Radio waves figure to change the shape of IT

Next wave of network disruption: RFID tags

RFID will be the most disruptive new development, leading technologists said at a Senate conference earlier this year on emerging technologies.

Some futurists predict there will be no wires in next-generation networks within a decade, Senate CIO Greg Hanson said.

'The wireless and personal networks such as Zigbee and Bluetooth that are growing up around communities of interest are self-organizing'it just happens,' said William T. Leighton, vice president of research at AT&T Labs. 'This is the Internet happening all over again,' this time in a wireless mesh instead of routed over wires.

The Net, like asynchronous transfer mode, frame relay and the Multiprotocol Label Switching standard, took about five years to become widespread, he said, but what will replace it? And what will come after IEEE 802.11 wireless fidelity?

Leighton speculated that what he called extreme VPNs would supplant ordinary Ethernets within about five years. 'We'll just assume that everybody has an IP virtual private network,' he said. 'By 2010, broadband will mean 40 Mbps-plus.' But then, 'what happens if we have tens of millions of voice over IP devices?' he asked.

'What happens when every household appliance and pack of razor blades is an end point on a network? We can move all those bits around, but we can't manage or secure them.'

Nor can battery capacity keep pace with the breakneck growth of wireless devices, he said, quipping that 'you can do anything you want with wireless as long as you're willing to strap a car battery to your back.'

Fred Kitson, director of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s mobile and media systems lab, said nomadic users are leading the networked evolution. They like to keep moving between hot spots, so toll booths and gas stations will become future hot spots for downloading data, images, messages and music, he said.

That will require adaptive streaming technology for the diverse clients and network speeds, Kitson said. If it works, it could build up to what he called planetary-scale computing.

HP has been designing context-aware personal platforms, based on an iPaq handheld computer running Linux, that can incorporate biometric and environmental sensors, Global Positioning System locators and services such as streaming media.

Kitson's lab has built RF beacons for several airports, a university campus and an amusement park. The beacons act as so-called websigns that can deliver Web services on the fly.

Following on the heels of RFID tags, Kitson said, will be active tags that connect physical objects to their digital identities and applications. One big downside will be the difficulty of maintaining control over user privacy, he said.

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