Bitpipes and Mobile World Congress: History does not remember the builders of the Silk Road – only it’s travellers and it’s traders ..


Here are my impressions of the Mobile World Congress. I was in Barcelona for the whole week and met many great people – but did not attend any sessions (except my own of course Mobile Youth is a myth ) :) So don’t expect any insights from specific sessions .. but here are my impressions and thoughts from speaking to many in Barcelona and also meeting many of the vendors there.

Bit pipes

In 2008, we see an industry in turmoil – and in the keynote sessions that dreaded word ‘Bit Pipe’ was mentioned at length. “We must not allow ourselves to become bit-pipes and let somebody else do the services work,” Sarin warned.

But by common consensus, the company everyone wanted to meet was not an Operator – It was Apple. Like it or not – Google, Apple, Nokia and others drive the agenda today – and already with the launch of iPhone – the Operator is already a bit pipe. There may be no going back since iTunes is the billing mechanism for iPhone as I blogged before

The Silk road

Brian Dolan of Fiercewireless calls this the Dumb Pipe Nostalgia at the Mobile World Congress .. and I agree.

I have long studied history and archaeology . Let’s put this in a historical perspective.

The Silk Road is a series of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to the cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting East and West by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea during various periods of time. The trade route was initiated around 114 BC by the Han Dynasty (114 BC) – from Wikipedia

To the many merchants, wandering armies, and adventurers of our ancient civilizations, the Silk Road served as an important communication link between cultures and economies. During the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), this 5000-mile stretch of trade routes was possibly the world’s first “Internet,” linking Asia to Europe and Africa.

(from Schools of California Online Resources for Education, History/Social Science SCORE H/SS)

Chinese scholars like Hsüan-tsang criss-crossed the length of the Silk road and unified the ancient civilization of India and China. He was not alone. Recent archaeological discoveries in the Tarim Basin (now in China) point to a ‘melting pot’ of cultures thousands of years ago.

There is a statue of Hsüan-tsang at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda


However, history does not remember the builders of the silk road – commendable as the achievement was.

What does this tell us?

Builders of roads are rarely the same as the traders and the intellectuals who use the road.

Today the traders are the eBays and the intellectuals are the Googles. But the principles remain the same from the ancient times of the silk road. The builders are not the same people who add value to the network(silk road) – and a higher value will be added by the traders and the intellectuals who trod on those ancient pathways.

Why does this happen?

Simply put – if someone tried to monetise/block the Silk road – other roads would be found. (Think Wimax/WiFi here!). Human beings want to connect/to interact. Life will find a way. It always has.

The year of open systems and open source

I see three important trends of 2007 reflected at MWC and will be played out in 2008.

Besides all the talk of Bit pipes, some have said, this is the year of Linux. I don’t agree. Linux consortia have been there for a while. Google Open handset alliance(OHA) however is more than Linux – and it is a key development to watch. OHA is however – next year’s talking point in my view.

This year’s big success was not Linux(yet) but Webkit. 2007 was the year of Webkit. 2008 more so. In doing so – Webkit also made it the year of the browser and the open source.

The third trend is simply social networking. I blogged about the idea of umbrella social networks before. I think social networks will become important

To Conclude

The three things which will make an impact last year and this year are: Open source on mobile devices, social networks and the browser.

And Bit pipes? Think silk roads and the historical, social and technical trends that influence it!

Image: Silk road –; statue – wikipedia


  1. Paul Golding says:

    Nice post. I can’t say I’m shocked about the dumb pipe stuff doing the rounds again. It’s just not in the operator DNA to see beyond the pipe. Most of their innovation – and we shouldn’t knock it (e.g. GSMA) – has been in building and deploying the pipe and giving us access to it. What we do beyond that has not been their concern or skill-set. It’s a hard shift to make.