Ubiquitous Computing and the Internet of Things

Internet of Things applications purport to deliver great value and comfort in the hands of consumers through Internet-connected smart devices. But let us take a look back to the underlying vision and see what remains unrealized.

Ubiquitous Computing (ubicomp)

Ubiquitous computing refers to the phenomena of computers quietly permeating our lives in abundance and in many forms. The concept of smart homes is a potential manifestation of ubiquitous computing in that the home environment can be filled with many computing devices in all shapes and sizes performing various tasks for the benefit of the people living in it. Smart buildings and smart cities could further extend this notion.

Wearable technology is a tactile example of the ubicomp vision coming to life. Smart watches, bracelets, ties, and glasses have all been developed and applied, some with wide commercial success. Main applications are health, sports, and entertainment.

The concept was coined by Mark Weiser around 1988. Weiser and his colleagues from Xerox PARC imagined a world in which computers are unobtrusive quiet servants seamlessly aiding us with everything to improve our quality of life. They advocated for calm technology, which unfortunately stands in stark contrast to some of this day and age’s anxiety inducing mobile and social technology.


“calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back”

Weiser and Brown in “Designing Calm Technology


Furthermore, designs which enable “locatedness” allow a person to use a technology while staying attuned to peripheral queues. Contrast that with the way mobile phone apps push notifications are designed to do the exact opposite.

Ambient Intelligence (AmI)

A term coined in the 1990s by Eli Zelkha and Simon Birrell, AmI puts more emphasis on technology’s ability to react to our presence and on the user experience and interaction in system design. The simplest example would be an automatic door. A defining characteristic of AmI is described as

“The fact that AmI systems must be sensitive, responsive, and adaptive highlights the dependence that AmI research has on context-aware computing”

(Cook et al., 2009)

Cook, Diane & Augusto Wrede, Juan & Jakkula, Vikramaditya. (2009). Review: Ambient intelligence: Technologies, applications, and opportunities. Pervasive and Mobile Computing. 5(4). 277-298


The Disappearing Computer (DS)

Computers increasingly become invisible to people as they cease to be separate physical entities with which we directly interact. Computers become unnoticeable, receding to the background, allowing us to consume information and socially interact in natural ways. Or as Weiser famously put it:

(described for example in N. Streitz and P. Nixon. Special issue on ’the disappearing computer’. In Communications of the ACM, V 48, N 3, pages 32–35. ACM Press, March 2005)

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

(Weiser, 1991)

M. Weiser. The computer for the twenty-first century. Scientific American, 165:94–104,1991, available here

Pervasive Computing

Pervasive computing can be seen as a business incarnation of ubicomp through supportive technologies such as Smart Devices, sensor technology, Wireless, Mobile, Human Computer Interaction, and context-aware systems.

An extensive technological survey is offered in “Ubiquitous Computing: Smart Devices, Environments and Interactions” by Stefan Poslad (2009 John Wiley & Sons).

But whether Pervasive computing business initiatives do in fact fulfil the ubicomp calm technology vision is a different matter.

All four paradigms were researched until the first decade of the 21st century. In the second decade of the 21st century there is some decline in focus in favor of the Internet of Things.

Internet of Things (IoT)

The term “Internet of Things”, as commonly told, was coined by Kevin Ashton around 1999 while working at Procter & Gamble after having the idea to attach RFID tags to inventory items (such as lipstick) for stock management.

As can be seen by the fact that IoT’s first application was to innovate in supply-chain management, IoT should be considered to primarily evolve from pervasive computing. It is a technological solution to a set of business problems. And while Ubicomp, AmI and DS all share a human-centric vision at their core, IoT technology is often adopted for internal business reasons, for the sake of digital transformation, not necessarily with added customer value.

IoT and pervasive computing both share the focus on Internet connected devices, whereas ubicomp, AmI and DS do not necessitate it by their definition.

IoT is a 3-tier architecture of edge devices (1st tier), Internet connected via an optional gateway (2nd tier) and cloud-based services (3rd tier). Commercial IoT architectures are abundant (random examples: Microsoft, WSO2). And if one makes the comparison to IBM’s 2003 pervasive computing technology stack, the architecture is essentially the same, of course implemented end-to-end with IBM’s suite of products.

Everyone is excited about IoT these days and its implications for business. Businesses are forewarned not to pass on this opportunity for digital transformation. Gartner says IoT is over the hype and there are real benefits for businesses, but since there are also risks adoption should be highly focused on business value. One cannot argue with the significance of this global trend.

To what extent IoT technologies can realize the vision of ubicomp, AmI, and DS?

I think the answer is that they are only an implementation medium.

First, as described in HBR’s Analytics 3.0, historically there was a shift from data for business intelligence towards customer value in the form of information derived from big data. But the future is in insight derived from information. In this sense, IoT platforms are only a medium.

Second, IoT platforms are not necessarily innovating in user experience. In most cases, the user facing application is developed in very standard ways, as a mobile app or a website.

Proponents of ubicomp emphasize interoperability. Interoperability is what enables cooperating computers to provide seamless experience. Again, IoT systems are not necessarily developed with this vision in mind. In fact, the opposite is true as there is a bewildering proliferation of edge technologies and proximity networks hindering interoperability.

I highly recommend Bill Buxton’s lecture titled “Designing for Ubiquitous Computing” in which he discusses these issues.

Bill Buxton (2003) – Designing for Ubiquitous Computing

Buxton asks us to consider how the smart phone existed well before Apple’s iPhone. Still, the iPhone brought flow and user interface that were never seen before. The move from function to flow is very important but it is no longer enough for a new product to be excellent. The next challenge is much more important – achieving flow at the “society of devices” level.

To illustrate, Buxton describes the use-case of conducting a mobile phone call while going in and out of the car where the phone and car exchange roles, user interfaces switch, and it all happens seamlessly without requiring too much of our attention. This level of interoperability is what we should be seeking a lot more of to realize the ubiquitous computing vision.

Interoperability, user experience and context awareness are unrealized challenges for many of the Internet of Things implementations today.

Want to read more? see Mossberg: The Disappearing Computer on The Verge.

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