Thursday, October 11, 2007

Pumping data through the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct

Paul Vixie made a very interesting speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last year. As it was aimed at a general audience, he started out with some familiar points. I'll repeat them here [with a couple of comments] because they lead up to the more interesting conclusions:
  • Cash flow is more important than cash. The word for the day is monetize: to extract cash flow from.
  • One's ability to monetize things in the physical world is governed by regulations, including anti-trust regulations, balancing the good of society against the good of the individual.
  • Owning a physical CD or book or such is ownership in the dictionary sense.
  • This is regulated by copyright law, a fair system which has made a lot of money for content creators while supplying a lot of content to people who might not have had it otherwise.
  • This doesn't work in the virtual world, where perfect copying is cheap.
  • In the case of music, this is mostly a concern to the major labels and their artists. Smaller artists give away music digitally to promote concerts and sell T-shirts [see also Radiohead's latest release]
  • Big music, after trying to stop digital copying [actually, those lawsuits are still shaking out] has decided to try to make money off of digital music.
  • They do this by letting you listen to what you want but controlling the means of playing it. A typical software player reports your downloading, maybe shows pop-ups, and ties you to one of the commercial OS's -- and its upgrades. Again, the word is "monetize".
  • (For his part, Vixie just buys CDs and plays them on his Linux laptop. And respects copyrights.)
So far so good. But then he goes on:
  • This model of monetizing content applies to all content on computers, even content you produce yourself for your own use, that is, your email, text documents, etc. How does that work? It works because ...
  • Viruses, worms etc. are a major problem for computer users these days, a problem that many companies are trying to solve, that is, monetize.
  • Consumers just want their computers to work, but there's not actually any money to be had in solving that problem. A computer that Just Works is like a razor blade that never gets dull.
  • One part of the solution is to rent virus protection. In a fuller solution, OSs would ideally only run trusted applications registered with the OS vendor -- for a fee, of course. This is already how game boxes work.
  • Carry this over to the application world, and you end up renting the ability to access your own content, which is now stored in encrypted and/or proprietary form.
  • Fortunately, this is very difficult to pull off on current platforms. It would really require a whole new kind of hardware/software platform. Best to start small. Say, with music ...
And finally, Vixie draws a contrast between San Francisco's decision in the early twentieth century to build, operate and therefore control its own water supply, and its decision in the early twenty-first century not to build and operate its own wireless internet infrastructure, instead putting it out to bid.

In light of the points above, this may not be such a good idea. That doesn't mean that software vendors, record labels and so forth are evil, just that they're for-profit entities and must be expected to act as such.

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