The Internet in 2025: new killer apps in the gigabit age (Pew 3)

6867-bright-pier-1bBrighton Pier from the East

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The Pew question. New killer apps in the gigabit age – Will there be new, distinctive, and uniquely compelling technology applications that capitalize upon significant increases in bandwidth in the U.S. between now and 2025?

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You are your own killer app

I answered YES to the survey question. As I wrote in my elaboration, however, the “killer app” concept is misleading when we’re talking about what people get drawn to online. Certainly some emerging technologies have a big future: advanced motion capture and speech recognition come to mind.

No, as a matter of fact, content isn’t king

But using the Internet isn’t like watching TV, which is highly structured and impersonal, despite years of attempts to make TV “interactive.” Using the Internet, by contrast, is very personal. And to the chagrin of those who produce and distribute content for a living, third-party content is not king in the online world. Personal stuff is, as reflected in the most popular online activities, i.e. using email and search engines. In fact, these two activities have consistently ranked as the most popular ever since the Pew Internet Project began measuring online activities over the last decade. I didn’t quite put it this way in the response below, but my view is that it’s the bandwidth itself that’s the killer app.

Don’t count on your cable ISP ever giving you 1-gig connectivity

As I pointed out in my first post on the 2014 survey (Feb 2), trend drivers tend to get a lot more attention than trend limiters. I’m a bandwidth pessimist myself, as I’ve pointed out in several hundred ways on this page. So I unseated Pew’s question a little by asking not what the killers apps are going to be, but are we ever going to get to a gigabit world. This week’s monster story about the Comcast offer to acquire Time Warner Cable is exactly the kind of development that feeds my pessimism about big bandwidth.

(In case nobody’s explained it to you: The gigabit platform has become a prominent benchmark since Google began helping a handful of US cities set up one-gig municipal networks. “One gig” – i.e. one gigabit per second – is a reference to the theoretically available bandwidth in the downlink of a residential Internet access connection, referred to informally as the “speed” of a connection. One Gb/sec is the same as 1000 Mb/sec, or one billion bits per second. Compare a typical connection today running at 25 Mb/sec: a gigabit connection offers 40 times more bandwidth. All this stuff is in “bits” per second, not bytes. The former is used to measure the capacity of a connection; the latter is used to measure the volume of data actually crossing your connection. You might download a HD movie that’s 3 gigabytes, but that could be across a connection rated at 5 Mb/sec or 100 Mb/sec. One is “slow”, the other very “fast.”)

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What’s the future hold for 1-gig bandwidth? The setup question:

New killer apps in the gigabit age – Will there be new, distinctive, and uniquely compelling technology applications that capitalize upon significant increases in bandwidth in the U.S. between now and 2025?

My response: YES, with several “buts”…

Please elaborate on your answer. If you answered “no,” explain why you think there will be incremental change, or hardly any change at all. If you answered “yes,” describe what the killer apps might be as gigabit connectivity becomes available. Explain what new tools and applications will excite people in the next decade and envision the kinds of personal connectivity and immersive media experiences that will seize the public imagination.

And the elaboration…

There’s a prior question: will increases in bandwidth up to a gigabit materialize by 2025? A lot of developments continue to conspire against this outcome. One, the access business stays firmly on the path to concentration, especially on the cable side [ed: Comcast!]. Two, and despite the foregoing, the integrated ISPs in Canada and the US have a vested interest in continuing to treat bandwidth as scarce and expensive. Three, a conservative school of thought continues to argue that the status of US (and Canadian) broadband is just fine, while invidious comparisons with other developed nations are irrelevant or misleading. Four, the progress in muni wifi and fiber alternatives, and other carrier-neutral transmission platforms, is still not very encouraging, in part because of the extent to which the incumbents have convinced many US jurisdictions that publicly-funded connectivity should be outlawed. Five, the FCC’s pushback against further entrenchment by the incumbents on the content side (Open Internet Order) seems likely to get tossed by the DC Circuit this year [ed: it did, but there’s more to it].

Here’s another way to reframe this question: the killer app won’t be an app, it’ll be the ability to do exactly what I want to do online, affordably, conveniently, and without financial or technical interference from my ISP. Now that the public Internet can replicate pretty much every function of our work, play and personal lives, the unfettered exercise of personal choice online is what will feel compelling to most people. For those end-users who do experience a qualitative jump in their available bandwidth and thus in their online experience by 2025, the most notable differences will involve the most popular activities, still led by the use of a) search engines and b) email. One other common factor that cuts across online activities and user profiles is video, which will have a crucial role to play in the rollout of distinctive new experiences as it continues to dominate global IP traffic. Contrary to what Hollywood and the CE industry might like, however, truly immersive video experiences won’t come quickly or easily in the form of entertainment. As the fate of 3D and 4K has shown, video quality alone is much more of a prize to vendors than to consumers – not to mention cost and battles over standards. A more likely outlet for immersive video by 2025 will be video augmentations of personal messaging (3rd party content isn’t king online). End-users will make less use of general-purpose social platforms in favor of various flavors of telepresence for the home, where what participants can do with each other will count for more than what they can merely see and hear.

D.E.