Universal Plug and Play to Make Network Configuration Easy and Convenient for the Average Consumer
REDMOND, Wash., March 1, 1999 -- It's the end of the workday, and before leaving the office, you download your grocery list from your home network onto your Palm-size PC. Once at the store, you decide it's time to break away from the same old dinner options, so you consult a kiosk for a meal that's quick and tasty. The recipe for chicken almondine sounds good, so you download it from the store kiosk onto your Palm-size PC.
You can't remember if you have chicken at home, so once again you consult your Palm-size PC, which accesses the refrigerator attached to your home network. You find that you're out of chicken, so you go ahead and buy some. Upon arriving home, you use the tablet on your refrigerator door to call up the recipe you downloaded onto your Palm-size PC and proceed to cook your dinner.
Once imaginable only in the realm of science fiction, scenarios like this will soon be possible, thanks to a technology called Universal Plug and Play. A cross-industry initiative, Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) aims to make it easy for people to "network" digital devices such as intelligent appliances, PCs, television sets, DVD players, and security systems. As in science fiction where the machines do the work, Universal Plug and Play will provide people with access to information when they need it, simplifying their ability to complete certain daily tasks.
"We want to make it as easy to plug an intelligent appliance into a data network as it is to plug an electrical appliance into a power outlet," said Alec Saunders, Microsoft's group planning manager for home networking. "You don't have to take your lamp and tell it that it's a 50 megahertz or a 60 megahertz device. You just plug it in and it works."
Today, people have to be computer savvy to configure a network. They have to understand TCP/IP addresses, gateways, naming conventions and other technical information that makes setting up a network complex. The goal of Universal Plug and Play is to make configuring a network easy and convenient for the average consumer.
Microsoft first publicly discussed Universal Plug and Play last April at the 1998 Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), and formally announced the technology in January at the Computer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The company plans to deliver the specifications for the technology soon, and will provide programming code later this year to vendors who want to incorporate Universal Plug and Play into their devices.
Universal Plug and Play is one of the foundations for Microsoft's vision of a home network, in which people will connect a wide variety of devices within the home to accomplish tasks far more conveniently than is currently possible. The technology builds upon Plug and Play, a specification available in Windows 95 and Windows 98. Plug and Play enables users to plug peripheral devices such as printers, scanners and storage devices into their PCs without configuring their systems to recognize them.
Universal Plug and Play takes this concept a giant step forward by enabling people to connect a wider variety of devices-even wireless devices such as Palm-size PCs and digital telephones-with or without the presence of a PC. The devices don't have to run Windows in order to be hooked into the network. They simply use Internet protocols to announce their presence to other devices already on the network and are ready to share their services with whatever device requests them.
"In the world of Universal Plug and Play, the devices can be networked instead of being directly attached to the PC," Saunders explained. "And instead of there being a central control model where one device controls everything else on the network, they're all autonomous citizens. They're all equal citizens on the network, and they can all talk with each other and exchange information."
As processing power becomes more ubiquitous, more home appliances are becoming computerized. At the same time, data pipelines coming into the home are becoming more powerful, enabling different devices to share a single data network line, in the same way that many household phones today share a common phone line. These two trends make the home ripe for the advances that Universal Plug and Play offers.
Connecting devices into a network will lead to a wide range of new capabilities for the consumer. For example, consumers will be able to connect their WebTV set-top box to a scanner and e-mail photographs to their parents from their television set. They will be able to turn off their stove from their car by using their digital phone to access the home network. And they will be able to let the cable company operator into their home from the office by placing a call from their office PC to a video camera connected to their home network.
"You could either spend all day waiting for the cable guy or, if you have a couple of these cameras at various places around the house and at the front door, he could show you his badge and say, 'Hi, I'm the cable man,' and you could let him in from a remote location," Saunders said.
Universal Plug and Play also has far-reaching implications for the business world. For example, employees will be able to hook mobile devices such as handheld computers and Palm-size PCs into a corporate network and immediately gain access to network printers and other peripherals. In addition, workers will be able to plug their desktop PC into the corporate network without the help of someone from the company's Management Information System (MIS).
"Potentially, Universal Plug and Play will save enterprises a lot of money because they'll be able to do more remote diagnosis, users will be able to do more self-configuration of their PCs, and MIS staff will be reserved for problems that really require an MIS person," Saunders said.
Unlike the Jini model promoted by Sun Microsystems, Universal Plug and Play is based upon standard Internet protocols. This architecture allows Universal Plug and Play to work with a broad range of devices from large PCs to small consumer electronics devices. It also eliminates the need for complex testing to ensure devices can work together, Saunders said.
When a user plugs a device into the network, the device automatically configures itself and acquires a TCP/IP address. It also uses a simple discovery protocol based on the Internet HTTP protocol, to announce its presence to the other devices on the network. When one device needs the services of another device-say you want to scan a picture onto your WebTV system-the WebTV Network system sends a "discover" message asking if there are any scanners on the network. The scanner identifies itself and describes its location and capabilities using a standard Internet URL and Extensible Markup Language (XML). This "protocol negotiation" determines the common language they speak. Once a common language is determined, the WebTV Network system can control the scanner and scan the photograph onto your television set.
In contrast, Jini requires devices to communicate by actually sending a piece of Java code, which acts as a translator between the two devices. This model is similar to the device driver model commonly used today, in which computers use a piece of computer code called a "device driver" to communicate with peripherals such as printers and scanners, Saunders said.
"The problem with that approach is that it breeds huge amounts of complexity," Saunders said. "One of the reasons it takes so long to release new operating systems is the quality assurance process that goes with having to test tens of thousands of devices and device drivers against hundreds, if not thousands, of possible PC combinations. As we've seen with the Internet, standardizing on protocols and data formats makes the process much easier."
In addition to simplifying the testing procedure, Universal Plug and Play is language neutral, allowing developers to work with the most appropriate programming language for their task rather than requiring them to use Java. Universal Plug and Play also means less work for developers because they don't have to develop a driver-like piece of computer code to incorporate into their devices. Universal Plug and Play devices use the standard protocols and data formats with which developers are already familiar.
Already, more than 28 companies have announced support for Universal Plug and Play. These companies range from computer manufacturers, such as Compaq and Dell Computer Corp., to consumer electronics businesses, such as Samsung Electronics Corp., Toshiba Corp. and SHARP Corp. Several other companies are expected to announce their support in the future.
Supporters say they like the standards-based approach Universal Plug and Play offers. "Cisco believes that standards-based, open architectures offer consumers the broadest range of solutions, and we look forward to working with Microsoft and others in this area," said Robba Benjamin, a vice president and general manager at Cisco Systems, Inc.
"Universal Plug and Play will become the driving force behind the new and easy-to-use intelligent network, making networking as familiar to tomorrow's users as computing is to today's," predicted Matt Rhodes, senior vice president and general manager of Conexant Systems, Inc.
Will a networked environment based on Universal Plug and Play lead to a completely automated household? Well, maybe not quite, Saunders said, but it will certainly broaden the conveniences available to people. "For it to succeed, the home network has to be both simple and convenient to set up," he said. "Universal Plug and Play provides the building blocks for that simple environment-one which we think will improve the quality of people's lives."
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