The Year Everything Connected

2008 is now history. Only one more year left in the “ohs”. All over the internet and across the airwaves, people are writing their summaries of the year just completed, presenting their Best and Worst lists, reviewing the top stories, and predicting what’s going to happen next.

I thought of doing one or more of those same things, but frankly, that’s been done to death. Instead, I thought about what, if anything, really changed in the way I live my day-to-day life in 2008. And I came up with… connections.

Since I first starting using the Internet in 1994, and even before that with CompuServe and AOL, pundits have been talking about how the future will be a wired one. But in 2008, the future became a wireless one. Many of the individual elements have been around for a while. I mean, people have been getting their business emails wirelessly with Blackberries for years now. And we’ve been using cell phones since the early nineties. But these were separate functions on separate devices, each doing their own thing. You could get your company email on a Blackberry – but not your personal email, not your Gmail or AOL or whatever.

In 2008, my cell phone became so ubiquitous that I got rid of my wired phone line entirely. I now have only a cell phone my phone number is literally and truly my phone number. On the signature for my work email system, for example, I don’t even reference my company phone number – I don’t want any calls to go to it. If I could, I’d have it automatically forward to my cell phone permanently (I should note here that my company’s phone system is perfectly capable of doing this, but because of some antiquated human resources policy, only “Executives” are allowed to access this option. I assume that this is because of some conviction that allowing us worker bee types the option of forwarding our phone calls would encourage absenteeism).

In 2008, my cell phone became much more than a phone. It’s a mini computer that I carry around, that is wirelessly connected to the internet all the time. All of my email, including both work and personal accounts, mirrors on that little device. Text messages from friends and work colleagues flicker through it all day long. Calendar alerts from my company’s Exchange system chime and popup wherever I am, letting me know where I’m supposed to be next. And unlike the old Blackberries, I can make new appointments, change existing ones, you name it. I can add contacts on the fly, swapping them between work and personal at my whim.

When I get into my car, the bluetooth setup built into my Mini Cooper automatically switches my phone’s audio to the car’s stereo system. When I leave the car, it returns to the phone. I have a tiny headset that wirelessly connects to the phone that I can use at any time as well. When I’m riding my scooter, my helmet likewise has a bluetooth headset built in – even there I’m connected.

My phone is an Apple iPhone 3G, so I also have a slew of specialized applications. Great implementations of Facebook and Twitter keep me connected to anyone that’s not already connected to me via any of the work or email systems. Safari, a perfectly optimized tiny web browser, let me access any part of the internet for information at any time (well, any part of the internet that doesn’t use Flash, at least). I’ve got applications for the New York Times, as well as newsfeeds from any other source I can think of. I quite literally carry the world around in my pocket.

My phone is also a music and video player, and a game console. I have 12 gigabytes worth of music on my phone, several TV shows and maybe a movie at any given time. Right now I have about a dozen games installed as well, ranging from simple puzzles to full-on simulators and role playing games. With a set of headphones in my pocket (which also have a microphone wired in), I can plug in and listen, watch, or play anywhere and everywhere I go. And if I’m within the coverage of a WiFi network, I can buy new music, tv shows, music, or games wherever and whenever I want to.

While I’m a big fan of my iPhone, there are many other models from other manufacturers that do almost all of the same functions. The generic term right now is “Smart Phone” – which sounds dumb to me. This new kind of phone is a true personal companion, what the PDA of the 90’s were trying to become. I may occasionally leave the house without shaving, or forget my wallet, but I never leave my phone. I would feel naked and alone without it. I won’t even walk the dog unless my phone is on my person.

In short, my personal phone companion means that no question I have, at any time of the day, needs to remain unanswered. My “phone” (we either need a new word, or will have to accept that the definition is going to radically change) is part of my life now. A few days ago in the car, Frank said “I don’t know how I every got around without an iPhone before”. On one hand, that’s just a funny comment – but on the other hand, it’s true. I rely on that little device so much for so much that I really don’t know what I’d do without it.

In 2008, even the way I read and buy books has changed. With my Amazon Kindle, I can buy books anywhere, anytime, and they are instantly delivered wirelessly to my book reader. I can also buy newspapers, magazines, and blogs directly on the reader as well. So, even sitting in a comfy chair in my library, reading a book, I’m still wirelessly connected to the outside world – the Kindle even has a text-based web browser built in.

2008 was also the Year of the Netbook, tiny, cheap laptop computers that are used primarily for emailing and surfing the web. Personally, these devices aren’t for me – I tried two of them (the Asus eee PC 701 and the Acer Aspire One), and I just didn’t find them usable. Their keyboards are too tiny to type on – and I already have a tiny keyboard on my phone.

Instead, our household has a MacBook Air. Yes, it’s expensive, but for the first time, I have a full-functioning laptop computer that is so light and solid that I can carry it around and use it anywhere in the house. And, of course, with our house-wide WiFi network, the MBA (our acronym, not Apple’s) connects to all of our house network resources, as well as the internet.

And the house itself? We’ve got three AppleTVs, all of which stream content from our centralized house media server. All of which can and do buy and/or rent content wirelessly. We no longer have to rent movies from a store, or receive them in the mail – they are delivered over the net on demand, whenever and wherever in the house we want to watch them. We also have three Tivo HD boxes, which not only record anything we want to watch, but can also stream down on-demand movies from Netflix. And each of those Tivos is again connected to our house network, so we can move content around, copy it to any computer, or burn it to a disk. Using the Tivo’s remote scheduling feature, I can tell it to record any show over the internet – from my iPhone, for example.

Let’s see, what else? Oh yes, my new Blu-Ray player also has an internet connection, and with it I can access live events related to any disk I watch – such as on-the-spot director commentaries. The player also updates its own firmware over the Internet, so it’s always up to date. My Nintendo Wii does the same thing for living room gaming, updating its own software and connecting me to any online or community games I might want to play. My Garmin Nuvi can be connected to my computer to update its maps and software. My cameras, both video and still, get their firmware updated over the internet, and can push their recordings directly to my web pages or internal house servers.

Am I typical? Of course not. I work in the computer networking field, and I’ve been directly involved with the computer software industry for 25 years now. I’m well off financially, and I have a long established interest in movies, music, and books, so I have spent a lot of time and effort in assembling all of these things. But I am also not unique. Not everyone has all these kinds of technological connections, but many, many people do, and many more will in the future.

Finally, I’ll close this post talking about a different kind of connection – social connections. Spurred on by work colleagues, I reluctantly signed up for a Facebook account this year. And much to my surprise, it not only keeps me in better contact with my current friends (well, those who use it, anyway) but has allowed me to re-establish contact with old friends I had lost touch with. And this new social connection is made possible by all the other types of connections I talk about above.

I make no predictions about 2009, or about any other year, for that matter. But I am amazed, astounded, and greatly pleased at all the new ways I can and did connect to the world during 2008, and I’m sure that those connections will become even more widespread and useful as time goes on.

In a few weeks, we’ll celebrate the inauguration of our first connected President. And since I’ve been on his mailing list for a while now, I expect I’ll get an email from him on that same day. Because, you know, you can’t help but stay connected. Not these days.

Happy New Year.

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