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The Jini Vision
by Bill Venners
First Published in JavaWorld, August 1999

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The disappearing computer
One way to describe the coming trends in hardware, a concept that came up a few times at the Jini Community Summit, is the disappearing computer. According to Richard Gabriel, the Summit's emcee, if you look in the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalog, you can find something called a home motor. In those days, you could buy a general-purpose motor, bring it home, and hook it up to anything that needed turning. Nowadays, consumers aren't inclined to purchase general-purpose motors for the home, and the home motors they do purchase aren't usually thought of as motors. When you purchase a fan for your home, for example, you purchase a motor, but the motor is an integral part of the fan. The motor's sole purpose is to turn the fan. Motors also reside in the home as part of heating systems, refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, clothes dryers, hair dryers, lawn mowers, and so on. You can think of all these motors as embedded motors -- motors that are part of devices or machines focused on specific tasks. As motors became smaller and cheaper, the general-purpose home motor, as advertised in the Sears catalog, disappeared into a proliferation of motor-enhanced devices and machines with focused functionalities.

Today, you can go to Sears and buy a general-purpose home computer. But like the motor, the computer may be destined to disappear, over time, into devices and machines with more focused functionalities. Today, motors surround us, but we don't often think about them individually. We think more in terms of the devices and machines in which the motors are embedded. In the coming years, computers will increasingly surround us as embedded devices, but we'll think of them as computers less and less. As computers become embedded inside the things we use every day, they will "disappear" from view.

During his presentation, Bill Joy claimed PCs have four basic types of application: "spreadsheets and word processors and spreadsheets and word processors." In other words, as Joy put it, the only kinds of applications desktop computers are really suited for are spreadsheets and word processors. But, as he pointed out, most people don't do word processing or spreadsheets. "Web and e-mail is what people care about when they turn the machine on," he said. As a result, Joy claimed, "Many people would prefer a simple machine that is more communications-oriented."

The demise of the desktop
At one point in our conversation at the cocktail reception, Bill Joy pulled out his cell phone and began imagining aloud how he would want to do computing in the coming world of embedded devices and ubiquitous networks. He described a flat-panel display currently being manufactured that can be folded or rolled like paper. He said that in the future when he needed to do some work, he'd set down his "handset" (represented by the cell phone), and roll out his flat-panel display. The handset would have a wireless connection to the Internet and a wireless connection to the display. "Forget the desktop," Joy said.

Although Joy's main thrust was predicting the demise of the desktop, what really struck me about this part of our conversation was the foldable display device that he described. It occurred to me that you could think about this device in two ways: as a flat-panel display able to be folded and curled up like a piece of paper, or as "smart paper." I felt this was an excellent example of how computers will be disappearing into devices we use every day, often in surprising ways. It had never before occurred to me that such a ubiquitous entity as paper could become an embedded device.

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