Every time I think about the ubiquitously connected environment in which all of us and our ‘things’ now exist — and the names we use to describe it — I am reminded of a classic short story by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: “The nine billion names of God.”
In it, two computer technicians are hired by the monks at a Tibetan lamasery who believe they have been assigned the task of listing all the names of God — nine billion by their estimation — after which the world will come to an end. For three centuries, the monks have been at this task, writing down by hand all the names they have found. They figure they have another 15,000 years to go unless they use modern technology. So the monks hire the technicians to set up a computer to automate the process. Having completed their assignment, the technicians are about to board an airplane to leave Tibet and — you guessed it — the lights in the sky blink off and the world ends.
If task instead were for the monks to write down the many names used in the past to describe what we now commonly call the “Internet of Things” and then write down all the meanings and interpretations of that term, I doubt the world would have come to an end, even in 15,000 years.
Our craziness about naming our connected computing environment may have begun in 1998, when the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) formalized IPv6 as the successor protocol to IPv4, which used 32-bit addresses and provided about 4.3 billion unique addresses to the TCP/IP protocols. It was determined that given population trends and the lowering costs of both personal computers and servers to within the price range of most households and small businesses, it was clear that IPv4 was going to run out of addresses soon.
IPv6, which uses a 128-bit address, allows about 3.4×1038 addresses, or more than 7.9×1028 times as many as IPv4, making it theoretically possible to assign not only every person in the world their own URL, but all their pets and personal things as well — just about any ol’ “thing” that could be connected. The Internet of Things became popular with IPv6, perhaps due to the shock of that realization that we have driven ourselves crazy coming up with names for the new environment and the entities in it.
Some of the names have included smart devices, netcentric computing devices, network computers, and ubiquitous or pervasive computing devices. Then there were a number of names that built on the definition of “appliance”, which is simply a machine designed to perform a specific function (i.e., kitchen appliances such as ovens and refrigerators).
For example, information appliances came into common use to describe such and connected devices, such as smartphones, which had moved far beyond their original function as a dedicated voice communications device to include a range of functions traditionally done on the home PC: writing, email, and viewing photos and videos. But once marketers got involved “information appliance” began to be used for almost any embedded device.
Another popular name, Internet appliances, met the same fate. That term originally described a dedicated device that made it possible for a non-techie to access specific internet services. But amongst the consumers and even the manufacturers, this term began to be confused with information appliances and was then conflated to describe smartphones.
Looking for some way out of this craziness, I looked for inspiration to physics, where phenomenon, devices, and systems are named after people who had a role in discovering a physical effect: Volts, Amperes, Ohms, Hall effect, Josephson junctions, and so on. My contributions to the naming confusion included Noyceboxes, for Robert Noyce who was credited with the invention of the integrated circuit, and Cerfboard or Cerfing platform, for Vinton Cerf who, with Bob Kahn, came up with the architecture of the TCP/IP protocol stack on which the Internet is based. We do “Cerf” the web, don't we?
Another possibility I thought about suggesting was for the members of some IETF or other official working group to sit down and read Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce and find a made-up name total devoid of previous intellectual history. That is where Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann found the word Quark , which he used as the name for a new fundamental particle that one of his papers on subatomic physics predicted.
One name I liked then and still do is Tier-0 devices . This term has a long history in computing, dating all the way back to mainframes in the '60s and '70s. The term derives from early mainframe/client/server designs, where Tier-3 machines were centralized mainframes and minis, Tier-2 were servers, and Tier-1 were desktop systems, originally smart and dumb terminals and later desktop computers, laptops and smartphones. The name Tier-0 was originally used to describe any computing device smaller than a desktop or smartphone with the main task of embedded processing of real-time events related to controlling devices. Then marketing got involved, and makers of PDAs, set-top boxes, video game consoles and cell phones used it to describe their offerings.
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