In Malaysia, online election battles take a nasty turn

2013 05 03 15 49 30

Jahabar Sadiq of The Malaysian Insider

Here’s a piece I did from KL on Saturday ahead of Sunday’s election. It was pushed out ahead of the poll for obvious reasons but it might have a broader interest in how the battle for influence over online media has evolved in Malaysia, with relevance elsewhere. 

May 4 (Reuters) – Ahead of Malaysia’s elections on Sunday, independent online media say they are being targeted in Internet attacks which filter content and throttle access to websites, threatening to deprive voters of their main source of independent reporting.

Independent online news sites have emerged in recent years to challenge the dominance of mostly government-linked traditional media. The government denies any attempts to hobble access to the Internet in the run-up to a close-fought election.

“During the 2008 election we were wiped off the Internet,” said Premesh Chandran, CEO of independent online news provider Malaysiakini.

“Our concern is that we’ll see a repeat of that on May 5. Can we really live without independent media on election night, given that both sides might not accept the result?”

More here: In Malaysia, online election battles take a nasty turn

Inside the Web of Things

This is a slightly longer version of a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service

I’ve long dreamed of an Internet of things, where all the stuff in my life speaks to each other instead of me having to the talking. The vision is relatively simple: each gadget is assigned an Internet address and so can communicate with each other, and with a central hub (my, or my computer, or smartphone, or whatever.)

The most obvious one is electricity. Attach a sensor to your fusebox and then you can see which or your myriad appliances is inflating your electricity bill. Great idea! Well sort of. I found a Singapore-based company that was selling them, and asked to try one out. It was a nice, sleek device that promised to connect to my computer via WiFi and give me a breakdown of my electricity consumption. Woohoo.

Only it never worked. Turns out the device needed to be connected to the junction box by a pro called Ken, who tried a couple of times and then just sort of disappeared. I don’t mean he was electrocuted or vaporized, he just didn’t come back. The owner of the company said he didn’t really sell them anymore. Now the device is sitting in a cupboard.

Turns out that Cisco, Microsoft and Google tried the same thing. The tech website Gigaom reports that all three have abandoned their energy consumption projects. Sleek-looking devices but it turns out folk aren’t really interested in saving money. Or rather, they don’t want to shell out a few hundred bucks to be reminded their power bills are too high.

This might suggest that the Internet of things is dead. But that’d be wrong. The problem is that we’re not thinking straight. We need to come up with ways to apply to the web of things the same principles that made Apple tons of cash. And that means apps.

The Internet of things relies on sensors. Motion sensors which tell whether the device is moving, which direction it’s pointing in, whether it’s vibrating, its rotational angle, its exact position, its orientation. Then there are sensors to measure force, pressure, strain, temperature, humidity and light.

The iPhone has nearly all these. An infrared sensor can tell that your head is next to the phone so it can turn off the screen and stop you cancelling the call with your earlobe. (The new version can even tell how far away you from the phone so it can activate its voice assistant Siri.)

But what makes all this powerful is the ecosystem of third party applications that have been developed for the iPhone. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of sensors. There are 1000s of apps that make use of the iPhone’s sensors–most of them without us really thinking about it.

This is the way the Internet of things needs to go. We need to stop thinking boring things like “power conservation” and just let the market figure it out. Right now I want a sensor that can tell me when the dryer is spinning out of control, which it tends to do, because then it starts moving around the room. Or help me find my keys.

In short, the Internet of things needs to commoditize the sensors and decentralize the apps that make those sensors work. Make it easy for us to figure out what we want to do with all this amazing technology and either give us a simple interface for us to do it ourselves, or make a software kit that lets programmy people to do it for us.

Which is why some people are pretty excited about Twine, a bunch of guys from MIT who are working on a two and a half inch rubber square which connects to WiFi and will let you program it via a very simple interface. Some examples: hang it around your infant’s neck and get it to send you a tweet every time it moves.

It may not be rocket science, but if you’ve got an infant-wandering problem it could be just what you needed.

Yahoo Cuts Loose With Its Own Search Engine

Yahoo has cut loose from Google and now offers a very passable search engine of its own.

Yahoo today announced that it has deployed its own algorithmic search technology on Yahoo Search. Starting today, “the company will begin rolling out the new Yahoo! Search Technology and expects to continue the process on a worldwide basis over the next several weeks”.

A brief fiddle shows it’s pretty good, and will give Google a run for its money. It also lots of cool new features, according to the company’s press release:

  • A new search service that integrates Yahoo! Search with My Yahoo! by adding links to XML/RSS site syndication content in search results. This service enables users to search for millions of sites that support this format and easily add them to their My Yahoo! personal homepage. Once added to their page, users will see instantly updated headlines and links from these sites, keeping them in touch with all of their important information from the Internet in a single place.
  • Yahoo! Search has combined its own proprietary anti-spam technology with the talents of its team of editorial experts and Yahoo! Mail’s leading SpamGuard technology to help filter out irrelevant, redundant or low-quality URLs and links. Taking advantage of the synergies between Yahoo! Search and Yahoo! Mail, these two services will share data to reduce spam and further improve the user experience across Yahoo!.
  • Yahoo! Search Technology is already integrated into Yahoo! News Search and the award-winning Yahoo! Product Search and going forward will be leveraged into other areas of Yahoo!, including Yahoo! Travel, Yahoo! Local, Yahoo! Personals and Yahoo! HotJobs. In addition, Yahoo! Search Technology will power search for Overture’s algorithmic search partners and will be made available to future customers.

As CNET reported earlierYahoo dropped Google as the default search technology provider for its U.S.-based sites late Tuesday, “signaling the beginning of the end for the Web’s most high-profile marriage of convenience”. But the new search engine is not without controversy: CNET says that Yahoo plans to make money by charging companies for more rapid and frequent inclusion into its index –a program called ‘paid inclusion’. CNET writes: “Such programs have come under fire by industry watchers and federal regulators, which charge that their commercially oriented nature can taint results and mislead Web surfers without proper labeling.  Google does not offer a paid inclusion program.”

It’ll be interesting to see how they fare. I’ve never quite understand the attraction of the old Yahoo search engine; they never really found what you wanted unless it was obvious, and their directories were less than up to date or comprehensive.

And of course from a marketing point of view, all this has serious implications, which I’ll go into later. For me the most important thing is that the search for loose wire ends up with this humble blog top on both Google and Yahoo Search.

The Real And Lucrative Art Of Mobile Blogging

Here’s a new version of mobile blogging — using maps.

WaveMarket have just announced a new “location-based blogging system” that enables users to send and view information that is time and location specific. Korea’s SK Telecom will be the first to use the technology, called WaveIQ, which they hope to launch soon.

It works like this (the website does not do a good job of explaining how it all fits together, so I may get this wrong): You use your phone as a sort of mobile blogging tool, posting information and/or pictures — say a restaurant review — to a central blog, organised by space and time. Others can then see that posting (stored, I guess, either by date, location or type) by either reading the blog as text, or seeing postings by location on a map viewable on their handphone.

Another feature is WaveSpotter, which allows you to wander around and by seeing where you are on a map, look for content near you — restaurant reviews, or whatever, or more personal stuff you or people you know have recorded, such as where you first dated your spouse (you mean you forgot already?)

One other feature is WaveAlert, which ‘enables wireless operators ”to notify you when you are near something important to you, like a speed trap before its too late, or a good friend who happens to be in your area”.

Here’s WaveMarket’s vision: “We enable a single screen archive to catalog an anywhere, any time visual history. Suppose 20 years from now, you want to see what happened here today, where the future of technology is being shaped. WaveMarket will have your photos and postings of what happened in this room at this time. WaveMarket can maintain a daily history of what happens anywhere — from this time forward. Events — big and small — state primaries, Middle Eastern conflicts, neighborhood improvement projects, family reunions or baby’s birthday can all be captured, broadcast, shared and archived. In short, WaveMarket enables you to see a visual history of the world, from today forward, written by the people of the world as it occurs.”

Um. OK, that sounds pretty radical. Thinking more short term, I can see this may be a neat service, and one that could really catch on, especially with those night-time folk who seem to spend more time communicating via SMS or voice with friends they’re not with than the ones they are with. But it may also have more practical benefits for cellphone users, such as figuring out the nearest hospital, the nearest bookshop, or how far from home your son is.

Of course, behind all this are some serious marketing opportunities. The last bit, in particular, sounds like a serious opportunity for firing off location-based ads via SMS/MMS. And of course there’s the privacy aspects: The whole service depends on being able to monitor your location in real time, something you may not be too excited about. Another downside: If one company has a daily history of your movements, your postings, your interests and whatnot, that’s valuable commercial data and you may want to think twice before having that stored somewhere. Not to speak of the interest law enforcement agencies may have in it. You may have done nothing wrong, but how about someone stole your phone and committed a crime with it in their pocket? Who ya gonna believe?

That all said, WaveMarket (the name, by the way, is telling) is the future. Handphones so far have not made full use of the fact that they are, among other things, very effective homing devices. Put that data on maps and hook it up with other time and spatial data and you have some powerful services — and marketing opportunities. And these guys clearly have overcome the huge data processing requirements of this kind of service. Must head off to Seoul and see how they use it.

Spam And The Future

First email, then biotech? Are our technologies hostage to the few?

Good piece from the MIT Technology Review on spam.

Apart from the stuff we know — that hackers have created computer worms and viruses that break into computers and then turn those compromised machines into launching pads for spam — there are some other interesting observations, including how hackers have taken to “manipulating the fabric of the Internet’s routing system”.

The article quotes Geoff Hulten from Microsoft’s anti-spam technology and strategy group said that “much of the spam that Hotmail receives comes from China and Japan—in fact, those countries are now the second and third largest senders of spam. The United States is still Number 1, of course, but our Asian cohorts are moving up fast. What’s particularly troubling is that while spam from the United States runs roughly 50/50 with legitimate e-mail, spam from Asia outweighs legitimate e-mail by nearly 10-to-1.”

The article looks at how the efforts of big email providers, like Yahoo! and Microsoft, to create next generation anti-spam tools “could also help the large providers maintain and even solidify their market dominance, by making it increasingly difficult for small businesses to operate their own e-mail systems.”  

Finally, it sets a gloomy note: “E-mail and Internet-based communications are powerful tools—and just a few people have figured out ways to turn them against the vast majority of Internet users, at a cost to businesses that is now estimated at over a billion dollars. What will happen when the new powerful tools of biotechnology and nanotechnology become widespread? If we can’t tackle the spam problem, then the future may be quite bleak.”

A Good Way To Organise Outlook Emails

This is a must if you’re a power Outlook user: NEO Pro 3.0, out in Beta today.

NEO is an add-in product that “turns Outlook into an email organizer – without affecting all that Outlook already does”. NEO, also known as Nelson Email Organizer, is good at finding messages quickly automatically displaying messages in different ways.

Caelo Software Inc. (pronounced Kay-lo), the makers of NEO, has introduced three other features:

  • auto-classification of folders between New, Current and Dormant top-level areas (auto-moves old correspondents to Dormant after x days of inactivity)
  • global filtering (e.g. ‘show me my active correspondent messages addressed exclusively to me for the past 5 days’), and
  • manageable Outlook categories (see categories at a glance – easily edit, split and merge your categories).

The beta trial program is free: download it here. I’ve used previous versions, and, while I’m not an Outlook fan, previous versions of NEO definitely made things a lot easier.

Is Plaxo A Namecard Spammer?

What gives at Plaxo?

I’ve decided to stop recommending what seemed to be a pretty good way to stay up to date with contacts after a series of weird incidents when folk unknown to me were somehow able to add their contacts into my Outlook address book without my say-so (today’s was someone from a PR company I’ve had dealings with before, but never, to my knowledge, with this person).

I’ve raised this issue before and have waited for more than two months for word from Plaxo about the matter, so they’re off my Christmas card list and, until they can explain what’s going on, and, if required, fix this I don’t recommend anyone else use it. Plaxo is a good idea, but the privacy concerns about it all have scared people right from the start. This latest hole — where, apparently, anyone can spam their way into your address book, along with comments like “Winner of the PR Week Asia ‘New Consultancy of the Year’ award for 2001″ — isn’t going to put minds at ease.

Until then, I’m forced to ask:

  • How do people I don’t know know that I’m on Plaxo?
  • How can they automatically add their contact details to my Outlook address book without me approving it?
  • Is this how Plaxo is making its money? Charging some folk to spam possible clients with their namecard?

Looking forward to getting some answers on this, which I’ll pass along to the blog.

Zempt And Other Arts of Blogging

For those readers already a-blogging, here’s some tools to help. Most bloggers update their website by visiting the website in question. Others do it by email (or even by SMS). But probably the best way to do it is via a blogging tool. Here are the three I know:

  • w.bloggar The oldest, and still my favourite. The tireless Marcelo Cabral who runs it has just this week released a new version to work with TypePad, my blog host of choice, but it also supports Blogger, metaWeblog, MovableType, b2, pMachine and YACS. It’s free, but he welcomes donations.
  • Zempt Has appeared in the past six months, and offers a lot of useful features, including assigning more than one category to a post. Zempt is also free but would be happy to get donations. Works with all Movable Type compatible sites. My only grumble: The version I’m using tends to crash somewhere in the category adding process.
  • BlogJet Just started playing with this one this morning. Works with b2, TypePad, Blogger, Movable Type, LiveJournal and DeadJournal. It’s free while it’s in (time limited) beta. It’ll probably cost about $20 when it’s fully ready. I’m posting this using BlogJet and so far it’s been a dream (neat touch: The first time you fire it up it’s prepared its own little posting on BlogJet ready for you to post. Sassy.)

These are great tools to have. I’m sure that once the big boys get in on the act they will fade away, but the folk behind these programs have done an amazing service to the blogging community, and I hope that if they do disappear it’s because someone bought their ware for zillions of dollars.

The Future Of Domain Names?

Interesting piece from The Register’s Kieren McCarthy on the changing nature of domain names. He points to the recent case of a guy renting out to allow People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to lead a very successful campaign on the BSE issue. In the future, individuals and companies may end up renting out domain names rather than selling them:

As anyone who follows the domain name market will tell you, the price of domains has recovered and is almost standing at pre-dotcom-bust figures. It makes sense then that some speculators may invest in an expensive domain and then lease it out to people in fixed-term contracts – just like the housing market. You need not sell the domain completely – you simply accept a long-term lease or even monthly rents, depending on the market and the domain.

The Register reckon this might redress some of the imbalance in the domain name market, pulling “God-like power over domains away from companies like VeriSign which have abused the market for long enough but are impossible to remove”.

Google News Discovers There’s A Reason Why Journalists Exist

Here’s an interesting take on Google News I hadn’t thought of before, from Dana Blankenhorn, an Atlanta-based writer. He’s mad at Google for apparently allowing in to its news trawl clearly partisan sites that aren’t news, but opinion. At the same time, he says. Google is separating out blogs from its news searches — possibly because it may launch a separate search engine, as part of its buyout of Blogger, former host to loose wire. So anything that uses blogging software is out, sites that don’t, but have some kind of ‘news’ on, are in.

As Dana points out, this leaves a very skewed picture of the news at a sensitive time in American politics. With so many candidates and activists running blogs — especially among the Democrats — the apparent decision to leave blogs out but others in is being used by Republican webmasters to push political views into what is a news site. “Given the current intensity of American politics, this has a real effect, and seems to give Google a real ideological bias,” Dana writes.

I haven’t explored this allegation more fully: It will be interesting to see what Google have to say. I guess the broad lesson from this is that Google News is a news site, and therefore has to abide by certain rules whether it likes it or not. But Google is not a news site, in the sense that it has journalists, editors and photographers out there making editorial decisions about what is news and what isn’t, since it automates its news searching and presentation. Indeed, it proudly acknowledges there are no humans involved.

So Google will have to make a choice: include everything in its news trawl to avoid accusations of bias (at the moment it numbers 4,500 news sources), restrict the news to only bona fide news outlets, or install a team of editors to ensure the material that appears on the website, and the way it appears, are balanced.

In the end, of course, news is not something computers do well. I know: I’ve seen big news agencies try to do it. Even simple stock market reports require some human distillation to make them meaningful (and not look silly). Google, perhaps, is just finding out that there’s no really cheap way to enter the news business.