Networks for the Future: To .NET or Not

PART 2: The Open Future

As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, open standards were largely responsible for the PC[52] revolution and the development of the Internet.[53] Open standards are important because they specify formats or protocols which are published and discussed, tested, improved, agreed to, and used by a large user base (hardware or software companies and their customers, for example). Closed standards, such as many of those used by Microsoft (called "trade secrets"), make it difficult for others to interact properly with those systems. Open vs. closed standards have different impacts on developing future technologies, but also in economic, political, and cultural realms.

The term "open standards" does not mean free. "Open" refers to the information being available. Most people using the Internet benefit by several long-used open standards: RS232 ports in the back of many modems, TCP/IP protocols which carry traffic around the net, and more. What would happen without standards, e.g., if your computer needed a particular kind of modem, or your network would only carry certain kinds of material?

Here, we use the term "Open Network" to refer to a meta-network of telephone, cable, fiber optic, and other networking lines and facilities. The Internet is such a meta-network. When you send or receive messages, web pages, and the like, it doesn't matter which kind of network your message travels on to reach you. In fact, it probably travels over more than one kind of network along its path.

Our guidelines again provide some perspective on this environment.

What's On the Net?

Since we only have parts of an open network now, we can just begin to see what's possible. What kind of activities and developments are likely to be facilitated by a fully-open network? Let's speculate:

The wild growth of the Internet and World-Wide Web over the last 10+ years was all about public involvement: getting and exchanging information quickly and easily. Email is very popular, as is chat and "surfing" the web. In fact, email, chat, web surfing, and many more tools of the Internet were created for a stupid network: it doesn't matter whether you're using a telephone line, ethernet, fiber, wireless, or another technology to send and receive your messages. Furthermore, public interest supports independent media productions, the media-on-demand market is solid, and new ways of communicating with each other are encouraged and tested by people everywhere.

A wide variety of electronics are able to communicate with each other, making networks customizable to meet the needs of any given interest, ability, person, device, house, or community. Different kinds of "networks" can connect and work together, giving new life to grass-roots and community-based efforts through mobile, wireless, landline (telephone line), and other interfaces. New equipment and software developments are integrated smoothly and creatively. Collaboration and educational efforts spring up and are supported by communities with similar capabilities and/or interests.

The network infrastructure is abundant, varied, and connectable. The network itself does not impose restrictions. It is "dumb"[55], or "stupid," in that it doesn't impose conditions on or control the data that it carries. A stupid network is the best thing to encourage innovative, intelligent and flexible devices–the best thing to support collaboration and self-controlled communities.

The Paradox of The Stupid Network

An open, or stupid, network has several advantages over our existing networks:[56]

which give users

"One thing about the Stupid Network is clear: the physical elements that comprise the network would be neither expensive nor scarce. There would be little profit margin in shipping dumb bits."[57] A stupid network reduces its own value: "The best network is the hardest one to make money running."[58]

But the problem is...

Currently, we have several affronts to this future. Microsoft is but one representative. Hollywood, legacy Bell networks, and a legislative deference to lobbying dollars all confound the possibility of a truly open network.

For example, the network itself has substantial and important non-infringing uses. However, personal attitudes and behaviors continue to be a concern for large media companies who now wish to embed controls in all of our computers, recorders, players, and other technology.[59]

Considering a Microsoft-like network as compared with an open network:

"A paradox arises from the meaning of "best." If "best" meant, "generate the most cash for the network owner," there would be no paradox. But if we accepted this meaning of best, we'd have to be content with the tightly-controlled, relatively thin stream of bits that the telephone companies currently grant us. Stop and think about this. How valuable is a network (web, email, etc) that users can't make full and creative use of?"[60]

Communications networks (telecommunications and cable companies, public utility communications networks, and more) offer a value greater than return on investment: in the form of connectivity and the services it enables. "The best network delivers bits in the largest volumes at the fastest speeds. In addition, the best network is the most open to new communications services; it closes off the fewest futures and elicits the most innovation."[61]

One of our most significant problems is that some existing companies and their respective regulatory environment don't have room for this kind of thinking. But ready or not, networking alternatives are coming: from cities laying municipal fiber networks to individuals and small groups implementing local neighborhood wireless networks, and soon technologies like ultra-wide band wireless and more.

What should we do?

Choose networks that allow you to choose your own tools.

We can't possibly imagine all of the great things we can do if our network remains an unconstrained resource. Exciting ways of connecting, interacting, and effectively and conveniently empowering ourselves are yet to be discovered. Open networks encourage discovery and development. The Microsoft .NET network does not.

Back: Part 1: The Microsoft Network | Next: Footnotes