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Friday, January 25, 2002

DanB at 11:50 AM [url]:

Happy 18th Birthday, Mac!

I posted this on my web log today:

To celebrate yesterday's 18th birthday of the Macintosh (as pointed out by Dave Winer), here's a link to the story behind the advertisement that launched it (I especially like the part about the difficulty in finding an actress who could twirl and throw a hammer well -- I never thought about that -- and that the board of directors hated it at first). The URLs of the script and other old material on the Chiat/Day web site don't work any more, but you can find it saved on www.archive.org. On either place, read the quote of what "Big Brother" was supposed to be saying. "...Where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths...We are one people. With one will. One resolve..." In today's light, is he supposed to be talking about IBM, Microsoft, Java, or what?

DanB at 10:41 AM [url]:

DanG says it well

Dan Gillmor had some wise things to say about the tech bubble burst today.

Thursday, January 24, 2002

BobF at 10:16 AM [url]:

Amtrak: Just what is "Internet Access"

Amtrak seems to be taking a step forward by providing Internet access on their trains according to the Boston Globe. Unfortunately this is one more example of confusing web browsing with Internet access. They are providing fixed computers -- a combination of PCs and PDAs. I noticed the article quoting a brand manager from Yahoo which only confirms this confusion. I've seen the same situation at hotels where adding a keyboard and a lame browser is considered Internet access. And then there's WAP, which was supposed to deliver content to phones, pretended it was giving Internet access.

It is important to understand that the Internet is about providing connections without predefining what the applications are. I fear that the guaranteed failure of this Internet access on the trains will only make it more difficult to provide the access we really need: Access that is most likely to come in the guise of an 802.11 (a or b) connection or an Ethernet jack.

We see the same situation on airplanes where we see services that provide little more than email and some web browsing being pitched against the more general connectivity that Boeing is trying to offer. Unfortunately the airlines seem to be reluctant about deploying any such services and the pricing may be too high to make actual use of connectivity practical. GPRS (high speed access over the cellular network) faces a similar pricing debacle. I can now get 14.4Kbps access on my cell phone. GPRS promises much higher speed but the price per bit is also much higher making it impractical to use it for anything but short messages.

The real battle, which I will continue write about, is between the current telecommunications industry which wants to dole out limited access to predefined services and those of us who have seen the value and possibilities of really being connected

Perhaps I am asking too much. Maybe it is too difficult for people to get beyond their experience of having all services defined by some provider of the service. The lesson of the Internet is that, to paraphrase Aristotle, it gives us the means and will change the world. For too many people, all they can understand is "let me buy that bauble".

Wednesday, January 23, 2002

DPR at 12:20 PM [url]:

Asking fundamental questions

One reason for having a blog is to share one's interests in an informal way. Since I just wrote a note that appeared on Dave Farber's list in response to a very interesting Forbes article, I thought it might be worth expanding on some of the thinking I've been doing about "spectrum regulation".

Ten years ago I was working on the implications of mobile, wearable computers (first at Lotus, then at Interval Research). And about that time, I went to COMDEX to wander the floors, as I often did, just to see what was going on.

When my cell-phone refused to work (because there was not enough capacity to handle all of those phones crowded in a single small region), I started to wonder about what that meant for mobile computers. Asking a few people got me a depressing answer: it can't be fixed. Too much interference.

Now I'm nothing if not an iconoclast. I like to question conventional wisdom. And the answer is important - if we are going to have a world filled with devices that communicate wirelessly, then this would be a BIG problem for mobile devices.

So I started learning about this problem, delving into the fundamental physics and communications theory. I learned more about spread spectrum and ultra-wideband UWB radios. (Interval Research went on to sponsor initiatives to try to get regulatory approval, and even spun off a company for UWB, called Fantasma). But it was depressing to learn that despite the hype, spread-spectrum and UWB radios still "interfere" with each other, so they were not the answer to the problem of putting a lot of mobile devices in a small space. Now we have 802.11 (and it's poor deformed cousin, Bluetooth), but it also still degrades due to interference if you put too many stations in too small a space (though it's a lot more scalable than cellular phones!)

So my question morphed into the question: "is there a physical limit to the capacity of a system of radios as the density of the radios increases?" And I realized something very interesting: radio signals don't interfere with each other! That may seem surprising, because engineers and regulators use the metaphor of "interference" to get their work done. But in fact, radio signals just add to each other, non-destructively. And it turns out that what we call "interference" is actually best thought of as "limitations of a particular receiver technology".

What does that mean? Well, it means that better radio technologies eliminate interference. There's no question there.

Yet that insight means that the idea of "spectrum regulation" has a serious problem. If technology improves, the regulations become unnecessarily strict. When we make better radio systems, the old ones become obsolescent, and wasteful. We could improve the entire system by junking the old stuff, and replacing it all with functionally compatible systems, based on new insights and design.

Yet this doesn't happen. Instead, we have chosen to regulate spectrum in such a way that obsolete designs (like clear-channel commercial radio, NTSC coding, various military radar systems) are given resources that can never be recovered. (Andy Lippmann of the Media Lab once pointed out to me that about one third of the NTSC signal's information capacity is devoted to clock synchronization, because it was very hard to build stable oscillators when the original B&W tube TV's were designed, so the spectrum capacity was wasted to save RCA a few bucks per TV).

And the basic question of the limits on "spectrum capacity", as a scientific question, is slowly developing answers - surprising ones. It turns out that network cooperation increases capacity. Tim Shepard, in his MIT Ph.D. thesis, demonstrated that capacity can increase as the number of transmitters in an area increase, if they cooperate. Communications theorists have demonstrated other approaches, such as "space-time coding" that also increase capacity as the number of transceivers increase.

It's beginning to look like the spectrum may be much more plentiful than we think, if we manage it well.

The question of the day is: what's the best way to manage this. There are some who want to create a market solution. I'm all in favor of that - markets often incent innovation. But they go on to propose that the market solution should be based on treating spectrum bands as property that can be bought and sold. That's a pretty poor way to incent innovation - not that it won't work at all, but the problem is that the value isn't in the spectrum but in the technology that opens it up. And a spectrum owner may have very little incentive to make use of improved technology - we have seen that the NAB (though its members effectively own spectrum) has no incentive whatsoever to move away from the NTSC standard.

So I'm much more interested in developing ideas that treat spectrum as "open" (or as Nygaard puts it, like the "ocean"), and creating market mechanisms that focus on innovation in the devices using the spectrum.

It's great that the ideas are surfacing in business publications like Forbes. Hopefully the scientists and innovators can obtain themselves some room to enable mobile and flexible computing.

Monday, January 21, 2002

BobF at 3:28 PM [url]:

Name change!

I just get email from ATT Broadband saying that they are going to discontinue the use of Mediaone.net on March 15, 2002 and I must change my email address from MediaOne.Net to ATTBI.Net. Good thing I use my own domain names and don't depend on theirs. It is one more reminder of the danger of overloading handles like email addresses with other agendas.

Sunday, January 20, 2002

BobF at 12:59 AM [url]:

I guess we're all playing with the possibilities

I'm on the road without too much time for writing. As I mentioned, I am the Jerry Michalski's retreat which is a kibbitzing event that is another example of the Internet's influence in that it is possible to tie together a disparate community complemented by in-person meetings. While this is not at all new, it is greatly facilitating by being a counterpart to an online community. And, of course, since the attendees include various people involved in creating and using prominent blogs, there was discussion of the phenemona.

I find this current "let's try to see if we can do it from our little devices" thread a cute diversion but I'm not sure how well the idea of mixing these musings and longer essays and [the letter cue is broken on my keyboard!]uick observations works. But, for now, it does encourage me to publish comments that I would otherwise limit to private email exchanges. The limits of this laptop, my hotel's inability to keep their Internet connection working and time mean that I will postpone some pending postings till I get back to a better environment.

When I again am on a better computer with a better connection I will want to elaborate on the issue of connectivity.

I want to explain why I see connectivity as such an important issues and fear that giving into the incumbent telecom companies and their "broadband" agenda is so dangerous. I even go so far as to compare it to a vote on the first amendment since it really is about whether we will limit our channels of communications to the whims of those who are most threatened by it's growth. Or whether we will allow it to achieve its potential in giving us capacity to not only exchange messages, but to innovate. The web is only a minor hint of what would be possible if we were not hobbled

DanB at 12:36 AM [url]:

RIM 950

Well, I'm back home now. You can see some of the problems with blogging while walking. (Walking and typing is not a good idea.) It was quite dark out. The RIM has a backlight, but at 50 years old, my eyes aren't the greatest and the backlight isn't the brightest. Seeing the keys in the dark (they aren't backlit, just the screen) was hard. So, lots of typos, but I caught some when I tried proof reading. (And no spell check...) It's nice to know you can do it, but talking on a cell phone (with an ear piece) is much easier and safer.

DanB at 12:12 AM [url]:

Well, I'm blogging this on a RIM while walking the dog in the snow. Keycoards are great even if they're small. Unfortunately you can't wear gloves nor pay attension to the walking. With visual cues covered by snow I almost walked into the street. The dog is very puzzled and I'm afraid the flakes will short the RIM, so that's all for now.

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