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Motors, embedded computers, and Voice 2.0

Today is a big deal in the little village of Manotick, where my family and I live.  It's Dickinson Day, which commemorates Moss Dickinson, who was the bigwig around these parts when Manotick was in its prime as a milling community.  There's a fair, spilling onto two or three streets.  Lots of local businesses, arts groups, bands, service organizations and historical societies get involved.

Picking up one of my sons from his Scouting duties at the fair today, I walked past an exhibit of a 1915 8 HP "hit and miss" gas engine, manufactured by the Field-Brundage Company of Jackson Michigan.  It was hooked up to an oat grinder, which the owner had used to grind oats for his cattle.  In the photo (snapped with my BlackBerry Pearl), you can see the motor on the right, and the oat grinder on the left.

the field

At the turn of the 1920th century, motors like this were often purchased and hooked up to a variety of different equipment using a belt and pulley system.  That's how this motor is attached to the oat grinder, in fact.  You can see the belt attached to a large pulley mounted in front of a flywheel to the rear.  The small wheel in front of the pulley is the clutch — pull it out, and the pulley will start to rotate, which in turn drives the belt and the oat grinder. The motor is a "platform" and the "API" for attaching machinery to the motor is the pulley and belt system.

Why?  Well, at the time the motor was the most expensive and most valuable piece of this system.  You could buy any number of pieces of machinery to attach to this motor, but you likely would only own one or two motors to power all that machinery. 

At about the time that this motor was purchased, electricity standards were also being set.  The long running war between Tesla and Edison over AC vs DC current was coming to a conclusion, with AC winning the day.  By the early 1920's electrical motors were small enough and inexpensive enough that you could start to embed them directly into the machines that you wished to have them power.  The motor had ceased to be the most valuable piece of the system, and had become a commodity.

Today, we don't think about the motors anymore.  Motors are part of everything from washing machines to automobiles to blenders, back massagers, door openers, can openers and more. In fact, in the burgeoning field of nano-technology, the micro-miniaturization of motors has continued to make progress, as you can see from this electron micrograph of a microns wide ratchet (courtesy of www.memx.com)

MEMS

The adoption and evolution of motors is a metaphor for the adoption of all kinds of technologies we're familiar with and use today.  Computing has followed a nearly identical trajectory, beginning with large mainframe systems in the 1950s, followed by mini-computers in the 1960's.  Both of these were utility models of computing where one expensive resource was shared among many users.  The invention of the microprocessor in the late 1960's allowed the first personal computers to be created and in the so-called post-PC era, dedicated microprocessors are embedded into everything from engines to phones to televisions, washing machines, cameras, lighting systems and more.  Just as motors today come in all shapes, sizes and powers, so do microprocessors.

We've moved from a world where motors were a market, to one where the application for the motor (the machine) is the market.  Similarly, in computing we've moved from a world where computers are the market, to one where the applications (whether they be word processors or cellular phones or televisions) are the market. Being a PC manufacturer, or a motor manufacturer today is a low margin commodity business.  Just ask IBM, who sold their highly visible ThinkPad laptop business to China's Lenovo.

Both computers and motors have had a profound impact on our society.  In just two centuries we've lived through an industrial revolution, in which motors freed us from many kinds of physical labor, and a computing revolution, in which microprocessors freed us from many kinds of tedious "thinking" chores. 

The next revolution which is upon us is a communications revolution.

The telephone system is the largest and most complex engineering project ever conceived of by mankind.  For 150 years it has existed simply to allow people to talk — to anyone at any time and in any place.  Over the last 25 years, however, it has also become the backbone of the global data network, and is on its way to becoming the primary means by which not just audio and data are transmitted, but also video.

Audio, video, and data, however are not the "applications" of the future.  They are simply APIs and data which the platform (the network) exposes to the outside world.  In a Voice 2.0 world, networks and the data they carry are enablers for the true applications.  Those applications are television, talk, video games, the web, corporate line of business applications and more. 

A few forward thinking companies are starting to explore this.  For instance, Jajah has published an API allowing applications to set up and tear down many kinds of calls. With the Jajah API you can embed call control into any application, as we have done with iotum Talk-now.  Orange and BT have also published APIs, which they showed at Etel in February. And, of course, at the edges of the network, where the worlds of the microprocessor and communications collide, Microsoft, Symbian, and RIM have telephony specific APIs, anticipating a world where we will carry multi-function portable devices in place of today's voice communications devices known as telephones. 

There is, perhaps, a more interesting thought experiment ahead of us, however.   What will the world be like when everything is connected to everything — when the commodity called communication is not the application, but rather a part of most things we do? 

And now it's off to the theatre, followed by the hockey game.

Go Sens Go!

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