European Affairs

Connecting Through Smart Networks     Print Email
Mark Bregman

Many companies have a vision for the future mobile information society, a total concept that we at IBM call "pervasive computing."

Pervasive computing is about the natural evolution of the Internet. From its birth in 1962 , to the first e-mail in 1971, through the emergence of the World Wide Web in 1994, and on to the beginning of e-business in 1996. Today, there is an acceptance of electronic commerce as a way of life.

In 1997, when IBM launched pervasive Computing, we made a mistake. We should not have called it pervasive computing. If we are truly successful, people will no longer think of working with data or surfing the Internet as computing. Just as they do not think about how the telephone works when making a call, or how electricity turns on the lights.

When we say "computer" a generation from now Ñ if we use the word at all Ñ we will probably be talking about things like the wall screen in the den, a mobile phone, or the dashboard in our cars. Pervasive computing is about making technology and computers disappear. In fact, the more technology becomes transparent, the more business will prosper.

This is a world where mobile phones, hand-held digital devices, automobiles, refrigerators and trillions of other easy-to-use devices are linked to the Internet, allowing people to connect anytime, anywhere. It will be pervasive Ñ global Ñ and it will change forever the way we think about the Internet.

New smart devices, and even smarter networks, open standards, and a new eco-system of industry partnerships will allow users to extend their e-business to more customers than they ever thought possible - maybe millions more.

People do not want more computers in their lives. They want the Internet, or more specifically access to information anytime, anywhere. Just look at the numbers.

  • Today there are about 300 million PCs worldwide. But very soon they will be outnumbered by a variety of other network-access devices.
  • Today the adoption rate of mobile phones is three times larger than that of PCs.
  • In China, more than one million people are signing up for mobile phone service a month.
  • According to the Gartner Group, by 2005 the number of wireless subscribers worldwide will hit the one billion mark. Others believe this will happen by 2003. (Perhaps, both will be wildly wrong, again.)
  • Gartner also says that by 2003 more than 70 percent of new Internet access devices will be wireless.

This does not mean the PC will go away. It is estimated that there will be about 600 million PCs worldwide. But they will share the Internet with 2 billion networked devices, like intelligent mobile phones, pagers, web-enabled set-top boxes and other consumer electronic devices.

Very soon these devices will be joined by many billions of everyday items Ñ automobiles, refrigerators, machine tools, vending machines, that will be embedded with computational capability and connected to the Net. This will enable everyday transactions to occur automatically, like placing an order to the cyber-grocery store to restock the refrigerator, or even allowing the repairman to perform on-line diagnostics tests on appliances.

In the process, these devices will entice a new wave of customers to explore the Web's content and commerce. And new customers on the Net mean more transactions, and more transactions mean more business. Pervasive computing will spawn hundreds of millions of transactions.

Consumers have already begun to explore the potential of pervasive computing. In October, IBM announced that it was helping Handelsbanken, the largest bank in the Nordic region, to create a new Internet banking service for mobile phones. It was interesting that, according to the customer, it was faster and less expensive to build the application and launch the pilot than it was to do the market research to determine if people wanted the service.

Beginning this year, Handelsbanken's 1.5 million customers in five countries will be able to use their mobile phones to buy and sell stock, transfer funds, view their account information, and even pay bills, anytime, anywhere.

This is just one example of how companies are using pervasive computing to access the Net, and in the process are helping technology disappear from our lives.

But the task is not simple. Under closer inspection, you see that there is a tremendous amount of technology needed to make this service work. But unlike today's PC-centered world, the technology is not in the hands of the user, it is in the infrastructure.

A smart network is emerging Ñ a new "information infrastructure," that will have to be seamless and smart and as simple to use as a telephone.

But unlike the telephone network Ñ this time no single industry is going to build it. It will require companies to work together on open standards; technology and services that will help you expand your Internet businesses as never before. The goal for everyone is going to be the ability to use any device to access any service - whether at work, at home, or in the car.

IBM is developing and delivering the technology, software and services to companies that want to extend their Web and enterprise content to these new devices. We are working with telecommunications equipment companies, like Nokia, and with operators like Sprint PCS, and other device manufacturers, like Palm Computing, to help them extend their products and networks to support the new devices and deliver new services.

IBM is focusing on three main ideas:

One is leveraging our huge investments in core technologies and delivering them to device manufacturers.

The second is developing the software that will create a smarter network capable of supporting billions of devices transmitting trillions of transactions.

The third is services. We are working with customers not just on the infrastructure, but also on implementing this new technology in the delivery of real customer solutions.

All in all, the objective is to stimulate the growth of pervasive computing and to help companies use technology to improve their businesses.

A very important element is standards. Because even if you had billions of smart devices connected to an even smarter network and a new system of companies who have entered partnerships to bring customers new complete offerings, the whole thing will not work without standards. Or, at least, it will take a lot longer.

We want a network that will recognize every device Ñ just like every appliance you own works in every electric wall outlet in your house. So in a pervasive computing world, for instance, your digital television will work with your digital camera, and the network in your house will recognize the onboard computer in your car, so that when you drive up, it will automatically open the door and turn on the lights.

In the next wave of the Internet, standards like WAP and XML GPRS, packet radio and "BlueTooth" will become increasingly important, as they will make it possible for devices to communicate with each other and the network.

Pervasive computing is how smart devices, an even smarter network, a new eco-system of industry partnerships and standards will let our clients extend e-business to attract more customers than most people ever thought possible.

How, then, do we define pervasive computing? By now it should be apparent that pervasive computing is not one "thing" but a large number of "things" that will make our lives richer and more productive.

  • State-of-the-art technology being used intelligently.
  • A smart network that gives us access to the information we need, when we want it.
  • An open collaboration among companies working together to hide all that complexity so things just work.

Pervasive computing is e-business taken to the next logical level. It is a triumph of infrastructure, which will allow businesses the world over to leverage their current investment in Internet technology and extend their reach to thousands, or even millions of new customers.

We know how important pervasive computing will be in the next century and beyond. The challenge is to make it work.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number I in the Winter of 2000.

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