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Engines of Change: When It Comes to the Application of Disruptive Consumer Electronic Technologies, We Probably Have Napster (the Old One) to Thank

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Sometimes all it takes for change to happen is a catalyst. Last week, I wrote about third-party firmware for Linksys and other wireless routers, and this week, real actions are happening as a result of that column. While the Slashdot crowd argued about what is or isn't technically or legally possible, a reader from San Francisco literally jumped into the wireless ISP business. A major VoIP provider contacted me looking for possible partners. And groups in Mexico and China want to see if the technology can be applied in those countries to bring cheap phone service to where there is today no phone service at all.

Oh, and somewhere in there, Cole Cringely was born in a delightfully uncomplicated procedure here at the Medical University of South Carolina. He's the one with the hair.

First to Dave Hurley, who brings new meaning to the admonition that real estate is all about location, location, location. In Dave's case, location means having line-of-sight to a few hundred thousand San Franciscans who previously could only watch him walk around in his underwear, but soon will be able to have Dave as their ISP.

"I was blown away by your WiFi article and in fact, had only a couple weeks before resolved to get into the mini-ISP game here in my ultra-dense SF neighborhood," wrote Dave. "I just hadn't seen the light on the future possibilities, and wasn't even aware of the Sveasoft firmware for the Linksys router. My eyes went big and I got right on it.

"I ordered the router and then went about lining up the bandwidth. In the Slashdot post-mortem on your story (which happened twice, as I assume you noted), people raised the reselling legality, TOS issue, but I got around it by using Speakeasy.

"I ordered a 6-up/700-down line to my house (I'm a mere 5k feet from the CO) and am going to use their interesting "Netshare" product.

"Via Netshare, they will handle all the billing, provide mailboxes, news, back-up dialup coverage, etc. and I act as SysAdmin, marketer and troubleshooter. As far as I'm concerned, it's a fair deal because they're providing exactly the kind of features and service that will sell my neighbors on the concept. It's not just "Dave selling bandwidth," but Dave retailing the services of a top-notch provider. I am removed from the ugly pecuniary issues (whew) and I can take advantage of the public's general ill-will toward the incumbents (SBC, Earthlink, et al).

"The beauty comes in when you consider my special situation: I live near the top of Telegraph Hill with astonishing line of sight and household density. I am also already the neighborhood's "Cringely," so to speak (I'm the go-to geek). I plan to get some major antenna action going on my roof and I believe I can easily serve hundreds of customers -- I'll fatten the pipe as needed. I can literally see thousands of windows from the very desk I'm sitting at now. My neighborhood is also fiercely independent and slightly snobby (i.e., they may relish buying from a "Telegraph Hill local"), and I can actually (I believe) offer far better service, both in terms of bandwidth performance and personalization. I already work at home as a motion graphics designer and general video grunt (also do some teaching), so it's a perfect fit for me."

Bob here again: I'll keep you posted on Dave's progress. If you have line-of-site to Telegraph Hill and want a wireless ISP, Dave's URL is among this week's links.

I put Dave in touch with James Ewing at Sveasoft, but then came-in a message from Net2Phone, looking for partners to test out selling a VoIP service, so I hooked them up, too. Moments later, the Chinese called, and that's when it became clear to me that this wireless stuff is simply ideal for a high-density, low-income urban culture like that found in China. Throw a wireless router in every Chinese Internet caf´┐Ż and you'd bring phone service and Internet to hundreds of thousands of people practically overnight. Add a little mesh networking as described last week, and the number of people served could be increased by an order of magnitude.

Of course, there are many ways to attack almost any problem. The homeless people of San Francisco, for example, could use mobile phones if they needed to, but would a wireless ISP be in this case a cheaper alternative? For people who tend to remain within a small urban area it might well be. My Vonage VoIP account, for example, includes for an extra $4.99 per month what they call a soft phone, which is literally a Vonage client that runs on a notebook or Pocket PC so I can make or receive calls at any WiFi hotspot or hotel broadband connection in the world. Five dollars per month for telephone service is a lot cheaper than any mobile plan I have seen and well within the financial capability of even the homeless in San Francisco. Maybe the City could install access points, do a wholesale VoIP contract, and start handing-out donated Pocket PC computers. Not only would they bring communication to what is now a community that is not served, but for the first time, they'd also have a warning system to use with those people.

It's just an idea.

There is a lot of merit to this idea of hacking consumer Linux devices -- not just because the added services are cool, but because the economies of scale afforded by mass production can finally be applied to narrower technical interests. A hard-core techie MIGHT be willing to spend a couple weeks and a few hundred dollars making these applications work. But when the price drops to under $100 and the effort drops to less than an hour, suddenly there are 10 to 100 times as many people willing to spend that money and make that effort.

What will make this possible are tools that allow the hacking without having to be a hacker. James Ewing's goal for is next release of router software, for example, is for it to be a la carte -- click on a few boxes to choose what you'd like you router to do and a custom build will be downloaded just for you. He also plans to do a plug-and-play hotspot complete with a billing module.

And what's really great is this trend is growing and involves much more than just wireless routers. This week, I'm playing with a Hauppauge Media MVP, a little box you can buy at many U.S. electronics retailers for around $80. The MVP sits atop your television and connects to a 10/100 Ethernet connection. It grabs music video or pictures (MVP, get it?) stored on your Windows PC and presents it on the TV. One way to think of the MVP is as an Ethernet adapter for your TV -- the first such adapter I suppose that comes with its own remote control. But what's really cool about the MVP is that inside it is a little 300 MHz PowerPC computer running Linux. And, like last week's Linux routers, the MVP is attracting attention from people who want to alter its firmware.

This is a very different device from the wireless router. For one thing, it has hardware MPEG video encoding and decoding. Out of the box it works only with Windows XP or 2000, where a little server app manages your hard drive, but it won't be long before this little guy is working with Linux and Macintosh computers, too. I have satellite TV, so why shouldn't I be able to use the MVP to watch any of my three satellite receivers on any TV in the house? If you wonder why I might want to do that, well right now only one of my satellite boxes has a hard drive and it would be great to watch that recorded programming on a different TV. Or I could use the second video feed for picture-in-picture. I'll be experimenting with these ideas as well as with replacing the Ethernet connection with 802.11g and even HomePlug power line networking. Why not?

A number of forces have to work in conjunction to make these disruptive technologies possible. Economies of scale gained by mass production are augmented by the willingness of technically savvy people to share the fruits of their labor, but the third component we don't give enough credit to, I think, is the willingness of absolutely normal people to mess with this complex technology. I credit Napster (the original Napster, not the new one) and DivX for this relatively sudden willingness for average people to get their hands dirty twiddling bits. Motivated by free music and video, millions of people have learned that it isn't really that hard to do, especially if there is a 12 year-old available to help. And since we seem to keep producing 12 year-olds, I'd say the sky's the limit when it comes to how these technologies will change our world.

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