by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VII, No. XLVII

This Week's Clue: The State of Always-On

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This Week's Clue: The State of Always-On
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
The Wrong Route To Identity
The Right Kind of Acquisition
Client Linux, Not Desktop Linux
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of November 24, 2003

In my new role as an analyst with Progressive Strategies I'm free to project technology into the future, and hopefully I'll be paid for it.

But that also means I need to cover it, which I haven't really been doing here as much as I should. So this week I'm going to look carefully at the State of the Always-On World I've been touting here this year, a sort of state-of-the-state report.

Let me review. In the World of Always-On wireless Internet connections are ubiquitous. Clients often consist of sensors that report via radio chips to Always-On servers, which analyze the data and either report results or take action automatically. The interface, if one is needed, can be the human voice.

Home applications include monitoring the condition of soil for plants, security, tracking a home's contents (the refrigerator, the closet, your keys), and medical monitoring. The applications that live on you (like the medical applications) must be able to travel with you, finding whatever Internet connectivity they can, adapting their bandwidth needs as they go.

In the world, sensor networks may control traffic lights, cars, and public safety workers. In offices and factories they can alert people to change immediately. In distribution and merchandising they control inventory and check-out. Most important, I'm sure I am missing a ton of other valuable applications - just imagine chip-based clients, and ubiquitous wireless connectivity in order to come up with your own. This is the PC and Internet revolutions, writ large.

Where do we presently stand in terms of all these ingredients? Let's take them one at a time:

Sensor Networks

The military is currently the biggest buyer of the sensor network idea. This was also true for the original Internet, called DARPANET in the early 1970s. Northrop-Grumman is installing sensor networks on aircraft, with the idea of providing immediate, complete, worldwide battlefield intelligence .

Closer to home, the sensor networks that already exist in cars are becoming accessible to consumers through devices like the EZ-Check Charge , from Autoxray .

Radio Chips

In the last few weeks, a gold rush has begun in the wireless chip space:

  • IBM has turned its Vermont chip plant into a center for wireless development. . The company is also offering Vermont as a wireless chip foundry, meaning designs from many other companies can be produced there.
  • Intel has bought Mobilian, a Wi-Fi development company working to help Bluetooth work with wireless networks. If Personal Area Networks (PANs) like Bluetooth, Local Area Networks (LANs) under 802.11, and Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) using the 802.16 standards can all operate in the same frequency ranges, it will help sales of all three types of gear.
  • Motorola agreed to buy Xtreme Spectrum, a maker of UWB chip sets. UWB will compete with Bluetooth in the PAN space, using digital pulses in a wide frequency range (it's now licensed for use between 3-10 GHz) to move data as fast as 100 Mbps. Unfortunately, the major vendors have been unable, or unwilling, to come up with a standard for UWB . The only company that doesn't need a standard is Time Domain , whose RadarVision is used for point public safety applications, such as finding victims under rubble.

The most important point to make is that the biggest chip outfits have all placed big bets on radio chips in the space of just a few weeks.


Always-on applications place a heavy load on computers. There is a lot of data to crunch, and all this must be done in the background. For Intel's Alzheimer's application , for instance, I was told they were exhausting the P4 servers they had on-hand.

In some ways this is good news. The biggest problem chip suppliers have right now is finding things for their MIPs to do. But this also raises the cost of any solution.

There are specialist solutions (as opposed to PC-centric solutions) out there already. SmarthomeUSA has an entire catalog online. My own guess, however, is that this may prove to be the Heathkit of the Always-On world, a hobbyist approach that never reaches the mass market.


Security is the most obvious application today, because it's one we're so concerned about. Always-on means switching from analog to digital security technologies. Texas Instruments just launched a platform in that area , called Video Security over Internet Protocol.

Medical Applications

Medical applications could represent a real breakthrough. They have enormous value-add. If you can keep a patient in their home, or even keep them from hiring a full-time nurse at home, the financial and spiritual benefits are enormous. And there is going to be enormous demand for this as the U.S. population ages.

There are two ways this can be approached. Existing device makers, who know the sales channels, are adding wireless to their existing products. Existing wireless products, like PDAs, can be quickly adapted for use by medical professionals. The FCC has gotten involved in creating standards , giving this the name of Wireless Medical Telemetry, and we're starting to see the first publications, Weblogs actually, devoted to the area .

Business Applications

The business application of greatest interest is Radio Frequency Identificatio, or RFID. . This can either be done passively, with sensors like bar codes at 50 cents or less each, or actively, with sensors like radios costing several dollars.

The biggest news here is not the Wal-Mart controversy -- Wal-Marts' tests of RFID for inventory control are being fought full-time . Vendors outside the U.S. are taking the issue seriously, and seem to be seeking answers to the questions posed by activists.

The big news is IBM's full-time entry into RFID . IBM brings, not just manufacturing expertise, but system integration expertise, and a wealth of big clients who can save big money.

Wireless Networking

802.11g access points are being delivered and soon will flood the market.

The g specification is important because it delivers the speed of 802.11a in the 802.11b frequency range. While 802.11a claimed to be an 11 mbps standard, that was one of those "up to" things, and we were talking bits, not bytes. In fact, 802.11b is really comparable to ADSL, at 1.5 Mbps (with a following wind).

What's needed is a wireless networking standard that can replace wired Ethernet, and with 802.11g we're getting closer to that. We could also use these standards to stand still for a while, long enough for people to get used to them, for masses of equipment to interoperate. What's happening now is people are buying B, then A, and these same people are the best prospects for G. We need mass market adoption for applications to have a market worth aiming at.


Michael Powell faces a choice. Will he define "competition" as open to all, or will he define it as applying only to carriers? Powell has supported the idea of spectrum as a commons, at least rhetorically. But his regulation on wired Internet service has aimed mainly at supporting a duopoly - cable and telephony - and wireless carriers would like him to treat spectrum as property, either through auctions or simple giveaways. This would recreate the duopoly in long distance wireless.

There's another regulatory issue that may be more vital in Always-On, however. That is the ownership of information. Until people become convinced that information about them belongs to them, they will not opt-in to creating that information, by buying the devices that generate it.

Right now, businesses and government are treating information as proprietary to them, not to individuals. Smart cards are seen as mandatory identifiers, as control mechanisms. RFID tags are seen as allowing merchants, or suppliers, to peek into your bathroom. This must change, if the market for Always-On applications is to expand beyond those (like the sick) who must have them.

If people own their information, if they can sue anyone who grabs or misuses it, then groups like CASPIAN have nothing to fear - they can evolve into law firms. This is not an entirely bad thing, because lawyers work within a structure, and legal risks can be measured. But without some form of regulation consumers accept, you always face a political risk that can't be measured, which is worse.


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a business analyst with Progressive Strategies, a New York research firm that has the ear of the world's top technology companies.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Shameless Promotion

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Takes on the News

The Wrong Route To Identity

People don't trust government. They don't trust business. But they need strong identity.

We need it for many reasons. We need it to stop identity theft. We need it to get services requiring identity, like hospital services. Enormous benefits can be gained if we can easily prove ourselves to one another. Identity is a must if we're to get many Always-On benefits, because these applications are too personal to be used by anyone else.

With so many benefits available, then, why does government insist on using the stick rather than the carrot?

The right way to identity is to set a standard, with stiff penalties for violators, and then allow benefits to be attached to those standards. For instance, a health insurance card that would let you fly through paperwork would be welcome. So would a credit card that is immune to identity theft. If both used the same standard for identity, interoperation could follow, and then government applications would piggy-back on something people used and supported.

But an approach based on requirements will be resisted, and many people who should have identity won't get it.


The Right Kind of Acquisition

Buying technology that enhances your position makes sense . When the owner of that technology needs help to survive, you buy the whole company .

In technology, the wrong kind of acquisition is one aimed at combining organizations, or building market share, like that H-P buy of Compaq. That doesn't work in this business. Change moves too rapidly to wait for consolidation of product lines, and for bureaucratic combination. What usually happens, in these cases, is that the weaker product lines are killed and the acquired company's executives disappear.

When acquisitions cost rather than create value, they are stupid.

Client Linux, Not Desktop Linux

Once again there is a lot of talk about "desktop Linux," and "Linux as a competitor for Windows on the desktop."

It's wrong for several reasons. First, why worry about replacing something that works? Second, the key to getting Linux into the home is Always-On, applications like managing security or a home's inventory. Third, "desktop Linux" isn't going to be a "client" operating system, in the World of Always-On the desktop is a server. Linux is already a great server.

Desktop Linux is a move backward. Linux' future in the home is forward.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is the U.S. Patent Office re-examining the Eolas patent . It would best if the patent law were changed to eliminate software and business method patents, or alternatively if the budget of the Patent Office were increased so it could do thorough investigations of prior art.

Clueless is any local jurisdiction trying to tax Internet access . What a great way to get voted out of office, trying to impose taxes on e-mail and chat rooms.


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