As much as Nicholas Negroponte may occasionally annoy with his starry-eyed pontification, the founder of MIT's Media Labs never ceases to pull rabbits out of his hat that are far more interesting than those conjured by, say, George Gilder. At Motorola's Smart Networks Developers Forum earlier this month, Negroponte expressed a jaundiced view of Europe's handling of a couple of sacred cows-3G and wireless LANs. But I found his observations on embedded Internet Protocol routing equally fascinating.
Negroponte figures that the slow migration of WLANs from hot spots to multihop ad hoc piconets is only the first step in a move to self-organized global routing. A variety of last-mile technologies, from MMDS to free-space optics, could be used as the base points for router nodes that propagate out from the cellular handset to inhabit everything from Lego Mindstorm bricks to Barbie dolls.
I know, you're thinking you've heard this before. When Internet Protocol researcher Christian Huitema was on a global proselytizing mission for IP Version 6 five or six years ago, he touted the need to expand the address base by insisting that every refrigerator must have an IP address. Analyst Michael Slater answered him in these pages, saying that he wasn't sure he wanted his refrigerator to report to the local distributor how much rocky-road ice cream was consumed in the last week.
But those models were based on embedded IP serving primarily a registration and polling role, a sensible goal in a model where the IP-enabled chain saw didn't have to function as a multiservice switch. By contrast, Negroponte sees the global backbone in far more flux than once assumed, particularly given the bankruptcy of major carriers. If Nokia already is pushing WLAN users from simple hot spots to wireless meshes, why can't hierarchies of wireless meshes exist everywhere? Why can't Barbie route the family's packet traffic while she's downloading a new language from the local Barbie World server?
Sure, there are limitations to this vision. If quality of service was tough in a traditional multihop domain, it becomes untenable in a multiplicity of meshes. But maybe streaming video could be relegated to the residential broadband connection, while best-effort traffic travels over a mesh of chain saws and Barbie dolls, all talking to one another like something out of Toy Story.
In that environment, Cisco would have more to fear from Mattel, Sony and Black & Decker than it does from Juniper.