Internet of Things vs. Ubiquitous Computing vs. Pervasive Computing

What are the differences between ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, and the Internet of Things? These terms are full of subtleties, but my simplified is simply that the Internet of Things is ubiquitous or pervasive computing in a more limited scope.

Ubiquitous and pervasive computing, which you can think of as pretty much the same thing, is the idea that computers will eventually be so small and cheap that no matter where you are computers will surround you. To get a better idea of what that world might look like, check out MIT’s Project Oxygen.

“In the future, computation will be human-centered. It will be freely available everywhere, like batteries and power sockets, or oxygen in the air we breathe.”
― MIT Project Oxygen

I’d take a small bet that you think this concept is a little absurd. Computers everywhere, like the oxygen in the air we breathe? The imagery conjured up, in my mind at least, includes silicon with heavy metals floating into our lungs. Not good.

But then again, we are not beholden to our past. I’m sure that in the 1964 when Doug Englebart famously created the prototype for the first computer mouse, even he might not have known that the world would adopt his device as one of the primary ways of interacting with computers within just a few decade’s time. In that same year, what is considered the first supercomputer appeared on the scene. The CDC 6600 had a whopping 10 MHz of CPU clock speed. To put that in perspective, it would have to be about 200 times faster to reach the speed of an average modern laptop.

The point is that the world changes. What seems insane today might be reality tomorrow. As long as human ingenuity exists, computers are still likely to get faster, smaller, and cheaper as time goes by. The death of Moore’s Law is inevitable, but with technologies like quantum computing, carbon nano-tubes, and even optical computing on the horizon, there is hope yet to keeping Moore’s Law alive in spirit by doubling the speed of computers every few years. Eventually, we may find wetware computers, or computers built from living neurons, are easy to grow and are built with environmentally-friendly and easy-to-access building blocks. The concept may be weird to us now, but in 1964 we were just getting to the end of the vacuum tube era of computing. Again, the world changes.

So why draw a distinction between IoT and Ubiquitous Computing? Aren’t they the same thing? I believe that the Internet of Things is already here, just in limited scope. We have lights that talk to thermostats that talk to the internet. The popularity of IFTTT is a decent litmus test that indicates we have enough things talking to each other than we can declare that the Internet of Things have arrived, even if the scope is not yet fully realized.

Ubiquitous computing, in contrast, means that computers are everywhere. In our walls, floors, and ceilings, in our desks and windows, in fact, they may cease to become a separate entity to be talked of at all. That’s not an internet-connected wrench, that’s just a wrench. Of course it has a computer in it, of course it talks to the internet, of course it interacts with other objects. Why wouldn’t it? Everything does. That’s just the basic nature of it, as common as paint or pigment.

That is the difference. In one reality, one that already exists, we marvel at the novelty and usefulness of our objects talking to each other. In another, more far-off reality, we take it for granted. Perhaps a small difference in writing but a huge difference in the affect on our lives. The Internet of Things is but a temporary stop on the way to ubiquitous computing.

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