If Appliances Could Talk

If Appliances Could Talk

Thursday, July 01, 1999
Your gadgets aren't very smart. Telephones, stereos, microwaves—and most of all, personal computers—need individual operating instructions to do their jobs. These mindless household servants coexist but never coordinate their chores. All told, it's an inefficient life.

And it's about to change.

The person who plans to connect those gadgets is Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems. Joy is the leading force behind Jini, the new software that lets digital devices, from computers and cell phones to the unknown appliances of tomorrow, communicate via a wireless network. The idea, Joy says, is what technologists call distributed computing: transferring power from the perplexing lone PC to a team of appliances at home, at work, or even in the car. "Devices much simpler than PCs are possible," Joy says, "and just in time, before we all go crazy."

Jini connects compatible appliances to a network using Java, Sun's widely used Internet software. Once plugged into the Java-based network, a device such as a printer can tell the network what it can do. Then any other device connected, such as a laptop computer, can wirelessly access that printer through an Internet browser using Java. Holding a PalmPilot or a laptop computer, one could adjust a digital camera, start a fax machine, or turn off the TV downstairs by clicking a button on a Web browser.

Jini also promises to rescue people from the tyranny of personal computers. "We don't need a baroque PC at the center," Joy says. "You might call it the age of impersonal computing—you can use whatever devices are in your vicinity, and you aren't limited to the one you are carrying." Although Microsoft is readying a rival, Sony, Kodak, and many other companies have committed to Jini. A free trial is available at www.sun.com/jini.

FINALISTS E-Synchrony INNOVATORS: Jaap Haartsen, Ericsson; James Kardach, Intel; Peter Lee, IBM; Holger Hussmann; Nokia; Katsuhiro Kinoshita, Toshiba

E-mail is wonderful—when you can access it. As any business traveler knows, an important message can lie undetected, just inches away in a laptop computer, while planes get delayed or a trip drags on. Now a team from five companies has crafted a way to stay in touch: Bluetooth, a short-range wireless radio system that shuttles messages between laptops, cell phones, and personal data assistants.

Armed with Bluetooth's thumbnail-size radio transmitter and receiver, a laptop stowed inside a briefcase can recognize a new e-mail message and forward it to a cell phone, which then rings. Similarly, a personal data assistant might send a calendar update to the laptop—all without the bulky cables normally needed to attach to a computer. It works anywhere, even on airplanes.

The idea of Bluetooth was born during discussions about how to replace the mess of wires between telephones and accessories, explains Jaap Haartsen of Ericsson, where the concept for the wireless cable technology originated. Engineers at Intel, IBM, Nokia, and Toshiba then teamed up to create Bluetooth. With more than 500 companies now interested in the technology, the cost is expected to come down to about $5 per unit. Some manufacturers intend to begin selling products with Bluetooth installed as early as next year.

Security in Chaos INNOVATORS: Rajarshi Roy, Gregory VanWiggeren, Georgia Institute of Technology

For years, physicist Rajarshi Roy of the Georgia Institute of Technology worked to minimize fluctuations in optical lasers used to transmit data. Then, in 1993, he decided to go with the chaotic flow—a move that could result in more privacy for medical records, bank accounts, and credit-card sales on the Internet.

In a series of experiments, Roy found that he could synchronize two optical lasers, matching up the chaotic patterns of waves in their beams. A signal embedded in the transmitting beam could be revealed by subtracting out the light of the receiving one—but only, of course, by someone who had access to the exact right receiving beam.

Intrigued, he and a Georgia Tech graduate student, Gregory VanWiggeren, went to the next step. They rigged up a fiber ring laser, the kind commonly used in fiber-optic phone lines, to generate a beam of chaotic light, then slipped in a second beam, which carried a test signal. The intertwined beams traveled through an optical fiber to a third laser, tuned to match the first one. It deftly unscrambled the chaos and retrieved the hidden message.

Many Internet messages are already encrypted, but imperfectly. Hackers can spot scrambled credit-card transactions, for example, and try to sort out the digital data. Shrouding a signal in chaos "is like an extra layer of privacy beyond current encryption methods," says Roy.
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