Presence technologies and the Global Grid

I’m a big believer in historical cycles, particularly when it comes to technology. True, nothing ever happens exactly the same way twice, but tech trends have a way of being, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “d‚j… vu all over again.”

As a physics grad student in the 1980s, I discovered the Internet as a way to get data back and forth from the accelerator in Fermilab where my experiments ran. I spent the next 10 years trying to convince people that this thing called the Internet would change the way we live and work.

Today, I’m having the same conversation about presence technologies. The arguments against presence today are about the same as those against the Internet: It’s just for geeks (or kids). It’ll never work. And what do we need it for, anyway?

As before, some of the earliest adopters include the federal government, particularly the U.S. Department of Defense. As noted in previous columns, contrary to popular belief the Defense Department didn’t invent the Internet, but DARPA and its researchers recognized the defense applicability of distributed networks.

Ditto for presence. During Gulf War II, when most corporations had barely heard of instant messaging, soldiers and their commanders were using it regularly to get instantaneous insight into battlefield events. Now the Defense Department has announced plans for a Global Information Grid, a satellite-based system designed to provide a “God’s-eye view” of the battlefield.

Will it work? Internet pioneer Vint Cerf has expressed skepticism. He and others remind us that previous highfalutin satellite schemes have imploded: Remember Iridium, the much-hyped Motorola Inc. satellite service that went belly up in 2000?

But let’s assume the government is now savvy enough to couple presence to the satellite grid. Envision soldiers in battle — or spies undercover — with minicams in their headgear, constantly uploading what they’re seeing and doing into a network of distributed presence directories backed by data-crunching servers. Imagine a general receiving first-person input from a fighter on the front lines. Picture a soldier requesting and receiving real-time data about targets.

Now imagine what that same technology could do for retail, distribution, hospitality or healthcare organizations — or any company that blends knowledge work with logistics. Like the Internet, presence technologies have the potential to change the way we live and work.

Oh, and Iridium? It’s doing fine. After selling its assets to a venture firm in late 2000, the reconstituted company is on the path to profitability with more than 100,000 subscribers, thanks to contracts with the government and various maritime and aviation firms. And one of its top-selling services is short message service.

— Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research LLC, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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