Friday, May 23, 2008
Phone and internet connections are similarly hobbled. We're only now starting to see so-called "naked" DSL, where you can have a Net connection without having to pay for a phone service you don't want, but it's still fairly scarce. And as a number of friends have found out after moving house recently, when it comes to getting a new phone connection you're still at the mercy of telcos and their antiquated practices.
For example, one acquaintance moved into a place where they'd only just hung up the Telstra phone, yet when he wanted to get his own Telstra connection back he had to wait for a technician to come and connect the wires. You'd think that there would be systems in place that would allow for an automated service initiated by the user. But as another vendor friend noted, the whole area of connecting and disconnecting lines is a huge revenue earner for some telcos.
And then there's the ability to control your own domain name and the services attached to it. I wrote about my experience with Melbourne IT a few weeks back: how I couldn't change some DNS records so that I could use the free Google Apps services. Despite pleas to Melbourne IT, they would not allow me to change my own DNS records -- something common with most other domain registrars. Since then Melbourne IT has got even bigger, with the acquisition of VeriSign's Digital Brand Management Services (DBMS) business, but they haven't got any more user-friendly. On the contrary, I had many emails from people with similar problems with the company and many requests for getting around them.
Thankfully, when "You" are in control you can find a solution. In my case, I initiated a transfer to another domain registrar, one that allowed me to control the DNS settings of my own domain name. The process to transfer the domain was all automated thanks to the enlightened policies of the dot-au domain space and took about 48 hours to come through.
The registrar I chose to park my domain name with was Domain Central, mainly because they assured me that I could alter the domain name records whichever way I chose, including pointing them to the free Google App services. In particular, I could alter the CNAME records to point to Google and also change the MX records so that I could take advantage of Google's free email hosting using my own domain.
In the process of doing all this, I discovered another user-centric service I like -- web-based live support. Online support is another area that's been hyped over the years but hasn't really been widely embraced. Just think of all the major company web sites you visit and then try to recall how many have live support via chat and so on -- there aren't too many. Domain Central has gone to the other extreme, doing away with phone support altogether and relying on online support via web FAQs, email and live chat. While you might suspect it's simply a cost-saving measure that offers poorer support, I was pleasantly surprised at how effective it was.
In my case, I needed help getting the right formats for my DNS records. I clicked on the live support button and within a minute or two I was in a chat session with someone who obviously knew their DNS and how to change the settings to suit my purpose. The guy even did a backup of my records on the spot and sent it to me for safe keeping, then went on to patiently explain what the problem was.
Having read the major part of a few novels while waiting for regular phone support, I'd happily look for live online support in future if it were more widely available. The way I see it, it's just one more small step in putting more control in the hands of us users. -- Geoff Long
Thursday, May 22, 2008
In Japan such pricing is still in the discussion phase, but ISPs there have expressed concerns over an explosion in P2P and video traffic and some see "per-byte" charging as a possible solution. Bell Canada is also looking at its options, according to media reports, which stated that an industry group representing more than 50 independent Canadian ISPs is suggesting that Bell Canada's plans to throttle the web traffic on its networks is part of a larger plan to implement a tiered Internet pricing scheme. And in the US, Time Warner has already started trials in Texas of pricing schemes based on how much bandwidth the user consumes.
Users in Australia and New Zealand have long been used to Internet "caps" and associated charges that see them pay for the extra data they download. But in the rest of the world, "unlimited" data plans are taken for granted. There are a number of other countries that have capped data tariffs, but mostly these are outweighed by unlimited plans, as a study by New Zealand's Wairua Consulting found in 2006. NZ had the distinction of having the highest percentage of capped products among OECD countries surveyed, while the study also found that the top three countries in terms of broadband uptake -- Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway -- all "have significantly more choice, faster plans and either no usage restrictions or limits that in most cases are unlikely to ever affect customers."
Over the past 12 months I've been a user of both unlimited and capped services and have noticed a massive difference in my broadband habits depending on which I'm using. Using an unlimited broadband connection gives the user the opportunity to embrace the digital world fully, whether that's contributing to or accessing video sites like YouTube, sampling the world's radio stations via the Internet or creating a virtual meeting place on a social networking site.
A capped service, as I've experienced the past four months, can see users severely throttling their broadband activity and nervous about experimenting with anything online that might send them over their capped broadband limit and paying exorbitant charges for the excess data. In my case, the cap is 5GB -- a limit the carrier and a few friends suggested would rarely be exceeded. Wrong!
I don't consider myself a heavy surfer, particularly of video, but I've still found it easy to exceed the 5GB threshold. One change of habit as an example: I no longer have music services such as Last.FM playing constantly in the background while I work. I also have to be careful of automatic updating services, such as the security and other updates from Windows or application updates from the likes of Adobe.
In many ways, excess data charges can be compared to international roaming charges: they're often exorbitant, they create billing uncertainty for the user, and they end up inhibiting usage. Yet while there is plenty of action aimed at bringing down mobile roaming fees, there seems to be less momentum for removing data caps and excess charges. In fact, as the recent announcements in the US, Japan and Canada suggest, the trend could be towards more rather than less per-byte charging. And that would seem a distinctly backward trend given all the rhetoric about moving towards digital economies and the need for communities to take up broadband. -- Geoff Long
Monday, April 28, 2008
Not that I needed any more reading sources -- my RSS reader (if a blog/web site doesn't offer an RSS feed these days, I simply don't read it) has over 100 feeds and normally a backlog of articles in the thousands. As such, I'm in the process of culling my reading list to something of more manageable proportions. Before I do that, however, I thought I'd offer my own recommendations. Herewith, then, are the first five of my top-10 tech blogs and information sources, in no particular order. The second batch will be dispatched in a coming column.
TECHDIRT: There are a whole bunch of players that churn out scores of stories per day via a team of reporters, the online equivalent of the quickly-fading IT trade press. They all tend to cover the same stories, all reasonably well, so you really only need one of these on your list. Some of the sites in this category include Om Malik's GigaOM, The Register, Ars Technica, and Tech Crunch. However, the one that I tend to use most is Techdirt (www.techdirt.com), mainly because I find it provides more analysis and context to its stories. The Register would be a candidate, especially as it's not US-centric like the others, but it's not at all friendly towards RSS readers so doesn't make the list.
O'REILLY RADAR: Many will have heard of O'Reilly through its books and conferences and may also be aware that founder Tim O'Reilly is credited with coining the term Web 2.0. As you'd expect, the publishing company has a great online presence and practices what it preaches when it comes to social networking and blogging. While there are numerous blogs available on its site, the one I turn to most is its Radar blog (at radar.oreilly.com), which has a range of contributors and is especially strong on its coverage of Web 2.0, social networking themes and emerging technologies. In their own words, "we draw from the wisdom of the alpha geeks in our midst, paying attention to what's interesting to them, amplifying these weak signals, and seeing where they fit into the innovation ecology."
TELCO 2.0: If you want insights into future telco business models, then go no further than the Telco 2.0 blog (www.telco2.net/blog), which is produced by research and analysis firm STL Partners. Their Telco 2.0 initiative aims to look at how the telecom industry can make money in an IP world and includes regular brainstorming sessions and conferences around the same theme. While there are some obvious plugs for the conferences and research products, there's also a lot of good information and tidbits from their research results as well as commentary on telco news. Incidentally, I came across this site thanks to the Telepocalypse.net blog of Martin Geddes, who is now part of STL Partners. While Telepocalypse is not updated as often as it was in the past, it's still worth a read.
SCRAWFORD.NET: If policy and regulatory matters matter, then try Susan Crawford's blog at scrawford.net. Crawford is on the ICANN board of directors and also teaches Internet and communications law at Yale Law School. Typical topics on the Crawford beat include an in-depth look at the 700MHz spectrum auctions in the US; discussions around network neutrality; goings-on at ICANN and the implications of filtering/blocking. It's telecom regulatory issues through the rigourous mind of a legal practitioner.
SILICON ALLEY INSIDER: Remember Henry Blodget? He was the high-flying securities analyst at Merrill Lynch during the heady days before the dot-com crash who later was charged with securities fraud when things went pair-shaped. Whatever you think of the guy, he's certainly abreast of what's happening in the digital world and you can now catch up with his regular analysis at Silicon Alley Insider (www.alleyinsider.com). Blodget is one of the three founders of the site/blog, which was started last year and seems to be expanding rapidly, with commentators from the likes of Forbes and Variety added to the roster. It's a site that goes well beyond straight news and a must-have on any high-tech reading list.
Monday, April 14, 2008
So Network Solutions has, in effect, expanded its role from domain name registrar to first-stage gatekeeper and censor. But it's not the only one making, or capable of making, such decisions. According to Karl Auerbach, a former ICANN board member, many domain name registrars have similar policies that allow them to take over a domain name registration on very subjective criteria.
Commenting on the Wilders case on a mailing list recently, Auerbach suggests that we now have a de facto law of the Internet in which registrars can impose their private view of Internet morality and acceptable use. "Given that most registrars are for-profit companies they will generally take the path that is most likely to avoid conflicts -- which tends to mean a rather puritanical outlook and a willingness to sacrifice a $10 domain name registrant," he said.
The Wilders case is only the most recent in a long list of examples of censorship via domain name -- a trend that seems to be growing. As most already know, there are many services that baulk at having anything to do with sites critical of China and will pull such sites if they think it will dampen their business. However, even freedom-loving America has been at the forefront thanks to the takedown of whistle-blower site Wikileaks.org (it's now back up).
For those who missed it, a US district court judge ordered a domain registrar to delete wikileaks.org from the domain name system (DNS). The reason? Because it posted some documents from a dodgy bank in the Cayman Islands, that bastion of dodgy banks. Given that the US is trying to clean up banking in places like the Cayman Islands, you'd think the authorities would have been happy, but no, they didn't even give Wikileaks a chance to defend itself in court -- it was simply and swiftly cut off.
The scary think about the Wikileaks.org case is that the authorities knew they could not simply ask the hosting service to take it down -- in this case it was hosted in the more freedom-conscious Sweden. So they went directly to the service that hosted its DNS records in the US. Thankfully, there are always ways to route around censorship, and you could still get to the site via alternative domains in the likes of Germany (wikileaks.de) and Belgium (.be) or via an IP address.
LOCAL CONTROLS: The stories of domain control got me thinking again about how important it is to find a domain name registrar that is as flexible and non-controlling as possible. Recently I've been working with a web site that had a domain name registered via Melbourne IT, one of the region's largest registrars and hosting services. The domain has been dormant for a while so I wanted to get a basic site up and running quickly as well as attach a few email addresses to the domain.
One of the quickest and cheapest ways of getting a web presence is to use the services at Google Apps, which I'd done before. So we decided to get something up with this and then plan a more elaborate site, perhaps with third-party hosting, through the new ".Asia" name that has also been acquired. The problem is, Melbourne IT doesn't seem to work well with Google Apps, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that Google's free service is likely to steal business from Melbourne IT's paid-for web and mail hosting services.
Specifically, to use Google Apps you first have to prove that you own the domain. You can do this either by uploading a piece of code to your domain or by creating a CNAME record with the same Google-generated code. Sounds technical but it's actually straightforward, and altering the CNAME record to point to Google is something you have to do later anyway. The problem is, Melbourne IT doesn't allow you to do either.
I contacted their customer support, both via email and phone, and both times they told me that I couldn't do what I wanted. They don't offer any access to the CNAME records, despite this being a common task and available through most domain registrars, and they pointed out that if I wanted to upload Google's 1K file for verification I would have to sign up for hosting. Even the suggestion that I would find another registrar didn't seem to push them into finding me a solution.
Thankfully, in Australia the local domain authority (auDA) mandates that registrars must transfer a domain name to another registrar if requested by the user. That's a process I'm starting now. First up though, I'll be researching to make sure that the new registrar is as flexible and user-friendly as possible. -- Geoff Long
Thursday, March 27, 2008
I realised this when I tried to get a pre-paid mobile data account in Australia -- most retail outlets thought they didn't exist and in fact most of the operators don't have such a package. Where pre-paid mobile data offerings do exist, such as through Telstra's Next G network, it's so expensive as to be unusable ($59 for 200MB that must be used within 30 days). Yet in the less mature market of Thailand, pre-paid data offerings are relatively common and great for travellers or business people wanting to connect wirelessly from just about any location. Better yet, they have affordable packages (unlimited data for around US$30 per month).
Another drawback across much of the region is the onerous requirements for signing up for telecom services, with seemingly no allowance for anyone that doesn't fit their view of a regular citizen. For example in Thailand, anyone without a Thai identity card, or work permit in the case of foreigners, can just about forget signing up for post-paid phone or Internet service. And my recent experience in Australia has, if anything, been worse.
Downunder you can have a full suite of identification documents -- passports, residence certificates, healthcare cards -- but if you don't have a utility bill with your current address you can't sign-up for wireless broadband. So someone travelling around the country for a year, or working on a contract for six months or a new migrant or -- in my case -- someone who hasn't lived in the country for some time simply can't get service.
At least the retail outlets could see the irony of not being able to sign someone up for the utility of telecom service because they didn't have an existing utility bill with their address on it. The problem was that there didn't seem to be any flexibility in the service ordering process to account for non-standard cases. And with just about every organisation having similar identification requirements, you end up being stuck in a limbo land where services are not available.
Of course the reason we telecom nomads want to get a local SIM card or sign up for service in every country we visit is because the roaming charges are so extortionist. The situation seems to be getting better via some of the big roaming alliances, which are now, finally, taking into account data services. That said, you'd still want to have deep pockets or a corporate sugar daddy if you're a regular data user.
For example, the Bridge Mobile Alliance -- which counts as its members SingTel Optus (Australia), Airtel (India), AIS (Thailand), CSL (Hong Kong), CTM (Macau), Globe Telecom (Philippines), Maxis (Malaysia), SK Telecom (Korea), SingTel Mobile (Singapore), Taiwan Mobile (Taiwan) and Telkomsel (Indonesia) -- is expected to charge US$30 per month for roaming across the member networks, but it's capped at 15MB. Go over that (which is not hard to imagine doing) and you're back to the uncertainty of not knowing what you're spending and bracing for the shock once you get your bill.
The other major regional alliance is Conexus, whose seven members are Far EasTone Telecommunications in Taiwan, Hutchison Telecommunications (Hong Kong), PT Indosat in Indonesia, KT Freetel in South Korea, NTT DoCoMo in Japan, Smart Communications in the Philippines and StarHub in Singapore. It's deal sounds better -- if it weren't for the fine print. This year Conexus will be offering flat rate data via a daily-rate plan. So if you're in, say, Singapore for three days you just pay the daily flat rate for three days. That's assuming you know what the flat rate is. As the Conexus media release notes, details of the flat-rate data-roaming tariff vary among member operators and are subject to each operator's final discretion. In addition, some members will provide a flat rate plan with a pre-set ceiling in data usage. In other words, you still won't know what your bill will end up looking like at the end of the month.
What would be useful is a web portal dedicated to telecom nomads in the Asia Pacific that has practical advice on getting the best available communications at an affordable price. One global site that I came across is NuNomad.com, which conveniently had an entry on "Nomading the Mae Hong Song Loop" in Thailand when I checked it. However, it was more of a travel article than anything useful for the digital nomad, and aside from one Wi-Fi hotspot recommendation there was nothing about getting connected in the North of Thailand.
Elsewhere on the NuNomad site there was some general information on setting up a mobile office but nothing specific for Asia Pacific. What's needed, then, is some practical advise on how to get connected in each country. And of course what's needed even more are affordable rates for getting connected while on the road and some flexible sign-up options for those of us that quite often have no fixed address. -- Geoff Long
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Let me recap. Just before Apple unleashed its iPhone on a suspecting world, I made a bold statement that it would fail, at least in its first incarnation. Perhaps I should have just said I won't be buying one, because I don't like its closed nature and because it lacks 3G. But thanks to the hackers, we now know that there are hundreds of thousands of people around Asia that are willing to snap up an iPhone and, more importantly, they're loving it.
One grey vendor friend of mine that sells unlocked iPhones in both Bangkok and Singapore can't get enough of them to satisfy demand. The other day he managed to get a shipment, told a few friends via email and they were snapped up within the hour. Another friend who had managed to buy one earlier was an instant fan -- and not just because it made him the centre of attention everywhere he dragged it out. It was also because, finally, someone had made the mobile Internet usable. That alone -- making web sites easily viewable on a mobile screen -- should be enough to cement Apple's place in mobile history.
Another interesting stat I came across: Google is apparently getting 50 times more search requests from iPhones than any other mobile handset. That stat, according to the Financial Times, was so extraordinary that Google first thought it had made an error with its data. It hadn't and it just shows how much more people will use the mobile Internet if you make it easier for them.
Which is where Google steps in. There's no doubt that one of the keys to the search giant's success is the way it makes its services easy to use. Presumably, it will bring that talent to its mobile phone efforts. But more importantly, it can harness the immense power and developer base of the open source movement. Already that's happening, with many local software promotion boards across Asia getting behind it and Google offering significant prizes for developers through competitions.
To date, the two dominant smartphone operating systems -- Windows Mobile and Symbian/System 60 -- have not exactly attracted a fanatical user base. Get the open source community behind a mobile OS, however, and that's exactly what you'll have: a growing and fanatical base of users and developers. And as we have seen with Apple, fanaticism can go a long way.
In a recent research note by Saugatuck Technology, they pointed out that Google's Android and other Linux-based mobile initiatives, notably LiMo, are potentially disruptive influences on the mobile space. The main reasons cited were scalability and portability, affordability and maturity. Another significant point was the ability to work with other open software that can be delivered as a service, either from telecom providers or from pure-play SaaS vendors.
In short, Android (and LiMo) have "the ability (and promise) of becoming game-changing influences – and within a very short time," the research house stated.
If the introduction of the iPhone is any guide, users of mobile devices and services are looking for ease of use and better offerings than they have had in the past. Which is why I (now) think that Google's Android also has a great chance of following the iPhone and succeeding. -- Geoff Long
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Seriously though, what makes Microsoft think it can compete better against Google with the addition of Yahoo? The integration of the various services alone will take more than a year to complete, by which time Google will have enhanced its lead even further, no doubt helped by the addition of the disgruntled top Yahoo talent banging on its door. And lets face it, there's a very simple reason why Google thrives while similar offerings from Yahoo and Microsoft struggle: it simply makes a better product.
It's not just about search either, although I regularly compare each of the big three offerings and end up coming to the same conclusions: Google turns up more, and more relevant, pages. Yahoo and Microsoft also both have comparable web-mail services, yet most of the tech-savvy users I talk to prefer Gmail. Similarly, its products like Google Reader encourage loyalty to the brand because they just work damn well.
Both Microsoft and Yahoo both have the services, but what they need to do is refine them so they work better than anything Google has and encourage users to switch. Again, some unsolicited advice: Imagine what Steve Jobs would do with the service and improve from there. Let's face it, if Jobs got hold of Yahoo you could guarantee that he would create the best user experience on the planet and scare the hell out of Google.
I like some of the stuff that Microsoft is doing with its Live offerings but I get confused by the various brands -- why have MSN and Live and Windows Live and Windows Live Mail and Hotmail and so on. And what is Windows Live Spaces? I'd wager the majority of users have no idea. Adding in the various Yahoo services and brands is going to confuse everyone even more.
And we haven't even started on the lead that Google is forging with the integration of its services as well as its software as a service offerings. As I've mentioned in this column before, I now make use of most of the Google online offerings and particularly like the way you can create things such as blogs, email accounts, web sites and so on off your own domain, making use of tools such as Google Analytics, Calendaring, Notebooks and the rest of it. I'm also starting to make use of the online apps like its word processor and spreadsheet offerings.
Microsoft, as many have pointed out, has no real desire to do something similar because of its cash cows in Windows and Office. Let's face it, if Microsoft had been serious about software as a service it could have made a better fist of it by now. It hasn't and it's unlikely to anytime soon. Yahoo, on the other hand, has no such existing market to protect and could have over time done a much better job in competing with Google (and still can), particularly with acquisitions such as Flickr and other Web 2.0 services.
Which all points to Microsoft-Yahoo being a great story but a lousy merger. I do think it's possible for someone to challenge Google's online supremacy, but I also think we'd have better competing services with all three companies in healthy competition. Here's hoping that's an outcome that can still emerge. -- Geoff Long
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Like it or not, this is the year that will prove whether there is a business case for mobile WiMAX. If it doesn’t take off in a substantial way in 2008, I think you can safely proclaim it another broadband wireless niche platform that has come and gone, similar to the likes of LMDS, MMDS and some of the proprietary stuff that came before it. It will live on for providing fixed “DSL-equivalent” broadband in remote areas and emerging markets, but it will have missed its chance of becoming a ubiquitous broadband technology for the roaming masses.
If it hasn’t solidified its base by the end of the year, then it will be because carriers have chosen to stick with HSPA and wait for LTE, which will by then be just around the corner. And that will mean that WiMAX has been pushed down to become yet another footnote in wireless broadband history at the expense of the GSM juggernaut. (And the same goes for the other proposed 4G standard, Qualcomm’s UBM, by the way.)
Of course, it could be that WiMAX really does prove itself in 2008 and there are already some encouraging signs. In Japan late last year the government awarded two licences in the 2.5GHz band to consortia headed by KDDI and another to Willcom, with equipment vendors already lining up to provide gear. One thing to bear in mind, however, is that in the case of KDDI, trials are only expected to kick off in February 2009.
Similarly, 2009 is expected to be the year that another potential WiMAX market,
The WiMAX camp also got a generally favourable report from Juniper Research last week suggesting that the mobile WiMAX 802.16e market will grow to $23 billion by 2013, with half of that total coming from
The Juniper report also warns that both the availability of suitable devices and the awarding of licences will be important factors in determining the success of Mobile WiMAX 802.16e, both in
When it comes to devices, one of the WiMAX camp’s trump cards is the backing of Intel, which will see it become standard in every new notebook computer, much the same as Wi-Fi is today. The only problem with this is that if there is no network to connect to, it doesn’t really matter if the notebook is WiMAX-enabled or not.
In contrast, if the push to include HSPA in new devices takes off, the HUGE advantage they have is that the networks and service are widespread already. And the momentum to include HSPA chips in notebooks is likely to happen this year. Throw in all the HSPA-capable mobile phones, and the economies of scale certainly don’t favour WiMAX and won’t any time soon.
Despite some vendor claims to the contrary, WiMAX needs the Sprint rollout in the
Monday, January 14, 2008
Blog pundit Robert Scoble is not the only one to have been banned from Facebook of late – it happened to me too!
For those who missed it, Scoble had his Facebook account disabled because he tried a test feature being developed by Plaxo (the online address book) that allowed him to “scrape” details from his Facebook friends to use in other programs: names, email addresses and birthdays. Apparently that’s against the terms of service. For my part, I created a “virtual friend” for test purposes to check out some features as well as some theories anonymously. Also against the terms of service, it turns out.
Actually, I initially thought my virtual friend would be a bit too obvious, given that I’d named her Maya V. Freund, but she quickly – very quickly – attracted her own set of friends. Perhaps people are naturally drawn to someone who grew up in
The experiment proved a couple of things that many will not be surprised about. Firstly, a lot of people use social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace as a virtual pick-up place. We’d all like to point to the higher social functions of this type of networking, but let’s not get too carried away at the same time. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with mindless fun and flirting.
The second point is that if you wanted to collect personal details from a lot of people, it’s very, very easy to do. And it really is quite scary how much information you can get with very little effort. In the end, I killed off Maya V. Freund by announcing what I’d done in a status message, which led to the account being disabled. The experiment did make me think about what I reveal on social networks in future though.
For Scoble, the question was one of data ownership and why Facebook can take information from say your Gmail account, but then you can’t re-use it in another application. And that issue is going to become a huge one. There are many proposals floating around for social networking sites where the user has more control over their own data, and it will be such features that will encourage users to move away from Facebook and on to new social networking platforms in the future.
Of course Facebook is also introducing new features that allow users to control more of the information they make visible, so called “granular control”, but it still doesn’t give them ownership of their data so they can transport it to whatever platform they wish.
I also predict that users are going to move away from the “monolithic” social networks into more fragmented but like-minded communities. One example is Ning, which was co-founded by Marc Andreessen of Netscape fame. It’s a platform that allows users or communities to create their own social networks. In fact, there are already more than 100,000 such social networks that have been created on Ning.
So that’s my first prediction for 2008: waning interest in Facebook and a move to smaller, specialised social networks that give you ownership of your data. And if you happen to create one, perhaps you can invite me and Maya V. Freund. – Geoff Long