How Wikipedia 'will make universities obsolete'

For most web surfers, the Wikipedia is simply an occasionally useful online resource that needs to be taken with a huge sackful of salt. For others, it’s a poor excuse for a real encylopedia. But for its proponents, it’s nothing short of revolutionary! It’s Emergent, you see.

A column by veteran tech writer Al Fasoldt has provoked some furious defenses of the site, in a similar spirit to the ones we received here recently. What they lack in coherence, they make up for in passion. And in the absence of decent Flame of the Week material recently, we hope this will provide the same vicarious thrills.

Taking to his scooter, one young Wiki-fiddler roars into action.

“Old World is under attack. The authority of the book, authority of the journalist, authority of the teacher, is under direct assault by Wikipedia and other online efforts,” claims the poster, ‘Stephen’.

“It should come as no suprise [sic] a journalist and teacher ganged up on Wikipedia. Both have much to loose [sic]. Their claim? Authority. We will see much more of this backlash by the old guard in the future,” he continues, confidently.

“The education system its self [sic] will come into question eventually. Universities are formed around libraries and libraries are physical things that require physical campuses. Take away the library, provide full access to every book ever writen [sic] online, imagine the consequences.”

Which is an odd thing to claim, as your reporter can access the expensive databases at his wonderful local library for nothing, even when he’s sitting 5,500 miles away.

A future where publishers throw everything they have online for free is then described, although the question of why these professional researchers should throw away their livelihoods away in such a fashion isn’t explored. But let’s not allow facts to spoil this titanic struggle for the future of learning.

“It’s a war between the Old World of the past and the New World and those who ‘get it’ know whats happening on all fronts,” writes Stephen.

Quite so.

We’ll be asking the Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge why they don’t “Get It!” and exactly when they plan to close down their institutions very shortly, we promise. With such a mortal challenge to their legitimacy, they must be planning for that day already.

Meanwhile the excitable young Wiki-fiddlers, understandably, rather like the idea that they’re writing the reference books of tomorrow, and so fill it with their favorite subjects, like minor Star Trek characters, Ayn Rand and junk science. (The entry on “memes” is almost as long as the entry for Immanuel Kant).

“It’s the Khmer Rouge in diapers,” observes one regular Register reader, which seems as good a description as any to us.

All of this obscures the potential of the Wiki as a mechanism for community groups and public organizations to publish information they already want you to have, a theme which we’ll be exploring further this week. Alas, that’s not very sexy, certainly isn’t Emergent and doesn’t usher in a New World Order; it’s just something that could prove to be a humble and possibly very useful bit of middleware. But that’s if they can ever get round to agreeing on a mobile API. ®

One blogger is worth ten votes – Harvard man

Working in his secret laboratory at Harvard University, a Fellow of the prestigious institution has come up with a formula that rocks electoral maths to its core.

Former software developer Dave Winer has worked out that one weblogger is worth ten ordinary voters, and he revealed the results of his complex calculations to Wired this week.

Normally we avoid ten-a-penny Internet cranks. The gaffe-prone former software developer has put his foot in his mouth so many times it probably qualifies for a residential parking permit.

But we did the maths ourselves – and were confounded. His work could indeed have far-reaching social consequences.
Continue reading “One blogger is worth ten votes – Harvard man”

Chris Anderson makes me a bet

“Or the arrival of the Web browser, which blew millions of minds, making a mouseclick feel like teleportation.”
Chris Anderson, Wired

I was really calling the editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, to check up on which weird and interesting drugs he was taking when he wrote the sentence you see above you.

[* answer below]

Anderson bet me that in five years time, there will be more 802.11 chipsets then there will be mobile phone chipsets. Naturally, opportunities like this don’t come up every day, so of course I took him up on the offer.

It was an affable chat, but by the end it was clear to me that Chris hadn’t just drunk the Kool-Aid, his metabolism has mutated itself, Science Fiction-style, to produce the stuff on demand. So you never need go thirsty ever again.

“The technology is Wi-Fi, and it’s the first blast in a revolution, called open spectrum,” he writes, “that will drive the Internet to the next stage in its colonization of the globe.”
Far from colonizing the globe, the Internet has failed to create much of a plut even here, in the land of its birth.

From recent research, we learn that half of the richest nation on the planet has cottoned on to the Internet for what it really is: a boring, stupid and expensive information tool that doesn’t really work very well.

True believers dismiss this significant part of the population as Luddites. But I think they’re making a sensible value judgment on the quality of the information they’re receiving. It’s not that they don’t get it: they are simply exercising a vote and it’s a pretty smart one: The PC-Internet proposition has value, but the experience is awful. It’s not as easy to use as a can opener or a remote control. So where do you think our Brothers and Sisters go?

C’mon. This isn’t hard to figure out.

However, to indulge the Deregulation Lobby for a moment, we must confess: it’s certainly a beautiful dream.

Home grown WiFi networks will cover the nation, giving us unlimited Internet access and phone calls, and the evil carriers will melt into history.

Who doesn’t want to believe?

Show us the money

However we must have a rational basis on which to proceed. And the problem with this alluring vision now is that there won’t be enough money to sustain it. After all, everyone expects public WLANs to be free.

“It’s a hype cycle like we had around dot-coms. It’s not focused on technical or economic reality,” Qualcomm VP James Belk tells Business Week, a point we made here

Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs tells the magazine how expensive it is to provide WiFi access, and the hidden costs that the lobbyists often fail to point out.

“We believe Wi-Fi will explode in homes, large businesses, and college campuses,” he says. “The real question is: Is there a business [behind] providing Wi-Fi in hot spots?”

“The problem I have is seeing a long-term financial model in hot spots. Wide-area coverage, such as EV-DO, will provide high data rates over larger areas than Wi-Fi can. If you’re paying a monthly rate to your cellular provider for the capability to get data anywhere, would you pay more to get Wi-Fi in hot spots? No. Plus, EV-DO is secure and requires less power than Wi-Fi does.”

Successful WiFi companies sell into the three business sectors Jacobs mentioned above, and stay well clear of the public access sector:

“Hotspot is a good idea – but who gets paid?” Ben Guderian, a marketing director at SpectraLink told us. SpectraLink has a good business selling into health care and commercial organizations, and this week launched two new campus 802.11 phones.

“When you try to make Wi-Fi cover a wide area, it’s absolutely the worst way to do it, Martin Cooper, told CNET recently. Cooper is credited as the first person to make a cellphone call (in 1973, he led Motorola’s cellular project).

“In order to cover a city, you need a million sites; we actually did an analysis of that. And every one of them has got to have backhaul. So it turns out it’s neither economical nor practical. ”

Can I climb up your pole?

Writing in the investor magazine The Chili, Woz Ahmed, sums up the Bubble and adds another hidden cost to Jacob’s list: infrastructure build out. This isn’t a problem on campus or corporate networks, but planning permission is time consuming and expensive.

“A WLAN operator must have the expertise to select, obtain planning permission, commission and manage hotspot sites. It may be uneconomic to do this, as the potential number of WLAN users will always be lower than cellular voice users.”

Even in densely populated urban centres, “it will not be cheap, as premises owners are contributing to the WLAN bubble by charging operators high fees for attractive hotspot locations, such as airports, conference centres, hotels, major transport terminals and routes.”

Of course, these inhibiting factors don’t apply in a campus environment, or the home, as SpectraLink’s Guderian told us, “The cost of wireless is getting low enough so that wireless can save wiring for both voice and data,” he told us.

Indeed this is where WiFi poses an acute danger to the incumbents:

In The Chilli’s opinion, WLAN is the Rabbit of Internet data, given its weaknesses in standards fragmentation, interoperability, roaming and business model. Rabbit was a hotspot initiative by Hutchison launched in 1989 which failed because the seamless coverage offered by the 2G networks was so much more popular. People appreciate the certainties of something just working. It will be amusing to see the WiFi lobby explain to their mothers, and other relatives, that you only need to “reset your Mac WEP parameters” every four hundred yards to keep your WiFi phone working, and we eagerly the responses to this modest request.

Advantage Incumbent

But who expects the carriers to vanish overnight? Debt-laden they may be, but they still have a steady income. And the traditional carrier business model has a significant advantagein economies of scale, over new entrants. The carriers have made expensive investments in upgrading their networks, but it voice. 3G networks are roughly four times as efficient as the 2G networks and more savings will be achieved as the old networks are turned off. Data is just a bonus.

Admittedly, the carriers had expectations for mobile data that were almost as unrealistic as the WiFi/spectrum deregulation lobby has now. If only they’d asked the other half, the people who have voted with their feet when asked to comment on the glories of the Internet.

The successful models for mobile data have been the ones that eschewed all pretence to be “The Internet” – WAP was sold as “the mobile Internet” – and delivered us a simple social service or communication channel.

Forever Blowing Bubbles

But you have to wonder how the bubble-boosters affect the prospects of successful businesses, such as the SpectraLinks who have built solid businesses on 802.11. In no small part, by wisely avoiding the public access arena.

It’s not as if the wireless world isn’t interesting enough already. There’s a frantic pitch for the retail markets going on right now, for the last “yard”. Because so many people have phones, and they trust them to work, there’s a lot of maneuvering around “Proximity Servers” and local wireless gateways. These represent serious gambles for the investors.

But the WiFi Bubble is interesting if only because, a couple of years after the greatest loss of wealth in human history, it proves that we have astoundingly short term memories, that we are incapable of fixing structural problems with our trust capital relationships, but most of all, because we insist on perpetuating the dippy belief that technology can provide all of our answers.

These delusions remain here on the West Coast. I suspect these folks will realize pretty soon that American capital – already thinking of a Sinofied Dell – has cut them adrift.®

[*] Since you insist. This extraordinary statement had us leaping to the phone, such was our curiosity. Was it, we wondered DMT or Peyote? “Is this on the record?” Fraid so. “I’m, erm, much too boring to do anything like that.” Shame.

Ex ICANN chief spotted in Low Earth Orbit

Esther Dyson has made one of her occasional swings past Earth, with Salon.com’s Farhad Manjoo making radio contact as her low earth orbit took her over San Francisco.

The former ICANN chief has lost none of eccentricity on her on her voyage through the galaxy.

“Let’s get real!,” she proclaims – an alert for regular readers to take cover, to avoid being hit by a flock of birds flying backwards.

“I want to fix it.”

Esther weighs in on the subject of the At Large board – that’s the 17-strong body who in ICANN’s original charter should now have been elected by the public. As it is, only four posts were offered for election, and shortly before CEO Lynn and attorney Sims jettisoned themselves in their own escape pod, they decided to abolish the whole nasty business of elections altogether.

To widespread relief, Esther opines that the existing board are, in fact, reasonable people. Only with one exception – Karl Auerbach – “…who unfortunately has some good proposals and it’s counterproductive how he goes around trying to achieve that.”

(Look, we never said this would be easy, navigating through clouds of Esther antimatter and strange vortexes of nonsense.)

“Let’s get real!” she again demands.

“I can’t think of anything better than elections…” she says, before er, dismissing the idea of elections as a “near term mechanism”. Elections are a long-term goal, you see. Just one that’s rapidly disappearing over the event-horizon.

Are you still following us?

Dyson last passed within radio contact in March, when, after the plan to abolish the board had been made, she baffled observers by embellishing the news with the message that it had been a “hard fought” triumph for democracy.

Esther’s father, the great British-born physicist Freeman Dyson, once planned a spaceship powered by nuclear bombs.

But Esther’s found her own release, free from the surly bonds of reason: a vehicle so elusive no mortal can hope to plot its progress. Can Auerbach and Gilmore muster a light sabre between them?