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Computing Is Real Life

It’s clear that new technologies are making computing continuous – meaning both “always on” and “smoothly shading into our real lives.” But what’s actually new about the experience of continuous computing? How is life changing for those with the money

Money: It must be said that in many parts of the globe, low incomes and political restrictions mean that citizens are very far from achieving a state of continuous computing. At the same time, however, cellular networks cover an increasing portion of the planet, efforts such as Nicholas Negroponte’s Hundred-Dollar Laptop project may bring cheap computing to many markets currently underserved by major manufacturers, and countries without an entrenched infrastructure of landline telephones are often leapfrogging to broadband wireless networks.

to buy a few mobile devices and the time to sign up for Web-based social services?

At bottom, the shift is bringing computing far closer to our everyday experience. We’ve just seen how social software can give us new ways to tap into the collective wisdom of the people in our social groups. But that’s only one consequence of continuous computing. On a more personal level, for example, the portable devices that sustain the information field are more respectful of our bodies and our perambulatory nature. No longer do we have to slouch over desktop computers all day to stay connected to the Net: computing devices have become so small, light, and ergonomic that we can take them almost everywhere.

Almost everywhere: There is, however, one limitation still tethering us to the grid: battery power. Even today’s best nickel-metal-hydride, lithium-ion, and lithium-ion-polymer batteries will keep a laptop running for only eight to 10 hours, and a cell phone for about five hours (assuming continuous talk). Compact fuel cells could quintuple these times, but they aren’t expected to be widely available until 2010.

Visit any airport, beach, or city park and you’ll see people carrying laptops, cell phones, and dedicated devices such as cameras and music players as naturally as if they were part of their clothing. For people who must take their cell phones absolutely everywhere, there are even “ruggedized” devices like Motorola’s new i355 handset, which meets U.S. military specifications for resistance to dust and blowing rain.

Mobility, in turn, has created a demand for software that’s sensitive to our ever changing locations. Already, many cell phones sold in the United States contain systems such as GPS receivers that report users’ whereabouts during 911 calls. So far, few carriers have created ways for third-party software developers to put this location information to other uses, but in time, navigation tools and automatic-access location-specific shopping or dining information will become standard fare for cellular subscribers. In this area, Japanese and South Korean companies are, as usual, showing the way. Tokyo-based cellular provider KDDI, for example, sells phones that use GPS and onscreen maps to guide urban pedestrians to their destinations.

The new technologies also allow people to create more-detailed, true-to-life online identities. A decade ago, it was common for consumers opening online accounts to disguise themselves behind fanciful usernames like “Sk8rdude.” But today it makes little sense

Little sense: Blog reader Erik Karl Sorgatz comments: “I disagree to the extent that there is an old maxim about the system: ‘If you build it…they will hack it!’ Disguise, deception, and outright identity theft are also amplified by the very same tools that can bring us together in our creative phases. In some ways, this dependence upon a technology-based infrastructure makes us both stronger and weaker. It might be better to blend this all with a little self-reliance, some non-computer-based learning, a little apprenticeship involving real mechanical skills – they don’t even teach the kids shop classes anymore.”

for a blogger or a member of a photo-sharing or social-networking community to stay anonymous; after all, taking personal credit for the viewpoints we express or the creations we share is often a way of gaining clout and attracting new acquaintances.

The best continuous-computing applications also mesh with our lives by understanding our preferences. Think of Amazon.com’s recommendation engine, which suggests products based on the purchase histories of other customers with similar tastes. Newer Web tools apply the same idea to other types of content; for example, Bloglines, owned by search company Ask Jeeves, analyzes a user’s RSS subscriptions to come up with a daily list of new feeds that might be of interest. The creators of Backpack, meanwhile, built in many ways for users to adjust the site’s behavior to their needs. For example, users can publish files and to-do lists from their cell phones if they aren’t at a computer, make their pages public or restrict them to specified associates, and program the system to send SMS reminders to their phones at general times like “next Tuesday” or at specific moments like “30 minutes from now.”

Which leads to a final feature of continuous-computing technologies: they adapt to the chronology of our lives. Shared calendars like EVDB and Upcoming make it easy to synchronize our activities with those of our friends and colleagues. Soon, our mobile devices may even track our activities, extract patterns,

Patterns: Blog reader Ian Wells asks, “How do we teach ourselves and our children to develop a rhythm of communication that is helpful to our relationships and our human pace of life? What patterns of communication will drive us crazy? What helps our families? What helps our relationships? Why do so many people spend so much time watching TV instead of doing something active with real people? We had part of the same issue with cheap phone calls, with continuous TV, with broadband Internet. Now we go up a level of choice. Because we can communicate continuously, should we? What do conscientious parents teach their children about healthy continuous computing? Are there healthy limits?”

and predict what information or services we need at specific times of day. That’s an area being explored by Nathan Eagle, a postdoctoral student at the MIT Media Lab. “There are patterns in when you go to Starbucks, when you go out to the bar, and when you call your mom, to the point that you can start predicting what the person is going to do next,” Eagle says. A phone sensitive to your schedule and your location might realize, for example, that the office is always your next stop after the coffee shop and would start gathering your e-mail and voice-mail messages from the Internet as you take your first sip of latte.

Of course, you don’t need futuristic gadgets

Futuristic gadgets: Blog reader Jim Haye comments: “Very interesting, but I’m surprised at the lack of coverage of the devices we interact with each day that have the most computing power of all – automobiles. The typical car today has numerous microprocessors operating over several networks and runs incredibly complex software in a highly risky environment. Sure, you don’t carry them in your pocket, and they’re transparent to most users, but automotive information systems are a big computing application.”

like this to create a personal information field. Just look at Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, a company that sells Web-based collaboration software based on wikis. The 34-year-old serial entrepreneur lives in Palo Alto with his wife and two children. Until Socialtext obtained venture-capital funding this spring, Mayfield’s office was entirely virtual. But even though the company now has a real headquarters, Mayfield still carries a small armory of digital devices around with him, including a Treo 600 smart phone, a 17-inch Macintosh PowerBook G4 laptop (“It sounds like it wouldn’t be portable, but it is,” he says), an Olympus 5060 digital camera, an Apple iPod with an iTalk attachment for recording voice memos, a Jabra wireless headset, a Wi-Fi network detector, an Apple Airport Extreme Wi-Fi base station, a USB memory key, and, of course, the obligatory tangle of power cords and chargers.

Together, these devices ensure that Mayfield is never out of touch with his colleagues or his family. For one-to-one communications, Mayfield says, he uses the Treo, Skype’s free VoIP service, and the e-mail system built into Socialtext’s own software. To conduct company meetings and client calls, he uses the conference-calling services at FreeConference.com. When he’s at a convention, a hotel, or a rented meeting room, he connects the Airport to the local network, which creates his own Wi-Fi zone and gives him access to the Web, Skype, instant-messenger software, and his company’s always-on

Always-on: Blog reader Daniel Barkowitz writes, “This ‘hands-on’ participatory back channel even now pertains to the world of college admissions. At MIT, we are conducting our own social experiment with blogging about the college admissions and financial-aid process with our incoming MIT freshman class. The experiment has been a tremendous success, providing students a much more interactive way to get their questions answered and their issues addressed. As the director of financial aid at MIT, I walk around with my AIM channel always open on my cell phone and constantly am monitoring the blog for feedback. Not only does the technology exist to allow this, but the next generation of customers is expecting it.”

IRC channel. He also advertises his whereabouts by registering his temporary Wi-Fi zone with a service called plazes

Plazes: A Web service based in Cologne, Germany, that allows users to set up new “plazes” – representations of local networks complete with pictures, maps, comments, and lists of the people online – wherever they go.

and by describing on EVDB the events he’s attending. He uses Movable Type and TypePad to maintain multiple blogs, including one for his employees, one for the public, and several restricted to his customers. He bookmarks interesting Web pages on Delicious and sends them out on his personal link feed, titled “Linkorama.” He reads the news and follows his favorite blogs using the NetNewsWire and NewsGator RSS aggregators, which also supply him with regular podcasts. Almost daily, he uploads photos from the Treo and the camera to Flickr, where anyone can view his photo stream. He even has a dedicated wiki for his family.

and by describing on EVDB the events he’s attending. He uses Movable Type and TypePad to maintain multiple blogs, including one for his employees, one for the public, and several restricted to his customers. He bookmarks interesting Web pages on Delicious and sends them out on his personal link feed, titled “Linkorama.” He reads the news and follows his favorite blogs using the NetNewsWire and NewsGator RSS aggregators, which also supply him with regular podcasts. Almost daily, he uploads photos from the Treo and the camera to Flickr, where anyone can view his photo stream. He even has a dedicated wiki for his family.

Though Mayfield is a self-confessed early adopter, he isn’t using all these social computing technologies just for the sake of being wired.

Being wired: Blog reader Pete Sulick comments: “Are we taking the first steps toward digitizing our lives, or is this just an inevitably more efficient way to share information, like e-mail, TV, the telephone, radio, the pony express?”

They’re “rewarding in all kinds of ways,” he says. He uses Skype to save money on long-distance calls; he announces his location to increase the chances of meeting useful business contacts; he posts photos on Flickr because he wants his family and his friends to know what he’s been up to; and he blogs because it’s an efficient way to keep his employees up to date, care for his customers, and get his message out to the larger world.

And this, in the end, is what’s truly new about continuous computing. As advanced as our PCs and our other information gadgets have grown, we never really learned to love them. We’ve used them all these years only because they have made us more productive. But now that’s changing. When computing devices are always with us, helping us to be the social beings we are, time spent “on the computer” no longer feels like time taken away from real life. And it isn’t: cell phones, laptops, and the Web are rapidly becoming the best tools we have for staying connected to the people and ideas and activities that are important to us. The underlying hardware and software will never become invisible, but they will become less obtrusive, allowing us to focus our attention on the actual information being conveyed. Eventually, living in a world of continuous computing will be like wearing eyeglasses: the rims are always visible, but the wearer forgets she has them on – even though they’re the only things making the world clear.

Wade Roush is a Technology Review senior editor based in San Francisco.

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