26/12/2005

Don't believe in the Uzi it just went off in my hand

...or it would have if I'd been holding one two days before Christmas as I queued in The Warehouse in Henderson waiting for the eftpos network to come back online. It didn't and I joined dozens of shoppers in abandoning our merchanise and leaving the store empty handed.
The 90 minute meltdown in eftpos operator Paymark's network caused serious frustration among stressed shoppers which I was able to witness firsthand in Henderson's sprawling Westgate mall. Having faced gridlock in the carpark, crowded aisles inside, all chances of a quick getaway evaporated for those not carrying cash. The queues at the ATMs which were still operational were too long to consider joining. No one at The Warehouse knew how to handle manual credit card transactions so that was my attempt at last minute Christmas shopping that day finished with. I did sneak back to The Warehouse the day before Christmas to root through its incredibly large bin of cut-price books. I picked several books for $5 each including Bob Woodward's Bush at War. It's a slightly dated work now, focusing on Bush's reaction to the September 11 attacks and the actions of his and his top advisers in the following 100 days.
It's an interesting book, but I had a nagging question the whole time I was reading it: "How the hell did Woodward, as good a journo as he is, get such fly on the wall access to Bush and his inner circle?"
As it turns out, Woodward, who with Carl Bernstein broke the 1970s Watergate scandal and documented the demise of President Nixon in the book All the President's Men, has been getting it in the neck on exactly that issue lately. Everyone envies his fantastic access to the Whitehouse as access after all is the most important thing for a journalist. But Woodward is perceived to have become too cosy with the administration, not being totally rigourous in presenting his findings in the interests of maintaining that access.
Just before Christmas, Howard Fineman, Newsweek's chief political correspondent, described Woodward as a "court stenographer" for the Bush Government. After reading Bush at War, the label seems a little bit more appropriate than I originally thought.
Woodward after all was my inspiration for going into journalism, or to be more specific, the movie All the President's Men which potrays the ultimate investigative journalism story. The movie has a killer script by William Goldman.
Thirty years after the stories Woodward wrote about Watergate, his book Bush at War documents in great detail what was said by Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell and the other key politicians as they planned the US invasion of Afghanistan. There are quotes from secret CIA briefings, direct informal quotes from the main players themselves drawn from the notes of observers and it's all held together by two lengthy interviews Woodward conducted with Bush during the writing of a The Washington Post series of articles about September 11.
What is intriguing is how much Woodward tells us without really telling us much about the real inside workings of the Whitehouse. There are no startling revelations, nothing that would have hurt the administration. The rift between Powell and Rumsfeld is referred to but that was widely known at the time of the book's writing anyway. There are squabbles and disagreements but nothing that undermines any of the individuals or questions their motivations. It has the feel of an "official history", a story the parameters of which have been agreed upon in return for the granting of unprecendented access to the president and his people. In light of the growing criticism of Woodward lately, you could be mistaken for thinking that he has indeed become a subtle mouthpiece for the administration.
But has he really? Most people seem frustrated that he hasn't taken a strong stance against Bush's war in Iraq. But while Woodward is a celebrity expected to have a slant like Michael Moore perhaps, he's also still an investigative reporter and has sources to maintain. Does the fact that he may have omitted potentially damaging material imply that he's in the pocket of the administration or that he just wants to maintain the incredible access he has obtained so therefore is being very careful with what he publishes? Maybe one reason is as bad as the other. The reality is that his latter books are useful records of goings-on in the Bush camp, but the rigorous analysis of the administration is no longer being carried out by Woodward. Look to others with something more to prove for that.
What Bust at War gives us is an interesting insight into what makes Bush tick, presented admittedly in a rather sympathetic way. Bush isn't an idiot, but he's driven by philosophy, instinct and religious faith that has alienated much of the world.
"His vision clearly includes an ambitious reordering of the world through preemptive and, if necessary, unilateral action to reduce suffering and bring peace," writes Woodward.

There's nothing more powerful than a man who believes what he is doing is profoundly right.

An interesting summary of Bush's challenges to date has been posted at Dissident Voice.


21/12/2005

VINCENT'S WATERY VIGIL

20th Century Fox has gone live with a rather well put together website for Vincent Ward's historical drama River Queen at www.riverqueenthemovie.com. It's a beautiful site though IT will take a while to load at its highest quality setting over dial-up. It even took a minute per section over my Woosh connection.




Of interest is Ward's blurb about the making of the film in which he goes to seemingly great lenghts to explain how he was a responsible and safety-conscious film maker. There's little talk of the series of disasters which struck the production and eventually saw Ward removed as director. Instead he talks about standing alone in the Thames with a camera shooting pick up shots during post production and bludging free special effects services off charitable film makers who believed in the story.

There's enough drama in the story behind the making of River Queen to fill a Lost in La Mancha style documentary. I just hope someone was standing around with a DV camera when the shit really hit the fan. I understand that Ward's partner, who is also a film maker, is preparing a documentary about the making of River Queen. It could be a cracker if they make it a warts-and-all look at what really went on though I doubt anyone concerned will want to rake through those coals.

As for the movie, I have a bad feeling about it. Some Film Commission development staff told me the script by Ward and Toa Fraser was one of the best they'd ever read. Whether it has translated well to the screen is another story. I was a bit perturbed by Ward's comments in the Sunday Star Times a few weeks ago that US critics who'd been less than flattering of the movie so far didn't really get New Zealand history. They shouldn't have to. The story should be able to carry itself in the same way that Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans doesn't need a prerequisite history lesson in North American colonial history to be understood.

The movie's trailers have come along. The one I saw a few months back was flat and lifeless. The one on the website is much better. Still, the movie seems a bit melodramatic and over wrought for my liking.

The harshest of the reviews that came from River Queen's showings at the Toronto Film Festival was undoubtably the one penned by Variety reviewer Scott Foundas:

"This longtime dream project for the acclaimed Kiwi helmer -- and his first pic since 'What Dreams May Come' in 1998 -- finally reaches the screen as a waterlogged would-be epic, lacking the emotion, narrative invention and visual brilliance that mark Ward's best films (including 'The Navigator' and 'Map of the Human Heart'). Having driven most of its Toronto industry screening audience into a deep slumber or early exit, 'River' looks to be cast out to sea by most theatrical buyers.

Here's hoping he nodded off and missed the best parts. Soon we'll all be able to pass judgement ourselves. River Queen has its premiere on the 24th of January in Wanganui with a nationwide release following on the 26th.

18/12/2005

MUSICAL PRESENTS: MP3 PLAYERS FOR CHRISTMAS

My Hot Technology column in the Herald on Sunday gives some tips on things to watch out for when buying an mp3 player. I post it below along with my top five picks for mp3 players...

It seems everyone wants to live their life to a personal music soundtrack these days. I was standing at the top of Mt. Kaukau last week listening to the birds chirping when a fellow tramper walked past, iPod phones firmly planted in his ears.

As we ride the bus to work, exercise, do our housework, portable music players are our ever-present companions, buoying our spirits with carefully selected mood music. The advent of "podcasting" where radio shows, talking books and public discussions are being converted to mp3 files and posted on the internet has extended the trend beyond music. At least one family member will be nagging you for a music player this Christmas. Choose carefully which one you go with as you’ll shell out anywhere from $200 - $700 for one of these gadgets.

The music player world is dominated by Apple’s iPod which has around 70 per cent of the market. A range of other manufacturers are scrambling to take the crown from Apple and while there are some good products on the market from the likes of iRiver, Creative and Toshiba, no "iPod-killer" has so far emerged.

The iPod’s success lies in its simplicity. It lets you play music and video where you want and using the accompanying iTunes software, makes loading up the device with your favourite content a breeze. Even the techno illiterate can use an iPod.

But there are music players out there with more features – such as built-in voice recorder and FM radio tuner and that function better in the Windows environment most of us are used to.
The iPod doesn’t support the wma (Windows Media Audio) file format which many people have converted their music files to. Music download services such as Coketunes and Digirama are in the wma camp so getting downloaded files to play on your iPod is difficult. Rumours persist that Apple’s online music store iTunes will launch here in January which would open up a world of possibility for iPod owners. Australia finally gained access to iTunes in October and Apple has a strategy of opening the stores wherever it sells the iPod so a launch for New Zealand can’t be far off.

If you want a music player to listen to while you work out at the gym or jog, make sure you get a "flash" memory based music player. Unlike the larger capacity hard-drive based players, flash devices have no moving parts and handle bumps and vibrations better. Also consider getting one that has an arm band or belt holster as an accessory. You don’t want your music player bouncing around in your pocket.

Keep in mind that battery life estimates wont take into account regular use of the LCD screen which chews a lot of power. The idea is to get a music player with enough playlist, shuffle and random playing options that you don’t have to keep delving into the menu. Looking for a player with a stated battery life of 14 – 20 hours.

Be realistic about what you need in a music player. Will you really watch video on it or use the voice recorder. You may find you just want to play music. In flash players don’t settle for less than 2GB (gigabytes of storage) while 20GB should be the minimum for full-size players.
IPOD NANO 4GB
Not only is it the hottest gadget of the year full stop, the iPod Nano showed the world that a small, lightweight music player can be a fashion accessory as well. Replacing the aluminum-encased iPod Mini, the Nano shifts from hard drive storage to "flash" memory allowing it to be much smaller and use less battery power. While capable of carrying less songs, the tiny Nano maintains all the functionality of the full-size iPod (except video playback) and has a crisp, colour screen. Its release around the world has been marred by the fact that the screens on many Nanos broke or scratched easily. Did Apple go too small, too thin? Well-looked after and stored in a carry pouch the Nano won’t damage easily. The format has a lot of mileage in it yet.
Price: $419
Apple.co.nz
TOSHIBA GIGABEAT 40GB
Anything Toshiba makes has the mark of quality and so it is too with the Gigabeat, its rival to the full-sized iPod. For those firmly in the Windows camp it works seamlessly with Media Player 10 and the music download sites so far available here. A solid, brushed-steel body is broken only to accommodate a large colour screen. A big plus-shaped control pad on the front of the Gigabeat doesn’t have the smooth, touch-sensitive quality of the iPod’s scroll wheel but allows easy navigation through the Gigabeat’s menu. Placed on its cradle the Gigabeat syncs easily with your computer and when plugged in directly via a USB cable functions as a hard drive for storing files.
There’s a photo viewer as well. The Gigabeat isn’t perfect but it does show Toshiba is serious about the portable music player market.
Price: $470
Noelleeming.co.nz
COWON IAUDIO X5 20GB
Don’t write off this Korean gadget maker just because you’ve never heard the name. The compact X5 is a powerful little device that works independently of proprietary software to give you quick access if you just want to transfer songs across. It supports a good range of file formats and was allowing video play back on its colour screen well before the video iPod appeared. It’s also an FM tuner and voice recorder as well and comes with a leather case. A small, metal jog dial gives access to the X5’s fairly simple menu. While more functional that the iPod, the X5 will really have to come down in price to compete with the king of music players. Keep an eye out for one on special.
Price: $580
Ascent.co.nz
SAMSUNG 1GB DIGITAL PLAYER
Samsung’s range of flash-based portable music players are ideal for lovers of the great outdoors. They come wrapped in a rubber condom which protects the buttons from moisture and gives the small player a ruggedised look. It has a colour screen about the same size as that on the average mobile phone and serves several functions – music and video play back, FM radio, line-in recording and voice recording. The video function is surprisingly good for such a device that weighs just 55 grams and battery life was impressive (up to 20 hours). The memory has enough capacity to hold 400 songs.
Price: $399
Noelleeming.co.nz
IPOD 30GB
The Nano impressed with revolutionary design but the reigning champion in music players is the full-sized video iPod released a couple of months ago. It updated the traditional iPod to allow video to be played back on its screen. Overseas, iPod owners can download Desperate Housewives to their iPod through iTunes. We don’t enjoy such luxury yet, but for your own video clips or movies downloaded via the internet, the iPod makes a capable and watchable video player. The 30GB version is also capable of holding up to 7000 songs – probably your entire music collection. For Mac users it’s a must and even Windows users will appreciate the simplicity of the iPod-iTunes combination.
Price: $529
Apple.co.nz

GRIFFIN'S BEST GAMES OF 2005


I write game reviews in the Time Out section of the Weekend Herald under the title Joystick (I didn't have anything to do with naming the column). By and large, game reviewing is a fun if not time-consuming way to earn a few bucks.

2005 for me will go down as the year that Microsoft's Xbox really jumped ahead of the PS2 in terms of titles available and graphics. I review games across all consoles but to be honest, if I'm asked what format I want to review a multi-console release game, I'll say Xbox. The developers have really been pushing the limits of the Xbox's capabilities. My top two games of the year are actually games that strictly speaking were released late last year. But Half Life 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas both got releases on the Xbox this year and they look great.

Here then are my top ten games from the 100 or so I've played and reviewed in the last year.


1. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Yes it’s violent and the hidden porn scene scandal which broke earlier in the year had video game critics in a frenzy, but San Andreas achieved much more than that. It’s clever, subversive take on American culture was lapped up by adult gamers, it’s free-form game play giving players more control than ever before. The third installment in the Grand Theft Auto series, San Andreas gives you a vast environment to explore, all sorts of cars, planes and boats to hijack and the convincing world of the ghetto gangster.
2. Half Life 2
The beleaguered scientist Gordon Freeman returns to Black Messa to battle more mutants, aliens and this time a psychopathic police force straight out of Orwell’s 1984. Game developer Valve did a fantastic job creating complex cityscapes and missions that kept me occupied for weeks. Like its predecessor, Half Life 2 is dark and creepy but fascinating. It also made a nice transition to the Xbox. If its depth you’re after in a graphic-intensive role-player, it doesn’t get better than Half Life 2.
3. Civilization 4
The best turn-based strategy game of all time had a graphics overhaul and enough new content added to it to breathe new life into the Civilization franchise. The game charts your rise to global domination as the head of a world super power and gives you a good lesson in life along the way. You could easily play this all summer.
4. Peter Jackson’s King Kong
The movie got rave reviews and the game isn’t half bad either. Kong’s world looks stunning and a clean, uncluttered user interface lends a realistic feel to this action adventure game that seems to have benefited greatly from Peter Jackson’s hands-on involvement. It’s not another video game sequel either.
5. Battlefield 2
The sequel to the hugely successful military multiplayer game Battlefield:1941 brings the combat into the current day in a global tussle for power between the United States, China and the Middle Eastern Coalition. Battlefield 2’s impressive level of detail, realistic weaponry and game play made it the hit of the year among online gamers, most of whom had to upgrade their computers to run it properly.
6. Burnout Revenge
An explosive mix of high-speed car racing and painfully realistic crashes made Burnout Revenge the best racer of the year. It’s all about over-the-top traffic pile-ups and aggressive street sprints where the aim is to shunt your competitors into walls at high speed. It’s a quick game to finish but has huge replay potential.
7. Gran Turismo 4
The console world’s best racing game returned to the PS2 to deliver more cars, more tracks and a better driving experience. Gran Turismo continues to get the mix of aesthetics and game play right, which helped it beat off competition this year from Forza Motorsport.
8. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Chaos Theory has it all, Bourne Supremacy-type gadgets, lush and realistic animation and a plot dreamt up by thriller novelist Tom Clancy. The game’s focus on stealth and espionage was a nice relief from the myriad number of shoot-em-ups released this year.
9. Sid Meier’s Pirates!
A refreshing family console game based on the old computer classic about adventure on the Spanish Main during the golden age of pirates. The ability to forge your own path, either as a legitimate trader or marauding pirate gives endless possible outcomes. A new graphics engine and lush animation brings the 17th century Caribbean to life. Strategic, exciting and ingeniously put together.
10. God of War
A hugely imaginative role player that delves into world of Greek mythology. As the Spartan warrior Kratos you embark on an odyssey to kill Ares the God of War but are faced with the deadly Medusa, Cyclops and multi-headed Hydras on the way. A good blend of puzzle solving and all out action.

17/12/2005

KONG'S "EXIT" STRATEGY

I caught King Kong last night, shelling out for the luxury of the Cinelounge on Courtenay Place. It was $4 bourbon and cokes delivered to my lazy-boy recliner and a never-ending popcorn supply. I needed it. We caught the 10.40pm session and didn't get out of there till 2am. I got a chuckle watching a stream of girls coming out of the cinema dabbing their eyes. At screenwriting school we had an informal competition running to try and write an ending to our scripts that would make our mentor, the playwright Ken Duncum cry. Only one of use achieved that, but I'm sure Ken would have shed a tear at the end of King Kong. I was too busy recovering from the vertigo-inducing shots of Kong atop the Empire State Building to get too emotional about his free fall to the New York streets.
All the hype and glorious five star reviews are true, Kong is fantastic. My favourite bits were:
***SPOILERS AHEAD***
The attacking giant Wetas and sucking slugs sequence: If any scene in the movie is going to give the kids nightmares, this is it. Our scariest looking living national treasure takes to Adrien Brody and company with a speed and viciousness you thankfully never see with the real three inch variety. I've got a "thing" about wetas after putting on a shoe a few days after arriving in New Zealand and surpisingly one of the angular little buggers who had camped out in there. The experience scarred me for life. But consider the scene in King Kong, where Brody is covered by a swarm of giant wetas all trying to gnaw away at him. Ouch! Almost more excruciating to watch was Colin Hanks trying to blast the creatures off Brody with his carbine. I was sure the screenwriter was going to be blown away, which wouldn't have done at all. The scene where Andy Serkis gets his head suckered by the pink, fleshy slug rivals the exploding chest scene in Alien.
The crumbling ridge scene: A bunch of impossibly nimble dinosaurs chase the Venture party along a rocky ledge, which crumbles under the weight of the beasts sending dinosaurs and crew mates spinning over the edge. I love watching people and animals falling off cliffs like those prehistoric mammoths Cromagnon Man used to chase over the edge.
Kong tearing up the Civic Theatre: If you've ever caught a movie seated on the top level at the Civic in Auckland you'll appreciate the leap Kong has to take to get up there in his attempt to catch Adrien Brody (there's a bit of jealously there on Kong's part you see). Eventually the giant ape leaps onto the top floor, which collapses under his weight and creates one of the best special effects shots of the movie.
Dive bombing Kong on the Empire State: The final sequence with the airforce attacking Kong with their machine guns is nothing but spectacular, but I like the way Jackson manipulates us by using some incredible, floating camera work. We seem to float around the tower and our view skewes as the planes zoom past at various angles. I was clutching the arms of my lazy-boy so as not to fall forward. The background scenery was also breath-taking.
The lame-ass bits:
The green, fluorescent exit signs in plain view in the Civic theatre. Why the hell didn't Jackson remove these or have them digitally erased? Maybe he thought they looked the part or could be mistaken for 1930s style exit signs. But the fact is. they can't. They are those garden-variety glowing green exit signs to get in any public building. As soon as I saw the first one I panned across to the exit sign of the theatre I was in and groaned. Why oh why did he keep the modern signage? In one shot, the sign appears, thankfully out of focus, right above Adrien Brody's head. For me, the presence of the signs was highly distracting and just made me think that despite all the special effects and attention to detail, the film makers had let a real clanger slip by.

The fact that Kong breaks loose from an evening show hosted by Jack Black at, say midnight at the latest and after a quick rampage through the streets of New York climbs the Empire State Building in time for the sun to come up. What happened to the seven or so hours in between?

I though the dialogue was by and large good except for the last line of the movie uttered by the unusually reserved Jack Black. An observer notes that the planes killed King Kong to which Black replies something to the effect of: "It wasn't the planes that killed him. Beauty killed the beast."

I guess he had to say something and he is a flaky film director after all but this line just deflated the ending for me.

Overall though a top-notch effort, which makes more than a little perturbed that the movie which cost nearly a quarter billion dollars to make, took a measly US$9.8 million on Wednesday and an even more pathetic $6.8million on Thursday at the US Box Office. I haven't seen any tallies yet for Friday but it's going to be a nail-biting weekend for Uinversal. They had hoped to bring in $100 million in the first three days of release. That sounds ludicrous, but consider the fact that Spiderman 2 took around $40 million in its opening day, such figures aren't out of the question.

What the hell is wrong with the yanks? This is their movie and the American critic loved it. I just hope it follows the trend set by Titantic and goes on to be a slow but incredibly profitable burner.

16/12/2005

BUDDE'S UNBUNDLING ARGUMENT PART 2

1. Digital Cities

1.1 Warm fuzzy initiative

The government in New Zealand has made $24 million available under the ‘Digital Cities’ scheme to drive new infrastructure developments in the country. Cities can apply for funding of projects under the scheme.

While the project has been widely applauded, and indeed on paper it looks like a warm fuzzy initiative, I would challenge the reality.

1.2 Where is the blueprint?

First of all, as I said when the regional telecoms infrastructure Probe project started up several years ago, where is the blueprint, what infrastructure is in place and can be used and where are the black spots? Although some work has been done on this during the Probe 2 project, I have been unable to uncover anything that looks even vaguely like a blueprint. I know attempts have been made, but without far more stringent government direction attached to the scheme, nothing significant has eventuated.

1.3 Not $24 million – $500 million is needed

Over the last few years I have indicated that approximately $500 million is needed, over the next 5 to 10 years, to future-proof telecoms infrastructure in economically non-viable areas. So in that respect the $24 million is a total farce. This money would, in my opinion, have been better spent in creating a master plan, doing a national infrastructure inventory and getting together those involved in infrastructure to assist in finding the right solutions. This should include alternative providers such as government networks, fx networks, TelstraClear, utilities and railways.

Once such a master plan is in place, projects can be selected and investment plans can be developed, perhaps on a $for$ basis. The current $24 million is so small that it will not motivate the cities or their partners to seriously fund the other 95% of the costs of such projects.

1.4 Power to the cities

I do like the aspect of the project in which the cities are becoming involved. Over the last five years I have visited 50 local councils and ‘preached’ the message of the broadbanding of their local communities. From experience I know that a lot of education is required to get a more widespread understanding of the need for such projects. Without a due diligence project aimed at doing so the response from the cities will, at best, be lacklustre. I have fine-tuned this process and will be happy to make a report available, free of charge, in which I outline the aspects of such projects.

Given a master plan and well-informed councils, it would be possible to proceed to the next level. Interestingly, once councils are convinced of the importance they can greatly facilitate the broadbanding of their local communities. They can make facilities available, and promote the benefits of it to their citizens. This alone could bring the costs of these projects down by as much as 30%. In other words, theoretically you then only need $350 million instead of $500 million, and under a $for$ funding the government contribution can also be equally reduced.

1.5 Ultimate solution is structural separation

To throw all of the above into disarray; another alternative is to structurally separate Telecom and give the infrastructure company generated from such a split a regulated infrastructure monopoly in all areas, except perhaps the CBDs. The network, however, needs to be an open network for everybody, to be used on equal terms.

Needless to say, the infrastructure company must be able to earn a decent ROI.

While it might be difficult for the government to embark on such an ambitious project, over time it will happen anyway. The Internet economy requires an open network infrastructure and Internet companies are already in the process of bypassing the incumbent networks (cherry-picking). I question if this is actually in the national interest, or in the interest of, for example, Telecom. So, if an open network is the inevitable end result, the clever approach for all parties involved would be to start moving in that direction now.

Once this is happening you will actually also begin to see the digital city networks being gobbled up again by the national infrastructure providers. As with all infrastructure, this is a big boys’ club – it needs deep pockets and it requires scale. Just take a loot at the other local utilities-based infrastructure projects over the last 100 years and you will see that this process is a recurring one.

1.6 Value-added infrastructure services

The infrastructure companies have more than ample opportunity to increase their revenues, as the Internet economy requires a whole range of value-added services such as datacentres, CRMs, billing, network management, security, transactions, content hosting, etc.

The retail company can then show its true marketing and sales skills in winning over customers, based not on a monopoly position but on their retail customer service skills – all of this in competition with its rivals who will be able to ‘own’ their own customers and do all of their own marketing and sales activities quite independently of Telecom Retail.

1.7 Reaction from the Minister

The Minister David Cunliffe responded to my comments in The Line, by saying that I was placing too much reliance on Government policy for achieving the goals of the strategy.

My response to the Minister is that I sincerely hope to be proven wrong. I very much support the idea of Digital Cities. However, based on my 5 years of experience with digital cities projects I very much disagree that this can be driven without strong government policies.

If in a year or so if the Minister is proven to be right and I am wrong I will shout him a first class dinner with first class wine. I would loved to be proven wrong on this matter

2. Mobile analyses and key trends

2.1 Econet’s arrival in New Zealand

In a daring attempt to break open the heavily guarded New Zealand mobile market, minnow EcoNet has launched its plan to enter the market as the third player – initially in Auckland and, if successful, expanding throughout the country.

In previous analyses I have said that I couldn’t see TelstraClear entering the mobile market. However, I indicated that there was an opportunity for it to look at wireless broadband which, within the not too distant future, can also deliver VoIP. This didn’t eventuate. Re EcoNet, I argued that its only opportunity would be as a price buster. I recently reported from my trip to India that Barti is able to profitably offer $5 a month mobile packages in that country.

As New Zealand has amongst the highest mobile charges in the developed world, there obviously are great opportunities. I argue that Econet could offer discounts as large as 50% based on some of the current prices.

All great news for competition and I will most certainly be cheering them on. However, there is little hope that Vodafone and Telecom will let Econet get away with this. At best they will allow them to capture less about a 10% market share, to keep the regulator off their backs – but not much more. Therefore Econet will rely on active regulatory intervention to make this happen. So far the country has not shown great leadership on regulatory issues, so I think that the company will face an uphill battle here also.

However, with Econet New Zealand does have a chance to bust the cosy duopoly, and, even if Econet fails, its effect on the New Zealand market will be positive. I, of course, would like to see it succeed, to become a strong new player in the market. I will be keeping a close watch on its progress over the next year, and especially, of course, once it launches the service, planned for 2007.

2.2 Where to go from here, Vodafone?

After successfully establishing itself as the leader in the mobile market Vodafone has now reached the point where it will have to move in new directions.

It could continue to take more market share away from Telecom, but that would only draw more attention from the regulator, so that is not necessarily the best strategy.

Vodafone’s strong position here, where it basically can set the mobile agenda is a serious threat to Telecom.

2.3 Telecom leaves itself vulnerable

Of course, they do have the option to start attacking Telecom in the fixed voice market. Telecom is extremely vulnerable here, as it still relies far too much on the traditional voice services. It is failing to transfer customers to broadband where it would have a much better chance of growing new revenue streams and building up protection against any substitution attacks from Vodafone.

The longer it waits with this the more vulnerable it will be, and eventually Vodafone will bite the bullet and introduce capped prices that will allow it to move into this market.

It requires number portability to be in place and Vodafone is now a prisoner of its own poor tactics - in the early days it was party to the procrastination on portability and is now paying the price. F2M opportunities will also be limited by the antiquated Kiwi Share Obligation that successive governments have merely tinkered with and that is central to the preservation of Telecom's monopoly

But nevertheless, without any serious competitive pressure, the company will be reluctant to drive prices down to such an extent that a substantial number of customers will move over to Vodafone. Prices will need to drop to below $25 per month to get substitution effects of close to 10%.

The company can also move into wireless broadband; however the current 2G and 3G networks prevent it from offering competitive services in this market. After ten years of trying to flog mobile data services the results have been miserable. Of the 15% non-voice services over mobile networks, roughly 10% is messaging, 2%-4% ringtones and wallpaper, with only 1% being true mobile data services. The business model based on mobile networks (which are optimised for voice services) simply doesn’t stack up for wireless broadband services, which require, not only high speeds, but also low prices (think Internet).

2.4 Wireless broadband opportunities for mobility

Wireless broadband (WiMAX) could offer the solution here and perhaps 4G would be another alternative. But mass markets are still at least two to three years away.

So it will be interesting to see in which direction Vodafone will jump. My bet is that it is not in a hurry to jump in any direction soon. Yet it will continue to make noises that make Telecom nervous, and a nervous Telecom will be making mistakes – and that’s when Vodafone will go in for the kill.

Ultimately I believe the future for Vodafone lies in the mobility market. Over the next ten years the mobile voice market, now 90% of its business, will be transformed into a wireless broadband market (90% data-driven), offering broadband products around mobility – think ipods, video pods, Blackberries, games and music devices all linked to ubiquitous wireless broadband networks (WiFi and WiMAX).

There will be many more, and the key function will be around mobility applications. All these devices will also be able to handle voice (VoIP).

This market is still greatly under-developed, but we will catch the first glimpse of the future later on in 2006. Ultimately I see the wireless broadband and mobile markets merging.

WHY NZ SHOULD BE UNBUNDLED

In a previous blog I posted some excerpts from research by the Australian telecoms analyst Paul Budde about wireless internet provider Woosh Wireless. Budde has strong views about why New Zealand is in the toilet when it comes to broadband penetration and our comparability to other OECD countries in the area of telecommunications. He thinks the Government stuffed up big time not forcing Telecom to unbundle its network a couple of years ago and I agree with him.

Below I've posted his latest sumary of the case for unbundling now:

Unbundle New Zealand

1.1 Telecom not exposed to competition

By far the most debated issue during my roundtables in New Zealand was the issue of local loop unbundling (LLU). There is still significant confusion on this issue. Innovative telecommunications services in New Zealand are very limited, there is no competition, and there is little understanding of what the new technologies have to offer if they are made available in a competitive environment.

On the one hand, Telecom is reluctant to move into the brave new world of convergence as it has a vast existing service (voice) and network to protect, and it is trying, like many other telcos around the world, to find the right business models. Given the lack of significant competition there is little pressure on Telecom to be more entrepreneurial in its approach towards broadband and new business models such as triple play. So this has led to the current state of inertia.

1.2 Entrepreneurs are shackled

On the other hand, the competitors, first of all, don’t have the opportunities to add their entrepreneurship to the telecoms market, as, under the current regulatory system, Telecom is protected – and, unlike most other incumbents in the western world, it doesn’t have to provide an LLU service that would allow the competitors to build their own broadband products and try out their own triple play and other innovative business models.

But even if they were to have access to such an environment they are too small to have a major impact on the overall development of the market. Nevertheless, this is, in the foreseeable future, the country’s only hope of maximising competitive impact on the market.

By the way, I don’t expect TelstraClear to come back in a hurry, or to re-enter the residential market in any major way soon.

The tragedy is that the entrepreneurs who are establishing in the ISP market - Ihug, Orcon, ICONZ etc - exist only for as long as they keep their heads down. Telecom can snuff them out any time as it showed in 1999 with the 0867 debacle. Its power to steamroll the market sadly has not really diminished.

1.3 Government doesn’t seem to understand the issue

Because of the lack of exposure to new developments in this market (unlike the situation in Europe and North America for the last 5 to 7 years, and in Australia for at least the last 18 months) on a government level also there doesn’t seem to be a good understanding of the issue.

It was only two years ago that New Zealand appeared to have got it right. There was widespread support for LLU, the industry, the regulator and the Minister were all aligned on the issue; but apparently the Prime Minister personally intervened, most likely under lobbying pressure from Telecom, and in a very undemocratic way implementation of LLU was prevented. As was only exposed in December again there appears to be an unhealthy closeness in the relationship between top government figures and the top management of Telecom. The core problem is that the government still sees Telecom as a quasi state agency, and Telecom milks that positioning for all it is worth.

1.4 A new USB monster

The signs are not good. Instead of embarking on the LLU issue the government in its infinite wisdom is trying to introduce an ugly little monster into the market – a USB product in the form of a vanilla, best-effort broadband pipe that can be used by the competitors to be resold. While, potentially, the speeds could be up to 7.5Mb/s, there are no guarantees, no QoS, no product differentiation. This applies both to Telecom and to its competitors.

There is little or no incentive for Telstra to upgrade, improve or enhance the ‘pipe’ and, as it still is a simple ‘retail minus’ wholesale product, the competitors can’t do anything other than simply resell – no stimulus at all for new business models such as triple play, innovation and product differentiation.

1.5 Voluntary LLU offerings

I would argue that, considering how ugly this product could be for Telecom, they should quickly take the initiative and voluntarily start introducing LLU. They may initially lose revenue to those who will immediately take up LLU for price competition purposes, but in the long run, when the real advantages of broadband become clearer, the national operator will be able to offer a more differentiated level of services to its wholesale customers and this would allow them to sell other value-added infrastructure services to them.

It would be a real shame if telecommunications in New Zealand were to sink to such a low level that it is not utilised to help the country improve people’s lifestyles and to stimulate innovative new broadband developments.

Furthermore, if Telecom were willing to take a leadership role in developing the broader telecoms market it would also be able to guide the regulatory process in what would be, for them, a more favourable direction.

THE FREE FACE OF THE WEB

Looking over my Webwalk columns for the year I noticed I devoted a lot of time to a: talking about Google, which I think is the world's most innovative internet company and b: internet services which are free to use yet incredibly useful.

My column in today's Herald outlined my favourite free services which were either launched this year or gained critical mass. I post the column here and welcome any additional links to great free web services.

Peter Griffin: Free-access sites were the big story of the year

For me, 2005 will go down as the year that the internet became really useful. The test, in my book, is whether I can use a web service without having to punch in my credit card number.

This year, "free" came into vogue. All sorts of compelling web services emerged that are free to use. Sure, the people running them will monitor our activity, try to sell us things and attempt to lure us into their "premium" sections, but they don't charge us for walking through the front door. The rise of the free-access model has changed the internet for the better.

Just look at the hive of activity in the Google camp this year. We saw the launch of Google Earth, the free satellite mapping service. Google Talk introduced free internet telephony and messaging to Google users. The controversial, but extremely useful and free Google Print got under way and we saw the debut of Google Desktop, which efficiently searches your computer and the internet for related files. It's free, too. I almost forgot about Google.com itself, which has added picture searches and a retailer search in Froogle. All free.

Amazon came up with A9.com, a free and useful search engine that returns results from the web as well as the books Amazon sells. The kingpin in the free internet calling market, Skype, was scooped up by eBay and while it offers subscriptions for making calls to regular landlines, the PC-to-PC calling service remains absolutely free. T

he past year saw the emergence of Podcasting, where recorded audio is packaged into mp3 files for downloading and playing back on your music player or computer. Much of this content is free to download, though you'll want a broadband internet connection to avoid long delays. The vast range of online radio stations remain, by and large, free to listen to. From the BBC World Service to Californian heavy metal station Knac.com, the audio feeds are free and accessible via the internet anywhere in the world.

The free almanac on everything, Wikipedia, was going gangbusters till this week, when the discovery of a major factual stuff-up in an article about former US President John F. Kennedy's assassination threw the site's credibility into doubt. Wikipedia is a fantastic resource. I've learned about topics I'd never have explored through its clever system of directing you to related topics and then on to other related topics in a neverending cycle of enlightenment. Most of the information on Wikipedia seems accurate, but its managers are going to have to monitor the service closely if it is to remain an often-consulted information source. The free section of Britannica's online encyclopaedia became a lot more useful and I've bypassed my Oxford dictionary for Dictionary.com when it comes to straightforward word checks. The service is totally free and hasn't let me down yet.

The web has done great things this year for pooling information about popular culture. At Metacritic.com, the US reviews of games, movies, books and albums are aggregated to give you an overview of what the top critics thought of the latest releases. King Kong, for instance, has so far accumulated a Metacritic rating of 83 out of 100 based on published reviews so far. That signals "universal acclaim". I spend hours scanning the reviews at Metacritic.com The hugely popular imdb.com has become the ultimate website for movie trivia, reviews and information. As a wannabe screenwriter, I subscribe to its premium section (imdbpro.com) to gain access to all the Hollywood trade statistics, but imdb's free service should be the first stop for movie buffs.

There are even free services to streamline your efforts in navigating the free services out there. I start my day at Bloglines.com, which aggregates my favourite news and weblog feeds. Through one web-browser pane, which I've customised to my own tastes, I can instantly see the updated RSS (really simple syndication) feeds of my favourite websites. It costs nothing to join and saves you jumping between websites. There's no way back from Bloglines for me. I took advantage of another planet Google service and became a blogger myself using its successful Blogger.com service. Within 10 minutes my blog was up and running. Posting messages is hassle-free and I pay no hosting charges or subscription fees. Thousands of people now have their own soapbox in cyberspace and it costs them nothing. Those who want more control of their web logs and design flexibility opted for the sophisticated and totally free blogging software Wordpress. It uses the open source (and free) MySQL database software to give huge scope in developing web logs with depth. You don't have to hand over a penny for web services that a few years ago a web developer would have charged you thousands of dollars to put together.

Other free aggregation services, such as the highbrow news and arts website Arts and Letters Daily thrived without changing the recipe much. Trade Me continued to attract much of the web traffic our small country generates with its popular online auction service, which is free to all except sellers, who pay a commission to Trade Me. Wises.co.nz does a great job of displaying free maps of the entire country, down to specific roads. I've consulted it countless times before leaving the house in a rush to get somewhere.

But it hasn't all been a free ride. Many websites I used to frequent now want me to pay a subscription fee. The biggest mover to switch to the paid model locally this year, regrettably, was the Herald Online. The Herald website now requires paid subscriptions for "premium" content, which includes this column and the work of many Herald contributors. The move ends six years of free, unlimited access to the Herald's digital vault of content and I, for one, am sad. Being totally free, the website attracted a huge international audience that filled my inbox with interesting comments. But someone living in Houston or Hong Kong isn't likely to shell out for a Herald Online subscription unless they're a Kiwi expat.

Who knows what next year will bring? Maybe all the web services we've come to rely on will go premium. But I doubt it. The online advertising model has gained enough traction to become viable. A lot of that is thanks to Google, which came up with an ingenious yet simple way of displaying adverts based on our web use. The adverts are there, they're targeting every time I use a Google service, but they're relatively subtle, unintrusive. The services mentioned above are the tip of the iceberg. I hope the trend continues in 2006 towards web services that are functional, easy to use and most of all, free.

10/12/2005

FOE OR FRIEND, WE WERE ALL EQUAL IN THE END

Many of the articles I write are about telecommunications services and devices - phones and calling plans, high-speed data cards and wireless gadgets. The problem with doing that in this country is that there are just two mobile phone networks so you're only ever comparing the latest smartphone of monthly account package to one other player.

These days there is increasingly less separating Telecom and Vodafone who exist in an incredibly cosy duopoly. So there is also less separating the deals and phones the two players provide. This makes for less interesting writing as diversity in the market always gives more options for comparison.

Nevertheless, the people who market and develop the various offerings of the major telcos see a huge chasm between themselves and the opposition. They'll argue to the death over minute details that don't really make any difference to the paying consumers using their services. They do this because it's relatively easy to switch provider here and there's only one alternative when it comes to mobile. These telco types are also pretty militant when they see their network/service/brand criticised. As a result, I've developed some pretty tempestuous relationships with some of the people at the telcos. Slate one company's offering and they immediately claim you're in the pocket of the other company.

Well, my major sparring partner at one of the telcos (the message below will give away which one) is throwing in the towel but couldn't resist having one final dig before going.

Mobile phone manager:

"Although you and I have never appeared to see eye to eye in the public arena I would like to think that we both see the world through similar coloured glasses..."

What colour would that be? Surely not Ferrari red!?

"However the bottom line is Telecom are a bunch of wankers and their technology is crap, no matter how much sugar you or them ever put on it its not going to change anything.

(Shrugs his shoulders indifferently so as to be seen as being objective) "Whatever, okay."

"Its always been an experience working with you and in most cases a good one, after all any publicity is good publicity right???"

That's right. Now why didn't you say that a few months back when you were screaming at me for slamming your products in the paper!?

No really, I'll miss this joker, there's nothing wrong with a decent helping of animosity in a relationship. Piss someone off enough and they'll always remember you. I love winding people up and this one would go off like a double happy! Farewell and good luck.

Standing in ZOO Station...without a ticket

My column in the Herald about missing out on U2 tickets and the subsequent scalping of the tickets on Trademe.co.nz provoked a mixed bag of replies. A lot of fans are bitter at Ticketmaster, the ticketing company handling the two gigs to be held on March the 17th and 18th.

I can understand their frustration at missing out on the tickets but get real folks, U2 is the best band in the world, they're only here for a few days, they'll play their gigs, pack up their jumbo jets and leave 75,000 happy, concert-going fans behind. Tough luck to everyone who missed out and the best ticketing systems in the world won't magically increase the size of the rat shit, accoustically challenged Ericsson stadium.

As one poster on Trademe rightly said: "Dry your eyes and buy a CD". I couldn't agree more. If you haven't got it already, get yourself a copy of Achtung Baby, U2's early nineties swerve towards hard rock and electronica. It's their best album. Also check out The Unforgettable Fire, the album that confirmed U2's trademark sound.

I managed to score a standing ticket of a mate who waited outside Real Groovy all night so I'll make it to the gig after all. St. Patrick's day 2006 is going to be one huge party!


From Simon:

I take your points about the 'free market' vis a vis TradeMe, but isn't there a serious flaw in the Ticketmaster system if so many people can be so easily disappointed? Sure, one could argue that 38,000 weren't disappointed but like yourself (and everyone I've spoken to) I wasted a day trying to book online, by phone, and in person -- and still no ticket. Why do Ticketmaster insist on saying their system did not crash? Is it to protect themselves when rivals Ticketek pitch for the next big concert? How can the system have not failed if even the Post Shops could not sell tickets at 9.15am? If Ticketmaster want to 'throttle' the sytsem why don't they just make ALL tickets available through the Eketahuna Post Office only?

I appreciate you're just the IT guy @ the Herald, but really ... there's a story here somewhere - but the media aren't chasing it. If there was nothing wrong with the Ticketmaster system why are they waiting a whole week to put the second concert on-sale? If tickets went on sale the following day they could have capitalised on all the disappointed punters and dealt to the scalpers at the same time.

Maybe it's Coppel selling those tickets on TradeMe ...!?!


From Steve:

So how much are you willing to pay for a ticket? I've got mine! :-)

Just in relation to your story, I believe the ticketmaster site failed miserably under the load. Since NZ and Aussie are the same site the NZ site was completely inaccessible for the rest of the day when Aussietickets went on sale. I managed to get my tickets online at 0940 after40 mins of trying but even that was a bad experience - after I got through I had a page pop up giving me ticket options and had no imagesload obviously due to the heavy load.

Because their stupid web designerdidn't use any for their images I guessed that one of the nonexistant images was the one for continue and then got a page which gaveme seat numbers and then booted me out. I then got a confirmation emailabout a minute later so was grateful that I did have tickets but it was10pm at night before I could actually get into the 'check my order' partof the site to actually confirm I did have tickets and to find out myseat numbers despite having tried probably 100 times throughout the dayand early evening. Once you are in the booking system itself thereshould be sufficient bandwidth for me to actually use the site properly,this was definitely not the case.

While I'm a bit of a geek I'm no expert on web site loading but it's obvious their system seriously struggled under the load and had poordesign from the start - you couldn't even log onto the site or create anaccount, the main booking part of the site should be on a different boxthat at least allows access to the ticketmaster main site which wasoverloaded as well.

I guess you can't expect much however running a siteon Microsoft Software and ASP - maybe they should be looking at Linux alternatives for a database backend! It was also interesting to see NZ Post failed so miserably as well, do you actually know how their systems are interfaced to ticketmaster? Howcome so many post shops said all their tickets were sold and thensuddenly got new allocations?

7/12/2005

WOOSH AT A PUSH

So it canned the share float, the analysts reckon it's worth about a fifth of what it used to be and wireless internet and telephony player Woosh Wireless is still dogged by user horror stories of unreliable internet connections.

I really want this company to be a success. The guys who run it, Rod Inglis and Bob Smith are true entrepreneurs, ballsy and genuinely nice people to boot. And the world needs a hero like Woosh to save us from "the monopoly" ie: Telecom. But I fear for Woosh's future, not just because recapitalising the company may prove difficult with the lack of interest among potential new investors.

I fear for them because it's still unclear as to wether Woosh can profitably run a mass market service using the wireless technology it has selected. WiMax is still a little way away from widespread release and the equipment is still expensive but it threatens to change the game for the telecoms industry. A number of players are piling into WiMax here, which is bad news for Woosh which has had a three year headstart but is only now getting its commercial VoIP service off the ground.

Here's what telecoms analyst Paul Budde has to say about Woosh in his 2006 report on the local telecoms market:
  • The nagging question, whether Woosh has selected the right technology, won’t seem to go away. In particular there are questions about the spectrum. Their current allocation will not allow them to move into the standardised WiMAX technologies.

    Nevertheless, the company continues to move forward, despite the extremely rocky road so far. I also remain worried about their continued defensive attitude, both regarding the regulatory environment and the technology.

    Recently also the Wired City service unravelled – another sad end to a good initiative that entered the market too early. It is a pity to see this competitor disappearing. Of course, not all is lost, as Compass will continue to service the 2,000 customers currently on the network, but it is still a promising competitor lost.

    At the same time we see companies such as Telecom juggling with a range of other quasi wireless broadband products based on their mobile networks. So obviously they were a key potential buyer of some of the Wired City spectrum, which would allow them to move into proper wireless broadband services. It is interesting to note that Telecom was specifically excluded from this spectrum in order to give facilities-based competition an opportunity in New Zealand. Telecom also thought about this and simply pre-empted any decision by buying the spectrum off Wired City without official clearance from the regulator. The Commerce Commission retaliated by immediately launching an investigation into the matter. It would be a pity if that policy were now to be undone.

    The reality is that the future of wireless broadband and mobile is still under a cloud of uncertainty. There are three key developments
    wireless in competition with fixed broadband
    wireless mobility in competition with mobile data
    mobile communications in competition with wireless mobility.

    The key issues here are that fixed broadband based on FttH will be the endgame for most of New Zealand cities, both capital and regional. Wireless broadband in conjunction with satellite will look after maximum 20%-30% of areas where it is economically unfeasible to roll out FttH networks.

    The real game for wireless broadband is in the area of mobility – similar to the fixed networks there will be a shift from voice to data. At present 90% of mobile revenues come from voice services; by 2015 this will only be 10%.

    The current mobile networks, however, are unsuitable for the delivery of user-friendly high-speed broadband services for the mobility market. It will take at least another 2 to 3 years before they will have the next generation of such mobile networks available. WiMAX is a dedicated technology for wireless broadband and now also delivers wireless mobility, so, as a dedicated technology, the wireless operators are in a prime position to become successful in this new market.

    This makes it possible for WiMAX to move into this market. Of course, they will be up against the formidable powers of the mobile operators who are certainly not going to sit back and allow their lunch to be eaten by the newcomers. This will set the scene for some very interesting battles between the mobile and wireless giants and it is still uncertain who will be the winners.

    It came as a bit of a surprise to me to hear that Call Plus was sitting on some old 2G spectrum that it can now use for wireless broadband. It has been quietly testing some of these services. They are happy with the technical performance and as soon as the business case for WiMAX stacks up we could see them moving more aggressively into this market.

After a lot of messing around, calls to the Woosh helpline and tweaking Norton Internet Security settings to let me use the Woosh internet phone, I'm finally up and running for internet and voice.

I'll be writing a full review of the service for the Herald in the next couple of weeks so won't give away too much here but so far I'm reasonably impressed. The softphone doesn't offer great voice quality but I'll wait till I set up the gateway and plug in my regular home phone to see what type of quality that offers. I'll keep you posted...

6/12/2005

GRIFFIN'S GADGETS

I'm a big reader of blogs on everything from politics to technology to screenwriting, but I never expected to start my own one. I have a couple of columns published in the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz) every week and finding enough stuff to fill the column inches given to me can be hard enough. But these days so much stuff is sent my way I've not enough space in the paper to cope with it all. That's where the internet comes in handy. I'm kicking off this occasional blog to hopefully spark some discussion on topics I'm interested in.

I've called the blog Griffin's Gadgets because that's the title I almost seriously tried to get the bosses at the Herald to call my column a couple of years back. That sort of went down like a lead balloon in an editorial meeting at the time. They settled for keeping the name "Connect".

I'll be talking mainly about tech stuff, hopefully in words that the masses will understand. I want this to be a forum for debate on topics that may be kicked off in my columns in the paper or by articles I write in other publications.

I'm new to blogging and write thousands of words a week already so I don't know how regularly I'll post here. I have a strange feeling this could take over my life if I'm not careful. I have huge respect for Russell Brown (publicaddress.net) for the amount of content he fills his blogosphere with each week, and he crosses all sorts of genres. If he was payed even a meagre 20c a word he'd be doing pretty well. I'm sure he is anyway.

I don't plan to be nearly as prolific, but check in from time to time to see what's up for discussion. And if you don't want to post comments, you can email me personally at
peter@petergriffin.co.nz

Well that was easy. The sun is shining in Wellington, Chow has two for one cocktails so I'm outta here!