Tuesday, November 25, 2008

NADs, the Digital Divide, the iPhone and Lafayette

Food For Thought Dept.

Mike helpfully emailed a link to a Wall Street Journal article that thoughtfully rewrites a press release from Comscore, a marketing research firm which recently released a study on the influence of the iPhone on the smartphone market.

Long story short: the iPhone is a big deal and is driving some pretty basic shifts in usage patterns. This isn't all that surprising when you realize that the iPhone is pretty much a full computer with an always-on 3G internet connection—usably fast mobile ubiquity. I recently got one to take on an extended vacation and camping trip out west and it was fantastically useful to be able to access mapping, directions, restaurant reviews—and even GPS locations while hiking far from cellular connections. I am not surprised that others find its extended all-in-one capacity both helpful and worth affording. (That trip explains the 2 week LPF hiatus for both of you that wondered.) You can do a search on the terms and find bits and pieces of Comscore's broader analysis. (The full report is a for-pay item.)

Our Focus
But the big picture is not particularly what interests us here today. Instead we focus on the implications of these usage shifts for digital divide issues here in Lafayette.

Part of what Comscore's data shows is that lower-income householders are 1) adopting smartphones and especially the iPhone at a rate that is growing faster than those that are more wealthy and 2) that their use of network functions like email and search are also growing faster than the wealthy as is their usage of music/mp3 functions. (As an interesting sidelight: the overall usage is actually shrinking for non-network centric uses like music listening. hmmn....)

The conclusion that the analysts reach is that folks who need to stretch the dollar are dropping telephone landlines and internet connections in favor of cellular connections when they are pressed—iPhone-like devices make it possible to gain enough of the benefits of these capacities over your cellular connection to make turning off the other services seem cost-effective. You also don't have to pay for a separate mp3 player or computer.

The smartphone/iPhone is emerging as an all-in-one network device that is particularly attractive to those whose need to pinch pennies. It may well become the preferred NAD (network attached device) of the working stiff.

The NAD and the Digital Divide in Lafayette
Just how people attach to Lafayette's shiny new network has been a big issue dating back to the Digital Divide Committee and the Fiber Fight. Both LUS and the city-parish council have made a strong (and specific) commitment to making sure that the benefits of the community's network extend to all. The first and most valuable commitment to equity was to make the the network as cheap as possible and to make the cheapest levels of service much more powerful than is available from for-profit providers. LUS is clearly keeping that commitment with very low-priced, extremely high bandwidth connectivity products. But there was also a commitment to find some way to get computers into poorer people's homes.

Closing the digital divide, digital inclusion, was never just a matter of do-gooder sensibility or even simple justice (as powerful as both are); the impulse always included a healthy dose of selfish realism: We will all advance further and faster if we advance together. A truly advanced digital community must be pervasively sophisticated. To the extent that Lafayette (and any vigorous local community) has decided to invest in a technological future for its children it cannot afford to leave any part of the community behind. No local community has the human resources to waste. No real community would tolerate it.

That was the basis for our commitment to digital inclusion. At the time it was assumed that the NAD would be a desktop computer or maybe a laptop. But the winds have shifted.


The New NADs
It now appears that the NADs used to bridge the digital divide in Lafayette will consist of some mix of 1) newer, radically inexpensive low-powered laptops (aka "net tops", 2) wireless smartphones, and 3) the cable settop box's rudimentary browsing and email capacities. I've discussed 1 and 3 pretty extensively earlier.

What's most interesting about these 3 paths toward accessible network connectivity is not how they differ and the hard choices those differences might suggest but how they are similar and the opportunities that they offer that Lafayette is uniquely situated to grasp.

Net tops laptops, smartphones, and set top boxes are all unabashedly network-dependent devices. Without a good, fast, reliable connection to the internet they are really not very useful or valuable. With an advanced connection, however, they are transformed into powerful, amazingly cheap devices that challenge the functionality of a powerful conventional computer for most folk's purposes. That defines the double-edged sword that inexpensive network devices represent for most people in most places: they are only as good--and as cheap--as the networks to which they connect.

The smartphone/iPhone presents a new set of challenges and opportunities for providing fair access to Lafayette's networked future.

Smartphone Opportunities
The opportunities are pretty breath-taking: hand-held, always-on network devices like the iPhone or newer advanced Blackberries offer the possibility of leapfrogging into a future that must remain a vision in most places.

That vision is of an ubiquitous, always-accessible network that puts rich comunications—ranging from video to voice to text—and huge computational and information resources at the fingertips of users at a price point so low as to make universal use almost inevitable.

If we can line up all these elements we can be both a national and even a world leader in popular access to advanced technologies. Lafayette can be the place to explore today the consequences of sort putting massive bandwidth, new devices, network storage, and online computational resources into the hands of most people in a community. It's a chance for our comunity to help define the future—and to make a place in that future for communities like our own.

Smartphone Challenges
The new, cheap NADs Lafayette is considering as tools to close the digital divide are all not only network-centric but network-dependent. These inexpensive devices all require two things to make them function as adequate substitutes for traditional computers: 1) an always-on, large-bandwidth connection and 2) —and this is less well understood—on line storage and computational resources dedicated to each NAD user.

We have the dense fiber backbone. And the crucial public ownership. But we need more.

1) We need, first, to make sure that we beef up the wireless network that is currently being deployed along with the fiber and offer it as an adjunct to a citizen's network connection. We can provide wifi within our own homes by attaching it to the fiber, but on the streets and and in public places our network connectivity needs to follow us. Wifi (for other practical reasons as well as the current considerations) shouldn't be a seperate network.

2) We need to provide substantial online storage for individuals. NAD's are noticeably short of storage space. That's part of what makes them light and inexpensive and hence good digital divide devices. There is no reason to have massive storage located on an always-connected device. But beyond compensating for NAD shortcomings, a central online repository will soon become a practical necessity as people move toward using multiple, differently capable devices online. It is easy to see a time in the near future when the typical user might login daily from 1) a home computer, 2) a work or school computer, 3) their personal NAD, 4) their settop box to view some net content communally or on the large screen, and 5) from a friend's house or public space. A single, online "home" would allow everyone to use their personal "stuff" (from docs to passwords to bookmarks to online applications and beyond) from any device at any location.

3) We need to provide real network-based computational power. NADs onboard computational resources are weak. But with a robust local network there is no need for a supercomputer in your hand...just access the computational power of the supercomputers on the network. The settop box solution would be greatly enhanced by locating a linux desktop on the network. A small server farm (or a nice virtual server like the one that Abacus has) could serve out the capacity of a full computer with a full suite of powerful applications to any screen---from the settop's TV to a NAD's small one. The technology is currently being called "cloud computing" but it could be arrayed cheaply by any community with the will to do so.

With fiber, fiber-driven wireless, online storage, and network-based computation Lafayette could cheaply and easily meet the commitment made during the fiber fight to closing the digital divide. And it could do it in a way that would benefit every citizen no matter what their income, neighborhood, race, or level of tech savvy. Meeting above challenges would help shape Lafayette into a community with an unrivaled capacity to meet future challenges. Since everyone would benefit it would be easier to sell politically. In these hard economic times it would be a huge boon to the whole community and mark Lafayette as a progressive, self-reliant locale in which to do business.

Really this should be a no-brainer.... don't you think?


Lagniappe:

Should you be tempted to think that this is ahead of its time or that Louisiana is behind those times:

About 25 percent of Louisiana's 4.2 million people have a Blackberry, iPhone or similar device, which May said "is really a computer."

That's from an Advertiser story on the community college system reformatting online coursework to make it accessible via smart phones....since it is "really a computer" qualified students can get aid in buying a smartphone since it can be regarded as educational.

The future is just around the corner. This stuff is all in sight.

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