PUC technology could also allow organizations to store and retrieve data and access sophisticated computational services, such as database software that analyzes customer trends. Only instead of purchasing these expensive systems, companies would pay solely for what they used. This might be ideal for small businesses, argues Scott. Imagine a 10-person operation that wants to tap big accounting software requiring a high-powered machine that the outfit can’t afford. Under the PUC concept, he says, the firm could simply “rent” the application as needed, perhaps once a week for 10 minutes. Since PUC works at the network level rather than inside the software, any application can be easily brought into the supernet. This, says Scott, makes it far more powerful than the pay-as-you-go systems offered by today’s applications service providers.
The catch comes in making everything secure. Scott says field trials last year validated the concept for communications and storage, which are mainly concerned with encryption of the data-both when it is being transmitted and once it is stored. But providing secure computation-assuring users their data isn’t inadvertently copied, for instance-is more dicey. Any solution will likely involve securing both hardware and software–a tricky combination Sun is only just exploring. Still, Scott believes PUC is the way of the future; and Sun has filed 13 patents around the technology.
This utility concept looks years ahead-but others are taking more immediate aim at a scaled-back form of 24/7/360. Since 1998, what is now AT&T Laboratories Cambridge has made its Virtual Network Computing software available free for download. VNC turns any Web browser into a remote display for a desktop computer, allowing people to access files and applications from just about any device-laptop to PC, Mac to Palm. What’s more, it works on standard telephone lines and cell phones-lightening the data stream by transmitting only the bits or pixels that change from second to second.
It’s the same principle as PUC-on a more personal level. The reason people carry bulky laptops is not to have all their data at hand, argues AT&T researcher Quentin Stafford-Fraser. “What you really want to carry around with you when you’re going somewhere is your environment,” he says. That means your sets of preferences, dates, desktop and so on. With VNC, he notes, “I can pretty much go anywhere in the world and be connected through to my machine that is sitting on the desk here.”
The system isn’t secure, and it doesn’t offer the file-sharing capabilities of PUC. Still, its cross-platform capability is compelling-as AT&T researchers found when one corporate user’s network server crashed while its systems administrator was off camping. Reached on his cell phone, the technician was told to return 250 kilometers to the office. Instead, he whipped out his Palm Pilot, called up his VNC-enabled desktop and fixed the problem-all without leaving his tent.
Stafford-Fraser reports there are as many as 10,000 VNC downloads a day-with about a million machines running the software. But that’s a blip on the screen compared with what AT&T and others believe might be the prime player in 24/7/360 for years to come: the already ubiquitous telephone. This idea is embodied in AT&T’s VoiceTone project, which seeks to replace a normal dial tone with an automated version of yesteryear’s know-everything switchboard. “AT&T, how may I help you?” the voice tone might inquire. Thanks to speech recognition, speedy processing, the Web presence of just about everything, and technologies such as text-to-speech synthesis, callers can ask for messages and traffic reports, check the weather and sports scores, or make restaurant reservations-all in normal language and without logging on in the conventional way.
AT&T is developing some of these services itself. However, many will be provided through voice services concerns such as Tellme Networks of Mountain View, Calif., in which AT&T has invested $60 million. Tellme and competitors such as Santa Clara-based BeVocal seek to turn ordinary telephones into gateways to the Web. At Tellme, for example, callers dial an 800 number, then navigate the system with spoken commands such as “Restaurants,” “Boston, Massachusetts,” “Chinese.” They then get a list of candidates-and can even hear Zagat reviews. If they wish to make a reservation, they’re connected to the restaurant free of charge.
Tellme co-founders Angus Davis and Mike McCue left Netscape to pursue the vision of telephone-as-computer-interface. “We were these browser guys, and we thought it was cool that there were 150 million Web browsers,” explains Davis, Tellme’s director of production. “But we thought, wouldn’t it be really cool if we could build a user interface to the Internet that reached two billion people? And that’s what made the phone exciting.”