When people used to call the Internet an information superhighway, they emphasized its openness to all and its ability to connect anything to anything. Many who used the expression had an agenda of ensuring universal info-highway access, and this has been largely accomplished in developed nations like the United States.
At some point, though, the real-world interstate highway system became more of a maintenance project than a construction project. Its now much more interesting to look at Federal Express and United Parcel Service, and the supply chain efficiencies they can provide to the business that knows how to use them as partners, than it is to buy a cement mixer and look for work as a highway builder—or to look at highway maps and to buy trucks and hire drivers for yourself.
The Internet is likewise past that tipover point, with companies like Akamai Technologies increasingly taking the role of business partner rather than mere transporter—to get the right stuff to the right place at the right time at the right price.
I said earlier that people “used to” use the information superhighway metaphor; I rarely see it used anymore except in mocking tones by people who can tell you a dozen things that are wrong with it. Im often in that group, since any metaphor leaves out most of the details so as to highlight some shared characteristic. When someone calls an aggressive businessperson “a tiger of a competitor,” it doesnt mean that he or she has striped fur. Like all metaphors, “information superhighway” is incomplete and can even be seriously distorting.
The major error that Ive noted in calling the Internet a superhighway is that it buries a crucial difference in the way that an idea becomes a success in the world of bits versus the world of atoms. If I want to offer a roadside service to travelers on a physical highway, every point of presence of that service is a whole new investment in both facilities and people. Every fast-food restaurant, no matter how much it looks like all the others in the chain, is a new building that has to be tailored to a particular environment. As a civil engineer by training, I often look at a cookie-cutter building like a fast-food joint and see it as merely a decorative ornament on top of a foundation that was unique to its site and much harder to get right.
Meanwhile, inside that building, every food server represents a new need to recruit, train, motivate and retain a person who is different from every other person doing that same job at every other location. In contrast, offering a service on the information superhighway looks like a proposition of doing it once, doing it right, making it automatic and being instantly everywhere. Location doesnt matter, right?
Well, if you actually know anything about the physics and the engineering of large-scale network and content technologies, you know that theres a middle layer where location matters a lot. Akamai operates 18,000 servers in 2,400 locations, I learned in a recent conversation with Akamai Vice President Bill Wheaton. Like a wily FedEx driver who knows the best way to get across Manhattan during the morning rush, that Akamai platform knows how to apply its own routing strategies to get superior performance from the public network.
Akamai, a pioneer of network-edge services, now works with content providers to make the Internet marketplace as responsive—and as open to segmentation of premium services to profitable customers—as any physical marketplace.
Its rather like Californias superhighways that are now being paralleled by privately built toll roads offering faster peak-time travel to those who can afford it. Thats the other respect in which the Net looks increasingly like a highway. Catering to automobile owners used to mean, by definition, catering to the educated and affluent customer. Now, the highway market is a mass market and requires its own internal segmentation to deliver services based on ability and inclination to pay for them.
The Internet has made this transition as well; companies like Akamai are therefore now a crucial part of commercial Net content plans.
Peter Coffee can be reached at [email protected]