Monday, May 05, 2008

The death of the desktop, the end of the Internet?

With the publication of his new book, "The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It", Johnathan Zittrain has started a debate amoungst the great and the good. People suddenly seem to be getting worried that gadgets are killing the Internet and that the iPhone might murder the web. He argues that today's technological market is dominated by two contrasting business models: the generative and the non-generative. The first model, general purpose computers, allow third parties to build upon and share through them. The second, non-generative model, is more restricted, with appliances that can only be modified by the vendor. He is very much afraid that the second model, where we are locked in by vendors is coming to predominate.

Well first of all I think he's just plain wrong, you only have to look at appliances like the Linksys NSLU2 or even the iPhone, which is oddly enough seems to be being held up as the poster child for vendor lock in, to see that we aren't being locked in by these devices at all. Or at least, some of us aren't. I think he's right in one respect, I think we're entering a period where the number of people that can hack on the devices we use to talk to the network is going to become smaller.

I'm not worried, like Peter Semmelhack I'm old enough to remember how it was before desktop computers came along. However unlike Peter I'm more philisophical about the passing of the desktop computer. I'm surprised he isn't because from my perspective he's one of the people that are storming the barricades. If the desktop dies, it'll be because of the open source hardware movement, and people like him...

Which is why I argued that we're entering a period of change, it's not that we're being locked into devices, it's that the people with the skills to hack on the devices are changing.

Out of the existing infrastructure, the idea of network neutrality is the important thing to hang onto. I'm far more worried about the possible loss of that, than I am about information silos or Facebook.

With open hardware like the Arduino arriving we've been given a new tool. In the same way the arrival of the desktop computer changed everything, the growing availability of open source hardware will do it again. Peter should drink some of his own Kool-Aid.

The Web as we know it today might already be dying, and that may be no bad thing. Because you have to remember that the Web isn't the Internet. The Internet existed before the Web and it'll be around a long time afterwards. This too, shall pass...

In its place I think we're looking at the arrival of something much more interesting, a pervasive information architecture. The New York Times (via Slashdot) carried an article recently talking about embedded devices, but there is an important distinction to be drawn between these and ubiquitous computing, where you have a pervasive architecture of computing devices. Between independent gadgets responding to simple environmental conditions, and a pervasive information architecture shared across a number of ubiquitous computing devices.

Compared to a real ubiquitous computing we're at the banging the rocks together stage
A big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere...and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys. - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

but that's no bad thing either, projects like Quickies from MIT, while still awkward, show the potential of moving our computing off the desktop and embedding it into the real world. It's an exciting time to be alive...


When the web came along and changed everything, I was really surprised that I was going to get to live through such a change. After all the desktop computer had only come along a few years before, it had changed everything, and while my first computer was a PDP-11 I was a bit too young to really appreciate what had happened at the time. Now I get to live through yet another huge change in the way the world works, people like Chris Anderson are quietly making it happen. If you haven't been following along Chris has been quietly scratching his itch and building autonomous UAV.


This wouldn't have been possible a couple of years ago, going beyond a crude prototype with hardware was hard. Even getting to the prototype stage was hard. Now it's the next big thing...

The fact that you have to go out and learn some electronics to take part in the next big thing isn't such a big deal. You're supposed to like learning new things. Go buy a soldering iron and stop worrying about information silos so much...