In the immortal words of Canadian professor of English literature Marshal McLuhan, “the medium is the message”. Back in the 60s, McLuhan put forward the notion that the method of communication employed has a profound impact on the message and ourselves. He further went on to say “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” If only Marshall had lived to fully see the evolution of his “Global Village.” The Internet among other technological advancements have truly redefined our culture and our use of technology. Technological innovation is often defined by its ability to be more portable, faster, and accessible. From Smartphones to NetBooks to HotZones, we have at our fingertips devices and an infrastructure that have forever enhanced our ability to access information and each other regardless of where we are.
As the Internet grew from its humble beginnings, numerous infrastructure elements were introduced to allow for its growth. As IP addresses became unmanageable as a means of addressing destinations, DNS services were formed to provide an alias for theses addresses in an easy to remember domain. How limited would we be if we had to remember all the IP addresses required to access our daily sites. TCP/IP provided a standard protocol to communicate across an ever widening network. IPv6 is now slowly becoming used to deal with the exhaustion of IP addresses available in a 32bit model by providing a 128bit address naming convention.
As new Domains and websites flourished in the landscape, Yahoo (among others) initially provided us with a web directory of sorts to allow us to find information more readily. As the limitations of user categorization were challenged by an ever exponential content growth, Google (once again among others) provided us with search engines. As bot and spider technology continue to grow, more and more content is being made available to us as the Internet is crawled for content. As content became unmanageable and distributed, aggregator sites such as Slashdot (yes again among others) provided us with a means of accessing like-minded articles and Internet tidbits.
The managed aggregator market in my opinion is the next big business growth sector on the Internet. Data Mining as a whole always succeeds Data Population and the tools that will allow us to properly mine the Internet of its content will be a successful commercial venture.
There has been many articles written about the impact of the Internet and its growth over decades to become the infrastructure that we see it as today. This post is not one of these for I want to discuss what I believe is the evolution of a smaller network which is again redefining our interactions and thus ourselves. I am talking about the GSM network and its communication standard SMS.
In the last couple of months, numerous people have been asking me what the big deal is about Twitter. My comments and responses have varied based on the audience, but fundamentally my answers have captured one key aspect that many seem to be ignoring or not fully understanding. Like many other applications, it is not always the application that is the product.
Twitter as a micro-blogging application is truly ingenious in both its simplicity and its features. How the creators of Twitter have made use of an existing standard (SMS) and imbedded its own command set into the 160 char SMS message (20 char for username and 140 for message) is quite ingenious. When you think about the simplicity of Twitter, you can imagine a few programmers just playing around with SMS and stumbling on this idea over a weekend and getting it coded in their spare time.
Now that Twitter has tackled the social side of micro-blogging, they will be making use of this in the business world quite quickly. You will see all forms of status updates being interlinked to Twitter if not replaced by it. I have made mention of numerous business offshoots of Twitter and micro-blogging in the past, but today I want to focus on one key aspect of what Twitter brings to the technology landscape that doesn’t get as much coverage.
Simply put, Twitter has provided or is the process of providing very much the same elements required that made the Internet work on a Global scale. It is focusing, if you will, on a micro-Internet model that of the GSM Network. By leveraging off of SMS, Twitter has provided what has been desperately needed to truly grow GSM/SMS to the next level. Currently, SMS is a standard used by all GSM networks. This represents pretty much every cell user on the planet and could actually rival the web population (no stats on this, just a personal statement). The infrastructure to operate SMS across providers has been around for a while and is now more or less stable and reliable (with the exception of delayed messages and duplicate messages).
SMS is very much like the Internet was when IP addresses were used to connect to individual network nodes. In a SMS world, the cell’s phone number (often managed by the SIM card) is the IP address. If you know the address you can send a message and the network will take care of the routing for you. This basic statement is applicable to most form of messaging including snail mail. Without a known address, you are simply sending the message into the unknown. How easily and accurately one can get the desired address becomes key to any form of messaging.
As the worldwide population of SMS users has grown, we became faced with the same problem the Internet ran into. How do I connect to something I don’t know the address of and should I actually need to know the actual address. In the Internet world, Web Directories and DNS entries initially facilitated this process. However, in a GSM world this is not available on the same scale. You either know the address (cell number) or you are simply guessing with the hopes of messaging someone in question. Twitter in my opinion, is the first successful implementation of the needed Web Directory and DNS capabilities presently found on the Internet.
By allowing a user profile to be created and associated to a cell number, Twitter in essence has created a proprietary DNS that maps a profile (domain name) to a cell (IP address) across multiple GSM networks. In addition, it has created the ability to search against its directory (and will likely eventually provide additional ways of navigating through its user base). So by building the Twitter network, Twitter now is the sole provider of these services across the entire GSM/SMS network. No Telco has provided (to my knowledge) this capability reaching outside of their direct network.
So what is the role of the Twitter micro-blogging application outside of its obvious features? Twitter as an application is driving the population growth of this new network. The Internet really didn’t start growing until there were enough people on it and enough content to keep them browsing. As the content grew, so did the audience and thus a social network was formed on top of a technological network. This, if managed successfully, can provide the world the much needed software infrastructure to fully make use of the GSM/SMS network across the world just like the Internet did. Based on the Google/Twitter dialogues currently underway, we may actually see this succeed.
I see Twitter not just as a social experiment and micro-blogging resource, I see Twitter as the first to market in providing the fundamental software infrastructure to integrate and deciminate content across a whole new network using a proven underlying framework to route its messages. While the messages and content being sent across this network may be limited to 140 characters, anybody who has ever had to squeeze data into a limited memory space will know that limitations breeds innovation. When you have no limits, you tend to not feel the need to innovate. We are already seeing a huge increase in the number of URL shorteners on the Internet and it is no surprise to see this innovation grow from applications such as Twitter. Now we just need to have the same level of evolution that DNS servers had on URL shorteners to ensure the required redundancy and failover needed for mission critical uses.