Moving and technology state of the art

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 08/19/2004 - 11:03

Design Nine outgrew our old office space, and over the past week we moved into new, larger quarters--we're still in Blacksburg, Virginia, though.

I had to completely disassemble my desktop computer, something I have not had to do in over two years, when this machine was brand new. I ended up with a box of some 30+ cables for a computer and office phone, which on the face of it seems absurd for an otherwise entirely straightforward desktop machine used primarily for email and writing. In part, much of the problem has been the extraordinary success of the USB protocol as a peripheral connectivity solution.

In the "old" days, about three years ago, you typically had a couple of serial ports and two or three SCSI devices. You had a limited number of peripherals you could have hooked up at one time, and your ambitions for connected gagdets was low.

With the advent of USB, you could stick a hub on and fill it with as many things as you liked, and they would all actually work very well (most of the time). I have a seven port USB hub, and six ports are in use. Combine those USB cables with phone cables, Firewire cables, and power cables for all the devices, and you end up with a mess. It is incredibly ugly, difficult if not impossible to keep neat, and amazing that it works at all.

Firewire, in theory, should solve many of these problems. Firewire devices can be daisy-chained, so you don't have the multiple cable problem of USB, and Firewire is capable of providing more power than USB, so you can actually eliminate the AC/DC voltage converters entirely. Apple's iPod is a perfect example of this. You connect the iPod to your laptop or desktop with a single, thin Firewire cable that recharges the battery and transfers data several times faster than USB.

But Firewire has yet to reach its potential. Many PCs still do not come with Firewire (it's standard on all Macs), and even on the Mac, it does not always work as expected. My Firewire video camera (no power cable, thank you) does not get along with my Firewire hard drive (big AC power cable), and I have to unplug the camera when I back up files to the external Firewire hard drive.

Money protected by bad passwords

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/16/2004 - 09:22

Millions of people now have Paypal accounts, online access to bank accounts, and other online access to financial transactions, typically protected only by the passwords they pick themselves.

If you are still using your dog's name or some other simple four or five letter word for your password, you may want to read this short article on the various ways bad people are using to steal passwords.

The best passwords are at least eight characters long, and consist of an apparently random string of mixed case characters and at least one digit. My bank also requires a special character (like an ampersand or a dollar sign).

If you pick four or five good passwords and use them consistently, you can protect yourself and still not go crazy trying to remember them. For example, use one or two passwords on all your insecure sites (e.g. news sites, etc.) and don't ever mix the passwords you use for financial sites.

We're not reading...

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/13/2004 - 12:05

An article from the July 19th issue of Newsweek talks about recent studies that indicate young adults (between 18 and 34) are now reading less than any other group. Even worse, this used to be the group that read the most.

Even worse, instead of reading, this group has become largely "passive consumers of electronic entertainment." Video games, entertainment Web sites, and TV are taking the place of exercising our brains.

The study also notes that those that do read are also more likely to "active and engaged towards information and society." They are also more likely to "do volunteer work or attend plays or ball games."

So the young people that will have to take over the reins of society in the next ten to twenty years are not reading, are less involved in community activities, and are glued to some kind of electronic entertainment widget (TV, computer, picturephone, iPod, etc). It's not a pretty thought.

What kind of youth leadership training program do you have in your community? Do you have a young adult book club that gets young people out of the house and off the 'net to talk about good and great books? How is your community preparing the leaders of the future?

WiFi phone booths

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 08/12/2004 - 19:37

Telstra, the Australian phone company, is putting WiFi hotspots in phone booths.

It's a good idea. The phone booths are underused, with so many cellphones now in use. The booths are already in public places where people tend to gather, and they have the one thing that often makes placing a hotspot costly--a wired connection. Telstra can use the existing cable to deliver a DSL line to the WiFi equipment in the booth, and the booth itself can be used to mount an antenna.

Cong. Boucher talks about the Induce Act

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/10/2004 - 15:09

Congressman Rick Boucher (D, Virginia) represents southwest Virginia, including Blacksburg. Boucher is guest-hosting law professor Lawrence Lessig's blog this week, and there is a cogent and fascinating discussion of the Induce Act. The Induce Act would build on the already questionable DCMA law to make it more difficult (in theory) to pirate digital media.

The Induce Act has already created a firestorm of criticism for its overbroad attempt to stifle piracy by making it illegal to introduct any new technology or device that MIGHT be used for illegal sharing. In other words, as it has been pointed out, the iPod and indeed, all MP3 players would be illegal. Boucher is co-sponsor of a bill that would try to hold back the Induce tide.

VoIP spam--the next horror?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/10/2004 - 10:13

CNet writes about the next potential spam horror--voice mail spam sent to your Voice over IP telephone. VoIP phones have an IP address, just like your computer, and spammers will probably figure out a way to send spam right to your phone.

It's not something worth worrying about we get better at tightening up anti-spam laws and regulations, we may stop it before it gets started. As the CNet articles notes, it may be that it can be forestalled by adding language to the Do Not Call law.

Concrete and indium

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/09/2004 - 09:25

Indium sounds like one of those made up compounds, like Intel's "Itanium" or Volkswagen's "Turbonium." but indium is a little known metal that is essential to the manufacture of LCD panels. The Wall Street Journal reports on a potential shortage of the transparent, conductive metal. It's refined from the tailings of commodity metals like zinc and lead.

The problem is that only a few hundred tons mark the entire world production, and the price has been rising rapidly. Even with the price increases, so little is sold that it's hardly worth it to the big zinc and lead producers to bother refining it. So while supplies are adequate right now, the exploding demand for big screen TVs and LCD panels suggests shortages may develop.

Cement is also creating a slowdown in the world economy. Paradoxically, the global Knowledge Economy is suffering from the high prices created by, of all things, cement. It's a useful reminder that for all the hype, the IT business is not the major driver in the global economy. It's a driver, but not the primary one (if there even is one). Businesses around the country, even in rural areas, are feeling the effects of the cement shortage because of demand in China and Iraq....proof positive that we can't ignore the interconnected, increasingly complex world beyond the borders of our own county and community.

The emerging telecom wars

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/09/2004 - 07:07

USA Today (Monday) has a front page article (Business section) on AT&T and its decision to get out of the consumer market for local and long distance services. Opinions are mixed on the wisdom of this approach, but the company does not really have much choice. With the FCC decision to allow the regional Bells to charge whatever they like for wholesale access to their infrastructure, AT&T could no longer profitably offer local dial tone service.

As I've said before, I think that the FCC made the right decision. If the Bells are expected to compete with unregulated companies (e.g. the cable and WiFI firms), it does not make sense to hobble them by requiring them to sell their own network to competitors below market rates. It is no coincidence that since that ruling a few months ago that the regional Bells have begun to announce FTTP (Fiber To The Premises) projects--they finally know they can make money doing so.

Buried in the article is a one line reference to the "Cable-Phone Wars." One reason the phone companies have finally jumped on the fiber bandwagon is that the cable companies have captured a large part of the broadband customer base by investing early. DSL is now selling in most of the country for about $15 less than cable service because the phone companies have to do something to get customers back--like actually compete on price and service. Horror stories abound, but generally, the cable companies, which tend to have more local offices and real service people working for them, seem to be winning the service battle.

The phone companies, in a better late than never strategy, are winning the price war right now. This is all good for consumers, up to a point. Quality of Service (QoS) is still shaky for both cable and DSL. Both are copper-based legacy systems that were never designed to deliver high speed data to homes and small businesses. Fiber and wireless can deliver data much better, but can't always provide the content (e.g. cable TV) and/or some services (like dialtone)--yet.

Buy out your local phone company

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/06/2004 - 13:10

Information Week has an interesting article about SBC and Verizon. The two big phone companies are selling off their rural landlines to raise cash to run fiber to their higher density urban and suburban customers.

So instead of complaining about your local phone company, buy them out! The neat thing here is that if you buy out the lines, the customers come with them, so you have instant cash flow. Here's the business plan:

I've obviously oversimplified this a good deal, but coops are a tried and true business model that have successfully offered wireline services in rural areas for decades. And fiber is nothing more than another cable. If coops have gotten a cable to their customers in the past for telephone and electric services, why can't they do it in the future?

Light updates through August 9th

Submitted by acohill on Sat, 07/31/2004 - 12:42

I'll be on vacation through August 9th, and updates may be light. Have a great week!

Broadband policy changes needed

Submitted by acohill on Sat, 07/31/2004 - 12:34

CNet has a terrific article on community broadband and the policy issues surrounding community development of telecom infrastructure. It's a must-read article; it's long but provides an excellent overview of community telecom landscape, including the benefits communities are seeing, the anti-competitive opposition from the big companies, and the lackluster support for these initiatives at the Federal level.

Bottom line? We're not doing enough in the United States to stay competitive with the rest of the world. Our fractured approach to creating world class networks is being manipulated by special interests and anti-competitive forces, and the Federal government is doing enough. This is depressing stuff, but needs to be thought about carefully.

South Korea is pointed to as an example of how this is being done right. I often reference South Korea myself, but we need to remember South Korea is smaller than two-thirds of the states in the U.S., so the national government there is dealing with a scale that is much smaller. Furthermore, because it is small, there are fewer layers of government.

As much as I would like to see state and Federal help pick up steam, I don't think communities can wait--the risk is too great that the state and Federal governments never do get their act together. Community and regional projects, funded modestly with modest goals, can and will get the job done over time.

Cellular providers choke off innovation

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/30/2004 - 10:02

The EETimes has an interesting article on how U.S. cellular providers are choking off innovation and profits in the electronics industry. As I have long predicted, cellphones are absorbing the features of standalone gadgets like PDAs; PDA sales have been flat for some time. One of the hottest "gotta have" gadgets is the Palm Treo 600, which is a cellphone with the Palm PDA built in.

So what's the problem? Fewer things (and fewer chargers) to lug around sounds good, right? Not when you can't buy any of the new gadgets on the open market. Try buying JUST a Treo 600. You can't do it. You have to buy a cellphone plan with it; when you do so, you get a discount off the "Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price" (MSRP), which we all know means nothing in an open market.

By tying cellphones to service plans, the cellular companies have created an odd kind of monopoly, in which they have captured and now control the marketplace for handheld consumer devices. The EETimes article discusses the potential impact on the digital camera market--as cellphones get megapixel cameras built in, the digital camera marketplace will disappear. Not only that, consumers lose choice and competition, which keeps prices low. MP3 players are another threatened market; by adding extra memory, cellphones become music players, and the MP3 marketplace disappears.

Consumers are already losing in this situation, and it will only get much, much worse. Bundling, which is what the cellular providers have been doing, is a classic strategy for locking a marketplace up and creating a monopoly. In effect, gadgets like the MP3 player and the digital camera become free, in the sense that the real cost is hidden in the cellphone service contract. And the cellphone companies are now demanding two year renewals on service contract, making it harder and harder to switch.

Microsoft destroyed the market for Web browsers in exactly the same way. Internet Explorer, by giving it away, wrecked the market for every other company. But Internet Explorer is not really free; Microsoft bundles the cost of IE into the cost of Windows--you pay for IE whether you use it or not.

Broadband is a "necessity"

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 07/28/2004 - 08:33

A Ziff-Davis news article chronicles a series of new broadband projects and applications using broadband, and calls broadband a "necessity."

Big Stone Gap, Virginia is keeping some employers in town and attracting new ones with the help of their fiber network. Led by Skip Skinner of the Lenowisco Planning District, the region has been laying fiber in Emtelle microduct for the past year, building a regional fiber backbone and making fiber available to downtown businesses in Big Stone Gap.

Design Nine has been working with Skinner and Lenowisco Planning District since early spring on a telecom master plan for the entire region, and of course, the fiber buildout is a cornerstone of future plans.

South Korea is laughing...

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 07/26/2004 - 07:27

I reported here last week on new data that shows that broadband is now in about 30-35% of American homes. The new study was widely reported in the media, and Anthony Townsend, who is doing an extended study in South Korea on the social and economic impacts of broadband in the country, reports that the news "...made my Korean friends laugh at how far behind the US is."

South Korea has achieved virtually 100% broadband penetration, with DSL and cable broadband available nearly eveywhere, and fiber to the home is quite common. South Korea has a national goal of fiber to every home and business by 2008. What is the goal for your region and community?

Broadband use soars in the United States

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/23/2004 - 08:30

There are still plenty of community leaders and elected officials who are not taking broadband seriously. Bluntly put, it's a critical economic development issue. Ignore it at your peril.

This article that summarizes recent growth in broadband use in the U.S. is a must read for economic developers. If your community is behind in broadband use compared to the general population, you have a serious problem that demands immediate and continuous attention.

Wondering how to get your community leaders more interested? How about taking one out to lunch next week and reviewing this data with them?

Web tales

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 07/22/2004 - 09:23

I'm always amazed at how badly some Web sites perform. Here are two examples I found yesterday.

I visited the site of a national architecture/design firm that is well known. I could overlook the annoying Flash animation on the home page that made it virtually impossible to read anything (a product of the MTV generation, undoubtly, who believe that any image that remains on a screen for than ten seconds is "old fashioned"). But within two clicks, I found myself on a page that informed me that I was using an "antique" browser and that I needed to immediately upgrade to Explorer 6.0. Yes, the one that CERT, the national Internet security folks have said is a serious hazard that should not be used. It is supremely arrogant for a company to ridicule potential customers by telling them they have "antique" browsers (I was using the latest version of FireFox, which was released about three weeks ago--hardly "antique"). It costs almost nothing to design a Web site that works well on a variety of browsers. It is intellectually lazy not to do so, and from a business perspective, just plain foolish.

But wait--it gets better. This national firm also has a Web design division. When I clicked on that link, I was taken to the home page of one of these firms that buys up domain names and sits on them. Huh? You want me to hire you to do Web design but your own Web site link doesn't work? I'll pass on that.

We're moving a few blocks away next month, and I decided to see if I could DSL from Verizon. Verizon has finally adopted the strategy of most of the other phone companies, which is to price DSL at $30 to compete with the cable companies' Internet service, which tends to run $10-$15 more. I quickly got to a page that told me to enter my area code and phone number, and in a "few moments" it would tell me if I could get DSL service. I waited a "few moments," staring at a little blinking animation that was supposed to tell me something was happening. I gave up and went on to other work, but left the browser window open. About an hour later, I checked back....still blinking, still no indication of whether or not I could get DSL at the new house. Hmmm...think I'll stick with cable modem service a while longer.

The iPod goes to school

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 07/21/2004 - 09:11

In a widely reported story, Apple's iPod will be given to all Duke University freshman this fall.

The handheld computers will be loaded with course materials, lecture notes, and other university-related materials. While at Virginia Tech, I was involved with freshman orientation (providing information on university computers and networks), and I can tell you the incoming students get an enormous stack of paper, most of which is probably never read.

Someone probably did the math on the cost of duplicating what is certainly hundreds of thousands of pages of materials and the related cost of shipping, storing, organizing, collating, and distributing it. My guess is it came within a few bucks of buying iPods in bulk and putting all that stuff on them (it would take about 15 seconds over Firewire to load them).

One of the neat uses for an iPod in a university environment would be to provide audio tours for new students--how to use the library, how to find the dining hall, how to add and drop classes.....all sorts of stuff that students could quickly dial up and listen to.

My guess also is that they are shifting the cost of printing course materials to the students as well. Instead of printing class notes and lecture materials, they are preloading the files on the iPod, and students choose to print them, or not. It could be that Duke discovered they were actually saving money by giving out the handheld computers.

Of course, they also store and play music, which virtually guarantees that students will use them. It's a brilliant and innovative concept.

Broadband everywhere?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 07/19/2004 - 09:40

We just rented a beach house for a week, and the contract had a list of amenities. To my surprise, broadband Internet access, a computer, and WiFi comes with what is a very moderately priced beach rental.

It's one more signal that your region, to be competitive in the global economy, needs to be working with your local hospitality, recreation, and travel businesses to make sure they understand this is what travelers want and expect.

If your local businesspeople are saying they don't understand it or don't think it's worth it, then you have an education and training challenge to help them identify what they need and why they need it (they need to keep customers coming). And your region needs hotels, motels, restaurants, and recreation spots to have these services. It's no longer some esoteric marketing's become part of the base services package, like electricity, water, and sewer.

Customer service in the Knowledge Economy

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 07/15/2004 - 13:26

We hear continually about the "problems" of the airlines. I had a few problems with an airline myself yesterday as thunderstorms buffeted the East Coast and snarled up traffic.

I was trying to leave Manchester, Vermont and get back to Roanoke, Virginia. Under normal conditions, the two leg journey (through Dulles in D.C.) takes just four hours. Yesterday, it took ten hours, mostly for no good reason.

Knowing the weather was causing problems, I showed up at the Manchester airport about four hours before my scheduled flight. At the ticket counter, United refused to book me on an earlier flight unless I paid $100 extra. I persisted, and I was told I could try standby for no extra fee, so I opted for that. I went through security and went up to the gate where the earlier flight was leaving, and discovered that the noon flight to Dulles was just getting loaded (four hours late...a bad sign).

I tried getting on, but the gate attendants refused to talk to several of us on later flights that wanted to get out. Talking among ourselves, we decided it was a lost cause, and a couple businesspeople left to go get some dinner. I lingered at the counter for another minute, and a different gate attendant walked up and asked if anyone else needed to go to D.C. I stepped up, and she said, "Oh, you need to go on this flight, because your flight is canceled." Huh? I'd been at this gate for nearly an hour, and no announcement had been made. When did they plan to tell me? She changed my ticket and put me on the plane, which had at least a dozen empty seats. They held the plane a bit longer, and filled all the seats. So far, so good, I figured...I'd get home tonight.

When I got to Dulles, I tried to repeat that. I went to the gate where an earlier Roanoke flight (late) was leaving. They had just started boarding, and I counted only about fifteen people getting on a fifty seat regional jet. Several of us tried to get rebooked on the flight, but the gate attendants ignored us. Finally the flight left, and I was able to get one of them to direct me to the gate where my flight was leaving.

New Hampshire wants to tax email and chat

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/13/2004 - 06:39

State officials in New Hampshire have announced that they have "discovered" that chat, email, and other Internet services are "two way communication" and have decided that those services fall under the umbrella of a statute written in the early nineties (before the rise of the Internet) that taxes telelphone services.

New Hampshire, like many states, is facing budget shortfalls, so it is understandable they are looking for ways to increase revenues. But given the reliance of the Knowledge Economy on the Internet, it would be hard to find a tax that would do more to discourage the formation of businesses or the the growth of existing businesses. The size of the tax (7%) is especially daunting. Judging from the news coverage of the issue, it's a tempest in a teapot. It would appear that state legislators are not likely to let the bureacrats move forward with this.

A side issue, but an important one, is the fact that outside of perhaps AOL, I don't know of any service providers that are set up to monitor those "communications" uses. Technically, it is easy enough to do, but it would require additional equipment and billing software, and the cost of billing individually for email and chat (so that you could determine how much tax to pay) would be a nightmare. Most providers would probably opt for simply charging a flat monthly fee for email and chat, which is still more than they are doing now.

So the cost of accessing the Internet in New Hampshire would increase directly because of higher provider costs, and you would have the 7% tax on top of that. Not a recipe to compete in the global Knowledge Economy.

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