Crash – The End of P2P

exclusive for Digital Mogul

KaFOOM!

Wasn’t it so exciting, in 1999, to see online file trading taking off in a massive way? To see Shawn Fanning so adored by the press and dozens of music exchange services popping up, like CuteMXOhahaFreenet and Scour Exchange. No longer was music trading a covert and elite operation – grandma was using Napster to go and grab those Tom Jones BandMP3s and Johnny was clicking away and consuming album after album of Pearl JamNirvanaBeck and Zepplin. Those were the days…

We’ll have to relish such memories, since soon that may be all we have of them. The rocket ship of free online trading is rapidly coming to a crash landing. But why? How could I make such a grim claim when there are tens of millions of Napster users downloading away, right now, and even as I write these words, digital music is pouring en masse down modems, ISDN lines, DSL, cable modems and T1s?

One needs to look a little bit more closely to see what is wrong. First off, Napster’s recent deal with Bertelsmann makes sense. They will, before too long (two years, absolute tops) shut off the free component of their service and start charging for a subscription service. Why? Because there are two ways to get files to a user’s hard drive: you either have a centralized service or a decentralized service. Napster tried to create a third category, which I’ll call “arbitrated peering.” (They introduce people wanting to share files.) Unfortunately for them, it still came down to having a bunch of centralized services for which they were responsible. This makes them vulnerable legally (as per their current lawsuit) and financially (they have to pay to run those servers!). They can get over both hurdles by striking deals with the major labels, charging for services, and “becoming legit.” In short, no more free Napster. Fiscally, what they’re doing now is sheer insanity. Have you ever paid a dollar to Napster? Have you ever even seen any Napster-hosted advertising? And yet how much value have its users derived from its existence? Fundamentally, businesses need to make money. Those dot coms that hadn’t already learned that are “getting a learning” from their investors, and from the public market.

Okay, so if Napster goes under or becomes “legit,” what about other alternatives? Most of the Napster-style arbitrating peers have gone the same way as Napster. Scour Exchange first fired nearly all of its engineers, then shut down the service. CuteMX was off for a year, briefly came back on, and is now off again, this time for good. IMesh has disappeared into obscurity, and Ohaha never left the ground. None of these companies found a way to make money, feel free to their users, and to appease the record labels and movie titans. I applaud their efforts, but they were up against a nearly impossible task.

One of the main problems that have faced such companies is that “being legit” is expensive, complicated, and in some cases, impossible. In a centrally-arbitrated system, for instance, the central node doesn’t pass any of the music files itself, making it hard for entities like Napster to find out authoritatively who is copying what, simultaneously making it difficult to block unauthorized copying and to compensate organizations whose material was copied. So companies looking to set up a long-term viable business model must have an extraordinarily complex technology infrastructure to manage asset tracking, content management, deployment architectures, digital rights management, etc.

Just today at the Streaming Media West Conference in San Jose I strolled through dozens upon dozens of companies each of whom claims to be the best solution for their particular niche in this infrastructure: one company had even gone so far as to make a graph showing all of the components required for a business-viable, legal streaming infrastructure. There were, at my rough count, about two dozen components, of which the company was claiming to be able to implement a handful. It is almost ironic that there are so many companies with which one must partner and license products and establish relationships as to make actually providing legal, streaming content nearly impossible. The very infrasture established to help streaming companies get off the ground has gotten so complicated as to prohibit their founding. So it’s going to be a while before we see a long-term, successful, legal and centralized music service.

“Ah!” some hackers may cry, “but what about pure peered networks?” These networks, like Gnutella and Freenet, have been highly touted as the solution to filesharing: since every client on the network is also a server, no central entity is legally or financially responsible for the network’s existence. No need for those dozens of companies! Tadaaa!

Unfortunately, these networks tend not to scale well, for the very reason that instead of searching for a file from a central corporation with powerful servers in a colocation facility, you have to ask a whole network of people if they have the file you’re looking for; then they ask their peers, and so forth, seven levels deep. Pretty soon, just to be connected to the network in a slight capacity you have to be transacting thousands of queries a second, passing some of them on, keeping track of who sent whom what, etc., and your computer quickly bogs down, to say nothing of your modem or even ADSL connection. And this is before people are even uploading files from your computer – it’s just the cost of being on the network at all.

Consequently, Gnutella is effectively unusable for modem users currently. Searches take mind-numbing amounts of time, and one’s Net connection rapidly fills with Gnutella administrative and request packets. Even for users with very high-speed network access, such as the 100mbps taps in Stanford dorm rooms, the experience has slowed to be less than wholly compelling and taxes the computer enough to make other work (such as reading email) difficult. Even valiant attempts to moderate the unnecessary traffic, like Clip2’s Gnutella Reflector, have not been successful in bringing the network up to a comfortably useable level. And with more people piling on each day, the situation is going to get worse, not better. Attempts to build a next-generation Gnutella, once called GnutellaNG, now gPulp, have been waffling and degrading and it’s unclear if there will ever be such a product, and if it does materialize, if this product will actually even be a filesharing tool of some sort.

Freenet has been talked about quite a bit as an example of a next-generation peer-to-peer network, but has yet to really take off. While its technical design is excellent, very few people are actually running it: there aren’t yet any easy-to-use Freenet clients or servers, and it’s unclear if any may materialize in the next year. Even if Freenet does become popular, it’s equally unclear if it will be able to scale better than Gnutella.

So what does that leave? Not much, unfortunately. While a vast number of companies are starting up in the peer-to-peer (now dubbed P2P by investors who feel an urgent need to categorize every technology as “an x2y play”) space, most are focused on (ready?) B2B P2P – that is to say, using peer technology to lend a hand to administrators in the workplace, doing everything from distributing the spare storage space or CPU cycles on corporate computers to making sure that anti-virus updates are spread as quickly as possible. After all, that’s something that can be sold: something that a company can be started on. How do you make money (while avoiding getting sued) enabling people to illegally exchange music files? It seems that nobody has arrived at a good answer to date, and the non-profit/academic attempts to date, such as Jungle Monkey, have been underwhelming.

Now that I’ve dashed your hopes for free music on alternative systems, let me return to Napster. Just in case you still held on to a glimmer of hope that Napster could win their court battle and would, out of the goodness of their corporate heart, keep the free service up and running, there are immediate problems that those who share MP3s on the service are going to run into. One of them is named eMusic.

EMusic has been selling online digital audio for longer than anyone else. Right now, they sell more MP3s than anyone else – a lot more. In their most recent quarter they sold their three millionth song and made $1.5 million on downloadable song revenues. They’re selling a lot more MP3s than anyone else out there. The sad part is that they are often overlooked by the media and still aren’t anywhere near profitable: they lost $8 million last quarter. Their stock price is below $1; at the time of this writing it’s fifty cents. They’re understandably frustrated that amongst all of the hype and hoopla surrounding the glamorization of free online trading, and the wrist-wringing of those looking to make money, that a company with a reasonable and potentially profit-capable model should languish unadorned and left to die.

Well, they’re not dying quietly. On November 21st, they released a piece of software that finds users on the Napster network who are trading eMusic files and sends them an instant message asking them to stop sharing said files. If they don’t comply in 24 hours, eMusic notifies Napster, which then disables that user’s account. If the user persistently tries to keep trading eMusic’s files under different aliases, eMusic will contact the user’s ISP and have their Internet access terminated. They haven’t sued Napster itself yet, but, as Gene told Reuters, “It’s an option we’re considering.”

Ouch.

EMusic, and companies like it, are only too eager to hasten the death of an industry that has begun to wean people off of the idea of paying for music. In their press conference, they indicated that they’d be willing to apply their software to communities outside of Napster and to license their “service” to other record labels. With free music communities out of the way, they can get back on track to selling MP3s and return to “business as usual.”

With programs like theirs scaring users away from sharing their music on public networks and with Napster and other music exchange networks under heavy fiscal and legal pressure to switch to a pay-for-play model, it’s unclear how much longer the free music free-for-all will last before tumbling down to the grim Earth.

Powering The Future Internet

exclusive for Digital Mogul with Rafael Queseda

note: this article was heavily edited by Rafael Queseda and the editors at Digital Mogul. The article is not necessarily written in my style.

Most people talking about broadband these days generally have in mind two different kinds of services: HFC (hybrid fiber coaxial) cable and DSL. Understanding the differences and limitations of these services is important to any discussion concerning the future
of the Internet, and basic to that understanding is defining what the term “broadband” means, as it can have many meanings.

Some consider broadband to be a description of
bit rate speeds in excess of 64 Kbps or even 1.5 Mbps.
However, in strict technical parlance, the term refers to the
transmission of numerous frequencies over a single pipe such
as coaxial cable or DSL, preferably bi-directionally, or
interactive. In that respect, for example, the opposite of
broadband would be baseband service such as
POTS, or plain old telephone service, that delivers voice
circuit services, only (though it is bi-directional and
somewhat interactive).

In the case of cable operators, broadband services are enabled when a cable company
“overbuilds” the capacity of its existing copper-based network so as to deliver products other than normal CATV. This is accomplished by connecting to the long haul telecommunications fiber optic backbone, thereby adding telephony and Internet
services to a cable company’s traditional offering. Similarly, DSL providers transform the phone networks’ legacy of “twisted pair” copper wires by overbuilding that network with a
system of components including “digital subscriber access multiplexers,” “splitters,” and “distribution frames.” In this way, broadband pipes are created out of POTS, with the DSL
provider then able to deliver voice, high speed Internet, and (as a by-product of Internet), streaming video, music, and other media.

What most people don’t know is that a lurking behemoth is set to re-define the broadband landscape, delivering bundled services unimagined (and largely feared) by cable and DSL providers. This behemoth is none other than the brethren of power utility companies, presently re-defining themselves in the face of advancing deregulation in both telecommunication and utilities industries.

Starting around fifteen years ago, power companies began laying fiber optic cables along their rights of way. They figured at the time that they would use the data lines to monitor power consumption at remote locations and to control their power equipment from afar. As early as 1994 though, they began to understand that they might be able to do more
with these cables – that they might be able to provide full fiber to the home (FTTH). Congress’s passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave public utility companies the go-ahead to provide these services and the resulting projects are beginning to gain
serious momentum.

The real inspiration to move into emerging broadband service provisioning came relatively
recently, with wave after wave of power deregulation sweeping the nation.
Deregulation invites discount-service providers to enter a regional marketplace and capture market share by discounting utility services. Incumbent utilities recognize that the
customer base they have spent as many as a hundred years developing is in jeopardy. Their fear, coupled with the uncertainty of their mission and profitability in the power
sector, has caused them to look at telecommunications, Internet, CATV, and a host of hybrid services developed from this baseline, as a way to take advantage of their existing
infrastructure and maintain relevancy in the new economy.

More important than their laying of fiber optic cables
are their perpetual rights of way to the customer base, that
differs significantly from the access models utilized by DSL
and cable operators. Power companies enjoy access to entire
regional populations to whom they can market additional
services through a variety of channels – beginning with the
monthly utility bill. DSL and cable operators would kill for
that kind of presence and, instead, must spend hefty sums to
market their products to a blanket population.

This is a key barrier to entry that favors utility companies over
cable and DSL providers. Since fiber optic cable is not
prohibitively expensive and its cost continues to decline,
power companies are in a position to become overlords of the
entertainment, information and communications networks of the
future. Wiring the proverbial “last mile” is crucial and
though the telephone companies and cable operators would like
to implement the solution, they are hard pressed to justify
the necessary upgrades. Power companies, with their knowledge
and experience in wiring and maintaining services to entire
cities, can deploy at will – whereas telcos and cable
operators, by contrast, are reluctant to tear out the cash cow
that their prior investment in copper has created. They’re
between a rock and a hard place because their moneymaker is
about to become a millstone around their neck in an emerging
economy where they will have to swim or sink. Not many CEO’s
want to deliver that message to their shareholders.
Furthermore, without direct access to the consumer in
meaningful numbers to create economies of scale, DSL and cable
operators are forced to buy it from the power companies who
control that floodgate.

One technology company that
has been driving this kind of initiative for the last six
years is EarthSun, through a project called the EarthSun
Alliance. This is a media and technology integrator with
centers of operation in Southern California, Nevada, Utah,
Texas, Virginia, New York and Cambridge (MA). EarthSun is
focused on pure fiber networks and photonic technology that
far outperform the delivery capabilities of the legacy
copper-based infrastructures of DSL and cable operators.
EarthSun thinks of itself as “the light at the end of the
tunnel” – a long awaited miracle for the consumer, but the
headlight of an oncoming train for DSL and cable companies.

According to Rafael O. Quezada, EarthSun’s president
and CEO, nine out of every ten cable or DSL deployments
involve complex deals that lease rights-of-way and pole
infrastructure from power companies. EarthSun’s strategy was
to partner at the top of the food chain with investor-owned
utilities (and the most aggressive photonic technology
developers among them) to effectively end-run the temporary
dominance of the DSL and cable broadband provisioning network.

EarthSun is planning to roll fiber to the masses in a
hurry. “We have all the rights-of-way, the conduits, the
ductwork, to get to every home in the country,” says Larry
Logan, director of public policy analysis at Edison Electric
Institute (EEI), who consults with EarthSun. “We are wired to
more homes than have television sets or telephones” [from Stan
Benjamin’s “The Fiber Optic Connection,” Electric
Perspectives
, September/October, 1994, p.14].

Power companies have also had time to learn from the
mistakes of existing broadband deployments, while continuing
to roll out their fiber. For example, the telephone companies
often use fiber optic loops (called SONET rings) to transmit
information between a group of nodes. A phone call between San
Francisco and Boston might traverse a few such rings. This
model scales well if most of your traffic is localized – that
is to say, most people make more local calls than
long-distance calls. But data traffic tends to be
non-localized – you’re just about as likely to be viewing a
website that’s across the nation as one that’s next door. This
means that the rings get increasingly congested as data
traffic rapidly outpaces voice traffic and consequently their
networks haven’t been scaling well. Instead of using SONET
rings, ideally one would deploy optical switches that could
very quickly pass information along to its destination,
without the need to convert back-and-forth between electricity
and light at every hop, as is done with the SONET rings. Just
in time for the imminent broadband party, optical switches
began to roll out this year. “About time!” one could cry; this
technology has been widely anticipated for years.

While many power companies are a little reluctant to
get into the ISP business directly, they have already been
making major moves to lease their fiber and infrastructure to
outside firms. Recently, Cogent Communications blew everyone’s socks off when they announced that they would be providing 100 megabit dedicated Internet services for
$1000/month starting in November. But it wasn’t exactly trumpeted that Cogent was leasing fiber from Williams Communications, a division of the energy and gas pipeline provider Williams; the deal netted Williams a cool $215 million. This clearly illustrates the value of power companies that take advantage of their extensive rights of way. The lesson is not new, however: Sprint started out courtesy of the rights of way on the Southern Pacific Railway, whose acronym provided the inspiration for the company name; Western Union was once partnered with the railway lines of frontier America. What portrait of the American west would be complete without telegraph lines strung next to the railroads?

Quezada’s EarthSun Alliance hopes to harness the utility companies’ fiber lines in a real
hurry, bringing network, hardware, and service providers to the table together to provide an all-fiber network for homes and businesses across the U.S. Their goal is to provide the
public with 100 megabit fiber service for prices that undercut ADSL by Christmas 2001. A very aggressive schedule, perhaps, but they are presently in Alpha and will be following that with a 2000-home beta trial mid-2001.

If EarthSun succeeds, it could trump the existing cable versus DSL
squabbles. Given the existing infrastructure with which both
cable and telephone companies are presently encumbered, it
might prove impossible for DSL and cable to scale up to this
level of service in any meaningful way. EarthSun and other
next-generation optical firms would duke it out to provide
better, cheaper fiber with a vast array of services. Combined
with streaming video over IP and low-latency voice over IP,
the power utilities, through third parties like EarthSun,
could end up providing electricity, dial-tone, Internet, fax,
television, teleconferencing, and other yet-to-be-imagined
services all on one low-cost bill (in similar fashion to Sprint’s ION) and
putting the cable and telephone companies in a scramble to
re-define their business models, perhaps ducking for cover as
they deliver the news to their shareholders.

Why You Should Have a Website – and How To Do It

You should have a website. You have something to share that only you can share,
something that other people can enjoy, learn from, and be entertained by: your life.

Most people that I tell this to laugh and tell me that they can’t think
of anything to put on a website. This is because a lot of the personal
webpages out there aren’t very helpful or even very interesting: some
poorly designed page with blinking tags and silly animations with very
little to say and a few pictures of dogs and cats and the webmaster at
various parties. Most people are afraid of falling into this mode, and
justifiably so.

But most people don’t realize the really great stuff that they have to
share: it’s not (necessarily) their pictures of their dog or their cat
or what kind of ice cream they like: most people who don’t know you
really don’t care and can’t get anything out of that. Instead, think
back on the things that you have done. Maybe you’ve written poetry
about your garden. Maybe you’ve done some pencilled sketches of a
tree-filled horizon. Maybe you play a little guitar on the side. Maybe
you’ve picked up a thing or two about carpentry. All of these things
represent valuable contributions that you could make to the rest of
mankind.

Share them! Type in your poems! Borrow a friend’s scanner to scan in
your pictures and paintings and sketches — and record that groovy guitar
lick you just came up with. Write a little piece on the correct way
to dovetail on a clothes bureau or that nifty recipe you have for walnut
cookies.

Now putting it on a website doesn’t mean it will be read by millions.
Maybe only a handful of people will, and most of those even will be
your friends and family. but in the process of realizing what you have
to share and expressing that, you will have enriched yourself. And those
handful of people who came to your page will be that much more edified
about the world. And who knows? Maybe your page will be read by
thousands of people a day! But don’t start with this mentality or you’ll
get caught up in the (false) enormity of it all.

So now I hope I’ve got you pumped up to make a page. How should you
go about doing it?

Why The Net Is NOT Dead

Things are grim financially for dot-coms.

Well…duh.

You can’t try to make millions of dollars out of thin air, although
it’s a pleasantly optimistic thought. What it ends up boiling down to
is that when some people are making money out of thin air, some
people’s money is disappearing into thin air. This has absolutely,
absolutely nothing to do with the viability of the Internet or
high-technology — but more on that in a bit.

I had an interesting set of conversations with some friends lately
where we were attempting to fix the blame for the rollercoaster ride
that has been tech stocks for the last few years: at first I wanted to
blame individual investors. Individualized trading has without a doubt
completely changed the economic landscape…and I think it’s for the
worse. Institutional investors spend their whole careers on the market
and have a solid grasp of the companies involved and their
technologies. They make investments based on careful analyses and
poised thought and they can see through superficial press
releases. Individual investors tend to have day jobs and do a little
trading on the side. Consequently, they don’t have time to acquire a
detailed understanding of the markets they are trading in. This, in
turn, leads them to be subject to believe every last press release,
rumor, and hype around a company or industry. This is NOT healthy for
the market.

BUT, the argument goes further (courtesy of my friends), why are they
investing? Well, because they can, courtesy eTrade, Datek, Ameritrade,
and such kin — and such firms have gone out of their way to tell
people that they can make LOTS of money by investing in the market,
encouraging millions of Americans to begin individual trading. So, to
a significant degree they are at fault.

But, it was pointed out, there is a culprit even beyond them, a
culprit clearly at fault for the whole situation: mass media.

Even at the start, when things were beginning to really explode and
Jupiter and Forrester began releasing their reports on growth full of
hyperbole and optimistic exaggeration, technologists felt a flattered,
but a little uneasy. It was clear from the start where it would all
go: overhype always leads to a perceived crash. It’s what the media
likes. It’s their formula.

Take some X (‘X’ being a person, industry sector, company, or
technology) that is doing reasonably well. Hype up X until you’ve
gotten everyone very excited about it and convinced it’ll
revolutionize the planet; tell people you knew all the time that X was
going to be great. Supporters of X won’t fight against the unmerited
attention – who would do that? Then, after a little pause, begin to
question the popularity of X and its long-term viability. Meticulously
and warily document “the rise and fall of X” — people dislike, but
usually trust, skeptics. Sure enough, X will find it has begun to lose
some favor with investors and partners and can’t really oppose the
decline, since the overhype was never really justified in the first
place. The whole giant perceived rollercoaster of X may have
absolutely nothing at all to do with X’s true viability.

This is, indeed, exactly what we saw happen with the Net. It’s doing
just fine, thank you. Next-generation applications are still be
advanced and deployed. It is, currently, no future hype or hyperbole
needed, really frigging incredible. In fact, I just wrote a little bit about
how Google is now an extension of my brain. This is the here and now.

Internet usage continues to grow – broadband is rapidly penetrating in
Europe, which should really shake things up: due to high billing of
local toll calls (as previously mentioned by many other folks) people
don’t have “always-on” Internet access. Flat-rate broadband is going
frigging tear through the European continent. And did I mention the
fiber-optic utility play that’s going to take everyone by surprise in
the next few years?

The Net is doing just fine, thank you very much. Yes, stocks are
tanking. Yes, dot-coms are getting trashed by the media. Yes, people
(my best friend included) are getting laid off. Yes, the easy money is
gone. Does that have anything to do with the quality of the
technology, the progress of its advance, or even its popularity?

No.

Maybe the giant profits will come later. Maybe the gleaming reporting
will come back. Mabye investors will flock again to dot-coms soon. But
in one sense, I don’t really care. I’m a technologist; I’ll figure out
how to pay rent. Let me and my brethren (and sistren) build and get
out of the way with your silly news articles.

Ladies and gentlemen, the death of the Internet has been greatly
exaggerated.

COMDEX Overview

for KoreanZ.com

This year’s COMDEX/Las Vegas showcased all that is hot with investors right now. While there were many cute and innovative technologies, one got a slight sense of desperation from the show floor. April’s tech stock plunge has sorely sobered the market and it seems as if many companies are attempting to simply throw together keywords that investors can rally around as a way of appeasing skittish investors with “safe” options for their money. Consequently, keynotes focused on openness, standards, and the interoperability that would be required for innovation, instead of innovation itself. Old, failed ideas were brought out of the closet and dusted off to seem new and inventive, sometimes succeeding. There was a move towards showcasing hardware instead of Internet services – at least hardware can theoretically make a profit. Even Oracle seems to be attempting to turn their software into a hardware play via their new Oracle 9i Server Appliance partnership with Compaq. (Rumor has it that but three days prior, their partnership was with Dell.) A number of services that were shown had a hardware tie-in; one example of this being biometric solutions that allowed for single sign-on with combinations of biometric devices (fingerprints, iris scans, voiceprints, etc.).

But with so many companies focused on hardware, the competition ends up evolving even advanced hardware into a commodity. With commoditized hardware, standardized protocols that allow for software commoditization, and Application Service Providers (ASPs) falling out of favor with investors, a grim reality becomes apparent: most of the companies on the show floor don’t have a viable business model in today’s harsh “post-IPO” New World Order. As we see below, the dot-com boom is over. April’s NASDAQ butchering left investors gasping and pockets empty. Things haven’t gotten better. The “easy money” is gone now, in the pockets of those who cashed out quick and are getting a good laugh at the whole situation from whatever Caribbean paradise they’ve escaped to. Those who remain must deal with the difficult realities of business; namely, making a profit.

Consequently, this difficult climate has led to such interesting “group panic” plays as Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a short-range (10m or less) RF protocol to allow for low power, megabit transmissions between devices like cell phones and PDAs. The idea is that if Bluetooth technology is everywhere, it’s pretty useful: I could theoretically sync my Palm Pilot with my cell phone without requiring a custom cable to link the two. Bluetooth was essentially designed as a “cable replacement” technology. While that sounds useful (who wants cables?) what’s not often mentioned is that infrared technology is already ubiquitous and obviates cables today. I today can HotSync my PalmPilot to a laptop, play Battleship against another Palm, and even access the internet through a mobile phone, all without any cables at all, using existing, low-cost infrared technology built into all of those devices already. At an analyst meeting before Gates’ Sunday keynote, one of the analysts (from IDG) predicted that there would be hundreds of millions of devices with Bluetooth deployed in the coming year. But the next analyst asked the several-thousand strong tech crowd how many of them had any Bluetooth-enabled devices. Not one person raised a hand. Perhaps I’m just being skeptical, but it seems a little improbable that in less than a year a technology will be able to go from zero to mass-deployment. Many of the devices shown at COMDEX were small, cute, and useless. Various companies even proposed using Bluetooth as a home networking standard, despite the fact that all your computers would need to be within 10 meters of each other and could only connect at 1mbps.

Other home networking technologies looked promising, however. Powerline networking, once the laughingstock of networking, is making a resurgence: new, cheap DSPs are allowing for more advanced mechanisms for transmitting data over noisy lines, up to 10mbps. Phoneline networking companies were out en masse with the new HPNA 2.0 11mbps standard. Two wireless networking groups were also widely represented: WiFi (802.11) and HomeRF, each supporting multi-megabit wireless data rates.

ADSL modems, computer cases, large LCDs, and MP3 devices were shown in sleek new form factors and most were available very cheaply, further demonstrating the commoditization of such hardware. With so many pieces of excellent, cheap hardware, most companies on the floor were simply searching for US distributors, having already developed working designs and having lined up manufacturers.

Speaking of LCD displays, they were everywhere: huge, gorgeous plasma displays, 22″ LCD flatpanels, and embedded LCDs. There was nary a CRT monitor in sight. There wasn’t much hoopla around them, they were simply pervasive throughout the show.

Biometrics and security companies were everywhere, using everything from signatures to irises to fingerprinting mice to face recognition to authenticate a user to a computer and to web financial services.

Companies with interactive demonstrations, large to midsize booths, exciting technologies, and representatives with a solid grounding in English held the most attention, with a handful of exceptions – sometimes a fun product can sell itself and at times a boring product can fail to captivate, no matter how much money is poured into advertising.

PDA companies such as Palm and Handspring, had large displays at COMDEX. Even if there were few important announcements, it was interesting to see how large these companies have grown and how enterprise-centric they truly have become. Several Handspring Springboard modules were released, but most were more expensive than reasonable: the Springboard phone module goes for $300 with service activation; considerably more than even Nokia’s top-of-the-line phone goes for in a service bundle (and it isn’t even actually available yet – module announcements without products have plagued Handspring for the last year).

Surprisingly, GPS and fiber-optic technologies seemed to take a backseat at this show: only a handful of devices had GPS integration or any kind of tracking system and there were hardly any demonstrations of fiber devices and technologies, despite their continued flourishing in the marketplace and continued optic research and innovation.

In short, COMDEX was full of flashy, cute hardware, backed by companies that put on bright smiles to allay investor fears that money will be scarce in the coming days, despite their poorly-masked insecurities as to the viability of their own business models. Announcements of standards and openness, while nice, are indicative of deeper problems in the market, and it’s unclear how they will be solved and where success will be found in the near future.

Philosophy: The Necessity of Subversion

I occasionally undertake mildly subversive activities, like posting documents describing how proprietary protocols are organizedsetting up MP3 sitesexplaining to people how to get around bansdescribing anonymous file exchange possibilities, or writing sneaky perl code. But this comes as part of a larger philosophy of subversion; I’ve never made a penny off of my website, but have put hundreds of hours of work into it. Working hard without financial reward is a subversive activity in and of itself; as is publishing a book online for free.

Now this is not to say that I’m even very good at being subversive. I dare say that most people who try to be subversive end up succeeding much better than I do, by describing the construction of pipe bombs, or advocating socialismpointing out giant security holes in various widely-used programs, releasing whole professional operating systems for free, or sowing discontent among the masses. Relatively speaking, I’m a nobody in the world of subversives. But that’s okay; I’ve got my admittedly small soapbox of a website to stand on here and I enjoy it. But the real question that a wise person would ask is this: why the subversion?

Subversion is, by my definition, a resistance to the status quo. It is the “check” in “checks and balances,” the “correction” in the market, and the “invisible hand” (to borrow from Adam Smith) in society. I think my reasoning for why I believe subversion to be a good and moral activity is best described by the Hegelian world view, which advocates having an idea (a thesis) clash with an opposing idea (the antithesis) to produce a compromise that is closer to the truth (synthesis). If the status quo is considered to be the thesis, then subversives represent an antithesis and must be seriously considered in their own right. While one should always try to make a strong case for one’s beliefs so as to help the truth be most rapidly arrived at, one must also keep a keen ear to what the person who argues with you says; the more quick you both are to listen and see the reason (and faults) in the other’s argument, the more rapidly the two of you will approach the truth.

As a simple example; what panels/discussions/debates are interesting when all of the participants believe the same thing? What issues get raised and in what detail? How scrutinized are presented facts? The truth is that conflict is not only far more interesting and entertaining, but it is more educational. Each side must make their case in a clear and compelling fashion – any weaknesses will be sought after and pried open by the opposition. Indeed, the Smith analogy is not far off; a opinionated people function in a similar fashion as a free market. The competition weeds out bad business in a capitalistic economy, just as reason and discussion weed out bad ideas in a society with free speech. (Although neither example has shown to hold true all of the time!)

Being, as it is, that I would like to encourage the truth to be found, I find it in my moral duty to counter ideas or movements which are succeeding. This is, upon reflection, the rather generic stance of the traditional liberal; the impetuous youth. Undoubtedly, I will develop more reserved conceptions about the ideal approach to truth as I age. In that sense, I may join the status quo…but I will be truly disappointed if there isn’t some young whippersnapper violently disagreeing with me on my ideas. And with the conjunction (or disjunction, perhaps?) of the ideas of young and old we achieve a better understanding of the world and ourselves, and with luck become a touch wiser for it.

NOTE: I am a hypocrite. Don’t actually expect me to live by the above principles. =)

Alack For The Trees

Trees, how I love you, but I love you not today.

The shade you have brought,
with your gentle boughs,
The comfort I had sought,
resting upon your limbs

I would climb, I would soar and scramble
up your side

and S   W I N G

down
to
earth.

Your coarse bark,
Your smooth twigs,
Your soft leaves,
and my greatest delight: orangecrunchyFALLleaves
following the scraping of the rake came the tumbles into piles

Trees I love you truly,
but I love you not today.
For today, you took my ‘Net away.

The men from Sprint,
they came a pair,
a pair of vans to suit them.

Antenna on an orange stick in hand,
they clambered up the roof and teetered there some while.
Whisperings and musings muttered twixt the two,
much tweaking of the gadgets they did do,
but sad indeed was the look in their eye
as they dropped down to meet me,
“To tell you the news, and I’m sorry that it is I,
thy ‘Net connection cannot pierce the trees to greet thee.”

They lumbered off to mumble in their vans
leaving me sole and disconsolate,
cursing at the trees.

Trees, I love you truly, but I love you not today.

At least Speakeasy is on their way.

Unfreezing The Site

In the coming days, the now-familiar “frozen” sign should be disappearing from the site. That’s right, I’m back and I’ve got an itching to do some cool things with this site.

The simplest changes will be the usual ones: I hope to start regularly
writing essays again and posting them on my main page. I may also experiment
with some layout and organizational changes that will make it easier for
people to read my website on low-end browsers (Palm VII, Omnisky, WAP,
AvantGo, etc.) and that will make it easier for me to publish and edit
content. Don’t worry though, my site probably won’t look much different,
there won’t be graphics, and the page should stay fast-loading on a 14.4k
modem.

Once I get a house all set up and we’ve got high-speed networking installed,
I’ll probably host my server there (right now, the kind folks at iomojo are hosting it out of the
goodness of their hearts!), which will allow me to do all sorts of trippy
server-side stuff (hopefully). It will also let me bring back the now-broken
links to the actual audio samples on my codec review section.

I’ll keep you all posted as I roll out modifications! Among other things, look
for upcoming articles on peer-to-peer networking and my trip to Europe! =)