Bob Frankston: From DIY to the Internet

by on Mar.12, 2012, under Uncategorized

(Original at Bob’s blog)


This talk is aimed at an audience that wants “more Internet”. But what does that mean?

To many people it means more high speed connections to services like the Web and YouTube because they are the public face of the today’s Internet.

The Internet is limited by policy choices we make and not by the technology. We don’t see connected devices such as medical monitors because they don’t work well using today’s infrastructure because those who provide the infrastructure don’t have any incentive to support such applications even if, literally, our lives depend on it.

We don’t see these applications because they are at odds with the business model we call telecommunications. It’s a business that assumes the network transports a valuable content called “information”. But, as we’ll see, today we exchange bits. But bits in themselves are not information in the sense that humans understand it. Far more important for a business, the number of bits doesn’t correspond to the value of information. It’s as if there is no difference in value between beautiful poems and doggerel that fills pages.

Bits are nothing more than letters of the alphabet and it’s hard to make a business based on the ability to control the supply of the letter “e”.

To understand how the Internet is different we have to step back to the days when those of us working with computers wanted to interconnect them. It was a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) effort. We were already using modems to repurpose the telephone network as a data transport.

To oversimplify history, when we had computers in the same room we simply connected a wire between them and then wrote software to send bits between the two. We could extend the range using radios. If we lost a message we could simply retransmit it.

Later we could extend the range by using modems that ran over telephone lines. It was all new and exciting and we were happy to simply be able to connect to a distant system even if we could do it at a far lower speed than our local networks and at a higher cost. That cost was typically borne by companies as overhead.

This approach works fine as long as we stay within the confines of that model. Innovations that require availability elsewhere are simply too difficult. The Internet has given us a sense of what is possible but before we can realize those possibilities we need to understand the motivations of those who own the paths that carry the bits and understand why they can’t extend their business model.

We can’t take a top down approach, as in expecting Congress and the FCC to make major policy changes. Fortunately, thanks to the very nature of the Internet we can still apply a DIY approach for local connectivity. This is the real Internet – today we can indeed reach across the globe but we have difficulty interconnecting with devices in the next apartment.

As we come to appreciate the value of peer connectivity we can extend the model beyond our homes and simply obviate the need for a telecommunications industry as it is presently constituted.

[Slide Commentary . . .]

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