For the Week of February 17, 2003
We're used to thinking of the things we use as either being on or off. When they're on, we pay for them, either financially or with our attention (in the case of cable television). When they're off, we forget they exist.
Broadband isn't like that. So long as a computer connected to your broadband link is on, broadband is there. That, not speed, is what makes life with broadband different.
In terms of conventional Internet services, like the Web and e-mail, this means those services are always available. Give me a name and I'll Google it. If my wife wants to get something I'll Froogle it. I learned of the Columbia disaster on Google News. (You might say I Noogled it.)
I'm absent-minded, but broadband waits for me. Our daughter was kept from trying out for soccer by some bureaucratic snafu, and I was kept awake one night by thoughts of how I needed to contact her coach, to see if things were straightened out. I forgot about it all day, but when I remembered, my e-mail client was waiting for me - it was on all the time.
All this, however, is just a very small taste of what
can do. When we're thinking about the world of 2004 and beyond, we need to consider the implications of always-on.
Just as a broadband connection keeps you connected to the world, a home network that's always-on means an automated home. It means that anything sensed by the home network can be instantly communicated anywhere. Just tell the network where the alert goes and you're always protected.
Always-on will soon extend to the great outdoors as well. You don't need to "turn-on" your cell phone on a broadband link or count the minutes you're using. You don't need to count the bits on your data calls, either. With broadband speed audio, video, and multimedia are all the same thing, and they're all always-on.
With chips like TI's OMAP line to play with , and with systems like TinyOS to power it always-on becomes always-powerful. The search is also on for new interfaces - voice interfaces - with which we might query networks, our own and the Internet.
Always-on also redefines the meaning and value of all content. Content becomes whatever data is flying around which is relevant to you. If it's sensed by a chip on your network, under software control that tells it to alert you, or the police, that's content of real value. To your neighbor, however, it's meaningless.
There are dangers in the world of always-on, dangers writers like William Gibson and Philip K. Dick warned us of long ago. The nature of robotics won't be as Asimov imagined, but the need for something like his "Three Laws" - the need to make sure individuals control their own technology - will be more vital than ever.
There are also great opportunities for government mischief in the world of always-on. Democracy and impartial judicial authority are essential if human freedom is to survive always-on. I remember a "Law & Order" judge being censured, told "you're not supposed to care who wins." That's the heart of the judicial mindset, and when politicians (or societies) rush-to-judgement, their prejudices can quickly become a reign of terror in the world of always-on.
But you can't turn the clock back on technology. You've got to find ways to go forward, installing the controls needed to make sure man controls the machine, and not just one man, either.
The role of politics in technology has been negative these last few years. In broadband regulation, in the copyright wars, in taxation and in other areas the government, under the control of entrenched interests, has sought to keep Moore's Law down. Its success in that effort has caused great damage to the economy.
But the world of always-on will place yet-more burdens on government. By that I don't mean burdens on authorities or institutions. I mean burdens on us. I've said before that cyber-libertarianism is essential to a growing economy. Now I'm telling you it has become necessary for the survival of human freedom. For in the world of always-on, anyone with the power to flip the switch to off must be watched very, very closely.
SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)
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Takes on the News
Why Tech Workers are Ticked Off
I'm married to a tech worker. So a C|Net story on why they're angry hit me where I live.
Like most tech workers my wife isn't too-worried about money, although with age comes a focus on security, and the future of our children. What she wants is good, useful work that makes money for her employers, co-workers who aren't out to get her and (most of all) a little honesty.
It's that last that is in shortest supply. It was in short supply on the way up, it's in short supply on the way down. Too many top managements are made up of one-way guys (and gals) who will hose everyone - workers, consumers, stockholders - while accepting neither blame nor penalty for the result.
This industry was born of outfits like Intel and TI, engineering priesthoods where brains were capital, and the best brains earned big bucks. But starting in the 1990s (and continuing today) this "technical track" has become a corporate "mommy track" at many companies - engineers are maligned as "workers" while "managers" rake in everything. The big cigar crowd doesn't understand that it's the folks in the boiler room - not the swells on the sales floor - who are performing the miracles. Their pay scales reflect this perception.
Worse than that is the hypocrisy, the idea that management can "spin" cutbacks as something else and engineers are somehow not smart enough to see through it. Engineers know, more than most of us, that "spin" isn't reality. They resent being treated like fools or (worse) disposable cogs in some management machine.
Instead of using the recession to weed-out bad management, boardrooms seem to have gotten the idea that higher unemployment enhances their position, and that the position of all workers (even engineers) is weakened by growing global competition. This is simply not true. America's top managers are soon going to learn a painful lesson - they too are expendable. It will be interesting to see how they react.
SBC Gets Wireless
Without recognizing or apologizing for their past mistakes (like buying Ameritech and Pacific Telesis during the boom) SBC has finally gotten "religion" on wireless with a bid to buy DirecTv .
The media is spinning this as either a "cable is powerful" or "cable will kill telephony" play, and nothing could be further from the truth. This is about wireless trumping wires. The loan windows are still wide-open to players like DirecTv for launching new satellites that not only deliver more stations, but far more two-way Internet capability than before. This is high-latency bandwidth, bad for games and multimedia, great for backhauls and data back-up. It just needs to be sold for what it is, and sold to the right people, in order to become valuable.
This will not be an easy deal for SBC, however. EchoStar tried to pay $27 billion for DirecTv - that would represent more than one-third SBC's total current equity . The price now will be lower, in part because EchoStar will still be there afterward. But it will still represent hefty equity dilution.
Rupert Murdoch is still in the bidding, and GE is rumored to have an interest. The books are now open and the story is still to be told, but remember the ending first. Your Clue: wireless is powerful.
Sun Needs a Moon Shot
With Pixar's announcement it is switching from Sun Solaris to Linux-based Intel servers the secret is finally out. Sun Microsystems is in deep, deep trouble.
I shouldn't say this. My IRA has 500 shares of Sun. But Sun's "engineering workstation" niche is dead, its "mid-range server" niche is dying, and neither its chips nor its operating system have kept up with the times. Both are now commodities. You win today either by winning the commodity war or by creating "must-have" applications that compete on a price-performance basis against solutions created with commodities.
Scott McNealy faces a tough choice. He can either use his political connections and push hard for military contracts (security can still be a proprietary advantage if you have it), he can sell to the highest bidder (if one exists) or he can find a new direction. Buying-into the Linux hype is, at best, a stop-gap measure, because he can't win that war.
Sun must turn into something else now, or it will flame-out, and within 24 months the dot in dot-com will be nothing more than the period at the end of a sentence.
This won't do it.
Clued-in is the Consumer Electronics Association, which weighed in for Verizon in the RIAA "give us the name of your user" case . "Consumers should not live in fear that their ISP will be required to turn over their identity to any copyright holder simply because someone claims [they're] doing something illegal."
Clueless are Dan Verton, Brian McWilliams, and the whole press pack in the "Arab CyberWar Hoax." This includes you, too, dear reader. Every tyranny over the mind of man succeeds on the gullibility of the public.
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