The Future of ISIS (and computing)?

steve jobs has repeatedly made the argument that apple is not interested in making a PDA. he bases this on the assumption that the mobile phone, not the mobile computer, is what portable devices are converging upon. with the combination of the iPod as a music tool, your cell phone as a communication tool, and your Mac as the “digital hub” tying them all together, jobs seems to prefer the “different tools for different jobs” analogy.

but what if . . . the answer was that people don’t want to carry a communicator as much as they want to carry a “concierge”? a group of friends and i are always on the lookout for features of the “killer app” for ubiquitous computing. it’s become quite obvious that, despite microsoft’s vision of mobile computing, the answer is not to take a desktop operating system everywhere. yet palm/pocketpc applications don’t seem to scale enough to make themselves equal to a real assistant. what might then be the answer?

here are some current specs of what i believe a true ubiquitous “killer app” would look like:

1) functions as a concierge: this means it knows who you are, by reading the user-defined profile (or multiple situation-specific profiles), and also by considering what you have done and liked or disliked in the past, and what your friends liked or disliked. it will do the communication for you to get done what you need–but more than that, it will tell you what you want to get done. it is a decision aid, not a slave.

2) uses distributed computing principles: by leveraging the processing power of computers around it that are currently idle, a device can drastically reduce its own needs for power. instead, it sends instructions on what to process wirelessly to other local devices, and receives back the information ready to display. its job is then to simply display the information. this is analogous to the way a real concierge will make a phone call to someone else who knows all the information, and simply tell you the answer of the transaction.

3) gives you real-time information and instructions: much like a real-life secretary, it determines when you need to know what information, and gives it to you without you specifically asking for it. imagine if you had to constantly ask your secretary “is someone calling me right now? no? how about now?” this is what we currently do by needing email programs to be open to receive mail, and needing to tell it how often to ask for new mail. use current and advancing junk mail algorithms to determine when to show what information to the user, and remove the ridiculous steps the user must do to get access to information.

some of these currently exist in one form or another, but not the most important one–telling a user what to do. the closest we’ve come is allowing the user to put all their own information in one place so they can make a decision on what to do. this is seen in the myriad of calendaring programs currently on the market. some, like apple’s iCal, even allow you to subscribe to other calendars–the interactivity with other people that is necessary for the system above to function. but no one has taken the step to actually tell you what you should do. this is found in ecommerce, such as, but not in calendaring. the ISIS project at Stanford is a program with promise to do such things for events and scheduling, and if it is possible to incorporate that on a larger scale, it may be the enabler for the above technology to become reality, and to change reality.