Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ad-Hoc Networks - Got Your Ears On, Good Buddy?

When I was getting my J.D. (1994-1997), laptops in the classroom were not unheard of, but not by any means commonplace. By the time I went back for my LL.M. at Cardozo, laptops were pretty much de rigeur, and my initial insistence on taking notes by hand (I eventually gave in to the dark side, for various reasons) flagged me clearly as old-school, emphasis on "old."

That plethora of laptops exists outside of school, as well. I doubt I need to belabor the point to anyone reading this in a Starbucks, or most libraries, or any number of public spaces in your standard issue metropolitan area; just look around. And it goes pretty much without saying that the overwhelming majority of these laptops are equipped with WiFi connectivity.

Now, if you want to see the future of things, stop calling them laptops. Call them nodes.

There's lots of coolness tucked away in the internets, but at the core, one of the truly big ideas of the internet was the shift from a one-to-one model to the many-to-many model. This is true both on the technical, file transfer level - a single file going from point A to point Z will pass, in whole or in part, through many systems and connections besides the ones leading directly out of A or into Z - and on the level of content - in that theoretical Starbucks you're sitting in, you (and hopefully some others) are reading a blog, and the tattooed hipster sipping his latte next to you is writing a blog, and the barrista is wondering if her YouTube video's gotten any views, and that little girl who just came in with her father is planning her next MySpace post, etc.

In simple terms, any computer (technical level) or site (content) on the net is (or could be) having a lot of simultaneous conversations with a lot of other computers/users/sites/whatever.

That's all well and good. But the many-to-many model is only accurate a few steps away from the edge of that famous internet cloud we all know and love. (Much cooler image.) At the very edge, it's still a very limited conversation: your computer talks to your router, and your router talks to your ISP.

The idea of tweaking that model to fix (read: interconnect) the endpoints - mesh computing - isn't, strictly speaking, a new one. (In fact, one of the best features of the $100 Laptop is it's out-of-the-box mesh capability.) (click the little computers to prick up their ears, drag 'em to move them around.)

But I'm blogging it now because I just stumbled upon WiPeer. (There's a hat-tip that belongs here, but I don't remember who gets it.) I dropped it on my laptop, did a quick install, and within a few minutes I had my ears on. This was the first application that I've encountered that moves the mesh idea forward with such a low transaction cost on entry.

That is, I'm fairly tech-savvy, but even I'm a little chary of messing with my networking and wireless settings. Moreover, if I'm going to be a part of this experiment, I don't really want to sacrifice anything for it; I don't want it to interfere with my computing experience, my regular networking, etc. And I'm not installing anything with adware, spyware, annoying-ware, intrusive-ware, or really anything-ware. And I kind of don't want to think too hard about the installation process or settings, either.

WiPeer - with whom I am not affiliated in any way - seems to fit the bill. And while it's not open source, I can't imagine that the protocol is so abstruse as to prevent clever third parties from developing clever manipulations of the system. One of the first I can imagine is sharing an internet connection among meshed computers. (Go back and look at the one laptop per child demo, but keep the laptop on the far right (near the globe) "deaf" until the end)

But why am I noting this here? What's the IP import of the evolution of a true mesh?

Basically this is just a peek inside the can of worms. Think about how my laptop becoming a server changes the way the law looks at me. Am I an ISP? A (protected) internet router? an end-user? Do I deserve DMCA safe-harbor? If you're in that Starbucks right now, and paid the $10 for the day pass to use the T-Mobile wireless there, and then you mesh with a few other laptops there and they piggyback on your bandwidth... what if the aforementioned tattooed, latte-sipping, blogging hipster is (a) downloading music illegally, (b) uploading porn, (c) uploading kiddie-porn, (d) posting a crypto algorithm to an internationally available message board, (e) hacking into military systems?

What about file sharing within the local mesh? Take "Jack My IPod" to the next level. Or what about mesh-casting (I made that word up), where I can have music come through your computer instead of the radio on my shelf? What counts as "publishing" something now?

So that's the can of worms. And it's starting to open. It's going to be a mess, but it looks to be pretty cool, too.

--Ben D. Manevitz

[PostScript: It turns out that "meshcasting" isn't completely my neologism, but I don't think the results of the linked Google search (on 3/30/2007) demonstrates usage with the meaning I've given it.]

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