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Spontaneous human combustion: Skype to blame?

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Analysis A Voice over IP service was to blame for a man in Massachusetts bursting into flames at the weekend.

The man, David Reed, held an executive position at Lotus in the early 1980s, and was a Fellow at HP Labs. He is said to be recovering from the spontaneous human combustion at MIT Media Lab, where he's on the faculty - and where, we hope, the presence of alarm clocks that run away from people shouldn't hinder his recovery.

We're speaking figuratively, of course.

Reed was responding to a discussion on David Farber's IP list that prompted by last week's publicity stunt by Skype. We reported this here, but to summarize: Skype, notorious as a closed system, asked the FCC to open its networks to so any device can be attached (which it already can), and create a new standards body so it could nobble the cellular operators' own standards bodies, and tell them what to do. A fine case of the pot calling the kettle black, we suggested.

But the discussion rapidly turned into a conflagration.

Former InfoWorld columnist Brett Glass runs the wireless ISP Lariat.net in Wyoming, which puts him at the business end of network problems. Skype, he said, posed severe technical problems for wireless ISPs, and was effectively a parasite on the network.

Bandwidth robbers

"Skype works by 'robbing' bandwidth from its users and their ISPs. Skype does not buy enough bandwidth to route or connect all of the calls placed on its network," he wrote.

Lariat.net has to do what many fixed line ISPs need to do: for the good of the majority - who don't use Skype - it has to rein in the few, who do.

"If Skype, by operating on the wireless provider's network, would in effect be consuming the provider's valuable bandwidth and airtime without compensation (which really does seem to be the case), the cell phone company is perfectly justified in saying, 'No.'"

It was this accusation of parasitism cause this burst of smoke 2,000 miles away in Massachusetts:

David Reed stormed back.

"Brett Glass's argument is the most amazing absurdity I have heard of in a long time!", he fumed.

"Robbing" the network provider? Get real. An end-user node sends bits to another end-user node, under the control of a program that each end user chose to run - that's not robbery, that's the service his customers pay for."

With smoke obscuring the keyboard, Reed managed to type the following, and hit return, before flames engulfed him:

"Brett's customers have been slaves to his paranoia for far too long. If he has any customers left (a fact that his demeanor and ridiculous anti-customer behavior leads me to doubt)."

It was the nastiest exchange Farber said he'd seen for a long time.

A recovering Reed later said it was the word "robbery" that caused the flames.

How things work

Well, perhaps "piggybacking" is less inflammatory, but that's surely what it is. As reader Kevin Hall pointed out via email:

"I've always thought that the only way the Skype business model has ever made sense is it effectively exploits someone else's network (that is, any running over TCP/IP) for the greater stretch of its connection."

"It's a sad day when someone reckons their few million lines of code (and probably not even that) is a more significant investment than real infrastructure that actually makes things work."

What makes Reed so mad?

We can explain: it's the crunchy sound of a beautiful abstraction meeting real world technical and economic limitations, and breaking into a million pieces.

Reed is known for a few things - such as the idea that "radio waves don't interfere - they just pass through each other." But he's best known for adding his name to what's called the "End to End principle". This neatly and accurately describes the guiding principles of the first packet network pioneers, who sought to create a decentralized and "dumb" network.

The "principle" was already redundant by the time the paper enunciating it was first published in 1984, however, and so it's fair to say that none of today's packet networks are "end to end" or "dumb".

If they were, they wouldn't work, and you wouldn't be reading this now.

But "End to End" has taken on a quasi-religious significance over twenty years. It's not just a buzzword, it's a way of life!

Who pays the pipe-layer?

The harsh economics of the matter is that Skype is essentially parasitic: its parent company eBay doesn't have the capital to invest in the infrastructure we need - but it does have the potential to destroy companies that can lay down those tubes.

Which begs an even more uncomfortable question - who's going to pay for the internet? If no one is making money out of it, then today's internet is an evolutionary dead-end.

Ever one to be the peacemaker, your reporter privately proposed the following arrangement to Messrs. Reed and Glass:

We suggested a job swap for a month, whereby Brett could spend a month in the Tony surroundings of MIT Media Lab - playing with furry alarm clocks, and dreaming up new buzzwords for utopian-minded bloggers. Meanwhile, David could spend a month trying to placate a lot of angry and confused wireless customers - just as ISPs have to do every day.

A little experience in the real world might do Reed a power of good, was the idea. We'll let you know when we get a response - but we're not optimistic. Some people love to hold on to their abstractions long after empirical evidence has rendered them useless. ®

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