10/08/2006

BLOODY WELL WRITE!

My Herald on Sunday column dealt with the very good free software Google Writely. I haven't started doing the bulk of my word processing in Writely but what I am doing is transferring the file from Word to Writely so I can convert it into a smart looking PDF file. I'm also going to start using it to create posts for this blog as I'm not a big fan of the Blogger user interface and Writely is much smoother. Give it a go! The headline on the story was a little off, it's not designed for bloggers, but word processor users!

Google Writely sets standard for bloggers
Sunday August 6, 2006By Peter Griffin

If you spend a lot of time using word processing software, you can imagine how frustrating it is to log on to a machine that doesn't have any.
Being reduced to using Microsoft's bare-bones Wordpad program after working in Microsoft's Word or Corel's WordPerfect is a real let-down.
But I'm amazed at how many times I've logged on to computers in internet cafes, hotels and the homes of friends and found no word processing software. I have to constantly remind myself that not everyone makes a living from writing.
Still, for those who want access to the same word processing tools wherever they are, Google has the answer in its new acquisition, Writely.
Google's web-based word processing tool lets you create and edit documents quickly and easily. It's completely independent of the programs on your computer - all you'll need to run Writely is a web browser and internet access.
Anyone familiar with Microsoft Word will be at home with Writely's user interface. Pull-down menus give you all the options you'll need to put together documents and import elements such as pictures, HTML content from the web and Word documents.
Your documents are stored in your Writely account on Google's servers, and you can email documents to your Writely account to add them to the collection. Whatever security qualms you had about storing personal information in Google's Gmail service can be applied to Writely, but Google claims that the contents of documents are kept private - if we want it that way.
The most powerful element of Writely is a collaboration tool that lets several Writely users work on the same document. This is fantastic for business people who are in different locations but want to draft a letter or business proposal together. Students could do a class assignment together via the internet in real time. You simply grant access to users you want listed as collaborators. Even then you can decide whether they can merely view the document or also edit it.
Several people can work on one document simultaneously, and when their updates are saved, any changes are highlighted in a colour specific to each editor.
Another great feature is the ability to save documents as PDF files - you usually need a paid-up version of a PDF maker to do this. Documents can also be saved as OpenOffice or Word files, HTML files, RTF files and even as RSS feeds.
The service seems to be skewed towards those who are writing for the web and want to easily convert content to post on websites. Writely lets you create, format and post blog entries automatically. This is a great feature for me, as the Blogger.com interface I use to generate entries for my blog isn't very user friendly. I've been using a Blogger plug-in for Windows to write blog postings, but Writely allows you all that functionality, wherever you are. A host of common blog services such as Wordpress and LiveJournal are supported, and you can set up posts to be added to your own website domain.
Writely is entirely web-based, but I hope Google develops a desktop-based version, because although Writely is in its early days (62 per cent complete, according to the site's beta meter) it could give MS Word a run for its money if released as a free download.
Sign up is by invite only, and you can join the waiting list at www.writely.com.

4/08/2006

TELECOM BY 2010: EXACTLY WHERE IT IS NOW

Considering everything that's gone on at Telecom in the last few months - the scandal around the Government unbundling report leaked to it, the subsequent $3 billion drop in the company's market value, the departure of Chairman Rod Deane, I thought it would be worth getting along to the company's quarterly earnings briefing held in Wellington today.

The event was well attended due to the fact that Telecom has merged its analyst briefing with that reserved for journalists, and despite the drama of the past months, Telecom succeeded in draining any emotion and colour from the proceedings. Good work on the behalf of their media-savvy executives.

It amazes me that the key executives who attended the briefing are still there at all considering two things: the dire performance of Telecom in Australia (a writedown of AAPT accounts for the loss for the year to June 30 of $450 million) and the fact that none of those top executives was able to judge the regulatory environment well enough to avoid the massive drop in Telecom's market value.

As far as AAPT is concerned, I have to agree with one of the Australian analysts who was on conference call from Sydney when he pointed out that it would probably be more sensible to close AAPT down than plow the $270 million into the fragile business that Telecom plans too over the next couple of years.

Still, what do you do? Sack the entire executive? Who will replace them and who is to say anyone else's judgement would be any better. AAPT was handed to the current executive by the previous administration, but the company's handling of regulatory matters has been unforgivable.

A few things of note from the briefing:

- Telecom's total DSL connections are now at 435,000 or 25 per cent of access lines and outstrip dial-up internet lines which are at 310,000. That shows that as far as Telecom's own internet customers, the transition to broadband is progressing reasonably well. Interestingly, 30 per cent of broadband sales happen online.
- Telecom Mobile continues to steam ahead and mobile data revenue was up 54 per cent year on year to $171 million. People are starting to understand mobile devices and laptop data cards and price drops have boosted uptake.
- Telecom will launch a consumer VoIP service in the next year nad plans to have 500,000 connections by the end of the FY07 financial year - that's an ambitious goal. What will be the drivers to VoIP? Lower prices (unlikely) or enhanced services like call management through a web browser (probably).
- Gen-i is a fast-growing IT powerhouse in New Zealand - revenue of around $950 million.
- Telecom insists it has no current plans to ditch its CDMA mobile network technology in favour of the more popular UMTS technology used by Vodafone and the majority of the world's mobile phone operators.

TELECOM'S STRATEGIC RESPONSE

If Telecom tried to get anything across in this briefing it's that the executive has a strategic response to the regulatory shift that will see the company right. But consider this interesting slide from the presentation which outlines the grim reality for Telecom and it's shareholders:

They're going to have to pull all the stops out just to keep EBITDA at the level it is now.

The loss in revenues associated with reduced prices and the erosion in calling as people move to competitors will be offset by cost-cutting and growth in information, entertainment and ICT services. While Telecom is successfully becoming a IT-centric company, these types of services will not provide Telecom with a major boost in EBITDA over the next few years, they'll serve to maintain the financial performance of the company. Telecom effectively has to work a hell of a lot harder, be more innovative and cut costs by 2010 to have the same financial result then as it has now. The alternative is a drop in EBITDA of up to $500 million by 2010 if it carries on with its pre-unbundling investment and cost-cutting strategies.

BUSINESS AS USUAL (AS CAN BE)

Overall, the earnings briefing oozed the same calm efficiency Telecom briefings are known for. There's an obvious desire on the part of Chairman Boyd and Theresa to send a signal that they have everything under control. The truth is that the fancy Powerpoint slides don't account for any of the emerging technologies that could upturn Telecom's projections in the next couple of years. Uncertain times are ahead and Telecom's success will hinge on how well it takes to the structurally seperated model it choose to adopt and th eunbundled model forced upon it.

** Éconet's managing director wins points for gate crashing the briefing and phoning in some questions about Telecom's mobile business. Theresa answered graciously, but Tex's questions confirmed my doubts about Econet - it's more interested in the business cases of its competitors than it's own "plans" to build a mobile network.

Full details of the results can be downloaded from Telecom's website (www.telecom.co.nz)

2/08/2006

HSDPA, WIMAX AND EV-DO REVISION A - WIRELESS GEEKDOM

A series of announcements of late involving the planned implementation of wireless technologies has strengthened the prospect that many of us will be increasingly using hotspots or the mobile networks to access the internet. The question is whether these technologies are robust and cheap enough to serve as primary connections and DSL replacements. Woosh's purchase of the internet provider Quiksilver suggests it doesn't have full confidence in its type of mobile technology and wants to cover its bets in an unbundled world.

On the other side of the equation, some serious money is being put into wideband CDMA's highspeed HSDPA technology by both Vodafone and TelstraClear. Mesh wi-fi infrastructure also appears to be attractive as a cheap networking solution for hard to reach places. Maybe it's the dawn of the golden age of wireless broadband...

Peter Griffin: Fast forward to a wireless future
Friday July 28, 2006

There's a cloud looming on the horizon, an internet cloud that will soon cover large parts of the country and give us access to the internet at high speeds.

It's ironic that just as the Government orders Telecom to open its copper-line network to competitors, wireless and mobile technology are finally becoming cheap and reliable enough to deliver what Telecom was never willing to - high-speed internet.

While Telecom's upgrade of its fixed-line broadband network to ADSL2 means the types of speeds that can offer internet television over your phone line, it seems likely that many will soon be accessing the web wirelessly, using mobile data modems, laptops and mobile phones that connect to mobile and wi-fi networks.

By the end of the year, Vodafone will have upgraded its broadband network, which will allow download speeds of several megabits per second - on a par with some wired broadband connections.

Phones that can access the high-speed service will be on sale by Christmas and new laptops coming on to the market from the likes of Lenovo and Hewlett Packard already have mobile phone receivers built into them so you can connect to the mobile data service anywhere there is 021 network coverage.

The same network technology is what TelstraClear had in mind when last week it committed to spend $50 million on a wireless broadband network in Tauranga. After being thwarted during the resource consent process in its attempts to lay fibre optic cables in Auckland, TelstraClear pursued the idea of building a national 3G network but baulked at the cost, which would be in the hundreds of millions.

The "Unplugged" service will let the 100,000 households in the Tauranga area use their mobile phone as their home phone as well. They get to keep their existing home phone number and will be able to call other people in the district without paying a per-minute rate. The service will also deliver broadband wirelessly.

Why Tauranga? Geographically, it's a good spot for a test network - relatively concentrated, full of people running small businesses away from the big smoke of Auckland, and relatively affluent.

If the technology proves successful, TelstraClear may look at taking Unplugged national, starting with its strongholds of Wellington and Christchurch.

Telecom is on its own upgrade path with the EV-DO wireless broadband service which operates on the 027 mobile network. It's "Revision A" upgrade will boost access speeds significantly in main centres this year.

We'll have to wait and see what the quality of these services is like. How attractive they are relative to fixed-line broadband will largely come down to price.

Still, Vodafone's move to charging $49 a month for a gigabite of mobile data is encouraging. It sees mobile broadband as a real alternative to fixed-line services - a message it has preached for years but hasn't until now had the technology or pricing to back up.

The mobile broadband coming of age coincides with wi-fi's exploding popularity as a large-scale networking technology.

Of the five broadband projects given money by the Government in a funding round announced last week, four of them involved wireless networks.

The Tuhoe Education Authority in the central North Island was given $500,000 to set up an internet provider that will supply wireless internet to schools in the region.

In Te Pahu, 40km out of Hamilton, the Te Pahu Community Network and Waikato 2020 Communications Trust will use the $47,500 given to them to build a radio link to Hamilton and a hub in Te Pahu that will supply wireless broadband to the 1000 residents of the town.

The Wikarekare Trust in West Auckland was granted $5000 to increase capacity on its wireless network while the Waitakere City Council picked up $175,000 to build a wireless mesh network which will cover places such as Bethells Beach, south Titirangi and Laingholm, where DSL reach is patchy or non-existent.

It's likely that wi-fi is likely to feature heavily in the urban proposals as well.

Overseas, the "municipal wi-fi" model is being adopted by forward-thinking local governments who see the value in everyone having access to cheap or free wireless broadband.

Don't go and cancel your DSL subscription just yet, but the way wireless and mobile broadband services are heading, you may be able to within a couple of years.

On the web:
www.tuhoeeducation.co.nz
www.tepahu.co.nz
www.earthlink.com

FEEDBACK:

From David:

Hi Peter,I was interested in your article Fast Forward to a Wireless Future as itreflects an article I read about 5 years ago from a Wall St communicationsinvestment advisor who stated that by 2010 the communication system wouldbecome virtually wireless in the USA. I cant remember his nameunfortunately.When you think about it, I wonder what would have happened if Marconi andco. had been 30 years ahead of Bell,instead of the other way around, myguess is that there would have been no cabled telephone system. You couldsay also that cabled systems have delayed communication progress.I understand that Bangladesh, Venezuela and other difficult countries withregard to laying cable are concentrating on wireless systems and in the caseof Bangladesh it will be satellites.I often wonder if we should not have say2 or 3 satellites above NZ so that we can get rid of most of our cables forcommunications at least.Finally you may like to further examine what Boeing are planning for the787. As I understand it, no wiring will go into the seats for the TV etc. Itwill all be done via remote systems installed either in the ceiling or thesides of the cabin or in other words as I understand it, bluetooth.

From Danielle:

Your second to the last paragraph in today’s article indicates that you are aware of these initiatives, and you seem to be better informed than most about what is underway here in New Zealand. Here is a good link describing what is in place in the US:
http://news.com.com/Municipal+broadband+and+wireless+projects+map/2009-1034_3-5690287.html

I provide the attached examples with a query for the various Auckland local government bodies, which is probably unfair to put to you, but where are our plans, announcements and intentions on this matter? Is it because of the patchwork and multiple layers of local government that Auckland cannot justify the costs of installing a municipal network (which could then also provide wireless broadband service to the general population)?

BIG BLUE'S BEST

What follows is part I of a two part series of interviews with two of the best brains in computer giant IBM. The interview below is with Dr. Don Eigler, a nanotechnology expert at IBM. Don was a pleasure to interview and it's also heartening that he likes New Zealand enough to keep his sailing boat here. Let's hope we see more of him around here...

One leg in science and other in gizmos
Tuesday July 18, 2006
By Peter Griffin

He's built a career in a particularly hard field of science but nanotechnology pioneer Dr Don Eigler is quick to see the light side of his work.

"One of the coolest things I've ever done in my life is let an 8-year-old girl move atoms," says the physicist and senior member of IBM Research.

Eigler's science is carried out on a nano scale - the dimensions of the materials he works with measure a billionth of a metre, 100,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

Nanotechnology isn't a new science, but the field has only really attracted mainstream attention in recent years as companies have caught on to its vast commercial implications in everything from medicine to alternative energy sources.

Eigler's early work in nanotechnology resulted in one of the most striking images in science - the letters I-B-M spelled out with atoms.

"We got over our logo and graffiti days," he laughs.

But Eigler not only shifted the atoms into place in IBM's lab back in 1989, he built the microscope that allowed him to do so. By cooling down the atoms to four degrees above absolute zero, he put them in a state where they were nearly motionless. He then used the needle of his microscope to position the individual atoms in place.

"My colleagues were flipped out by it," says Eigler, who before joining IBM Research in 1986 worked at Bell Labs.

"As a scientist, you're lucky if three or four times in your life you do something important in the world of science."
Shifting those atoms with the microscope was one of those moments.

Since then there have been further breakthroughs from Eigler's group - an electrical switch whose only moving part is a single atom and development of an electron trap, the "quantum corral" which hems electrons into the dimensions of possible future devices.

At IBM, Eigler has "one leg in science, one leg in gizmos".

The nanotechnology work undertaken by the research division has wide-ranging applications, but Eigler's chief concern is its application to the computer industry.

"We are coming up against some hard limits. The next level takes an awful lot of effort.

"Nanotechnology allows computation in entirely new ways to continue the march of our industry."

Apart from the US, international nanotechnology hotspots include Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Britain, Japan and, increasingly, China.

But can New Zealand make a dent in the global nanotechnology market?

Eigler says it's a question many heads of state of "not very large countries" have asked him.

"So much of the enabling technology in nanotechnology does not require an expensive infrastructure," he points out.

"The space for innovation is gigantic. All that's required is the idea and the intellectual capacity."
Which means New Zealand companies could become serious players in nanotechnology, particularly if they form global partnerships to commercialise the technology developed in their labs.

The country's first nanotechnology start-up company, Christchurch-based Nano Cluster Devices, has done just that, forming a joint venture with a US company to bring to market its technology for forming clusters of atoms into electrically conducting wires.

Spun out of the University of Canterbury, NCD is led by Dr Simon Brown and last month received a $582,000 grant to develop its hydrogen sensors.

The bulk of nanotechnology research is undertaken by universities, several of which are members of the MacDiarmid Institute, which co-ordinates research in the field.

Eigler is visiting MacDiarmid facilities on his visit here and there are good prospects for repeat visits. A keen sailor, Eigler has brought his 18m boat to New Zealand and plans to keep it here for a few years.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into nanotechnology in the US, but after an initial splurge of private funding, investment levels remain modest in comparison to the more mature IT industry.

A self-confessed "gizmologist", Eigler is excited at the future nanotechnology holds for everything from the computer to the car industry.

"So many people have the opportunity to do things so much better than they've been done before," he says.

But it is advancements in medicine that he considers the most important.

"The medical stuff has an emotional component.

"Everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer."

Eigler also points to the work of his friend Sam Stupp. He and colleagues at Chicago's Northwestern University have found a way to repair the damaged spinal cords of paralysed rats using a solution containing nano-particulates.

"Not all of these things will transfer to humans, but they're important developments," Eigler says.

Will nanotechnology make our lives better? Eigler is in no doubt. "It's slam dunk for sure."

Don Eigler
Next big thing: Electronics embedded in humans. "The next big thing is a small thing, your grandmother is going to become a borg."
Favourite gadget: iPod Nano (naturally).
Alternative career: Loves teaching, so probably an academic position.
Spare time: Sailing, restoring cars, building things (tree houses included), training dogs.
Favourite sci-fi movie: Buckaroo Bonzai.

1/08/2006

TUNING INTO DIGITAL TV

Turn your computer into TV and video
Friday July 14, 2006Reviewed by Peter Griffin

A computer can do many things: connect you to the internet, burn DVDs, play music and store all your digital photos. With the addition of a simple tuner card and some software it can also become a television and personal video recorder, capable of recording your favourite programmes to the computer hard drive.

The Hauppauge WinTV analogue and digital tuner does exactly that. It's the first tuner card I've tried that is built into a UBS (universal serial bus).

I've owned TV tuner cards that either fit into the spare card slot within my desktop computer and the more accessible PC card slot on my laptop. The USB format is about as convenient as the PC card method.

Once the drivers and software are installed, all you need do is plug in the USB tuner, connect it to the supplied 35cm high-gain aerial and let the software automatically tune in the available free-to-air TV stations.

But it's not quite that simple with the WinTV tuner. The device only supports the fast USB 2.0 interface, not the earlier USB 1.1 standard that older computers use. For recording TV to the hard drive you will need a fast machine - a Pentium 4 with a 3GHz processor is recommended.

While the USB stick is quite compact, it's fatter than most USB storage sticks and obscured the neighbouring USB port on my laptop. An extension cable is supplied, allowing you to clear access to your USB ports, but it's not a very tidy or pretty solution.

The tuner sticks' selling point is that it is capable of receiving digital TV signals and is designed for the British terrestrial Freeview (DVB-T) service, which allows viewers to watch dozens of free-to-air channels with improved image and sound quality.

New Zealand will launch its own Freeview service next year and viewers will need a digital set-top box to receive the signals. The Freeview signals are beamed out unencrypted so it's highly likely that the WinTV tuner will pick up Freeview when it becomes available here.

The local Freeview consortium is yet to announce which set-top boxes and tuner devices will support the service so be cautious buying digital TV devices in the interim.

The WinTV 2000 software is a bit underwhelming compared with other TV tuner suites, but lets you scan for channels, schedule recordings and take live snapshots. Hitting "record" will start recording the TV feed to your hard drive in the mpeg2 video format. This will consume about 1.5GB of data per hour of video. There doesn't appear to be any provision for the electronic programming guide that may be offered when Freeview arrives.

For analogue recordings, the tuner card worked well, but the supplied aerial was unable to deliver a clear picture. Plugging into a roof-mounted aerial gives better results but defeats the portable purpose. There's no remote so you'll have to revert to keyboard or mouse to change channel.

The WinTV tuner will appeal to travellers who want to use their laptop as a TV or those inclined to using their computer as a cheap video recorder. But it looks in need of updating and by the time digital TV arrives, there's likely to be a new version.

* Pros: Easy to use, compact and portable
*Cons: USB 2.0 only, no remote, digital not yet available
* Price: $181
* Herald Rating: 6/10

www.acquire.co.nz

From Nick:

I don't know where you live but you can pick up digital DVB-T transmissions in Auckland from the Waitakere transmitter. I've done it using a Dick Smith PC Card based hybrid digital/analogue tuner. However, I needed an external UHF antenna pointed at the transmitter.
My response:
I dont live in Auckland but am aware of the test being conducted offthe Wiatarua tower.My point was that TVNZ hasnt confirmed that the test signal beingtested is the one that will go nationwide next year and it hasnt saidthat all digital tuners will be compatible. The last thing I want todo is encourage readers to buy a tuner for a service that wont bewidely available until next year and then may not be compatible. Imsure it will work fine, but I'll hold off until the standards are confirmed.
From Tex:
Howdy Peter,I read with interest your article on the Haupauge TV tuner. I have the dual tuner internal model, but it comes with NO software other than the drivers. Do you have any idea where to get the WINTV 2000 software you mention in your article?Thanks for your time and interest.
My response:
Hi Tex,
Did the internal model come with a single yellow disc? Mine did and it had drivers and the software package on it as well.
Nevertheless, it appears you can download the WinTV 2000 software package from the company's website. Follow this link and scroll down to "Latest WinTV applications" to begin the download.
http://www.hauppauge.com/pages/support/support_usb2.html
Hope it works!
From Juha Saarinen (Computerworld writer):
Heya,
Don't quite see why it's a con that the device only works with USB 2.0 because you couldn't use it with 1.1 anyway - the older standard is much too slow to copy with high bitrate video streams.Either way, 2.0 has been around for years now, and the older machines with 1.1 ports only are likely not to have enough oomph to display big picture video. Hauppage recommends at least a 733MHz CPU, so it seems you need a pretty powerful machine.Yeah, yeah, call me a pendant etc... :)
My response:
Hi Juha,
I can't see why it can't be USB 1.1 compatible for the analog tuner only. That's fairly low-level technology. Sure, if you want to record video you'll need US B 2.0, but there are a hell of a lot of people out there with desktops and laptops with the older standard and would be happy with a simple USB tuner to watch TV. I'm sure you'll be able to pick up digital but unless you're plugged into the roof aerial, the signal will be worse than analog anyway. Can't really see the point.
From John:
Hi there, how do you get a job as the NZ hearald technology writer?
Your current one Peter Griffin does not know what he is talking about and has the technical ability of a 5 year old school girl.Refer to todays story on the Hauppauge tuner http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/story.cfm?c_id=5&ObjectID=10391141
He writes"The tuner sticks' selling point is that it is capable of receiving digital TV signals and is designed for the British terrestrial Freeview (DVB-T) service, which allows viewers to watch dozens of free-to-air channels with improved image and sound quality."then goes on to say"Cons: USB 2.0 only, no remote, digital not yet available"He says above that it is capable of digital above.TVNZ has a test DVB-T transmitter broadcasting 5 channels from Waitarua, this may not be the same format that is used when they sttart broadcasting Freeview but the Hauppauge tuner would have worked if he had looked for it.He also goes on to say about the lack of picture quality on it Aerial and is much better on the house aerial.While this is true, the picture quality is proprtaonal to the quality signal, Fact! you can not change the laws of Physics.
It annoys me when you get overpaid and underqualified people publising reviews like this, it is inaccurate and damaging to products and makes false claims.If I was the Hauppauge importer / distributor I would have called the lawyers already.Best regardsJohn Mitchell
Radio and Electronics servicemanRadio HamSatellite TV enthusiest

My response:

Cons: USB 2.0 only, no remote, digital not yet available"

I consider the downsides of using the tuner to be that it is only USB 2.0 compatible, even if you just want to use the simple analog tuner, there's no supplied remote control and digital TV is unavailable to everyone except those you are picking up the TEST signal off one of BCL's towers. I stand by what I said.


He says above that it is capable of digital above.

TVNZ has a test DVB-T transmitter broadcasting 5 channels from Waitarua, this may not be the same format that is used when they start broadcasting Freeview but the Hauppauge tuner would have worked if he had looked for it.

Exactly, it's a TEST signal available from one tower in Auckland. I don't live in Auckland, I write for the whole country, it's a national paper. You say yourself that the signal may not be the same format that is used when Freeview starts officially broadcasting to the whole country. Now John, you're exactly the sort of person who would be slagging me off because I talked up technology that didn't work properly when it was launched officially. As I said in the column:

"The Freeview signals are beamed out unencrypted so it's highly likely that the WinTV tuner will pick up Freeview when it becomes available here."

I think I was being responsible in prefacing the section on digital with that sentence. I find it interesting that you decided to ignore it.


He also goes on to say about the lack of picture quality on it Aerial and is much better on the house aerial.

While this is true, the picture quality is proprtaonal to the quality signal, Fact! you can not change the laws of Physics.

The point is, there's an inherent problem with the concept of this kind of portable TV - you're not going to get very good signal quality when you use the 35cm antenna provided. Sure, if you plug it into your roof aerial, you'll get a good signal, but that defeats the purpose of this technology. I consider it a downside that people need to be aware of when buying a computer TV tuner. Perfect for the famly who have installed a TV aerial on the roof of their camper van but not very good for the person who wants to watch TV in the car and only has the 35cm aerial to get a signal.


It annoys me when you get overpaid and underqualified people publising reviews like this, it is inaccurate and damaging to products and makes false claims.

Overpaid - yeah right, I'm a freelancer, get paid 40 cents a word less tax, a rate that hasn't changed in 15 years, despite the march of inflation. No benefits, no holidays, no sick pay, no superannuation and they can cancel my contract without notice. Underqualified? Well, I have a degree in journalism and a masters degree in prose writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, have won three Qantas media awards for IT writing, so I think I've got that side of things covered. Maybe I should have a BSc in radio engineering or computer sciences, but if I did, I'd be using it to make a decent living.


If I was the Hauppauge importer / distributor I would have called the lawyers already.

The problem is John, I don't write these reviews for people like you, I write them for the general population and the last thing I want to do is alienate them by talking up technology when I have reeservations about it. That would be unethical, irresponsible and downright dishonest.
Nevertheless I'm interested in your views on the digital TV platform the Government has announced. Do you think it's a good solution? What's the digital signal quality off Wiatarua like? I've heard reports that it's not great, particularly on Bloomberg. I'm also very interested in amateur radio, my father's call sign is ZL1AXS, we constantly use EchoLink etc to talk to people in Europe.

DIGITAL TV STALKED BY IPTV

I've just looked back at the column I wrote following the Government's anouncement and seen the ludicrous intro the subs put on the top of my story. Originally, I'd made some comment about Steve Maharey referring to digital TV as being the biggest thing in the TV industry that he could remember since the switch from black and white to colour TV. All of that disappeared. Instead you get the below into which suggests I was around at the time to compare the two events. I certainly wasn't around for the switch to colour in 1973. I wasn't even born...


Peter Griffin: Digital TV just in time to provide content for the net
Friday June 23, 2006
The public's response to the unveiling of the Government's plans for digital television last week was muted compared with the introduction of colour television.
It did not help that the Government, TVNZ and CanWest were not able to reveal what will be on the new digital channels. Surely there could have been one channel announcement to whet our appetites, like the unveiling of Parliament TV or a 24-hour news channel - something to make this revolutionary change tangible.
Instead the focus was on how much digital TV will cost - about $75 million shared between the Government and broadcasters before programming costs are built in.
The set-top box to receive the service will cost $200 a household. It is peanuts - the Ministry of Justice is about to embark on a couple of IT projects that could cost up to $500 million over the seven years.
But because of the big question-mark over what content digital TV will serve up on all these new channels, the country barely blinked at the announcement.
It came just weeks after the more significant news that Telecom's network will be opened to competitors.
It's a shame about the public indifference because the Government's Freeview model has been a screaming success in the United Kingdom.
It has delivered to the Brits everything digital TV can - better picture and sound quality, widescreen programming, interactive services and a bundle of new channels.
But more importantly, the Freeview model has given viewers a compelling alternative to pay TV operator BSkyB, which also provides some of its content on Freeview.
Digital TV was launched in Britain in 1998 with the help of a €6.5 million grant from the European Union, but Freeview did not start until 2002, rising from the ashes of the defunct ONDigital TV network.
Since then Freeview has been one of the most successful technology stories in Britain, the Apple iPod of the TV world.
Freeview, with 7.1 million household viewers, is more popular than analog television which has 6.4 million viewers.
Sky has 8.1 million subscribers but will be overtaken by Freeview as Britain's largest digital TV platform by the end of the year if its rival's present rate of growth continues.
Some TVs have Freeview digital TV tuners built into them so you don't have to buy a digital set-top box. The same sets are available here from makers such as Loewe, which hopefully will be compatible with New Zealand Freeview.
Freeview has no monthly subscription, as the name implies. The BBC's content is subsidised by the TV licence fee household viewers pay in Britain.
Advertising props up the business models of the other broadcasters, such as ITV.
Kiwis will pay no licence fee for Freeview so the whole venture will be funded purely through advertising, with a little money no doubt thrown in by the Government for local programming.
Digital TV will have no local content quota, which will probably sit well with viewers who mainly just want to stop having to shell out for a Sky subscription.
Most people will probably be happy to buy a digital set-top box for $200 in order to get a 24-hour news channel, some local and regional programming and a couple of channels running foreign drama, documentaries and sitcoms.
The problem is that Sky has been making hay while the politicians and free-to-air broadcasters have dithered.
Sky have entrenched subscribers, and some have upgraded to the My Sky personal video recorder and and thus set themselves up for the long term. It is a travesty that digital TV has taken so long to be taken seriously in this country, but a positive side-effect of the late adoption is that digital TV will develop alongside internet TV.
Digital and internet TV go hand in hand because programming converted into the digital format can be easily broadcast at high quality over the internet.
Telecom is now talking about having 24 megabit per second internet services available in some areas of the country by the end of the year.
But even lower-speed connections are capable of delivering TV over the phone network. The planned Government unbundling of Telecom's network will only hasten the development of such services.
Before the transmission towers have been converted to digital and the satellite has been readied to broadcast digital free-to-air we could have a much more efficient delivery model at our disposal - the Telecom network. But digital TV won't be a white elephant. The Government will eventually turn off the ageing analog network, thus forcing everyone along the logical upgrade path. Now it's time for the broadcasters to offer some compelling content.

IT'LL LOOK GREAT ON THE TV...

I've been immersed in discussion on digital TV of late, even went on Media Watch to talk about what it might mean for the country. It was a bad performance so I won't link to it. Below however are a handful of articles on the subject of Freeview and the coming launch of digital free-to-air TV.

Both sides of thisd argument are strong. I can see Freeview's desire to make digital TV a standardised thing for viewers and therefore limit the number of options. I can also understand the frustration of industry players like Peter Escher of Satlink. The bottom line is, all those unaccredted set-top boxes will work with Freeview, but you won't get the interactive services. For many people, that's not a concern. This debate will be resurrected when the boxes actually go on sale next year. Hopefully I'll be able to have a look at the full range of accredited and unaccredited boxes and compare them all in reviews for the Herald.

Digital TV restrictions for set-top boxes cause ruckus
Tuesday August 1, 2006By Peter Griffin

An industry fight is brewing over who will get to supply the set-top boxes needed to receive digital TV when it launches next year.

Set-top box distributors are angry that they are being excluded from an accreditation programme set up by the Freeview consortium comprising the companies that will implement free-to-air digital TV: TVNZ, CanWest, the Racing Board, Radio New Zealand and Maori TV.

Freeview has given two to three set-top box manufacturers and local distributors 12 months of exclusivity from the launch of satellite digital TV, scheduled for March next year. During the first year, these as-yet unnamed companies will be the only accredited suppliers of Freeview certified equipment, which Freeview claims will be sold mainly through traditional electronics stores.

The Government expects 37 per cent of the population to be using free-to-air digital TV by 2015.

If 1.5 million set-top boxes are sold over the next nine years at an average price of $200, the market for set-top boxes could be worth $300 million. Satellite and aerial antenna installation costs would add substantially to that figure.

The deal is a major blow for the independent set-top box distributors that want to tap into that market.

They accuse Freeview of trying to exert "market control" and are considering making a complaint to the Commerce Commission.

Several distributors contacted by the Herald said they had been told they would not be accredited because their set-top boxes did not meet the required specifications. They have been forbidden from using the Freeview name in marketing their products, despite the fact that the Freeview consortium has no trademark over the word "Freeview".

"They're carving the turkey up on the table," said one distributor who did not want to be named.

"It means less choice for consumers because they'll be reluctant to buy set-top boxes that don't have the Freeview stamp on them."

Existing MPEG-2 digital set-top boxes will be able to receive digital TV broadcasts and are already able to pick up a test signal from the Waiatarua TV mast covering Auckland.

But the main stumbling block for existing set-top box manufacturers is meeting Freeview's standards for so-called MHEG-5 middleware, which would let you access interactive services through your TV.

"The digital set-top boxes will work, however, for Freeview to be capable of anything other than linear TV, you have to have certain smarts in the box," the Freeview spokesman said.

Interactive services could include casting votes by pressing a button on your remote control or bringing up on-screen text to add greater context to a programme.

Interactivity is seen as an attractive choice for advertisers, because it would let consumers order their products at the same time they saw the advertised product on TV.

The interactive component would use your phone line to return information to a central computer in the same way that Sky's set-top boxes connect to your phone line to provide interactive services such as its TV email service.

Another requirement known as "blind scan" automatically finds new channels and adds them to you channel list as they become available.

Freeview said it contacted 30 set-top box manufacturers more than a year ago to inform them of its requirements.

"A number of the Asian-based manufacturers aren't interested in doing [interactivity]," said the spokesman. He said the exclusive deal for the first year was necessary to get manufacturers and retailers on board.

"We're asking [manufacturers] to do something on a satellite box that hasn't been done before," he said.

"Retailers will walk away if they get more than 2 per cent [of sold set-top boxes] back as warranty returns."

But set-top box distributors spoken to by the Herald said the standard was too onerous and that interactive services were unlikely to have mass appeal.

One distributor said he sold 20 models of set-top boxes, none of which included interactivity but all of which could receive digital TV. His cheapest set-top box sold for $159 and he would discount it further to compete with the accredited boxes, which were expected to sell for around $200.

Freeview would consider applications from local distributors further down the track, but wanted to regulate the supply of set-top boxes to avoid the "complete mess" that occurred in the early days of Australian digital TV.

Satellite expert Bob Cooper weighed into the Freeview argument in his SatFacts newsletter, saying the move by the consortium set a high quality standard but would limit the options for consumers.

"TVNZ in particular fears a flood of cheap, stripped-down set-top boxes, the kind that retail for $100 or even less, primarily because there remains at TVNZ a cadre of folks who are firmly committed to Teletext and 'interactivity', whatever than may ultimately mean."

But he added: "For TVNZ to mandate through an inward-looking 'certification process' that only [interactive] complaint units be sold 'with their approval' will result in less choice, giving them a marketplace power perhaps never intended by the Government," wrote Cooper.

But while Freeview has set the bar high for some digital TV services, it will be sticking with the current MPEG-2 video encoding standard rather than the more advanced MPEG-4 standard needed to receive high-definition television, which is already available in other countries.
The newer standard boxes are in hot demand but short supply.

BSKyB in Britain has had problems launching a high-definition satellite service because satellite receiver makers have been unable to make the equipment available in sufficient quantities.

"You'll need a higher-specified set-top box for high-definition TV," said the Freeview spokesman, who expected 80 per cent of the market to go to accredited set-top box makers.

"It's just a guess, it depends on how many [consumers] choose to go the accredited route," he added.

Peter Escher, of Auckland satellite distributor Satlink said a group of distributors would band together to market and sell non-accredited set-top boxes.

"This Freeview 'proactive group', does not support restrictive supply and marketing practices, hence we are offering direct to the New Zealand public a cost-efficient alternative, which incorporates a wider channel availability to the public."

He claimed to be able to offer a set-top box that would receive the digital channels provided by Freeview as well as other channels received via one modified satellite dish.

"There are up to 40 channels available compared to Freeview's 18."

While TVNZ originally applied for a trademark on the "Freeview" name in 2004, it abandoned the application last year. Escher now has his own application in for the trademark and has reserved the web domain www.freeviewnz.co.nz.

But distributors have been told to drop the Freeview name from their marketing.

"They've made me stop putting Freeview in the description and they don't have any right to do that," said one distributor.

The Freeview spokesman said the "Freeview" name was used informally and might no longer be used when the service was launched.

Freeview was also looking at applying for a modified trademark that might incorporate the name.

FEEDBACK:

From Kent:

Strange how often journalists cant do math:"The Government expects 37 per cent of the population to be using free-to-air digital TV by 2015."The article goes on to say:"If 1.5 million set-top boxes are sold over the next nine years at an average price of $200, the market for set-top boxes could be worth $300 million."They calculated it based on 37% of 4,000,000.

However, why does every man, woman and child need a set top box? Surely, it will be 37% of households.There are 1.4 million households in NZ. That's about 0.5 million set top boxes at $200 or a $100 million market.http://www.stats.govt.nz/products-and-services/new-zealand-in-profile-2006/Households.htm

My response:

Hi Kent,
thanks for your email. I admit, the way the article is worded, it looks as though we simply assumed 37 per cent of the population would be buying set-top boxes. But a number of other things led to the $300 million figure. They include:

1) Satellite expert Bob Cooper predicting the market would absorb, over that period, 2 million set top boxes at the most.
2) The refresh rate of set-top boxes over that nine year period as people sell their initial $200 boxes in favour of personal video recorder boxes or boxes that support MPEG-4 HDTV or come with Ethernet capability.
3) Portable digital tuner cards for computer media centres and laptops which are becoming very popular.
4) Other places where TVs are - hotels, businesses, second homes etc.

When you consider all those things, a conservative take up of 1.5 million set-top boxes seems realistic, Then you've got antennae costs and installation on top of that. It's a big market opportunity for manufacturers and retailers.


From Laurence:

You note in your column about digital STB'sBut while Freeview has set the bar high for some digital TV services, it will be sticking with the current MPEG-2 video encoding standard rather than the more advanced MPEG-4 standard needed to receive high-definition television, which is already available in other countries.

In fact in the US, where there is the highest availability of HDTV, the majority of transmission, whether OTA, cable or satellite is in MPEG2. Satellite companies are looking at MPEG4 only because they can increase quality with a lower bandwidth. So HDTV can be delivered over MPEG2, both OTA and from a satellite.I have also heard reports from US folks who are moving to MPEG4 that they need to upgrade both their STB's and also their dishes to one that is almost 1M in diameter. This means for those with Sky dishes, to receive MPEG4 they would likely need to upgrade their dishes also.

My response:

You're right, a lot of broadcasters, including some in Australia do HDTV that's receivable via MPEG-2-compatible set-top boxes. But they are moving to MPEG-4 now because it allows a better way to deliver high-quality pictures using less bandwidth.

It's not just for straight satellite and terrestrial transmission that the broadcasters want to move to MPEG-4. Locally, Telecom wants to do IPTV over its DSL network and all around the world, telcos and internet companies have piled into video on demand and IPTV. Repurposing their content for these types of applications is easier when MPEG-4 is used because its better at delivering conpressed feeds at limited bit rates.

TVNZ has told me that consumers will have to upgrade to a new box to receive HDTV which suggests to mw that when Freeview goes high definition, which will be years away anyway, they will do MPEG-4. They may even simulcast MPEG-4 and MPEG-2 if they haven't eaten up all of their capacity by then.


From Greg:

I have just read your article 'Digital TV restrictions for set-top boxes cause ruckus'.You state that the Freeview consortium will be 'sticking with' MPEG2 which will exclude high definition broadcasting.Do you know if there is a roadmap to offer HD either by Freeview or other broadacasters, or if Freeview will transmit in widescreen?

My response:

Freeivew will transmit in widescreen for certain channels which is great for movies, sports events and even TV.

While strictly speaking you can do high definition TV with MPEG-2 set-top boxes, TVNZ told me that viewers will have to upgrade to a new box to receive high-definition TV. It looks therefore like Freeview will bring in MPEG-4 compatible boxes to launch HDTV. There's currently no public roadmap for HDTV here. I personally think it'll be a few years away, especially on the terrestrial side. Sky TV will probably be the first broadcaster to implement HDTV here, via the Optus D1 satellite.

From Jim:

Peter, Re: "Freeview" - good piece.I enjoyed the clarity of your writing, Cheers

TAXING TIMES FOR TECH SECTOR

I foolishly waded into the debate surrounding the proposed introduction of a capital gains tax on foreign investments. It was foolish because it's required a lot of research on my part of a particularly complex and confusing bill. Still, after reading the comments of people in the IT industry and talking to people who could be affected adversely by the capital gains tax, I felt compelled to write something.

Here's the column I wrote in the Herald on the subject. It's followed by Dr. Cullen's indignant response and my own right of reply:

Peter Griffin: New tax spells doom for Silicon Valley south
Tuesday July 25, 2006

The Government's tax and investment policies have done nothing over the past six years to give the IT industry the kick-start it desperately needs to become internationally competitive.

Now a proposed capital gains tax on foreign investment threatens to extinguish the hopes of New Zealand technology companies attempting to tap capital markets abroad.

Forget trying to replicate the "Silicon Valley effect" in New Zealand. Forget mimicking Singapore, Ireland, Israel and China, whose investment and tax policies let innovative companies grow at home and abroad.

All I see ahead is more of the same for New Zealand's IT industry - piecemeal grants dished out here and there, little offered to entice IT multinationals who want to invest locally and an environment that makes it more attractive to sell your entire company than pursue global expansion using an overseas stock market listing.

Add to that the acute skills shortage fuelled by the exodus of our best graduates across the Tasman and the picture looks grim for the current generation of IT start-ups.
By now you're probably familiar with the details of the tax change: the new regime would tax 85 per cent of the rise in value of an investor's portfolio of non-Australasian shares, provided it originally cost more than $50,000 and hasn't depreciated in value below that level.

The amount taxable in any one year is capped at 5 per cent of the market value at the start of the year. Any gain above that cap is carried forward but ultimately all 85 per cent of the income will be taxed in subsequent years. It means that those who are rewarded for diversifying their investments will be penalised when they bring their money home, leaving them less to reinvest back in New Zealand.

This tax will hit everyone who invests overseas, but the impact on the technology sector will be particularly great. That's because New Zealand companies working in software and hardware development, nanotechnology and biotechnology, eventually have to go to where the market action is.

That generally involves partnering with companies in the US and Britain, our key technology export markets apart from Australia, and seeking foreign capital. Few New Zealand IT companies list on foreign exchanges. The most successful listing abroad has been Neville Jordan's Nasdaq float of his company MAS Technology.

"It took 20 years for MAS Technology to reach its market capitalisation - when it listed, [this] was around $150 million. Now there are two others and myself who have left the company and realised the share capital gain. We have invested and started up new companies," Jordan told the Herald back in February 2000.

"In the two years since the company listed, and with people leaving and reinvesting their capital, their combined market capitalisation has shot up to what equates to a doubling of the market capitalisation. The net result is that of multiplicity ... this is where you can get the Silicon Valley effect, once you can get enough people reinvesting in New Zealand, this can grow very, very quickly," Jordan added.

The tax change proposed by the Government makes the scenario Jordan outlines less realistic. He embarked on a US listing knowing that if the market capitalisation of his company increased, he would be able to bring the money back to New Zealand for reinvestment without being hit with a capital gains tax.

The Nasdaq listing had an element of risk; it's very expensive to maintain a listing and the level of information you must divulge can serve as market intelligence for your competitors.

With the capital gains tax thrown in, I really can't see why any New Zealand company would list. That's a great shame because listing allows a larger capital market to be accessed while the company's owners and New Zealand-based investors are given an opportunity to share in its success.

Our most successful IT companies have generally been sold to foreign companies, with the exception of navigation instrument maker Rakon, which listed on the NZX last year.

A world leader, Rakon has the potential to be a Nasdaq-listed, New Zealand-controlled company. The capital gains tax means that if it does migrate its listing abroad, its New Zealand shareholders base is likely to disappear.

The proposed tax will also hurt innovative New Zealand companies like biotechnology specialist Virionyx, which plans to keep its operations in New Zealand but float in the US to fund Aids drug trials.

"Having some high-profile successes with some serious money coming back into New Zealand is exactly the shot in the arm that this risk capital sector of the market needs," Virionyx chief executive Simon Wilkinson told the Herald last week. "And against that, this tax will just completely gut it."

There needs, at the very least, to be exemptions for investments in companies that have operations in New Zealand. The US and Britain, the two key markets for the IT industry, should be excluded from the tax change which, according to documents obtained by the Herald, is going to be revenue-neutral anyway - the $40 million cost of excluding Australia expected to be about the same as the extra revenue gained by taxing 85 per cent of share gains in other countries.

The lack of investment in our IT industry, relative to other countries, needs to be addressed not encouraged.


Finance Minister Dr. Michael Cullen responds.

Michael Cullen: One law for all when it comes to taxing gains from outside NZ
Tuesday August 1, 2006

Finance Minister Michael Cullen defends his tax changes on overseas investment, and says a Herald columnist has got it wrong.

Legislation before Parliament includes reform of tax rules on income from investment in shares.

The reform is necessary because the rules for share investment now operate very unevenly.
They overtax some investors, favour direct investment by individuals over investment through managed funds, and favour investment in some countries over investment in others.

The reforms are designed to put the tax treatment of all these types of share investment on the same footing.

In a column last week, under the headline "New tax spells doom for Silicon Valley South", Peter Griffin commented on the Government's overseas tax proposals for share portfolios and their supposed effect on the venture capital industry.

Griffin's column revealed a lack of awareness of how closely the Government is working with the venture capital industry.

This consultation will ensure that venture capital investors who seek funding from overseas capital markets are not adversely affected by the reforms.

Among the sweeping generalisations Griffin made were that "this tax will hit everyone who invests overseas, but the impact on the technology sector will be particularly great" and that the rules would "extinguish the hopes of New Zealand technology companies attempting to tap capital markets abroad" by imposing capital gains tax on any share gains brought back to New Zealand for reinvestment in the company.

Griffin is behind on the state of play. The new rules are not aimed at New Zealand venture capital companies that go overseas to get the money they need to grow.

In calling for an exemption from the rules for new technology companies, Griffin fails to realise that the bill before Parliament recognises the important differences between passive investment in a managed fund and direct investments in venture capital companies that have gone overseas to get foreign money to pay for their next stage of development. This means New Zealand venture capital investors in such companies will be taxed as they are now.

The Government is also well aware that some such venture capital cases fall outside the current exemption in the bill. For this reason, the Government has instructed officials to develop comprehensive proposals to deal with industry concerns.

These steps show the Government is willing to listen to and provide solutions to the venture capital industry's concerns.

With the proposals for research and development credits announced last week as part of the business tax review and the announcement of a limited partnership regime, they send a clear message to the venture capital industry about the Government's commitment to fostering it as a vital component of the Government's economic transformation strategy.

Peter Griffin replies:
Dr Cullen has misunderstood or chosen to ignore the thrust of my argument. He is referring to investments in New Zealand start-ups that are undertaken by venture capital companies.

The proposed tax rules have exemptions to cover these types of investors when the start-ups move overseas. These exemptions need further scrutiny.

But venture capital is only one source of investment for growing technology start-ups, which are often owned by a small handful of shareholders who finance growth in the early stages entirely from revenue and cut costs by taking salaries at below market rates in return for a stake in the company.

At some stage, the company may undertake a public float to fund further growth. It may be more attractive to do this overseas, where there is a greater appetite for technology investment.
A listing on the Nasdaq or FTSE exchanges can also give credibility to a company, and get it noticed by potential customers and partners.

Once listed, these companies will be considered "foreign companies" and under the proposed tax rules a capital gains tax will effectively be applied to the capital gains of its New Zealand investors if the collective shareholding of New Zealanders is below 10 per cent of the company.

Once a public float dilutes the shareholdings of New Zealanders, it is likely that the combined shareholding will be below 10 per cent of the total share allocation.

The company's founders and other New Zealanders who believed in the company and invested in the hope of their shares appreciating will therefore be subject to the capital gains tax if they do anything other than reinvest their gains in more shares.

The proposed tax rules make taking Kiwi companies global less attractive and threatens to alienate investors and employees in companies that have international ambitions.

SEDUCED BY PANDORA

I've posted below my recent Herald on Sunday column on a new service I've been using called Pandora. I urge you to take a look if you're at all interested in discovering good, new music. Some of my readers are also now Pandora converts...

Internet radio opens a Pandora's box
Sunday July 16, 2006By Peter Griffin

I've been spending a lot of time listening to Pandora lately, and I like what I hear.
Pandora is the best new thing in internet radio, a service that, once configured properly, will deliver you a constant stream of music you will actually like. Since I've started using Pandora, commercial radio hasn't had a look-in and even my newly acquired iPod sits unused as Pandora plays.

There are thousands of internet radio stations that let you customise play lists. Most of them are free and provide music in very good audio quality. But none have the intelligence of Pandora.
Based on your musical choices, Pandora goes off and searches its 10,000-artist database for musicians with the same "DNA". I started with a U2 song and was taken on a musical journey through the work of The Police, Peter Gabriel and several artists I'd never heard of before.

As you listen to the songs you can click thumbs up or thumbs down icons to indicate whether you like or dislike the track that's been served up. If you don't like it, Pandora will alter the algorithm used to hone the music selection. After teaching Pandora over the course of a couple of dozen song selections you'll soon get a random playlist that is uncanny in the way it matches your musical tastes.

But a surprising feature of Pandora is that it won't necessarily play much music of the artist you initially request. I punched in the name of composer Hans Zimmer, who is behind the soundtracks for films like The Thin Red Line and Gladiator. But Zimmer didn't feature often; instead, a large range of composers I'd never heard of was served up. I was soon scribbling down the names of these artists because I'll be looking for their albums to buy very soon.

Pandora was launched last year and is the face of the Music Genome database, a play on the Human Genome Project which sought to map human DNA in its entirety.

Pandora categorises music according to dozens of elements, including melody and rhythm, orchestration and lyrics. It finds traits that link various characteristics of music and groups songs according to these traits. It means that you can discover new music by slowly moving beyond artists you love.

I simply put my laptop on top of my stereo, connect the audio cable and stream Pandora's music through my stereo. The audio quality is very good, though you'll really want a minimum 256Kbps broadband connection. The audio stream itself is low-capacity so won't chew through your download cap.

Here's the only hitch with this wonderful service: Pandora is currently only offered to US residents due to issues around international music copyright. The way around this problem is, however, very simple. When signing up you'll be asked to enter a five-digit US postcode to prove your residence in the country. Just enter 90066, a Los Angeles post code or Beverly Hills 90210. There are more listed at www.usps.com.

Pandora is a free service if you agree to have adverts placed amid the songs and on your computer screen. US residents can use their credit cards to pay US$36 (NZ$38) and sign up for a year of ad-free listening. Services like Pandora give you a customisable listening experience without the inane blabber of deejays. The advertising is less intrusive and you get to listen to exactly the type of music you want.

FEEDBACK:

From Geoff:

Your article about Pandora must rate as the most useful piece ofinformation I have received this year!Its fabulous. You are obviously a musophile. I have got about six streamsestablished, from Chillout Electronica to celtic vocalists.....Thanks a million for the write-up!!!

From Deck:

Brilliant article on Pandora -- thanks very much for the lead. I like it so much I'd like to reproduce your article on my Blog ( www.hazen.co.nz/blg) if you don't mind. I've pasted the whole thing there temporarily, but I'll remove it if you wish or edit it down to "excerpts" -- your call.

From Jack from LA:

Thanks for the article on Pandora, it came up on my Google news alert for Peter Gabriel. Who knew I would find such great information about something in my neck of the woods 1/2 way around the world.