Natural selection cuts both ways

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The father of research into natural selection, Charles Darwin, came to understand that any population consists of diverse individuals. Those with a variation that gives them an advantage in staying alive long enough to successfully reproduce are the ones that pass on their traits more frequently to the next generation. Subsequently, their traits become more common and the population evolves. Darwin called this "descent with modification." His significant work was based on observation of finches of the Galapagos islands. Among the birds that ended up in arid environments, the ones with beaks that were better suited for eating cactus got more food.

Despite the cutting-edge, modern character of our industry, there are still primal forces at work. Recently, we have been hearing a lot about the downside of natural selection in the communications field. Perhaps too much. At the ultimate point of use, consumers select one service provider over another, or a preferred technology. Maybe they choose not to choose anything at all. This principle extends through the food-chain to the decisions that investors make. If you don't get chosen, your profits slide and maybe you go out of business. There's still more evidence of the law of the jungle affecting familiar players; look at this issue's coverage of Agere, Marconi, Siemens and Alcatel, to name a few.

But what hasn't got so much attention is the upside of natural selection. There is a powerful pressure on the industry to evolve new approaches to giving people down the chain what they want — or perhaps making them an offer they cannot refuse. Consider France Telecom's development last month of software that transforms a PDA equipped with a miniature camera into a fully-fledged mobile videophone. How many customers will want one of those?

As the industry in Europe gathers around the Copenhagen campfire, it is heartening to reflect on the seething mass of innovation that is able to look forward — not pre-occupied with failure. This issue — our biggest yet, so what downturn? — reflects several positive developments that I could tortuously describe as the upside of natural selection.

You want sophisticated DWDM but only want to pay for a CWDM infrastructure? Look no further than Finisar's achievement on p18. You want to transmit signals further without suffering dispersion? Try Corning's three-fibre trick on p21. Test equipment too expensive to buy outright? Then why not hire it just for the time you need it (Analysis p15). It seems clear that 10 Gigabit Ethernet has a lot more mileage than was expected by all of the 40Gbit/s proponents at last year's ECOC and now 10GbE LAN solutions are driving upgrades into the metro environment (p25).

Certainly, one must keep an eye out for the pitfalls. One staggering question, this month, is how could KPNQwest's network, which cost EUR1bn to build, end up almost completely sold off for just EUR50m? (Analysis p16). Read that and weep.

But, after all's said and done, if the finch has a strong enough will to grow a cactus-busting beak to survive, then think what you can achieve with a bit of thought and some detailed analysis of the latest technology in the marketplace. All you need to do is read on...

Matthew Peach Editor in Chief, Lightwave Europe
matthewp@pennwell.com

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