Everything seems to begin in the middle and then spiral out to a temporal beginning. Whenever I begin to think about wireless communication technology and the Network, I always end up contemplating the mystery of Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr and composer George Antheil did the conceptual work on frequency-hopping spread-spectrum wireless communications in 1941. They were awarded a patent for their work in 1942 (Lamarr under her married name at the time, Markey).
Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency-hopping idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as COFDM used in Wi-Fi network connections and CDMA used in some cordless and wireless telephones. Similar patents had been granted to others earlier, such as in Germany in 1935 to Telefunken engineers Paul Kotowski and Kurt Dannehl who also received U.S. Patent 2,158,662 and U.S. Patent 2,211,132 in 1939 and 1940. Blackwell, Martin and Vernam’s Secrecy Communication System patent from 1920 (1598673) does seem to lay the communications groundwork for Kiesler and Antheil’s patent which employed the techniques in the autonomous control of torpedoes.
Hopping along the spectrum from Lamarr’s time to the present, it’s the iPad that continues to bring the computing environment into focus. Where mobile and wireless were considered secondary modes of use, we now understand them as primary modes. The laptop has moved from the category of portable to that of transportable. And while it will physically fit on your lap, it’s now clear that the laptop is better suited to a table or desk. It’s the iPad that fits comfortably into your lap and stands ready to use as soon as you pick it up. While the desktop computer is a wired machine, and the laptop can either be wired or wireless— the iPad is purely wireless. Purely mobile, purely wireless.
As this new device (the iPad as the definition of a general category) begins its diffusion into the wild, our focus will turn to the availability of the over-the-air Network. This is the natural habitat of the iPad; it lives in the places where there’s wireless network connectivity. In our homes we can set up a cozy nest for the iPad with lots of wireless signal. But once we step out of the door, we’re at the mercy of the fates. With iPad, as with the iPhone, we’re largely dependent on AT&T’s GSM network. And for other devices, it will be other carriers. While there’s a strong focus on ‘coverage’ by cellular network carriers by both users and the networks themselves— we haven’t given the supplementary wifi network the same scrutiny.
For wifi connectivity, we look to a patchwork of hotspots. We scan for signal, looking to see if there’s open network where we can get a connection. Maybe I can get it in that cafe up the street. I seem to remember that park around the corner had public wifi. And that hotel? The wifi there was as slow as molasses in January. Oh, and don’t even get me started about the wifi at that tech conference, everybody jumped on it— and it collapsed. Nobody even got a taste.
The iPad implies that a coherent wifi network will grow up in the places where people need it. A meshed Wifi environment looms in front of us as an opportunity. When Google sponsors free wifi on Virgin airlines flights, and AT&T sponsors free wifi at McDonald’s franchises, you see the beginnings of a huge advertising surface emerging around us.
As this mesh of wifi forms around the heavily trafficked pathways of our lives, we’ll want to take advantage of the hops spread across the spectrum— the ones that Hedy Lamarr imagined. We’ll want to hop seamlessly from wifi network to wifi network as we move from this store to that one. From this museum to that cafe. And we’ll expect the cellular network to fill in the gaps. Optimizing these hops for signal strength, cost of bandwidth and local discounts, offers and transaction capability will give the iPad, and iPhone, a home in the world.
Now, of course, we’d like that experience without commercial interruption. But there’s a ready business model that we already understand: on the channels that we pay a subscription fee, we won’t see commercials. On the channels where we don’t directly pay a fee, we’ll watch commercials– or trade data and gestures, for access. The key is the hand-off to the next local environment, the smooth hop to the next connection— meshing the networks together into a seamless experience. And where we used to see a difference between network providers and broadcasters, in a two-way broadcasting system— those differences begin to dissolve.
There’s an old New Yorker cartoon that shows a row of pizza joints jammed right next to each other on a block in Manhattan. As you look at them from left to right, you see the signs in their windows. The first one says: “Best Pizza in New York City!”; the second one blares: “Best Pizza in the USA!”; the third one proclaims: “Best Pizza in the World!”; the fourth one tops them all with: “Best Pizza in the Universe!”; and with the fifth pizza joint we see the proprietor standing out front smiling, and the sign in his window says: “Best Pizza on this Block.”
Competing in this new environment won’t mean spanning the globe with network coverage, rather it’s the microcaster with the best bundle of services, offers, and connectivity in real time, in the spot where you’re standing right now, who will win the day.