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Bluepods, Personal Servers, and instant radio

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Technology doesn't change society, Linus Torvalds once said - society changes technology.

A great example of this is illustrated by a fine piece at Wired which brings us news of another Bluepod research project. About a year ago we speculated how interesting things could get if the iPod added Bluetooth and Rendezvous, allowing total strangers to exchange music. This was very popular with you, particularly the concept of a "What Am I Listening To?" menu option. Social hardware could allow you to tune into half a dozen short-range radio stations on the bus, beamed to you from BluePod-toting passengers. With device discovery, and short range radio, such things are possible.

At the time we noted that Apple was already a step ahead of the pack, as it had marketed a sophisticated portable media player and had both the marketing and technological know how (having a good Bluetooth stack and having shepherded ZeroConf, aka Rendezvous, through the standards committees). But it's not the only game in town, and Wired points to an interesting research project at MIT Lab Europe. [Warning to readers: some recursion may occur at the end of this article.] tunA is an ad hoc radio Walkman with some interesting user interface concepts.

We're naturally a bit coy about taking any credit for an idea lots of people have had already, although if Esther Dyson can command $25,000 for an after-dinner speech to listen to her outer space warblings about wireless, we're only too happy to pass ours along for free. (Esther, it's called 'disintermediation').

The Personal Server

So it's with some relief that we turn to the gentleman who's heading Intel's research project on such devices, Roy Want. Intel's Personal Server project is a year away from completion, but it was demonstrated at IDF this fall, as we reported here.

The Intel Personal Server is part of a wider set of research projects called Ubiquity computing, which gets into some really interesting stuff. For example, traditional file systems (such as the kind that Microsoft patented but helpfully licensed yesterday) aren't really appropriate for this kind of infrastructure. But we'll pursue that another day, soon.

Roy himself worked on the Active Badge project at AT&T's Cambridge Lab, and brought up a few potential uses for the PS which may have been overlooked. It isn't just a pocket Napster.

By decoupling the storage from the display you have essentially turned the wireless connection into the graphics bus. "Aha!" I remember thinking when Bluetooth was first explained to me: we'll have the phone on the key fob and a whole new market in ladies compact mirrors.

Well, part of the Personal Server project is about putting your "My Documents" folder onto that key fob, and it's not as trivial as it first appears.

"The challenge is about how you establish the connections, and making it easy for the user to access that data," says Want.

"You want it to be able to access Windows XP, but don't modify it so much that XP clients can't use it. We've tried to stitch together the best of what's available."

The team has demonstrated XP recognizing the Personal Server and the device's data popping up as a web view, or a folder.

Want agrees all the ingredients for technology are in place: the devices use both Bluetooth and 802.11 and in some cases, UPnP for discovery (they ruled out Jini on account of size).

Binding

"Mobile computing is a bit like the Internet before the web," says Want. "All the servers were out there at universities, and some businesses, but you had to go to a command line prompt and know how to use ftp. It needed another level of simplicity and binding, and that's what the Web brought. It was a small conceptual addition but that made it all available to a lot of people around the world."

"We have the basic connectivity - but we need the basic icing that makes it easy to use."

The Personal Server will have uses both domestic and social. Intel is investing in TV R&D projects, and it isn't hard to imagine walking up to a TV and having it display your family photos, or show your MP3 playlists. The team has also experimented with hooking up to cheap 'public displays'. For example, suppose a bar has a couple of PDAs. In you walk with your BluePod, and you can simply start using whichever one is free.

But the Personal Server isn't necessarily a rival to the phone. It might equally be a software platform inside a phone, says Roy. Phones will be able to host 1GB memory cards early next year, 4GB the following year, and the fate for the iPod well may that it will become subsumed into a Nokia or Sony Ericsson handset. While Intel hopes it will be in a handset with Intel Inside, of course.

It's a sensitive project because the demand for exchanging media is so great (and ancient) that focus groups for such devices will be pretty redundant: people simply want to share a bit of culture. However, the copyright holders have already ensured that such a device will probably be illegal on arrival. The entertainment industries have succeeded in convincing the lawmakers that a 'pay now' model is preferable to a 'pay later' model, such as flat-fee compulsory licensing. And the 'pay now' model entails DRM, which greatly restricts people's ability to share media. Roy said he didn't have an opinion either way, but hoped the climate would improve.

As we all do. Call it "BluePod", "Personal Server" or "Social Hardware" - it could be as revolutionary as the PC was first time round. ®

Related Link

Apple's 'BluePod' - promiscuous exchanges with strangers
Goodbye, PC; hello, PS (Personal Server)
Social Hardware' nears with Bluetooth iPod

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