Ubicomp as a research topic: Time of death, 2012

In his paper “What Next, Ubicomp?” [1], Gregory Abowd makes a carefully reasoned argument for declaring the beginning of the end for the research topic of ubiquitous computing (ubicomp). A veteran of the field himself, Abowd chose 2012, 21 years after the publication of Mark Weiser’s “The Computer for the 21st Century” [2], to declare that ubicomp has become so mainstream that its identity and purpose as a specific, niche subject must be brought into question. Written in 1991, Weiser’s article had made the insightful and considerably accurate prediction of a move from a world in which computers are a common type of tool to a world built upon so many computers as to effectively render them invisible. He is widely considered to have been the father of ubiquitous computing, and his prophetic vision of the rise of ubiquitous computing happens to neatly fit within an estimate of about 20 years. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Abowd decided to take the opportunity to review Weiser’s predictions in crystal-clear 20-year-resolution hindsight. His conclusion? The third generation of computing is here and Weiser was right: computers are ubiquitous and invisible, and ubicomp is no longer a scientific pursuit but an everyday reality. Thus, the purpose of ubicomp as a research topic is fulfilled, and it has reached the end of its natural life-cycle. It is dead; it just doesn’t know it yet, like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense.

Okay, no, not really. Declaring time of death is perhaps a little premature, but I’m inclined to agree with Abowd on this. He makes the point that any research published in the ubicomp community at the time of writing could just as easily have been published in any number of other communities, and that there is unquestionably a fortune of published work that is completely relevant to ubicomp but not identified as such by its author and which goes unnoticed by the community. Spend some time perusing articles from ubicomp and from the wider computing fields and you will see what he is talking about. In a mirror image of computers becoming seamlessly interconnected in the world, the borders of ubiquitous computing as a research direction are becoming blurrier and harder to define. Like the technology it describes, it is becoming invisible.

So what, really, is the point of ubicomp as a research topic in the 3rd generation of computing? Abowd stresses that Ubicomp as a community doesn’t need to go anywhere just yet. He believes that there is still work to be done, like making the development of ubiquitous computing artefacts accessible to a wider population, as happened with the development of PC applications. However, he suggests that it is perhaps time for this forward-thinking community to move on to the 4th generation of computing. As to exactly what that is, Abowd says he’d rather not make any clear-cut predictions.

But then, unable to help himself, he does anyway. Spoiler alert: it’s cyborgs.



[1]        G. D. Abowd, “What next, ubicomp? Celebrating an intellectual disappearing act,” Proc. 2012 ACM Conf. Ubiquitous Comput. – UbiComp ’12, p. 31, 2012.

[2]        M. Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Scientific American, vol. 265, no. 3. pp. 94–104, 1991.

Author: Jack Holt

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