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Friday, April 08, 2005

Scale-Free Networks, Email, & The Mobile Internet

Howard Rheingold writes about scale free networks. Using e-mail rather than SMS as the messaging medium for mobile phones has made mobile Internet services in Japan more successful than in the West, says an industry expert - a claim supported by recently discovered mathematical properties of networks. Excerpts with edits and comments:

"E-mail was a great enabler of mobile Internet in Japan, and there is a fundamental mathematical reason for this," claimed Ville Saarikoski, a Finn who lived in Japan when i-mode was launched and former head of mobile R&D for Sonera. E-mail networks, he noted, have the unique structure of "scale-free" or "small world" networks, while the potential connectivity between nodes of SMS networks are far more highly constrained - it takes much longer, with many more hops, to travel across networks that do not have scale-free distribution. If he's right - future mobile Internet services that enable the formation of scale-free networks could be far more successful than services that don't allow people to grow networks of that form. Scale-free network shows, from neurons to power grids, are made of a relatively few highly interconnected hubs and a majority of weakly connected nodes; this ratio remains the same no matter how large the network grows, hence, "scale-free."
Saarikoski says Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma and Hargadon's How Breakthroughs stimulated him. Christensen demonstrated how even the best-established companies can fail if they don't pay attention to "disruptive technologies" that could make their products or services obsolete. Hargadon argued that breakthrough innovations are created by bridging distinct social networks, defining technology as people, ideas and objects and underlines the importance of keeping ideas alive.Saarikoski explains that by combining these theories he originated the hypothesis: " I bridged the japans and finnish market insights into two and came up with eighteen disruptive possibilities within the mobile environment and relating to the mobile Internet. The next step was to make sense of the opportunities. The relevance of e-mail emerged from this material. Comparing e-mail with SMS fits beautifully into Christensen's framework - e-mail is a disruptive possibility in mobile. And the pattern of scale-free networks emerged from the same interview material."

Scale-free networks like the Internet are very robust in the face of broad attack - you can still traverse the network in a small number of hops if a large number of nodes are taken out of action, as long as a sufficient number of hubs remains. In such networks, an innovation at one node - can very rapidly spread to all the nodes, transforming the functional capabilities of the network itself. SMS connects people very inefficiently. Those who design future services would do well to search for more efficient ways of connecting people. Mobile e-mail not only connects people more efficiently, but its integration with the Web is key. Perhaps the most important property of scale-free telecom networks is the property that enables them to evolve: innovations in scale-free networks can spread incredibly fast through the entire network. "Mobile operators have been obsessively focused on the agreements between a small number of players in a 'value chain.' They need to think in terms of networks, not chains".Powerful idea indeed.Worth pondering over.

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Sadagopan's Weblog on Emerging Technologies, Trends,Thoughts, Ideas & Cyberworld
"All views expressed are my personal views are not related in any way to my employer"