Pervasive computing could challenge the business role of telecoms firms and IT. Joy Macknight reports
UK-based IT analyst firm Ovum has recently put its weight behind one such concept - pervasive computing. The term refers to a computing model where any information service can be accessed by any device, and where the line between software and services is blurred.
Though IBM has tried to put its imprint on the pervasive computing concept, it could equally well apply proposed technology from other suppliers, such as Microsoft's .net and Sun One, both currently in development.
In a pervasive environment, for example, your personal digital assistant (PDA) could instruct your alarm clock to set the alarm so you could make an early meeting; likewise, your refrigerator could alert the supermarket that you are out of milk.
Pervasive technology is simply wireless technology with knobs on. It is mobility in a wider sense - true mobility between network devices. But as well as posing a technology challenge to suppliers, building the pervasive systems of the future will challenge the culture and competencies of IT departments, according to analysts.
Ovum estimates that by 2005 more than 40% - $1.3 trillion - of the global market for Internet services will be attributable to pervasive computing. This is the potential of pervasive computing, but the way forward is difficult to judge.
Products are also appearing on the horizon. Last month IBM signed a deal with software supplier Webraska to develop location-based services for Websphere products, as well as adding the capability to the Lotus range.
Neil Ward-Dutton, research director of e-infrastructure at Ovum and co-author of its paper on pervasive computing, says the concept will radically change the way organisations use their mobile network operators. "As IT and communication blend together, network operators are going to have to be clear on what role they want to play. Merchants and content providers will want to work with multiple providers; they will have the power to choose rather than be chosen," said Ward-Dutton.
The major challenge of pervasive computing is bridging the gap between telecoms providers and IT suppliers. Ward-Dutton said, "There is the basic platform at the bottom, which delivers simple services to the masses; for example, straightforward delivery to high numbers for telcos. At the top, there are features and functions. This is what IT people are good at - specialised, high-quality services to a few customers."
Market pressures will force these two worlds together within the next 18-24 months, says the report.
The real power of pervasive computing lies in its ability to be context-sensitive in terms of person, device, location and time of day. "Let's use the example of advertising," Ward-Dutton said. "Mobile phones can be used for personal and business activities. People will be irritated if business advertising comes through when they are not at work. The value of advertising is that it must be relevant - who it is, what role they are playing and the relevance to the device, whether PDA or digital television. You will want to serve a different type of ad depending on all these things."
Considerable investment is required to make it work. Services must be offered seamlessly across the whole network. The multi-access service rollout means an increase in network activity. There will also be a direct link between people and services.
"Owning the customer becomes less important," Ward-Dutton said. "The more you share with the customer, the more value is added. Partnerships are the only way forward. The chains of service providers must work together online to collaborate, share information and aggregate usage information. Pervasive technology will transform the way service providers think about the value of what they deliver."
Ward-Dutton sees pervasive computing as a massive shift, as big as the move from mainframes to PCs. "This year is not the year of pervasive computing, but we will see it being gradually rolled out."
Pervasive Computing: Technologies and Markets www.ovum.com