Consider plain old telephone service (POTS). The telephone sets (that which you fasten to the wall or place on your desk) connected to the telephone network are simple electromechanical contraptions. There need be no computing power at all in a telephone set in order to place any type of telephone call–local, long distance, conference call, etc. Although a telephone set might offer some minor features such as speed dialing (press one button to place a call to a stored number), the real power of the system is in the network. Have you ever felt compelled to “upgrade” your telephone set in order to get some new feature offered via the network? Maybe, (adding caller ID might be an example) but it does not happen very often. The telephone company does all the hard work such as maintaining and updating the numbering system (area codes for example) and assigning telephone numbers, routing and connecting the calls, billing, etc. This is what I call a smart network. The devices connected to this network can be dumb. A telephone made in 1950 will work just fine on today’s telephone network. Even sophisticated telephone sets (cordless, answering machine etc.) are pretty dumb compared to the smarts built into the network.
At one time the Bell Telephone System had a monopoly on telephone service in the United States. In response to widespread dissatisfaction with service and pricing, the government broke that monpoly in 1984.
In contrast, consider the Internet. The computers connected to the Internet are not simple at all. In order exploit all of the content, or even a minority of the content, you need a rather powerful and up-to-date computer. A fifteen-year-old IBM-386 class computer running some old version of Windows will be frustratingly slow, probably will not be able to access much content, if it even works at all. Yet there was a time when that same computer was considered the best for using the Internet of it’s day. Users need to keep updating their hardware just in order to keep doing things they have always done, even simple things like e-mail. Most of the complexity of the Internet is at its edges, in the hardware and software users connect to it. The heart of the internet is just a rather simple method of routing packets of bits toward the intended recipient. The network itself is oblivious of what the data means and does a minimum of processing on the data. This is what I call a dumb network. The devices connected to it must be smart.
So what does it matter? The original premise of the Internet was to deliberately make it dumb so that it would be robust in war. A smart network presents the enemy with targets to attack in order to disable the network. If a dumb network is attacked, little is lost. The system will probably keep functioning at some level, and it can be easily rebuilt. Coincidentally, a dumb network empowers users since they control the smart computers connected to it–so long as the smarts remain in their computers.
Now a new trend is emerging. Some call it “Web 2.0.” I’ll define this as the offering of hosted services. I’m writing this blog entry on a hosted service (WordPress on a Dordt College server). If instead I wrote this blog on my own computer in raw html code and operated my own sever to dish this up to you, that would be consistent with the original idea behind the Internet. Now most of us are using hosted services with hardly a thought about where the smarts are. Some other examples of hosted services are Hotmail, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, You Tube, Facebook, MySpace, Xanga, and so forth. Suppose for a minute that each of these services demanded a monthly fee in order to keep hosting your content. That would be quite a change for some of us!
Web 2.0 is moving the smarts of the Internet back toward the network and away from the users. The warehouse of Googles’ many disk drives which contain who-knows-how-much now becomes a critical factor in the usefulness of the network. The loss of Google for example would be hard to replace.
We used to talk about, even joke about, the ability of “Ma Bell” to watch over our communications. I find it fascinating that companies like Google, Yahoo, and many others are working hard to corner various hosted services that can be offered on the Internet. They are striving for dominance, maybe even monopoly power. As more of the smarts of the network move toward these hosted services, the possibility for generating revenue and establishing monopolies grows. The Internet is starting to look a little (just a little at this time) like the old Bell System.
(It has been about a month since my last blog entry. I got a bit busy with senior projects, final exams, and the end-of-semester meetings to wrap up business. I hope to provide about two blog entries per month during the summer.)