communications object associations. When a consumer is able to edit data related to a communications object, this data needs to be stored separately from the communications object so it is not overwritten by a subsequent communications object update. The data structures necessary to accomplish this are shown in
The consumer program 22 then proceeds with additional processing steps depending on the contents of the new and old versions of the communications object 110. First, this means executing any receipt methods 141 or rules 140 associated with the communications object 110. Referring again to
After receipt method processing, notification processing is carried out. Processing of notification elements (steps 723-727) is further described below. After notification processing, the consumer program 22 executes any other system methods that apply to updated communications objects, such as the Register method (step 731). Finally, the consumer program 22 checks the archive preference attribute of the communications object preference instance (127,
Combined Provider and Consumer Program Operation
The functions of provider and consumer programs and databases have been separated in the above discussion in order to simplify the description of the communications system of the present invention. However, in one embodiment, the program functions and databases are combined. Thus, a single database includes all of the communications objects and object components which have been created or received by the user. This eliminates complexity and saves disk space for the user. The program offers the provider functions when creating and distributing communications objects, and the consumer functions when receiving and processing them. Combining the program functions and databases in this way yields significant additional functionality not available when the programs and databases are separate.
First, communications relationships can be linked in both directions between users. Referring to
Second, all the elements, type definitions, and methods of both received and transmitted objects are present in a single database and program operation environment. This allows the provider to use the attributes and methods of received objects for other purposes. For example, special communications object types can be used to supply services needed by other communications objects. Such services include directory services, authentication services, payment services, and feedback services. These “service objects” will be further discussed below. Components from received communications objects can also be reused within the provider's own communications objects, thus creating “synthesized objects”. Synthesized objects will be further discussed below.
Third, the elements and methods of the provider's own communications objects can be made available to communications objects from other providers. This allows for the automated, intelligent exchange of many types of standard personal or business data which otherwise would require human effort. Data exchange automation will be further discussed below.
Fourth, a single notification report system can be used to report messages and events to the user, whether they are associated with provider objects or consumer objects. Notification reports are described below.
Event Loops, Event Logging, and Event Scheduling
The provider program 12 and consumer program 22, whether combined or separate, operate internal event processing loops similar to many computer operating systems or software programs which need to handle user and system events as well as scheduled or automatic operations. The main event loop is illustrated in
If there is not an event waiting in step 751, or when an event does not require logging in step 753, or when the event logging task is finished in step 754, the program begins idle processing tasks (step 755). During idle processing periods other specialized event loops can be processed until the expiration of the main event loop (step 756). These specialized event loops may include a scheduled event loop, an inbox/outbox monitoring loop, a rule-monitoring loop, and so on. The specific event loops used are not a limiting feature of the invention.
The scheduled event loop is shown in
At the end of this process, or if the earliest scheduled event instance had not yet elapsed in step 761, or if an executed event did not require logging in step 764, the program terminates the scheduled event loop (step 767) and commences the next idle processing task.
Advanced Communication Object Types
The basic architecture of a communications object system lends itself to many specialized communications object types which enable significant additional functionality. As discussed earlier, in a preferred embodiment each of these specialized types are implemented as subclasses of the communications object superclass 110. Examples of these subclasses are illustrated in
Alternatively, these special object types could be distinguished by the use of a special element contained in a communications object. This element would have a special composite type such as CommObjectType, and the value of this element would determine the communications object object type for purposes of processing by the consumer program 22, provider program 12, distribution server 32, or a communications object system partner server 1302.
Communications objects represent a transfer of communications intelligence, in the form of data, metadata, and instructions, from a provider to a consumer who wishes to form a communications relationship with that provider. Once the communications object has been exchanged, further communications between the provider and consumer can carry greater intelligence because they can be originated and received as transmissions between these two communications objects. Although these messages can be structured in any form, in a preferred embodiment they are simply a special communications object type called a message object 110. This means they can be generated, encoded, transmitted, received, and processed in the same fashion as any other communications object. The only difference is that the generation or receipt of a message object may not result in an update to the sending or receiving communications object, but rather the execution of one or more methods at the sending or receiving program, and optionally changes to other objects or object components in the sending or receiving databases. A communications object update may be considered a special form of message object which includes changes to the receiving communications object.
Message objects can also be sent to or received from any other communications server, program, or process which is not a formal part of the system but is compatible with the message object format. Not all messages produced by a communications object system need take the form of message objects, however. The attributes and methods of communications objects can also be used to generate and received other structured or unstructured message formats compatible with other communications systems, servers, or processes, or any custom format of the provider's choosing.
As with any communications objects 110, message objects may be transmitted or received via either the push or pull technique, using any communications protocol. Specifically, message objects can be transmitted and received using both store-and-forward protocols, such as SMTP e-mail, and direct transmission protocols, such as HTTP. In the latter case, message objects can take the place of HTTP forms for automated processing by the web server, such as Common Gateway Interface (CGI) script processing.
The processing steps for receipt of a message object by the consumer program 22 are illustrated in
If the parent UID exists, the final step is to execute the message object's receipt method or methods. Since a message object is simply a special type of communications object, it may carry its own methods, or it may call the methods of its communications object “parent”. Additionally, when received by the originating provider program 12, it may call any other method 141 present in the provider database 11 which originated the parent communications object. For example, a communications object could include a receipt method 141 named GetStatData which obtains statistical data from a consumer database 21 and returns a message object to the provider program 12. When the message object is received by the provider program 12, it may execute a receipt method 141 named PostStatData which is present in the provider database 11, but not in the original communications object 110. Alternatively, method names can be polymorphic. In this case a method included in the communications object 110 could perform one action when received by the consumer program 22, but another action when called by a message object in the provider program 12. The method can distinguish between these programs by matching the system ID of its originating database (100,
Because of this, message objects generally do not need to transport their own methods, but can instead call methods present in their parent communications object (already stored in the consumer database 21 and provider database 11), or other methods from their originating provider database 11. This makes them a highly efficient means of transporting structured message data and initiating automated processing of that data.
For providers, message objects allow the provider program 12 to operate similarly to a consumer program 22. In other words, message objects returned to a provider program 12 by communications objects which originated in that provider program 12 can execute the receipt methods, notification methods, and other processing methods of their parent communications object 110. This gives the provider many of the same benefits that the communications object gives to the consumer. The ability for both the provider and consumer to benefit equally from the automated processing of message objects is a core advantage of a communications object system.
Component and Composite Objects
Another powerful feature of communications objects is their ability to be physically or logically nested. This nesting is illustrated in
Each component object has an association 110A to the composite object which contains it. A component object may be contained by more than one composite object. As with other associations in the provider database 11, changes to component objects can be propagated upward to the composite objects which contain them via the update association method (
Composite objects may optionally contain additional elements 143 representing their component object members. In this way a composite object can be separated from its component objects yet still contain the information necessary to retrieve or update its component objects. This use of composite objects may be more fully understood in the description of distribution control functions below.
Composite and component objects are particularly useful for creating many different kinds of metadata structures in communications object system databases 100. Example are directory category hierarchies and discussion response thread hierarchies, shown in
When the functions of the provider program 12 and consumer program 22 and their respective databases 11 and 21 are combined, a provider can create synthesized objects. A synthesized object is a communications object which contains components or component objects from other providers. These are referred to as “external components” or “external component objects”.
Just as with a standard communications object, when the external components or component objects of a synthesized object change after the receipt of an updated object from the external provider, those changes trigger the update association rule, described above. Thus the changes are propagated upward to the components and communications objects which contain them using the update association method (
Service objects are another special class of communications object whose primary function is to provide communications services to other communications objects. As shown in
User objects are communications objects 110 used to represent communications object system users or groups of users in a communications object system database 100. User objects are shown as class 816 of
Schedule objects are communications objects 110 used to represent scheduled real-world events in a communications object system database 100. Scheduled objects are shown as class 817 of
Communications Control Functions
The preceding sections have explained the basic mechanisms by which communications objects are created, updated, and distributed by a provider, and received, processed, and stored by a consumer. While the transfer of a communications object may itself communicate information between the provider and consumer, this is only a first use of the present invention. A second principal use is employing the transferred communications object to control and automate additional communications between the provider and consumer. The following sections will explain these control functions as they apply to distribution, encoding, transmission, reception and acknowledgment, notification, updating, data exchange, communications object exchange, forwarding and chaining, transfer, termination, event tracking, archiving, and reporting. Two additional types of control functions, for multinetwork communications and scheduling, will be discussed in the advanced system architecture sections. This set of control functions is not exhaustive but merely illustrative of how the control capabilities of a communications object system may be applied.
A provider may wish to distribute different information to different consumers. In addition, a provider may wish to grant different consumers different communications control and access privileges. One way to accomplish this is for the provider to create different communications objects and assign them (via push) or make them available (via pull) to different consumers. However, when a large number of communications object components are being distributed to large number of consumers, this solution quickly becomes unwieldy. A second drawback to this approach is that when a global naming system is used, each of these communications objects must have a unique name. These different names can easily confuse consumers, who would rather be able to associate a single communications object name with the real-world name of the person, company, product, service, etc. that the communications object represents. Thus, in a preferred embodiment, providers would be able to automatically distribute customized versions of the same communications object.
In addition, in some cases it is preferable for the consumer to control this customization process. For example, a provider may offer several versions of a software product, all sold under the same name. The provider may wish to offer a single communications object corresponding to that product name, yet allow it to be customized for the particular product versions. However since the provider does not know which version each consumer is using, it is preferable for the consumer to control customization.
This leads to four scenarios for distribution control from a single provider to one or more consumers: provider control using the push technique, consumer control using the push technique, provider control using the pull technique, and consumer control using the pull technique. This section will discuss each of these in turn. Distribution control involving multiple providers will be discussed further in the multiuser operation section below.
For provider control using the push technique, we have already described how a provider can assign different communications objects to be distributed to different consumers using the create new recipient form or edit selected recipient form (311, 312,
Any communications object component can be used for customized distribution.
The second case covers how the provider can allow the consumer to control distribution using the push technique. For example, a software company might offer multiple pages within a communications object pertaining to a software product. Each page would correspond to a particular version of that product. If the company did not know which version a consumer was using, it could include a menu of these pages in the communications object. A consumer's choices from this menu would be automatically returned to the provider via a message object, which would invoke a method in the provider program 12 to change the consumer's page subscription settings in the provider database 11. In this way the consumer can choose to “subscribe” to the page or pages corresponding to the product version the consumer is using. This saves transmission time for the provider and file space for the consumer.
To accomplish this requires first that the page subscription elements 853 be transmitted with the communications object as a preference element that will be editable by the consumer. To include page subscription elements in the communications object, an “Include Page Subscription” checkbox can be included next to the “Include Page” checkbox for each page listed on the create object or edit selected object form (321, 322,
Once the communications object is received by the consumer program 22, the SubscribeFlag values of the page subscription elements 853 are editable by the consumer using the edit object form (622,
Both the foregoing distribution control processes operate via the push technique. For high volume distribution, the pull technique is more likely to be employed. Distribution control using the pull technique is illustrated in
The first condition can be met by breaking the communications object into a composite communications object 900 and a set of component objects 901. Two such component objects are shown in
Provider control of distribution via the pull technique involves the following steps. First the object instance generation and transmission routine (
The next step is for the consumer to obtain a copy of the composite communications object instance 900 (step 930). When the object is received by the consumer program 22, the distribution control method 931 can be executed automatically as a receipt method or manually by the consumer (step 931). The distribution control method 931 determines which component objects 901 should be retrieved. These instructions may incorporate any logic or business rules the provider wishes to employ, using whatever data is available to the communications object in the consumer database 21 or elsewhere in the consumer's computing environment. For example, if the communications object represented a software product, the distribution control method 931 could examine the consumer database 21 or the consumer's local or network environment to determine if the product was installed and what version the consumer was using. Alternatively it could present an input form to the consumer to gather other relevant data for processing. The distribution control method 931 could then determine and download the appropriate component objects 901 from the distribution server 32 (step 932). For example, it could download the component objects 901 that correspond to the version of the product the consumer was using. If the consumer did not have the product installed, the distribution control method 931 could download the component objects 901 that are compatible with the consumer's computer system. Alternately, the distribution control method 931 could transmit data it retrieves from the consumer database 21 or the consumer's computer environment to the distribution control object 902 on the distribution server 32 (step 933). This data could then be processed by the distribution server 32 to determine the optimal component objects to return to the consumer program 22. This can be more efficient than transferring a sizable distribution control method to each consumer. Automatic data exchange will be further discussed below.
The final scenario is consumer control of distribution via the pull technique. This is similar to consumer control via the push technique, and again uses page subscription element instances (853,
Once the composite communications object is received at the consumer program 22, the consumer can control component distribution in one of two ways. If the page subscription element instances (853,
One advantage of using composite communications objects for distribution control is that a single composite communications object 900 can be used to control updating for multiple component communications objects. This will be further explained in the discussion of update control, below. Alternatively, distribution control can be accomplished using specialized forms of data exchange control. This will be further explained in the discussion of data exchange control, below.
Encoding refers to the formatting of communications data to increase its communications value. Communications encoding may take many forms, including human languages, computer languages, character sets, data file formats, compression formats, transmission formats, encryption formats, and display formats. Multiple types of encoding may be applied to the same communications transmission. A communications object system represents a significant improvement over existing communications encoding control processes for three reasons. First, communications objects provide a simple, automated way for the communications sender to know which encoding formats are optimal for a communications recipient. Secondly, because this encoding data is stored within a structured database 11, 21, it can be easily accessed by the provider program 12, consumer program 22, or another software program using an appropriate API, for the purposes of automating both the encoding process for the sender and the decoding process for the receiver. Thirdly, the sharing of encoding and decoding methods can be dramatically simplified through the use of encoding service objects. Encoding service objects will be further discussed below.
Communications objects can control the encoding of transmissions of the communications objects themselves, communications object updates, related objects such as message objects, attachments to communications object transmissions, or any other form of message, data stream, broadcast, or data exchange process. They can also control both the encoding process for the sender (be it the provider or consumer), and the decoding process for the receiver.
The fundamental process by which communications objects control encoding and decoding is as follows. Using the provider program 12, the provider supplies within a communications object (110,
Encoding can be applied directly by methods contained within the communications object, by encoding service objects, by system methods contained in the programs 12, 22, by other utility software programs called by these programs, or by other applications that call the data and methods of the communications object via an appropriate API.
Encoding control is particularly relevant to communications security. Many data encryption systems operate through the use of a digital key or signature for securely encoding a communications message, and a second related key for decoding and authenticating the message. The two keys are related through the use of a mathematical algorithm. Such systems are often referred to as public/private key encryption systems. The encoding key, which is generally publicly available, is called the public key; the decoding key, which is guarded by the recipient, is called the private key. Public keys can also be digitally “signed” so they can be authenticated via reference to a trusted source. The use of encryption algorithms, public and private keys, digital signatures, authentication, and other topics related to secure communications is discussed generally by Bruce Schneier, Applied Cryptography, Second Edition (1996), which is incorporated herein by reference.
As with other forms of encoding, communications objects are an excellent mechanism for simplifying and automating public/private key encryption. Referring to the data structures in
This security technique is not limited to public/private key encryption systems, but can be applied to any form of encryption where data and/or methods supplied by the provider are necessary to accomplish automatic encryption at the point of message origination (the consumer), as well as automatic decryption at the point of message reception (the provider). The specific encryption protocol or algorithm is not a limiting feature of the invention.
One particular advantage of a communications object system in this respect is the ease with which multiple public keys may be used. Multiple keys may be included within a single communications object, or a single key may be constantly changed via communications object updates, or both techniques can be used together. Since encryption can be applied automatically by the consumer program 22, the encryption method 141 can programatically or randomly chose from among the available public keys. By including an indentifier value 161 within each public key element 143, and including this unencrypted identifier value in the header of the encrypted message objects 110, the provider program 12 can also automatically identify and apply the matching private key element 143 for decryption. The use of multiple rotating public keys significantly reduces the risk of security breaches if any one key combination is broken, and increases the effort necessary to compromise the security of the messages.
The authentication of public keys and digital signatures can also be automated via the use of authentication objects, a special type of service object. Authentication objects and servers will be further discussed below.
An example illustrating the application of encoding control and automation using communications objects is shown in
Once the consumer has provided this input, the macro program can use the provider's choice of preferred word processing formats to save the consumer's designated word processing file or files 952 in that format (step 964). If the optimal format is not possible (due to word processing program version differences, conversion filter capabilities, or other factors), the next most preferred format can be used. Once the file or files 952 have been saved, the macro program 953 can make a final API call to the consumer program 22 (step 965). This calls the WPFileSend method of the selected communications object and supplies the name of the word processing file or files to be sent together with the additional parameters to the method. The WPFileSend method executes a series of steps within the consumer program 22. First, it uses the provider's preferred compression format to apply a compression algorithm such as PKZIP from PKWARE, Inc. or SIT from Aladdin Systems to the word processing file or files, Inc. (step 966). As with the word processing file format, if the most preferred compression format is not available, the next most preferred format can be used. The WPFileSend method then uses the provider's public key to apply an encryption algorithm such as RSA from RSA Data Security, Inc. to the word processing file or files (step 967). Once the word processing file or files are ready, in step 968 the WPFileSend method creates the appropriate message object or objects (810,
When the e-mail message 956 is received by the provider program 12, the WPFileSend method stored in the provider database 11 is executed. This performs each decoding step in reverse order. First the e-mail message 956 is decoded to produce the message object attachment or attachments (step 971). Then the message object or objects are read and processed to determine the subsequent decoding steps necessary (step 972). Using the function calls and parameters supplied in the message object, the word processing file or files 952 are decrypted (step 973). The same procedure is followed for decompression (step 974). Next, the file or files are saved to an appropriate storage directory (step 975). Finally the provider's notification preferences for the WPFileSend method are followed (step 976). For example, this step may involve placing a notification message element (211,
As discussed earlier, a communications object system can control and automate communications via any type of communications network to which both the provider and consumer have access. The particular communications network used is not a limiting feature of the invention. For example, many providers and consumers share access to three common communications networks: the Internet (a data communications network), the telephone system (a voice/fax/data communications network), and the postal system (a physical communications network). Communications objects themselves are typically transmitted and updated via a data communications network such as the Internet (although alternate communications networks such as the telephone system or postal systems could also be used). However, these objects can be used to control communications via other types of communications networks such as voice, fax, and postal. To do so requires that the provider program 12 or consumer program 22 include the external drivers or function calls necessary to interface with these communications networks. In the case of telephone communications networks, this could be accomplished through a serial interface driver and an appropriate voice/data/fax modem hooked to the provider's or consumer's computer or local area network. Alternatively the programs 12, 22 could support operating system telephony API calls such as the Telephony Applications Programming Interface (TAPI) provided with the Microsoft Windows family of operating systems from Microsoft Corporation. For postal networks, the interface could be accomplished through a print driver capable of producing machine- or human-readable printer output. This output could be printed directly on the transmission media, such as a postcard or envelope, including within the transmission media, such as within an envelope, or applied to the exterior of the transmission media, such as a label or routing slip. Incoming transmissions via a postal network can be processed via manual data entry or automatically via the use of a print scanner or barcode reader. Alternatively the programs 12, 22 could output or input digital files from removable magnetic or optical media, such as floppy disks or disk cartridges, that are transmitted via postal networks.
Transmission control is accomplished using a communications object system in the same manner as encoding control. Using the provider program 12, the provider supplies within a communications object (110,
Transmission control can be illustrated with a communications object which offers software technical support options. Referring to
When a data communications network, such as the Internet, is available to both the provider and consumer, many communications transmissions can be more efficiently and automatically accomplished via this channel. However, certain tasks such as the shipment of physical goods or live voice telephony must occur via alternate communications networks. Because they can operate so efficiently via a data communications network such as the Internet, communications objects are particularly well-suited to the scheduling, tracking, and coordination of communications transmissions taking place via alternate communications networks. Communications coordination will be discussed further below.
Receipt and Acknowledgment Control
In conventional communications systems, the vast majority of communications message processing must be done by humans. In a communications object system, both providers and consumers have a powerful way to automatically control the processing that takes place when specific communications events occur. Like many other aspects of a communications object system, this control is cooperatively shared by the provider and consumer. The provider can specify what processing the provider wishes to have take place. The consumer can place limits upon what processing a provider is allowed, as well as specify additional processing the consumer wishes to have take place.
The primary mechanism for controlling automatic event processing within a communications object system is the receipt method. A receipt method is one or more methods which are executed automatically upon receipt of a communications object. Receipt methods are identified by their method type as described above. Receipt methods can be associated with any type of communications object 110, including communications object updates, composite objects 811, and message objects 110. In addition to the receipt methods included by a provider, a consumer can also assign his/her own receipt methods to a communications object. Like any method, receipt methods can call other methods, so a series of receipt methods can be chained in a particular order.
As shown in
Perhaps the most common example of how a provider can use receipt methods is acknowledgment messages. Although acknowledgment messages can take any form and be sent to any receiving program (or human), in a preferred embodiment they are transmitted as message object instances 810 back to the provider program 12 or to a distribution server 32. Alternatively they can be sent to another computer program designed by the provider to receive the message object instances 810 or another structured message format. Acknowledgment messages are used to confirm receipt of any type of communications object, including another message object. Acknowledgment messages can be produced by a consumer program 22 to acknowledge receipt of a communications object from a provider program 12. They can also be produced by a provider program 12 to acknowledgment receipt of a message object from a consumer program 22. The ability of a communications object system to produce and process acknowledgment messages automatically is another strong advantage it holds over other communications systems. This is because with most conventional communications systems, acknowledgment messages are either not produced at all, or if they are, they must be processed manually by the user. If acknowledgment messages are not produced at all, the user has no way to guarantee that important communications transmissions have succeeded. If they must be manually processed by the user, the user is forced to periodically check for receipt of the acknowledgment message, then take appropriate action if it has not been received. Automatic acknowledgment processing shifts this burden entirely to the provider and consumer programs 12, 22. The user can simply instruct the program to alert the user if an acknowledgment message has not been received within an expected period. The user is then able to forget about the matter completely, knowing the program will notify him/her only if there has been a problem with the transmission. The program can also be instructed to attempt automatic retransmissions before notification, further reducing the potential workload on the user.
The data structures necessary for acknowledgment automation are shown in
The steps necessary for acknowledgment automation are shown in
Like any other message object, acknowledgment messages can also be used to report back useful information to the provider about the consumer, such as statistical or usage data. Data exchange control and reporting control will be further discussed below.
When communications objects are distributed using the push technique, receipt acknowledgment messages can be used to delete recipients 120 who do not wish to continue receiving communications object updates. This is accomplished in the same manner as consumer distribution control using the push technique, described above. In this case, the SendAck receipt method presents a form to the consumer allowing him/her to edit the logical value of a Subscribe element 143. The resulting value is returned with the acknowledgment message object instance 810. Upon receipt by the provider program 12, a negative Subscribe element value causes the SendAck method to delete the association between the recipient 120 and the communications object 110.
Acknowledgment messages can still be used even when the distribution method uses the pull technique. This is accomplished identically to the above except for the following. First, the acknowledgment message object instance (810,
Another common example of a provider-assigned receipt method is scheduling polling events when a communications object uses the pull technique for updating. A SetPolling receipt method can cause the previous polling even to be deleted and the next polling event to be scheduled. With composite communications objects (811,
Another example of a provider-assigned receipt method is registration. Certain communications objects such as service objects may explicitly wish to register themselves or their public methods within the consumer database 21. Object and method registration will be discussed further below.
The foregoing cases are all provider-assigned receipt methods. A unique feature of the present invention, however, is that once a consumer has received a communications object from a provider, the consumer is also able to assign receipt methods. These methods can be assigned to the object as a whole, or to specific preference within the object. The data structures necessary for accomplishing this are shown in
A common example of a consumer-assigned receipt method is forwarding, wherein receipt of a communications object update causes that update to be forwarded to another consumer program 22. Forwarding is further described below.
Consumer-assigned receipt methods can also be used to control data or message exchange with other software programs operating on the consumer computer 2 or within the consumer's local network environment. This can be accomplished via receipt methods which call operating system methods or the methods of the target computer program.
One of the most distinguishing features of a communications object system is its ability to control the automatic updating of communications objects. Certain types of communications objects, such as those designed for one-time data exchange operations, may not be persistent in the consumer database 21 and thus not require updating. However every communications object that will be persistent in the consumer database 21 needs to be updated when the provider makes changes to the object. Push-based updating is automated through the use of the update association rule (
When a communications object instance is distributed using the push technique, updates are pushed by the provider program 12, so an update method is not required in the communications object. However, an update method may still be employed in this case for error correction. For example, if the provider typically distributes communications object updates via the push technique every 30 days, the provider could include in the communications object a receipt method that creates a scheduled event instance (117,
When a communications object employs the pull technique of updating, an update method is used to control the update operation. Pull-type update methods can use any services available at the consumer program 22 to initiate an update. In a preferred embodiment shown in
Referring again to
Different update methods, or differing parameters to one update method, can also be active depending on the consumer's preferences or other rules determined by the provider or consumer. For example, a different polling interval may be associated with one or more notification elements, so the polling frequency may be determined by which notification elements a consumer has activated. Notification elements are further discussed below.
The nature of communications object architecture makes it easy for a provider to convert a communications object 110 from push to pull updating and vice versa. To convert from push to pull updating, the provider need only add a pull-based update method to the communications object, then distribute it via the push technique to all recipients 120. As soon as it is received by each recipient the object will begin to use pull updating. The conversion from pull updating to push updating is almost as straightforward. The provider first adds a receipt method to the communications object 110 that will return a registration message to the provider program 12 or a distribution server 32. As described above, registration messages create or update a recipient instance 120 and its association with the communications object 110 and an update method 141. As each registration message is received, the recipient is converted to a push update method. The provider need only maintain the pull version of the communications object 110 on a distribution server 32 until the provider believes all outstanding copies of the object have returned a registration message.
In certain cases it may be advantageous to combine both the push and the pull techniques of updating for a single communications object 110. For example, a provider may wish to use pull updating for distribution of a monthly newsletter, but also wish to be able to distribute an update via the push technique when very timely news occurs, such as a special event. In this case the provider can use pull updating in the communications object 110, but also include a receipt method that returns a registration message from the consumer the first time the communications object 110 is received. (Consumer registration information can be updated whenever the consumer changes it. Registration updates will be further discussed below.) These registration messages create a special association between the recipient 120 and communications object 110 which has a PushSpecial attribute (not shown in
One communications object can be used to control the updating of other communications objects. For example, the receipt method for a composite communications object can trigger the updating of each of its component objects. To illustrate this, refer to
Another highly efficient update control technique, referred to as update query control, requires the use of database program operating on a distribution server 32. In a preferred embodiment, this can be accomplished using a distribution service object 1310 and a distribution partner server 1302. These will be further discussed in the distribution service object section below. With update query control, the communications object 110 controlling the updating need not contain any direct references to the specific communications objects or component objects being updated. Rather the controlling communications object 110 can contain one or more data exchange elements 143 and data exchange methods 141 which function as an update method. (Data exchange elements and data exchange methods will be further explained in the data exchange control section below.) The data exchange method 141 can first execute a query of the consumer database 21 for all communications objects which match the query criteria. For example, a composite communications object 900 could query for all its component communications objects 901. The query result includes the UID and current version value of each component object 901. The data exchange method then uses the result set to perform a second query of the distribution server 32. The distribution server 32 would return each component object 901 for which the version value on the distribution server 32 was greater. In this manner a single communications object could be used to very efficiently update thousands or even millions of communications objects stored on high performance database servers.
This process can be made even more efficient for the consumer by the maintenance of an index of provider UIDs and the communications objects 110 with which they are associated with on the distribution server 32. This process is further described in the directory service object section below.
Another update control approach that can be used with both the pull and push techniques is version monitoring. Version monitoring can be employed with either the push or the pull technique. Version monitoring uses a rule 140 to monitor version values included in message objects passed between the programs 12, 22, and 32 to detect when a communications object 110 needs to be updated. Version monitoring is further discussed in the sections on data exchange control and data archiving control below.
One of the greatest advantages of a communications object system over other communications systems is the ability it gives information consumers to control notification about communications events. The fundamental reason for this is that within a communications object system all messages are transmitted and received as some type of communications object. This allows messages to be “pre-processed” by the consumer program 22 or provider program 12 using data or methods from one or more communications objects already present in the consumer database 21 or provider database 11. This preprocessing allows these programs to do a large amount of the sorting, filtering, and notification work that otherwise would require human effort.
In a communications object system notification control is achieved primarily through the use of notification methods 141, notification rules 140, and notification elements 141. Collectively these are referred to as notification components. Notification methods 141 can operate on a communications object as a whole, or they can be associated with specific notification elements 143 contained within a communications object. Since notification elements 143 describe the nature of other data or events about which the consumer may be to notified, they are one of the principal metadata constructs of the present invention. Communications objects or object updates can carry multiple notification elements 143. Each notification element 143 may also be associated with multiple other elements 143 such as message elements 143. Consumers can accept default notification methods 141 assigned to each notification element 143, assign other system notification methods 141, or create and assign their own notification methods 141. The combination of these capabilities provides a powerful means of active messaging.
As described above, notification elements 143 have a special type definition which the consumer program 22 uses to trigger notification processing.
The topic element 201 illustrated is a simple “on/off” notification element. Notification elements may also be of other composite types which give providers and consumers more latitude over notification control. Specifically, the composite type could include additional fields 152 of a primitive type integer range which allow the notification element to have a “threshold” value rather than an on/off setting. Thresholds let providers add a valuative dimension to communications events. For instance, a notification element about new product announcements could have a range setting of one to five indicating the importance of the announcement. Consumers can now choose from a gradient of interest levels in this topic rather than just an on/off setting. Another use of thresholds is a frequency threshold. Frequency thresholds allow consumers to control the frequency of messages they will receive related to a specific notification element. For example, a consumer could choose to receive a maximum of three messages on a specific topic in any 30-day period. The notification method associated with this element would track the messages associated with this notification element and turn off notification for any that exceeded this frequency threshold. The specific configuration of notification elements used is not a limiting feature of the invention.
The use of notification elements and notification methods to control messaging involves the following sets of steps. First the provider uses the create new element form (341,
When the communications object containing the notification elements is transferred to the consumer program 22, the preference values for each notification element are editable by the consumer. As shown in
When the provider wishes to transmit information related to a notification element, the provider uses the edit selected element form (342,
The processing of notification elements in an updated communications object received by the consumer program 22 is shown in steps 724-728 of
Notification methods provide the consumer with a powerful mechanism for controlling notification of communications events. Rather than simply maintaining a passive message queue as is typical of most e-mail or voicemail systems, notification methods allow the consumer to specify message processing actions to take upon receipt of a specific type of communications event or specific communications content. The consumer is able to specify such actions because of the metadata provided by the notification element 143, and because of the structured format of the message data contained in the communications object. Notification methods 141 may trigger any action available to the consumer program 22, subject to the user's permissions.
These examples are merely illustrative of the actions that can be taken by notification methods. Notification methods may trigger any method operation available to the consumer program 22. Other examples include sending messages to other applications running on the consumer machine 2; sending messages to the consumer's operating system to trigger dialog boxes or trigger other system events; creating or controlling a screensaver display on the consumer machine 2; creating or controlling a background desktop graphic or set of graphics on the consumer machine 2; and sending voicemail to the recipient. Any combination of notification methods 141 may also be used together. The specific notification method used is not a limiting feature of the invention.
Notification methods 141 can also be assigned to communications objects as a whole. For example, notification about new communications objects can be controlled through a NewObjectNotify method of the global preferences instance (103,
A receipt method 141 can also be used to control notification. For example, a receipt method 141 could automatically search the message elements within a communications object update for text strings specified by the consumer. As shown in
Notification control operates similarly in the provider program 12. Here notification methods 141 are associated primarily with message objects 110. As with the consumer program 22, notification methods 141 can be assigned to a message object 110 as a whole, to elements within a message object, or activated by receipt methods associated with the message object. When the provider program 12 and consumer program 22 are combined, the same notification reporting system can be used for both provider and consumer operations. Report sorting options can allow provider notifications to be shown separately from consumer notifications, or they can be combined on the same reports.
Notification methods 141 can also be assigned to system events, and these too can be integrated into the same notification reports. For example, a system event can trigger notification that a provider is due to release a periodic communications object update, or a consumer that his/her consumer database 21 needs to be backed up.
Data Exchange Control
The ability of a communications object system to automate common communications tasks is perhaps best exemplified by its ability to automate data exchanges between consumers and providers. Typical examples include the exchange of contact information, demographic data, psychographic data, billing information, product registration information, customer service data, technical support data, transaction histories, stock feeds, news data, weather data, and so on. A communications object system is capable of automating the exchange of such data to a greater degree than any other existing communications system for five reasons. First, such data is already stored in a consumer database 21 in such a fashion as to be available for automated access and delivery. Second, such data is available in structured, typed formats that allow providers to easily specify the data they require. Thirdly, communications objects give providers the tool they need to transfer such data from the consumer back to the provider. Fourth, message objects and the architecture of the provider program 12 allow the provider to automate the processing of such data when it is received back at the provider. Fifth, the ability of the provider program 12 and consumer program 22 to automatically trigger events and respond to message objects means a multi-part data exchange transaction (such as a purchase and receipt acknowledgment) can be automated throughout.
The primary data structures involved with data exchange control are data exchange elements 143 and message objects 110, both described above. Any communications object method 141 involved with data exchange can be referred to as a data exchange method. Data exchange elements 143 in a communications object 110 can call a data exchange method 141. Data exchange methods 141 in the consumer program 22 can produce message objects that can be transmitted back to the originating provider program 12, or to any other program capable of processing the message object. Data exchange methods in the provider program 12 can also produce message objects that can be sent to any consumer program 22 containing the parent communications object. Like any communications object, message objects can contain any combination of components required to transport and process the data they contain. Data exchange methods that produce message objects can be fully automatic. For example, a receipt method can produce and transmit an acknowledgment registration message object, described above, with no consumer intervention. Data exchange methods that produce message objects can also obtain manual data input from the consumer or provider. In a preferred embodiment the mechanism for obtaining this input is an HTML form. Such input forms are produced and displayed by the provider program 12 or consumer program 22 in the same fashion as the forms produced for operation of the programs themselves. A typical input form is shown in
Besides input form and message object generation, data exchange control in a communications object system involves data type control, data persistence control, data access control, and data security control. Each of these must be considered from the standpoint of internal data, i.e., data within the provider database 11 or consumer database 21, and external data, i.e., data available elsewhere within the provider's or consumer's computing or network environment.
Data type control is required because providers need a way to specify the data they require in a specific data exchange transaction. The data type definition features of a communications object system, as explained above in the data structure section, are ideally suited to this need. By creating a system-wide set of low-level composite type definitions, such as Name, Address, and Telephone, and then nesting these inside of progessively more comprehensive composite type definitions, such as BusinessCard or Resume, a hierarchy of standard data type definitions can be created that are available to all providers and consumers. This has two very significant advantages. First, as providers design input forms and methods for data exchange tasks, they can choose from among these standard data type definitions rather than needing to create their own composite data type definitions, saving considerable time and effort. Second, data type standardization means that consumers need only enter data once into each instance of each data type that pertains to them. For example, the consumer only needs to enter his/her name, addresses, telephone numbers, birthdate, and other personal data one time into the consumer database 21. From that point on all communications objects which need data of these types can access these data type instances. This saves the consumer data input time and also vastly reduces the potential for data input errors.
Like any communications object component, every composite data type can be identified by the unique system ID of its type definition (144,
Providers can also create their own data type definitions and specify the use of these composite data type definitions in data exchange methods. When a provider-specific data type can be aggregated or calculated from other system standard data type definitions which are already present in the consumer database 21, the resulting element can be composed automatically by a data exchange method. When a provider-specific data type requires the input of new data from the consumer, an input form can be generated by the data exchange method. Once submitted, the data can also be saved as a element preference instance (147,
As with any multiuser database system, shared access to data requires data access controls. This control should cover all common data operations such as creating, reading, writing, moving, and deleting data. In a communications object system, data access controls need to extend beyond human operators to communications objects, since these objects are essentially acting as “surrogates” for their respective providers. The key data structure involved with data access control is the rules class 140. Data access rules can monitor all forms of data access within the provider database 11 or consumer database 21 as well as external data in the provider or consumer's computing or network environment. For example, a typical rule governing access to communications object components or element preference instances might be that only other communications objects sharing the same database system ID (100,
As the preceding examples illustrate, enforcement of data access control rules is of paramount importance when automatic data exchange methods have shared access to a pool of private data belonging to the consumer. One mechanism for enforcing data access rules is system- or consumer-controlled encryption of sensitive private data. Any access to such data requires that the consumer enter the necessary passkey in order to decrypt the data. A second mechanism is system- or consumer-controlled authentication of communications objects. This requires the use of digital signatures and authentication protocols for communications objects. Such protocols are fully described in the aforementioned Applied Cryptography by Bruce Schneier, and will be further discussed below.
Data type, persistence, access, and security control can be applied to the exchange of data external to the provider database 11 or consumer database 21 in the same manner as internal data. Such external data falls into three general categories: system data, file data, and data available via external queries. System data includes system environment variables, configuration variables, and operating statistics. File data includes data available directly via operating system calls such as files, persistent system objects, or any other data stored directly in the user's local or network computing environment including removable storage devices mechanisms such as floppy disk drives, CD-ROM drives, or tape drives. Data available via external queries includes data stored in and available through other computer programs operating in the user's local or network computing environment, including application programs, database servers, naming or address servers, web servers, or any other type of server.
Data type, persistence, access, and security control for system data is generally dictated by the features of the operating system and the privileges it grants to the provider program 12 or consumer program 22. The use of standard system environment variables such as the current date and time are central to the operation of these programs, and this data is frequently incorporated automatically into communications object components.
For external file data, data type control can be particularly useful. For example, personal computers running the MS-DOS or Microsoft Windows operating systems use a standard set of setup and initialization files including AUTOEXEC.BAT, CONFIG.SYS, WIN.INI, and SYSTEM.INI. Standard data type definitions can be created for elements that store information about each of these files, such as their name, size, date, and local directory path. A composite data type PCSetupFiles can also be created which included elements for each of these specific files. Providers can use these standard data type definitions to easily access the contents of these files for processing or data exchange. This access can be controlled by data access rules in the same way as internal data. This capability is particularly valuable for software or hardware technical support, where it can save both the provider and consumer considerable manual time and effort obtaining and exchanging this data.
A communications object system allows data persistence, access, and security control for external file data to operate at two levels. First are the standard file privileges granted to the user of the provider program 12 or consumer program 22 by the operating system or network administrator. Second are the rules 140 that can be enforced within the provider program 12 or consumer program 22 themselves. Data persistence control is particularly relevant to external file data. With the appropriate file creation privileges, data exchange methods can control the creation, modification, and deletion of external files on the user's computer system. These files can be used for many purposes, including the storage of message attachments, web helper files, log files, troubleshooting files, and files created by or intended for use by other software programs in the user's local or network computing environment. Access control and data security enforcement for these files, including encryption and authentication of individuals or communications objects requesting access, can be handled in the same manner as internal data. The ability to access and manage external file storage is particularly valuable in conjunction with the use of attachment elements. Attachment elements allow a provider to store the specification for a file or files as a specific type of communications object element 143 which receives special processing during the communications object generation and transmission routine. This is shown as step 546 in
One of its most powerful forms of data exchange control in a communications object system is the ability to automate external data queries and the processing of query result sets. This is because it gives providers a tool to allow consumers quickly and easily set up automated queries against any type of data server maintained by the provider. These queries are easily set up because they can be composed using any data available in the consumer database 21 (subject to the consumer's data access rules, as explained above), so the consumer need only enter any new data required. The queries are easily automated because the data exchange method that executes them can create its own scheduled event instances (117,
Data type control is especially useful with external queries. This is because the use of standardized data query languages such as Structured Query Language (SQL) makes it easier for providers to create or consumers to modify routine data queries. SQL and other approaches to standardized data query languages are discussed generally in R. G. G. Cattell, Object Data Management—Object-Oriented and Extended Relational Database Systems (1994), which is incorporated herein by reference. In a communications object system, the specifications for a structured query can be stored as a special type of communications object element 143 called a query element. Query elements receive special processing during the communications object generation and transmission routine. This is shown as step 545 in
Data persistence, access, and security controls all apply to external data queries as well. Again, a communications object system allows these to be implemented at two levels. At one level, these can be the same controls that apply to the human operator of the programs 12, 22. For example, the user's ability to read, write, or create new records in a database server can be governed by a user ID and login password controlled by a system administrator. The programs 12, 22 can simply require the same information to be entered manually. Alternatively, the programs 12, 22 could store this information as global preferences that it can submit automatically as part of executing data exchange methods. The programs 12, 22 can then implement their own layer of internal security. This can include the use of system-wide login names and passwords, the implementation of rules 140 controlling data access, and the encryption of sensitive data, all as described above. Data access and security control is particularly useful when data exchange methods employing queries are executed by the consumer program 22 on the behalf of the consumer. Using such controls, a provider is able to select the subset of consumers on a communications network 3 such as the Internet who will have access of some kind to one or more databases or database servers operated by the provider. This control is useful when the provider wishes to charge access fees for the data, to protect the data for competitive or security reasons, or to monitor or track access to the data.
By being able to control the exchange of external system data, file data, and data available via external queries in addition to internal data, the programs 12, 22 can automate many routine information transactions on data communications networks. This can produce a vast savings in the human labor normally required to exchange such data. The present invention is able to further increase this labor savings by automating the processing of such data once it has been exchanged. As with other data exchange operations, this is accomplished through the use of data exchange elements 143, data exchange methods 141, and message objects 110. Any data exchange method can produce a message object 110 that can call itself or another method or methods for processing the contents of the message object once it is received. As explained above, data exchange methods that call themselves are polymorphic, performing different operations at the provider program 12 than at the consumer program 22. An example of such a method is the SendAck method discussed above. Like any communications object method, data exchange methods can also call other methods, including other data exchange methods. In this way a succession of automated data exchanges may take place between a provider program 12 and consumer program 22 without any human intervention if none is required. Such automated data exchanges may also occur between the provider program 12 or consumer program 22 and other data servers as explained in the discussion of data query control above and the sections on service object partner servers below. This includes requesting data from the server or posting data to the server.
As explained above, when the provider program 12 and consumer program 22 are combined, the same facilities for processing communications objects on behalf of the consumer are available for processing message objects on behalf of the provider. For example, message objects 110 can contain or produce message elements (211,
An example of the full cycle of automated data exchange and message object processing would be the use of a communications object system to provide technical support for a software product. This is illustrated in
Whether called up manually by the consumer or automatically by an API call, the appropriate page (142,
At the provider program 12, the message object instance 1115 executes a data exchange receipt method 141 (step 1120). This data exchange method 141 could be a polymorphic version of the same data exchange method 141 used in the consumer program 22, or a separate data exchange method 141. The data exchange method 141 processes the data contained in the message object instance 1115. Because this data is of known data types in a structured transmission format, the data exchange method can apply the provider's own rules 140 or other processing logic to automate message processing to the greatest extent possible. This includes doing an automated scan of the consumer's input data and included system data, file data, or the results of data queries to spot the symptoms of known bugs in the software program 1101 or of common operator errors. Based on the results of this processing, the provider program 12 can produce an message element instance (211,
When the provider activates a headline link on the notification report, this calls the associated data exchange method which produces an input form allowing the provider to respond to the consumer (step 1123). Similar to the input form presented to the consumer in step 1111, this input form can contain pre-configured response options from which the provider can choose. As with consumer messages, these response options can include both internal and external data and attachments. For example, the provider could choose from a list of standard answers to frequently-asked questions that would automatically be incorporated in the provider's reply message object. The provider could also choose from a list of technical support documents related to the consumer's symptoms that could be automatically attached to the provider's reply. Once the provider submits the input form, the process is a mirror of the steps that took place at the consumer program 22. First, the form data is validated and processed (step 1124), and then another message object instance 1125 is produced. In order to maintain the continuity of the “thread” of messages passing back and forth between the provider and consumer, this message object 1125 uses the same system ID as the original message object 1115, but updates the version value. This updated message object is transmitted back to the consumer program 22 (step 1127).
At this point the steps mirror the processing that took place at the provider program 12. First, the message object instance 1125 executes a data exchange receipt method 141 (step 1130). The data exchange method produces a message element instance (211,
Data exchange control can also be combined with receipt and acknowledgment control. For example, at any stage of message object exchange in the preceding example, the message object's receipt method could automatically produce an acknowledgment message object that would be immediately transmitted back to the originating program 12, 22. As explained in the discussion of receipt control above, this acknowledgment message could produce an explicit notification of receipt, or simply disable a scheduled event that would otherwise notify the consumer if an acknowledgment was not received within the expected interval.
A specific application of data exchange rules is registration updates, discussed in the update control section above. A registration update is a message object returned by a consumer program 22 to a provider program 12 or distribution server 32 in order to modify a recipient instance 120 and/or other elements associated with a communications object 110. Typically any element 143 in the consumer database 21 that is part of the registration data maintained in the provider database 11 will be monitored by a data exchange rule 140 contained by the communications object 110. Any changes to these elements 143 will result in a message object being produced that produces an update in the corresponding recipient instance 120 or other element 143 in the provider database 11.
Another example of data exchange rules is version monitoring. Version monitoring can be a more efficient updating technique when the message object traffic volume produced by a communications object 110 is more frequent than changes to the communications object 110 itself. With version monitoring, changes to a communications object 110 are neither explicitly pushed by the provider program 12 nor regularly pulled by the consumer program 22. Instead each message object passed between the programs 12, 22 contains the most recent version value of the parent communications object 110. A version monitoring rule 140 operating in either or both programs 12, 22 compares this version value in the message object with the current version of the communications object 110. Whenever a change is detected, the version monitoring rule 140 executes the update method 141 of the communications object 110 to update the current version in the consumer database 21. A specific example of version monitoring is shown in
Because data exchange control is one of the core functions of the present invention, it can be applied in many unique ways. An example is offline viewing of World Wide Web content. Existing software programs such as Freeloader from Individual Inc. and WebEx from Traveling Software Corporation allow Internet users to download to their local hard disk selected Web pages together with all or a selected subset of the helper files (graphic files, sound files, multimedia files, etc.) used on that page. These programs are called “offline browsers” because they allow the reader to view all or a majority of the web page's content while offline. This speeds up viewing times and reduces online access charges. These programs can also monitor the web page using a polling interval set by the user and download new versions when the page is updated.
This functionality can be significantly improved upon using a communications object system and data exchange controls. First, in existing offline browsers, a user must select specific web pages for monitoring and downloading, and there is no selective notification about changes to those pages. With a communications object system, a single communications object 110 can allow the consumer to select from a variety of notification elements (201,
A second application is personalization of web or hypermedia content, i.e., presenting a customized or filtered view of a web site to reduce the need for scanning or browsing by the consumer. One existing approach is to have consumers establish an ID, choose a password, and enter personal preference data into input forms provided by the web server. This data is then stored at the web server or another remote location and used to present customized views of the web site. An example is MyYahoo from Yahoo Inc. To see new content, the consumer must then manually visit the web site, enter the necessary ID and password, and browse their customized content, which is only available online. Whenever the consumer's preference data changes, the consumer must manually change it on all such web sites.
A communications object system overcomes all of these disadvantages. Using a communications object 110 employing data exchange methods 141 to control the relationship, the provider can first gather most or all of the consumer's preference data automatically. This can be controlled by rules 140 imposed by the consumer. The provider's communications object 110 itself can create the necessary ID for the consumer using the system ID (100, FIG. 3) of the consumer database 21 or a derivative thereof. The consumer is not required to give a password manually because the provider's communications object 110 can communications with the consumer program 22 to establish the consumer's identity (the consumer's own indentification and preference elements 143 stay safely within the consumers own computing environment). The provider's communications object is able to automatically download and selectively notify the consumer of new personalized content as described above. Finally, any changes to identification or preference elements 143 are made once locally and are transmitted automatically to all such web provider relationships.
Another approach to web content customization is commonly referred to as “cookies”. A cookie is a data structure passed from a web server to a browser as part of the HTTP protocol. Cookies are produced by the web server and stored locally in a preferences file by the browser. When the user next connects to the web server with the browser, the web server can interrogate the browser for the cookie and use it to identify the user. The cookie can additionally store preference data about the user, whether entered manually by the user via HTML forms or collected automatically by the web server based on the user's browsing choices. Cookies are an attempt to surmount the manual data entry and maintenance requirements of the first approach above. Unfortunately, cookies are not directly viewable or editable by the consumer, nor do cookies give the consumer any control over the data collected or transmitted by the cookie. (Some browsers do give consumers the ability to turn off the cookie function altogether.)
A communications object system overcomes these limitations by replacing the cookie with a communications object 110 from the provider. In fact such an improvement can be made under the existing HTTP protocol if a communications object exchange is initiated manually by the consumer during a browsing session by clicking on a hyperlink representing a communications object 110 on a web page presented by the web server. The resulting download of a communications object 110 can trigger a data exchange receipt method 141 which automatically transmits back to the web server any necessary data elements 143 from the consumer database 21. This can be controlled by rules 140 imposed by the consumer. The web server can then prepare and return customized content for the consumer program 22 to display to the browser. Alternatively, the web server can return another communications object 110 to repeat the information interchange process. In contrast to cookies, the consumer can be completely in control of this process. The consumer can view the elements 143 of the relevant communications object; edit those elements 143 which involve consumer preferences; and apply rules 140 governing data access, data security, and data logging by the communications object. These improvements can bring rich, automated new forms of web content personalization with none of the disadvantages of cookies.
Another approach is to have personalized content delivered automatically to the consumer via a content delivery application. An example of this solution is PointCast from PointCast Inc. Here the personalization options are stored locally as part of the application, so the consumer effort required by the server-based solution above is avoided. However the disadvantage to this solution is that the preferences are part of a single application, or at best part of a limited number of modules within the application. Thus, it is not possible for a large number of providers at multiple locations to offer content personalization options. Notification options are determined at the application level, not the provider level or content level, so a user's choice of notification options is very limited. The personalization options are for the reception of information only. They do not extend to feedback or data exchange automation.
A communications object system overcomes these limitations by allowing providers and users to control communications relationships at the level of individual communications objects 110. Any number of providers and consumers can take part, each with access to the full range of data exchange control provided by communications objects 110 and data exchange methods 141. Thus a communications object system can be used to provide any number of personalized content delivery services, rather than the limited number offered by one particular application. For example, data query control can be used to submit an HTTP request to any web server. This query request can include a unique identifier for the consumer such as the consumer's UID or a derivative thereof. This query can also include any new or updated data elements 143 in consumer database 21 that pertain to the provider and are not already present or current at the web server. The elements 143 or communications objects 110 returned by this query can offer completely customized news reports, weather reports, product brochures, advertisements, stock quotes, real estate listings, classified listings, Internet searches, health care advice, or any other current personalized information desired by the consumer. The specific data type is not a limiting feature of the invention. The consumer can also control notification options for this information down to the level of elements 143. The information can also be hyperlinked to data exchange elements 143 within the relevant communications object for direct, automated feedback by the consumer.
Communications Object Exchange Control
A special case of data exchange control is communications object exchange control. This are the functions by which communications objects 110 can control the retrieval and transmittal of other communications objects 110. The retrieval of one or more communications objects 110 by another communications object 110 is known as link control. Link control can be provided using link elements 143, link methods 141, and link rules 140. Collectively these are referred to as link control components. For ease of sharing between communications objects 110, link control components can be combined in a separate component object type (812,
The first advantage is the use of link methods 141. URLs are a standardized addressing protocol for the retrieval of hypertext files, binary files, and other digital resources used anywhere on the web. The URL protocol, when combined with the HTML encoding/display protocol and the HTTP communications protocol, forms the standards that make the web possible. All web programs must incorporate this protocol in order to operate. Introducing other addressing protocols would require an enormous reengineering and upgrading effort throughout the web. With a communications object system, the URL protocol is just one possible link method 141. Other link methods could employ other protocols, syntaxes, name resolution services, and features. Since those methods can be made available via any of the mechanisms described in the discussion of methods above, new link methods 141 can easily be propagated throughout a communications object system.
A second advantage is multiplicity. A URL can only represent a single resource on the web, although the browser receiving that resource can be programmed to retrieve additional resources, such as the graphics associated with an HTML page, automatically. A link element 143, on the other hand, can designate any number of resources to be retrieved in one action. It can supply these resources through its own attributes, through other associated elements, or through link methods 141.
A third advantage is processing flexibility. The processing of the resource received by a URL request is determined by the browser or other program executing the URL request. This processing can only be modified by changing the protocol or reprogramming the receiving software. With a communications object system, a link method 141 also controls the processing of the resource retrieved. The link method 141 can also call other methods for processing the resource retrieved. If the resource is a communications object 110, its own receipt method or methods 141 can further determine the processing it receives.
A fourth advantage is the power of the address resolution protocol. As explained in The World Wide Web Unleashed, cited above, a URL is resolved by a web program in several steps. First the IP (Internet Protocol) address of the host computer is resolved via a lookup via a lookup to the user's local DNS (Domain Name Service) host. This host may in turn lookup the name on additional DNS hosts until the name is resolved successfully or an error message is produced. Next the web program requests the specific HTTP resource on the IP host specified by the URL. This can be the name of any document or MIME file supported by the web protocols, or it can be the name of a method available on the host together with the parameters to pass to that method. In the latter fastion, it is possible for the host to “resolve” a first URL into a second URL by returning the second URL in the form of an HTTP redirect command as the result of its processing. An HTTP redirect is a URL that is automatically processed by the web software that made the original URL request. In this manner a succession of redirects is possible until the final resource is resolved. The use of HTTP redirects to accomplish the persistent naming of web resources is generally discussed in Stuart L. Weibel and Erik Jul, “PURLs to Improve Access to Internet” in the November/December 1995 issue of the Online Computing Library Center (OCLC) Newsletter, page 19. Information on the PURL naming service is also available on the World Wide Web at http://purl.oclc.org/.
This approach requires that all address resolution logic be present in one of two places: in the DNS protocol, or in the address resolution methods available at remote hosts. With a communications object system, the address resolution logic first resides in the link method 141, which can in turn call any other communications object method 141 or partner server method 141 as described in the section on communications object methods above. This means that by using a UID, URL, name, or other attribute or combination of attributes supplied in a link element 143, the link method 141 can first search the local databases 11, 21 within the programs 12, 22 for the specified communications object or objects. If the communications object is not found locally, the link method 141 can then query one or more distribution servers 32 where the communications object is likely to be stored, such as LAN or WAN distribution servers. These distribution servers 32 may be represented by distribution service objects 1310, which will be further discussed below. If the target communications object 110 is not found on a distribution server 32, then the link method 141 can process the attributes of the link elements 143 to determine the next most efficient means of retreiving the communications object. For example, if a URL is available, the link method 141 could process this. If a URL is not present but a UID is available, the link method 141 could automatically use a UID resolution service. If a UID is not present but a name is available, the link method 141 can use a name resolution service. UID or name resolution services can operate similarly to the Domain Naming Service (DNS) for the Internet, or to the PURL naming service cited above. Additionally, the name resolution service could incorporate features under consideration by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) and Uniform Resource Name (URNs). These systems are discussed generally by the W3C staff at the W3C World Wide Web site at http://www.w3.org/pub/WWW/Addressing/.
A communications object system offers particular advantages for deploying a global name resolution service. With such a service, each communications object provider would have the opportunity to obtain a unique name corresponding to the UID for any communications object 110. This naming service would operate in the same manner as DNS, where Internet users can currently apply for a unique domain name corresponding to a unique Internet host IP address. Just as DNS allows any web program to resolve a domain name in a URL to a unique host IP address, a global communications object name service would allow any link method 141 to resolve a communications object name to its UID, URL, or any other unique addressable attributes. Because this name resolution service is completely abstracted from any underlying communications addressing protocol, it would allow the use of names that are exactly the same as the real-world name of the person, company, product, service, or other entity that the communications object represents. Also, because the name service results are processed by a link method 141, the link method 141 can determine the most efficient way to retrieve the specified communications object 110. Such a name service can be made available to other communications objects 110 by use of a name service object 1310. The use of name service objects and name partner servers will be further discussed below.
When the provider program 12 and consumer program 22 are combined, a communications object system can also automate the exchange of communications objects 110 between two providers. This is a common need analogous to the exchange of business cards between individuals. Although only one business card need be exchanged to create a communications relationship, a two-way exchange provides the greatest number of communications options in both directions. This synchronization can be accomplished by the use of a special method 141 called an autoexchange method. An autoexchange method 141 operates as both a receipt method 141 and a data exchange method 141. The data structures involved are illustrated in
The autoexchange of communications objects 110 can also be extended to web servers, data servers, and other electronic communications relationships. This is an extension of the process of using communications objects as “cookies” described in the preceding section on data exchange control.
Forwarding and Chaining Control
A special case of communications object exchange is when a consumer wishes to send a provider's communications object in the consumer's database 21 to another consumer. This is the real-world equivalent of a businessperson needing to share the contact information for a customer with a business associate, or a mail order customer wanting to tell a friend how to subscribe to a mail order catalog. A communications object system can accomplish this using forwarding methods. A forwarding method 141 allows the user of one consumer program 22 to transmit another provider's communications object via the push technique to another consumer program 22.
Execution of a forwarding method typically displays the forward form (635,
An anonymous forwarding or “redirect” operation would simply send the communications object 110 itself, exactly as if it had been pushed from the original provider. This communications object would be received at the recipient's consumer program 22 just like any other communications object 110. A signed forwarding operation would include a forwarding element 143. A forwarding element is a recipient instance 120 representing to the forwarding consumer, e.g., their system ID, name, e-mail address, and so on. This information could be displayed by the notification method at the receiving consumer program 22. A signed forwarding operation could also include a message element (211,
Alternatively, the forwarding operation also need not include the original communications object 110. The forwarding message object 110 can instead include a data exchange element supplying the attributes of the communications object 110 and a data exchange method for retrieving it. Such data exchange method can operate automatically as a receipt method or can present an input form for manual confirmation by the consumer. If the communications object 110 is distributed via the pull technique, the data exchange method can retrieve it from the distribution server 32. If the communications object 110 is distributed via the push technique, the data exchange method can send a message object 110 to the originating provider program 12 requesting transmission of the communications object 110. Such message object can be processed automatically by the provider program 12 or require manual approval by the provider, depending on the rules 140 applied by the provider to communications object transmission requests.
Forwarding is a unique operation in that update control can be specified by the forwarding and/or receiving consumer. By default, the forwarded communications object will use the update control specified by the original provider. However, subject to forwarding control rules (discussed below), the forwarding consumer can also control updating. This is accomplished by including in the forwarding message object 11O a receipt method governing updating. This receipt method can designate that the communications object 110 will be updated via the push technique from the forwarding consumer program 22 or another consumer program 22, or updated via the pull technique from a distribution server 32 other than the original distribution server 32. This can be done regardless of how the communications object 110 is updated at the originating consumer program 22. The ability of a communications object to be updated from another consumer program 22 or distribution server 32 is referred to as chaining. Chaining is a powerful means of distributing communications object updates, because it spreads the load for distributing objects throughout the communications network 3. This makes the push method more feasible for large-scale distribution of communications objects. A particular example of chaining is the distribution of communications objects on a local area network (LAN). If one consumer program 22 or distribution server 32 on the LAN is receiving communications object updates from over a public data network such as the Internet, this program can automatically distribute updates to other consumers on the LAN. This can significantly lower traffic on the public data network and increase the efficiency of the communications object distribution process.
Chaining can be implemented via push or pull techniques. Chaining via the push technique is accomplished in the consumer program 22 by use of a consumer receipt method 141 that invokes a forwarding rule 140. A forwarding rule associates a communications object instance 110 with one or more recipients 120. When an update to a communications object 110 is received by the consumer program 22, the receipt method checks to see if it is subject to a forwarding rule. If so, a copy of the communications object 110 is transmitted to the recipient 120. Chaining offers the same update control options as described in the update control section above. This means it can be controlled by the forwarding consumer, or the forwarding consumer can pass control to the receiving consumer. When the push technique is used, message objects 110 can be used to control the creation and modification of recipient instances (120,
The original provider of a communications object 110 can also control forwarding and chaining pertaining to the object. This is necessary because communications objects may contain sensitive data or methods which the provider does not wish other consumers to obtain without the provider's control. As shown in
A forwarding operation creates a copy of a communications object 110 at a second consumer program 22, leaving the first communications object 110 at the first consumer program 22 intact. This creates a new communications relationship between the new consumer and the original provider. By contrast, a transfer operation moves a communications object 100 from one consumer program 22 to another consumer program 22, and does not leave a copy of the communications object 110 at the first consumer program 22. Thus, a transfer operation does not create any new communications relationships, but instead transfers ownership of a communications relationship from one consumer to another. This is similar to the difference between copying or moving a computer file. The copy operation creates a second physical copy in a second location; the move operation keeps only one copy in the new location.
Methods 141 used to transfer communications objects between consumers are referred to as a transfer methods. Just as a move operation on a computer file is often implemented by the operating system as a copy operation followed by a delete operation on the original file, a communications object transfer method may be carried out as a forwarding method followed by a termination method. In addition,just as most computer operating systems first confirm the successful copy of the file to the new location before deleting the file in the old location, a communications object system should preferably allow consumers to confirm the successful transfer of the transferred communications object to the new consumer before deleting the communications object from the transferring consumer. This can be accomplished by using of message objects 110 as described above in the receipt and acknowledgment control section. Specifically, as illustrated by the data structures in
As with forwarding control, transfer control can also be exerted by the original provider using transfer rules 140 and transfer methods 141 in the communications object 110. Transfer rules and transfer methods are a particularly powerful means of data exchange control because they can accomplish automatic data exchange events involving the provider, the transferring consumer, and the receiving consumer all in one. An example is the transfer of ownership of a real world object, such as an automobile. A real-world rule applies to such a transfer, namely that the selling consumer must notify the automobile licensing authority, and the buying consumer must apply for a new title from the licensing authority. In this case the licensing authority would be the provider of a communications object 110 representing an automobile title. The selling consumer would have obtained the communications object 110 when he/she purchased the automobile. Using data exchange methods as explained above, the licensing authority would have used the communications object 110 to obtain the necessary elements 143 from the consumer required by law to register the vehicle. The licensing authority could then use updates to the communications object 110 to communicate with the consumer about the license, such as sending notifications about annual license renewals. (Payment for such license renewals can also be automated by data exchange methods in the communications object 110, as further described below.) When the time came to transfer the automobile title, the selling consumer would invoke the transfer method 141 in the communications object 110. The transfer method 141 would first generate an input form requesting the necessary data about the buying consumer and transaction details. (If a communications object 110 representing the buying consumer was also present, an association with such object 110 could be used to provide such data.) The transfer method 141 would then produce two message objects 110. The first message object would be transmitted to the licensing authority, containing the necessary elements 143 to automatically register the sale. The second message object would be transmitted to the buying consumer. This would include the forwarded communications object 110 representing the title. A transfer rule 140 would also determine which element preference instances 147 must be transferred with the communications object 110. For example, the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) must be transferred with the title; a new VIN may not be specified by the buyer. The transfer method 141 would also add a rule 140 to the selling consumer's database 21 requiring that affirmative acknowledgment message objects needed to be received from both the licensing authority and the buying consumer before the communications object 110 representing the title will be deleted. The transfer method 141 could also create a scheduled event 117 that checked for the receipt of these message objects after a specified interval.
On the buying consumer's part, the message object 110 received with the transferred communications object would invoke a transfer method 141. This transfer method 141 would first add a transfer rule 140 to monitor updates to the communications object 110 to ensure that it was operating properly. The transfer method 141 could also produce a scheduled event 117 associated with the transfer rule 140. This scheduled event 117 would check for the receipt of a reply message object from the licensing authority. Next the transfer method 141 would produce an input form requesting confirmation of the purchase and application for the new title by the buying consumer. It is significant to point out that the buying consumer should not need to enter a single piece of data other than authentication or confirmation information. All such data is already present either in the communications object 110 or the consumer database 21. The transfer method 141 would then produce a message object 110 to be transmitted to the licensing authority with the title application. When the licensing authority returned a acknowledgment message object 110 to the buying consumer, it would trigger the transfer rule 140. The transfer rule 140 would execute the transfer method 141. The transfer method 141 would first delete the transfer rule 140 and its associated scheduled event 117. The transfer method 141 would then produce another acknowledgment message object 110 to return to the selling consumer. When this acknowledgment message object was received, the same sequence of events would take place. The transfer rule 140 would execute the transfer method 141, which would first delete the transfer rule 140 and its associated scheduled event 117. It would then delete its associated communications object 110 and then delete itself. This would complete the transfer, with all parties assured of verified data delivery to the others.
Transfer control can be applied to almost any situation where the real world ownership of an object or goods is transferred by an exchange of data between the transferee and the transferor, or between the transferee, transferor, and a third party such as a licensing authority, broker, agency, listing service, and so on. A universal example is classified ads. By using a communications object instance 110 to represent goods for sale via a classified advertising service, all or most of the communications transactions between the buyer, seller, and classified ad service can be automated. The use of a communications object system for classified advertising is further discussed in the description of data exchange service objects below.
A communications object system also offers an efficient new way for providers and consumers to control the termination of communications relationships. In most communications systems, it is easy for a provider to terminate a communications relationship. This is also true of a communications object system. As discussed in the distribution control section above, providers can control communications object distribution by both push and pull techniques. Referring to
However, in many communications systems, it is often very difficult for a consumer to terminate a communications relationship. An example is the difficulty many consumers have in being removed from direct mailing lists or telephone solicitation lists. With the communications system of the present invention, consumers have complete and immediate control over any communications object relationship. From the consumers perspective, this is accomplished simply by deleting the corresponding communications object 110 using the delete object form (623,
By including a termination method 141 in the communications object 110, a provider can also control the actions taken upon termination of a communications relationship. Generally, this does not mean the provider can prevent the consumer from terminating the relationship (i.e., deleting the communications object). Rather, the provider can control some of the actions taken when a communications relationship is terminated. An example is notification. If a communications object 110 is updated via the push technique, the provider must be notified in order to delete the association between the recipient instance 120 and the communications object 110. This notification can be processed manually by the provider, or automatically by the provider program 12. In either case the termination method 141 produces a message object 110 and transmits it back to the provider program 12. When it is received, a receipt method 141 of the message object can delete the association between the recipient 120 and the communications object 110. Alternatively, it can first produce a message element (211,
If a communications object 110 is updated via the pull technique, it is not necessary for a message object 110 to be returned to the provider program 12. Deletion of the communications object 110 at the consumer program 22 will terminate the relationship. However, the provider may still wish to employ a termination method 141 to receive overt notification of this event. Furthermore, regardless of the update technique used for the communications object 110, the provider may wish to employ a termination method 141 as a data exchange method. A common reason for doing this would be to ask the consumer why he/she is terminating the communications relationship. In this case the termination method 141 generates an input form where the consumer could indicate his/her reasons by selecting from checkboxes, radio buttons, or drop-down lists, entering text into a text box, or any other means of data input. When this input form is submitted, the termination method 141 generates a message object 110 and transmits it back to the provider program 12. At the provider program 12 a receipt method can automatically compile the consumer's input by storing it as elements 143, incrementing counters within elements 143, storing it in an external database, or any other data processing method. In this fashion the provider could periodically review aggregate statistics and/or direct textual feedback from consumers about why they terminated the communications relationships.
In certain cases, a termination method 141 can be combined with termination rules 140 in order to control the processing of a termination method 141. An example is the case of a communications object 110 representing an automobile title given above. Here a termination rule 140 could specify that, once initiated with an actual automobile title, a communications object 110 could not be terminated until a some form of acknowledgment message object 110 had been received from the licensing authority. This might be a transfer acknowledgment, or a destroyed vehicle acknowledgment, or any other form of acknowledgment for proper disposition of the title. Such a rule could be very valuable to the licensing authority in enforcing compliance with the laws covering automobile title registration.
A communications object system provides a unique mechanism for enforcing the termination of a communications relationship. In the course of a communications relationship, a provider may have obtained a consumer's e-mail address. If so, the provider would have the ability to send the consumer new communications objects even after the consumer has already terminated the communications relationship. Although the consumer is able to delete these new communications objects with a single action, a large number of providers taking this action still requires significant effort and irritation on the part of the consumer. This is essentially the electronic equivalent of “junk mail”. To prevent this, the consumer database 21 can track all or selected terminated communications objects 110. Such a record is commonly is referred to as a “kill file”. This is accomplished using a termination rule 140. First, the termination rule 140 requires that any termination method 141 executed in the consumer program 22 replace the association between the communications object 110 and the database 100 with an association between the communications object 110 and a designated “kill folder” instance 115. The termination rule 140 may also make this an optional checkbox on any input form generated by the termination method 141. Second, the termination rule 140 is triggered by the receipt of any new communications object 110. The termination rule 140 executes a termination method 141 that compares the UID of the new communications object 110 with the UIDs of all communications objects 110 associated with the kill folder. If there is a match, the termination method 141 can take whatever action is specified by the consumer. Typically, this will be to delete the communications object 110 without notification to the consumer. Alternatively, the termination method 141 could compare only the provider ID (the system ID of the provider database 100) with the provider ID of all communications objects 110 associated with the kill folder. This would detect any communications object 110 produced by a particular provider, not just a specific communications object 110. Another option is for the termination method 141 to track the number of attempted transmissions for any particular communications object 110 by incrementing an integer value attribute of the association between the communications object 110 and the kill folder 115. When this integer value reached a threshold, the termination method executes a notification method notifying the consumer, who may then take appropriate action.
Event Tracking Control
Unlike many other communications systems, a communications object system is able to provide direct, seamless control over event tracking. As shown in
There are many uses for communications event logs. One of the most common is error tracking. System rules 140 can monitor logged event instances 118 to provide alerts to frequent error conditions. Another common usage is providing communications relationship histories. For example, a provider can specify that a data exchange method 141 used for product ordering create a logged event instance 118 each time a product is ordered. The provider can have the same or a related data exchange method 141 make logical decisions within the consumer program 22 based on a query of the logged event instances 118 for previous product orders. Such data can also be reported in a message object 110 transmitted to the provider. This can decrease data processing requirements on the provider's end and increase the ability of data exchange methods 141 to make decisions relevant to the consumer's actual needs.
Event tracking control is particularly valuable for the generation of reports and statistics reports related to the use of particular communications objects, groups of communications objects, or the usage of a provider program 12 or consumer program 22 as a whole. Reporting control will be further discussed below.
Data Archiving Control
By functioning as active databases, the provider program 12 and consumer program 22 can control the archiving of the data they store. This is a very useful capability for many communications functions. First, many providers and consumers frequently wish to refer to past communications data. When stored in electronic format, this data is also computer searchable, which is another key advantage. Additionally, archiving data can be useful for error correction, as explained below. As shown in
It is particularly useful for both providers and consumers to be able to control archiving at both a global database level and a communications object level. It can also be useful to control archiving at the element level. Global archive control is accomplished by storing communications object archive preferences as attributes of global preferences 103 and applying system archiving rules 140 and system archiving methods 141. Individual communications object archive control is achieved by storing archive preferences as attributes of the communications object preferences element 127 and applying archive rules 140 and archive methods 141 associated with the communications object 110. Element archive control is accomplished by storing archive preferences as attributes of the element 143 and applying archive rules 140 and archive methods 141 associated with the element 143. These three levels can also be intermatched. For example, if a communications object included a archive preference attribute in its preference element 127, but had no archive method 141, then the global system archive method 141 uses the local archive preference attribute.
Archive control can also maintain instances of system objects. This is particularly valuable for maintaining the queue of logged event instances 118. For example, a rule 140 can specify that any logged event instances 117 older than X interval be deleted, preventing an unnecessary buildup of data.
In general, providers only need to control archiving in the provider database 11 and consumers only need to control archiving in the consumer database 21. However, archiving control can also be combined with distribution control and data exchange control as a way to ensure the versions of a communications object in a provider database 11 and a consumer database 21 stay synchronized. This is another aspect of version monitoring, discussed above. Version monitoring is desirable because it is possible for the consumer to miss versions of a communications object instance 110. For example, if the communications object instance 110 is distributed via the push technique, communications network errors may cause the transmission to fail. If the communications object instance 110 is distributed via the pull technique, communications network errors or distribution server errors may also prevent an update from occurring, although the polling retry process can frequently correct this. A more likely scenario is that either the consumer computer 2 or the consumer program 22 is not operated by the consumer during one complete version update cycle by the provider. For example, if the provider updates the communications object once per day, but the consumer does not operate the consumer program 22 for a week, the consumer may have missed six communications object versions. Finally, a communications object version could become corrupted in the consumer database 21.
If a uniform version value algorithm is used throughout the communications object system to increment the value of version attributes of communications object instances 110 or its components, recovery of lost or missing versions is straightforward. When the push technique of updating is used, recovery is accomplished using a version monitoring rule 140 and version monitoring method 141 at the consumer program 22. These can be implemented by the provider or the consumer. The version monitoring method 141 operates as a specialized data exchange method 141, explained above. The version monitoring rule 140 is associated with the communications object 110 so it is triggered each time an update is received. The version monitoring rule 140 executes the version monitoring method 141 which compares the version value of the update received with version value of the most recent communications object 110 stored in the consumer database 21. If the version value algorithm indicates that a version value is missing in the sequence, the version monitoring method 141 generates a message object 110 containing a data exchange element 143 specifying the missing version values and the system ID of the consumer. The version monitoring method 141 then transmits the message object back to the provider program 12. Here, the message object executes a version monitoring receipt method 141. The version monitoring method 141 then executes the communications object instance generation and transmission routine (
When the pull technique of updating is used, the steps are slightly different. In this case the version monitoring method 141 at the consumer program 22 needs to be able to determine the network address of the missing communications object versions on a distribution server 32. This can be done in several ways. A first technique is to use a version naming algorithm to derive the address from a combination of the network address of the current communications object 110 and the missing version value. For example, if the network address of the current communications object instance 110 is http://company.com/commobject.cos and the missing version value is 3481, then the computed network address would be http://company.com/commobject3481.cos. This requires two minor modifications to the communications object instance generation and transmission routine (
A second technique is to store the date and network address of previous versions in the communications object 110 itself. This approach has the advantage of allowing any number of version naming algorithms to be used. This can be done with three minor modifications to the communications object instance generation and transmission routine (
A third approach is to use a version monitoring method 141 as an enhancement to the basic communications object update polling method described above. This requires a distribution server 32 capable of executing a data exchange method, however it tremendously simplifies version monitoring. In this case, a version monitoring method 141 operating at the consumer program 22 need only submit the UID and version value of the communications object 110 to be updated to the distribution server 32. The distribution server 32 then executes its own version monitoring method 141 to compare the version value submitted with the version values of the archived communications object instances 110 stored on the server. The distribution server 32 then returns to the consumer program 22 all missing versions. In a preferred embodiment this process can be automated using a distribution service object working in conjunction with a distribution partner server. Distribution service objects and partner servers will be discussed further below.
In all of these approaches the version monitoring method 141 could also accept parameters used to control the quantity or dates of previous versions received. In this manner the consumer could specify that he/she only wishes to receive n past updates or updates back to X date.
A communications object system can also automate a different form of archiving commonly required of any software program using a database. This is the storage of backup copies of the provider database 11 or consumer database 21 in order to prevent data loss from corruption, hardware failures, or other problems. In this case an archive method is functioning as a data exchange method 141. Backup control can be accomplished using backup preferences stored as attributes of global preferences 103, or as special backup elements 143, together with backup methods 141. Backups can be performed manually, or automated using scheduled events instances 117. Backup services can also be automated via a data exchange service object, which will be further discussed below.
Reporting and Statistics Control
Reports are typically one of the most valuable functions of any database system. In a communications object system, reports have particular value because they can be delivered automatically using the same system about which they are reporting. In this sense reporting control is simply a specialized case of data exchange control. Reporting control is especially useful to providers because it can give them valuable statistics and feedback about the communications needs and behaviors of their audience. Reporting control can also be used by the operators of a communications object system as the basis for billing and licensing, much as telephone usage reports are the basis for billing telephone system customers.
As shown in
A unique feature of a communications object system is its ability to produce reports about the metadata it uses to control communications. This can happen at both the communications object level and at the element level. A specific example is communications object subscription reports. Referring to the example in the notification section above and illustrated in
In addition to control of metadata, reports can also monitor communications activity. Continuing the example above, a communications object 110 can include a reporting rule 140 which monitors access to any message element instance (211,
For many reasons, including efficiency, security, and consumer anonymity, reporting control may operate at the system level. In this case, reports may be aggregated for providers by the system operators using a reporting server or system of servers using reporting service objects. System level reporting may also be used to enforce licensing rules and create billing and service reports. Reporting service objects and reporting partner servers will be further discussed below.
Service Objects and Partner Servers
As described above, service objects are a special class of communications object whose primary function is to provide communications services to other communications objects. A service object is used to coordinate communications between providers and users. The server which provides and operates on a service object is referred to as the service object's “partner server”. As with any communications object, the service object includes certain elements, metadata, and methods. Since different users can utilize a service object having certain features, actions between users or by different users can be coordinated by the service object. A provider may include features from a received service object in its own communications objects. A user may also use the methods in the service object to perform routine communication functions with others, including a third party partner server which created the service object. A service object can include any data, metadata, or methods which are useful to a significant number of providers or consumers. Various types of service objects and service providers are discussed below as examples. These examples relate to common functions to be performed in the communication system, and illustrate the operation of service objects. Of course, many other service objects having different features and functions could be created and used in connection with the communication system.
Any given service object (815,
Service objects can wholly contain the services they offer, or they can represent the services of one or more servers available in the communications object system. In the latter case, the service object forms the basis for communicating the necessary information to the server so that the service can be provided. The latter case is also particularly useful because the service object can abstract or “encapsulate” the interface to the server or servers, removing the need for either the provider or consumer to deal with this complexity. A service object may represent services provided by a network of related servers, for example a replicated directory database such as the Internet's Domain Name Service (DNS). The service object can then also abstract and automate the process of choosing one of the network servers as a current partner server which will result in optimal performance and minimal network traffic. Referring to
Service objects are distinguished in a communications object system by their communications object type. Examples of service object types are shown as classes 830-844 in
The same fundamental data structures used in the provider database 11 and consumer database 21 can be used in a partner server database 1301. These data structures are shown in
The same basic program operations used in the program 12, 22 can be used in a partner server 1302. In particular, a partner server 1302 may use the same HTML and HTTP interface system as described for the programs 12, 22. This allows the partner server 1302 to function as a web server for human interaction via a browser 50, while at the same time providing automated interaction with the programs 12, 22 via the HTTP protocol and any other mutual protocol such as SMTP/MIME.
As a subclass of standard communications objects 110, service objects can include all the control functions of communications objects described above. Certain control functions have special relevance for service objects. First, link control allows other communications objects to call the methods of a service object regardless of where the service object may be located on a communications network 3. The special applications of link control will be discussed below. Second, update control allows a service object to stay current regardless of where it is located on a communications network 3. Version monitoring and update querying are particularly efficient techniques of update control for service objects and will be discussed below. Third, notification control allows a service object provider to notify providers or consumers using the service object about relevant changes to the service object or the communications services it makes available. Fourth, data exchange control allows the service object to automate data exchanges with the server or servers the service object may represent. Fifth, data archive control allows service objects to delete themselves if they age beyond a certain date or have not been used within a certain period. This allows databases 100 to avoid an accumulation of seldom-used service objects. Finally, event tracking control and reporting control allows service objects to create and report transaction records which can be processed to provide further services to the provider or consumer. These transaction records can also be used by the service object provider for billing or statistical purposes.
Link control and update control have special applications to polymorphic service objects. The application of link control to polymorphic service objects is illustrated in
Once a service object 1310 has been transferred to a consumer database 21 via this technique, version monitoring can be a very efficient update control technique. This is because the services of the service object 1310 may not be required again until they are called by another communications object instance 35. Version monitoring can be employed as follows. First, the service object 1310 can use a standard push or pull update control technique at the provider program 12 to maintain a current version. Such version changes will also maintain current version values in any link element 143 associated with the service object 1310. By including this link element 143 in any update of a communications object 110 which contains it, the link element 143 will be transferred to all recipient consumer programs 22 when the communications object 110 is updated. At this point, whenever a method call is made from a communications object instance 35 to the service object 1310, a version monitoring rule 140 contained in the service object 1310 can be triggered. The version monitoring rule 140 compares the service object version value stored in the link element of the calling communications object 110 with the version value of the service object 1310. If the version value in the link element 143 is greater than the version value of the service object 1310, the update method of the service object 1310 is executed and the service object 1310 is updated prior to completion of the original service object method call.
Update queries are also a highly efficient update control technique for service objects. This is especially true when a service object 1310 is used to represent access to a large database of communications objects 110, such as the categories of a yellow pages directory server or a classified advertising server. Basic update query control is explained in the update control section above. When used in conjunction with a service object 1310 and partner server 1302, update query control can be even more efficient by employing user objects 110 on the partner server 1302. The data structures for user objects are shown in
The following sections will explain how service objects and partner servers can be employed to provide registration, maintenance, name, directory, distribution, encoding, authentication, data exchange, payment, reporting, and feedback services for a communications object system. This set of service object applications is not exhaustive but merely illustrative of how service objects may be employed. Service objects and partner servers may also combine any number of services. Alternatively, any of the services described below may also be performed directly by one or more system methods 141, rules 140, and elements 143 instead of service objects 1310. Service objects are a preferred embodiment because they allow such services to be encapsulated, distributed, optimized, and updated throughout a communications network 3.
Registration Service Objects and Partner Servers
A registration service object type (830,
Registration partner servers can do more than just automate and track system ID and group ID assignments. By including data exchange methods for other registration data, such as names, addresses, contact information, and so on, registration partner servers can obtain and store all the information necessary to fully register communications object system users. By using data exchange methods to return registration keys and licensing keys to the databases 11, 21 which enable the operation of all or selected subsets of features, registration partner servers also function as licensing servers. For this reason registration servers can be efficiently coupled with naming, authentication, and reporting service objects and partner servers.
Maintenance Service Objects and Partner Servers
A maintenance service object type (831,
If all the components of the programs 12, 22 are stored as one of these classes, the use of maintenance service objects 1310 to monitor and update these components enables the programs in a communications object system to be self-updating. Existing components can be updated, new components can be downloaded as required, and outdated components can be deleted.
Maintenance service objects 1310 also allows all the providers in a communications object system to contribute and obtain new system components. This is accomplished by including a data exchange method 141 in the maintenance service object 1310 that automates the process of uploading and registering the new components in a database 1301 at a maintenance partner server 1302. Another data query method 141 in the same maintenance service object 1310 allows other providers to manually or automatically search the maintenance partner server database 1301. This process is fully described in the data exchange service object section below. The sharing of communications object components across a communications object system is particularly valuable in relation to rules 140, methods 141, and type definitions 144. New rules and methods allow providers to extend the functionality of the communications object system easily. For example, new system objects can encapsulate the services of particular communications protocols. These include network protocols, such as TCP/IP, IPX/SPX, and NetBEUI; communications protocols, such as XMODEM, YMODEM, HTTP, NNTP, and SMTP; APIs such as TAPI, MAPI, and Visual Basic; and even device driver protocols such as those required for printers, modems, CD-ROM drives, monitors, and so on. The particular protocols used are not a limiting feature of the invention. Since newer, more powerful, more efficient, and more secure protocols are always evolving, encapsulating these in component communications objects that can be easily distributed throughout a communications object system is a major advantage.
New type definitions allow groups of providers to create shared data structures that meet particular needs, such as specialized electronic data interchange (EDI) standards for vertical markets. Shared type definition repositories have particular applications that enable new types of intelligent information interchange. An example discussed above in the data exchange control section is the customization of web server content for web browser users. This interchange can be substantially enhanced through the establishment on a maintenance partner server 1302 or a distributed network of partner servers 1302 of a server database 1301 of shared type definition instances 144. These type definition instances could cover families of common psychographic variables such as political affiliations, color preferences, food and beverage preferences, entertainment preferences, and so on. Using a maintenance service object 1310, providers can search for and download these type definitions 144 to be incorporated into the design of the provider's web content customization system as well as the provider's own communications objects 110. When a consumer browses the provider's web server, the web server can return a communications object 110 that queries the consumer database 21 for the values of elements 143 corresponding to specified psychgraphic type definitions 144. If these type definitions are not present, the communications object 110 will include a link component object 110 to obtain the necessary type definitions 144 from the maintenance server 1302. The communications object 110 then generates an input form requesting the values for elements 143 corresponding to each type definition. Once these element preference instances 147 are saved in the consumer database 21, the consumer need not enter this pschographic preference data again. It will be available automatically to any other provider who needs it, subject to data access rules 140 applied by the consumer. In this way the consumer database 21 can steadily grow “smarter” about the consumer's interests and tastes, and providers have a highly direct, efficient, and automated mechanism with which to obtain such psychographic data from the consumer.
This process can be generalized to any set of data types that need to be shared amongst a group of providers. This includes many vertical market applications, such as industrial part types, chemical types, academic research types, business application types, software programming object types, and so on. The specific data type service is not a limiting feature of the invention.
Name Service Objects and Partner Servers
A name service object type (832,
The use of naming and name resolution services in a communications object system are fully discussed in the communications object exchange control section above. A name partner server 1302 can implement name services using many database structures. In a preferred embodiment, name services for individuals are provided using communications objects 110 of the user object type (816,
Name service objects 1310 and name partner servers 1302 allow multiple naming systems to be employed in a communications object system, either globally or across any subset of the system. A global communications object system name is particularly valuable to individuals because it allows them to obtain a lifetime communications address that never needs to change regardless of any changes to specific communications network addresses the individual may hold. This address may also be completely identical to the individual's real name if such a name is unique in the naming system. The same advantage may be realized by organizations using tradenames for their company, product, or service.
Other advantages of communications object system naming services are enumerated in the communications object exchange control section above. Besides individual names and commercial trademark names, communications object system naming services can be applied to many specialized or vertical market naming needs such as industrial part names; research topic names; corporate department, group, or project names; software programming object names; and so on. The specific naming service used is not a limiting feature of the invention.
Directory Service Objects and Partner Servers
A directory service object type (833,
Another commonly desired set of directory attributes is a hierarchical categorization system such as that employed by many “yellow pages” directories. In a preferred embodiment, such a categorization system is implemented on a directory partner server 1302 using composite communications objects (811,
The use of a communications object-based directory service offers several advantages over conventional directory systems. First, it can simplify and automate the listing process for providers. The steps in this process are illustrated in
A second advantage of a communications object-based directory service is that it automates the directory updating process in both directions. The steps in the process of updating a provider's listings on a directory partner server 1302 are shown in
The steps in the process of notifying a provider about changes to one or more category objects on the directory partner server 1302 are shown in
Alternatively, for high-volume applications, the directory partner server 1302 can maintain an index of the provider UIDs associated with each category object 11O. These UIDs can be stored in user objects 10. In this case step 4053 can be eliminated, and the update query in step 4054 can consist of just the provider UID. The provider user objects 110 can also function as recipients 120 on the directory partner server 1302. In this case, updated category objects can be distributed using the push technique. This process is explained in the service object introduction section above.
A third advantage of a communications object-based directory service is that consumers may use a directory service object 1310 to monitor a directory partner server 1302 for new listings in any category or changes to the category structure. Because they are symmetric and can be performed by a polymorphic directory service object 1310, these processes are largely identical to those described above for a provider. In addition, data exchange methods in a directory service object 1310 can allow consumers to create custom queries that can be run at scheduled intervals against the directory server 1302. Thus a consumer could, for example, be notified if any new listing containing the word “Mustang” was added to a directory server 1302 even if there was no “Mustang” category object 110. This is further discussed in the section on data exchange service objects below.
The value of a communications object-based directory services can be further increased using link control. Any provider who associates (lists) a communications object 110 with one or more category objects 110 on a directory partner server 1302 can include a link component object 110 from those category objects 110 in the communications object 110. This is identical to the process of including a link component object 110 from a service object 1310 as described above. Category object links provide a powerful new way for consumers to locate communications objects in which they are interested. The consumer can just activate the link method 141 to immediately download the desired category object 110 and access directory listings for other communications objects 110 in the same category. Using the directory service object 1310 linked to the category object 110, the consumer can also immediately begin monitoring the directory partner server 1302 for new listings in that category.
Directory partner servers are well-suited to be combined with distribution partner servers and data exchange partner servers because it is easy to create and maintain associations in a single database 100 between directory category objects 110, the listed communications objects 110, elements 143 associated with the communications objects 110, and user objects 110.
Since a communications object can represent anything which a provider wishes to communicate, the advantages of a communications object system directory service can be transferred to any real-world function where directory services are useful. Besides conventional white pages and yellow pages, this includes catalogs, professional and academic directories, computer network directories, personal address books, classified advertising services, and so on. The specific directory service is not a limiting feature of the invention.
Distribution Service Objects and Partner Servers
A distribution service object type (834,
The first of these advantages is the automated transmission of communications objects and communications object updates from the provider program 12 to the distribution partner server 1302. This is accomplished through the use of a data exchange method 141 in the distribution service object 1310. Referring to
The inverse of this process becomes a key advantage for consumers because a single distribution service object 1310 can use the update query technique to monitor a distribution partner server 1302 for updates to all communications objects 110 associated with the distribution service object 1310. The greater the number of communications objects 110 associated with a single distribution service object 1310, the more efficient the update process becomes. Only a single update query needs to be made to the distribution partner server 1302. This update query technique is further described in the update control and directory service object sections above. This technique is particularly efficient when used in conjunction with a user object 110 index at the distribution partner server 1302. User object indexes are explained in the service object introduction section above.
A second advantage to providers is that the distribution partner server 1302 can offload the work of transmitting communications object updates via the push technique. For large numbers of recipients 120, e-mail generation and transmission can require large amounts of computer processor time and network bandwidth. Offloading this to a distribution partner server 1302 can free the operation of the provider program 12 on a smaller personal computer. By maintaining a user object index at a distribution partner server 1302, the distribution partner server 1302 can also receive and process all acknowledgment message objects used to maintain the user object index for any communications object 110.
A third advantage to providers is that a distribution service object 1310 and distribution partner server 1302 can provide distribution control capabilities, i.e., the ability to deliver customized communications objects 110 to consumers. This process is fully explained in the distribution control section above. In particular, a distribution service object 1310 can use a data exchange method 141 to transmit distribution control methods 141 from a provider program 12 to the distribution partner server 1302. At a distribution partner server 1302, these methods 141 are called by a distribution service object 1310 or a communications object 110.
A fourth advantage to providers is that a distribution service object 1310 and distribution partner server 1302 can automate archive control, i.e., the ability to retrieve previous updates to a communications object 110. This process is fully described in the data archive control section above. In particular, a distribution service object 1310 can use a version monitoring method 141 to call a version monitoring method 141 at the distribution partner server 1302 to retrieve missing updates for all communications objects 110 associated with the distribution service object 1310.
Distribution services are integral to the performance of almost any type of partner server 1302, so it can be desirable to combine them with any of the service object types discussed herein.
Encoding Service Objects and Partner Servers
An encoding service object type (834,
Encoding service objects 1310 can supply any of the elements 143 or methods 141 required to perform encoding or decoding operations in the programs 12, 22 or at a partner server 1302. The application of encoding and decoding methods in these programs is fully described in the encoding control section above. In particular, referring to
Encoding service objects 1310 can also supply encoding/decoding methods to other software programs via an API to the programs 12, 22 as described in the word processing transfer example. Using remote procedure calls, such an API could also be extended to methods stored on an encoding partner server 1302.
As explained in the encoding control section above, encoding services in a communications object system can be applied to any form of encoding. This includes human languages, computer languages, object languages, character sets, data file formats, compression formats, transmission formats, and encryption formats. The specific encoding service is not a limiting feature of the invention.
Authentication Service Objects and Partner Servers
An authentication service object type (840,
Many cryptographic protocols have been devised to provide authentication of user identity and message integrity over data networks. These include Kerberos 5, developed at MIT; SPX, developed by Digital Equipment Corporation; Privacy Enhanced Mail (PEM), adopted by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF); Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), developed by Philip Zimmermann; and the CCITT X.509 protocols. Such protocols are fully described in the aforementioned Applied Cryptography by Bruce Schneier. Authentication service objects 1310 and authentication partner servers 1302 can be employed to automate the operation of many of these protocols. This is accomplished by storing the appropriate encryption keys as elements 143 and the appropriate encryption functions as methods 141 of the authentication service object 1310 or authentication partner server 1302.
An example is authentication using digital signatures based on public/private keys. The first set of steps in this process are shown in
The provider is now ready to digitally sign communications object instances 35 using the provider's private key. This process would take place as part of the communications object instance generation and transmission routine, specifically as part of step 548,
The final portion of the authentication process takes place when a communications object instance 35 bearing a digital signature arrives at a consumer program 22. These steps occur as part of the communications object receipt process, specifically as part of steps 721 or 722,
Other data may be encrypted and signed with the authentication partner server's or provider's digital signatures in order to ensure a secure communications channel. Such data may include time/date stamps, the provider's UID or group IDs, random session keys, initialization vectors, incremental counters, and so on. Other authentication protocols such as Kerberos, SPX, or PEM may also be employed. The specific authentication protocols used are not a limiting feature of the invention. Multiple encryption or authentication protocols may also be used by the same authentication service object and authentication partner server or by different authentication service objects and authentication partner servers. The use of additional protocols further increases the overall security of the system because the compromise of any single protocol does not compromise the security of the entire system.
Authentication on a communications object system may also take place without using centralized authentication partner servers 1302. This technique, known as distributed key management, is used by the public-domain encryption program Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). It is based on the concept of an “introducer”. An introducer is a person who signs the public key certificate of another person whose identity they personally know and are willing to certify. Introducers are easily employed on a communications object system using authentication service objects 1310. The steps in the process for using introducers are illustrated in
Once a set of signed public key certificates has been received by the originator, the originator can send a public key acceptance request to any other communications object system user. The steps in the process for public key certificate acceptance requests are illustrated in
These public key certificate introduction and acceptance processes can be further improved by the use of “trust levels”. A trust level is one or more attributes of a public key certificate that indicate the level of trust the introducer extends to the originator. For example, a trust level attribute could accept an integer value range from 1 to 10, where 1 equals the lowest level of trust and 10 the highest level. The trust level is part of the public key certificate and is signed by the introducer so it cannot be modified by the originator. The trust level value can be entered by the introducer in step 4159 of
Another way authentication service objects 1310 and authentication partner servers 1302 increase the security of a communications object system is by automating key exchange. Automated key exchange makes it feasible to use larger keys, to change keys frequently, to autoexchange keys among communications partners, to share keys among communications groups, and to use specific keys chosen from among larger key sets. In particular, authentication service objects 1310 can use update control to change they public keys they obtain from their authentication partner server as frequently as is deemed necessary to maintain adequate security. Each update to an authentication service object 1310 can be verified using a digital signature created with the existing public/private key as described above. Only after the authentication service object 1310 has verified the signature of its update will it inherit its new public key. This capability can be further enhanced by the use of acknowledgment control. Each authentication service object update can include a receipt method 141 that generates a acknowledgment message object 110 back to the authentication partner server 1302. This acknowledgment message object can include a digital signature generated by the new public key. This digital signature allows the authentication partner server 1302 to verify the authenticity of the acknowledgment as described above. If the acknowledgment is not received on a timely basis or is not authentic, rules 140 implemented at the authentication partner server 1302 can trigger notification of the authentication partner server provider. This constant “challenge” technique can ensure that authentication service objects 1310 are operating correctly throughout a communications object system.
A final way authentication service objects 1310 can help ensure the security of a communications object system is security rules 140. Security rules can monitor all aspects of key handling and signature verification. Security rules can be particularly useful for enforcing a provider's control over forwarding or chaining of the provider's communications objects 110. When digital signatures do not match, these rules can automatically trigger notification of the user of the programs 12, 22 via any notification method 141 the user desires. These rules can also generate message objects 110 capable of notifying the communications object provider, the authentication service object provider, and the communications object system vendor. Since authentication service objects play such a central role in the security of a communications object system, they can be subject to special rules 140. For example, a rule may require one or more authentication service objects 1310 to be included with the programs 12, 22 at all times, or the programs will not function. Alternatively, rules 140 may govern the acceptance of authentication service objects or object updates, for example requiring explicit approval from the user. Another approach is the use of a master authentication service object 1310 to authenticate all other authentication service objects 1310. This master authentication service object may be a built-in system object. It may also use a large public key or keys that are publicly verifiable via other trusted communications networks such as newspapers or telephones.
Data Exchange Service Objects and Partner Servers
A data exchange service object type (841,
An example of the first case is a product registration service object 1310. A software company may offer a large number of software products, each with its own representative communications object 110. If the software company wanted all these communications objects to share the same product registration services for new buyers of the company's software products, the company could create a product registration service object 1310. Any of the company's product communications objects 110 could then call the services of the product registration service object 1310 to carry out a new user product registration via a product registration partner server 1302. Ideally, such a shared service object would also offer other common services to the individual product objects, such as distribution/update control, directory services, and so on.
For a communications object system deployed on a wide area network, such as the Internet, there are a number of common data exchange services desired by many providers. Besides the specialized services discussed above, examples include file transfer, fax transfer, news distribution, discussion databases, knowledge bases, and classified advertising services. In most cases polymorphic service objects 1310 are desirable for data exchange. This is because the same data exchange service objects 1310 that allow communications object system users to upload and maintain data at a data exchange partner server 1302 can allow other communications object system users to automatically monitor and/or download that data as desired. A simple example is an FTP service object 1310 and an FTP partner server 1302 offered by a provider of network file backup services. The FTP service object 1310 would allow users to select a local file or files which the FTP service object 1310 would monitor and automatically transfer to the FTP partner server 1302 at periodic intervals or when the files had changed. The same FTP service object 1310 could be used to restore backed up files from the FTP partner server 1302 to the user's local system. The FTP service object 1310 could combine these backup services with payment and reporting services. Payment and reporting services are discussed below.
A more advanced example is classified advertising services. A classified ad service object 1310 combines the functions of a data exchange service object 1310 and a directory service object 1310. (It could also incorporate the functions of an authentication service object 1310, payment service object 1310, reporting service object 1310, or other such service object functions as may be applicable.) A classified ad partner server 1302 represents the categories of the classified advertising system as category objects in the same manner as a directory partner server 1302 (
The steps involved in the process of a seller using a classified ad service object 1310 to create an ad listing in a classified ad partner server database 1301 are shown in
Any interested buyer can use the same classified ad service object 1310 and category object 110 to specify and monitor ad listings that meet the buyer's interests. The steps involved in this process are shown in
The above classified ad monitoring process operates by storing and executing the classified ad query at the consumer program 22. In the same fashion that it can be more efficient to monitor a high-volume directory partner server 1302 using a user object index, it can be more efficient to monitor a high-volume classified ad partner server 1302 using a user object index that includes the buyer's stored queries. This also allows query result sets to be transmitted to buyers via the push technique, as opposed to the pull technique illustrated above. The steps for implementing monitoring with a user object index with stored queries at a partner server are shown in
The data exchange procedures illustrated here for sellers and buyers using a classified service object 1310 to automate interchange with a classified advertising database 1301 stored on a classified ad partner server 1302 can be generalized to any type of data that can be stored in a server database mutually accessible to providers and consumers on a communications network 3. This includes search services, news services, document retrieval services, knowledgebases, discussion databases, and so on. The specific type of database, database server, or data exchange service is not a limiting feature of the invention. The only differences are the organization and format of the data stored on the server database and the queries and rules used to automate information interchange. These generalized steps are summarized in
Referring back to
Payment Service Objects and Partner Servers
A payment service object type (842,
The following explains the basic processes involved with the use of payment service objects 1310 and payment partner servers 1302. These are broken into several sets as shown in
To begin using this account with customers, the merchant includes the merchant account certificate and a link component object 110 from the payment service object 1310 in any communications object 110 where the merchant wishes to use payment services. The payment service object 1310 can then be called by any data exchange method 141 in the merchant's communications object 110. The merchant can indicate the services of such payment service objects 1310 by using the names or logos of the appropriate credit cards, debit cards, and so on in a product ordering input form, for example. When a customer chooses one of these options and submits a data exchange input form, the payment service object 1310 is used automatically. The steps in this process are shown in
From this point the receipt acknowledgment process can take several paths. The payment partner server 1302 can return receipt acknowledgments to both the consumer program 22 and the provider program 12. Each of these programs can in turn send receipt acknowledgments to the other to complete full three-way acknowledgment. Alternatively the payment partner server 1302 can send a receipt acknowledgment to the customer's consumer program 22, which can in turn send a receipt acknowledgment to the merchant's provider program 12, or vice versa. In all cases the steps in sending secure receipt acknowledgment messages are similar. The steps in the process of the payment partner server 1302 sending a receipt acknowledgment message to the customer's consumer program 22 are shown in FIG. 39. First a data exchange method 141 on the payment partner server 1302 creates a purchase receipt (step 4471). The purchase receipt includes the unique receipt number plus any other relevant data, such as timestamp, the payment partner server UID, bank certification numbers, and so on. Next the data exchange method 141 calls an authentication method 141 in an authentication service object 1310 to encrypt the purchase receipt using the customer account certificate public key (step 4472). This step is optional if the purchase receipt does not contain any sensitive information. The authentication method 141 then signs the purchase receipt with the payment partner server's private key (step 4473). The data exchange method 141 creates a message object 110 containing the purchase receipt (step 4474). The data exchange method 141 transmits this message object 110 to the payment service object 1310 at the consumer program 22 (step 4475). There the consumer program 12 receives the message object 110 and executes the original data exchange method 141 of the payment service object 1310 (step 4476). This data exchange method 141 first calls an authentication method 141 in the authentication service object 1310 to verify the signature on the purchase receipt using the payment partner server's public key (step 4477). If the purchase receipt has been encrypted, the authentication method 141 decrypts it using the customer account certificate private key (step 4478). Then the data exchange method 141 stores the purchase receipt in the consumer database 21 as an element 143 of the payment service object 1310 (step 4479). This makes the purchase receipt available to the payment service object 1310 and the merchant communications object 110 for use in any further transactions or correspondence involving this transaction, such as a return or exchange. Finally the data exchange method 141 executes any notification methods 141 desired by the customer for notification about the receipt acknowledgment (step 4480).
This technique can be generalized to any form of data exchange requiring secure, verifiable, non-repudiable transactions between multiple parties. This includes stock trading, electronic data interchange (EDI), credit card systems, banking systems, bartering systems, and so on. The specific nature of the transaction service is not a limiting feature of the invention.
Reporting Service Objects and Partner Servers
A reporting service object type (843,
Shared access to the methods 141 of a reporting service object 1310 is particularly efficient for gathering statistics and metadata for a large population of communications objects 110. This is because statistics and metadata for a large number communications objects 110 from a large number of providers can accumulated in the databases 11, 21 and then transmitted using a small number of message objects 110 to one or more reporting partner servers 1302. The same reporting service object 1310 or a linked reporting service object 1310 can then be used by the providers to monitor the aggregated reports at the reporting partner server 1302. This can be done using data exchange methods 141 running queries against a reporting partner server 1302 in the same fashion as explained in
Reporting partner servers 1302 can also serve a valuable function by providing high-volume report processing services to communications object providers. Report processing methods 141 on the reporting partner server 1302 can be triggered automatically by report message objects 110 transmitted from reporting service objects 1310. These report processing methods 141 can produce any type of statistical aggregation or analysis offered by the reporting service provider. Alternatively, communications object providers can use the reporting service object 1310 to submit their own stored report queries and report processing methods 141 as explained in
Anonymous reporting relationships can be accomplished using a simple procedure. The steps in this process are shown in
Reporting partner servers 1302 can aggregate reporting data by indexing reports by provider UID or consumer UID, or in the case of anonymous reporting, by unique anonymous reporting key. Alternatively reporting partner servers 1302 can use the incremental counter technique. This technique is explained below in the section on feedback service objects.
Secure reporting can be accomplished using the functions of an authentication service object 1310 in conjunction with a reporting service object 1310. Reporting service objects can also be efficiently coupled with payment service objects to perform billing and payment for communications object system services.
Feedback Service Objects and Partner Servers
A feedback service object type (844,
Feedback service objects 1310 can most easily be understood as an extension to the functionality of category objects 110. Category objects 110 are explained in the directory service object section above and shown in
The steps in these processes are very similar to those described for classified ad category objects in the data exchange service object section above and in
Feedback data can be aggregated by a feedback partner server 1302 in several ways. One approach is to save and index feedback data by the UID of the feedback provider. In this approach the feedback partner server 1302 maintains records of the feedback data from each feedback provider. This allows the feedback partner server 1302 to produce accurate feedback statistics reports over time. Another approach is to aggregate feedback using counters. In this approach the feedback partner server 1302 does not need to maintain a record from each feedback provider. Instead the feedback partner server 1302 increments a counter for each feedback message object 110 received from a feedback provider. The accuracy of this counter is maintained in the following manner. The first time a feedback provider uses a feedback category object 110 to send feedback data, the full set of feedback data is transmitted in the feedback message object 110 as described in step 4608 of
The steps in the process of a feedback consumer accessing and monitoring feedback are identical to those of a classified ad buyer accessing and monitoring classified ad listings as explained in the data exchange service object above and illustrated in
The value of feedback data can vary enormously with the experience and expertise of the feedback provider. This is particularly true for feedback on topics requiring specialized knowledge or expertise, such as academics, law, medicine, technology, and so on. For this reason feedback services can also be applied to feedback providers. This can be accomplished using a feedback partner server 1302 by linking feedback category objects 110 to user objects 110 representing each of the feedback providers. The attributes of a feedback category object 110 representing a feedback provider might include level of expertise, level of credibility, level of decision-making ability, and so on. By aggregating feedback data on feedback providers, a feedback partner server 1302 is able to offer even more useful feedback reports to feedback consumers. This is because feedback queries can select feedback data using on the attributes or “ratings” of the feedback providers. An example is a feedback partner server 1302 which collects feedback data on communications objects 110 representing automobiles. A feedback consumer can create a query for only those communications objects 110 representing minivans with a sticker price of less than $20,000 which also had overall quality rating of 7 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10 from feedback providers whose expertise level was rated by other feedback providers to also 7 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10. Another example applies to response thread objects (
The integrity of such a feedback system can be enforced by employing feedback rules 140 in the feedback partner server 1302. For instance, a feedback rule 140 can constrain the rating a first feedback provider can give a second feedback provider using the rating of the first feedback provider. An example would be a expertise rating system for securities analysts. Every analyst in a securities analysis firm can be given an initial expertise rating on a scale of 1 to 10 for each feedback category object 110 representing the industry segments covered by the analysis firm. Thereafter all analysts can modify the expertise ratings of the other analysts as new security analysis work is performed. A feedback rule 140 can enforce that a first analyst cannot give a second analyst an expertise rating for a specific feedback category object 110 more than 1 point higher than the expertise rating of the first analyst on that same feedback category object 110. A second feedback rule 140 can specify that no analyst can change the feedback rating of another analyst more than 1 point in any six month period. These rules help enforce accurate expertise appraisals.
The integrity of such a feedback system can also be enforced through the use of authentication services to authenticate the identity of the feedback providers as described in the authentication service object section above. Feedback systems may also incorporate payment services as described in the payment service object section above. An example would be a commercial product rating service that paid industry experts for feedback input and charged consumers for feedback reports.
As with directory services, feedback services can be employed for a wide variety of purposes on a communications object system. This includes product and service rating services, political office ratings, employee performance feedback, discussion group participation, personal references, and so on. The particular feedback service is not a limiting feature of the invention.
Advanced System Architecture
Combined Provider, Consumer, and Server Program Operation
It has been explained how in an embodiment of the present invention the functions of the provider and consumer programs 12, 22 and databases 11, 21 can be combined because they use identical database structures and similar operations. In another embodiment of the present invention, the functions of either or both the programs 12, 22 and databases 11, 21 can be combined with a partner server 1302 and a partner server database 1301. This is again because identical database structures and similar operations are used. All programs can also employ the same HTML and HTTP interface operations as described above. This means that a communications object system user may fully access the capabilities of a provider program 12, a consumer program 22, and a partner server 1302 all from a single web server 32 using a single web browser 50.
One of the additional benefits of combining the provider program 12 with a distribution server 32 is that providers do not have to transmit new and updated communications objects 110 to a separate distribution server 32 for distribution via the pull technique. Nor do they require the services of a distribution service object 1310. Rather pull updating from a consumer program 22 can take place directly from the combined provider program 12 and partner server 1302. This saves time and reduces the potential for transmission errors. A provider is also able to more easily apply distribution control by specifying distribution control methods 141 directly in the combined database 100.
The same benefit applies in reverse to consumers when the consumer program 22 is combined with a distribution partner server 32. The consumer program 22 does not need to update communications objects 110 stored on the distribution partner server 1302 using the pull technique because those communications objects or object updates 110 can be pushed directly by the provider program 12 to the combined consumer program 12 and partner server 1302. This also eliminates the need for a distribution service object 1310.
These benefits are further compounded when both the provider program 12 and consumer program 22 are combined with any type of distribution server 32. This combination of yields special benefits for multiuser communications object system installations in the same way as combining the functionality of the programs 12, 22 yielded special benefits for a single communications object system user. These benefits will be further described in the following sections.
The programs 12, 22, and 1302 or any combination thereof can accommodate multiuser operation. In all cases this can be accomplished by employing the user object type (816,
User objects 110 can represent individual communications object system users or groups of users. User group objects 110 function similarly to e-mail aliases in an e-mail system. Groups can be nested by creating composite user objects 110 and components user objects 110. User group objects 110 can also have their own distinct attributes used to control the communications functions and privileges of the group.
Multiuser operation is beneficial in the programs 12, 22 or a program combining their operation because it allows a single database 100 to be shared by multiple users. A separate instance of the global preferences class 103 can be associated with each user object 110. In a multiuser database 100, multiple user objects 110 can have a consumer relationship association 111 with single instance of communications object 110. This saves disk space and increases overall system efficiency. In this case each consumer can maintain separate preferences using separate element preferences instances 147 associated with the consumer's user object 110. Users can also share preferences by having an association to the same element preference instance 147. Access control rules 140 can be used to govern editing rights to shared element preference instances 147. Access control rules will be discussed below.
In a multiuser database 100, a user object 110 can have a consumer relationship with a communications object 110 to which another user object 110 has a provider relationship. This has several very important benefits. To begin with, no instance of the recipient class 120 nor the acknowledgement association 121 is needed. Both can be replaced entirely by the relationship associations 111. Secondly, no communications object distribution routine is necessary. When the user object 110 representing a provider (called the “provider user object”) and the user object 110 representing a consumer (called the “consumer user object”) are both present in a multiuser database 100, a communications object 110 can be “pushed” to a consumer simply by the provider creating a new association between the communications object 110 and the consumer user object 110. A communications object 110 can be “pulled” by a consumer just by the consumer creating a new association between the communications object 110 and the consumer user object 110. In both of these cases, creation of the new association triggers a “new object reception rule” 140 in the database 100. This rule takes the place of the new object reception routine in a separate consumer program 22 and executes steps 703-708 of
Finally, in a multiuser database 100, multiple user objects 110 can also have a provider relationship with a single communications object 110. This is referred to as multiuser editing. Multiuser editing of communications objects 110 is advantageous in a communications object system for the same reasons multiuser database sharing is advantageous in many business applications. Just as two or more individuals can need the ability to read or edit same data, two or more individuals can need to communicate about the same subject or topic through the same “channel”. In many multiuser database environments, including network file systems, database access and editing rights are controlled using access control lists. This same principle can be applied to a communications object system through the use of access control elements 143, access control methods 141, and access control rules 143. Collectively these are referred to as access control components. Access control elements 143 are special elements 143 included in a communications object 110 in order to define the editing rights which the original communications object provider wishes to grant to other providers. Access control methods 141 and access control rules 140 act in conjunction with access control elements 143 to enforce these rights. Access control is an extension of data exchange control, discussed in the data exchange control section above. Access control components are a unique advantage of a communications object system because they can be contained within the communications object 110 which they govern. Thus they can be distributed and enforced throughout a communications object system. Access control rights can also be governed using user group objects 110. In this capacity user group objects 110 function similarly to access control groups used in many computer network environments to govern file and resource access.
As in any multiuser database, simultaneous editing of the same data field or record by different users can result in conflicts. Many multiuser database record locking or data conflict resolution techniques have been developed to solve this problem, including rules based on time precedence, user priority, location priority, data types, and so on. This is referred to as concurrency control. In a multiuser communications object system database 100, concurrency control can be applied using concurrency elements 143, concurrency methods 141, and concurrency rules 140. Collectively these are referred to as concurrency control components. Concurrency control can be applied in one or more communications object system databases 100 in the same manner as access control. The specific concurrency control rules or techniques employed are not a limiting feature of the invention.
In a communications object system, multiuser editing applies to three situations. The first is single users operating different single-user installations of the combined programs 12, 22 on different computers 1, 2. The second is different users operating the same multiuser installation of the combined program 12, 22. This could be on a single central computer accessible over a local area network, or on a distributed database available over a wide area network. The third is a combination of the first two. In the first situation, multiple users can edit the same communications object 110 through the use of message objects 110. The basic steps involved with this form of multiuser editing are illustrated in
This procedure centralizes distribution control at the original communications object provider. An alternative is distributed distribution control. In this technique, a distribution control list is included with the communications object 110 itself. Distribution control lists operate for a communications object 110 similarly to the recipient list of an Internet SMTP e-mail message. E-mail recipient lists allow each message recipient to identify the other recipients and send message replies to all other recipients. Like access control lists, distribution control lists can consist of distribution control elements 143, distribution control methods 141, and distribution control rules 140. Collectively these are referred to as distribution control components. Distribution control components can be as simple as a set of elements 143 containing the UIDs of each recipient 120. In this case the receiving program 12, 22 would resolve these UIDs into the e-mail addresses or other addresses of the recipients. Alternatively distribution control components can include instances of recipient objects 120 or user objects 110. In this case the necessary distribution control intelligence is transferred entirely with the communications object 110. Distribution control methods 141 and rules 140 can be applied at each combined program 12, 22 receiving the communications object 110. For example, a distribution control rule 140 from the original provider could specify that no additional recipients may be added to a distribution control list. Another distribution control rule could specify that certain edits to the communications object, such as a change in a notification element, are sent only to the original provider. The original provider can then approve the edit and distribute the change to the rest of the distribution control list.
The steps involved with multiuser editing using distribution control components are shown in
The consumer program 22 of the recipient receives the communications object 110 and stores it in his/her consumer database 21 (step 4733). The recipients next performs an editing operation on the communications object 110 (step 4734). The completion of an editing operation by a recipient triggers a data exchange control rule 140 which executes a data exchange method 141 of the communications object 110 (step 4735). The data exchange method 141 creates a message object 110 containing the changes to the communications object 110 (step 4736). The data exchange method 141 then transmits the message object 110 to each of the recipients on the distribution control list (step 4737). When the message object 810 is received by each recipient, its receipt method 141 is executed (step 4738). The receipt method 141 saves the edits to the communications object 110 (step 4739). Conflicts in edits by two or more users are handled by concurrency control as discussed above. This save operation results in the same set of operations as an edit operation in the provider program 12 as shown in
The second multiuser editing situation applies when the combined programs 12, 22 are operated as a multiuser system and the providers and consumers involved are all users of this system. In this case multiuser editing operates in the same manner as record sharing in a typical multiuser database environment. Each communications object 110 is a record created by the first provider in the database 100, and the access control components of the communications object 110 act as the access control rights for other users of the database 100. In a multiuser database 100, access control rights can also be governed by the attributes of a relationship association (111,
The third multiuser editing situation is a combination of the fist two, i.e., users spread across both single-user installations and multiuser installations of the programs 12, 22. This operates as a special case of the first situation. In this case, distribution control lists can contain special entries representing multiple users at a multiuser installation. These special entries can consist of nested elements 143 representing the UID of the multiuser database 100 and the UIDs of each individual user object 110. Alternatively they can contain nested composite and component objects 110 representing the multiuser program 12, 22 and the individual user objects 110. User group objects 110 can also be employed for this purpose. In this manner only one communications object or communications object update transmission needs to take place to each multiuser database 100. The receipt method 141 of the communications object 110 or message object 110 can then create or update the relationship associations 111 to each user object 110 in the multiuser database 100.
A multiuser communications object system can be applied to solving many longstanding communications problems. A common example is many-to-many messaging among large groups. One existing solution to this problem is e-mail list servers, or “listservs”, which are common on the Internet. Listservs require a great deal of effort to setup, configure, and maintain. Listservs typically operate in three modes which must be carefully configured in the listserv program. The first mode is “closed” or “broadcast only”, in which messages can only be sent out to the list subscribers, usually by one or more “list owners”. The second mode is “moderated”, in which list subscribers can reply to messages or submit new messages, but all messages pass through one or more moderators authorized to select those that will be passed on to the full list. The third mode is “open” or “unmoderated”, in which any member can respond to messages sent out to the list or submit new messages, and all messages or replies are sent to all subscribers. The single biggest drawback to any of these modes is the subscriber's inability to filter the messages on the list for those of personal relevance. The list is either “on” or “off” for all subscribers. The use of closed or moderated listservs offers some useful filtering capability applicable to all subscribers to the list, but this filtering is not personalized for individual subscribers. It also takes a great deal of effort on the part of the moderators.
A communications object system overcomes all these limitations. First, in a communications object system, such a mailing list can be created simply by creating a communications object 110 to represent the list. No special server program or complex configuration is required. Secondly, this mailing list object 110 can employ notification control to allow every member of the list to filter messages on the list. As shown in
Multinetwork Communications Control
Because a communications object system permits providers and consumers to control any type of communications over any type of communications network 3, it can be particularly useful for coordinating communications relationships that take place over multiple communications networks. A simple example is a Internet-based fax request system. Such a system allows users to request fax documents using a web server 50 and have them transmitted to the user as fax documents via a telephone network. Such a system can easily be automated using communications object system. This can be accomplished using data exchange methods 141 included directly in a communications object 110, or it can be done using a data exchange service object 1310. The latter permits fax services to easily be shared among many communications objects 110. The steps for automating a fax request system using a fax service object 1310 are shown in
A more complex example is the coordination of package deliveries over a physical communications network such as a postal network. This process uses account certificates as described in the payment service object section. The steps in this process are shown in
Another example of multinetwork communications control is the reception of communications objects or object updates via a broadcast network such as television or cable systems. Because such networks are broadcast-only, communications resulting from the consumer's communications object copies back to the provider must occur via a backchannel such as a telephone network or computer network, e.g., the Internet Communications objects represent a unique advantage in this respect in that the backchannel can be controlled by the provider in the communications object 110. In addition, multiple backchannels can be controlled by the same communications object 110 depending on the communications action involved or the backchannel capabilities of the particular consumer program 22 where the communications object 110 is stored.
Schedule coordination among any group is a fundamental challenge in communications. Scheduled events and schedule changes must be communicated to everyone in the group or else the group will not function. A communications object system can solve many widespread scheduling problems using a special type of communications object called a schedule object. Schedule objects are shown as class 817 of
One of the most effective uses of schedule objects 110 is to constrain or modify the communications capabilities of communications object 110 or user objects 110 used to represent individuals. For example, an individual whose current schedule object indicates they are at lunch may be reachable via a cellular phone but not via e-mail. This can be accomplished using scheduling rules 140 associated with particular elements 143 and methods 141 in a communications object 110. For example, a scheduling rule may dictate that after business hours important phone calls should be directed to a provider's home phone number. The use of scheduling objects 110 and schedule control allows communications objects 110 to assume the same functions of “universal phone numbers”, also called “personal numbers”, “lifetime numbers”, and “follow me numbers”. The difference is that universal phone numbers apply only to telephone communications and are limited to the capabilities of a particular telephone network, whereas communications objects 110 apply to every form of communications and are not limited to the capabilities of any particular communications network.
Schedule objects 110 can be employed to solve a wide variety of common scheduling problems. One example is the universal problem of “telephone tag”. In this example, schedule objects 110 are employed at a distribution server 32. Any type of distribution server 32 can be used, but in a preferred embodiment, a combination of the programs 12, 22 and a distribution partner server 1302 is used. This allows message objects 110 to be transmitted and received directly from the distribution partner server 1302 using a direct transmission protocol such as HTTP. This is faster than a store-and-forward protocol like Internet SMTP e-mail, however the latter can also be used if the scheduling process is not time-sensitive. To enable telephone call coordination, the provider first adds one or more scheduling elements 143, methods 141, and rules 140 to any communications object 110 in which the provider wishes to offer scheduling control. The provider can also add schedule control using a scheduling component object 110. The provider also maintains his/her current schedule by adding and maintaining schedule objects 110 to the provider database 11. Thus the provider's current set of schedule objects 110 will indicate the present readiness of the provider to receive a phone call; the current phone number at which the provider should be reached; the options for notifying the provider about the call request; and the options for scheduling a phone call with the provider at some future time if the provider is not available immediately.
The steps in the process of a consumer contacting a provider to request a phone call using the provider's communications object 110 are illustrated in
If the test in step 5006 determined the provider was available to take the call, the scheduling method 141 next checks the provider's scheduling preferences to see if the provider wishes to confirm phone call requests (step 5010). If so, the schedule object 110 calls the provider's notification method 141 for confirming phone call requests (step 5011). Notification control gives a provider rich control over such requests. Notification processing can take into account all of the data included in the call request message object 110 plus all of the data present in the combined programs 12, 22. This includes the consumer's identity, the presence or absence of the consumer UID in the provider database 21, the priority of a call, its expected length, and so on. By processing this data, a notification method 141 can produce any type of notification the provider desires. For purposes of this example, we will assume that this notification method generates an input form to obtain the provider's response. This form displays the data explained above. An option to initiate a phone call immediately from the provider back to the consumer could also be presented as a hyperlink or hypergraphic on this input form. The provider responds by submitting this input form (step 5012). This executes the scheduling method 141 which tests the input form data to see if the provider wishes to take the call immediately (step 5013). If not, the scheduling method 141 tests the input form data to determine if the provider has chosen an alternate time, for example scheduling the call to take place 10 minutes from now (step 5014). If not, the scheduling method 141 determines if the provider wishes to schedule the phone call using automatic scheduling (step 5015). If so, the scheduling method 141 proceeds with autoscheduling as described below starting at step 5070 of
When either the provider or the consumer are not ready to proceed with a phone call immediately, schedule objects 110 can automate the process of scheduling a future phone call. The steps in this process are illustrated in
Once a phone call has been scheduled, both the provider and consumer have copies of the same schedule object 110 in their respective databases 11, 21. Should either need to reschedule the phone call appointment, they need only edit the schedule object 110. Any changes will be automatically transmitted to the other party. Each can assign his/her own notification methods 141 to the schedule object 110 in order to receive notification of changes in exactly the manner each prefers. The schedule object 110 also provides a channel for communications related to the scheduled phone call. For example, one party could add a message element (211,
This scheduling automation process can be enhanced through the addition of API functions that allow the programs 12, 22 to monitor the communications status of the user. For example, using a telephony API call, the programs 12, 22 could determine if the user was currently on the telephone or another communications device and therefore unavailable to directly accept an incoming call. Such API calls would also allow the programs 12, 22 to contact the user or forward communications requests via other means, such as pagers, cellular phones, and so on. Because schedule objects 110 can carry the elements 143, methods 141, and rules 140 necessary to communicate with the scheduled user at any point in time, the programs 12, 22 and any supporting servers 1310 can take the place of “universal number” telephone processing systems as described above. Such services are further enhanced by the fact that call routing can place locally at the calling computer 1, 2 instead of at a remote phone switch or phone server.
This technique for using schedule objects 110 can be generalized to many forms of scheduling. This includes business meetings; professional appointments; teleconferences or videoconferences; television, cable, or video shows; public seminars; and so on. The specific type of scheduling use is not a limiting feature of the invention.
Applications Programming Interface (API)
Communications objects 110 encapsulate communications data, metadata, and instructions in order to create an automated communications relationship between the provider and consumer. Additionally, these sets of data, metadata, and instructions are automatically maintained by the communications system of the present invention. Therefore, the databases 11, 21, and 1301 of communications objects represent an attractive central repository for any communications data that must be maintained by the provider or consumer on their computers 1, 2, or 1302, or on a local area network to which those computers are connected. To access the data, metadata, and methods of the communications objects 110 stored in these databases, an applications programming interface (API) can be used. An API defines the methods and method parameters that are used to request services from another application within a desktop, server, or network operating environment. In a preferred embodiment, an API for a communications object system would specify the object services available from a communications object system program 12, 22, or 1302 in a format compatible with other industry standards for distributed object system specifications. Examples of such standards include the DCE and CORBA specifications from the Open Software Foundation and the OLE and DCOM specifications from Microsoft Corporation.
When the provider and consumer programs 12, 22 include an API, other computer applications can be relieved of the burden of storing, indexing, and maintaining communications data. For instance, the consumer does not need separate address books for a personal information manager, a network directory, and an e-mail program. Other applications can also use the API to automate communications operations using the methods 141 and rules 140 stored in the databases 11, 21, and 1301. A specific example of API usage is the word processing file transfer process explained in the encoding control section and illustrated in
Object-Oriented Graphical User Interface
As explained above, the programs 12, 22, 1302 in a communications object system may also employ a user interface native to the operating system on which the program is run. Many computer operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows from Microsoft Corporation, Apple Macintosh from Apple Computer Corporation, and UNIX Motif from the Open Software Foundation, provide for graphical user interfaces. The use of graphical user interfaces for computer programs is discussed generally in Alan Cooper, About Face (1994), which is incorporated herein by reference. A graphical user interface is advantageous to a communications object system because it allows a user of the programs 12, 22, 1302 to easily and intuitively manipulate visual screen objects in order to create, edit, or delete the underlying communications objects and object associations in the databases 11, 21, 1301. When used in conjunction with a communications object system, this represents a uniquely powerful new interface technique for initiating and controlling communications.
User interface structures for an object-oriented graphical user interface for the combined programs 12, 22 are illustrated in
The author palette window 5121 allows the user to visually select different graphical icons for the purpose of creating or editing different types of communications objects or communications object components. Examples shown include a personal communications icon 5122, representing an individual user communications object 110; a group communications icon 5123, representing a user group communications object 110; a telephone number icon 5124, representing a telephone number element 143; a news topic icon 5125, representing a notification element (201,
The user palette window 5131 allows the user to choose different screen icons representing other communications object system users in the databases 11, 21, or 1301. A user palette allows the user to quickly and easily create recipient associations (121,
The author palette 5121 and user palette 5131 are just examples of the types of object icon palettes that could be used. The user may also create his/her own custom palettes. The specific type of palette used is not a limiting feature of the invention.
The workspace window 5141 represents a screen area into which author objects and consumer objects can be copied using a mouse or other pointing device in order to manage a specific set of communications relationships. This technique, often called “drag-and-drop”, is employed in most operating systems using graphical user interfaces, including those mentioned above. The technique is specifically employed in software programs that employ object-based visual editing for drawing or forms creation, such as Visio from Visio Corporation and Visual Basic from Microsoft Corporation. In a communications object system user interface, drag-and-drop operations can be used for creating, editing, associating, dissociating, or deleting communications objects and communications object components. For example, a user could create a new open discussion topic 110 by dragging the open discussion icon 5126 into a workspace window 5141. The dragging action would result in a dialog box prompting the user for the new properties of the discussion topic object (1451,
The user can maintain multiple workspace windows 5141 pertaining to each of the user's areas of communications interests. For example, a user could organize workspaces by projects, by departments, by priority, and so on. Workspace windows 5141 can be represented in the databases 11, 21, 1301 by folders (115,
Besides drag-and-drop, other features of object-oriented graphical user interfaces can be advantageous to a communications object system. This includes the ability to edit the properties of an object or initiate an action on that object by using a special button or a special clicking action with a pointing device. A second feature is the use of graphical dialog boxes for streamlining user input. Graphical dialog boxes could be used to replace many of the input forms required by data exchange methods 141 as described herein. A third feature is graphical selection-action techniques. These allow a pointing device to be used to select one or more screen objects for action by a program command. Multiple screen objects can be selected by using the pointing device to draw a visual box around them. All of these techniques are employed by Visio from Visio Corporation, Visual Basic from Microsoft Corporation, and other object-oriented editing systems designed for graphical user interfaces. All of these techniques could be employed to improve an object-oriented graphical user interface for a communications object system.
Having thus described one particular embodiment of the invention, various alterations, modifications, and improvements will readily occur to those skilled in the art. Such alterations, modifications, and improvements are intended to be part of this disclosure, and are intended to be within the spirit and scope of the invention. Accordingly, the foregoing description is by way of example only and is not intended as limiting. The invention is limited only as defined in the following claims and the equivalents thereto.