A Command Line for the Internet of Things

This might be confusing at first but this is the nature of online data flow now, where YouTube and blogs and tweets and RSS and googling converge with reality. A lot of people on Twitter were re-tweeting a tweet from Mashable about a “wanted” post for a command line for the web.

The article got me thinking. Will we be returning to the command line again, where we started from? Back in the DOS days, the command line was how you navigated. Some people got pretty ninja at it and preferred it to the graphical user interfaces (GUIs). But GUIs took off, of course, and now we’re using AJAX and PhotoSynth and Google Maps and SecondLife and all that cool stuff.


Eric Schmidt gave a great talk yesterday in DC for the New America Foundation in which he discussed, as part of Obama’s economic transition team, how we need to invest in infrastructure, build a smart electrical grid, increase federal research and development, and pursue a lot of other Googlish agenda items. (I elected not to go because I figured it’d be best to stay home and watch the webstream…so meta)

What struck me about his Q&A period at the end was that some privacy advocate asked him to address privacy issues that Google overlooks, such as using HTTPS or other things to increase security.

Schmidt’s response was that Google DOES care about privacy, but that it basically cares about SPEED and LATENCY more. Considering how fast and reactive Google is, you can see how it can be compelling as a design priority and how Google sees it as a key factor in competing with desktop clients from Google’s competitors, like Microsoft.

Command Line for the Web

So let’s move on to the command line for the web. The Mashable article talks about a start-up that lets you type in “check twitter” and it will pull up the latest tweets. Same for other services. That perhaps isn’t very remarkable and says more about how fast and low-latency the web has become for wired Americans. I’m not sure I want to use an external scraper to use Twitter. Nor am I sure that this is much different than Google’s very similar but far more powerful command line search page that has been lauded for its simplicity.

The article also shows a video demo for someone who wired up his room’s lights to Twitter and then to his cell phone so that he could SMS to Twitter and then have it turn off his lights.

So the cell phone could be turned into a remote for life.

UNIX Commands as Start-Ups

There was a thread I remember reading about that posited that all the really useful start-ups lately have basically been based on UNIX commands. Google Docs is like pico, Gmail is like pine, Twitter is like finger, etc. Not being a UNIX/Linux person myself, I can’t think off the top of my head whether there are any commands that haven’t been exploited yet. But it’s an interesting way of thinking about the command line inspiring creativity and innovation.


The reason I first got on the internet was because the ImagiNation Network (see this long TV ad that explains the service pretty well) got bought out by AT&T and was promptly reduced to expensive junk (sense a trend?), causing a massive exodus.

A friend of mine who I used to hang out with (an IT specialist who worked at Coca-Cola in Atlanta but who died several years later) told me about how her company had access to the internet and how I might be able to get online through my dad’s UT Dallas account. The first thing I started doing on the internet back in ’95 or so was playing a Multi-User Domain/Dungeon, a text-based, command-line-driven multiplayer game. You moved around by typing “north” or “east” and “inventory” to look at your inventory and “gossip Hi!” to tell the entire MUD hello.

Commands eventually got shortened to “n” for “north” and “e” for “east” and “inv” for “inventory”.

MUDs began to die out in favor of games like Starcraft and Quake, never to recover. Now of course there are role-playing games online like World of Warcraft and Diablo 3 and everything on Xbox Live such that a return to the days of mudding or MOOs or MUSHes seems impossible.

But I have long been interested in reviving the MUD in a web start-up, as a sticky, added component to my social networking site. For Galapag.us, I figured with a large database of personal information, you could turn those stats into a gaming character who can play a role-playing game within Galapag.us, for more points, more rankings, unlocking elements of the rest of the site.

Where I see social networking sites going eventually is back to gaming. Sculpting very realistic characters based on our own characteristics.

The Internet of Things

The future of the internet is rapidly advancing towards an internet of things. Soon all our appliances and even non-electronic devices will be talking to each other on the internet, often without our knowledge.

Now imagine a command line that is completely free, untethered, generative, and open in the spirit of Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it”. There will need to be fairly open APIs from different services and maybe an industry standard API for appliances like light switch circuitry, TVs, fridges, etc. There will need to be an identity layer for reputations and trust, but that’s being worked on right now by projects such as OpenID, OpenSocial, and Shibboleth.

I can just imagine being able to control the electricity and solar panel set-up and energy generation in my house and electric car using my cell phone. I can imagine creating UNIX-like aliases for batched commands and scripting entire configuration changes for which lights go on, when my fridge checks for food updates, when my car uses the grid to power up its batteries most ideally versus high-volume consumption in my area.

I don’t think SMS will be a sustainable solution for this but maybe a fall-back, since SMSs have high latency and even disappear entirely with some frequency, even still.


It used to be considered magic when we could control our world from a distance, but the day where this will be considered normal is coming soon. It’s not really entirely clear or imaginable the sorts of innovation and generativity that this ability will unlock for us. But certainly soon the world will have an operating system, and we will start out using it through a command line of basic I/O and scripting…and then a highly-graphical OS…and then a continuous cycle once again.

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