The path to pervasive computing

Consumer electronics show us the way

InfoWorld is one of the few IT publications that has taken up convergence, pervasive computing, and embedded technology as topics worthy of mainstream coverage. The concepts themselves are easy enough to get behind: We want each device to do as much for us as possible, to be cheap enough to put in everyone’s hands, and to be small enough to become an unobtrusive part of everyday life. What relegates these technologies to the fringe, or at least to the boundary between the serious and the frivolous, is that the best current place to study this new technology category is in consumer electronics. Don’t let that put you off. You’re about to witness the arrival of the next epoch. Do you remember the last one?

Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the boundaries between work and personal life were as plain the stretch of blacktop between the house and the office. Such distinctions were apparent in computing as well. In the office, microcomputers were joyless stand-ins for calculators and graph paper. At home, computers powered interactive video game systems, solid-state TVs and radios, educational toys and amateur radio. Businesses didn’t press vendors very hard to make computers smaller, cheaper, or easier to use. But after a time, the engineering knowledge and efficient processes honed from making leisure electronics leaked into business systems.

We’ve come a long way in 20 years, but we’re only part of the way toward our goal of genuinely pervasive computing. The best exemplar of the pervasive systems to come is the modern wireless phone. A typical high-end device is a combination telephone, camera, camcorder, wireless Internet terminal, full-color media viewer, digital music player, and rich content instant messaging system. These fully converged phones are lightweight, durable, very easy to use, and based on standards that make them partly pervasive by blurring the lines between brands. The next steps will be to lower the cost of these devices, give them the ability to communicate outside carriers’ coverage areas (peer-to-peer), and plant adaptations of these tiny, inexpensive, efficient cores wherever they might prove useful. When the desire for pervasive computing rises to meet the capabilities of the technology, it will be useful everywhere. In other words, pervasive.