Endless Possibilities

Endless Possibilities

Consider RFID—Radio Frequency Identification Devices. MIT has a lab called the Auto ID-Center developing this technology. What is RFID? It's an ID chip, a computer on a chip that you can embed in, say, a box of detergent, and the detergent now can tell you what it is, where it's from and where it went once it left the store. Sure, its obvious application is factory inventory control, but you can use it for all sorts of things. Believe me, the market for RFID is vast. Today, when you're thinking of machines talking to machines, people think about the personal computer or the mobile phone. But that's not even the start of it. Machines talking to machines are all about little devices inside everyday things that we won't even see and won't even know exist. Imagine a home burglary system that's wireless. Each little burglar alarm, each little burglar sensor has its own processor with its own Web page.

Imagine that your washing machine has crapped out, so you go buy a new one. And you're looking around, and the high-end ones have this big sticker on the side that says "Internet-ready," and you think to yourself, "Who do they think I am, Bill Gates? I don't need a washing machine that talks to the Internet." But as it happens, you end up buying the high-end one because it has some other features you want. And so the company comes and installs it and you plug it in and get it all going, and as the installers are leaving your house with the packing materials, you go back into the house and your washing machine suddenly wakes up. It turns out that it's got Internet connectivity, but it also has a little wireless transponder in it. And it wakes up and it listens for a radio signal, and it picks up this little signal from the 802.11 box on the side of your house that you already use for wireless Ethernet distribution for your computer. And it says to the box, "Hi. I'm a washing machine. Would you mind if I use some of your bandwidth sometime?" And the box says, "Fine." And completely unbeknownst to you, your washing machine starts a conversation with your computer and your Ethernet box.

Of course, you don't know this at all until one morning, you're late for work, you are rushing out the front door, and you almost knock over the Maytag repairman who's about to push your doorbell. You say, "What are you doing here?" He says, "Oh, didn't your washing machine tell you? It's got a flat bearing and it sent me an e-mail last night screaming for help." Well, you and I both know that this example is a mighty over-simplification, and the world won't exactly turn out that way—but that's the automation trajectory we're talking about here.

This isn't pure blue sky. Electrolux is already doing it. They wanted to do this because there's this huge unserved market of young people who would love to have a washing machine in their house or in their apartment and hate going to the laundromat, but they don't want to be held down by having to carry a washing machine through their multiple changes of residences. Well, Electrolux had this solution. They said we're not going to sell people a washing machine. We're going to give them a washing machine, and we will charge them by the load. The machine will be in their house, but the title will remain with us. It was basically having the convenience of a machine at home, and yet you as the consumer just paid a monthly bill. They tested this on the island of Gotland in Sweden, and are thinking of expanding it to a wider market.

This article was originally published on 04-15-2002
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