When non-technologists write about technology

They’re so CUTE!

The Economist puts random words in random order:

Technology in 2008… Three fearless predictions…

1. Surfing will slow

Peering into [our] crystal ball, the one thing we can predict with at least some certainty is that 2008 will be the year we stop taking access to the internet for granted. The internet is not about to grind to a halt, but as more and more users clamber aboard to download music, video clips and games while communicating incessantly by e-mail, chat and instant messaging, the information superhighway sometimes crawls with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

First, 1994 is calling and wants its metaphors back.

Second, got any data to support that?

The biggest road-hog remains spam (unsolicited e-mail), which accounts for 90% of traffic on the internet.

OK, that’s simply not true.

For a start, millions of gadgets are joining the human hordes. Any gizmo worth its silicon these days has its own internet connection—so it can update itself automatically, communicate autonomously with other digital species, and anticipate its user’s every whim.

Soon, portable media-players, personal navigators, digital cameras, DVD players, flat-panel TV sets, and even mobile phones won’t be able to function properly without access to the internet. Expect even digital picture frames to have a WiFi connection so they can grab the latest photos from Flickr.

And you expect this activity, in 2008, to add how much incremental traffic to the Internet?

Oh, you have no data?

[Blather about user-generated content and peer-to-peer removed.]

The result is a gridlock. That the telephone companies are running out of bandwidth can be seen from their equipment orders.

Oh, sounds like you have some data!

Cisco, the leading supplier of core routers used to direct traffic over the internet’s backbone, has just had another bumper quarter, with net income up 37% over the same period a year ago. Juniper Networks, another information-technology firm, did even better. Both companies credit the proliferation of social networks, the craze for internet searching, multimedia downloading, and the widespread adoption of P2P sharing for the surge in new business.

Interesting! The only (correct) data you have is that carriers are rapidly upgrading their backbones. Isn’t that an indicator that they’re expanding the amount of available bandwidth to prevent your scenario from happening?

While major internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast all plan to upgrade their backbones, it will be a year or two before improvements begin to show. By then, internet television will be in full bloom, spammers will have multiplied ten-fold, WiFi will be embedded in every moving object, and users will be screaming for yet more capacity.

In the meantime, accept that surfing the web is going to be more like travelling the highways at holiday time. You’ll get there, eventually, but the going won’t be great.

We’ll check back in with the Economist in 365 days and see how that prediction turns out.

On to prediction #2, which is much easier to analyze:

2. Surfing will detach

Earlier this month, Google bid for the most desirable chunk (known as C-block) of the 700-megahertz wireless spectrum being auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in late January 2008.

OK, first, that’s not true. Google hasn’t bid yet — they have just applied to bid. We don’t yet know whether or not they’ll bid.

Having established their credibility on the topic in the first sentence, the Economist continues:

The 700-megahertz frequencies used by channels 52 to 69 of analog television are being freed up by the switch to all-digital broadcasting in February 2009.

The frequencies concerned are among the world’s most valuable. They were used for broadcasting UHF television because they suffered little atmospheric absorption, could be beamed for miles, and could then penetrate all the nooks and crannies in buildings. Their relatively short wavelength makes the transmission equipment compact and the antennas small.

Mobile phone companies lust after the 700 megahertz frequencies because of their long range and broadband capabilities. They see lots of lucrative things like mobile television and other broadband services to offer customers…

[Android, iPhone, Open Handset Alliance, mobile searches, blah blah blah.]

The winner of the C-block of frequencies, whoever that may be (and Verizon is the odds-on favourite), will have to open the network to any device that meets the basic specification. And the devices themselves will have to be open to other suppliers’ software and services…

OK. There is no way that the winner of the upcoming 700-megahertz auction — Google or anyone else — will be able to have the network itself up and operational in 2008. So this prediction can have no relevance for 2008.

Actually, taking them at their word, it appears that the Economist really believes that you can bring up a new nationwide high-speed wireless network from scratch a lot faster than you can upgrade a switch in an existing carrier network… hm.

I have a prediction for 2008, but I don’t think the Economist will want to hear it…