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March 1999
Volume 4, Issue 3

For Every Light Bulb an IP Address?

Before one can truly embrace a technological innovation, there must be an epiphany to bring the topic into sharp focus. After such an epiphany, the cry "Eureka!" is heard -- and the world never looks the same again.

I can still remember the "Eureka!" when the World Wide Web itself first clicked in my mind. Suddenly, it all made sense, and the only question was, why hadn' t I thought of that? But the details of that experience, the date, time, and location, are all lost in the mists of time.

My epiphany of understanding the real value of the Web as a communications link between devices is more tangible. Before the "Eureka!" the Web was just a way to connect people and their HTTP clients to servers and their HTML documents. After the experience, the Web was a way to link everything from cell phones to light bulbs, from Coke machines to security systems. Even better, I can recall the who, what, where, and when.

When? Tuesday, March 4, 1997, between 10:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. -- just about two years ago.

Where? San Jose, CA, at the ACM97 conference, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Association for Computing Machinery by trying to envision the next 50 years of computing.

Who? The speaker was Vinton Cerf, often referred to as "father of the Internet," coinventor of TCP/IP, and founding president of the Internet Society.

What? Dr. Cerf spoke about the future of the Internet, in particular its applications for being built-in to our homes, our appliances, and even our bodies. Imagine that everything is connected to the Internet. All the time. Every kitchen appliance, every automobile, every stereo receiver, every smart card, every pacemaker, every telephone, every light bulb. Forget about Web browsers. With that type of infrastructure, with every light bulb (well, probably, every light fixture) having its own IP address, what might one achieve?

One of the interesting things about epiphanies is that they lead to thought -- a lot of furious, frantic thought. That' s good, in that it helps drive the new vision home, but it' s also bad, because it makes it hard to precisely recall the thoughts leading up to the epiphany. Thus, I can' t remember exactly what Dr. Cerf said, so these simplistic examples are my own interpretations of his vision. If they don' t make sense, don' t blame Dr. Cerf, okay?

Basic Things: A light fixture could send a trigger to a home-maintenance system letting it know that the filament has burned out. A security system could ask a light to turn itself off. Sensors on your body could let the house know where you are, so the right lights would turn on to your preferred brightness level. If you doze off, lights dim automatically, your phone' s ringer turns off, and the stove lowers the heat on the pot roast.

Safety Things: If you wear a pacemaker, your doctor' s office could monitor its performance, as well as your overall health. When you enter a building, the building' s systems could note the presence of the pacemaker, query a medical server to determine if any devices might cause any risk, warn you about their presence, and also alert any devices that might cause interference to turn off if you wander too close.

Business Things: If you wanted a Dr. Pepper, you could easily find out the location of the nearest machine containing that beverage. You could pay for it with a smart card -- no more cash, no more credit cards. If you take the next-to-last can, the machine would alert the just-in-time delivery truck.

As you read this month' s stories, think beyond what you can do today. Some day, all of these devices will be connected to the Internet all the time. As Web developers, it' s our job to figure out what the devices will look like -- and what to do with them. There will certainly be one or two epiphanies along the way. Eureka!


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