Julian Bleecker’s wifi.Bedouin project has my mind churning. Bleecker frames this as a product and a service: essentially it’s a laptop in a backpack with wi-fi antennas, a PDA remote control, and software that creates your own little “island Internet.”
Forget about the packaging. The big innovation here lies in the paradigm, in viewing your wi-fi-enabled laptop as a server and a filter rather than a client.
What can you do with this? Here’s an example: have fun in Starbucks. Walk into a Starbucks cafe, sit back and watch customers come in, fire up their laptops and connect to your wi-fi node. They think they’ve jacked in to the Internet, but really they’re connected to your mobile server. You can serve their Web browsers whatever content you want — an art piece, brand-damaging fake Starbucks ads, fake coupons, photos of your cat, whatever. Mix your content with real Internet connectivity and content served up via the cafe’s wi-fi service. (Combine this with a Guerilla Cafe DJ setup and you’ve got a toolkit that would make Starbucks interventionist Reverend Billy proud.)
It’s important that we engage in this sort of play and think through these things, because not all the possibilities brought to light here are funny. McDonald’s or Starbuck’s or anyone else can intercept passwords and can easily monitor, record, forge and censor unprotected wi-fi communications. We can prevent such misdeeds through technical means, but before the solutions can be perfected and adopted we need to raise public awareness that the problems exist. Pranksters can spread this sort of consciousness.
This is just one example of what we can do with systems like Bedouin. Check out Bleecker’s scenarios page (and click through the three scenarios) for more.
3/24/04 UPDATE: Arthur Law brings up two other fun possibilities. (1) For business people and software developers: why not put the project work on a bedouin server and huddle the workgroup around a campfire? (2) For video game afficionados: won’t weddings and funerals be more fun when you and your laptop-toting friends engage in action-packed shoot-em-up tournaments during the ceremonies? Why wait for high-speed Internet coverage to reach your destination when you can bring the connectivity with you?
5/04/04 UPDATE: I recently came across another intriguing application that converts local machines (in this case, handheld computers) into miniature wi-fi Web servers. It’s called Hocman and it’s designed to allow motorcyclists to exchange social information via HTTP when they encounter one another on the road. Details here.)
5/16/04 UPDATE: It turns out that Intel Research has been doing its own work using the mobile server paradigm, using tiny Personal Servers.