A vision of pervasive computing
Transmeta made its debut slightly more than a year ago, after being one of the better-kept secrets in Silicon Valley. Its most impressive product is the Crusoe chip, a low-cost computer processor designed to extend battery life and usher in a new era of handheld computing devices. Dave Ditzel, the founder of Transmeta, is a veteran of Sun Microsystems where, as CTO, he was instrumental in developing Sun's RISC computer chip architecture. InfoWorld Contributing Editor Sean Dugan caught up with Ditzel to discuss the future of personal computers, the limitations of today's handhelds, and what pervasive computing will look like in the future.
InfoWorld: What do you see in five years as the standard PC?
Ditzel: Very simply, that I can get my e-mail no matter where I am, as easily as I get a phone call today.
InfoWorld: How would you define mobile computing?
Ditzel: I actually have two different terms. There's mobile computing, and there is something else that we see as our vision of what we want to make happen, what we call mobile Internet computing. Mobile computing might be where you have a Palm Pilot, and you look up a set of phone numbers or addresses on a little handheld device. But that's maybe about all the computing it does other than functioning as a calculator.
I think our vision is one of extending the experience that people get from their desktop PC today to the mobile realm. And I believe this not only from a technological point of view, but from a sociological point of view. People have certain habits, one of which is how they communicate and get information. So for example, if you look back 10 years, it's all telephone and newspapers. But today when you come into your office, you sit down at your desktop PC, and it's now e-mail and Web sites. But when you walk out of your office, and you're at the store, or something else is going on, if somebody is trying to communicate with you. For example, if the power goes out in California in a certain section of town, and you've got to pick up your kids, how does that information get communicated to you. If they knew you were in your office, and they were at a computer, they'd send you e-mail. But when you're mobile, you don't get that same communication you get with a cellular phone today.
InfoWorld: Is mobile computing migrating the functionality that's now on the desktop onto something that you're carrying with you all the time?
Ditzel: And it's also connected to the Internet all the time, so the type of computing will change in terms of what people need. For example, very few handheld devices today can run a full Web browser. By that I mean either Netscape or Internet Explorer, because with those two desktop browsers, in order to view all the things on the Web, you need to also run the plug-ins for the Web browser -- things that give you the streaming video, real audio, MP3. Those plug-ins are only written for the major browsers, but aren't available for mobile computing devices and their browsers.
InfoWorld: So we are losing a lot of functionality right now with these kinds of mobile devices.
Ditzel: Try and access the Web from WAP [Wireless Application Protocol], and you're not going to get streaming video. What Transmeta is interested in doing is helping to create the technology that will enable people to build handheld devices that will deliver exactly the same experience as they get off their desktop PC.
Why do you have to llearn another e-mail system? Why can't I use the one on my desktop? How come when you get e-mail on some little device and they send you a PowerPoint file, the question is whether or not you'll be able to open the file. The answer has to be, "Yes." And that's what we're really trying to do, to take low power silicon technology and marry that with compatibility across all the PC applications, operating systems, and software.
InfoWorld: Will there be any device of choice? Or will we see a whole slew of devices, and we'll each carry a couple? Or will different people have different kinds of favorite devices?
Ditzel: I think it's going to change with time. I think in the short term, you're going to see a wide variety of different devices. People are rushing to service the demand that's out there. But these will be in a variety of highly specialized devices. I think over time, what people are going to want is to carry fewer and fewer of them. In the longer term, three to four years from now, I think my own vision is one where you really only need to carry one kind of device. Imagine something a little larger than a Palm Pilot, but that has a screen on it that's higher resolution than screens today -- sufficient to read a full screen like you would a desktop monitor. You could read e-mail or watch video -- and the device that allows the user to do all that will become the device of choice. It will be your cell phone, but it will also be your e-mail, your pager, and your PIM [personal information manager].
InfoWorld: All of your communication needs met by one device?
Ditzel: Yes. The technology isn't quite there today neither in the hardware nor in the general software infrastructure. But I see no reason why the technology wouldn't go there; that's the obvious place to go. These other things in the short term are just intermediate steps. Things like WAP on your cell phone are just intermediate bridges to that new future where we have a single pervasive communication device that also happens to be a computer.
InfoWorld: You could almost call "now" the experimental phase where we're putting out different breeds of animals in order to see which ones survive in the long term.
InfoWorld: What does this mean for companies? Does it change the strategy for a company that is on the Web and how they need to be thinking about these things?
Ditzel: I think the biggest change for companies is the pervasiveness of notebook computing. We have a lot of desktop computers, but the simple combination of a fairly powerful computer with long battery life coupled with, say, 802.11 wireless would be a tremendous change in culture for a company.
When you go to a meeting, you just bring your little notebook with you. You continue to get e-mail, you type in notes so that at the end of the meeting, you can hit Send and everybody immediately gets a copy of the meeting minutes. I think the reason why this hasn't happened in the past is that two key technologies have been missing. One was wireless, but the other was the absense of a notebook computer that has long battery life and is light enough that you'd be willing to carry it around. That second piece is what we're focusing on at Transmeta.
A lot of people have these little Sony PictureBook notebooks here with an 802.11 card stuck in. It's two pounds, it's light enough that you can carry it around to every meeting with you like a notepad. The battery will last all day, so you actually take it and use it for an entire work day. I think with a lot of the hotter processors that were in notebook PCs before, you only had one hour of battery life. You could go to one meeting, then your battery is dead. That just didn't cut it. I think just the very simple notion of making the battery last an entire day and having the machine only weigh two or three pounds and having wireeless communication hooked in are together going to drastically change the field for how we do computing in our work lives. That's yet to happen -- I think that's the next major change. Beyond that, I think there will be some new devices, but that's a few years out yet.
InfoWorld: It seems when you have a combination of things such as long battery life, portability, and rich functionality, and then you add an extra, such as a digital camera, there's a whole culture of computing that will rise out of this.
Ditzel: The devices will be more consumer-oriented. In appealing to the mass market, you need to make these devices easier to use. I think that's how it will evolve. Sony has a really interesting computer called the GT Model. It's basically a camcorder with a PC on the side. I saw one in person. It just looks like a camcorder with a super-huge screen. But, it's like one of those Transformer toys -- you twist it around different ways and it turns into a notebook. It's just the most amazing little device you could see. You say, "Well gee, ya' know, with 30GB on the hard drive, you can record hours and hours of movies on this thing." You can also take thousands of still photographs. It's got a little zoom camera on it, so it's both a still digital camera and a video camera. Sony's view is that they were going to build it for personal Webcasting. I didn't know what that meant, but you look at this and you go, "Wow! That's like my camcorder device but I don't have to haul a separate notebook computer around too." It's the perfect device for vacations.
InfoWorld: It is a completely different approach to computing.
Ditzel: But they thought of it as a consumer device. Rather than thinking, "Let's take a notebook PC and stick a USB camera on the side," they thought, "What does a camera look like, and why don't you just put a PC on the camera rather than a camera on the PC?"
InfoWorld: Do you see any technologies that will cause a big revolution in terms of computing? What will be a personal computer? Are we going to see a steady evolution, or is there anything radical that might happen?
Ditzel: I'm not expecting anything radical. But what I am expecting is machines that become easier to use in a gradual way.
InfoWorld: So you see incremental progress in terms of how people will interact with their device?
Ditzel: Again, I think it's because each of the technologies will be developed separately. You might have 10 different devices -- you know: a pager, a PIM, a notebook, a video camera. I think what will happen is you'll see these functionalities merge. It will just seem very natural. I know we're always looking for that one breakthrough technology that's going to change our lives.
A few years back it was voice computing that was going to change everything.
People are most often wrong when they make predictions. If you look back 20 years or 40 years, there was a time when the computer was first invented when they thought the worldwide demand for computers would be five. I think the mistake we made when we thought of the future is that we would be able to talk to the computer. We still have this image of a thing the size of a refrigerator. What's really happened is that you can carry it in your pocket.
There are a couple of companies working with Crusoe that are doing wearable computers. Just like you might strap on your cell phone or a pager today, there's a little device that you strap on that's your entire computer. It takes your environment with you. It has a little thing that clips onto your glasses which lets you look into this device so you can see a full screen floating out in front of your eyes. I can't claim that those technologies don't exist today -- they've been developed for the military -- but they're not consumer oriented. I think it's the difference between taking a $20,000, wearablee military computer and turning it into a $200 consumer device. It's where the breakthrough changes are going to happen. It's not so much a technology breakthrough as a usability breakthrough for the consumer of all these different technologies.
InfoWorld: If we have wearable computers, they'll have to be fashionable. We'll have to have Donna Karan producing them.
Ditzel: Undoubtedly. I think the real issue is getting the size down, to getting the battery life long enough, to just generally changing the usability of the interface. And there's a lot of neat stuff going on there. One of the examples that I'll point out is this tablet PC that Microsoft is doing. They took a different point of view in inventing it. Most of the people try and build a consumer device that's more of a toy, kind of a large Palm Pilot. I think what Microsoft did that was very innovative was to decide to make a complete, full PC. In fact, it's running a version of Windows NT, not Windows CE at the low end. They took their highest-end operating system, and they took a high-end chip -- it's actually a 600MHz Crusoe processor inside -- and that enabled them to do this fancy handwriting recognition. They're thinking about what computing in the future will be like and realizing that every year you get more and more computing for fewer dollars. And, so, by prototyping the system with Crusoe, they can kind of provide the machine of the future today.
InfoWorld: It seems like the usability aspects of these mobile-focused technologies are going to have some cascade effects on just your basic desktop PC in terms of creating PC appliances that are available for anybody's grandmother.
Ditzel: Casio is introducing a machine that weighs 35 ounces. The first time I saw it and picked it up, I thought, "Oh, this is some kind of personal organizer. This is useless." I thought it was going to be for addresses. Then I realized, holy cow, they're running Windows Me on this thing with six to nine hours of battery life and it's featherweight.
It's the kind of thing for people who would not have dealt with the geek factor before of hauling around a 10-pound machine. This is the kind of thing a woman can take and just drop in her purse and won't even realize it's there.
I've got to travel where I carry all my papers with me. If I have to carry a separate bag with a 6-to 8-pound notebook on my shoulder, getting shoulder burns carrying two bags around, that's just too much. I want something I can just drop in that's the size of a magazine. When I'm on the road, if I need to get e-mail, I just pull it out and use it. If I don't, I don't have to worry about this device -- "do I put it in the bag or do I take it out" -- it's just there. And that's the persuasiveness issue we're trying to get to.
InfoWorld: It seems like we're on the cusp of an era where computers will be there for people who don't like computers, who don't want to worry about the megahertz or gigabytes.
Ditzel: I have a simple way of putting it: The vision is not one of computing. The vision is about communication. You're not going to be worrying about megahertz or whatever -- the computing performance will be sufficient. The real issue is how it helps you communicate doing e-mail, getting to Web sites -- that's to be the functionality of portable machines. The fact that it also happens to run a spreadsheet will be an afterthought.