If you think the Internet is starting toreach its full potential, think again. It is only just beginning. Irecently attended a demonstration hosted by Echelon, Cisco Systems,and Sun Microsystems. The companies were showing what happens whenyou combine Echelon's LONworks local area network with the iLONInternet server developed in conjunction with Cisco Systems, anddesigned to run Java programs. Suddenly, the Internet became alivewith possibilities beyond simple Internet appliances. Virtuallyeverything that uses electricity can be turned into intelligent,connected embedded systems.
LONworks local area networks appeared nearly 10 years ago. Sincethat time, the technology has been incorporated into a number ofresidential and commercial monitoring and control systems. Forexample, in gas stations across the U.S., the LONworks technologyis used to monitor the level of gasoline in the storage tanks, toreport transactions from the pumps to the cashier, and control thelighting and heating of the station. Manufacturing plants use thetechnology to control their processes. Many 7-11 stores in Japanalso use the technology to monitor transactions, control energyusage, and check the status of refrigeration units. And there is ademonstration home near London that uses the technology to controlheating, lighting, security, and even the window shades. With theaddition of an Internet server, such networks are now able toinitiate and respond to Internet traffic.
Adding Internet capability to control networks can dramaticallyincrease the number of nodes that are active. With that increase innodes comes an exponential increase in the power of the Net.According to Metcalfe's law, first articulated by Ethernet inventorRobert Metcalfe, networks grow in value with the square of thenumber of connected nodes. If that law continues to hold true, thenwe are only beginning to see the Internet's impact on everydaylife. What the full impact will be, however, we can only guess.
Imagine a semiconductor manufacturing plant where every controlpoint and every monitoring station connects together in a localarea network that can be monitored over the Internet. Processingengineers could monitor and make real-time corrections to theplants operation from anyplace with Internet access. Customerscould monitor the status of their production orders in real-timefor just in time manufacturing. The plant could even combine thetwo attributes and allow customers to initiate their ownmanufacturing processes and control them remotely.
Gasoline stations, by connecting the station's local areanetwork to the Internet, would allow the supplier to monitorgasoline consumption and dispatch refill trucks as needed insteadof according to a schedule. If a company owned a chain of suchstations, it could monitor the financial performance of eachstation in order to make strategic decisions regarding personnel,station location, and product pricing.
On the home front, LONworks is already available for controllinglight fixtures, switches, power outlets, and the like. An Internetconnection to your home control network would allow you to keep thethermostat turned down during the day, call the house on yourWeb-enabled cell phone on the drive home, and to command it tobegin warming up in time for your arrival. You could also monitoryour home security system, and make sure that you did turn off thestove when you left on vacation. And if you didn't, you can turnthem off remotely.
None of this is new technology, although the iLON Internetserver was only announced recently. But it does represent newpossibilities. To embrace those possibilities, you as engineerswill need to take the lead in envisioning how we can effectivelyuse this technology. Because, when everything is intelligent andeverything is connected, we have the opportunity of completelyredefining how we do things. That, in turn, can fundamentally alterthe way that we work, play, live, and learn.
The one drawback that I see is that we engineers can sometimesbe too clever. We forget that not everyone is as comfortable withtechnology as we are and that not everyone is as facile as we arewith electronic gadgets. If we are to be successful in marketingthis technology, if we are to bring its benefits to a broad rangeof consumers, we need to remember to design for others, not forourselves. That means addressing the tough challenges of makingcomplex technology easy to use, showing sensitivity to theall-too-common fear of the new and unknown, and making sure that weoffer a real benefit, not just cleverness.