A vision of pervasive computing

A vision of pervasive computing

Transmeta made its debut slightly more than a year ago, after being one of the better-kept secrets in Silicon Valley. Its most impressive product is the Crusoe chip, a low-cost computer processor designed to extend battery life and usher in a new era of handheld computing devices. Dave Ditzel, the founder of Transmeta, is a veteran of Sun Microsystems where, as CTO, he was instrumental in developing Sun's RISC computer chip architecture. IDG's Sean Dugan caught up with Ditzel to discuss the future of personal computers, the limitations of today's handhelds and what pervasive computing will look like in the future.

IDG: What do you see in five years as the standard PC?

Ditzel: Very simply that I can get my e-mail no matter where I am, as easily as I get a phone call today.

How would you define mobile computing?

I actually have two different terms. There's mobile computing, and there is our vision of what we want to make happen, what we call mobile Internet computing. Mobile computing might be where you have a Palm Pilot, and you look up a set of phone numbers or addresses on a little handheld device. But that's maybe about all the computing it does, other than functioning as a calculator.

I think our vision is one of extending the experience people get from their desktop PC to the mobile realm. And I believe this not only from a technological point of view, but from a sociological point of view. People have certain habits, one of which is how they communicate and get information. If you look back 10 years, it was all telephone and newspapers. But today when you come into your office and sit down at your desktop PC, it's all e-mail and Web sites. But when you're mobile, you don't get that same communication you get with a cellular phone today.

Is mobile computing migrating the functionality that's now on the desktop onto something that you're carrying with you all the time?

Yes. And it's also connected to the Internet all the time, so the type of computing will change in terms of what people need. For example, very few handheld devices today can run a full Web browser, by that I mean either Netscape or Internet Explorer. With those two desktop browsers, in order to view all the things on the Web, you need to also run the plug-ins for the Web browser - things that give you streaming video, real audio and MP3. Those plug-ins are only written for the major browsers, but aren't available for mobile computing devices and their browsers.

So we are losing a lot of functionality right now with these kinds of mobile devices.

Try and access the Web from WAP [wireless application protocol] and you're not going to get streaming video. What Transmeta is interested in doing is helping to create the technology that will enable people to build handheld devices that will deliver exactly the same experience as they get off their desktop PC.

Will there be any device of choice? Or will we see a whole slew of devices and we'll all carry a couple? Or will different people have different kinds of favourite devices?

I think it's going to change with time. In the short term, you're going to see a wide variety of different devices. People are rushing to service the demand that's out there. But these will be a variety of highly specialised devices. Over time, people are going to want to carry fewer and fewer of them. In the longer term, three to four years from now, my own vision is you really only need to carry one kind of device. Imagine something a little larger than a Palm Pilot, but that has a screen on it that has higher resolution than screens today - sufficient to read a full screen like you would a desktop monitor. You could read e-mail or watch videos - the device that allows the user to do all that will become the device of choice. It will be your mobile phone, but it will also be your e-mail, your pager and your PIM [personal information manager].

All of your communication needs met by one device?

Yes. The technology isn't quite there today, neither in the hardware nor in the general software infrastructure. But I see no reason why the technology wouldn't go there; that's the obvious place to go.These other things in the short term are just intermediate steps. Things like WAP on your mobile phone are just intermediate bridges to that new future where we have a single pervasive communication device that also happens to be a computer.

You could almost call "now" the experimental phase, where we're putting out different breeds of animals in order to see which ones survive in the long term.


What does this mean for companies? Does it change the strategy for a company that is on the Web and how they need to be thinking about these things?

I think the biggest change for companies is the pervasiveness of notebook computing. We have a lot of desktop computers, but the simple combination of a fairly powerful computer with long battery life coupled with, say, 802.11 wireless would be a tremendous change in culture for a company.

It seems when you have a combination of things such as long battery life, portability and rich functionality, and then you add an extra such as a digital camera, there's a whole culture of computing that will rise out of this.

The devices will be more consumer-oriented. In appealing to the mass market, you need to make these devices easier to use. I think that's how it will evolve. Sony has a really interesting computer called the GT Model. It's basically a camcorder with a PC on the side. I saw one in person. It just looks like a camcorder with a super-huge screen. But it's like one of those Transformer toys - you twist it around different ways and it turns into a notebook. It's just the most amazing little device you could see. You say, "Well gee, ya' know, with 30GB on the hard drive, you can record hours and hours of movies on this thing." You can also take thousands of still photographs. It's got a little zoom camera on it, so it's both a still-digital camera and a video camera. Sony's view is that they were going to build it for personal Web-casting. I didn't know what that meant, but you look at this and you go, "Wow! That's like my camcorder device but I don't have to haul a separate notebook computer around too." It's the perfect device for vacations.

It is a completely different approach to computing.

But they thought of it as a consumer device. Rather than thinking, "Let's take a notebook PC and stick a USB camera on the side," they thought, "What does a camera look like, and why don't you just put a PC on the camera rather than a camera on the PC?"

Do you see any technologies that will cause a big revolution in terms of computing? What will be a personal computer? Are we going to see a steady evolution, or is there anything radical that might happen ?

I'm not expecting anything radical. But what I am expecting is machines that become easier to use in a gradual way.

So you see incremental progress in terms of how people will interact with their device?

Again, I think it's because each of the technologies will be developed separately. You might have 10 different devices - a pager, a PIM, a notebook, a video camera. I think you'll see these functionalities merge. It will just seem very natural. I know we're always looking for that one breakthrough technology that's going to change our lives.

It seems like the usability aspects of these mobile-focused technologies are going to have some cascade effects on just your basic desktop PC in terms of creating PC appliances that are available for anybody's grandmother.

Casio is introducing a machine that weighs 35 ounces. The first time I saw it and picked it up, I thought, "Oh, this is some kind of personal organiser. This is useless." I thought it was going to be for addresses. Then I realised, holy cow, they're running Windows Me on this thing with six to nine hours of battery life and it's featherweight.

It's the kind of thing for people who would not have dealt with the geek factor of hauling around a 10-pound machine. This is the kind of thing a woman can take and just drop in her purse, and won't even realise it's there.

It seems like we're on the cusp of an era where computers will be there for people who don't like computers, who don't want to worry about the megahertz or gigabytes.

I have a simple way of putting it: The vision is not one of computing. The vision is about communication. You're not going to be worrying about megahertz or whatever - the computing performance will be sufficient. The real issue is how it helps you communicate with e-mail or getting to Web sites - that's to be the functionality of portable machines. The fact that it also happens to run a spreadsheet will be an afterthought.

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