Sunday, November 14, 2004

The world is flat...

The BBC is reporting that Italians have reacted poorly to their government's plans to tax text messages. Amusingly this new tax was put forward as a way to fufil the Italian government's election pledge, to cut taxes. Only to a politician does this make sense...

You can see it coming can't you? I wonder how long before the UK government has a similar idea. A penny hike on all text messages perhaps?

Text messages used to be free. Back when GSM phones were first introduced into this country nobody thought anyone would want to send 140 odd character messages to each other, so there wasn't any way to bill for them. Text messages traffic was part of the network overhead, originally designed into the system for things like SIM updates. The networks were suprised when we started using them, it didn't make sense to them. But when they finally realised there was money to be made, and introduced a billing scheme, we all paid and started sending even more. Although even today, most people still don't understand that text messages aren't guaranteed delivery. They're still part of the overhead.

Perhaps the government could get away with it then? After all, we're used to paying for text messages now...

In the long term it's unlikely. Unsuprisingly the politicians don't really understand the technology, or the culture behind its use. Let's face it text messages could be replaced, every handset sold in the UK these days has GPRS. At least, every handset that anyone would be caught in public with, and that means ubiquitous access to packet data. Which means, in the long term, text messages are yesterday's technology.

They could tax packet data then, a few pence for each Mb of data sent form your mobile phone? Perhaps, but it's a lot harder to work out how to do this than it is to tax text messages which have a central choke point. How do you go about taxing bluetooth, or wireless?

Not relevant? Perhaps not today, but convergence devices with GSM, Bluetooth and WiFi support are already starting to appear. You could imagine sending a message which hops from your phone to a nearby phone, via Bluetooth, as that phone happened to be going in the right direction. The message would then hop to another phone, and another, until it was in range of an open wireless access point, and from there onto the Internet. As we all know, once you're on the internet, you can go anywhere, and at the far end the same process happens. At no point during this process does your message pass some centrally regulated network choke point. The networks would have a hard time charging you for the traffic, and it's almost certainly totally untaxable. Interestingly, it'd also be quite hard to trace the originator of the message in such an ad-hoc scheme.

You could probably implement the above scheme with today's technology, I can think of a couple of ways to do it, although there are obvious problems with both my off the top of the head solutions. But it's going to get easier, a lot easier...

Peer-to-peer networking is coming, anyone thinking about trying to implement centrally managed network solutions should think seriously about what they're trying to accomplish with their project. The real world doesn't work in the same way as the traditional network topologies do, the real world is small and flat.