Ubiquitous Computing


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"Ubiquitous computing names the third wave in computing, just now beginning. First were mainframes, each shared by lots of people. Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives." --Mark Weiser


Mark Weiser was best-known for his advocacy of "ubiquitous computing," a concept he first proposed in 1988.

Ubiquitous Computing
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The idea of ubiquitous computing built on Mark's earlier research on human-computer interaction, and was further influenced by Xerox PARC's work in networking, the ethnography of computing and workplaces (and its critique of traditional computer design), and graphical user interface research. Building on "a new way of thinking about computers in the world, one that takes into account the natural human environment," Mark hoped to create a world in which people interacted with and used computers without thinking about them. Ultimately, computers would "vanish into the background," weaving "themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it."


Ubiquitous computing challenged not just specific devices but entire ways of thinking about established technological systems. Like Douglas Englebart's Augmented Human Intellect project (described in this 1960 proposal), or Vannevar Bush's Memex (described in his classic article, "As We May Think," ubiquitous computing demanded that designers cultivate new skills, develop new ways of thinking about problems, and create new tools. A tall order, with a high probability of failure; but even if it goes the way of AHI and Memex, which were never realized but spun off the mouse and hypertext, ubiquitous computing's fragments and inspirations have already influenced everything from cutting-edge research on wearable computing, to arguments advocating "information appliances," to the development of hand-held PDAs.


Mark wrote a number of articles on ubiquitous computing, all distinguished by a clarity of mind and purpose, and fluent command of language. His 1991 Scientific American article, "The Computer for the Twenty-First Century," provides an excellent introduction to the key concepts of ubiquitous computing. "Designing Calm Technology," which he coauthored with John Seely Brown, introduces the seductive notion of good information technologies being "calm technologies." More recently, he published the accessible "Open House," in the online journal ITP Review. His Web page introducing the concept and research at Xerox PARC contains a useful precis and links to technical papers, discussions of prototypes, and more. The more technically-minded can consult a list of research reports published between 1991 and 1995.


Date: Created 29 April 1999;