Should Coffeepots Talk?

Smart appliances may make people's lives more complex

Andrew M. Odlyzko doesn't seem like a man who would be fazed by complexity. As the head of the Mathematics & Cryptography Research Dept. at AT&T Labs, he is a leading expert in the math used to keep secrets secret and to secure e-commerce. But he has little tolerance for difficulty in computing, so he has spent a lot of time thinking about how to make computers easier for nonexperts.

Odlyzko's work has led him to a contrarian conclusion about information appliances, devices such as Palms and e-mail-only terminals. He believes these appliances, which many, myself included, see as a way to solve the problem, are unlikely to foster a breakthrough in simplicity. He makes his case in "The Visible Problems of the Invisible Computers: A Skeptical Look at Information Appliances," published in the online journal First Monday (www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_9/odlyzko).

NO TEAMWORK. To Odlyzko, the problem is obvious: No one has figured out how to make information appliances--or smart home appliances--work together. "The interaction of the coffeepot, the car, the smart fridge, and the networked camera will create a new layer of complexity," he writes. "In the rush toward the digital era, we will continue to live right on the edge of intolerable frustration."

This threat is not going to slow the proliferation of specialized, intelligent gadgets. In Europe, wireless phones are becoming miniature Web browsers for everything from checking stock quotes to paying bills. In Britain, shoppers at some Safeway stores can check out their own purchases as items go into the cart by swiping with a modified Palm handheld device that includes a bar-code scanner. Executives on the move can check their e-mail on two-way pagers while folks at home can get e-mail on $100 dial-up terminals. All of these devices are far simpler than PCs.

Unlike traditional appliances, these smart devices must work together to achieve their potential. Your toaster has nothing to say to the dishwasher. But you'll want the grocery scanner linked to your shopping list and your smart phone connected to your calendar and address book.

Technology companies are aware of the problem, but they are not close to a common solution. Microsoft is promoting a standard called Universal Plug and Play, while Sun Microsystems is pushing a rival technology called Jini. Neither is close to ready, and chances that they will work together are nil. Odlyzko thinks the solution may lie in Internet service providers selling management services that make all the devices in your home work together.

Odlyzko's views challenge Donald A. Norman, whose book, The Invisible Computer (MIT Press), made the case for simpler information appliances. Interestingly, Norman doesn't really take issue with Odlyzko. "The main disagreement between us is that I am an optimist believing the battle is already half won," Norman says. "He is a pessimist, believing that we are only halfway there."

Unlike Odlyzko, Norman believes that emerging standards will let appliances work together smoothly. "I think that the Internet and new telecommunications standards indicate that we are well along that path," he says.

I still think information appliances will be of great benefit, but Odlyzko sounds a useful warning. The biggest favor technology companies could do us is drop their often childish standards wars and work together to make sure that simpler devices really give us a simpler world.

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