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24/7/360

The widely acknowledged father of ubiquitous computing was the late PARC computer scientist Mark Weiser, who coined the term in 1988. Weiser described a world where each person would share thousands of highly distributed but interconnected computers. This computing power, he argued, should blend into the background, hidden from people’s senses and attention.

In the early ’90s, PARC researchers created ParcTab, a handheld display that connected via infrared signals to a network computer so researchers could access files without being tied to their desktops. Other trailblazing work took place at the Olivetti Research Laboratory in Cambridge, England (now AT&T Laboratories Cambridge), which pioneered the Active Badge. The badge transmitted an infrared signal that allowed people to be tracked throughout a building via wall-mounted sensors-among other things, enabling phone calls to be forwarded automatically to their location. And then there was the ultimate popularizer-MIT’s Media Lab. Researchers at this largely industry-funded lab spread the word about concepts such as news-gathering software agents that would tailor each morning’s electronic newspaper to an individual’s tastes.

These early steps have now loosed a flood of innovation and promise at computer labs worldwide. Today, it is a fundamental tenet of ubiquitous computing that computational power and services will be available whenever they’re needed-that’s the 24/7 part. And not just throughout a building, but everywhere-that’s the 360, as in degrees around the globe. Under the 24/7/360 umbrella, however, lie two radically different approaches. One continues the drive to push computational power into objects with ever smaller footprints-via souped-up laptops, handhelds and wearables. The other holds that tomorrow’s computing resources will not be carried on specific devices. Instead, they will live on networks. In this view, much as people tap electric power by plugging into any outlet, so should applications and files be reachable from any display or information appliance-be it in a car, hotel or office. The network, to paraphrase the folks at Sun, becomes the computer.

This utility-like model of computing is catching fire at companies that build the backbone for the Internet and for enterprise computing networks-the communications, applications, storage and services associated with corporate computer systems. Indeed, of IBM’s recent $500 million commitment to pervasive computing, $300 million will go toward building an “intelligent infrastructure” of chips, mainframes, servers, databases and protocols for supporting the data-rich, mobile future.

Sun’s take on this idea is evidenced in its four-year-old Public Utility Computing (PUC) project. The aim is to create dynamic virtual networks, or supernets. Each supernet would be assigned a public Web address that its members contact. After authenticating themselves through a password or smart card, users would receive the encryption keys and addresses for entering the private supernet-where they could securely retrieve files and collaborate in real time. With PUC, there is “no distinguishable difference between being in HP’s conference room or in my office, or at home, or at the beach, or in New York,” asserts senior manager Glenn Scott.

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