May 11, 2012

Living History


            "History doesn't look like history when you're living it," John Gardner observed. As we deal with the chaos, confusion and change that new network technology is imposing on our business and personal lives, it is easy to miss the history of this moment. We are experiencing a network revolution that ranks alongside that which began with Samuel F.B. Morse's immortal "What hath God wrought" in 1844.

Two forces that have been developing for decades – digital processing and digital networks - have matured to make 2012 an historic watershed. Like the proverbial boiled frog, these changes have been developing in full view, but incrementally so as to hide their impact. Suddenly, the convergence of digital wireless connectivity and truly mobile computing has created a boiling point. The result is changing our lives and defining the patterns of future generations.

            Electronic digital computing has been evolving since John Atanasoff first assembled such capability in the basement of the Iowa State physics building in 1938. The vacuum tubed mainframes that followed ultimately yielded to silicon mini computers, then to microchip-powered PCs, and now to pocket-sized mainframe computing power dubbed smartphones. Last year this 70-plus-year evolution hit its inflection point when smartphone deliveries outstripped that of PCs.

            Portable processing alone does not a revolution make, however. Since the days of the early hunter-gatherers, the networks that connect us have been the forces that define us. Coincident with smartphone sales exceeding the sales of PCs, the network changed. The advent of LTE is more than the introduction of a new high-speed digital wireless network. It is the digital partner to the pocket processor, and their combination is synergistic

            Four years after Atanasoff's computer, George Stibbitz performed a parlor trick on the stage of the American Mathematical Society's annual meeting at Dartmouth College. Using telephone lines and a modified telex machine, Stibbitz took math problems proposed by the audience and solved them on a mainframe computer in New York City, 250 miles distant. It was the first network transmission between two computing devices.

            The ubiquity of the telephone network, coupled with modems that allowed digital information to be transmitted across the analog network, opened the door to connected computing and ultimately propelled the early PC-based services. From AOL to Yahoo!, networked computing power began to give a glimpse of the future in which we now reside. The subsequent arrival of Internet Protocol (IP) and its digital lingua franca created the buzzword of the late 20th century: "convergence." Suddenly, voice, video and data were all the same 0s and 1s. Networks that had been developed for a single purpose yielded to common digital deliverables.

            Yet even as digital fever fueled new services and created new fortunes, the network was still the boss. While early efforts at wireless data held the promise to cut the digital cord, they suffered from the same constraints as George Stibbitz's parlor trick - the realities of imposing digital information on a network designed for analog voice.

            That's why the deployment of LTE makes this year an historic watershed. While LTE means many things to many people - expanded throughput, lower cost, higher speed - its real revolution is that it is a computer network, speaking computer language, routing via computers, and connecting ever-smaller, ever more powerful smartphone computers.

            The confluence of portable computing with an all-digital wireless network is a cultural course-changer. For the first time in history the relationship between networks and those who use them has changed. 

            Since the beginning of history networks have dictated the terms of their usage. The key power of a network has always been how it commanded the user to come to it. From the time when primitive tribes settled along animal paths and waterways, the networks upon which the human species relied have always been in control. History’s dirty little secret about networks was that users could only enjoy the network’s benefits on the network’s terms.

            The first high-speed network, the railroad, built new pathways and then commanded that users come to the network to enjoy its benefits. The location of economic activity became centralized along the railroad's path and at its junctions. The same pattern held true with the first electronic network. Mr. Morse's telegraph, and its successor the telephone, continued the centralizing history of networks by specifying where a user had to be to send a telegram or place a phone call.

            For the past 30 years wireless connectivity has gradually been introducing a new network paradigm where the network came to the user rather than vice versa. Starting with voice service and slowly progressing to data, wireless has brought information to the point where it could be most productively consumed rather than dictating how the user would have to behave in order to receive or send the information. This year’s marriage of mobile computing with IP connectivity means the previous slow evolution has exploded to a pervasive reality.

            Information and those who consume it have seized control from the network. The multi- millennia centralizing power of the network has been stood on its head. The network is no longer in control; the user is.

            The second year of the second decade of the 21st century is our living history. As Yeats observed of an earlier time, “All changed, changed utterly.”