There are some user experience problems that are so glaringly obvious, so ingrained into our daily lives, that we don’t notice them until someone points them out. Connectivity is one of these problems. Yes, we can access the Internet in more places than ever before, but the process of doing so hasn’t changed much since we ditched dial-up modems a decade ago: you turn the Wi-Fi on and off, enter passwords, pair devices, search for a 3G/4G signal, and finally wait for IP addresses to be assigned.
This process sucks--but we've come to accept it as ineluctable. Why don't our devices just choose the best available connection for us and automatically connect to it? Two entrepreneurs--one an engineer who worked on transport mechanisms at Internet2 and BitTorrent, another a VOIP pioneer who founded the first telco to be interoperable with Skype--think they can fix it, but first they’ll need to get consumers and telephone companies to think differently about how we connect. No tall order.
“Routing today is in even worse shape than congestion control was a few years ago,” says Stanislav Shalunov, cofounder and CTO of Open Garden, the company trying to tackle this problem. “I have at home cable, AT&T and Verizon, but any given device must access one or the other or the third, and if one of these connections fails, I have to decide to use a different connection, and the process is pretty painful. If my Verizon phone stops working there is just no way for me to get it to use AT&T's phone’s connection. I can put it on Wi-Fi and use Comcast but not AT&T. This lack of transparency and the need to do things manually is stone age.”
Open Garden’s first product is a piece of software for Mac, Windows, and Android that detects other devices with the software installed in range, connects them via Bluetooth or ad-hoc Wi-Fi networks, and starts routing traffic between their various connections as efficiently as possible.
If anyone understands how inefficiently traffic can move across the web, it’s Shalunov. Before joining Open Garden, he worked at the Internet2 consortium, where he created LEDBAT, a congestion control mechanism that was later used by Apple and BitTorrent, among others, to make transferring large files over the Internet faster in peer-to-peer settings. LEDBAT now carries between 13% and 20% of all traffic moving across the Internet. Shalunov says that much of Open Garden’s vision was inspired by his previous work.
“Many of the ideas in Open Garden are ideas from the peer-to-peer world applied to physical connectivity. In the normal peer-to-peer applications, devices establish a bunch of new connections between each other. These are logical connections. They're TCP or LEDBAT connections. They're not new physical connections. At Open Garden, we take that idea and we use this same set of ideas to establish new physical connections.”
Once it establishes these physical connections, the software then inspects the traffic on each device, recognizes which protocol it's running on, and redirects it through the network best equipped to handle the traffic. Shalunov is understandably coy about how the software figures out how to route this traffic, but the upshot is that even multiple files requested by the same website (say, CSS files from Facebook) might be routed through different network connections before being sent back to the device the request originated from. It does all of this without needing the end user to intervene.
“We remove the whole discovery and pairing process you normally have, so when devices have the app installed, they just interconnect seamlessly and then you can start to share your mobile Internet,” says Micha Benoliel, Open Garden’s cofounder and CEO.
Benoliel wants to take the idea further than just making accessing your own Internet connections easier, however. Open Garden doesn’t just work between your devices. It works when anyone running the company’s applications are in proximity of each other.
“Let's say you're in a space and one of your friends has an access to Wi-Fi you don't. Then you're going to hop onto your friend's device and connect to that Wi-Fi through your friend's device,” says Benoliel. In this way, Open Garden operates more like a mesh network, or as Benoliel puts it, “an abstraction layer” on top of today’s complicated networking and routing setups that just works for consumers who want to be connected, no matter who or where they are.
This idea--that we shouldn’t view the Internet in terms of multiple connections but as one interface that we connect to seamlessly--is wildly subversive in a world where consumers pay through the nose for individual data plans that increasingly include usage caps. So what if their software allows users to get around tethering restrictions and share their bandwidth between devices to avoid hitting caps? Shalunov is openly unapologetic.
“We want to make good connectivity. If some carrier has a broken business model, that's largely unfortunate for them,” he explains. “Good networks actually want to sell you more bytes. You'll be amazed, but they want you to buy more of their product.”
[Image: Flickr user Charles Lam]