A Brave New Web
Monday, October 11, 1999
The Internet will soon be conn ected to your car, your television, your phone, your fridge–and even your tennis shoes
By Jennifer L. Schenker
You are driving down the autobahn near Stuttgart and something goes wrong with the engine of your car. Before you even realize there is a problem, the car has sent an e-mail detailing the trouble to the automaker’s portal site on the Internet. The website figures out where the closest dealer is and sends a message there, and employees check the stockroom for the necessary parts and pencil in the next available slot with a mechanic. By the time an e-mail arrives at your dashboard computer alerting you to the fault, you are presented with the solution as well.
This scenario, envisioned by Hewlett Packard, is what Peter van der Fluit, Hewlett Packard Europe’s vice president and general manager of enterprise marketing, calls “chapter two of the Internet. We will be able to link every individual and every machine via cyberspace.” In addition to owners of personal computers, anyone with a car, mobile phone, personal digital assistant (P.D.A.) or TV will be connected to the Internet. Not to mention those wearing tennis shoes. In future, microchips in running shoes will monitor the body’s vital signs. “In 20 years’ time it will be odd for something not to be on the network,” says Bill Joy, chief scientist and corporate executive officer at Sun Microsystems.
Between now and 2005, personalized “follow-me-everywhere” services will become commonplace; business and economy-class Web services will be introduced; and consumers will take control of their digital identities. Not only will the Net support a variety of new access devices, but it will become the primary vehicle for voice, data and video transmission. Already, a group of communication giants, including AT&T, has formed an alliance called Embed the Internet, which aims to accelerate the market for globally networked, intelligent devices in homes, offices and factories worldwide. And we’ll see the introduction of pocket-sized devices that “know what you want, where you are and what is next,” predicts Joy.
Putting everything and everyone on the Net will open up new commercial opportunities. For example, when you visit a new place your mobile device–knowing your preferences–will automatically suggest the restaurants that serve your favorite wines and foods, list the shows you might like to see, then provide you with maps of how to get there, says Joy, whose company Sun is developing Jini, a networking system to automatically link computing devices. Or, say your car breaks down before you get to the dealer. While you are stuck on the highway, a cyberspace services broker–accessible from a range of portable devices–would in minutes be able to electronically arrange for a tow truck to pick you up and order a rental car to be waiting at the dealership. That’s the idea behind Hewlett Packard’s new E-services, launched in May, which electronically link up buyers and sellers who have had no prior contact and may want to do business with each other only once.
Overall, it is going to become much easier for people to communicate over the Net. “Buddy systems”–which alert people when their friends and relatives are on the Net and ready to chat–are just the beginning. Communicating with others in real time–rather than waiting for an e-mailed reply–will soon be the norm. Real-time multilingual communications mean that people will be able to ask a question of a company’s customer service department, for example, in whatever language they feel most comfortable, and the message will be routed to the most knowledgeable person in the firm regardless of where they are and what language they speak. Although the answer might be given in Cantonese, the questioner will instantly receive the answer in their own language, thanks to instant messaging and “on the fly” language translation. These technologies create a kind of real-time, multilingual intercom, says John Patrick, vice president of Internet technology at IBM. IBM plans to offer this capability in its WebSphere Application Server software and its Lotus division’s Sametime E-meetings technology.
Business-to-business electronic commerce will also become easier thanks to a new technical standard called XML (extensible markup language) that makes it simpler to interconnect different kinds of business computing systems, thus allowing suppliers, manufacturers and distributors to more easily exchange orders and information. Access to the best medical advice, education courses and museums is also set to improve. Kenan Sahin, vice president of software technology at Bell Labs and president of Lucent’s Kenan Systems subsidiary, says the Internet will increasingly become a multisensory experience. “The Internet will allow people to experience art in the real sense of the word by feeling the texture and smelling the aroma,” he says. “Imagine using the Internet to walk through a museum in Paris, then to sit online in a sidewalk cafe to discuss your visit with a Parisian. You communicate through interfaces so realistic that you see the excitement in his eyes, hear the subtlest nuance in his voice and smell the coffee he’s drinking.”
Realistic interfaces will also add a much more human element to online business meetings, gatherings of friends or shopping transactions. With optical recognition software, a businesswoman could have her personal video camera identify as a competitor or a prospect a person entering a crowded room. And shoppers could inspect merchandise thanks to a “hands-free” computer interface that uses small television cameras to register the position of a person’s hands in front of a computer screen. The person moves her hands to control the computer and grasp or turn images of objects projected onto a three-dimensional screen.
All of these applications will take bandwidth–and lots of it. Some of the sector’s biggest companies are working on making the Internet 1,000 times faster and more reliable. But once everything from supercomputers to toasters is online, won’t that result in the mother of all traffic jams on the information superhighway? DiffServ is designed to prevent that. Under the plan, the Internet will be split into a six-lane highway with slow lanes, normal lanes and passing lanes. Each data packet will carry a little electronic flag identifying its lane. Internet service providers will charge accordingly, just as travelers pay different fares for first or second class. “All data packets are not equal,” says IBM’s Patrick. “Some should get priority over others.”
The system is supposed to give consumers flexibility, allowing them to reserve bandwidth when they need it. This would enable a traveling businesswoman, for example, to engage in a video conference with a client from wherever she happens to be. This kind of consumer would be happy to pay a premium for guaranteed bandwidth and quality of service. But some consumers won’t mind slower service under certain circumstances, and some businesses will take advantage of the lower tariffs for lower speeds to create new services.
Ken Blakeslee, vice president of business development for Carrier and Wireless Solutions at Nortel Networks, uses the example of a teenage boy out Rollerblading with his friends. The Web-enabled Gameboy on his wrist beeps to notify him that the latest version of his favorite game has just come out. Would he like to download it for $4.95? Since he already has a payment account, all he has to do is push the O.K. button. During the next two hours, as he skates around the park with his friends, the video game will be downloaded.
Or say a businessman wants to buy a new home in a distant city. He uses the phone built into his spectacles to call a real-estate agent. The agent selects virtual tours of available homes and sends them to the businessman’s wearable computer at a slow bit rate. Happy to walk through the interactive tours that evening after the images are downloaded, the businessman will also have the option of sampling the images at any time by using the visual receivers built into the lenses of his glasses. “Any information you don’t need immediately is a candidate for lower-speed, lower-priced transmission,” says Lucent’s Sahin. Blakeslee compares it to the strategy of airlines, which often sell the same seats for vastly different prices. For airlines the goal is to fill the plane; for Internet service providers, it is to fill the network.
While technology enthusiasts tout the advantages of all these new services, others point to a darker side–loss of privacy. Managing digital identity is a critical issue for both consumers and businesses and is a major source of friction between the U.S. government and the European Commission. Consumers are looking to wrest away from Internet companies control over the electronic collection of personal information such as bookmarks and credit card details. Now, new products are hitting the market that allow consumers to control exactly how much information they give out. For example, NCR Corp., which makes software used by financial organizations and retailers to compile information about consumers, has come out with a product that permits consumers to opt into or out of personal data collection. Novell’s “digitalme,” expected to be available in January, uses a business card metaphor to manage identity. The same “mecard” might give out your home address and phone plus mobile number to friends, but only flash an e-mail address to a corporation. The digitalme system can be programmed to fill in the forms used to register and establish access privileges on many websites. It then monitors what the websites do with your personal information and creates a log of where your details have been forwarded. Earlier this year, IBM and partner Equifax launched digital certificate products and services that help consumers identify the people and organizations with whom they do online business. A digital certificate can be used to establish a person’s online identity and define their relationships within a certain business or group, much like a passport or driver’s license. Digital certificates also allow users to encrypt and send information over networks without the fear that unauthorized persons can open the data.
IBM’s Patrick says that with these new safeguards, putting personal information online is something consumers should embrace, not fear. “Look at your medical records and think of where they are today,” he says. “Most likely they are in manila folders in multiple doctors’ offices with no controls over who reads them.” The best solution to this problem, he says, is to go digital. If Patrick is right, then a lot more than just book purchases and credit card details will be going online in the not-too-distant future.