by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XV

This Week's Clue: Home Hub

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This Week's Clue: Home Hub
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
Moore For The Digital Divide
Blogs Moving On Up
A Fatter Kernel
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of April 12, 2004

Over the last few weeks I've been studying the market for residential gateways. To me, they're an introduction to Always-On technology. If designed as a modular, scalable platform, they would let you combine the best of the Internet and the PC for a new class of applications.

But it turns out the gateway itself is more complicated than I thought. Not in terms of the hardware and software, but in terms of the constituencies it must address in order to work.

At its heart a gateway is simple, TCP/IP in and Ethernet out. But in order for someone to give you this box it must meet their agenda. In this case, that someone with an agenda is the ISP, usually your phone company.

The phone company's agenda is to shape the Internet service behind the box so it can up-sell lots more services to you, and control you as a customer going forward. Much of the talk is over parental controls. (More on them later.) But that, like the hardware itself, is just a "Trojan Horse." Phone companies want to sell Voice Over IP through the gateway (to keep you from going all-cellular), they want to sell VPN services out of the gateway, they want to sell "gaming" or Quality of Service out of the gateway, and they want to sell video (against the cable company). Imagine $100 and more going from you to the phone company each month, rather than $50 or even nothing if your home network is cable and your phone is wireless. The stakes are high.

So there's a lot of software on the ISP side of the gateway, software that goes into the telco network. To reduce support costs the telcos want the gateway to configure itself to the network, they want to be able to diagnose and fix problems from their desks, without a truck roll, and they want upgrades (for those other services) to be accomplished by pushing new software into the gateway's firmware.

I was recently thinking back to 1998, when it took five guys in three phone company trucks to give me DSL service, and the meaning of that suddenly flashed on me. I remember that the crews never talked to me directly, and that they stayed focused on the job at hand until the service worked, even into the dinner hour. I'd thought how rude, I'd thought how expensive, but in fact these guys were demonstrating the heart of the telco mindset - dedication to the service.

And telcos want suppliers who will be just as dedicated. So far only one telephone company has made a final decision on gateways and it's Bell Canada, which went with Siemens. It turns out Siemens is an experienced supplier to Bell Canada, having previously sold its ISP, Sympatico, DSL modems and software. They also had a track record with the main company, including selling those big honking central office switches that now seem so prehistoric.

Along the way Siemens and Bell Canada developed a relationship, a marriage if you will. And it may well be that no one who's an outsider to the telco relationship business is going to get a sniff at these gateway deals. If you want to get inside the telco, you had better be committed to the telco, and prove it.

If that's all a gateway was, a piece of telco equipment, that would be the end of the story. But it's not.

There's the LAN out, for one thing. Even a "wireless" gateway will usually include some Ethernet ports on it. So the supplier had best understand the intricacies of making networks work. This is another industry entirely, and I do sometimes wonder why 3Com isn't pushing a gateway. But then I remember there are minor players fishing for these telco gateway deals, like Netopia and 2Wire, so maybe 3Com can buy the winner.

Ethernet looks easy, but it's not. I got a taste of this need last week when a friend of my son "borrowed" his computer while they were playing, went to some sex site, and "accidentally" downloaded a ton of malware that even (for a time) broke the anti-malware programs I'd installed. It attacked the Ethernet stacks, broke them right down. And it broke them in ways the folks from Netopia (whose gateway I'm now using) hadn't seen before.

Word to the telcos - you want to be responsible for that? I didn't think so. And this may be why "parental controls" are the first services the telcos want to sell through the gateways. Keep those 13 year olds from mucking with our stuff. Too bad the same malware also infects sites you might want 13 year olds to use, like Fanfiction . This is also why security - firewalls and anti-virals - are considered a given when telcos buy or offer gateways. They want to pull responsibility for that away from you not just to be good guys, but to make sure the job gets done right.

There's a third industry lurking inside every gateway of course, the wireless industry. We take 802.11 for granted, but in many ways it's still black magic. We're talking here about radios and antennas, working on frequencies shared by the neighbors' cordless phones and hair dryers. You can slap one of these systems together and put it on a shelf for $60, but it probably won't work.

People talk a lot about "hot spots," but what they don't talk about are "dead zones," places inside your house where service unexpectedly cuts out, or where it never happens. The best way to deal with this problem is through a mesh, but that's still a business, not a home networking thing. The 802.11 standards were designed for home networking, but have you noticed how all the success stories are "hot spots" put out by ISPs? It's no coincidence. It's still a service, maybe not yet a product at all.

And of course there are still two more industries to be heard from here, starting with the PC software business. Most gateways are designed to run on Microsoft Windows. This will likely be the heart of Always-On application development. When the telco, the ISP, or the gateway guy asks you to install a gateway, even off a CD-based wizard, they're handing you a Windows program. Even if you build a gateway with Linux inside, it must work with Windows outside, because that's what I'm using. And if you're going to build any applications on top of the gateway - if the gateway is really going to be a portal to an Always-On world - that world is going to be Windows unless you make every home user buy desktop Linux or Macs.

Finally of course there's hardware. A gateway is, in the end, a piece of hardware. It interfaces with PC hardware. The platform for Always-On applications, whether it's in the gateway or on the desktop, is a piece of hardware.

And hardware chip suppliers like Intel and Texas Instruments are all over this gateway market. A new Cisco gateway has Intel Inside . TI is focused on the 802.11 side of the gateway equation. If the gateway is going to be a platform, the hardware vision for it will come from one of these two companies.

But given all the different industrial agendas at work here, I'm thinking, why must a gateway come in one box at all? I don't want to be controlled by the phone company. I'd rather call the tune myself. And so far most people agree with me. In announcing his deal with Siemens last month a Bell Canada spokesman guessed that less than one-third of his broadband customers would take the offer, even though he was giving away the gateway hardware for a one-year service agreement.

For the rest of us, right now, it's a bad situation. Go to Best Buy and you're going to get hosed. Yes, that Cisco wireless router costs just $60, but does it work? And doesn't it rely an awful lot on your main PC, requiring that PC to be on for you to get any service at all?

So I'm thinking, what if, instead of worrying about the phone company, or even about wireless networking, what if you could buy an interface platform, a box that would sit under your gateway, connected to it by a wired Ethernet plug? Call it a home hub.

The home hub would provide intelligence for Always-On applications - medical, inventory, home automation - and would be designed to operate 24/7 (most home PCs aren't). These applications would fit into the hub through hardware slots (no drives to spread viruses). The fit would be between the hub and the wireless network, but there would be a strict separation, so legal liability could be isolated. That's important when you think of the possible applications for the hub.

One application might be a voice interface, which would link with speaker-and-microphone units placed around the home, so you could talk to these applications (training them to use your voice increases security). Another might be a medical application, FDA approved, interfacing between the bio-chip you wear for your heart (or blood sugar), tests done on-the-board, and the possibilities of alert to you, the patient, your doctor, maybe an ambulance. (It would also protect your heart in those pre-dawn hours when most heart attacks happen.) Another might be a home automation program that connects to your sprinklers and drip hoses, so your lawn and garden are automatically cared for, even when you're on vacation.

Use your imagination. This is the next boom, PC and Internet in-the-air, using data collected from the world around you, rather than input from a typewriter or downloaded with a mouse.

If I were guessing what would be inside that hub today I would guess WinTel. But it doesn't have to be.


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a business analyst with Progressive Strategies, a New York research firm that has the ear of the world's top technology companies.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Shameless Promotion

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Takes on the News

Moore For The Digital Divide

The Digital Divide has reared its ugly head again.

Much of the talk at the recent UN Conference on Internet Governance involved governments from the developing world looking for hand-outs to bridge this Digital Divide. At the same time, the disputes over regulating Voice Over IP mainly involve payments to the Universal Service Fund, designed to bridge the American Digital Divide.

Most people think I'm a liberal, so let me say something that may shock most people. Both these claims are bogus.

Moore's Law can handle the Digital Divide. In fact, it's doing a very good job of it. We don't need no big guvmint, as the right might say. We don't need it on a national level, nor an international level. Not for this problem, anyway.

What we need is for government to get out of the way, truly out of the way.

Moore's Law means it gets easier, and cheaper, to add digital resources as time goes by. And it's exponential. In the U.S. and Europe connectivity is mainly provided by copper wires and switches that take 30 years to depreciate. Fiber, too, takes 30 years to depreciate, but once you're within reach of one, a single cable will now handle all your backhaul needs.

Once a cable is landed, you can use wireless technologies to spread that bandwidth inland. You can depreciate those costs in three years. So three years from now you can deliver an exponential improvement in your infrastructure for no more than you paid this year.

All you need is a business model that will pay back those low costs.

And if you're looking for business models you never look to government. You look for entrepreneurs.

The answer to Africa's Digital Divide can't come from the West, unless you want the UN to create a system for declaring countries "failed" and take over their governance (which no one in Africa claims to want).

This is because the answers don't have dollar signs attached to them.

  • You need democracy, governments willing to go when their people say go, and a system for proving that mandate exists which all will subscribe to.
  • You need capitalism, a system that protects enterprise and the fruits of enterprise, that provides incentives for people to risk.
  • You need liberty, a system of laws that guarantees rights and assures that anyone who tramples on those rights will be severely punished.

There is plenty of room for each country to find its own way, but human rights are universal, the market is universal, and democracy is a universal good.

Those countries that embrace democracy, capitalism and liberty will succeed, because they will adapt to change, including the changes and opportunities made possible by Moore's Law. Those that don't will fail. They will continue to spawn despair, and poverty, and terrorism.

America's Digital Divide will be easily bridged by entrepreneurs if the markets are simply opened up. That means we need true deregulation, the elimination of the cable-Bell duopoly, a fair shake for Wireless ISPs, and the treatment of spectrum as an ocean, not a set of concessions.

You see, the solution to the Digital Divide in both cases is the same.

The answer is freedom. Give us freedom and Moore's Law will do the rest.


Blogs Moving On Up

Blogging is self-publishing.

But publishing is more than just blogging. It's also marketing and promoting. It's a business.

Most bloggers, like myself, aren't doing this as a business. We're doing this because we care, because we have a crying need to be heard, and no one is paying us to do what we most want to do.

As with everything, blogging works on the 90-10 rule. The best are far better than the rest. And they get 90% of the attention, 90% of the make that 99%. Since politics has defined freelance blogging, let's look at what has happened there.

The mainstream media has simply abosrbed the top bloggers, paying them off. Glenn Reynolds, alias Instapundit, is now at . MSNBC, and Kevin Drum, alias Calpundit, is at the Washington Monthly. When the liberal "Air America" debuted this week, bloggers were among the first guests. Bloggers were also honored guests at the Democrats' "Unity Dinner" last week.

But now they have, in Emeril Lagasse's words, kicked it up a notch.

Take a look at this. It's a Sunday item from the anonymous liberal blogger called Atrios. It describes, in some detail, the interaction between a David Letterman show taping and CNN. It makes some pretty serious charges against CNN and, by extension, against the Bush Administration. Now take a look at this. It's the April 2 column of Paul Krugman, in The New York Times.

If you're a slow reader, let me cut to the chase. It's the same story.

Krugman doesn't credit Atrios. Maybe he saw the program as well. But Atrios connected the dots, and I refuse to believe that Krugman didn't see his work.

This has been going on for some time. Top bloggers are becoming media darlings. Some are trying to pull the ladder in after them. Others are not.

And if you have an editorial budget in need of a blog, I'm available.

A Fatter Kernel

Few people really noticed it, but Microsoft has made a formal announcement for a new version of Windows CE, designed for "embedded" applications. In the World of Always-On this is big stuff.

It's big stuff because Always-On applications will be essentially hardware. They will run in the background. Their output will be in the form of real-time warnings, or actions. Most clients, and many servers, in this world will need and use only the embedded version of an operating system.

While Microsoft dominates desktops, it does not dominate the embedded world at all, although it would like to. Various forms of Linux have a big place here, and there remain a host of specialty operating systems, like VXWorks, that grew up in the world of consumer electronics.

The new release provides built-in support for dual-mode mobile phones, which can also run on 802.11 networks, as well as Voice Over IP. In fact, the announcement is being timed to the Voice on the Net trade show in Santa Clara.

But the main theme is bringing Windows CE "closer to desktop parity," with things like built-in error-reporting, and a wide range of security features turned on by default.

The key question remains whether hardware developers will write to Windows, or whether Linux will lengthen its lead. Embedded Linux vendors are tenacious, and they have a price advantage. Microsoft's chief hope is that, as mobile devices become part of the computing mainstream over the next year, developers will find they need a mainstream computer operating system.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in (despite the criticism over privacy) is Gmail , Google's new e-mail service. If you don't like the conditions don't take the freebie, people.

Clueless (three times) is the U.S. Patent Office, for handing out patent rights on anti-spam technology , sub-domainsand cookies .


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