Tinnell quotes Lucy Suchman's critique of Weiser's approach to innovation:
Under this approach, Suchman claimed, a lab "[provided] distance from practicalities that must eventually be faced" — but facing up to those practicalities was left up to staff in some other department.To be fair, I would say the same criticism applied to much of the Media Labs work too.
As I was at the time a member of "staff in some other department" at Sun Microsystems and then Nvidia, below the fold I discuss some of the "practicalities" that should have been faced earlier rather than later or not at all.
But what Weiser failed to understand was that his model of disaggregating functions into "a hundred computers per room" was economically infeasible. While he was correct in forecasting that Moore's Law would make systems-on-a-chip very cheap, this wouldn't make "a hundred computers per room" affordable. Each of those computers would need to be wrapped in a set of components to which Moore's Law didn't apply, such as batteries, displays, cases and so on. Moore's Law would merely mean that the computer part became an insignificant part of the total cost.
And even if the non-Moore's Law components were fairly cheap, equipping the typical house with, say, seven rooms would cost seven hundred times the cost of a single one of these "Internet of Things" devices.
The alternative model that won out based first on the PC and then on Steve Jobs' iPhone was to aggregate all the functions into a single hardware device configured by software to perform all of them. This had two major advantages:
- Although the "universal device" hardware was more expensive, it was much less than a hundred times more expensive than each of the single-function devices in a room, let alone the thousands of them in all the spaces into which a user carried their phone.
- With the advent of the iPhone, the "universal device" came equipped with a well-understood and highly profitable business model. The cost of the hardware and the underlying wireless connectivity were paid for by voice calling; the hardware needed for all the other functions wasn't simply cheap, it was free. In contrast, it is hard to see what business model would have supported each of the multitude of ubiquitous devices.
The problem with this process is that no one entity has any incentive, expertise, or even ability to patch the software once it's shipped.As I discussed in "Nobody cared about security", in late 80s and 90s the issue of shipping the encryption that is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the security of networked devices like those Weiser envisioned was a hot topic. Encryption was classed as a munition and exporting it from the US was potentially criminal, so even those of us who did care about security couldn't do anything about it. It wasn't until the year after Weiser's death that it became reasonably easy to ship adequate encryption. The "staff in some other department" would definitely have known that they needed a way to secure access to the devices, and to support patching their software. A quarter-century later this is still an unsolved problem, primarily for the economic reason Schneier described.
Weiser's vision of an environment in which the networked devices faded into invisibility would be a nightmare for security. It is hard enough for Apple, and much harder for Google, to get people to keep their phones fully updated even though there is typically only one device involved and the user is constantly aware of it. Imagine how much harder it would be if people were simply unaware of the existence, name and location of each of a hundred devices in each of their rooms.
Some would argue that, more than a quarter-century later, Weiser was right that there would be "a hundred computers per room". I took a census of my office, about the most computer-centric space outside a data center. Here is a list of all the CPUs I could find:
- 1 iPhone
- 6 laptops
- 4 desktops
- 2 tablets
- 2 Raspberry Pi
- 15 internal drives in those devices
- 2 pairs of noise-canceling headphones
- 4 external DVD-RW drives
- 20 external hard drives
- 45 (approximately) external flash devices
- 1 label printer
- 1 thermostat
- 1 LCD monitor
- 1 keyboard
- 1 mouse