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The Open Source Column – You can’t have it until we tell you

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While I appreciate that Yuletide stories are rarely welcome at this time of year, any parents out there will be more than familiar with the game that tends to surround the run- up to christmas. I doubt that the festivities just gone were much difference. Basically, the guts of it are this: when a child starts picking things up in a shop from pretty much October onwards (earlier if you’re a particularly skilled parent, unlike me), the easy get-out is to say “put it on your Christmas list”, or “you can’t have that, Father Christmas might have got it for you”. It tends to work better with five-year-olds than 15-year-olds, but I wouldn’t discourage you from giving it a go. There’s always been an incentive of sorts in holding things back. My parents, when we went on holiday, used to save the excursion I really wanted to go on until the last but one day, so I’d have something to look forward to. It didn’t always go to plan, as I do remember one holiday pretty much wishing two weeks away so I could get to the part I really wanted to. But maybe I was just that kind of child.

Reading about the rollout of 4G technologies has left me thinking that people in boardrooms are playing a similar game with us all, though. I’ve been a happy Virgin Media customer and so when its 50Mbps service came around, I signed up immediately. That was a year or two back and it was well known at the time that it had the capacity in its network to get up to 100Mbps. It chose not to, though, as it didn’t see the consumer demand at that stage. It was hard enough getting people to stump up for 50Mbps (not helped by the premium price attached), so 100Mbps was already going to be a stretch. I could have that next Christmas.

In fairness, it didn’t take long to roll that service out afterwards. But reading about how 4G is being deployed, I can’t help but think that things are being held back, to give the likes of Vodafone, EE and O2 something different to sell us in a year or two’s time. It feels a little bit like the urban legend (at least I think it’s an urban legend) of the man who invented a car engine that ran on water, only to be bought out at a cost of tens of millions of pounds by petroleum companies with a very vested interest in the status quo.

There’s very little openness to our communications network, which is troubling, given how many of us depend on it as a basic day-to-day necessity. Instead of giving us available bandwidth and speeds as and when they’re ready, I can’t help thinking we’re going to get them as and when they can be packaged instead. That a PowerPoint presentation and a board meeting is in charge of releasing something that could have a use, if not a financial return, right now.

That’s the problem with sitting where we sit in the technology food chain, though. As I grew older and moved into full-time work, I bought myself one or two things in October and November that once upon a time I would have been told not to. As it turns out, I still enjoyed Christmas. Might it be time then, appreciating my analogy is both terrible and no parallel at all, that important day-to-day technology can be released from the direct or indirect control of big companies who can turn the proverbial tap on as and when they want to?

That, come Christmas 2013, would be the kind of gift I really want to see.

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