Here Comes Trouble: Toward

Vint Cerf’s 1974 TCP-IP specification and Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 World Wide Web proposals remained little more than interesting academic ideas until the ease-of-use advances that arrived with the Mosaic web browser in 1993, which sent the click-to-information Internet jumping from a paltry 500 end points to 10,000 by the end of 1994 and 24 million by 1998. Search engines then arrived to keep the information explosion manageable, with Google indexing a billion pages by 2000 — and 12 billion by 2007. The amazing upward trajectory of the World Wide Web, or what could be referred to as, followed a breakthrough in ease of use, not functionality. Improving ease of use can produce the same results for the Internet as a communication platform, or

Gopher, FTP, and Telnet had long enabled the sharing of information between computers attached to the Internet, but friction associated with poor usability limited interest in the Internet to academia. New users, attracted by browser-based navigation, set in motion a virtuous cycle that got the information Internet off to the races. Growth in users attracted more information providers that in turn attracted new users. By 2007, 1.3 billion people were using the Internet to access information available from 500 million connected computers.

Growth of the Internet remains underwhelming because attaching communication devices (aka IP phones) to the Internet is still an arduous process. Skype won popularity by addressing PC usability challenges, but it is a closed platform and the PC remains problematic for communication. Cisco sells millions of IP phones into the enterprise market each quarter, but only a tiny fraction end up directly accessible via the Internet. Vonage uses open standard SIP-based devices, but Vonage does not peer directly with other VoIP providers. IP phones directly addressable via the Internet still number less than a million 10 years after Selsius Systems created the category.

The Internet communications industry focused virtually all investment over the last decade onto bridging the Internet and telephone network. With an audience already comfortable using telephones, this seemed like a rational approach, and one that forged the most direct route to critical mass — the first Vonage customer enjoyed direct-dial access to every phone on the planet. But this telephone-centric strategy was a failure. It cost the industry the two key value propositions driving the growth of the Internet: unmetered global termination and click-to-call addressing. The nature of the telephone network erases the prospect for an HD voice equivalent to the HD video phenomena sweeping consumer electronics.

A focus on ease of use represents a well-worn path to critical mass already forged by the likes of AOL, Google and YouTube. VoIP needs a Mark Andreessen to unwind complicated device configuration and addressing. Progress may require a helper app model, such as with Apple’s iPod and iTunes. The Internet might copy the authentication value proposition of social networks in which an invite transaction precedes connection. In the case of high value relationships, a communication device that is sufficiently easy to use can reach critical mass by helping only two people to communicate.

Progress toward will get measured as a reduction in the steps required for device setup and clicks required for call setup. The results will get measured like www.domain as a count of attached devices and associated users. Low-cost devices and open standards that the infocom industry needs already exist, but the value proposition still requires significant work. A device that replicates the same experience available from the telephone company for the last 100 years seems unlikely to register with the public as compelling.