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