What the Future Used to Look Like, in 2006

A new feature in iOS 7 reminded me that the sky, which was supposed to be falling eight years ago, has remained inexplicably buoyant. The feature is called the ‘Multipeer Connectivity Framework’ and it provides a simple way for devices to connect to each other over bluetooth in order to exchange files or messages.

Eight years ago I was thinking about WiFi mesh networks, and wondering why what I thought of as the ultimate playground sharing device had not been brought to market. The idea was simple; a portable device which let you create sharing groups of friends, securely connect to each other, and pool collections of files, chat, and send photos to each other. If any one of a connected group of devices had an internet connection that too could be shared, giving everyone access to the global filesharing and chat networks. Private, ad hoc, and intermittent sharing could at the time be thought of as a copyright owner’s nemesis. Instant tape trees, updated and improved. Even back then the bill of materials for such a device, and the networking protocols, were available and cheap. It could have been delivered for under $100.

For better or worse it never happened, like so many alternative futures we have dreamed of over the first two decades of ubiquitous digits. I still think it would be exciting, and terrifying, if such a device caught on in the playgrounds of the world. I wonder, for instance, if regulators would feel compelled to come up with new crimes alongside copyright infringement, such as ‘incitement to upskirt’, or ‘assault by clandestine chat mobbing’.

I was at the time working with a music industry group on collective responses to such developments, the membership and discussions of which have to remain confidential. I can however share a paper I prepared, in August 2006, full of excitement about what seemed to me to be amazing advances in technology with huge potential for good as well as a bit of copyright mischief. Many of the references and links have disappeared, but for the sake of perspective and posterity, here it is:

New and Exciting Ways to Experience Music, Part I

Let’s have a key! How about:

(n) for “now” – meaning implemented and in use

(l) for “likely” – meaning the technical means are out there, and perhaps already being used by a few intrepid pioneers

(p) for “possible” – meaning that existing techniques could be adapted, or new techniques developed using similar technologies to those either already deployed or in the pipeline

It will also be helpful and avoid repetition if the NEWTEMS are grouped into families, so that the variations on a theme can be understood and their impact assessed. The status code should apply independently to the variations as well as to the family. Also, where possible, examples, with web links.

Newness is a matter of viewpoint, so the criteria should probably be whether they are sufficiently both digital and musical not whether they emerged in the last n years.

Internet filesharing, ‘classic P2P’ and its successors

The components we need to consider are the communication protocol, the application, and the transport. To illustrate, in the case of Limewire the protocol is Gnutella, the application is Limewire, and the transport is TCP and UDP. The Gnutella protocol is released under an open source licence and is widely adopted. The transport uses fundamental internet protocols. The application is released in two versions, a paid for application and an open source project available under the GNU GPL. The Limewire source code has been used by other project teams to create new and modified applications.

Gnutella is what’s known as a ‘decentralised’ protocol, where both searching and file transfer are managed by the application running on the user’s host computer, rather than by one or more central servers. It is however relatively easy to discover which host is advertising a particular file, and some implementations allow the shared directory of each host to be listed.

There are many sources of information about filesharing protocols and applications on the web. I shall here just highlight a few developments that will have some bearing on the VRS agenda. Some applications will be hybrids of the following categories.

Anonymous P2P (n)

Anonymity is achieved by constructing routing messages so that it is difficult to determine the source or final destination of any given packet of data. Messages may also be encrypted.

Example: GNUnet – http://gnunet.org/

Encrypted P2P (n)

Messages are encrypted so that it is difficult to impossible to discover what content is contained in the data that is flowing around the network.

Example: ANts P2P – http://antsp2p.sourceforge.net/

Filesharing over encrypted connections (n)

An encrypted and private network is created over which filesharing applications are run. Increasingly internet chat sessions are being encrypted, and the chat applications are including easier ways to share files.

Example: stunnel – http://www.stunnel.org/

Filesharing over anonymous networks (n)

An anonymous network is created using a series of temporary routes and proxies which masks the source and destination of some network traffic. Filesharing applications then use this anonymous network.

Example: Tor – http://tor.eff.org/
also: I2P – http://www.i2p.net/

Trusted F2F networks (n)

Generally what’s meant by the ‘darknet’, F2F (friend to friend) networks are formed through permission mechanisms, either where each member has to accept a security token from every other member, or where a member has to allow a new member to join and then the new member is accepted by all existing members.

Example: W.A.S.T.E. – http://waste.sourceforge.net/

Wireless Internet, WiFi, WiMAX, Mesh Networks

Anything that works over the wired internet also works over wireless, so all the above apply equally to this section. These technologies also have the capability of forming local point-to-point connections, and local networks, without any internet connectivity. While some WiFi internet will be provided through commercial hotspots, and require contracts and accounts in order to gain access, some will be provided through free and open networks provided by municipalities, volunteer groups, charities, and through neighbour sharing of home wireless LANs.

Shared WiFi (n)

Rather than opening a standard WiFi router up to open public access some operators are controlling who can connect to their networks, which ensures a degree of privacy or trust. Terms and conditions are sometimes subject to a voluntary peering agreement which is designed to prevent others from using the network without contributing their own bandwidth to it. Open source tools are available to manage shared WiFi networks.

WiFi is also capable of creating small scale point to point or group networks between mobile devices. These could be used to transfer files from one portable music player to another, or allow a group of friends to share each others’ content. WiFi could also enable such devices to connect to the internet.

Sony Mylo


WiMAX (l)

WiMAX is the marketing name for a technical standard that is best suited to providing high bandwidth network access over a distance of less than 5km. It can carry mobile telephony, TV and video signals, and internet access. WiMAX is currently either absorbing or concluding interoperability agreements with other rival standards, and is being deployed on a large scale in several countries.

WiMAX Forum

Mesh Networks (n)

Mesh technologies enable much larger networks to be created, with each node acting as a router as well as a point of connection. A mesh can also use the wired internet to hop between otherwise autonomous mesh networks. In practice, mesh networks are likely to be used for sharing internet access and files around buildings, small areas of a city, or at events such as festivals, where their ad hoc characteristics make them most suitable. They also offer a very quick and low cost way to bring internet access to disaster or conflict areas. Generically such capabilities would enable what could be termed a ‘playground sharing device’, with SMS and internet chat applications too.


Radio Babylon (a state51 project)
radio babylon


Short Range Radio, Cables, other Transmission Methods, Pluggable and Removable Media

Much like the wireless technologies listed above, this set of communication technologies can be used for a range of purposes in order to provide point to point connections, networks, and access to other networks. The shorter range radio standards are generally considered as ‘wire replacements’, used instead of cables to connect devices and peripherals. Enabling technologies include USB, FireWire, Bluetooth, WiFi, UWB, Infrared, Memory Cards of all shapes and sizes, portable Hard Drives, and all other forms of removable media storage, including CDs.

Sneakernet (n)

Rather a broad term perhaps, but useful to collect a set of essentially person to person activities that are enabled by new digital technologies. Sneakernet refers to data transfer which involves at least one party carrying something containing the data. Here are a few subcategories…

Bluetooth transfer: files are loaded onto a bluetooth capable device such as a mobile phone, and BT file transfer is used to copy the files onto another device. There’s an interesting case where Verizon Wireless, apparently in order to comply with contracts with content providers, crippled some bluetooth features on a phone including file transfer, and consequently fell foul of a class action.
Verizon Wireless – ‘We never stop working for you.’

USB Hard Drive (Thumb Drive): A small Hard Disk is loaded with files and can then be plugged into mobile phones, mp3 players, computers and games consoles in order to copy the files. Capacities have been growing and have now reached 16GB.
CellDisk 16GB

USB Data Transfer: Even without a host computer two USB enabled devices, including hard drives and memory cards, can be connected and their files copied.
Macally SyncBox

On The Horizon

Internet over Powerlines (l)

While for the most part internet access is a fairly simple business, with households maintaining an account with an ISP, there are some interesting developments with wireless access, and with powerline networks, which make for a much more complicated picture. An entire street for instance could elect to share passwords on a single high-speed internet account, and use the electricity cables to provide access.

Powerline adapter

The next stage would be to add encryption and mesh networking to provide each home with security and privacy, but to leave a segment of the network open for more community spirited activities, such as sharing the minutes of the street party committee meeting…

Really Mobile Internet (p)

Some of these networks might even be automotive, by which I mean that they move under their own steam, as in this unique and wonderful project which creates a flocking swarm of helicopter computers and a mesh network…

The UltraSwarms

Store and Forward Internet (l)

There is no need to create an end-to-end session to get the benefits of internet access, and therefore filesharing and other content distribution. So far, store and forward techniques are being used to bring the internet to remote and deprived communities, but they could equally work wherever people can get hold of compatible devices.

Internet Village Motoman


This entry was posted in strategy, technology. Bookmark the permalink.