For the Week of July 28, 2003
Science proceeds along two tracks. There are big experiments, like the Space Program, meant to either demonstrate something or find out some great truth. Then there are little experiments, the tens of thousands of unnoticed efforts that plug holes in theories or rip new ones.
Engineering follows science in the same way. There are big engineering projects, like the Hoover Dam or Golden Gate Bridge, and there are little engineering projects, like the re-paving of your street. In electrical engineering there are big projects, like a new chip fab, and little projects, like the programming of a new FPGA.
The World of Always On will happen in the same way, with both big demonstration projects and small product advances. Now that you know the method, let's apply it to some recent events.
Intel's Proactive Computing initiative is an example of Big Engineering in The World of Always On. Intel has created a consortium with a number of other players (like Honeywell, a long-time leader in industrial processes and home automation) to build a new method for handling the demands of Alzheimer patients living at home. .
The system of wirelessly networked sensors, actuators, and software
is the first complete Always On application solution set I have seen. About the only thing it lacks is a voice interface, relying instead on small display screens. But remember - we are just at the beginning of a multi-decade evolution for this technology.
The test is working with what may be the toughest nut to crack in the field of medical monitoring. As the comic strip "Crankshaft" showed so movingly recently, people with this disease often don't know where or when they are. It is a terribly debilitating challenge for even the most loving, full-time caregiver. Alzheimer's care is even a challenge for institutions. And, given the aging of the U.S. population, the burden will only increase with time.
In addition to motion detectors and pillbox sensors, the Intel study features pressure sensors on patients' favorite chairs, networks of cameras, and radio tags embedded in household items and clothing that communicate with readers in floor mats, shelves, and walls. Based on the pattern of the signals the network can tell what the patient is doing and either give instructions or alert a caregiver if they're doing something a little crazy. Intel will install the first trial systems in the homes of two dozen Alzheimer's patients early next year.
Intel's PDF white paper on the subject is filled with new buzzwords like "deep networking" and "macro-processing" but these are just names for challenges we have discussed here before. A network of tiny sensors and actuators, each one "cheap as chips," is constantly communicating, and the network application is constantly calculating. The immediate benefits from the research are enormous. Every day you can keep a patient at home can be a day of living, rather than a day of dying. The financial savings are also real.
Little engineering, on the other hand, can be found in the
CarChip from Davis Electronics in Hayward, California.
The CarChip plugs into the On Board Diagnostics-II connector. of your post-1996 model car. (The connector looks like this . The socket connects a device plugged into it with all the sensors (computer chips) inside the car. When you to go get your auto emissions check each year, a technician will plug into it. It's usually placed near (and below) your steering column. When you take your new car to the shop, a technician will also use this interface to measure the car's performance.
The CarChip simply stores many hours of sensor data and delivers an analysis of how your car is performing, in plain English. It's a small version of systems previously sold to car mechanics, only it takes advantage of the six years of Moore's Law advances seen since the OBD-II connector went in. What was once a big box is now a small dongle.
Think of the CarChip as an Always On Kaypro for a car owner. It is a primitive version of what's coming. You're interfacing to a network with a simple client. Where do we go from here?
We go into two directions. First, we get better clients, which can store more data, or do more with it. Second, you interface this with your home network. You either put a radio on the CarChip so your network gets the data while the car is in the driveway, or you get an OBD-II interface for your PC.
The output of all this is knowledge of the problems your car may have before they become apparent to you on the road. Recently, for instance, my old van needed brake work. It could have cost me $150 for shoes, had I known of the problem early enough. It wound up costing $500, because I didn't take the car in until I noticed the problem while driving. That's a potential $350 benefit from just one brake job. Imagine if you could know about transmission problems before they got bad, or engine problems before they got bad? A sudden failure can cause an accident, and an accident can be deadly...see the sales pitch?
The difference between Big E and Little E jobs is simple to explain. Big E is about solving a problem. Little E is about driving down the cost of the solution, and building a market. Computer graphics started with "engineering workstations" and eventually evolved into software standard PCs, or networks of PCs, could handle.
The same thing happens with Always On. You start with an application. Then you put it into hardware. Then you put it on your home network. Then you start applying network intelligence to the results. In the case of the CarChip, imagine that your home network could alert you to call the mechanic and schedule an appointment. Imagine if your home network could call the mechanic and schedule an appointment, with the appointment put back into your day planner, which told you to take the car in the day before you had to do it.
It will take longer for the Alzheimer's solution to reach the market. First the solution has to become real. Then it has to prove its value. Then Little E will bring it to you, expanding the market so that it can handle any elderly patient, then anyone with a specific syndrome, then anyone at all, with any disease or no disease.
And suddenly, through the efforts of one market, the Always On infrastructure is in millions of homes, just as PCs are in millions of homes today, ready to do other things.
SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)
Big news. I have started work as a business analyst with Progressive Strategies , a New York research firm that has the ear of the world's top technology companies. If we can get some of 'em to actually follow some Clues, it would be a very good thing indeed.
We have a winner. "The Blankenhorn Effect" has won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards . The book was also reviewed (favorably) by Ray Troxel of The Web Server Times last week.
"Dana, it is GOOD," raves Pete duPont, lawyer, futurist and once a candidate for President. "This is some really powerful 'stuff.' I think you've got a winner," says Drew Kaplan of DAK Catalog fame. One result is I have begun working on a follow-up book, describing the future direction of technology, to be called "The World Of Always On." Buy "The Blankenhorn Effect" at Amazon.Com , or at least say nice things. You can use the ASIN number, 1553953673, and recommend it to readers of other, similar books. You can also save on shipping when you buy the book at Amazon, over the cost of buying it elsewhere.
If you can convince some more published reviewers to read "The Blankenhorn Effect" and recommend it to their readers, please send me a name and address. In exchange, you'll get the PDF version of my second book, The Blankenhorn Effect: Boom, Bust & Beyond. This is a collection of columns from a-clue.com, organized chronologically and by subject, with additional commentary from yours truly.
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Takes on the News
The Wi-Fi "Shakeout" Begins
Every developing market goes through several distinct stages.
There is the discovery stage. Then there is the initial product stage, and the initial ramp-up stage. Those stages have all passed in the case of Wi-Fi, or 802.11 if you want to be accurate.
Now comes the "initial shakeout" stage. Two things are happening. First, major players are understanding the value of the market and entering it big-time. At the same time some early entrants, undercapitalized and under pressure, see margins shrinking, competition coming and decide it's time to bail.
That is what Intersil decided to do and who can really blame them? It got $365 million for its Wi-Fi chip business, from GlobespanVirata. It can use that money to profitably enter new markets, which may be where Wi-Fi itself was five years ago.
It's a good deal all around. GlobespanVirata fills out its product line. Intersil goes back into less-competitive areas of telecommunication silicon, where it's comfortable, and it gets a nice fat check for its trouble.
Best of all, we actually have another endorsement of the fact this Wi-Fi thing is real. Cisco and Intel have both joined the market. Smaller players are peeling off. Major carriers like T-Mobile are actively seeking a profit.
I have said this before and I'll say it again, the big profits here won't be in the chips, or the telecom service, but in the applications that are built off the platform. But the first two have to be there in order for the third to happen. They will be.
In The Blogeteria
Over the last several months I have been fortunate to use several blogging systems.
What I have learned is that the same dichotomy we struggled with in the early days of computing holds true today. You have a choice between power and simplicity.
Back when I first started covering technology, this was expressed by dBase, then the leading database for PCs, with a product called "Friday." Friday was a simplified version of dBase, designed for home users, and it was launched with great fanfare at the Spring 1983 Comdex. Within a year Friday was gone, and very shortly afterward so was Ashton-Tate, the company that marketed it.
My experience with Blogger and Weblogger is somewhat limited, I'm afraid. I have tried to launch blogs with both. It never took. The instructions were difficult for me (I know they're supposed to be simple) and the results just looked shabby.
But WebCrimson is something else. It is very simple. I type, I cut and paste links where I want them, I download graphics to my own PC and upload them, I change typefaces and type sizes as needed...it's pure WYSIWYG. There's no "preview" step, I see what you see as I write it. Then I publish with one button. Cool.
More recently I have found myself running several blogs on Movable Type . Movable Type offers a lot of power. But it comes at some cost in simplicity. It's hard to put graphics in. I found a guy who could do it, I found graphics linked to other sites, and I saw the source he was creating. Then I was able to copy-and-paste that system for use in another blog, and it worked. But all I was really able to do was call up graphics from remote Web pages...I couldn't fit their size to my page, and I couldn't upload graphics from my own machine.
Movable Type's editing window, in other words, is not a WYSIWYG editor. It is a text window, which accepts HTML commands. If you know some HTML commands, you can make that window do some amazing tricks...make it sit up, roll over and bark, I should say. But it's not easy.
Maybe it says something about the preferences of early adopters that Movable Type is hot right now. I don't know. It has always been true that, in the long run, people prefer power to simplicity, even when they say the opposite. If WebCrimson wants to be a contender, it needs more power.
Money vs. The People
I wrote a note some weeks ago, later republished by the Howard Dean campaign .
The theme was the power of people against the power of money. It is a theme common to American politics. But it is also becoming a major theme in the evolution of technology.
The power of money has badly underestimated the demands of the market for online replacements to offline products that pass the savings on to them. Even when media companies accept the need to sell online, as with Apple's iMusic, they insist on pricing that builds-in all the false costs that existed in the old CD era.
The market rejects these terms and conditions, but insists on acquiring these products anyway. Thus, what was an underground economy in "piracy" of handbags, CDs, and software disks becomes a massive non-market in file-trading.
While politicians fed by the money power see this strictly as a law enforcement question it is becoming obvious to me that this is also becoming a political question. A lot of otherwise law-abiding people are swapping files online, and will continue to do so regardless of what the politicians say. The money power assumes that if they can bankrupt enough college kids, and send a few otherwise-lawful people to jail, the rest will not only knuckle-under in the marketplace but knuckle-under politically to what the money power demands.
This is not a good bet. Politics is not just about majorities crushing minorities. Politics is also about the acceptance of power, and power's prerogatives, by a consensus of the people. That consensus does not exist in the world of copyright, either in the U.S. or elsewhere, and there is no indication that the rule of fear is going to change that. The only thing the rule of fear does is build anger, which in turn drives everything that the money power most fears.
The copyright wars, in other words, have entered a new, and more dangerous phase. It is a phase that does not just hold danger for the file traders, but for the members of the copyright industries as well. Their failure to see this could prove a fatal mistake.
Clued-in is Adobe Systems , now working to link its PDF format to XML.
Clueless are the dirty money Democrats who want to make all file sharing a felony , literally putting your teenager in jail for her Brittany Spears MP3. If you want to encourage contempt for the law, boys, you're going about it in the right way, because I certainly have contempt for you.
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