Friday, August 19, 2011

On Super Wifi MANETs, Part 2

So in part 1, I started talking a little about the rise of the super wifi. Today, I want to talk about the possible implications. To do this, we first need to take stock of the current state of affairs.

How do wireless communication devices such as mobile phones talk to each other? They do so either via cellular networks; or, if they have wifi capability (like all smartphones do), via wifi hotspots and home networks. But both of these options rely entirely on a central infrastructure. And in the case of cellular networks, all connections are subject to tariffs set by the telecom firms as well as censorships by the government. To use an analogy used by Larry Page himself, two people in the middle of the forest (and away from the nearest cellular coverage) cannot communicate with each other with their phones, even if they are right next to each other. This is not due to some inherent technical inability (walkie talkies have been around for decades); they are rather the product of restrictions set by telecom companies.

At this point it is worth remembering what happened in Middle East earlier this year. At the height of the riots in Egypt, the government shut down the Internet and cellular towers. The protesters at first had no way to communicate with each other. I think this incident more than anything else hilighted the critical limitation of today's existing communication structure. Soon many grass-root level attempts to fight back using hi-tech as well as low-tech (like dial-up Internet access) sprouted. In fact, many of the protocols on MANETs (Mobile Ad-hoc Networks) were put to practical use during the Middle East protests.

Also relevant to the current topic is how limited Twitter is as robust and resilient means of communication. This is in spit of the fact that Twitter at its very heart has the designs to magnify the voice of the minority to the retweeting majority. Why is this? Answer: because at the moment, all devices with Twitter clients have to rely on the above two methods (cellular or wifi) which rely heavily on a centralized backbone.

* * *

Much progress has been made in the cellular communications technology, with the development of 2G (GSM, CDMA), 3G, and now the 4G networks. Interestingly, 4G networks are also known as LTE networks, or, Long Term Evolution. And that is precisely my point: the current cellular networks have been (and will continue to) undergo evolutionary improvements in performances and range etc. Could it be that what is called for is instead a revolution?

* * *

Here's a short clip summarizing what I've been saying thus far. It will also serve as a bridge to what I'll be speculating about the future.

(A quick disclaimer: I am by no means claiming to be the first person to come out with this idea. As I said in the video, there are literally dozens of groups working to realize this vision, and some people have even been working on this from the ol' wifi days.)

To flesh out what I described in the video a bit further, I think the first truly peer-to-peer (p2p) super-wifi MANETs that go online will be those that have (by design) limited functions, like say text-only Twitter-like communications (complete with the 140 character limit) or voice-calls. There is already some work being done in the area of p2p voice calls using rooted android phones.

And this is a bit random, but what about bitcoins? It seems like the perfect match. A truly resilient and decentralized (both hardware and software) system of virtual currency? Now that is some food for thought.

Eventually though, with the progress being made in mobile devices (cpu, memory, battery etc), I don't think it is too much of a stretch to envision a world where the current Internet literally resides in trillions of these wireless devices all connected to each other, in a network that is fault tolerant, anonymous, and free from censorship. (And let me just say for the record: in today's fierce battlefield amongst giants such as Apple, Googl-ora, and Nokia-soft, I believe the best way for Korean manufacturers (yes that's you Samsung and LG) to differentiate their mobile products is to quickly embrace this MANET technology and offer it to customers as soon as possible.)

Alan Kay once said that "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." Alan Kay is the visionary behind things like GUI (graphical user interface found in Mac OS and Windows) and tablet computers, which, to come full circle back to the beginning of this two-part musings, served as the spiritual inspiration behind the One Laptop per Child project.

The question remains: Who will invent this future? ;-)

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