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Pervasive Computing: The Next Chapter on the Internet

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If you can imagine your doctor talking to your hearing aid or your refrigerator reordering milk, then you're ready to embrace the next Internet revolution called pervasive computing.
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If you can imagine your doctor talking to your hearing aid or your refrigerator reordering milk, then you're ready to embrace the next Internet revolution called pervasive computing. The concept of pervasive computing, which describes the extension of the Internet beyond PCs and servers to form a truly universal network, has been around for several years, but only recently has it begun to find its way to the mainstream.

Although some pundits claim this development signals the death of the personal computer, that demise is unlikely, considering we haven't even moved past mainframes yet. What will start happening, however, is the expansion of the power of the Internet beyond traditional computing devices, enabling people to participate in a global network by using their mobile phones, TV sets, or refrigerators. And it will go a step further.

Pervasive computing will not only replicate the standard functionality of the Web in embedded devices, but it will also offer the services provided by such devices to other entities on the Internet. The idea is to reap the benefits of ever-broader networks without having to deal with obtuse, unwieldy technology. The first generation of embedded devices were passive, meaning that they relayed existing services to other devices, such as the TV. The second generation of embedded devices is more intelligent and can look for services on the Internet, collect them, and bundle them into "metaservices."

1.1 Introduction

Pervasive computing describes an environment where a wide variety of devices carry out information processing tasks on behalf of users by utilizing connectivity to wide variety of networks. In a 1996 speech, Rick Belluzo, executive VP and general manager of Hewlett-Packard, 1 compared pervasive computing to electricity, calling it "the stage when we take computing for granted. We only notice its absence, rather than its presence." While this may be true for Bill Gates's $53 million home, that level of pervasive technology hasn't trickled down to the mainstream—yet. Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., of IBM2 once said, "Picture a day when a billion people will interact with a million e-businesses via a trillion interconnected, intelligent devices." Pervasive computing does not just mean "computers everywhere"; it means "computers, networks, applications, and services everywhere." Pervasive computing has roots in many aspects of computing. In its current form, it was first articulated by Mark Weiser 3 in 1988 (even before the introduction of the World Wide Web) at the Computer Science Lab at Xerox PARC. 4 In his opinion, pervasive computing is roughly the opposite of virtual reality. Where virtual reality puts people inside a computer-generated world, pervasive computing forces the computer to live out here in the world with people. Virtual reality is primarily a horsepower problem; pervasive computing is a difficult integration of human factors, computer science, engineering, and social sciences. Weiser also calls this invisible, everywhere computing that does not live on a personal device of any sort but is in the woodwork everywhere. Its highest ideal is to make a computer so embedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it. By invisible, Weiser means that the tool does not intrude on your consciousness; you focus on the task, not the tool. Eyeglasses are a good tool: you look at the world, not the eyeglasses. Pervasive computing creates an augmented reality. It enriches objects in the real world and makes them "smart." This allows these devices to better assist people. With additional information about the environment and the context, these devices become better tools for the people using them.

The trick is to build devices to match people's activities that are related sets of tasks. Already you use 50 or more computers in your home. You don't care how many there are, as long as they provide value and don't get in your way. That's how it should be with the computers in our lives. Computers and motors are infrastructure; they should be invisible.

When computers merge with physical things, they disappear. This is also known as invisible computing and raises, of course, new issues with the user interface, since people do not know that they are using a computer. New, intuitive user interfaces are therefore required.

Realizing such a mass market revolution will involve new types of strategic planning that will connect individual organizations from different industries into an intricate network of alliances and interest groups. Additionally, this vision requires a simplified consumer-marketing strategy that focuses on customer solutions instead of technology products. But this will not be easy; very little of our current system infrastructure will survive.

Examples of Invisible Appliances

Here are some examples of information appliances. The list includes many things you wouldn't think of as computers, which is just the point: successful invisible computers won't be thought of as computers. So, you won't notice you are using lots of them.

  • ATM Machines - Money delivery through a computer network

  • Cash Registers - Calculators that are used in checkout counters

  • Navigation Systems - Direction-giving devices and maps built into cars

  • Digital Cameras - Images just like those from standard cameras

  • Electric Instruments - Electronic simulation of guitars, keyboards, drums

  • Calculators - A service to people who still use calculators even though they are sitting in front of a computer

1.1.1 Human-Centered Development

Personal computers are general-purpose devices, designed to do everything. As a result, they can't be optimized for any individual task. Another related problem is that in the design of the PC, many choices were made intentionally to make the PC as flexible and user friendly as possible. Users have complete control over their machines and can even modify the operating system at will, just by clicking on an e-mail attachment. This model makes any real security impossible. Furthermore, it makes it hard even for experienced computer experts to fix problems. Thus, long-range ease of use has been given up in favor of short-term convenience by enabling users to modify their machines on the spur of the moment. This approach is great for rapid diffusion of the next software application, but it leads to frustration when things go wrong, as they often do. Providing stability, security, or transparency requires limiting users' flexibility.

A tradeoff between flexibility and ease of use is unavoidable. However, there is no single tradeoff that is optimal for everyone. Donald Norman 5 argues that the PC was aimed at the "early adopters" and that its lack of success in penetrating about half of the households in the United States is a sign of its poor design. The success of Apple's iMac6 is another sign that consumers do value simplicity. The iMac requires only a power cable and a telephone cable and within seconds it is on the Internet. No fuss about configuration, it just works. Norman argues that information appliances can and should be designed for the mass market. Proper design of simple interfaces, appropriate when a restricted set of tasks is to be enabled, does make this possible. This is one reason why more mobile phones than personal computers are sold in Europe. Mobile phones are easy to use.

Look at open source software. Linux is the major rival to Microsoft Windows today. Yet it seems that the main lesson to be drawn from the success of Linux and Apache is different. These systems are built by experts for experts. There are many people (although a tiny fraction of the whole population) who know what regular expressions are and can use text commands to execute programs much faster than a graphical user interface (GUI) would let them. They also tend to be in charge of important resources such as web servers, and they appreciate (and effectively use) the flexibility that access to source code provides. Apache and Linux are ideal for them. They are not satisfied with the black-box software from commercial vendors.

These expert users do not account for a large fraction of desktop computers but do control a large share of computing budgets. They form a substantial market for computers where flexibility is dominant, even at the cost of ease of use.

On the other hand, it is doubtful whether those among them who contribute to the code, as opposed to just using it, are interested in creating the easy-to-use but much less flexible interface that would appeal to a wider market. That is the province of Microsoft and Apple. Apple has always been strong on the user interface side, but now they are creating an even more powerful alternative to Windows, called Mac OS X. It uses a BSD kernel, which is similar to the core of Linux and has an easy-to-use interface, called Aqua. It is still a GUI, but built on more than 15 years of experience in this area.

To make computers invisible, designers must start a more human-centered product development, which studies the users for whom the device is intended. This could be in the field where they normally work, study, and play. Norman calls this method "rapid ethnography." Once this study has been conducted, rapid prototyping procedures, design, mock-ups, and tests, which take hours or days, try to find out how people respond to the product idea. This process needs to be repeated until an acceptable result is arrived at.

The next step in the human-centered development is the manual, which needs be written in a short and simple manner. It should be as simple as possible. The manual and the prototypes are used as the design specs for the engineers.

The issue today is that a product usability test is done only after the product has been manufactured. It should be the other way around. The industry knows that you cannot get quality through testing. Quality must be built in at every step of the process. The result is faster production at higher quality. The same story holds for the total user experience. The total user experience is far more than usability. It is the entire relationship between the consumer and the product.

Human-centered product development is simple in concept but foreign to the minds of most technology companies. The youth of a technology is very exciting. Engineers are in charge. Customers demand more technology. There are high profits and high rates of growth. More technology is introduced, creating a collapsing market situation. After this, the technologies mature and become a commodity. They are taken for granted. Customers want value, quality, fun. Looking at the Internet, we have just left the collapse that happened in late 2000 and are now starting to see mature solutions. If you want human-centered development, you probably have to reorganize your company and create a mind-set to enable human-focused products.

1.1.2 New Class of Computing

Pervasive computing, sometimes called ubiquitous or nomadic computing, describes not only a class of computing device that doesn't fit the form factor of the traditional personal computer, but also a set of new business models supporting these devices. Where a desktop computer uses a familiar keyboard, monitor, and mouse interaction model, pervasive computing devices interact in a variety of different ways. They may use handwriting recognition, voice processing, or imagery. They're often portable and may or may not have a persistent network connection. A pervasive computing device is meant to integrate into your lifestyle and to extend your reach into a global network of computing, freeing you from desk-bound application interaction. With the ability to take corporate and personal processes and data with you, no matter your destination, opportunities abound for improving and enhancing your personal and professional life.

The first wave of computing, from the 1940s to the early 1980s, was dominated by many people serving one computer. In the early eighties the personal computer evolved and allowed the symbiosis between a single person and a computer. The third wave was introduced with the invention of the World Wide Web in the early nineties. Suddenly, the single person could connect to many other computers and users over the global network, the Internet. The fourth wave, which we are seeing on the horizon, extends the paradigm of the third wave, allowing any device, not just computers, to connect to the global Inter-net and introduces the paradigm of automated services that serve the users, instead of users serving themselves on the Internet, everywhere in the world.

History of Computing

In the history of computing we are about to move to a fourth-generation of computing. Over time, cost and size of computers has reduced significantly to allow more people to participate in the world of computing.

  • Mainframe Computing - Many people share one large computer

  • Personal Computing - One person works with one little computer

  • Internet Computing - One person uses many services on a worldwide network

  • Pervasive Computing - Many devices serve many people in a personalized way on a global network

Picture the sales representative who undocks a portable device each morning before heading out on his route. As he travels his territory, he's able to transact with his customers either in real time or cached for his eventual return. Imagine finishing the last of the milk in the carton and casually swiping the bar code across a reader mounted on the refrigerator. The next time you enter the grocery store to shop, your PalmPC reminds you that you need milk or, better yet, if you don't find a trip to the market to be therapeutic, your household point-of-presence server simply forwards the milk request to the grocer and the required milk is delivered in the next shipment to your home!

While there's no doubt that pervasive computing will be a major part of the technological revolution in the 21st century, we have to ask ourselves whether or not it really benefits society. Many people believe that "pervasive" is just another word for invasive and that it comes at the price of our privacy. Ubiquitous computing affords us the ability to get information anytime, anywhere, but it also increases the risk that centralized personal information will be used without the owner's consent.

There are certainly advantages to having all of your personal data and the equivalent of hundreds of web search engines available on an embedded chip controlled by your voice and an invisible heads-up display. Sure, it sounds a little like the Jetsons, but so did an Internet appliance in the palm of your hand as recently as two or three years ago.

1.1.3 The Tech Elite Duke it Out

The race is on to create the standard for the next generation of the Internet, and as often happens with such efforts in their infancy, companies will compete to establish their own vision of the universal network. Sun Microsystems with its Jini technology is probably the best-known promoter of the universal network vision. But many other well-known companies have started to create similar technologies and incorporate the idea of pervasive computing into their corporate visions. Besides Sun, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lucent Technologies, and Microsoft are developing such technologies.

But lip service by the tech heavyweights isn't necessarily a precursor to widespread adoption. The tactical goal of championing these new technologies is often to make the companies developing the architecture appear innovative and to drive sales of more traditional products such as operating systems, servers, and printers. Though still in its formative stages, the concept of the universal network is now out of the bag, and strategically, the resulting technologies will open up a complete new world on the Internet for businesses of all sizes.

1.1.4 Business in a Brave New World

Pervasive computing is knocking on the door of today's economy. To sustain a profitable business in the future, you will need to change many business cases. Selling books to a fridge or sending information about software updates to a car will be easy through pervasive computing, but not successful. People using a fridge expect certain services from it, such as a list of food items inside, maybe a selection of shops in walking distance with good prices, and some recipes to make for dinner. But only a few people will go to the fridge to learn more about the latest thriller by Tom Clancy.

The same applies to all other devices that can now be connected to the Inter-net. People use them for a certain reason: to increase business and the value of the device; to offer services that support the device or the use of the device. Bringing "traditional" e-commerce and e-business applications to these devices will be easy, but commercially most probably a failure.

Pervasive computing will get at least 10 times more people onto the Internet than there are now, so it is tempting to offer the same services and products to these users through this new and alternative channel. Very few devices really offer the same type of functionality we are used to from today's personal computer. In Europe, WAP-technology has moved Internet functionality to mobile phones. But as you can imagine, doing business with your mobile is quite a challenge. Instead of viewing just a product category, a product detailed page, and a payment page, you will have to go through at least 25 pages on your mobile phone. Your mobile phone cannot display a large amount of information at one time, and slow download times make things worse.

1.1.5 Creation of a New Paradigm

A new paradigm is necessary if we are to create a business targeted to mobile phone users. Any company should first look at the current use of a device before starting with a business plan. In our case, our potential customers use the mobile phone for calling people, storing addresses and phone numbers, playing small games, and looking up calendar appointments, dates, and times. To make money, we could supply services and products to complement the existing services. The call functionality is already supported by the built-in address book, but we could offer an online address book of the whole world. People on business in another town often have difficulty locating an address, so we could have the mobile phone support them with directions. Since mobile phones contain small games, such as Tetris, Snake, and Memory, we could offer new games for download. And to keep a calendar up-to-date, we could synchronize it automatically with the user's existing calendar on his PC or server at work.

These are small services that can enhance the value of the phone, and people would be willing to pay a small amount of money for them. Although we can charge only a few cents per transaction, there is a good chance to become rich soon. The lower the transaction fee, the more likely people are to use the feature. Five cents for a phone and address lookup should not bother many people, and maybe 50 cents for directions to a certain address won't really bother a businessperson. Since the number of users is 10 times higher on mobile phones than on the Internet, we could offer a certain service at a much lower price.

We should now examine the functionality we have built for the mobile phone business to see how we can use it for other devices. All the functionality can, of course, be offered on the Web. People with older mobile phones would therefore be able to use the service. But let's not stop here. Other devices may also be in need of such services. For example, a driver could use the direction and location service, so the car should have access to it. Instead of receiving the information through a map, the driver needs the same information in spoken form. A voice should tell her to drive left at the next crossing and so forth. This means that the data should be stored in a device-independent format to obtain the maximum revenue from the service.

As you can see, every device is an aid for human beings; to make devices more valuable, it is necessary to offer additional services around them. Depending on the situation, the service, product, or information needs to be presented in a different manner in order to support people in the best possible way.

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