Monday, June 4, 2007

Ubiquity

I’m battling through a day of spotty Internet access. The New AT&T doesn’t get it, at least in our neighborhood. My drip, drip, drip connection makes me question the feasibility of ubiquitous Internet access. Some day it will be analogous to turning the faucet (water) or flipping a switch (electricity). Until then, we groan.

What is ubiquity? Literally -- existing or being everywhere, or in all places, at the same time – it’s not synonymous with my perceived definition, that of a pervasive or available-to-all state. The latter twist works well when applied to innovations and the resulting industries, companies and byproducts.

Five ubiquitous transformations come to mind: information (democratized – everywhere, anywhere – access through the Internet), communication (printing presses, postal carriers, telephones, cell service, Internet connectivity), refrigeration (check out our previous reference to Kawasaki’s story), electricity (quick wiki historical take here), and transportation (transcontinental railroads and freeways, public transportation, airlines). Sparked by a ubiquitous innovation, industries were born, byproducts spawned, and riches made.

Thanks to ubiquitous developments, the world is pancaking. Quickly. Here’s Thomas Friedman’s take from his 2005 eye opener, The World is Flat:

Whenever civilization has gone through one of these disruptive, dislocating technological revolutions – like Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press – the whole world has changed in profound ways. But there is something about the flattening of the world that is going to be qualitatively different from other such profound changes: the speed and breadth with which it is taking hold. The introduction of printing happened over a period of decades and for a long time affected only a relatively small part of the planet. Same with the Industrial Revolution. This flattening process is happening at warp speed and directly or indirectly touching a lot more people on the planet at once. The faster and broader this transition to a new era, the more likely is the potential for disruption, as opposed to an orderly transfer of power from the old winners to the new winners.
As my wireless connection continues to stumble and bumble, I’m reminded of a presentation I enjoyed a few years ago, delivered by Intel’s then (still?) CTO. His talk centered on a historical look at connectivity, segmented into three phases. He commenced with phase one, archetyped by a 20-pound-or-so, 12-inch in diameter bundles of cables. He dropped -- THUMP! – the archaic mish-mash onto the stage, asserting that this is how most people communicate. He then held up a finger-width string of fiber-optic cables. This – TING! – is how many people communicate, he shared, dropping the optical cables to the stage. (The world is wired = The world is flat?)

The CTO then paused, a felt-like-a-minute, Paul Harvey-esque 15-second or so silence. The future? He paused and eyed the auditorium’s ceiling, arms outstretched, palms open. Air. It is ubiquitous.

Intel obviously did not invent air; it has been ubiquitous -- existing or being everywhere, or in all places, at the same time -- forever. But, the company’s future (as the CTO asserted) rests on its ability to maximize the utility and democratize and monetize the use of a free medium that has always existed.

Now, if they can just do something about my Internet connection.

Post-post note: I just skimmed this week's Barrons, including a review of Pop!: Why Bubbles Are Great For The Economy. While I've yet to read Pop!, it appears to sing -- with market bubble bursts as the catalyst -- a similar tune to our ubiquity discussion. Here are a few morsels from the Publishers Weekly review:
... these bubbles, with their hype and madness and overenthusiasm, are not to be feared—they're actually a primary engine of "America's remarkable record of economic growth and innovation." The author surveys modern bubbles and finds the benefits far more durable than the disruptions: in each case, most investors flopped, but businesses and consumers found themselves with a "usable commercial infrastructure" that they quickly put to new uses. The telegraph "led to the creation of national and international financial markets"; extra railroad lines made national consumer brands possible and gave consumers access to distant stores; extra fiber-optic capacity gave everyone Internet access after the bust.

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