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Continuous Computing

To grasp how rapidly things are changing, consider all the things you can do today that would have been difficult or impossible just a few years ago: you can query Google via text message from your phone, keep an online diary of the Web pages you visit, download podcasts

Podcasts: Amateur radio shows without the radio. Podcasters produce MP3 recordings on whatever subjects interest them and publish the files on the Internet, where listeners can subscribe to shows, download files to their computers, and then transfer them to their portable music players, such as the Apple iPod.

to your iPod, label your photos or bookmarks with appropriate tags at Flickr

Flickr: The photo-sharing site of choice for many digital photographers. One of its trademark features is the ability to add descriptive words, or “tags,” to photographs, so that the photographer or others can find them more easily later. See

or Delicious,

Delicious: A “social bookmarking” site created by freelance software developer Joshua Schachter. Users can store URLs, personal comments, and descriptive tags that will help them identify Web pages they want to find later. See

store gigabytes of personal e-mail online, listen to the music on your home PC from any other computer connected to the Net, or find your house on an aerial photograph at Google Maps. Most of these applications are free – and the ones coming close behind them will be even more powerful. With more and more phones carrying Global Positioning System (GPS) chips, for example, it’s likely that companies will offer a cornucopia of new location-based information services; you’ll soon be able to find an online review instantly as you drive past a restaurant, or visit a landmark and download photos and comments left by others.

This explosion of new capabilities shouldn’t be mistaken for “feature creep,” the accretion of special functions that has made common programs such as Microsoft Word so mystifyingly complex. There is something different about the latest tools. They are both digital, rooted in the world of electrons and bits, and fundamentally social, built to enable new kinds of interactions among people. Blogging, text messaging, photo sharing, and Web surfing from a smart phone are just the earliest examples. Almost below our mental radar, these technologies are ushering us into a world of what could be called continuous computing – continuous in the usual sense of “uninterrupted,” but also in the sense that it’s continuous with our lives, in all their messy, social, biographical richness.

The arrival of continuous computing

Computing: Blog reader Hannu Leinonen comments: “I feel uneasy about the word ‘computing.’ It sounds like counting. In Spanish the word for computer is ‘ordinador’ and in Finnish it’s ‘tietokone.’ Tietokone translates to ‘knowledge machine.’ We are not there yet, but have we passed computing?”

means that people who live in populated areas of developed countries (and increasingly, developing ones such as China and India) can spend entire days inside a kind of invisible, portable “information field.” This field is created by constant, largely automated cooperation between

the digital devices people carry, such as laptops, media players,
and camera phones,the wireline and wireless networks that serve people’s locations as
they travel about, andthe Internet and its growing collection of Web-based tools
for finding information and communicating and collaborating
with other people

People: Blog reader Gene Becker comments: “In your definition of continuous computing, you might consider adding ‘4) and the devices they encounter along the way, such as situated displays, networked entertainment systems, printers, and connected vehicles.’ We are just around the corner from these situated networked devices’ becoming active participants in our digital experience. I wonder if you also want to pull in physical-tagging notions (RFID, bar codes, semacodes, visual tags, etc.) as the ‘physical hyperlinks’ that bring everyday objects into the digital mix. In the same spirit, GPS and other location technologies are starting to make physical place a first-class element of the digital experience. Oh, and can we all please work on a better term, one that doesn’t use ‘computing’? It’s so not about that.”

This information field enables people to both pull information about virtually anything from anywhere, at any time, and push their own ideas and personalities back onto the Internet – without ever having to sit down at a desktop computer. Armed with nothing more than a smart phone, a modern urbanite can get the answer to almost any question; locate nearby colleagues, friends, and services; join virtual communities that form and disband rapidly around shared work and shared interests; and self-publish blog entries, photographs, audio recordings, and videos for an unlimited audience.

The ingredients of continuous computing have emerged piecemeal. Japanese companies, for example, have long been testing new social and personal uses for cell phones. Model smart homes

Smart homes: A leading example in the United States is the Georgia Tech Broadband Institute Residential Laboratory, a three-story home outfitted with people-tracking sensors, gesture-sensitive remote controls, and other widgets. Part of the Aware Home Research Initiative funded by Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Motorola, and the National Science Foundation, the Residential Laboratory is a classic instance of computing research that starts with a perceived need – assisting the elderly with complex, information-intensive tasks, for example – and invents gadgets and software that supposedly address the need. But as we’ll see, continuous computing is an emergent phenomenon – a complex pattern of social behaviors that arises from the use of a variety of simpler digital tools. It advances in unexpected directions as people find innovative ways to put these commercial and open-source technologies to use in their social lives.

that demonstrate how intelligent appliances will converse with each other are a perennial favorite in both Japan and the United States. But the final pieces fell into place only recently. These include the spread of Wi-Fi and other types of wireless access to millions of offices, homes, airports, and cafés; the enormous popularity of camera phones and mobile audio players; free or inexpensive voice-over-Internet phone calling; the rise of blogs as a means of both personal and political communication; personal and professional social-networking sites; tagging and social bookmarking; collaboration tools such as wikis and Microsoft’s Groove Virtual Office; new tools for gathering chunks of media “microcontent” into something resembling a personalized electronic newspaper; location-based services and other applications tied to specific geographic coordinates; and new computer languages and standards that make it easy to offer powerful, personalized software services over the Web. What makes all these tools different from the computing styles of the past is that they fit more naturally into our real lives–meaning, for example, that they adapt more readily to our locations, our preferences, and our schedules.

One analyst who writes about these issues is Alex Pang, a historian of science and former managing editor of the Encylopædia Britannica who now works as a research director at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto, CA, think tank. Software engineers, he says, have discovered that computer science’s decades-long effort to make computers smart enough to understand humans is simply irrelevant; they can make computing truly personal and social using simple Web-based programming tools. After all, we don’t really want to talk with computers – we want to talk through them. “The brilliance of social-software applications like Flickr, Delicious, and Technorati

Technorati: A search engine built by software developer David Sifry that scans millions of blogs and displays the most recent posts relating to any given keyword or tag.

,” Pang says, “is that they recognize that computers are really good at doing certain things, like working with gigantic quantities of data, and really bad at, for example, understanding the different meanings of certain words, like ‘depression.’ They devote computing resources in ways that basically enhance communication, collaboration, and thinking rather than trying to substitute for them.”

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