I didnt ask the media experts about advertising. That wouldnt have been fair. Advertising is what the future of media is all about, so I didnt really expect them to be experts on that.
No, I asked a simple sort of question: “What is RoamNet?” And I warned them: “I dont want a simple answer.”
Actually, they didnt know the simple answer.
They were academics assembled from Englands Cambridge University, from MIT (yes, in Massachusetts), from the University of London and from British Telecoms research wing.
And what is RoamNet? It is the SSID (service set identifier) of the university Wi-Fi facility provided to the academic community in the U.K. Thats the simple answer, just to put you out of your suspense. Nothing to do with advertising.
Why did that matter? It mattered because we were all sitting in the Chadwick Lecture Theatre in Londons oldest university—University College—discussing the future of communications. And we had no Internet access.
Yes, that old chestnut, a bunch of shoemakers with barefoot kids. A clutch of jockeys with horse-fur allergies. A collection of bankers who dont qualify for overdraft facilities.
We had nearly everything and everybody. Heck, we had the head of the Cambridge Computer laboratory. We had two senior professors from the MIT Media Laboratory and several chancellors and vice chancellors and pro vice chancellors (dont ask, I havent a clue), and we had senior BT research people from Adastral Park.
So, I asked the Panel of Great and Good, “What is RoamNet?” And none of them knew what I was talking about, which rather scared me. Then, David P. Reed from the MIT Media Laboratory, sitting in the front row of the lecture theater, diffidently raised his notebook computer. “Its the network I couldnt log on to,” he said.
Indeed it was. And once they knew what the problem was, the answers flowed. Heck no; not answers but excuses. “Its because the network is provided on a not-for-profit basis,” went one excuse. “Its because we have to deal with the threat from virus and Trojan attacks on the network,” was the next.
“If only wed known you wanted access,” another excuse began, “we could have registered your MAC address … ” Only, in deference to my ignorant journalistic status, he didnt use the technical term.
All of the excuses you get from the typical BOFH (bastard operator from hell) who runs the network and is fed up with doing extra work for no extra pay. And indeed, when the truth came out, all of these excuses, excuses, why, they turned out to be nonsense.
In fact, the organizer of the conference had asked university officials if they could provide wireless access. Theyd said “no problem!” and promised to get back, but of course, they hadnt. The BOFH concerned had a network to run.
If you visited IBM, and after drinking too much tea and coffee and root beer you asked where the toilet facilities were, would you accept, “Oh dear, if only wed known!” Or if you paid a facility visit to Texas Instruments, would you be impressed by, “Our washrooms are on a not-for-profit basis”?
Would you swallow, “It puts an unacceptable workload on our cleaning staff” from the HR team at AT&T? No, and it wouldnt dream of offering such excuses, either.
Now, its bad enough to get this from the next company you visit. If youre the guest of a large corporation, these days you expect to get access to the Internet while youre there; and if they forget to arrange it, they are dreadfully embarrassed.
But this is a group that is looking at the future of communications. This is the cream of our research team, a collaborative effort between Cambridge and MIT—sponsored by £100 million of the U.K. chancellors tax collection—to find out what the problems are. And a bright bunch, indeed, make no mistake.
I would like to repeat all of the presentations they gave; they were interesting. Subjects such as “Can individual universities do world-class work without collaboration?” and “Would the best place to store crucial Internet data not be on individual PCs?”
I think they were interesting, anyway, but then I would because by and large, they repeated subjects that Ive raised here on these pages, and in other columns for papers such as IT Week in the U.K. In other words, they were the sort of thing any smart-ass journalist could come up with faced with a deadline and a need for paying another lunch check.
Now, Im not going to say that these people need to see a good anthropologist—though they clearly do!—nor that they have their heads in the clouds—which I would never dare to suggest, even if I thought it.
Nor am I going to say that they arent going to do good work in studying telepathy and teleportation and all of the other amazing projects theyre talking about undertaking successfully in a decade or two.
But I am going to say, if you are looking at the horizon, perhaps it is forgivable to trip over a small stone at your feet. But if provision of Internet facilities to a modern audience is really just a small stone to you, are you sure youre looking at the real horizon?
The future of communications is actually the point I started out with here: advertising. The future of comms is the future of advertising. If youre studying bits and fibre and modulation schemes and mesh configurations, great!—but thats all known stuff.
Where the mystery comes in is how it all gets financed, where the revenue streams come from, how sponsorship and promotion can be leveraged.
Thats not just a stone at your feet. Thats the jungle in front of you. And the horizon you see? I suspect its actually a billboard advertising Hawaii holidays.
Check out the columns in Guy Kewneys opinion archive.