Of Networks, Open systems and the Mobile Internet – a historical perspective on Open Gardens

This article explores the wider issues and philosophy behind Open Gardens and networks. It is based on insights from the May 7 2007 issue of Forbes magazine called the 28 great minds on the Power of Networks. I have added to these insights and have extrapolated the ideas to the mobile / telecoms ecosystem.

Networks and Open systems – a sociological foundation

Networks are everywhere – from a network of neurons in the brain to a social network of friends and family.

The Internet is only the latest in a long line of networks – starting from road networks, telegraph networks, canal networks, radio stations and of course telephone networks.

The Internet is a network that connects computers and devices through the IP (Internet Protocol ). Like all networks, the Internet is about connecting people – and the Internet builds pathways across geography, race, economic status, religion etc. While road networks also do the same thing, Digital networks connect people globally in a much more efficient manner.

This large scale, global connectivity has a commercial and social impact.

Economically, the Internet can be viewed as extension of the free market. Adam Smith first defined free markets and included the concept of ‘voluntary association’ in that definition. A network of friends is a good example of a voluntary association network. Such free/voluntary networks are currently alien to many of us because the institutions we see today are, for most part, structured and regimented. These include family, business, religions and nations (but note that they do not include friends i.e. friends are voluntary). By its nature, a voluntary network cannot be controlled – and people who try to do so (such as politicians) find inevitably that they will fail because new and alternate connections can always be created to overcome the ones that are ‘blocked/walled up’.

The Internet amplifies this idea of voluntary associations on a global scale.

Thus when Karol Franks began thinking about donating a kidney to her ailing daughter Jenna, her family understood very little about what she was going through, but she formed a common bond with an online group of strangers who shared a similar experience.

We see the same phenomenon with online dating and relationships. Aaron Ben-Ze’ev author of the book Love Online: Emotions on the Internet, offers an explanation for psychology of online relationships in an article in psychology today:

Putting themselves into words, getting replies while they’re still in the emotional state of the original message, relying heavily on imagination to fill in the blanks about the recipient, people communicating online are drawn into such rapid self-disclosure that attachments form quite literally with the speed of light.

What is the value of a network?

Clearly people value these networks even if they cannot easily attach a monetary value to it – such as social support structures, dating etc. The value of a network can loosely be defined to be proportional to ‘more things you can do with added connectivity’ such as dating, buying books(Amazon), shopping(ebay) and so on i.e. value depends on the context.

Formally, the value of a network is governed by Metcalfe’s law (also referred to as the network effect) which states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system (n2). Today, Metcalfe’s law is used to explain the rise of communication networks such as the Internet, Social networking and the Web. It’s been more than 25 years since Metcalfe’s law was first formulated .. And we have the benefit of hindsight in explaining its impact.

The impact of laws, such as the Metcalfe’s law, lies in their physical manifestation over time Anyone can create ‘laws’ and even have some mathematics behind them –but the acid test lies in checking if the law plays itself out in real life. Originally, ‘Laws’ were often created to market or to explain a product – in other words to sell. Thus, it is interesting to see that there were other laws – also designed to ‘sell’ things – some of which worked and some of which did not.

Take Gorsch’s law. We don’t hear much about it .. For a good reason .. It did not work! – The law can be interpreted to mean that computers present economies of scale: Bigger computers are more economical. No prizes for guessing where this law would have originated from(IBM). In contrast, Moore’s law is an inversion of Grosch’s law (transistor densities would double every two years) – aka smaller is better. And again predictably, Gordon Moore was trying to ‘sell’ microprocessors at Intel.

More than 25 years on, we can look back and see which laws ‘worked’ (Moore and Metcalfe) and which laws did not(Grosch). What does this tell us? Given the right conditions, the same laws could well apply on the Mobile Internet with similar results.

There are other factors accelerating the value and proliferation of networks. Fred Smith, founder and CEO of Fedex famously said, Information about a packet is more important than the packet itself. In other words, if the Customer is King then Meta data is ‘King Kong’. In addition, the nodes (people) within the Internet are now starting to produce content rather than becoming plain consumers. These two factors – ‘capturing intelligence about customers’ and ‘customers as creators’ (and not as mere consumers) are the drivers of the Web 2.0 movement.

Just as Web 2.0 encouraged people to become active contributing nodes in the Internet, other developments are causing devices to be more connected (and by extension creators of metadata as people were on Web 2.0). With the launch of the Kindle on Amazon, this is a practical reality – and it is merely the first step towards devices becoming active creators of Metadata. Hence, the Internet acquires yet another new dimension. The network, and its value continues to grow.

Telecoms and Open networks

It is in this backdrop that we explore the idea of Open systems in a Telecoms ecosystem. In the era of hyoerconnectivity(for both devices and people), the traditional walled gardens models are not simply not sustainable.

We can all see the rapid growth of mobile devices.

As of Jun 2007, there are 3 billion mobile phones and only as of 2005 the figure was 2 billion phones

However, the growth of Mobile phones does not necessarily translate to the growth of the Mobile Internet. The belief that “more people will be accessing the internet via their mobile phones than their PCs in 10 years time,” is flawed.

There are two problems here: For most part phones today have only two things in common – voice and SMS(text messaging). Billions of devices simply does not translate to billions of request to access the Internet. More importantly, it is unclear as to what ‘accessing the Internet’ means in this context. The Internet merely means any device connected by the IP protocol. Thus, accessing the Internet from a mobile device does not make much sense. I think by ‘accessing the Internet’ people mean ‘accessing the Web’. The Web is ofcoure higher in the stack – a protocol based on http and HTML.

More importantly, the deployment of the Internet to mobile devices means something much more fundamental. It means bringing the mindset of the Internet to the Mobile ecosystem. Hence, the real significance of ‘accessing the Internet from mobile devices’ lies in the proliferation of the network effect to the mobile ecosystem. Until we see network effects happening on the Mobile Internet, the rest does not matter as much.

The question of synergies between the Internet and the Mobile Internet(and by extension – openness in telecoms networks) has different facets depending on where in the stack you are addressing the question – at the IP/network level , at the level of the software stack, at the applications/services level or even at a social networking level.

In the purest sense, ‘Open’ means the ability to access a resource with no commercial and technological barriers(See How do you define Open)

There are three major interrelated developments that are impacting the openness on mobile networks:

a) Open source on mobile devices

b) Open social networks and

c) The deployment of the full the full Web on mobile devices.

These are topics of interest for me and also subjects of future books. Watch this space!

Any comments welcome