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Weekly Column

Is a Little Broadband Enough?: Covad Seems to Think So. Also, Why Microsoft Keeps Getting Sued

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Which is more important to have in your broadband Internet link — lots of bandwidth or an always-on connection? According to a study announced this week by Covad, the national DSL provider, broadband users most value the always-on nature of their connection. Me, too.

And the reason is clear, at least to me. Bandwidth is great, but there isn't always a lot of it to go around. It is fabulous to have 1.5 megabits-per-second at your disposal, but almost useless if your favorite web site is set to serve 1,000 simultaneous users through its own T-1 connection. If the site is generally popular (not just with you, you freak), this can mean all you get is 1.5 KILObits-per-second, no matter how big your pipe. This isn't always the case, of course, but years ago when I upped my DSL line of the time from 384 kbps to 768 kbps, I saw no performance change at all in anything except FTP downloads.

An always-on connection allows you to run a server (which most people don't even if they can) and to make practical use of Internet telephony (which most people should). It's always a thrill when my computer rings and it's my friend Ira, from Tokyo, calling for free. The sound quality isn't perfect, but the price sure is. And don't discount the value of having an e-mail client that picks up mail every minute or two — another treat available only with an always-on connection.

Of course, you still need bandwidth, and the more the better, but very few applications make good use of the mega-amounts available to DSL users. Downloads are faster, as are uploads to peer-to-peer file sharing systems, but a couple hundred kilobits-per-second is plenty for anything else except watching movies or intensive gaming. So it must be the non-movie downloading non-networked game players Covad is targeting with its new TeleSurfer Link product, which offers 200 kilobits-per-second downstream and 64 kilobits-per-second upstream. The introductory price in the U.S. is $21.95 per month, rising to $39.95 per month after we stop noticing the charge on our credit card bill. That's AOL kinda money for what amounts to DSL Lite.

Will people buy it? Heck yes. If the price is the same, performance is at least double, and the phone line is never tied-up, people will buy it. I just wonder if Covad can make money with it. Remember, this is back-from-the-dead Covad, a company that is still trying to reach break even on a cash-flow basis. But Hunter Middleton, whose name suggests a character in a Frank Capra movie but who actually plays the role of product marketing manager at Covad, says their costs per installed line are down 36 percent from a year ago, making the new product a moneymaker.

Think about it. The fixed costs for providing this service are identical to any other DSL connection Covad sells except for the bandwidth provision. Hunter says Covad puts 3,000 to 3,500 home DSL users on each DS-3 (45 megabits-per-second) connection to the Internet backbone. This sounds about right since Dane Jasper, a local ISP guy who actually makes a good living selling DSL at his company Sonic.net, says he averages 4,000 DSL users per DS-3. Of course, to cover Telesurfer Link's lower cost, Covad will pack more users on each line, but they still claim to be running their network at only 10 percent of capacity.

I am all for it. If everyone had an always-on Internet connection, innovative new services would appear overnight. We could use a few more of those.

Did you notice this week that Burst.com sued Microsoft? The story caused so little commotion I feel compelled to comment. Apparently, we are so jaded now that another lawsuit against Microsoft doesn't mean much. But given the fact that Microsoft is a convicted monopolist, you'd think they would try to avoid these things. Apparently not.

Burst.com is in the video transmission software business. Their Burstware is a clever product that helps to pack more video down the wire between your computer and the video server. It does so by exploiting both the bursty nature of most Internet communications and the similarly bursty nature of video. The simple explanation for Burstware (for which I will be corrected by readers many times in the next 24 hours) is that there are times when the video pipe is full, and times when it is not. If one could analyze the video and use the less busy moments to send parts of the show down the wire BEFORE they are actually needed, well, that annoying rebuffering could be avoided. The video buffer always could be kept full, making the connection seem a lot bigger. Burst maintains that there is really plenty of bandwidth, we just aren't using it smartly. For those who are into this stuff, what I think Burst does is take two-pass encoding to the next level, optimizing the entire compression/transmission system. It is great for movies and other prerecorded programs, but not very good for real-time encoding.

Burstware is impressive, it is patented, and according to Burst, it is illegally copied inside Microsoft's upcoming video player code named Corona. Corona scares the bejesus out of other video vendors because of its ability to start playing very quickly (they say "instantly," but there is a short buffer period), for its high video quality, and of course, because its from Microsoft. The specter of Corona has hurt the prospects of many online video vendors, but Burst claims more than competitive damage — they claim patent infringement and theft of trade secrets following a period of two years in which Burst says it was trying to get Microsoft as a customer while Microsoft (again according to Burst) was learning as much as possible about Burst technology so they could duplicate it for free inside Corona.

This is far from a new story line. 3Com claimed that Microsoft did much the same thing with OS/2 LAN Manager ("You made a mistake, you trusted us," said 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe, quoting an unnamed Microsoft executive.) Jerry Kaplan claimed Microsoft did exactly the same thing, stealing technology from Go Computer for its Windows for Pen Computing. Stac Electronics claimed that Microsoft stole disk compression technology from them in a similar manner, though in Stac's case, it isn't alleged: They took Microsoft to court and won. This is happening so often, I'd say there must be something to it.

But I have to wonder why Microsoft would engage in such foolishness. They could have bought Burst.com at any point, and never even been able to detect a level change in Microsoft's corporate bank account. Why risk so much just to screw (allegedly) a little company from Santa Rosa?

If there is a reason, it has to come from the competitive nature of Bill Gates as Microsoft's spiritual and ethical leader. Everything is a competition to Bill, and every competition has a winner and a loser. Microsoft people have always been encouraged to see the game, not the consequences, and to win the game even if winning this way makes no sense.

Let me give an example of this behavior. In the early days of Microsoft, one of the popular games was to see how late the boys could leave work for the airport and still make their flights. These weren't people who were habitually late, they were playing a game. The eventual winner was Bill Gates, of course, but to win he had to abandon his car at the departures curb.



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