Monday, December 26, 2005

stupid, not owned and a HUGE success

Two factors account for the huge success of the internet: nobody owns it and it’s a stupid, simple network, all it does is move bits.

I’ve been trying to understand the internet and world wide web. I want to understand the how and why of the amazing things that have evolved – things like google search engine, amazon stores, open source software, sites like blogdex that aggregate the most popular links found on blogs and sites like wikipedia that attract thousands of volunteers to work on a free encyclopaedia.

The web seems to be some sort of evolving and emerging intelligence, new exciting things are happening all the time. New software is developed continually by Open Source enthusiasts on the Web – applications such as the Firefox browser, programming languages such as python, different operating systems like Linux. Also the ability to track interesting new information and to collaborate with others continues to improve rapidly, with new web applications such as blogdex, bloglines, delicious, flickr to name just a few. It’s seems important to deepen understanding of what forces are driving such a rich medium.

So I’ve been using the web to research the web and the internet. Not surprisingly there is some very good material about the nature of the internet and www on the beast itself. The internet has developed its own researchers and philosophers.

The internet is a network of networks. Nearly all the networks, most of which are owned by someone or something, have by now joined the internet, which is owned by nobody. All the internet does is link all the other networks together.

The internet is a stupid, simple network. If that’s a new idea for you, as it was recently for me, then initially the implications won’t be clear, so I need to explain more.

I’m talking about the underlying architecture, which makes all the other stuff possible. Another way of saying it is that all the intelligence and value of the internet is located at the Ends, there is no central intelligence or control. Some authors call the internet a World of Ends, another called it “a hollow sphere comprised entirely of ends”.

Another different way of saying something similar is that all the internet does is move bits, it doesn’t do anything else. This makes it cheap. "The best network is the hardest one to make money running." (The Paradox of the Best Network)

Well, what’s the big deal about a stupid network? It might sound counter-intuitive to say that a stupid, simple network has achieved as much as the internet has. The answer to this becomes more obvious when we look at the alternative, an intelligent network, and the problems and difficulties that they create.

A good example of an intelligent network is the telephone network (other examples not discussed here are TV and radio), interesting since Telstra in Australia has become such a political hot potato. The telephone network has centralised features added to it such as call waiting, message bank, voice look up, providing the caller with choices before the call is completed (“press one for this, two for that, etc.).

Another relevant feature is that the telephone network is designed for a single application, voice. That was fine back in the days when voice generated all of the traffic. But these days all sorts of data goes down the phone line. The design features that are good for voice may not be good for transport of other forms of data.

An interesting dilemma here is that as we learn more and as customers needs become more sophisticated good design in the present becomes poor design in the future. Everyone knows how hard it is to change something in a big organisation, the suggestion has to be approved by various committees, time lines are worked out and so on. Big changes are often not implemented because the cost of the change might outweigh the perceived potential benefits to the company running the network and so a decision is made to put up with an inferior system.

David Isenberg who used to work for AT & T relates such a case where a technical team called True Voice was unable to improve voice quality as much as they could have because they became “tangled up in cobwebs of legacy assumptions” (ROTSN). This experience from an expert inside a communications company led to Isenberg writing his paper Rise of the Stupid Network after which he felt compelled to leave AT & T and set up his own company.

The centralised features of the phone companies network means that they are in control of how the network functions and also makes the cost of the network higher. Of course this suits the phone company. They are in control, being the experts, deciding what the customer needs are and making lots of money. The sometimes despised Telstra is a good example of this sort of business model.

If voice could be delivered over a stupid network like the internet then it would end up being cheaper and probably with even more features than offered by Telstra. Such a system is being developed (VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol), which has the potential to make Telstra obsolete as a plain old telephone service (POTS).

Nobody owns the internet. It doesn’t have a central administration and the Internet protocols are non proprietary. Moreover, any communications network that can carry two-way digital data can carry Internet traffic, including wired networks like copper wire, coaxial cable, and fiber optic; and through wireless networks like Wi-Fi

Nobody owns the internet! Since it is a network of networks then although companies or government might own parts of it, no one owns it in the overall sense. Another phrase to describe it would be "distributed ownership."
... the old maxim of ‘the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it’ applies: meaning that if one pipe imposed filters upon content or pulled out altogether, information would simply do what the Internet does best and find another route to travel.
- Internet ownership
So, the internet is a stupid network, a World of Ends, the middle is transport and nothing else. This combined with the fact that nobody owns it accounts for the success of the internet.

Humans are clearly a collaborative species who crave connection and recognition. How else could we account for the extraordinary energy of millions of people adding all sorts of value to the internet daily – whether it be a blog entry, an update to the wikipedia encyclopedia, a book review for amazon or a contribution to the development of a new open source application like Firefox. All of this and much more is value being added to the Ends of the internet, transforming the stupid network into one of the most valuable possessions of humanity to this point in our evolution.


Isenberg, David. Rise of the Stupid Network

Isenberg, David. The End of the Middle
(broken link)

Isenberg, David and Weinberger, David. The Paradox of the Best Network

Searls, Doc and Weinberger, David. World of Ends

Jerome H. Saltzer, David P. Reed, David D. Clark
End-To-End Arguments In System Design


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