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Software vendors are just starting to dream up the applications that will leverage third- and fourth-generation wireless technology.
Managing all the information that will flow to individuals via wireless applications also will be a challenge. "So far, a lot of the experiments in mobile technologies have been in a lab or a small home," says Teresa Lunt, manager of the computer-science lab at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.

One day, wireless applications may collect and disseminate data from millions, perhaps billions, of wirelessly connected sensors (see "Sensors Everywhere," Jan. 24, p. 32). For example, telemetry from devices worn by hospital patients could be sent directly to a physician's mobile device, says David St. Clair, founder and CEO of MEDecision Inc., a developer of health-care-management applications.

Grocery-store chain Supervalu Inc. has deployed a wireless-mesh network developed by Dust Networks Inc. and Honeywell International Inc. to help it measure how efficiently the refrigeration system at one of its stores in Fridley, Minn., is running. Supervalu can use data collected by the wireless network to spot equipment that is about to fail and discover ways to cut energy costs.

The sensors, which Honeywell analysts monitor remotely, give Supervalu managers information about the efficiency of their refrigeration system that they couldn't obtain before. "It's easy to see a building that has a higher energy cost, but it's tough to find the specific problems," says Dan Bertocchini, corporate director of energy management for Supervalu. The grocer's energy-monitoring sensors consist of 20 test points that monitor refrigeration racks for inefficiencies. Bertocchini says they may consider monitoring heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and lighting equipment much the same way one day.

In "smart cities" with ubiquitous wireless networks, the new age of sensor-savvy wireless applications offers opportunities for information workers. Systems will understand what information users need for tasks at hand and provide only what's appropriate, Lunt says. And the wireless information may not always be beamed to users as images or text. "We'll get creative in how information presents itself," she says. "It can come to you in the form of certain touch senses, vibration, sound, or other cues." An executive on vacation might program a future wireless application to notify her through a page, E-mail, or vibrating PDA if something urgent needs attention. If you're working on a research paper, the network will sense this and gather facts, quotes, and statistics, and it will even anticipate gaps in your argument and send you this information wherever you happen to be working.

"Data has to be able to find you," Lunt says. "We can't possibility continue to look things up."

Return to The Future Of Software homepageThe downside is that it's going to be even harder than ever to make the excuse "I'll get that when I get back to my office" as a reason for not completing a task, says Peter Semmelhack, founder and CTO of Antenna Software.

"Everyone is going to expect that wherever they are they will have access to information," he says. "It won't be like today when you have to go to a desktop or a kiosk--all the Wi-Fi, WiMax, 3G, whatever--will blend into the background. Workers will have the ability to wake up and to be productive wherever they are. The demarcation line between mobile and wired applications is going to disappear. It's all going to be one big thing."

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

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