Mobile and ubiquitous computing
Technological advances in device miniaturization and wireless networking have led increasingly to the integration of small and portable computing devices into distributed systems.
These devices include:
- Laptop computers.
- Handheld devices, including mobile phones, smart phones, GPS-enabled devices, pagers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), video cameras and digital cameras.
- Wearable devices, such as smart watches with functionality similar to a PDA.
- Devices embedded in appliances such as washing machines, hi-fi systems, cars and refrigerators.
The portability of many of these devices, together with their ability to connect conveniently to networks in different places, makes mobile computing possible. Mobile computing is the performance of computing tasks while the user is on the move, or visiting places other than their usual environment. In mobile computing, users who are away from their ‘home’ intranet (the intranet at work, or their residence) are still provided with access to resources via the devices they carry with them. They can continue to access the Internet; they can continue to access resources in their home intranet; and there is increasing provision for users to utilize resources such as printers or even sales points that are conveniently nearby as they move around. The latter is also known as location-aware or context-aware computing.
Mobility introduces a number of challenges for distributed systems, including the need to deal with variable connectivity and indeed disconnection, and the need to maintain operation in the face of device mobility.
Ubiquitous computing is the harnessing of many small, cheap computational devices that are present in users’ physical environments, including the home, office and even natural settings. The term ‘ubiquitous’ is intended to suggest that small computing devices will eventually become so pervasive in everyday objects that they are scarcely noticed. That is, their computational behaviour will be transparently and intimately tied up with their physical function.
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The presence of computers everywhere only becomes useful when they can communicate with one another. For example, it may be convenient for users to control their washing machine or their entertainment system from their phone or a ‘universal remote control’ device in the home. Equally, the washing machine could notify the user via a smart badge or phone when the washing is done. Ubiquitous and mobile computing overlap, since the mobile user can in principle benefit from computers that are everywhere. But they are distinct, in general. Ubiquitous computing could benefit users while they remain in a single environment such as the home or a hospital. Similarly, mobile computing has advantages even if it involves only conventional, discrete computers and devices such as laptops and printers. Figure 1.4 shows a user who is visiting a host organization. The figure shows the user’s home intranet and the host intranet at the site that the user is visiting. Both intranets are connected to the rest of the Internet.
The user has access to three forms of wireless connection. Their laptop has a means of connecting to the host’s wireless LAN. This network provides coverage of a few hundred metres (a floor of a building, say). It connects to the rest of the host intranet via a gateway or access point. The user also has a mobile (cellular) telephone, which is connected to the Internet. The phone gives access to the Web and other Internet services, constrained only by what can be presented on its small display, and may also provide location information via built-in GPS functionality. Finally, the user carries a digital camera, which can communicate over a personal area wireless network (with range up to about 10m) with a device such as a printer.
With a suitable system infrastructure, the user can perform some simple tasks in the host site using the devices they carry. While journeying to the host site, the user can fetch the latest stock prices from a web server using the mobile phone and can also use the built-in GPS and route finding software to get directions to the site location. During the meeting with their hosts, the user can show them a recent photograph by sending it from the digital camera directly to a suitably enabled (local) printer or projector in the meeting room (discovered using a location service). This requires only the wireless link between the camera and printer or projector. And they can in principle send a document from their laptop to the same printer, utilizing the wireless LAN and wired Ethernet links to the printer.
This scenario demonstrates the need to support spontaneous interoperation, whereby associations between devices are routinely created and destroyed – for example by locating and using the host’s devices, such as printers. The main challenge applying to such situations is to make interoperation fast and convenient (that is, spontaneous) even though the user is in an environment they may never have visited before. That means enabling the visitor’s device to communicate on the host network, and associating the device with suitable local services – a process called service discovery.