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The End of Pop Technology

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We live in a golden age of Pop Technology. Pop Technology is a lot like pop culture, or pop music, except that instead of having a fascination for an object (pet rock), a fashion trend (shoulder pads for women) or a singer (Lady Gaga), the immediate objects of public fascination are standalone Web programs or apps for a device, like an iPhone or an Android. The crucial question whether those forces will be able to survive or whether they will be beaten into submission.

The difference between Pop Technology and more standard, corporate-produced technology is the difference between an iPhone app and a word-processing program. Pop Technology is hip and cool, and may (or may not) last only for a little while. It's Blippy or Swipely or Billshrink. Some PopTech may catch fire or disappear into a crowded app-scape. The other is a standard, useful, enduring tool that in some iteration or another will be around for a while. Those obviously are generalities. A small, cheap program or web site may catch fire and grow to extraordinary size for a long time. Corporate structures can produce new and innovative programs, as Google has done, and continues to do.

More important, however, is the environment which nurtured the development of all the cool stuff. The standard word-processing program is generally the product of a corporate environment, like Microsoft's Word, which is a fine program but not one to generate excitement or buzz.

The excitement and buzz belong to services (for good or ill) like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or Foursquare that came out of nowhere and burst on the scene. Inspiration and dedication, not a grand plan or endless series of committee meetings and approvals, lead to creation. A year ago Foursquare was completing its first round of financing, and now has close to one million users with a stratospheric valuation.

Sometimes those programs are just the beginning of a food chain. Foursquare, which allows users to tell each other where they are at any given time and accumulate points, allows others to use its platform to make even more programs like Mob Zombies, Kickball or Pee-Free. Companies from Starbucks to Harry Caray's tavern in Chicago to Alito's Garage in San Francisco are now jumping on Foursquare as a formal promotional platform. Thousands of other businesses get a jump when Foursquare users frequent those establishments.

All of these new, hip sites spring from the Internet tradition of "innovation without permission." Jack Dorsey at Twitter or Dennis Crowley at Foursquare had good ideas, worked on them, got funding and let them loose on the digital world. It's that attitude and enthusiasm which led to the development of about 200,000 apps even in the "mother-may-I" world of Apple's iPhone app store. There are third-party apps from iBeer to the Stanley tool company sponsoring an app that looks like a level. There are tens of thousands of apps being written for the newer, more open Android. 3DCoche helps you locate your car in a parking lot, while PuzzleQube is, well, a puzzle putting together a cube.

That's a lot of economic activity from the creating to the purchasing. Millions of dollars are being invested in new applications and services. People make their living providing services for the people to reach online. One iPhone app developer made $40,000 - in two days. Others have smaller income, but can still do well.

All of this activity means jobs are constantly being created in the Web space, for entrepreneurs and others. By one government estimate, there were more than 200,000 people working as Web developers in 2008, with the number expected to increase by another 70,000 over the next few years. That job description only skims the surface of the economic opportunity. Every new idea for an application comes with the potential for job creation and growth.

Hold that vision of a bold, creative, risk-taking culture ready for life online. Contrast it with the corporate-driven megalith that is the phone company or the cable company. Their corporate histories are built not on creativity, but on playing regulators and politicians while squashing any competitors that may venture into their sight. Contrast it with the pleas of company executives who lay off thousands of workers while telling gullible members of Congress that new openness rules to fix the mistakes of the past will hurt investment and cost jobs. One has to wonder which investment and which jobs they are talking about.

Are these the people eager to embrace the innovation without permission culture? The ones who say they want to set priorities for Internet traffic? Who want to squeeze money from Web developers for "better" service and have their judgment replace the fundamental equalities of the Internet? Or who hijack browsers or throttle traffic and lie about it?

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) recent decision to approve Verizon's sale about five million telephone lines to Frontier (which will now triple in size) provides some dreadful commentary on the hypocritical "investment" strategy of the phone companies. Only 62 percent of the Verizon lines could carry any broadband, and only half can carry broadband at speeds higher than 3 mbps. Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn said Verizon left a legacy of "poor telecommunications services and broadband access provided by a company that shows little interest in developing its rural business."

In order to gain approval of the transaction, Frontier promised to make certain 85 percent of households had access to 4 mbps broadband by 2015. So Frontier has five years to get its customers up to speed for service that could have/should have been installed by Verizon years ago. Now that's investment.

At the heart of the debate over the open Internet is that intangible which makes the Internet what it has become - the wide-open culture that encourages investment, imagination and innovation. The imagination factor tends to get lost in all of the legal arguments about Title This or Title That and all of the engineering disputes about how much "jitter" is acceptable. For most people, the Internet is not about under which title of the Communications Act the Internet is placed. It's not about jitter or packet prioritization. It's about the feeling of a wide-open space that can never be filled by developers of new services and apps. It's about the wide-open space for consumers looking for things to help inform, amuse, educate, purchase or a thousand other tasks.

There is nothing in the history or current behavior that leads anyone to believe that the telephone companies with their history of control and the cable companies which run their own closed networks will keep the Internet as free and open as it is now. Their executives have long talked about serving up prioritized services that would change the Internet dynamic.

The big communications companies are spending millions on lobbying for a reason, and that reason isn't so the freewheeling Internet culture can exist unimpeded. They want their piece of the action, even if the action isn't theirs to have. Said action will come disguised as "quality of service" or "managed service" or "reasonable network management." If the FCC doesn't act boldly to protect the Internet economy and to safeguard consumers, the great job machine will truly grind to a halt, and the era of Pop Technology will fade away with it.

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