Sunday, 4 February 2007

kiwi foo

Last weekend was your typical beautiful kiwi Sunday in Warkworth, just north of Auckland.
I was there for Kiwi Foo, at the invitation of Russell Brown and Nat Torkington.

Based on the Foo Camp [friends of O'Reilly] model from the USA, it brings together a bunch of like minded people who are working in, or on, the Internet/digital revolution. And for sure, if people had a special interest in the collaboration space , aka web 2.0, then why not.

For kiwi foo , 120 people assembled in the big staff room of Maharangi College to 'make their own agenda'.

This is a literal invitation.

Each participant gets three words to describe themselves [I choose content, collaboration and curiosity] - then get to it.

Getting to it means descending on a bunch of big paper notice boards - one for each of five rooms - and then filling in the slots for Friday night , Saturday, Sunday.

Example, your passion is the deep down workings of an open source technique, then take slot 10am on Saturday in Room A7, and write in your topic, or question. Whether anyone turns up for this session depends on whether anyone is interested in the topic, or you.

And it works - thirty minutes later we had a programme which ranged across three main areas - software - projects - policy frameworks. I can't and don't intend covering them all. Rather, I'd like to touch on the highlights for me.

First, software; lots of open source conversations, some of which didn't so much pass me by, as occur in a different time/space continuum.

One Laptop Per Child
That said , I did give myself visiting rights to one discussion around the One Laptop per Child Project run by Chris DiBona, Google's open source program manager.

Formally known the $100 laptop, and also The Children's Machine, the OLPC project is still very much a live project with the aim to provide millions of children with a free network ready robust laptop running open source software which gives them access to all sorts of educational material. Or as the wiki entry has it -

The Children's Machine, also known as XO-1 and previously as the $100 Laptop, is a proposed inexpensive laptop computer intended to be distributed to children around the world, especially to those in developing countries, to provide them with access to knowledge and modern forms of education. The laptop is being developed by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) trade association. OLPC is a U.S. based, non-profit organization created by faculty members of the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute the laptops.
The rugged and low-power computers will contain
flash memory instead of a hard drive and will use Linux as their operating system.[1] Mobile ad-hoc networking will be used to allow many machines Internet access from one connection.
The laptops will be sold to governments and issued to children by schools on a basis of one laptop per child. Pricing is currently expected to start at around US$135-140 and the goal is to reach the US$100 mark in 2008. One thousand working prototypes were delivered in late 2006 and full-scale production is expected to start in mid-2007.

I was at the launch of the project at WSIS in Tunis when Nicholas Negroponte, Kofi Annan waved about a bright green prototype which didn't have inner workings whatsoever - in other words - a kids toy which had the assembled press in a frenzy.

In Warkworth , to my total delight, I got to touch and play with one of the 875 working prototypes, hear about progress to date, including a preview of the Sugar interface.

Sugar is a very cute interface - for sure it is child friendly - but it's more than that - it feels like a bit of a breakthrough - especially the journal feature which helps the child keep track of what they are doing, and who they have been working with.

That said, OLPC has critics - and I'd be happy to hear of any views.

The Xero Project
The other project with a big software element to it was Xero. It got a lot of mind share, as of course, did its founder, Rod Drury.

Rod is a bit of a legend in the local software world - a venture capitalist who likes talking code, has built both product and companies, and values interactive design - in short a walking example of the old web 1.0 triage - the suit, the hippy, and the geek.

You could also describe him as the master grad of the old Wired headline - have fun - write code - make money.

Xero, his latest project is aimed at the SME market. It's a SaaS [ software as a service] pitch for the cash book - in short an online accountancy model which is built around extensive user testing and analysis of the needs of a small business who, in Rod's words 'are always chasing the next cheque'.

So the first thing it does in the morning is tell the SME what money has come in overnight.

It also takes care of the usual accountancy stuff - GST returns - tax - plus of course the ever important profit and loss ledger. Or, everything you can do with the likes of Quicken - but this time online - and this time stripped down and rebuilt for the user.

If I sound a bit of a convert, its true - during the demo, I'm going , we do that - we struggle with that - strewth, that would be neat [e.g. printable version of the GST return assembled inside the application].

I also just loved the way the design , and the user flow, picked up queries and then gave the answer as a double act between first class interactive design and lots of cute AJAX programming.

But also of note was the interactive elevator pitch - including Xero's plans to first take care of the New Zealand market, and then go to the the UK, the USA, Australia et al. So, a truly global ambition based on a product which was designed around a small kiwi business. How cute is that? And I bet they do it. And believe me, that kind of passion is catching.

The Policy framework
But then you come to the most startling part of the whole weekend - of how these 120 participants - all of whom know much more than I do, especially around developing and marketing innovation, taking risks, building companies and solutions that scale, felt it of equal, if not more, importance, that we in NZ continue to focus on the policy and regulation layer of New Zealand's digital environment.

This 'policy track' for want of a better term, started on the Friday evening, when almost all participants crowded into a session with David Cunliffe, the Minster of Communication.

This began, inevitably, with a re-frame of the past 9 months, especially around the unbundling of the local loop - and yep - for sure,the participants saw that as definitely worth a round of applause - strike one - sorted , and a good thing too - so thank you Mr Minister.

But wait - there is more Mr Minister
However, just in case he, and his colleaque, Judith Tizard [at that session and at others through the weekend] thought this was going to be a breeze, they then went on to write the agenda for the next part of the New Zealand telecommunications framework.

Mercifully, David Cunliffe had the good sense to do some serious listening - I mean why would you pass up the chance to listen to people like Andy Linton, et al - all of whom have chapters in the early history of the New Zealand Internet .

So what needs done. First up, to quote Captain Cuttle, find, and when found mark, the phrase 'network peering' and start swotting it up, because it is , 'your next big thing' - i.e. figure out a way in which all the main players on the Internet backbone ensure that all local traffic stays local, and that international bandwidth is used to haul international traffic into the country, and take New Zealand traffic out to the world.

Sounds simple? Believe me, when you listen to these guys, you realise it is anything but - that because the likes of Telecom or Telstra wont peer, that vast amounts of local traffic, e,g, a request for a TradeMe page, ends up going half way round the world before it comes back onto my screen, and that as a consequence most content providers in New Zealand, including National Radio, are forced to host their servers offshore to best manage the accruing inefficiencies of not peering.

I don't pretend to understand the complexity of peering - but, believe me, like David Cunliffe, I intend making it my mission to change that. You can start right now, by making a comment and explaining how it works, and what needs to happen.

Build a new network
However, it didn't end there. Beginning on the Friday night, and then continuing in and around a number of other sessions [all user generated!] there emerged the startling, but wholly serious proposal - to make sure we have adequate digital trade routes, the New Zealand government needs to help New Zealand companies bypass the catastrophic inefficiencies of the current private sector backbone, by building and owning an alternative backbone in exactly the same way as they own the roads.

I need to say this again - a room full of people who normally would run from the first hint of big government, are urging the New Zealand government to build a brand new backbone for the New Zealand Internet at a cost plus 10% - that given the ludicrous inefficiencies of the current situation it will attract floods of customers and so pay for itself - and that this is the single biggest issue for any New Zealand government to get their head round, bar none!

And who is saying this - not the left - or the social democratic ex hippies like me - but hard nosed Internet entrepreneurs building new Zealand's next trade layer?

Forget right and left politics - for them , and this is their words, not mine , 'the market isn't working' - we need an independent backbone - and we need it now! Because without it, New Zealand is going nowhere!

Believe me - these guys are very very convincing!


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