Future Tech: An Interview with Narelle Clark (Part 1)
How the Internet has changed since 2004, the Evolution of WiFi, Social Media Integration, Holograms, Augmented Reality, The Internet Of Things
In this Future Tech interview, we’re speaking with Narelle Clark — a data communications and Internet specialist who has been working in advanced technology areas consistently throughout her career. Narelle has been a user, builder, operator and researcher of Internet networks since 1986, for consumer groups, major telcos and research agencies, and has a particular interest in convergent networks and applications.
Shara Evans (SE): Today, it’s my pleasure to be speaking with my good friend Narelle Clark, who is the Deputy CEO of ACCAN, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, as well as being the long-serving president of the Internet Society in Australia. Narelle has held senior roles at CSIRO and Optus, as well as many other organisations.
Today, we’re going to talk about Internet trends and have a look at what the world is going to be like 10 years from now, in the year 2024.
Narelle, let’s start by casting our minds back 10 years. What was the Internet like 10 years ago, and how have things changed since then?
How the Internet Has Changed Since 2004
Narelle Clark (NC): Ten years ago, we had just come through the dot-com crash, so there had been all of these inflated expectations about how much the Internet was going to take over the world and everyone was building data centres and building up bandwidth everywhere, and it all came to a very angry stop.
This is actually a very timely question to ask because today in one of the industry trade journals [CommsDay], there was a little piece that said, “Ten years ago today, from our records — Optus has just signed an agreement to deliver WiFi services at a Sydney airport.” Well, that was a product that I led the development of. I was the technical lead, the Engineering Manager in charge of conceiving that product, delivering that product, and making sure it came into reality. So there it is. Ten years ago today, and I believe the network is still out there. That’s what we were doing. We were just trying to recover from the dot-com crash, and we were taking little strategic steps here and there on new things, and so I built this little WiFi network just after having built datacentres and so forth.
So what’s changed? Well, nothing much has changed about the WiFi networks. There’s still no commercial model for a lot of the ISPs in that sense. People are giving away WiFi everywhere, but what is happening is that places like large shopping centres are using WiFi, and giving away WiFi, and tracking people’s presence through WiFi in ways that we hadn’t expected to happen then.
SE: Now it’s also happening in areas like stadiums and convention centres.
Certainly in 2004, we were expecting that mobile handsets would all have WiFi. I’m pretty confident that the mobile handsets I had at that time were all WiFi enabled. It’s just they had these really complicated interfaces and it took someone like me, an engineer with 10 years experience, to configure the things.
Now, of course, my kids are doing it. Anybody can now configure the wireless on their mobile handset — whereas years ago you had to go through all of these deep, dark recesses to configure it. And you needed to know about all sorts of things, which I didn’t think were that complex, but people did find them very, very challenging.
SE: So WiFi has gone from geekdom into mainstream — where you just use it like driving a car, turning it on and off, and you don’t think about how it works. You don’t have to do much in the way of configuring it. Its just part of normal smartphone use.
NC: And there was one thing that I read yesterday: there is now a virus [Chameleon] that was modelled and created in the lab by a UK university, which can spread across WiFi networks. It uses WiFi networks in order to unpack itself in the access points, so it exploits the people that don’t update their administrative passwords for WiFi access points and routers, and lodges itself in there and then will replicate happily right across the network.
SE: How interesting.
NC: That’s another aspect, actually, which has changed over the last 10 years. I had predicted back then or even before, that there would be a lot more in the way of infrastructure exploits, and I don’t think we’ve seen the level of infrastructure exploit that I had predicted.
SE: What were you expecting?
NC: I was expecting a lot more in the way of viruses and just hackers as well.
SE: Cyber attacks?
NC: Yes, attacking the network infrastructure in the sense of exploiting unsecured routers, unsecured switches — the actual infrastructure of networks. I was expecting a lot more in the way of that. Now we do know that a lot of that does go on, but it’s not as obvious as I would’ve expected it to be. It’s taken a very much different form, I think.
It is out there in the world of “cyber warfare,” rather than a more obvious type of virus attack — like the obvious virus attacks that you see sometimes when you open your computers up and, hey, presto, there it is again.
SE: We have seen some Denial of Service attacks, but not nearly as many as there could be…
In the consumer world, broadband was really just starting to take off in 2004. What were you expecting back then? What sort of consumer access would you have expected to see in 2014?
NC: Well, I had worked on Optus’ cable products in the late ‘90s. I spent most of my career building broadband business cases, so I expected everybody to use it everywhere all the time. Since then, and I’ve had to wind back those expectations over and over and over again.
SE: Well, that’s why I wanted to ask you these questions because I knew you had done that.
NC: Yes. Well, in 2004 I don’t think we had long had access to DSL in the open market, and that has certainly been a longer journey than I expected. I certainly expected that the barriers to entry to the DSL market would have fallen away more quickly. But we’re still fighting the same old battles to get access to those pieces of wire to people’s front doors and, hey, presto, with the new approaches to the National Broadband Network, we’re going to keep on waging that one. Hopefully that barrier will disappear.
SE: What sort of bandwidth were you expecting that consumers would be using back then?
NC: Well, bandwidth to me, particularly where the consumer is concerned, has always been following what I call the freeway model. The more lanes you put on the freeway, the more cars will turn up to drive on it. If you’ve ever been to Los Angeles, you’ll experience it. They have all of these freeways and all are jammed with cars.
SE: Yes, I have.
NC: And Sydney’s major roads suffer from the same thing. You put more lanes on Victoria Road, and, hey presto, more cars turn up to fill them.
SE: Yes, and you still have a traffic jam in the morning getting over the Gladesville Bridge and the Anzac Bridge and everything else.
NC: Exactly. So, I’ve always thought that the more bandwidth you put out there for the consumers to use, the more bandwidth consumers will use. It has been a rare case in my experience where consumers haven’t used that bandwidth. And particularly as we saw that BitTorrent first got out there and really got a hold. BitTorrent is a particularly bandwidth-hungry application. It soaks up all the available bandwidth. You can tell it to wind back a bit and not seed too many little seeds or cache too many files, but it is, by its very nature, a bandwidth hog. It will just go grab it.
SE: And video — it’s not just downloading video, it’s uploading video, too.
SE: And one of the trends that I’ve seen, and I’ll see whether you agree, is that the nature of our use of the Internet has become much more symmetrical, in that in the early days of the Internet it was all about downloading information primarily, whereas now it’s just as much about sharing information and sending files.
NC: I don’t know that the proportion has changed that much. I haven’t had a chance to look at the statistics running on network backbones, but certainly people do want to upload a lot more, but they’re also downloading a lot more.
I’d like to think that the proportions would change because I have a firm belief that anything you connect to the Internet has just as much right to send out data and be a content creator and a service deliverer as every other node on the network. I’ve never seen it as being a client-server type network at all. To me, it’s always been a peer-to-peer network. I think that’s one of the fundamental principles of how the Internet works. It is anything connected anywhere, anytime, probably all the time, delivering whatever service it wants to deliver or take up, so that’s very much a two-way conversation. It’s not a one-way thing. While I still think the bulk of consumers or the bulk of people are still consuming more than they are delivering, I think that they are certainly delivering more. Whether it’s still the old 80/20 rule which we used to see, I don’t know.
SE: Well, I don’t think it’s even. It’s certainly not 50/50, but I think the trends are moving upwards.
NC: Certainly they are. It did surprise me, though, to see the quantity of video that people consume. They will sit and look at videos and consume that as the primary means of absorbing information. I’m a reader, so I can happily read a manual or sort through that sort of stuff. For me, looking at a YouTube video to tell me how to do something is a really tedious thing to do. I can soak it up much more quickly with words or a good picture or actually weighing in with the user interface and playing around it with it, than watching somebody else do it over YouTube. To me, that is really tedious, but a lot of other people find it extremely useful. Certainly the things out there that you can learn via YouTube are just wonderful.
SE: I think it also depends on the nature of the content. Some of the educational videos are much more complex than just showing you how to do something that could be replicated in a manual.
The Internet in 2024
Let’s fast forward to the future: the year 2024. What sorts of things might be available from an Internet services perspective if we look 10 years out?
NC: It’s an easy thing for me to say anything and everything.
SE: That’s too easy, Narelle.
NC: That’s too much of a short form of my opinion, isn’t it? So we are just now, I think, seeing a whole lot of things burst through that I’d expected to happen within the last 10 years, and now they’re only starting to happen. There’s a whole range of cloud services, stuff delivered from consolidated data centres to do any aspect of your business or your life. That’s being coupled with all sorts of new interfaces, too — app-based things, customised cute little software widgets that deliver stuff on more portable devices.
SE: Give me an example.
NC: I saw one this weekend that trains you to recognise musical tones and musical structures, and compose music.
SE: As an app?
NC: As an app. Also, it will teach you to do these things by displaying a keyboard on your tablet, and then you can play that. That is a recreational-type thing, but then people make music for their living.
People enjoy their lives so much more through music, so that’s perhaps one example.
Then there are all the other aspects of web services and people being able to build up all sorts of aspects of their websites through modular components. That is so much more readily doable now than it was 10 years ago. In some ways, to me, that’s old hat, but I think all of that stuff is becoming more and more usable. That is what’s changed. That is what is going to make the big difference in the next 10 years: the fact that people have finally understood the importance of usability, and are building it into interfaces everywhere. They didn’t have the hang of that before. That’s the big difference.
SE: Is that because of content management systems making it easy to put up websites?
NC: Content management systems are not easy. The bulk of them are rubbish.
SE: Well, but without a content management system, you’re reliant on a developer to do everything, whereas even if the content management systems of today aren’t ideal…
NC: You still need developers today in a lot of cases to develop decent websites. It’s hopeless, and that’s because of the content management systems, but what has been created on top of that are user-friendly interfaces that allow people to plug and play different modules within their websites. They’re not strictly content management systems, but in fact they are content management systems. Ultimately they’ve become that.
I saw a really good Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system just recently, and I believe that it may have been the one that was used in a certain major political campaign in a very large democracy in the west.
And it has some really neat and very usable features.
SE: Like what? Give us some examples.
NC: Well, easy integration with social media.
SE: That’s key.
NC: That’s a big key. Social media has been around for the last 10 years, but integrating it well with your website functionality or integrating it well with your CRM, that was a big piece I thought was good within this system.
SE: It’s still challenging.
NC: It’s those sorts of things that allow you to bring together different components of the services that you do which weren’t there before and bringing that together with usability means that anybody can do it anywhere.
SE: What might that look like in 10 years’ time given the advances in technology? Will we be seeing Web services that perhaps have holographic elements or other things that you may think of in a science-fiction realm?
Holograms and Augmented Reality
NC: Well, the whole 3D TV thing, I think, is, again, a transitional step between now and holography. We’ve been expecting holograms to be the case since, really, Asimov was a boy writing science-fiction novels or rather dreaming about writing science-fiction novels. When was I first exposed to holograms? Gee. Well, it was definitely in the ‘80s, or did we have holograms in the ‘70s even? I don’t know.
Tom Cruise in Minority Report
SE: I think we might have been playing around with them in some of the research labs.
NC: Yes, well, they were certainly around in the ‘80s, so I think we’ve been dreaming of holographic interfaces at least since then. Will they eventually come through? You know, I’m not sure when. I’m not sure what piece is missing there, so perhaps that’s one I’ll probably want to leave it alone. What we are seeing, though, is enhanced perception through things like augmented reality systems, and of course Google Glass is making that transition there.
SE: Yes,I was just thinking of Google Glass, too, with displays that are in-eye displays as opposed to things that pop out of your screen.
NC: Well, and there was always the thought that you could project things from your mobile phone or other portable convenient personal device, so you could take your screen and project it on the nearby wall and actually look at it in a more comfortable way. I think those sorts of devices will probably come through and given that we are now making this breakthrough into wearable things.
10 years ago, we were expecting a lot more wearable computing, and that hasn’t happened. But, there are a bunch of things now that are changing that. There’s now an appetite for it, which there wasn’t so much 10 years ago. People sort of looked away and said, “Yes, only geeks do this, and we don’t like geeks.” Well, they like geeks now. That’s the other thing that’s changed. Apparently it’s okay to be a geek in public.
SE: It is. I think the other thing that has changed is that the responsiveness of these wearable devices or even smartphones has changed because the underlying speed of connectivity makes them much faster.
NC: The speed of connectivity and of course commoditisation. We haven’t mentioned commoditisation.
So Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law are the two things which are coming together with this. With Moore’s Law, things are getting smaller and more powerful —miniaturisation allows you to double the number of transistors on integrated circuits approximately every two years. And with Metcalfe’s Law, the value of your network increases with the more you have connected to it. Of course if you look at the differences in the number of people connected 10 years ago with today and then 10 years into the future, it won’t be just people and places…
SE: It will be things as well.
The Internet of Things
NC: Ten years ago it was about places. We had a lot of homes connected and a lot of businesses connected, and now we’ve got every single individual. We’ve got more than saturation with mobile phone devices.
SE: We have for years already.
NC: Yes, years already, but with smartphones now. Even the technology laggards are using smartphones today. Nearly everybody in Australia has got a smartphone.
SE: We’re one of the world leaders in smartphone take-up.
NC: Yes, and that happened very, very quickly. So, the number of nodes on these networks has more than just exploded. As we go to this next phase, we will have more and more devices connected. You and I, in our handbags 10 years ago, had more computing power than what it took to get people to the moon in the ‘60s. Now we’ve not only got more computing power, but we’ve got more devices in our handbags, so even more computing power.
SE: And bigger handbags!
NC: And in the future, we’ll have even more still. Of course, car keys will have more than just a simple CPU in them. They will have more capability. Maybe our powder compacts will also have connectivity.
SE: Mirror, mirror on the wall?
NC: Well, you could probably do a social media check of your makeup settings before you head out. You’ll go, “I think I look awful. Girlfriends, tell me, do I?” And your girlfriends might come back and say, “Narelle, don’t leave the house,” or, “Narelle, you’ve put way too much rouge on. Get it off. Fix it in this way, and then you’ll be okay to leave.” That’s what I mean. We’re getting more and more of these devices, and not only that, the devices are connected in more and more wonderful ways, with more computing power.
We’ll be publishing Part 2 of the Interview with Narelle Clark on Friday 28 March – where we will discuss the coming spectrum crunch, wireless network directions, hetnets, ad hoc networking, darknets, collectivist networks, privacy in 2024, biometric identification, healthcare implications, and implantable devices.
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