Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Stupid networks: Delivering the goods

As with most aspects of the future, someone somewhere probably thought about it long before it became obvious to the rest of us. Take the network.

Way back in 1997, a network engineer for AT+T (the prior version, before it disappeared and then was reincarnated by SBC) named David Isenberg wrote a paper called "Rise of the Stupid Network". You can view it online here.

The premise of the paper was to challenge the status quo thinking of the telecoms...no mean feat for someone employed by a company that had created one of the world's most powerful telecom companies based on certain assumptions about their value proposition.

Isenberg identified these assumptions that in turn held the companies hostage to thinking differently about their role in a changing world. These assumptions included:

  1. expensive, scarce infrastructure can be shared to offer premium priced services,
  2. that talk - the human voice - generates most of the traffic,
  3. that circuit-switched calls are the "communications technologies" that matter, and
  4. that the telephone company is in control of its network.
Of course, history is showing that Isenberg had it right. Cheap infrastructure, data in all its forms (including voice), Packet switched + IP-based technologies...and most importantly control of the network...all undercut the old telecom value proposition.

Now take Isenberg's view and apply it to any network...television, radio, online advertising.

The parallells are readily observable: if intelligent devices are located at the end of the network (computer screens for watching TV programs; gaming; and connecting the weekend call to your mom) then the network's sole value is to carry content.

And if your sole job is to carry content, then you want all the content the people connected to your network can get. If you create content, you want it to be available on any network you can get it on that will support your goals...want to talk to your sister through a mobile device or your computer? Which network is deisgned to support your needs.

Want to watch reruns of The Office while your in the office? Which network supports your device?

In the ever emerging future of the stupid network, walled gardens and network content exclusives will certainly exist. But the transition will make those practices harder to support financially. The flexibility demanded at the ends of the network will exceed the capacity of any one network to meet the diverse needs of users by doing anything but delivering the data.

For broadcasters, certain realtime events like sports or news might capture large audiences. Ultimately, though, the traditional networks will have to make a decision between being a provider of conduit or content. One or the other is where the smart money will be.

Trying to be everything to everyone is a recipe for extinction.

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