For the Week of May 30, 2005
I'm a network manager.
It's not that I want to be. I'm a homeowner. My kids have PCs. My wife and I have PCs. Some years ago a friend ran wires among the rooms so everyone could share my DSL line.
There are now millions of us network managers. Recently I sat on my porch, opened my laptop, and learned that three of my five immediate neighbors now have WiFi networking in their homes. The signals were faint, but my copy of Windows found them all as soon as I booted-up. And the nearest of the three was totally unsecured. If I had larceny in my heart I could have entered my neighbor's network, used their bandwidth, even prowled around in their PCs looking for porn, passwords or blackmail material. (Fortunately for them, I'm a very nice person.)
The other two neighbors had nets which, like mine, are protected by long identifiers, input once, which validate valid PCs. One even had encryption on their system (very nice). The neighbors on the unprotected net insisted later they had the same system I do, but I suspect they haven't taken time to activate the security features.
The point is that wireless networks make many of us network managers, and Always On applications will make most of us network managers. We're not qualified for the work. We may never be qualified. Those who do become qualified become that way as I did recently, in extremis.
Even in a small network incompetent network management can be an expensive proposition. My daughter's anti-viral expired recently, and over the ensuing few weeks she got literally dozens of malware infections through her favorite web site, Fanfiction.net. "The Internet's broken," she finally said, and I spent two days, working first with a free anti-spyware tool, trying to fix it.
Along the way I learned that her old 733 MHz H-P can no longer use Trend Micro PC-cillin, which I and my son use. The only solution, finally, was to renew her McAfee subscription ($55) and go through its kludgy process of identifying each threat and trying to deal with it in turn. One of the 84 threats then living there couldn't be dealt with at all, either by deleting the file, cleaning it, or quarantine. It was resident in memory and hidden in a restore directory. Because I was smart (I had been here before) I was able to find the command for turning off system restore and, after a re-boot, a new scan showed she at last was clean. Most homeowners wouldn't know how to do that. Maybe I am a network manager, I thought.
One way both Microsoft and others seek to get over this learning hurdle, and get paid for fighting the bad guys, is with the idea of "software as service." The anti-viral is an example. When you stop paying for protection you lose it. Microsoft wants to do this with its "Eigen" solution - lease a version of XP for old machines that formerly ran its "obsolete" Windows 98 or ME. Security is at the heart of the bundle. Netopia is among the gateway companies selling the same thing - regularly updated security protection that lives in a central server, and is updated to gateways so home networks are protected transparently.
Once people become used to subscribing to software, as they subscribe to Internet service, the way is open to making additions to the bundle. This is how the World of Always On really gets going:
- Home security companies like ADT can monitor the perimeter of your home, using RFID cameras and sensors that are part of your network, and a connection offered through the gateway provider. An alert from a sensor can lead to checking a photo, and if cops need to be called the suspicious face is in the cop's mind as he walks up to your door.
- Medical companies like Medic-Alert can monitor your condition through sensors either on your shirt or in your body, sending the ambulance before the heart attack starts.
- Elder care companies like Sunrise can track grandma's dementia through her actions, using motion sensors and cameras, making certain she is safe and that an assisted-living decision is based on evidence.
One thing I learned recently is that these Always On home applications are being mislabeled as RFID. I wrote an Always On book proposal that was rejected, but that drew far more interest when it was called RFID For The Home. And it's true - sensors, motes, and cameras designed to work with radios, or turn on via radio signals, are using RFID techniques.
But RFID has a bad odor. Lobbying groups like CASPIAN are already looking to ban it, fearing the loss of privacy. Government moves to use RFID in Homeland Security, mandating their use in passports or drivers' licenses, draw the same negative reaction from the same sorts of folks. The effort to push Always On is becoming a political struggle, big businesses and their supporters in Washington against liberal rights groups.
In the near term that's a winning strategy. But the problem with any political strategy, in any business context, is that political opinions are subject to change. Do we really want these important consumer benefits held hostage to our views on politics?
What's needed is a bottom-up strategy, not a top-down one. We need to empower millions of network owners to become effective network managers, and to begin thinking what else those networks can do other than download Internet porn.
They can do a lot, and the networks are there. Their capabilities need to be sold in a different way for these benefits to be seen.
Corporations need to understand that the heart of the Always On message is, simply, marketing. Sell the user benefits to my neighbors and they will buy the package, when they need those services. Keep pushing RFID from the top-down and Always On will remain years away.
I'm now helping to produce a special blog on Open Source for ZDNet.
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout, a new kind of mediator for mobile phone users.
My last non-fiction book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards. Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
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