Project Oxygen: A Breath of Fresh Air for the Internet

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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts are working on an ambitious project dubbed Project Oxygen that aims to change the way we use the Internet. Its ambitions are to create an open Internet platform consisting of a mix of next-generation hardware and software that could result in smarter, more adaptable software, flexible hardware that adapts to the needs of the user, and much more powerful Web pages. Begun in 1999, Oxygen is a $50 million dollar joint project with DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and corporate partners: Acer, Delta Electronics, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, Nippon Telegraph, and Telephone and Philips.

According to Peter Alesso, an engineer and industry expert with over 20 years of experience and co-author (along with Craig F. Smith) of The Intelligent Wireless Web, "Oxygen is an open platform built from the ground up with chips and software to allow the wide distribution of information with few restrictions across the Internet." Since computing power is distributed across the Internet, it relieves the computing burden from any one server or system, and could result in powerful new ways of delivering content. The stated goal of the project is to create a computing system that is "human-centered and pervasive," meaning that the computer reacts to human needs, rather than forcing people to work according to the computer's design, and that the computer and network connections are always available no matter where you are (just as the air you breathe is always available).

Oxygen is built on an architecture consisting of three core elements: a fully integrated handheld device called Handy 21 that can change purpose automatically as the need or user location dictates (for example, behaving like a PDA, pager, or cell phone), network configurations called Network 21s that change dynamically to meet the needs of users (for example, automatically routing network traffic to relieve congestion) and embedded computers called Enviro 21s (because they are part of the environment, such as the building where you work) that carry the computational burden for the smaller handheld device. Author Alesso explains that some of the software being developed for Oxygen will be nomadic, meaning it can travel from the more powerful embedded computer to the handheld in manageable pieces as needed. This allows the user to carry a lightweight handheld with limited memory and computer power and still seamlessly process complex tasks.

The system has broad implications for content developers and could result in dramatically more sophisticated Web pages. Alesso explains, while HTML defines data placement and XML defines data types, Oxygen hopes to add new, more sophisticated layers directly to Web pages, such as schema and logic, thereby adding the capability to manipulate data directly at the Web page level, rather than using a script to handle data manipulation or offloading this capability to a program on a server.

Alesso predicts Oxygen could change the way users access content. He explains that today content providers, such as television broadcasters, dictate content, but he envisions a system where using a distributed computing environment, content providers could offer consumers packages with only the types of content they want. Delivering content in a distributed computing environment would allow providers to offer a variety of choices without worrying about overloading the network when delivering different content packages to different consumers at the same time. Says Alesso, "when content providers give power to the consumer [to choose their own content] that will be a killer app."

Whether Oxygen can move from the laboratory to reality remains to be seen, but this research certainly has the potential to change the way we deliver and use content. As Alesso points out, with a system like Oxygen, you wouldn't need programs residing on separate servers processing data for individual organizations. Instead, every browser would have the same processing capability providing an even playing field for all developers and that is a powerful vision indeed.