This article on Cuban kids building an alternative Internet to connect to each other given the straw-thin connection the country has to the real Internet is straight out of science fiction. For $2K per node, 9,000 nodes are coming together to assemble one of the world's largest LANs right in Havana and they are using it to connect, share, and generally communicate.

It's a good reminder for the rest of us that almost the entire layer cake of Internet protocols from the MAC layer on up can operate in a fully distributed and decentralized way. In an era when everyone uses the word "cloud" liberally to mean "centralized—" whether it be for storage of critical data or for compute cycles— examples of practical decentralization (beyond the 7 TPS possible with Bitcoin) are worth contemplating. Not because there aren't great benefits to running compute centralized in a managed fabric that can scale indefinitely but but because there is an equal if not greater amount of power in knowing that the same technologies can be used independently of the big "stacks" looking to monetize eyeballs or device upgrades and ransoming your data back to you to that very end.

I'm not sure where decentralization goes as far as disruptive technologies that businesses can be built upon but here are a few areas that I think are fertile enough to explore:

  • What does a decentralized sensor network look like in an era where we all carry at least a half dozen sensors within the smartphones in our pockets every day? Can a mesh of these sensors provide localized intelligence for making interesting decisions about things beyond commute traffic? Tornadoes in the midwest of the US and barometric pressure come to mind as does ambient noise and impending danger in urban areas.
  • How does connectivity decentralize if we presume no readily accessible carrier infrastructure? Can devices move to a store-and-forward model for data packets, waiting to be backhauled via WIFI to the Internet? One can imagine all sorts of new applications emerging from the lack of $5/10/20/40 per device per month connectivity tithe, especially if married to suitably low-powered radios.
  • What does it mean to decentralize compute? Already we have seen that the limits of Moore's Law are being addressed with multiple cores on the same server, but if we split workloads among the cores embedded in our phones and other everyday devices, are there inherent advantages to pushing computation to the very edge? [I am way over my skis here] Could one could imagine a series of deep neural networks whose inputs and outputs are made up of distributed processors that aren't living in the same datacenter and therefore do not work as part of one coordinated whole but a bunch of distributed network elements in the real world? There might be no application gains from an architecture like this but how will we know until we try?

I'm not sure that decentralization as a theme works in IT as it seems we've spent the last 30 years trying to put the horse back into the mainframe barn in every domain except for the one that renders the interface at the last mile (the GPU, the capacitive touch screen, the VR/AR glasses, etc.) but as our friends south of Key West remind us in the aforementioned article, it might be something worth exploring.

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We are living in a multi screen world and I don't just mean the size differences from the watch to the iMac, all of them woven together through a layer of notifications that inform us of when we're expected to next check Twitter or like something on Facebook.

No, we are living in a multi screen world that is going to get especially interesting when innovative entrepreneurs start to think of how it might be possible to weave the various different pixel farms together to make us more productive and potentially even to enable new modalities for collaborating or even- creating- in a way that only belonged on the pages of a science fiction novel when the Xerox PARC guys were birthing the interfaces we've all come to know and love over the last three decades.

I don't know how this is going to shake out exactly but I'd bet on a lot of interesting multi screen use cases in the mainstream before I'd bet on AR/VR or even before I'd bet on the demise of any of the existing screens (yes including the desktop). The lame use case is the "second screen" pushed by the cable companies with their smart settop boxes where your mom can call in the middle of the football game which you can pause/DVR from your smartphone. Better still are Handoff/Continuity, but only slightly.

The really interesting stuff will come from new interface modalities where touch surfaces are combined with the precise work that a mouse and a huge display enable. Or where the sensors on a smartphone inform the way content comes together as a group of people work collaboratively. There are so many science fiction use cases, most of which will probably die on the vine, that I'm not even going to enumerate them here. But they will definitely make things more interesting for creators and collaborators alike and I for once can not wait.

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On the new iPads

Apple released its new iPads yesterday and they are totally boring, which is in an of itself not a huge deal. The bigger worry is that the new family of SKUs, covering every price and size from $250 to close to $1000 reminds me of the kind of tasteless shelf stuffing that took place at HP during the years I was there for both PCs and printers.

Here is how it would go: some senior exec from one of the big channel partners (Costco, Staples, BestBuy, Tesco, etc.) would show up with a sales report or market study claiming that the price point between $399 and $499 seemed particularly fertile for some sort of compromised laptop and BAM! a project manager would be assigned to sort out what components to take out of some existing device so that the BOM (bill of materials) would allow a product to exist- totally based on rear view mirror data about sales purchases by the ants crawling through the shelves of the Costco late on Friday night somewhere between the cheeseballs and the lawn equipment.

Apple going this direction is no surprise given their lack of product leadership- adding small features to the rapidly exploding matrix of SKUs and managing product releases to Wall St expectations. The bigger problem though is the way that the ipad third party ecosystem has done so little to invent new experiences in the form of apps that drive the adoption of new and better devices. Almost every developer that I talk to is much more excited about working on the iPhone platform than on the iPad platform and it is a bit sad because in the absence of the iPhone stealing all of the thunder, the iPad would have been, in Alan Kay's words, "what the personal computer should have been."

Without new apps, the iPad will die a long slow death of mediocre corporate decisions filling holes in the product matrix. As I write this on the new version of Drafts 4, with Prompt 2 and Pythonista being the only two apps that have gotten me excited in the last year, I'm not sure we will get there- a purely new class of app targeting the large glass screen, the constant connection to the Internet, and MIPS that are much more about the GPU than the CPU. All of this should make buyers of the new iPad Air 2 feel like those early Apple ][ pioneers who bought it just to run VisiCalc, Star Blazer, and PrintShop.

If you've got one of those apps, I want to talk to you...

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Blogging has completely fallen off my TODO.txt file over the past six months which is too bad as it seems to be such a good way to think aloud about things going on the world of technology and startups.

It's also hard to blog as an investor because you are exposed to two main topics both of which make bad blogging fodder: actual insights that your portfolio companies are using to gain competitive advantage in the market and motherhood-and-apple-pie advice about raising money and startup 101 stuff. Though few founders like their investors to write about the former, many folks like the latter category— fortunately there are a wealth of blogging investors covering the top hacks of the fundraising process.

Having said that, it feels like blogging (or writing online) is changing yet. After Twitter killed RSS and the smarter hosted blog platforms grew some social features (see: Tumblr), there was a large incentive to become a digital sharecropper on someone else's land. Medium stands alone in owning best current community of writers at the moment but distribution is sucked from Twitter for the best of the pieces. In fact Twitter has truly become mass market RSS with all sorts of media types natively surfing the infinite stream. Helped by the explosion of mobile notifications, it is now the de facto message bus for everything that is worthy of getting some of our attention.

Amidst all of this, where does one restart writing online again in 2014? It doesn't feel like it should be here: a self-hosted, custom written Django blog engine from 2007 when it felt like there was still a bunch of experimentation to be done around the core blog format. But alas, I am a bit at a loss as to where to go. Even I was willing to become a digital sharecropper on someone else's property, it feels as though this should come at the benefit of something new and different than massaging a TEXTAREA in the hopes of attracting some rounded avatars to click the Like link.

Will have to do some looking...

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On having been InOCULated

Today Oculus is being acquired by Facebook in a fantastic deal that not only validates the team's vision and hard work but one that will also accelerate their ability to bring an unprecedented VR experience to all of us. There is no way to describe just how amazing the journey has been thus far, but it is fitting to borrow a line from Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash, a book I read 15 years ago in order to be ready for the day Oculus crossed my path:

“See, the world is full of things more powerful than us. But if you know how to catch a ride, you can go places.”

There is no doubt that this has always been the team to solve VR: from the days of Palmer's garage exploits with rubber bands and duct tape to the additions of the legendary John Carmack and supremely talented Atman Binstock— not to mention dozens of other super hackers, PhDs, and game industry veterans along the way. There has always been a ridiculously deep bench to pursue this opportunity. Factor in a CEO who has been fanatical and crystal clear about the product experience he wants to deliver to the market and it’s obvious that these are the folks who will dent the universe.

Timing has also been on Oculus’ side. Leveraging what Chris Anderson, ex-Wired editor, called the "peace dividend of the smartphone wars," with respect to the displays, electronics, and sheer manufacturing capacity available for high quality consumer devices at affordable prices, this exceptional team has come together to make something amazing. There have been other attempts at VR in the past, but only with all of these pieces in place has its time finally come. The fact that the company's DK1, which provides a mere shadow of the experiences yet to come, could sell more units than all other VR headsets combined motivated developers big and small to bet big on what Oculus is planning to deliver.

Most importantly though, and what I've never seen before in my career in the tech industry, is the sheer passion and commitment of the Oculus community. You can see their fervor on the Oculus developer site where questions are asked and answered with a proficiency and passion that belies how early it remains for VR experience creation, to Reddit and HackerNews where support for what the guys are doing borders on rabid. It has inspired employees, developers, and investors alike.

Living online with this level of passion reminds me on a daily basis of Brendan's visit to Cambridge when he was raising his first round of funding. Lugging a huge rolley suitcase with a monster PC and a pair of DK1 goggles that had traveled the length of the country with him, it took all of 3 minutes for me to decide Matrix had to be involved with the project. As Brendan and I walked out into Kendall Square, I happened to look down a side street where another entrepreneur, Edwin Land, started the Polaroid Corporation with a simple guiding principle— one that the entire Oculus team lives by on a daily basis. I have no doubt they share this principle with their new parent:

“Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”

Congratulations Oculus, now get me my metaverse!

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