Monday, August 27, 2007

What, me worry?

Two weeks ago, I saw it as a disadvantage that Skype went offline in an unprecedented service failure. Shows how little I know.

Globetrotting Business Week correspondent Stephen Baker has set me straight. Last week he got around to writing a magazine article. (Shows how 20th century I am — I thought that’s what a senior writer for a news magazine normally did.)

But in his article from this week’s dead tree edition, Baker proclaims:

Say you have a crucial conference call in an hour and your phone goes dead. What do you do? A generation ago, this wasn't much of an issue, at least in the U.S. Phones in the days of the Bell monopoly were engineered to be “mission critical.” You picked up one of those heavy receivers back then, and the dial tone was as prompt and reliable as water from the tap. It worked.

Yet these days, even as we pack global multimedia in our pockets, phone service sometimes seems to march backward. …

Are communications getting worse? Not by a long shot. We’re surrounded by miraculous machines and services, most of them calibrated to a level software engineers have long called “good enough.” In the right circumstances, good enough is great for the entire economy. A marketplace that’s not hung up on fail-safe standards is open to risk and innovation, and drives down prices. Ever since the dawn of the PC — the archetype for a good-enough machine — inventors have been freer than ever to piece together and launch their visions. Some are brilliant, some are half-baked, many are a blend of the two. A precious few are up and running 99.999% of the time — Bell's old standard. But they cost far less to build.
Alfred E NeumanClearly I’ve been worrying about the wrong things all these months, like telecommunications services that are reliable enough for real business use. I guess I should have adopted the adolescent motto: “What, me worry?”

Experimentation is good. Unreliability of mission-critical business infrastructure — whether a PC, cellphone or VoIP phone — is not.

The other alternative is more interesting. Linux used to be much less reliable than Unix — a decade ago, no one would consider using Linux for mission critical applications. That’s no longer true: open source users now enjoy the benefits of the millions that IBM has poured into Linux since 1999 — in addition to the the contributions of Intel and HP and others funded by/through OSDL/LF.

Not controlling the end-to-end Internet infrastructure makes it harder to deliver voice-quality signals across a network entirely controlled by Bellheads. Still, if the Internet was designed to reliably transmit packets in the event of nuclear war, transmitting a simple voice call should be a solvable problem. Although the solution might come long after Business Week has stopped killing trees for Messr. Baker’s observations.

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