From Walled Garden to Green Fields

Before Foo Camp last year, the Radar group had a meeting to share and find common threads in the trends that we’d individually been noticing. I pointed out that one of the characteristics of things that interest us is that they remove artificial barriers to behaviour (we like open source, we don’t like DRM, we have a lot of problems with patents, we even grumble about copyright law) and I referred to this as “breaking down the walled garden”. I was just browsing this year’s Emerging Telephony (ETel) conference and I’m delighted to see they’re running with that theme.

I can’t make it (I’ll be in Bangalore, India), but the sessions that I’ll be looking for on podcasts or blog writeups are:

  • Kitchen Table Alienware: Software Radio for the Hardware Hacker by Matt Ettus, of GNU Radio fame. Matt’s Foo Camp session in 2006 was packed full of O’Reilly Radarites, and Quinn Norton (whose antennae quiver at cool technology) profiled him for Wired News. Matt is building the equivalent of gcc for radio, the tool that will put users in charge of spectrum again. Fantastically disruptive, incredibly powerful, and eagerly anticipated by those in the know. He’ll make the FCC redundant and give us infinite spectrum. He’s like Santa Claus with a Linux box and aerial.
  • Searching Calls: Indexing, Searching, and Retrieving Recorded Speech. If you can record all your calls, then what? Finding a specific call is a needle-in-a-haystack situation. This session will give us the tools for a GMail for our voicemail. There’s no walled garden broken here, just some sorely needed technology that we aren’t getting from the telcos and so will have to invent ourselves. And on another Foo note, Kevin Lenzo of Cepstral is a long-time Interesting Person: he started the Perl Foundation, and wrote one of the first infobots on IRC.
  • Asterisk Hard Hat Session: Deep Hacks and Shortcuts. (1) Jim and the Brians know Asterisk inside-out. (2) Asterisk is by far the most popular piece of open source voice software. (3) Who doesn’t like deep hacks and shortcuts? Today’s hacks grow into tomorrow killer apps. Asterisk lets companies escape the walled garden of their PBX provider.
  • Blackbag VoIP Security Briefings. As Spiderman said, with great power comes great responsibility. Telcos are like a police state, but if we overthrow the regime then we better make sure it’s not replaced with anarchy and lawlessness. Nobody will leave their walled garden if it means entering a world of the VoIP equivalents of spyware, spam, and phishing attacks. I’m curious to learn how vulnerable the tools we use are, and what can be done to make our systems more secure.
  • Communication Product Design Workshop. I hate my phone with a passion, because it feels like the person who designed it hated me. They made it difficult to use, and slightly different in behaviour from all the other phones I’ve had. They made the battery case easy to lose, the charger incompatible with every other device, and the ring volume easily raised by unlockable keys while it bounces in my pocket. I look forward to someone more articulate and learned than myself ripping the morons who built it a new one. I feel like my phone was designed in Communist Russia by nine committees on a fifteen year plan, and I would expect usability would be an immediate dimension of differentiation were the carrier lock on handsets released.
  • MSR’s SMS Server for Rural India. Not only is it Sean Blagesvedt (Head of Program Management and Advanced Prototyping for Microsoft Research India) whom I’ve wanted to meet for a long time, but he’s built something that lowers the barriers to technology world-wide. Oh that’s right, I’m not going to meet him–he’ll have flown from India to USA about the same time I fly from NZ to India. Bugger.
  • Empowering People and the Coming Identity Layer of Everything. Phones are strongly intertwined with identity (GMail wanted a phone number before it’d let you sign up, Caller ID, even personalizing your phone with ringtones and desktop images), and for voice apps to progress into the truly convenient world we’ll need to solve several pressing identity problems. Fortunately, the rest of the Internet is working on them too, and Kaliya will talk about the work being done on identity systems that serve us rather than the carriers. OpenID, for example, is distributed and doesn’t privilege the builders of walled gardens.
  • Tapping in to the Open Source for Innovation. TrollTech has real experience with Linux-based mobile phones. I wonder whether energy consumption or memory needs proved a problem. Open source handset software will lower the barrier to entry, the same way that the LAMP stack lowered the barrier to building a web site. Everyone built their useful differentiated software on top of the commodity open source. It is so time for this to happen on handsets.
  • Linux Wi-Fi Telephony Handset – Fonav. No link for this one yet, but it looks interesting. Phil Torrone’s been playing with wifi Skype handsets for a while now, but the twin combination of (a) open source programmable/extensible, and (b) open protocols make it sound very enticing. Open protocols are the “get out of the walled garden free” card of telephony.
  • MySpace Mobile: Portable Communities Empowering Users. Given how addicted kids are to MySpace, it seems like MySpace Mobile would be the tech equivalent of a portable meth lab. This will be one of the first public reports on the uptake. I’m intensely curious. And yes, okay, it’s a walled garden in a walled garden. But what fun would we be if we were purely ideological?
  • Wifi and Low Cost Communication Networks in Kenya. One of the highlights of last year’s conference was Brian Capouch talking about his rural networking in America. I imagine Quentin (this year’s presenter) saying “oh, so you think you had it tough!”. Oh, and Quentin invented the webcam. And VNC.
  • Tribox – VoIP Hacking at Home. Brian Aker is a genius, an evil evil genius. He’s the man who hacked his Asterisk system to remember telemarketers and answer their subsequent calls with loud monkey screeches. I want to know what he’s been doing lately.