a giant, largely invisible infrastructure that makes your life better.

The advent of wireless networking technology foreshadows a new era in the information age--the era of ubiquitous computing; universal computing; the Omninet.

While predicting the future of anything--not least computer technology--is more often than not a fruitless task, it is not a great leap of the imagination to envisage a time 20 or 30 years from now when computers are everywhere. Currently, network technology's greatest achievement is the Internet, a web of nodes strung together across the world relatively sparsely. Right now there are many holes in this latticework, but as the density of these nodes increases the gaps in the mesh will decrease,"drawing... tighter and tighter until the net becomes a seamless fabric" {Johnson(b)}. One team of scientists (the Berkeley Endeavour project) working towards this goal use the ocean as a metaphor, in which we the users are fish submerged in an ocean of data. Another group (Oxygen, at MIT) compare the Omninet to (surprisingly enough) oxygen--they believe computers will become as pervasive (and unnoticable) as the air we breathe. "You will be able to flip open a laptop anywhere in the world and be connected to an all-engulfing atmosphere of information", what George Johnson dubs the Omninet {Johnson(a)}. Eric Brewer, a specialist on computer security and parallel computing, describes the Omninet simply as "a giant, largely invisible infrastructure that makes your life better."{Johnson(a)} In the future we won't think about "connecting" to the Internet; we'll already be inside it.

Two trends in technology lead us towards this future. As computers miniaturise to the point where we can barely see them, they will be implanted in everything around us: clocks, thermostats, all kinds of appliances, even light switches--all, in general, basic everyday objects {Poor}. Each will have its own specialised function. For all these chips to become something greater than the sum of their parts, they need to be able to talk to each other. Without intercommunication there could be no mesh, no fabric. This is where wireless technology comes into its own. Traditional techniques would be no use in connecting such a number of nodes; although we may want nodes everywhere, we would rather not have the wires to match. With scientists envisaging 'living spaces', rooms comprised of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of nodes all chattering away to each other, hooking them all up with cable isn't going to work. Wireless technology is a necessity to allow these nodes to speak to each other without turning our new living rooms into spiders' webs.

Robert Poor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been researching methods into how such a network could exist. He believes that the most important characteristics of a network connecting together hundreds of everyday objects are: high density and low cost {Poor}. If you're going to hook up every object in a room, you're going to need a network that can deal with a lot of nodes; and if you're working with a lot of nodes you want them to be cheap. How do you go about connecting all these nodes up? As mentioned above, it has to be wireless. That's essential. Poor speculates that it must also be low power; you can't plug all your everyday objects into a power source, so you're going to want them to be able to run for a long time standalone. Finally you need some kind of self-organisation. A universal network is going to be dynamic, with nodes moving around. The network must be able to cope automatically when a node moves from place to place. As Poor points out: "You can't have some poor fool editing IP routing tables every time an object is carried into the room." {Poor}

From these three basic necessities of an omninet, some corollaries arise. Poor believes the network cannot work using base stations. "In a system that uses base stations, each network node must have sufficient transmitter power to reach all the way to the base station" {Poor}. This would violate the low-power requirement. Secondly, as no one node can hear all the other nodes in the network (due to the limited transmission range of the nodes), routing must be fully distributed between all nodes in the network. Thirdly, nodes must have limited capabilities in order to meet cost and power constraints. Storage space and computational power must be kept to a minimum to keep prices down and energy consumption low. In such a network everything is distributed: there must be no distinction between a 'router' and a 'terminal node'--every node helps out. Not only would such an omninet be an example of the power of information-sharing, it would also extol the virtues of distributed processing and distributed power. A reward of such an architecture is its low initial cost: stick a load of cheap nodes in a room together and they'll start talking.

So now we know what the Omninet is, and one possible way in which it could work. One question still remains: why would we actually want such universal computing? There are many potential benefits. The internet of the future "will be less about us talking to each other than about our machines talking to each other" {Lefevre}, and in the process making our lives much easier. Let's go back to our futuristic living rooms. "As I move around in my environment, it knows where I am," postulates Leonard Kleinrock, a founder of the Arpanet. "The room knows I am there. I walk up to a device and suddenly it becomes mine - with my applications, my profile, instantly available. Tech will be everywhere - always there, always on, just the way electricity is there for you." {Johnson(a)}

We don't even need to be around for computers to do our work. Robert Poor asks "Why should you ever have to set a clock?" Our timepieces, when part of the Omninet, can contact a local time base and always be within a few milliseconds of the most accurate in the world--all done with no human interaction. Your washing machine can call a plumber to fix itself. Grocery shopping could become a thing of the past: "the refrigerator reads the bar codes on the milk carton, determines when it's time to re-order, adds it to the Internet grocery list to automatically replenish." {Lefevre}

Universal computing will also revolutionise the desktop computer. With an always-on, always-connected network in the air, there will be little need for hard physical storage at your desk. Applications will move off the hard drive and onto the network (รก la Microsoft .Net), and with an ocean of space surrounding us we won't need our data on a local disk. "You ought to have worldwide storage," says David Culler of the Endeavour team. "The idea of having your disk and backup and remembering where your files are - that's baloney. In the future, you've got one great big ocean: All the data is out there." {Johnson(a)} It's possible we'll head back to the days of simple terminals composed of just a screen and a keyboard, freeing up the desktop for some more clutter.

It's not all good news, however. There are concerns over how an omnipresent, omniscient network would affect civil liberties. If there's a chip everywhere, then wherever you go you're still in part of the network. Many governments would find the ability to use such technology to track the whereabouts of any person, at any time, a little too tempting. "Given the all-encompassing nature of the Omninet, it's hard to imagine that any single action--even the most discrete--could be a private one." {Anon} Such a pervasive network could mean anyone with the ability to tap into it could track the every move of whomever or whatever they should wish. This power, in the wrong hands, (perhaps in anyone's hands), could certainly be abused. However, as with most new technologies, the implications of their arrival are a direct result of how we use them, not the inherent nature of the technology itself.

The Omninet looks to be the way things are headed, and so long as we are careful in shaping its development, it could be of great benefit to us all.


Anon. (2001). The Future of Computer Networks: Omnipresent and Omnipotent.
Retrieved 11/03/2003 from: http://www.cs.usask.ca/undergrads/smm735/490/490a2.htm

Johnson, George. (2000). Only Connect: From swarms of smart dust to secure collaborative zones, the Omninet comes to you.
Retrieved 11/03/2003 from: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.01/nets.html

Johnson, George. (2000). The Future Is Coming Faster.
Retrieved 11/03/2003 from: http://pub18.ezboard.com/fbalkansfrm17.showMessage?topicID=24.topic

Lefevre, Greg. (2001). The Future Of Communications.
Retrieved 11/03/2003 from: http://www.literacynet.org/cnnsf/futurecom/story.html

Poor, Robert D. (1997). High-density networks. MIT Media Laboratory.
Retrieved 11/03/2003 from: http://www.media.mit.edu/pia/Pubs/HyphosSlideShow/index.html

Scott, Michael. (2003). When the Internet Disappears: The Future of Networks.
Retrieved 11/03/2003 from: http://www.hackwriters.com/futureofnetworks.htm

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