DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN
August 18, 1999
Data in the air
JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.
wo similarly-named devices recently announced to the world give us an interesting preview of what the next decade may be like. The iBook, Apple's new laptop computer, and the iPic, a web server smaller than a fingernail, each break new ground in size and functionality. Their combined promise, however, is startling.
At first glance, the iBook seems different largely due to its color and shape. Apple has, with the iBook, built a laptop that fits right alongside its iMac -- friendly & curvy, with a color pattern that borders on the garish. But it's the insides of the iBook that are truly compelling. Next to the 300MHz processor and 6GB drive is a slot for a $99 card that Apple calls the "AirPort" -- a wireless networking system that functions at full ethernet speeds.
Ethernet is the standard networking hardware for computers these days. Ethernet is a physical medium across which networking languages (such as TCP/IP "Internet protocol," Microsoft Networking, or AppleTalk) are sent. Looking like a fat phone cord, standard ethernet typically allows speeds of up to ten million bits per second, compared to around fifty thousand bits per second for a fast modem. Up until now, wireless systems were much slower than ethernet, sometimes even slower than a modem. Apple's AirPort system changes that, letting wireless networking happen as fast as wired networks.
What makes this particularly exciting is that Apple is using an open standard. Instead of using something proprietary, they're using a technology that is open for other companies to use, too. The standard is known as IEEE 802.11, and it was co-developed with the Lucent company. By the end of the year, 802.11-based wireless systems will likely be one of the fastest-growing computer markets.
The iPic, conversely, isn't for sale and may never be, at least not in its current form. The project of a University of Massachusetts (USA) computer science graduate student, Hariharasubrahmanian Shrikumar, the iPic uses a tiny microchip that costs less than US$1 as a web server. The chip is extremely low-power and extremely tiny; they are commonly used as controllers in computer mice, and are very well known to electronics hobbyists. Hariharasubrahmanian wrote TCP/IP code for the chip, then wrote a web server to run on top of it.
The iPic is a fully-functional web server, able to host everything from standard text and audio files to Java applets, and can even work with dynamic data such as input from a camera. The chip is tiny, but even with data storage and network connection hardware, the complete iPic server is still only a few centimeters square, and requires very little power to run.
Why would you want a micro web server? Remember that a web server is not just a system for displaying static pages; it can work with changing information (such as a digital camera, a microphone, or other sorts of sensors) and allow authorized users to change settings on devices managed by the web server. Most new network-connected printers, for example, have small web servers built in to let network administrators check out and alter the printer's settings from any web browser.
There's no reason why anything that needs to be controlled -- from a VCR to a coffee maker to lights in the home -- couldn't be controlled via the web. There are times when something like that would be very useful, especially if the various plans for networks everywhere (from Microsoft's Digital Nervous System to Sun's Jini to MIT's Project Oxygen) actually come to pass. If you have a WebTV-type setup, why not use it to set the VCR or turn off lights downstairs?
You can begin to see how these two different technologies might fit together. With AirPort, devices don't have to be physically wired up to connect to the Internet; with iPic, a complete web server could fit just about anywhere, be built into just about anything. Fast wireless networking means that the micro server is as responsive as possible, and can be moved around the home (or office) without having to pull new wiring or re-assign addresses.
As the technologies improve, many of these devices would get smaller and smaller. A complete system -- with camera and wireless network -- smaller than a box of matches or a pack of chewing gum? Very possible, very soon.
It's just a matter of time.
© Daily Mail & Guardian - August 18, 1999
* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.
Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley