The smooth matt black box nestles snugly in my palm; the lightness of the device still catches me by surprise. Even after six months, while most of the device's surface has developed a patina of daily use, the Symbian logo, possibly the most widely distributed colour hologram in the world, is still as fresh and bewitching as it was when it was new. An announcement over the PA system breaks my trance-like reverie and I refocus on the screen. I am filling in time, before the homeward-bound flight takes off, to complete an article - a retrospective look at networks 20 years ago at the turn of the century. All that fuss over the Y2K bug, now that brings back some memories!
Back then we were starting to build what became known as the Web, or sometimes the Net, out of the old PSTN and the first version of the internet - amazing how basic that all seems now. What was it called? Disparagingly, the World Wide Wait as the response from the network was slow - especially when America came online! Even the then antiquated telephone network didn't suffer from that!
I wonder if I can use a video clip to show how slow the networks used to be? I fire up my assistant and speak into my throat mike: "Search please, parameters: PSTN/telephones/modems/internet. File type: video. Go." "OK Boss," replies my assistant. As I complete my search parameters I reflect that what I have just done is itself a huge step forward from the networks of yesteryear. The old search engines of the original Web, Yahoo and so on, integrated VXML as the mark-up language of choice years ago, and now for many people, and for most tasks, spoken instructions are the natural choice. There are many features: the 'Babel Fish', which provides instant translation of any language into any other language; and 'Gay Deceiver', a random answer feature which can be quite fun - I have a dozen different answers, the more off-beat ones can be embarrassing in meetings.
My PDA vibrates to let me know about an incoming call - Do I want to receive a video call? I see its my son Ben, and accept the call. After all, the bill for the bandwidth usage will come out of his prepaid account (a feeble attempt by me to instill some sense of financial control into the lad). We chat about stuff, he's all excited about winning the latest Warhammer Mega-Game on the net. Seemingly, there were 1,000 kids in on this one, from all around the world, playing at all times of day or night, and I remember as a child hiding under the duvet and reading with a torch. Apparently the new version of Quicktime, based on fractals, allows ultra-realistic landscaping and infinite expansion of detail. Of course, network access bandwidth has increased too, along with the phone bill, and Ben wants his account topped up. Hey ho, what are Dad's for?
We sign off. I access and update Ben's account with yet another 50 Euros, and take time to look around the airport lounge. Remember IPV4? Unbelievable how rudimentary that was - it even ran out of addresses for heaven's sake! Then hotshot V6 came along, which solved the numbers thing and the techies used to say, "So many addresses we can all have 10 and still have some left." Well, of course, now that the Net's standardised on IP7, not only do we use out numbers as the key identifier for all personal details, driving license, passport numbers, health records, tax etc, but also those problems with Quality of Service have finally been resolved - at least in most areas. There are still some areas where the Net is on V6, but with the now standard dual-mode Symbian PDA operating system, all that means is less bandwidth and functionality. Voice still gets through and, surprisingly enough, that seems to be the most important thing in communication.
When I first started to write articles, I pulled off a bit of coup when I managed to get the key IP vendors at the time to admit that there really wasn't such a thing as an IP network, as IP never travelled naked. Having realised that IP always needed something else to get it, and the data it contained, across the network, it was obvious to be than that some fundamental issues were being swept under the carpet with this, then new, technology. For example, on early LANs, with a feeble 10Mbit/s, the IP packets, possibly containing voice but in those days more likely data, would itself be contained in the LAN technology at the time - Ethernet it was called. Then, to get this out onto the WAN, the Ethernet was stripped off and the IP datagram was put into something else - frame relay was most often used as it was then the most efficient WAN networking Protocol available.
Can I remember the maths? There was compression, which worked well with Frame Relay as the header in each frame was much smaller than for IP. For example, a standard voice call uncompressed required 64Kbit/s. Using a standard compression algorithm of the time, this could be compressed to 8Kbit/s, so theory said you could get eight compressed voice calls down to one 64Kbit pipe. Wrong - because there needed to be added into the equation the header information.
Yes, I remember now - this would typically mean that the effective bandwidth requirement for compressed Voice over Frame Relay using that ancient standard G729 was 13.6Kbit/s, which equated to four voice calls over one 64Kbit/s link. And for Voice over IP solutions, using the same compression, the maximum number of compressed voice calls down one 64kbit/s pipe was one. For sure, the voice would be just as compressed, the header overhead in IP was much greater, meaning that the compressed voice in this scenario actually needed 33.6Kbit/s - and you could only get one of these down one 64kbit/s pipe!
My assistant is wanting my attention. She's found some interesting clips which I can use. Excellent, there's even some graphics showing how poor optimised IP routers were in the first incarnation of multi-service networks! These multimedia articles are so useful for getting your point across - how did we manage with just printed text? The flexible LCD display, even the first version in black and white, was an instant hit; the colour one blew printed magazines into the dusty archives of history.
For special interest personal files from service organisations, using Kino! Technology just download the latest edition from the Web - one eMag can provide any number of special interest topics, for a subscription fee, and music eMags are the world's best selling, since stereo sound and digital streaming video support is an intrinsic feature of the Web. You can get 'free' eMags, but you have to put up with so much advertising. I prefer to pay a premium not to see those messages from sponsors.
All that hype and confusion about IP! Once people realised that the function of IP was to break everything down into the lowest common denominator ready for transporting over the network, what ever that network happened to be, so much of this noise disappeared. Then people started to really use first Frame Relay, then ATM, in the access layer of networks, striping off the IP headers and replacing them at the other end. I worked for the company that pioneered this technique - Motorola. That caused quite a stir at the time, as they were world famous for their mobile phones then. Now, most businesses have re-written their business applications to take IP into account; pretty much everything has IP in it somewhere.
An alert message pops up, interrupting my work and train of thought, from the air traffic control system, like most information networks connected to PDAs the world over via Piano short-range, wireless, spontaneous networking technology. I groan inwardly and smile ruefully. I'd better call Ben to tell him the plane's been delayed. Funny isn't it, how some things never change?
Note: at the time of writing Symbian, IKno!, Piano, VXML were all technologies belonging to Motorola.
First published in 1999