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21st Century Wireless Tools: Working in a Networked World…

21st Century Wireless Tools: Working in a Networked World…

Companies are always risking their business, betting on what will be happening next year, and how they can make money out of it. The trick is to get it right.

We all know that we work in a fast-moving industry. Even before wireless communications raced ahead, the IT field was already moving too quickly for most industry commentators - fast enough in fact to make a fool of anyone rash enough to try to predict future developments.

From the famous IBM statement that the total world market for computers amounted to no more than 20 units, to Bill Gates saying that no one could ever use more than 640KB of RAM, history is littered with embarrassing comments on the future...and some more expensive errors of judgment. The Intel Web site makes no mention of the 80186, moving straight from the 80188 to the 80286; no one guessed at the time that backwards compatibility would be so important - something we now take for granted with every new development.

In the wireless world things are even worse, with companies staking their whole business model on the uptake of new technologies barely out of the lab. 3G networks really sum up this inability to guess what's happening next. No one knows what they'll be used for, but whatever it is, it's going to have to be expensive if the networks are going to turn a profit. It's remarkable that companies investing so much in future developments seem to spend so little effort trying to understand it, adopting the "If we build it, they will buy it" approach to development, often at a cost.

One company interested in what the future looks like is Xerox. If they could only turn their hand to making money out of their predictions, they could be dominating many diverse markets today. The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is trying to work out how computers and documents are going to be used in the wireless office of the future, how we'll interact with them, and what they'll do for us. You may have heard of Xerox PARC. They played a large part in developments such as the Graphical User Interface (GUI), Ethernet, and many of the Internet standards in use today. Their visions have helped shape the office you work in and the software you use, based on the point of view of the document as central, and everything else just tools to manipulate it.

Xerox doesn't always get it right. Many of their ideas are fanciful and far-fetched. Some are just too far ahead of their time, but some are becoming reality as we watch. One of these ideas describes the kinds of wireless computers that are going to exist, and how they can work together in a new kind of office. They're known as the Pad, the Tab, and the Screen.

The Pad
By examining how people work, looking at how they interact with the space around them, researchers at Xerox realized that we like to be surrounded by paper, or more accurately, by documents. The familiar desktop interface of modern computers bears very little resemblance to a real desk, with its piles of paper and printouts, handwritten notes, and scribbled details. We seem to like to work with our documents spread around us, not neatly displayed on a screen at eye level, but physically near us. The work we're most interested in is beside us, while work to be considered later moves to the side of the desk. Attempts to recreate this interface on a screen are, basically, laughable, and while larger screens may make us more comfortable with digital representations of documents, we still seem to need their physical presence to organize ourselves.

So the researchers considered how to make this digital, and decided that the solution was a large number of flat-screen wireless displays, each with a single document. When you sit down to work in the morning, instead of printing out your tasks for the day, you would bring up that document on a Pad, then probably place it on your desk. Another Pad might contain a printout of your current project status, while another has some slides you were working on, and yet another, some notes you made about future projects. These Pads would pile up around your desk - in the same way as the paper sheets there now - reminding you of things that remain to be done. Once a task is completed you'd clear the Pads involved with it, and they'd be ready to be used again.

Obviously, any Pad would be capable of displaying any document, but that isn't how they'll be used. Interfacing with the Pads would, most likely, be through a touch screen, but being wirelessly networked would mean that a keyboard or other interfacing method could easily be used.

Pads should replace the ubiquitous VDU on every desk, allowing a more natural way of working and preventing us from trying to fit our lives into a 17-inch screen.

The Tab
The Tab is a very small device, the size of a pager or wristwatch (it may even be a pager or watch, in addition to being a Tab). With only very limited display and interface options, the Tab offers only the minimum of document editing features. Tabs are more about people, and could well be built into name badges or corporate passes. They also have the ability to hold documents for transportation, and some may offer basic reviewing features.

Note that the Tab itself isn't considered to have much in the way of local storage, but always exists in a wirelessly networked environment. I might be working late, and decide to take some work home with me, so I transfer some documents from the Pads on my desk to my Tab to take home. When I get home I can simply transfer them to any Pads I have there, but the documents themselves never actually moved because a central server holds them. Only my perception of their location changes. If I lose my Tab on the way home no data has been lost. Though I may have some trouble finding it again, it's still there on the server. In this way all of the problems of multiple copies of files, and version modification, are addressed.

The Screen
The Screen is the simplest of our trio of devices. It's a large screen, probably mounted on a wall or other display surface. Networked in the same way as the Pads and Tabs, I would use a Screen to show work to colleagues or to give presentations. Displaying a document would be just a matter of copying it onto a Screen where I wanted to show it. Again, the document itself wouldn't move, only my perception of where it was located.

Obviously Pads, Tabs, and Screens constitute only the front end of the system. It should be obvious that such an environment is going to need a complex of back-end servers managing all the documents and ensuring that they appear to be where the users imagine them to be. The complexity of such a system shouldn't be underestimated. These devices would be very basic terminals, reliant on a server to carry out most of their processing tasks and only able to perform the most basic of functions without network connectivity. But such servers do exist, and network reliability has never been better. The servers are going to have to be able to talk to all the devices, all the time, and some form of standard wireless network is going to be essential. Xerox has done much work with infrared communications, though Bluetooth would now seem the obvious alternative.

It's when we consider the devices, themselves, that our technological limitations become obvious. The Tab is relatively easy - just mount Bluetooth into a watch and you're 90% there. The Screen is, similarly, easily created from a standard PC connected to a projector or plasma wall display, but the Pad is a more difficult challenge.

To get a letter-sized device, with a display of sufficient quality to read text from, and cheap enough for a dozen on every desk, isn't easy and perhaps isn't yet possible. Even ignoring the problem of needing to keep the cost down, the simple challenge of producing a device slim enough to be piled onto a desk, yet robust enough to survive a modern office environment, could well prove impossible without stronger materials or better manufacturing processes. The nearest equivalent would be the Web pads, as demonstrated at every consumer electronics show for the last few years, yet strangely absent from local stores. But these devices may well be overpowered for our needs, leading to their high cost and bulky size, and thus their lack of marketplace success.

Of course, it isn't necessary to implement the whole model to benefit from the ideas within it. What Pads, Tabs, and Screens are actually about is working with documents, rather than files or directories. The user experience is wholly document-centric and users don't need to know where the files are or how they're organized, just how to use them. The three devices described demonstrate the three ways in which documents are used, and attempt to describe devices that might fit each role perfectly, without users having to change their way of working to suit the machines. When any device can be used to access any information we'll really be working in a networked world. I'm looking forward to it.

For additional information, WBT readers can go to the fasinating Xerox Palo Alto Research Center Web site at: www.parc.xerox.com.

More Stories By Bill Ray

Bill Ray, former editor-in-chief (and continuing distinguished contributor to) Wireless Business & Technology magazine, has been developing wireless applications for over 20 ears on just about every platform available. Heavily involved in Java since its release, he developed some of the first cryptography applications for Java and was a founder of JCP Computer Services, a company later sold to Sun Microsystems. At Swisscom he was responsible for the first Java-capable DTV set-top box, and currently holds the position of head of Enabling Software at 02, a UK network operator.

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