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
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
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
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.
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."