Section 6. When Do We Need to Begin Preparing for Everyware?

Section 6. When Do We Need to Begin Preparing for Everyware?

We've gotten a sense of the various factors shaping the development of ubiquitous computingand of the different forms that computing will take in different places.

Which of the many challenges involved in bringing it into being have been resolved? And which remain to be addressed? Most important, how much time do we have to prepare for the actuality of everyware?

Thesis 52

At most, everyware will subsume traditional computing paradigms. It will not supplant themcertainly not in the near term.

In determining when everyware might realistically arrive, the first notion that we need to dispense with is that it is an all-or-nothing proposition. Just as there are still mainframes and minicomputers chugging away in the world, doing useful work unthreatened by the emergence of the PC, the advent of ubiquitous computing will not mean the disappearance of earlier forms.

Wearables, embedded sensors, RFID-based infrastructures of one sort or another, and the many other systems that we've here defined as ubiquitous in nature canin fact already dohappily coexist with thoroughly ordinary desktops and laptops. Even after information processing begins to pervade the environment in more decisive ways, there will continue to be a healthy measure of backward compatibility; for some time yet to come, anyone writing a dissertation, keeping a budget, or designing a logo will be likely to interact with conventional applications running on relatively conventional machines.

Personal computers of relatively familiar aspect will continue to be made and sold for the foreseeable future, though they will increasingly tend to be conceived of as portals onto the far greater functionality offered by the local constellation of ubiquitous resources. Such PCs may well serve as the hub by which we access and control the mélange of technical systems imperceptibly deployed everywhere around us, without ever quite disappearing themselves. We could say the same of the various "Ubiquitous Communicator"-style phones that have been proposed, in that they'll persist as discrete objects very much at the focus of attention.

It's true that this kind of setup doesn't go terribly far toward fulfilling Weiser and Brown's hopes for a calm technology, but neither is it quite what we've thought of as personal computing historically. Such scenarios illustrate the difficulties of inscribing a hard-and-fast line between the two paradigms, let alone specifying a date by which personal computing will indisputably have disappeared from the world. Moreover, there will always be those, whatever their motivation, who prefer to maintain independent, stand-alone devicesand if for no other reason than this, the personal computer is likely to retain a constituency for many years past its "sell-by" date.

The safest conclusion to draw is that, while there will continue to be room for PCs in the world, this should not be construed as an argument against the emergence of a more robust everyware. If the border between personal and ubiquitous computing is not always as clear as we might like, that should not be taken as an admission that the latter will not turn out to have enormous consequences for all of us.

Thesis 53

Depending on how it is defined, everyware is both an immediate issue and a "hundred-year problem."

The question of how soon we need to begin preparing for everyware really turns on how strictly it is defined. If we're simply using the word to denote artifacts like PayPass cards and Smart Hydro bathtubs, then it's clear that "preparing" is out of the question: these things already exist.

But everyware is also, and simultaneously, what HP Laboratories' Gene Becker calls a "hundred-year problem": a technical, social, ethical and political challenge of extraordinary subtlety and difficulty, resistant to comprehensive solution in anything like the near term. In fact, if we use the word "everyware" maximally, to mean a seamless and intangible application of information processing that causes change to occur, whether locally or remotely, in perfect conformity with the user's will, we may never quite get there however hard we try.

As is so often the case, the useful definition will be found somewhere in between these two extremes. The trouble is that we're not particularly likely to agree on just where in between: we've already seen that there are many ubiquitous computings, and as if that weren't complication enough, we've also seen that there are places where the line between personal and ubiquitous computing is fairly blurry to begin with.

So how are we to arrive at an answer to our question? Let's see whether we can't narrow the window of possible responses somewhat, by considering schematically which of the components required by a truly ubiquitous computing are already in place and which remain to be developed.

Many such components already exist in forms capable of underwriting a robust everyware, even in the scenarios imagined by its more exuberant proponents. And while a very high degree of finesse in implementation is an absolute precondition for any sort of acceptable user experience, there's nothing in principle that keeps these components from being used to build ubiquitous applications today:

  • Processor speeds are sufficient to all but the most computationally intensive tasks.

  • Storage devices offer the necessary capacity.

  • Displays have the necessary flexibility, luminance and resolution.

  • The necessary bridges between the physical reality of atoms and the information space of bits exist.

  • The necessary standards for the representation and communication of structured data exist.

  • A sufficiently capacious addressing scheme exists.

What makes a system composed of these elements "ubiquitous" in the first place is the fact that its various organelles need not be physically coextensive; given the right kind of networking protocol, they can be distributed as necessary throughout local reality. As it happens, an appropriate protocol exists, and so we can add this too to the list of things that need not hold us back.

But there are also a few limiting factors we may wish to consider. These are the circumstances that have thus far tended to inhibit the appearance of everyware, and which will continue to do so until addressed decisively:

  • Broad standards for the interoperability of heterogeneous devices and interfaces do not exist.

  • In most places, the deployed networking infrastructure is insufficient to support ubiquitous applications.

  • Appropriate design documents and conventions simply do not exist, nor is there a community consciously devoted to the design of ubiquitous systems at anything like industrial scale.

  • There is barely any awareness on the part of users as to the existence of ubiquitous systems, let alone agreement as to their value or utility.

Overall, these issues are much less tractable than the purely technological challenges posed by processor speed or storage capacity, and it's these which account for much of the complexity implied by Becker's "hundred-year problem." We'll consider each point individually before venturing an answer as to when everyware will become an urgent reality.

My own contention is that, while the existence of this latter set of factors constitutes a critical brake on the longer-term development of everyware, the social and ethical questions I am most interested in are activated even by systems that are less total in ambition and extentsome of which are already deployed and fully operational. So we'll consider a few such operational systems as well. By the time the chapter concludes, I hope you will agree with me that however long it may take a full-fledged everyware to appear, the moment to begin developing a praxis appropriate to it is now.