"Things That Think", "connected devices", "smartifacts", "ubiquitous/pervasive computing" [1, 2], "context-aware environments", "ambient intelligence", " disappearing computer" This paper attempts to extract the gist of converging technological evolutions underlying these seemingly ill-assorted catchphrases.
Be they called connected things, communicating objects or smart devices, their most seductive image springs from this dizzying, mind-boggling cornucopia of digital gadgetry that is permanently on offer and permanently renewed throughout the media. They are the most tangible aspect of an evolution that we may at first, if superficially, analyse as such.
The genealogy of emblematic devices, say a GPRS-mobile-phone-MP3-walkman combo, or an MMS-PDA, shows them as typical from the convergence of telecom terminals, computers, and audio-visual consumer electronics. Devices characteristic from these three domains did, not so long ago, belong to radically different, uncrossbreedable species. The digital convergence of technologies threw down genetic barriers between the three, opening up a slew of possibilities for the hybridation of their respective devices.
The seemingly logical end-point of this convergence could have been to the integration of all these devices into a single device. As a matter of fact, the multimedia home PC could now, in theory at least, subsume telephone and videophone, stereo set, television and VCR, providing, in theory also, much better versatility than each of the legacy devices thus superseded. Whether it is under the guise of some avatar of the hideous "beige box", or under the more seductive appearance of the "Swiss Army Knife PDA", the tendency to concentration of individual processing/communication functionalities will always exist, but will remain in fact marginal.
Users tend to consistently favour the separate material embodiment, in distinctive devices, of functions which are unambiguously distinct to them, with, however, the exception of those already-mentioned hybrids corresponding to the more or less natural coupling of 2 or 3 separate functions in the same device. The dominant tendency is definitely towards the decentralisation of functions in separate devices, as a broader historical and technological perspective will explain.