Will Web Apps Need COPEing Mechanisms?

Opinion: Telecom law's tiered-pricing pathway is just one reason to be bandwidth-aware.

The Internet is progressing toward "a future of control in large part exercised by technologies of commerce, backed by the rule of law." So wrote Lawrence Lessig in 1999, adding: "The challenge of our generation is to reconcile these two forces." Seven years later, that future is now.

The prospect of content-based pricing of Internet traffic will strike some as heresy, but anyone who has read Lessigs "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace" will not be shocked at the suggestion that such a thing is possible. That acceptance of the possibility is not the same thing as approval of the idea; in fact, that recognition of possibility may even be a precursor to effective opposition. If opponents of tiered pricing can be encouraged to get together in the corner and merely chant, "Cyberspace can not be governed," then those who would like to see it governed by commercial forces will find it much easier to get on with their work in legislation such as the perversely named Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006.

Enterprise systems developers have never seen a Net that wasnt getting faster, cheaper and more content-neutral all the time. They may find it hard to wrap their heads around the idea that all resources ultimately wind up priced at the point where users are poised on the cusp of indifference between using them and not using them. The Net will ultimately prove no different.

Pricing may be set by intrinsic scarcity, as in the case of something like petroleum, or by non-monetary forces such as the nuisance of living a long way from the nearest urban settlement. The latter is the price that people pay today for clean air, giving the lie to "free as air" and other such figures of speech. Eventually, everything is priced.

The newly discovered territory of cyberspace has so far enjoyed the same illusion of unpriced access that was seen in the early years of the American West—but like the ranchers fences that soon demarcated those spaces, mechanisms of protecting and controlling the use of private assets are quickly being devised for the Net as well.

The highest levels of enterprise management can and should seek to influence this process, both through the public sector mechanism of legislative lobbying and the private sector mechanism of service provider contracts. Meanwhile, though front-line systems developers can take whatever sort of political action they favor, theyre neglecting their duty to their employers if they dont think ahead about designing systems for optimal return on investment on a network of equilibrium pricing.

It may soon be too costly, for example, to use bandwidth-intensive glitz as part of ones public Web presence in situations where one isnt trying to attract the casual surfer, but merely serving an existing client or supplier. Its already silly to over-decorate a site, but soon that silliness will be costly as well as annoying. Service to mobile users should likewise be sparing in bandwidth use.

Client-side applications can use Web services protocols to retrieve only the information needed to support a particular transaction, with much of the presentation material thats currently fetched with every Web-page reload being downloaded once as part of a storefront application. Back when we talked about release dates for Microsofts Vista without an automatic snicker—in fact, back before it was even called Vista—the reinvention of the client application for the always-on network-connected PC was one of the most interesting topics at Microsofts 2003 developer conference in Los Angeles.

Microsofts championing of resurgent rich-client development may have been motivated by its own supply-side interests, but the approach becomes perhaps even more attractive in the face of demand-side concerns about the future of Net pricing.

Weve already established what the network is; now were just haggling about price: Tell me what youre willing to pay at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.


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