Forget personal computing. A new world of community computing is knocking on the front door, offering unparalleled communication opportunities and challenges alike. That's how Jonathan Murray, Microsoft's chief technology officer for Europe, Middle East and Africa, envisions a new technological environment that will soon confront users, suppliers and governments alike.
"If you look 10 years out, massively powerful devices running very smart software will sit at the edge of the network and will connect in a ubiquitous, ad hoc way," Murray said in an interview last week at the United Nations-hosted World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis. "When you walk into a room, your devices will locate other devices and connect them to form a mesh network."
The idea is not completely new. Executives from IBM and Sun Microsystems, for example, have long talked about a world of ubiquitous devices linked together seamlessly, as has Microsoft's own chairman, Bill Gates. The concept goes by many overlapping names, such as ubiquitous computing or ambient computing, where embedded devices connect to a massively meshed network and disappear into the environment.
Microsoft, a household name for personal computing software, hopes to be a big player in this emerging market for community computing systems as well, according to Murray.
"We are moving into a world where I don't just have my own personal device that runs my own applications," he said. "Instead, I'm in a new environment where I'm sharing your computing capacity and you are sharing mine, and our identities are spread all over these devices."
Much of the fabric to connect these devices already existed in the form of Web services, open standards such as Extensible Markup Language (XML), and more, Murray said.
"But that's only one piece of the puzzle," he said. "Another piece is the systems engineering required to deliver the ubiquitous, end-to-end experience for users."
The complexity of engineering all these systems to communicate with each other seamlessly, to use Murray's language, would require deep expertise and massive investment in R&D, of which Microsoft has both, Murray said.
There will be opportunities for different software models, including open source, but the applications running on top of the open standards-based infrastructure would demand deep R&D pockets and a very focused thinking to ensure end-to-end connectivity, he said.
"This is where we as a commercial software company will apply our focus," Murray said.
If systems management engineering was a huge challenge, regulating all these smart devices in a mesh network was all that and more, he said.
"Today, government regulators think about networks as big trunks and hubs that can be relatively easily controlled," Murray said. "But how to regulate when I connect to the Internet through only one point but link 1000 other devices to the mesh network in the process?"
The old way of regulating networks - the top-down and centralised - will become increasingly redundant, according to the CTO.
"The problem is, it's still not clear what the new model should be," he said.