Monday, September 3, 2007

Your right to tinker

Australian carrier Telstra was last week forced to remove some television ads for its Next G mobile network after industry watchdog the ACCC deemed them misleading. But the ACCC should know that it has been on-going for some time, as evidenced by its earlier online adverts that feature a Volkswagen Kombi engine. As any VW nut will point out, that ain’t no Kombi engine.

For those that haven’t seen the ads, they feature an animated Kombi van that then switches to a close-up of the engine, somehow suggesting that it’s got a lot of grunt, therefore you’re 3G connection will have a lot of grunt. But as everybody who’s ever owned one knows, Kombis (particularly the split-windscreen model depicted) are just about the slowest thing on the road apart from perhaps a Honda Scamp.

Aside from questioning why you’d use a Kombi van to hint at a fast connection, you’d also have to ask why you would show an engine that was as far removed from a Volkswagen engine as you can get, particularly as people who own them tend to be nuts. I know because I used to be a fanatic myself. At least they could have shown a horizontal piston stroke, which is one of the most distinctive, and fundamental, things about most of the old VW engines.

I was discussing this with a fellow journalist recently who also happened to be an old car nut and we got to reminiscing about all of the things you could do with engines of yore. Like adjusting tappets, using feeler gauges to set points and other details I won’t bore you with. And then he suggested that the ability to tinker with things was lost. What would teenagers do today with cars controlled by sealed electronics and stuff that you tend to throw away rather than fix?

Actually, I don’t think he need worry. Probably they’ll be designing or modifying widgets for their web sites or reprogramming their robot or even unlocking an iPhone, as one young guy did last week. It’s another case of “it was better when I was young”, but most probably there’s more potential to modify and tinker with things now than there ever has been.

A good example of the potential is the O’Reilly magazine Make, one of the few tech-oriented magazines to arrive and survive in the US in the past couple of years (it launched in 2005) and which is all about pulling things apart and rebuilding them. As they describe it, “this is a magazine that celebrates your right to tweak, hack, and bend any technology to your own will.”

Another backer of the idea that we’re moving into an era where there’ll be more tinkering is Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, who believes that hardware will be the next major area to go open source. In other words, the hardware designs, diagrams, parts and so on can be opened up and shared. Anderson is also an avid builder of DIY drones, the unmanned aerial vehicles, even taking one of his creations for a recorded mission over Google’s headquarters.

And earlier this year we got what was claimed as the first open source car. It was unveiled at an auto show in Amsterdam in March and goes by the name of “c, mm, n” (apparently for “common”). You can get all of the technical details and its blueprints at

A similar site is, which came about because German founder Marcus Merz found himself in a state of “seminar consciousness” during an Internet event, and decided he needed to do something more concrete. “I wanted to do something specific, something physical . . . something distinctly non-virtual . . . something worth investing even more of my time,” he wrote in a manifesto available online. “It should be something that every number-cruncher, engineer, or creative with a little bit of common sense – man or woman – who has ever played with Lego, Construx, or a computer, could relate and contribute to . . . We will develop a car in the Internet. We will develop a car via the Open Source concept –free and community oriented . . . without copyrights and restrictions.”

So perhaps next time Telstra is looking for a car to represent their networks, they can freely tap into the open source model. Then again, that might imply they’re willing to open up their network -- on second thoughts, better not.

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