Pocket-size projectors are coming

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/04/2005 - 10:31

A UK startup called Light Blue Optics has announced they are developing a pocket-size digital projector, using breakthrough holographic techniques that allow using just a few small components, compared to the relatively bulky LCD projectors, which are still too big to carry around conveniently and still too expensive.

The long promised technology revolution in K12 classrooms has never delivered for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is that virtually no teachers have an LCD projector. It's pretty tough to use the Internet to change the way you teach if you can't project what it is you are teaching on the wall so students can see it. Small, inexpensive projectors would have large and mostly unanticipated impacts.

Getting businesses online

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 01/02/2005 - 11:18

One of the best ways to create new jobs in your region is to make sure the businesses that are already in the community have access to good advice, including advice and guidance on technical matters.

The traditional role of the economic developer in the Manufacturing Economy was to recruit jobs from other parts of the country. But that has not been an effective primary strategy for many years. In a global economy, many traditional manufacturing jobs have moved offshore, and no amount of tax incentives are going to change that.

A diversified economic development strategy would put more time and resources into helping existing businesses grow. And there is plenty of simple and effective things that can be done. For example, I still find many businesses have poorly designed Web sites. Why not use some ED funds to pay for Web site critiques and reviews of business Web sites? This could be done on a 50% match basis to ensure that the businesses are likely to take the advice seriously.

As an example of how bad things could be, I just found a business with this statement on their "Contact Us" page:

To email us, order a free catalog, check on an order, etc., please call 1-800-829-xxxx.

I'm not making this up--to email the company, you have to call them first! Here is a business that has apparently been asleep for the past ten years, and still does not recognize that current and potential customers may want to email the company. I find that the majority of small businesses are still not taking the Web seriously, largely because they simply don't know what to do.

Part of the problem is not their fault. Too many businesses have been burned badly with bad advice. There are basically two ways to get help with a business Web site.

Is the Internet good or bad for us?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/31/2004 - 08:30

The New York Times (reg. required) has an article summarizing a new study on the impact of the Internet on our lives. As past studies have found, TV is the big loser, with Internet users watching about 17% less television. That's probably not bad news.

The article goes on to say that the Internet is also causing us to sleep less (by 8.5 minutes) and that it reduces contact with family members by 23.5 minutes per day. The researchers acknowledged that they cannot answer the question of whether or not it strengthens or weakens social relationships. That's been a burning question since the rise of the Internet, and many tons of paper was wasted in the mid and late nineties to print handwringing articles about how the Internet would probably turn us all into introverted, pale-faced geeks sitting in our basements in the dark night after night, hanging out in seedy chat rooms.

None of that ever happened, but this study is likely to produce an echo effect of those hysterical articles, using the data that contact with family members is down.

The problem with these studies is I have yet to see one that really tries to find out the other side of the story. I may talk slightly less to my wife face to face, but we are emailing each other all day long. So if you really studied the entire social interaction, you'd probably find we communicate more now than we did ten years ago.

The article estimates that 75% of the country has Internet access now. Unfortunately, we still have some elected leaders in our communities that don't think any of this is important, because they are viewing it through the lens of their own (somewhat limited) experience, rather than trying to look at the community as a whole. When 75% of your constituents are using the Internet, it's not a fad or a luxury for the well off--it's a necessity of daily life. In rural communities, the Internet has broken the chains of rural isolation and dramatically improved the quality of life in areas like shopping. Living in a rural area no longer means long drives (or doing without) to obtain needed items--a couple of clicks online and the products are delivered to your door, or even via broadband, if you don't live near a well-stocked music store, as just one example.

1995 was the year the Internet really took off. Ten years later, we've gone from a tiny number of people who had Internet access back then to 75% of the country--that's the fastest diffusion of a new technology ever. We're on to something here, and I believe it's mostly for the good. We're more aware of world events, better informed on local, national, and international issues, have more control over our time, and have all kinds of new business and work opportunities available to us.

Just one example: despite the sheer awfulness of the tsunami, we all know about it in a way that we never could have even five years ago, to say nothing of ten or twenty years ago. Is the knowing a good thing? Well, charitable giving, propelled by hundreds and thousands of Web sites helping to organize aid, will likely break every fundraising record in the world.

In the face of horrible suffering and pain, the Internet gives us an opportunity to demonstrate our basic humanity and caring for others--an opportunity to rise above our own needs, to rise above political, social, economic, and language differences--and we are doing so.

Happy New Year--all my best for a prosperous and healthy 2005.

Andrew

Signs of the global marketplace

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/29/2004 - 12:30

I just bought an inexpensive audio mixer to help with some recording tasks I have. It is sold by a small German firm. I was struck by the User's Manual, which came with instructions in the following languages:

Do the businesspeople and merchants in your area understand the importance of providing multilingual instructions if they are trying to sell internationally? Has your economic development organization identified qualified translators to save each business from having to do so? Have you prepared a handout that walks a business through the steps of preparing a product or service for the global marketplace? How will the businesses in your region compete with market-savvy businesses from other countries? Can they do the job right?

Walmart backs off RFID technology

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/28/2004 - 12:12

Walmart has backed off its mandate that all its suppliers use RFID (Radio Frequency ID tags) by next week (note: NY Times site requires registration). It turns out, among other problems, that the tags don't work very well.

The theory is wonderful--Walmart employees, instead of tediously counting stock or handscanning barcodes, would simply walk down the aisle of a store waving a wand and accurately count what is on the shelf.

In practice, no manufacturer's equipment has been able to provide 100% accurate counts, and Walmart itself says it has never gotten above 60%. As the article states, what's the point of all this if you can't even account for 40% of your inventory?

This is another example of the IT industry making promises it can't deliver, and you have to wonder why Walmart did not do more due diligence before telling suppliers to pony up millions if not billions of dollars in a complete revamp of their own IT systems to accommodate the tags.

As always, be cautious of buying new technology from vendors if you have little or no experience using it, and do not have qualified in house staff to evaluate it. Vendor promises, as Walmart has found out, are not always worth much. Disclaimer: Design Nine provides technology neutral technology advice to our clients.

WiFi in Texas state parks

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/28/2004 - 12:07

Texas continues to be a leader in rolling out public WiFi. Several months ago, the state announced it was going to offer WiFi at highway rest stops. Now it will also offer it in some state parks. The reasons are shrewd--state officials have decided to invest to boost tourism among some very narrowly targeted groups that want more access while out in the parks, with birders and "snowbirds," the winter RV crowd among those mentioned.

The article also has some interesting stats on the deployment of WiFi, the costs, and who is using it.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/24/2004 - 12:45

I'll be posting irregularly over the next week and a half. Thanks for all your support over the past year. Traffic and readership on the site has quadrupled since this time last year, and I am deeply grateful that so many of you find this site of value.

All my best,
Andrew Cohill

Return of the phone booth

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 12/23/2004 - 13:22

Ellen Goodman, in her syndicated column, writes that some restaurants are installing phone booths so that customers who want to talk on a cellphone have a place to go and do so without disturbing everyone else. A nice idea, and a neat compromise between those who feel they can't even get through a meal without answering the phone and those that feel they can.

Public phone booths in some cities are being hooked up with DSL lines by the phone company and are being turned into WiFi hot spots. Another neat idea, and a sensible one for the phone company, which already has the phone line to the booth that is needed to provide the Internet access.

WiFi and cellphones: Dueling technologies?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/22/2004 - 11:03

Esme Vos at MuniWireless thinks that the real reason behind Verizon's fevered opposition of community wireless in Philadelphia is that Verizon is terrified of cheap VoIP over WiFi.

I'm inclined to agree. I've been saying for a while that the whole cellular marketplace is in deep trouble. The cellular companies are frantically trying to lash overpriced and relatively low bandwidth (a few hundred kilobits) data services onto a system never designed to deliver data (just like they are frantically trying to squeeze more data onto legacy copper systems). Meanwhile, WiFi already delivers megabit data services effortlessly, and VoIP works pretty well in a well-designed WiFi network.

Why would you settle for inadequate and expensive cellular if cheap WiFi services are available throughout your area?

Like the problem that the cable and phone companies face with their outdated copper systems, the cellular companies face the same discontinuity with cellular--how do make the jump (i.e. copper to fiber, cellular to WiFi) without losing your customer base and your investments in the old system?

A company that understands competition and has a corporate culture of competition would figure that problem out and be determined to compete. But the phone companies have decided that rather than reform their own outdated corporate culture, they'll simply make it illegal for communities to chart their own future.

What's the root problem here? It's lawmakers who are not adequately informed about the community and economic development issues at stake. Which is why I've always said broadband is not a technology issue, it's an education issue. Communities and regions need to make sure their elected leaders are educated on these issues.

Want to get started? It's easy. Organize a local "Take a lawmaker to lunch" program and have a rotating group of folks who are well-versed with the issues take lawmakers to lunch once a month. In a year, I guarantee you will have had a significant impact.

Sun Rocket VoIP--$199/year

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/22/2004 - 10:25

Sun Rocket, a Voice over IP company, has the VoIP universe abuzz with their ambitious business plans to expand from 3 to 50 metropolitan markets in 2005, and the company says they intend to be a player in 300 metro markets in the United States. Particularly interesting is their flat rate annual fee--for $199 a year ($16.58 a month), you get flat rate, unlimited, nationwide calling.

If you ever wanted a reason to justify some modest community investments in broadband infrastructure, how about cutting the average phone bill from somewhere well above $50/month (local, long distance, taxes) to about $17/month.

Do the math. How much capital would that unleash in your community and region to spend on other things, like business expansion, more goods and services from local companies, and new jobs?

And if you decide to sit back and let the cable company and phone company re-monopolize broadband in your community, how long do you think they will play fair and let competitors offer services like this over their infrastructure? A community-managed, broadband transport infrastructure keeps the playing field level and fair and gives businesses and residential service users real choice.

Don't wait in line at the Post Office

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/21/2004 - 16:20

If you hate waiting in line at the Post Office to mail packages, don't. The U.S. Postal Service has online label and postage services that are just terrific. Now that I have an account with my credit card information saved, it takes about a minute to print out a bar coded shipping label complete with postage. If you get it done early enough in the day, put a sticky note on your mailbox and the postman will come right to your door to pick up the packages. Or if you are running late (as I am today with Christmas gifts), you can walk right in the post office, drop them off, and walk out. It's a wonderful benefit of having broadband, and the Postal Service is to be applauded for offering the service.

Incidentally, it's a boon for small business as well. The Web application has an address book to store frequently-used addresses, so for small to medium-sized boxes, this Web app can be your shipping department. Note to economic developers: do all the small businesses in your region know about this service and know how to use it?

Cellphones appear to damage DNA

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/21/2004 - 09:58

According to European scientists who have concluded a four year long study of cellphone radiation (the same gigahertz level frequencies used in microwave ovens, by the way), cellphone radiation appears to cause damage at the DNA level in cells, and not all of it was repairable by the cell. This means you end up with mutated cells in your body, which is one suspected cause of some cancers. Scientists agree more study is needed. The cellphone industry has no response.

Distance matters....or does it?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/21/2004 - 07:34

The Roanoke region recently competed for a Dell manufacturing facility, and lost out to North Carolina, which offered Dell a whopping $242 million in tax credits. That's an awful lot to pay for just one firm that could easily pick up and leave after a few years. Imagine what a few hundred small businesses with good business plans could do if given ten or fifteen years of tax relief.

But that's not the story today. In today's Roanoke Times, an article says that one of the issues with Dell was access to an airport that could handle long range 747 freighters--one of the biggest commercial airplanes made. Not only does Dell get parts from suppliers worldwide, they ship their computers all over the world.

This is a good example of how the global marketplace is changing things. Forty years ago, it was rare to make goods in one country and ship them to another. Most manufacturing plants made things for regional or national consumption. You can tell how much things have changed when ordinary items like paper towels and batteries come with packaging printed in three or four languages.

Geography is still important, but not the way we think. You no longer have to be close to markets, because the entire world has become a single, large marketplace. But while many products and services can be delivered via the internet, not everything can, so regions have to consider transportation facilities in a new way. In Roanoke, airport capacity was, according to the newspaper, not on the list. You can bet it is now.

Google desktop search has a security hole

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 12/20/2004 - 15:16

Google released a piece of software a few months ago that would let you use Google to search your own hard disk, with results displayed just like Google displays search results from the Web. Sounds good, right?

Aside from the obvious privacy issues (Google swears they won't do anything with the data except target ads to you better, but they can change that policy anytime they like), I'd never let a third party search my own hard drive.

Cnet has an article about a serious software flaw in the software that would let a third party capture the results of what is stored on your hard drive. Not only that, the third party could then instruct the Google software on your hard drive to do searches and return the content not to Google but somewhere else.

Google is working on a fix. The article also notes that Microsoft and Yahoo! are working on similar software. There is really zero benefit to consumers from this. Standalone software that searches the content of hard drives has been around for ages, and the Mac comes with this capability built in to the operating system. There is no free lunch here. The "free" software gives the provider (Google, Microsoft) a window into your personal and business information. Somehow the promise that they won't do anything bad with it does not convince me, and "better ads" is not something I've ever woken up wishing for....."Boy, I hope I get more and better ads from Google today!"

Birth of the Diamond Age

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/17/2004 - 09:37

Neal Stephenson, some years ago, wrote a prescient novel called "The Diamond Age," about a time in the near future when diamonds are, literally, cheap as dirt. Stephenson, who is arguably the best novelist of the past fifty years with respect to taking emerging technology trends and crafting intriguing storylines around them, imagined a world where even the most common of objects could be made from diamonds--kitchen knives, as an example, that are much sharper than razors but never need to be sharpened because of the, well, diamond-hard edge.

If it sounds far-fetched, think again. A company in Florida has been making gem quality diamonds for years, as one example. And industrial diamonds (much smaller than gems used in jewelry) are used everyday in mundane equipment like the saws used to cut slits in asphalt for traffic light control cables and telecom cables. Remember that diamonds are just a special form of carbon, one of the cheapest and most widely available materials on earth.

Now, some American scientists have developed a process to use diamond dust to create new, cheap, large screen flat TVs, using nanotechnology manufacturing techniques. These new TVs and monitors are probably several years away from production, but Stephenson's prophecies are beginning to emerge.

How about your community or region? Have you assessed current businesses for the emerging potential of the Diamond Age? Think it's so far-fetched that it's not even worth a little consideration? Remember that the raw material of diamonds is carbon. What's the most convenient and prolific source of carbon in the world?

Coal......have any coal mines in your area?

Cheap solar cells can be sewn into clothes

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/17/2004 - 08:08

European scientists have developed a new way to manufacture thin, flexible solar cells that are so lightweight that they could be sewn into clothes. Sound dumb? Not if you have to lug around a bunch of AC chargers for your laptop, your cellphone, your iPod, your camera, your PDA, and all the other electronic junk we burden ourselves with these days.

The cells are not as efficient as rigid solar cells, but the energy is free, so who really cares if all you need are a few watts to keep small devices trickle-charged. Cheap solar cells could transform the economies of impoverished nations that can't afford the expensive first world AC infrastructure.

Is your region ready? Think you don't have any existing assets that might be leveraged to manufacture this stuff? Think your workforce is not ready?

We're talking about clothing....do you have any shuttered textile plants?

As always, look ahead twenty years and ask where your region and community wants to be. Set goals, make prudent investments, and stay the course.

Wind powers the Energy Economy

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/17/2004 - 07:54

The Roanoke Time business section reports that a GE plant here is hiring 30 new electrical engineers to meet growing demand for power inverters. Inverters convert DC power to the AC power needed by the electrical grid.

GE is a major supplier of industrial inverters, and the company reports strong growth in wind energy generation is driving the company expansion.

How about your region? Have you done a systematic evaluation of the businesses in your area for potential growth in the Energy Economy? Could energy (hydrogen, solar, wind, tidal, nuclear) be an economic development strategy for your region over the next thirty years, as the world moves away from fossil fuels to other alternatives? As always, affordable broadband is going to the railhead and highway of these emerging trends. Are you ready? Do you have job force training and retraining programs in place? Are your high schools and community colleges teaching the high tech manufacturing skills that will be needed? Do those schools have a CNC program? Hint: if you don't know what that means, you're already in trouble).

Congress gives IT industry cheap overseas labor

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/15/2004 - 14:41

The online site Human Events chronicles what it calls a "cynical" backroom deal that Congress made with the IT industry to allow more foreign IT workers in the country on work visas in the coming year.

Not surprisingly, Oracle was apparently one of the industry "leaders" behind this kick in the pants to American workers, and by extension, to American communities where those workers live. I just wrote about Oracle and it's lack of innovation. Instead of retraining perfectly capable American workers, these companies are bringing in workers from overseas, who are happy to work for half to two-thirds less than their American counterparts.

Another part of the problem was also created by the IT industry itself, during the drunken orgy of escalating IT wages during the dot-com bubble. Fueled by venture capital funds, Internet startups, over a period of three years or so, ran IT wages up to ridiculous levels. Many of those overpaid and underqualified workers were eventually laid off, but the damage was done--the average IT wage remains higher than ever.

So the companies and industry that happily inflated its own wage structure now won't take its medicine and restructure wages or find ways to use perfectly capable American workers, of whom there are plenty. Instead, these companies have run to Congress for a handout.

This kind of thinking is going to continue to depress the future of IT innovation in the U.S., and the industry itself will slow atrophy as parallel universe efforts like the Open Source movement simply eliminate the need for whole chunks of the IT industry (Oracle's problem is that it is increasingly irrelevant).

In the Knowledge Economy, you have to be either very big (e.g. Walmart, Fedex, etc.) or as Schumpeter would put it, small and beautiful (e.g. Open Source). And you have to be flexible and innovative.

'96 Telecom Act a "nuclear winter"

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/15/2004 - 12:51

Holman Jenkins, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, has an article (p. A21) about DSL and the future of that technology. Jenkins calls the '96 Telecom Deregulation Act a "DSL nuclear winter." That's probably a bit strong, but hardly anyone on either side of the linesharing issues of the telephone companies would say the law was crafted properly.

The original law forced the phone companies to share their copper lines with competitors, and it was only this fall that the FCC relaxed those rules. Again, no matter what side of the issue you are on (phone company or community), the outcome of the original ruling was to stall broadband investments by the incumbent phone companies.

As so many Federal initiatives ("We're from the government and we're here to help you..."), unintended consequences kicked in, big time. While the phone companies dithered, moaned, and complained, the cable companies upgraded their systems and captured 75% of the current broadband market, leaving DSL (the phone companies) with a paltry 15%.

Since the FCC changed the rules to free the phone companies from line sharing at wholesale prices, DSL costs have fallen dramatically--by as much as 50% in a lot of markets, and the service is generally priced below cable modem service.

But from a community perspective, the news has been bad and still looks bad. The marketplace, because of all this, has been effectively re-monopolized, but instead of a regulated public monopoly (pre 1996), communities are stuck with marketplace monopolies by the phone and cable companies.

To make things worse, in places like Pennsylvania, Verizon says it must be consulted before communities start their own broadband services. Even worse, lawmakers like Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) thinks it is just fine to give a private company control over the future of rural communities.

The solution is for communities to stay away from the service end of the business. Treat broadband infrastructure just the way communities manage roads--build digital roads, but let private companies deliver the services while paying a use fee.

Penn State says "No" to Internet Explorer

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/15/2004 - 10:20

Penn State, one of the country's largest universities, has recommended that faculty, staff, and students stop using Internet Explorer because of persistent security flaws, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The university recommends Opera, Firefox, or Netscape. FireFox is a highly popular Open Source project. The most recent version was downloaded more than 10 million times in less than a month. It's just one of several browsers we use regularly here at Design Nine, and we can attest to the fact that it is fast, robust, and easy to use. It has excellent pop-up blocker controls that work far better than the one on IE.

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