Glimpses of a Wired World

WASHINGTON (08/21/2000) - Here in the early days of the Information Age, networked computing is straightforward: string wires among PCs and call it a local-area network, then connect that to the Internet. "Network" equals "wires" and "computer" equals "PC."

That reality is changing faster than answering a cell phone in a crowded movie theater. Cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) are running increasingly powerful applications that have made them full-fledged business computers instead of just toys for consumer electronics junkies.

The network is changing, too. It could be a wireless LAN inside an office building, a radio LAN on a battlefield or a cellular connection to the Internet.

The intersection of those trends is called pervasive, or ubiquitous, computing.

It means that simple mobile devices are now powerful computing tools dedicated to a few specific tasks. And even "dumb" immobile devices such as thermostats, door locks and light switches can connect to the network, making them controllable by remote computers.

As technology vendors begin to deliver products that can support and operate in this kind of environment, some of the government's leading technology groups, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), are exploring ways to create and use pervasive computing networks.

"I look at pervasive computing as the intersection of any content, through any network, to any device," said Ken Dulany, vice president of mobile computing for Gartner Group Inc., San Jose, Calif. "Pervasive computing is about having continuous access to the Internet."

"We've seen how the federal government has taken advantage of the Web," said Jon Prial, director of marketing and strategy for IBM Corp.'s Pervasive Computing Division. "The next step is for us to extend that e-business thinking out to a new class of devices. There is information locked in computers today that can be made accessible. By being able to reach out to people over standard devices, we lower the cost."

In the government, DARPA is interested in the flexibility and mobility that these kinds of devices will offer. "A traditional desktop computer may not be what is going to work for the military in the future," said Jan Walker, spokeswoman for DARPA. "Our users are going to be moving, so we have to keep up with them. The kinds of technologies we are looking at would make the computer easier to interact with and easier to collaborate with."

In addition, by storing information on a central server, instead of on a PC, the information will be available from anywhere the user may be, according to Mahomed-Shiraz Mahomed, vice president of engineering at Cyrus Intersoft Corp., which provides remote access solutions.

One result will be desktop computers that are essentially thin clients, but instead of running today's specialized thin client software, such devices will likely use a Java Virtual Machine running in a standard Web browser. That means that hardware that can run a browser will be able to run the application, giving users access to the same information at their desks, home computers or from their cell phones.

"Instead of deploying a thousand PCs, an agency could deploy access to a library of applications," said Mahomed. The cost savings can add up, as shown by an elementary school where Cyrus Intersoft has installed 30 thin clients for only US$200 each, instead of PCs that could cost hundreds more, depending on the configuration.

Despite the potential benefits, acceptance of pervasive computing is likely to be slow among chief information officers and other decision-makers because they have other problems to solve, said Andrew Seybold, editor in chief of Outlook, a mobile computing newsletter. "They have to be comfortable with this," he said. "You're talking about folks who are overworked and leery of new technology."

Two of the most likely devices for pervasive computing will be the cell phone and the PDA. But they won't be the weakling toys of the recent past. Instead, they will be souped up with ever- increasing computing power and a wider variety of applications.

"All of the [cellular] phones being shipped now have Internet access," Dulany said. PDAs can also connect to networks wirelessly with add-on cellular modems.

Both devices will figure prominently in pervasive computing, but neither is likely to totally displace the other, even as each gains more of the features of the other.

Cell phones, even ones with Web browsers and address book applications, will continue to be smaller, voice-centric devices, Dulany said. PDAs will be larger, with bigger screens and better input devices. By 2003, there will be 700 million cell phones sold worldwide, compared with about 30 million PDAs, Dulany predicted.

With users accessing information through a variety of devices - all of them more limited than the desktop PC - the nature of the information provided by Web sites and how it is provided will need to evolve, said Dino Brusco, director of marketing for embedded applications at Hewlett-Packard Co.

Current Web browsers pull information from sources, but such surfing will be too difficult to do on a cell phone. "When you have constrained input, you can't use the same model that we use on the desktop, where we browse the site and click on links," Brusco said. Instead, to save time, pervasive computer users will configure their devices to retrieve information expected to be of interest, he said.

For example, soldiers using wearable computers could have maps "pushed" to them automatically, he said.

Everyday federal users can benefit from pervasive computing as well, according to Victor McCrary, acting chief of the High Performance Systems and Service Division at NIST, which is developing emerging technologies such as pervasive computing because it expects they will be important for federal agencies in the near future.

"The question is, "How do we get the best use of our time?'" McCrary said.

"We're not going to get more than 24 hours a day. The more time is reduced looking up information, the more time we have to do other things." An important aspect of pervasive computing is that users need to have automatic access to the resources that are available on whatever network they have access to at the time. That is addressed by technologies such as Jini, from Sun Microsystems Inc., and Universal Plug and Play from Microsoft Corp.

"Users don't need any prior knowledge of what services are available on the network," said Franc Romano, group marketing manager for the Jini technical group at Sun.

This works as well for hard-wired networks as for wireless ones, so that installation and maintenance headaches should be reduced even on run-of-the-mill LANs employing Jini technology. "A device can leave a network and get replaced, with no need to reconfigure anything," Romano said.

Similarly, Universal Plug and Play accommodates the coming and going of devices on a network. "UPnP is an extension of the plug-and-play model inside the PC over the network," said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Windows Millennium Edition. "I add a piece of hardware, and the system discovers the hardware and loads the right software for it. That capability is something we are interested in extending over the network."

Computer vendors expect that having portable computing devices that automatically connect to wireless LANs as users enter and leave office buildings will prove explosively popular with users. "If the adoption of cell phones is an indication, there is a lot of attraction for wireless," Romano said. "It brings computational ability to where you do the work."

--Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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