Saturday, July 25, 2009

Feel good sustainable energy video from RWE

This video from RWE, Germany's second largest electricity producer, is sweet. Too bad that in reality, Germany depends on polluting coal for much of its electricity.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Pimped up Tom-toms...Netbooks+GPS: where is the value?

There is something funny going on in consumer electronics and personal computing nowadays. There is the tendency to combine different functionality into one all encompassing device. Management calls it convergence. Sales and marketing call it up-selling. The product guys call it how-to-keep-your-job-important. Consumers see it as a peculiar phenomena where devices become pricier even though they should be getting cheaper.

Here is a good example :

Smart phone = phone + camera + GPS + DVB-H TV receiver + memory stick + music player + ...

OK so I see some value in this smart phone convergence algebra. All the above services may be useful to a user and its great to carry them all in your pocket.

But it struck me as odd that Dell is planning to up-sell its Mini notebooks by charging users for extra GPS hardware. Apart from robotic aficionados who would want such GPS service on a netbook? The significant time it will take to power on a netbook and fire up the GPS would probably mean you've overshot a couple of highway exits before the GPS locks on and tells you where you are. And that will be after you've somehow placed the netbook over the dashboard for line-of-sight to GPS satellites, driving at 70mph. Netbooks with their limited battery lives would make for poor trekking-in-the-Rockies aids (and why would someone carry a netbook instead of a small portable tom tom up the trail anyway)?.

But the guys at Dell must have thought of all this. Even after you remove the management, sales, and product-team views on such matters, there must be someone who tried to write up credible use-cases. What is the killer-app use-case?

In my opinion, there is a very significant business-opportunity here. Dell wants to know where you are, in order to introduce location-based services (e.g. locality-aware advertising) in return for GPS map services. If you think about it, operators have an advantage over other IT vendors because they know (through cellular triangulation) where a user is. Hardware and software vendors would also want a piece of this action because of the significant scope for location-based advertising. GPS gives them that chance (and more accurate location information). Dell could know, through its GPS/map services, that its 13:00 on a Wednesday afternoon and I am sitting in a downtown Berlin park about 3 minutes walking distance from a restaurant serving schweine haxe and Berliner pilsner. I bet I'd take the bait of a 10% coupon to get there! And Dell would get a piece of the pork too.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

P2P, bandwidth, and FTTH urgency.

Figure 1 (from MPI-SWS) Bittorrent throttling by geographically spread ISPs. Red areas indicate ISPs throttling Bittorrent traffic.

This figure is from the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems' Glasnost project. It shows geographical regions where ISPs interfere with Bittorrent traffic. Comcast (and several other ISPs) claim that P2P applications of a few users slow down the Internet for all network users. All the bandwidth is used up by a miniscule subset of the subscribers, leaving everyone else with a slow network. Theres no reason to disbelieve this argument, a limited shared resource being over-used will result in poor quality for all users in the statistically multiplexed Internet.

There are 2 ways of dealing with the issue. Either bandwidth-hogging users are cut-off (like Bittorrent throttling), or, the network capacity is increased to accomadate the "over-use". The latter technique bailed us out the last time Internet traffic exploded. Broadband was roled out just as media rich Internet applications were catching on (or was it the other way?). Everyone was happy. Customers got better service for similar subscription costs, Web 2.0 companies got the pipes to deliver their content, and ISPs created the whole broadband business, with the option of up-selling through services like digital IPTV.

If it worked so well at that time, can't we do the same trick again? Why not roll out broader-broad-band: FTTH (Fiber to the home) for example? The simple answer is that we cannot, at least not quickly, given the cost. When broadband came the physical access network was already built! There were cable TV wires running to homes and there were phone lines. In terms of a tree analogy, the leaves of the access network were already connected up. All that remained to be done was to put in the trunk links and the branches. And there are a lot fewer branches than there are leaves. On the other hand, FTTH will be prohibitively expensive in many countries - the leaves need to be rewired. Therefore the rollout timeline is going to be slower as compared to broadband.

Back to P2P. Why single out P2P? Don't video CDNs like You-tube, Netflix, Hula etc. also consume large amounts of bandwidth? In my opinion the extra load on the access network imposed by P2P, due to the uploading aspect, creates a lot more congestion in the access network at present. A P2P system will upload (in theory) as much as is downloaded in the system. And all this happens on the access network. Thats a 2X increase in bytes traversing the most expensive component of the network (the edge). This means many many more expensive boxes to cover the leaves of the ISP's tree.

However, most broadband connections are asymmetric (downlinks have higher data rates than uplinks). So P2P is limited to a glass ceiling (the lower uplink bandwidth data rates). On the other hand, conventional CDNs push data down the wire, and so, there is no reason for CDNs to limit video quality and resolution until they hit the downlink rate. As high-quality video content catches on, there will be disgruntled users who wonder about the difference between what data-rate their subscription plan claims (XX Mbps) and what comes down the wire (XX/ZZ Mbps, ZZ being the over-subscription factor).

ISPs need to hurry up fiber-wiring up those leaves! And governments need to help with the capex! Another stimulus perhaps?