Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

birdsnest.jpgDissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, employed by a Western firm to design the iconic “Birdsnest” Olympic stadium in Beijing, exclaims that he now hates the stadium because it symbolises China’s relentless march toward modernism. He says that the carnival atmosphere of the games masks what is really going on in the world’s most populated nation and has called upon others to boycott the games in protest.

There’s no doubt that the 2008 Olympiad will be the biggest and most impressive live stage show in history and China quite rightly wants to put on a good performance for its coming out parade. But lingering concerns remain that the games hoop-la is simply a facade beyond which there lies an overbearing state machine that has made little real progress on human rights and environmental issues since it secured rights to hold the the games. I have already read several media reports of foreign journalists being shadowed by plain clothes police who then used standover tactics to dissuade ordinary citizens from being interviewed.

Games officials are ecstatic that by removing a million vehicles from Beijing’s roads and shutting down dozens of factories, they have reduced the airborne particulate matter concentration to a mere three times that of recommended World Health Organisation  standards. They also proudly advise foreign journalists that there will be no blocking of Internet websites from within the Games media centre. But the irony of such concessions is probably lost on the more affluent members of the local populace who can afford to attend and are completely absorbed in nationalistic fervour.

And who are we to criticise anyway? Where else on the planet could such an economic transformation have taken place so rapidly? When the Chinese take on a project, they really commit! Our plodding Reserve Bank gnomes would send interest rates through the roof if New Zealand enjoyed even a miserable 4% GDP growth. But growth rates twice that are ensuring that China is rapidly making up for the previous half century of disengagement.

I could also name a few Western nations that haven’t exactly been shining examples of democratic freedom themselves lately. Bush’s swansong swipe at China’s human rights record was enormously hypocritical when you consider America’s appalling disregard for its poor and homeless, its record on air bombings of civilians and the suspension of civil rights for terror detainees.

The dragon is awakening and there is no question that China will rise to become the most powerful economic and military force we’ve ever seen. The recently signed free trade agreement between China and New Zealand may well be largely symbolic, but symbolism and relationship both mean a great deal to the Chinese. Furthermore, it is only through trade and dialogue that small nations can hope to influence change.

Maori Lexicon Spins Off Pod of Projects

orcaEnglish has prevailed as both the accepted language of commerce and as a dominant language on the Internet.  But vast numbers of non-English speaking web users are demanding that the Internet become truly internationalised. That presents an opportunity for innovators able to span cultural divides with enabling technologies.

 My mate Dave Moskowitz always has a few interesting web based projects on the boil whenever we chat. So I was pleased to hear that the online Maori dictionary  for speakers of Te Reo has finally come to fruition after much hard work. The project also complements the excellent English-Maori online dictionary and language resource kete provided by Te Whanake.

Significantly, the collaborative open source tool set used to develop the lexicography is now to be deployed in other settings globally. Apart from projects involving translation of Hawaiian and Burmese Karen into English there is an intriguing local project involving research and preservation of Maori legal documents dating from the 19th Century. No doubt there will be a steady stream of enquiries once word circulates about this unique platform. The timing could not have been better, with the recent launch of the Maori version of Google.

As the Internet becomes more and more pervasive, there is a risk of imposing a dull monoculture on its users, particularly on indigenous peoples. And with the increasing affluence of non-English speaking regions such as the Middle East and Asia, the demand for translation tools and non-English web content must surely grow exponentially. Platforms developed in multicultural New Zealand are well positioned to take advantage of this growth and to encourage diversity on the Web.

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Entrepreneur’s Epilogue

It was a defining moment last week when ideegeo took up residency and became a foundation member at Altspace in downtown Wellington. Not a moment too soon. There has been a surge of progress, with our European partner company suddenly in a position to provide a steady stream of consultancy work. More importantly my CTO and his long-suffering (but very understanding) lady were getting heartily sick of us running the business out of their spare bedroom.

Altspace is a shared workspace for start-up companies and independent contractors, providing a communal office site complete with power, Internet and furnishings plus access to a kitchenette and toilets. Being centrally located it is handy for both casual day trippers and long term users who need a base for business. Altspace director Steven Heath will be on hand at the Geeks, Games and Gadgets ’08 expo to talk about the venue which he also hopes to make available to local I.T. user groups.

I will miss the view out the bedroom window however. On our first day of working together there was a pod of Orca playing in the shallows of the South Coast right below us. I took that as a good omen.

It’s Life Jim, But Not As We Know It!

“Fire when ready”It’s not enough that we’ve had to suffer appalling weather lately. But now my week is going from bad to worse, and it’s only Tuesday!

My tribbles began when I found out at the weekend that my walking buddy has finally acquired herself a Betazoid boyfriend, which means I won’t be hearing from her for the next six weeks whilst she boldly embarks on an intergalactic lust quest with the new beau. Alas, shared coffees at Chaffers Marina and brisk walks around Oriental Bay quadrant will soon become a distant memory.

My grief was then compounded by the realisation that my poorly researched piece on “almost free software” may have caused some offence to software purists in the audience; when in fact I was attempting to acknowledge the important contributions made by both the Free Software movement and the Open Source community. Next time I shall stick to a topic I actually know something about. One good thing came out of it though. I received strict instructions on the correct etiquette to use when in the presence of the eminent Mr Stallman, when he favours us with a lecture and challenges us with his views on software copyright next month. Suitably armed, I should be able to keep my foot out of my mouth for a change. Puts a completely new spin on the term “software royalty”, doesn’t it?

Speaking of feet, to top it all off I discovered that my toes had succumbed to a dose of some unpleasant cling-ons that had obviously been lurking in the public showers at work last time I visited. It’s life Jim, but not as we know it! There was one piece of good news however. My enterprising little son has promised to save his pocket money up and buy me the new Star Trek fanzine and DVD for my birthday, bless his heart. Both Star Trek and the Free Software movement have sought to influence thinking and to bring about social change with advocacy, although through the use of different media. The Ferengi with their obsession on acquisition and profit would certainly not approve of this comparison however. Trekkies do have a few characteristics in common with Stallman followers…but let’s not go there.

Have a good week and in the words of an ancient Gorn proverb –  “may your three toes remain warm and dry”.

Can Business Get Its Head Around Social Media?

Developer meeting held in SmallworldsFrom virtual worlds to dating sites to online gaming, there’s no denying that people are spending more time than ever before engaged in digital social media of some form or other. It comes as no surprise then to learn that, in the first half of 2008 alone, venture capital firms invested US $345 million in virtual worlds or related enterprises. As more sophisticated business models emerge around virtual economies, it has become clear that there is now real money to be made online.

In a world where travel costs are spiralling ever upwards, more and more people are opting to stay at home for entertainment. Does it mean that shopping malls, movie theatres and public bars are sunset industries, to be replaced by bits and bytes residing on a remote server? Perhaps not just yet, but rarely a day goes by that we don’t hear about the launch of a new web community, social mash-up or cool online game of some sort. 

Unfortunately research suggests that about 75% of these communities will never even achieve 1000 users. We set up ION almost six years ago and only recently celebrated our millenial sign-up. In any event there must be a limit to the proliferation of online social networks because once users become uber connected there is far less incentive to keep signing up to new networks. As network density increases, the advantage gained by the user decreases.

So when even Bill Gates gives up on his Facebook account, it really makes you question how much value large corporates see in social networks and virtual worlds. Some people continue to question whether or not virtual spaces will ever become meaningful in an enterprise setting. Although businesses have been using applications such as Sharepoint and Lotus Notes as knowledge management tools for years, corporates are still struggling to make the quantum leap into virtual communities and interactive game type environments as forms of collaborative business tools.

On the other hand corporate dinosaurs are belatedly waking up to the power of social media as a marketing tool. This videocast from the Harvard Business School offers advice to large companies about managing the change processes around implementing social media strategies. Now – I’m pretty sure I don’t need to belong to a web community for kitty litter or some other weird or random social network. I would however join a business network or film club that had an online community component for example. Whatever spins your wheels, I suppose.

New Zealand has a couple of promising virtual world ventures of its own. Smallworlds launched recently with a high quality browser based world for young adults that leverages advances in Flash based functionality and graphics. Socialise was an early entrant with a dating and friendship focus. Socialise is a regional community that has secured advertising sponsorship as a revenue stream, whilst Smallworlds is pitched at a global audience and intends to establish a virtual economy within the site.

Smallworlds users create and populate their own individual home spaces, which raises the question of identity portability. If players participate in several communities, plus own a Facebook or MySpace page, how can they manage their global identity? For dedicated social networkers with multiple sites to share and manage, aggregating all those links at one web address would seem to make sense. That’s a problem that we hope to address in a creative way very soon at ideegeo.

UPstarts Enliven Capital ICT Scene

Unlimited PotentialAfter a period of quiescence, Wellington’s technology and business networking event scene is now undergoing somewhat of a renaissance.

On Thursday evening this week Unlimited Potential are throwing a launch party for Start-Up magazine and Silicon Welly whilst throughout July and August 7X7 are offering a thought provoking weekly think-fest on “economic transformation”. But wait there’s more!

Also in the pipeline @UP is the annual Geeks, Games and Gadgets technology showcase in August, Software Freedom Day in September for Open Sourcers, and a possible Town and Gown collaboration with Victoria University ICT researchers. With UP taking over managing the ICT Capital membership base it brings this collective community to over 1500 ICT sector professionals, business owners and technology managers.

After the wild successes of XMediaLab and  Webstock it is clear that Wellington is now emerging as a “go to” destination for technology and innovation related events in New Zealand. People are talking more and more about the value of community. Sponsors, opinion-makers and governmental agencies are now realising there is tremendous value in leveraging the interest groups that grow up around such events and Unlimited Potential is rapidly positioning as the event manager of choice for this sector.

In 2002 when GeniusNet set up the first virtual community for innovators and entrepreneurs, we did not have the resources to run live events as well. Back then, people struggled with the concept and of course the term “social network” was not widely in use in a web context. But our research found that the best ideas arise from the creativity found where community boundaries overlap. You can’t build a collaborative community by email, webforum or teleconference alone however. Trust is the bandwidth for the exchange of knowledge and one generally needs to meet people face-to-face to build that trust.

Virtual communities and social networking platforms do facilitate engagement to a certain extent, but real live meetings build much deeper foundations of trust. Jobs are located, deals transacted and relationships forged ultimately because people met together in person, eyeballed each other and learned trust. I know  this for a fact, because right now I’m developing a very cool business with some smart guys I originally met online. How Web 2.0 is that?!

500 Pound Gorilla with a Long Tail

Logan McMillan’s cheekily named Gorilla Pictures has scored a publicity coup by posting a YouTube clip taken from their latest project, a splatter movie about zombies taking over the world.

What is remarkable about this episode is that McMillan received an offer to fund the movie whilst he was already part way through shooting it. It also demonstrates the disintermediating power of the Internet and supports Chris Anderson’s long tail hypothesis – if you can focus enough eyeballs on your product niche, eventually somebody will buy it.

McMillan’s extraordinary success does have a negative corollary however. Because the Internet aggregates vast numbers of users, it also enables other less noble business models. Nobody really believes that Google ads will make them rich and spammers continue to plague us because they know that 5 guys out of every million actually will respond to their viagara sales promotion.

Zombie movies are not really my thing, but I applaud Logan McMillan’s initiative and I hope the screening at Cannes and subsequent release goes well.

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Epilogue – The New Start-Up

I’m particularly interested in the success story mentioned above because a bunch of us are currently in the throes of launching ourselves into the unknown with a new and rather exciting venture. Our project is also very much about leveraging creativity and knowledge and having some fun along the way. Web-based marketing will certainly form part of the mix because, apart from a diversity of other skills, we all share an interest in blogging.

I’m very realistic about the hard work that lies ahead, in fact it feels a little bit like we’ve grabbed a 500 pound gorilla of our own! But I’m also enjoying immensely the collegial atmosphere and the opportunity to develop my leadership skills and business knowledge. Keep those eyeballs tuned for progress reports.

Pie in the Sky Venture for High Flyers

Just a short (but mildly humourous) post this week as I have happily found myself with a couple of interesting projects on my plate plus with school holidays underway my son and I are escaping for a few days to the (rainy, damnit!) north. So time is at somewhat of a premium.

 crane.jpg

When I first stumbled across Dinner in the Sky I thought it must surely be an April Fool’s prank. But as far as I can tell it really is a legitimate business. For an obscene amount of money it seems you can treat your friends to a dinner party suspended by a crane 50m above the ground. Not for those of nervous disposition, but what a buzz!

Up to 22 guests can be seated on a giant platform which is then raised by a crane. A small group of waiters and cooks stand in the middle of the platform and serve the aerial diners as the crane slowly rotates. Two Belgian entrepreneurs dreamed up the concept and have run events in Brussels, Paris, London and Dubai. They even have video clips on their website to prove it. What they don’t explain is what happens if somebody needs to heed the call of nature during the dinner party. Presumably, heavy drinking is discouraged.

Rumour has it that a franchisee from New Zealand has approached the company for rights to operate the business. That got me thinking about all the possibilities. Perhaps we could set up the operation in front of the NZX building on the Wellington waterfront and allow listed companies to hold airborne board meetings? Shareholders could be charged a small fee to sit and manipulate the crane controls, reflecting their approval or otherwise of board decisions. Better yet, government Cabinet meetings could be held aloft. That would certainly focus Ministers’ attention.

It all sounds rather like a Bransonian promotional gimmick, but it shows there is no end to entrepreneurial creativity. Dinner in the Sky contains elements of performance and reminds us once again that the arts and business are not as separate as we sometimes might think.

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Exporting to Germany Workshop – Tues May 6th

Speaking of entrepreneurial Europeans – my mate Oliver Heringhaus from Triple-E is running an exporting workshop in Wellington on May 6th, in conjunction with NZ Trade & Enterprise, for those looking at Germany as an export destination. Germany is a market of over 82 million affluent consumers. Oliver’s e-marketing background and native understanding of his homeland market make him an ideal speaker.

Walking on the Moon

What does a white female “ghetto rap” artist, and former L.A. gang member, have in common with one of the largest rock acts of the 1980’s? Possibly very little, judging by the muted response “Fergie” received at last nights concert featuring The Police at Wellington’s Stadium.

Fergie did however impress with the sheer physicality and energy of her performance, but it was a little incongruous in such hallowed company. My young son was suitably awed by the acompanying gaggle of hip-hop dancers as they gyrated their way across the stage like newborn mosquito larvae. But that wasn’t what most of the crowd had paid 200 bucks a ticket to see. That’s a little unfair though. Like The Police thirty years before her, Fergie has cleverly managed to bridge the artistic gap between urban, ethnic musical counter-culture and white middle class pop. And through her onstage rap dialogue we are reminded why skinny white guys are driven to join rock bands. “Whatcha gonna do with that shirt full of breast”? Answer – “Gonna make you work for it, work for it!” Like I needed reminding.

I predicted that the main act would open with “Message in a Bottle” and they did not disappoint. That song was their first real chart hit in the U.K. Like much of their material, it deals with loneliness and alienation in an impersonal world and struck a chord during the grim Thatcherite era. Having already played a massive 82 gigs on this tour alone, it was not surprising that a bearded Sting was sounding a wee bit flat, his voice cracking badly at one point. Andy did little more than shuffle about the stage, but for a guy the same age as my Dad, he remains one of the world’s most talented and lyrical exponents of the lead electric guitar. Stewart stole the show by demonstrating his adeptness with all things percussive, in particular during an extended mix of “Wrapped Around Your Finger”.

Indeed, how fortunate for us devoted fans that these three skinny white guys got together three decades ago and released their first single “Roxanne” – for that is ostensibly the reason for this reunion tour. The real reason lies in the demographics of their audience, the majority of whom are dinky post-boomers with wads of disposable income. Almost all of last night’s crowd were couples in their 30s and 40s. That represents a marketing opportunity too good to miss; especially now that music sales are rapidly commoditising. The money is now in the concerts and merchandise – not the album sales.

This point is obviously completely lost on the Westpac Stadium management who book the catering stand concessions. Hot dogs, pies, doughnuts and Export Gold might work for the footy crowd but not for this audience. Where were the curries, kebabs and Heineken hidden? A lot of us went hungry in protest. Notwithstanding that minor disappointment it was a great night out under a velvety starlit sky. We were “Walking on the Moon” as we retraced our steps homeward around the illuminated bridges and boardwalks of Wellington’s gorgeous waterfront.

What Christmas is Really About

Being Christmas time it seems oddly appropriate to be sitting here with the woodburner blazing away and the rain pelting on the roof in the midst of summer. In the corner of my lounge is a large pine tree branch that, when propped up, passes as a rudimentary Christmas tree. The most significant aspect to the tree is that my son and I spent an enjoyable hour or so decorating it with all manner of colourful items. It didn’t matter that most of the sweets and crackers had been disposed of before the big day arrived. What mattered was the love that we put into constructing the edifice itself.

When he’s not with me, I can look at that tree and be reminded of what we shared and it fills me with enjoyment and warmth. That is why the tree remains in place long after the presents are opened and the last mince pie has been consumed. In fact every year I take a photo of my son in front of the tree. Those photos form a pictorial history of his growth and development.

Christmas tradition seems stronger than ever. I believe the reasons are twofold. Firstly we remain in the grip of a headlong rush to consumerism that began with new found post-war wealth over fifty years ago. Christmas provides us with the perfect guilt-free reason to shop. Secondly, “Western society” has been rudely awakened to the fact that there are many competing ideologies outside of the Judeo-Christian paradigm. Christmas is seen as an antidote to these strange exogenous forces.

So Christmas remains as popular as ever. But the best part is whenever I come home and open the front door I am immediately assailed by pine scent and reminded of the time that my son and I spent together at Christmas. That is what Christmas is really about.

Are We Overinvested in All Blacks Brand Culture?

I’m not qualified at all to comment on the detail of the All Blacks embarrassing departure from the World Cup. In fact I don’t even follow the game very closely. What I do know is that as a nation we are far too psychologically invested in the fortunes of fifteen sportsmen.

The NZRFU marketing machine has to accept full responsibility for putting the team on such a high pedestal, in order to feather its nest with huge sums in sponsorship. In fact I’m surprised the team members have time to attend regular practice sessions given the demands to appear in a wide variety of TV commercials promoting airlines, credit cards, sportswear, food and beverages and even underpants. As an “iconic” brand the All Blacks have over-promised and under-delivered. It all looks rather like marketing hype gone mad.

But what concerns me most is that so much of our national self-esteem hangs on the All Blacks performance. New Zealand has so much more to offer than rugby, hakas and bubbling hot mud pools, but we cannot seem to move beyond these cliches. It’s cringeful at times. 

If our emerging technology companies could secure even a tenth of the media coverage and financial backing that the ABs get, imagine how beneficial this would be to the economy. What if our brightest science researchers could get proper long term funding sponsorship and didn’t have to head overseas to make a living.Then we really would have something to celebrate. We need some new heroes.