Think of this as Volume 15, Number 46 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
Since 2003 I've been writing here about something I called “the world of always-on.”
It's a world where everything has intelligence in it. Your lawn and your bird feeder. Your TV and your microwave. The yogurt in your refrigerator and the water in your bathroom. More important, your heart and your kidneys.
Sensors and motes, single-chip computers, will live everywhere around you, under your control. They will let you know what you have, find what you lost, monitor your health, keep you entertained and alive.
The basic technology for all this existed way back then but, like the flying car in The Jetsons and the robotic babysitter in I, Robot, you wonder why it's not here already.
Two reasons. Intelligence and power.
Intelligence in this case means a user interface that will let you control your environment in a way that's natural to you, that will cause you to want to add computing power to the devices around you. A lot of work has been done on the lower levels of all this, but very little has been done on the user interface, and what has been done hasn't worked well.
Enter Apple. Specifically enter Siri, the voice interface on the latest iPhone. Not much at first, but as you train it the software adapts to the sound of its master's voice and gets better at giving you what you want. It's a user interface to what's in the phone, and what's behind the phone.
Eventually, it can become a user interface to everything else.
It doesn't have to be voice, of course. Maybe it will be motion. Maybe you can become the orchestra leader of your own life with something like Microsoft Kinect. Whichever it is, Google is just waiting to build that capability into its Android system.
These interfaces, between you and Internet-connected devices, are the start of something big. They're the top layer that connects human desire to what devices can already do, and they create demand for those capabilities. Some of what you own you'll retrofit, because you'll suddenly decide you want that in what you have. Other things will have them added at the factory, cheap chips built-in and connected, through the user interface and brand name (Now with iOS! Now for Kinect!) to the market.
There remains a problem. Power.
I try to stay on top of stuff but one trend I missed is a standard called Power over Ethenet (PoE). I didn't really notice until a patent troll filed a lawsuit against the companies which created this standard, using technology they say came from a company they later bought, which had been mentioned in the standards-setting discussions.
No matter. Power over Ethernet makes data lines just like the old phone lines. They let you extend both intelligence and power across long distances. With both power and intelligence extended you can run your own WiFi network over a mile and (eventually) reach a fiber POP that liberates you from the phone network.
That's not all.
Because while that takes care of your server, what about the client? What about all those little sensors and motes on your yogurt and your bird feeder and living inside of you? They can get their own power. It's called zero power wireless sensors, wireless ICs that harvest the small amounts of energy they need from motion, from light, from the heat around them, and thus don't need batteries.
WSN lets all the devices being installed all around you, single chips assigned simple functions, to be networked . They're the bottom layer of the always-on world.
The chip on your yogurt can be pretty simple. It might calculate the level of yogurt in the container and the age of that yogurt, reporting that as a number to a network on demand. It's little more than an RFID chip. Same with the chip on your bird feeder. The chip on your grass just wants to know when the grass needs watering and, when the network becomes aware, it might turn on the sprinkler for you, if the water is connected to the network.
The chip inside your head, the one by your heart, the one in your toilet might be different. It might be measuring heart rate, sugar levels, whatever a doctor might want to know at that moment to tell whether that pain in your side is random or the sign of an incipient heart attack. And when those devices are connected for a wireless sensor network to the Internet, the ambulance might come before you call it.
All the elements needed to transform your life now exist, in other words. All the various layers of software, all the technical barriers, to a world of always-on connectivity have been systematically blown away.
Time for the market dance to start.