The Future: Smart networking, LonWorks, the IP network, and open source computing are going to drive a different world

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At Apple co-founder Mike Markulla’s Venetian Hotel-styled private theater in this posh Palo Alto suburb, the chairman of Sun Microsystems, makers of Java, and CEO of Duke Energy, makers of 36,000 megawatts of electricity in coal and nuclear plants, shared the stage.

The CEOs found common ground pushing a vision of the future where light switches are superfluous and any device that uses power is networked, easily automated, and far more energy efficient. Holding up a standard Sun identification card, Sun Chairman of the Board Scott McNealy noted that it was faster than an Apple II computer.

“We can connect anything that is more than a dollar in value,” he said.

But McNealy’s declaration that he was “over” the network was the real highlight of the hour-long event to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Markulla’s post-Apple endeavor, Echelon, which makes sensors and controls for all types of devices.

“I want my stuff to be on the network”   said McNealy.

Coming from the CEO of a company that once had the tagline, “The network is the computer,” the comment drew laughs from the small crowd. McNealy admitted that his statement probably was “not the best marketing thing.”

Crowd

Beyond his glib distaste for social networking, McNealy and Jim Rogers, Duke Energy’s CEO, presented a serious case that the future of networking lies with your toaster, lights and curtains. By turning “dumb” devices into nodes on a smart network, the businessmen said that the entire economy could be restructured to use energy more efficiently.

“I believe the most energy efficient economy is going to be the one that provides the greatest standard of living for its people,” Rogers said.

Rogers also noted that utilities would have to redefine their businesses away from commodity power and start making money by helping their customers control, not just use, their electricity.

“I see embedded in every customer six to eight networks and on each network there’s three to five applications,” he said. “What if I create value by optimizing those networks and those applications?”

That’s a major change in thinking for utilities that previously considered their job finished when the electricity hit your meter.

Though they painted grand visions of what the future could hold, both executives said there were many challenges to be met in creating the network of things.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” McNealy said. “There’s a lot of work to take the complexity out of client devices and to take the cost out of client devices.”

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Cost and complexity have slowed the adoption of home automation systems, but all three companies clearly see an opportunity to capitalize on the high cost of energy and increasing concern over carbon emissions.

McNealy even dropped Echelon’s protocol LonWorks into his solution for the future.

LonWorks, the IP network, and open source computing are going to drive a different world where per capita energy usage can plummet as green becomes the new black”, he said “And I mean black in terms of making money.”

Rogers’ vision was equally amibitious and showed that the North Carolina-based CEO knew his big-thinking Silicon Valley audience.

“At the end of the day, what I’m gonna provide is universal access to energy efficiency the way we provided universal access to electricity in the last century.”

Images: Jim Merithew. Top: Scott McNealy speaks to the crowd. Middle: The crowd is bathed in green LED light during a demo of the room’s fancy lighting system. Bottom: Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers lays out his plan for the future of a smarter electrical grid.

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