This isn't an essay about plate tectonics, though I have moved much closer to an earthquake fault line, here in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, here are a few thoughts on the future of mobile devices, motivated by the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show and fact that my garage door does not trust my car.
Computers and After Dinner Speeches
Like many of you, I give my share of public presentations – conference keynotes, technical presentations, advisory panels, the occasional Congressional hearing and non-technical, future of computing prognostications. Few things give me more pause, though, than an invitation to give an after dinner speech to a non-technical audience.
The after dinner attendees are sated and somnambulant, often having found further comfort in the fruits of Bacchus. (By the way, Bob Lucky, has a great essay on the dangers of after dinner speeches in his collected IEEE Spectrum essays, published as Lucky Strikes Again. If you haven't read Bob's book, stop reading this essay right now and buy a copy.) As the after dinner speaker, you are all that stand between the attendees and relaxation. You must be interesting, be entertaining, and above all, be brief. And may the gods protect you if you dare further darken the room to show PowerPoint slides.
In these difficult circumstances (exacerbated by the fact that I can't sing; I can't dance; and I've never opened for David Letterman anywhere), I often fall back on a simple audience question, "How many computers do each of you own?" It's an old magician's trick, that of misdirection.
By framing the question with the word "computer," I elicit the expected answers – typically, the response is 1-5, depending on the number of children and the occupation. Of course, that response is accurate, but completely misleading, just as I intended. It sets the stage for a discussion about technological invisibility.
Unless you've been emulating Henry David Thoreau, you own hundreds, if not thousands of "computers." They are embedded in diverse items
- household objects (washing machines, microwave ovens, thermostats and garage door openers)
- home and personal health care devices (thermometers, pacemakers and glucose meters)
- automobiles (electronic keys, antilock brakes, electronic fuel injection, climate controls and music systems), and
- consumer electronic devices (cell phones, iPods (I better mention Microsoft's Zune!) and DVD players).
Equally importantly, they control our critical international infrastructure, including traffic, electrical, communication and monetary systems.
The adage that the success of a technology is measured by its invisibility is apt. Consumer computing is succeeding because it adds value to people's lives, allowing them to do things, or do them more easily or cheaply, that they could not do before.
For all but a very few, computing is not the goal; computing is a means to the goal. Each time those of us in the technology business forget this, we are punished for our hubris. I just wish my garage understood this.
My Garage Doesn't Trust My Car
Each swing of the computing pendulum, from centralized to distributed infrastructure, has expanded the number and types of end devices. We have seen successive waves of diversification and technology democratization, from minicomputers to workstations to PCs to laptops to cell phones and consumer electronic devices.
We now face a dizzying diversity of devices, many of which we want to interact and share information, efficiently and automatically. As someone who is reconstructing his electronic Weltanschauung atop new devices and services in a new geography, I can tell you that this is no simple task. Mobile devices, home networks, cars, garage door openers, thermostats, even alarm clocks – none of them know my idiosyncratic preferences and few can learn from the others.
You might say this is because we lack interoperability standards, and to some extent that is true. However, successful standards, like treaties, usually ratify ground truth. The space of consumer devices is evolving so rapidly that anticipating the possibilities is both daunting and foolhardy. Rather, I believe we need discovery and adaptation protocols that enable mobility and transduction.
Mobile Code and Transducted Interfaces
Imagine a world where a new device receives code and data based on its capabilities and learns its surroundings based on secure authentication and data exchange. In such a world, code-carrying messages deliver new functionality based on device capabilities and service needs. Discovery and authentication mean that new devices operate in an evolving ecosystem, rather than as singletons. Equally importantly, the data presentation mechanisms and metaphors would adapt to the device capabilities.
In this happy world, my garage door would know that I own the house. If my car trusts me to drive it, then the garage door should trust the car's authenticated assertion that I want to park – outside the rain. I would that it were so.