Nine to Noon: 8 April 2010

April 7, 2010 – 5:31 pm

You can listen to my Nine to Noon emerging technology slot from 8 April 2010 in MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats. The links for the show appear below, followed by some notes I wrote beforehand to figure out what I thought and how to explain things like network neutrality. We varied from the notes and I got to tie this into the UK’s grim Digital Economy Bill, our Copyright Act abuse, and the upcoming ACTA trade agreement, which left me feeling very happy.


Network Neutrality

Is your ISP allowed to mess with your Internet traffic? We pay them to connect to the Internet, but in America they want to do more. They want the ability to treat some traffic different from others. For example, to say to Google and Microsoft “who will pay me to make their web traffic go faster to our customers?”

Now, that runs contrary to what we expect. We expect best efforts unprioritised service, where our ISP delivers everything as fast as they can. The only way they could make Google’s traffic faster is if they made everyone else’s go slower. It’s a form of extortion.

This also breaks an important principle of the Internet, called the “end-to-end principle”. The intelligent decision-making cleverness in the Internet always sits on the ends of the Internet and the center of the Internet is a “dumb pipe”. It just delivers stuff. So the same dumb pipe does the same dumb things regardless of whether you send email to Radio New Zealand, if you visit the Radio New Zealand web site, or if you have a Skype call with someone at Radio New Zealand.

Think for a second of what it would be like to have all the smarts in the network. Only the companies who run the network could innovate. That means we’d have had to wait for Telecom or Orcon to develop the web or Skype. Or, more likely, for someone else to develop it and then slowly and expensively sell it to the telecommunications companies who’d then badly and expensively sell it to us.

Fortunately that’s not how it worked. The clever folks who built Skype (a Swede and a Dane) were able to do so without having to talk to the telecommunications companies. Because, really, do you think a phone company would ever have developed something that let you talk long-distance for free? The Skype folks only had to get Skype running on two computers, both of which they controlled, and never had to speak to the Swedish or Danish equivalent of Telecom.

Naturally, the ISPs around the world don’t like this, particularly in America. They don’t like being sidelined while other people (Skype, Google, etc.) make lots of the money. So they came up with an idea for a shakedown: let’s make the buggers pay! It’s basic extortion tactics: we’ll make your traffic go slow unless you pay up. It almost sounds right, until you realise that they want to charge BOTH sides of everything you do on the Internet. So when I’m in Colorado, I pay my Colorado ISP to connect to the Internet. Google’s paid their ISP to connect to the Internet. But my ISP wants Google to pay it as well! It’s like the post office charging the sender AND recipient of the letter.

There are other bad scenarios possible, too, laid out in the Wired article I linked to:
A broadband company could, for instance, ink a deal with Microsoft to transfer all attempts to reach to The only recourse a user would have, under the ruling, would be to switch to a different provider — assuming, of course, they had an alternative to switch to.

Companies can also now prohibit you from using a wireless router you bought at the store, forcing you to use one they rent out — just as they do with cable boxes. They could also decide to charge you a fee every time you upgrade your computer, or even block you from using certain models, just as the nation’s mobile phone carriers do today.

When computer companies got wind of this, they and user associations started a campaign for “network neutrality” — the idea that ISPs should stick to moving my Internet traffic around as fast as they can and not shake down the people I connect to.

There’s a US Government Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, which was established to control radio stations. They’ve extended their control to TV as well: it’s the FCC that fines TV companies when they air “wardrobe malfunctions” or swear words on free-to-air TV. They presumed they had the right to regulate the Internet, too, and laid down some basic “thou shalt not” rules for the US companies that provide Internet access. These rules were challenged by a US ISP, Comcast, which said basically “no, you don’t have the right to regulate Internet access”. A US court just ruled that the FCC didn’t make a good case that it could.

What does that mean for us in NZ? Nothing immediately, as we have our own regulatory agency (the Commerce Commission) but you can bet your last cent that our ISPs are watching with interest what happens in America. The possibility of double-charging will be very interesting to them. So we Internet folks are closely watching the US to see what’ll happen.

What will happen? At the moment the FCC is figuring out how to proceed–the court didn’t say “you can’t regulate”, just “you didn’t make a good argument that you can” and it hinted at some lines of reasoning that might be better. The best option is for the US Congress (the US equivalent of Parliament) to give the agency the right to regulate Internet access. The worst is for the FCC to classify the Internet as a “telecommunications service”. At the moment it’s an “information service” which puts it into the private market and out of the reach of the regulators.

Why can’t we just let the market decide? The consumer is the one who would have to change ISPs if the market were to speak about this, but remember that it’s not the consumer that’s being shaken down–it’s the Google or Microsoft or Radio New Zealand. It’s also not clear that a new neutral ISP could be competitive, as the gouging ISPs are all integrated Internet-voice-cable TV companies with huge scale letting them offer lower prices.

So I’ll be watching this one and hoping NZ telcos don’t decide to be “world leaders” in interfering with their customers’ service.

iPad, Apple, and Trading Power for Convenience

Apple released its latest shiny this week, the iPad. It’s a bigger iPhone, nine inches by seven — a bit smaller than A4 in size but larger than a paperback. Light, with Wifi and mobile Internet, GPS, accelerometer and all manner of other goodness. No keyboard, it’s a touch-sensitive screen so if you want to type something then it shows you a picture of a keyboard and you type onto the picture. Yes, it’s weird, but it has worked on the iPhone and it apparently works better on the iPad. Prices start at USD500, and darn near everyone who has one is raving about it. Not for sale yet in New Zealand officially, but you can already pick them up on TradeMe.

But that’s the problem with Apple gear, isn’t it? There’s a set of people, a cult if you will, who love everything Apple and who will queue to buy the first of whatever new gadget they make. And make no bones about it, Apple make good products–they control every aspect and make sure it’s beautiful, elegant, functional, and desirable. But there’s a difference between good and good for you, and I’d like to talk about that for a bit.

Apple has a control complex. They’re not fond of the idea that someone else makes money off their computer hardware and software, and so they want to “clip the ticket” as much as possible. Think of the difference between the iPad and a MacBook computer.

On my Macbook, I can install any software I want. If someone writes software for the Mac, they put it up on their web site. I download and install it, a simple process, and then I can run it.

On an iPad or iPhone, I don’t have that freedom. Apple have the machine locked down. The only way you can get a program on an iPad or iPhone is if you buy it through the Apple “app” store. (app is short for “application”, a geeky word for “program”). If I write a program and want to sell it it you, you can’t get it unless you buy it through Apple’s store. If Apple won’t let you buy a program, you can’t get it on your iPad or iPhone.

But why would Apple do that? After all, they make money every time I buy a program! But there are all sorts of programs that Apple won’t allow. They’re very keen to maintain their devices as “family-friendly”, so anything to do with sex or profanity is in an “adult” section of the store. That’s okay, but sometimes they go a little far–the word “sperm” was censored in a description of a Moby Dick ebook app, which was apparently about the hunt for an s-star-star-star-m whale.

More seriously, Apple’s store won’t carry any apps that duplicate functionality in the device. Want a different web browser? Tough. Want Google Voice services instead of your phone’s built-in calling and texting? Want someone else’s maps? Tough. Want a BitTorrent app? Tough. Want something overtly political and partisan? Tough. I’ve linked to a site that lists a bunch of apps you’ll never see on the iPhone.

Apple’s approval process is also in-depth and comes with no guarantees of timeframe. So if I write a program that you download, then I discover a bug and fix it, it could be weeks before that fixed version is on the site for you to download. In the meantime, you’re cursing me for not fixing your program.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same scenario we talked about with network neutrality. One company wants to sit in the middle and be a gatekeeper. In the case of ISPs, they have your connection to the Internet and want to tell you what you can and can’t do with it. In the case of Apple, they have the device and they want to tell you what you can and can’t run on it. The only difference is that there’s a strongly competitive market for smartphones and handheld gadget, and no government regulator.

How’s this going to play out? In the short term, the iPad and iPhone will be successful. But in the long term, there’ll be competitive devices that aren’t locked down the way they are. They might be based on Google’s “Android” technology, it might be something else, but my money is always on fast-breeding innovative mammals when the option is slow-moving pea-brained dinosaurs.

I’ve also linked to a clip of a man from an industrial blender company answering the question “will it blend?”. It’s the only possible antidote to all the sickly iPad cooing that’s over the Internet at the moment. Enjoy!

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