The Brave Little Toaster

Years ago, I had seen a great animated cartoon film called The Brave Little Toaster. It was a story where all the home appliance come to life and set out in search of their owner, lead by the brave little toaster. The days are not far off when we will have owner friendly products in our homes and offices. These are the Internet appliances of the future – made possible by the embedded Internet technologies.



By now you must have read the definition of the Internet a hundred times, as a network of networks accessed primarily through PCs. Well, it’s almost time to rewrite that definition. We are coming closer to the end of that era and ready to enter the new post-PC era.

The microprocessor chips are growing in performance by leaps and bounds and the manufacturing prices are decreasing continuously due to improved processes and innovations. As a result, the computing power can now be moved off the desktop and embedded into devices that are called Internet appliances, or thin clients!

This can be done in two ways – by building new Internet applications or by making traditional embedded systems Internet-capable. At the heart of both are the new ‘Embedded Internet technologies’. All these applications will depend on the World Wide Web, which is fast becoming a cohesive, globally interconnected entity, for carrying and processing information.

These new types of products can be classified into two categories.

1. Dedicated Internet appliances

These will be developed for the purpose of providing Internet access and web-based services, without the use of a desktop PC. These devices, like screen phones, smart handheld devices and set-top-boxes may run on embedded Java technologies.

2. Internet-enabled embedded systems

These products will be traditional embedded systems with added Internet connectivity. They may also use embedded Java technology to take advantage of the Internet connectivity, mainly for information sharing and remote management. Intelligent medical and scientific instruments, vending machines, building climate-control systems and such other products will be a part of this category.

HTTP: The key to all Internet-connected devices

The key technology that makes the Web work is the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP). All the information that travels on the Internet is carried over this protocol, and as this is an open protocol it makes the device platform independent and allows an any-to-any connection between devices running on different platforms. For HTTP to work on the Web you need an HTTP server and an HTTP browser. The advances in hardware and software technologies are making it possible to embed an HTTP server or an HTTP browser into a device making it Internet-capable.

As information can travel over the Internet anywhere in the world, there will be no need for a hard-wired connection between an embedded system and its control panel or user interface if both are Internet-enabled.

An intelligent medical instrument with an embedded HTTP server can allow a remote HTTP browser to function as a virtual control and display panel of that instrument. The remote HTTP browser can itself be embedded into a smart handheld device. Even the process control instruments in chemical plants can similarly be Internet enabled and the operator on duty can operate them sitting at his dining table in the house! He can probably use the same smart handheld device to switch on and off the microwave oven in his kitchen, sitting at his operator’s desk in the chemical plant.

These HTTP-based communications between smart devices will not necessarily be in the form of HTML pages as in the case of PC-based Internet access. Only when some information needs to be displayed over a graphical user interface, HTML templates may come into use.

Take a look at some of the emerging products on the scene:

Stand-alone e-mail devices

It may take some time till highly sophisticated Internet appliances become commonplace, but many companies have already put simpler devices on the market. As the most common application on the Internet happens to be e-mail, there are many stand-alone dedicated e-mail devices being offered which do not need a PC for sending and receiving e-mails. One such product is the e-mail PostBox that is a dedicated e-mail appliance, which connects to the Internet through dial-up line and works exclusively with Yahoo! Mail. It costs just 50 dollars.

Another such device that provides dedicated wireless e-mail access is BlackBerry, a pager-like handheld device with backlit LCD and a simplified miniature keyboard. These wireless devices are also known as two-way pagers! No more expensive computers for users who mainly use the Internet for e-mail.

Stand-alone Internet devices

For those who are not happy only with e-mail, there are the stand-alone Internet devices, which also give you browsing facility. Compaq has introduced the iPAQ Home Internet Appliance that works with MSN. There was another similar device called ePods, which worked with it’s own ePods Portal, unfortunately, the company just wound up. It needs strong backing to survive in such markets, which are just opening up.

Web Phones

Web phones are telephone instruments with built in Web connectivity and e-mail facility. If you need a phone line to connect to the Internet, why not put the Internet inside the telephone itself! These are the wired Web phones. You also have the wireless Web phones like DoCoMo from NTT of Japan. The DoCoMo has become such a craze in Japan, that it has enrolled over ten million customers in less than two years. The numbers are growing by almost 50,000 a day.

AutoPC

AutoPC is a car music system that lets you send and receive e-mails from your car. It also includes navigation and information features for the driver.

What about the Internet-enabled refrigerators and washing machines? Wait and watch, they are also coming. The first such washing machine is the Margherita2000. The owners can communicate with Margherita via the Internet web site Margherita2000.com and
GSM.

We may or may not be able to see this revolution take root in India so soon, but it is certainly the technology of the future to watch out for.


Ashok Dongre is an advertising and marketing professional, specializing in web site design. You can contact him via e-mail at dongre@usa.net

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