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Big bets and baby steps towards Next Gen Net in Las Vegas

Thursday, August 17, 2000

By Stefan Dubowski, Posted Aug 17, 2000, 04:46 PM

Las Vegas — Today the next generation Internet – for both landline and wireless connections – is a sparkle in a thousand developers’ eyes.

And although software vendors, network builders and the development community promise “3G” is on its way, we, and they, would all like to know when this long-held expectation will come to fruition.

Jonathan Prial is the director of marketing for IBM Corp.’s pervasive computing group. He says 3G for wireless should be a reality in the 2001 to 2002 timeframe.

“The market that has everyone intrigued is wireless Internet,” he said during an interview at IBM’s Solutions Technical Developer Conference. “That popped, in my opinion, in the last quarter, last year.”

IBM says its ready for the Internet’s next generation, mobile or static. What with open standards for development and network support, that slow-moving dot should pick up speed soon, according to Prial.

It’s ironic, however, that the elements he and other IBM executives say are necessary to build a faster, ubiquitous, reliable Internet are the same that could hinder it.

John Patrick is the vice-president of IBM’s Internet technology group. He says the impending landline connection (next generation Internet, or NGI) means higher speed, simple development, natural patterns of use, intuitive applications and security.

“We are at the beginning of this,” he said during a keynote speech. “The number of people doing something on the Internet at this very second amounts to zero.” Read: there’s room for improvement.

Prial envisions “smart” appliances, like a fridge that knows you’re almost out of milk, calls the grocery store to order it and contacts your cell phone to say you should stop at the milk mart.

IBM’s representatives at this conference say NGI’s success depends on common, open development standards. It means developers create programs that work across all platforms – not just those of the most popular “monopoly,” as one speaker said.

But how do you create an effective common, open standard? After all, as Prial said, “You’ve seen standards in the industry that fizzle and die,” thanks to warring technology tribes who fail to see eye-to-eye.

In NGI’s case, Patrick said accepted standards, like Java, a programming language, and inherently trusted benchmarks, like XML, an extensible version of the Internet’s current common language, hypertext mark-up language (HTML), should spell success for the impending Internet.

But it takes time to corral the developers, convince them that this common standard is worth embracing – is it time better spent going with the flow, accepting proprietary standards already in place? It would mean a smaller time investment and immediate satisfaction: NGI now.

No way, Prial says. Open standards, aided by the open source movement, mean ubiquitous acceptance soon enough – without sacrificing independence.

The wireless Internet has its own problems. Namely, it follows its immobile, successful sibling. Our expectations for 3G, on one hand, suggest we’re ready for quick, rich content via cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

On the other hand, are we asking too much?

For example, we know the Internet of today as a mysterious landscape where high school essays, works of art and academic papers reside close by e-commerce firms, business-to-business (B2B) markets and online applications.

But the wireless Internet is for m-commerce, content deals and location-based advertising. There’s no room, it seems, for pure information beyond business transactions.

It’s just not the same as our free and breezy landline Internet.

“There are things you want to do with this,” Prial said. “But it won’t be the same.”

Perhaps, he suggests, we wouldn’t want the wireless Internet to match its fibre optic, landline twin anyway.

“The Internet evolved from ‘let me access generic information,’ to ‘let me access personal information,’ to ‘let me do transactions,'” Prial said. Why rehash in the wireless world what the high bandwidth landline version will done so well?

Patrick said “we all have different tastes,” so there’s no point trying to predict which device we’ll chose most often for wireless Internet connections.

Mind you, our different tastes have incited a war among device makers. Rather than come together, PDA builders and cell phone manufacturers, data and voice proponents respectively, snipe. Each says the other is doomed.

On one hand, if prices get low, more people will buy in to 3G. Massive deployment is good news for 3G. But how do you convince disparate parties to support the same standard?

Prial suggests you threaten them with a glance at the future.

“What’s the value of your fax machine if it can’t talk to other fax machines because you used another protocol?”

Airtime prices, especially in Canada, remain competitive thanks to a battle royal among telecommunication carriers. They all want our business. And the low rates say they’ll bend over backwards to get it.

It’s one way to entice Canadians into the wireless world. Good for 3G.

But it’s not working. Canadians aren’t yet partial to wireless devices – hence the price war. And despite our expectations, there’s little to suggest that we know we want wireless applications.

Not good for 3G.

“It’s inertia in the existing infrastructure,” Prial said. “It’s also a game of who can reign.”

Will the carriers get over themselves and help finish 3G before the effort implodes in acrimony? Prial seems to think so. After all, if the telcos don’t get on board now, they can look forward to frustration later.

“There’s not a lot to wait for. There years ago even the Internet was a very different thing. And the people who waited were left behind.”

Despite these hurdles, Patrick and Prial remain believers. But keep in mind that IBM builds servers – they’re important pieces in the NGI and 3G puzzles.

Asked to predict NGI’s arrival, Patrick refused. “It’s not a step function. It’s an evolutionary thing.”