Abstract: Everything Wired Must Converge

10 08 2008

Christopher Elliott’s article “Everything Wired Must Converge,” is outdated, and not just because the article was published in the Journal of Business Strategy in November 1997. Referencing CompuServe and Prodigy as converged networks that are “beginning to behave like the public Internet,” and introducing VPNs as a new technology also date the article and contrast the technological landscapes of 1997 to today.

However, the article was ahead of its time, identifying network convergence as a turning point for business efficiency and online social interaction alike. Yochai Benkler expanded on the importance and magnitude of network convergence in “The Wealth of Networks,” published nearly a decade later.

Elliott ‘s expert sources in the article also forecast the “Supernet” – a hybrid of what we consider intranets today that would be “faster, safer and more pervasive than today’s Internet.” Article sources say security is the only impediment between the Internet connectivity of the day and the “Supernet.” Today, the Supernet as described in the article, has not yet manifested, but business’ adoption of network convergence vehicles such as intranets, extranets and VPNs has expanded. Consumers have not adopted these vehicles, but features of the preexisting closed networks (Prodigy, primitive AOL) have spun off to primary mediums for this audience: Instant messaging and forums are now mainstream communication tools. More importantly, the maturation of networks and this direction toward a Supernet is enabling access and content creation for all.

This idea of increased access and content creation, namely by individuals, is the driver behind Scott Gant’s book, “We’re All Journalists Now.” He argues that converged networks are skewing the media landscape and threatening some of the rights and privileges (shield laws) traditional media previously enjoyed. As the importance of blogging as a source of news and opinion grows in terms of quality, readership and thought-leadership, courts will have an increasingly difficult time deciphering what news sources should be granted confidentiality and privacy. If these privileges are withheld, a downward domino affect could occur: Journalists will have less access to sources and thus have less to report, resulting in a less informed public.

Often we think about converged networks, as presented by Elliott and Benkler, as positive evolutions, but, as Gant points out, the mostly positive affect of converged networks on media has repercussions, too.

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5 responses

11 08 2008
peterlux

Paolo,

You make a great observation that instant messaging and forums can be considered spin offs from proprietary networks like Prodigy and AOL. You could say that the Internet has cannibalized the best of these networks.

You mention that the “Supernet” as described by Elliott hasn’t materialized yet—but will we ever get any closer? Businesses like Netflix have seamlessly integrated their internal databases in their services, and many companies tightly integrate intranets and extranets with the Internet within the confines of their own network. Of course, access is restricted if content is confidential. But it’s hard to see how such sources can ever fully come online.

On a consumer level, few people have set up intranets, extranets or a VPN, but there’s certainly lots of sharing going on with some online services, like WordPress and Ning, allowing users to set privacy levels, which, in effect, creates mini-intranets and extranets.

It’s interesting that you mention that the maturation of networks is enabling access and content creation for all, but that there are also some negative elements associated with convergence.

In The Future of the Internet, Jonathan Zittrain argues that unlike the proprietary networks that tightly clutched control, the Internet was built, not so much to surface content, but “to connect anyone on the network to anyone else. It was up to the people to figure out why they wanted to be in touch in the first place; the network would simply carry data between two points.”

Zittrain points out that this model allows the Internet to be what he calls “generative”—by its very design, it’s set up to allow creators to mold it for their purposes. The downside of such a model is that it opens the door for malicious content and code. He argues that cyber-security has become so compromised that the future of the PC is at peril. Instead, consumers are being seduced by what he calls “information appliances,” like the Xbox, TiVo, and the iPhone; their functions are circumscribed and tightly controlled by the manufacturers, but they are secure, reliable, and good at the limited set of functions offered. Zittrain worries that such a shift will spell the end of the convergence that Elliott praised, and that with it will disappear the generative nature of the Internet.

13 08 2008
Comment on Paolo’s article abstract « Sarah Lane’s Weblog

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13 08 2008
sfrost

I found this article very interesting. It wasn’t until Christopher Elliott mentioned CompuServe and Prodigy that I realized the article was dated (1997). I think there is a good reason the article’s beginning didn’t give away its age, the quote from Christopher Baum talking about the new Supernet. He says, “it is never going to be done. The process is going to continue for the rest of the human experience. Until communication is instantaneous, it’s not fast enough; until the network is infinite, it’s not big enough.”

I whole-heartedly agree with you that “the Supernet as described in the article, has not yet manifested”. Certainly much of the convergence discussed in the article has taken place, but the three main characteristics of the Supernet (faster, safer and more pervasive) have not all been achieved. I am of the same thought as Baum about speed. Yes, the Internet is many times faster today than it was in 1997, but as Internet users our standards have increased as well. Even though the speed of today’s Internet with a DSL connection is faster than 10 years ago, I still want it to be faster. Our tolerance for slowness seems to decrease with the increased speed of the Internet, proving Baum’s theory that the Supernet will never fully exist because the Internet will never be fast enough for users.

You touch on the other big point about security. Internet users are at least more aware of the risks online, but I don’t know that the Internet is any safer today than in 1997. Each time security patches are applied to software or hardware, people find new ways to breach security. I don’t know if we will ever achieve true security online, but do we have true security anywhere? Homes with security alarms are still broken into, cars with alarms are stolen and people are assaulted at their offices protected with card key systems. I don’t think it is fair to hold the Internet to a higher safety standard than the real world.

I would agree with you that even with the improvements made to the Internet in the last 10 years we have not seen the Supernet. I would also agree with Baum that the Supernet will never fully be achieved.

17 08 2008
kegill

If we compare the Internet of 1997 with the Internet of 2008 — then certainly it’s faster and more pervasive. Not sure about safer. As far as “intranets” … that’s essentially what every home network is … and there is a tremendous growth in home networks. There is also growth in mesh networks, although not as much as some technologists have hoped for.

Is it “fast enough”? The answer to that is … for what? For the things the average person does, yeah. For full-fledged entertainment, not so much.

One of the reasons that I had this article on the list was for historical context, and I’m glad you picked it Paolo! (I’m also glad you seem to be feeling better!) It’s hard to look into the future with accuracy, particularly when we’re on the cusp of a new technology’s adoption.

18 08 2008

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