Fast fiber: Apps coming at 70 percent the speed of light

No Google Fiber? No problem -- at least not for developers, some of whom are already writing apps for the coming Gigabit Ethernet world.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
7 min read
Iron Man 3 may have some inconsistencies that upset residents of Chattanooga, Tenn., but the way that Tony Stark uses the Gigabit Verizon Fios pipeline to crunch numbers is dead on. Disney/Marvel

In the movie "Iron Man 3," the titular hero struggles in what appears to be a rinky-dink backwater town to find an Internet connection fast enough and big enough to crunch data to find the terrorist villain. The town looks to be Nowhere, U.S.A., but we're told, it is actually Chattanooga, Tenn.

Known to some as "Gig City," the real Chattanooga would have posed less of a problem for Tony Stark's heroic data-analyzing needs. The modest city of half a million has more than 150,000 homes wired for affordable Gigabit Internet.

But the coming world of extremely fast Internet connections is driving more than summer movie plot points. Widespread Gigabit Internet of the kind that Google Fiber, Verizon FiOS, and others companies are investing in, and is in varying stages of implementation in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah, will eventually revolutionize the current upper bounds of data transfer.

At its simplest, said Will Barkis, the Gigabit developer evangelist and project leader on Mozilla's Ignite developer's challenge, widespread Gigabit Internet will speed up everything we do, from improving health care to enhancing manufacturing to optimizing public transportation.

"The limit on Gigabit fiber is like 0.7 the speed of light. Gigabit speeds get you in the realm of Holodeck-level perceptual experience," he said. "Very quickly we'll see things that are just better."

While that may sound like utopian pablum, the Ignite contest has some serious goals. Preeminent among those is to get developers thinking about a world that offers connection speeds that we would consider wasteful by today's standards. What can be accomplished when you're not concerned with size of the data pipeline?

Gigabit has the potential to touch every aspect of daily computing. Basics, such as Web site or streaming content buffering, will become a thing of the past, as will the data transfer bottleneck that is the cause of much frustration. Pages will load, Barkis said, "with a blink."

"The feeling of the Web becomes very transparent," he predicted. "Things will emerge that are just not possible."

Gigabit in the library David LaCrone is the Kansas City Public Library's sole digital branch manager. In the public library world, you only need one digital branch, and one manager, per library system.

But because he works for Kansas City, which has a rapidly-growing Gigabit Internet network provided by Google Fiber, LaCrone straddles a peculiar moment in Internet history. He's presiding over possibly the world's first Web-based Software Lending Library, which will be ready to use in Kansas City soon, but, if successful, could provide a roadmap for how other libraries will adapt to the Gigabit age once they get their low-latency pipelines.

Much like the current digital books, music, and film that are offered by many public libraries, the Software Lending Library would allow people to remotely check out software titles hosted by the library for limited periods of time. Remote desktop software is notorious today for running a remote computer significantly slower than on a local machine, but Gigabit transfer speeds would allow people to borrow titles as complex as Photoshop with ease. Planned launch titles for the lending library cover the high end of productivity: Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Premier.

"A program like Photoshop or Illustrator, you can actually run those via remote desktop over Fiber and have a pretty good experience," LaCrone said. As for the licensing issue, he confessed that it's "one of the later steps."

The Software Lending Library, a Kansas City Public Library project, relies on Google Fiber. Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

With high-profile software like Photoshop, pirating becomes an immediate issue. LaCrone emphasized that much of the Software Lending Library is still under development. Checking out a title will require a library card and a PIN, and he implied that some kind of DRM -- commonplace for public libraries that lend titles digitally -- is likely.

LaCrone hopes that the Software Lending Library will change how lower-income people interact with software. "Some may only use Google Docs and never get their hands on Photoshop." The Software Lending Library, he said, "democratizes the access to the software."

From education to science Educators stand to be big winners from widespread Gigabit, which Mozilla's Barkis estimates could cost $150 billion to wire the entire U.S. with fiber-optic cable.

Ole Lutjens, the chief creative officer and co-founder at MX, a creative studio and production agency mashup, is betting on the educational benefits. "What if our learning experience could be as cool as 'Call of Duty'? If you can get a kid away from Angry Birds, then you have a winner," he said.

MX is working on a project called the Collaborative Science Learning Environment. Cizzle, as the name is abbreviated to, builds layered science environments.

Lutjens explained it as a single app, such as Cizzle's Solar System, that's been designed in 3D that can easily scale to assist educators, depending on the ages of their students. A preschool teacher could use the app to talk about the colors of the planets, while older students would use it to learn about planet size, distances, or gravity as appropriate.

Since the app's code is open, he said, it can even be used to teach how to build similar or complex Web sites. Gigabit, Lutjens said, is essential to learning because it allows app makers to create immersive experiences.

"If it's immersive, it's a lot easier for the brain to learn. The user experience is a huge factor in this," he said, pointing out that Wii's, iPads, and PlayStations create the kinds of enveloping experiences that the coming Gigabit speeds will help Web developers achieve.

Huge data from the stars At its core, the promise of Gigabit Internet is that it lets you transfer massive amounts of data incredibly fast. That appeals to scientists, who are developing new ways to create shockingly large amounts of data seemingly overnight.

The interactive, scalable solar system constructed in Cizzle. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

We're not talking about tens or even hundreds of gigabytes of data at once. "The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will create 3,700 GB of data per night" as it records the night sky above Chile, said Amit Kapadia, a developer for the crowd-sourced "citizen science" platform Zooniverse. That's more than 787 single-sided DVDs worth of data every night.

By contrast, the Hubble telescope generates only 18 DVDs of data per week.

That much data will require Gigabit connections to be quickly sent to storage servers, but those same connections will allow scientists to begin to work collaboratively in ways that they haven't before.

Kapadia's app, called Luminosity, is designed to help astronomers analyze the massive datasets that telescopes generate.

Luminosity leverages the modern Web, meaning HTML5 application programming interfaces, JavaScript libraries such as astro.js, and WebGL. In that way, it's no different from the other Ignite competitors. Citing the common case of two researchers collaborating on a project from across the globe, Kapadia said that Gigabit speeds would accelerate their workflow.

Browser-based, real-time astronomy analyses could become a reality with Luminosity. Luminosity

"Using upcoming technologies like WebRTC, I could take a very complex image, very hi-def, and we could apply different mathematical algorithms to it together," he said.

It also raises another question: How will scientists analyze all those bits before Gigabit speeds become the norm?

Turns out, a bit of Web trickery will be involved. Instead of the Gigabit pipeline shooting the changes back and forth in real-time, one scientist's computer would act as a server, so that the changes from a remote source were only going in one direction.

"You can still build up collaborative workflow," said Kapadia, "but you'd lose a bit of the real-time aspect."

Apps before infrastructure While places like Chattanooga may crow about their own functional Gigabit Internet, developers know that to be successful the pace of Gigabit adoption must improve.

Bill Brock, the managing director of Engage3D, a Gigabit app project designed to stream video uncompressed with additional depth information provided by the Microsoft Kinect's infrared sensor, expressed concern that the pace of app development will far outstrip the end-user's access to Gigabit speeds.

"It was cool to see the entrepreneurial activity in Kansas City, but they were at a critical mass ready to bust anyway. It's hard to build these applications without widespread adoption," he said.

By contrast, he explained, Chattanooga has already begun to see the impact of the improved Gigabit infrastructure. The city has its residential fiber network, and a "cutting-edge" smart grid network. "There's no more blackouts," Brock said.

And in the current war between native apps and Web apps, Brock thinks that Gigabit speeds could determine the victor. From the 3D visualizations and modelling that are being attempted across nearly every major discipline, to just simply making browser apps faster by getting data to them faster, Gigabit could be the browser's secret weapon by exploding the amount of data the browser can handle.

None of which can happen, though, until more communities get Gigabit. "Even in Kansas City, they just passed 3,000 homes a month ago. The infrastructure just isn't there," said Gigabit advocate Barkis.

When it comes to app development, though, Brock was cautiously optimistic. "We have this really big hammer that's looking for a problem," he said. "As far as development goes, it's gotten cheaper and easier."

The developers are well on their way to having their apps of the future built. Problem is, they're still waiting for a place to go.

Update 3:42 p.m. PT on June 20: Corrected references to Gigabit Internet, which can transfer data at approximately 1 gigabit-per-second speeds between networks.