Monthly Archives: January 2011

Sponge nets: a new web and a new age

Media commentary on the web often refers to its rapid development, but one of the biggest surprises for me in the last decade was how slowly people have capitalised on the potential that the web offers. It has certainly gone a long way, but it has achieved by 2010 pretty much what some of us thought was doable by 2000. It is a story of missed opportunities, underinvestment, corporate spoiling and government interference. The same could be said of mobile comms. A lot has happened, but it could have been more, earlier. 2011 will finally see chargers that will work with any new mobile phone, and you can now finally find out where your friends are by looking at a mobile screen, something that I’ve been wittering about for over 10 years. Such progress is hardly meteoric. There are many reasons why progress has been slower than it could have been, and I don’t intend to use this entry to explore them, because it is more interesting to look at the level of untapped  potential that is already out there. Such potential can be tapped quickly when the right company appears with the right staff and the right business model, and approached the market in the right way.

One hint comes from a trend a decade ago that fizzled out. The telecomms industry back then got very worried by symbiotic, ad-hoc networks, set up between devices, offering a communications bypass to the main networks. We realised that people don’t actually need to pay for calls if they used this approach, that their phones and laptops could link directly to each other and form nets spanning the country that allowed free calls. We have skype now of course, which achieves some of the free call bit, but does it in other ways. The one actual symbiotic networks that I knew about fizzled out, because it wasn’t designed primarily as networks solutions, but rather just as a convenient way of linking games machines together. When that particular games machine failed, the network died with it. But the technology at least has been proven, and it is surprising that it hasn’t been developed elsewhere. But just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t.

Near field communications is about to take off, probably this year. Short range trades well with high speed. Some radio frequencies are absorbed by air very quickly, so are perfect for using for short range comms that won’t interfere with anyone any distance away.  You can squeeze a couple of megs out of a 3g link, but easily 100s of megs out of short range links even at low power. We should expect to see a wide range of devices, often tiny and disguised as jewellery, that communicate over such short distances. A very local network will link these devices with others on the person and with other nearby gadgets. By communicating with others worn by other people or objects nearby, a ‘sponge network’ would be created where there would be millions of potential routes for data to take between devices. The links in the network would appear and vanish again quickly, perhaps only living a few seconds, as people pass in the street.

Sponge networks would be similar in nature with the ad-hoc nets they evolved from, but generally there would be far more connections in parallel, and much more fleeting ones. Data would flood through networks using many parallel paths at once, rather like water flowing through a sponge. This would obviously make control quite different to some other types of network, but would greatly enhance bandwidth, and also be much harder to police. It may therefore be used as a means to undermine the intentions of government and big business to censor and control the mainstream web. For example, people could use wireless memory sticks to transfer music files without being supervised by ISPs or government, or organise political activities away from the web-based eyes of the police. If people want high speed, privacy and security, then this would be a big step in the right direction.

It is almost a certainty that sponge networks would revolutionise industry and politics because they dramatically enhance the range of potential business and political models. Part of the reason the web has taken so long to penetrate society is because it was too hard to use and too slow. Making comms faster and easier and more organic would effectively set politics free.

Sponge networks would also be ideal for cloud based activity, providing high bandwidth and high capacity without loading the web unduly. The use of high capacity personal storage and processing provides much of the storage, processing and transmission needed for clouds, and would be expected to accelerate the trend to cloud computing. It also should work perfectly with derivatives such as augmented reality and digital air.

But the trend isn’t just about faster and more private comms. It enables a new kind of operating system, an ultra-simple approach. Basic physics can be used to distribute tasks, data and sensory capability automatically without the need for heavyweight operating systems. Consequently, as ultra-simple computing runs its course,  devices could be even smaller, even faster, and even cheaper, while almost guaranteeing security. The details of this will take up a few later blogs, but it is the start of a new era where computing has another chance to achieve its full potential after being wasted for a few decades by clumsy software and hardware design.

2011 expectations

It is the time of the year when futurologists get asked what is lying ahead for the next year. I normally do long term stuff, and I can’t really remember which specific predictions that I wrote for 2011 back in the 90s, but it doesn’t stop people asking. And I’ve had to put together some ideas for occasional media interviews anyway. So here is a quick and dirty, also ran list of things to expect this year.

e-book wars: Kindle v tablets

tablet wars: Google v Microsoft v Apple v Nokia v RIM v Samsung v just about everyone else in the entire IT industry

OS wars: similar list

Digital jewellery: video cameras the size of memory sticks are already here, so we should expect a whole range of tiny devices disguised as jewellery, designed for specific apps.

Near field communications: devices will be able to communicate with each other at high speed over short range. Next gen mobile comms etc.

Maybe NFC doesn’t sound like much more than ongoing incremental improvement on what we already have, but this will also enable a half competent IT company to develop an alternative platform to the web for information distribution , cloud services, file sharing and essentially a parallel web. The advantage of this one potentially is that it would be far easier to hide from state and corporate control. So we should expect it, perhaps this year, and it will give us a whole new front for battles with media companies who have been very successful at forcing governments to help censor the existing web. Government has never really understood cyberspace. Cyberspace is in principle infinite and cannot be limited or censored completely. The www is only one specific cyberspace platform, and indeed so also is the entire comms network on which it runs. There are an infinite number of ways to skin this particular cat and NFC enables quite a few of them. I’d call it the undernet or the underweb or the backweb or blacknet or the subnet or something like that, but these terms are already spoken for, so maybe you can think up a new term for journos to use when it arrives. Physically, expect wireless USB sticks and stuff like that, that can freely exchange data as people walk past each other in the high street.

Speaking of mobile comms, this year we will finally see the extraordinarily belated arrival of the charger that will work with any mobile phone –  well any new one anyway, well, most new ones. Sadly, this is just one standard among a vast range that we need, and we shouldn’t expect too many others to arrive. Industry still generally thinks that launching incompatible ranges for any new technology  is still the best approach.

Socially, technology has been slow to impress on most people, but now that millions are using Facebook and other social tools, the web is ripening fast as a political platform. So far there have been some minor uses to coordinate demos or to campaign, but it is safe to say that the vast political potential the web offers has so far only had its surface scratched. But as people become familiar, as they carry the web with them all day long, and as they are more aware of its potential, and as they get increasingly frustrated with their so-called leaders on many fronts, the curves are almost ready to intersect.

Of course there will be many other things coming too, but are written about abundantly elsewhere. And I’m still not awake enough yet to be bothered duplicating it all here. A few interesting specifics will make it as blog entries later when I have more energy.

Happy new year.

Why isn’t there a…

Our cat is quite cute as cats go, but I am really not a cat fan, so I only really tolerate him. When he sits on my lap occasionally I don’t mind, but now in the winter, when he treats me as a heat source, he is far too demanding and I wish he would have his own place to sit. So I got thinking: why isn’t there a cat basket with an electric blanket in it so that the cat will go there to get warm instead? Sitting by the fire is obviously too intense heat, but a nice electric blanket would work fine. The heat would  obviously contribute to the rest of the room so there would be no significant environmental impact if he only needs it while the house is heated anyway.

So any electric blanket manufacturers out there, especially any looking for new markets during the recession. Cats and presumably dogs, maybe even small pets, they are potential users too. They need pet baskets with electric blankets in them. You have almost a year to hit the market for next Christmas. Get on with it.