Innovation and the Internet

Industries mature, of course. That they do so shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s watched the world for very long. The question is — do they mature in a way that places a few players at the “top,” leaving the rest to innovate along the edges? Or do they leave broad swaths of open space in which many players can compete and innovate? Through most of human history, the answer has been the first: industries, in the modern age, tend to ossify into a form where a few small players control most of the market, leaving the smaller players to innovate along the edges. When the major impetus in building a new company is to “get bought,” and the most common way for larger companies to innovate is by buying smaller companies (or doing “spin ins”), then you’ve reached a general point of stability that isn’t likely to change much.

Is the networking industry entering this “innovation free zone?” Or will the networking industry always be a market with more churn, and more innovation? There are signs in both directions.

For instance, there’s the idea that once technology reaches a certain level of capability, there’s just no reason for any further forward motion. Fifty years ago, if you would have asked people what airplanes could do, and what they would look like, you have have gotten some wild feedback. Today, ask the same question, and you’ll likely get the same wild ideas. Things haven’t changed much in air travel (other than reductions in the amount of space in the cattle cars, it seems) because we’ve reached the point where new advances don’t bring much in the way of new benefits.

Another instance: there is a growing group of “old” companies with a lot of money, and they’re turning that money into political power. The one sure way to ensure stagnation is to get the government involved. A case in point here is LTE-U, which bids fair to turn the last mile upside down. It seems a number of large companies are using their lobbying mojo to make certain older carriers aren’t allowed to use unlicensed space. A lot of top flight engineers don’t seem to agree on the overall impact of allowing AT&T, for instance, to expand their wireless network on WiFi frequencies; much of the argument at the moment seems to come down to the political, rather than the engineering aspects of the problem. When lobbying takes over engineering, it’s a sure sign the industry is moving into an ossified state. Robotics are the new and exciting thing now; the Internet seems like a “given.”

On the other hand, routing is more interesting right now than it has been in a long time. Software Defined and cloud are taking over the world, it seems (though a few of us do try to inject a bit of sanity into the news stream every now and then). Over the top services, like SD-WAN, seem to be creating new value in spaces long thought completely ossified. In a somewhat virtual world (hardware still counts, but the intelligence tends to move into the overlay), there isn’t any apparent point at which you can say, “we’re done with this, let’s move to the next thing.”

It seems, to me, that we’re on a bit of a cusp, a turning point. Which way the industry goes depends, in some part, on the way the larger players go. Will they continue to turn to the government, using political muscle to solidify revenue streams? Or will they turn back to real innovation?

Let’s not lose sight of the role each of us, as individual network engineers, play in the path from this point forward — the choice between the safe vendor bet, and innovating even on a small scale, played out over the thousands of networks in the world, can make a huge difference. We tend to divide the world into small networks with boring problems and large networks with interesting problems. This is a false dichotomy — interesting problems are interesting problems, no matter what the network size. Interested people make for interesting solutions, and in turn, interesting innovation.

We need to realize that no matter how small it seems, we’re at a point where the small decisions, en mass, will make a big difference. What decisions will you make today?