31/03/2007

APPLE TAKES A SLICE OFF

For once, we get something Apple-esque at the same time as everyone else. Apple is extending its "Complete My Album" to the New Zealand iTunes store. It's a very good idea. The problem up until now is that if you like a particular song and buy it and then take a shine to the album and buy it too, you double up on that single you've bought. No longer is that the case.

If you choose to buy the album within 180 days of buying a single, they will deduct the $1.79 cost of the single from the balance due for the rest of the album. Apple's also making the deal retrospective for 90 days.Apple says 45 percent of the 2.5 billion songs sold on iTunes were purchased as albums. A progressive move by Apple, one that's good for consumers and will encourage people to listen to music in full album form, as it should be!

30/03/2007

A SLIP OF A FINGER, A MASSIVE PR GAFF

You must read the Microsoft memo on Wired writer Fred Vogelstein that the Redmond giant's PR company accidentally emailed to Fred Vogelstein. Man, as a reporter, you just dream of documents like that falling into your hands. I've been CCed in on emails I shouldn't have been and got some juicy tidbits in the process, but never the motherlode that landed in Vogelstein's inbox.

The reporter is, as you'd expect, beaming. Not only is it a great story, the memo also shows him up as a thorough reporter that Microsoft are scared of. That's because Vogelstein is a very good tech reporter, he did a great piece on how Yahoo blew it, in the January issue of Wired.

The memo shows a couple of interesting things - the fastidiousness with which Microsoft and its PR team planned for the interviews with Vogelstein - they really wanted to cover every base as a good PR team should, but their level of analysis of Vogelstein's reporting methods is a little creepy.

It also shows the thoroughness required in putting together a Wired article, a level of research we simply aren't able to complete writing here in New Zealand on 40 cents a word. I'm not sure what Vogelstein's word rate is, but he's probably on a special deal, earning more than a US$1 a word. For a $5000 word article, that lets him work on it solely, for a month or more.

Vogelstein blogs on the incident himself here.

Also, a couple of interesting stories in the Herald. According to AC Nielsen, we're bigger online shoppers than the Australians. That will be down to Trademe and the airlines which I suspect would account for 90 per cent of ecommerce traffic in New Zealand. Still, good to see we're getting comfortable with the medium.

Another story about the music industry complaining about music piracy. Aparently Bic Runga's last album only sold 50,000 copies because people are downloading it for free. I'm sure piracy has had some impact, but it doesn't change the fact that our outdated copyright law has to change.

The currently proposed two year sunset clause on the much-needed format shifting provision has to go and attempts to criminalise methods of circumventing anti-piracy measures is a potential minefield the Government should not be enshrining in legislation. The new legislation won't change the rate of piracy which may not be at the high level the industry claims (1 legal song to 42 illegal), but is neverthless very high. The music industry's busniess model has to change to keep up with this runaway train.

THAT WAS NEW ZEALAND

My Herald story about the remastered This Is New Zealand documentary that Park Road Post did some great work on. The doco itself is an interesting document of a period in New Zealand's history that seems , thankfully, very distant. We've come a long way since Hugh Macdonald picked up his three camera rig and travelled the country...

Also, some photos from the 1969 production of the documentary courtesy of Archives New Zealand.
The striking effect created by Macdoanld using three cameras positioned at slightly varied angles.
One of the spectacular aerial scenes in This Is New Zealand. The documentary is most memorable for its aerial photography of the Southern Alps.

NEW RULES OF THE GAME

This feature of mine appeared in the Herald's Time Out gaming special yesterday but didn't appear on the website, so I've republished it here...

NEW RULES OF THE GAME...

If video gamers have stereotypically been seen as geeky, solitary figures, more engaged in virtual fantasies than the real world, the time for an image overhaul has arrived.

New forms of gaming, incorporating social networking, user-generated content and with the internet at their core are arriving on the scene as the video game titans push their next generation gaming machines.

The new PS3, the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii are all custom built for internet gaming but do much more than that – video conferencing, instant messaging, e-commerce and networking that could bring casual gamers online in numbers for the first time.

In the case of Sony, which launched its $1200 PS3 console here last week, adapting hit tittles like Buzz, Guitar Hero and SingStar for online gaming will be a priority.

You might compete in online quizzes using the Buzz consoles that come with the popular general knowledge quiz game. Or compete online in SingStar Idol against wannabe pop stars all over the world.

“It could be better than American Idol,” suggests Sony’s local Playstation boss, Warwick Light.

“Our online community is going to evolve pretty rapidly.”

If beaming liver versions of karaoke favourites around the world isn’t your idea of good gaming, don’t worry. User generated content, by necessity, is infiltrating all styles and genres of games, encompassing casual gamers through to the hardcore.

That’s because building high definition games with cutting edge graphics, complicated animation and game physics, is an expensive business – the big titles can cost $20 million or more to produce and selling at $100 a pop, the risk of losing your studio going under if your big game isn’t a hit, is very real. That’s why venture capitalists salivate when developers pitch game concepts described as the “Youtube of gaming” – it means they’re cheap to make.

THE USER GENERATION

Video games have increasingly given users opportunities to create their own content in games, whether that be personalizing a players face and body in the best-selling soccer franchise FIFA, or editing a video of your performance in the classic Playstation game Gran Turismo.

But game developers, inspired by the explosion in “web 2.0” services like Myspace, Flickr and Youtube, and driven by the ambitions of owners that straddle media and technology, are upping their game when it comes to user generated content.

The new Sony “Home” PS3 online network will act as a sort of 3D Myspace, consisting of public and private rooms where users can share content, download games, navigating the environment as characters that can interact with others.

SOCIALLY AWARE

You need only visit the world of Second Life to see where social networking has collided with gaming. All you require to join in is an internet connection, a small piece of software and your own Second Life avatar, or online personality. Four million people have already registered as Second Lifers and some of them are making a living trading virtual property for Linden dollars, which can be exchanged for real cash.

The Second Life community has exploded in size in just a few months, with real businesses setting up premises online and bands holding virtual concerts. There was even a virtual riot when the right-wing National Front set up an office in a Second Life neighbourhood. A teen version of Second Life designed to have more parental oversight has also been developed.

Just as ambitious in scale is Spore, the upcoming Electronic Arts title from Will Wright, the gaming guru who brought up Sim City and The Sims. Wright’s new creation simulates evolution from the existence of a single cell through to numerous interacting communities of creatures. A long time in development, Spore will ultimately be based on computer servers around the world, where members of this massive virtual world will meet to trade, colonise the universe and wage war on each other.

MULTIPLAY

While these open form social networking games are gathering momentum, large online communities of gamers are nothing new. World of Warcraft is the most successful multiplayer game in the world with 8.5 million members participating in a massive fantasy landscape. It’s the best example of what’s known in gaming circles as a MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game). Others include Everquest and Ultima Online.

The quirky sci-fi role-player Half Life, took on a second life itself when developers adapted it for the online community, releasing it as Counterstrike. It still has a huge following among PC gamers, who have traditionally been kept separate from the communities of gamers using video game consoles to enter multiplayer tournaments.

That changes this month with Microsoft’s move to open Xbox Live to PC gamers running Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system. PC gamers can take up Xbox Live subscriptions and join in on games previously reserved for Xbox owners. It promises to be a clash of gaming cultures – the hardcore PC gamers meeting the more mainstream but equally passionate video gamers.

VIRTUALLY REAL

Both of those communities, which are typically made up of males aged 18 – 34, are still the prime target of the games industry which makes the bulk of its revenue from mass market blockbusters like current best sellers, Gears of War (Xbox 360) and Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3). The real-time graphics rendering power of the processors built into the Xbox 360 and PS3 allows for ever more lifelike game play. The fancy video cutaways that used to prop up less than impressive titles now resembles the standard game play everyone is used to on next generation titles.

While the developers crunch mathematical algorithms to make games more lifelike, there’s also been a revival in arcade gaming, driven by the move to online game communities. The major games makers such as EA and Microsoft sell arcade games over the internet and through the Xbox Live Marketplace, while the Playstation Network features arcade games that can be downloaded for as little as $3. Tetris and Pac Man, which kicked off gaming culture over twenty years ago, are inspiring a new wave of simple, fun games that can be delivered directly to gamers via the internet.

A WII BIT LESS

You didn’t see teenagers test driving Nintendo’s Wii game console in electronics stores in the run up to Christmas. That’s because the Wii controller, which is so integral to how new Nintendo games are played, can be a dangerous weapon in the hands of overzealous novices. There have been many reports out of the US of Wii players accidentally throwing the controller at their TV screens or other players as they simulate a tennis stroke in Wii Sports or a sword swipe in Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Still, the Wii-mote, as it has been dubbed, has proven to be a hit for Nintendo which chose not to compete head to head with Sony and Microsoft with its next-gen console, but play a different game with a cheaper device. The Wii $(499) doesn’t aspire to be a multimedia hub for the lounge, focused squarely on gaming. It too is internet ready and Nintendo plans to tap into the same type of online communities its two rivals are developing. Nintendo flourished through the nineties with titles like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog and has produced some surprise hits on its handheld Nintendo DS console, which can communicate wirelessly with the Wii.

The approach has so far been successful for Nintendo. The Wii sold well in the Christmas sales season. If anything, the tiny console symbolise the changing face of gaming, where development no longer has to follow Moore’s Law of bigger, better, faster, just to be successful.

29/03/2007

NO O-JOY, UNFORTUNATELY

A link to my Herald review of Telecom's Ojo video telephony set-up. The verdict: good technology, but too expensive and too limiting in scope because every person you call has to have shelled out $749 for the unit and US$15 a month for a subscription.

Still, when I was in the US, I met one of the vice presidents of Ojo at the CES show in Las Vegas and he showed me some of the new Ojo models, which haven't been released here because they don't comply with our wireless telephony standards, or something. They look quite neat and are a lot more practical than the Ojo model on the market here. Hopefully they'll make it to NZ, though I'm told Telecom has a warehouse full of the existing Ojos, because it simply can't sell them...

THE GAMES WE PLAY

Here's a link to my review of the PS3 which is still sitting in my lounge and is indeed growing on me (even though it won't display an image on my main TV and has to be plugged into my computer monitor). I think the glitch is to do with my AOC flatscreen TV rather than the PS3 itself.

I think the PS3 deserves to have a great future, but at the price point it has entered the market ($1199), it's out of the league of the average kiwi. People point out that the PS2 also debuted over the $1000 mark, but dropped quickly in price. That is true, but the PS3 includes a number of things that make it expensive to produce - the Cell processor and the Blu-ray drive to name just two components. It's unlikely that the price drop will be as rapid, but I can still see Sony matching the price of the combined Xbox 360 and HD-DVD drive purchase price of $969.

The debut of the Xbox Elite, a sort of premium version of the Xbox 360 featuring a HDMI connection brings the Xbox up to he standard it should have been launched at, but again excludes an HD-DVD drive. This is the surest sign that Microsoft is less than confident of success with this high definition technology.

My review here of the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive (which I gave four stars, despite it looking fairly unattractive.)

THE XBOX MOVIE FIX

by Peter Griffin

There’s Sony’s black box which plays Blu-ray discs, Nintendo’s pint-sized Wii which doesn’t play DVDs at all, and then there’s Microsoft’s high definition plug-in.

When the software giant was preparing its Xbox 360 console for launch back in 2005, it made a serious call – not to include a high definition disc drive as a standard feature. The drives weren’t available in reliable supply back then and would have boosted the cost of the Xbox 360 by several hundred dollars.

Instead, Microsoft decided to build a separate drive which Xbox owners could buy as an accessory and it’s that drive which has just gone on sale here.

In terms of aesthetics, the HD-DVD drive doesn’t do much for me – it’s bulky, need sits own power pack and makes for a lopsided partner to the Xbox 360.

But the drive is actually quite good at what it does – play high definition DVDs. It connects to the Xbox 360 via a USB cable, employs the Xbox menu which you’re already used to and comes with a decent multimedia remote control. Set-up is easy. The included DVD configures the Xbox for the new drive. The opening credits for King Kong were appearing barely five minutes after I plugged the drive in. And what a sight Peter Jackson’s epic gorilla flick is in high definition. I compared it directly with the standard DVD version and the picture appears crisper, Jackson’s admittedly computer generated world look more lifelike. HD-DVD allows some useful new DVD menu features you won’t have seen yet. Picture in picture lets you watch additional documentaries or out-takes while the movie is playing and you can choose a new chapter from within the movie. Real movie buffs can bookmark there favourite scenes for replay.

The one major technical downside of the Xbox add-on is its lack of a HDMI connection slot. These are built into the latest flat-screen TVs and allow you to send a digital, high-definition signal from media players directly to the TV set. The absence of HDMI, means many people won’t have TVs that can support the true high definition quality the Xbox 360 drive supports – the so-called “1080p” video mode. That’s a big disappointment, but the next quality level down, 1080i, which my TV accepts, is still miles better than regular DVD quality.

Sony’s PS3 makes for a tidier living room and, for many, a smoother transition to true high definition, but there’s an advantage for consumers in Microsoft keeping the drive out of the Xbox. It’s still unclear how the high definition format war between HD-DVD and Blu-ray will pan out and as an optional add-on, the drive doesn’t force you down any particular fork in the road just yet. For those who want to jump in now, it makes for an affordable way into the HD realm.

Price: $249

Herald rating: ****

27/03/2007

TECH FUNDING, THE $100 MILLION BET

My Herald story today about a clever little company called Optima, which made good use of a $500,000 Foundation of Research Science and Technology grant and its place in the Icehouse incubator to achieve exporting success.

Also, in the Dominion Post, news that Econet has officially signed its $100 million plus deal with Huawei for construction of a mobile network, within "18 months according to the Hautaki Trust. I knew the deal was in place when I went to China, but they seem to have chosen the visit of the Chinese deputy premiere to officially announce it.

That's good news for Econet, which strangely, has renamed itself New Zealand Comunnications, but where's the business case for its entry, in reality? We've got two major players already in the market, 96 per cent mobile phone penetration and Econet with a stated strategy of competing for low end customers on price. I don't see it working out, unless it can find some way of using its 3G spectrum to deliver services that diffierentiate it from Vodafone and Telecom. I'll be very interested to see what its angle is on launch...

EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT...

This feature about the Motion Picture Association's battle against movie piracy in the Asia Pacific region appeared in The Business magazine sold with the New Zealand Herald but never appeared online, so here it is....

In the bustling industrial city of Shenzhen in south east China it doesn’t take long to track down pirated movies on sale at bargain prices.

Over lunch, Chinese business people scribble down the web addresses of popular Chinese illegal download websites and tell me the best places to find good quality copies of movies that are still playing in theatres.

It’s advice given surprisingly openly.

The DVD sellers do good business standing outside Shenzhen’s factories, catching the workers as they head home, I’m told. In China, buying bootlegs is the norm.

“There’s a massive oversupply of discs. You can’t walk down a street in China without finding a pirated DVD,” admits Mike Ellis the Motion Picture Association’s senior vice president and director for Asia Pacific.

An Englishman and former Hong Kong policeman, Ellis has the unenviable task of fighting movie piracy in Asia, a region where the practice is rife.

The Hollywood studios Ellis represents – Buena Vista, Paramount, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal and Warner Bros., lost US$6.1 billion to worldwide piracy in 2005, with Asia contributing US$1.2 billion.

The trade shows no discernable let up. But Ellis says Operation Trident, a recent series of raids spread over two months in countries from Pakistan to New Zealand, netted 4.8 million pirated DVDs, 749 DVD burners and resulted in 870 arrests.

“It was one of our most successful operations yet,” he says.

Half of the raids took place in China, where 2.9 million discs were seized. Police in India, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand also rounded up hundreds of suspected pirates.

Ellis says many of those arrested during the raids are now facing criminal charges.

“In Singapore the instances of piracy have been significantly reduced. Hong Kong has done it as well,” says Ellis.

“Malaysia has got itself off our worst offenders list.”

Legal penalties for piracy have slowly but surely been lifted.

“Six to nine months in prison for selling a couple of dozen CDs is quite a message to send,” he says.

Sniffer dogs trained to detect the chemicals used in making CDs and DVDs are now used by Malaysian customs officers.

In Hong Kong, 175 customs officials are now committed to fighting piracy. Dodgy DVDs are harder to find on the streets of Mongkok, Hong Kong’s shopping district, than they once were.

In Pakistan, Ellis has worked closely with the Federal Investigation Agency, to shut down factories that were pirating DVDs for export.

That’s a far cry from just a few years ago when Government cooperation was less forthcoming.

“The door was slammed in your face,” says Ellis.

“Developing countries just didn’t have the resources to deal with it.”

Political pressure from the US has played a part in encouraging governments in Asia to crack down on piracy.

The US is threatening to drag China through the World Trade Organisation’s disputes process if it doesn’t do more to stop it.

Other Asian countries have been advised they must clamp down on the trade if they are to secure free trade deals with the US.

But for every DVD burner put out of action in the Trident raids, several more churn out thousands of discs that make their way through the supply chain to the pirates’ equivalent of the cut-price factory outlet store.

The anti-piracy effort has been most successful at clearing out what Ellis calls the “mom and pop” shop owners who form the front line of piracy – selling DVDs in the bustling markets and side streets of Asia.

Last week, one such Shanghai retailer was fined after being sued by several MPA members for selling bootlegged copies of Lord of the Rings and other movies. The owner had run a previous pirate DVD operation on the same premises and had simply changed the shop name after being busted. On this occasion, the owner was shut down and ordered to pay fines to the movie companies ranging from US$800 to US$1600. Recidivist offending is common both among convicted retailers and website operators, the fines not enough of a deterrent.

If the sales of dodgy DVDS weren’t bad enough, Ellis has another dark border to deal with – the internet.

China rigidly controls its 140 million web users’ access to the internet with the “great firewall of China”. Access to certain foreign websites is blocked and internet cafes are tightly regulated. But those measures have political motives and aren’t designed to protect the intellectual property rights of movie makers.

“The internet piracy is without doubt a growth industry in China,” says Ellis.

“Peer to Peer networking is part of the problem.”

The speed with which movies can reach a mass audience online has led Hollywood movie studios to release some of their blockbusters in China ahead of their US releases.

Spiderman 3 will debut in China a few days before its release in North America, a move designed to counter the disappointing Chinese box office takings for Spiderman 2 – a mere US$5.5 million.

Columbia Pictures hopes to more than double that figure by getting the movie onto theatre screens before pirates can get their DVD burners up and running.

While it’s Hollywood’s more glamorous productions that are the stock trade of the pirates, Ellis says independent production companies and film makers are hit equally hard.

“What’s frustrating is that it’s not just hurting Hollywood, it’s the local industry as well,” he says, pointing to pirated DVD versions of the hit comedy Sione’s Wedding sold in South Auckland last year before the movie had been released in theatres.

A pre-release copy of the movie was stolen from a film production house by an employee, and although Sione’s Wedding went on to make over $4 million at the New Zealand box office, its producer John Barnett has suggested it would have made a lot more had the piracy not taken place.

The MPA’s local face is the New Zealand Federation Against Copyright Theft, which this month ratchets up its anti-piracy campaign with the launch of a new website Stopmoviepiracy.co.nz and an advertising campaign featuring Once Were Warriors star Temuera Morrison.

“He volunteered to do the voice over for a trailer,” said Ellis, who will check out the anti-piracy effort personally on a visit here next month.

According to NZFACT, piracy wiped out a quarter of the film industry’s potential market in 2005, some $70 million in lost earnings, of which over a third would have gone to MPAA member companies.

Even the poor state of broadband here hasn’t held back a flourishing trade in illegal movies via the internet, which accounted for $33 million in lost earnings for 2005. In comparison, illicit copies of VHS tapes and DVDs contributed just $13.6 million, while bootleg DVD sales cost the industry $24 million.

You’d think that last category, where knock-off DVDs are sold under the table in markets and pubs, would be a fairly underground activity in New Zealand. Ellis disagrees.

“A lot of people are still selling [pirated] DVDs. I think there is a culture there,” he says.

It’s changing that culture, that expectation that movies should be cheap or free, that’s the key to curbing piracy. New technology is doing little to stop the pirates. If the ambivalent attitude towards piracy among Chinese consumers is anything to go by, the MPA faces a losing battle.

Ellis hasn’t yet seen pirated versions of high definition Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs appear in Asia yet, but the copy encryption has already been cracked and he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see them turn up.

What progress he has made in his eight years fighting piracy at the MPA, suggests the chances of him making a serious dent in the illicit trade are slim. Around 90 per cent of DVDs sold in China are pirated, a figure that remains steady year to year.

Does he ever feel like he’s wasting his time?

“I’ve a job where I’m optimistic there are areas I can make progress in,” he says.

“It is a long haul, but we’re making progress.”

25/03/2007

THE HOLE IN FENG SHUI

The Chinese have this belief in "Feng Shui", translated as "wind and water", where the arrangement of a room, building or even city, is planned in a way to promote harmony with the environment.

Feng Shui is as important to town planning in China as plumbing, as I found on a recent visit to Hong Kong. I was at Repulse Bay, one of the glitziest seaside suberbs of Hong Kong and a strip of coast where the British once fought Chinese pirates. The buildings lining Repulse Bay are lavish. Space is at a premium, which is why I was surprised to see this gaping hole in one of the major apartment blocks there (see picture below).

I asked my Chinese guide about this, he told me that the local residents believe a dragon lives on the mountain behind the apartment block. In China, dragons are a good thing, a protective force, good karma, whatever you like. They need to be protected and aided. The residents were worried that the proximity of the fire-breathing dragon would pose a fire risk. They didn't want the dragon going through their building on its way down the mountain and inadvertantly setting the place on fire. So they had the developer allow for a big hole to be left in the building, one which the dragon could pass through. That's why a prime piece of real estate property in one of Hong Kong's most expensive suberbs has a gaping hole in it. I bet that hole is worth millions, but I like it and we could all use a little Feng Shui...

Some more photos from my trip to China:

The sweeping boulevard at the centre of technology firm Huawei's Shenzhen campus.


The famous Jumbo floating restaurant in Hong Kong harbour, fantastic Chinese cuisine...


Some Hong Kong school girls...the one to the front is like the girl out of The Grudge.

Paul Clearwater (left) and I dealing with some jetlag at the Shangri-La, Sydney


THE AUSSIES AGITATE FOR BETTER BROADBAND

My Tomorrow's World column in the Herald on Sunday looks at the Australian Labor party's plan to contribute A$4.7 billion to building a national fibre to the node (FTTN) network if it wins the election later this year.

Similar plans have been floated before, one by Telstra, which was abandoned, and another called G9, which was proposed by a group of telcos. G9 didn't get off the ground either, but the appetite among players like Optus, which has promised to pledge $1 billion to the construction of a national fibre network, is likely to make the proposed public-private investment partnership work.

The plan has proven to be quite devisive and that's because of the proposal by Labor to sell down the Government's 17 per cent stake in Telstra to fund the network. What makes the whole thing interesting, is that many believe a similar, Government-funded network needs to be built here to create the level playing field in the telco industry we so desperately need.

Rod Drury floated his Securing Our Digital Trade Routes paper, which proposes something similar to the Labor broadband plan. It hasn't appeared to have got the political support it needs to be kicked along as an issue in the public domain. Communications minister David Cunliffe effectively rejected the idea on last week's Sunday programme, suggesting that private investment was a better method of funding broadband infrastructure and that there was plenty of appetite for that type of investment anyway. That shows the Government just is simply scared off by the big dollars such an investment would cost and is unwilling to consider the productivity gains the development of such a network would bring. I hope the Labor plan gets some traction across the Tasman, if only to change our own Government's thinking.

22/03/2007

TVNZ'S INTERNET PLAY AND PS3 ONLINE

Here's a link to my Herald column about TVNZ's new OnDemand service, which allows you to stream feeds of free-to-air programmes for free and download drama for a fee. It's worth checking out the website for the archive footage of the Wahine disaster and the 1981 Telethon alone. Those Radio with Pictures clips are also great...

Also a preview piece on the various online efforts offered up by the Playstaion Network, which launches today and the existing Xbox Live platform. Today is PS3 lanch day throughout Australia and New Zealand, so all those pre-ordered consoles will be flying out of retailers around the countrry. Make sure, if you're an early buyer, to sign up for free to the Playstation Network so you can pick up the free Blu-ray copy of Casino Royale they are giving away. Apparently there are 4000 copies to go to the first wave of PS3 owners.

18/03/2007

GENE SORCERY IN THE DEEP BLUE

My Tomorrow's World column in the Herald on Sunday is about the amazing results of Craig Venter's around the world trip that collected a mass of microscopic material to reveal millions of new proteins, which are the building blocks of life...

It was the ultimate mix of business and pleasure – a round the world yacht cruise that doubled as a scientific mission to search the oceans for the building blocks of life.
At the helm was Craig Venter, the controversial microbiologist and founder of Celera Genomics, who helped map the human genome in 2000 (continued)...
LEFT: Craig Ventor (left) on the Sorcerer II research yacht during his around the world expedition.

THE ORIENT'S RED DEMOCRACY

A couple of pieces the Herald ran about my trip to the Huawei campus in Shenzhen, China have been published. The first is a look at the staggering scale of the campus itself, the other an interview with Huawei executive Rio Zhang, who used to head up the Australian Huawei operation and is now the head of global sales accounts for the company. Aged just 32 and female, Zhang is a real anomaly in a major Chinese company - she's obviously done much to impress.

*Also check out my report tomorrow in The Business magazine (comes with the Herald) about the movie industry's anti-piracy campaign in Asia.*

A lot was going on in China the week I was there, namely a series of high level Beijing meetings that assembled every facit of the Communist Party. I'm always fascinated at the TV pictures of the Chinese Government's assembly hall, which seems to be bigger than the UN's though similarly decorated in retro wood panelling. A Chinese friend said the annual talkfests produce nothing but propoganda and are just an excuse for old party cronies to catch up.

Still, a couple of interesting things were bubbling away during the gatherings. The Chinese are going to move ahead and formally legalise the ownership of private land in China, giving better protection for home and business owners who have in the past had their land taken off them for projects in the national interest. Many see this as a very progressive step forward for China, while others are outraged that the long-held socialist policy of property being held in common state ownership has been pushed aside.

The proposed law passed, just as Premier Wen Jiabao gave a very interesting sppech about introducing democracy to China. He basically said that the democratisation of China will take place at a necessary slow rate, so as to give the "underdeveloped socalism" the country runs on, a chance to adapt.

Finally, an interesting report about the growing social unrest in China as the gap between the rich and poor in the country increases. I didn't read much about these types of incidents in the copy of China Daily delivered to my hotel room when I was in Shenzhen last week...

15/03/2007

TELECOM'S TECHNICAL DILEMMA

Good scoop by Juha at Geekzone, who came into possession of a document advising Telecom's board to look at investing in a hybrid CDMA-UMTS mobile network to solve their problem of being stuck at the end of the world without a CDMA partner in sight.

The story broke in CommsDay in Australia just as Telecom was holding a management briefing, so the timing was perfect. As it has been pointed out to me by Telecom's PR people, the company is considering all sorts of options for its future mobile network strategy. But the reality is that it will move to GSM/UMTS. The question now is whether it ditches CDMA altogether or take this hybrid path which will be more expensive but mean it gets to maintain its existing user base and all the CDMA telemtry equipment out in the market - parking meters, coke machines, that sort of thing.

As I wrote in an earlier Herald column posted below, the Worldmode phone concept isn't the answer to the CDMA roaming problem. With Telecom giving people the choice of a GSM network at home, it means those who do travel regularly can choose from a more extensive range of handsets and have seamless roaming overseas.

The question really is whether Telecom will consider a shared build of any such network. Would it team up with, say, an Econet or TelstraClear to build a GSM/UMTS network, cutting its costs dramatically in the process?

13/03/2007

MY SECOND CRACK AT THE IPOD

My overnight pit stop in Hong Kong on the way home from China gave me the opportunity to buy a new iPod to replace the 30GB videop iPod I left on a Brisbane-Christchurch flight after the Indy 300 last year.

Some aircraft cleaner inherited one massive progressive rock collection when they plucked that out of the seat pocket I'd stupidly left it in. Man, I wish the iPod had a PIN you could enter to make it useless to anyone who happens to find it and feels disinclined to hand it in to Lost & Found.


Anyway, after nearly being trampled to death by Saturday morning shoppers in Hong Kong, I managed to find a retailer working out of a shoe box who seemed to deal mainly in iPods (not the Creative Zen, no one likes them in Hong Kong apparently).

It was a toss up between the 80GB iPod and the 2nd generation 8GB iPod Nano. Despite the size of my music collection requiring the capacity of the former, in order not to repeat my previous iPod folly, I'm going to keep it on my person wherever I'm away from home, and the Nano is much better suited to that.

After a bit of haggling with the guy, who had rotten teeth and stringy hair, we finally settled on a price of NZ$360 ("no souvenirs" ie: no thrown-in accessories). I accepted the offer and produced my credit card. "Aaah," said bad teeth guy, grimacing at me. "No credit cards."

So I went in search of an ATM, which are about as common as flower beds in Hong Kong's electronic district - that is, there are none. So I ended up buying the iPod Nano from a high-street retailer for $385 and saved myself the hassle.

The black iPod Nano is an impressive device. There's nothing particularly new here, compared to the first generation of Nanos, bar the 8GB flash memory capacity. I like the fact there are no moving parts, no hard drive spinning constantly, using battery life and subject to shakes and drops. It's so small that when I went through customs at Hong Kong airport I forgot to take it out of my shirt pocket and set off the metal detector. The plastic box it comes in is very clever packaging. The one thing I don't like is Apple's insistence of shipping the black Nano with white earphones. Give me a bakc set, please!

Anyway, now I have to decide which tenth of my music collection to squeeze onto it, something made more difficult by the fact that the average song length in my music collection is around 15 minutes. I get the feeling I'm going to be shuffling songs back and forward from iTunes to iPod more often with the Nano than with my first iPod...

12/03/2007

BEYOND BLU-RAY AND HD-DVD

The options for high-definition video open up this month with the arrival of both Sony's Playstation 3 and an add-on for Microsoft's 18 month old Xbox 360 console.

The Blu-ray drive built into the $1199 PS3 machine and the $249 HD-DVD drive from the Xbox will allow you to play new DVDs that hold many times the amount of data regular DVDs store.
That means movies can be delivered in higher resolution boasting better image and sound quality and interactive features beyond the standard menus of DVDs.



(graphic by Phil Welch, Herald on Sunday)

I recently watched the latest Bond flick Casino Royale and a preview of the rather bloody historical action movie 300 in high-definition on the PS3 and the improvement when viewed on a high-definition flat screen TV is remarkable when compared to a standard definition picture.
Blu-ray and HD-DVD drives are also being built into computers and DVD recorders allowing you to duplicate the entire contents of your computer hard drive or record hundreds of hours of TV on a single disc.

The consumer electronics industry is divided in its support of the rival Blu-ray and HD-DVD systems and Hollywood has also taken sides in the latest technological battle. Expect to see movie titles in both formats begin to pop up in stores in the next few months.

But even as the new generation of DVD players roll off the production lines in increasing numbers, scientists in the US are working on their successors, and once again, rival technologies will likely lead to yet another next generation battle for supremacy.

New discs will be released in the next few years that offer 300 times as much storage as today's DVDs. That's 1.5 terabytes of data on a disc, or twenty times the capacity of an average computer hard drive. The massive boost in storage comes down to a new way of packing information onto a disc - holographic storage.

While current DVDs use a reflective, pitted surface on the disc to store information, holographic discs create a 3D image within the disc, storing multiple images containing the data on the same light-sensitive polymers making up the disc.

When the disc drive's laser is shone on the disc at different angles, different layers of information stored on the same sliver of disc are revealed. It's sort of like looking at a painting from different angles and detecting new attributes each time.

Two American companies - InPhase and DCE Aprilis are developing differing versions of holographic storage, which is being closely examined by consumer electronics makers planning their product roadmaps beyond Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

The new discs will require a completely new drive to play them and will likely be slightly larger than today's DVDs. Initially, the drives will be very expensive - tens of thousands of dollars, and used only in the bsuiness sector for large-scale data back-up.

But eventually, they will form the basis of a new format for consumers, allowing even higher resolution video to be squeezed onto a disc. For us consumers, that will mean a better home theatre experience if we invest in the new drives and even higher resolution TV screens. That's something to think about when you produce your credit card to buy that long sought after Blu-ray player. It's the next big thing, but it's already on the road to obsolescence.
petergnz@gmail.com

THE PS3 AND BLU-RAY
High definition Blu-ray drives get their mass market debut on March 23 when the Playstation 3 goes on sale in New Zealand. A gaming console featuring Sony's impressive Cell processing technology, a 60GB hard drive, numerous connectors for digital cameras, game controllers and music players as well as wireless and Ethernet networking, the Blu-ray drive makes it ideal for playing high quality movies. Retailers are yet to confirm details of what Blu-ray movie titles will be available at the PS3's launch. One title, Casino Royale, will be given away when new PS3 owners sign up the the Playstation Online netwwork. Son'y has some 4000 copies to give away locally.
Price: $1199
www.playstation.com

THE XBOX ADD-ON
Available from later this month, the HD-DVD add-on for the Xbox 360 connects to the games console and displays movies in native high-definition (1080i resolution). That means movies recorded in high-definition will look much better when played on the Xbox add-on drive and a suitable high definition TV set. A dual-sided HD-DVD disc can store 30GB of data, six times more than a regular DVD. The drive also supports hybrid discs which come with HD-DVD and standard DVD recorded on the disc, so it can be played back at standard definition on regular DVD players. Interactive features such as the ability to flick through chapters while a movie is playing and watching behind the scene footage play in a pop-up screen during the movie, give greater flexiblity when it comes to navigating the contents of a disc.
Price: $249
http://www.xbox.com/

AT THE MERCY OF THE MONEY GODS

I've just come back from a fascinating visit to China which I'll write more about in following posts.

I love visiting China and seeing the remarkable developments underway there. My time spent at the massive Huawei technology headquarters in Shenzhen really brought home the extent of China's advances in the telecoms equipment market. The old European guard (ie: Nokia, Ericsson, Alcatel and Siemens) are being outgunned by a Chinese company barely 19 years old.


It comes down to the fact that China is a cheap place to do research and development and that China has some of the best engineers and researchers in the world. Huawei spends 48 per cent of its budget each year on R&D and the investment is paying off. It's rapidly gaining market share in the key mobile infrastructure and fixed line broadband categories.


However this visit to China also shed some light on the darker side of the economic revolution - the widening gap between rich and poor, the intensive competitive pressures on the Chinese to advance themselves, the inherent corruption in the Chinese system and the frankly grotesque and dysfunctional aspects of Chinese society. I came away from China, impressed as usual by the scale of industry there, but feeling very uneasy about where the country is heading. In many ways, China represents a number of the things that are plaguing the world, in particular, the obsession with money that seems to underpin everything the Chinese do.


As I stood in a grimy, crowded street in Hong Kong's Mongkok district, I watched a massive screen showing some Chinese actors dancing around in costume. I asked a Chinese friend what they were doing. "They're praying to the money god," she said. That figures.


And as I arrive back in this green and pleasant land, I read the disconcerting news that the local development arm of one of our best IT companies is to be shut down all in the cynical pursuit of profit.


We are selling off our best bits of land, our best companies, our prize resources, because, like the lead proponets of the new world order, we too are greedy and short sighted. The country is literally being sold down the river and in 20 years time is likely to be unrecognisable as a result.


The closure of Navman's Christchurch development centre and the break up of the satnav operation by its US owners is symptomatic of the ugly flip side of globalisation I wrote about in the 2003 column below which was published as Navman was sold to the Americans. I feared the thing would be carved up, sold off and wound down back then, despite attempts by Brunswick executives to sweet talk me into thinking differently. Now my fears have come to pass and the trend is worryingly similar everywhere you look...


Peter Griffin: Global forces batter our IT plans
by Peter Griffin


George Buckley seems like a nice guy. He has a relaxed, casual way about him as if the responsibility of running a multibillion-dollar company employing 21,000 people doesn't weigh on his mind too much.Maybe it's the calming influence of being in the South Pacific away from the bustle of his Illinois head office.


Or the fact his company Brunswick Corporation has just picked up 70 per cent of technology darling Navman - for a mere $56 million.If the timing was different he may have paid something ridiculous.Buckley is dismissive of the niggling concerns I have about ownership of our most innovative technology companies passing into foreign hands.


He calls Navman's founder Peter Maire a "visionary" and a man who will continue to head Navman, despite the shareholding changes."If the Americans are coming, it's to learn from the New Zealanders," he said with a smile. It's not to strip them of their intellectual property, plunder the brains trust and move on.


I hope Buckley sticks to his word. But the reality is that the future of Navman may be out of his hands almost entirely.The force of globalisation that brought Brunswick to our shores, has the power to giveth and to taketh away.As Investment New Zealand's director Ross Campbell said, globalisation can't be a one-way street for New Zealand.


If we want to grow a large and profitable IT industry we have to get used to the fact that offshore investors will finance it and tap off the bulk of the profits for some time to come.Campbell is confident that we'll reach the ICT Taskforce's target of 100 new $100 million IT companies by 2012, contributing to 10 per cent of gross domestic product in the process.


But of those companies, a proportion will be wholly foreign-owned multinationals or New Zealand companies with majority foreign ownership. At the rate we're going nearly all of them will be.


His argument is that the mere presence of these companies on New Zealand soil generates jobs, research and development activity, and most importantly, the management expertise that will allow New Zealand to build its own world-class IT companies - and reap the dividends.


He has a good point. Many of the multinationals based here don't pay much tax. In fact some of them have accrued significant tax losses. They use inter-company transfer payments of marketing costs and software royalties to knock out the bulk of their profitability and therefore their taxability.


But the key value in having the multinationals here is the money they pump into the service industry and the jobs and expertise they generate.The country managers of the Intels and Hewlett Packards of this world have gone on to pour their experience and ideas into local companies.The former Microsoft New Zealand guys doing their stints in relatively senior roles at Redmond soak up the Microsoft way of doing business, which ultimately has been damn successful.


They will also tell you they want to work back in New Zealand - eventually.But the lesson of the last depressing chapter in the history of the IT industry is that nothing is safe, especially when you sell. The shifting sands of the industry can bury old companies, ideas and trends just as quickly as they uncover new ones.At the moment New Zealand, with the IT multinationals taking a shine to us, has the opportunity to win some US work.But we aren't the most attractive place to be. Other Governments give lucrative incentives, as Brunswick well knows.


New Zealanders have developed some innovative technology, but once ownership of it passes into foreign hands, so does the control of its destiny.The worst thing that could happen would be for New Zealand to become the country that hatches good ideas, only to watch them all sail away.The truth is, there are enough local examples to show that foreign-funded IT partnerships can be fleeting in nature.The Ericsson Synergy partnership didn't work and Intel's Dialogic lab has been shut down.


This year Ericsson sold its data systems division, which made highspeed internet products. Despite generating revenue of around $100 million over the past three years, it was sold to Australian company Tennyson Networks, "part of an international strategy to narrow down to its core businesses," said Ericsson.Then there's IBM's ICMS phone billing system. Developed locally, the system was built for Telecom and was to be sold all around the world.Those plans changed and some 140 staff at IBM's development laboratory at Petone lost their jobs.


Today it is hard to hold onto anything, unless you own a big chunk of it.The trend of globalisation, which America played the largest part in kicking off, is starting to bite it in the bum.


Its citizens are getting increasingly annoyed at the thousands of jobs going offshore in outsourcing projects, largely to cost-effective India and China.The manufacturing base went decades ago, from the 1960s, when the likes of Intel opened chip plants in Asia.Now it's the relatively skilled jobs - programmers and designers, that are being displaced.It's a time when software developers around the world swap code they are working on in a big game of "pass the parcel" - much as the Kiwi musicians do on that Telecom advert.


This is all hard to stomach for the tens of thousands of American tech workers who have picked up pink slips over the last couple of years.The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (www.washtech.org) is fighting against the "offshoring" of IT work, and the influx of the so-called "H-1B" visa holders, foreigners given the authorisation to come and work in the US.States such as New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, have legislated to prevent Government funding being issued to those companies sending work overseas.


The likes of Brunswick will no doubt become sensitive to these political moves at some stage.As far as Peter Maire is concerned, it seems Buckley's word is good enough.But what happens when those two sail into the sunset of retirement - on a Brunswick-built boat of course?Will anyone be there to pound their fist on the boardroom table and demand Navman stay put? Will anyone care?

6/03/2007

DOWN THE MOUNTAIN

They’re a regular and slightly unsettling feature of living in Wellington – those tremors that indicate the earth is on the move again.

They come without warning now that I’m no longer living with Frankie, the little Jack Russell, who used to start growling before the rest of us could feel the earthquake hit the city. Frankie was my early warning system.

Earthquakes occur on such a scale and so quickly that forewarning people of them is incredibly difficult even with the best technology. Tidal waves are easier – sensors at sea can detect the seismic shifts that cause them and send the alert to land, often minutes or hours before the waves roll ashore.

Any day now we may see one of New Zealand’s most sophisticated early warning systems in action. The Eastern Ruapehu Lahar Alarm Warning System on Mt. Ruapehu is designed to prevent anything like the disaster of Christmas Eve, 1953 when thousands of tonnes of water surged down the Whangaehu River taking out the Tangiwai railway bridge just before the Wellington to Auckland night express train arrived. Of the 285 people on board, 151 were killed when the train crashed into the swollen river.

How the multimillion dollar alert system works is laid out in the diagram opposite but it basically rests on an automated chain of communication designed to let the world know when the side of Mt. Ruapehu’s Crater Lake is about to give way.

Vibration and lake level sensors in the Crater Lake and a “trip wire” sensor maintained by the Department of Conservation and Genesis Power are constantly sending information via radio links to Genesis computers at the Tokanuu Power Station. If the data coming in meet certain thresholds suggesting the Crater Lake is about to give way, alerts are simultaneously sent to the Police Communications Centre, Tranzrail and DOC scientists.

The public can get the alert at exactly the same time if they sign up to an innovative text message service being offered by the Ruapehu District Council and technology partner OPTN. Mobile users just need to text OPTNLAHAR to 2678. The service has a one-off cost of 50c to join up and 50c again to deregister by texting OPTXLAHAR to the same number.

As well as the big alert of the “dam break”, the service will also send out updates in its aftermath. The system is based on the same text-message Tsunami alert service operated in Tauranga Western Bay, Manawatu, Wiamate and South Waikato.

As the public are alerted, the police will be coordinating emergency services and Tranzrail will activate the road barriers on State Highway 1 and State Highway 49 as well as on the railway line stopping all traffic into the path of the torrent of mud and water pouring into the Whangaehu River.

The scientists expect the probability of the Crater Lake giving way again is around 50 – 60 per cent and rising, so there’s a good chance we’ll get to see the early alert system in action. Let’s hope it works in practice.

5/03/2007

DIGITAL MAOISM IN THE PIRATE BAY

An interesting article in Vanity Fair about the legal problems facing torrent website Pirate Bay, which was subjected to some pretty bizarre police procedures (why is it necessary to take DNA swaps in a copyright infringement case?).

The author of the piece raises eyebrows with the level of his downloading (at least 800 gigabytes)! How the hell does he find time to watch all that TV (and write for Vanity Fair)!

Mentioned in the article is technologist Jaron Lanier, who copped a fair amount of flack when he suggested that the new internet content collectivism, what he terms "Digital Maoism" was potentially disasterous for the cultural forms we know and love ie: popular music and movies.

He's written an article revisiting the issue here.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DESIRE

Some unimaginative editing in the Herald on Sunday led my feature about the psychology of desire, the lust for new gadgets, to be cut in half. Here it is in full...

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF WANT: GADGET PASSION

On January 30, the day Microsoft launched its new computer operating system Windows Vista, Amit Govind walked into Dick Smith Electronics and paid $650 for the most expensive version available.


There were only three copies of Vista Ultimate on the shelf. The retailer obviously wasn’t expecting a stampede of customers for it.

A 26 year-old software developer from Wellington, Govind is what is known to marketers of technology products as an “early adopter”.

He’s ahead of the curve - quick to buy and use new technology and prepared for it not to work exactly as promised.

“It was not an impulse buy,” says Govind of his Vista purchase.
“I put money aside, I did my homework. And I’ve no loyalty to any brand. I’m not a fan boy of Apple or Windows, Nokia or Sony Ericsson.”

Govind sits at a crucial point in the “technology adoption lifecycle”, a model created by academics in the 1950s that divides people into innovators, early adopters, the early majority, the late majority and finally – laggards.

“A lot of theory suggests that if you want to get a new product to take off you need to convince the innovative consumers to adopt it and then tell their friends about it,” says Simon Kemp, a lecturer in the psychology department at Canterbury University.

In the case of products like the hugely successful iPod music player, he adds, this obsession with early adopters has more than paid off.

“The marketing strategy has worked. They got the early adopters to use them. These things have gone past the innovative stage now and spread throughout society.”

Kemp says psychology research involving people who had invested early in the volatile technology sector during the dotcom boom, shows they had a propensity for taking risks.
“It turned out that people who bought shares in those companies were notably different in personality tests to the people who bought shares in ordinary companies,” he says.
“They generally liked to take risks.”

He believes the same goes for early adopters of technology who now seem to constitute an expanding group. As we become more comfortable with technology thanks to the Apple iPod and Google, the Motorola Razr and the Sony Playstation, we’ve in turn become quicker adopters of new technology – more comfortable with the risk of buying in early.

The tech sector is prospering as a result, having learnt to leap the metaphorical chasm outlined in Geoffrey Moore’s 1991 book Crossing the Chasm. Moore made a fortune advising Silicon Valley tech companies on how best to push products from early adopters to the mass market.

He felt there was a barrier separating those prepared to sit on the bleeding edge of new technology and the “pragmatists” who were later in embracing it and more sceptical of its merits. Clever marketing, product design and distribution had to be dreamt up to cross the chasm. The industry seems to have taken his advice to heart.

Society is using more technology than ever before and taking to it faster. It’s driven by the global shift to digital storage of media, the proliferation of web service and the available of better-quality, high-definition video. Disruptive delivery systems like internet TV and music and video downloads are changing how people access content.

“Consumers are allocating more of their disposable income on consumer electronics and will continue to do so,” Sean Wargo, an analyst for the American Consumer Electronics Association told reporters at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas show last month.
“They are adopting technologies faster than ever. New technologies we haven't even seen yet are sure to be adopted faster than their previous generations.”

According to the CEA, the average American household spent US$1500 on consumer technology last year and is expected to spend close to US$2000 this year. Kiwis spent $937 million on consumer electronics last year an increase of ten per cent on 2005.

The spend up on consumer electronics seems to have breathed new life into materialism. Mobile phones, laptops and other electronic gadgets are increasingly regarded as status symbols.
“Some people get pleasure in showing off their possessions to others,” says Professor Kemp.
“That is conspicuous consumption. If you can afford something like this, it’s a demonstration that you’re doing reasonably well.”

But some are making big financial sacrifices to be early adopters. Mt Eden retailer, Computerlounge, builds powerful computers to order, but finds student gamers and retirees tinkering around with digital video editing, make up a large portion of its clientele.
“Some of them are still at university,” says co-founder Paul Pattison.
“I wouldn’t put them in the high-end earning bracket.”

Most machines sold at Computerlounge cost $4000 - $6000. That’s a big outlay for someone on a part-time wage or student allowance.


“The thing forcing them to buy high-end is the games. The software pushes the hardware,” says Pattison.

In the run up to Christmas, a middle-aged, male customer slapped down $9500 for a custom-built computer. He bought it, says Pattison, so he had a machine powerful enough to do justice to the new flying game, Flight Simulator X.

But it’s about more than having the hardware grunt to handle the latest and greatest games. This class of PC owner also request glowing lights and water-coolers built into their computers. They buy super-fast processors and the best graphics cards available.

Pattison says it gives them “internet bragging rights” in the competitive online multiplayer gaming community, where people gather to play cult hits like Warcraft, 1942 and Counterstrike and obsess over hardware configurations.

After three and a half years in business, Pattison says business is booming for Computerlounge.
“We’re getting a lot more mainstream people. With the popularity of large screens, people want to put all their media on the computer.”

As a result, computers designed to sit in the lounge and act as media hubs for music, photos and recorded TV programmes have become popular and people are prepared to pay more for them.
People have gathered you can spend $900 on a computer, but you’ll throw it away after a year,” says Pattison.

“It’s a generational thing. Ten to 15 years ago computers weren’t around to the same extent. You spent money on cars.”

A look at the latest junk mail flyers from Harvey Norman or Noel Leeming, suggest the technology spend-up is also underway in more mainstream retailers.

Among the most coveted products, are the computers and music players developed by Apple.
James Wigg, a 37 year-old gardener and freelance Apple Mac operator is a self-confessed Apple fan, despite owning a PC himself. He does have a 30GB iPod and his big purchase this year will be an iMac with 20 inch screen.

Wigg isn’t an early adopter – he still accesses the internet over a dial-up connection.
But he loves Apple products for their “industrial design, consistency of appearance, attention to detail and the fact that [an Apple Mac] just looks good sitting on your desk.”

“It tends to become evident when you compare the scroll wheel on the iPod with the navigational buttons on virtually any other music player,” he adds.

Many others share his love of Apple design and outlay serious sums to buy Apple computers, which have traditionally sold at a premium to similarly equipped PCs.
However, as Tyler Durden claims in Fight Club, that wonderful satire on modern consumerism, do the things you own, end up owning you?

Technology publishing veteran Chris Keall says the “rats-on-a-treadmill” pressure to upgrade used to be confined to the PC market, but now pervades all consumer electronics.

“Replacement cycles just get faster and faster too. It's not just a matter of junking that Walkman CD player you've owned since 1985 in favour of an iPod. It's a matter of upgrading your iPod every six months. Or every three months if you want to stay really current,” says Keall who has witnessed a decade of technological change from the editor’s chair at PC World magazine.

Bombarded with virtually every new gadget coming to market, he’s the living embodiment of the early adopter and isn’t ashamed to admit having the latest gadgets on hand gives his ego a boost.

“For better or worse I did think I looked cool when I became the first person in Auckland to clip on one of the new cuff-link style iPod Shuffles, coupling it with some giant noise-cancelling headphones just-released by Phitek,” he says.

“Some of it is rooted in status anxiety, or wanting boasting rights for being the first. But part of it is it also relates to a perennial optimism about new technology.”


Keall’s years of reviewing new technology have shown him that most of it is “over-priced, fiendishly tricky to install, freezes, crashes” and has him “dribbling with rage.”

But his interest in technology and a belief that it makes our lives better is enough to keep him hooked.

The same can be said for 42 year-old Henderson beneficiary Tom Bollard. He’s not an early adopter, but the only thing that stops him from being one is a lack of money. Bollard has cerebral palsy but puts his keen knowledge of computers to good use in his volunteer work teaching children basic computer skills.

Last year he undertook a gruelling wheelchair marathon to raise money to buy computer equipment for his students.

For Christmas his parents bought him a Navman in-car navigation unit, a model that’s been on the market for about a year.

“My sense of direction is awful. If I get lost, I get flustered,” says Bollard.
“Now I’m as free as a bird. I could put it on the side of my wheelchair if I wanted to.”

For Bollard, the cache of owning new gadgets doesn’t drive his desire to own them.
“If I had the money I’d be out buying the latest gear because I’m interested in it. That’s why I spend so much time on the internet,” he admits.
“I’ve had my phone for two and a half years. It’s got a camera and email but no other bells or whistles. If mobiles were cheaper I’d buy a new one.”

If the iPod and Mac Book have become status symbols and the mobile phone being, for many, as much a part of fashion as the clothes they wear, Professor Kemp says there is another, less insidious, motive for adopting technology early.

“There’s also a genuine interest in the products. These people just want to see how it works and see what it looks like,” he says.
“They’re innovative in this way and have enough money to buy these things.”

But what when new technology doesn’t take off, even with the early adopters?
It happens regularly says PC World’s Keall.

“Not all geek chic crosses over into the mainstream. A Bluetooth earpiece does not so much confer status as make you look like a complete plonker on his way to a Star Trek fan club meeting.”

THE TECH ADOPTERS LIFESTYLE: RECOGNISE YOURSELF?

INNOVATORS
You have friends in high places or work in the tech industry, so are constantly using gadgets that won’t hit the market for six months. Your house is a mini version of Bill Gates’ – down to the flat panel touch screen on the fridge door and the robotic house maid. You think a lot about things like ergonomics, packaging and the “user-interface” of new products. Then you go into your shed and build a better one yourself.

EARLY ADOPTERS
You’ve already pre-ordered your Playstation 3 and actually know that “HSDPA” means being able to access the internet, on your laptop, at high speed, using the mobile phone network. The wife complains about the money you splurge on new gadgets but she’s thrilled that she can keep an eye on the house from work using the internet camera you bought her. Consumer electronics executives actually care about what you write about their products on your blog.


EARLY MAJORITY
The reviews in the geek magazines tell you these dual-core processors make for much better computing so you don’t feel so bad about trading in the 18 month old PC in the study. You thought you were pretty cool with your new music phone, till you saw three other people with them at the office. You’re constantly having to buy more power adapters to keep your growing collection of gadgets charged up.


LATE MAJORITY
You weren’t at the front of the queue for flat screen TVs but are now thanking your lucky stars as they’ve dropped $2000 in price since your home theatre-obsessed neighbour picked one up. You recently bought a laptop and a wi-fi router after the boss told you he’d let you telework from home if you set yourself up with the right gear. You’ve heard of iTunes.com but would still rather rip music from CDs.


LAGGARDS
You’re still using dial-up internet access and had to be lured off Telecom’s aging 025 network with the promise of a free phone because they wanted to shut it down. You keep wondering what this damn “iPod” thing is and why everyone keeps talking about what they saw on the Youtube.


IT’S ALL IN THE DESIGN


At a technology exhibition in Barcelona a beautiful Korean model stands amidst dozens of suited businessmen, clutching a handkerchief.

The model works for Korean electronics maker LG and the handkerchief is there for wiping fingerprints off the object of everyone’s attention – LG’s new mobile phone, the Shine.
The major selling point of the sleek device is that when in standby mode, its face forms a perfect mirror. It’s impressive to look at as long as it’s not smudged with businessmen’s fingerprints.
LG sold 78 million mobile phones last year, but it wants a larger slice of the European and US handset markets and is attempting to overhaul its image to better appeal to Western consumers and in the process, take on rivals Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Motorola.
The result is a new line of upmarket phones quite unlike anything LG has produced before.
First came the Chocolate, an angular, black mobile with touch sensitive keys. It was a hit last year in the US and went on sale here a couple of months ago. LG plans to have sold 10 million Chocolates by mid year.
The Shine was in response to research that showed mobile users like their phones wrapped in shiny metal, says Jae Bae, LG’s executive vice president. LG wants to sell five million Shines this year.
But its ultimate move to take its brand upmarket led it to strike a deal with Italian fashion house Prada. The Prada phone steals the Apple iPhone’s thunder by being the first mobile to go on sale that has no keyboard – everything is controlled using touch screen icons.
“It’s not another fashion company marrying for a few months with a consumer electronics company to brand a product,” Giacomo Ovidi, Prada’s business development manager, told the Herald on Sunday.
“We’re interested in making money, but the first objective was to do it our way.”
Prada’s tie-up with LG came only after the fashion house was given extensive input to the phone’s design. Other companies wanted the Prada name, but weren’t willing to collaborate on building it.
“At least five telephone companies have said to us, ‘you brand the phone, we make a good phone, we’ll share the revenue’. I always said no,” Ovidi points out.
As well as the over-all look of the phone, Ovidi says Prada’s Milan and Tuscany-based designers helped design the screen layout and Prada’s music composer supplied ring tones and musical effects.
Other phones in LG’s line-up pack in features, but the common theme to the more style-driven phones is minimalism, inside and out.
“We used a very large LCD screen. It represents the total look because [the LG Prada] had to have a great graphical user interface,” says Bae.
Teams of LG and Prada designers shuttled between Asia and Europe until the plans for the Prada phone were right. It will sell at a premium through Prada’s stores in Europe and Asia, not by mobile operators as is usually the case.
As such, the aim is not to make the LG Prada a multimillion selling, mass market phone but to build a name for good design.
“We’re not keen to compete directly with the iPhone,” says Bae of the highly anticipated music phone that Apple boss Steve Jobs wants to sell ten million of next year.
“We’ve different reasons for developing this phone.”
THE GOOD GRACE TO STAY HOME

Those who see value in flaunting their gadgets will be unimpressed with Microsoft’s Spartan vision of our high-tech future.

Most of the technology at Microsoft’s “home of the future”, situated at its headquarters near Seattle, is hidden behind the walls.
The last time I passed through the prototype house back in 2001, there was at least a computer in the lounge, providing digital media and internet TV services to the flat-screen TV dominating the room.
The screen has gotten even bigger, but the computer is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Jonathan Cluts, Microsoft’s director of strategic prototyping, explains how ten years from now, every last scrap of digital media ever produced could be available to download straight to your TV, via the internet.
Managing the mundane tasks of life are easier in the home of the future, thanks to a virtual maid called Grace. Simply say, “Grace, dim the lights,” and she does exactly that, present in spirit if not in body all over the house to heed your commands.
Grace also controls a projector positioned above the kitchen bench that displays recipes on the bench top.
PC World editor, Chris Keall, sees central control systems in the home taking off.
“The next step will be computers that control entertainment, security, heating, lighting and other systems around your house,” he says.
“Home automation used to be a rich person's game, but cheap and open technology standards are going to rapidly move it into middle class homes.”
In the hallway, an electronic noticeboard displays notes and reminders for the family, not on a screen, but emitted through the wall materials itself. Wireless technology is a common theme, from the radio frequency tags built into letters pinned to the notice board, which instantly identify where they’re from and reveal their contents visually, to the keyless entry to the house using a mobile phone.
In the bedroom, the walls are lined with light-emitting material that displays an image. You can change the wallpaper in the same way you switch background images on your computer screen. Change the colour of the walls to suit your mood or have video constantly playing around you. In the closet is a special mirror that displays your outfits and helps you choose what to wear.
Microsoft claims everything in the house of the future will be affordable within six years, which suggests our homes could soon be transformed from the inside out.

1/03/2007

FINALLY, THE DIRTY TRUTH...UNSUPPRESSED

All the news websites are leading right now with the news of the not-quilty verdicts in the sexual assault and kidnapping case against deputy police commissioner Clint Rickards, Bob Schollum and Brad Shipton.

The not-guilty verdicts were widely expected, there were too many inconsistencies in the alleged victim's version of events, just as in the Lousie Nicholas case where the three men were cleared of 20 charges, including rape.

But finally, the media is allowed to reveal the most sensational detail of the trial - that Shipton and Schollum were on trial while serving long stretches in prison for rape.

As the Herald reported:

"Suppression orders related to a previous conviction for Schollum and Shipton were lifted.
They were convicted in 2005 of the rape of a woman in Mt Maunganui 16 years earlier and are currently serving jail sentences of eight years and eight-and-a half years respectively."

During the Nicholls trial I spoke to several reporters covering the proceedings who felt very uncomfortable writing long and detailed stories about the case while having to exclude the fact that two of the three accused were already in prison for a very similar crime. It lent a bizarre tone to much of the coverage, with hints at the underlying truth.

Some members of the public flouted the law and distrubuted flyers or posted online, the suppressed information. They were threatened with prosecution for contempt of court.

Now the truth can be raked over in the Sunday papers. Shipton and Schollum may have shed tears of relief as they left court but it's surely a hollow victory for the convicted rapists. They've been judged innocent, but they'll forever be judged differently in the court of public opinion.

What ther jury never knew (NZ Herald report)

PORTAL WARS AND CABLING THE COUNTRY

The big Telecom Microsoft online split has now happened and users going to Xtramsn.co.nz will be asked to choose whether to go to Yahooxtra.co.nz or Msn.co.nz (you'll see the screengrab to the left when you go there).

Neither look terribly inspiring, but YahooXtra looks much better than MSN which has the look of a fairly anaemic news site. I still use Netvibes as my start page and it gives me everything I need. I think I probably visited XtraMSN half a dozen times last year. There are so many better overseas services allowing you to build your own portal that these mega-merger portals have an uphill battle unless they provide some really compelling content.

My Herald story on the launch of the two new portals.

Also, a news story and my Webwalk column in the Herald today about Rod Drury's interesting idea that the Government invest in a fibre optic cable network throughout the country. The discussion paper he's written here is very high level and designed simply to spark debate. It contains some good ideas that deserve to be considered. You can download the paper from here.