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MUCH HIGHER TECH - THE NEW DIGITAL GALAXY by Steven Levy
LCS in the News
Steven Levy
Newsweek
May 31, 1999

The next big wave isn't for hackers or geeks. Everything will soon be connected—and it will change your life.

Gleaming black boxes aren't necessarily out of place at Silicon Valley product introductions. But this particular onstage presence was a surprising visitor at the unveiling of Sun Microsystems' software glue for the next century's computing devices. Executives from IBM, Philips, Sony and 3Com all were boasting how their futuristic devices would use Sun's Jini codes to transform our workaday world into something like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Then came a clean-cut European executive to explain the shiny black cube. It was loaded with "revolutionary" software, he said, and it had, of course, an Internet connection. The man was from Bosch. The box was a dishwasher.

Odd, maybe. But certainly appropriate. Because the next revolution in technology isn't for the hackers and geeks. It's more likely to rise up in the rinse cycle of Internet dishwashers, to heat up in connected coffee makers, to accelerate in the Web-surfing family sedan and to stare back at you from your biometric bathroom mirror. Some call it the Post-PC Movement. Others call it ubiquitous, or pervasive, computing. But pretty much everybody from Silicon Valley to Armonk, N.Y., calls it the future. All the geniuses who buffoonishly underestimated the Internet (and a few who saw it coming) are chanting a common mantra: computers in everything. Everything connected to the Net. It's a combination that could change our lives by doing what the PC, for all its virtues, never managed to accomplish: making things easy.

It's also a vision that sometimes sounds like a discarded plot outline for Futurama. But, hey, you wouldn't have believed us five years ago if we told you about Amazon.com's market cap. The infrastructure has yet to be created—a process that might take nearly a decade—but the vision is well drawn. A mix of broad-band information "pipes" and wireless high-speed data transfers will toss a blanket of connectedness over our homes, offices and motorways. Your home, for instance, will probably have one or more items directly hot-wired to the Internet: a set-top television box, a game console, a server sitting in the basement, maybe even a traditional PC. These would be the jumping-off points for a tiny radio-frequency net that broadcasts throughout the house. That way the Internet would be, literally, in the air. Stuff inside the house would inhale the relevant bits. Your automatic coffee maker will have access to your online schedule, so if you're out of town it'll withhold the brew. Your alarm clock might ring later than usual if it logs on to find out that you don't have to get the kids ready for school—snow day! And that Internet dishwasher? No, it won't be bidding on flatware at eBay auctions. Like virtually every other major appliance in your home, its Internet connection will be used to contact the manufacturer if something goes wrong. By examining diagnostic chips in the machine, the company might fix it remotely, or send out a repairman. "We could also," says Bosch executive Michael Rockstroh, "remotely modify the dishwasher's software so that the end-consumer can take advantage of different detergents."

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This vision presupposes a radically different tech landscape. Of particular concern to Bill Gates (following story): it assumes that functions that have been customarily performed by personal computers—Web surfing, scheduling, note-taking and building Sim Cities—will be handled by specialized information appliances. As defined by the movement's guru, Don Norman (author of "The Invisible Computer"), these differ from PCs in that they're designed to perform a single task and therefore avoid the infuriating complexity that makes us want to toss our beloved PCs out the window about, oh, once an hour.

Norman also specifies that information generated and absorbed by appliances should be able to move between devices with the firmness of handshakes and the ease of air kisses. That's something that current info appliances have found difficult to do. But if we adopt a lingua franca that enables devices to freely swap information, then all our Rocket eBooks and WebTouch Phones and PalmPilots and Diamond Rios become much more valuable—and easier to use. If such protocols allow virtually anything that draws power to drink from the Internet's data ocean, then previously mundane objects like door locks and sprinklers can themselves transmogrify into information appliances. Though zillions of devices will be grabbing information and zapping stuff to zillions of other devices, the technoids insist that it'll all work smoothly.

What about the good old PC? Some predict its Balkanization, blown up into components that can be utilized by whatever device happens to be around. Why should your PC (or TV) hog an expensive monitor when big screens could be equally available to a Sony PlayStation, a WebTV or even a palmtop? And information on your hard-disk drive shouldn't have to be isolated. Protected (one hopes) by strong security, your files should be accessible to you from anywhere.

Naturally, an early implementation of Sun's Jini, which aspires to be that aforementioned lingua franca, will be data-storage devices. Also due this year are printers and digital cameras that will, if they work as promised, painlessly connect with other devices without the standard two hours of head-scratching, hair-pulling and frantic calls to customer support.

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The more intriguing applications are still cooking. At Xerox Palo Alto Research Center you will see "smart staples" that link hard-copy documents to the latest digital versions. But the coolest info-trick at PARC is a water fountain that accesses the stock market via the Net. When Xerox stock rises, the water flow increases.

Researchers at MIT's Media Lab are developing "PennyPCs" that can be printed on food packaging or sheets of paper. Across campus, the Laboratory for Computer Science has gotten a $40 million federal grant to create Oxygen, its own version of pervasive computing.

Industry is busy brainstorming products for the new paradigm. Electrolux's Internet Refrigerator can tell when food supplies get low and order more from the supermarket. Then there's the highlight of Matsushita's home of the future: a smart toilet. Its sensors analyze your, um, output, and ship the data via Internet to health-care providers. Philips's bathroom device is a Net mirror. "While you're shaving, this mirror will give you an opportunity to follow the news or a list of job offers," says design chief Stefano Marzano.

IBM researchers are shrinking hard drives to the size of matchbooks. A start-up company called emWare is readying a sprinkler system that checks out weather reports so it won't spritz during a downpour. The auto industry, which has already stuffed its cars with microprocessors, is now getting serious about putting the Net in the 'Vette. Picture this: as your alternator gets ready to burn out, your car posts e-mail to find the nearest service station that stocks a replacement.

There are no guarantees here, but ubi-computing proselytizers offer compelling reasons why their vision is more than a fat pipe dream.

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It's simple. The post-PC gang loves to lambaste the poor old desktop computer. Sun CEO Scott McNealy calls it "a silly, silly device." IBM manager Mark Bregman compares it to the Popeil Pocket Fisherman doodads hawked on late-night television. Lots of tools, "but every one of them is substandard," he says.

Information appliances, however, are "a natural outgrowth of the way technologies emerge," says Don Norman. He believes that computing is about to undergo a transformation similar to that of electric motors, which were originally sold separately (things like hair dryers, fans and sewing machines were attachments—the killer apps of their day) but eventually became invisible to users. But Norman has a caveat. "Keep these things out of the hands of engineers," he says. "Let the design be human-centered, by people who understand people."

It's cheap. Right now, all our devices are loaded with their own controls and interfaces. It's expensive. "But if you took, say, a VCR, ripped out those expensive buttons and knob in the front and put a network interface on the back, you could control it with a Web browser," says MIT's David Clark. "Getting devices networked makes them cheaper, and anything that's cheaper is inevitable."

It's reliable. Bill Joy, chief designer of Sun's Jini language, compares PC reliability with that of the airplane. It's hardly unusual when your PC crashes and wipes out your tax records. But (thankfully rare) plane accidents are intolerable: they trigger investigations and often result in changes to the system. "That's what we should aim for," he says. Most, however, would settle for the level of reliability of stereo sets, where the expectation of things working as they should is almost always satisfied. That's the promise of pervasiveness—where the complexity of the PC is eliminated, computer chips replace less-reliable mechanical processes, and Internet diagnoses will supposedly fix things even before they're broken.

It enables a powerful business model. While Internet economic theory (wherein one builds wealth by giving things away) is often fuzzy as to where profits might arise, the Post-PC gang has an answer: services. Since the prices of computer chips and bandwidth are headed nowhere but down, it stands to reason that all sorts of high-tech stuff—anything, in fact, that's made of atoms—should be regarded as 21st-century loss leaders for the revenue-producing subscriptions, contracts and license fees people will pay for the flow of information and applications. "It's not about making money on hardware, but an annuity-driven model, like the cell phone," says David Armitage, CEO of Qubit Technology, which makes a two-pound information appliance that enables walk-around Web browsing.

In fact, the Post-PC vision may well lead the way for a sea change in the way people think about how they spend money. Instead of their buying things, the focus might shift to buying a means of getting things done. Bill Joy puts it another way: "I don't really want a car," he says. "I'd rather pay for a car service."

It's not controlled by Microsoft (yet). Here's the theory: if millions of devices are talking directly to each other, PCs will lose their place in the center of gravity and Microsoft's powerful grip on the industry will be loosened. So Microsoft's competitors have a huge incentive to invest in pervasive computing.

Microsoft, of course, has its own spin. VP Craig Mundie objects to the term Post-PC, helpfully suggesting an alternative: PC Plus. But Mundie does say his company cannot ignore the phenomenon. Microsoft is several versions into its own info-appliance standard, Windows CE. It's designed a computing system for cars. It's crafted a "microbrowser" for mobile phones. And its quest to rule the (non-PC) set-top-box universe was a prime motivation for its $5 billion investment in AT&T.

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When can this vision be realized? Pundits estimate a minimum five- to seven-year time frame before the new technologies arrive, bandwidth gets higher and a long list of consortiums and alliances agree on common standards. But pieces of the vision fall into place almost daily. Dozens of information appliances do a good job of specialized tasks, and the PalmPilot's success has galvanized the industry. The Palm VII, introduced this week, breaks ground with its easy Internet connection, and will spur content providers to rethink Web pages to serve tiny screens.

The next leap may be in merging mobile phones with the Net. In gadget-crazy Finland, people are using their Nokias to pay bills, access bus schedules on the mobile-phone display and punch in payment codes for car washes and jukebox tunes.

Whatever the speed and shape of pervasive computing, the hope is that it will keep its main promise: integrating computers and the Internet so seamlessly into devices that we'll forget what's inside them. Instead, we'll concentrate on the tasks we want to perform in the first place. "For years, we've been battling all these devices; because they've been so hard to use, they were in the center of our consciousness," says author Kevin Kelly. "But by being ubiquitious and adapting to us instead of the other way around, they'll retreat."

But will the new world really eliminate the problems of the old? In the midst of a recent monologue on the coming era, delivered one-on-one in his Aspen office, Bill Joy offers to print out a paper that illustrates a salient point. He reaches for his laptop, which is equipped with the sort of wireless high-speed Internet connection that, one day, may be a routine adornment in all our cameras, palmtops, game machines, medical sensors and, yes, dishwashers. According to the theory, these will all be linked together, of course, in an infrastructure that will virtually eliminate crashes and glitches. He keyboards the command to print the document in the adjoining room. And nothing happens. "You know what?" he finally says. "I think this did get printed—on the printer back in my house across town."

Uh-oh.

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