Cybiko, Amazon Ring, and Briar

What do a short-lived early 2000s teen-centric PDA, a novelty doorbell, and a privacy focused messaging app all have in common? Clearly they’re all intended for very different markets.

The answer, of course, must then be universal. And that answer is network redundancy.

Modern History 101

Cybiko kicked off the idea in the year 2000, marketing a device that was typical of the style of the day, i.e. brightly colored, translucent, and sporting fewer straight lines than a fun house mirror. So, you know, everything that most people reading this wax nostalgic over today.

Of course, cell phones weren’t really a "thing" at the time and the ones that existed were pretty expensive and had limited "minutes" that you’d use up pretty quickly on most plans. How did Cybiko get around this? By banking on there being enough of them to form an ad-hoc network wherever teens congregated. Cybiko used the very common 900MHz band already in use by cordless phones and walkie-talkies, which some of you may vaguely recall as that thing that was like a cell phone that you had to leave at home or it wouldn’t work and those things that were like a cross between a cell phone and a pair of cans on a string with worse sound quality, respectively, due to the band being basically unregulated. To get out to the wider Internet, at some point a Cybiko had to reach someone who left theirs plugged into a PC in a special mode that would make your house the least egged on the block, or otherwise be plugged in, but in a mode that meant you could use it as anything more than a public access point.

Within that ad-hoc network, though, you could do basically everything, allowing for in-network email, file sharing (including games!), public chat, multiplayer gaming, filling out the "about me" and "about you" pages to ping you with vibration and sound when you got in range of a match including image sharing for your stated interest from business to romance (with the same color depth as a Game Boy with less vertical resolution before you get too excited about the romance potential of the images), and various other functions that leveraged the collective knowledge of the pool as it stood, or even may have somehow reached one someone forgot to take that morning to download new games or send actual honest-to-God email to someone outside the network rather than it all being queued until you wired it up at home, because no, email is not and has never been real-time (that’s the point due to network unreliability).

"Somehow" being the key word here, unfortunately, because the range was a fraction of what was advertised. It would certainly work in an apartment complex, but even canvasing a neighborhood was likely a sketchy proposal. Supposedly it had an outdoor range of 300 feet and indoor of 150 feet, but practical field testing shows outdoor line of sight range to be a paltry 6 feet downtown and more like 50 in less cluttered areas. Something tells me the marketing oversold it assuming there would be so many out there no one would notice, or else the bandwidth is so cluttered these days that it’s unable to pierce through. In practical terms, landlines are so uncommon in homes and Bluetooth is so much more common for headsets even in office settings that I can’t imagine there are any more sources of clutter in this spectrum than there were 20 years ago. Still, 50 feet isn’t anything to sneeze at for something like a school and the 30 channels (which, the 900MHz band has 30 channels; this wasn’t specially engineered) could carry 100 devices each for a whopping 3000 in the same pool, which would neatly cover a mall or high school. Since passthrough happened regardless of channel, as long as someone was standing halfway between the first 1595 in a record-smashing 55-tier human pyramid and the other 1404 in quantum superposition, theoretically it would connect all of them, though in practice I’m sure it would benefit most from a more diffuse mesh.

The ideas were good. In absence of a wider infrastructure, forming a mesh network of devices was a brilliant idea ultimately held back by the hardware just not being very fast or having nearly the range it needed. For that and many other reasons, it soared too close to the sun and crashed roughly a year later as cell phones came out with affordable family plans and text messages, both of which made the "drop it and you’ll break the floor" Nokia brick and later flip phones the communication method of choice and reverse arguments between teens and the parents gifting them a cell phone the hilarious commercials of the day, with later family arguments centered around irate mothers pulling little ticking "minutes" out of the trash and mixing them up in front of other teenagers to demonstrate that rollover minutes were just as good. Seriously, the commercials were legitimately pretty great. But for all the PDA features, games of varying quality, Rolodex and business apps, journaling, and frankly awesome chat the Cybiko offered for less that the price of a Texas Instruments graphing calculator with similar horsepower, all facilitated by a phone signal, there were 2 things it didn’t offer: a graphing calculator app and phone calls. Unless you had some saint nearby who acted as a local gateway to the Internet, and by "nearby" I mean "in the computer lab, Hot Topic, or against the front bedroom wall in a relatively compact suburb at most with everyone home for the night," you weren’t communicating outside of your own general area and in no way were you doing it by voice regardless. Cybiko was not a phone and didn’t pretend to be; what it was was an affordable PDA back when Blackberries were the thing to have and a suite of features that made it a precursor to social media like MySpace and Gaia Online back in ye olden days when Gaia actually had dating features, beating both to market by 3 years. If anything it was literally everything the cell phones of the time weren’t and nothing they were, which made it immediately lose value when cell phones got messaging capabilities and reasonably priced. It was an ahead of its time answer to questions that hadn’t been asked yet and a contemporary teen-centric answer to a product that likewise fell by the wayside as soon as cell phones took off unless you were a high-power business professional.

But while the PDA only had a few moments in the sun, the idea of a redundant network was never a bad one. Amazon certainly felt it was important for their Ring video doorbells and Echo line of smart listening devices. Turns out when you want to create a mass surveillance system (yes, Ring and Alexa both qualify and are sending data back to Amazon 24/7), convincing people they’re fun and useful is a way to get them everywhere and if you can make all your devices talk to each other directly, you’ll probably eventually reach someone with Internet regardless of what line gets cut. This idea isn’t unique to Amazon (there are security camera light bulbs designed for airports that do basically the same thing), it’s just uniquely disguised as one for consumers. They call it "Sidewalk" because what’s friendlier than that? Or more accurately, what part of your front yard can anyone walk through without it sounding weird? Because it certainly isn’t your azaleas. That’s right, Amazon basically made their own way to cut through everyone’s yard and like shoveling in winter, they’ve offloaded maintenance onto the owners with the promise that they’re only going to steal a certain amount of your Internet data every month, which is probably the only thing that kept Comcast customers with their data caps from burning down Amazon HQ, though technically speaking it’s still far more of your upload than advertised because upload is usually far less than your download in the US.

In the polar opposite corner, Briar seeks to provide privacy in your communications, particularly for political reasons as mass surveillance becomes more and more common in countries like (*checks notes*) everywhere all while politicians who don’t even know how pinch-to-zoom works are making decisions on whether a text message gets the same legal protection as what you say in your own home and whether what you say in your own home is even protected with Alexa around. Privacy isn’t just about doing something wrong; it’s about whether you really want the government in your bedroom or your rants about work being available to your boss for less per month than you make per hour, because there are absolutely sites for that and privacy means Verizon isn’t selling them your text messages. If you wouldn’t project it onto the side of a building in Times Square, that’s private. Big businesses and the government all want that to end for different reasons and frankly every time the government says encryption is bad, criminals rejoice, because unlike the dusty bureaucrats, criminals are tech savvy and know exactly what they’re going to do with the gift.

Briar is basically its own budding social network and ultimately is in part the Cybiko dream: ad-hoc communications on a mobile device (currently only Android) that can act locally and eventually reaches the wider Internet by way of one or more people who eventually have access. In practical terms, it makes its hops using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and can reach the wider world at some point using cellular signal, though I’d hate to be anyone with a data cap.

Home, home on the limited range

The problem of course is that these things aren’t going to do much on a farm where you don’t have reliable data in the first place, but at the same time, rural infrastructure is a major issue in the US. If it would work in any respect between the house and the barn, it would at least be something for if the one tower that barely reaches is on the fritz in the rain, but honestly the range makes that unlikely without a Powerline Wi-Fi extender provided the barn is using the same electrical system as the house (it very well might be). Even having Wi-Fi is a bit of an ask for people who have been so digitally left behind that broadband has become a party platform this election season. Like, all I have to say on that is ABOUT TIME, but that doesn’t fix the fact that not having anything but dial-up until now still means many people are on Windows 95 and are in no way prepared to take advantage of broadband much less get that fancy.

In terms of a city or suburbs, it’s more reasonable, if enough people are on board. Urban areas just have the density to make an ad-hoc network work and you never know when you might need it. Preparation is something you do beforehand because by the time it becomes relevant, if it’s not already in place, you go without, and you can’t always afford to go without. If there’s anything city folk can learn from rural folk, it’s certainly that.

It’s really for that reason that I would recommend Briar to anyone who lives in town, any town, even if you don’t think you need it. The more people using it, the more likely it is that people will be able to communicate if a line gets cut or the power goes out. You never know what might happen with a tree limb in a storm or whatever might happen in the places that get snow. Believe me, a heavy snow can wreak absolute havoc and leave many, many people without power, heat, or Internet. I’ve been in a white-out blizzard huddled in front of candles as the temperature drops in my house, charging my phone with an emergency crank flashlight that has a weather radio built in. When you live somewhere that gets real winter, you have to prepare like that. A tornado can cause massive destruction. A bad thunderstorm can shut down parts of a major city for days. I’ve been there, too. Basically no matter where you go in the US, natural disasters can happen. Crews can only work so fast to restore service. Sometimes crews can’t even start on it until the worst is over and cleanup has begun.

"Okay, but…"

You might ask something like "what about criminals using Briar?" I understand there are people you don’t want to enable. There are people I don’t want to enable, either. But privacy in itself is not criminal and criminals already have their own tools that do similar things. And I guarantee they’re not using Briar, because you’re never going to hear about what they use; it’s going to be something only they know about and it’s probably going to look for all the world like a Facebook or Twitter that everyone has unless you know how to use it because that’s how they hide. Briar is one that anyone can use; you may as well get yours if they’re going to have theirs. Briar is honest about what it is, even if you’re not totally on board with Tor, though if it’s any comfort, Tor is what the US government uses as their secure channel, so whether you think that’s a criminal paradise depends on your personal politics.

A better question is whether you’d rather go without when criminals have theirs. It actually doesn’t take much to jam a cell tower. Researchers already blocked out much of a city in Germany years ago with only 11 hacked cell phones. They don’t have to be good ones, either. If you’re suffering a terrorist attack, and they have a mere purse full of crappy prepaid cell phones they got from Wal-Mart with an accomplice sipping a mocha latte at Starbucks halfway across town while the news plays and have half the city shut down, don’t you want to communicate? Better yet, if they manage to shut down the whole city’s cell service with a backpack of them thrown in an empty apartment with a broken window, and they have their criminal apps that nobody but they can use, and they’ve cut the whole Internet off because that’s actually not that hard to do (I mean construction crews already do it by accident too often for comfort), wouldn’t you want one you and everyone you love can use to tell each other you’re okay? If enough people have it, no matter where you are in the city, you can still contact people in the city, even if you can’t contact anyone outside of it. The criminals are going to have their way to communicate; you need to worry about your own.

But in your own backyard…

Let’s be more realistic, though. Even if you don’t live in Taiwan, or Ukraine, or somewhere else with active political strife, just having redundancy is always a good thing. What if you’re at a concert with no signal? If enough people at the concert have Briar, you can still communicate with the people you came with. Mesh networks are the hot thing for total home Wi-Fi coverage; why wouldn’t you want the same thing for your phone in case the Internet craps out and you don’t have decent cell service? If everyone has it, then at some point it’ll probably reach someone with Internet for you to gripe to your friends about it. Again, it’s certainly something Amazon thinks is important for all their Echo and Ring features. If Alexa is going to keep working, why the heck shouldn’t your BFF Jill?

And this redundancy is going to become even more important for places with lacking coverage as 1X, 2G, and 3G all are removed. That crappy 1X signal may not have gotten you on Facebook, but it let you make calls and send texts. With that going away, not everyone has 4G signal. It just doesn’t reach as far. If you suddenly find yourself living in a dead zone and your Internet goes out, where does that leave you? Dead zones aren’t limited to creepy cabins in the woods where horror movies happen. If you don’t get 4G at your house now, it’s unlikely you’re going to get it after 3G and lower are gone. If you do get it now, do you have full bars? How about in the rain?

But the most frustrating thing to me personally is that Briar is needed at all. Cybiko was 20 years ago and its goal was a noble one: enabling safe and fun communication for teens in a time when you just couldn’t rely on other infrastructure. You’d think we’d just have this on smart phones by default, you know? I understand that there might be reservations about an app for features a phone is otherwise perfectly capable of, especially when it comes to Tor, whichever side you fall on. I understand having to set it up special is just a pain and honestly I haven’t convinced anyone I know offline to more than install it because they don’t see the point and it’s just extra hassle. We’ve all grown pretty complacent that connectivity is just going to be there as a society and nobody really thinks about how fragile all that infrastructure is until it’s under threat, like all the farmers who invested in 3G repeaters for any connectivity at all or everyone with an ancient phone with a replaceable battery or the fleet of other devices from cars to security cameras, many of them quite expensive, that are just going to stop working because the telecoms said so. We absolutely get frustrated when Charter goes down or when we live in a dead zone, but the average person doesn’t think in terms of alternatives or redundancy. What do you do when you have both? Call Charter? On what signal? Forming your own mesh network lets you get to some point where you can reach out, at least if you live in town. Why does Briar have to do this for texts? This is literally how email works; you send it to whatever next node thinks it can pass it along and it gets there eventually. Microsoft and Google may have monopolized this in recent years, but there are still plenty of nodes that aren’t theirs. Heck, this is literally how lightning works! Not some fancy technology; literal electricity from the sky! Lightning sends out a bunch of feelers until one hits something attached to the ground and then the rest uses that pathway while all the other tendrils fizzle out. Look up a video of that; it’s really cool. Shouldn’t our basic phone infrastructure be at least as clever as untamed electricity? We have the technology. Why hasn’t this become a basic feature? Steve Jobs could probably power New York spinning in his grave realizing he didn’t think of it first and put it in every iPhone.

The future was 20 years ago with Cybiko. If they’d have just let you dial someone before cell phones let you text someone, we might be living in a world where cell towers are an afterthought and the whole network is kept online by fast food joints with access points instead of free Wi-Fi. Or at least in one where PDAs became a serious competitor to cell phones instead of something people barely remember and Apple is in constant war with Blackberry rather than Google.