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Towards a world of ambient computing

First there was the PC, then there was ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things. What comes next?
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor on

This isn't a manifesto. Nor is it a piece of futurist speculation. It's more of brain dump, flushing out things I've been thinking about for the last few weeks (and for the past couple of decades, really) trying to make sense of the wave of change and transformation that's moving through our industry.

First, let's set the scene with a little time travel.

Way, way back, in the distant heady days of the early 90s, I worked in a major telecoms research lab, as part of a team looking at how the local loop — that last mile between the exchange and your home — would evolve over the next couple of decades. It was a fascinating couple of years, spent experimenting with early wireless networks, debugging some the first DSL hardware in the UK, and running my own lab-sized cable TV network.

It was also a couple of years that made me realise two things.

First, that the networks we'd built to handle analogue voice and video were going to have to become digital networks, piping data to computers in our homes and in our pockets (and yes, I bought one of the first Apple Newtons in the UK to help me understand just what those pocket computers might become). And secondly, that those computers themselves were going to disappear, fading into the background like the piano chords in Brian Eno's Music for Airports, his pioneering work of what he called 'ambient music'.

The first of those things has happened. The second, well, that's what's happening right now — it's just that we've not put a name to it that everyone can agree on.

Fast forward a decade or so, and I was working with a friend who was writing a book on the then promising WAP-powered world of mobile commerce. Over a beer I suggested that this fledging mobile world was just the beginning. "You know," I said, "it's going to be a world not just where computers are ubiquitous, but one where they become ambient. They'll fade into the background, just another part of the landscape we live in, always there, but ignored."

He put that definition in his book, and I carried on thinking about what ambient computing might be, and how we'd live in such a world.

I was reminded of that long ago conversation by a series of different conversations I've had over the last few weeks. One was the regular ongoing Twitter discussions I have with fellow IT journalists and with IT professionals from across the industry, another was with folk from AMD and ARM, at a briefing about AMD's new ARM-based server processors. The most recent was with the folk from Yammer, at a meeting in a converted gasometer in Amsterdam.

Journalists are inquisitive folk. We ask "Why?" all the time, and then we try to understand the rationale — and the reasons — behind people's decisions. Why did Google buy Nest? Why did Microsoft make its cloud guy its new CEO? What's the reason for businesses using new enterprise tools such as Yammer, Box, Asana, and the like? And above all, why do we find ourselves obsessing over those little screens in our pockets?

Then there's AMD and ARM. AMD's Seattle ARM-powered server hardware isn't just a shot over the bows of the x86 dreadnaught. It's a shift to an alternate way of thinking about data centre design, about realising just how much power our cloud data centres consume and about designing them to deliver, and receive, vast torrents of information efficiently.

It's a shift that needs to happen, as we move to a world where everything is equipped with sensors, where low-energy wireless meshes gather that information and throw it at the cloud in one massive mass of data — data that needs to be processed and turned into useful, actionable information. In a world where everything is connected, we need a different type of data center.

But it's not just the technology, it's as much about the people. If everything is connected, how then do we reorganise the way we live and work when we get that information? Adam Pisoni, Yammer's CTO, is thinking about that as he defines the responsive organisation, and looks at how the old ways of working are fading away as we shift from a world of mundane tasks in constrained processes, to one where everyone is not just able to make decisions that can shape a business, but where everyone is expected to make them, as they have the information they need and the tools for sharing it with their colleagues, their customers, and their suppliers and business partners.

This then is the brave new world we're building. Computing is now, or at least soon will be, completely ambient. It's on its way to becoming a background sea of computation that bears little or no relation to the familiar, almost cosy, world of desktop PCs and boxy servers. We will talk, and the world will answer. Surrounded by sensors, a massive array of little brothers will watch us, watch the world around us, delivering information to massive arrays of cloud-hosted machine learning systems.

This then is why Google bought Nest, why Microsoft hired its cloud guy as its new CEO, why everyone and their dog have a mobile strategy, why Yammer are thinking as much about people as software. It's because all those elements come together to form the foundations of that ambient computing world — a world that's just around the corner.

We're not 15 years from a Charles Stross science fiction future, like the Edinburgh of his crime novels Halting State and Rule 34, instead, we're already living in it. It's a world where you watch a sunset, only to be buzzed by a hexacopter drone, where your phone makes a little noise and you'll look down to see a snippet of news telling you an elder statesman has just died, where your car warns you that someone is about to come out of a blind junction, and where your oven turns on as you leave the office, heating up the meal you made last night. It's a world where your basement sump pump warns you that it's failing, where a wrist band reminds you that it might be time to get up from your desk and take a walk. It's a world where when you see a problem at work, you have access to the information and the tools to fix it, right now.

While we're building that world, it's time to start asking new questions.

Perhaps the most important is the most complex: what happens when we disconnect our experiences from the technologies that power those experiences? We pick up a phone and ask Siri a question, or see an alert from Google Now telling us we need to take a different route to a meeting, and we don't think about the arrays of servers in a data centre somewhere in the middle of nowhere that are handling the complex compute tasks that are needed to mine our lives and the world around us for relevant data, to handle natural speech recognition, and to then deliver it to our devices in a consistent and easy to understand format.

That's a difficult question, and one that's going to take another decade or so to answer. It's a question that's already shaping more than just the technological landscape, but the social, the political and the personal.

It's seems odd then that I'm writing a piece about pervasive connectivity and how that delivers the framework for an ambient computing world sat in that last bastion of the unconnected: 36,000 feet over northern Canada, sat in the back of a transatlantic 747. And yet, even here I've still got some vestige of connectivity, as through the inflight entertainment system I can get regularly updated news headlines, giving me a trickle of connection to that pervasive network down below. It's a slow, one way connection, but it's still a connection.

"All watched over by machines of loving grace." Maybe yes, maybe no, but certainly watched. The Internet of Things is no more, instead we're quickly moving post-post-PC into a world where sensors, the cloud, pervasive low energy networking, and mobile computing mesh together into a world where it doesn't matter where technology is, because it's everywhere.

Ambient computing: because it's everywhere, and nowhere.

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