Feature: Telepresence: A Technology Transcending Time and Space
An Interview with William Buxton

The Disappearance of the Computer

WB: That brings us to Part Four. Everyone is saying that we are now in a period of "convergence": telephone, computers, everything is coming together into one thing. Convergence is the story--everyone is telling us--of our salvation. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Convergence is the worst concept we can possibly imagine.

Now I have to be careful about what I mean by this. If you are a plumber, convergence is a good thing. Or, let's come back to buildings. In this building there is a central network that brings water to this building, to the taps and so on; it also takes the dirty water away. Instead of the Internet, let's call that the Waternet. The Waternet is a centralized, standard, converged network of water. All the water, whether it's for washing or for swimming or for plants, comes from there. But let's take a look at how many different water appliances there are in the building, how many different kinds of sinks or toilets. You know if you're in a men's washroom or a women's washroom because they are different. You know a sink for washing dishes is different from a sink for washing hands, which is different from a sink for washing clothing. With sprinklers, you can tell if it's for a shower for you, for the grass in your garden or for a fire in a building. There are many different appliances, all of them specialized; there's divergence there. That is very interesting: it's very much in contrast to how computers today exist. If water appliances were designed the same way as our computer appliances, if we would drink, swim, pee and wash in the same sink, again, that's crazy.

The most important thing today is to make the computer disappear. Consequently, we must recognize that convergence is only for the plumber; it's only for the Waternet area. The real value only comes when you have specialized information appliances that are distributed in such a way that you know this room is for laundry and this room is for showers and this room is for dishes. Or in a business, this room's for large meetings and this room's for small meetings, this room's for engineering meetings or for financial meetings or for casual meetings or for lunchtime, and so on. All of a sudden we realize that divergence leads us to what has been called "ubiquitous computing." The problem with ubiquitous computing is the word "computer." Everyone thinks they know what a computer is. If I ask you to draw a computer, everyone will draw a computer terminal, not a computer. The computer is down in the basement. This is what I want to get rid of. I want to have as many different kinds of terminals as water appliances everywhere in the house, to develop that kind of network.

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