Thursday, September 27, 2007

Note to ITU: Not another boring trade show, please!

As promised, here's my column dealing with how the ITU might make the Telecom Asia event in Bangkok next year worth attending. It originally appeared in CommsDay and Broadband Communities, which you can sign up for at

You might have already heard the news that Bangkok has been selected for next year's ITU Telecom Asia event. I must admit I was quite stunned when I first learned of it, given the political situation here and the southern turmoil. Makes you wonder how some of the other cities could have screwed up their bids so badly.

Actually Thailand has been trying to land this event for quite some time, having made a bid to be the 2004 host, which went to South Korea, and also the 2002 event in Hong Kong. So maybe they got extra points for persistence? They certainly didn't get it because of the public transport options going to the Impact venue out in Muang Thong Thani (if you're from out of town and planning to attend, install some games or an e-book on your PDA, as it will help kill the travelling time).

But enough of the cynicism, Bangkok has been known to put on a good event before. The old 3G Congress (now Mobility World) did a stint in Bangkok before scampering off back to Hong Kong, while the tech-focussed APRICOT (Asia Pacific Regional Internet Conference on Operational Technologies if you must know) has also been successfully held here. But both of those were, it must be noted, held at the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre -- a far more accessible venue but unfortunately too small on this occasion.

I have noticed that Bangkok is popular within the telecom sector, particularly among those who golf or are into the food, so hopefully that will offset the logistics nightmare that awaits. There are some other things that the organisers can do to make the event memorable, however. First and foremost, they can vow to radically alter the format and style that most major trade events follow.

I was quite critical of another ITU event, last year's Telecom World in Hong Kong, but the same criticism applies to many of these events, including CommunicAsia down in Singapore. It seems the main concern is dragging enough exhibitors into the event, with less effort on first and foremost making the "content'' world class. Yep, just like the telcos that attend, these events need to alter their operating models.

The ITU events do have a forum/conference component to them, but the last few I've attended have been boring. In Hong Kong last year I couldn't help noticing that a lot of the keynote speakers were top brass at some of the major exhibitors. While some did have something to say, others delivered little more than a corporate spiel, and what they did say was uninspiring. In particular, many Asian CEOs, from some of the world's largest companies, really need to work on their presentation skills if they're to be taken seriously.

Some of it can be put down to speaking in their non-native tongue, or having to go through a translator, but many non-English speakers from other parts of the world can get around it. In fact, the best presentation I came across was from a Spanish-speaking South American but delivered in English. He had something to say so people were prepared to put in the extra effort to listen.

The forum organisers could also have a look at how some of the other conferences are attracting an enthusiastic crowd and rave reviews. For example, the seminars and brainstorming sessions from the guys at Telco 2.0 in the UK, or some of the many interesting ones from O'Reilly, such as the E-Tech (emerging technology) conferences.

There are scads of others in the U.S. as well, but the point is that the ITU needs to create a conference that people are lining up to attend, not one where the speakers are from the biggest exhibitors. Nor even because they're the CEO of a particularly large company, but rather because they have something compelling to say and they tend to say it in a compelling way.
There are loads of other ideas they could implement too. For example rather than just a separate youth conference, get some well-spoken Thai youths up on stage telling the out-of-touch telco bosses what they want from a mobile or broadband service. And better yet, have them roaming around the halls doing live video, blogging and whatever else they do and put it online for all to access.

And get speakers from the new players that are going to eat the traditional telco's lunch, like the Skypes, Googles and anyone else with a disruptive business model. And while we're at it, involve anyone from the Thai regulatory side over the years and get them to justify leaving the country as a telecom backwater when it could be so much more.

I'm just scratching the surface here, but the point is they should be thinking out-of-the-box so that they can create a memorable event. The last thing we need is a boring, same-old trade event where the only thing you remember is the traffic getting to and from the venue.

*Got some suggestions for making ITU Bangkok event memorable? Please leave a comment.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

WiMax for ships in Singapore

Here's a novel use for WiMax. Singapore today announced that it plans to make its seaport WiMax-ready. The world's first WiMax port in fact, although probably no one else has given it much thought.

Apparently the government will spend S$12 million to allow ships to access broadband communications and services offshore. It's called the Infocomm@SeaPort programme.

Here's what they're trying for: "thanks to “WISEPORT” (WIreless-broadband-access for SEaPort), activities that could only be done onshore previously can now be achieved offshore as well, from regulatory filings, to broadband communications, to real-time access to navigational data. WISEPORT is one of the initial projects under the Infocomm@SeaPort programme, which aims to provide a mobile wireless broadband network within 15km from Singapore’s southern coastline."

Later this year there will be a Call-for-collaboration (CFC) to develop new WISEPORT content and software applications for the seaport community. They said these content and applications could range from messaging services that allow ships to communicate more cost-effectively with other parties, to applications that allow ships to book maritime services through the high-speed network.

You got to hand it to the Singaporeans, they really are top-notch when it comes to e-govt type initiatives.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Who needs a phone company?

A while back I suggested that the phone company of the future will most likely look a lot different to that of today. In fact, you might not make calls through a phone company at all, but rather it will be just one of many services that you can access when you’re on the network. That day looks like it’s coming sooner rather than later.

A perfect example is Swedish mobile VoIP provider Rebtel, which has come up with a Facebook application called Reb Me. From what I can gather it allows Facebook users to call each other via Reb Me for the price of a local call or in some cases for free. Okay, it’s not that different to the likes of Skype and all the other VoIP offerings out there, but the fact that you can call outside users from within Facebook adds another dimension.

There’s also a bunch of other applications that allow you to do voice communications within Facebook, listed on Dan York’s disruptive telephony blog. Examples include WalkieTalkie, which provides private voice chat for Facebook groups, and Chatterbox, which allows users to leave voice messages on your Facebook profile. There are already a few others, but you can expect a lot more in the coming months given the way application developers are flocking to Facebook.

Another more recent voice app for Facebook is FWD, which used to be called Free World Dialup and which has been around for years. This one is particularly interesting given it has some high-profile backers: Tom Evslin, former co-founder of VoIP provider IXTC is an investor and board member; the CEO of the company is Dan Berninger, a VoIP pioneer and founder of the VON Coalition; while Jeff Pulver, the original founder of Free World Dialup, is chairman. Not a bad pedigree.

According to Evslin, the initial service will allow FWD members to exchange voice mail with each other as well as with Facebook members who install the FWD application. After that they will aim to connect users of other social networks with each other and with the many SIP-based VoIP networks that peer with FWD.

And he says voice mail is “just an interesting opening wedge for FWD on social networks.” Other services that can be expected are real-time communications, messaging and presence management, all of which are existing services on FWD itself.

According to Evslin, the end goal will be to link all of the islands of communications that exist in the VoIP world and within social networking and connect them altogether. “At FWD we believe that real-time Internet-based communication including voice is ready to move from islands of service – think of Skype and Facebook as big islands – to universal connectivity,” he wrote in a posting on his web site. “We think that off-island service will be as free of incremental costs as on-island service is today. This Internet-based communication – unlike today’s islands of VoIP service – is a much more capable replacement for, not an evolution of, the current tolled phone service.”

And of course FWD won’t be the only company out there trying to tie all of the various networks together. If you think the VoIP space is busy now, it will only get more congested.

Just as a small sampler of what the future may hold, imagine if anyone could embed VoIP into their own Flash-based applications. That’s what a company called Ribbet Phone is doing. It has a “phone component” that developers can put in any standard Flash-based browser app, so you can make telephone calls directly from a browser, as well as add other communications services.

Yep, phone service – not to mention your phone company – is going to look a lot different in the next couple of years, if not sooner. – Geoff Long

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Google plans Asia Pacific submarine cable

In case you missed it, Commsday had a world exclusive on Friday with news that Google is going to be one of the builders of a multi-terabit undersea communications cable across the Pacific Ocean for launch in 2009. This is obviously major disruptive news. Here's what my Commsday colleague Grahame Lynch had to say: Google would get access to a fibre pair at build cost handing it a tremendous cost advantage over rivals such as MSN and Yahoo, and also potentially enabling it to peer with Asia ISPs behind their international gateways - considerably improving the affordability of Internet services across Asia Pacific.

You can read the full story here. Commsday is a daily subscription newsletter which I also report for. You can sign up for a free trial at the web site. Grahame has more on the story for the coming week, so if you're interested probably now is a good time to sign up for the trial ;-)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

ITU Telecom Asia heads to Bangkok in 2008

HUGE news: the ITU's Telecom Asia event, held every two years, is coming to Bangkok. Actually Thailand has been trying to land this event for quite some time, having made a bid to be the 2004 host, which went to South Korea, and also the last event in 2006, which was eventually held in Hong Kong.

I've been critical of the ITU events in the past, but I still believe they can put on a good gig if they listen to some of the criticism and go past the stale formats. Hopefully they will, because punters are going to love to come to Thailand.

Actually, the country has been growing as an events destination for some time. The old 3G Congress (now Mobility World) did a stint in Bangkok before scampering off back to Hong Kong, while the tech-focussed APRICOT event has also been successfully held here.

And this week, I've been attending the Asia Pacific Satellite Communication Council annual conference here in Bangkok. In case you don't subscribe to CommsDay, the big news is that the satellite sector is expecting a slowdown because of the sub-prime loans crisis. You can read the story on the Commsday web site now. Actually I'll be taking part in the final day's golf tournament tomorrow at Alpine golf course - looking forward to that one!

So Bangkok can put on an event. Still, was a surprise that the city got it, particularly given the current political situation and the insurgency problem down south. I'm going to write a column about this for next week, so eventually it will make it's way here. Stay tuned!

The ITU's press release is also available if you're interested.

ITU Telecom World needs some disrupting

This is an article I wrote for CommsDay Asean after attending last year's ITU extravaganza in Hong Kong. As you can read, I wasn't exactly overenthused by the whole thing. But there's room for improvement and it's coming to Bangkok. Yes, to Bangkok, Thailand!! More coming . . .

As the 23 tons of temporary trusses came down and the 28,484 sq meters of carpet up from the floors that housed ITU Telecom World last week, I did the only sensible thing on offer: I went camping. Yep, after all the well-meaning but meaningless talk of bridging the digital divide (yet again), I decided I’d rather be on the other side of it. So it was goodbye IP-TV, ciao mobile TV and into a national park that was blissfully free of any TV or Internet.

For those who went to Hong Kong last week, I’d be really interested to know what you thought of the ITU’s three-yearly telecoms extravaganza (email me at if you like). Personally, I was both overwhelmed and underwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the sheer size (in terms of square metres) of the event, but also the scale of the commercialisation of it all. Underwhelmed because, frankly, it’s just another very large trade event – and not a particularly inspiring one at that.

Anyone who managed to check out all 695 stands spread out over the 41,000 sq meters of exhibition space was either a fitness freak or desperately giving out marketing material. As for the ITU’s claims that this is a not-for-profit event, that’s a question of semantics. It’s certainly a money-generating exercise and in that regard it’s no different from any other trade show around the world.

I ended up spending most of my time in the forums, but I couldn’t help noticed that a lot of the keynote speakers were top brass at some of the major exhibitors. While some did have something to say, others delivered little more than a corporate spiel, and what they did say was uninspiring. In particular, many Asian CEOs, from some of the world’s largest companies, really need to work on their presentation skills if they’re to be taken seriously.

Some of it can be put down to speaking in their non-native tongue, or having to go through a translator, but many non-English speakers from other parts of the world can get around it. In fact, the best presentation I came across was from a Spanish-speaking South American but delivered in English. He had something to say so people were prepared to put in the extra effort to listen.

In the airport lounge before flying home, I came across an article by Kumiko Makihara in the International Herald Tribune that went some way to explaining the poor English among the Japanese elite (and it’s presumably similar in other parts of North Asia). “In this extremely conformist society, even children are reluctant to stand out by speaking better or worse than their peers,” he wrote, noting that there is still a stubborn insular mentality among Japan’s elite. Like it or not, fluency in English and presentation skills are essential in today’s global business world, and as Makihara noted, the country cannot expect to thrive despite the lack of English as it did in the past.

But back to ITU Telecom World: I sometimes wondered what the point of the event was supposed to be. Is it a snapshot of the industry and intended to look at current and future trends? Or is there some sort of altruistic, UN-style goal that is pushing everyone to look at and provide a solution for the unequal spread of communications? Let’s face it, the hot topic of IP-TV isn’t going to help wire up Africa.

Yet connecting the unconnected was what Fernando LagraƱa, executive manager of ITU TELECOM, summed up as the goal of the event in a closing statement issued by the organisation: “As well as the innovation, the lively debate, the busy halls and the fun, I hope its real legacy is as a milestone in our commitment to bridge the Digital Divide together”.

One of the problems I found is that the event is trying to be all things to all people. It’s trying to show off the latest and greatest while at the same time finding basic solutions for the unconnected. It’s trying to be a showcase for the mobile world when the mobile world has its own focussed event in Cannes/Barcelona every year. In fact, all of the various segments are best served by their own focussed events, whether it’s about security or wireless broadband.

It’s also trying to latch onto trends such as social networking when these groups are better represented in cyberspace or their own informal meets. In other words, the communications industry is not the same as it was in 1971 when the first Telecom World was held. It has fragmented and segmented and specialised and moved on. Yet the ITU seems to be still catering to the telecoms model of old with an event to match. Maybe the ITU and its events needs to face some of the same disruption that the telcos are facing? – Geoff Long

Monday, September 17, 2007

Revealed: The Thai Car of the Future

And now for something completely different!

Was reading through my morning newspaper (yes, I still have the habit) and came across Stephff's daily cartoon. This guy is usually good, but today I thought it was a classic. If you've ever driven in Bangkok, you'll know why. Anyway, I emailed him with my congratulations on a good effort and enquired if it was available online. Unfortunately not, but he was kind enough to allow me to post it here for everyone's viewing pleasure. Stephff's got a book of his work coming out soon, so if you see it definitely give it a look.

Double-click on the pic and it should give you a closer image

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Blog update

Well, I've been at this blogging thing for about two weeks now and got some things sorted. I actually tried it out under various names and platforms at the same time. While I really like Wordpress I've ended up on Blogger.


Mainly because of the intergration with Google. I found that when it came to searching for stuff that I'd written (exactly the same article), the posts in Blogger were easier to find on Google than those done via Wordpress. Don't know if they manipulate things to be that way, but that's the way it is.

Other areas that are easier because of Google owning Blogger are the way you can park your domain for free using Google Apps and it's very easy for Blogger to use it. I know you can do this with WordPress, but it's just easier in Blogger.

Another example is the "shared items" widget I just added to the blog today. I'm an avid Google Reader user, so when they had a tip on posting your shared items to your blog, I thought I'd give it a try. Basically you just press the "add to Blogger" button and it's all done magically. Quite impressive.

And before I get accused of being a Google lackey, please read my Time to reign in Google? piece.

Other stuff I've learned in my two weeks of blogging: It's damn addictive, a great procrastination aid when you've got deadlines looming, it's a lot of work but it's a lot of fun.

If you're still reading: A BIG THANKS!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Cable Cartels: Don't keep us in the dark

On the weekend I had an email from a friend telling me that if I thought the Net connection was slow, don't worry -- it was slow. Earthquake alley, the narrow cable tray between Taiwan and China otherwise known as the Luzon Straits, had struck again and taken out some of the undersea cables that carry nearly all the international Net traffic in the Asia Pacific region.

My friend knew this because his friend works at the Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT), which thanks to its very slowly disappearing monopoly gets to control all of the country's traffic with the submarine boys. On hearing this I did a bit of a search around the place to see if I could get any further confirmation. Nothing. It was the weekend, but still there were no bloggers, news agencies or government regulator sites with anything about cable cuts.

This week it's been remarkably quiet too. However, there are/were cable cuts: just very little news about it. Which brings me to a gripe a brought up during the last major earthquake-related outage at the start of this year -- don't keep us users in the dark about this stuff.

The thing we users find really frustrating is not so much the dodgy and unreliable connections as the dodgy and unreliable information we’re able to get out of the carrier cartels. The major service providers are kept in the loop, as evidenced by the people at CAT knowing all about the latest break, a lot better than the average business or end user. But given how critical connectivity is to economies, cash flows and everyday life, I think we deserve better than this.

Earlier this year Hong Kong’s regulator, OFTA, said it was planning to bring in a new system of reporting for undersea cable damage, yet when I went looking for it at the weekend I couldn't find such a service. Not surprising when at the time Au Man-ho, director-general of telecommunications, was quoted as saying that it would be unsuitable for operators to report whenever there was submarine cable damage, as such incidents were common.

So I bring it up again, why would it be unsuitable? Surely the more information the better? In fact, there should be a mash-up of the various disruptions whenever they occur overlaid against a map of all the cable systems, so we could see exactly what’s happening. And there should be a more global approach to reporting. After all, just because you get a cable cut in, say, South America doesn’t mean it’s not going to affect a business in Asia. Perhaps a body like the ITU or ICANN or the like could put a submarine cable reporting facility on their to-do list?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

YOUR government is a hacker

Is anyone really surprised that China would be trying to sneak into other countries’ communications networks? Last week the US, France, Germany and the UK all expressed outrage that China might be doing some snooping, but I’d be more surprised if they weren’t – after all, this kind of cloak and dagger activity is standard practice for most of the world’s governments, or at least their “special” services.

There was talk last week that President Bush was going to raise the matter with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao. Somehow I don’t think that would be a wise move given the US history of spying on other countries, friend or foe, but the whole thing at least brings to light the hypocrisy of the West when it comes to anything to do with China (if they do it, it’s a major incident, if we do it it’s okay -- we’re democratic and we know best).

But assuming George W did bring up the matter of China snooping and working out how to infiltrate networks belonging to the US government, his opposite number would just have to mention one word: Echelon. For those that haven’t heard of it, Echelon is the name of a network whose existence was denied for years by the US and its allies, most notably the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its purpose essentially was to spy on foreign governments and businesses by intercepting their communication signals.

These days nobody really questions its existence and in 2001 it was even brought up in a report to the European Parliament, which expressed surprise that many of its senior figures and European Commissioners were not even aware that Echelon existed. Now that they do, however, they’re quite peeved that the US and its collaborators would actually stoop to spying on Europe. They certainly did, however, and you can read the entire 194-page report at

The US is also not averse to tapping into the occasional submarine cable system to gather intelligence, either. There’s a great book called Blind Man’s Bluff that details the history of American submarine espionage, and one of the chapters deals with how the navy sent a sub under the Sea of Okhotsk, deep in Soviet territory, to tap into its Cold War foe’s telephone cables for intelligence. And thanks to the famed Bell Labs, it was one of the most successful spying missions, lasting years, that has ever been undertaken.

Of course, that was the Cold War. It couldn’t happen now, right? According to some people, that’s exactly what India is doing now that it is a major owner of undersea cables. In a book published this year by Major General VK Singh, former head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the country’s main intelligence branch, he makes the claim that the agency procured interception-technology from France and that it has been installed at the VSNL gateway in Mumbai.

Singh’s book is titled “India's External Intelligence: Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW),” and he claims that Indian agencies have been tapping telephone traffic between Germany and Japan and other routes in a bid to emulate the CIA, which in turn has been trying
to intrude on the Indian efforts.

Personally, I’m more worried about governments and commercial organisations spying on me rather than spying among themselves. Like the case in Singapore, where Internet users were outraged recently that SingNet might have handed over details of subscribers that had been downloading Japanese anime. A similar request by anime distributor Odex was denied by rival ISP PacNet, so no guessing who the people’s hero is when it comes to Singaporean ISPs.

And moving back to the US, American telcos are also not averse to spying on their customers either, according to numerous reports including one in the Washington Post recently that noted how the Director of Intelligence had admitted that the private sector (ie, telcos) had helped the
government in areas such as wiretapping on its citizens, despite not having a warrant.

Needless to say, they’re being sued and we’ll probably be hearing more on this in the coming months as a result. But in the meantime, the U.S. president might want to avoid the whole topic of government spying – with the Chinese or anyone else.
-- Geoff Long

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An alternative route through the flat world

Hong Kong-based Rebecca MacKinnon reports that Flat World author Thomas Friedman got a pasting from a Chinese diplomat on stage during a recent panel discussion, with the diplomat pulling him up for his "condescending" views on some of China's global policies. I don't know about China, but sometimes I think Friedman is also missing something when it comes to India, one of the key countries in The World is Flat.

Thomas Friedman started out his journey to survey the flat world on the first tee at KGA Golf Club in Bangalore, where he could observe Microsoft, IBM and the still unfinished Goldman Sachs buildings. I didn’t quite get there, but I managed to get a round in at the cheaper Bangalore Golf Club, from where I could see the horrendous lines of traffic, some of which presumably were going to the same buildings that Friedman mentioned.

I share another thing with Friedman – I’ve also met with one of the Infosys top guys, in my case founder and former chairman Narayana Murthy. However, rather than test theories of globalisation, we basically talked cricket for most of the scheduled one-hour interview. I put this down to the fact that at the time (well before Friedman) I had no idea what Infosys did. Of course in this flat world of ours, now everyone knows about Infosys and the other Indian success stories (although I suspect many still don’t really know what they do).

As for having my own epiphany, I came to the sharp realisation that Bangalore is in about the same shape as my golf game. Take your pick of adjectives – dodgy, streaky, crumbling, a-tad-short-of-shocking – the fact is they both need a lot of work. In the case of Bangalore, the traffic alone is one pointer that the place is just not coping with the demands being put on it. Another is the constant power cuts, and don’t even get me started on the airport.

I liked Friedman’s book and a lot of what he says makes sense. But visiting India gives me a strange feeling that he’s missing something in his flat world theory. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but I’m sure there’s more to the success of places like Bangalore than the Internet and fibre optic connectivity. The social networks of Indians in every corner of the globe for starters.

Anyway, as you might have noticed earlier, I’m not into testing theories of globalisation (although one of these days I might try to flesh out what I think Friedman is missing). Much better to talk cricket, which if you can hang in there I can try to make relevant.

I knew cricket was huge here, but either I’d forgotten how huge or it’s gotten even more crazy. Or . . . maybe the media has grown since my last visit. Or perhaps gotten more sophisticated so I pay it some attention. No doubt all of the above. In fact, I was surprised at how many news channels there are locally and how sophisticated a lot of the publications have become. This place could really be a media powerhouse.

Actually, make that a content powerhouse. Combine all of the cricket programming with the output of Bollywood and you’ve got a huge vault of material just waiting for a new online business model to send it to all corners of the flat earth. At a recent Cisco analyst day I attended, Bob McIntyre, CTO of new acquisition Scientific Atlanta, gave a talk on niche video programming. He noted how in the US, there was always huge demand for all sorts of niche on-demand offerings that cater to expat communities, whether they’re Indian, Australia or Chinese.

Look at the popularity of the Cricinfo web site – it’s one of the top sites in the world in terms of traffic generated. Imagine if they were to have a live video feed for all the users it serves in the far flung corners of the globe. It would be huge. You could also relate cricket programming to Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory. Then again, a long tail of cricket really would be a painful pun.

Whatever you call it, we are living in a world that is increasingly global yet at the same time is searching for more niche and local news and content. Perhaps the more we globalise the more we appreciate our local specialities. Which might explain Bangalore’s adoption of its local identity at the expense of its global one. Yes, just as you were getting used to the likes of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, now you can twist your tongue around Bengalooru, the new name for Bangalore. – Geoff Long

Monday, September 10, 2007

Do we really need broadband handouts?

We’ve supposedly got cheap and standardised networking components that can allow countries to leapfrog generations of technology. We’ve got concepts like user-generated infrastructure where shared connections are being tied together to form one global hotspot. Competition between not only service providers but also different technologies should be bringing affordable and fast communications to everyone.

So with all of this at our disposal, why does it sometimes seem that we’re regressing to a time when governments took the lead in providing communications infrastructure? Even in the most capitalist country in the world they’re calling for government intervention and more funding to improve the US’s poor showing in the broadband rankings.

Has the market really failed so spectacularly that the only way to get communications infrastructure rolled out is for governments to throw money at the problem?

The regression to government-led infrastructure is not confined to the US, however. In Thailand, for example, the rate of regression is probably world-class. A recent proposal was for the state-owned TOT to take control of all of the country’s networks, pool them together and then lease it back to the access providers.

It’s the sort of suggestion that makes you check that the date isn’t the first of April, and unfortunately it’s a suggestion that’s still on the agenda somewhere. It’s about the only time that it seems an advantage that the country is in a state of legislative paralysis.

When it comes to throwing money at the problem, however, Australia would seem to be leading the pack. I think most of the world doesn’t realise just how much money both sides of government are talking about giving out to build broadband. The incumbent government is offering $600 million for regional broadband, while the opposition says it would provide funding of some $4.7 billion if elected. Those are serious sweeteners.

There’s nothing wrong with governments having the goal of attaining world-class infrastructure. I just wonder if the paybacks will be as good as they’re expecting. Obviously the thinking is that the country will be more competitive as a result of blanket broadband coverage. Would be interesting to measure though. You could also argue that it’s just ensuring that everyone has equal access to digital entertainment.

Many people seem to agree that pervasive and super-fast broadband connections lead to economic growth. I’d like to see the data to back it up. If places like Stockholm, Paris, Hamburg and others now have widespread access to 24Mbps connections and higher, in some cases 100 Mbps pipes, have the citizens or businesses in those places become better off financially? Or do they just have better movie collections?

As well as serious studies into the economic flow-ons of superfast broadband, I’d also like to see another type of study – whether funding or regulatory reform is the best way to improve infrastructure. For example in the U.S., there are many who would argue that the problem lies with the power of Big Telco. Their lobby armies ensure that the vested interests of the big players are protected.

Similarly, in developing countries like Thailand it’s often the regulators that are stopping infrastructure from being built. But if they would allow outside competitors to enter the market, and allow new technologies like WiMAX and so on to flourish, they could probably have world-class infrastructure in a relatively short period of time. And all without the government having to open the public purse.

Let’s applaud the goal of wanting to have world-class infrastructure. But let’s also see if world-class competition and regulatory policies are a better way of delivering it. – Geoff Long

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The new search weapon: humans

Something for the weekend, although after this posting it will be kids, wake boarding and sports on TV until Monday.

Seems Thailand is not the only country censoring the Net -- of course, everyone's doing it ;-)
In Korea there's a big stink about the likes of Naver and Daum censoring posts. You can read all about it at the AsiaMedia site (they copied from Korea Times).

And speaking of Naver, here's a column I wrote recently that covers Korea's most popular search site as well as the newer Mahalo being created by Jason Calacanis. It originally appeared in BroadBand Communities.

The new search weapon: humans

For some reason, there are reports all over the place of late that South Korean search portal Naver has around 70 percent of its local market, while the mighty Google is largely a failure there with its 2 percent share. Perhaps it’s because South Korea organised a large press delegation to its major trade show last month, and that was one of the messages the media got? Or perhaps it’s because The New York Times and Business Week both reported on it (but why? It’s not really that new or newsy) and it went viral from there.

While I’m not interested in how Google is doing in South Korea specifically, I am interested in the model that Naver uses, which I was pointed to by the blog Web 2.0 Asia. Naver is essentially a human-powered search engine, meaning that there is a lot of manual work behind the scenes that goes into making a particular search term relevant.

Apparently a lot of this manual work these days is outsourced to Korean speakers in China, who analyse, index and even produce content for Naver. As a result, if it’s something Korean, such as about one of their soap opera stars, singers or sporting heroes, then you’ll get a much richer collection of links than Google can give you.

It also leads to a downside, as brought up by the Web 2.0 Asia blogger, in that because of the focussed effort needed, and presumable labour costs, Naver has to focus on the hottest topics at the expense of other issues. “The nation's zeitgeist becomes more and more unified – essentially, Naver's top search keyword IS the national zeitgeist,” according to the post, which says this is turning Korea into a “Naverized” nation.

What interests me (and which I haven’t seen brought up in any of the posts on Naver so far) is that there is a major effort going on right now to do a similar human-powered search engine out of Silicon Valley. It's called Mahalo and was co-founded by well-known tech entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, who was also one of the people behind ventures such as Silicon Valley Reporter magazine and the Weblogs Inc site.

Given all the recent attention that has been heaped on Naver, which has been around since 1999, it's odd that Mahalo (means "thank you" in Hawaiian, I've since learned) bills itself as the "world's first human-powered search engine". Makes you question the accuracy of the rest of its information.

Despite this, it's an interesting project. Like Naver, Mahalo uses human guides, both full-time and part-time volunteers, who will create search result pages (known as SeRPs) on the most popular or requested topics. If they haven't created a SeRP on a particular topic, you can request that they do so. End users can also suggest links for topics that have already been covered.

Mahalo is even paying the part timers (US$10-15 per page) when they accept their SeRPs, which are created in the Mahalo Greenhouse. The SeRPs are then reviewed by the full time guides and finally accepted into the Mahalo search engine. While the Greenhouse has only been in operation for five weeks, it reported that it had already accepted more than 525 search result pages from 570 part time guides and counting.

These will be continually added to the 4000 search terms that had been created when Mahalo made its alpha launch at the end of May. The company says it hopes to reach 10,000 search terms by the end of the year, afterwhich it will go into a beta phase.

The site is focused on the top English-language search terms, including verticals such as travel, products, news, entertainment, sports, food, and health. “Google’s mission is to index the world’s information; our mission is to curate that wonderful index,” Calacanis said in a statement released when it was announced. “It’s my belief that humans can play a significant role in the development of search results and we’re going to try to figure out exactly what that role is over the next couple of years." The statement also noted that Mahalo was a five-year project.

If anything, Mahalo reminds me a lot of Wikipedia, given its use of volunteers (although paid ones) from around the world to create content. If it can build up a similar database, it will certainly be a useful addition when you consider the amount of links you need to wade through in Google to get to the information you’re searching for. And even when they don't have a page created for your search term, it defaults to Google in any case.

Of course Google and some of the other search giants could also add humans to the search mix themselves. In fact, that's in part what Yahoo has been doing with its Yahoo Answers service, where you can ask a question and real people behind the scenes will attempt to come up with an answer. (You could even argue that the original Yahoo directory was similar to Mahalo, in that it provided human-generated links on a wide range of subjects.)

Naver, too, is looking to expand. According to the Business Week report, it will export its search model to see if it will work in Japan later this year. And I'd be surprised if others in Asia, particularly places like India with its wealth of human resources, don't try something similar.

Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but given the power of Google these days it's encouraging to see some alternatives springing up. – Geoff Long

Friday, September 7, 2007

Muni meltdown: the lessons for Asia

Here's my latest column from BroadBand Communities newsletter. Go to if you want to sign up for free . . .

Here in Asia the term “muni network” is not common, although I’m guessing most people that follow the telecom sector will know that it refers to the municipal networks, usually wireless, that are being championed by local governments. In the U.S., however, muni networks are mainstream news. They’ve either been built or are under consideration in 455 U.S. cities, while they’re popularity has created a cottage industry of conferences, consultants, lobbyists and publishing ventures.

However, the whole concept of muni networks and the industry that has sprung up around it could be in danger of unravelling – something governments in this region should watch closely. As our US correspondent Patrick Neighly reports this week, Chicago is one of the high-profile cities that has recently had a re-think of its city-wide Wi-Fi plans, while at the same time Earthlink, a major investor in muni wireless infrastructure, has also done its sums and concluded that it’s perhaps not such a good way to spend its money after all.

It’s not alone, however, with skepticism about the whole concept of municipal Wi-Fi being the main theme of media coverage in the past few weeks. According to an article in this week’s The Economist, most of the networks that have been put in place today suffer from a wide but consistent range of problems: poor indoor coverage, underestimating the number of transmitters needed for city-wide service, a lack of demand for the service from the general public and no real demand from the city governments themselves.

Somehow, you would have thought that someone would have pointed to such potential problems before the estimated 175 municipal networks now in service were rolled out. It’s not like the coverage problems weren’t known, and stuff like estimating demand and the number of transmitters needed would seem to be fairly basic steps before rolling out any wireless service.

As for the governments themselves, The Economist quoted networking consultant Craig Settles as saying they simply weren’t ready with basic things such as their back office systems to provide government services over the networks. Settles has also done a recent report on the benefits of muni wireless and he concludes that one of the biggest tasks is to manage expectations. “Poorly managing expectations is a killer. Muni wireless is taking some undeserved lumps because so many public statements in 2006 promised what the technology can’t deliver and supported business models difficult to sustain,” he wrote in the report.

In other words, many networks are being judged on criteria that they themselves had not set. He claimed that some of the success stories are not getting the publicity that the tales of muni doom and gloom are. For example, one of the first muni networks, in Philadelphia, was set up with the goal of fostering economic development in huge areas of urban decay within the city – something it was successful in doing. However, Settles claims that it is now being judged on other goals.

“Articles now say that unless we see hordes of young professionals and tourists roaming the streets of Philadelphia with Wi-Fi gadgets blazing, the network will be a failure. What total and complete crap,” he suggested.

On the plus side, all of this activity, both positive and negative, can provide useful lessons for similar networks going up in Asia. In places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Sydney there are plans underway for massive Wi-Fi networks, often with the most publicised feature being that they’ll offer free access. Yet already there are signs that they could face similar problems to those currently being experienced in the U.S.

For example in Taiwan the demand has been nowhere near what was expected – according to The Economist it was claimed to need 250,000 regular subscribers by the end of 2006 in order to break even, but had attracted only 30,000 by April this year. And we’ve already reported here in Broadband Communities of complaints regarding coverage and quality in Singapore.

In the case of Chicago’s decision to drop its Wi-Fi plans, one of the cited reason was that Sprint was going to make the city one of its pilot WiMax sites, which would offer better coverage. Yet look at cities like Sydney and Hong Kong, both of which have a wealth of wireless offerings in place already. Who is going to switch to a government backed Wi-Fi service? I know in my case, I’d pick reliable over free any day.

Which is not to deny that there is a place for municipal wireless, either in the U.S. or here in this region. But governments rolling it out should first ensure some basic steps. Firstly, clearly articulate what the goals of the network are. Secondly, ensure that proper planning and forecasting is done – don’t underestimate the number of transmitters needed or overestimate the number of potential users. If one of the goals is to use the network for government services, make sure the relevant public agencies are actually ready in terms of their back-end services.

And finally, do everything possible to manage expectations. If public access is not an important goal, or if the aim is to spur development in terms of business or public services, make sure that the public and media know that’s the case. Otherwise you could have the situation that is arising in America, where muni wireless is starting to be written off as a failure before it’s had a chance to succeed.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The mobile Internet buzz

It would be easy to dismiss the whole mobile Internet buzz as nothing more than, well, buzz. After all, we've been through it all before with WAP and other hype cycles. But it would also be a mistake.

Mobile infrastructure looks finally ready to be a prime access mode for getting onto the Internet and some of the indicators indeed look promising. Certainly there's a ton of investment dollars being funneled into it. While this column has been negative about the iPhone since its introduction, it did serve to show the potential of the mobile Internet. And its introduction has also focussed attention on the capabilities of some of the other device makers and at the same time injected a healthy dose of new competition into the mix.

Recently, for example, I was shown a new Nokia device that could send photos to the Flickr image sharing service with just one-click. And the fact that the device's software pointed the user to the feature automatically, perhaps guiding them to a service that they didn't know existed, was also encouraging.

Video is also another rising capability, with CNN using the latest Nokia N series phones to do coverage that was later broadcast to its regular TV viewers earlier this year. And in Africa, a continent normally seen as on the wrong side of the digital divide, they are also doing reportage via mobile devices.

The Voices of Africa project has three mobile reporters in different countries filing stories for the Africa News web site ( Since May this year they have been testing and getting experience in uploading texts, photos and videos - all via GPRS networks. Imagine what they could do on 3G.

Here in Asia, we're lucky that mobile networks are being upgraded to provide faster uploads and downloads. StarHub in Singapore, for example, will be offering one of the region's first HSPA (high-speed packet access) networks, with touted download and upload speeds of 7.2Mbps and 1.9Mbps respectively (even though we all know in reality that users won't be actually getting anywhere near those speeds).

And think what you will about the relative merits of WiMax versus 3G, the fact that both standards are competing and pushing each other can only be good for consumers and content providers alike.

Behind the scenes things are also moving along as well. For example at this year's JavaOne event in May, Sun released a new open mobile development platform called JavaFX Mobile, which it expects to lead to more innovative and sophisticated (and open) services on mobile devices. (The technology was actually developed by SavaJe Technologies and acquired by Sun this year.)

Some of the types of services that might be envisaged by Sun and others have already arrived. While most of the major social networking sites and the likes of YouTube are planning on porting their capabilities to the mobile world, other lesser-known names have already made progress in this direction.

In Japan, for example, social networking sites for the mobile are probably well ahead of anywhere else in the world. Take the example of mobagetown, a mobile social networking site that had over 6 million users as of June this year. And the icing on the cake: it's apparently turning a nice profit.

As a result, similar services are popping up regularly, with Media Groove planning the launch of "Chipuya Town" next month, according to Infinita. It reported that it will be a mobile Flash-based 2D version of real-world Tokyo youth hotspot Shibuya and include things such microblogs, communities, friends and chat as well as its own virtual currency.

There are a legion of other examples out there, but I'm sure you get the picture. While there will no doubt be a lot more hype to come, not to mention a decent spreading of both the instantly filthy-rich and some belly-up companies, this time the mobile Internet looks like the real thing.

blogging in Thai

Here's a weird one: if you use blogger from a Thai network address you'll sometimes (not always, don't know why) get the interface in Thai. The kicker is, there's no option to change it back to English. That seems a remarkable screw up by the blogger crew. I'm sure there's lots of people that get stuck in the Thai interface and can't do anything other than close up shop.

It's happening to me now from a computer in the Bangkok Post building, and believe me the reason your getting this post is not because I can make out the Thai script -- it's just that I can remember where the buttons are!!

Will send a note to blogger help and see what they have to say before reporting back . . .

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

How WiMAX can disrupt the cellco cartel

I'm now working on our Broadband Communities newsletter, which has lots of stuff on WiMax and muni wi-fi this week. Go to if you're not a subscriber (it's free).
In the meantime, I thought I'd resurrect this column on how WiMax can make its mark.

How WiMAX can disrupt the cellco cartel
The time to prove the demand for WiMAX among users is at hand. While the hype machine has been active for some years, it’s only now in 2007 that we’re really going to see any activity in terms of commercial networks, particularly of the mobile WiMAX variety.

And they’ve got a lot of catching up to do with HSDPA, which has enjoyed a steady stream of rollouts around the world. The question is, how many users of a HSDPA network, or a handset that’s capable of using it, are actually making use of mobile Internet capabilities? I suspect not too many.

In fact, in a presentation at the WiMAX Strategies Asia forum recently, Motorola head of technology for South and East Asia, Dr Ray Owen, noted that last year worldwide ARPU for mobile cellular data actually dropped, and is tipped to rise only slightly this year. That would suggest that other than SMS messages and ringtones – the bread and butter of data ARPUs – subscribers aren’t buying this mobile Internet thing.

And with good reason: it’s overpriced and often hobbled.

Everyone has known for years that roaming fees for mobile voice are excessive. Roaming fees for mobile data are nothing short of extortion. Even among business people who travel regularly, many are forgoing the mobile data features of their phones because of high data roaming charges. For independents (ie, those of us who pay our own bills), the shock of the bill on your return is not worth the pain.

And the latest news is that operators such as Vodafone and Orange in the UK have been disabling the Skype and other built-in VoIP capabilities in the new Nokia N95 phones. That way they can lock users into their higher prices when making international calls or when roaming abroad.

Skype has also made a submission to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the same issue. In its “wireless net neutrality” proposal it called for users to be able to use Internet communications software and attach their own devices to any wireless network. Many commentators have pointed out similarities to the 1968 “Carterphone” decision, where AT&T was forced to allow users to connect third-party devices to their fixed line. (The decision was named after Tom Carter, who had a device for patching phone calls into two-way radio gear)

The mobile phone operators also want to lock you into their own walled garden of content as well. Last year Google hit out at such practices, accusing them of blocking access to Internet content and services including Google. “They’re inserting themselves in between you and an application that you want. I think that has scary, scary implications,” Chris Sacca, a Google senior exec, was quoted as saying.

So how does all of this help the WiMAX camp? It allows them to pitch their services as a “pure IP” play from day one. No walled gardens of content, no hobbled applications or disabled features, just pure and unadulterated access to “the” Internet. Wanna make voice calls, either international or local – go ahead, it’s just another application available on the Internet. Given that there’s already a WiMAX roaming forum being set up, it could seriously eat into cellco roaming fees the way Wi-Fi already is today.

One WiMAX operator at the WiMAX Strategies Asia forum is doing just that, even while offering its own VoIP services. “I don’t have a problem if my subscribers don’t use my voice but use Skype,” said Peter Ziegelwanger, managing director of Austria’s WiMAX Telecom. “What I can do is promise quality with my VoIP service,” he added.

Of course the mobile operators could also hit back with similar deals themselves. In a small way, this has already started to happen. Hutchison has launched its “X-series” of services that includes mobile Skype and other popular Internet services for its 3 mobile brand around the world, including in Hong Kong and more recently Australia. And users also get a flat monthly fee for mobile Internet as well.

Speaking to BroadBand Communities’ sister publication Communications Day, Hutchison Whampoa Group finance director Frank Sixt claimed that 3 was the first mobile operator in the world to tear down the walled garden. “Up until now network operators have treated network capacity as their most expensive asset. Historically it was and they rationed it and sold it at the highest possible price,” he said. “3 is the first mobile operator in the world to change the mobile media business model.”

To date, the rest of the mobile operator community has not followed suit. Which leaves a clear opening for WiMAX operators to offer – and more importantly market – what could be an important differentiator. That is, a “pure IP” service that is not hobbled or outrageously expensive, either at home or when on the road. – Geoff Long

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Made in Taiwan, censored for China

One of the few legitimate perks in my "day" media job is access to the news wires, which is a good way of keeping up with what is happening and how things are being reported in other parts of the world. On a recent search the other day, I stumbled across a great story on The New York Times news wire about how most of Apple's iPhone was made in Taiwan.

Here's the gist of it: "With little fanfare, Taiwan companies are playing a big role not only in the production of Apple's latest device but in a wide array of other communications equipment, including the broadband modems in homes across the United States and the next generation of high-speed wireless gear."

Great stuff, but as I kept reading it I noticed that there was something odd about the story, with some quite unusual grammar from such a high-calibre paper. Like they'd say manufactured "on Taiwan", where for every other country they mentioned it was made "in" the United States or Japan or wherever. Then they'd write things like "As in many Asian areas . . .", when what they clearly meant was "as in many Asian countries." The fact that they were trying as hard as they could not to refer to Taiwan as a country, or even to allude to it as a country, was just so obvious that it made you hyper-aware of what they were doing.

For what reason? Is The New York Times so afraid that it will be filtered from mainland China that it's willing to follow the PRC line unquestioningly? After all, to the average reader, lumping Taiwan with a bunch of other "countries" would seem quite natural. I can understand governments being a bit sensitive about the diplomatic consequences of their language, but why should The New York Times follow the same wishy-washy, self-censoring, ambiguous path?

It's bad enough that many high-tech companies are prostituting some of their principles in the name of doing business, but lets hope the media doesn't follow suit. Besides which, at least Taiwan lets its citizens vote, not to mention that - as the original article stated - high-tech companies are incredibly reliant on Taiwan when it comes to making most of their gear.

Speaking of companies that suck up to China, Google has just announced a couple of major changes. One is that it will be announcing a paid option for extra storage on Gmail, Picasa and other online services.

Meanwhile, if you've bought any videos from the Google Video store in the past, you might find that they expired on 15 Aug. That's because the Google Video service is closing down, according to a letter sent out by the company and reprinted on Boing Boing.

According to the letter, any videos purchased in the past will no longer be able to be viewed. To compensate, Google is giving purchasers credit at its Google Checkout stores that must be spent within 60 days. As Cory Doctorow commented in the post, "this is a giant, flaming middle finger, sent by Google and the studios to the customers."

It's odd how even when you legitimately buy something, the Big Media players are determined to make it difficult for you to use their content. Yet when it suits them, they're not averse to utilising some of the non-legitimate services for their own ends. According to TorrentFreak, more and more forthcoming television shows are turning up on Bittorrent sites, with many of the leaks appearing to come from the studios themselves.

In fact, that's exactly what's been happening. One Warners Brothers TV executive admitted getting his neighbour's kid to upload episodes of Pushing Daisies, an upcoming TV show, noting that such strategies can help build some buzz and a potential audience when it does go to air. The article pointed to other studios doing similar things.

In other words, if you're big enough - like China, Google and the recording industry - it seems you can do what you like.

Fear and loathing in the call centre

For the last three years I've been heading down to Melbourne for G-Force, which is billed as Asia Pacific's largest contact centre event. And with close to 900 (mostly) paying customers, they're probably right. G-Force also celebrated its 10th year, which is no easy feat, and the level of enthusiasm seems to grow each year -- something you don't always sense at most other events. So it's kind of ironic then that among the general public there is still widespread loathing of anything to do with call centers.

It's not that the industry isn't aware of the negative sentiment surrounding call centers: In his opening address, Genesys Australasia VP Jason Stirling pointed out that "call centre'' is still a dirty word for many customers, while many other speakers noted that the industry has a perception problem. This can partly be explained by the fact that customers tend to remember the exceptions, particularly the bad exceptions, and also because customer expectations are generally going up.

Whatever the reason, in an age where customer service is increasingly the main differentiator for companies, it's a problem that must be addressed. Thankfully, going on some of the positive case studies presented at the event, it's also a problem for which solutions, expertise and business models readily exist.

Take the example of Telecom New Zealand, which takes around 100 million calls from customers each year. Jared Mortlock, manager of the telco's speech implementation team, told the G-Force audience of his experience with a natural language IVR (interactive voice response) system, where the customer can respond via regular speech rather than the more cumbersome (and generally loathed) touchtone IVR systems.

According to Mortlock, customer satisfaction jumped from 16 percent for the touchtone IVR to 60 percent with the natural speech system, while customers opting to connect to the operator dropped from 30 percent to 3 percent. He pointed out that you're always going to get some customers that don't like IVR, but the more channels that are available to them the better. And in the case of Telecom New Zealand, it went from an organisation that had trouble with its customer experience before the IVR project, to "haven't looked back since'', in the words of Mortlock.

One company that is betting that speech technologies such as natural language IVR take-off is Genesys, the main backer of G-Force and whose CEO, Wes Hayden, I got to chat with at the event. He suggested that Voice XML was one of the most promising technologies for the industry, which was one reason Genesys acquired VoiceGenie last year.

"It was clear to us that Voice XML would be the platform to enable speech technology to become mainstream in every call centre in the world,'' he said, adding that about one-third of its R&D budget (18% of revenue), would be spent in the voice portal space. That's in part because companies are now shopping for such technologies. "There is a huge IVR replacement cycle taking place right now and many are thinking about speech technology,'' Hayden said.

Two areas where there is less certainty are in video and social networking. According to Hayden, video in the contact centre is not big in the United States yet and in fact it was Italian customers who pushed Genesys to support it in their platforms. Apparently the Italians think they look good enough to warrant video calls.

And I also asked Hayden about whether the whole social networking buzz will have an impact on contact centres. After all, you can do everything else from the likes of Facebook, so why not a link into the contact centre? "To be honest, I don't think we really know the implications [of social networking],'' he said, suggesting that Genesys was keeping a watching brief on the whole area.

Other companies are more bullish on the links between the whole Web 2.0 world and the contact centre, however. One that I've come across recently is Juice Media, a software company that provides CRM using the software as a service (SaaS) model. It claims that by combining and mashing together classic and emerging CRM platforms, products and processes with Web 2.0 technologies, businesses will be able to better engage their customers.

Whether that's the case or not, I've got a feeling it's all in the implementation. After all, you can have the best system in the world but it will be worse than useless if it's not set up right. Take the recent example of a customer to Britain's BT. The telco blamed a new customer care system for one poor woman's wait on the end of the line that totalled 20 hours. "I was so frustrated and angry I broke down in tears,'' she told The Times. "It is a helpline for goodness' sake, surely a company as big as BT can answer their phones.''

And that's precisely the sort of incident that explains the widespread loathing by the general public of anything to do with call centres.

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.

Imitate Skype or die

Earlier this year I was informed that I could make free calls to China, mobile or fixed, over the Chinese New Year. Aside from the fact that most Chinese were too busy eating to pick up the phone, it was quite an offer. In fact, I’m getting so many of these freebies of late that I could do the bulk of my communications for almost no cost. Of course it’s not quite that simple, but the message is appealing nonetheless.

I’d had a similar offer of free calls from AsiaXPAT if I signed up for its web site. Turns out that both offers were via the same company, a VoIP provider with the obligatory odd-ball name, in this case ZoIPPE. Zoippe, a subsidiary of Hong Kong’s e-Kong Group, was only launched at ITU Telecom World in December last year, so no doubt the flurry of activity is to boost its membership base in a very crowded market.

Skype wasn’t the first free VoIP provider on the scene, but somehow it had the right ingredients to catch the public’s eye (or ear, in this case) and succeed. Ever since then its imitators have come thick and fast. Zoippe also has a “Zoippe Out” category in homage to Skype Out, where users pay VoIP rates rather than get free calls. It’s not the only one to flatter Skype with the imitation either, with Italy’s Skypho also fairly blatant about where its influences came from.

Another provider that has cropped up on my radar is the Gizmo Project, although in this case it was being recommended by other users who wanted to communicate with me – always a good indication that it’s catching on. Like Skype, Gizmo is being praised because of its better-than-average voice quality. And both are also moving into the mobile world, with Gizmo partnering with Nokia on its N80 devices.

These are just some of the new offerings that seemingly sprout up every other week in the alternative telecom patch. Another I’ve mentioned here in the past is Fon, which is backed by the likes of Skype and Google and is rolling out what it calls the world’s largest wireless network through a concept dubbed “user-generated infrastructure.” Users buy a Fon wireless router, then agree to share their home broadband connection with other users. In this way, Fon users have free access anywhere they go in the world, or at least anywhere there is an open Fon router.

The latest news on the Fon front is that it might be teaming up with BT in the UK. According to one report, BT users would be able to use Wi-Fi phones at any Fon hotspot. Whether that happens or not, Fon already has a new challenger in the form of Meraki Networks. It’s using a similar “user-generated” concept but it’s based on wireless mesh routers. Another similarity with Fon is that it got backing from investment firm Sequoia, announced last week, and yet another is that they both could as well fail.

Wireless and VoIP are both sectors with fairly high attrition rates. In the case of VoIP, I stumbled across an interesting list dubbed the VoIP Graveyard recently. With almost 100 deceased VoIP providers, it’s a fairly obvious warning to others that Skype is the exception rather than the rule.

Perhaps one way that providers could tap into new markets is to attract user communities – the way Zoippe is doing with the AsiaXPAT portal. Also in the case of Gizmo, it’s derived from the SIPphone platform, which was developed so that groups such as communities, universities and telcos could offer VoIP themselves. Today, partnering and peering is still one of the main aims of the Gizmo Project.

And then look at Skype, which has recently found its own user community thanks to new parent company eBay. So maybe providing branded services to different user constituencies is the way forward. We’ll keep an ear on Zoippe to find out, but in the meantime let’s hope it doesn’t end up in the VoIP Graveyard.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The iPhone's early legacy

One thing that Apple has managed to do with the iPhone, apart from giving marketing departments the world over an inferiority complex, is to focus attention on the closed nature of wireless networks. One of the biggest complaints is that the iPhone is locked to the AT&T network in the US and can’t be used on other mobile networks, while at the same time the phone has to be activated by AT&T to use many of its features. It also doesn’t allow you to download and use third-party applications.

In other words, it’s a classic “walled garden”. And the idea of locking the phone itself to the network is nothing new either, although it seems to be more prevalent over in the US than it is in Asia now. It used to be more prevalent in parts of Asia too. For example, Thailand used to be notorious for using IMEI locks, giving the boys down at one well-known retail outlet a regular source of revenue by unlocking the codes so that they could be used on any network.

Thankfully, that seems to be a thing of the past now and in Asia you can generally buy any phone (iPhones excepted) from any shop and use it on any network. As it should be. In fact, it looked for a while there that wireless operators were moving away from the closed network trend, with carriers like Hutchison earlier this year announcing that it was “tearing down the walled garden”. That followed its “X-series” of services that includes mobile Skype and other popular Internet services for its 3 mobile brand around the world, including in Hong Kong and Australia.

The US is well behind the rest of the world in this regard, however, with most consumers buying subsidised handsets that lock them into an exclusive contract. Now the iPhone seems to have taken the “open” cause back a few steps further, although I doubt the trend will take off in this part of the world.

One influential voice pushing for open networks is Bob Frankston, who is probably best known for co-developing the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc. Now among other things he is a popular commentator and advocate for the user’s right to access any service they want, with the network limited to providing the channel to get to such services.

As he writes in a post on his web site ( , the current telecom model gives control to the carrier at the expense of our own communications need (ie, the ability to use the applications and services of our own choosing). “We must not tolerate being forced to buy services from providers that have a stranglehold on our wires – whether they are physical wires or radios. Today our ability to communicate is limited by the unenlightened business needs of the carriers. This is intolerable and inexcusable,” he writes.

According to Frankston, the biggest impetus for change will come from investors who realise they have far more to gain if the carriers were not in the position to limit opportunity. The other argument is that applications like Skype that run on top of the service provider’s network are fine, but who pays for the investment in future infrastructure? It was brought up in an interview I had last week with Keith White, Alcatel-Lucent APAC security services director, who suggested that such services were threatening the business model of the carriers, which then wouldn’t be able to fund network expansion.

It’s probably the most pressing argument in the telecom world today and runs into the whole network neutrality debate (whether carriers should be able to favour certain applications or services over others). And of course there are no easy answers. Telecom providers are seeing their revenues eroded by new services such as VoIP, but many are adapting and there are no shortages of new entrants willing to give the user what they want. New business models will appear and some players may well go out of business.

In the end, it all boils down to competition. Apple has plenty of competition among device vendors, which is why I don’t think it will be able to keep it’s closed model of doing business with the iPhone, particularly when it comes to Asia. It would be great if we had the same level of competition among networks, particularly if the newcomers decided to embrace an open model. Perhaps then we’d have no need of net neutrality legislation.

Time to reign in Google?

Dave “Smith” (name changed upon request) used to run a profitable and popular web site that offers stories about expatriate life and gives visitors insights into Thai nightlife. Risque nightlife, to be sure, but nothing that would be out of place in a popular “lad’s magazine” like Maxim or FHM. He still runs the site – – only now it’s becoming increasingly hard to make it pay its way. That’s because, like many other small web publishers, he’s somehow gotten on the wrong side of the mighty Google.

It’s fair to say that Google has revolutionised small-scale publishing with its AdSense advertising system that allows web sites to at least recover their costs, and in some cases earn some decent money. It’s also fair to say that Google can, at a whim, turn off the revenue stream that made the site feasible in the first place – often with little explanation or a chance to argue the situation.

In the case of Dave Smith versus Google, that happened via email through a junior Google team member identifying himself only as “Scott”. But once the decision was made, that was the end of AdSense ads on MangoSauce – no appeals allowed. For Smith, the decision is nothing short of blatant censorship. “Google’s role as an Internet censor is merely a consequence of the company’s dominant position in the Internet advertising marketplace. He who pays the piper calls the tune and Google currently restricts its playlist to easy listening,” he told BroadBand Communities.

Somewhat ironically, Smith points out, Google itself has been known to display paid advertising for hardcore pornography on its own site, with Smith having captured an example of this in an explanation to readers. As he notes, MangoSauce is tame in comparison.

“The site is completely work-safe. There’s no nudity, no porno stories, no excessive profanity, no racism and no homophobia. Whether you’re black, white, straight or gay, there’s nothing in Mango Sauce that will offend you or make the day of that poisonous little creep in the computer department who’s right now snooping through your browser cache, hoping to get you fired.”

Despite the blacklisting – which does not expire, although as an AdSense approved publisher he is free to use ads on any other web site – Mango Sauce continued to operate. Then another Google-inspired disaster struck, again with no explanation. This time many parts of the site were removed from the top search listings on Google, severely disrupting the traffic to the site and again making it financially unviable.

Being suddenly removed from the top search rankings is something many other bloggers and small web publishers have also experienced, with many also noting the power Google wields and what amounts to defacto censorship. The case of the disappearing web sites happened last year to a bunch of bloggers covering topics related to human sexuality, as reported by popular news blog Boing Boing.

Blogs such as Tiny Nibbles, Comstock Films, ErosBlog, and others vanished somewhere down the rankings, which as many noted is just as bad as being shut out entirely because of the effect it has on traffic generation. While the sites eventually in most cases got restored to their higher rankings, the problem many point to is that Google is not transparent enough when it comes explaining how it ranks sites.

As with its AdSense program, the problem seems to be that Google is a virtual monopoly, with Yahoo and MSN not wielding anywhere near the same power. So while problems are often corrected, the underlying situation is not, as Boing Boing commented. “The bloggers’ concerns still remain: we don’t know exactly what happened or how or why, or who or what “fixed” it, or how or why. When all of us rely on one single service to access so much of the information we need each day, and the company behind that service doesn’t have to be transparent to its users, problems like this are inevitable,” it wrote.

Danny Sullivan, Editor in Chief at Search Engine Land, was one who defended Google, pointing out that the search giant at least provides more tools for web masters than others, such as its Google Webmaster Central area ( Yet as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Violet Blue, also the author of the affected site Tiny Nibbles, noted, in this case the tools were of no help. “When someone (or something) has so much power over individuals and no transparency about their process… you live in constant fear that you’re going to do something (you have no idea what) or that something will change (you never know when, or what), to make you disappear,” she wrote.

As it turns out, Google did not reply to a request for comment on this story. And in the case of Mango Sauce, webmaster Dave did eventually find out what was causing his site to lose its ranking position, although not from Google. It was being caused by a web site that sold links,, which it turns out Google does penalise. The source of the information was a local search engine optimisation (SEO) specialist that happened to like Mango Sauce, rather than anything from Google.

“My personal experience of Google is coloured by their secrecy and high-handedness, so I prefer to obtain my information from independent sources,” Dave said.

In the meantime, he has also found an alternative web advertising program in the form of AdBrite, a new player that is backed with money from Sequoia Capital – one of the early backers of Google. Another “new” entrant in the web advertising marketplace is Yahoo, which has been revamping its Overture service. The AdSense equivalent, Yahoo Publisher Network, is still in beta and not open to publishers outside of the US.

And even if Yahoo does finally go international with its Yahoo Publisher Network, it’s debatable whether it will be any more transparent or less censorious. Some of the reports coming from participants in the beta program suggest that it has some of the same traits as Google – web sites being blacklisted or hobbled for less than transparent reasons.