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Hybrid Computing

Ever since my report on Transmeta’s announcement, there’s been something that’s been bugging me: why do we need a 700Mhz chip in a world where the network is more important than the machine? And is that line of thought correct? Is the network, as Sun Microsystems used to claim, the computer? Or is the computer the center of the new networked world, as Bill Gates claims? I believe the answer actually lies in the middle, in a new class of devices I would group under the heading of hybrid computing.

Why network computers fail

The Denial Of Service attacks that crippled several websites this week show that our increased dependency on the network is not without its faults. I was talking to a friend of mine who was complaining about not being able to read her email (she’s got a Yahoo! account). Meanwhile, other users were deprived of use of their calendars or address books because they could not access the service. Did this information need to always be online? Not really. While the online element allows portability (being able to get to those applications from anywhere in the world… anywhere, that is, where you can get access to a net connection and a browser) but throws in an extra wrinkle: you have to have access to a network. Any problem with the network and the application fails. Ultimately, network computing fails because it tries to offload too much to the server.

Why non-connected devices fails

Meanwhile, non-connected devices have taught us that they can do certain things really well but could do them better if they were connected. Not every application needs to be connected (most of the time, I don’t need my word processor to be connected) but most seem to be dramatically enhanced by being connected. Games? Most of them are interesting but ultimately, computer games were a fallacy in that they didn’t allow for multiple players. The net connection allows for that. Business applications? New levels of sharing are now possible with business application, allowing teams to be more efficient and to work across long distances.

A new paradigm: Hybrid Computing

However, those applications can stand on their own. What we are witnessing is the rise of a new kind of applications and a new kind of computing: Hybrid Computing.

What is Hybrid Computing?

In order for an application to fall into the hybrid computing category, it has to be able to follow two conditions:

  • The device or software program should be able to work on its own, without being connected to the net at all time.
  • The device or software package is enhanced through its connection to the net.

Examples of Hybrid devices and software packages

While we all already have heard about the Palm VII wired palmtop, a device that offers the functionality of regular palmtops with a little extra when it comes to connectivity, there are many other pieces of software that have not received the same kind of publicity. For example, imagine being able to get information about the CDs you’re listening to while you’re listening to them. Yes, you can do so on your computer but now, you can also do so with the TuneBase family of CDDB-compliant devices, that hook up to your TV and CD player. While still a little kludgey (one should have all that directly embedded into a single CD player unit, it shows the power of hooking up a CD player to the web. The player can get enhanced information from the web but doesn’t have to in order to work: that makes it a hybrid application.

Lately, I’ve also been playing with a new application from Contact Networks. It’s a simple piece of software that hooks up to your outlook directory and allows you to exchange electronic business cards over the web. If, for example, I update my information in that contact manager, the change is sent to the web. If you have the same application, the next time you synchronize your address book, my contact information will be made current in your contact manager. It’s a great concept if people start using the application. After all, who really has the time to keep track of ALL the contact info lines for everyone they’ve encountered. Once again, this is an application that takes a non-networked concept (address book) and creates an hybrid application around it.

Those hybrid applications harness the power of a local machine and use the net to enhance that power. Either way, they can work on their own or connected. And for years to come, until we make the net truly ubiquitous (have you ever tried using a net connection in the New York Subway, let alone make a cellular phone call?), we will have to live in a world where large areas are off the grid.

Over the next few years, as computing devices become more pervasive, we should start seeing more of those hybrid devices because after all, the Internet is nothing more than another evolutionary step in the computing and communication world.

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