Big Leaps, Not Baby Steps

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-02-05

Im suspicious of incremental strategies. they remind me of the visionary man-ape in "2001: A Space Odyssey," whose plan for reaching the moon began with finding a taller tree to climb. What looks like the first, easiest step toward a goal may actually make the rest of the journey more difficult. Eventually, youll need a rocket to reach the moon, and its harder to build and launch one from a treetop than it is from solid ground. Our first steps toward pervasive computing have had a decidedly tree-climbing character.

Weve taken big computers and shrunk them to subnotebook PCs; weve wound up with complex, costly machines. We pay to make them self-contained data processors, then pay more to give them mobile access to live data—while handheld devices find data trapped in formats that assume a full-size screen. This is not a designed solution.

Early moon mission plans envisioned a single vehicle that would take off from Earth and land on the surface of our satellite, but the requirements of that flight were too much for any feasible design. Someone had to make the conceptual breakthrough of splitting the mission between different vehicles, one designed for an airless low-gravity environment and the other designed to get men there and back. The need for those vehicles to rendezvous in lunar orbit shaped our entire manned space program leading up to Apollo. We knew where we needed to go.

Pervasive computing demands comparably creative thinking. Portable devices need to be designed for the environment where theyll be used. Applications, like the throwaway Saturn V booster that sent moon missions on their way, can stay at home on servers while portable processors handle encryption and other tasks that actually have to be done in the field.

Lets come down out of the trees.

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