Reuters: Making cars safer: have the driver do less

A piece I wrote for Reuters. BBC version here

Making cars safer: have the driver do less

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE Tue Nov 11, 2014 4:00pm EST

Nov 12 (Reuters) – As millions of cars are under recall for potentially lethal air bags, designers are trying to reduce the need for the device – using sensors, radar, cameras and lasers to prevent collisions in the first place.

With driver error blamed for over 90 percent of road accidents, the thinking is it would be better to have them do less of the driving. The U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward-collision warning systems cut vehicle-to-vehicle crashes by 7 percent – not a quantum leap, but a potential life saver. Nearly 31,000 people died in car accidents in 2012 in the United States alone.

“Passive safety features will stay important, and we need them. The next level is now visible. Autonomous driving for us is clearly a strategy to realise our vision for accident-free driving,” said Thomas Weber, global R&D head at Mercedes-Benz .

While giving a computer full control of a car is some way off, there’s a lot it can do in the meantime.

For now, in some cars you can take your foot off the pedal and hands off the wheel in slow-moving traffic, and the car will keep pace with the vehicle in front; it can jolt you awake if it senses you’re nodding off; alert you if you’re crossing into another lane; and brake automatically if you don’t react to warnings of a hazard ahead.

How close this all comes to leaving the driver out of the equation was illustrated by an experiment at Daimler last year: adding just a few off-the-shelf components to an S-class Mercedes, a team went on a 100 km (62 mile) ride in Germany without human intervention. “The project was about showing how far you can go, not just with fancy lasers, but with stuff you can buy off the shelf,” said David Pfeiffer, one of the team.

Such features, however, require solving thorny problems, including how to avoid pedestrians.

While in-car cameras are good at identifying and classifying objects, they don’t work so well in fog or at night. Radar, on the other hand, can calculate the speed, distance and direction of objects, and works well in limited light, but can’t tell between a pedestrian and a pole. While traffic signs are stationary and similar in shape, people are often neither.

For a better fix on direction there’s LiDAR – a combination of light and radar – which creates a picture of objects using lasers. Velodyne’s sensors on Google’s autonomous car, for example, use up to 64 laser beams spinning 20 times per second to create a 360-degree, 3D view of up to several hundred metres around the car.

Mercedes’ ‘Stop-and-Go Pilot’ feature matches the speed of the car in front in slow traffic and adjusts steering to stay in lane using two ultrasonic detectors, five cameras and six radar sensors. “This technology is a first major step,” said R&D chief Weber. “(However distracted the driver is), the system mitigates any accident risk in front.”

HOLY GRAIL

The next stage, experts say, is a road network which talks to cars, and where cars talk to other cars. General Motors has said its 2017 Cadillac CTS will transmit and receive location, direction and speed data with oncoming vehicles via a version of Wi-Fi.

Other approaches include using cameras to monitor the driver. Abdelaziz Khiat, at Nissan Motor’s research centre in Japan, uses cameras to track the driver’s face to detect yawns, a drooping head suggesting drowsiness, or frowns that may indicate the onset of road rage.

These advanced safety features are fine – if you can afford them. The Insurance Institute survey found that the forward collision warning systems were available in fewer than one in every 20 registered vehicles in 2012.

In key markets across emerging Asia, says Klaus Landhaeusser, regional head of government relations at Bosch , many first-time car buyers don’t want to spend more than $2,500. For that, he said, “you won’t be able to introduce any safety features.”

Road conditions are also key. “It will be a long time before we have software and algorithms that can see everything happening” on the roads in emerging markets, said Henrik Kaar, at auto safety equipment market leader Autoliv Inc.

And not everyone welcomes this progress. Some drivers complain the technology is intrusive, or is inconsistent. “If a safety feature is seen as intrusive or bothersome, a driver may try to circumvent or disable it,” said Chris Hayes, a vice president at insurer Travelers.

The key appears to be ensuring that while humans remain in charge of the vehicle, they have good information and features that correct the errors they make.

“For a long time, people thought it was an all-or-nothing jump between humans in charge and fully autonomous vehicles,” said Michael James, senior research scientist at Toyota Motor’s U.S. technical centre. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore. People see it as a more gradual transition.”

 

(Additional reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: Cars we can’t drive

Let’s face it: we’re not about to have driverless cars in our driveway any time soon. Soonest: a decade. Latest: a lot longer, according to the folk I’ve spoken to.

But in some ways, if you’ve got the dosh, you can already take your foot off the gas and hands off the steering wheel. Higher end cars have what are called active safety features, such as warning you if you stray out of your lane, or if you’re about to fall asleep, or which let the car take over the driving if you’re in heavy, slow moving traffic. Admittedly these are just glimpses of what could happen, and take the onus off you for a few seconds, but they’re there. Already.

The thinking behind all this: More than 90% (roughly, depends who you talk to) of all accidents are caused by human error. So, the more we have the car driving, the fewer the accidents. And there is data that appears to support that. The US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward collision warning systems led to a 7% reduction in collisions between vehicles.

But that’s not quite the whole story. For one thing, performing these feats isn’t easy. Getting a car, for example, to recognise a wandering pedestrian is one of the thorniest problems that a scientist working in computer vision could tackle, because you and I may look very different — unlike, say, another car, or a lamppost, or a traffic sign. We’re tall, short, fat, thin, we were odd clothes and we are unpredictable — just because we’re walking towards the kerb at a rate of knots, does that mean we’re about to walk in to the road?

Get this kind of thing wrong and you might have a top of the range Mercedes Benz slam on the brakes for nothing. The driver might forgive the car’s computer the first time, but not the second. And indeed, this is a problem for existing safety features — is that a beep to warn you when you’re reversing too close to an object, or you haven’t put your seatbelt on, or you’re running low on windscreen fluid, or bceause you’re straying into oncoming traffic? We quickly filter out warning noises and flashing lights, as airplane designers have found to their (and their pilots’) cost.

Indeed, there’s a school of thought that says that we’re making a mistake by even partially automating this kind of thing. For one thing, we need to know what exactly is going on: are we counting on our car to warn us about things that might happen, and, in the words of the tech industry “mitigate for us”? Or are these interventions just things that might happen some of the time, if we’re lucky, but not something we can rely on?

If so, what exactly is the point of that? What would be the point of an airbag that can’t be counted on to deploy, or seatbelts that only work some of the time? And then there’s the bigger, philosophical issue: for those people learning to drive for the first time, what are these cars telling them: that they don’t have to worry too much about sticking to lanes, because the car will do it for you? And what happens when they find themselves behind the wheel of a car that doesn’t have those features?

Maybe it’s a good thing we’re seeing these automated features now — because it gives us a chance to explore these issues before the Google car starts driving itself down our street and we start living in a world, not just of driverless cars, but of cars that people don’t know how to drive.

This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service, based on a Reuters story.

BBC: World Without Wires

This is a version of my (and Noel’s) Reuters piece on wireless charging, recorded for the BBC World Service. 

Without question, in a few years’ time our children will look back at pictures of this era and ask us what those little pieces of string are snaking across our desktops, bedside tables, mantelpieces and car dashboards. 

“They’re cables, son. We used them to charge our devices.” 

“Charge them with what, Dad? What had they done wrong?”

You get the picture. In the future, and in some lucky places even now, you don’t need to connect your phone, your tablet or even your car to a charger or wall socket because of something magical called wireless charging. Or to give it its technical term, not having to think about how much juice you’ve got left in your device because you can just lay it on the table in Starbucks, or in the car, or on your friend’s sideboard, and let magnetic induction, magnetic resonance, ultrasound, radio frequencies or whatever technology prevails do its work. 

And there’s the problem. For while this is pretty much a no-brainer for anyone who hears about it — what’s not to like about wireless charging? – the reality is that only a handful of devices so far have this capability, and the chances are they won’t play nice with other devices or chargers. So, while we have the technology ready, the people who matter aren’t, by a long chalk. 

In fact there are three competing alliances, all with their own fancy websites and hundreds, literally, of members signed up, and that’s not including the two or three other technologies that don’t have alliances but claim to have a better idea. 

This is not new of course. We’ve been here before. With video tapes, DVDs, and the first phase of the wireless revolution: when we no longer had to fiddle with telephone wires or ethernet cables and could just yell out: Whats the wifi password? 

Companies think they have the edge, the better technologies, more patents, or they just can’t bear relinquishing a bit of control for the greater good, and so we all have to wait while they wear each other down or die trying. 

Yes, it’s true that wireless charging might seem like a rich world problem. How hard is it, really, to plug a phone into a charger? Well that’s true. And sometimes what is called wireless charging — like the Apple Watch, where you don’t actually plug the charger into your phone, but only because it connects magnetically, surface to surface — isn’t really. 

But the truth is wireless charging could be an even bigger boon to the billions of phone users in the developing world. Think of the Filipinos who traipse to the local mall to charge their devices after a typhoon takes out the power, and sit around waiting for a charger socket to be freed up? Imagine if they could just put their device on a big table, piled on other devices if there’s no space? 

Or the commuter in Nairobi who could drop their phone in a bin when they get on and retrieve it when they get off, a precious few extra percentage points of charge better off? 

Wireless charging isn’t just about cutesy lifestyles any more than wifi and mobile data has just been about empowering lounging hipsters. Wireless charging will eventually untether people from the tyranny of bad battery technology. It will create new businesses and boost productivity — especially from late afternoon to early evening, when surveys show many people run out of battery and the networks go quiet. 

It won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all until the Wireless Power Consortium, the Power Matters Alliance and the Alliance for Wireless Power get their act together and agree on a standard. So write to them, because you don’t want your grandchildren asking what you did to help usher in the wireless revolution. 

Reuters: Pulling the plug

A piece posted today on Reuters: 

Pulling the plug: Apple’s Watch a boost for wireless charging

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND NOEL RANDEWICH

 

(Reuters) – Apple Inc’s embrace of wireless charging for its new Watch may be a defining moment for a technology that’s languished for years amid competing standards and consumer confusion.

Supporters of wireless charging see a future where people no longer worry about topping up their gadgets; are free from tangled power cords and low-battery warnings and where terms like “outlet” and “plugged in” will be as anachronistic as “dialing” a phone.

Users seem to like the idea too: in a recent survey by technology consultancy IHS, 83 percent were interested in wireless charging; in China, the figure was 91 percent.

But, while the technology is largely there to do this, competition to set a global standard is getting in the way of delivery. It’s reminiscent of the Betamax vs VHS videotape wars of three or four decades ago, or the more recent battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD for supremacy in high definition optical disc format.

For now, there are three alliances, but not much to show. Last year, fewer than 20 million phones were shipped with wireless charging built in, according to IHS – less than 2 percent of the billion smartphones shipped around the world.

“There are a lot of bees around the hive,” said Omri Lachman, CEO of Humavox, an Israeli start-up with its own wireless charging technology. “Up to now we’ve not seen a mass aggregation of wireless charging in devices. There’s a good reason for that: three standards for the same form of technology.”

While users clearly see wireless charging – where mobiles, tablets and other devices are charged by laying them on a mat or other surface – as a natural next step, some industry leaders have cautioned that having to still plug in the charging device may prove fiddly for some. “Having to create another device you have to plug into the wall is actually, for most situations, more complicated,” Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller said just two years ago.

 

 

BEAM ME UP …

Maybe, but others say the wireless vision remains compelling. “Look at Star Trek,” says Geoff Gordon of the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), one of the three competing alliances. “They never talk about their batteries dying on any of their devices. If you look far enough into the future we’re looking at a world where you don’t even think about power.”

    But to catch on, wireless charging has to work seamlessly. That means a user can easily find a wireless charging zone and not have to worry whether their device is compatible, or properly connected or even secure from theft.

    Intel Corp, a member of A4WP along with the likes of Samsung Electronics andQualcomm Inc, says wireless charging is a lot like wireless computing. Just as the world has largely ditched network cables for wireless hotspots, so we will leave chargers and cables at home as we’ll never be far from a charging pad.

    But getting there, the chipmaker argues, will require someone with its clout to set the global standard for wireless technology. “History will tell you it’s what it takes to get mainstream lift-off,” said Intel’s Leighton Phillips.

    Among the competing standards, A4WP uses something called magnetic resonance, while the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) – which includes tech names such as Nokia and Philips – champions its Qi standard using inductive charging, a method which is also used by the Power Matters Alliance (PMA).

They are all variations of the same technology: a coil inside the device picks up an electrical charge from a transmitter coil in the charging surface. Apple, which sits outside the alliances, appears to have used a version of induction charging in its Watch, further muddying the waters.

 

$8.5 BILLION MARKET

    Sparring in a battle for leadership in a market that IHS reckons will be worth $8.5 billion by 2018 – as the technology is incorporated into devices, furniture, cars, restaurants – the alliances fling accusations at one another.

    The WPC accuses its rivals of trying “to benefit from intellectual property they think they own,” in the words of WPC vice president for market development John Perzow, instead of “what benefits the consumer.”

The WPC’s Qi brand is the only one to have made any real headway on the market, doubling its annual shipments to 20 million devices last year. The PMA has a couple of products out, while the first devices carrying the A4WP’s Rezence brand are expected to be shipped this year.

    A4WP supporters say the WPC has had its chance and blown it. “Very quickly the momentum behind A4WP will dwarf anything that Qi has accomplished,” says Alex Gruzen, CEO of U.S.-based WiTricity.

    The PMA, meanwhile, has focused less on the hardware and more on the application programing interface that would allow others to connect to it. Its main backers are companies like Procter & Gamble and Starbucks Corp, which promises to roll out charging surfaces in its U.S. outlets by the end of next year. 

    The groups all agree on one thing: squabbling over standards has kept smartphone manufacturers, furniture designers and car makers from building wireless charging technology into their products as much as they might if the technology’s future were clearer. 

    The Jeep Cherokee, for example, includes a wireless charging pad, and Cadillac has announced plans to add wireless charging in 2015 models – but drivers will only be able to use the feature if they have compatible phones.

There are signs of progress: the A4WP and the PMA in February agreed to ensure their two standards work well together.

But for wireless charging to take off, Intel says, it not only needs compatible devices and charging mats in homes and offices, but also a broader public infrastructure – coffee shops, hotels, malls. 

    “The vision we have and that Starbucks has is that it becomes part of the slipstream of your life,” says Powermat president Daniel Schreiber. “How do we make power come to you rather than have you think about power?”

 

    “NOTHING’S HAPPENING”

    There are other issues. One is that the technology still needs to be easier to use. In some cases, a device can’t just be dropped anyhow onto a charging pad – it needs to be aligned or it either won’t charge, or will charge more slowly.

Also, fitting charging coils into devices isn’t as simple as it may sound. “Coils have a physical limitation that won’t change with size,” said Humavox’s Lachman. “A lot of people have been trying to fit that into the device.”

“All the companies are working around the clock to figure out how to pull in that technology and make sure it works,” says Pavan Pudipeddi, CEO of PowerSquare, which in July launched a charging pad using Qi which allows users to recharge multiple devices. Pudipeddi welcomed the launch of Apple’s Watch with wireless charging. “Others will feed off that and it’s good for the technology in general,” he said.

Meanwhile, the dithering over an industry standard is opening up opportunities for others.

    Some companies like uBeam, for example, use ultrasound, converting electricity to sound and sending that over the air as ultrasound. Others, like Humavox, use radio frequencies, where the coils are replaced by antennae.

    “Our decision to build this technology from the ground up is proving the right choice,” said Lachman. “Wireless charging has been out there for five years and nothing’s happening.”

 

 

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: Consumers’ Caped Curmudgeonly Crusader

This is a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content

Until my spoilsport wife told me to stop, I had a brief career battling for the little guy against big corporations and lousy service. I called myself the Consumer’s Caped Crusader.

My theory is this: that as companies and institutions become increasingly digital, so they sacrifice their relationship with the customer on the alter of efficiency. It’s not a particularly new or striking theory. But while most people shrug their shoulders and move on, I don’t. I fight back. Which means that while domestic harmony is not well-served, I do get to see a part of big organisations that others might not. 

And it’s not pretty. 

In a burst of caped canaverals I took on a public transport company, a shoe manufacturer, an e-payments company, a major tourist attraction and social network. Only one ended with me coming away impressed. 

What usually happens is this: I find the service or product less than impressive. I pen an email to the contact I can find on the website of the organisation in question — not always easy — and then wait. And, usually wait. 

If they do get back to me, it’s with some bland response that doesn’t really suggest I’m dealing with a human. In the case of the payments company, I submitted a long explanation of my problem through an online form, and in time received an email that I took to be an acknowledgement, and that someone would get back to me. 

But it wasn’t. It was a list of possible answers to my questions — all of them of help only to someone only had recently been introduced to computing. Worse: at the bottom of the email I was told that if I still wanted to pursue the matter, I should resend my request to someone else. Given that the company hadn’t sent me a copy of the essay I’d submitted in the first place I was not amused. 

Other interactions are more complex. A company whose shoes I’ve worn for 15 years sold me a dud pair, where the inside heel wore out in days. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just fobbed off with another duff pair, and I wanted to alert the company to the fact they might have a design flaw or a bad batch. Only after I dug up the email addresses of three directors was I able to get a receptive ear — and to their credit, an apology for the time I’d spent trying to get their attention. (‘Thank my wife,’ I told them.) 

The problem is that this all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A caped crusader can become a caped curmudgeon in the face of all this obstruction, angry and suspicious. When I wrote to complain to a transportation company that one of their drivers had mistaken the road for a race track two days in a row, forcing passengers to hang on for dear life, I was asked to hand over the number on my stored value travel pass.

I wasn’t convinced that the company needed that data and I was concerned the driver might be able to identify me when I used that card again and turn vigilante on the caped curmudgeon. 

The transportation company was resolute. The data was needed to confirm my story. “There have been many occasions where information given by commuters (detailed as it may be) was not accurate,” the company said.   

Maybe they’re right. But I’m not taking that risk. The lesson, sadly, seems to me a simple one: only the stubborn folk of this world fight their way through the digital barbed wire which organisations hide behind. The result: organisations treat such people as breaches of security, to be at best ignored, at worst palmed off with dead end email chains and treated as nincompoops incapable of knowing what bus they’re risking their life on. 

I have no solution to this, so I’ll quote my wife: Try to go out as little as possible because you always get upset at something. It’s an idea that’s increasingly appealing.  But it’s not quite the wall-less communications we dreamed of when the Internet came along.

Reuters: In democracy and disaster, emerging world embraces ‘open data’

[Updated to fix typos]

From reuters.com, a piece I wrote on the rise of open data in arguably more interesting, or at least directly impactful, circumstances. In this version I’ve added some links to the source material where available. 

Aug 28 (Reuters) – ‘Open data’ – the trove of data-sets made publicly available by governments, organisations and businesses – isn’t normally linked to high-wire politics, but just may have saved last month’s Indonesian presidential elections from chaos.

Data is considered open when it’s released for anyone to use and in a format that’s easy for computers to read. The uses are largely commercial, such as the GPS data from U.S.-owned satellites, but data can range from budget numbers and climate and health statistics to bus and rail timetables.

It’s a revolution that’s swept the developed world in recent years as governments and agencies like the World Bank have freed up hundreds of thousands of data-sets for use by anyone who sees a use for them. Data.gov, a U.S. site, lists more than 100,000 data-sets, from food calories to magnetic fields in space.

Consultants McKinsey reckon open data could add up to $3 trillion worth of economic activity a year – from performance ratings that help parents find the best schools to governments saving money by releasing budget data and asking citizens to come up with cost-cutting ideas. All the apps, services and equipment that tap the GPS satellites, for example, generate $96 billion of economic activity each year in the United States alone, according to a 2011 study. [PDF]

But so far open data has had a limited impact in the developing world, where officials are wary of giving away too much information, and where there’s the issue of just how useful it might be: for most people in emerging countries, property prices and bus schedules aren’t top priorities.

But last month’s election in Indonesia – a contentious face-off between a disgraced general and a furniture-exporter turned reformist – highlighted how powerful open data can be in tandem with a handful of tech-smart programmers, social media savvy and crowdsourcing.

“Open data may well have saved this election,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based consultant on democracy and governance.

 

 

 

CULTURE CLUB

Indonesia, home to 247 million people and some of the world’s largest Facebook and Twitter populations, has been a few steps ahead in embracing open data. It’s one of eight founding members of the Open Governance Partnership (OGP), a government-led initiative to free up data that now has more than 64 members.

The embrace of open data has had few tangible benefits, but created a buzz and fostered a culture that prodded Indonesia’s election commission to tweak the way it handles vote results.

“There was nothing in this OGP stuff that said you had to put up results from each village,” said Kevin Evans, a Jakarta-based governance consultant. “But it provides a culture where the commission says, ‘why don’t we try a bit of transparency?'”

While it was not allowed to speed up or ditch the manual tabulation of votes – where much of electoral fraud takes place – the commission provided equipment for tallies from nearly half a million polling stations to be scanned and uploaded to its servers, and from there to its website.

Those scans prompted some volunteers to start the laborious process of sifting through them to look for signs of fraud. As the country waited for an official vote count, the rival candidates both claimed victory, based on whichever unofficial poll suited them. Indonesians feared at best a stalemate, at worst fraud and a collapse in public confidence in the election process.

 

A THIRD WAY

This worried Ainun Najib, an Indonesian IT consultant based in Singapore. “I could see a situation where both sides claimed they’d won, based on their quick counts,” he said, adding he feared a quick descent into confrontation. “I saw we’d need a third alternative.”

Ainun reached out to two friends at Google, and between them they cobbled together a solution: a way to automatically download all the scanned files from the election website, and a website where volunteers could easily transcribe the key numbers from each tally into a spreadsheet.

This marrying of open data, programming savvy and crowdsourcing was the key. Within a few days – well before the official result was available – 700 volunteers were able to tabulate more than 90 percent of the vote on a website that could be viewed by anyone.

It was decisive in convincing Indonesians that the election had been fair – a verdict upheld by the country’s highest court last week.

By short-circuiting the long and fraught manual tallying process, it played a “very important” role in restoring public faith in the process and deterring fraud, said Marcus Mietzner, associate professor at the Australian National University. “It allowed the media and citizens to check whether data was manipulated as it travelled from the polling station to the centre. This had never happened before.”

At a ceremony honouring inspiring young leaders last week, Indonesia’s President-elect Joko Widodo thanked Ainun and his colleagues for helping make the election more transparent.

 

HASHTAGGING A TYPHOON

It’s not the first time open data and crowdsourcing have been used in elections, but it’s probably the most decisive. And it hints at the potential if officials, geeks and others play their part in leveraging open data to take on the big issues of the day.

“The idea is we can see the data of the state and do things with it, and that expertise doesn’t just live inside bureaucracies,” said Tim Davies, a researcher at the World Wide Web Foundation who is compiling a report on open data in developing countries. “These are powerful ideas and important ones for building new visions of how we do governance.”

It might not just be politics.

Neighbouring Philippines, another founder member of the OGP, combines open data with social media and crowdsourcing to minimise the impact of typhoons and storms that ravage its shoreline. Twitter users are encouraged to label their messages with specific hashtags, for example, making it easier for relief officials to quickly identify those who need help.

“That’s been a very big deal,” says Patrick Meier, who works with UN and Red Cross organisations on using crowdsourcing and open data in crises, and is now working with Manila-based start-up Rappler to better predict where help might be needed.

 

POLITICISATION

But Indonesia and the Philippines are outliers in Asia.

The Asian Development Bank website, for example, contains a single reference to open data, against the World Bank’s more than 85,000.

Singapore, despite describing data as a “natural resource”, has been cautious, and it has taken open data evangelist Daryl Arnold a couple of years to help persuade officials and executives to free up significant chunks of data for programmers to build apps around.

He points to dozens of apps as evidence of progress, including a recent ‘hackathon’ where programmers explored 65 million rows of data released by port-related companies and agencies to figure out how to make Singapore’s port more efficient. One problem, he said, was that despite technological advances there is often an 8-hour delay between when a ship is due to arrive and when it actually berths – disrupting the mini-industry of tugs, cleaners and caterers that serve such vessels.

While Singaporean agencies and businesses warm to the idea of freeing up data, Arnold cautions that it must be used responsibly. “It’s still critical that people use it in a respectful fashion,” he says.

Indeed, the very success of open data in Indonesia’s election may give pause for thought among more conservative countries of Asia.

Waltraut Ritter, co-founder of Opendata Hong Kong and a researcher on the knowledge-based economy, reports a tension over open data in some less developed countries, where officials worry advocates would focus solely on issues like corruption.

“In developed countries, data and information is seen more as an ingredient or commodity for everything you do whereas in Asia everything around information and data can easily be politicised,” she said.

“There’s so much more baggage in terms of about how people think about information.” (Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: The Decline of Self Expression

Here’s a BBC piece which the World Service broadcast recently. This isn’t Reuters content.

It’s taken us a long time to get to here, but I think I can safely declare us as, dextrously speaking, back before the caveman.

If we had stumbled into your average cave in about 40,000 BC, we might have chanced upon someone drawing on his bedroom wall, as it were, mixing ochre, hematite and charcoal. We might call this the dawn of manual input of user generated content.

Avail yourself of public transport these days and the best you’ll likely see would be a few people swiping upwards on their mobile screen in a now-familiar gesture meaning — I’m reading about my alleged friends on Facebook to check they’re not doing anything as exciting as I am.

You might, if you’re lucky, see someone actually trying to input some user generated content. A caveman would notice with some surprise that this is not as easy as it was in his day. One old fella I saw laboriously typing a missive on his iPad, tapping out each letter with one finger of his left hand, his right hand holding the device. Indeed, for the most part that is how people write on their mobile devices. Some have physical keyboards, but these are an endangered species.

Why is this a problem? Well, let me count the ways. Firstly, it’s kind of distressing to see people tap away at their screens like hens. Fifty years ago we’d have been lovingly writing letters, poems, diaries in longhand, dipping our quills in ink. Or at least gazing out the window composing poetry in our head.

The other reason is that we think we’re clever, and that somehow each iteration of technology is an advance. It’s an advance for people who make money out of us buying these devices, plugging them into a network and sharing pictures of frowning cats. It’s not an advance in terms of what we’ve come to call interfaces – of making it easier for us to convey our feelings, thoughts and mental creations from our head to others via a permanent or semi-permanent canvas.

In that sense it’s quite a retreat. We’re basically using a century-old technology — the QWERTY typewriter — to enter our thoughts into a device that’s more powerful than the one which put men on the moon. On a keypad the size of a matchbox. And on a piece of glass. That isn’t the sound of keys being hit, it’s the sound of cave people laughing at us.

One of my colleagues feels it necessary to add an apology to the bottom of his overly short emails from his mobile phone, I’m told: apologies if I sound terse, I’m not. I’m writing this on my phone. I can think of no greater indictment of our devices than having to apologise because entering text into them is so fiddly they don’t allow us to express ourselves adequately.

Now the thing is, it’s not all like this. Apple have recently done another splendid video ad extolling all the wonderful applications other people have come up with for their iPads and iPhones. Architects, artists, marine-debris experts, all love the devices for the things they can do with them.

Which is great. But that doesn’t really help the 99% rest of us who are stuck trying to use an anachronistic technology to express ourselves in words. Yes, there’s voice recognition. Yes, there’s software that lets us swipe letters across a keyboard. But there’s no getting away from the fact that mobile devices were not made for writing. Just one percent of changes to Wikipedia articles are done on a mobile device, according to the NYT.

It’s time we recognised a sobering reality: while we blithely talk about this being the age of user generated content, the reality is that very little of that is actual text, arguments, thoughts etc strung together via words. Instead it’s photos, videos, comments and emoticons, or just passing along other people’s content. We may not all be writing with quills, but then again, we’re not exactly writing, either.

When was the last time you did more than click, swipe or pinch on your mobile device?

LinkedIn scam comes full circle, by pretending to be LinkedIn

LinkedIn don’t seem to be taking seriously the extensive use of their network by scammers, as I went on about here. Maybe this will make them change their mind: use of their own company in a scam profile (might not be up long, see screenshot.)

The Jeffrey Westwood in question is a stock photo from Thinkstock used in a number of places, such as this website focused on building sales leaders, and this insurance website.

I’m going to reach out to see whether LinkedIn are taking this kind of thing more seriously, given that not only could a simple algorithm catch these kinds of profiles, but that by using LinkedIn as his company the scammer should have set off other alarm bells somewhere in a LinkedIn cubicle (“Does anyone know this Jeffery Westwood fella?” “Nope. Must be new.”)

[Update: LinkedIn appear to have removed the profile in response to my query, but not answered my questions. Will try again.]

BBC: Future connectivity

This is a version of my Reuters piece on connectivity (Reuters.com version: From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless) which I recently recorded for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily. 

The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach. This of course, may be something you are actually quite pleased about, given that airplanes, boats and the occasional peak seem to be some of the few places left where you can get some peace. 

But not everyone looks at it like that. Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but some 1.4 billion people, live without even basic network infrastructure. 

And then there are the places that for now don’t seem important, but will be: like the oceans. We may not spend much time below the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet but increasingly we realise we need to: climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, protecting harbours. And if China gets its way quite a few of us will live down there if only to stake territorial claims to the seas above or the riches below. 

So, these all present interesting technological challenges. Not least because most of the people presently unconnected are too poor for the big telcos to worry about. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the Facebooks and Googles of this world who are interested, partly because of philanthropic goals but mostly because they’re the last bunch of people who don’t have Gmail and Facebook accounts. 

So Google are launch balloons. And Facebook are considering drones. These, though are experimental, leaving an opportunity for niche players like Kacific, which is aiming to build a satellite network it says will provide cheap communications to some 40 million people from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands. 

Others are finding cracks in the existing technologies and spectrum to forge their own mini telcos. Like Endaga, a Berkeley startup which has used part of the GSM spectrum to build a village level network in a Papuan village. 

Some say there’s no need of a network at all. Using a technique called mesh, they string together devices — handphones, or laptops or whatever — which become both nodes and transmitters, meaning they not only do what a device would normally do on a network, but they also help pass on signals to others. 

That removes the need for lots of fancy infrastructure like towers, base stations and dishes. Activists in Nigeria have used mesh for lobbying against the demolition of slums, and the technology is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross. Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too.

Then there’s underwater. Soon our internet will be as much a network of devices as of people with devices. The so-called internet of things, or machine to machine, or whatever you want to call it. Cisco reckons there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018. Connecting these things above ground by wireless is fine but underwater is another thing.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to. 

This is gradually getting solved, but slowly. Noisy things like pistol shrimps, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey, confuse underwater modems.

The oceans and the deserts and mountains and jungles will all eventually get their wireless signals. And we’ll be the better for it. But because of money, and technology, and pesky things like shrimps, it’s not about to happen any time soon. One day we’ll look back and wonder why it took us so long. 

Microsoft’s Naked PC problem

This is a piece that I wrote with Gerry Shih in Beijing about Microsoft’s challenges in emerging markets beyond the recent raids.

‘Naked PCs’ lay bare Microsoft’s emerging markets problem

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND GERRY SHIH

Sun Aug 10, 2014 9:42pm EDT

(Reuters) – On a trip to Beijing a decade ago, Bill Gates was asked by a senior government official how much money Microsoft Corp made in China. The official asked the interpreter to double check Gates’ reply as he couldn’t believe the figure was so low.

It’s a problem that hasn’t gone away. Indeed, Microsoft’s current issues in China conceal a deeper problem for the U.S. software giant – despite the popularity of its Windows operating system and Office suite, few people in emerging markets are willing to pay for legitimate copies.

This not only costs Microsoft in lost revenue, but is also holding back the spread of its newest Windows 8 version – analysts say even buyers of pirate software prefer older versions. According to StatCounter, a website that tracks what software is loaded on Internet-connected computers, more than 90 percent of PCs in China – now the world’s biggest market – are running pre-8 versions of Windows.

Microsoft is trying to tackle this. This year it’s offering Windows 8 at a discount to PC manufacturers who install its Bing search engine as the default. And it’s giving away versions of Windows 8 for phones and some tablets.

But, as the industry shifts from desktop to mobile, the cloud and free or cheap software, China sums up both the old and new challenges Microsoft faces in making money in emerging markets – and, increasingly, in developed ones.

“The great danger for the company is that what has happened to them in emerging markets – basically no revenue from new PCs because of piracy – is not far off what’s happening everywhere,” said Ben Thompson, the Taiwan-based author of stratechery.com, a popular technology blog.

CORE COST

For sure, China is a major, and unique, headache for Microsoft. Many of the problems are tied to a broader push by the Chinese government to limit foreign firms’ dominance and encourage local technology firms to become viable competitors.

After years of healthy relations with Beijing, Microsoft last month was suddenly targeted by anti-monopoly regulators who raided its China offices as part of a price-fixing investigation.

But the spats mask the fact that Microsoft has never really cracked how to get people in emerging markets to pay for its software. The company rarely breaks out revenues by geography, but it has provided clues about the size of the problem.

In 2011, then CEO Steve Ballmer reportedly told employees that, because of piracy, Microsoft earned less revenue in China than in the Netherlands – with 1 percent of its population – even though China bought as many computers as the United States.

According to the BSA anti-piracy lobby group that Microsoft co-founded, emerging markets account for 56 percent of all PCs in use, and 73 percent of software piracy. Of the $77.8 billion revenue Microsoft generated in its 2013 financial year, China, Brazil and Russia each “exceeded” $1 billion, according to a Microsoft presentation. For comparison, Apple Inc generated $27 billion in Greater China, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, in its 2013 financial year.

For Microsoft, that’s a lot of lost revenue from the heart of its business. “Windows and Office are still very much the core of Microsoft,” says Sameer Singh, an India-based analyst.

The most recent breakdown by Microsoft of its results by product line – for the first quarter of fiscal 2014 – shows that 56 percent of its global revenue and 78 percent of operating profit came from Windows and Office.

Microsoft doesn’t just lose the revenue from pirate copies, it also loses access to customers who might buy other Microsoft products that work with or on top of Windows and Office.

Across most markets, Windows and Office account for more than half of revenues, says Andrew Pickup, Microsoft’s Asia PR chief. This, analysts say, is because many of Microsoft’s other products, such as Exchange and Windows servers, depend on customers already using Windows and Office.

“The Microsoft ecosystem is obviously pretty interconnected,” says Jan Dawson of U.S.-based Jackdaw Research. “So it makes sense that the proportion of revenue would be similar in emerging markets.”

NAKED PCS

Part of the intractability of piracy in emerging markets is that each part of the chain poses a problem.

For PC makers working on wafer-thin margins the operating system is one of the costliest parts of the machine, while mom-and-pop shops which form the bulk of retailers in such markets can’t afford to turn away price-sensitive customers who are comfortable buying pirate software.

The problem, therefore, starts with computer makers, Singh says, since “convincing them to ship every PC with Windows pre-installed is difficult.” Margins on PCs for a company like Lenovo Group Ltd are “near single digits,” says Bryan Wang, an analyst at Gartner.

The result is that up to 60 percent of PCs shipped in the emerging markets of Asia, says IDC research manager Handoko Andi, have no Windows operating system pre-installed – so-called ‘naked PCs’, which usually instead carry some free, open source operating system like Linux. That compares with about 25 percent in the region’s developed markets like Japan and Australia.

A quick scan of Taobao, the popular Chinese e-commerce site operated by Alibaba, shows a vast selection of PCs shipped with Linux rather than Windows. Once the machines hit the retailers, it’s hard to tell where legitimate software stops and piracy begins.

On a recent morning in Zhongguancun, a teeming electronics hub in north Beijing, shopkeepers offered to bundle what they said were legitimate versions of Windows with a new laptop, either for free or the equivalent of about $30.

Microsoft began lobbying Lenovo in 2004 to stop shipping naked PCs, but the Chinese firm countered that its margins were too low, a person familiar with the negotiations said. Two years later – just days before then-President Hu Jintao visited Gates’ U.S. home – China announced a new law requiring PCs to be shipped with operating systems. That merely dented piracy rates, which fell to 79 percent in 2009 from 92 percent in 2004, according to the BSA.

Lenovo said it reached an agreement with Microsoft in June of this year to ensure that Lenovo PCs sold in China would come pre-installed with a genuine Windows operating system.

“MOBILE ALSO-RAN”

Microsoft’s new approach is to push the price of Windows low enough to make it worth a PC maker’s while. The cost of a Windows license has fallen to below $50 from as high as $150, said IDC’s Andi, taking Microsoft down to “levels where they’ve never competed before.”

Microsoft’s Pickup said it was too early to gauge take-up.

In any case, making Windows cheaper for PCs is just part of a broader response to deeper shifts in the industry. The rise of mobile, tablets, cloud-based services and free operating systems has marginalized Microsoft and challenged its business model.

While Windows is on more than 90 percent of traditional computers – according to data compiled by analyst Ben Bajarin – that figure drops to below 14 percent once mobile devices such as phones and tablets are factored in, estimates Gartner.

More than half those devices run Google’s Android mobile OS, which is effectively free to handset and tablet makers. Apple, a key player in all types of devices, gives away upgrades to its operating systems for free.

Pickup says Microsoft has listened to phone makers’ complaints and relaxed what hardware they need to install the mobile version of Windows. It has also made the operating system free on any mobile device of 9 inches or less.

Taken together, the moves are “about bringing down the cost as more and more of the populations in these emerging markets are having their first computing experience,” Pickup said.

These are significant concessions, analysts say, but Microsoft will have to learn to be a bit player, where its software and services run on other people’s operating systems.

“The biggest threat to Microsoft,” Dawson said, “is the shift from a PC-based world where Microsoft dominated to a mobile world where Microsoft is an also-ran.”

(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich in SAN FRANCISCO and Bill Rigby in SEATTLE; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)