For the past two years, the telecommunications industry meltdown that some equipment makers referred to as a “nuclear winter” has left plenty of people concerned about the future of communications networks-and even of the Internet itself. Despite the downturn, however, the TR100 honorees in the Internet category share an optimistic outlook on the next generation of technologies and services
This year’s honorees point to the recent widespread adoption of 802.11 wireless data networks and the expected growth of voice transmission over the Internet as fundamental changes that will make both data and voice services ubiquitous properties of all networks. That-along with the anticipated expansion of the market for inexpensive wireless sensors-will permit far smarter networks in which authority for controlling data is distributed among appliances and servers that analyze and share information on traffic patterns, even predicting user needs to activate additional capacity in advance. Taken together, these technologies will help transform how and why the Internet is used and provide plenty of opportunities for the industry to revive itself.
“Instead of having a high-speed backbone and one point in your home for Internet access,” says Jason Hill of JLH Labs, a Capistrano Beach, CA, startup he founded, “it will be a more fluid system with highly distributed access.” To help make that happen, Hill has developed an operating system for small wireless sensors that permits them to establish contact with one another and share data. In the next three years, says Hill, a whole new generation of inexpensive sensors a few millimeters in size will be designed and integrated into our surroundings-and even into the fabric of clothes. Following on the heels of this first wave of sensors will be a communications infrastructure to take advantage of all of these new data collection points. Hill says the collective intelligence of these sensors will offer greater flexibility than the centralized scheme of today’s telecom infrastructure. With more information collected at various endpoints on the network, better data will be spread evenly throughout the infrastructure-allowing network operators to make more accurate decisions on how to route traffic and respond to outages.
During its boom years, the Internet acquired many of the characteristics of a broadcast medium; a few large Web sites claimed a big portion of online traffic. But recent developments seem to be reversing this trend. Several TR100 innovators point to the phenomenon of Web logs, or blogs, as a first step in creating greater opportunity for consumers to view and use all kinds of new digital media-including not just text but also still images and video. “Today, content for the Internet is produced by very few and viewed by many,” says John Apostolopoulos, senior researcher at Hewlett-Packard’s streaming-media-systems group in Palo Alto, CA. To improve users’ ability to share digital content, Apostolopoulos, who has done pioneering work on video compression for high-definition television, is working on coding schemes for sending video data to a given recipient along several different pathways simultaneously. Large video files could thus be ferried across the network without loss of quality. The work will eventually permit broader use of video across both the Internet and telecom networks.
Extending the reach of the Web is raising the expectations of both business users and consumers. One of those expectations is smarter networks whose parts have greater autonomy to respond to changes, without the intervention of centralized servers. Similarly decentralized networks of sensors and appliances will permit people to experiment with new forms of communication. Web connections could allow the remote control of everyday appliances like thermostats, lighting fixtures, and other systems in homes and businesses.
And there will be plenty of surprises ahead in how people interact with these smarter networks. New uses as unexpected as blogs were will likely emerge. “People will live their lives in public in ways they’ve never done before,” says Martin Wattenberg, research staff member at IBM in Cambridge, MA. “People like to tell stories around the campfire, and blogs are kind of similar,” he says. “It is a very human way to present information.” For his part, Wattenberg is developing data visualization tools so that people can better navigate communications channels and sort through the enormous trove of information that results.
With this shift in both the overall volume of digital content and the number of people producing it, there will also be a push for stronger security to protect its use and distribution. And that push points back to the more intelligent infrastructure that handles, stores, and forwards data packets to customers and businesses. Once the first elements of the intelligent-networking infrastructure and security mechanisms are in place, which should happen in about three years, businesses will be better able to protect digital data like video and images. This will enable the wider use of the Internet for such distribution chores as delivering new films to theaters. AT&T’s Lorrie Cranor is designing technology that will help provide the needed privacy for online interactions. Cranor is working on the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P); browsers using P3P permit users to keep better tabs on whether their personal data are being surreptitiously hijacked.
Smarter, more adaptable networks, which are both aware of and adapt to users’ needs, will take a while to fully emerge, says Jennifer Yates, principal technical staff member at AT&T. But elements of them will start to show up in the Internet’s main data pipelines and gradually work their way out to end users. Innovations in these networks will help Internet service providers anticipate user needs and activate additional services tailored to changing traffic demands. For example, Yates says, an intelligent network will automatically supply additional bandwidth to video presentations; it will then revert to a less pricey speed for basic data transfer.
For the most part, microprocessors and PCs have become commodities distinguishable only by price, believes Jud Bowman, who founded Pinpoint Networks to help companies distribute data applications to wireless devices. That means software and services, not new hardware, will usher in the truly disruptive innovations within the emerging wireless data infrastructure. In the following pages you will meet many of those who are bringing about these changes-and reviving hope in the moribund telecom and Internet businesses.
TR100 Startups in the Internet and Telecommunications
|CollabNet (Brisbane, CA)
|Software tools to improve the productivity of teams collaborating over the Internet; recently announced Sony as a customer; raised $13 million in private funding last January
|Pinpoint Networks (Durham, NC)
|Tools to help telecom operators manage applications and improve service quality; has raised $20 million in venture financing
|Dust (Berkeley, CA)
|Low-cost wireless sensors with built-in networking logic to share data
|JLH Labs (Capistrano Beach, CA)
|Wireless sensor network operating systems
|Pyra Labs (San Francisco, CA)
|The software (Blogger) that made Web logging the online rage; acquired in February 2003 by Google (Mountain View, CA)
|Voxiva (Washington, DC)
|Technologies to convey public-health information over either the Web or touch-tone phones; has raised $5.6 million in private investment
|Digital Envoy (Norcross, GA)
|Software to identify the geographic location of Web site visitors for improved customer service or customized content; has raised $12 million from AOL Time Warner Ventures and others
|alldayPA (Manchester, England)
|Outsourced administrative support for small-business owners; also operates the Golden Fund, a $24 million
war chest to help struggling tech companies
|Ember (Boston, MA)
|Wireless sensors and networking software for the automation of buildings, factories, utilities, and battlefield operations; has raised $28 million in venture financing
|Pyra Labs (San Francisco, CA)
|See Hourihan, above
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