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Paul Brislen, Editor. 28 October 2016, 4:34 pm

This week we're sad to note the passing of one of computing's great kiwi pioneers earlier this month. In other news, the NZ Open Source Awards were again a great success this week, and Newsline Editor Paul Brislen takes a look at Apple's fortunes, rural connectivity, and this week's big tech news story, the move of Wynyard Group into Voluntary Administration. 

Tech pioneer Prof Brian Cox passes away

(Written by Paul Matthews, with parts shamelessly stolen from here)

We were very sorry to hear of the death of ITP Fellow and Professor Brian Cox from Dunedin earlier this month.

Brian was one of New Zealand's first Computer Scientists. He was originally a mathematician, having obtained his PhD from Cambridge and bringing back his knowledge of early computing when he took up a lecturing role in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Otago. In 1966 the University formed their Computing Centre and Brian was appointed as its head.

The IBM 360/30 that was initially installed had a whopping 16KB of RAM. Yes, that's a K. With no computer operators, anyone wanting to use it in those days had to figure out how it worked first then write their own programs using punch cards. This became popular and sometime later Brian was able to convince the University to double the ram to 32KB, resulting in significant celebration.

As reported on the Otago Uni history website, A transistor radio on top of the central processing unit would serve as notification when a program had finished running by "squawking horribly" whenever a programme finished, as it picked up changes in the radio waves generated by the processing unit.

Brian took a wider problem-solving focus to the role. One example involved the Bonus Bonds program he co-developed to check the Post Office Saving Bank's computer Elsie was generating truly random numbers for winners. The program discovered Elsie wasn't random at all and had started selecting far more zeros than it should, which sparked an investigation that discovered a live mouse had chewed through some wires. Those were the dangers of computing in those days.

For a number of years Computing at Otago was taught by the staff of the Computing Centre, however when the Department of Computer Science was formed in 1984, Brian was appointed as the founding Professor. He remained head of department for many years until his retirement in 2000. As with many others, I have very fond memories of Brian during the time I completed by BSc in Computer Science at Otago in the late 90s.

As well as being a Fellow, Brian was one of the early members of what was then the New Zealand Data Processing and Computer Society in the 1960s. When the first membership system came into place he was awarded membership number "2", and once joked to me he was very disappointed when, in a subsequent system change, a check digit was added making his number "27", far less distinguished :).

Having retired in 2000, Brian was one of the leaders of the heritage computing group in Dunedin and was still a regular at Dunedin ITP events right up until this year, at which he will be sorely missed.

Through his innovative and pioneering approach, Brian touched many people both in Dunedin and across New Zealand. He contributed to the education of thousands of computer scientists, techies and developers, and we're very sad to say goodbye to one of computing's great pioneers.

Rest in peace, Brian.

 

2016 Open Source Awards

The top kiwi open source contributors and companies were recognised in the biennual NZ Open Source Awards this week. With well over 100 entries, the quality of the field was incredibly strong, as is the calibre of the open source community in New Zealand.

It was a fantastic night, and the winners were:

  • Government: Digital NZ, an initiative that seeks to help people find, share, and use NZ digital content. 
  • Business: Catalyst for the Catalyst Cloud, the only fully API-driven cloud infrastructure in New Zealand. 
  • Education, Social Services and Youth: Wellington City Council for City Housing Computer Hubs, open source computing hubs for council tenants. 
  • Arts: Massey University's Make/Use team for Make/Use: User Modifiable Zero Waste Fashion, an open source system for making user-modifiable, zero waste garments. 
  • Science: The Cacophony Project, using modern IT tools and applying them to the problem of eradicating rats, stoats and possums from New Zealand. 
  • Open Source Project: Paul Campbell's OneRNG Project, a device that generates random data to improve the quality of security-critical operations, such as encryption. 
  • Open Source Contributor: Eileen McNaughton for her contribution to CiviCRM. 
  • People's Choice: Brent Wood for services to geospatial open source,  and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Priv-O-Matic. 
  • Special Award: Michael Kerrisk for his work on the Linux Man Pages Project. 

 

A post-smartphone world

As we breathlessly await the next generation of Apple stuff (apparently it's a thing called a "lap top" but we're not sure what that is any more) news that the fruit technology giant "only" made US$9bn net income in the last quarter (yes, that's a three-month period) has hit the company's shareholders hard.

Let's think about that for a moment.

And while we're thinking about it, Apple lovers and haters alike should take a peek at the Touch Bar announced today and coming to a MacBook Pro near you. While on one hand it seems like a somewhat simple thing, really only Apple's close connection between hardware and software make it a seamless possibility, and it does show that Cupertino is still the home of innovation.

Anyway, back to the dollars. Sales of the iPhone 7 series weren't quite what was expected, and only 45.5 million were sold (that's down 13% on the same time last year). Clearly a savaging is in order. And the AirPod earphone replacements are delayed because (presumably) Apple doesn't want to risk having them burst into flames while inside someone's head.

And let's not talk about the watch market which is really dead on arrival.

But frankly I think the results simply reflect the state of the market. We've all got smart phones. We've all got tablets and laptops and if we want them, we've all got smart watches.

It's tapped out. Time to move on.

I'm more interested in hearing about the next big thing and in many respects I think the personal computer is going to get more personal still. Noise cancelling ear buds with microphones that pick up surrounding sounds are starting to emerge but once you couple those with true voice capability you've got Siri in your ear ready to go at all times.

"Hey Siri, what time is my next meeting?"

 "Hey Siri, call me a taxi."

"Hey Siri, this pub quiz wants to know who Henry VIII's third wife was."

I can see the future and the future doesn't need a keyboard.

Apple - Introducing the new MacBook Pro

The Guardian - Apple's annual profits fall for first time in 15 years as iPhone sales decline

The Register - Apple grounds AirPods launch with shipping delay

The Register - Disaster in Cupertino: Apple only made US$9bn last quarter

Wired - Doppler's Futuristic Earbuds Sound Great. They Also Speak Spanish

Slate - These Aren't Wireless Headphones

ZDNet - Samsung mobile down 96 percent as Note 7 wipes out division's Q3 operating profit

 

The Divide

Rural connectivity is an issue that is dear to my heart. Trying to explain to my kids what the world was like BW (Before Wifi) just results in scoffs and the shaking of heads. They half don't believe that I'm serious and that this ever was the case.

Yet for many it still is the norm. The mobile phone companies talk about coverage in terms of the places where Kiwis "live, work and play" and tend to clock in at around 97% coverage, yet when you break that down to geography, it's far less than that.

For those that live in this areas of rural tranquility this can be a serious impediment. Never mind making money efficiently, what about the kids doing their homework? What about health and safety? What about ringing your mum on her birthday?

While the cities got (or are getting) fibre to the home courtesy of the UFB project, rural New Zealand was given 5Mbit/s (at peak no less) under the auspices of the Rural Broadband Initiative.

That's simultaneously a mind-bogglingly poor result and a great leap forward for many in rural areas. Now, the government is to follow-up with RBI Extension, a $150 million project that will extend the reach of the RBI and push that 5Mbit/s service up to 20Mbit/s, which is still a long way behind the UFB's 100Mbit/s moving to 1000Mbit/s but is still a great leap forward for users in the wops.

It's very important that we get rural New Zealand connected properly because of all the points I listed above and more. It's about social cohesion, about community building and in a country that still considers itself to be more rural than urban, it's vital we don't cut the heart out of our communities by having the next generation leave for the cities and never return.

Part of this new RBI project is the explicit inclusion of a "mobile black spot" programme of work. Vodafone made the running last time round mostly unhindered by competition - expect to see a lot more from Spark as it battles to win back the rural mobile market.

Techblog - $150m boost for rural broadband

NBR - Crown opens tender for $150m rural broadband top-up - and ratepayers could again be on the hook

Stuff- Poorly-served rural areas promised fast internet plans with 350Gb data caps

ZDNet - NZ government announces NZ$150m RBI extension, mobile blackspots program

 

The rise and fall of the Wynyard Group

Oh, Wynyard.

For those that haven't followed the story, the once high-flying software success story has come crashing to earth with a move into voluntary administration following months of uncertainty over the value of its shares, its customer acquisition strategy and several other non-product related issues.

If ever there's a tale of why not to list your company on the stock market too early then Wynyard is surely it.

Wynyard's "about us" page tells it all:

"Wynyard Group is a market leader in high consequence crime fighting and security software, used by law enforcement and national security agencies, critical infrastructure operations and major corporations."

But sadly the customers simply weren't there and frankly I have no idea just what product the company actually made. Crime analytics and case management software is an interesting area to play in but is it just some gigantic spreadsheet approach that happens to focus on a sexy industry or was there more to it? The product and intellectual property don't seem to be the problem here - rather it was the way the company communicated with shareholders and talked up potential sales before they were delivered. Never over-promise and under-deliver - always do it the other way round.

Wynyard was born in 2011, listed in 2013 and is toast by the end of 2016, potentially taking some shine off the ICT sector's reputation in the process.

It didn't have to be like this and questions have to be asked of both management and the board (not to mention the advisors who suggested going public at such an early stage) as to just what went on. A potential class action suit against the Directors now has over 1000 shareholders interested and could well be the key to unravelling the dramatic fall of a company with such huge potential.

Having said all that, let's not prejudge the outcome of the voluntary administration process. The company isn't in liquidation yet and there's still a good chance that it will be (1) sold or (2) resurrected. We'll just have to wait and see what the administrators come up with.

And amongst all the gnashing of teeth that's sure to follow, let's not lose sight of what Wynyard's people were trying to do - build a great kiwi tech company taking it to the world. They likely made some mistakes along the way, and no doubt those responsible will be held to account in the fullness of time, but good on them for giving it a shot. And the story's not necessarily over yet.

RNZ - Wynyard Group in voluntary administration

NBR - What can we learn from Wynyard's voluntary administration?

NBR - Wynyard administration prompts shareholders to join class action

Newshub - Lessons to learn from Wynyard Group failure


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