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Embedding the Internet

By Scott Bradner

One of the most contentious issues during the development of IP Next Generation, now known as IPv6, was what length of IP address was going to required for the Internet of the future. Much of the initial discussion dealt with establishing an understanding of just how many devices would be on that future network. The most far-out prediction was that at some point every light switch would have an IP address and be remotely controllable over the 'Net.

At the time the idea of such an invasion of the Internet into the home and office infrastructure seemed far in the future, one that should be considered, but still remote. This sort of thing is suddenly looking a lot closer. New initiatives aimed at embedding the Internet into everything from light switches and lawn sprinklers to Coke machines and auto engine analyzers have started to pop up. Two initiatives from the past few weeks are an alliance between Oracle affiliate Network Computer, Inc. and Wind River Systems, Inc. and a new 12 company consortium called Embed the Internet.

The idea behind these efforts is that ubiquitous connectivity can enable changes in the way things are done in ways that add to efficiency or convenience. For example, home appliances such as refrigerators, washers, and dryers could be connected to the 'Net so that the manufacturer could check on their condition during the warrantee period. Built in diagnostics could tell service personnel what parts are beginning to fail so they can be replaced before the appliance stops working. Internet-enabled vending machines could let the distributor know when they are about out of Coke so that delivery people could be dispatched only when they are needed while still ensuring that there is always product to sell. A controller for a lawn sprinkler could check with the National Weather Service to see if rain was forecast for the local area before deciding to watering the lawn. The last example is one that is on emWare's web page (

But these days it seems like every attractive advance in technology comes complete with potentially sinister implications. The same technology that lets the service people know that the motor in your washing machine is about to burn out could let a government energy efficiency bureau know that you are running it during the day rather than in the ecologically correct middle of the night. You could turn on an addressable air conditioner before you head home from the office while it reports to big brother that you have set it too low. Someone could hack into the nanny-cam you have set up to check on your kid's baby sitter and watch you instead. The police could wiretap your entire house while trying to find the father of your daughter's boyfriend.

The problem is, when you get down to it, control can work both ways. This is not a plea to stop progress but one to not skip over the dark side.

disclaimer: Too often Harvard's direction tends to be orthogonal to technological progress but the above is my own paranoia.