Sunday, September 13, 2009

Global sneakernet? Not likely.

Previously on Field Notes: A pigeon is found to outperform a broadband network. This turns out not to be an isolated or implausible incident. Further, it looks like Moore's law is on the side of the pigeon; the amount of information a pigeon could reasonably carry is increasing much faster than broadband speeds.

How far can this go? Will the skies soon be clogged with data-laden birds (and the streets below with their by-products)? Will startups soon be offering a higher-tech equivalent, perhaps autonomous mini-drones carrying terabytes or more at a time?

I'm guessing not, and for one reason that should be pretty clear: latency. Deutch's fallacies strike again. The physically-moving-medium approach has always had its niche, namely when volume is more important than latency. This is one reason the mails still run -- another being that sometimes you just need to send a physical object. Most of the time, though, latency wins. If you're sending the message, "attack at dawn", it hardly matters whether you could get the entire contents of your video library halfway around the world by noon the next day.

Just where the cutover occurs depends on a variety of factors. For an interesting case, see the earlier note on kinescopes at the bottom of this post.

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