A Rosetta Stone for Wireless Devices
By Mark Frauenfelder, Thu Sep 23 08:15:00 GMT 2004

While plenty of electronic devices can talk to each other, it’s time they start understanding each other too.

I dream of ubiquitous wireless computing. I want my digital camera, notebook, mobile phone, camcorder, printer, home theater, desktop computer and car to talk with each other. I want to be able to suck a Photoshop file onto my mobile phone, and then make a hard copy of it at my friend's house by beaming it to his color laser printer. I'd like to send scenes on my digital camcorder to my color PDA so I can show home movies of my kids to my friends (my friends might not like that idea, but that's too bad for them).

But this convergence isn't going to happen until the devices learn how to talk to each other without human intervention. Many devices now come with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or infrared, and more new wireless standards are on the way. But in the real world, it's incredibly frustrating to get two devices to work together. I don't want to count the hours I've spent downloading device drivers and opening up dialogue boxes, randomly clicking on checkboxes in an attempt to get a printer to work with a computer, or a Bluetooth headset to work with an iBook. I almost lost my mind this week while wiring my new plasma TV to a TiVo, VCR and DVD player. I had nightmares about cables and setup menus when I went to bed that night.

Getting Devices to Play Nice With Each Other

Technologies like Microsoft's Plug and Play (PnP), which grab device drivers from the Internet when it senses a new device are an improvement over the old days when you had to have a floppy drive with the latest patch, but they only go halfway in realizing the dream of ubiquitous interoperability.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if a device came with an internal set of instructions that it would automatically send to another device when the two were introduced -- something along the lines of “Hello, I'm a camcorder and this is how I work” -- so that the devices could start working together?

That's exactly what the scientists at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the legendary Xerox subsidiary in California, have been working on for the past several years. PARC, the same place that invented laser printers, the graphical user interface, Ethernet and a host of other groundbreaking innovations, has developed an interoperability platform that allows wireless devices to automatically connect and communicate, even if the devices have never been acquainted.

No More Standards

The technology is a software architecture called Obje (pronounced OHB-JAY), and its main idea is to put a software-based virtual machine inside each device, so that any two devices running Obje would be able to figure out how to work with one another. The concept hearkens back to a PARC invention from the 1970s – object-oriented software -- which modularized chunks of software code so that they could be used in different applications. Similarly, Obje modularizes device functions so that they can transferred from one device to another on the fly. In other words, networks can be formed without pre-loading drivers and software onto the wireless devices. By using mobile code (like Java), one device can “teach” another device how to interoperate.

For example, say you have a PC loaded with digitized songs. If the PC has an Obje virtual machine running on it, it could connect with any Obje-enabled portable music player. The music player could automatically teach the PC how to send the files to it, and the PC could teach the music player how to decode and play the songs. All this would happen without the user having to get involved.

The exciting thing about Obje is that it will allow one wireless device to communicate with any other device in an ad-hoc fashion, even if that device hasn't yet been invented. Being able to give devices the ability to work with each other without having shared standards is what separates Obje from somewhat similar technologies such Jini and UPnP, which still require some level of prior knowledge of standards and protocols.

PARC has been talking with different device manufacturers about Obje, but hasn't announced any deals yet. One possible stumbling point with Obje is the need to license the coding and decoding protocols necessary to make certain types of proprietary data formats work on an Obje network. But if PARC can get past the hurdles and convince manufacturers of the bottom-line benefits that would come from a seamless network of devices, the day might arrive when we can dump our drivers and just start using the stuff.