Community computing coming, says Microsoft

Forget personal computing. A new world of “community computing” is knocking on the front door, offering unparalleled communication opportunities and challenges alike. That’s how Jonathan Murray, Microsoft Corp.’s chief technology officer for the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) region, envisions a new technological environment that will soon confront users, suppliers and governments alike.

“If you look ten years out, massively powerful devices running very smart software will sit at the edge of the network and will connect in a ubiquitous, ad hoc way,” said Murray in an interview last week at the United Nations-hosted World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis. “When you walk into a room, your devices will locate other devices and connect them to form a mesh network.”

The idea is not completely new. Executives from IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., for example, have long talked about a world of ubiquitous devices linked together seamlessly, as has Microsoft’s own chairman, Bill Gates. The concept goes by many overlapping names, such as ubiquitous computing or ambient computing, where embedded devices connect to a massively meshed network and disappear into the environment.

Microsoft, a household name for personal computing software, hopes to be a big player in this emerging market for community computing systems as well, according to Murray.

“We’re moving into a world where I don’t just have my own personal device that runs my own applications,” he said. “Instead, I’m in a new environment where I’m sharing your computing capacity and you’re sharing mine, and our identities are spread all over these devices.”

Much of the “fabric” to connect these devices already exists in the form of Web services, open standards such as XML (Extensible Markup Language), and more, according to Murray. “But that’s only one piece of the puzzle,” he said. “Another piece is the systems engineering required to deliver the ubiquitous, end-to-end experience for users.”

The complexity of engineering all these systems to communicate with each other “seamlessly,” to use Murray’s language, will require “deep expertise and massive investment in R&D,” of which Microsoft has both.

There will be opportunities for different software models, including open source, but the applications running on top of the “open standards-based infrastructure” will demand deep R&D pockets and “a very focused thinking to ensure end-to-end connectivity,” Murray said. “This is where we as a commercial software company will apply our focus.”

If systems management engineering is a huge challenge, regulating all these smart devices in a mesh network is all that and more, according to Murray.

“Today, government regulators think about networks as big trunks and hubs that can be relatively easily controlled,” he said. “But how to regulate when I connect to the Internet through only one point but link 1,000 other devices to the mesh network in the process?”

The old way of regulating networks — the top-down and centralized — will become increasingly redundant, according to the CTO. “The problem is, it’s still not clear what the new model should be,” he said.

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