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At times, I wonder just how far short the computer industry has fallen of its promise of a few decades ago. I'm not talking about the lofty ideal of the computer of the future that science fiction authors were predicting we'd be using by now, such as machines capable of holding a proper conversation (or better yet, capable of withering sarcasm in the face of human stupidity), human-computer symbiosis, etc. Nor am I talking about retro chic the "style of the future" that artists were drawing back in the '50s and that Apple seems to have captured so well in a lot of their products.

No, it's interoperability that's on my mind.

My wife and I recently bought a house, and while we haven't moved in yet, she's already planning the color scheme for every room, as well as 10 years of renovations. I, on the other hand, have been thinking about networking.

We both have laptops. I also have a Linux server (currently sitting at my parent's house doing nothing), plus various other bits and pieces of hardware (a printer, etc.).

Here's where wishful thinking about those "computers of the future" comes in. I'd like to be able to plug any device into a port in any room and have it all work instantly without any messy configuration or setup.

I know what you're thinking, and it's probably along the lines of Jini, Bluetooth, 802.11, Home Powerline Networking, etc., etc. Certainly with one (or a combination of) those technologies, I can approach the idea of what I want. It certainly won't be a case of plugging it in and forgetting about it, and that's a shame.

I can see some of the reasons behind the lack, of course. Home Networking hasn't exactly had worldwide penetration compared to the Internet, for example. Only a small percentage of the population has wired everything and the doghouse together (or set up a wireless backbone, for that matter).

The expense is another good reason and I'll give you an example: a couple of years ago I purchased a USB scanner from a well-known computer and peripherals conglomerate. At the time I was primarily running Windows 98 SE and had no problem installing the device. Go forward one iteration of Windows (to the nightmarish Millennium Edition), and there seems to be no way to get that scanner to work anymore. That's just one version of Windows, so I'm guessing my chances of it running on Linux are somewhere between nil and nada. As for "just plugging it straight into the network...," forget about it.

Obviously, in this case the manufacturer has offloaded a lot of the scanner functionality onto the computer (in the form of one gung ho 38M driver installation, I might add) to save costs so really, it's my own fault for buying cheap. What if the scanner had its own small processor, storage, network card, and, possibly, Web server (to access the pictures)? While it suddenly becomes a network device I can plug anywhere in my home network, it also becomes a darn sight more expensive. Then again, with something like Dallas Semiconductor's TINI board (Java-enabled) which, I seem to recall hearing, costs around U.S.$50, it doesn't seem that much more expensive to add some of those features (see www.ibutton.com/TINI/index.html for more info).

Just think of the advantages of having all these network-ready (and why not Java-enabled) devices. How about a (waterproof?) PDA in the kitchen with a Bluetooth connection to the (wired) network port for looking up recipes. Or intelligent speakers plugged into any network port, they'll have access to the house's music repository. Taking it one step further, I want to be able to plug a digital camera into any port in my house and have the photos automatically upload onto a specially designated shared resource ready for access. Or how about a DVD recorder that asks any connected devices what critical information they need backed up, then automatically does it and sends out a "distress" signal (e-mail, phone call, SMS message) when it needs a replacement disk.

These are the kinds of things that actually make computers more convenient, less of a pain for the ordinary person to use and come close to that promise of yesteryear.

Author Bio
Jason R. Briggs is a Java analyst programmer and sometimes architect. He's been officially developing in Java for almost four years, "unofficially for five." jasonbriggs@sys-con.com

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