Fuzzy Logic and Java-enabled beard trimmers

Tig Tillinghast writes on technology issues and consults Internet-related startups and marketing agencies. He has worked for both Sun Microsystems and Microsoft. He lives and works on Boston's North Shore. He can be contacted at [email protected].

I'VE SEEN A lot of press releases recently—companies bragging about their new cordless telephone or PDA or electric razor, all of them using Java or "Java-enabling" technologies. It's enough to make you wonder. What the heck is Java being used for in these devices?

It reminds me of those times, back in the early nineties, when manufacturers would stick new-fangled technology terms on top of their products. First it was "artificial intelligence"
or "AI." Then came the "fuzzy logic" crowd.
You might find it hard to believe, but Maytag still sells a washer and dryer with "fuzzy logic" as one of their primary selling points. Maybe it's referring to the lint.

The point is, consumer technology has always been sold partly on its inherent "coolness." Java, at least according to the marketplace, is currently "cool." This is good.

But we should be a bit cautious. It was precisely the unfulfilled promises of AI and fuzzy logic that relegated those technologies to consumer curiosities. And as developers, we control very little of this marketplace promising.

Taken to a logical conclusion, people purchasing a Java-enabled lawnmower (this isn't as funny as you'd like to think) might expect the damned thing to be able to download optimal cutting patterns, or somehow determine blade aspect via different moisture conditions. More realistically, some marketing executive heard that the engine's CPU coincidentally happens to run Java, so they stuck the name on the package.

It's not enough to protect the Java standard via the code and the compatibility. "Write once, run everywhere" is wonderful only so long as what is written remains useful. If people stick a Java kernel into any old product and make a Java claim, then the brand of Java will quickly become diluted.

I don't mean to disparage the fine folks who are putting out the Java-enabled beard trimmer and the Java alarm clock. To be honest, I don't know exactly how they intend to exploit the Java technology, so I can't rightly blame them for ill use. But I must say I'm skeptical.

I remain hopeful that they will use the technology for good. Perhaps the alarm clock will devise clever snooze patterns that throw your body clock a few curve balls to get you up out of bed quicker in the morning. And maybe it'll get your beard trimmer all warmed up by the time you get to the bathroom.

But it's not enough merely to put out a beard trimmer API and expect it to benefit us bearded folk. Developers—people like Java Report readers—need to be encouraged to write useful applications that take advantage of the new hardware. For that to happen, these devices need to be very communicative with other devices, and this I do not yet see.

Besides, I'm not too sure it's necessarily a good idea to let my coffee machine have too close a relationship to my electronic to-do list. If my Mr. Coffee got a load of the items on my PalmPilot, it would certainly triple the FilterFresh.