I spent part of my Christmas/New Year holidays trying for the n th time to find one of those small-footprint iAppliances that have come to inhabit my life and home. AV controllers, cell phones, digital cameras, handheld computers, GPS locators, and PDAs are small and getting smaller all the time. Not surprisingly, they are also getting easier to misplace.
Right now, my cell phone is the only small device I own that I have some guarantee of finding quickly if I lose it. That's because it's the only one with any degree of connectivity with the outside world and which also has a unique digital identity. If I misplace it, all I have to do is pick up my regular land line phone to dial up the cell phone and let it ring.
If it's in the house, it's easy to find on the first call. If it's in the car, in my outside office, on the porch, or in the backyard near the bird feeders, I have to dial again. But within a few minutes, I have found my cell phone. Ditto for the wired/wireless combos that are now sold for regular phone line connections. I either go to the base station and push the pager/intercom button, or I dial up the regular line from the cell phone.
But when it comes to most small electronics devices, even those with some degree of connectivity, I am up a creek. There is no way for any of these devices to alert me as to their location, either by ringing or by blinking an LED. Nor is there any way for it send a message to my phone or to my PC telling me where it is.
If anyone has a technology that will allow one of these lost devices emit a loud and piercing burst of sound without draining its battery power, they have got a real moneymaker. I can envision a potential market opportunity that will involve capabilities and technologies such as IPv6, WLANs, wireless phones, global positioning systems, and RFID, not to mention any of the various wireless protocols, such as Zigbee, specifically developed for embedded devices.
Why is IPv6 so important? Because it is the only protocol capable of providing each device with a unique identification number. The reason my cell phone and my wireless handset extension are so easy to find is that each has a unique address — a telephone number.
The number of small, embedded devices far outstrips the number of unique addresses available with IPv4, roughly four billion or so. Compare that to the total number of unique addresses available with IPv6, about 340 billion billion billion billion, by the last estimate I've seen. That is 8.5 billion billion billion times the number of unique addresses available with IPv4, more than enough to give each man, woman and child on earth and all their pets a unique identifier.
If we assume that each home will have 1,000 small embedded and embedded information appliances and devices that will need finding, that still leaves about a 8,500 billion billion available addresses. I suppose we should be conservative about this and leave enough room for the populations of Mars, and the colonies around Alpha Centauri, Tau Ceti, and a few other extra-solar planetary settlements in the future. But I think there is still enough headroom within IPv6 to handle all our needs for unique IP addresses.
A unique address is just part of the solution. Once we have dialed it into our cell phone, or keyed it into a PDA or multifunction smartphone or tablet computer, it must either emit some sort of alarm or tell us where it is. That's where GPS will come in. Texas Instruments Inc. and a number of other companies have already developed IC level solutions that will provide GPS capabilities to virtually any device that has a processor and some memory in it, whether embedded, wireless or desktop.
The ubiquitous nature of RFID and the rapidity with which it is being adopted will no doubt provide additional solutions to finding all of the personal computing devices in our living spaces. The fact that the Department of Defense is standardizing on RFID technology as the way to track inventory will no doubt accelerate its availability as a way to find small devices.
And I suspect that DARPA — to which we owe almost every significant development in consumer electronics, personal computing and wired and wireless computing, including the Internet — is looking at ways to use all of those unique IPv6 addresses.
While I'm on the subject of small devices and the problems they cause, I think some serious thought should also be given to what I call the “secret handshake problem. ” At one time, there used to be numerous secret societies each with their own secret handshakes and signals that allowed members to identify themselves to one another.
That's what I feel is being asked of me every time I start to use one of the many devices designed to make my life easier. There is absolutely no commonality as to how access these devices and use their services and capabilities.
In the past, even before IBM came into the market and added an additional level of de facto standardization with its Industry Standard Architecture, the PC industry had worked out common ways to enter information, common ways to power up and turn on devices.
The total lack of similar standards in the small-footprint computing and communications appliance and embedded consumer device market is one of the things that leads me to believe we're still in the very early stages of a new paradigm in which almost everything is still in a state of redefinition.
Consider the time it took us to move from the chaotic beginnings of the microprocessor in the early '70s to the relatively stable environment of the desktop PC of the '80s and early '90s. Based on that slow evolution, I suspect we are far from coming up with a common set of standards on how we access, key in information, and communicate with the many small footprint devices in our lives, much less use them to communicate.
What all of this tells me is that there are some potentially huge market opportunities for embedded developers if we can come up with some standard ways to access devices and to uniquely identify them.
The frustration I feel when I can't find one of these devices or when I must learn yet another secret handshake cannot be unique to me. And these feelings inhibit me when it comes to buying yet another set of embedded consumer and wireless multimodal devices with even more features.
If such problems are not seriously addressed, not only will the computer and electronics industry be ignoring some potentially huge market opportunities, they will be putting the brakes on any further developments in these markets as they now exist. My life is complicated enough, without the additional problems that a new set of even more feature rich, and smaller mobile and embedded consumer devices would bring into it.
Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also a partner in TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Call 928-525-9087 or send an email to email@example.com.
how can i find my lost cell phone??????