The stupid network was seminal essay published by AT&T’s David Isenberg in 1997. It canvassed the revolutionary idea that In the Stupid Network, the data would tell the network where it needs to go.
“A rudimentary form of the Stupid Network – the Internet – is here today… my working hypothesis is that it [The Stupid Network] will be based on intelligent end user devices, intelligent customers, employees whose intelligence is valued as a corporate asset, and companies that can learn.” – David Isenberg
Thanks to the web browser and HTML we not only witnessed the emergence of the stupid network we also witness the simultaneous emergence of the stupid node and stupid data.
This then was the original internet: Users employing a Stupid Node (The Browser) to view Stupid Data (HTML) published on a Stupid Network (The Web).
Today we now have lots of stupid nodes and few smart nodes (i.e. the web server of the newspaper, social network, bank, auction house, search engine whose data you are plugging into via the web browser). Today the intelligence resides with the publisher of the semi-intelligent data.
What about tomorrow?
The most obvious path moving forward is the data becomes more intelligent.
The web we know today is fundamentally a primitive form of intelligent dust. We can make the data more intelligent by adding more information about the data to the data.
This is the promise of the semantic web. A world where computers talk to computers and understand what is being transmitted because the message carries the information required for the computer to not only display the information but to analyse and act upon the information that is embedded in the transmission. Perhaps even merge that data with other data to create a new message entity or action. Basically what is already happening today on the web but on steroids. Data will be come “fatter and fatter” as it carries more and more information about itself in the message bundle. The “Fatware” of XML will become the “Bloatware” of semantic web. The Semantic Web is a world of “fat and flexible” slow data.
The second most obvious path is the nodes become more intelligent.
“Years ago, enthusiasts predicted the coming of “smart dust” — tiny digital sensors, strewn around the globe, gathering all sorts of information and communicating with powerful computer networks to monitor, measure and understand the physical world in new ways” – New York Times Smart Dust? Not Quite, but We’re Getting There
Networks of intelligent nodes don’t need “Bloatware” to get the message. Intelligent nodes thrive on “Thin” data packets because the nodes are purpose built to handle just those message types. A world of intelligent nodes is a world of “thin but fragile” fast data.
If you had to rethink the Windows OS from the ground up you wouldn’t be thinking Internet Explorer you would be thinking a desktop of intelligent inter-connectable nodes. Capable of running intelligent nodes on wide range of intelligent devices (e.g. from micro medical sensors through to mobile phones and servers).
But what about the Network? Will the network become more intelligent?
Well to understand what may happen tomorrow lets take a step back and look at the parallel universe that has existed alongside the web.
Up until recently the Mobile Phone or Cellular networks were intelligent networks of Intelligent Devices that transmit stupid data (i.e. SMS). The Telco controlled who sold what and took a cut on every transaction. They did this by defining the different bits of data being transmitted across the network as separate services (i.e. Voice/SMS/Content).
As the internet and mobile converges in a single platform a new network model has to emerge.
The question is will the Cellular Networks become stupid or will the internet become intelligent?
The model championed by Apple, Nokia and the Telcos is the intelligent network. A proprietary platform where the Telco and/or the handset provider control who and what gets on the network and takes a cut on every transaction.
The model championed by Google is stupid network – an open commons if you like – where ongoing innovation will render any monopoly obsolete before it can become a threat to the dynamic of the network.
The history of the mobile phone since 1995 tells us that the intelligent network renders all the participants subservient to the network operator. They may grind out a living on the network but it will be only a mere fraction of what the network operator will make from the aggregated transactions. If the intelligent network becomes a reality in its current mobile manifestation then the Telcos will also become the media barons, bankers and information barons of the future. One ring to rule them all as they say in the good book.
The paradox for the intelligent network is, as we have seen with the mobile phone, it stifles innovation. Unlike the stupid network where we see innovation in abundance there is little or no incentive within the intelligent network for innovation. That’s why it took an industry outsider in Apple to reframe the mobile phone business by introducing the iPhone. Prior to Apple’s arrival innovation in Mobile Phones was little more than the annual fashion make over for the handset.
Unfortunately the history of the web over the same period has shown us that even in the stupid network it is only the network operator who can consistently turn Analog Dollars into Digital Dollars. In a stupid network awash with Freemium revenue models everyone else is left to scavenge for Digital Pennies.
So it doesn’t really matter to the network operator if they are operating an intelligent network or a stupid network they are still the winners simply because they own the key to the network.
This then is what I find fascinating about the stupid network. It is the simple observation that the much anticipated commitment to innovation is actually magnified by the size of the network and that the rate of change across the network is so fast that not only does it render any monopoly obsolete before it can become a threat it actually renders any start up obsolete before it can become profitable. The net result being a history of cyclical hyper investment bubbles that lead to the inevitable cyclical “flames outs” (e.g. the Dot Com Boom and Web 2.0)?
The question moving froward is will the innovation engine that is in reality the sum of the individual parts of the stupid network refocus its combined energies on the task reinventing the stupid network so that one day all the participants can profit equitably from sharing the wireless commons?
If it does it will revolutionise telecommunications by unlocking access to the network and deliver new technologies that render the existing Telecoms network models obsolete. Thereby making the Telecoms industry subject to the same “Freemium” pressures and Long Tail economics that the Media and Software industries currently face today.
“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi