MAKE A FEW BILLION DOLLARS,
DO A FAVOR FOR
THE FUTURE OF CULTURE,
ALL IN A FEW SHORT YEARS,
WITH ALMOST NO STARTING CAPITAL:
A MODEST PROPOSAL.
The following three things should be done simultaneously:
Thing one) Make a very cheap set-top box that browses the World Wide Web
on TV without needing an operating/window system.
Thing two) Extend HTML (the language of the WWW) so that it can deliver
full-fledged applications as pages.
Thing three) Organize an Amway-like business where fiber-wiring kits are
distributed by micro-entrepreneurs to neighborhoods. People in a neighborhood
sign a boilerplate contract to form a fiber co-op. They give each other
rights and responsibilities to route cable through their properties to a
neighborhood node, and they collectively purchase the best available high
bandwidth connection to the internet at that node. They commit contractually
to annual improvement to the neighborhood fiber resource to keep property
* * *
More on Thing One) The first rev of the box plugs into a phone line on one
side and a TV on the other. It has some fonts built in that are well chosen
for easy reading on TV. It has a remote that can scroll the view on a large
mosaic page. The second rev of the box directly plugs into ISDN and third
rev into fiber. As the connection gets better, the box get fancier, including
larger amounts of RAM, video cameras and microphones, support for higher
resolution displays, VR peripherals, etc.. The first rev doesn't need much
computation power, since it will be bandwidth limited anyway, so it can
be very cheap indeed, probably using slightly out of date parts. Note that
all it has in its ROM are Internet applications like a Mosaic browser and
Eudora; there is no operating, window, or disk operating system. I believe
such a box can be built in moderate quantities for under $50. It is lower-tech
than a Nintendo box.
More on Thing Two) A user interface/display kit with a control protocol
is also introduced and included in the set top box. So, an application like
a word processor or spreadsheet can be running at a remote server while
the interface appears in the home. The relevant memory for the application
is mirrored (using a bandwidth-minimizing, encrypting protocol) between
the server and local memory in the set-top box. The bandwidth requirements
between a front end and a server of this kind should be very small, so performance
will be comparable to early PCs, even over phone lines. Over higher bandwidth
lines, performance should keep up with stand-alone computers. Users who
wish to can purchase their own hard disks, but they can also leave their
data, safely encrypted, at the server, which might or might not be owned
by the co- op. This will bring computer access to people who cannot otherwise
afford a computer.
Applications can be rented for a very low hourly rate, instead of being
bought, and they can come stuffed to order with useful data. Over the term
of use, a developer will see as much revenue as if the user had bought boxed
software, and there is no piracy. This is a better way to distribute and
use software, and it makes the idea of an operating system obsolete. This
is the last great Microsoft-sized opportunity for a platform standard.
More on Thing Three) Neither the public nor private sectors have been able
to amass enough capital and clout to bring fiber to large numbers of homes
rapidly. Gore failed. TCI/Bell Atlantic failed. But what if fiber is installed
from the grass roots? Then it becomes imaginable that millions of homes
could be wired within a few years. Many lawyers will be put to good use
creating enforceable cooperative information easement rights, and court
battles might have to be fought against cable interests and the like, but
ultimately it is likely that property owners can legally create their own
Residents get immediate gratification from the phone-line-based box, which
brings them incredible value for very little money. For the cost of a Nintendo,
they get hassle-free access to everything on the net, as well as serious
computer applications. The widespread use of these cheap boxes will motivate
content providers to address the needs of fiber-coop members early on.
Affluent neighborhoods might contract with a specialized firm to install
the fiber lines, but most neighborhoods will have "fiber weekends"
where homeowners do the job themselves. This will be possible because of
a well designed neighborhood cyberspace kit distributed by micro-entrepreneurs,
who also serve to hand-hold residents through the process. Local control
makes the process incremental. For instance, fiber can be strung between
roofs at first and later dug into the ground. Neighborhoods will be motivated
by the micro-entrepreneurs for all the right reasons: to improve the future
prospects for their children, to improve their property values, to get access
to new business opportunities, to participate in society in expanded ways,
and to have fun.
When the fiber is installed, the neighborhood node will probably be connected
to the internet by a commercial vendor. At that time, the set-top boxes
are upgraded. All the neighborhoods can bid together on goods and services,
bringing costs down. The neighborhood node will be improved by a mutual
covenant every year. Fiber coops will inevitably become a force that incrementally
improves the internet for all. Within a few years residents will be calling
up low-resolution but watchable movies on demand, and the quality will improve
incrementally with the node hardware and the handling capacity of the net.
This is a case where a cooperative anarchy wins in the free market over
business as usual, simply because it costs so much less. Government and
corporate thinking on getting America fibered has assumed that a centralized
army will be outfitted to do the job. Imagine what a government or a corporation
would have spent to get the World Wide Web to the point that it is, as quickly
as it has gotten there. The distributed, incremental sweat equity that the
community has invested in the WWW can also be applied to hardware infrastructure.
Low income neighborhoods have the most to gain. Right now TVs and Nintendos
can be found everywhere. Joining a fiber coop will be cheap compared to
those questionable investments. Renters can join a coop and get the low
bandwidth boxes in anticipation of a time when they might become owners.
They'll bring computer and net access to themselves and their kids for a
bargain rate in the interim. They'll also automatically have a wired organization
that might be a political force. If the tide does turn in national politics
and there is a movement to support universal access, then the neighborhood
coops can only help, in a variety of ways. If not, then at least low income
neighborhoods have a fighting chance not to be left out.
If a startup business was to do the above it would make money by selling
set top boxes, renting software, and supporting an Amway-like pyramid of
micro- entrepreneurs selling neighborhood cyberkits. The startup costs could
be as low as, perhaps, $10M to design the set top box, $5M to establish
the extended HTML protocol and the technology of the software rental business,
and $10M to start up the neighborhood kit business (much of it for legal
fees). A second round of capital would be raised to support the marketing
and manufacturing ramp-up, but this is fundamentally a very light industry
with low capital needs. It seems to me this business could usurp the futures
of the telephone, broadcast, and cable industries, the computer hardware
and application companies, and most deliciously, Microsoft. But it would
do so in a way that wouldn't impose style or content on its customers, and
that would assure a decentralized, democratic and beautiful information
infrastructure, intimately understood and controlled by the citizens who
built it and use it.
Go back to Jaron's