“Bob Frankston”

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The longer view

We have two iPhones in our family. Yesterday we traded in the older one — my wife’s first-generation model, bought in 2007 — at Radio Shack. They gave us $72.94 for the phone and charger, against $199 for a new 16Gb iPhone 4. We’ll probably trade our other iPhone, my second-generation 3g one, pretty soon too.

Apple doesn’t have the same offer. I’m not sure who else does. I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t stopped in a Radio Shack to buy an ethernet cable a few days ago, when the kid behind the counter told me about it. Turns out Radio Shack will take a lot of stuff in trade. Since my iPhone 3g is brand new (I replaced it at an Apple store last month for $79, before I knew about this deal), I can get $116.13 for it, according to the online appraisal system at that last link.

Yes, it bothers me that we’re staying inside Apple and AT&T’s joint silo. It also bothers me that Fake Steve Jobs is right about Android fragmentation. I also see a serious risk that Real Steve Jobs might succeed at repositioning closed systems as “integrated”. Just because, well, he’s Steve. We’re all in his reality distortion field now.

Speaking of which, Apple is now bigger than Microsoft, and the iPhone is now bigger than Rim.

I still see this as a phase, and not a bad one. Apple and Google have together cracked open the unholy death grip that phone makers and carriers have long had on the mobile world. At some point those two halves will come completely apart.

Until they do, we won’t have ambient connectivity, or what I call the Frankston Threshold.

But we’ll get there. It’s inevitable.

[Later...] If you do trade in an old iPhone, be sure to erase it before handing it over. Do that under Settings/General/Reset/Erase all content and settings.

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I just posted Rupert Murdoch vs. The Web, over at Linux Journal. In it I suggest that the Murdoch story (played mostly as Bing vs Google) is a red herring, and that the real challenge is to free the Web and ourselves from dependencies from giant companies I liken to volcanoes:

We’re Pompeians, Krakatoans, Montserratans, building cities and tilling farms on the slopes of active volcanoes. Always suckers for stories, we’d rather take sides in wars between competing volcanoes than build civilization on more flat and solid ground where there’s room enough for everybody.

Google and Bing are both volcanoes. Both grace the Web’s landscape with lots of fresh and fertile ground. They are good to have in many ways. But they are not the Earth below. They are not what gives us gravity.

I think one problem here is a disconnect between belief systems about markets, and the stories that arise from them.

One system believes a free market is Your Choice of Captor. In this camp I put both the make-it/take-it mentality (where “winners” are rewarded and “losers” punished) of the Wall Street Journal (which a few months ago looked upon the regulated duopolies for Internet access as the “free market” at work) and those who see business (or corporations, or capitalism, or all three) as a problem and look to government — another monopoly — for remedy from these evils in the marketplace. In other words, I lump both the left and the right in here, along with the conflicts between them.

The other system sees markets as settings for human activity: the locations, both real and virtual, where people and their organizations meet to do business, make culture, and build civilization. Here I put nearly everybody who contributed the structural agreements that made the Internet possible, and who truly understand what it is and how it works, even if they can’t all agree on what metaphors to use for it. I also include all who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the free and open code bases with which we are building out our networked world. While political beliefs among members of this system may sort somewhere along the right-vs.-left axis, what they do to build the world is orthogonal to that axis. That’s one big reason why that work escapes notice.

The distinction I see here aligns well with Virginia Postrel‘s contrast between “stasists” and “dynamists”. The difference is that much of what gets done to make the networked world (and to support its dynamism) isn’t “dynamic” in the active and dramatic sense of the word — except in its second-order effects. For example, SMTP and IMAP are not dynamic. (Being mannerly technical agreements, protocols don’t do that.) But on those protocols (and related ones) email happened, and the world hasn’t been the same since.

With that distinction in mind, I suggest that too much oxygen suckage is wasted on “wars” between the stasists (some of whom are also into the superficially dynamistic attention-suck of vendor sports — here’s an oldie but goodie that still makes my point), and not enough on constructive work done by geeks and entrepreneurs who quietly build the original and useful stuff that serves as solid infrastructure on which countless public goods (including wealth creation beyond measure) can be generated.

We have the same problem in most net neutrality arguments. The right hates it, the left loves it. One looks to protect the “free market” of phone and cable companies (currently a Your-Choice-of-Captor system) while the other looks to government (meet your new captor) for relief. When in fact the whole thing has happened all along within what Bob Frankston calls The Regultorium.

The primary dynamism of the Internet — what gave us the Net in the first place, and what holds the most promise in the long run — doesn’t just come from those parties, and can’t be found in the arguments they’re having. It comes from low-box-office geekery that supports enormous new business opportunities (along with many public benefits, with or without business).

It’ll take time to see this, I guess. Just hope we don’t drown in lava in the meantime.

Bonus red herring: A lot of news really isn’t.

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In The Office of Connectivity Advocacy, Bob Frankston argues for something we’ve needed a long time: prying the Net from the regulatory grips of telecom and cablecom, both of which are inside the FCC and part of a regulatory mess that traces back past the 1996 and 1934 telecoms acts, all the way to the railroad thinking and legislation that modeled those acts.

What we need, Bob says, is to re-frame the Net outside of telecom (which includes cablecom as well). The Net needs to be more than just the third act in a “Triple Play” sold by phone and cable companies. It needs to be more — and other — than just a “service” we get from monopolists operating in an old regulatory habitat.

Inside our homes we do not negotiate with, or pay, a “printing service” to use our printers. Nor are our phone and cable companies required to hook our computers and other appliances together inside our homes. As a result, there is no issue of speed, no need for “broadband”, because we enjoy much limitless network speeds without a “service provider” in the middle.

Some specifics:

We need a “Connectivity Strategy” with a champion; a “Connectivity Advocate” who is outside the FCC and is thus can focus on a positive agenda. “Internet Connectivity” is not a telecommunications service but something new. It is based on the idea that we can create our own solutions out of imperfect resources. And it has proven to be an exceptionally powerful idea.

It has allowed us to create new solutions by focusing on the end points of relationships rather than all the myriad points between. We’ve seen a similar dynamic with the interstate (defense) highway system that has been credited with adding trillions of dollars to the economy. The Internet-connectivity has the potential to do far more because it doesn’t have the limits of the roads and demand creates supply.

The challenge is to overcome the artifacts that we confuse with the powerful idea. We happened to have repurposed existing telecommunications infrastructure and thus the idea has become captive of the incumbents whose business of charging for transporting bits as a service is threatened. To add to this confusion we can easily spoof existing telecommunications services ourselves but still act as if only a carrier can provide the services.

Instead of spending so much time and effort forcing connectivity into a service framing we need to be able to focus on connectivity from first principles. After all, the Internet (as connectivity) and Telecom have no intrinsic relationship beyond their common use of electromagnetism to transport bits.

By having an Office of Connectivity Advocacy (I’m open to a better title) outside the FCC we can have a positive and proactive strategy. We have abundant existing resources that are lying fallow either because we don’t recognize what we have or are forbidden from competing with those who control are very means of communicating and the vital information paths we use for commerce.

So look at it this way. What we have inside the free spaces of our own homes is connectivity. What we have outside of our homes, through telco and cable systems, is broadband. The latter may seem desirable, but only in the absence of free (as in liberty, not price) alternatives.

Bob sees the Internet less as a physical infrastructure of CFR (copper, fiber and radios) than as a “bit commons” to which we all contribute. It’s an ocean rather than canals across a desert. Its nature is one of abundance, not scarcity. One can only make it scarce, which is what phone and cable companies do, even as they increase our broadband speeds to larger fractions of what we have at home for free.

Bob has specific recommendations for what an Office of Connectivity Advocacy would do. Read them and give Bob (and the Transition Team) constructive feedback. Here’s part of his post:

Initially the OCA would be charged with:

  • Empowering communities and individuals to create their own solutions using common facilities – the bit commons.
  • Education and research focused on achieving and taking advantage of end-to-end connectivity.
    • Educating Congress to understand the meaning and value of connectivity. Ideally it would play the role of providing a first-principles reality check rather than just checking for conformance to regulations. For example, a call is completed when the message gets through, not when a phone rings.
    • Assist the government in its own use of technology both for its own use and as an example for others. It could encourage technologies that have wide market appeal rather than just those that can conform to government RFPs.
    • Developing enlightened investment strategies which don’t try to capture all of the value.
    • Supporting research in using networking rather than the networks themselves.
    • Supporting research in how to get more out of existing physical facilities as well as encouraging new technologies.
    • Developing decentralized protocols for connectivity rather than today’s provider-centric IP
    • Working to simplify building applications using public connectivity (the bit commons). This could be mundane telemedicine, community information or …
  • Acting as an advocate for a transition from a telecom framing to a connectivity framing:
    • Evaluating existing assets and business practice afresh without the century old technical and policy presumptions.
    • Working towards a bit commons or common infrastructure including removing the artificial distinctions between wired and unwired bits.
    • Assisting in transitioning the existing telecommunications industry to industries supporting and taking advantage of connectivity.

At first glance the idea of the OCA may seem fanciful but it’s far easier to start afresh than trying to struggle out of the mire of the existing Regulatorium. We didn’t build the automobile by modifying stage coaches – we just used our understanding of wheeled vehicles to start afresh.

Starting afresh is essential to the telcos and cablecos as well. They need to see the Internet as something more, and other, than just a “service” they provide. Their existing phone and cable TV business models are in trouble. Charging for Net access is no gold mine, either. They need to start looking for ways of making money because of the Net and not merely with it. This is what Google and Amazon have done with “cloud” services. (Many of Google’s are in this list here. Amazon’s are here.) The only thing keeping the phone and cable companies from being in similar or allied businesses is a lack of imagination. Also a lack of appreciation for advantages of incumbency other than the ability to charge folks for broadband alone. These companies have waterfront property on the Net’s ocean. They also have direct relationships with customers. Those relationships can be used for much more than billing and essential services alone.

It would be much easier for these guys to start thinking outside their boxes if the Net were split off from the phone and cable regulatoria. And that Nick Carr’s Big Switch would happen a lot faster. (By the way, for thinking outside the box, it’s fun to read Nick’s post on Microsof’ts “trailer park” based cloud infrastructure.)

I wrote here,

Phone and cable companies today are in a lousy position to run the Internet business. Telephony and Cable TV are railroads and steamships. They “carry” the Net as a “service”, but the Net isn’t essentially a service. It’s just a way to connect things. Connectivity is what matters. Not “broadband”, much as it appeals within the context of phone and cable companies’ limited offerings and imaginations. Who will imagine what can be done when connectivity is freed up? Phone and cable companies? I’d rather bet on the people leaving those companies.

If phone and cable companies want to attract rather than lose its most original engineers, they it would help if they got out of the old regulatory frame and into a new one that separates the Net from their legacy monopolies.

More about Bob.

Bonus link: Beyond Telecom: Bob Frankston on the Future We Make for Ourselves. It’s is an interveiw I did with Bob earlier this year, for Linux Journal.

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