There’s an app(liance) for that

Cecilia Kang, who writes a blog about technology policy for the Washington Post, reports today that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has been reading my book The Big Switch. Genachowski finds (as I did) that the story of the buildout of the electric grid in the early decades of the last century can shed light on today’s buildout of a computing grid (or, as we’ve taken to saying, “cloud”).

Though, obviously, electric power and information processing are very different technologies, their shift from a local supply model to a network supply model has followed a similar pattern and will have similar types of consequences. As I argue in the book, the computing grid promises to power the information economy of the 21st century as the electric grid powered the industrial economy of the 20th century. The building of the electric grid was itself a dazzling engineering achievement. But what turned out to be far more important was what companies and individuals did with the cheap and readily available electricity after the grid was constructed. The same, I’m sure, will be true of the infrastructure of cloud computing.

As Genachowski said, “An ‘app for that’ could have been the motto for America in the 20th century, too, if Madison Avenue had predated electricity.” Back in the 1920s and 30s, “app” would have stood for “appliance” rather than “application,” but the idea is largely the same.

A commercially and socially important network has profound policy implications, not the least of which concerns access. At a conference last week, Genachowski said that “the great infrastructure challenge of our time is the deployment and adoption of robust broadband networks that deliver the promise of high-speed Internet to all Americans.” Although a network can be a means of diffusing power, it can also be a means of concentrating it.

5 thoughts on “There’s an app(liance) for that

  1. Niraj

    Nick – Your book and your discussions were my inspiration for my presentation here – – Thanks a ton.

    the App(liance) notion is something I had highlighted in PPT- Slide 26.

    Corollary :

    Is apps are going to move to appliances then the business model for people like MSFT is in question. The entry point for a consumer to interacting with the cloud will probably be an appliance like Kindle , iphone , etc. Unless MSFT wants to take the role of an OEM in the supply chain ,which by the way is also going free – eg – android, there current model will have to evolve.

  2. David Evans

    Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it – glib, but usefully correlated with truth. However, there is always that frisson of excitement over the unpredictability of technological evolution. What the view of the electricity grid may provide is an important lesson in trusting your intuition, and how incapable we are of shedding our hindsight view when attempting to understand how things were perceived at the time. One thing that always troubles me is whether those who ‘saw’ something at the time and predicted a change were visionaries, or just the lucky monkey in the infinite cage. In other words, if I make up 50 wild predictions I can delete the 49 that were tripe and promote myself as a visionary because of the one that was 80% right by chance.

    I also wonder about the extent to which compute power can truly be commoditised. In the UK, petrol/gas is a commodity and people buy on location and price – not brand. I understand things to be different in the USA, and I’m not sure ultimately why that should be the case. Petroleum and electricity are deterministically describable and straightforward. Compute power and storage, with issues over privacy and reliability etc. are perhaps much more complex, and therefore susceptible to differences of perception and hence part of brand. Who cares whether Wallmart and Asda use BP or Shell petrol? Maybe someone will care if they use Google or Amazon…

  3. Nick


    Wouldn’t you agree that the trend towards centralized (cloud) solutions is a reaction to the fact that the operational cost of computing equipment (over its life time) is expected to be greater than the initial, capital investment of the equipment itself? So, in short, the price of energy is the main driver towards data center solutions because as computing power is centralized, efficiency increases.

    I like your concentrated interest on how people will use the “utility”. I suppose we need to ask ourselves what Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, Google, etc. want with their clouds and that will shed some light on the situation.

  4. Linuxguru1968

    Genachowski statement “robust broadband networks that deliver the promise of high-speed Internet to all Americans” is a little ignorant. The “Internet” is just the public TCP/IP network that runs “on top” of a vast grid of diverse signaling technology. It’s really old technology and one would hope not the last one that humanity produces. His statement seems to indicate that he thinks the Internet is the final solution to all human problems but this seems to indicate more give always to corporation involved in Internet.

    The term Internet appliance has been around for about two decades. Larry Ellison was a great evangelist for it back in the 1990s with companies like Network Computing Inc – which actually have gone no where.

    The real advance has been the creation of the world-wide wireless data infrastructure on which smart phones operates – they are the true future and true “network” appliance. The jack of all trades master of all.

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