No Bluepulse for you!

bluepulse-download

The other day Oliver Starr at MobileCrunch wrote a rave review of Bluepulse, a new mobile application platform. In a quick read through their website, it looks like they’re trying to offer a carrier-independent path for 3rd party mobile application developers to reach mobile users.

Bluepulse is planning to develop applications for customers, as well as rev share with 3rd party developers, and offers a free SDK. Getting applications onto wireless carriers network is a pain, and getting paid for them is also painful, so there are some good opportunities here, and I thought I would give it a try on my Nokia 6820.

The application downloaded and installed, but nothing happened, so after a few tries I sent off a message on the Bluepulse web site, and got a quick response from Stuart Hely, their general manager.

Unfortunately, it turns out that while the Nokia 6820 is capable of downloading and installing the Bluepulse application (which is needed to use other Bluepulse-hosted applications), it can’t actually run the Bluepulse application. No Bluepulse for you!

Our technical support guys have looked into the issue you raised and the bad news is that we can’t squeeze bluepulse onto the Nokia 6610 as the memory size required JUST exceeds the phones capacity even though the bluepulse file is very small.

Thanks for your query and sorry about the fact that you can’t have bluepulse on your current phone. We hope that with your next phone, you will be able to enjoy bluepulse.

Sounds like an interesting idea, but there might be some handset deployment issues for a while. I haven’t been keeping close track of handset capabilities, mine’s about a year old, so anything since then is probably OK.

I’ve been having good results with my new Bluetooth headset, so I may consider switching to a phone with a bigger screen that is better at running applications sometime. I’ve been moving steadily toward carrying less and smaller equipment for the past few years, though, and have been resisting switching to a Treo, Blackberry, or any other PDA-like device, partly because of the bulk.

StarSight – Solar powered street lamps with wireless access points

solar lamppost
This project seems like it could be a good fit for developing but urban settings where there is fairly high population density, a budget for deploying infrastructure, and enough community support to limit problems with vandalism or theft of the equipment.

Starsight (Starsightproject.com) is a project designed to supercharge street lighting and power in developing counties. Essentially it is a network of pylons, each with a solar panel, linked not by cables but by antennae which use wireless internet protocol.

The Starsight idea came out of the involvement of London-based sustainable development specialist the Kolam Partnership in an urban street lighting initiative in Cameroon.

Reliable street lighting can help a country to develop – a study by the Kenyan government recently found that street lighting reduced crime by 65 per cent. The benefits are even more widespread – aid workers and foreign businesses are more likely to stay on in a country if they feel secure.

One of the project partners is a Next-G, a Singapore-based wireless manufacturer which is building the pylons. If the project scales up, perhaps they can find a way to set up in-country fabrication of the poles, rather than importing them.

As an aside, solar panels are commonly seen at road intersections in Bangalore. If you look carefully at the top right of this photo, you’ll see one on the street sign pylon behind the tree branches.
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Links:

Free 411 service?

At last month’s Mobile Monday, Jack Denenberg from Cingular Wireless commented that 411 calls accounted for a huge chunk of revenue to the US cellular carriers, with Cingular servicing around 1 million 411 calls per day at an average billing cost of between $1.25 to $1.40. All US carriers combined do around 3 million 411 calls per day, which works out to more than $1 billion per year in 411 fees!

They’re going to be really unhappy if these guys get some traction:

A few weeks ago I met Andre Vanier, CEO of 1-800-411-SAVE (my friend Ajay, the guy with the cool geek car, introduced us). I was intrigued by his new business and he’s on the phone with me announcing his new service that turns on tonight at midnight.

We are considerably cheaper, he says. 1-800-411-SAVE is a free call.

His service is using the same database that the carriers use to provide 411 information. This service is using the latest data the big phone companies use (they are forced to share that data with other phone carriers), while many of the Internet-based services are using much older and less complete databases.

What’s the business model? 1-800-411-SAVE pays for the cost of the 411 call. The model is to recover the cost from advertisers. Not just any advertisers but specifically advertisers that fit into the overall concept of “save.”

(via Scoble)

Update 11-16-2005 00:41 PST – The corollary to saving $1.50 for listening to an ad from a sponsor before getting the phone number from 411 is that the customer service lines for banks and credit cards should pay me for listening to their upsell message that gets played before getting to the automated response or being put on hold. At least with the free 411 I get to make a choice…

Mobile Monday – November 2005

IMG_5305 IMG_5308

This topic for this month’s Mobile Monday was “Funding and Investment”, held at the AOL offices in Mountain View.

Speakers included:

Quick scribbled notes:
Keiritsu Forum is an angel investing group, making investments of $250K to $1MM in early stage companies, at premoney valuations of $1.5MM to $10MM. They gather 50-80 applications per month via their website, which invite some teams in for screening by member committees to select which ones will make presentations at their monthly meetings.

They are not strictly focused on mobile or technology, and their disclosed investments are eclectic. One company they mentioned makes a self-cleaning kitty litter box.

Vineet from BlueRun Ventures outlined some mobile and communications topics they’re following :
IMG_5309

  • Convergence of wireline/wireless (Cellular + VOIP / VoWLAN)
  • Innovative Mobile Services
  • User interface and usability innovations
  • Emerging wide area technology (WiMax, not 802.20)
  • 3G rollout creating new opportunities

BlueRun is focused on relatively early investments of $2MM to $8MM, while a related fund, Nokia Growth Partners is focused on later stage investments. BlueRun started out as Nokia Venture Partners (but has since taken on additional LPs), giving it a strong global flavor before it became more fashionable. They are early on in their latest fund which just closed a few months ago, and could be a good fit for startup teams working the mobile space.

Martin Frid-Nielsen (CEO of SoonR) spoke from the entrepreneur’s perspective. Their product is a remote access solution for using your PC desktop from the mobile phone, and they have apparently been featured as a plugin for Google Desktop. Aside from the actual product, I found his talk entertaining for his comments on selecting a country for outsourcing their software development.

Their company is based in Denmark and the Bay Area, both high cost areas. They decided to outsource to a Eastern European country, and ultimately selected Albania. Martin also commented that Ukraine was actually cheaper, but there were other issues, “like, you have to pay the mafia”.

David Fradin (President and CEO of MauiGames) gave an overview of their phone-based games. They offer advertisers the ability to place sponsored banners and product placement within their (mostly Hawaii-themed) games, such as golfing, frisbee, and some sort of cycling sport. He seemed to be over-reaching a little when he claimed that their system provided the only method so far that could actually count ad impressions on a mobile phone, perhaps I misunderstood what he was saying.

They have a proprietary API for their ad service, which allows dynamic insertion of background banners into the game scenery and other displays. Someone in the audience asked why they didn’t drop the game development activity and just become something like “DoubleClick for mobile games” and his response was that the existing mobile game developers were mostly from gaming backgrounds, didn’t really understand the potential revenue value of selling advertising in the games, versus selling the game itself, and that MauiGames needed to continue forward with their model to demonstrate to the other companies how it could work (and thus convince them to sign on to use their advertising platform).

MauiGames is in Hawaii, although it looks like they’re actually on Kihei, not Maui. Still, a nice place to work. (Updated – AndyF points out that Kihei is on Maui…)

Mobile Search = US$1 billion 411 calls per year

IMG_4937

Today, mobile search in the US = $1 billion per year in 411 calls.

Well, that’s a gross oversimplification, but it gets to one of the main points from this evening’s sold-out, standing-room-only joint Search SIG and Mobile Monday session on Mobile Search, held at Google this evening.

The panel discussion was moderated by David Weiden from Morgan Stanley, with panelists

  • Elad Gil (Google)
  • Mihir Shah (Yahoo)
  • Mark Grandcolas (Caboodle)
  • Ted Burns (4info)
  • Jack Denenberg (Cingular)

Jack Denenberg from Cingular was the lone representative from the carrier world. During the panel, he made the observation that 411 “voice search” was at least 2-3x the volume of SMS and WAP-based search, and that Cingular (US) is doing around 1 million 411 calls per day at an average billing cost of between $1.25 to $1.40. All US carriers combined do around 3 million 411 calls per day.

This works out to more than $1 billion per year in 411 fees!

Other comments from Jack: Wireless 411 use is still rising. Wireline 411 use is starting to decline. Today mobile search is based on user fees (airtime) and search fees (411). In the future, we may see some movement toward advertiser listing fees. The carrier provides a channel for business to communicate with prospective customers.

Pithy comment from the audience: “I see 4 guys trying to make the best of a bad situation, and 1 guy creating a bad situation.” More comments on why no location based services, why SMS is still limited to 160 characters, and partner-unfriendly pricing. Why $1.40 for an address when Google is free (except for $.20 for data fees).

Mihir from Yahoo mentioned that they have been running trials of paid mobile search listings using Overture back end on Vodafone in the UK, and it’s going well, so the mobile paid listings are starting to happen already.

Lot of comments about user interfaces being too complicated. Mark from Caboodle says that for each click into the menu system, 50% of the users will give up trying to buy something, such as a ringtone. They have a system for simplifying this, but unfortunately they weren’t able to get his demo onto the big screen so we never got to see it live.

Some discussion on the carriers generally having a preference to simplify the user experience by giving them a single, (carrier-branded) aggregated search, taking advantage of the proprietary clickstream and data traffic information available to them through the data billing system.

The Yahoo mobile applications seemed the most plausibly useful. The send-to-phone feature allows you to send driving directions and other info from Yahoo Local to your phone. The mobile shopping application could be used for price comparison while shopping in person (although this doesn’t do much for the online merchants today). Some of their SMS search result messages allow you to reply to get an update, so you can send an SMS with “2″ in it to get an update of a previous weather forecast.

For his demo, Jack ran an impromptu contest among 3 audience volunteers, to see who could find the address of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art the fastest, using voice (411), 2-way SMS search, or WAP search. All of them got the answer, although 411 was the quickest by perhaps a minute or a bit less.

IMG_4942

The 4info demo looked interesting. They use a short code (44636) SMS with the query text in the body, geared toward sports, weather, addresses. They also provide recipes and pointers to local bars if you key in the name of a drink. Someone in the audience pointed out that searching 4info for “Linux” returned a drink recipe, which Ted reproduced on the big screen. Not sure what the drink promo or the Linux recipe was about.

During open mike time, someone (mumble) from IBM did a 15 second demo of their speech-activated mobile search, in which he looked up the address of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art by speaking at the phone, and the results were returned in a text page. Very slick.

Lots of interesting data-oriented mobile search projects are building for the future. But $1 billion in 411 calls right now is pretty interesting too. Who makes those 411 calls? Are they happy paying that much?

I avoid calling 411 because I feel ripped off afterwards, and often get a wrong number or address anyway. But it’s not always possible to key in a search.

Photos at Flickr

Google Secure Access

via Om Malik:

Google seems to have developed a secure WiFi VPN software tool – Google Secure Access Client. The information can be found here. Google Rumors has all the details. To sum it up, what they are doing is giving away a VPN tool that takes some of the security risks out of open WiFi. Companies like JiWire and Boingo also have these type of secure WiFi software solutions. While on paper this sounds like a perfectly good deal, Inside Google says not so fast, and writes, “Google Secure Access has the same benefits for Google as Web Accelerator did, with fewer of the things that scared away people the first time.” They dig deep into the GSA privacy policy …

Another take at Inside Google:

Located at wifi.google.com, GSA connects you to a Google-run Virtual Private Network. Your internet traffic becomes encrypted when you send it out, decrypted by Google, the requested data downloaded by Google, encrypted and sent to you, and decrypted on your machine. This has the effect of protecting your traffic data from others who may want to access it. GSA’s FAQ describes it as a Google engineer’s 20% project

Google Secure Access FAQ

Linksys WRT54G Vunerabilities

From SANS: Multiple Linksys WRT54G Vunerabilities, published: 2005-09-14

iDefense has released five vulnerabilities against the Linksys WRT54G wireless access point/switch/router. Some of these vulnerabilities are very serious. Users of these products are highly recommended to patch their devices. Patches for the latest versions are available at http://www.linksys.com.

This is one of the most popular and widely modified wireless routers out there. If you have one that’s exposed to the public, time to patch it.

Here’s the capsule descriptions, these look like fun:

  • Remote exploitation of a design error in the upgrade.cgi component of
    Cisco Systems Inc.’s Linksys WRT54G wireless router may allow
    unauthenticated modification of the router firmware.
  • Remote exploitation of a design error in multiple versions of the
    firmware for Cisco Systems Inc.’s Linksys WRT54G wireless router may
    allow unauthenticated modification of the router configuration.
  • Remote exploitation of an input validation error within the web
    management httpd component of Cisco Systems Inc.’s Linksys WRT54G
    wireless router may allow unauthenticated users to cause a denial of
    service (DoS).
  • Remote exploitation of a buffer overflow vulnerability in multiple
    versions of the firmware for Cisco Systems Inc.’s Linksys WRT54G
    wireless router may allow unauthenticated execution of arbitrary
    commands as the root user.
  • Remote exploitation of a design error in the ‘restore.cgi’ component of
    Cisco Systems Inc.’s Linksys WRT54G wireless router may allow
    unauthenticated modification of the router configuration.

Mobile Monday – September 2005

IMG_4351 IMG_4352

Stopped by the Mobile Monday meeting at Yahoo this evening. This evening’s session looked like fun, as the theme was “Mobile Photos”, combining a couple of my current interests. Quick notes:

Some the general trends targeted by mobile photo services:

  • Mainstream arrival of digital photography
  • Impending arrival of megapixel+ phone cameras
  • Increasing availability of network connectivity
  • Rise of social software applications
  • Changes in online attitudes and habits of society – it’s not considered weird to meet people online
  • Change from photos mostly documenting events to photos of incidental, serendipitous memories

The slate of speakers / demos:

Erik Weitzman, Shutterfly (http://www.shutterfly.com)
Heather Champ, Flickr (http://www.flickr.com)
Rich Gossweiller, HP Labs/Plog (http://www.richgossweiler.com/projects/Plog/PLOGPage.htm )
Chris Dury, ScanR (http://www.scanr.com)
Mike Prynce, Mobido (http://www.mobido.com)

Flickr guy (standing in for Heather) commented that at present around 30% of their uploads are from mobile phone cameras, versus near zero when they started. Shutterfly guy brought a set of sample prints from phone cameras of various resolutions, showing that more megapixels are definitely better, although the phonecams suffer from no flash or bad flash, and mostly terrible lenses. The Sony phonecams shown in the ScanR demo had visibly better quality than the Treo sample images.

United Villages proposes Rural Wireless Broadband in India

Now that the 2.4GHz spectrum is approved for unlicensed outdoor use in India, a number of projects based on WiFi, 802.11, and related commodity wireless data networking technologies are emerging.

The Kuppam i-Community program in Andhra Pradesh, which I was involved with, also has a network based on 2.4GHz wireless radios. At the time we had to get experimental licenses, after many meetings and much paperwork, because the 2.4GHz band wasn’t approved for outdoor use in 2002 when the project was started.

From Times Of India (via ContentSutra):

Rural India has now some serious chances to go Wi-Fi, and that can be for as cheap as Rs 50 per person a year. United Villages Inc (UV), a US-based low-cost internet service provider, has asked the government for permission (foreign direct investment or FDI) to set up base in India. It will provide rural WiFi broadband, which has the potential to reach out to about 30 crore people living in the villages.

UV has developed a communication technology that provides internet access using mobile vehicles that connect to already set up hubs. As the vehicles drive through rural areas, wireless communication equipment within them automatically exchange data with access devices in each village. This unique low-cost communication concept for the developing countries is often called “internet-on-wheels”.

Using UV’s mobile internet technology, acronymed VAN (Village Area Network), people in the rural area can send and receive email and voicemail, and can also browse through cached information from the web and local intranets, the company said in its FIPB application.

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the investors in United Villages.

See also: Cantennas deployed in Kuppam

More on Cingular and McAfee

IMG_4021 IMG_4025

A couple of days ago I wrote about the unsolicited SMS message I received on my Cingular Wireless cell phone, inviting me to download some antivirus software from McAfee. Unfortunately, the source of the message was unidentifyable, meaning that anyone willing to downloaded the binary package would be just as likely to have picked up malicious code as an antivirus package from Cingular.

Apparently it really is from Cingular. I’m happy that they’re trying to provide a useful service, but this is a case where they’re educating the customers to behave in a counterproductive way. There’s no mention on the Cingular site, because this is a beta program.

Darla Mack writes:

On August 25th a small number of Cingular subscribers(including some Pre-Merger subscribers) received text messages alerting them of a new service provided by McAfee. Apparently, some of these subscribers had been infected by the Commwarrior virus. As you know, the Commwarrior virus can be spread via Bluetooth and/or MMS ad only affects devices running the Symbian OS.

Cingular began notifying customers via sms and in an effort to minimize the spread of this infection, have teamed up with McAfee to provide free virus scanning and removal software. Cingular customers may download the software from here.

Now before you go cursing your service provider for not offering a service such as this, please note that McAfee mobile is in beta stage and their virus protection software is in fact available for the rest of us.

From a discussion thread on the topic:

This sounds like a SCAM. Download something from …wappush.net… I would not.

Cingular is more than large enough to push something from ..cingular.com, or maybe even mcafee.com but not some strange site. Suggest you not browse to any protected sites where you put in a pin/password, if you install this stuff.

I would expect better from Cingular, given all of the Spam, Virus Attacks, and other crap that we have to live with. Sending out an unsolicited text message is the most idiotic thing they could do. At least a bill insert (or message for you online types) warning you that it was coming would make more sense.

I’m curious now, how would you know that this message came from Cingular and not some hack?

Steve Litchfield points out that viruses on Symbian mobile phones isn’t quite the same issue as on desktop computers, with this pithy example:

“Install Cabir?” (or “Sexxy”, or whatever the heck today’s media-favourite virus is called)
with buttons marked ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

At this point, if you still answer ‘Yes’, then you deserve everything you get! (As an aside, there are still at least two more questions to answer before the application is actually installed, giving you two more chances to back out)

I’m still not installing it.

Phone phishing or Cingular security update? You Decide

IMG_4021 IMG_4025

This turned up on my cell phone a few minutes ago.

I have no idea whether this is really from Cingular or not, but I’m sure some trusting people will go ahead and click the link.

It’s unauthenticated, sent to my phone via WAP push, with no way to verify that the originator is Cingular, McAfee, or an affiliate. They want me to download a binary and run it on my phone. Just lovely.

I hate the fact that its just as likely to be from an attempted security exploit as it is from Cingular. There’s no obvious mention of this on the Cingular public site, customer service site, or a quick Google search on Cingular and McAfee. Unfortunately, Cingular, like the other wireless service providers, tends to be poor at communicating with subscribers, other than attempting to upsell and cross sell services, so your guess is as good as mine whether this is authentic.

To help protect your phone from the following viruses, Cingular & McAfee have partnered to provide McAfee Stinger Mobile phone-based software to detect and remove the following viruses from your Nokia Series 60 phone:

  • CommWarrior.A
  • CommWarrior.B
  • Drever.A
  • Locknut.B
  • Fontal.A

To download and use this software:

    1. You must first agree to this End User License Agreement
    2. Click here to download

I’ll take a pass for now.

Update 08-30-2005 17:06 – follow up post, apparently it really is from Cingular

Send free SMS messages using Yahoo

If you have a Yahoo account, you can send a free SMS text message to any US cell phone. The message is sent with your Yahoo e-mail address in the “From” information field, making it possible to reply directly to the message using MMS.

The service is provided using an HTTP GET interface, making it easy to construct links and forms that will send SMS messages from a web page.

A working example of a web form and more info is at Russell Beattie’s Notebook.

The neat thing is that because the form uses GET, you can actually create a link on your page that uses the same tech: Send “This is a test” to 415-555-1234. [Update: Tim Bray says: "Don't do this, you moron!" Doh! Duly noted.]

Yeah, you can pretty much do the same with a teleflip.com email, but this will have a “from” of your Yahoo Mail, which is actually quite useful, as the recipient can respond instantly with an MMS message. If you have filters set up on your Y! Mail, you can then get notified as well… You can also pop your phone number in the form by default and put this in the side of your blog, for example, and have people contact you where ever you are (as long as they have a Y! ID) – that’s pretty cool if you think about it.

I just sent a test SMS message to my phone using a hand-crafted URL, and received it in about 5 seconds. Pretty handy!

Solar backpack wireless hotspot

wireless hotspot in a solar power backpack
Here’s a wireless hotspot based on the Voltaic solar backpack: article link (Popular Science), blog link (Mike Outmesguine)

What if you could marry the short-range power of Wi-Fi with the huge coverage areas of high-speed cellular services such as EV-DO to create a portable hotspot?

Parts List
• Junxion Box wireless gateway $700; junxionbox.com
• Verizon Wireless EV-DO PCMCIA card $100; verizonwireless.com
• Voltaic Systems solar-charging backpack $230; voltaicsystems.com

Proxim Wireless assets sold to Moseley Associates

Proxim has been struggling financially for a while, and today announced the sale of all assets to Moseley Associates.

Proxim is the current home of the former Lucent / Agere / Orinoco 802.11 product line, which were ubiquitous a few years ago as wireless LANs became popular and before “WiFi” was a marketing buzzword for a notebook computer feature. They also own the former Western Multiplex Tsunami point-to-point wireless product line, after merging with them a few years ago.

I’ve always liked their gear, but the WLAN market is totally commoditized now (Linksys, D-Link, and assorted white label manufacturers), the enterprise solutions seem to be moving toward solutions such as Aruba and Trango, and the longer haul point-to-point market hasn’t really taken off, partially due to all the noise about WiMax (which has yet to become a deployable solution).

Here’s what Proxim had to say to their customers about Moseley on their web site:

Moseley, the parent company of Microwave Data Systems (MDS), Axxcelera Broadband Wireless, CarrierComm, and Moseley Broadcast, provides industry-leading wireless solutions for both point-to-point and point-to-multipoint applications for the industrial (SCADA), broadcast, broadband enterprise and carrier marketplaces. Combining our product lines will enable us to offer a differentiated portfolio of products covering spectrum from 900 MHz to 38 GHz, bringing us much closer to number one position in the market with both licensed and unlicensed broadband, Wi-Fi, and WiMAX technology for an extremely broad spectrum range.

Well, that plus not totally going out of business. Hope they find a niche with some traction.

update 2005-07-20 15:47 Hmm. Terabeam is ending up with Proxim instead.

The Missing Mobile Device: A GPS Camera Phone

Continuing on the topic of converged GPS/camera/phone devices, here’s a post from Wade Roush (writer for Technology Review) calling for the cellular operators to open up location information for 3rd party applications, and detailing some of the business and cultural reasons why this is taking a while.

There are a lot of interesting technical hacks being strung together to cobble together location-aware and geotagged services, but the wireless phone carriers already have a lot of the infrastructure for this, and a near-total absence of applications.

5 megapixel camera phone with flash


This is the first camera phone I’ve seen so far that looks plausible for general photography. The Samsung SPH-V7800 has a 5 megapixel sensor, 3x optical zoom and a built-in flash, along with other standard point-and-shoot features. (via Engadget)

This phone is probably too large for me personally to carry around. But it would also be nice to see a built in flash with the more common fixed focus camera phones, to turn them into digital equivalents of the disposable film cameras. A 1 megapixel camera is perfectly adequate for snapshots, but without a flash they’re nearly useless indoors and in the evening.

I suspect that the experience is more like carrying a camera around all the time rather than a phone. If you’re already carrying a phone and a camera this would eliminate one device. Given the design tradeoff (bulk, short battery life) assumed for this device, it would be interesting to see if a future version could include GPS and/or cell phone based location information, since the power requirements of a GPS chipset probably wouldn’t make quite as large a dent in the power budget / run time / cost of this device as a “normal” phone. We probably won’t get the chance to try these in the US for a while, though, this looks like it’s targeted for the Korean CDMA (EV-DO) market, it could make its way to Sprint or Verizon eventually.

Cell phone tracking service

An interesting thread on Google Answers, regarding what services are available to track the current location of a cell phone. (via del.icio.us).

For about $200.00 ICU, Inc. offers to locate a cellular telephone by
pinging the phone – a kind of triangulation process similar to the one
I mentioned earlier. Ms. Landers explained that the cell phone appears
as a ‘blip” on a screen. They provide the service 24 hours a day, 7
days a week in order to help locate missing persons, fugitives,
cheating spouses, etc. They regularly serve bondsmen, authorities,
investigators and many others. You will receive the results within 7
to 10 minutes of a successfully completed ping that will indicate
within approximately 50 feet, where the phone was located at the time
of the ping.

I.C.U. Inc.
http://www.tracerservices.com/cpl.htm
http://www.tracerservices.com/cplfaqs.htm

Aside from the cell phone tracing, the list of services on the I.C.U. Inc web site makes for fascinating reading.

Update: 08-15-2005 23:59 – Came across the CellTrack project, which is developing a free, open source cell phone tracking system (presently for GSM). It requires installing a client application on the phone, however, so it’s not useful for finding someone who doesn’t want to be found. (screenshots here)

Also came across this paranoia-inducing clip at Instapundit:

THEY CAN HEAR YOU NOW: When I was in Beirut in April one of the leaders of the Cedar Revolution, Nabil Abou-Charaf, told me that Syrian intelligence agents used cell phones to “spy” on people.

“You mean they monitor your phone conversations,” I said.

“No,” he said. “They can listen to us all the time even when we’re not using the phone.” He could tell I didn’t believe him. “We know as a fact they can do this.”

Still, I didn’t believe what he said about spies using his cell phone as a bug. If the cell phone is off or just sitting there it isn’t transmitting a signal.

Looks like I was wrong. Julian Sanchez at Hit and Run points out this chilling excerpt from a story in last week’s Guardian.

The main means of tracking terrorist suspects down has been the monitoring of mobile phone conversations. Not only can operators pinpoint users to within yards of their location by “triangulating” the signals from three base stations, but – according to a report in the Financial Times – the operators (under instructions from the authorities) can remotely install software onto a handset to activate the microphone even when the user is not making a call.
I’m sure the police love this feature. Police states apparently love it, as well.

Notes from KINCON 2005, biotech thoughts

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Some notes from day one at KINCON 2005 at the Palo Alto Crowne Plaza. Today’s sessions were technology-focused. Although this has traditionally been a Korean IT-related conference, and mostly chips and displays at that, the biotech presentations were the most interesting.

The first session was on wireless technology, mostly aimed at services for mobile phones, such as ringtones and games. Korea is a good place to try launching these services, with 76% wireless penetration rate, and 90% of the handsets capable of running games and multimedia. My observation — it’s hard to do much in this space with the mobile operators trying to extract fees from the customers and 3rd party service providers (in order to pay back their spectrum license fees). At least two of the speakers commented that most of the fee paid by the customer is to cover the billing costs.

The second session was on consumer semiconductors. Everyone in this session is a fabless design house. The Xceive presentation on their fully digital TV tuner chipset is interesting. This is a completely silicon RF-to-baseband system, which apparently doesn’t require any external filters or shielding. They didn’t mention how much their first products were going to cost, but getting everything onto silicon means the cost is likely to trend downwards, rather than staying put as the existing analog tuner cards have. It also means that the physical packaging is much smaller, so it could go in a PDA or phone or be used to add a video input feature to an existing digital device. There are already a number of cheap video player widgets starting to turn up, sort of like video MP3 players, and having a silicon-only solution for RF TV-in is going to enable a lot of interesting combinations.

The third session, on biotech, was the most interesting. Fan Hsu from the UC Santa Cruz Genome project gave a general overview of proteinomics and functional genetics. Lewis Williams from Five Prime spoke about their process for screening thousands of candidate secreted proteins against specific cell functions, vs the old method of testing a single protein at a time. Stuart Kim from Stanford spoke about the need for a systemic view of protein function and the possibility of applying a broader engineering approach to modelling clusters of related gene expression. His project uses Affymetrix GeneChips or something very similar to test aging-related gene expression. I got the impression that it was something like the work being done at Perlegen a few years ago when they were doing their sequencing project, in that they were generating huge quantities of data, without a good method for organizing and modelling the results. Each test chip returns something like 5000 columns x 20,000 rows of results. The last talk was by Christopher Ko at Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, who hopes to take GeneChip-like technology from a research environment down to something more user friendly, perhaps even to the point where an individual could run a test at home, sort of like a home glucose monitor.

I noticed that a lot of people left before the biotech session started, perhaps because the usual audience for this conference was interested in “InfoTech” and not so much “Bio”. My observation here — the genomic and proteinomic fields are just reaching the point recently where the information technology and systems engineering can become really useful. Another observation, though — pharma and health care product development are massively capital intensive and yet have very high risk per investment. The size of individual investments makes it difficult to place a lot of bets and plan on the portfolio paying off. On the other hand, it looks like there should be many opportunities to make a contribution toward advancing the state of the art, since the availability of data and computational tools is relatively new.

This evening I saw the announcement for Maxtor’s latest generation of desktop hard disk drives, which will be 500GB per 3.5″ unit; similar units from Seagate and Hitachi are expected in a similar time frame. The entire human genome database apparently requires something like 3GB, and the annotations from various research projects bring the total up to 8-9GB at the moment. So the current and future generations of desktop (and notebook) computers will have more than enough raw storage to handle the data sets. Doing something useful with the data is another problem altogether, but the size of the genetic/proteinomic database is relatively finite — it isn’t going to get exponentially bigger — and the computational resources continue to get exponentially larger/cheaper/faster. Something good has got to pop out of this somewhere…

See also: Korea’s plans for Ubicomp City, Korea becomes the largest foreign investor in India

Cantennas deployed in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh

This past week the Kuppam team has successfully deployed wireless connectivity to several new sites (in this case, village police stations) using cantennas. This design is based on the approach described here and also here, using locally available metal cans.

Although the cost of external antennas has fallen substantially in the past couple of years here in the US, the Indian domestic prices for wireless equipment is still quite high, partly because much of the equipment is imported from the US and other sources, which makes the effective price there around 2x the US prices after adding in shipping and import tariffs.

This particular cantenna design was selected for use in Kuppam because it can be built by relatively untrained workers with almost no tools other than a ruler, screwdriver, metal file, and soldering iron (or hand torch), and provides reasonably good performance (8-10dB gain) without being fussy about radiator placement. (I had my 8-year-old daughter build one of the prototypes to test the instructions, although I did the actual soldering.)

The only commercially purchased components are the RF N-connector and the screws. The effective cost of the antennas is below $5.00, versus over $100.00 for a comparable commercial unit in India. This is a major reduction in the total cost of rolling out connectivity to a new site within the Kuppam wireless footprint.

This set of cantennas and associated wireless links was also built and installed entirely by the Kuppam team, which I find quite gratifying. In the course of two years they have gone from being completely dependent on outside technical help to now being comfortable surveying candidate sites and configuring the links on their own.

The RF cabling itself is also a major component of the cost. Some sites may be able to use USB wireless adapters in place of the radiator to eliminate the RF cable and separate radio, although this leaves the adapter somewhat exposed to the weather and other environmental hazards, such as birds, rodents, and monkeys.


Free wireless internet at Singapore Changi Airport

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I’m always a little jealous of the internet and wireless services available outside the US. I’m at the SATS Premier Lounge in Terminal 1, which has free internet access via wireless. There are also free internet access PC kiosks placed regularly throughout the airport. None of this “sign up for T-Mobile” business like we have at the San Francisco airport.

The local television ads for the “25000kbps” i.e. 25mbit internet service and the Nokia “widescreen” TV phones also make me wish for more progress on the broadband front back in the US. Most people in the US have no idea how miserable our wireless and internet services are compared with places like Singapore, Korea, or Hong Kong.

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