It’s that magical time of the year again, when every flaneur celebrates the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, also known as the Oktoberfest. Happy Oktoberfest, and may your beer taste good!
All things considered, this Julian Bleecker’s Why Things Matter is probably the closest we have to a Manifesto for the internet of things. Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things is also in that category, but it’s a longer text and it lacks the theoretical punch. Besides, any theoretical piece on networked objects has to first deal with the modern separation of the world into the nature/culture dichotomy, and Bleecker does just that with his use of Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern.
As I discussed in my last post on cloud computing, Google’s strategic decision to release Android as an open source platform, therefore granting complete hardware freedom to vendors and complete app freedom to geeks, has resulted in something resembling a blitzkrieg on Apple’s Maginot line around the iPhone. Apple’s iThings are still shiny, and they might still release another household appliance masquerading as a computing/communication device, but it seems the droid army has made them irrelevant. Consider:
Google’s Android leapfrogging over iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows – Mercury News on the latest Android sales figures, provided by Gartner market research. Why is this important? In the context of cloud computing the key battle to be waged (correction, the battle is already raging in earnest) is about the platform from which users will access the cloud. At the most basic spec level this platform will have to be mobile, always-on, and malleable enough to allow a near-unlimited number of services running through it. It is this last bit which makes the Android a key development – the platform is open for a theoretically unlimited number of apps and Google has relinquished control over certification. Crucially, the most important actor-network in the app business – the developers – seem to agree:
“The developers tell us they love Android. It’s easier to learn; it takes less time, and one of the complaints we hear quite a bit about is (Apple’s) app certification process as a real thing that costs them time and money”
The key bit not mentioned in the article is that the iPhone had a two-year head-start on Android, and an army of carefully cultivated cultist followers ready to buy anything the company deigns to release. This makes the following graph all the more amazing:
India’s $35 Android 7-inch Tablet to Hit in January – Tom’s Hardware, Engadget on the upcoming release of a dirt-cheap Android-based cloud-tablet-for-the-masses in India. The price tag suggests this is a a heavily-subsidized device (unless they have achieved some mind-boggling economics of scale), which in turn suggests this may be part of a long-term strategy by the Indian government to leapfrog their infrastructure deficiencies. As I’ve already mentioned, governments have two possible ways to deal with those – either invest heavily in the established technology (for example fiber networks), or forget about the established tech and concentrate on the upcoming one. Australia seems hell-bent on going the former way, while India seems to be going with the latter. From the perspective of cloud platforms, this of course is a major win for the Android. An entire generation will be growing up using open source as their main net platform.
The future of the internet. A virtual counter-revolution – The Economist on the developing ‘secret garden’ trend online, and the many possible repercussions for the internet as we know it. The article is long, detailed, and covers everything from censorship and the Great Firewall of China to the Apple app store and net neutrality. Why is this important? Crucially, the article suggests that fragmentation is inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing. When most people spend the majority of their time online on Facebook, and are there entirely of their own volition, it is a bit rich to bemoan the evil corporate takeover of the net. In this context the key issue seems to be not net neutrality but platform openness. The cloud is all about always/everywhere-on access, and while different protocols might still be treated differently depending on the carrier, the connectivity will be there. Given the already-happening fragmentation of common content into fiefdoms (Facebook, Apple app store), the strategic question concerns levels of access and open vs closed platforms in the cloud. In other words, Android vs iPhone.
The web’s new walls. How the threats to the internet’s openness can be averted – An article from The Economist related to the one above but discussing in more detail the issue of net neutrality. Why is this important? Probably one of the key fronts in the battle for cloud dominance will be about access levels and the related price structures. The heated debate around net neutrality is quite superficially based on concerns about content discrimination (access providers censoring content through pricing), while the underlying issue is of course about competing access levels. In other words, about open markets and competition. The article rightly points out that the whole net neutrality debate is actually a distraction based on a misunderstanding of how markets operate (I am sorry to say this is arcane knowledge for most academics). The best example comes from the Apple app store – what good is net neutrality when the user is locked in a walled garden filled only with content blessed by the high priest himself? The last three paragraphs of the article provide a nice summation of the overall argument.
Five billionth device about to plug into Internet – Network World on the explosion of permanently connected mobile devices. According to the author, today there are around 1 billion computers (PC’s, laptops) with regular net connectivity. The remainder of that 5 billion from the title is comprised of mobile devices and all sorts of peripherals such as cameras, TV’s, picture frames, etc. The key development is that the number of networked objects is growing at such an astonishing rate, that fixed-place connectivity (the venerable personal computer in other words) is soon to lose its raison d’etre. Accordingly, the most important developments seem to be in the area of machine-to-machine connectivity.
The next billion geeks: How the mobile internet will transform the BRICI countries – The Economist on the Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia mobile revolution. According to the article, there are 610 million regular internet users and 1.8 billion mobile-phone users in the BRICI market as a whole. Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, due to very poor to non-existent copper/fibre infrastructure in places like India and Indonesia mobiles have leapfrogged the PC as the main internet access interface in these countries. Only 81 million Indians have regular net access through fixed lines, but there are 507 million mobile phone users paying as little as $o.oo6 per minute, and more and more of these mobile users are also starting to surf the net through their phones. These numbers are incredible because they illustrate how a deregulated market based around a new technology can rapidly develop and leapfrog an established technology. This is also interesting in the context of Australia’s national broadband network plans which will eventually deliver a tragically outdated technical solution to a problem which can be solved rapidly as India’s example demonstrates.
How Google is Looking to Cut Apple’s Margin and How the Sell Side of Wall Street Will Enable This Without Sheeple Investor’s Having a Clue – Boombust Blog analyzing the cloud strategies of Google, Apple and Microsoft. Some very interesting analytics of earnings numbers and market share, but above all a clear spelling of the probable long-term strategy of Google with the Android phones/tablets. Google seems to have taken Apple entirely by surprise with its strategy to not only give away Android for free but to make it entirely open-source which in turn makes the platform an instant favorite with every real tech geek out there. This of course means that Google doesn’t have Apple’s fat margins from sales, but on the other hand it allows Google to not only expand rapidly (they have already achieved larger market share then Apple – an astonishing achievement), but to also undercut the future margins of the iPhone. Significantly, Apple has to compete on the software front with Google and its legion of geek volunteers, while simultaneously competing with all the hardware companies out there – HTC, Samsung, Motorolla to name just a few. On both of these fronts Apple is terribly outplayed in terms of innovation cycles – i.e. how fast can it research, release, update new products. Because of its cultist philosophy and total-control business model Apple has been maneuvered by Google into reacting in either of two ways:  cut prices, which will result in lesser margins and less resources for future development, or  break down the cult and open its metaphorical walled garden, which will go against the very core of what Apple and Steve Jobs stand for. Either way leads to doom, and Google has achieved that by completely embracing the open source movement. How is that for ‘Don’t be Evil!’?
As I discussed here, and here, Google seems to seriously plan for and work towards a prime position in cloud computing (web 3.0?). A couple of interesting links relate to that. First comes the now infamous interview Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, gave at the WSJ. In that interview he made a number of comments indicating where Google are looking at the moment, but for some reason all it was remembered for is his quip that because of privacy issues with social networks in the future kids may end up having to change their names when they reach adulthood. Ok, this is odd, and it came out of nowhere, but surely there are more interesting bits in what he had to say. Much more interesting for example is his hint that Google are seriously working on developing semantic algorithms:
This statement has to be read in the context of Google’s move to the cloud. In that paradigm the semantic depth of your search query will be provided by your entire cloud footprint. This is quite literally an Artificial Intelligence in full operational mode. As William Gibson writes in a recent article in the New York Times,
“We never imagined that artificial intelligence would be like this. We imagined discrete entities. Genies.”
We imagined HAL, and Wintermute, but instead of managing an ultimately controllable anthropomorphic machine we have to deal with a distributed mind that is built of…us. An ambient socio-digital system.
I’ve been meaning to write a longer piece on my trip to Mount Emei, one of the holiest mountains in China and home among others to the Bao Guo Si. Alas, this will have to wait for a while. However, the following quote expresses well the spirit of the place.
‘The supreme aristocrat is not the feudal lord in his castle but the contemplative monk in his cell.’Nicolas Gomez Davila
“On many occasions, under the influence of wine, Liu Ling would be completely free and unrestrained, sometimes even removing his clothes and sitting stark naked in the middle of his room. Some people once saw him in this state and chided him for it. Ling retorted, ‘Heaven and earth are my pillars and roof, the rooms of my house are my jacket and trousers. What are you gentlemen doing in my trousers?”
Liu Ling (221-300) – poet, taoist, flaneur
“In antiquity when someone gripped by an obsession for flowers heard tale of a rare blossom, even if it were in a deep valley or in steep mountains, he would not be afraid of stumbling and would go searching for it… When a flower was about to bloom, he would move his pillow and mat and sleep alongside it to observe how the flower would evolve from budding to blooming to fading. Only after it lay withered on the ground would he take his leave… This is what is called genuine love of flowers; this is what is called genuine connoisseurship.”
Yuan Hongdao (1568-1610) – poet, essayist, flaneur