OS News

8 November 1998

Small OSes For Appliances: Who's Moving in the Right Direction?

By Mike Hughes

Everything in your house from your phone to your toaster will be networked in the home of the not-too-distant future.  
Microsoft approaches the situation in its distinctive, embrace
-and-extend manner.
There's a reason why the PalmPilot and its derivatives are outselling Windows CE based devices many times over.  
Within two decades, 50 percent of all homes will have these technologies.  

Wouldn't it be nice to have every single appliance in your house be fitted with a microprocessor, network interface, and operating system? Wouldn't it also be nice to have such appliances be small, inexpensive, and easy to use?

This obviously isn't happening today. But more and more companies are deciding they want it to happen. Pundits and industry PR people claim that it's the wave of the future: everything in your house from your phone to your toaster will be networked in the home of the not-too-distant future.

The companies that are pushing this concept the most, at least at a brand name level, are (surprise!) Sun Microsystems and Microsoft. These two companies seeing a common vision, however. Sun says Java and Jini are the way to go, while Microsoft is pushing Windows CE like its the greatest thing since sliced bread. Which one will win? That may unfortunately depend on the marketing campaigns, but lets take a look at what each one tries to accomplish.

We'll start with Jini. Jini is Sun's connecting of all Java-based technologies. They tout it as a "technology [that] enables spontaneous networking of . . . anything that can be connected."

How do they plan on connecting everything with everything else? Simple. Everything with electronic components can be loaded with a Java virtual machine and some Java networking code that will instantly make it part of a shared network of resources. To put it simply, everything on the network is a resource to everything else. For example, on Sun's site, they have a clever cartoon featuring Nick Phelps, Network Ace. He simply plugs his cell phone into a jack in the wall, and out comes a printout of a webpage he wants. Interesting, isn't it? With all this modularization and plug-ability, what's going to happen to the "traditional" personal computer? Probably nothing. It'll stay the way it is. Plus, with the possible announcement of open-sourcing the Java standard, Jini and Java will have a better chance of becoming a de facto standard.

Microsoft approaches the situation in its distinctive, embrace-and-extend manner. They plan on integrating Windows CE (supposedly for "Compact Edition," although MS execs say it's meaningless) into all sorts of household items such as refrigerators and toasters. It sounds like Sun's plan, except unlike Sun, they're taking the traditional thinking of a personal computer and applying it to appliances. It's simply too much in too little of a package. The plan is to put a whole operating system into an arbitrary device. This boosts costs and increases the bloat found in a product.

The networked house can work. It's actually pretty feasible with some incredibly crafty size-oriented and price-oriented engineering. After all, if a device ends up being twice as large and twice as expensive afterwards, it misses the point. Unless prices for all networked devices (including computers) can go down, the market won't go up. For example, Apple's new iMac has all sorts of high-tech networking and local bus technologies. But that's not the reason why 250,000 were sold in one quarter. It's because of the price. At $1300 and dropping, its the lowest priced all-in-one Macintosh in a long time.

Companies like 3Com and Qualcomm are also headed in the right direction. They're integrating all our communication methods into just a few devices. Does anyone remember the Nokia Communicator 9000 phone? It had a flip-open case that revealed a qwerty keyboard and full-color display. It never caught on, because it was a little too big and expensive, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. More recently, Qualcomm has licensed 3Com Palm Pilot technology along with the PalmOS for use in the pdQ phone. It basically combines the features of a digital cell phone and Palm Pilot into one package. This is the true wave of the future: integrated communications devices, not integrated appliances.

There's a reason why the PalmPilot and its derivatives are outselling Windows CE based devices many times over. It's because what the people want is something simple, intuitive, and reliable, not the next incarnation of Windows. Also, Windows CE is more resource consuming and bloated than PalmOS. And most important, Windows CE devices are generally a lot more expensive, which as we all know is a larger determining factor in the fight for new technology. If one technology is cheaper than another, it will win, as long as its not ridiculously substandard. It's VHS vs. Betamax all over again (except that Windows CE has both the quality of VHS and the market share of Betamax).

You can expect the simplest, smallest, and cheapest operating system to win the Small OS War. The winner will also be the most adaptable to mobile communications devices such as phones and digital assistants. But it must be noted that there will be a very distinct line between a communications device and a traditional desktop computer. They will use different operating systems and have different uses. And what Windows CE doesn't realize is that they should. The only true common denominator will have to be the networking protocols. With the proper protocols, even Windows CE and Jini can co-exist in the same house. It would be like making a mini-Internet -- a mix of different computers and operating systems running along the same protocols. The last thing consumers want is a monopoly in operating systems on the device front, but according to Microsoft's ominous suggestion in the "Halloween document," subverting these protocols would be the way to do it.

When you talk about communications protocols, you have to talk about communication media, or medium. How will these gadgets actually talk to each other? The actual physics involved in creating such a network is the current dilemma. On the one hand, a network using physical wires and plugs and jacks is cost effective, by bringing down the power consumption and price of the device in question. On the other hand, a wireless network is more convenient, more backwards-compatible with the houses we live in today, which have no network cables installed, and makes devices portable. There are downside to each, of course: wired devices require you to lay cable in your existing house, which may be extremely hard to do and is always inconvenient. Although new technologies allow you to use your home's electric or telephone wires as network medium, they're also expensive and insecure. Wireless networking is just plain expensive by today's standards.

Once all these problems are resolved, world domination of small operating systems and small devices will start penetrating houses, much like computers have started penetrating houses today. Within two decades, 50 percent of all homes will have these technologies, and within forty years, I estimate 99 percent of all homes will have these technologies. Even these estimates may seem optimistic, but keep in mind that amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity were seen as frivolous luxuries in their day as well. Keep that in mind the first time you plug in your next PC.

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