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Attendre le suitcase...

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue April, April 1- April 30, 2002 | BY Espen Andersen 

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What would happen if we had smart entities running over stupid networks rather than the other way around? We would coordinate by substituting communication for planning, that's what.



One of the differences between flying in the US and flying in Europe is the amount of luggage people carry onboard. Most European business travelers make do with a briefcase, a duty free plastic bag and maybe a small leather bag (the more ancient, the higher the status) for the shirt and toothbrush. Americans schlep huge wheeled ballistic nylon contraptions onboard, straining at every seam and bulging in every overhead compartment. The airlines allow them to because in the US, airlines compete for their passengers, while European airlines enjoy semi-monopolies and can afford to take carry-on weight and size limitations seriously.

Which is why I am currently stuck in an airport in Europe waiting for my checked luggage.

I don't like to check luggage. Not only does it take forever for checked luggage to make it from the airplane to the baggage claim area (except in Singapore, where somehow they manage to get it there before you do), but quite frequently the luggage doesn't make the plane at all. Normally it is located after some waiting, some phone calls, and the purchase of some extra clothing you don't really want to wear and the airline doesn't really want to pay for.

Waiting for your luggage leads one to wonder: Why is it that airlines lose luggage, but never (at least, very rarely,) people? The main reason, I think, is that if a person is lost, he or she will make a stink about it, whereas a piece of luggage will just sit there, quietly, waiting for someone literate enough to see that the label says Charleston, Georgia and not Charlotte, South Carolina.

The airlines manage luggage by keeping a central database. Each piece of luggage is tagged with a bar-coded paper strip, which is read at various checkpoints during the bag's journey. Thus, if the bag misses a connection, the airline does not know about it until it is missing from the next checkpoint -- and then they don't know where it is, only which checkpoint the bag last passed. (Admittedly, this can be enough, given a controlled environment.)

What if we managed bags like we manage people? People manage themselves. Most travelers (except children, very elderly or infirm people, and alcohol-marinated charter tourists) are able to read signs, find the right gate, and, most importantly, harass some airline representative if anything goes wrong. Or, to put it in information technology terms, each passenger has local information processing and communication capability, a sense of where they are and where they want to go, and the ability to keep time and follow instructions. In even simpler terms, passengers are smart entities traversing a stupid network, whereas pieces of luggage are very stupid entities traversing a marginally smarter network.

Now imagine if we stuck a small mobile communication and processing device on every piece of luggage. Leaving aside the issue of interference with in-flight instruments, such a suitcase could check itself into airplanes, order transportation, track news about delays or cancellations, and make sure, in case of unforeseen changes, that it will be booked on the next flight or sent back home again. Add GPS, and the suitcase would know precisely where it was on the globe. Moreover, rather than trying to maintain a database of where each piece of luggage was last seen by a bar code reader, airlines could track suitcases by polling them.

I'd rather like that. Imagine calling your suitcase, having it tell you that some jerk in Newark put it on the wrong conveyor belt, and that it was now negotiating with British Airways to get on the Concorde in time for your black tie event in London. The airlines wouldn't like it -- it means they no longer know where every suitcase is. But they don't know that now, either.

Why does this matter? From other industries, particularly in transportation, we know that distributed (smart devices over unmanaged network) rather than centralized coordination (stupid devices over centrally managed network) tends to drive up the cost of the infrastructure but increase the quality of the end service to the customer. Trucking won over railroads in the United States, despite being much more expensive in terms of fuel costs and salaries per ton moved, because they were more reliable. A truck has local processing powers -- a driver -- who will map out where and when the cargo needs to go and adjust his or her driving pattern according to that. If there is an obstacle -- a closed road or heavy traffic -- the driver will take another route, drive late in the night to make up for lost time, or call the customer and explain the problem as soon as it happens. Railroads, on the other hand, are stuck with laborious coupling of long trains, which, while superficially economic, often meant that the railroad couldn't tell the shipper when the shipment would arrive even at the outset of the trip. And in case you wondered, yes, railroads sometimes lose whole sets of boxcars on a sideline somewhere, where they sit, quietly waiting for someone to discover them.

The concept of local processing and communication is powerful, and new businesses are springing up based on it. We see the appearance of small executive charter jets, where a team of those who execute for a living can fly directly from Podunk, Nebraska to Svillsville, Alabama, without having to hang around at O'Hare, Pittsburgh or Atlanta. We see cars that can be tracked if they are stolen and where the driver can call to have the car unlocked if they forget the key in it. We see it in "free flight" air-space coordination, projected to decrease the congestion on the most traveled routes. We see "kidtracker" services for anxious parents, and in the Scandinavian countries we see micro-coordination between husband and wife, where one will be in the store and the other in front of the fridge, discussing purchases over their mobile phones. Arguably, object oriented programming, peer-to-peer networking, open source software and the wonderful communally written encyclopedia Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) are all examples of decentralized coordination within a rich infrastructure that permits rapid communication.

In short, we can substitute communication for planning. In fact, I think we will.

People want preciseness and information, not necessarily economy, which is why trucks won over railroads and distributed coordination will win over centralized, as processing and communication technology gets ever cheaper.

Enough of this, I think I see my suitcase coming ...

Espen Andersen (self@espen.com) is associate professor with the Department of Strategy at the Norwegian School of Management BI (www.bi.no), and a research affiliate and European research director with The Concours Group (www.concoursgroup.com), an international IT and management research and consulting organization. Based in Oslo, Norway, he has done research on topics such as mobile business, electronic commerce, knowledge management, digital business strategy and CIO-CEO interaction.

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