By Jeff May
There's a moment in Woody Allen movies when it becomes clear that the actors are all talking like the director. Something similar has been happening at telecommunications conferences this year, except people are starting to sound like David Isenberg.
Isenberg, 49, is a former AT&T labs researcher who rose to prominence last year with a provocative essay titled "The Rise of the Stupid Network." Its premise was simple: AT&T's Intelligent Network and other centralized, circuit-switch systems were built to serve a world that will soon cease to exist - one in which voice calls are king, and the goal is to cleverly manage limited resources to connect them. Isenberg concluded that the new Internet-based networks will be dumb brutes built to handle the transfer of huge amounts of data - of which voice will be but a part - with control exercised by users of the system, not Its designers.
That sounded heretical a year ago when Isenberg was still employed by the nation's biggest phone company, but a lot has changed since then. AT&T Chairman C. Michael Armstrong, in decreeing Internet-based networks as the company's future, has cited many of the same trends that Isenberg discussed. And so, it seems, has everyone else.
At a forum sponsored by New Jersey regulators last month, Federal Communications Commission member Michael Powell talked about how "the brains are now on the outside" of networks. "The world is going from the control of the few to the hands of mIllions," he sald.
Sitting in the audience, Isenberg smiled like a cat just served a canary.
"He got it," he exulted later. "He got it so entirely and so completely that I felt I had had quite an impact."
The essay also had a deeply personal impact on Isenberg, ending his 12-year association with AT&T. He now works as a consultant - or "Prosultant," in his more upbeat formulation - out of his Westfield home, writes a column for a trade magazine and is in demand as a conference speaker.
The departure now seems foreordained, because the essay was as much a critique of AT&T's bureaucratic hierarchy as it was of its network. The problem with the Intelligent Network, Isenberg discovered as a member of the company's True Voice research team,
was that too many bells and whistles were scattered through the system. Upgrades required synchronization of a bewildering number of microprocessors, gadgets and the like, which made innovations a daunting task.
It was the same thing with the corporate structure: Good ideas got gummed up in layers of management. Isenberg, a biologist by training, took a scientific interest in the corporate culture - but that didn't mean he had to like it. A Dilbert fan, he began penning his own cartoon of management foibles called "The Official Future." He also pushed to have his department named Opportunity Discovery Department, or ODD.
"I wanted something that sounded more like a rock-and-roll band," he said.
But for someone who wanted to pursue the "big picture" like his father, a scientist who did early work on DNA, it was only a matter of time before he left the AT&T mother ship. In Isenberg's Zen-like philosophy of networks, the answers at the center of things lie at the edge. To see big, you have to go small.
Of course, there was a lot of messy stuff before Isenberg could reach that point. He wrote his essay in a feverish summer weekend a year ago, and got an unexpectedly strong response once it was posted on the Internet, with AT&T's permission. But the real onslaught came when Computer Telephony, a trade magazine, published it a few weeks later over his objections.
"I was very concerned that I would be fired," he said.
There were mixed reactions to the essay within AT&T, and Isenberg grew increasingly uncomfortable about his place there. Those feelings crystallized when he asked to speak at a conference by technology guru George Gilder and was told he couldn't.
"That was when I decided to leave," he said.
Gilder, it turned out, had developed a similar theory of "dumb networks," although Isenberg was not aware of it when he wrote his essay. The two became friends, and Isenberg helped organize a forum by Gilder at Stevens Institute in Hoboken scheduled for this Thursday.
Isenberg formed his firm, isen.com, in January and admits it was slow going at first. He works in a first-floor room, surrounded by his three cats and heaps of communications periodicals.
"I've had moments of sheer terror," he said. "In the first couple months, I would have trouble catching my breath."
Things have picked up since. In a stretch from September to November, he was only home two weeks, he said.
Isenberg said he misses the camaraderie at AT&T, and wishes his old colleagues well. But he is pessimistic about the company's future: Its best hope, he says, is to be a "fast follower" of innovators. It is simply too big to lead the charge itself, he said. -.
Not everyone is enamored with his analysis. Dan Sheinbein, AT&T's vice president of network architecture and development, said Isenberg ignores the fact that the new networks will have plenty of intelligence built in.
"Cisco's routers are pretty smart," he said, referring to one of the leading manufacturers of Internet-based networking equipment, Cisco Systems.
And while "The Stupid Network" has become a catch phrase of sorts in the networking community, Sheinbein says it gets little attention within AT&T these days. "Other than his writing his paper and the interesting commentary that resulted soon thereafter, it's not been a particularly active area of discussion," Sheinbein said.
Isen.com and Stevens Institute will host "The Telecosmic Future" with George, Gilder Thursday from 4-7 p.m. Registration is $300. For more information call isen.com at (908) 389-0177
Date last modified: 17 Dec 98