The Internet of Things Should Be Invisible

In a recent issue of IEEE Computer, Vince Cerf and Max Senges lay out their view of the “big problems” that must be tackled for the Internet of Things to succeed [1]. They make the really fundamental point that “less is more”, no screens or keyboards. Just life.

In this article they reminded me that they origins of our current excitement with the IoT surely date back to Mark Weiser’s visionary work nearly 30 years ago. So I went and reread Weiser.

Everyone should read and reread this article!

Like many of us, I encountered Weiser via his 1991 Scientific American article, “The Computer in the 21st Century” [2]. At a time when we were still desktopping it—essentially no notebook computers yet—and the Internet was just creeping out of the laboratory, Weiser’s words were galvanizing.

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” ([2], p.94)

Holy moly! I still remember the goose bumps I felt, and the lightning bolt: this is what we should be working on! This changed my professional life, and probably a lot of other people’s too.

He talked about “invisible computing”, which must be the goal. “Most of the computers that participate in embodied virtuality will be invisible in fact as well as in metaphor.”

we are trying to conceive a new way of thinking about computers in the world, one that takes into account the natural human environment and allows the computers themselves to vanish into the background.

As Cerf & Senges note, decades later we can actually start to build a lot of invisible computing (though we don’t necessarily know how to do that very well).

We can laugh a little at Weiser’s description of their work at PARC, though he is not truly wrong about much. Rereading the article this week I noticed for the first time that he clearly described in 1991 “the app” and the app based software architecture (“New software for new devices may be needed at any time…Future operating systems based around tiny kernels of functionality may automatically shrink and grow to fit the dynamically changing needs of ubiquitous computing.”)

His scenario for the morning routine is, if anything, far, far too timid in today’s light. So much of what he dreamt of is true, or even obsolete. (We can also laugh at the notion that Sal would have only one email waiting for her at breakfast time!)

He makes an interesting comment that “Sociologically, ubiquitous computing may mean the decline of the computer addict.”, and “Computer access will penetrate all groups in society. “ (Including “presidents of industries and countries”). True enough.

But he is laughably far off base with his suggestion that “ubiquitous computers will help overcome the problem of information overload.” He imagines that “Machines that fit the human environment, instead of forcing humans to enter theirs, will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.” To date, we have only seen that the more intimate the machines, the more addictive and the more overloaded we get, and the worse the disruption to our lives. When you cannot step away or turn it off, it is even more problematic.

Great, great stuff!

Revisiting this classic article. It’s right there, at the very beginning: what we want the Internet of Things to be, and how it should work.



  1. Vince Cerf and Max Senges, Taking the Internet to the Next Physical Level. Computer, 49 (2):80-86, 2016.
  2. Mark Weiser, The computer in the 21st century. Scientific American, 265 (3):66-75, 1991.


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