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November 30, 2004

glue

One thing that came out of all the talking at Design Engaged is that, well, ubiquitous computing is probably here already, just that what is seen to be ubiquity is made harder each time anything is accomplished. Ubicomp isn't a box you will buy from your local electronics retailer, plug in, and switch on. It's lots of really small pieces loosely, sloppily joined - glued together.

Take the idea of "I can communicate with people wherever I am" - surely a big part of ubicomp. I know this technology isn't everywhere (ubiquity is here, just not evenly distributed), but I think that it's safe to say the mobile phone has pretty much made this a reality.

Now there are other wishes - such as "all my data with me". I think this one is pretty close. What I think has changed is that there's an awful lot more glue about: moving bits, transforming from one format to another, or transferring information from the real world to the digital. This has lots of parallels with all the physical computing work, taking inputs, transforming them, and outputting again, preferably not on a computer.

It seems to me that there are primarily 3 kinds of glue, depending on where they get their information from, and what they transform it into. All 3 are important, and needed for ubicomp.

physical to digital glue ('inputs'):
CD ripper
DVD rippers
digital cameras
webcams

digital to physical glue ('outputs'):
Airport Express
PVRs
video senders

digital to digital glue:
web servers
APIs
UNIX-style pipes
wifi
3g

Physical to physical glue is mainly cabling, or dual deck cassette recorders, and gradually dying out.

The biggest piece of glue has to be the Internet substrata on which pretty much everything else relies. This has been ubiquitised by wifi and mobile phones.

Let's take an example ubiquitous idea - "I want to listen to my music wherever I am".

Currently this is fulfilled mainly by a physical holder for digital data. But different solutions will appear at different times, and will be the right glue for different people:
* a DJ box
* a 100 CD holder
* an online store of your playlist, if not your music
* online radio stations, of pieces of your music and things like it
* your own portable storage of some/most/all of your music
* network storage of some/most/all of your music
* storage elsewhere of all of your music (e.g. home server)
* virtual ownership of music from the network, all the music your ever want and need from the network...

Anyway, I'm now getting close to 'all my music everywhere'. At the moment, it's wherever I have wifi, and a laptop, but I'm hoping that with a bit more glue it will be possible to get it onto a mobile too. Not only do I have my music, but usage gets recorded to audioscrobbler. When at home, it magically plays from my hifi rather than my computer.

Here's all my glue:

CDs -> CD ripper -> home server -> mt-daapd -> firewall -> ADSL -> Internet -> wifi connection -> Network Beacon -> iTunes -> iscrobbler -> audioscrobbler (+ at home, Airport Express -> hifi)

The only time I 'touched code' was to hack iscrobbler to report tracks played over the network. Add more glue (Blue Coconut) and then I can download the music onto whatever I want, for when I'm outside the ubiquity zone.

I realise that this isn't exactly a friendly setup, but it can be done right now. Give it a few years and all the glue disappears or becomes plug and play. There's an important lesson, in that monolithic solutions aren't that useful any more. Products need to be extensible and open at the edges to be useful.

One final question - what are the other ubiquitous wishes? How close are we to them, and what extra glue do we need?

An aside:
Where will all this data live in the future? In the network? At home?

'in the network' - rule of thumb:
10 times less storage
10 times less bandwidth
10 times more expensive
than local (and apply this again to go from wired networks/computers to wireless/mobile)

Haven't Flickr and gmail blown this away?
No! These are important pieces of digital glue, but storage of audio, then video, increases storage needs hundreds of times.

I have sized my CD collection at 200-250gb. I can download, nefariously or not, a gigabyte a night. If I upgraded my Internet connection (currently the highest available here in Finland is 8Mb down/1Mb up), that could triple. Not that I could consume all of that, but I might want to consume bits of it in the future at some point.

Big market for consumer friendly home storage in the future. Important glue.

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Listed below are links to pages that reference glue:

» Glue for ubicomp from Smart Mobs
Anti-Mega mulls over the glues that hold together ubiquitous computing. Interesting list: physical to digital glue ('inputs'): CD ripper DVD rippers digital cameras webcams digital to physical glue ('outputs'): Airport Express PVRs video senders digita...
more | December 1, 2004 10:40 PM

» Design Engaged from oook blog
There's such a marvelous variety of convergent thought going on out there, to which I feel myself connected. I stumbled into the site for the Design Engaged conference (in Amsterdam, mid-November), perhaps via my feed from Stephen Downes' Edu_RSS and...
more | December 5, 2004 04:30 PM

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