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One hundred eighty degrees of freedom: signs of how open platforms are spreading

I was talking recently with Bob Frankston, who has a distinguished
history in computing
that goes back to work on Multics, VisiCalc,
and Lotus Notes. We were discussing some of the dreams of the Internet
visionaries, such as total decentralization (no mobile-system walls,
no DNS) and bandwidth too cheap to meter. While these seem impossibly
far off, I realized that computing and networking have come a long way
already, making things normal that not too far in the past would have
seemed utopian.

Flat-rate long distance calls

I remember waiting past my bedtime to make long-distance calls, and
getting down to business real quick to avoid high charges.
Conventional carriers were forced to flat-rate pricing by competition
from VoIP (which I’ll return to later in the blog). International
calls are still overpriced, but with penny-per-minute cards available
in any convenience store, I don’t imagine any consumers are paying
those high prices.

Mobile phone app stores

Not that long ago, the few phones that offered Internet access did so
as a novelty. Hardly anybody seriously considered downloading an
application to their phones–what are you asking for, spam and
fraudulent charges? So the iPhone and Android stores teaming with
third-party apps are a 180-degree turn for the mobile field. I
attribute the iPhone app store once again to competition: the uncovering
of the iPhone SDK by a free software community
.

Downloadable TV segments

While the studios strike deals with Internet providers, send out
take-down notices by the ream, and calculate how to derive revenue
from television-on-demand, people are already getting the most popular
segments from Oprah Winfrey or Saturday Night Live whenever they want,
wherever they want.

Good-enough generic devices

People no longer look down on cheap, generic tools and devices. Both
in software and in hardware, people are realizing that in the long run
they can do more with simple, flexible, interchangeable parts than
with complex and closed offerings. There will probably always be a
market for exquisitely designed premium products–the success of Apple
proves that–but the leading edge goes to products that are just “good
enough,” and the DIY movement especially ensures a growing market for
building blocks of that quality.

I won’t even start to summarize Frankston’s own writings, which start with
premises so far from what the Internet is like today that you won’t be
able to make complete sense of any one article on its own. I’d
recommend the mind-blowing Sidewalks: Paying by
the Stroll
if you want to venture into his world.

But I’ll mention one sign of Frankston’s optimism: he reminded me that
in the early 1990s, technologists were agonizing over arcane
quality-of-service systems in the hope of permitting VoIP over
ordinary phone connections. Now we take VoIP for granted and are
heading toward ubiquitous video. Why? Two things happened in parallel:
the technologists figured out much more efficient encodings, and
normal demand led to faster transmission technologies even over
copper. We didn’t need QoS and all the noxious control and overhead it
entails. More generally, it’s impossible to determine where progress
will come from or how fast it can happen.

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  • JulesLt

    I don’t believe the iPhone SDK was opened up due to the efforts of hackers – I think the App store and SDK were intended from the off, but Apple were not going to delay their launch for the months required to stabilise the OS/SDK, document it, and develop tools.

    (It’s evident that even months on, when it was opened, this stuff was still work in progress).

    Let’s imagine what the outcry had been like if it had launched with a half-baked solution. Hackers may have been happy (they like to hack) but I suspect the Java, .NET and C++/OpenGL games developers who have come to the platform would have dismissed it early on, and not come back.

  • Jim Thompson

    You’re full of it.

    The technologists didn’t “figure out much more efficient encodings”. They already knew about them, but needed to wait until these could be implemented in commodity silicon.

    This required two things:

    1) the availability of a sufficiently small ‘feature size’, which didn’t happen until 1995 or so, and
    2) market demand sufficient to make a 100-million dollar ‘bet’ on making chips. (several companies @ $10m each)

    As for QoS, you’ll need to explain why so many ‘hobby’ technologists deploy it at their upstream router before you dismiss it out of hand.

    Bob is a bright guy, but sometimes he is also full of it.

    I also agree with the poster above that the ‘open source’ iPhone community didn’t force Apple to open the API and publish a SDK.

    If anything, they’ve detracted from any effort Apple might make to have the phone be more open. I honestly wish the jailbreakers would just all switch to Android.