August 29, 2007

History Isn’t Always The Best Teacher

There’s an old adage that those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. A couple of recent experiences lead me to adopt the more topical Richard Clarke view of “the future will not be like the past”. Let’s start with a relatively simple world – automobiles. Everyone loves a new car, the roar of the new engine, the new car smell and the envy of your friends. Once upon a time I worked for a company called Wang Laboratories – and no, that’s not an acronym. Fresh for a stint at Chrysler Corporation I was the lead marketing guy for the auto dealer vertical which at the time was 40% of Wang’s domestic revenue and grew 300% in my three year tenure. We sold programmable calculators (some of which are now on display at the Computer Museum in Mountain View, CA) to car dealers to help them sell cars and include things like financing, insurance, undercoating, etc. Our independent software vendor (ISV) partners would add localized software to do calculations for the local city and state. The result was a display of numbers that could break costs down to pennies a day and print out every single form needed at the point of sale. Every time something new came along – whether air conditioning as an option, new and improved chemical coating, extended warranty - the dealers figured out a way to sell it along with the car.

Loyal readers will remember my blog on the satellite radio for the car. Having taken a 2,000 mile (3,200 KM) road trip I’ve become quite accustomed to satellite radio. Last night HRH the QM and I went shopping for a new Lexus. Imagine my amazement to find that they don’t have Sirius or XM nor is it available! I was totally shocked, even HRH’s 2007 Chrysler came with satellite radio. Notwithstanding the salesman trying to convince me that satellite radio was not worthwhile, my feeling is that Toyota couldn’t cut a satisfactory deal. What’s the morale of the story? Economics trumps technology or lack of customer demand can put technology purchases on the back burner.

Another historical blip in my opinion is Vista. We all remember the painful migration from DOS to Windows this and Windows that ultimately culminating in Windows XP. By and large XP works just fine. The hullabaloo and hype over Vista towards the end of 2006 and the rather ho hum launch in 2007 ushered in the Vista era. Knowing the ‘issues’ that we dealt with in other migrations when it came time for me to get a new laptop an HRH to upgrade her desktop we drank the Kool Aide and went for the Vista machine hoping to be ahead of the power curve for once.

Imagine my surprise at the number of software vendors who still don’t have their Vista acts together (such as Symantec for example) and the sizeable number of other software vendors who simply don’t care. Combine that with a dearth of support people who are knowledgeable in the new OS and you have history not repeating itself at all.

I guess this all means that the technology future will not be like the technology past. Consumers, employees and IT users of all stripes have to learn to take the good and leave the bad. While I’m not a prospect for an iPhone, I may very well be a prospect for a Mac for my next computer – we’ll see. In the meanwhile to my US readers – a Happy and Safe Labor Day.

August 27, 2007

HP, MIT, and DSpace Foundation

HP and the MIT Libraries recently announced the DSpace Foundation, a non-profit organization that will provide support to institutions that use DSpace, an open source software solution for accessing, managing, and preserving scholarly works in a digital archive. There are more than 200 DSpace projects worldwide that are digitally capturing, preserving and sharing artifacts, documents, collections and research data. Some notable new projects include 2008 Virtual Olympic Museum that will archive the 2008 China Summer Olympics; Texas Digital Library that will provide a digital infrastructure for open access journals, electronic theses and dissertations, faculty datasets, departmental databases, digital archives, course management and learning materials, digital media and special collections from Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, The University of Houston and The University of Texas; as well as the China Digital Museum that will include 18 campus museums, each with 20,000 - 50,000 objects covering geosciences, biology, anthropology, science and technology.

While one considers the potential for DSpace just to catalog scholastic and public museum undertakings, the sheer magnitude can be overwhelming. Toss in other privately controlled content, and suddenly the few million entries in Wikipedia seem to pale by comparison. However, if there were ever an application that could showcase the reach and depth of the Internet, this would certainly be one, and perhaps very fitting given the humble research and scholastic endeavors of the Internet and its predecessors. Nevertheless, the likely number of items to be placed into DSpace repositories, especially in developing regions such as China, will be enormous.

Although I would suspect that cultural artifacts and items that are in the public domain would remain easily accessible through the various independent repositories, it does raise the issue of how far the various organizations would go in depositing and making available the scholastic research that might have commercial or competitive value. Of course, this is no different than current restrictions on such material but a DSpace, much like early Internet endeavors, could create an environment where the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.

Which scholastic endeavors would be shared and under what conditions? How would institutions of higher learning, which offer court the financial assistance of commercial entities and non-profits, change their behavior in a DSpace enabled universe? Could DSpace inadvertently cause some types of information that might be freely shared in an environment where it is incumbent upon the user to make greater effort to find and assess the information to be withheld given the greater ease of access that DSpace would afford?

In the case of digital media, such as images, animations, etc., the potential for a greater enhanced repository of public domain, or royalty free content is enormous especially if library developers take serious the federated capabilities of DSpace. The indexing and archiving abilities of DSpace could translate into a very rich user experience, and assemble some truly breathtaking archives of humanity’s achievements on earth. The potential vastness of DSpace repositories could become a mind numbing thought it and of itself.

When I think about the impact that the incredibly basic tools of email, FTP, Gopher, and the early Web had on research and development, the contrast with DSpace and the Internet technologies of today is striking. If DSpace has even a fraction of the impact on research that the early Internet tools did, we are in store for real intellectual treat. It will be interesting to see what these early DSpace initiatives morph into and how they will alter the expectations of the research and academic communities. It could be pretty darn cool.

August 09, 2007

FCC, 700 MHz, Wireless Carriers, and the Mobile Internet

As part of the impending 700 MHz spectrum auction, The Federal Communications Commission has circulated a proposal that included a requirement that the new mobile internet spectrum would be accessible to new applications and devices in a similar fashion as the existing internet today. The FCC Chairman has stated publicly his goal is to allow any wireless device to download any mobile broadband application, with no restrictions, if the software itself is not illegal or poses a threat to a network. At the same time, CTIA, a wireless industry association, is disputing any requirement that the new network carriers would be required to resell bandwidth at wholesale rates to perceived competitors, specifically Google, that would seek to create a competitive offering without incurring the cost of deploying network infrastructure.

At some level this argument sounds reminiscent of a little over a decade ago when the various carriers were arguing with Enhanced Service Providers about who had to connect to whom and who had to sell what to whom and at what price in the context of the Internet, and later VoIP, and then DSL and cable, and so on. At one level it is a revisitation of the Bell Heads vs. the Net Heads drama vintage 1996 but the basis of the discussion remains strikingly similar, namely who has to pay for building the network, and what rights do others have to access this network at a “fair” price.

Rightfully, the carriers are arguing not only do they have to pay to construct the network; they also had to pay off Uncle Sam for the right to use the spectrum, and all of this costs a lot of money that will be recouped slowly over time. At the same time, Internet juggernauts such as Google are eyeing any network as a delivery platform for their content and services and want to ensure that they are not locked out of the game, as so many content providers find themselves in the locked down envrionment of mobile telephones in the USA.

In a more cynical view, I think we can see an US vs. THEM mentality, in that much of the venture money chasing this opportunity is coming from Silicon Valley while the carriers are traditionally an East Coast affair. Yes, this may be simplistic, but it underscores just one of the many differences between the Bell Heads and Net Heads, two groups of players who have managed some sort of relative peace during the past decade as the Internet grew in importance to both communities and the population at large. However, in the case of mobile Internet access, things have been less sanguine as carriers attempt to or even mandate that customers access their services, not those of competitors. While there may be perfectly good corporate reasons for doing this, it does hinder the customer’s choices in what services they can purchase and how they may wish to go about using them.

Net neutrality proponents argue that unfettered access to networks is the only way to guarantee that carriers won’t limit access or propose usury tariffs to ward off the competition. Yet at the same time, it is unrealistic to believe that corporations would continue to invest in new technologies if they know that they must bear the cost of design and deployment, yet a competitor could use the network solely on a usage-based fee, without assuming any of the risk of the initial investment. While I could accept either of these arguments in a vacuum, the reality is that the marketplace will not benefit from either extreme, and this is what I consider to be the ultimate consideration.

In the “good old” days, spectrum was licensed with the pursuit of the public good as a significant factor. During the past couple of decades, public service has been displaced by a revenue generation scheme whereby auctioning spectrum to enrich the Federal coffers has become the goal. In some cases, for totally private use, this may make some sense similar to royalty payments made by lumber, mineral, oil, and many other interests when extracting wealth from publicly owned lands.

But in the case of broad based communications, perhaps it would be better to take some of that auction money and use it to build out/maintain a minimum portion of the network that could be secured as access points for the competitors that the carriers fear. To protect against those seeking massive access, there could be prescribed limits to how much they could purchase through the minimum network, the rest they can treat as a commercial endeavor, just like the carriers, pay the prevailing burdened cost of delivery. But for those smaller entities, their access could be protected. Perfect? No. Better than monopoly or forced subsidization of the competition, I think so.

Still, the auction process is not complete, and the final rules have not been written. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. I for one hope that we do not end up with another closed/proprietary network, but at the same time realize that without investment and the chance for a positive return on that investment, the network is unlikely to be built.

August 01, 2007

Satellite Communications – Not As Heavenly As You Would Think

In January 2007 my beloved wife, HRH the QM (Her Royal Highness the Queen Mother for you new readers) got a new car. A brand spanking new Chrysler Town & Country Van. One of its salient and most attractive features was the Sirius radio. While the thought of paying for what has always been free was not in my mind, HRH gladly signed up for a two year subscription. Not only has she been reliving her past via the 60s channel but is re-building her knowledge of Broadway hits and her passion for Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.

Whilst in her car (a rare occurrence since HRH would much rather criticize than drive) I am of course a prisoner of her music. As it turns out, over time I rather liked the idea of no commercials and being able to listen to a particular kind of music. With the offer of equipment and subscription as a Father’s Day gift I thought I would give it a try because silly me, I figured since this was a popular consumer item it must be pretty easy technology to deal with.

I should have harkened back to my tactical days in the Army when a key part of any exercise was trying to establish communications. For those of you who don’t know what that means – here’s the picture. Let’s start with the fact that there were no cell phones. If you wanted a phone you brought your own phones, wire and switchboards. Oh yes, batteries for the phones as well. Remarkably these field phones connected into a SB-22 Field Switchboard (see for a picture) worked pretty well.

FM Tactical radio – well that was another matter. Not really reliable and line of sight these things always seemed to be finicky. Never mind that the crypto equipment ran so hot that one day we had to pack it into a plastic bag and surround it with ice in order for it to work. Rounding out the communications menagerie was Radio Teletype. It was the SMS of its day which was quite some time ago.

Flinging forward into 2007 I bought appropriate gear for the house and car from Circuit City. The installation while more or less painless was not without its wrinkles. Turns out my Lexus 300 required a special type of wired installation because wireless wouldn’t work. All in all it’s working OK. Of course there are spots on the highway where the local PBS radio station ‘jams’ or overpowers my signal, but I live with that.

The inside rig is another matter. While in the back of my mind I knew I needed to have an antenna it never occurred to me that I would actually have to go out on the roof to position it and that it would be a two person job. I had limited success putting on the window sill, but too flaky to rely on. So now I’m waiting to fit into HRH’s schedule planning on her being the inside sound tester. Fortunately the inside rig also serves as an iPod stand so it has some utility notwithstanding the SIRIUS inside debacle.

Bottom line – no communication technology is completely reliable and redundancy is the key to success or in this case – musical enjoyment.