The following text is copyright 1997 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Sometimes dumber is better

Residential gateways seem like a great business opportunity but, if done wrong, they can cause great harm to the future of the Internet.

A residential gateway is one of the current jargon phrases for what has been called a "set-top box" in the cable-TV world. It is a network gateway for the home. There are two basic concepts for residential gateways: It could be a PC-like device that can be used to access network resources from pay per view to stock quotes; Or it could also be a router connecting multiple in-home networks to multiple networks to the home.

The advantage of a PC as the residential gateway is that you might not need any other intelligent devices in the home to interact with the Internet. You can connect to the PC using the TV set and an optional keyboard to surf the net or to order up a viewing of "Rocky 27; Shuffleboard to the Death." The disadvantage is that you may have to connect to the PC to do anything and then you can only do the things that the PC is programmed for, or which can be downloaded to it. This type of residential gateway inhibits innovation.

A residential gateway that is a router fosters innovation. One of the most important reasons that the Internet is as powerful a force in shaping the technology present and future is because it does not get in the way. In the telephone network the phone switches define the services that are offered to the network access devices. (telephones) In contrast, in the Internet the network switches and routers merely forward IP traffic . This means that in the Internet any IP-based application can be run between consenting hosts without having to change anything in the network itself.

Today's telephone network is known, a bit self promotingly, as the Intelligent Network or IN. (see Faynberg et al, The Intelligent Network Standards - ISBN 0-07-021422-0 for more information.) Network intelligence seems to be a good thing for the phone business but, implemented the way that it has been, it does prevent customers from experimenting with new applications on their own. In the Internet there is an freedom to experiment. The best example of the usefulness of this freedom is the web which was developed from a grass-roots effort, not from some standards-based top down one.

As George Gilder points out, the Internet is proud to be a dumb network. Its intellegence is in the devices at its edges, and the intellegence of these devices is growing every day. Soon there will be more computing power in the average TV set than in the PCs of a few years ago.

The vendors of PC-based residential gateways seem to think its time for the Internet to get smarter. I don't think that is a good idea. The smart home PC and smart TV set should have access to a network that does not get in the way of inovation and progress. Inhibiting the ability to experiment is a sure way to limit the future.

disclaimer: Harvard and dumb in the same paragraph does not parse so the above must be my wanderings.