July 07, 2010
A little techno-archaeological excursion back to 2003

A couple of minutes ago, the technician got done installing the new remote read-off functionality on our heating system, here at my coop. This ends the need for annual manual read-offs by the coop board (i.e. me) and estimated usage numbers. Presumably the heating company will also be able to tell us interesting stuff about how we spend our energy dollars from the new masses of data they will have available.
Out of curiousity, I asked the technician how the system communicated with the outside world. The answer was simple and obvious, there's a GSM modem in the remote read-off module.
There are two things that interest me about that: Firstly, the infrastructure wasn't built for this. The application could never pay for suitable infrastructure on its own, but as soon as the infrastructure is already there, this becomes a very hard problem with an extremely easy solution. Infrastructure fixes problems in a completely different way than engineers do. Secondly, embedded computers in Copenhagen have access to about the same level of infrastructure - or better - as entire villages in sub-saharan Africa.

I took a look back at my weblog entries for 2003. "Only 7 years ago", it's easy to think, but frankly, reading them, they feel positively pre-historic. I hardly recognize my language or interests from back then.

Let me take you back to the year 2003 in the context of infrastructure.

Back then we were talking about replacing RSS with Atom, because everybody not Dave Winer were in some kind of argument with Winer. We were debating what to call Atom in the first place. This is infrastructure that has clearly gone to the background as we've moved our stuff into silos. I'm a little sad about this, but the kind of fighting that the RSS/Atom battle is an example of, is why silos sometimes make more sense and simply win. We need our infrastructure back from the silos in the next 1-4 years.

There were tons of upstarts, and huge debate, over public WiFi. Incumbents - both those providing internet services and mobile information - didn't want public WiFi to happen. In general we were all talking about a dreamy future with data everywhere, which clearly hadn't materialised yet. Today the public WiFi plans seem like a quaint, patchy solution to a problem that got a better infrastructure solution later on. Not that the alternate terror-free future with abundant, communal WiFi everywhere wouldn't have been great, but we seem to be making a reasonable go of it in the future we actually got.

This pattern, of "patchy, but possible" local solutions to problems, that we since get a global fix for from infrastructure, is recurring. In 2005-2007 location was one of these. Plazes - location from WiFi - was a good idea that has since become almost completely irrelevant. Infrastructure has cut that problem differently; now the important thing is access to social data - how can I conveniently socialize a particular place - not location data, since location is now an ample resource (whereever WiFi is, anyway)*. We didn't have maps, and they weren't free.

2003 was also the year we first heard about Skype. I wrote about it (in Danish) and got a reply to the effect that "I don't believe in it. I already have a phone", which is a lot like the classic responce Xerox got way back when they were trying to sell photocopiers for the first time: "But I already have a secretary".
The old rationale doesn't become less rational, because of the new technology - it's about all the the new rationales that suddenly make sense. Last I checked, Skype accounted for 12% of all international calling.

Also, in slightly different infrastructure, 2003 was when Google started rolling out AdSense, so we got a first stab at how online media were going to get paid. There was a lot of clearly unfounded optimism about this, and the world has basically moved on, even while totally assimilating to AdSense. Now we're talking about stuff like Flattr instead. Early results are at least interesting.

And to think, that back in 2003 we weren't even dreaming about iPhones, iPads and Kindles. About AppStores. Or Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, for that matter. Sounds to me like we simply missed the places for people. Including markets.

*It's worth noting here, that location technology is actually still a patchy mess of Skyhook WiFi assisted location + GSM cell assisted location + GPS proper, but those are technicalities. The key thing is that the abstraction is in place, and is good enough, that we just believe in it.

I have similar feelings about what we did with Imity back in 2006, btw. Location has taken care of most of that problem. Infrastructure cut it up in a different way, than what we had planned for.

Posted by Claus at July 07, 2010 09:01 AM | TrackBack (0)
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