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Content as pretender to a throne

By Scott Bradner

One of the first topics I addressed in this series of columns in Network World, back in early 1993, was the inability of phone companies to understand that the Internet is about connectivity not killer applications . A year later I went back to the same refrain and lamented in addition that the phone companies could only think of data networking as a way to provide video on demand to countless couch potatoes. For as long as I can remember the phone companies, echoed by many people in government, have assumed that this Internet thing was only a lead-in to a content-driven profitable global network. The National Informational Infrastructure (NII) and its global extension (GII) were getting a lot of press and attention from high-level politicians throughout the mid 1990s. These networks of the future were described in glowing terms but boiled down to ways that consumers could access content from a few very large content providers. Email between us peons was never mentioned. i.e. what we see today as the Internet was never mentioned.

The feeling that content will drive the infrastructure has not gone away and it's not limited to the phone companies. Venture capitalists and technology pundits have joined the parade. It is a convenient dream. If it were true there might even be a way for ISPs to get out of the commodity transport business and make real money. I've never thought that the dream was going to come true and now Andrew Odlyzko of AT&T research has published a paper that backs up this view with real data. "Content is not king" (

The basic message of this paper, which is part of a much longer paper on "The history of communications and its implications for the Internet," points out that content is not all that big a business. At least not when compared to basic connectivity. The annual phone business in the U.S. was about $256 billion in 1997 (the latest date where there is reliable data) while consumer spending on content was less than half of that at $133 billion. I.e. inter personal communication is more valuable than watching video on demand.

It has always been a puzzle to me why the phone companies so deeply believe that selling content will be the revenue source of the future when their very existence is based in a content-irrelevant world. The "killer app" for the phone, like for the auto, was individuals using them for general unimportant things.

The importance of email came as a surprise to the Internet pioneers, it was not even one of the first applications. Email and other person-to-person applications seem to be being dismissed by too many pundits and vendors as they seek a dream that does not seem to be based in reality.

disclaimer: Harvard used to do dream research and probably still does but dreams on this scale would be a challenge to comprehend so the above dismissal is my own.