Cutting the landline - a progress report

A few months ago I make the faithful decision to ditch my under-used home phone line, wave goodbye to Telecom and the sluggish Go Large broadband plan and head for a naked DSL connection on Orcon.

As I explain to Simon Morton on Radio New Zealand's This Way Up programme, naked DSL is a digitally enable phone line that can carry broadband internet but not the analog phone service most phones rely on.

A few plans are in the market offering naked DSL services, meaning you don't have to pay monthly phone line rental, just pay for the broadband. This arrangement is handy for those of us who are taking advantage of deals like Vodafone Best Mate to make mobile calls cheaply or alternatively, those who are comfortable making Viouce over internet protocol (VoIP) calls. After a few months use of a dedicated 04 calling area Skype number, effectively making the internet my phone, I've got to say the experience has been largely a positive one and at least cost neutral one.

In fact I am saving some money over what I was stumping up to Telecom each month, though it isn't a massive saving - in the region of 10 - 15 per cent. What is impressive however, is the greater flexibility I have to communicate the way I want to, taking advantage of instant messaging, digital voice mail, video calling and online account management as part of a mix of regular telephone services.

It isn't just for geeks either. It used to be that the quality of Skype was fairly flaky and that using it for anything other than computer to computer use was too much of a hassle. However, most laptops come today with fairly good quality inbuilt speakers and a web camera, so you can make a decent quality hands-free call just by talking into your computer screen. A number of Wi-fi enabled mobile phones, including several Nokias, virtually any modern Windows Mobile device and the iPhone, all have Skype software clients. The version for the iPhone is particularly nice and means that I can make and receive calls to my 04 number via the internet without racking up mobile bills.

While the bulk of Skype's features are free, I paid to have a dedicated local number (15 euros a quarter) and I also pay in the region of $8 a month for unlimited calling to landlines in New Zealand (or up to 600 minutes a day under Skype's fair use policy). If I want to make calls to landlines in other countries, say my sister in London, I can do so from my computer, mobile phone or Philips Skype handset I have kicking around the house.

Other services on the market allow VoIP type functionality and call savings but still aim to give you the conventional telephone experience - Xnet VFX is still probably the best known service on the market. By using a dedicated Linksys router with some software on it, you can plug your ordinary phone into the router to make calls over the internet from your existing phone number. Slingshot has a similar service, while a new service called 2Talk from the founders of CallPlus/Slingshot goes more down the Skype route, offering a sofphone and a client for VoIP calling from Nokia handsets.

Is the technology ready for prime time? It isn't for everyone, but a new generation of telephone users are bored with the old analogue telephone - that's why they spend so much time texting and instant messaging. They want the addaded bonus of "presence" - knowing whether the person you are trying to call or message is online, gone to bed or too busy to take calls. And they want better visibility on their calling costs - preferably in one place online. Increasingly it looks as though Google's Voice will take more of a challenger role against Skype serving this burgeoning demographic. As the technology improves, data caps loosen and people become more comfortable operating in the always-on environment of broadband, VoIP services and the functionality they offer will become the norm.



When I started blogging every day for the Herald technology website back in May, I thought I'd still have enough time to blog here too on a regular basis. But with all of my other media commitments and with a number of plays and a documentary project on the go, Griffin's Gadget was the weakest link.

Still, I'll be paying more attention to the blog in the near future as I post longer features I've completed in the last few month's thast otherwise wouldn't have a place on the web. Kepe an eye out for them. In the meantime, check out some of the stories below and keep an eye on Griffin's Tech Blog, where you'll find fresh tech news and commentary each day.


A major highlight of 2007 was having my script selected for the Ist Writer's Initiative. That's a programme where the New Zealand Film Commission calls for scripts from new screenwriters - they select six from around a hundred submissions and mine was one of the six this time.

The six of us spent a fantastic couple of days working with mentors like Duncan Sarkies and Gaylene Preston. It was an invaluable experience. Here's the first couple of pages of the untitled script that was selected for the workshop...

The Camera travels along the barrel of a rifle to reveal the grubby solider holding it, squinting through the sight. POV: through the sight -- a landscape magnified, the scope lingers over Spanish-style buildings, a barricaded street, sandbags and barbed wire.


Over all of this:

(Polish accent)
You been here long comrade?

(soft English accent)
Not long.

You joined the brigade in Paris?


On the Polish soldier now, squinting his eye shut, scoping and talking.

Just like me. I love Paris. So big, modern. Not like Warsaw.

On Johnson for the first time, he sits amid upturned chairs and tables in the gloom peering through a shutter, a crack of sunlight across his face. He's bearded, late thirties, sunburnt, wearing a uniform of sorts, the numerals IX on a patch on his shoulder.

You can shoot and talk at the same time?

There's no Fascists to shoot, yet. You seen much of this war here, friend?

On the Pole, he's seen something. Through the POV of the scope: a grey uniformed figure running behind a wall, occasionally exposed to us. We pan along with the figure, scurrying like a rabbit. On Johnson, leaning back.

I've seen a lot of war. This is no different.

You were in the Great War?

Silence from Johnson.

Tell me about it.

I was in the war but I couldn't tell you about it.

Through the scope again. On the running figure, a shot rings out, a puff of brick dust shoots out from the wall, the figure disappears. On the Pole's face, he looks disappointed. He looks at Johnson.

You won't talk about it?

I couldn't tell you anything even if I did. You wouldn't understand it 'less you were there. And if you were there you still wouldn't understand it. I could tell you worse things about the peace.


Johnson standing at the top of Mt Ruapehu, the afternoon sun ebbing away, the world below him. He closes his eyes in the sun.

Worse things?

A beat.

Truer things.

From behind Johnson, silhouetted against a golden sky.

Back on the Pole. He cocks his gun, a spent shell clatters away. He squints through the gun sight again.

Well brother, while we wait for Franco to show his face. Tell me about the peace.

On Johnson, the bar of sun across his face, staring at the ceiling. The sound of a ship's bow slicing through water as we
CUT TO... a ship's bow cutting through the water.


One of the highlights of my year was a visit in September to Silicon Valley, which was basically a drunked tour of Napa Valley with side trips to Apple, Google, Craigslist thrown in. It all culminated in the Pole Blacks Segwway Polo match against the Silicon Valley After Shocks. Unfortunately we came out of that one worse off.

Here are limks to the Silicon Valley diary I kept during the tour and published on Griffin's Tech Blog

Napa Valley and the wonders of GPS
Apple and the Infinite Loop
The Pole Blacks hit San Fran
The king of Mountain View

(left: the solar panels atop Google's Mountain View campus)


I caught up with Luke Buda of the Phoenix Foundation as the band was putting the finishing touches on Happy Ending, its latest album and what's widely considered its best yet. The Herald voted it album of the year. I'd met Luke a few times when he used to call into Wellington's fringe installation art gallery Show, where I used to live.

The feature's not on the Ide
alog website, so here it is in its entirety...

While Flight of the Conchords and Eagle vs Shark play on American screens, the final member of the Wellington creative triumvirate currently chipping away at the US market is aware of the mighty task it faces.

“It's a huge fucker of a country and there is much, much, much to see,” says Luke Buda, a founding member of six-piece The Phoenix Foundation, which has won critical acclaim and modest sales success with its Eno-ish soundscapes and infectious pop/rock tunes.

With two successful equine-themed albums under its belt, Horsepower and Pegasus, the band is now trying to make its mark in America with the help of New York-based indie label Young American Recordings. That has meant revisiting Horsepower, which was released here in 2004 but debuted in the US just this March.

The Americans, unable to resist a patronising jibe or two, nevertheless seem to like what they hear.

“There aren't many success stories from New Zealand, so when a band from the land of more-sheep-than-people gains a cult following in the States based on some old-fashioned pavement pounding, it’s a notable event,” wrote a reviewer for Big Shot magazine.

VMan proclaimed Horsepower “one of the most gorgeously unexpected surprises of the year … proving once and for all that movies about hobbits aren’t the only good thing happening in New Zealand”.

There have been numerous gigs in support of Horsepower at festivals and in sweaty underground clubs across America, most recently on a self-funded tour in June. Did the band make its money back?

“No way,” says Buda. “Six in the band, manager, sound engineer. No, no—no way.”

But there’s also the soundtrack to Eagle vs Shark, which the band was primarily responsible for, contributing some original compositions and previously released songs such as the sublime instrumental Hitchcock. More than just providing a soundtrack, the Phoenix Foundation played a part in the film’s creation.

“In a way they deserve some credit for the screenplay,” says director Taika Waititi. “Some of the tracks I was inspired by when I was writing Eagle vs Shark are used in the same places in the movie.”

Buda, who counts famed Greek soundtrack composer Vangelis among his biggest influences, said the band took a completely different approach with the music it composed for Eagle vs Shark. “With an album, you want the music to be totally engaging and you don't hold back,” he says. “With the music for a film you really are just trying to add to, or help the movement, action, emotion on the screen. So there is a lot of space you can leave that you might not when making music for its own sake.”

The band came on board reasonably late in the piece, but enjoyed a good working relationship with Waititi.

“Taika did a rough cut with temporary score, and we got all the scenes we did music to with that temporary score there as a sort of guide,” says Buda, who also has a cameo in the film. “He was very specific and full of input. I guess in the future I would probably want to be involved earlier, or to try and do some demos for the temporary score.”

Many of the reviews accompanying the June release of Eagle vs Shark in the US made mention of the great soundtrack, which also features Buda’s solo work and the music of other local artists such as Age Pryor and The Reduction Agents.

“We receive album royalties for our own albums whereas the soundtrack is not all our music so we won’t be getting as much for that side of things,” says Buda. But there will be royalties from the theatrical release of the film and should the soundtrack sell well, it will ultimately help Young American shift more copies of Horsepower, which was repackaged with bonus tracks for the US market.

The soundtrack is released through Hollywood Records which, like Miramax, is a Disney subsidiary, but Buda says the band’s dealings with the studio, by choice, were minimal. “A couple of us went and had a meeting with someone in Los Angeles at the Disney studios. Ha! She was very nice.”

Idealog caught up with Buda as the band neared the end of its recording sessions on new album Happy Ending at Wellington's The Surgery studio. The band line-up is the same as for Pegasus: Buda on guitars, keyboards and vocals, Samuel Flynn Scott on guitars and vocals, Conrad Wedde handling guitars and keyboards, Warner Emery on bass, Richie Singleton on drums and Will Ricketts providing percussion. Lee Prebble again assumed producing duties.

“We came in with the idea of recording great band takes and then just touching them up a wee bit,” says Buda. "But with the last two we weren't quite good enough to pull it off so we had to deconstruct everything and rebuild it. It was quite an angsty process!”

The band, he believes, is now sounding better than ever in the studio, something he puts down to the extensive touring they’ve done in the last year. “We could just concentrate on making what we already had, sound better, rather than destroying it to make it work at all.”

The results will get a public airing with the album’s release here scheduled for September. Meanwhile, the Americans will get their introduction to the Phoenix Foundation album that went gold on its local release.

“After we release Pegasus over there we will shop around our new improved album to some bigger labels that hopefully may have actually heard of us.”

For the rest of the year, says Buda, the grand plan for The Phoenix Foundation has three equal parts.

“Tour the album. Chill out. Look after children.”


One of my most pleasant interviews of 2007 was with Oscar nominated Wellington director Taika Waititi who did the media rounds as his feature debut Eagle vs. Shark was released. We spent a couple of hours talking at Wellington's Deluxe cafe. His movie was opening at the Embassy Theatre next door that afternoon. Here's a link to the complete interview on the Idealog website, which is formatted in much nicer way.



What a surprise it was to log onto the Stuff website today and see the headline pictured to the left "Peter Griffin is God". One of the better headlines the subs have come up with, if I do say so myself. Unfortunately it was that other Peter Griffin again, the one who would get all the chicks if he was real...



Sony New Zealand was responsible for leaking one major tidbit of news about the upcoming functions of the Playstation 3, namely, that it will be able to be used as a digital recorder, ala Tivo and MySky. Recently I've also been looking at some of the great networking features of the PS3... since I wrote this I've been accessing my PS3 and laptop at home from wireless hotspots all over the country. I haven't tried it on an international basis yet but would be interested in hearing the experiences of anyone who has...


by Peter Griffin | from the New Zealand Herald

The PlayStation 3 is back from the repair shop after inexplicably dying on me. Since its return I've been testing out Sony's claim that the PS3 can serve as the multimedia hub for the home.

You see, I want to have all my digital media - music, videos and photos, in one place that I can access, ideally from anywhere in the world. I want the networking side of it to be easy and the interface to be nice to look at. Does the PS3 deliver? Yes, mostly it does.

Sony and the PS3 are part of the Digital Living Network Alliance which has set standards to make it easy for various consumer electronics devices to network together. This is where computers and lounge-centric gadgets like games consoles and digital recorders finally shake hands.

By activating media sharing in Windows Media Player 11 on my laptop, the My Music, My Videos and My Pictures folders were recognised by the PS3. Two icons denoting the laptops now appear on the PS3's user interface on my TV screen and I can browse, play and copy the contents of those remote folders to the PS3's hard drive. All of this connectivity is done wirelessly. The laptops beam the files to the PS3 which gains its internet access via the wireless connection provided by my router. The only cables involved provide power.

Then I introduced my PSP to the mix. The PSP is Sony's underrated handheld gaming device. Released in New Zealand in September 2005, it had the potential for iPhone-like success, but has been hamstrung by its unpopular UMD disc format for movies. A couple of years on, it is still a slick-looking device. The Wi-fi connectivity makes it easy to network and the software updates have kept useful new features coming.

The PSP talks wirelessly to the PS3 so all of that media I've assembled on the network can be accessed from the PSP. I now use it for playing media around the house with great results. Even video trailers I've downloaded from the PS3 network stream smoothly over the wireless connection. It's changing the way I access digital media in the home. But using the internet, the PSP is capable of extending that multimedia network to wherever there is wireless network coverage.

So I set off walking in the driving rain down to Courtney Place in Wellington, where between Telecom and CafeNet there's very good wireless hotspot coverage. At a coffee shop I produced my PSP and logged onto Telecom's hotspot, then into my home media network. I was impressed and a bit surprised when the PS3's interface popped up, showing all the music, photos and videos stored on my two laptops and the PS3's hard drive back at the house.

I could have been doing this from any wireless hotspot in the world. .

But while the wireless networking between PS3 and computers and PSP in the home is fairly flawless, connecting back to your media network from public hotspots is a little problematic.

For starters, most public hotspots require you to log in using a web browser and surfing the web and punching in password details on the PSP can be pretty frustrating. Still, I was determined to make this work but my experience connecting to three different public hotspots around Wellington was that streaming music to the PSP is pretty patchy. Video is much worse. Its easier to load up the Memory Stick slotted into your PSP with music and video, iPod style - at least you'll get uninterrupted entertainment.

But the good experience on my home wireless network suggests that streaming over private networks delivers better results.

Upcoming PSP and PS3 software updates are likely to allow you to use the PSP to video conference with other PS3 and PSP owners.

Ideally, you'll be able to make a PSP video call over a wireless hotspot back to the PS3 at home, so you can conference with family members. That would be pretty useful.

For me, the multimedia networking aspect of the PS3 is far more exciting than the console's gaming capability, which isn't much different from that of the Xbox 360.

But it has to be cheaper. The console costs US$500 ($630) in the US. New Zealanders are paying $1200. That price needs to be slashed but Sony says there are no immediate plans to drop the price in New Zealand.

Whether the PS3 emerges as the leading multimedia hub for the home is up in the air, but at the moment it is perhaps the best example of a user-friendly consumer electronics device that serves that purpose.


Lesson number one: Don't eat at the Thai restaurant at Paihia. I did on the evening of Morgo's second day after just about everyone else had dispersed south and my stomach has only just come right. The Thai beef tasted a little funny when I was eating it but I just assumed that was the tang of MSG or something. Boy did I pay for that mistake!

Anyway, Morgo was a great event once again. I hope the feature below, which ran in The Business gives the impression of a tight-knit group of entrepreneurs getting together to discuss some of the issues their businesses are facing, because that's what Morgo is. Without any proper representation for the IT sector at an industry level it's sort of a defacto event for setting the agenda, examining the isues of importance. In addition to the feature, I also blogged from Morgo for the Herald:

MORGO: A tale of two tech listings
MORGO: Going global from NZ

MORGO 2007 - highlights from the tech talkfest

By Peter Griffin

Jenny Morel knows how to get a good crowd together. The venture capitalist’s invite-only retreats have, for five years straight, drawn the top ranks of the tech sector.

Last week’s Morgo summit in Waitangi was no different.

The seeds of business deals have been planted at Morgo, stock exchange listings quietly planned. A sense of kinship pervades the proceedings. The competitive spirit may have come out during the haphazard games of Segway polo held on the manicured lawn of the Copthorne Hotel, but Waitangi was full last week of innovative people united in the goal of growing their technology businesses quickly.

If anyone knows a thing or two about that, its Trademe founder Sam Morgan, who in the space of seven years built his tiny internet auction business into the country’s most popular website before selling it last year to Fairfax in an unprecedented $700 million deal.

Morgan also knows the value of Morgo – he met entrepreneur Craig Meek at last year’s conference and went on to invest in his data visualization company, iVistra. It was Morgo that put him in touch with DeviceWorks, which recently won worldwide attention with its Lomak light-operated mouse and keyboard, which is designed to help the disabled use computers. Morgan is now an investor in the business and is casting the net wide for new opportunities to plough his share of the Trademe sale proceeds into. Morgan’s investment adviser accompanied him to Morgo in the hope of finding some leads.

“I’ve made a few start-up investments and I’ve made a few social investments,” says Morgan.

“I don’t invest in stem cell research, just because I don’t get it,” he says.

He has underwritten the formation of a micro-finance scheme in Samoa and in addition to iVistra and Lomak, has put money into people management software maker Sonar6. Morgan spent much of his talk at Morgo outlining how little his life has changed since the Trademe sale. He has earn-out targets to meet, so is still preoccupied with Trademe.

“I’m planning on being there in some capacity for quite a while yet,” he says.

But he recognizes succession planning is underway and that involves building a team he trusts – then leaving them to get on with their work. His “Don’t be a dick” mantra, the equivalent of Google’s “Don’t be evil”, became a bit of a catchphrase at Morgo.

“Moving out of the picture means making sure everyone has the ‘Don’t be a dick’ certificate,” says Morgan, who sits on the board of listed accounting software Xero, the creation of another Morgo regular, Rod Drury.

“I really hope it’s the Nokia of New Zealand,” Drury said of Xero towards the end of his speech at Morgo.

“This is a ten year play. I plan to work until I’m at least 50,” he added.

After last year selling his mail archiving company Aftermail to US software company Quest, Drury could have retired. That wasn’t an option. Drury says the aim was always to sell Aftermail so he could fund his next venture, which he always anticipated would be a public company, listed on the NXZ.

“I thought if we want to be here in the long term, we’ve got to do it as a public company,” he said.

For Drury, preparing Xero for going global has meant investing heavily in getting top talent onboard and designing a software platform that can easily be tweaked for bigger markets.

“The breadth of the wall chart was built from day one,” he said.

“We did a lot of R&D so... we could have one system across the world.”

Sysdoc founder and director Katherine Corich faced a different challenge trying to scale her document management company in Britain – negotiating the old boy’s network that pervades business over there.

“It’s definitely a land of old boy networks,” she told Morgo. No more obvious was that than in the Government sector, where Korich says seven IT providers claim over two-thirds of the budgeted IT spend.

“You have to align yourself with one of ten providers. I’ve focused on getting non-executive directors with extensive UK government experience,” she said.

If those who spoke at Morgo honed in on some specific examples of how they have refined their businesses for global expansion, it was left to Endace-founder Selwyn Pellet to issue a rallying cry for the tech sector in general.

“As New Zealanders, we don’t have to be second class citizens. We are good,” Pellett reminded his fellow entrepreneurs.

But reeling off a list of similarly small countries that have grown thriving technology sectors – Ireland, Israel and Finland among them, he reminded them that New Zealand is “outgunned and outnumbered” and needs some visionary thinking to stay competitive.

“If you stick with five – ten per cent growth a year, it’s not going to happen,” said Pellett.

“The business plan needs to be a hairy-arsed audacious goal.”

Endace, a maker of networking management technology with a global blue chip client base, was the first New Zealand registered company to list on the London stock exchange's alternative investment market.

“If you want to get out of the trenches and start charging, list your company,” Pellet advised. But for those considering a public listing, and there were several at Morgo, we told them to “look beyond the listing”, to have a long term goal for success.

“We listed Endace. The end goal was the listing. Suddenly we had to pump really hard to get going again.”

Endace had created seven New Zealand-based millionaires who have gone on to reinvest.

“Instead of us being bought, we’re going around the world buying companies.”

“The entrepreneurs in the room have to do more and more companies. They’re not allowed to retire,” he added.

Andy Lark, a Silicon Valley-based marketing guru, who heads NZTE’s technology beachhead in the US and is a director of Morel’s No. 8 Ventures, likewise encouraged kiwi entrepreneurs to think big.

“The real model for me is Israel. These guys are building more hi-tech companies than any small nation on earth,” he said.

“It’s because they’ve differentiated between what’s a good business model and what allows them to succeed outside of their market.”

Later, in a small session devoted to using the internet to overcome the tyranny of distance, he explained how much New Zealand companies can do with blogs, wikis and search engines to cheaply market their companies.

“People are breaking down the barriers between themselves and the customer using the web,” he said.

“Information is a commodity and it doesn’t cost too much to share it.”


Griffin's Gadgets has been quiet for an unacceptably long period of time by blogging standards - over a month! I've nevertheless been busy on some creative projects, at least one of which will hopefully bear fruit in the coming months. In the meantime here's a wrap of some of the stuff I've been writing in the "mainstream media". Ironically, my last post was on the eve of the iPhone's debut in the US. So much has happened since then...

The gPhone is in the works

by Peter Griffin | Tomorrow's World in the Herald on Sunday

If there was any d
oubt that internet search giant Google has its heart set on dominating the mobile phone industry the way it has the internet, it was well and truly snuffed out last week.

Not only was Google instrumental in winning concessions in the rules of an upcoming auction in the US of radio spectrum that will guarantee that any device or service can be used on that spectrum, but Google has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into developing mobile phone designs.

Whether Google will, in the next few years, go head to head with AT and T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile to construct a mobile network in the US is far from clear. To do so would be horrendously expensive, even for a cash-rich behemoth like Google. It would need to be successful in grabbing a slice of the airwaves in the upcoming auction, and it hasn't indicated yet whether it will participate.

Last week I reviewed Apple's iPhone which, with its touch screen and intuitive user interface, is a game-changing device. By as early as next year, if rumours of Google's tie-ups with Taiwanese hardware makers are correct, the gPhone could be on the market, offering even more compelling functionality.

After all, applications like Google Search, Maps, Talk, Gmail and Documents have been adopted by millions of web users around the world. While many of those people are using Google on their mobile phones, a handset designed to deliver the best Google experience would be very powerful. (The image left is a leaked pic of what is reported to be a mobile phone user interface designed by Google engineers).

If the risk of over-extending itself in the mobile space is a real one for Google, the rewards for going mobile are also very real. The US mobile phone advertising market was worth US$1.5 billion last year and is expected to reach US$14 billion by 2011, says research company eMarketer.

I very rarely click on adverts displayed on the Google search engine or to the right of my messages in Gmail, Google's free email service. But I'd be much more likely to click on an advertising link on my mobile phone that throws up results based not only on what I punch into Google's search engine, but also on my physical location. Maybe I could type in "movie sessions" and a group of links to movies showing in the next few hours at inner-city Auckland theatres would appear, because I am standing on Queen St. That would be very useful.

I use Gmail on my Harrier smartphone, but if I could use a phone to have Google Talk chat sessions and to access Google Documents in a nice way, I'd consider switching.

While Google has prototypes of its own phones in the works, it also appears that it is developing software and hardware standards that it will encourage mobile handset makers to adopt. If early reports are accurate, the standards have a heavy weighting towards mobile internet access, with recommendations that handset makers build Wi-fi and 3G high-speed data access into their phones. Google is also said to be working on an internet browser for mobile phones.

Google's business model has always rested on free services, but supporting them with advertising is a highly lucrative strategy. Would a "gPhone" allow free calling and internet access but require you to listen to or watch adverts? It's not out of the question and would turn the existing mobile billing model on its ear. Will Google and Apple steamroller the traditional mobile heavyweights Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson? Unlikely, but they'll certainly get a run for their money in the next couple of years if the gPhone comes to life.


by Peter Griffin | Tomorrow's World in the Herald on Sunday

I've finally had some decent hands-on time with the Apple iPhone, the music player cum phone released on June 29 in one of the most anticipated product debuts in history.

Much of the hype has turned out to be true. The iPhone is simply a fantastic little gadget. I probably wouldn't be inclined to buy one myself, having recently acquired a stand-alone iPod, but I'm excited about what the gadget, selling for NZ$653-$818 depending on storage allowance, means for the mobile phone design of other companies now clambering to catch up.

My reservations about the iPhone's touch-screen, the only form of interaction with the phone (there being very few buttons to push) began to evaporate as I started tapping icons and punching in web addresses on the iPhone's virtual keyboard. I've been a keen user of touch screens for years, from the Palm Pilot, to a range of Windows-based smart phones, to the likes of Sony Ericsson's P800.

All those phones required a little plastic pen to tap on the screen with precision. Not so the iPhone. The icons on the menu screen are big enough to be tapped with your finger and the keys on the virtual keyboard enlarge as your finger hovers over them allowing for surprisingly easy typing.

The iPhone is really an entertainment device first and foremost. It will appeal to people who want good messaging options, the ability to do some light web browsing, listen to music on the move and make phone calls.

You can't now use the iPhone with a Vodafone or Telecom mobile account as American network operator AT and T stitched up an exclusive deal for the iPhone's release in the US. Instead, people have hacked the iPod to unlock all of its functions bar the mobile calling. That means you can surf the web on the iPhone using its wi-fi connection, if you are in range of a wireless hotspot. That's a surprisingly seamless experience.

The iPhone uses the Safari browser Apple Mac owners will be familiar with and has a couple of great features that make surfing the web on the iPhone better than on any other phone I've used. You can navigate full-sized web pages simply by dragging your finger around the screen and by pinching your fingers together or spreading them out, zoom in and out. The iPhone senses when you tilt it on its side, so will change the layout of the screen to landscape, automatically giving you a better view of web pages and pictures.

The email suite is pretty smart, allowing you to set up inboxes for multiple email accounts. The fonts and icons look crisp on the large screen and the camera takes reasonable-quality digital photos as long as there is good light.

Then there's the music player function, which has been cleverly adapted for the phone. Again, your finger does the navigating. You can skip through your songs and albums quickly, just by tapping the screen.

The real test of the iPhone will be how it ages, how, after constant fingering over months or years, that touch screen holds up. I know people who are still happily using first and second generation iPods. Will the iPhone have that staying power and, therefore, the value for money?

What I'm looking forward to is the response from the traditional mobile heavyweights to the iPhone. Apple has proven that the touch screen can act effectively as the sole form of interaction with a phone. The mobile phone makers are sure to follow.

I should point out my Herald blog posting on the iPhone which I wrote in the lead-up to the iPhone launch and suggested that people should forget about the iPhone and look at some of the other decent smartphones on the market. That piece, which sparked a pretty big mailbag of responses from readers (which is always good) was in response to the unbelievable hype that had built up around the phone and was meant to be slightly antagonistic. Still, my advice remains the same, given the iPhone's absence from our market.

Google muscles in on mobile

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

We have a little Government radio spectrum auction coming up in December that will sell access to some highly sought-after radio frequencies so new services such as wireless broadband can be offered.

That will raise a reasonable sum for the Government, maybe tens of millions of dollars.

But just wait for the frenzy the auction of 700Mhz radio spectrum in the US will generate.

Payments for that spectrum - seen as the "last beachfront property" in the US wireless space, as most of the other appropriate frequencies are already in use - are expected to total upwards of US$15 billion ($19.9 billion).

We haven't seen that sort of money on the table since the European 3G auctions, which sent more than one mobile player bankrupt.

And if there wasn't enough competition for the airwaves from traditional US mobile players such as Verizon and Sprint, internet giant Google has also given a strong indication that it will join the bidding.

That has no doubt struck fear into the mobile industry, whose collective pockets are nowhere near as deep as Google's, with its US$160 billion market capitalisation.

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday bowed to the lobbying of Google, which was demanding that a good portion of the spectrum sold in the auction be used to support any device or service desired by the consumer.

Traditionally, the successful bidders in spectrum auctions have been able to tightly control what their customers can use.

This has largely determined over the past 15 years what mobile operator a customer chooses to sign up to.

Now Google, whose allegiances lie not with the network operators but with the consumers who use its search engine, wants mobile phone networks to be treated with the flexibility the internet offers.

Bring along any compatible mobile phone and, in theory, you'll be able to use any service on offer.

On the web, you can pretty much do this now.

Internet providers sell access to the pipe that connects you to the internet but unless you're illegally downloading thousands of movies or albums, making you what's known in the industry as a "bandwidth leech", you are generally left to your own devices.

Contrast this with the mobile operators, which do their best to keep you in a walled-garden of content offerings.

Vodafone Live is the best example of this approach.

While most mobile operators now sell straight internet access, they also package up services to make it more attractive to buy what they decide to offer - whether that be ringtone downloads, streaming TV feeds or news alerts.

Google is trying to offer better access to the services its business relies on, and in this area it sees the wireless providers and their walled gardens as the enemy.

The hostility between Google and the mobile industry was no more obvious than at the 3GSM mobile industry show in Barcelona this year, where several mobile operators said they'd rather work together to build their own alternative search engine for mobile phones than use Google's.

The tension springs from the fact that everyone knows that mobile search is the next major form of advertising revenue.

The location-sensing power of mobile phones mean search engine results can be tailored to your actual location, giving more targeted results than you would get from using the Google search engine on your home computer.

With those location-based services in mind, Google has been building a free city-wide Wi-Fi networks in San Francisco and Mountain View, California, to give people in those areas better, unimpeded access to the internet.

It also struck a deal with mobile operator Sprint to offer Google applications on Sprint's WiMAX wireless broadband service.

With its acquisition of the YouTube video-sharing website, and already the biggest search engine provider in the world, Google's success depends on its customers being able to gain access to enough bandwidth to use its services, and preferably from mobile devices.

For that reason, an increasingly realistic scenario would see Google buy radio spectrum and build its own mobile network.

On the other hand, it may be a bluff to extract better co-operation from the mobile industry.

Either way, the mobile landscape is irreversibly shifting and Google, with its desire to take internet search mobile, is driving the change.


by Peter Griffin | from the New Zealand Herald

New Zealand
's first iPhone owners are globe-trotting technology entrepreneurs who see business opportunities for themselves in Apple's sought-after gadget.

Tech sector veterans and regular visitors to the US, Steve Simms and Derek and Geoffrey Handley, picked up iPhones after the combined phone and music player was launched last week.

While the three share an interest in gadgets, their iPhone purchases also fall into the category of market research - they may soon be tailoring services to meet the new gadget's requirements.

The three will not be able to use their phones on the local Telecom or Vodafone networks as they signed up to exclusive contacts with US operator AT andT.

Hackers are already working on ways to bypass the exclusivity deal so that the iPhone can be used on any GSM network.

Simms is the founder of Wi-Fi hotspot service provider Tomizone, which allows you to turn your wireless internet connection into a commercial service, selling access to others with Tomizone providing the back-end billing functions.

The iPhone has Wi-Fi connectivity built into it, allowing users to surf the web from wireless hotspots.

Derek Handley's (pictured left) company, The Hyperfactory, designs and hosts internet-based advertising and branding campaigns for companies with a focus on the mobile internet delivered to phones.

If his clients take an interest in the iPhone, Handley will have to adapt services to suit its format and the Safari web browser that is used by iPhone owners to access the internet.

Still in their honeymoon phase with the most desired of gadgets, Simms and Handley suggest the iPhone lives up to much of the hype.

"It has a really slick interface, beautifully silky," said Handley, who was also impressed with the iPhone's suite of applications."There's a nice Google Maps function, you can get directions to go places. There's a very cool YouTube widget for streaming YouTube videos.

"It's not some old stylus thing or one-touch wonder. I'm talking Minority Report styling. Touch the screen with one or more fingers, pinch or expand photos and websites. It's cool," said Simms, who was given his iPhone by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The pair share a passion for the geeky sport of Segway Polo.

But it's not all praise from New Zealand's first iPhone owners.

Simms (pictured left) picked out Apple's "dumb exclusivity deal" with AT and T which limits use of the iPhone to one mobile network in the US. The model is likely to be replicated around the world, with Apple rumoured to be in the final stages of negotiating a worldwide deal for the iPhone with Vodafone.

"The keypad is crap, it will never replace the Blackberry," said Handley.

"The browsing experience is designed for Wi-Fi and Edge, not 3G."

Handley admits that Hyperfactory's philosophy for how the mobile internet should be presented to users differs from that of Apple boss Steve Jobs.

"He thinks that the [regular] internet 100 per cent on the go is the way forward, but no one goes from Wi-Fi spot to Wi-Fi spot. Things need to be designed for the mobile internet," said Handley.

"When you get to a mobile internet site on [the iPhone], it treats it like a web page, which is completely unworkable," he added.

With his business case resting on the availability of Wi-Fi internet hotspots and devices that can connect to them, Simms naturally has a different view.

"Wi-Fi is massive on this, a great call by Apple not to get painted into a corner with the 3G argument," he said.

"The ease of use for Wi-Fi in the iPhone is a dream and in the field its faster and cheaper than 3G any day."

Both Simms and Handley saw plenty of opportunity to develop their offerings for the iPhone.

"Our opportunity is to take advantage of their stubbornness and their view of the mobile world and render content in a much smarter way, recognising the Safari operating system," said Handley.

"We are looking for a widget for the iPhone that will auto-detect and log in to a Tomizone hotspot or any other hotspot you are registered with,"said Simms. "My guys will be figuring that out shortly."

Locked out

- Apple's iPhone cannot be used on the Vodafone or Telecom networks, but can be used outside the US where AT and T has roaming coverage. International charges apply.

- iPhone owners have to sign up to mobile plans starting at US$60 ($76) a month, locking them into a service contract for two years or more.

- Hackers are working to crack the lock-in technology that prevents the phones from working with sim cards from other mobile network operators.

- No date has been given for the iPhone's arrival on the market here, however Apple is rumoured to be in discussions with Vodafone for a worldwide partnership to launch the iPhone where Vodafone has subsidiaries.



by Peter Griffin | from the New Zealand Herald

Digital satellite TV operator Freeview admits a "stuff-up" with its flagship brand of set-top boxes marred the service's launch, but says the technical glitches are now behind it.

Freeview general manager Steve Browning said it was too early to give accurate Freeview sales figures and that a clear picture of usage patterns would not emerge until ratings company ACNielsen began collecting viewer-trend information for the platform.

Technical problems with one of the two Freeview-approved set-top boxes led to many having to be returned by customers, while other glitches were able to be fixed with an over-the-air software update from the Optus D1 satellite.

Browning said new channels, such as the family and 24-hour news channels in the works at TVNZ, would make the Freeview proposition more attractive. He had also been talking with radio-station operators who were struggling to find sufficient FM radio frequencies to expand their services and were considering Freeview as an alternative platform.

Despite issues with the Zinwell set-top box, Browning said it was the more popular of the two currently selling in stores. He put that down to the presence of an RF (radio frequency) connector on the back of the Zinwell box, which gives users the option of plugging it directly into the aerial socket on their TV sets.

However, most users are connecting their set-top boxes via AV (audio-visual) cables as they offer a better signal. AV connections are standard on all but the oldest of TV sets.

The Business Herald took a look at the two official digital set-top boxes on the market.

Hills Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

Herald rating: 7/10 What strikes you about the Hills set-top box is how small it is compared to its Zinwell rival.

The Hills receiver has a profile similar to that of the slim-line PlayStation 2 console and like the PS2 can be positioned vertically to save space. Hills uses a European Scart connection to link the receiver to the TV's AV (audio-visual) inputs.

There are two Scart connections, one for the TV and one to feed the signal to a VCR or digital recorder. I'm not a big fan of Scart cables, but they seem to work fine here. Set-up was a breeze - I simply plugged the satellite lead coming from the wall into the Hills box, connected the Scart cable to my TV, plugged in the power cable and was away.

The Hills logo pops up on your TV screen when you first boot up the receiver and set the TV to an AV channel. An online menu then appears and asks you to set your geographical region.

Tuning of the channels is automatic. A screen showed me the signal strength of the satellite feed - virtually 100 per cent on the Hills bar graph. I exited the menu and was greeted by a crystal-clear TV One. The channels were listed in order, one through five, the latter being Maori TV and channel 20 reserved for V8 Supercar coverage.

A basic four-digit display on the front of the Hills box tells you what channel you are on. Button functionality on the receiver itself is minimal, with the remote control and electronic menu system favoured for adjusting settings.

The menu and eight-day electronic programming guide are simply laid out and straightforward to use.

While the Hills box does everything advertised well, it's slightly lacking in the aesthetics department. The box is made of standard silver and white plastic, and the remote control has a gaudy, plastic feel to it.

Again, the comparison with the PS2 comes in handy. That is a device that with a DVD drive and computer processor, is much more sophisticated than the Hills receiver. Yet it looks much better and sells for $220.

At least you can tuck the Hills receiver away out of sight.

Zinwell Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

Herald rating: 5/10

The Zinwell receiver has a larger form factor than its Hills rival, although it performs almost the exact same set of functions.

The most obvious differences between the two are discovered when you look at the rear of the Zinwell box - it has more options when it comes to connectivity, notably the RF connector mentioned above. The presence of standard composite video and component connectors give you better options when it comes to cabling.

Again, set-up was simple. The menu screen asked me to set my region and then automatically found the channels for me.

That is where things started to go wrong: the Zinwell box failed to pick up channels 3 and 4. After repeating the process several times I gave up and rang Zinwell service agent Next Electronics. I was sent an email with instructions on how to manually tune the channels. However, following those instructions failed to produce anything.

"If you still cannot receive the missing channels, after manual tuning, then your antenna dish and LNB most likely needs professional alignment by an accredited installer," an email from Next stated.

That was despite the Hills receiver and my Sky receiver, which connect to the same Optus D1 satellite, picking up all channels. It seems my Zinwell receiver hadn't picked up the over-the-air software upgrade that was issued to fix the initial glitches with the box.

The Zinwell receiver does have the additional options of programmable timers and favourite channel lists.

But again, the box seems pricey for its basic functionality and the average quality of the hardware and remote. Hardware this common around the world should be cheaper and glitch-free right from the start.



I didn't get a chance to post these last week as I was tied up posting on another blog. Webstock Mini was a great event and credit to Natasha Hall and the others on the team who continue to put on some worthwhile internet events in Wellington.

The new Internet: All fizz and no substance?

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

It was with great anticipation that I settled into a seat at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington this week to listen to a bunch of internet experts debate a very live topic - whether the new wave of websites gathered under the Web 2.0 banner is "all fizz and no substance".

The debate could have gone anywhere and indeed it ranged widely.

"People just aren't that technology savvy," argued Radio New Zealand producer and head of the "fizz" team, Mark Cubey.

"Second Life? It's that versus House on a Tuesday night. Yeah, Second Life just doesn't have the dialogue. We're talking about stuff that is real and you can't tell me Web 2.0 is real," he concluded.

Cubey's opponent, Philip Fierlinger, a former dotcom entrepreneur and now developer at accounting software maker Xero, said the money paid for Web 2.0 ventures such as MySpace and YouTube, spoke for itself - essentially, there was substance where there was money.

"Is US$500 million [$658 million] substantial? Is US$1.5 billion substantial?" he asked.

Austrian database architect Sandy Mamoli cleverly worked away at Web 2.0's biggest weakness - its ability to create online worlds for its users that are detached from reality.

"We don't share our tacky tastes or our boring personalities," she said.

"Web 2.0 creates a huge gap between the online persona and who we really are. Web 2.0 makes it much easier to be fake."

Brenda Leeuwenberg, online producer at NZ On Air, saw it differently.

"Sometimes there are moments of pure joy in what people put out there on the web," she said. They are both, of course, quite right.

Web developer Mike Brown sees the rise of Web 2.0 as a giant conspiracy to advance the cause of the letter "R", which indeed defines a fair number of Web 2.0 website names - Twitter and Flickr being just two on Brown's list. "You might think it's just a case of letter jealousy, but R wants to be an A-lister," said Brown.

And so the arguments bounced backwards and forwards for an hour or so mirroring the global debate about the value of Web 2.0 services and intensifying as web sceptics hone their argument.

The anti-Web 2.0 arguments have perhaps been best articulated by the British web entrepreneur and author Andrew Keen who in his new book The Cult of the Amateur suggests that the proliferation of user-generated content that's central to the Web 2.0 way of doing things is killing culture.

Others are saying similar things. Take US technology commentator John C. Dvorak's dismissive take on the newest of the Web 2.0 players Twitter, a "micro-blogging" service that allows you to post short updates during a day to keep everyone abreast of your activities - no matter how mundane. Dvorak sees no substance in that, other than to provide a record for the sociologists of the future.

"All of these sorts of networks should provide a trove of insights into society - if the entire system is archived and turned over to the sociology departments of some major universities," he wrote recently in a PC Magazine column about Twitter.

"I'm afraid that the people who implement stuff like this never think in these terms."

Dvorak admits he was also dismissive of podcasting and blogging when they were introduced yet he himself has since become a podcaster and a blogger.

Which just goes to show how hard it is to pick where the Web 2.0 movement will lead us.

For the record, the team pushing the argument that there really is substance in Web 2.0 won the Webstock debate by a slim majority. That wasn't surprising given Webstock's audience, which text messaged in votes for the teams and was filled with web developers.

There are 140 web development companies in Wellington alone. The industry has rapidly geared up for the local impact of this new phase of internet development. There's plenty of fizz on the local scene in everything from online retailing to insurance, but there's also a fair bit of money floating around.

I think the debate came out how it should have, despite the "fizzers" presenting a more compelling and humorous argument than those with substance.

Above all the inane chatter on Twitter, the annoying music blaring at you from MySpace pages and the flying penises in Second Life, there's something powerful going on in these new web communities.

Whether they will all live on remains a moot point, but one thing is for sure, the new makeup of the internet is seriously changing our approach to information use and social interaction. Whatever price you put on that, such transformation in a few short years has been nothing but substantial.

On The Web

Virtual beers with Darth Vader

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

It's the place where virtual friendships are made and digital real estate is bought and sold, but educators say the fast-growing Second Life community is also a powerful tool for collaborative learning.

On first appearances it doesn't seem very productive: a group of digital avatars - the online creations of real people - sit around a campfire in a pleasant park, chatting away.

"This experience can be a lot of fun," says Leigh Blackall, an education development manager for Otago Polytechnic.

"We drink around the campfire and the beers are programmed to make us tipsy."

Blackall conducted a Second Life meeting of education professionals from around the world during his speech to the Webstock internet conference in Wellington on Tuesday, and says that such virtual meetings could be the future of long-distance learning.

"It wasn't until I had my first encounter with a purpose in Second Life, like a meeting, that I realised what it's all about. There are a lot of people in education trying to get into this."

build their own world is seen by networked learning experts like Blackall as an ideal forum for students to collaborate and share ideas.

Its potential has already been recognised by Second Life's creators, Linden Lab, who have set up Campus: Second Life, which allows a free grant of land in the virtual Second Life world to an educational organisation for the duration of a semester.

Discounted land plots are also on offer for schools and universities - something of tangible value in a world where an island will set you back US$1600 and US$100 a month in upkeep.

Whole islands can be bought by educational institutions where entry is restricted to their real-life students.

Educational professionals collaborate on a Second Life wiki - a type of online database - to standardise virtual education tools.

Blackall says the potential for development of educational resources in Second Life is huge, but that the tightly funded education sector is hesitant to invest in the online community, which has 7.2 million members and can turn over the equivalent of US$1 million a day in virtual currency.

"So far, no takers," he says ofprojects he has suggested. "It's quite difficult to get things going in education."

Blackall says the real-time aspect of Second Life makes it "bandwidth hungry" and suitable only for high-speed internet connections. But Second Life is becoming increasingly sophisticated - he is particularly looking forward to Second Life users being able to display websites within the online environment.

Students could, for example, sit in a virtual meeting collectively editing a wiki document.


Hi Peter,
Wanted to thank you for your article on Leigh Blackall's Second Life presentation and also to let you know that there is already a small but thriving NZ education community in Second Life.
Here at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) in Nelson, we are investing in an island in Second Life to explore its potential for enhancing our students learning.
In fact NMIT already has a presence in Second Life - we have been renting space on EduIsland alongside places such as the University of Cincinatti and Universtiy of Hawaii! Our space is called the NMIT Garden of Learning, and apart from being a space for some of my students to explore Second Life, it is also the venue for the informal meeting of the Kiwi Educators group at 2pm (NZ time) every Sunday afternoon.
If you are interested there is more information on our Second Life Interest Group website (www.nmit.ac.nz/research/2ndlife) and also at https://eduforge.org/blog/blog.php?/categories/140-NZ-Education-in-a-Virtual-World which is run by Aaron Griffiths.
We are now planning several projects which will be undertaken once the island is operational and have received some funding from the government's e-Capability Fund to help us get going! The exploration of NZ education in a virtual world is very definitely underway.
Many thanks

Dr Clare Atkins
School of Business and Computer Technology

The Kiwi Firefox connection

by Peter Griffin | from Griffin's Tech Blog Herald Online

Aucklander Robert O'Callahan, who as a contractor to the Mozilla Corporation has been working on some of the new features that will be built into the upcoming Firefox 3.0 web browser, gave an interesting Webstock presentation on where browser development is going.

O'Callahan demoed some new Firefox features, such as the updated Gecko rendering engine and offline web browsing functionality that will be available in Firefox 3.0, but he used the bulk of his presentation to explain the philosophy around open source web development.

O'Callahan seems wary of the growing focus in web content development on Adobe's Flash player. That's because Flash and its new rival, Microsoft-developed Silverlight, operate on a different model to the web tools the open source community comes up with. They're essentially privately owned and controlled.

"We want to avoid people getting a monopoly on web clients. If you can control who can render web content, you control the platform," says O'Callahan, who has contributed to Mozilla since 1999.

He believes there's plenty of life left in HTML, the standard language of the web and that focus should be put on fixing the bugs in existing web pages and doing smarter things with HTML than trying to "supercede the web with shiny new design".

"You can add things to HTML that are harder to do if you don't control the platform," he added.

O'Callahan believes the dominant browser vendor, Microsoft "isn't so interested in the web at the moment ".

"We have to unseat their dominance and gain market share with browsers interested in pursuing our mission," says O'Callahan.

The mission of course is to keep development of the web open so that no one company or technology can control its evolution. O'Callahan seems pretty ambivalent about Apple's move to release its Safari web browser for Windows computers.

"We'd like Safari to take all of Internet Explorer's market share and none of ours," he says.

"I wouldn't trust Apple any more than Microsoft necessarily if they got the monopoly."

O'Callahan said developing open source alternatives to more sophisticated web tools was essential to keep browsers like Firefox competitive. One set of functionality that's viewed as being particularly important is offline browser capability.

The idea is that when you type a URL into the web address bar when you're not connected to the internet, the browser will search local storage for a cached copy of the page and allow a certain amount of functionality and data back-up. When you go back online, the local version of the application syncs with the version stored on the web and updates it.

"It's similar to cookies, but with more grunt and more storage," says O'Callahan. Google has developed similar technology to allow its applications to be used offline with the open source development tools, Google Gears.

New Zealand's association with the Firefox browser, which has rapidly gained market share at the expense of Microsoft's dominant internet Explore browser, is very strong. Ben Goodger, a lead Firefox developer who also works for Google is a kiwi and O'Callahan said there are three paid Firefox developers based in Auckland, with scope for the team to be expanded if people with the right skills can be found.

O'Callahan's blog can be found here.


You might want to check out Robert's presentation at the Auckland Web Meetup. He covers the offline stuff, new video formats and font rendering in FF 3. It can be found here - http://www.meetup.co.nz/2007/06/21/video-june-meetup-robert-ocallahan-


by Peter Griffin | from the Herald on Sunday

Photos courtesy of my friend Ellie who visited Nasa in 2003 and got up close and personal with the Mars Rover!

It has to be one of the more unusual job descriptions ever advertised: spend 18 months locked in a metal tank with five other people, eating vacuum-packed food, with only radio contact with the outside world.

But that's exactly what the European Space Agency is looking for people to do, and it's all in the name of space exploration.

The agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems want to simulate a manned mission to Mars, including the 520-day trip to and from the Red Planet, the landing of a space craft and the scientific testing such a trip would involve.

Why undertake such a time-consuming experiment? Because space agencies have their hearts set on landing people on Mars. As the ESA explains: "To go to Mars is still a dream and one of the last gigantic challenges. But one day, some of us will be on precisely that journey to the Red Planet."

To give any such mission a chance of succeeding, it needs to be simulated first, in part to determine whether astronauts would be able to psychologically cope with being cooped up together for such an extended time.

The agency admits the whole thing has the feel of a reality TV show. I could imagine it turning into one massive episode of Big Brother, with bed-hopping astronauts, territorial arguments and emotional meltdowns.

But the agency says the volunteers on the simulated mission will be kept busy carrying out the activities Mars-bound astronauts would be given. So it wants candidates with scientific, engineering and medical backgrounds.

The six participants will live in a series of metal compartments about 200sq m in size - roughly the space of four studio apartments stuck together. There will be living quarters, a kitchen, a research area and medical room. They'll be able to talk to the equivalent of ground control and presumably their families, but once the hatch is closed and the astronauts start their journey, they will be on their own, having to fend for themselves if anything goes wrong.

The experiment could produce a treasure trove of information for psychologists and the agency is working out what scientific tests it will carry out on the participants.

Key will be exploring the group dynamic that develops, the effects of the confinement on things like sleep, mood and the ability to perform complicated tasks. The agency also plans to look at medical procedures that could be performed.

As the months pass, scientists will no doubt be peering into the tanks via closed-circuit TV cameras, to scrutinise everything that goes on.

Mars is about 1 1/2 times as far from the Sun as the Earth is, though the distance between the two planets fluctuates wildly from around 56 million kilometres in 2003, when they were at their closest in tens of thousands of years to 380 million kilometres at their farthest apart.

As epic as any manned trip to Mars will be, many countries - the US, China, and the members of the European Space Agency included - are investigating the potential.

There have been several unmanned trips and another will begin in early August when the US$414 million ($542 million) Phoenix Mars Lander will be launched. Phoenix will land on the northern Martian plains, on top of ancient fields of ice which lie below the planet's surface. The plan is for Phoenix to scoop up some ice and analyse it, beaming the results back to Earth.

As much as the Mars Rover's exploits on the Red Planet caught the world's attention, that will be nothing compared with the buzz a manned mission would generate. So who wants to be the first Kiwi to pretend to go to Mars? The hyperactive and claustrophobic need not apply.

A few robotic Mars discovery vehicles from the Nasa colection. Remember when Rover's wheel got stuck on a rock? Easy to dislodge on the floor at Nasa, not so easy when you're using a joystick to control a robot that's tens of millions of kilometres away...