Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Need for Speed

“There will be a constant pressure for [wireless networking] speed and it will never cease.” —M. Kursat Kimyacioglu of Philips Electronics NV

We have four computers in our home. One desktop is connected to the router by cable. The other desktop and the two laptops are connected to the router wirelessly. The wireless networking on the laptop that is in the same room as the router works at least as fast as the wired networking on the desktop. But the other two computers are three rooms away and half a level down. The wireless networking on the distant desktop is somewhat slow, despite a high gain antenna setup. The old laptop … well … it’s so slow (not just with respect to networking) that we hardly use it for anything. I probably should sanitize it and dispose of it.

My current home network setup was the stuff of futuristic fiction only a few years ago. We would have thought we were in paradise had we been able to wirelessly transfer relatively small files back in those archaic days of the late 20th Century. But, as has been the case with almost all computing technology, once users get a taste of something, they only want it to do more, and to do it better and faster.

I have seen this throughout my computer programming career. When I first started programming, everyone was using various 3GLs. The buzz was that 4GLs were going to revolutionize software development. Users would be able to develop their own solutions and developers would no longer be needed. But the 1990s found the developer world flocking to Java, which was another 3GL. 4GLs turned out not to be all they were cracked up to be. Most 3GL development requires trained programmers.

Various other developments over the years have promised to eliminate the need for programmers, allowing users to develop their own solutions. What has happened to all of these promises? Surprisingly enough, many of them have come true. How many non-programmers accomplish tasks today that were once solely the domain of programmers? How many people develop and use spreadsheets and simple database systems? These things have become ubiquitous.

Rather than eliminating the need for programmers, however, the advent of these tools has only created a more insatiable desire for increasingly complex solutions. However large the circle of capabilities available to users today, they continuously yearn for something just beyond the edge of that circle. And the development world continually works to cater to those desires. Thus, the only thing that remains truly static in computer development is the desire for more, better, and faster.

The same is true in the hardware world. Every couple of years I read an article claiming that we’re about to max out on the technological ability to provide yet faster processing. But the tech industry continually finds new breakthroughs that prove the pessimists wrong. Users want faster processing, and the tech world provides it.

In networking, the next great thing that users want is the ability to wirelessly and instantaneously transfer large files. Say, for example, movie files. Users have become used to downloading high quality audio files from remote locations and immediately using them. Many users do this with low quality video files as well, but it takes longer.

Why can’t we decide we want to buy a movie from an Internet site and be watching it on the big screen seconds later? Why do I even have to pull out a DVD and pop it into the DVD player? Why can’t I just have all of my video files on a central server in my home, where I can select them and watch them anytime I want from any video device in the house?

As one would expect, the tech world is working hard to turn these concepts into reality. This AP article reports on efforts to use extremely high radio frequencies for small wireless networks. They can already transfer an entire standard DVD movie file in about five seconds. Right now the technology is brittle, as “signals don't penetrate walls very well and are too easily disturbed by passing people and pets.” Developers hope to overcome these problems within a year. They figure that they have to get their chip down to $5 to be competitive in the market.

But if this effort ultimately doesn’t pan out, that’s no big deal, because there are others that are working on accomplishing the same thing using different technologies. If we end up with competing technologies, the market will ultimately sort out which one (or ones) will be most useful on a broad scale.

And once we get to this point, we’re going to be in permanent nirvana, right? Wrong. Once users have the capacity to wirelessly and instantaneously transfer large files, they will want the capacity to do something else that is just beyond the then-current scope of technology. As it does now, the tech world will be busy working to deliver.

To paraphrase the quote at the beginning of this article, there is a constant pressure for better technology, and it never ceases. And the tech world never ceases stepping up to the challenge of responding to that pressure.


Jesse Harris said...

The one area of technology that seems to be the perpetual laggard is batteries. Try as we might, we still can't find a lot of good ways to squeeze more juice out compounds like NiMH and Lithium ion. The capacity we get per pound of material has barely budged in the last 30 years; we've only managed to cheat more out of the battery by cutting consumption repeatedly.

Charles D said...

The one thing that the market will never do is develop a technology that reduces the need for more technology. The software innovations that catch on in the market require more powerful hardware. The ones that could run circles around the "winners" but on antiquated hardware are losers in the marketplace. Hmmmm.

y-intercept said...


You just said a paradox! I am so very proud of you. You are getting better at the Dialectics with each attack. You have a bright future as a brown shirt in the new order.

Not only was it a paradox. It was a particularly inane one to boot. Inane paradoxes are always the best. Don't ya think? You should be so proud of yourself.

BTW, Reach's article on wireless networking is a case where a new technology reduced the need for the older more resource intensive wired technology. The same thing happened when client server computing wiped out the market for the more complex 4GLs.

Jesse Harris makes an interesting point about batteries. There seems to be physical limits to the chemical energy you can store in a mass of a given size. As there is a physical limit on batteries, I think the real frontier in portable technology is efficiency. So, although battery technology isn't changing, the bang we get from each battery is increasing.

There is also a promising future for remote generation such as fuel cells and solar cells. I think the thing to concentrate on at this moment is the technology of conservation.

Frank Staheli said...

It will be nice when movies become to DVDs like MP3's became to CD's. Some people still buy CDs because they provide the full range of sound, but I prefer the compact organization of my 40GB portable MP3 player. It will be great when we can download a full-length movie in a minute or less.

Whereas a year ago, I didn't even have wireless in my home, now we have 4 computers hooked up as well (and it's often that at least 3 of them are being used). It is so nice to be able to sit in my zero-gravity camp chair with my laptop on the back deck and check the news and blog to my heart's content.

I just upgraded to 7mbps DSL, which is 5 times faster than I had before, but it's still slower than it should be and definitely slower than places like Japan.

Scott Hinrichs said...

The infrastructure upgrade to Gigabit Ethernet, like they've done in some other countries, seems to be lagging here in the U.S. When consumers demand it, however, I'm sure the market will comply.

And, yes, my 2007 laptop uses significantly less power than any of my previous computers, despite the fact that we can still only get so much juice from a battery.

y-intercept said...

Consumers want the highspeed internet. Since our utility system is overregulated, it is unlikely that anyone, other than the Comcast monopoly, will be able to bridge that last mile and get us the bandwidth we desire.

BTW, you don't need to be able to download the whole movie in a minute. All you need is a bandwidth that is faster than the display rate. You can download movies with Comcast On Demand.

Since Comcast has a monopoly on the last mile, there won't be a market for any independent online film rental agencies.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Monopolies have a lot of power. But they ultimately limit consumer choice. And that goes for both private sector monopolies and government monopolies.

One of government's jobs is to provide a regulatory and legal structure that fosters competition. We've got some things right in this arena. But we obviously also have some things wrong.

Jesse Harris said...

I'd argue that we've totally flubbed telco policy. We gave them a $200B subsidy as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and we got none of their promises? All copper upgraded to fiber optics? Nope. 45Mbps broadband? Nope. Multiple competing providers over this advanced network? Nada.

We've got two options: sue the scoundrels into bankruptcy or line up behind projects like UTOPIA that provide that infrastructure to private competitors.