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Friday, January 10, 2003

BobF at 9:52 PM [url]:

Two stories on coming to terms with the Internet

Two interesting articles in the New York Times (Jan 10, 2003)

As much as I dislike spam (after all, isn't advertising just a form of spam?) there is a value in such indirect sponsorship in situations where you cannot direct payment. The problem is that the current "content" industries, Hollywood and the music industry have gotten used to being to charge directly for their products. The new technologies are challenging their ability to keep tight control over their content bits and they are working hard on trying to maintain that control even if it threatens our ability to innovate and create new technologies.

Skipping Ads? TV Gets Ready to Fight Back

This is just one example of responding to the new realities and loss of control. Those who refuse to adapt to the new realities of the marketplace will indeed suffer as it becomes more difficult to maintain control over content. As this story demonstrates, we needn't sacrifice our ability to create new technologies and new economic value simply to preserve a particular business model that is under threat.

Unfortunately, many of those who claim to be most pro-business really don't believe in the marketplace and view business as a static, not a dynamic process. There is no shortage of new entrants ready to seize upon the opportunities provided by change. Listening only to the demands of those who are most threatened is not just a poor way to set policy, it actively discriminates against those who can bring us the most innovation and the most new value.

The e-rate was implemented with the best of intentions. It is a charge (we mustn't use the word "tax") on phone service and the money is supposed to help schools get connected to the Internet. Though both the telephone and the Internet seem to fall under the general category of "telecommunications" there is no special reason (other than to avoid the "T" word) to associate the use of one with the other and that is one source of the problem. In order to make the charge more palatable one needed to make the spending rules acceptable to the incumbent phone companies and favor "approved" providers.

Perhaps it's not fair to blame the problems on the e-rate itself but I find it difficult to see how a complex set of rules on how the money is to be spent can be reconciled with the need to and the ability to innovate in getting connectivity.

EDUCATION | January 10, 2003
Schools' Internet Subsidies Are Called Fraud-Riddled

DanB at 4:24 PM [url]:

SMBmeta proposal on new TrellixTech weblog

At my job with Trellix/Interland, we've been thinking about how we can apply what we've learned about web services, RSS, etc., to our products for small businesses. The experimentation with RSS, and the web services from Amazon, Google, and others, got us thinking. What does small business need to provide to others in a computer-to-computer way? One thing led to another, and it dawned on us: There's valuable information, such as location, that a business can provide to others without needing active serving. A semi-static XML file, like RSS, is sufficient. Out of this comes the "SMBmeta File" proposal. (That's "Small and Medium-sized Business metadata" file.)

I've started the TrellixTech.com web site (which has a weblog) to make this proposal and follow it through. It includes an introductory essay and a first draft of a specification. In the coming days and weeks some server-based tools for creating and checking these files, and a database to aid in the initial aggregation, will hopefully be released. Interland has agreed to provide hosting for these services, and much of the source code will be available under an Apache-like license so others can use it as a base for experimentation if they'd like.

Everybody I've talked to about this is very excited. It's a nice, open, distributed, and nonproprietary way to provide better information for customers to find what they want. It leverages off of what the weblog community has been doing -- yet another way in which the weblog community helps move the whole Internet ahead. Rather than being centralized, here's a directory that is written by those that are in it, and compiled by anybody who wants. It just seems ripe as a basis for innovation.

Read the TrellixTech.com material and see what you think.

Monday, January 06, 2003

BobF at 9:53 PM [url]:

VoIP is a simple idea and simply works

Rather than wondering whether Voice over IP is viable, we should be asking whether traditional telephony is viable. Why are cordless phones so bad and why are cellular phones getting so weird? Why is the telecommunications industry so dysfunctional?

I started to write about how Voice over IP "just works". There is no need for complex mechanisms like QoS. We simply stream packets over the Internet. Some of the protocols are complicated because they attempt to accommodate bridging to the legacy phone network but the basic concept is very simple. The New York Times story: Phone Calling Over the Internet is Attracting More Interest reflects the growing awareness of VoIP though it still focuses too much on pricing rather the ability to redefine what we mean by telephony.

Thinking about the simplicity of the VoIP and our ability to redefine or, simply define, what we mean by telephony made me reflect on what we accept as normal for the existing phone system. In the Times article, the Verizon spokesperson said that the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) (AKA POTS -- Plain Old Telephone System) has worked well for many decades. That's true by comparison to the alternatives -- no phone system at all. Now that we have alternatives the PSTN comes up wanting.

I have been using Vonage and also experimenting with FWD. The cost of phone calls is not as much an issue for me. I'm more concerned about the limitations of the PSTN. I was recently talking to someone over my Vonage line and there was some static and voice problems. I was using a fancy new 5.8 GHz cordless phone. When I switched to a wired phone the quality improved. The quality problem was with my cordless phone, not the IP connection!

Since there is so much of an emphasis on quality in the phone network why is the cordless link worse than the IP link? The answer may be in the definition of quality. QoS is actually a set of tradeoffs -- how much quality can you get within the constraints. The goal is to make the connection sound good enough and actually sets an upper bound on the quality! VoIP has no limits and there is no reason it can't carry full 6 channel audio!

The PSTN assumes scarcity and tries to find the way to see how little it can give each user. Such arbitrary limitations are endemic to traditional telephony. The problems are far more evident in the cellular network. In the PSTN the service is defined by the analog signal on the two wires at the jack. The cellular providers have no such simple interface. Though the network itself was designed to make it easy buy the instruments (phones) separately from the network, the current phones are locked into a single provider's network. Even if you have a GSM phone with a SIM card, you find that you cannot take an ATT SIM and place it in a T-Mobile phone.

This is a dysfunctional marketplace driven the by quirky gizmos touted by the providers. Sure I want to be able to send pictures over the network, but I want the ability to buy the best camera and connect it to the transport rather than choosing a camera phone or maybe a toaster phone (why not, what if I get hungry while talking?).

I have two of the early PDA phones--the Kyocera 6035 and the Handspring Visor GSM add-in phone. I compromised in order to reduce the number of devices I was carrying. The newer PDA have capabilities that I want such as better screens, better programmability and 802.11 connectivity. Why can't I add a transceiver as an add-on to my PDA instead of the other way around? After all, it is the phone service that's the commodity! The current situation is backwards and very dysfunctional.

Today's cellular network is like the early days of electric motors. The motors were very expensive so you would install one motor in a factory and connect everything to it with belts and pulleys. Bluetooth is the cellular version of these contraptions.

The cellular industry is not alone in wanting to own the definition of their product. The consumer electronics industry has the same attitude. The programming tools that are available are aimed at the manufacturers not the users. The problem with the cellular industry is the lack of alternatives. This attitude is demonstrated in a letter about "Programming Cell Phones" published on Dave Faber's IP list. It does seem as it Mr. Hobson rules in cellular telephony -- I can choose a game phone or a camera phone but I can't choose "my" phone.

Like any new technology VoIP is viewed in terms of the previous technology. We have the phenomena of equipment manufacturers rushing to bring out a whole new line of sophisticated VoIP PBXes and devices and, I'm sure, investors ready to take advantage of need for a lot of new equipment. This is like the early days of word processing when companies built expensive word processors. But VoIP is a concept. The current protocols associated with VoIP (such as SIP and H.323) are IP versions of the PSTN. The next generation will be far simpler, introduce new concepts and require no equipment purchase -- you'll just use your PCs and PDAs. You may also add VoIP capabilities to your eyeglasses which are conveniently placed near your ear. (A good reason to not get your vision corrected).

The simplicity of VoIP means I can define it to be what I want it to be. That's the secret of VoIP. It's not about price, it's about who is in control -- the users vs. the transport providers. The only question is how soon people will realize that they don't have to accept the compromises and quirks of the current phone system. And that awareness is starting to grow.

And that awareness is starting to grow.

BobF at 4:18 PM [url]:

Bad Coupling

I like to keep things simple. That's why I just plug new devices into my home network whenever I can instead of running special wires such as printer cables or USB cables. Any computer can get to any printer without being dependent upon a particular computer and I am free to place the printers where I need them rather than near a particular computer.

That's the ideal and, to some extent, I've actually gotten it to work. I really do want to keep things simple but when my wife read a draft of this essay she put a "HA!" after my first sentence because things are not simple despite my attempts.

Unfortunately the concept of simplicity is very difficult to grasp. It is "obvious" that as we add more possibilities systems must be become very complex and the "solution" is to add some intelligence into these systems. In reality it is this intelligence that is the real source of complexity by creating complex linkages among the elements. Such systems are only simple as long as you use them the way they were intended. This is the point behind David Isenberg's "Stupid Nets" essay.

If you try to create new capabilities by mixing and matching elements on your own then the implicit assumptions become impediments that one must work around. These implicit assumptions create couplings -- if you try to change one part of the system, you wreak havoc elsewhere. It's as if turning the volume knob on the television changed the order of the channels. We find ourselves spending more time and effort solving problems created by those trying to do us good than making progress.

  • Firewalls started out as simple fixes for exposed PCs and now we find that the Internet has been replaced by walled villages connected and then subverted by Virtual Private Networks.
  • We use the IP address as both a routing path and an address.
  • The DNS is supposed to be a source of stable names but it must also act as a directory service which means that the stability has given way to the whims of the marketplace.

I started this essay as a paean to the simplicity of just plugging my devices into my network but in writing it I came to better understand how difficult it is to get people to stop doing me favors that I must then work around.

For more details (and solutions!) see the full version of this essay.

For more, see the Archive.

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