Curtain Call 2001

Geeky Gadgets Galore


The Year in Preview


The difference between this day last week and today, is that the last digit of the year has rolled one digit forward. Yet, we feel that it has been a milestone crossed. In some respects it has. We are emerging from a year of doldrums to a year that is expected to hold much promise. At least, many of us hope so.


How is 2002 going to be different from 2001? Plenty of writers have taken pot shots at the past year. The Japan Times called it "a year of fear and confusion"; the Sydney Morning Herald called it "a year of stress and strain"; and Britain's Observer dubbed it "364 days … and 9/11." A correspondent for bid “Goodbye to an Annus Horribilis”. Soon after the wringing of hands over 2001, the magazines and the newspapers are full of articles bubbling with predictions of the glories of 2002.


The art of predicting the future is far from reliable. Predictions are almost always wrong, and those that are right are more by chance than by any deep insight. Yet people do it all the time, and luckily, no one seems to really object. In this column, I will make an attempt at predicting some trends of the coming years, particularly 2002. Maybe I should not call them predictions; they are just random hopes that may be nice if they come true.


Terrorism and the war against it are at an unpredictable crossroad. On one hand, the combats may die out and the geo-political climates stabilize to a state of calm and peace. Or these may continue to flare leading to mass destruction, possibly nuclear duels. Both are unlikely, but the outcome is unclear. All we can hope for are negotiated settlements and some form of return to status quo.


Tied into war and peace, is the feverish throes of a world economy in despair. The dark clouds of the economy seem to have a silver lining. Many experts have studied the numbers, trends, and complicated formulas, and have stirred the witch’s brew, and have declared that 2002 will be a better year. That will be definitely a widely welcome outcome, and a plausible outcome, especially if the terrorism debacle moves towards resolution.


The arena of technology is still in doldrums. The landscape looks bleak and the spigot of money has been turned of. Progress in the laboratories is continuing and many a new idea is lying by the wayside, ready to be used. Consumer interest is the final driving force and a rising economy will bring out the shiniest toys. Most of these innovations are not new, just underutilized.


One of the semi-sleeping technological giants is wireless. In the past few years, wireless technology has taken massive leaps, but yet, there is much more to come. The genie of wireless was the cellular phone revolution. Cell phones have become the most popular communication gadget. Anyone who can needs one (or can afford one) already has one. The proliferation of cell phones created a huge demand for the phones, causing manufacturers to produce them fast and faster. Then suddenly, people who wanted one had one, and the buying spree stopped. Why the obvious slowdown in demand was not foreseen is a mystery, but the saturation of the phone market caught the industry unawares.


To boost cell phone sales and to showcase the technology the cell phone industry turned towards 3G technologies via the intermediate step of WAP. WAP, and the successor 3G allows cell phones to surf the web. The consumers did not buy.  This caused a faltering industry to fall on its knees. However, just because cell phone users just want to talk, and not fumble on the tiny screens and inadequate keypads trying to surf the web, does not mean wireless is dead.


One of the reasons that wireless technology is on an upswing is the recent expansion of the wireless spectrum. Only a decade ago, wireless spectrum for consumer apparatus was limited to about 1GHz. Today rudimentary technology can handle up to 3GHz. This 3-fold increase in spectrum, in a short time, makes a large number of functions that were squeezed out due to lack of bandwidth, become quite easy to achieve.


The recent success story of the emerging prowess of wireless is “803.11b”. This cheap technology has made short-range wireless networking prolific. In the coming year (or years) the speed and range and fun stuff that can be done by wireless should become immensely widespread. The spillover will reach wide area networks as well as voice, streaming video and many other things. Gadgets using similar technologies (such as Bluetooth) are expected to regain a footing as prices come down and useful ideas emerge.


Broadband is yet another force to reckon with. It is expensive and in the recent past, has been bruised, but it is useful technology. Broadband is the way computers should connect to the Internet. Currently the vast majority of home computer users connect via phone lines, or dial-up. Dial up is obnoxious—it is slow, unreliable and a very poor alternative to broadband. Broadband is a way to connect to the Internet using a fast, reliable high-speed connection that always stays on. No dialing, no paying for local calls—the computer is always on and always connected. In many an inexplicable way, it has an enormous impact on the way people interact with computers and the way computers influence our daily lives. It is not quite hype to say, “It changes your entire life”. I can say that with certainly, as I am one of the relative few to have had a broadband connection to home since 1995, when it was experimental technology. It did, and has continued to change my life.


Broadband uses two basic methods of delivering this connection—over a wire and over wireless access. The wired access typically uses two types of connections, called cable-modems and DSL. While wired access is the most common form (even though broadband itself is uncommon), wireless access is becoming viable. The cost of broadband deployment was almost prohibitive and service providers have had a hard time balancing costs with prices the market will bear.


The tide of fortunes of broadband has begun to turn. Consumers are getting fed up with dial-up and is willing to pay slightly higher prices for broadband. The infrastructure costs of broadband deployment are coming down. So in a matter of time, sooner possibly than later, broadband will emerge as a viable technology for delivering network connectivity. Availability of broadband on a wider scale will inevitably spearhead the engulfing convergence of technology with human life, creating opportunities that are not yet foreseen.


The inevitable technology of the future is also the most sinister; I definitely do not welcome its progression. Yet, after the terrorism strikes, the probability of deployment has gone from a “maybe” to “you betcha”. The technology is biometric identification, i.e. the use of fingerprints, facial pictures, voiceprints, DNA, implants and such, for identifying and tracking humans. Recent advances in detection technologies have made biometric identification cheap and easy. For a variety of reasons, use of widespread biometrics will lead to serious infringement of civil rights, privacy as well as open a huge door to easy misuse. Yet, the public wants to embrace biometrics with gusto, and for once, the governments are all excited about appeasing. The first use will be at airports, with many more to come. The paranoia over security has reached an over-hyped frenzy and biometrics is fast becoming the fallible panacea. While driving car is many times more dangerous than terrorism, we seem to be far more concerned of falling aircraft than of the routine carnage on the streets.


A much touted, much hyped area of gadgetization is the home we live in. The ideas of smart homes where every electronic box talks to every other and create a harmonious convergence of things and lifestyles has been around for decades. Even from the ashes of hype, it seems reality is poised to emerge. While the widespread use of smart appliances in the home may be decades away, the time has come for consumer innovation in this area to start up. The idea is simple, we have a lot of electronic things in the house, but they do not cooperate. Refrigerators, music systems, toasters, ovens, computers, telephones, lights, television and clocks are all things that are made to function by themselves. It has become quite simple to make them realize each other’s existence, understand each other’s functions and then create functions where a multiplicity of “them” collaborates. For example, turning on the TV can dim the lights. If you pick up a phone, the music volume reduces. Just as you are about to return home, the air-conditioner starts up. When you rise in the morning, the coffee maker perks up. The examples are overtly simple ideas; in reality, humans can pick, choose and invent how gadgets should interact. Then we can discover many an interesting way of making things work together. What is needed is a common way for the electronics to communicate and participate. One of the first standards in this arena is Jini, from the company called Sun. While Jini has not succeeded, something similar has to come down the pike, quite soon.


Of course, like most predictions, I expect much, if not all, of this column to be wrong. What really happens will become crystal clear in the years to come. Dom Moraes, writing for the Hindu, stated “The way it looks now, though 2001 was a bad year, 2002 may be worse”. He may be right, but we should all hope, he too is wrong.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at




Partha Dasgupta