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After a while from posting, I could not but comment on the recent announcement of Facebook launching Places on their acquisition of start-up “Hot Potato”.

Having tried the FourSquare service a few weeks ago and finding that some bloke two villages away was “Mayor” of our local cafe, and cycling shop, I gave up.  It might work in urban areas – but in the country the idea seemed daft.  To me, anyway.  The blogs are all spinning with questions about FourSquare’s survival.

Yet now we have Facebook Places, it is pretty clear that to be successful, you will have to put your app on this new platform to get the reach that Facebook offers.  For me this is a problem solved.

“You can immediately tell people about that favorite spot with Facebook Places,” said Places product manager Michael Eyal Sharon.

“You can share where you are and the friends you’re with in real time from your mobile device.”

Facebook members can “check-in” at restaurants, bars, or other social venues and let their friends at the social network instantly know where they are and with whom.

A Places application for iPhone handsets was released, and social network members with smartphones with Web browser software that supports geo-location and HTML5 could use Places at the mobile website touch.facebook.com.

I expect that now things will develop rapidly.  With the popularity of Farmville (more users than Twitter) and the possibilities of bringing places into games, the opportunities of blending local marketing schemes and even local currencies linked to your mobile phone all becomes possible.

However, my concern is that most of the innovation and the platforms that own the new location-based social media gaming platforms all appear to be in the US.  Europe had its chance with the mobile industry – but this new applications-centric world is beyond their corporate ken.  Which means that the UK and Europe may well slip behind in exploiting the new business models and job creation that is so vitally needed to get out of the recession.

That said, the UK still has a vibrant games creation industry and there will be opportunities to develop on top of Facebook’s Places to reach a global marketplace.  So not everything is gloomy.

How neat it would be if we could keep the currency (and value) of the internet gaming industry WITHIN the actual community that the games players are playing in.  Otherwise this new development will simply continue the erosion of communities of place to the useful but often abstract clouds-in-the-sky of communities of interest.

Excerpts in italics from:  “Facebook grabs Hot Potato mobile check-in startup” by Glenn Chapman (AFP)

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Louis Sullivan, the American architect is said to be the person who originally coined the phrase in 1896, in his article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”.

The full text is as follows:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function.
This is the law.

The phrase became a rallying cry for the Modernist Architects of the 1930s who took the idea to an extreme and believed that all ornamentation on a building was superfluous. However, Sullivan himself did not believe that architecture should be without art or ornamentation. As an architect, he would often punctuate the plain surfaces of his buildings with eruptions of lush Art Nouveau and Celtic Revival metalwork or terracotta.

The debate also extended to the heart of the evolutionary debate, where Lamarck’s (long-discredited) theory of evolution stated that anatomy will be structured according to functions associated with use: for instance giraffes are taller to reach the leaves of trees. By contrast, in Darwinian evolution, form (variation) precedes function (as determined by selection).  It is interesting which idea won the day there!

The debate as to whether or not form follows function extends right to the heart of modern design thinking. Product design, fashion design, garden design and even software design all have an inherent tension between function and ornamentation.

“Form ever follows function” may or may not be true depending on the situation. Unlike Sullivan, I don’t think it is a universal law. However, I do believe that form flows from a force that is far more mysterious than function!

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The method of loci is ancient. Cicero, the Roman orator, recommended it. Lecturers in his day were not allowed to use lecture notes, so memorization techniques were valued.

Cicero told a traditional story about how the method of loci was discovered. A Greek poet named Simonides was entertaining a group of wealthy noblemen at a banquet. Suddenly a pair of mysterious figures called him outside. They turned out to be messengers from the Olympian gods Castor and Pollux, praised by Simonides in his poem. As soon as Simonides stepped outside, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed, squashing everybody inside. The mangled corpses could not be identified until Simonides stepped forward, pointed to the place where each victim had been sitting, and said each name in turn.

How did Simonides accomplish this feat? He mentally recreated the scene of the banquet, visualizing each reveler in his place. When he saw the places, it helped him remember the person who had been sitting there.

Story of Simonides from: Psychology: An Introduction by Russell A. Dewey

To use the method of loci, bring to mind a familiar building, such as your house.
Take a moment to conduct a mental walk through the rooms in your house.
Pay particular attention to the details , noticing any imperfections, like scratches: anything that makes your mental images more vivid.
Make sure you can move easily from one room to another.
Along your route create a list of “loci” – i.e. well defined parts of the room that you can use later to memorize things.
A locus can be a door, a bed, an oven, etc.
Be sure that you can easily go from locus to locus as you visit the house.
Now, when you are faced with a list of words or ideas to be memorized, you must form visual images for each of the words and place them, in order, on the loci in your route.
To recall the words or ideas now you take a mental walk throughout your house, asking yourself , “What is on the living-room door? What’s on the sleeping room bed. What’s in the oven?” And so on.
Associating the words or ideas to remember with the loci, you should create surprising images.
More striking is the created image, more easily you will remember the thing.

More fascinating facts on the Method of Loci can be found at:  http://www.ba.infn.it/~zito/loci.html

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Imagine a world where all the bus companies own and maintain their own roads and only busses can travel on those roads.  In the same world the the taxi-drivers also own and maintain their own (separate) road system.  Oh, and the council own their own roads, too – for their dustbin lorries (garbage trucks) and other municipal vehicles.  The land-owners also have their own private roads across their estates – but charge transit rates to the other road owners who cross their land.
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This all sounds pretty impractical, doesn’t it?  Yet this is the exactly the system that we currently have in the Telecoms industry – with each of the carriers owning their own ducts, poles, cables, networks and exchanges.
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Interestingly, Korea is often cited as leading the world in the roll-out of fibre optic broadband.  The picture below is from Seoul in Korea.  Maybe they havn’t got it quite right either!

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And here is another mess of wires from Bangkok:
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We are now at a proverbial cross-roads in deciding how to rollout the next generation of telecommunications networks.  The old structures, which have served us well in the past, are under significant pressure with the rise in demand for internet services.
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A renewed mandate for more regulation to ensure competition is not the answer!  The next generation networks of the telecoms industry are now far more intimately connected to the rest of the economy.  Electricity companies want their own fibre-optic road system to monitor household meters.  Media companies want the equivalent of their own fibre-optic road system to carry the new channels of news, sports, gaming and entertainment .  And the Telecoms companies also want to upgrade their networks to provide faster and faster bandwidth to businesses and higher-use consumers.  Overlay the rise of the demand for internet and data services from mobile operator and the picture becomes similar to the very impractical picture that we outlined at the beginning of the article with the road transport system.
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Given that about 70% of the cost of a telecoms network goes into digging a hole and filling it in again, the majority of the cost of building-out underground telecoms networks is, literally, a sunk cost.  The leaps in fibre-optic technology have been matched by the innovation in the physical ducting industry that produces the pipes that will carry and protect those fibres.  It is now possible to lay a pipe a little over 2.5cm (or 1 inch) in diameter that will contain 20 micro-ducts.  Each micro duct can contain a fibre that will ship the whole of the information in the British Library to California in less than a second!  The economics of the old copper network are truly dead.  It is time for a radical re-think on how we create the multi-service local access networks of the future.  The diagram below shows how multiple services can be laid in a single trench.  This is surely the way to go!
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Res Locus believes that it is time for local municipalities to enforce the laying of  a SINGLE OPEN NETWORK OF DUCTS AND POLES that will carry the fibre optic distribution networks of the future.  Current (often sparse) records of existing networks and termination points (from incumbent network owners such as BT and Virgin Media in the UK) should be updated in a single place and properly maintained.  When practical, the local council should be allowed to take over the ownership of these ducts and poles and then give access to multiple service providers who want to provide fibres or wavelengths of light within the fibres to others.  Investment should be encouraged in new-style telephone exchanges which should allow easy remote access and configuration for multiple service providers.
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The supply-side of the industry won’t like the scheme.  They have long enjoyed providing five pieces of equipment to “competitive” operators when one or two would have been sufficient.  It was for this reason that the telecoms bubble of 2000-2001 made the industry move from order to near collapse.  We all learnt from that experience.  The time has come to join up our local communities with a single, efficient network of fibre that serves both local businesses, households AND local public services as well as the commercial service providers such as businesses, ISPs, mobile operators, electricity companies and media companies that want to put their “vehicles” over the new highways.
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The old-fashioned National regulators won’t like the idea much either.  However, in a way, they have done their job and it is time for them to move out of the way!  It is time to remove the private road ownership and the toll booths and design a new system that will creates a far more efficient way to run local transport services from any service provider.
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With local support, local initiative and local innovation, it will take much less than the 10-15 years that traditionalists say it will take to wire-up Britain.  The UK’s Conservative Party seem to be moving in the right direction here with their recent Open Source Planning initiative as well as their ambitious plans to wire-up Britain by 2017.  Res Locus believes that even the Conservatives are being under-ambitious.
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Surely it is time for local communities to take ownership of the planning and provisioning of holes and poles so they can compete effectively in the emerging hyper-competitive global economy of the 21st Century.
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Picture of cable mess in Korea from: 40 of the most disastrous cable messes

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Introducing very innovative approach to local planning, the Conservatives today issued a green paper outlining how they will introduce opensource planning for many and various schemes to ensure that communities are much more involved.  Very inspiring!

What is so refreshing is the scrapping of the current crazy costly system that has evolved over the last ten years and taken any real decision-making away from local communities.  This is combined with sensible reviews of existing national nonsense policies and burdensome inspection schemes.

As a specific example, copied below is an extract from the green paper on mobile phone masts:

Mobile phone masts

Mobile phone masts are an important part of the nation’s infrastructure, especially given the growing demand for mobile data services. But there has been significant public concern about masts being erected with little consultation and in an insensitive manner.  We believe that all types of mobile phone masts in England (including Network Rail, TETRA and small pico masts) must be subject to the same, full planning process as other forms of development, so giving local communities a greater say on where they are located.

We will also review the case for greater incentives for operators to share masts and allow domestic roaming, and will investigate new technologies, such as WiMAX and wireless broadband, which have the potential to reduce the number of new masts required. And we will review potential health issues related to mobile phone masts in the light of ongoing scientific research.

More at: http://www.conservatives.com/News/News_stories/2010/02/New_homes_and_jobs_through_Open_Source_Planning.aspx

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To bridge the large digital divide in the US, the FCC is looking at multiple options for funding a more robust broadband infrastructure.

FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski announced earlier this week that by 2020 the FCC wants at least 100 million households in the US to have access to broadband speeds of at least 100Mbps.  Broadband speeds available today to most Americans are about a tenth of that figure.

Reuters reports that Genachowski also said that he wants to reduce the cost of the Universal Service Fund by allowing schools to offer access their broadband  connections.

Res Locus has long thought that access to local schools’ IT infrastructure is an obvious way to extend broadband access into the community. Unlike many of the security issues that arise from giving access to local surgeries and the extended healthcare network or giving access to the utility companies’ smart-metering network, providing access to the education network is a natural extension for community connectivity and for sharing local and regional information.

However, such a scheme brings significant challenges.  Schools that are already strapped for cash might well find the additional overhead of opening up their facilities and providing after hours access a difficult and costly service to provide.  It will be up to the local communities to step-up to provide voluntary or near-voluntary help to provide the necessary security, supervision and training that will be needed to make the scheme work.

Overall, Res Locus thinks this is a good idea, but it will need a lot more work to make it a national success.  Other countries should look seriously at this model to provide faster broadband into local communities – particularly where there are large parts that are excluded because they are in rural areas or are unable to get broadband access for other reasons.

More at: http://bit.ly/csiVGp

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Reflections on things mobile

Res Locus has just returned from the annual get-together of the World’s Mobile Telecoms Industry in Barcelona – about 50,000 suited-and-booted businessmen and women all discussing the major issues in the mobile industry and/or demonstrating their wares to prospective customers.

I spent a lot of time in one of the exhibition eight-or-so exhibition halls which was called “Apps Planet”.  This was where the new world of mobile applications were being showcased, exhibited and discussed along with several mini-conferences trying to attract the brightest and best of the applications development community.

At the start of the week 25 mobile operators announced a new alliance – the Wholesale Application Community (WAC) – to try to reverse the trend of the new threats from  Apple, Google and others (who are continuing to profit from the growth of applications on smartphones far more than the mobile operators).  Most of those I spoke to thought this idea was very ambitious and the successful execution of it very challenging.  Time will tell whether the industry can collaborate on such a wide front.  Then again, the original GSM standard (from where the conference originated) was one such collaboration.

The most notable absentees were Nokia (from the Congress) and Apple (from the Apps Planet).  Odd, you might think, when these two players are so dominant in their respective parts of the market.  Yet the Congress is VERY expensive and not necessarily the best way to increase your business if you already own a large part of a segment of it.  I gather Nokia had a pavillion off the main campus, but I did not go there.   Many of the other top-names of the industry – such as Ericsson and Huawei had invitation-only pavilions which created an atmosphere of minor competitive posturing amongst the larger playing field of Olympian collaboration.

Attendees at Google’s Android sessions (of which I was one) came to realise that the Apples block-buster innovation of the i-Phone (now nearly 3 years old) now has a serious contender.  Google was so keen on expanding its developer community that it crowded several hundred people into a large auditorium on the hour, every hour, and gave away a free Nexus One to all attendees.  Thank you, Google!  Yet I came away still preferring my i-Phone.  Then again I simply love Apple.

On the Thursday, the Wireless Industry Partnership (a ten-year-old community of mobile phone developers) held a series of “Jam” sessions.  This was a very different atmosphere from the military-style Google machine from the previous day.  Here the room was broken into hot-houses of developers creating apps in three hours, and small groups who discussed the pros and cons of development in the new world.

The main conclusion for me is that the application designers and developers are now the scarce commodity being courted by ALL the blocks of industry (including the handset providers such as Samsung, the network equipment providers such as Ericsson, the traditional operators such as Vodafone and the internet stars such as Google).  Who will win in this new segment of the industry is not yet clear.  Many are backing Google – with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google giving a key-note at the Congress on the Tuesday – where he made Google’s intentions absolutely clear to move mobile to become central to Google’s strategy.

There is no doubt that the substantial investments in 3G networks are now beginning to be flooded as the emerging smartphones give a customer experience which is way beyond the older data services based on SMS, WAP or early mobile internet browsing.  Yet most of the so-called data-Tsunami is by dongle users who are using PCs on the move in the way they use them.

The changes are very exciting in one respect – but also a significant challenge to the mobile industry as the pipes become clogged by data that is far less valuable to the operators than traditional voice or SMS traffic.  The challenge was being discussed in many corners….with many innovative solutions to tackle it….  Yet a text from one of my friends that lives in Singapore took 6 hours to get to me – so I did not end up meeting with him!  And roaming with O2 (without any roaming package) was going to cost me £6 per MB – simply because I was in Spain and not my home country of the UK.  However, when I was in my hotel or near a public WiFi network I could connect my i-Phone for free!

The Nexus One may well be as much of a game-changer for the mobile industry as the i-Phone has been to the mobile user experience.  The obvious way to get better performance and faster data rates is to off-load data traffic onto “other” networks – primarily WiFi.  I learnt that 80% of mobile calls and data sessions are made from our homes and offices.  Even more reason to find sensible ways to offload traffic for the 20% that are on the move.  This functionality is all built-into the i-Phone and Nexus One.  The only difference is that Apple worked with AT&T and other operators to include them in some of the spoils.  The words of Eric Schmidt to reassure the industry did not align to most people’s thinking of the reality of Google’s ambitions.  More on this at: http://bit.ly/ckzBcg

So I came away with the sense that the traditional mobile operator business model which was originally designed by the GSM Association 25+ years ago is now in its last few years of its gravy-train existence.  The new investments required to create the worldwide super-fast mobile data networks of the future (based on something called LTE or long-term-evolution) will finally force the industry to consolidate into one or two networks per country.

If there were two emotions that I came away with, they were relief and hope.  Relief that I was going home (I could only manage 3 days at that intensity!) And hope that the new(ish) world of mobile applications will continue to give us more and more useful things which are way-beyond a the functionality of a simple mobile phone of 10 years ago.  The Battle of the Planet of the Apps is how one friend described it to me.  The battle lines are drawn and there will be quite a few battles fought before the war is won.

Yet, overall, we will look back ten years from now and find, I expect, that local communities will benefit significantly from the mobile broadband infrastructures that are now being planned – whether they are WiFi, 3G, LTE or something else.  This is a hopeful picture as the industry rises to the challenge to cope with the ever-increasing demand for personal data communications, video conferencing, video-over-the-internet, m-health, intelligent transport system and remote monitoring to make ourselves more green.

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