Feb 25, 2007

Vint Cerf's talk in Hyderabad




The first thing that I noticed when I reached the Marriott hotel off Hyderabad’s picturesque Tank Bund lake to hear Dr. Vint Cerf as part of the first edition of the Google Speaker Series, was the huge level of security. Bomb squads, private security personnel, metal detectors were all keeping a track of the 600-800 people who had turned up to hear the man who co-wrote the TCP/IP protocol. On enquiring why there was such a huge level of security we were told that Dr. Cerf would be a prime terrorist target and no one wanted to take any chances.

There were a lot of people, considering it was a Friday evening with lots of students from engineering colleges of the city and IT employees from firms like Satyam, ADP, Dell of the city and journalists. Of course, bloggers like yours truly don’t yet get considered as journalists in India, so I could not participate in the separate session later after the talk.

Roy Gilbert, head of Google India Online Sales, introduced the Googler who holds the fancy designation of Chief Internet Evangelist to the audience (view Wikipedia article about Vint Cerf here). He said that the Google Speaker Series would be a quarterly affair and would try to showcase thought leaders (and not necessary Googler thought leaders)


When Vint Cerf finally came on stage, what stood out was how old he is.


Sure one has seen his pictures on the net, and that the founding fathers of the internet was around 63. However to see him in the context of the young Google executives was particularly contrasting.

Vint started off his talk saying how an Indian, Yogen Dalal was instrumental in TCP/IP development in 1974 when he was a graduate student at Stanford ( I did a search and found this narration )

Talking about his work with the Jet Propulsion Lab where he is helping in developing the Interplanetary Internet (as a matter of fact, the project is not Google work, but something that Google allows him to pursue) he wryly remarked “You must have heard about the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), well that’s because we haven’t succeeded in finding much intelligence in this planet !”

Joking about his designation he said “Well, I wanted to be called an Archduke or something, but then the folks at Google told me that the last Archduke was assassinated in the early twentieth century and that started the first world war. So therefore I dropped that demand and decided that evangelist would do just fine”

He started off with the presentation which chronicled the growth of the internet over the last 10 years from 50 million users in 1997 to an estimated 1039 million in January 2007.

Cerf’s contention was that the further growth of the internet would be in the domain of the mobile phone and the majority of the new users will first experience the internet through that device, which is quite different from PDAs and laptops and therefore has implications and challenges for application providers like Google.

He showed another slide which showed that Asia is the largest proportion of internet users. “As Asia’s influence online increases, the languages, applications, demographics and economics of the internet will be impacted by what you and your countrymen in India and other Asian countries deem interesting”

Africa’s internet penetration is very low and infrastructure would need to be deployed to help increase the percentage.


Then he started talking about the structure of the internet and thankfully for people like me, made it sound simple. Talking about the Internet Protocol that he made with Robert Kahn he said “Bob and I wanted the internet to be future proof, and therefore it was a dumb network. Earlier networks were bound to switching technologies like TV, radio, Telephone networks and were very vertical and could therefore be regulated easily. However the internet cut them all very horizontally”

IP does not care what transport mode is used (satellite, fibre, radio..) and does not care what application it is carrying (video, audio, web, email, IM…) and therefore it had a profound impact on regulatory models.


The challenges for the internet

“The IPv4 can hold 4.3 billion web addresses with a 32 bit address base, however at the current trend the number of unique addresses will run out by 2010, and therefore IPv6 will need to be used which will supply more addresses”

“Broadband is very asymmetrical now. You can download fast but uploading is slower. Therefore video communication through the internet has not taken off. Users will soon insist on broadband symmetry.”

“When Bob and I visualized the internet we had a simple model in mind, that all computers would be connected to all other computers. That however does not work in commercial terms. Organizations need to have VPNs, Firewalls and those were not built into the basic architecture of the internet. If we had to make the internet today we would incorporate that into the basic architecture”

He went along to talk about security implications and admitted that there are no good answers for them.

He said that he did not ever think how the internet would push a new user oriented paradigm where users share, discover, transact, announce, share, collaborate and produce (mentioned blogging in this context  ). Self service by users at Amazon, Fedex, TiVo, Image and Video sharing and communities of interest like MySpace, World of warcraft, Second Life. He talked about the use of the internet to aggregate thin markets (though he did not use the term “the long tail”  )

The future

  • “We don’t have semantic networking or search. Tim Berners Lee is working on semantic tagging that will understand if you mean to search for jaguar the car or jaguar the animal”
  • “We have to move to time and location as organizing paradigms of data.”
  • “What can we do about information decay?” As an example he shared an example “Suppose you are in the year 3000 and you have discovered a presentation written in 1997 using MS Power Point. Let’s say you have MS office 3000 running on whatever machine you have. But can you read it now? Will we need to preserve bits, software, OS and hardware to read old digital information?”

Then he started talking about uses of internet enabled devices like refrigerators, clothing, bathroom scales along with technologies like RFID all connected to the internet.

After that he talked about his work with the Jet Propulsion Lab and developing an interplanetary internet protocol and the challenges of transmitting data over planetary distances “Mars for example is closest to Earth at 3 light minutes and farthest at 20 light minutes.”

Some interesting questions that the audience asked were:

How does he see internet penetration increasing in the rural areas?

“One answer is by mobile phones, except that a lot of such phones are not equipped with GPRS. The other answer would be a reasonable regulatory and financial incentive for a municipal broadband by floating a municipal bond, except that the market is not developed for municipal bonds in India. So it’s not very easy to answer that question.”

How can the internet be accessible for people with disabilities

“We are experimenting with colors for people with color blindness, specially in reading maps. For deaf people we are seeing if video subtitling and captioning can be possible. Speech as a medium to interact with the network will overcome not just barriers like blindness but illiteracy as well. Lots of researchers are working on such answers.”

Why did he choose to join Google?

Why Google? “Well I get to raise the average age, and hopefully not lower the average IQ.
" I have worked all my life in the infrastructure of the internet. Now I want to work in the application space.”

On whether internet can help in reducing poverty?

“I wish, but at the most it can help farmers use to get better prices like e-choupal is doing or to access and deliver work that you could not do earlier like outsourcing is doing. The internet is just a tool and not a magic wand to make our troubles go away”