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March 9, 2012

It's what we can't see that matters in IT

Posted by Sanjay Jalona (View Profile | View All Posts) at 11:11 AM

In 1963, Ted Nelson, a futurist, coined the phrase "hypertext," and a decade later, he predicted that we would exchange ideas through a series of connected terminals.  Today, HTML, or hypertext markup language, is the predominant language for web pages used by almost everyone. As a seer, Nelson had few peers. He somehow sensed that computing technology would someday become "pervasive" - a word that has etched itself into our psyche today. Twenty years ago, social scientists and anthropologists, at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, spent countless hours wondering how we would be using computers today. Mark Weiser, another seer of note, wrote back then that the desktop would be outmoded, as microprocessors become smaller, and spread about in the most unlikely places.  Pervasive computing would adopt "calm technology" and be "invisible, everywhere....that does not live on a personal device of any sort, but is in the woodwork everywhere."  That's as accurate an explanation and as you can conjure up even today.

There are three elements that comprise pervasive computing: sensor networks, intelligence, and the Cloud.

Sensor networks involve using nodes that collect data for analysis that is then acted on in central locations. For example, smart meters that allow customers to monitor energy usage. At the same time, the power provider can also get real-time feedback to allow the most effective switching of the grid's substations during high-demand periods.  Intelligence entails data mining, intelligent agents, and autonomous programming. These systems incorporate the idea that they can get smarter - also using artificial intelligence - as they gather data and digest it to reveal user patterns.  Some examples:  Traffic GPS systems have become more useful as cumulative feedback from users goes to the head end. Social networks such as Facebook and large retailers like Wal-Mart are adopting this kind of computing.  Facebook can use this feedback to understand "friend preferences," and Wal-Mart can optimize just-in-time inventory restocking on a store-by-store basis once it distills consumer demands. The third piece - Cloud computing - is an outgrowth of the massive collection of information over the past few years. Skeptics may wonder if the Cloud is simply a more lyrical label for off-site data storage at a server farm.  But with businesses increasingly leveraging it for attractive pay-as-you-need options and to drive innovative business models the flocks of believers are growing.

Pervasive - or "ubiquitous" - computing covers so much terrain. At once mobile and also stationary. Wired and also wireless. Where we so easily take it for granted. After all, TV screens are now in refrigerator doors. GPS devices on car dashboards. You can even track space shuttles on your phone. And microprocessors being inserted in the human brain, in clinical trials, are helping enable motion recovery in stroke patients.

Invisible, yet increasingly indispensible, pervasive computing is about what does not meet the eye. But then, why should users have to worry about what's going on behind the curtain. Now, you'll agree, that's the calming effect and our mandate.

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