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That leaves Google, Microsoft and a player to be named later in the race when it comes to the operating system that will blend all of our devices into a homogenous personal network,

It Must Be 1993

Monday, August 18, 2008

In 1993, Bill Gates stood on a stage and spoke about Microsoft At Work. The new operating system, soon to be released, was going to change the way we interacted with our computers, copiers, fax machines, printers and telephones. The idea was for Microsoft to license At Work to companies that would then use the operating system to control all manner of office and home devices. Since they would all share a common platform, they would be easier to use and would be able to communicate with each other.


At the time, Microsoft announced that it had agreements from more than sixty companies including Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Ricoh and many others. According to Microsoft, machines that were to incorporate Microsoft At Work would use a graphical approach to entering commands through small (5x7 for example), touch-sensitive LCD screens, which would enable manufacturers to create digital buttons. Each of these devices could also be controlled by your PC, enabling you to set up a conference call, send a print job to your printer, monitor the status of a job in progress and much more.


Well, we all know this idea never took hold and Microsoft At Work went the way of many good ideas. Thus today, while our machines are able to communicate with each other and perhaps even be controlled by our PC, there is no universal machine operating system that provides the common interface standards that were envisioned by Bill Gates and his team.


Fast forward to 2008 and we find that Android, the Linux-based operating system being developed by Google, is supposed to start showing up on wireless devices this year. Vincent Cerf, the co-inventor of the Internet and now Google's Chief Internet Evangelist, has been talking about this concept for a while now. He envisions all types of devices being controlled over the Internet, capable of being harnessed for our use and then turned over to others for their use. There is speculation that Google wants to build a community of devices that are connected via the Internet and wireless and are all able to interact with each other and be available for developers to write software to control them.


Meanwhile, Microsoft is back in the game with its Live Mesh Platform, and Apple has harnessed the iPhone as a command-and-control device for other Apple products. It seems we are once again about to have everyone trying to connect everything together in one big happy interactive family of devices. However, unlike in 1993, there have been other advances that might actually make all of this both feasible and practical now.


Back in 1993, we were stuck with early Ethernet and serial and parallel connections. Today, USB 2.0 is almost universal and works well in a plug-and-play environment, and within the next year we will be seeing Wireless USB 2.0 enter the market. Wireless USB makes use of ultra-wideband technology and has a limited range like Bluetooth, but it is much faster and much easier to configure because it uses the same code as the hardwire USB 2.0 only with a security layer on top of it.


The next thing, of course, is the Internet and the fact that most devices either have or will have an IP address and will be able to talk easily to other IP devices. Add to this high-speed broadband wireless and it certainly looks as though all of the pieces are in place to make a universal command-and-control system work, but whose?


If we look at past successes, we see that Apple has really been the only company that has been successful getting its interface built into all manner of devices including automobiles. The iPod connector is now standard on many auto models, it is built into many audio/visual receivers and there are so many aftermarket enhancements and add-on devices they are tough to keep up with. So you might assume that Apple is in the best possible position to win the interconnectivity battle.


My take on this is a little different. There are other companies working on more universal connections to other devices, there is Bluetooth and soon wireless USB. In my book, when consumer device vendors see other options for other than Apple devices, they will find that the best way to be compatible with the various offerings will be by building in an emerging connection standard, USB and/or a wireless connection. It will take a few years for all of this to shake out. Android is new to the market and there will be bugs along the way, you cannot count out either Apple or Microsoft, and then there is the rest of the Linux community represented by the LiMo Foundation.


It is going to be an interesting few years. There are several operating systems vying for the ultimate connection of devices as well as several different types of physical and wireless connections between devices to be factored into the equation. Apple is currently ahead of everyone else because of the number of iPod connections and the large aftermarket. However, on the downside, Apple's exclusive agreement with AT&T in the United States for wireless devices and services will limit its appeal to a broader consumer base, and Apple certainly will not have the support of the rest of the wireless networks in the United States and maybe around the world.


That leaves Google, Microsoft and a player to be named later in the race when it comes to the operating system that will blend all of our devices into a homogenous personal network, and it still leaves the issue of physical and wireless connectivity. The operating system winner will probably be the company that understands all of the various connectivity options and also understands that choosing one in hopes that it will emerge as the connectivity winner is too big a risk to take. This company will incorporate a connection layer that is robust and can work across many different types of connections, including several different types at the same time.


The race is on-this could be the next Beta vs. VHS or HDDVD vs. BlueRay battlefront. The difference here is that all of the connectivity options I have mentioned above and probably a few more will be around for a very long time and need to be part of the solution. The blend of Internet, wired, local-area and wide-area wireless will need to be addressed. Who will have the clout to bring the consumer device vendors and wireless vendors along on this journey to ultimate connectivity? I think the jury is still out.


But it is clear that while the idea is not new, the convergence of better connectivity and better and smarter operating systems will make the attempts much more feasible than when Bill Gates stood up on stage in 1993 and verbalized his vision of every device talking to every other device. This time I expect to see one or more successful implementations.


Andrew M. Seybold



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