This is a view of the future from one fellow traveler of the planet. It has to do with a universally connected world which I believe is emerging at a breakneck pace. This is not a new thought but I may have a new twist on it, especially when it comes to the kind of opportunities such a connected world may present.
What I see happening is the emergence of a global local area network. A network built on open standards. A network soon to have, perhaps, accessibility by a billion people. People everywhere having access to this global area network, enabling every business, every institution, every government to think of their local area network as a way to reach all of their constituencies. In addition to large numbers of people being connected I believe we will have even larger numbers of things connected. At the turn of the century maybe a billion people and a trillion things. Internet addresses everywhere. I’m not talking here about e-mail. I’m talking about the ability to address things. We know that every PC has a TCP/IP address. Soon, everything will. Your phone. Your pager. Your car. Can you imagine a vending machine sending a message to headquarters saying “I’m out of 7-Up”? Can you imagine your KitchenAid dishwasher sending a message to the server in your basement, sending a message in turn back to headquarters saying “Please send a repairman. I need a new impeller blade”? Can you imagine your car running a little Java applet sending you an e-mail saying “It’s time for an oil change”?
Some people think that we will never have enough TCP/IP addresses to enable all these things to be connected since there is talk of running out of addresses already. However, the next generation of TCP/IP, called IPng or IPv6, is just around the corner and it has exponentially expanded addressing potential. One estimate puts the limit at just under 1,600 IP addresses per square meter of the planet. That assumes a less than optimal allocation of the addresses. Clever addressing may result in a limit closer to one million million addresses per square meter! It surely appears that addresses will not be a limitation. In fact various schemes already exist to connect and address large numbers of things without using tcp/ip at all. A company called Echelon has enable millions of devices around the world to be connected using a simple protocol they call LONWorks.
One Internet is what is evolving. A universally-connected world. And this universally-connected world will result in the natural evolution to the new medium. A new medium where everything and everybody can communicate. Portions of this single Internet are cordoned off behind firewalls to protect against unwanted intrusion: This is what we call the “intranet.” Portions of this single Internet are very high speed, very private connections between Company A and Company B, or Department A and Department B. Some people call these connections “extranets.” But it’s all one network and people and devices will be able to communicate if they want to. The result will be a whole new world of data and applications. Huge numbers of tiny cameras, sensors, monitors, communications relays, etc. will be connected and will create new data. Some of this data will reside on a very local level providing control feedback to manufacturing processes or home controls. However, a lot of data will be “rolled up” from these micro networks to LANs and WANs which will feed the data to databases for recording and analysis. This will provide the basis for the creation of applications that will have a dramatic impact on information technology as we know it, not replacing it, but extending it.
Paul Saffo at the Institute for the Future has written a paper called “Sensors: the Next Wave of Infotech Innovation” that presents an expanded and related view of this area.