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.