Future Net: Expanding the Web from Pages to Data Sources

An IBM research group is working on a middleware system that could allow virtually unlimited data sharing and Internet access.

IBM Research is working on delivering a middleware system that will enable users to tap into the data on mobile devices to create a virtually unlimited pool of data and provide essentially infinite access to the Internet, the company said.

Stefan Schoenauer, a researcher at the companys Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., said IBM Research, as part of the companys IBM Extreme Blue program, has developed a prototype of a data-sharing middleware platform for mobile devices that will enable heterogeneous devices, regardless of their operating systems or hardware, to access the network via various communication modes, including device-to-device direct communications.

The middleware platform, code-named Infinity, will allow users to use mobile devices to search and analyze limitless amounts of data that was previously inaccessible, Schoenauer said. In addition, the system has built-in security and privacy features that allow users to control authorized access levels.

Schoenauer is the lead researcher mentoring the core team that came up with the Infinity project. What prompted the Infinity project was a great big "what if," Schoenauer said: What if all the information stored in devices like cell phones, PDAs, RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips and USB sticks could be accessed much the way Web sites are today, or even more easily?

The possibilities for new applications would be infinite, the IBM team decided, hence the code name for the project.

Indeed, IBMs research team, which has a group of undergraduate engineering students and an MBA student at its core, proposed that Infinity would significantly transform the Internet by allowing access to the worlds highly distributed data sources. Moreover, the technology marks a critical first step toward exploring how integration in mobile networks could precipitate the growth of a new information marketplace, IBM said.

IBM officials said they believe Infinity will provide a middleware framework for linking heterogeneous mobile devices into real-time, mobile, ad hoc networks that can process queries and share data. Riding the wave of the rapidly increasing number of mobile phones, PDAs and other portable computing devices, Infinity could help to shift the Internet from a network of pages to a network of data sources, IBM said.

Infinity is based on a number of industry-standard technologies, including XML, HTTP, HTML, JavaScript and Bluetooth technology.

"We came up with this broad vision that mobile devices have a lot of capacity and [thought about] what we could do with all the data on these devices," Schoenauer said. "We have all this data in a lot of different formats, and its the middlewares job to translate those different formats," he added.

IBMs prototype is notable because as yet there is no standard way to share data between diverse mobile devices directly in ad hoc networks. And because the variety of mobile operating systems offers so many different programming environments and interfaces, applications have to be custom-developed for each platform. The vast range of data types, database software and connection hardware involved make it difficult to achieve broad-spectrum mobile device integration. Infinity technology will improve cross-platform integration and communication for mobile applications, and will enable application developers to more easily develop applications for a variety of mobile devices, IBM said.

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Moreover, Schoenauer said one of the major elements of the Infinity platform is to have the middleware work across platforms. "Whats there now is a scattered spectrum, and with this middleware we can have a unified platform," he said. "The middleware itself looks very much like a Web server on the Internet. The applications are HTML pages with some JavaScript, and they communicate via HTTP." In addition, the platform uses XML as a data exchange format, he said.

So far, IBM has tested Infinity using a variety of devices, including Windows Mobile 5.0 devices, various PDAs and a series of cell phones, "and we got them all to work together. But we havent tried it out on all possible platforms yet," Schoenauer said.

Next Page: Possible applications.