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A New Kind Of Computing Company

A bunch of things relating to technology issues have been running through my head as of late, and I need to get them out.

I had a friend over a weekend ago, and he and I regularly discuss politics and technology issues. And he pointed out to me that even though I have a static IP address, I am not allowed to host the samaBlog from my own home. This is due solely to the contract that I have with my cable company. He further pointed out that bandwidth from using file sharing programs can far exceed that from hosting a simple website, yet I have to pay $100/year roughly to some server farm for them to host my site.

That’s stupid.

But it gets worse. Combine that with the Palladium initiave that Microsoft is spearheading. For those unfamiliar, let me explain what this is. Palladium is Misrosoft’s “trusted computing” initiave. It requires a unique identifier be placed in every chipset made for Windows to run. Microsoft then checks licensing for everything you have on that machine, starting with its own products but possibly extending to every piece of content on your machine, including music, movies, even letters. Because authorship can now be traced to a particular user who was licensed to use a particular machine, even Word and Excel documents can be licensed and accessed only by specific people.

Now let’s take this one step further. Take blogs for example. You want to cut and paste an excerpt of something someone else wrote on your blog. But your Palladium enabled computer recognizes that the content you’re trying to copy isn’t yours, and you don’t have permission. Go one step further, and figure that your hosting company’s computer refuses to allow you to publish because what you’re writing is anti-Microsoft, might be slanderous, whatever the reason. This is what happens when DRM (Digital RIghts Management) has run amock.

Some might even fantasise that document registries could, based on signature comparison and heuristic examination of document contents, even refuse to grant a certificate for a suspicious document unless the publisher provided proof it did not violate copyright or laws regarding its content. But that would constitute prior restraint on publication, which is unthinkable in a free society.

This, then, is the digital imprimatur; the right to publish as, in olden times, was granted by church or state. A document’s certificate, its imprimatur, identifies the person (individual or legal entity) responsible for its publication, provides a signature which permits verifying its contents have not been corrupted or subsequently modified, and identifies the document registry which granted the imprimatur and which, on demand, will validate it and confirm that it has not been revoked. Trusted Computing systems and the Secure Internet will perform these functions automatically and transparently; to a user browsing the Web, everything will look and feel precisely as it does today.

The Digital Imprimatur by John Walker is perhaps one of the most important essays on the subject. It’s rather longish, but is a must read for any and all technophiles out there.

While Walker is concerned with the freedom of speech issues that the Digital Imprimatur brings, I am more generally concerned with the state of computing itself. I work off of Windows 2000, professional edition. I will likely never upgrade. I use the version of Windows Media Player that came with the OS, because the terms on later versions are restrictive, and the software itself generates too much overhead with no discernable value to me. But what’s more is that Win 2K requires no activation with Misrosoft, no profiling of my mahcine in a giant database somewhere. When Palladium comes around, these antiquated machines will seem valuable for the freedom they afford to the end user. Read Bob Cringely’s take on that here.

But in thinking about my machine, it’s not just the licensing terms that have been bothering me. It’s the whole damned enterprise. From the ground up, every enterprise is designed to run in a client/server relationship. And it’s bullshit. There’s nothing I’m doing here that should preclude me from interacting directly with other people. I have a damned cable modem! What else do I need?

Do I need a phone? Evidently not. Tony pointed us to Skype, which is an online P2P phone system that works great (I’ve downloaded it and can be found under the name “samaBlog” if you want to talk to me). My question is, why doesn’t my computer just come with this? Why doesn’t it just enable file sharing from the get-go? I have a cable tv box in my living room. Do I need it? It’s another damn special purpose machine that wastes bandwidth. Why not enable P2P streaming video as a distribution method instead? It’d be a hell of a lot cheaper for everyone involved, yet nobody to my knowledge is working on it.

The problem, I think, is inherent in the way the machine was architected. We’ve been upgrading according to Moore’s Law for so long now that we’ve lost sight of what we’re trying to do with our machines. What do I need in my house? Is it one mega-fat Pentium processor with a huge honking hard drive, or is it a computer with several smaller, parallel processors and several smaller hard drives configured as a RAID? In an office, does every person need to access files from a central server that needs to be backed up regularly, or should files be distributed in redundant bits and pieces across every computer in the network, so if one machine goes down, nothing is lost? Should teh samaBlog be hosted by one computer at an ISP, or should it be hosted in bits and pieces by everyone in my blogroll, in a form of trusted file sharing where everyone hosts everyone else’s blog in bits and pieces, ensuring that it never goes down for maintenance or anything?

What’s needed here, is a whole new kind of computer. One built from the ground up to cluster, to have redundancy, to be a P2P machine with grid computing capabilities. I want a machine with several motherboards, several hard drives, the ability to be plugged into another machine and have the two act as one right away. And I want it to be able to handle all sorts of P2P services with other machines across the Internet. I want to pay only for a broadband connection, but I want my machine to be able to subscribe to all sorts of services through the P2P network, including telephone service, file sharing, streaming video and audio, web hosting, you name it. AND I want it to replace all my other machines in my house, including a videogame machine, Tivo or equivalent, cable box, telephone switch, answering machine, etc. AND I want it to be able to last, so when the processors get faster, and hard drives get cheaper, etc, the machine doesn’t go away. It just becomes the #2 machine, networked in with the newer P2P box, working for it on my local grid. That’s what I want, and I want it yesterday.

There are a few technological developments that might make this possible. First is all the supercomputers being built out of old gray boxes, running a verison of clustered Linux. The Beowulf Project is one such attempt. Cringely has also written about Hive Computing, which is building an operating system that may just do the trick. Finally, some guys at MIT are building a wireless grid in Cambridge, that is also a step in the right direction.

But think about what else this means. By removing the client-server model and replacing it with a machine and OS built from the ground up to be P2P, there’d be no more digital imprimatur. Everyone shares as they like, and that’s the way it should be.

Sounds to me like we need a whole new kind of computing company. Who’s with me?


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