Life beyond the PC

Who would have thought a little thing like the mobile phonewould threaten the entire infrastructure of personal computing? But it is doingjust that. Powerful PCs don’t have to belong to individuals anymore, they cansit inside organisations and “serve” their applications wirelessly tomobile devices. Those devices will probably not look too much like phonesanymore. They will have big screens, virtual keyboards and all kinds of sensorsto interact with their environment. Imagine for example a mobile lawn mowerconnected to a server PC in your home. You could log into the server fromanywhere using the Internet, a local server and your mobile device. And mow yourlawn.

At work, the office does not need to exist as a brick andmortar building anymore. Like company shares, companies themselves could “dematerialise”.And then….

My mobile handset was clicking away. It was audible in thequiet of the subway. I could sense the man reading the newspaper behind me frownevery time an email came in and it clicked. It was crowded, and getting more so.Maybe once we cross the Esplanade station, it would get a little less crowded.It’s hard to tell if that would happen, though, so many offices havedematerialised and shifted to the suburbs, the concept of downtown really doesn’texist anymore.

My earpiece tingled and I jumped. I was still not quite usedto it. It was a brand new piece of wireless wizardry that connected my handy tomy ears for voice calls. “Hello,” I mouthed silently.

“What’s the matter, where are you, why are youwhispering?” Debolina’s voice roared in my ear. I winced and asked her tospeak less loudly, they don’t have volume controls on these earpieces yet.

“I just got back to Calcutta and I am on the subway. I’llgo home, wash and log onto office. And I’m not whispering, I am using aThinkAloud attachment.”

“My God, those things actually work? You mean you aren’tactually speaking, just thinking?”

“Don’t be silly, nothing so esoteric. The earpiece hasa sensor that presses against the bone behind one of my ears and its sensitiveenough to pick up vibrations from my voice box, even if I speak silently, youknow, like thinking aloud….where are you?”

“In the air. Just took off from Mauritius for Mumbai. It’sa boring flight.”

“Hey! An airfone call? That’s expensive!” I said,ready to hang up.

“No, no, don’t worry,” she said, “It’s adata call, RVOIP, so it’s just like a bunch of e-mails.”

It was my turn to get astonished, “You mean you aren’tspeaking at all, just typing? How come I get your real voice and not asynthesized one?”

“It is synthesized, but it uses my own phonemes which Idownloaded into your handset, so all the reconstruction is done at your end. Itreally is cool, just plug in your handy into the data socket on the seat andtype. Cheapest way to talk. They even give you a keyboard along with earphoneson these international flights.”

I got off the metro at Behala and finally got the handy out,”Lets switch to video over IP, will they let you do that?”

“Sure,” she said and a huge red circle appeared onmy screen. “Sorry,” she said, “that was my bindi, I was trying tolocate the video sender switch and put the handy up too high, OK, here yougo.”

She must have put the handy on the tray in front of her,because I could see her on the seat typing with the keyboard on her lap. Ishowed her some of the Behala streets and the pathetic garbage disposal systems.”This is 2004, for heavens sake,” she said, “when will they everimprove.”

We lost connection for a few seconds as the data beam fromher aircraft switched from the Port Louis to the Dubai server. “Thebathroom tap is leaking, you had better change the washer,” she said. I hadreached home at last and the door sensed my handset and opened.

“Which tap?” I said, “I don’t see anythingleaking”. “The one in the guestroom,” she said, “I just sawit on high zoom and the joint is quite rusted.”

She was right. I smiled at the little wireless, mobile Webcamas she guided it right up to the tap and then bumped it playfully on my shoe.

She hadn’t been home for a month and I really wished wecould meet. We logged off and I got down to fixing the bathroom. She did say shewould try to make it to Calcutta for breakfast, if there was a flight. She hasenough mileage to go anywhere for free, I guess.

Half an hour is all I had if I didn’t want to lose a halfday of pay. I got into a clean shirt and went to the study. It took nearly tenminutes to log into office and finally the wall lit up. Almost everyone wasalready there. Except Rahulbabu.

Rahulbabu never did get the hang of remote presence. Evenafter the labour laws of 2002 that actually paid you more for logging in fromhome instead of going to office physically. So Rahulbabu still takes the bus tothe little suburban flat that is our real office. He used to be an officer, butnow he is just there to clean up the place and check the servers once in awhile. One doesn’t really need a human being to do any of those things either,but I guess the management keeps him on humanitarian grounds.

The virtual intranet was doing a great job. It had evencreated some indoor plants, so all of us looked as though we were sitting at ourdesks in our sprawling “office”, with all this greenery behind us. Ourown home studies were masked, and that was another tricky piece of software.

The afternoon meetings went off well, thanks to goodbandwidth. We even had a meeting with clients in Taiwan and the two intranetsmeshed in beautifully. It was fun trying to decide whether to hold the meetingin their conference “room” or ours. Only, none of us have conferencerooms anymore, its just imagery created by our intranets.

I worked on until well past seven, finished all my mail andfile work, even got a chance to run a surface scan on my server: it’s gettingold and I am paranoid about the possibility of its crashing. I think I’ll buyan agent to look after it. But agents can be expensive. Maybe I should takeanother virtual assignment, I thought. If I took one in the US, I could put infour hours a day at night, my time, and that would give me a lot more money.Debolina is hardly ever there anyway, so I might as well work as long as I can.One day, if we get married, I might take a physical job. Not many people getmarried anymore anyway.

She did make it for the breakfast. It was fun meeting her inperson after so long. She left an hour later and I had to rush to log on.

Today we have an inspection tour of the factory. Hope I getenough bandwidth to drive the cameras. The Auckland servers are slow and ourbiggest factory is there.

The handset clicked. Someone is pinging me. Got to go.

Sugata Mitra
heads research and development at NIIT.
He can be contacted at sugatam@niit.com

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