I bought a new printer last week. This one, should you care - an HP Laserjet Pro CP1525N. I don't know how many printers I've owned over the years, but this is the first I've had that plugs directly into the network and doesn't have to be made accessible to other devices via some horrible kludge whereby the machine that it's plugged into allows other stuff to access it, as long as it's in the mood and is actually switched on. Which excites me, but only because I get excited by stuff like that. More to the point, I can open a web browser on some device somewhere, type the printers (static) IP address into the bar and find out what it's doing, whether it's going to need more toner any time soon and configure all sorts of stuff that, traditionally, would have been extremely difficult.
Things are rather different nowadays. If a device is designed to connect to a network, the manufacturer, as a matter of essential courtesy (and to minimise the geek bill), will have built a tiny web server into it. In much the same way as typing www.timfg.com into your web browser sends an instruction to a server in the US to despatch back the home page of this site, typing 192.168.1.13 will instruct my printer to send back the home page of its configuration interface. Or, at least, it will if my laptop is on my home network. I could configure access to everything on my network from the internet if I really felt that I needed to check my printer's toner cartridges from a beach somewhere, but I don't. Really, I don't. I won't entertain any 'Bet you do sometimes' piss-taking either.
Connecting up the printer and tweaking the DHCP settings in the router to allocate it an address that won't ever change - the aforementioned 'static' IP - I started thinking about the extent to which this principle is going to extend to devices that aren't just 'computer stuff'...
There are four network devices already serving up their existence on the network:
Domestic houses are full of devices that need power. If they need power, they probably need some input to make them do whatever they're designed to do, even at the most simple level - a lamp may be on or off, for example. If they need some input to work, there's probably value in being able to do it remotely - and, beyond that, for the device to be able to communicate with you about its state, because something's gone wrong with it or it's just feeling generally unloved. Extend that principle a level further and you begin to see that, actually, it might make a lot more sense for it to tell the manufacturer that it needs attention and book an appointment for the local agent to come out with a spare part, offering you a range of appointments to choose from. All this is not just possible, but easily implemented today - once devices equipped like this become readily available and manufacturers begin to implement the back-office capability to make it happen. In many cases, they already are - most TV's nowadays expect to to be plugged into the internet to offer their full range of capability. But this goes way beyond multimedia delivery - the house of the very near future (and I mean a few years at most) will routinely be equipped with IP-connected:
- Central Heating Controllers - so you can adjust the temperature around the house before you leave work, monitor the running cost and never have to faff around with crappy 'heat-twice, water-once' rubbish. You don't have to think too hard to recognise that, in an IP enabled household, the central heating can work out what it needs to do from your typical, analysed history of manual intervention and when it thinks you need warmth - based on your calendar, the state of the security system, when your car has told it you're going to be home...
- Cookers - so you can turn the oven on before you get in
- Fridges - which will understand their contents, warn about sell-by dates and, probably, suggest recipes - perhaps advising what you might need to pick up before your next Ocado delivery which, clearly, it will know about.
- Washing machines, dishwashers and tumble-dryers - because being able to switch them on to make the best use of cheap power and minimal disruption is sensible. There have already been some major trials in the US of equipment that is triggered to start when the National Grid advises that it can take the load - and will offer it's power economically as a result. So you set your tumble-dryer to dry at some point in the next two hours, but only when it will cost less than 20p. How clever is that? Not at all really - it's no more than a starting point in what will become routinely accepted in the next decade.
- Security Systems - burglar alarms, cameras, automated locks. So obvious, it's hardly worth speculating about.
- Multimedia delivery - near enough here already: Centralised storage and collation of content, for delivery to multiple endpoints around the home. I wish Sky would hurry up and determine what this is going to look like in their world, having just paid for multiroom to stop the girls invading my space. If they don't soon, I will just build it myself and tell Murdoch to go swivel.
- Lighting - much like heating, but simpler. But a good measure of where you might need heat too...
- Cars - which may connect to your home network, so you can turn them (and the de-icing / heating) on before you get into them, but also via wider network services; Break down, they'll call the AA and tell them what they need to bring to fix the problem.
- Microwaves, toasters, food mixers, bread-makers and just about anything else that plugs in: They all need to let you (and their manufacturer) know if they need attending to.
And I won't go on - you can speculate further into the future, ad-infinitum for your own pleasure. If you've never given it a moment's thought, then you probably should start - the world of the very near future is going to be radically different, all because you have a magic box in the house that delivers wireless internet. An obvious ramification is terminal laziness and obesity - so expect your IP-enabled gym-equipment to get increasingly naggy too.
'The Digital Dashboard is actually working fine darling, I've just told it to disable the TVs and the fridge door until the bathroom-scales let it know that you've shed the love-handles...'