For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.
By Jack Ganssle
I spent the last couple of weeks in Rhode Island, taking care of my fianc‚ who is recovering from surgery. Sitting on her couch, laptop propped on my knees, I was surprised to see the wireless icon illuminate. XP informed me we were connected to the `net, pushing 11 megabits per second through the ether via some unknown node.
Traceroute showed we were into a Linksys (www.linkys.com) router connected to a Verizon (www.verizon.com) DSL line. I have no idea who owns the connection or where the router is located. But thanks to either a generous soul or sloppy security anyone within range had a broadband net connection.
I was left somewhat befuddled: what ethical action should I take? Turn off the wireless hardware in my computer to avoid "stealing" bandwidth? Suck down the usual avalanche of email? Go hog wild surfing the `net? (For thoughts on the legality and ethics of WiFi see http://www.warchalking.org/story/2002/9/22/223831/236).
Happily she has a permanent broadband connection on the computer in the other room so it was easy to defer the moral considerations. But the wide-open WiFi link, and many articles about warchalking and other exploitations of WiFi left me wondering about the shape of wireless in the future.
Today we have an insane medley of economic models for the net: a T1 line might cost thousands per month, yet DSL offers comparable speeds for a mere $40. Cable is similar. as is a slow AOL dialup link. Wireless at Starbucks (www.starbucks.com and http://www.t-mobile.com) will run you an extra $30/month, plus another couple of hundred for Caramel Macchiatos. Yet if you're lucky enough to be in range of an open WiFi link, it's free.
The future is clear, and will be driven more by embedded applications than PCs. Our smart devices will require ever more connectivity, a connectivity that will be provided primarily via wireless links. The cost of adding a physical, wired, connection will always limit deployment of smart connected apps; wireless eliminates these costs.
The best analogy for the `net of the future is: air. Apparently free, equally available to rich and to poor, to PCs and to embedded sensors. Like the oxygen in air that sparked the explosion in evolution of complex life forms, ubiquitous and free WiFi will form the fabric upon which we technologists will build the future.
Just as all of us breathe an unmonitored amount of air without paying a monthly or per-liter fee, WiFi will - and must - be open for all. Today over half the RTOSes in use are homemade, in part because low-cost embedded apps cannot afford even nominal royalty charges. A per-byte or per-month cost for `net access will be equally deadly to a huge range of simple applications.
We'll pay for it like we pay for the air. The EPA is nominally the nation's guardian of our atmosphere, and is funded by taxes. Someday a similar federal agency - or huge telecommunications monopoly whose existence and dominance are guaranteed by law - will provide or at least coordinate `net access. Taxes, collected via your 1040 or your phone bill, and hidden product costs (like a car's catalytic converter) will pay the costs.
In a few years the ethics will be clear: equal access for all. Instant-on computers and long battery lives will keep our PC-like devices hooked up all the time. Embedded systems will chatter with each other, in a web of connectedness that today's WWW barely foreshadows.