28/06/2007

REVIEWS: THE OFFICIAL FREEVIEW RECEIVERS

by Peter Griffin | from the New Zealand Herald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hills Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zinwell Satellite Receiver

Price: $299

Herald rating: 5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25/06/2007

THE WEBSTOCK SPECIAL


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



The new Internet: All fizz and no substance?

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Web
www.myspace.com
www.secondlife.com
www.twitter.com
www.webstock.org.nz

Virtual beers with Darth Vader

by Peter Griffin | from New Zealand Herald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMMENTS:

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

Dr Clare Atkins
School of Business and Computer Technology
NMIT

The Kiwi Firefox connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

O'Callahan's blog can be found here.

COMMENTS

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

(MANNED) MISSION TO MARS

by Peter Griffin | from the Herald on Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24/06/2007

THE PROBLEM WITH "P"

The stories in the Sunday papers about Millie Holmes' problems with pure methamphetamine reminded me of Cyan Sunday, a feature screenplay I wrote very quickly a couple of years ago. The story is about an intelligent young woman, Charlotte White, who is also a very good P cook who has created a lucrative little business in Auckland supplying the gangs with high grade merchandise for their street drug trade.

Charlotte likes to deal to her favour customers from the rear pew of St. Patrick's and when leaving church one Sunday she is knocked unconscious and kidnapped by Thomas Schumacher and his colleague Keith. The two are middle aged bankers whose children's lives have been ruined by the P Charlotte sells. Frustrated at the pace of the police investigation into Charlotte's activities, Schumacher decides to take matters into his own hands leading to the following scene...


INT. SCHUMACKER’S GARAGE -- MORNING
The garage door closes behind Thomas’ car. He and Keith climb out and slide Charlotte across the backseat. She is limp within their arms but begins to revive and fight.

THOMAS
Get the chain and lock!

He holds Charlotte while Keith grabs a chain off a workbench that runs the length of one side of the garage. Thomas slaps Charlotte across the face twice and she stops struggling. He drags her to a steel chair that sits with its back hard against a boat trailer which holds a large red speed boat. Taking her arms he holds them together behind the chair while Keith wraps the chain tightly around them and loops the chain through the safety latch of the trailer.
Charlotte looks up at Thomas groggily. He leans against the workbench tired form the exertion. He points at her.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
There she is. Doesn’t look like a drug baron
does she? With a broken nose, chained up. It’s
not like the movies. No henchmen, no weapons?

He flicks a look at Keith who pants away wearing a Balaclava.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
You did check her for weapons?

MR GREY
I checked, just a mobile phone and
some keys.

A shot of the phone and keys sitting on the workbench.

THOMAS
Good.

The three of them regard each other. Charlotte spits onto the garage floor. The spit is red, laced with blood.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Be my guest. And scream away if you want.
We’re pretty private here.

CHARLOTTE
(clears her throat)
What is this, you want me to cook for you?

Thomas bursts out with forced laughter. Keith joins him from behind his mask. The laughter carries on, echoing in the garage. Charlotte studies the two men and looks around the garage. A series of shots with the men’s laughter over the top: Tubs of paint on a shelf, a ride-on lawn mower parked in the corner, fishing rods hung from the rafters of the garage.

THOMAS
I think you’ve done enough of that for one
career, madam. Think of this as the Spanish
Inquisition but it doesn’t matter if you truly
do believe in God, which you obviously do
because you deal drugs in church!

Schumacher breaks out laughing again. Charlotte scans the room, looking for an out. A shot of her hands exploring the chain and the safety latch of the boat trailer.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
No, this is a confessional in which you are
going to tell us every detail of your operation,
who supplies you with the cold pills, where
you make it and how your dealer network
functions. Understand?

CHARLOTTE
You’re wasting your time, I’m just a dealer, I
get given the stuff and sell it on the streets, I
don’t know whose above or below me.

THOMAS
Bullshit! We’ve been watching you for weeks.
You’re not some curb-crawling drug pusher.
You’re a major player in Auckland, below the
radar. Till now.

Thomas walks up to Charlotte and looks down at her.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Now the game is over. It’s confession time
and you better not leave out any details.

CHARLOTTE
Or what?

THOMAS
Or what? Or what?

Thomas goes back to the workbench and opens a drawer full of tools. He begins taking them out and placing them on the table during the next piece of his dialogue.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Well it’s your industry Miss White, you
know what the thugs running it are capable of.
What was that I read in the paper the other
day?

He slams down a hammer on the workbench.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
About that guy working for the Head Hunters?
He was stealing from the gang apparently,
skimming off his own cut of the merchandise
and selling it. Under the table, so to speak. They
cut his head off. A farmer found it in his sewage
pond. They never found the rest of him! Identified
him by his crowns!

He takes a long MACHETE out of the drawer and holds it up for Charlotte to see.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
I can’t claim to be an expert in the use of this thing,
but I’ll give it a go.

He throws the machete on the workbench and nods to Keith. They walk towards Charlotte who retracts against the boat trailer. Schumacher produces a tape recorder, presses the record button and balances it on the speed boat.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
Who supplies you with the pills?

Silence from Charlotte. Thomas produces a smaller knife from his pocket and points it at Charlotte.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
(irritated)
I’m serious, you mess around and I’ll cut
flesh, I swear I will. Where are the pills
coming from!

Silence from Charlotte who sits defiantly. Thomas looks at her annoyed, trying to look staunch. Then he nods to Keith and they walk into the corridor leading to the garage, out of view of Charlotte.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
(whispered)
The bitch is going to be difficult.

He paces around the plush corridor - designer lights, expensive tiles and artwork on the walls.

THOMAS (CONT’D)
I was serious when I said I was prepared to
hurt her, to make her talk.

KEITH
Hurt her? How much?

THOMAS
It depends how difficult she is. I can’t say
she’s got off to a great start. I’m going to ask
her about the source again and if she doesn’t
talk I’m going to cut her?

KEITH
Cut her? You could kill her?

THOMAS
I’m not going to kill her, just a flesh wound. I’m
not going to stab her!

Keith is sweating profusely. He wipes his face with a handkerchief.

KEITH
You could hit an artery or something. What then?
We turn up at the hospital with some girl bleeding to
death? How do we explain that?

THOMAS
I’ll cut her on the ear, cut a piece out of her ear. See
how she handles that.

KEITH
Are you serious?

INT. SCHUMACHER’S GARAGE -- MORNING

Charlotte is sitting on the steel chair, the blood drying on her face. She strains to hear the conversation in the hallway and can make out the gist of it. She runs her fingers over a NUT on the trailer’s safety latch, worrying it.

INT. SCHUMACHER’S HALLWAY -- MORNING

THOMAS
(angry)

I’m dead serious. What the hell are we doing here? I’m completely serious. I’m not going to cut her ear off I’m going to stick the end of this knife into her eye ball!
He goes to go back into the garage, worked up. Keith grabs him and pulls him back.

KEITH
Wait, wait. Calm down. Okay? Cut her
on the face, away from her neck. If she
doesn’t talk!

They look gravely at each other. Thomas nods resolutely and looks at the knife. Keith puts his Balaclava back on. They walk out of screen and we hold on a thermometer on the wall of the garage. The temperature is 32 degrees.

17/06/2007

RISE OF THE ROBOTS

by Peter Griffin | Herald on Sunday

A pasty looking child was the centre of attention in Japan last week. He made faces, rolled around on the floor and barked out words. None of that would be too special were if not for the fact that CB2, as he’s called, is a robot.

CB2 has a biomimetic body, which includes dozens of actuators to replicate muscles and sensors to simulate touch and hearing. Tiny cameras substitute for eyes.

When CB2 stands up, he needs the support of an adult and his legs shake just as those of a child who is learning to walk would.

CB2’s creators hope the robot can be used to improve understanding of how children develop human relation skills – learn language, recognize objects, interact with other people.

The Japanese have been fascinated by robots for decades, but biomimesis, the imitation of biological functions, is seen by many scientists worldwide as the key to building robots that can operate in unstructured environments. That science is in its early days, but

think of the Terminator or the hordes of sleek androids in I Robot as the ultimate biomimetric robots.

Robots already man the assembly lines of car and electronics factories the world over. It’s a different story when it comes to consumer uses for robots. We’ve been told for years that robots will be infiltrating the household, but the only one to successfully do so has been the Roomba vacuum cleaner, which motors around your floors sucking up dust, mapping out your home in its memory so it knows where it has already cleaned.

Sony last year ditched its much loved Aibo robotic dog and the Qrio humanoid robot because the robots, while impressive, simply didn’t have commercial appeal.

But while the home may remain robot free for a good few years yet while models that can cope in non-structured environments are developed, there is plenty of robotic progress being made in other fields.

The US military, for example, is taking to robots as it seeks to lessen the risk of its soldiers being killed or injured.

The Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot (BEAR) from US robotics company Vecna, is designed to rescue an injured soldier, scooping the body into its arms so that other soldiers aren’t put at risk retrieving their wounded comrades.

The six-foot tall BEAR can cross unstable ground and stay upright thanks to the use of gyroscopes and motors controlled by computer. It can carry over 200kg in its arms and kneel down to gently scoop up a wounded soldier. It even has a teddy bear face to put wounded soldiers at ease. It’s expected to be ready for testing within five years.

Built on a much smaller scale, but potentially as useful in the war zone, are LANdroids, tiny robots that can be dispersed to form a wireless radio network to maintain communications.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing LANdroids to overcome the problem of patchy radio communications in the field. The idea is that the robots are light enough to be carried by soldiers so they can be dropped at regular intervals to collectively form a wireless network for voice and data communications. Mounted on wheels, The LANdroids will also be self-adjusting, so that they can change position to ensure the best signal strength of the network. DARPA wants to get the average cost of a LANdroid down to around US$100 which will be a tall order given the sophisticated work they will be expected to perform.

The robots are coming in all shapes and sizes, but are unlikely to appear any more humanlike for some time to come.

On the web:

http://www.darpa.mil/ipto/solicitations/open/07-46_PIP.pdf

http://vecnarobotics.com/robotics/

NEW WALKMAN PHONES

Ahead of the iPhone’s arrival Sony Ericsson has announced two new music phones with similar memory storage to Apple’s music phone. The Sony Ericsson W960 has 8GB (gigabytes) of internal storage, Wi-fi networking, a first for a Sony Ericsson phone and high-speed data access. There’s a 3.2 megapixel camera and the W960 has smartphone capability syncing Windows email and documents. The slimmer W910 also has the digital camera but not the hefty onboard flash memory allowance. It’s unique feature is “Shake Control” which lets the user shake the handset to turn the playlist to random. You can see the Nintendo Wii’s influence there. The new phones will debut before Christmas.

www.sonyericsson.com

THE NEWTON FACTOR

Philip Baker, who worked on Apple's Newton PDA device back in the early 1990s has an interesting blog post about the iPhone. The hype surrounding the new device which will be released on June 29, is reminiscent of that which greeted the Newton, says Baker. The Newton was killed by poor handwriting recognition. Ironically, Baker points out, its touch screen data entry that is again the make or break point for the iPhone. An interesting perspective from someone who has been deep within the Apple development camp.

13/06/2007

SEEBY WOODHOUSE ON HIS $24.3 MILLION SALE

Below is a Q&A interview with Orcon founder Seeby Woodhouse who this week sold his business to state-owned broadcasting network operator Kordia. Read what Seeby has to say about nuclear power, local loop unbundling and taking Orcon to $100 million in revenue...

PG: Congratulations on the sale to Kordia.

SW: Yeah, it’s the end of an era but the beginning of the next phase.

PG: Any sadness losing ownership?

SW: A little bit. Anyone gets attached to things, whether its spouses, companies or dogs. I’m the sort of person that believes in branding. That’s why I chose Kordia, they have absolutely no intention of re-branding the business and they want to keep it running largely as a separate entity. Hopefully I’ll be able to look back in a few years and say, wow, now it’s New Zealand’s second largest or even largest telecoms company.

PG: You said at the press conference you had something like 50 offers for Orcon over the last couple of years.

SW: It was more like 50 offers since people started getting more interested, which is more like over six or seven years. Once every couple of months, someone would come along.

PG: Did Vodafone have a sniff around Orcon?

SW: It was more that Ihug was for sale. There was a bidding war for Ihug. They got it and probably wanted to bed it down. I was aware they were potentially interested in additional acquisitions but I felt if we were going to be acquired by them, they probably wouldn’t want multiple brands. The company would have been rolled into Ihug and that wasn’t something I wanted.

PG: Why was it so important to you that Orcon maintained its identity and structure?

SW: It’s basically my baby. It would be a different story if someone was to buy it and suddenly Orcon no longer existed. I’ll still have involvement in the business for a couple of years as consulting director. I’m able to take my money off the table now, relax a little bit, but still have the upside of the business, the challenge and the things that I enjoy.

PG: Is that a fulltime position?

SW: No, it’s a consulting directorship. The time is variable.

PG: What will you do next?

SW: I don’t want to make any hasty moves. If I did that, I could potentially get drawn into something I don’t understand as well. There’s a temptation when you’re cashed up to invest in silly things and fritter it away. The thing about Orcon, since I was 15 I’ve been passionate about business and it was the business opportunity I was initially excited about. Telecommunications came second. I had a burning passion in the early days of Orcon for a good five years, working 16 hours a day solid. If I do anything in the future, I want something that’s going to get me that excited.

PG: I looked back at the TV3 interview you did in 2004 which was very interesting. You weren’t a networking guy, but you were trained as an electrical engineer?

SW: That doesn’t teach you much about computers. I didn’t really use any of my degree. I was also pretty computer illiterate when I started the company so I had to learn fast. These days I’m tech savvy, I didn’t even have a computer when I started the company.

PG: You’ve made some moves at Orcon in the area of content, the deal with Digirama, plans for IPTV, as this Web 2.0 thing takes off, do you want to get into the content side of the internet?

SW: Yeah, in some ways content is easier than access, because you don’t have to have a load of boxes that physically exist. The advantage Sam [Morgan] had with Trademe, was that if something grows really fast, you just stick in more servers. With Orcon, if you want to grow something fast you need infrastructure. Telecom’s got a worse problem with that than we do. I’m probably going to sit tight for six months to a year, take some long holidays, do some travel and not worry about things. If I have any interest at all, it’s in things like sustainability and biofuels. Global warming is a big concern of mine. Maybe there’s an opportunity to make some money but do some good at the same time. Maybe introduce something like solar energy to New Zealand that’s actually going to help. It’s something I’m investigating. Alternatively, if I enjoy being retired a lit too much, I may not do anything.

PG: You’re 30 now right?

SW: YES, 30.

PG: It’s interesting how goal orientated you’ve been throughout your life from when you got your first bank book as a kid through to wanting to take Orcon to $100 million in revenue by the age of 30. Did you get there?

SW: No, the turnover is a bit lower than that, but I think it will only be a year or two off target. I’ll still be involved with the company by the time it hits $100 million. But the real issue has been our margins being squeezed having to resell Telecom’s broadband and LLU happening a lot slower than was thought. There have been some unexpected difficulties. Our revenue is still growing pretty fast.

PG: Looking back to 2003 – 2004, it seemed that Orcon was more willing to embrace the Telecom wholesale regime than some of the other ISPs who were a lot more vocal in their criticism of Telecom. Do you think that gave you an advantage, that you were more willing to play ball with Telecom than your competitors?

SW: I don’t think it gave us a huge advantage, but we weren’t so distracted by regulatory arguments. My attitude is you should make the best of the situation you have. At that time it didn’t look like we’d end up with local loop unbundling. Theresa didn’t expect it was going to happen, let alone myself. I don’t think we got any concessions from them, but the working relationship was the most amicable and productive of any of the ISPs. That assisted us a bit, even on small things like fault resolution. The Telecom guys were happy to work with our guys. We weren’t going to report faults that weren’t true, we weren’t going to bitch and moan.

PG: You talk about margins being squeezed. Have the economics of reselling Telecom’s wholesale products deteriorated?

SW: They’ve always been bad. The issue is that there are less and less dial-up customers sustaining the ISPs. It’s a global problem. Telecom has issues with making money out of broadband as well. I’m sure dial-up is more profitable for telcos than broadband. Someone like Telecom with toll calling and fixed line rentals, those things are declining. Broadband revenue is going up to replace those, but Telecom has one set of revenues going down and another set going up. ISPs have internet revenue that is profitable being replaced by internet revenue that isn’t profitable. With LLU telcos like Orcon will get access to the physical phone lines as well as additional services like IPTV. That will be fine in the future. The issue at the moment for ISPs is if a consumer spends $40 a month on a phone line, $20 on tolls and $40 on broadband, traditional ISPs don’t get to attack much of that and even if they do, most of the money goes to Telecom in the form of a wholesale arrangement. Under LLU you might buy the line for $15 and whack on as many services as you can. Then it sorts to become more profitable.

PG: You’re getting out at a time which for New Zealand is the most uncertain. Some of your competitors like CallPlus and Woosh are banking on WiMax to expand their networks, then there’s the big investment needed in unbundling. Is that why you chose to exit now with all that uncertainty ahead?

SW: The uncertainty was one reason that I chose to exit, but I’d been doing the same thing for ten years, I need to slow my life down a bit and have a bit of a change. Also I’ve started to become more interested in things like global warming. With the uncertainty there’s also huge opportunity, around unbundling. I’m sure Kordia will do extremely well out of their purchase. I may not have done so well by not selling because without sufficient funding you can fall flat on your face. I was concerned that if the capital started drying up, because Orcon was always self funding, my wealth forms the company. If the company was going to do anything it would have to make a profit so we could reinvest it. That’s been the strategy all along.

PG: So everything was funded out of revenue at Orcon throughout?

SW: Everything at Orcon from day one was funded out of cash flow. It was started with $100

PG: During the first dotcom boom, did you feel a sense of urgency that you had to get capital to take advantage of it?

SW: At that stage I didn’t understand how a venture capital relationship might work and the issue is they may only ask for 20 per cent of the company but not be prepared to pay what you want. They always want a good chunk of the business and then there are usually effective control clauses, so even if they only own 30 per cent, effectively they can remove you as a director. I’ve always been opinionated about what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to have the risk of bowing down to someone else and be depressed about it. Whenever a proposal was presented to me, I was reluctant. I said to myself, I’ll just try and grow the business as fast as I can, if it grows a bit slower, I don’t care.

PG: Orcon always had a reputation for very good service. How did you instill that culture?

SW: It comes from all those cheesy sayings, the customer being king, that type of thing. But it was important for Orcon to differentiate and the piece of copper you’re selling is largely the same thing, like petrol stations all sell the same gasoline but they all charge different prices. They differentiate through branding. I always thought we had to differentiate in as many different areas as we could and a lot of the time, ISPs were doing a pretty poor job on service. We made it one of the things we were going to differentiate on. One technique I employed early on was that we hired non-technical people like myself for the call centre rather than geeks. You can’t teach a geek customer service. There are only a hundred questions that will ever be asked at a help desk and you can teach someone the answers to those. We got happy, bouncy customer services people and taught them what they needed to know.

PG: Did you have any mentors?

SW: people come and go. There are people who will say, I helped Seeby out. But not really, I’ve always had a strong vision about where things should go. Most of the mentors’ advice I’ve had over the years, I’ve ended up disregarding.

PG: Was there anyone in the telecoms industry you admired as a young businessman?

SW: The Wood brothers were an early inspiration, because they were in game a year ahead of me. It was always a case of me having to catch up to Tim and Nick. They did really well exiting a few years ago and got more money than Ihug sold for (to Vodafone).

PG: And the successful exit at the peak is the real sign you’ve made it, isn’t it?

SW: It was certainly planned, choosing Kordia was planned as well. It was important to be Kiwi owned, there’s no risk of Kordia being taken over by an Australian outfit. I’m proud of the Kiwi heritage. Obviously, getting what I thought was a fair price was important. Ultimately I didn’t necessarily expect, even a year ago, to sell. But I started thinking, what does this business need? All internet companies are becoming phone companies and all phone companies are becoming internet companies. Then they’re all becoming converged media network companies. Looking at the regulatory environment after the Government’s announcement after LLU, we did the Siemens deal so we had vendor finance, but what we were lacking was media expertise and a network. We were going to have to build the network and invest in media technologies. Kordia as a network and broadcast type company, had the two pieces of the puzzle that we lacked.

I thought either I’m going to have to get a venture capitalist onboard or load the company up with heaps of debt. Take on a whole lot more risk where potentially it could fall flat on its face or sell it to someone who can extract the value. There was the risk that I could try and do all the stuff Kordia is trying to do, by myself.

PG: CallPlus has secured US$450 million for its WiMax plans. Maybe there’d have been an appetite for investment if you’d wanted to go that route.

SW: I was surprised by the CallPlus thing. I think it’s a real figure, but it’s probably a line of credit, so it will have to be drawn down over time and they’ll have to build the network. And its debt funding. If you borrow $450 million, you’re paying 40 – 50 million a year in interest. Just because they have $450 million, doesn’t mean they’re won’t be saddled with debt and crippled by it, in much the same way Woosh is. They’ve spent $100 million plus building a network and don’t yet have the customers to sustain it. If CallPlus goes and spends the US$450 million and only gets 100,000 customers, it will be a bit of a disaster.

PG: What’s your view on wireless technologies. Are you optimistic that some of these alternative models may work?

SW: There are a lot of variables. There’s a lot of uncertainty around the Government’s spectrum auctions. CallPlus has the same concerns. Wireless technology rests on having the right spectrum available at the right price. If it goes for a horrendous price and Vodafone and Telecom pay to block out competitors, it could be a moot point. One technology doesn’t tend to replace another. When email came along it didn’t replace the fax machine, when the fax came along it didn’t replace postal mail. Now we’ve got postal mail and couriers and FedEx, faxes, email and instant messaging.

The biggest success will be the company that can offer a seamless solution, wireless and wired technology, TV and phone calling together. I’m not just talking about multiple things on one bill, but being able to use your internet service wherever you are and pay in a consistent manner. We’re a long way away from that.

PG: Where you nervous when Vodafone bought Ihug, seeing as Vodafone @ Home is aiming for one converged device that acts as fixed line and mobile with seamless switch over?

SW: I saw it as an advantage but I wasn’t threatened by it. Orcon’s got an MVNO agreement with Vodafone anyway. We’ll be doing the same type of services, just in a different way. It just depends what pieces of the puzzle you have control over and which pieces you don’t.

PG: Did you benchmark the sale of Orcon against the $41 million sale of Ihug in terms of what you were looking for?

SW: It’s difficult to compare the two. Certainly, in terms of customer numbers, we’re 80 per cent the size of Ihug. It would have been nice to get more but I’m not unhappy with the sale price. We have different ebitda figures and more customers have multiple services with Ihug. They’ve a more established voice base. I got a fair deal and Kordia paid a good price.

PG: How do you feel about the fact that your staff is effectively now public servants?

SW: They’re not really. The Government has very little input into how Kordia is run apart from maybe appointing the board of directors. It’s certainly not the case that the Government wanted to do this to create a competitor to Telecom. They’ve some great products they want to sell like DVB-H (mobile TV). They haven’t had a lot of interest from the ISPs in terms of taking some of these services up.

PG: What’s been the reaction to the sale from staff.

SW: It’s been good, there’s been no tears. People have said it’s the end of an area, but once they realized there’s no change in job descriptions, they’re not suddenly Kordia employees, they’ll still be managed by the same people, there’s no redundancies, they’re okay with it. I’ll still be popping into the office, I’ll still be around for at least two years in an advisory capacity.

PG: And Scott Bartlett, your lieutenant, will be the CEO?

SW: Yeah, essentially I’d already stepped back a bit anyway. With a company the size of Orcon it’s important to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s next. You can’t get too caught up in the day to day issues or you can wake up and find you’ve been going in the wrong direction for two years.

PG: So the future, alternative energy technologies, are there good opportunities to invest here?

SW: I’m passionate about business, that’s number one, New Zealand is number two. The thing I’m concerned about is basically if we’re already past peak oil [production] and some of the wells start to dry up and the price goes to US$120 a barrel, then New Zealand is at serious risk of collapse because we haven’t got the densely populated cities. If you had a global price shock like the 1970s, the countries that do well will be the ones that have all their population gathered in one place. With New Zealand, everything in this country is run on gasoline, you have to have a car, and public transport is not good enough. We have to stop this urban sprawl. People need to get into more densely populated areas where there’s a subway infrastructure. We’re obviously not going to be able to build that infrastructure in the next five to ten years. If there is a serious oil shock, New Zealand will be at its mercy, particularly for things like exports.

The only country that will do well is Brazil, because 60 – 70 per cent of their cars run on ethanol produced by sugar cane, which is six times more effective at producing ethanol than corn.

New Zealand should be able to produce ethanol technologies and the Maui gas fields.

We should be working on complete energy independence.

PG: You’re moving out of a field that’s complicated enough and into one even more so. Are you going to go on a fact-finding mission to some of these places using alternative fuel sources.

SW: I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I’ll try and work my contacts, ask government officials. If a light bulb switches on in my head and I decide the best thing to do is buy a heap of land in the South Island and start growing sugar cane, that’s what I’ll do.

Solar generation or green homes.

If I can start a company that provides green technology to homes, it’s a way to start.

PG: How’s Orcon Racing going?

SW: It hasn’t been in operation this season.

PG: What happened?

SW: We didn’t sponsor the car this reason for two reasons – Orcon is focusing on call to action marketing rather than branding. Potentially motor racing is going to become a bit un-PC. Because I have environmental concerns I started thinking gasoline is in short supply, there’s all this concern about global warming, we don’t necessarily want to be involved in a sport that in two years time everyone is up in arms about.

PG: You did a sabbatical a while back right?

SW: Yeah I’ve seen a good portion of the planet. I’ll do some more.

PG: That’s the plan, take some time and explore?

SW: Yeah, I just came back from China so I’m a bit tired. But there are a lot of things I want to see. If I’m interested in environmental things, it may give me a better perspective while I’m traveling. One of the huge un-harnessed technologies is wave power. The ocean is always moving. If we can have submerged power generators creating power by the motion of the sea, that would be ideal.

I get the feeling we need to keep our nuclear material for use in the future. I don’t think it’s a smart idea to go burning it all up. We may need it for exploring the stars or powering space ships. It would be really sad if we saved the planet but in 500 years time we’ve got these ambitious plans to colonise the stars but were 20 pounds short of uranium or something.

PALM'S BIG FUMBLE?

by Peter Griffin | from the Herald on Sunday

Remember the little gadget that seemingly started the whole mobile computing craze, the Palm Pilot?

It came out in 1996, had a grayscale screen, a measly 128KB of memory and no wireless connections.

But it had Graffiti - a clever handwriting recognition system that was very easy to use. It meant you could use the Palm Pilot's pen to scribble notes into the device - no need for a keyboard.

I got my first Palm Pilot, the Vx, in 2000, and with the collapsible keyboard I bought with it, I was able to tap out stories and emails wherever I was, sending them over the mobile network via a cable linked to my Nokia mobile. By this stage, Palm had sold truckloads of its little Pilots.

But then Palm started to lose the plot. There were organisational changes; its founders became frustrated with new owner 3Com and went off to start the rival Handspring. They returned, but Palm got left behind with the rise of Windows-based mobile PDAs (personal digital assistants) such as the Compaq iPaq.

ch combined the PDA and the phone, and that has been the dominant model ever since. The PDA is in decline, while Research In Motion's Blackberry, the Nokia Communicator, Sony Ericsson's P900 and Palm's own Treo have been the devices of choice for busy, email-obsessed executives.

Which makes the arrival of Palm's latest gadget, the Foleo, very surprising indeed. It is basically a stripped-down computer - it has no hard drive, just 128MB of read-only memory and 256MB for storing data. It's based on the Linux operating system, uses the Opera web browser, weighs 1.1kg and provides up to five hours battery life. It's designed to be instantly turned on - no booting up, as you'd expect with Microsoft Windows.

In effect, it's an under-powered, if lightweight, laptop. The peculiar thing is that it has been designed to be used in tandem with a smartphone. Bluetooth wireless networking links the Foleo to a Treo or a Blackberry and syncs all programs, updating them on the smartphone as you type on the Foleo.

The only advantages seem to be the full-sized keyboard and a decent screen - you still have to carry a smartphone.

Coming from Jeff Hawkins, who kicked off the revolution when he invented the Palm Pilot, is the Foleo another stroke of genius? The industry doesn't seem to think so.

"We believe the Foleo offers too little functionality to justify the burden of carrying around another device," analyst group Gartner concluded.

In fact, most people seem to be scratching their heads over the Foleo, which seems to go against the trends - multi-function smartphones and ever-smaller laptops.

Numerous technology companies have focused on building scale-down laptops that run on Windows and offer all the functions of a regular laptop in a smaller format, with less memory and hard drive resources. Hawkins thinks that approach is failing.

"There is no initial customer for ultra-mobile PCs. It's like a little broken PC. Who wants that? Very few people. Just miniaturising something isn't the right solution," he told tech website CNet.com.

Technology observers are always intrigued when someone goes against the flow, because that someone may be the next Steve Jobs, who in the 1980s pushed on with his Apple Macintosh despite crushing competition from the Windows-based personal computer. But Hawkins may have miscalculated this time. After all, debuting in the US at US$499 ($660) - with a current US$100 ($130) cash rebate - the Foleo isn't that cheap, and it doesn't replace your primary computer, anyway. I think Hawkins had the right idea with Palm's foldable keyboard all those years ago - a highly functional smartphone with a decent screen and an expandable keyboard for those who need to type up lengthy documents.

But Palm believes the Foleo will form the third pillar of its business - the Treo Smartphone and its sagging PDA business being the other two. How successful the likes of Sony and Samsung will be with their ultra-mobile computers will determine whether the Foleo turns out to be Palm's crowning glory or its biggest folly.

7/06/2007

MOBILE VS WIMAX FOR 2.5GHz SPECTRUM

CONNECT | from the New Zealand Herald

by Peter Griffin

Mobile phone operators are set to claim a larger share of the broadband market in the next couple of years, but one factor may hold these services back – a lack of radio spectrum to deliver them over the air.

Swedish telecoms equipment maker Ericsson estimates the current European mobile operators will have run out of radio spectrum by 2010. That makes the looming auctions of 2.5GHZ (gigahertz) spectrum across Europe highly contentious to mobile operators who just six years ago shelled out billions for licences in the first wave of “3G” spectrum auctions.

The mobile industry sees the radio spectrum as crucial to maintaining the flat-rate charging model that has emerged in Europe for mobile data services.

“In Europe we have 3.6 [megabits per second] service, no data cap, and I mean no cap, for 20 euros a month,” said Mikael Halen, Ericsson’s director for government and industry.

Halen met with Government officials this week, urging them to ensure December’s state auction for 2.5Ghz (gigahertz) radio spectrum be structured to make it attractive for mobile operators to obtain spectrum.

“It’s an extremely important band for providing mobile services and it’s critical for the introduction of Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology which will come to market in 2009,” he said.

By 2009, Ericsson claims that LTE, an evolution of the system currently used by Vodafone and other many other operators, will offer download speeds of up to 100Mbps. That is sufficient for most voice and data services, bar high-definition TV which is better delivered via satellite, ground broadcast or fixed-line connections.

Communications minister David Cunliffe last week revealed a December auction would see two blocks of spectrum put up for sale, in the 2.3Ghz and 2.5GHz bands.

“The new auction can allow for up to six nationwide users and a generous managed park of at least 30 MHz and potentially up to or exceeding 50 MHz. This will ensure plenty of space for smaller and regional providers, including those with a focus on delivering services to Maori,” Cunliffe said.

Both bands are suitable for the provision of wireless broadband services based on the WiMax service and operators CallPlus and Woosh have expressed interest in obtaining spectrum to develop national networks.

But Halen believes CallPlus and Woosh are unlikely to ever offer mass-market services based on WiMax.

“They have an uphill struggle. They’re smaller and they have spectrum in the higher bands which makes it more difficult to penetrate buildings and build coverage.”

But the biggest problem they face, says Halen is also inherent in the CDMA technology

Telecom is now about to replace – a lack of global scale.

That means higher technology development costs, less choice in handsets and an inability to match the mobile operators on pricing plans.

“Generally mobile operators aren’t at all interested in WiMax,” said Halen.

“Their enthusiasm has diminished considerably in the last half year.”

While Halen believes WiMaz services can be delivered using the 2.3GHz spectrum, bidding for the 2.5Ghz block between established mobile operators and fledgling WiMax start-ups is likely to be fierce.

Ironically Ericsson, which built Telecom’s now-decommissioned 025 mobile network, may be left out of local mobile developments for some time to come.

As the Herald reported last week, Telecom is understood to be finalizing a $300 - $400 million deal with its existing outsourcing partner Alcatel Lucent to build a new network based on the same GSM/UMTS standards commonly used around the world.

Ericsson had begun building TelstraClear’s Tauranga-based “Unplugged” network before the project was last month canceled and the network dismantled.

Aspiring new entrant, New Zealand Communications is using Chinese vendor Huawei to build its mobile network and Nokia is well entrenched in the Vodafone camp.

But Halen’s message seems relatively non-partisan and advocates mobile operators in general having the first bite at 2.5GHz spectrum.

“Our suggestion is that when you do the [radio frequency] band allocation, make sure they have access to technologies that are available with huge scale advantage,” said Halen.

The Government will release a discussion paper by August which will outline the technicalities of how it expects to carve up spectrum in the auction. Ultimately, said Halen, broadband was being viewed as essential infrastructure in most countries, hence the growing interest in partial or full government funding of broadband networks.

“It’s like electricity or water. It’s essential everyone in the country gets access to it,” he said.

“That’s the way it will go around the world, including New Zealand.”

RUNNING OUT OF SPECTRUM

- Mobile operators are running out of radio spectrum making the 2.5GHz (gigahertz) spectrum auctions happening around the world crucial to expanding their services.

- The Government will auction two lots of spectrum in December, which will likely see mobile operators and new WiMax players competing for licences.

- Mobile broadband is increasingly seen as an alternative to fixed line services as its reliable data speeds increase.

THE VIEW FROM THE STREET

WEBWALK | from the New Zealand Herald

by Peter Griffin

Google’s new Street View service is pretty symbolic of where the web is going. First we had Google Maps which game geographical information, then Google Earth which added satellite maps to the mix. Then the maps were mashed-up to include everything from holiday photos to Wal-Mart outlets. Now Google takes us to street level and confronts us with the reality we’ve only seen before from a bird’s eye view.

It’s all about adding more detail, more clarity, going deeper into the data, re-using the same underlying technology to layer on yet more useful services. That’s the new internet for you.

But how much information is too much information? That’s the debate raging over Street View at the moment, touching on important issues such as privacy, copyright and human rights.

But first the technology – Street View is very impressive. It’s only available for a handful of US cities at the moment but the potential is obvious. It gives you the ability to stand at a busy intersection in New York and pan around 360 degrees to see the lie of the land in full colour.

It's great to be able to get a street-level feel for a place rather than depending on blurry web cameras or the photo-shopped images the tourism industry wants you to see. Once the maps are fleshed out with more Street View locations from around the world, it will be really useful.

How is it put together? Google uses images from a company called Immersive Media which for the last couple of years has sent people driving around the US and Canada in grey Volkswagen Beetles with multi-lens cameras attached to them. The special cameras capture images as they go and those images are then plotted on streets on Google Maps, matched up using GPS co-ordinates. What is impressive is that you can get down to street level and then follow an arrow to travel along at street level.

Using Street View reminded me of the overlooked New Zealand service Roadworks Street Scroll (http://www.roadworks.co.nz) which features photographs of the main streets of Auckland from street level, giving you one big panorama of the likes of Queen Street, Ponsonby Road and the Viaduct Basin.

Street Scroll was ahead of its time when its creator Matthew Hart started putting it together back in 2000.

“It was a New Zealand first. Now we see everyone else trying to bite at our ankles,” says Hart, who was in the process of negotiating a deal
to license the street-scrolling technology to a US company when the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center occurred.

“We were going to get $25,000 per state,” says Hart. “We spent a year on the deal and it was almost ready to happen.” Post 9-11 jitters killed the deal, though Roadworks had started photography in the US – you can see both sides of the Las Vegas strip on its website.

Hart has a New Zealand patent for the street-scrolling imaging technology and is going through the patent application process in the US. He realises that even if he secured it, enforcing the patent would be difficult given the size of rivals like Google and Microsoft, which is developing its own service, Street-Side.

“I don’t know if I’d be in a position to fight them,” says Hart. “It costs a hell of a lot of money to do that.”

Roadworks has photographed a few overseas locations, notably, both sides of the Las Vegas strip and version three will include Flash video and the ability for shop keepers to dynamically update their shop fronts to keep things fresh. Hart also wants to photograph the entire New Zealand coast – one giant scroll around the Queen’s Chain. Good luck to him, it’s a fantastic idea.

As for the privacy concerns around Street View, I think they are being over-played. After all, a newspaper photographer can stand in the middle of a public place and take photos legally and have them published to be viewed by a massive audience. Why shouldn't a company or a member of the public be allowed to?

I'm perfectly happy for someone to take a photo of the front of my house, as long as they do so from the road and stay off my property.

Obviously there has to be some policing. Street View needs to steer clear of all the things the mainstream media currently has to avoid - like nudity, violence, photos of school playgrounds, that sort of stuff. There also needs to be scope for take down requests so people who are offended at appearing in random shots can have them removed.

Still, Street View may run into trouble in places like the European Union, which has strong laws around publishing photos of people without their consent. It’s one thing to take a photo of someone in public, it’s another to publish that photo without their consent, especially if it could cause them distress. I’m sure the woman showing off her G-string to the world on Street View wasn’t too impressed about being snapped for the world to see. But where should the line be drawn?

I'm comfortable with Street View as it is. Anything I do in public I do assuming that everyone can see me anyway. I hope the service flourishes, but what's the next step? Web cameras covering every street and constantly updating as feeds in Google Maps? High magnification zoom cameras that let people peek between your blinds?

That’s a little voyeuristic for me. Being photographed at a point in time at a reasonably low resolution is one thing, being digitally stalked via web camera, as happened to some unfortunate sunbathers at Mt Maunganui beach a couple of years ago, is another. There are already thousands of web cameras covering public places. But there needs to be provisions preventing someone on the other side of the world from watching me without my knowledge, when I’m in my home. I think they’d find the view of the street far more interesting anyway.

On the web:

http://maps.google.com/help/maps/streetview

http://preview.local.live.com/

www.roadworks.co.nz

www.immersivemedia.com

4/06/2007

THE VAST LONG TAIL

Below is my Webwalk column from last week's Herald about how one of my favorite bands, Vast, has managed to harness the long tail to stay independent in the music industry. There are thousands of stories like this but Vast's example is one I've followed closely as a fan and someone who has downloaded their music.

By the way, Vast is a fantastic, highly under-rated band. They're hard to put in a box, but there's a bit of Nine Inch Nails in there, some Garbage, echoes of U2 and New Order. It's melodic, luscious sounding hard-edged rock and Jon Crosby is a great vocalist who pens thoughtful lyrics. A good starting point with Vast is their first album Visual Audio Sensory Theater. Music For People was a terrific follow-up to that. Once you've tried those two, there's a Vast world to explore.



WEBWALK

By Peter Griffin

The New Zealand music chart began counting songs downloaded via the internet this week and already the change is noticeable.

As the Recording Industry Association pointed out yesterday, hip hop and R&B songs are climbing higher up the Top 40 chart, largely due to the fact that music downloads to mobile phones are now counted.

And Regina Spektor’s catchy single Fidelity debuted at number 16 thanks to digital downloads. It wasn’t released as a CD single here, only as a digital download and on the album Begin To Hope.

The changing shape of the charts illustrate how the internet is being used to get music to a diverse range of niche audiences, something known as the “long tail” effect. It means that in future, the charts may not be full of only those acts that are receiving the most airplay and industry promotion, but also acts that have successfully captured the attention of the online community.

It made me think of one little music industry story of the long tail I’ve been following closely.

One of my favourite bands is an inventive rock outfit appropriately called Vast (Visual Audio Sensory Theater). It’s the creation of American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jon Crosby, who much like Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, likes to twiddle away in the studio on his own, comfortable working in the digital medium.

Vast flirted with big label success at the turn of the century after its song Touched appeared on the soundtrack to the Leo DiCaprio movie The Beach.

There were a lot of rave reviews.

“VAST will appropriately be huge,” proclaimed Kerrang magazine in 1999.

But Vast was dropped by Elektra when its sophomore album Music for People failed to make an impact on the charts.

So Crosby signed with small, independent label 456 Entertainment to release his third album Nude.

“There were so many problems dealing with them on every level,” says Crosby in an interview on Realvast.com.

“I feel we made a big mistake not believing in ourselves enough and doing it on our own.”

For every album since, Vast has gone it alone and gone digital, releasing its music primarily via the internet.

It was an acknowledgement by Crosby that maybe his music isn’t really for the mass market after all. But in the era of the long tail that doesn’t matter, because numerous lucrative niches can be reached via the internet.

Crosby set up his own label and media company 2Blossom.com.

As a Vast fan its great for me. Getting hold of the band’s albums even in specialist music stores like Real Groovy has always been tricky. After all, why would retailers devote shelf space to an album that isn’t a hot seller?

Now I can just download the albums through the website. The music is free of digital rights management, the files are mp3s encoded at 320Kbps (kilobits per second), which is CD quality. I can pay with my credit card via PayPal.

Best of all the music is very good value, too good really. I just downloaded Vast’s new album April, which cost me an embarrassingly paltry US$5.

But because Crosby owns the music and the record label, he’s not getting a mere slice of album sales, he’s now getting every cent.

Artists signed to major labels receive as little as US$1 per full-priced album they sell Cutting out the music industry middlemen means more money goes directly into the artist’s pocket. Without the marketing muscle of a record company which can hold great sway over which artists get radio play, which in turn influences music sales, an artist is unlikely to sell as much music.

But bypassing the traditional music industry business model has become viable, thanks to the rise of digital music download services and social networking websites that act as a digital hub for an artist’s fan base. The most notable examples are Myspace.com and Facebook.com. Vast has fan communities on both sites.

“The days of the aloof rock star are over,” says Crosby.

“Now more than ever doing new things is important, and if you can’t keep up with what’s going on, you’re left in the dust.”

In addition, since 2005, he has been selling annual subscriptions to the Vast fan club for $36 which includes a greatest hits compilation, audio commentaries on Vast albums and the chance to buy VIP ticket to shows. There have been 745 downloads of those – worth around US$27,000.

It’s not the big money usually associated with the music industry, but with music sales, touring and merchandise, it may be enough for a Crosby and his band mates to earn a living – and keep control of their destiny.

Crosby seems to like the model: “I feel like for the first time I have found my niche and my voice.”

This way of doing business will become the norm for all sorts of industries, but especially the creative, publishing and technology sectors which are most comfortable dealing in the digital medium.

For New Zealand entrepreneurs located far from our key markets, the opportunity that lies in the long tail is, well, vast.