Tuesday, November 29, 2005

China's dirty little secret

Today's front page of the Shanghai Daily. There couldn't be a more poignant illustration of China's outrageous inequality between its wealthy cities and the wretchedly poor hinterland.

China's miners daily risk their lives in the most miserable labour conditions in China's astonishingly unsafe coal mines, literally to fuel the booming economy and the rising wealth in the coastal cities. I've lost count of the number of mining accidents this year with deaths in the triple digits.

The paper's front page looks almost contrived: the advertised Patek Philippe watch costs exactly the same as the combined annual income of the 134 victims, who daily descended into the unsafe pit that provided the only option for them to feed and house their families and send their children to school.

US Do Not Call Registry now also open for telemarketing firms

Google is on the warpath once again. This time it's trying to gain a foothold in telemarketing.

The new baby is called Click-to-Call, of course it's a test (just about every Google service is), and it works by putting an icon next to search results. The user can click the icon and enter his phone number, after which Google connects you, free of charge of course, to the advertiser.

This sounds like a great innovation in a country where consumers apparently are so fed up with telemarketing calls that a staggering 120 million of them signed up to the National Do Not Call Registry. If people don't want to be called, why not have them call you themselves?

Of course eBay, who just overpaid $3bn for internet telephony startup Skype in order to have them provide exactly the same service for its auctioneers, won't be a happy camper now. But it's yet another step in the direction of handing the initiative to consumers in advertising and marketing relationships, following TiVo's build-your-own-commercial-break project.

Cybercrime Pays ($105bn)

Two interesting bits of statistics: eMarketer estimates worldwide e-commerce sales in 2004 at $2.7 trillion. US Treasury cybercrime adviser Valerie McNiven makes headlines by estimating total proceeds of cybercrime over the same year at over $105 billion, exceeding illegal drug trade in profitability.

So things like phishing, identity theft, spying and extortion make up about 4% of the total Internet economy.

Puts this year's puny $26 billion in US online holiday season turnover into perspective, doesn't it?

Mum, Dad, you seem a bit -- distant

The city that never hugs?

Singapore's scientists work relentlessly on improvements for mankind. They never sleep.

At least that's the only explanation I could find for the news that Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have come up with an electronic pyjama that enables parents to hug their child from a distance. NTU thinks it might be a good idea for working parents to use the internet and have their kids wear a computer controlled suit that can simulate hugs by adjusting changes in pressure and temperature, instead of coming home. They even suggest that parents can wear a similar suit so their kids can hug them back.

A glimpse of the future? More like a glimpse of future psychopaths, if you ask me. NTU scientists should go home, hug their children and get some sleep.

Monday, November 28, 2005

How about GoogleToGo, Sergej?

TiVo's on to something. Maybe people only avoid commercials because they're about things that don't interest them? So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

The Wall Street Journal (paid access) reports that TiVo is working on a model where the viewer can compile his own profile in order to determine the kinds of ads he's going to be served. They're doing this together with advertising giants Interpublic, Omnicom and Publicis - looks like WPP got left out at the party.

Next: DIY commercial breaks?

So the bad news is: TiVo's days as an ad-free medium are numbered. But the good (and even better) news is: the consumer rules! Instead of deciding to go out to the kitchen to make coffee, decide to shop for a car or a holiday. Wonder when Google finally figures out that instead of exclusively serving up ads linked to content, there's an incredible opportunity to give the users the reins and let them decide what they want to see.

TiVo leads the way, Google follows? That'll be the day!

Radio: 'Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated'

Websites, MP3, blogs and podcasts - new media drawing everyone's attention. Cyberspace is the future, aether the past.

How relative all of this is, was shown last weekend when the Dutch Radio 2 Top 2000 poll closed. People were asked to vote for their favourite track, 2,000 of which will be aired in a marathon broadcast from 26 to 31 December. More than one million people, or 1 in 16 Dutchmen, cast their vote (article in Dutch). I have yet to see a website, let alone a podcast, that can mobilize so vast a crowd.

New media don't replace old media. They just join them.

Brilliant Dutch Design

Every once in a while you come across a design that has it all: functionality, relevance, originality, and perfectly capuring the spirit of the times.

Clocks are especially sensitive to this: everyone and his mate seems to need to enrich mankind with the ultimate creative clock design ( like this one and many, many other sad examples).

The Pong Game is an icon in computer game history. This clock is an extremely functional adaptation, using the game's score as the time indicator and changing very little else. While the game randomly plays, the players score the time. Left player scores the hours, right player scores the minutes. Try the movie, it's mesmerizing. Time will fly with this one on the wall.

Disclaimer: your reviewer has no commercial interest in this product whatsoever but wouldn't mind if a spare sample were sent to him.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Trespassers Will Be Shot in the Head

Singapore is famous for maintaining rules, and for the severe punishments for those who break 'em.

But even by Singaporean standards this sign, seen on a railway yard fence, looks like a bit of an exaggeration. Welcome back to the Fine City!

To Dot Com Or To Just Dot?

Step back and look at our domain names, especially the Top Level Domain (TLD) system. It's a mess. Try and explain it to an alien that lands on our planet. 'Take me to your Leader,' he says. (They always do.) Nowadays that's easy: just go online, Little Green Man. Only it's a bit hard to explain where to atart. The USA use something-dot-gov. Other countries use either dot gov or dot go, followed by a country TLD. Continental European countries just use their country TLDs, nothing else.

courtesy of John Pritchett, www.pritchettcartoons.com

By this time our LGM has lost track. OK, he thinks, forget about Leaders, I want to do some shopping. And I need repairs for my space ship. He goes online and finds the same kind of mess - only worse.

Dot com has become a de facto standard for everyone who wants to operate either in the US, or across borders. Which means if you want to start a new business or brand name, you set up the corresponding dot com but if you can get away with it, you als grab the dot org and dot net, to prevent future confusion.

And since there's big money in website registration, treasure seekers keep coming out of the woodwork. It all started in 1998 when one Jason Chapnik found out that the tiny Pacific archipelago of Tuvalu was blessed with the TV TLD. Jason caught a plane, gave the locals 50 grand and the .TV Corporation was born. The mountains of gold didn't materialise quick enough, Jason fled, and .TV is now part of Verisign. Since then the list of both treasure seeking and well meaning initiatives has become endless. Another Pacific island, Niue (.nu) and Italy (.it) have profited. And in 2000 ICANN has approved 7 new TLDs of which .biz is the most popular.

All these are doomed. Never underestimate the power of standardization, and dot-com holds the strongest cards. But if we're headed towards the situation where one TLD dominates, why have one at all?

Apparently a couple of Dutch guys were the first ones to act on that. A company in Amsterdam called Unified Root now offer the service of TLDs with your own name, without any further suffix. So if you're Disney, you can direct people to http://Mickey.Disney, Disneyworld.Disney, etcetera. UR have set up their own root zone and now hope to get ISPs and corporate networks around the world to resolve that zone. This is the Achilles heel of any new initiative: if not enough people do that, you run the risk of not being found too often and the whole initiave will be a dead end.

Never underestimate the power of the existing standard. People are more and more getting used to dot coms. But getting rid of dot suffixes would be an improvement, and not only for aliens.

Dairy Dose of Engrish

Menu in a Japanese restaurant on Kansai International Airport: unrimited drinks in 2 hours will get you totarry drunk if you don't watch your own rimit.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Chinese Monopoly, or: For a Fistful of Guilders

Just one of the many billboards that line the walls of Shanghai's Pudong International Airport. No idea what it tries to communicate, apart from the fact that Shanghai is one big game of Monopoly (which is true).

Funnier is the part where the guy setting up the picture used US Dollars for the wad of bills, and Dutch Guilders for coins. Dutch? In Shanghai? And Guilders? I thought these were extinct since the introduction of the Euro, four years ago!

Blog, Blogger, Blocked

Just back from Shanghai. And guess what? Nowhere in China could I get access to blogger.com. Or access to my favourite GMSV, for that matter. Or any other website with 'blog' in its name.

If you go to China regularly, you become used to finding blocks on some sites. But this is getting ridiculous. Who said that that China was becoming more lenient? If anything, it's getting worse!

China Web Police?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Banner ads annoying? No, I live in Hong Kong

Even the tiniest Hong Kong streets are abuzz with neon signs. And believe me, we ain't seen nothin' yet!

Try to imagine a future in which all these neon lights will be LCD screens. They'll probably be called Googleboards. By 2010 Google will have a global wireless network that keeps track of the location of massive numbers of mobile phones in all of Earth's big cities. Instead of fixed images these boards will dynamically show ads that are targeted to the majority of people in the street. Untargeted advertising's days are numbered. I bet Hong Kong will be one of the first cities where Googleboards are fully implemented.

Picture postcards of the famous Hong Kong skyline will never be the same again.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Blogging becomes Yuploading

Blogging made easy by big brands: between them, Nokia and Google make uploading images easier than slicing bread. Coming to think of it, Nokia's megapixel phones-plus-PC-synch-software together with Google's Blogger-plus-Hello-from-Picasa are one of the greatest inventions since sliced bread.

Uploading your picture accompanied by a witty repartee, a philosophical point of view, or a semi-intellectual aforism is not confined to the ubergeek crowd any more.

It ain't cheap, though. Google's services are still free but Nokia's phones are not, so you need to be a big budget Yuppie to ace the geeks. Let's call it Yuploading.

Trekking in Thailand on $1600 a day

Asia is the continent of extreme contrasts. To find that out you don't need to stick to the cities, with beggars on the pavements right next to Mercedes limousines in the streets.

Just go camping in the Golden Triangle, the cheapest place on Earth. Or so you think.

Many backpackers know that if you trek into Thailand you can easily survive on a dollar a day. Four Seasons don't think so. To prove their point they sent me an email today, showcasing their newest addition: a campsite in the Golden Triangle. Find out that camping can be more luxurious than you ever thought possible. For a mere $1600 a day you'll be kept in Thai clover.

Makes me wonder if these tents have wireless broadband.

Beijing, Bad Air and Building Cranes

Quintessential Beijing... Bad air and building cranes. The whole city is one big building pit, much of it in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. I'm not worried about the building activity. Rest assured that the most important stuff will be ready comfortably in time before the opening ceremony.

No, what worries me is the pollution. The air is so bad and the atmospheric circumstances so unfavourable (Beijing's in the middle of a plain shaped like a shallow bowl) that I keep wondering how many Olympic athletes will die trying to exert themselves in this sludge.

The buildings may be finished, but no way the Beijing authorities can get that smog under control within the next three years...

Shanghai Takes the High Road

In 1981 I saw Shanghai for the first time. The colonial buildings on the Bund were among the few highrises in town, all of ten stories high.

Nanjing Road was already a busy shopping street but it looked worlds apart from the glittering facades of today's glass towers and luxury brands. The pavements were made of packed dirt, and street vendors were peddling their wares outside their tiny little shops. Barbers gave their customers a haircut on the pavement.

The streets were filled with millions of bicycles, all of them black. Only a few score cars were to be seen, and there were only four types: the Shanghai Sedan, the Beijing Jeep, the Dong Feng Truck, and the Jin Bei Van. And thousands of ancient buses, of course.

Things have changed since, and the cityscape is now dominated by 30 to 90-story glass towers and elevated highways.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Hey sunshine, fancy a cuppa at the French Kiss?

A tiny coffee place in a Seoul underground passage. One wonders if the owner knows what 'French Kiss' really means...

Seoul: End of the Office Day

See what I meant when I mentioned 'Blade Runner'? ( The 24-Hour Consumer).

At the end of every workday, thousands of hulking Seoul office towers spill their contents into the streets of the Korean capital. Commuters, shoppers, vendors and restaurant goers crowd the narrow streets. Curbside restaurants pop up out of nowhere, built up within minutes' time from the back of a flatbed van.

I love this city...

The 24-Hour Consumer

Every day, from the moment you awake, until the moment you go to sleep again, your senses are being assaulted by commercial messages. They're everywhere - on the radio, on your cereal box, on bus stops and billboards, the internet and TV. Even my 3G phone now has a banner from my provider on the starting screen. Someone has calculated that in developed countries you receive 3000 commercial messages per day. In Seoul (picture) I think it's considerably more. Especially the giant electronic screens, all over the city, are impressive. Reminds me of the movie 'Blade Runner'...

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bill Gates caught humming 'Yesterday When I Was Young'

Unbelievable, but the world is apparently ignoring the fact that Windows is exactly 20 years old today.

Remember the interface from the picture? On 20 November 1985 Microsoft launched Windows 1.0. Hardly any applications worked under the new OS, which was based on DOS2.0 and supported 256 colours.

As the name indicates, you could open more than one window at a time, but active windows had to be on top and could not be overlapped, which made it very inconvenient to show more than one window at a time. Judging by the lack of attention for this 20th birthday Microsoft itself isn't exactly proud of what it achieved at the time.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Guess why they call it Emerald Hill...

Peranakan pillars and tropical palms... can it get more Singaporean? Back home for the weekend!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

World Wide Web turns 15

Exactly 15 years ago AOL was one year old, born out of AppleLink, one of many commercial services that became available on the increasingly popular Internet. Email had been invented by Ray Tomlinson in 1971, UseNet newsgroup in 1979 by Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis.

But it was Tim Berners-Lee who came up with the final idea that made the Internet into what it is now for most of us: the World Wide Web. Tim proposed the idea (and the name) on November 12th, 1990 and wrote the first web page the next day, on a NeXT workstation. Over Christmas he built all the necessary tools such as a web browser, an editor, and a web server. He also developed an address system known as the Uniform Resource Locator, URL.

Tim never became a billionaire or even a millionaire like many dot com entrepreneurs after him; but he did become Sir Tim as a reward for his brilliant and visionary work.