Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Year of Living Online

For my final post of the year, I thought I’d highlight what, for me, was the most significant aspect: the move to working and playing online and taking advantage of many of the new web services out there. I’m not there yet, not by a long shot, but I finally got to experience the promise of broadband.

Key to that has been getting “decent” broadband. While places like Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea are spoilt for choice when it comes to high-speed access, Thailand is like a lot of Asia in that coverage is still sparse, including in the capital Bangkok. So it was with great relief that I welcomed TOT broadband into my part of town this year for the first time.

The first thing to change was that I started using Google and its associated services as they were intended to be used – online. I know there are still many people who prefer to download their Gmail into a traditional email program, but for me it’s a better overall experience doing everything online, from where I can see which other Gmail colleagues and friends are connected and even kickstart a quick chat session when I need some information in a hurry.

It also makes things easier when travelling. Before I had multiple email accounts that I would divert to Gmail, which I considered my roaming account. Now I have ditched the other email accounts and just use predominantly Gmail. If I think I might need a certain document while I’m away, I simply email it to myself knowing that I will be able to retrieve in whatever city I am. I’m sure Yahoo and Hotmail are just as adequate when it comes to this, it’s just I happened to get hooked on Gmail first (although I’m making it a goal to get acquainted with the other services in the new year).

The other thing I like about Google is the associated services and how they’re all starting to work well together. This year I finally put my domain name ( to use and parked it with Google Apps. Not only can I give family members their own email account, I’ve also started this blogging thang for the first time. I chose Blogger as my blogging platform mainly because it seemed to pick up more hits on Google’s search engine than other platforms. And thanks to Google Analytics, I can see how few people really visit the said blog.

Sticking to Google, its Reader is the best thing for reading RSS feeds by a long shot. I’d experimented with desktop RSS readers, but doing it online fits in better with the way I’m now working. And again, if I’m overseas I just fire it up and all of my regular feeds are there. I’ve also made limited use of its online word processing and spreadsheet offerings, though mainly to open up files for a quick look – if I want to keep them, I still tend to download them to the desktop.

I haven’t yet made use of any online storage services, but I’m sure that’s going to happen soon for backups.

Now lets get on to the fun stuff. Like a fair chunk of the Internet population, I signed up for Facebook this year. Great if you haven’t got enough procrastination aids at hand. And yes, I did get slightly addicted to begin with, although that addiction is starting to wane. Slightly. Probably the most useful aspect of it is keeping in touch with people in other states or countries. I’m crap at sending personal emails, so this one lets people see what I’m up to and send the occasional message. Not to mention challenging me to a game of Rock, Scissors and Paper, Pass the Soccer Ball and other mindless diversions.

I’m guessing that something bigger than Facebook will arrive in future, particularly a social network that lets you “own” your personal data, but in the meantime it’s probably the hottest social network going and I’ll still be there next year.

I’m also a fan of, the music service that allows you to select an artist or group that you like and it finds similar music choices and plays them. Another audio service I’m enjoying is podcasts, particular The Podcast Network, which has hundreds of podcasts and new material coming all the time.

And I couldn’t not mention the other major fun diversion I’ve found online this year: fantasy football. I’m a recent convert to the round ball game, but this web service, which allows you to manage a team made up of players from the English Premier League, is addictive. Especially if you’ve got friends doing it and there’s a small wager involved.

I’ve also been playing around on the mobile Internet as well, as many readers of this column will be aware. As I’ve noticed previously, I think you first need to be on the broadband Internet before you can make use of the various services coming to the mobile Internet, as most (not all) seem to be versions of what you’re doing online already – mobile Gmail, mobile Facebook and mobile Fantasy Football sprint to mind.

And as I’ve also mentioned in the past, I still think mobile phones need to be more user friendly than they currently are. This was really put in focus by yet another new toy I’ve been using – the Linksys iPhone with Skype that is reviewed here. The Skype VoIP phone simply worked. No messing with settings or giving other family members a quick lesson in usage. Maybe that’s the type of experience that other iPhone offers too, although I won’t know until it arrives in Asia. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, have a great New Year and see you back here sometime in 2008. – Geoff Long

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The iPhone comes to Thailand

There’s nothing quite like being an “early adopter”, and I guess getting one’s hands on an iPhone in Thailand qualifies for the title. I’ve even got the phone working on my telecom operator’s network, without the need to head down to the geek section of Maboonkrong (MBK) centre to unlock it or looking online for a hack to open it up. That’s because my iPhone is actually of the Linksys variety, the CIT400 Skype phone.

The “iPhone” might be forever associated with Apple now, but it’s Linksys and its parent company Cisco that originally owned (and still do) the registered name. If you cast your mind back to when the Apple iPhone first came out, you might remember there was a bit of public sparring over who had rights to the name. They resolved that dispute in February 2007, with the result that both companies are free to use the “iPhone” trademark on their products throughout the world, although other details of the agreement were undisclosed.

And the Linksys iPhone is every bit as innovative and stylish as its Apple namesake: It’s a dual-mode cordless (DECT) phone that makes Skype Internet calls over a broadband connection or regular calls through the phone network. And it will even make the Skype calls without the computer being turned on .

Setting it up is a breeze, at least it is once you get your home network prepared. The unit comes with a wireless “base station” that connects to your broadband connection via Ethernet. In my case, the ADSL modem used the only available Ethernet port on my computer, so I had to get an Ethernet hub. My hub came from a neighbour, who retrieved one from his electronics “spares” box. It didn’t come with a cable, so I rustled one up out of my own junk gear collection, which is how I came to find out that not all “Cat 5” cables are the same. Turns out that cables that connect two computers together look exactly like those that connect a hub to a computer – only they won’t work. So finally the neighbour also supplied a spare Ethernet cable and I plugged the hub in and it “just worked.”

As an aside though, this is one issue with anything to do with home networking – there’s a dog’s breakfast of standards and formats out there. Even just getting a power board that will accept the different electrical plugs can be a challenge, so as we move into the era of home networking there needs to be a lot more work on getting standard equipment. At a recent Cisco press event in Singapore, Nick Fielibert, the chief technical officer of Scientific Atlanta (now a Cisco company), summed the situation up like this. “The best you can say is that devices in the home don’t connect well. Everyone talks about [the connected home] but I don’t think anyone’s seen it yet. It’s a bit like the Lochness Monster or the Holy Grail.”

Needless to say, Cisco and just about every other networking vendor on the planet will be working to rectify this, with Fielibert suggesting that there should be some progress in the next 18 months or so.

So assuming you have an Ethernet port to plug into, you simply plug the base station into it (cable supplied). Then there’s a cradle for the phone that plugs into the mains power outlet. The phone itself is powered by two AAA batteries, which are again supplied. Turn the phone on and it will automatically open to the Skype sign-in page. If you’ve already got a Skype account, you enter your user name and password and you’re ready to go – all of your regular contacts will show up on the phone.

Skype has had some bad press of late, particularly when it informed some users that they would have to change their Skype In numbers. However, it’s still by far the easiest VoIP service to set up – the problem with open SIP standards, as my geek neighbour pointed out, is that they’re still not easy to set up for the average person, or even for technically-capable users for that matter.

A recent study by German traffic management vendor ipoque, which analysed three petabytes of anonymous data representing around 1 million users, concluded that Skype represents 95 percent of all VoIP traffic. The reason? Because it’s easy to use and gets around restrictive network environments such as corporate firewalls and NAT boxes. “While standards-based VoIP systems using SIP, H.323 and IAX require manual configuration to get around the resulting limitations, Skype has many built-in mechanisms to automatically deal with such network conditions and to offer an as seamless as possible operation in most environments,” the report noted.

That ease of use is clearly evident when using the Linksys iPhone. As I said, I simply plugged it in and it worked. The phone itself resembles a slightly-larger than usual mobile phone. It comes with a colour screen and the menu functions are all well-thought out. Click the “Contact” menu in the lower left and it will bring up all your regular Skype contacts. You can also set your status the same as you do on the computer, so if you want to show that you’re unavailable, you just select that option from the menu.

To make a call, you select the relevant contact and press the green call button on the phone. Everything sounds and acts like a regular call, including a dial-tone. I’ve tested it both internationally and locally, to other Skype connections and to regular phones, and the call quality has been mostly fantastic – better than my mobile connection a lot of the time. And as mentioned, it can also work as a regular phone through the fixed network, which is useful if there are other people in the household or business that are not on Skype.

Another thing to mention is that it’s actually a DECT phone rather than a Wi-Fi phone. DECT, as I’ve come to appreciate, provides better call quality than through Wi-Fi and also better coverage. I was shocked to see the wife using the phone from about 35 metres away through two walls and a ceiling, but reception was fine.

The other thing I really like about it is that it untethers you from the computer when using Skype. I’ve been a Skype user for years but haven’t really made use of it because I just like to pick up a phone and make a call. With this unit, I can do that. It has also encouraged me to get all of my regular contacts on Skype – not just signed up but actively logged in.

In fact, everybody that I’ve shown this device to wants one. That’s great for me, because it means more of the people I regularly call will also be logged into Skype and more accessible. For those that are not, I can use Skype Out or just go through the regular phone service.

Linksys is not the only one with this type of device. There are apparently similar phones from the likes of Philips, Siemens, Netgear and GE. That said, a friend bought one from one of the aforementioned vendors and still hasn’t got it working. Could be the gear, could also be the friend. What I do know is that Linksys has a good reputation for gear that’s easy to set up and use.

So if you’re after a neat gadget for someone this Christmas/New Year, look out for the Linksys CIT400 iPhone. – Geoff Long

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Do we want our IPTV?

Video is clearly the “in” thing on the Internet, with new peer-to-peer television offerings, user-generated video services, Internet video channels and telco interest in IPTV. So it was a shock to see such a low turnout at last week’s IPTV World Forum Asia in Singapore. You’d think every telco in the region would have sent out a delegation to find out what the latest thinking is and how the pioneers are doing. Or perhaps it’s in everyone’s too hard, too costly and too much government meddling basket?

Let’s face it, Asia hasn’t realised its promise when it comes to IPTV, particularly given the much touted high-density, high-bandwidth economies like Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. The region was at the forefront thanks largely to PCCW’s Now offering, which first started more than four years ago, but since then there’s largely been a vacuum. PCCW/Now still accounts for the majority of IPTV subscribers in Asia with its 850,000 signups, and it was only a few months ago that it was joined by a serious telco IPTV offering – Singtel’s Mio.

In the meantime, it seems there’s now more IPTV activity in Europe and the US, particularly in conjunction with some of the new fibre rollouts. The Asian numbers haven’t been helped by some world-class dithering by regulators, which continue with 20th Century models to regulate Internet and new media. South Korea, for example, should be an IPTV showcase by now if it wasn’t for the insistence by regulators that they can’t broadcast in real-time and other hobbling policies. Most of the other regulators around the region seem not to understand the new digital media landscape either.

Nevertheless, there were still some interesting lessons to be had from last week’s IPTV event, first and foremost that it will remain a very expensive business to enter into and one that will have a very long return on investment. Speakers from PCCW/Now and Singtel/Mio both stressed that they viewed the business as a pay TV service – meaning it required all of the various agreements with content producers, advertising and a reliable platform rather than an Internet “best effort” platform.

In the case of PCCW, it’s yet to turn a profit after four years and has recently ploughed US$200 million into getting the broadcast rights for English Premier League football. Singtel has also been sourcing original content and is not expecting to turn a profit on its IPTV service for 10 years. Low Ka Hoe, the director of Mio TV and content, also pointed out that nothing less than a 20Mbps connection (or ADSL2+) was good enough for delivering the service given that they wanted it to be seen as reliable as regular satellite/cable TV.

For all the talk of “video 2.0” and user-generated video content, most of the big telcos seem to think they need to be a pay TV operator first, then add the social networking/user-generated content frills later. This could well be the case because, let’s face it, everybody across the whole media landscape seems to be still playing a guessing game when it comes what consumers want and are willing to pay for. The real convergence hasn’t happened yet – consumers still go to a TV set to get regular shows and head to the Internet/PC to get niche content. Whether the two come together remains to be seen.

Content producers are also still guessing. Yew Ming Lau, VP of business development for Turner Broadcasting Asia Pacific, said Turner and other original content producers were still working out how to tap into the “long tail” of niche content by experimenting with various web channels and other delivery models. Telcos would be happy to hear that he believes they are better placed to deliver the niche stuff in conjunction with the regular programming, but then again this could be just because both the telco and the content producer see this as the best way to monetise user-generated and other new content forms.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room that few people want to draw attention to – the web-based and peer-to-peer players like Joost, Babelgum and the newly-announced Knocka TV (from the founders of ICQ). Some might even call it the over-the-top elephant that may come crashing through to spoil the party. One surprising voice to acknowledge it at last week’s IPTV gathering was Hou Zi Qiang, an independent director of China Netcom who stressed he was presenting his personal views rather than those of the carriers.

According to Qiang, “the basic business model of new media is the Internet business model” and “video should be on the Internet, not on the private network of an operator.” In other words, IPTV is ripe for disintermediation like every other media. And perhaps that explains the low turnout at last week’s IPTV World Forum Asia last week – everyone’s tuning into what’s happening on the Internet before they commit to expensive IPTV rollouts. – Geoff Long

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Internet is collapsing: again

It’s been a while since we’ve had a really good “the Internet will collapse scare”. Ever since Bob Metcalfe – Ethernet co-inventor, 3Com founder and pundit – suggested in 1996 that the Internet would collapse that year, it’s been touted as a possibility. Of course the Internet didn’t collapse and Metcalfe went on to eat his InfoWorld column that predicted it in front of an audience at that year’s World Wide Web conference.

It didn’t stop him, and others, from making follow-up predictions, however. The issue came up again in 2004 at a conference to discuss “Preventing the Internet Meltdown”, where organiser Lauren Weinstein noted that a “continuing and rapidly escalating series of alarming events suggest that immediate cooperative, specific planning is necessary if we are to have any chance of avoiding the meltdown.”

It seems we avoided that meltdown too, but now the alarm bells have been set off again, this time people warning that the surge in video use through sites such as YouTube is going to overwhelm the Internet. The most recent “collapse” warning came via a report from Nemertes Research and warns that in as little as two years we “potentially face Internet gridlock that could wreak havoc on Internet services.”

The Nemertes report is called “The Internet Singularity, Delayed: Why Limits in Internet Capacity Will Stifle Innovation on the Web,” and warns that consumer and corporate Internet usage could outstrip network capacity worldwide in a little more than two years. And it also advises that the financial investment required to “bridge the gap” between demand and capacity globally is around $137 billion, primarily in broadband access.

The result of demand outstripping supply, according to Nemertes, is that users could increasingly encounter Internet “brownouts” or interruptions to the applications they’ve become accustomed to using on the Internet. “For example, it may take more than one attempt to confirm an online purchase or it may take longer to download the latest video from YouTube,” the research firm said. “Overall, the impact of this inadequate infrastructure will be primarily to slow down the pace of innovation. The next Amazon, Google or YouTube might not arise -- not from a lack of user demand, but because of insufficient infrastructure preventing applications and companies from emerging.”

All pretty scary stuff, but then again these type of reports seem to be written for their shock value. Perhaps even more scary is that the research was partly funded by a group going by the name of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), which a net neutrality coalition called “Save the Internet” has helpfully outed. According to Save the Internet, the IIA is a lobby group for the big telcos and funded by AT&T. Nemertes counter-claims that its research is “independent”, but needless to say the big telcos are going to latch on to it as a way influence the regulators and protect their patch.

Here’s what Save the Internet had to say: “These types of studies often boil down to pure posturing and polemic against Net Neutrality, bought and paid for by AT&T. When researchers stumble across inconvenient points, such as the current boom in infrastructure investment, they dismiss them in favour of doomsday scenarios and call for an end to the one rule that allows online users to innovate without permission.”

Another thing to keep in mind, and which others have picked up on, is that innovation tends to happen where there is scarce bandwidth -- developers have to innovate to make the best of what is available. So saying that the next Google might not arise because of inadequate infrastructure is probably pushing things. Then again, it's just another in a long line of (false) warnings that the Internet is in danger of collapsing. -- Geoff Long