When journalists or pundits consider the impact of the computer, they wax poetic about how today's smart phone has as much processing power as the mainframe computer of the 1970s.
It makes me giggle to think of running the 1970 US census through my Google Nexus One. But the real impact of computing on our lives is in embedded computing. And it's about to get a whole lot bigger.
Just think about it - when was the last time you used a physical key to open a hotel room door instead of one of those little mag strip cards? (Just last weekend for me - I stayed in a B&B, but you get the point). Maybe you have noticed that in cities from Prague to Portland that coin-operated parking meters are disappearing in favor of machines that take a credit card. And listening to music in some form other than digital (or live) is becoming a museum curiosity.
This is the world of embedded computing. And there is an automation revolution in areas as diverse as medicine, telecommunications, retail and casino gaming.
Now I have to admit that for a long time when someone would talk with me about embedded computing, I would consider this the domain of wireheads and electrical engineers stringing together components with very little software.
But with 32 bit microprocessors now at a very attractive price point, the processing power available for embedded computing just became very interesting.
Just think about those parking meters I mentioned in Portland and Prague. They are solar powered, can read your credit card and communicate with the payment network to authorize the payment. What else could this machine do? Well for one thing, it could talk on the cell network. Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint gave an interview recently in which he said:
"Then there's what I call the inanimate objects that will start to carry wireless chips...what we call machine to machine. Meters will be read, vending machines... you go right down the list. Cars will have wireless chips where they are monitored all the time. And that will give us revenue on our part so there will be many more devices that are connected to the wireless network than there are people..."
This machine to machine (or M2M as it's known in the lingo) will definitely drive the desire for more compute power. Think about what a city government could do with a downtown area full of connected, intelligent devices standing literally on every street corner. They could monitor for fire, gas leaks, crime, all kinds of things. It's almost like having a cop on every corner. (And I'm sure there are plenty of potential privacy concerns here as well).
So I'm starting to get much more interested in embedded computing, as the opportunities for cool software become more tangible as better processors get out there. I like to solve problems, so I'm looking more at what we can do to take advantage of that cool processing power with phenomenal software.