17th level Hacker

Innovation Commons and the End to End Network

There’s an excellent bit of commentary about innovation and the end to end design principle of interconnected networks in the audio from Larry Lessig at the SDForum Distinguished Speaker series. Here’s a quote that really stuck out for me:

We want a simple network and smart applications that run this network. The consequence of this design, which was selected solely because it allowed innovation without coordination among the network owners. The consequence of this design is to produce something like a neutral network. A network that can not know and therefor can not discriminate among applications that are placed on this network. So long as the applications going through the transport layer obey the standard protocols that the internet and physical layer need to facilitate communication it will run on this network. And you need no permission of the network owner. So this architecture guarantees that outsiders always have the right to innovate in this particular space. They have the right to innovate equally. Innovate equally here means that they have the right to innovate in something held in common. The right to innovate is held in common, and it’s that we should think of as the innovation common. Innovation common here is the right that people hold equally in the context of an end to end network to build applications and services for that network. That right is guaranteed by an architectural design and it inspires because of it’s egalitarian character an extraordinary range of innovation which otherwise would not occur.

This is exactly what the mobile network providers aren’t doing. I’ve made comments about this kind of thing before (Separating Infrastructure, Mobile Data Services and Innovation, and Reopening Mobile and Open). This kind of issue is the reason why people cite 802.11 and meshes of local area networking technologies as competitive with cellular. It has NOTHING to do with technology. Stop making technology arguments against it. So what if it’s not available everywhere, and it can’t do handoff, and it doesn’t tie into the voice network. That does not matter for the core argument. Because the unlicensed technologies are nondiscriminatory and interconnected with the Internet (big I), applications and services which address those shortcomings can be developed by anyone. Just like any disruptive innovation, the disruptive technology almost always takes root in a very undemanding application. Wireless LAN technologies will be disruptive to cellular unless the cellular providers take steps to make their network innovation friendly. There might be a short term win for cellular providers in having the integrated stack. But once the technology is mature enough the game changes. The temporary win of the integrated play is just that of an immature industry. Here, this is from Clayton Christensen in Capturing the Upside (transcript) which describes a rough parallel from the PC industry:

So here the rough stages of value added in the computer industry, and during the first two decades, it was essentially dominated by vertically integrated companies because they had to be integrated given the way you had to compete at the time. We could actually insert right in here “Apple Computer.” (Let me go back to the prior slide.) Do you remember in the early years of the PC industry Apple with its proprietary architecture? Those Macs were so much better than the IBM’s. They were so much more convenient to use, they rarely crashed, and the IBM’s were kludgy machines that crashed a lot, because in a sense, that open architecture was prematurely modular.

But then as the functionality got more than good enough, then there was scope, and you could back off of the frontier of what was technologically possible, and the PC industry flipped to a modular architecture. And the vendor of the proprietary system, Apple continues probably to make the neatest computers in the world, but they become a niche player because as the industry disintegrates like this, it’s kind of like you ran the whole industry through a baloney slicer, and it became dominated by a horizontally stratified population of independent companies who could work together at arm’s length interfacing by industry standards.

The integration of the mobile industry is essential at this point because the services mostly suck. They’re not good enough yet, and even the best of services leave the average user confounded and the expert user livid. But once the services are able to fulfill a level of capability that surpasses the average users basic needs, the value shifts out of the basic infrastructure. If the next generation of networks is approaching as rapidly as the folks at CTIA would have us believe, that day should be coming soon. It’s a tipping point too, once the infrastructure fulfills base requirements users come flooding in and stepping up the demand for associated services. Services at this scope can’t be delivered in a walled garden. This can’t be a top down, the industry needs to be allowed to disintegrate to provide the ability to fulfill on the services that the infrastructure enables.