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You say you want a revolution

By SoupIsGood Food, (soup@macedition.com), 11 January 2001

“The greatest danger to good computer science research today may beexcessive relevance ... Commercial pressure will divert the attention ofthe best thinkers from real innovation to exploitation of the current fad,from prospecting to mining a known lode.”

— Dennis Ritchie Communications of the ACM, August, 1984

“People assume that computer technology moves forward at a rapid clip, yet no eyebrows were raised when Apple said that its big step forward was going to be licensing the NeXT OS. This is Steve Jobs’s late 1980s facelift of Carnegie-Mellon University’s early 1980s rewrite (Mach) of Bell Lab’s early 1970s Unix operating system. Maybe it is better than Windows NT but, if so, that only makes it a more damning condemnation of the software industry.”

— Philip GreenspunPhilip and Alex’sGuide to Web Publishing

“Maybe the revolution is over.”

— Thomas Summerall Salon Magazine

They say the revolution is over. Nothing new under the sun except slow and stately upgrades, bloat upon bloat as the same old, same old is rehashed and given a fresh coat of paint now and again. They say there can never again be a Woz, a Steve Jobs. They say that the time of giants is past, the age of heroes is at an end. They say there’s nothing over the horizon.

They’re wrong.

All of the giants built on the foundations laid for them by hundreds of contemporaries and predecessors. Jobs didn’t invent the personal computer. He couldn’t even build one without Woz’s genius engineering skills. What he did was take a holistic view of the homebrew computer scene in the ’70s, and find a way to roll that into something that could bring the core concept of personal computers and information management to everyone, not just electronics hobbyists. This fundamentally changed the world. Jobs repeated the impossible a second time with the Macintosh and the GUI. He took an afternoon’s worth of product demos for half-realized concepts and intellectual exercises at Xerox’s PARC, some going back more than twenty years, and forged them into a second computer revolution. Steve’s not alone. Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Ellison, Admiral Grace Hopper and Linus Torvalds all stand on the shoulders of giants. Their genius is the vision, the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff and distill it into a perfect product that changes absolutely everything everyone knew about computers and the world.

The trick is to see what’s out there, discussed in the dry and dusty tones of computer science’s academic formality, and make it real. Innovators are like vintners. They select the finest combination of grapes, and make them greater then the sum of the whole in the finest of wines. Marc Andreesson and the rest of the NSCA Mosaic developers borrowed the graphical navigation and display metaphors from Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard, blended it with Tim Berners-Lee’s HTML and HTTP – and thus the Web browser, and the Web itself, was born. This mixing and melding of disparate and seemingly unconnected ideas is the seed to real revolution, and is why computers, and what they can do for the world, will continue to surprise and astonish in wave after rolling wave of innovation.

Want a glimpse of the future? Want an intimation of what your life will be like in ten years’ time? In twenty? It’s not hard. Just take a peek at what people are doing now in laboratories and research theses and basements, and then imagine what things would be like if someone like Steve Jobs got ahold of them.

How would you like a system powerful enough to render the special effects in Jurassic Park in the span of an afternoon, with a screen large enough for four friends to sit on a couch to view the results, yet portable enough to fit into your pocket for listening to MP3s on the bus? The answer isn’t a faster PowerPC processor and a folding LCD screen – it’s distributed computing.

Plan 9, a Bell Labs research operating system developed by some of the same people who invented Unix, lays down the groundwork. A system is made up of computers, rather than a single computer – all networked together. Your “terminal system”, the computer you use to interface with the system, can be as small as a cell phone. It could even be a cell phone. All it needs is a radio transmitter that talks to other nearby computer devices and peripherals, like the Bluetooth wireless protocol. Wireless keyboards and mice are here today, but let’s kick it up a notch – wireless displays are the next step. Your little cell phone turns into a desktop computer when you put it near a keyboard, mouse and monitor, and while it’s at it, tells your system to turn on the big HDTV in the living room as a second monitor. That takes care of the huge display for a system you can take with you on the bus! But since this is just a cell phone, it won’t have much muscle to render those dinosaurs.

Plan 9 has something called a processor server. It’s just a big box filled with processors and RAM and a radio transmitter to handle networking ... maybe something a little quicker than Bluetooth, like multichannel wireless FireWire. Need more grunt? Add another, bigger box filled with more processors and RAM, and turn it on. Plan 9 and protocols like NetInfo and NetBoot will take care of the rest. Got too much grunt? Share it with your friends or a worthy cause.

But where will you fit all the QuickTime videos you’ve created of velociraptors devouring overweight computer geeks? Plan 9 also has an answer for this, calling for “storage servers”, or servers that just hold hard disks or removable media. This concept is known by the industry as Network Attached Storage, a disk that you hook up to a network rather than a computer. This is the interesting part about distributed computing: everything is a peripheral that communicates over a network protocol, including CPUs and disk drives. Or a bunch of hard disks in a RAID array for speed or reliability. Or a DVD-RAM drive. This storage is available to all parts of your system: in our hypothetical system, you can have a couple of 70GB drives with both wireless FireWire and Bluetooth available interoperably, so your cell phone can play MP3s while the processor server uses it as a scratch disk for big 3D rendering jobs.

In an office or computer lab, there will be a terminal system (cellphone, keyboard, mouse, monitor) for everyone, enough processor servers to get the work done and a lot of NAS devices, or file server devices that are front ends to huge storage area networks. Suddenly, it’s not just your system anymore, but a shared and distributed system. Plan 9 organizes it so everything is shared in a logical, accessible and secure way. It will seem like you’re just using a normal computer, but in reality you are using the resources provided by a number of computers and peripherals designed to do a job and do it well. The system will assign a job to a processor server if it’s too much for the terminal to handle on its own, and save the results where the terminal can get at it, even if it’s on the bus.

In Europe and Asia, advanced wireless data communication is everywhere, and similar technology is coming to the U.S. Using the same cell phone technology that will power the next generation of digital phones, your terminal can use secure channels to talk over the Internet so you can always have access to your gigabytes of MP3s and homegrown dinosaur epics wherever you are, whenever you want it. Plan 9 arranges it so the resources you have access to that are attached to the Internet, be it the disk drives at home or the office fileserver or your favorite shareware repository, all appear as a local resource no matter where you are.

It sounds fanciful. It sounds unlikely. Follow the links, and you will discover that all the technologies I mention exist today and are well understood. All it takes is a visionary with enough investment capital and the gumption to put the pieces together to change the world with parts that he or she can simply pluck off the shelf. We’re only a Steve Jobs away from making it work.

That’s simply scratching the surface. Want more? Okay. A Sherlock-like search facility can be developed into an open standard replacement for DNS, connecting plain-text search engines to standardized metadata databases and navigated using browsers like hyperbolic trees or HotSauce (another Apple innovation, lost to the shifting sands of time).

More? Configurable computing means that a microprocessor can adapt itself to whatever task is at hand, reconfiguring itself into multi-core vector unit one moment, and a monolithic 64-bit integer math monster the next, depending on what the software requires. The concept can also be applied to software and interface technology; imagine an applicaton that will reconfigure and reprogram itself to meet the goals of the user on the fly. Computer viruses already do this to evade detection by antivirus software, and have been doing it for years. Why not create an entire network of benevolent and controlled virii, evolving and thriving based on the quality of the end result? Your system will get easier to use and offer better results every time you use it.

More? A GUI replacement for declarative and procedural programming languages,letting you construct and manipulate giant relational databases andsophisticated applications as easily as you build a Web site in Dreamweaveror GoLive. Helix and Prograph, both conceivedas Macintosh development environments, are steps in this direction.

More? A filesystem where everything is an embeddable object, rather than data file or executable code files, and kept track of by a relational databse rather than b-tree hierarchies. There are be no more applications or files; you instead work on projects or archives, and share data freely between them. You edit an image with Photoshop filters inside a Web page, and share the same image with a brochure layout and an art archive, all in real time without switching between modal applications.

More? The Internet keeps the information you use the most on your local system as well as data you don’t use at all encrypted and accessible to everyone, but only through key-coded search engines. No more censorship or data loss.

More? The Internet will move from top-down ordered hierarchial links between high-bandwidth land lines to a wireless peer-to-peer network built and run entirely by volunteers and sophisticated routing protocols. The company that develops and mass markets the hardware to enable this will make a mint and be forever famous.

More? You navigate your computer’s interface with thought alone. More? Modular robots will build themselves into any machine you need and run on table scraps and grass clippings.

More? There’s always more. There’s always a forgotten thesis, a small skunkworks project in a backroom or basement, a dead end that needs to be revisited and revived. And then there are all the ideas and concepts that have yet to be conceived. All it takes is one genius to see the diamond in the rough and sculpt it into a gem beautiful enough to make the world take pause – and that genius could be you. You could be the next Steve Jobs. The next Dennis Ritchie. All it takes is a lot of imagination, research, hard work, business savvy and the will to see it through. The need to not just succeed, but to take on the world and win. Even Steve Jobs could be the next Steve Jobs. He’s used to changing the world with computer technology – he’s only done it four or five times now.

The Next Big Things, and the striding giants bearing the brunt of it on their shoulders, are just over the horizon. Ever fly in an commercial jet? Once you get to a certain ludicrously high altitude, the horizon blends into a deep, deep blue before it lightens to sky. That deep azure is the end of the world. There is nothing beyond that point. No land or ocean or even sky. The earth is bounded by nothing ... except an entire universe. You aren’t looking into the void; you are looking into infinity. Planets and stars and galaxies and more ... endless worlds, suns beyond counting.

The revolution isn’t over yet.

It’s scarcely begun.

“Do not anticipate outcomes. Wait for events to unfold. Live in the moment.”

— William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties

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