The Web is its own infrastructure

it's all about the WebAs the record industry learned years ago, the most disruptive element of digital technology is its amazing — or frightening, depending on your perspective — ability to separate content from its former infrastructure. It is infrastructures that are collapsing and will continue to collapse under the weight of something better for the consumer. The problem, of course, is that the money’s not so much in the content as it is in the infrastructure, and this is why institutions whose core competencies flow from infrastructures are having difficulty.

In 2004, during a talk with students at Stanford, then FCC Chairman Michael Powell said these famous words:

Application separation is the most important paradigm shift in the history of communications, and it will change things forever.

Mr. Powell also went on to say that he didn’t care which venerable institution went under as a result of this, only that the money went elsewhere within the economy. Pretty harsh, eh?

So what is “application separation?” It’s the ability to separate product from infrastructure. Powell was specifically speaking about Vonage and its ability to provide phone service without phones lines, repair trucks or anything that made up the known infrastructure of a phone company. That’s because technology had made it possible to ride existing infrastructures.

So it is with media of every sort, be it television, information or music. The content doesn’t need its former infrastructure to find its way into the hearts and minds of fans. It’s important to understand this, because it isn’t going away, and attempts to protect the old infrastructure — while certainly understandable — lead to misappropriated resources and delay the final outcome.

Let’s take television. Google TV is the ultimate application separation threat for the industry, and now that it’s available to consumers, it’s getting trashed in some quarters, especially by those with something to lose. The networks, and their Web-based “solution,” hulu, have refused to coöperate, because they need to protect their infrastructure. An article this week in Adweek was all about “the problem.”

Google execs, who declined comment, irked several representatives from the big three networks from the start by dismissing their concerns about protecting the lucrative network business model — and dependent relationships with affiliates and cable providers. One official compared Google’s stance to the quote often attributed to Henry Ford: “People can have the Model T in any color — so long as it’s black.”

“The ecosystem in TV pays for the content,” said one media executive. “I’m not sure Google gets that. They are approaching this as if it’s an academic MBA project.”

This anonymous network official is right, but content is created by content-makers whose only concern about the ecosystem is getting paid. When that possibility exists absent the infrastructure, the value proposition of maintaining the network is lessened considerably. It’s just a matter of time, and here’s why: consumers are sick to death of the ecosystem, of being slaves to programmers and the relentless carpet bombing of commercials. We underestimate this at our own peril, and we really need to be exploring options WITH Google and not taking this defiant stand. I should add that “academic MBA projects” are exactly what’s destroying the core of this and many other institutional walled gardens, and it should be respected, not scorned.

Another fascinating, on-going struggle to avoid application separation is taking place in the world of the mobile phone carriers. The bad guys here are Google Voice and Apple with its Facetime application. Steve Cheney of TechCrunch posted a compelling and insightful look into this issue on Monday, and it’s a really important read.

More revealing, all of this innovation seems to be happening at the application layer, far from the AT&Ts of the world, who are missing another wave of innovation which is happening on top of their networks. It’s very evident that Google and Apple are making overtures to become your de facto voice and messaging provider, and the carriers are sitting with their pants down, struggling to plan how they stay relevant.

As Cheney notes, the innovation in the mobile space is happening in the application layer, not the infrastructure layers owned by the telcos. They’ve had the chance to develop the application layer with 4G but have handed that over to the Googles and Apples of the world. Why? Because they’re trying to protect their infrastructure.

Imagine the future of communication on your smartphone: you’re on a video call with your significant other across the world on different networks, you tap your screen, and instantly their phone screen mimics yours as you flip through photos of your trip while continuing your call. Or imagine sending out an MMS to a group, and when each of your friends open it they immediately tap into a live HD audio/video stream which you’re broadcasting to everyone. No delays, no dialing, and no going in and out of different apps—it just works.

All of these amazing use-cases, and more, will be enabled by 4G wireless standards. This is because 4G is 100% IP-based, which is what the Internet was founded upon. Today, voice is routed separately from data on mobile networks due to legacy “circuit-switched” architecture. With LTE, the first phase of 4G, voice and video sessions will be packetized and sent over the network from your smartphone just like any other application layer data, which will open a range of new capabilities.

The Web is its own infrastructure, and it is loaded with opportunity for smart innovators. This is why I disagree with those who think that apps are the future of news and information. An app has its own closed and manageable infrastructure, which the Web will ultimately reject as inefficient. The browser is the ultimate killer app for mobile, and we challenge that at great risk.

Never forget that the driving force of chance is ultimately people. Our hyperconnected universe today has empowered people like never before in history, and technology is simply our servant. The days of force-feeding the masses with whatever we want, because we can are over. If we want future relevancy whatsoever, we need to accept this and move on to monetizing the only infrastructure that matters, the Web.

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter — sign up here)

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