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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 03 May 2019, 1:30 pm

The future of telecommunications

Well, that's not too grand a headline to try to live up to, is it?

In the past you were a customer of a phone company. The phone company decided what you could do with your phone (make calls, mostly) and how much it would cost (quite a lot more than it cost them to deliver the service). Phone companies were highly profitable even though they'd suck their teeth and fret about the future. They could invest in decade-long cycles and not worry too much about customers because what were you going to do? There was no competition.

Along came deregulation and OMG competition and then not long after technology happened and they were forced to grit their teeth and become "customer centric" and to offer things like "discounts" and "support" and then things got quite whacky.

They discovered the heady allure of marketing and all bets were off.

Profits went nuts. People were willing to pay for the dumbest of things. One company made a killing selling 140 character bursts of text and another introduced a thing called a modem and before you knew it the internet and mobile were all anyone could talk about.

But still you were a customer of a phone company and all the rest was in addition. "Over the top" services, they were called, and after trying out some walled gardens and some content deals and some other shenanigans the whole thing came to a crashing halt when Apple's Steve Jobs literally said "I hate phone companies" and introduced a phone company killer: the iPhone.

Instantly customers wanted it and flocked to the device which wasn't just a phone, or just an email gateway, or just a game boy, or just a book, or just a video console, or just a musical instrument, it was all things to all people. The App Store saw people spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on apps and content and before you knew it you were an Apple customer, not a telco customer.

After that, it was only a matter of time before the reality would sink in. Telcos were a commodity, a "dumb pipe" that sure, enabled customers to do cool stuff, but weren't in and of themselves cool. A bit like electricity or sewer pipes, they were essential but essentially dull (unless they broke).

Today I'm an Apple customer, if only because it's easier maintaining a fleet of devices if they're all the same and my family are firmly in Camp Cupertino. It's easier for me to move to another network than it is for me to swap to Google because the cost of moving over and having to rebuy all those apps and the content I have is ridiculous.

It really doesn't matter which network I connect to because bits are bits and they're all pretty good at moving them around.

Which brings me (eventually) to the eSIM introduced by Spark this week. Apple has long fretted about how to reduce the size of the innards of the iPhones and remove all the bits that weaken the structure. The headphone jack is gone, they'd love to take out the power socket too and that just leaves the SIM slot.

By moving to an embedded SIM (basically much like the old CDMA network had), Apple users can ditch the SIM card altogether and that frees up real estate within the device that Apple will be able to fill with battery capacity (I imagine).

But what it also means is that porting between networks just took a giant leap forward and snips one more of the apron strings connecting the customer with their network of choice.

Currently if you want to port your number you have to ring up, tell them you're moving, get the new telco to talk to the old telco, possibly get a new SIM card, reboot your phone and bam! You're on a new network.

You can do this once a month at most and there's usually a cost of some sort that the acquiring telco is more than happy to waive so you feel good about your decision.

But there's no reason for that lag if you're using an embedded SIM. Instead you can swap networks on a weekly or daily or even hourly basis. Why do you care what network you're on? Price, speed, availability. That's about it these days - the rest is just marketing and window dressing (ED: That's redundant, isn't it?). So why not have a connection that serves the best purpose for you at that given moment?

It's a brave new world for telcos at the moment. The cool stuff is happening on their networks but they have little involvement other than providing the connection. The winner is likely to be the telco that embraces rather than resists this move and does what telcos should be doing: building the best network. That's the network I'd port to.

TechBlog - Embedded SIM cards come to New Zealand

ZDNet - Telcos flailing against tide to turn into dumb pipes (October 2018)

Digital Initiative - AT&T: from baby Bell to dumb pipe? (January 2019)

Telecoms - Could a 5G network actually be the best dumb pipe ever? (August 2018)


Welcome to the new Facebook

Yes, it's new. You can tell because the page looks different. No more blue, apparently, and more emphasis on groups and on privacy.

No, really. Privacy. The company that faces a record US$5 billion fine from the US regulator, and has outstanding privacy complaints in New Zealand, Canada, the UK, the EU and goodness knows where else. The company that "accidently" let 50 million customers records get passed over to a third party for nefarious reasons, and which "accidentally" assimilated 15 million users' entire address books (our motto: "whoops") is now going to sell you on its ability to offer privacy.

We should all be very worried because privacy doesn't mean the same thing to Facebook as it means to us.

Facebook is in the throes of reinventing itself according to CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg. The social media beast that makes US56 billion a year from targeted advertising is going to pivot away from the golden goose towards the cash cow that is online payments, private chat rooms and secret areas where you can discuss those things that you can't say out loud.

Basically, Facebook wants to become WeChat, the Chinese social media juggernaut.

There are reasons why this is a terrible idea. Let's assume for a moment that Facebook can indeed be trusted with your payment details, with your shopping wishes and with all the rest (including the dating app - oh yes, getting back to its roots, Facebook is going to help you find love), none of this addresses any of the problems Facebook has coughed up over the past 18 months or so.

There's nothing about addressing hate speech, about protecting users from abuse, about stopping the viral spread of extremism and hate video. There's nothing about fake news and incredible imbalancing of our democracies. There's nothing that addresses any of the concerns we as users or observers have about Facebook's global dominance and the way it manages its affairs.

But even beyond that, what Facebook is proposing should ring alarm bells all over the place.

First of all it wants to build on its Facebook Groups model to provide an extra layer of privacy. Currently you can set up a group and make it public or private, but Facebook wants a third level - secret. Public means anyone can join, Private means anyone can find the group but you have to be allowed in by an admin of some kind, Secret means you can't even see the group in searches and you can't ask to join.

Quite how this fits with a more responsible Facebook is beyond me because it sounds like the ideal place in which to share objectionable material of one form or another.

It also puts the onus for management of the group squarely on the administrator rather than on Facebook, which is, I suspect, the point of the exercise.

And then there's the payments piece. With secure, totally encrypted communication, Facebook wants to be the home of drug deals, of money laundering, of cash jobs and under the table trading. Governments and revenue agents will struggle to see what's going on and to track financial transactions at a whole new level - the domestic level - and that's going to be very difficult for politicians to swallow.

And still, after all this, anyone will be able to film something obscene and upload it for all the world to be seen.

Hootsuite - An Introduction to Facebook's Secret Groups

InternetNZ - Johnny Foreigner and our elections

The Verge - Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the 'future is private'

New York Times - Facebook Unveils Redesign as It Tries to Move Past Privacy Scandals

Mashable - Why we should all be skeptical of Mark Zuckerberg's new commitment to privacy

The Economist - Mark Zuckerberg wants to build WeChat for the West


The Wall

Shields up - he's insane!

Paywalls are a curious beast. The media industry has been fretting about them for as long as I've been part of it and have struggled to find a model that works.

Should we charge per story? Micropayments that dribble in (but come with a massive overhead of filling in forms and setting up payment mechanisms in a pre-app world that meant nobody really came to grips with it). Should we charge for all content? Should we let the reader decide how much to pay? Should we encourage donations instead?

Business media has it easy. They typically are stories that are read by business people conducting business on behalf of a company and so the Bank of the CEO can pay for the subscription. The National Business Review is one local media outlet that moved to this model some time ago. Internationally, The Economist, Forbes, Australian Financial Review and a host of others have long since jumped in boots and all and are quite happy with a paywall model, thank you very much.

But for mainstream publications it's always been a bit trickier. They still hark back to the days of papers and advertising and classifieds and job ads, and all the rest.

Sorry, guys, those days are gone. Facebook ate your market and you did nothing to encourage readers and advertisers to stay. It's true, we all know it, you gave away the farm.

The New Zealand Herald (aka The Granny, the Paper of Record, the "nearest thing New Zealand has to a national daily if you ignore its delivery footprint", aka The Harold) has finally jumped in and declared itself paywalled.

For $200 a year you can get access and that works out at less than a latte per week which is pretty good going all things considered. Not everything is behind the paywall (and let's not discuss just how porous the wall is, or how easy it is to get around) and a quick headcount of "stories I'd want to read" came in at a cool 70% for me on day one of the project. So that's a no brainer - up I signed.

I'm no fan of the "but that means you're financially supporting A Columnist Who Is Stupid Beyond Belief" line of reasoning. I don't read the media to find out what I know (that's what this column is for) but rather to find out things I don't know, and often that means reading someone I disagree with in order to better understand why I disagree. I don't want a consensus cluster - I want multiple points of view.

One downside of putting up a paywall on mainstream publications is that it shuts out all that content from the daily debate, at least until more publications move behind paywalls and it averages out again. Given the world we live in currently, where fake news can be published and then massively hyped and promoted thanks to social media's lack of understanding about how democracy works, this is a valid concern, but the alternative is finding another way to fund journalism and given how well that's gone in the past decade, I wouldn't hold my breath. Government funding of broadcasters aside, I can't imagine the public wanting to buy newspapers or their websites so it's the commercial world and paying for content that's the flavour of the day.

And frankly, it's about time. The world has moved on from the late 1990s and we no longer see these things as giveaways. Instead, Netflix and Apple Music and Spotify etc have saved Hollywood (and Motown) from itself by giving customers a way to pay instead of stealing content so why shouldn't the same thing be true of journalism?

Time will tell how it works out for the Herald but given Stuff's current status (orphaned and on the block) I suspect they'll be watching with great interest.

Newsroom - Hark the Herald Paywall

Noted - How the decision to paywall NZ's largest newspaper will affect other media

Newsroom - Stuff orphaned as Nine sells Aust papers

NZ Herald - NZ Herald launches digital subscriptions for premium journalism, reveals pricing


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Mike Dennehy 09 May 2019, 6:59 pm

Digital subscriptions for "premium" journalism; now there's an interesting concept. In recent years the standard of journalism (MSM I mean, not the specialised and topical contributions to TechBlog) has IMO become anything but premium.

The dead-tree media have been extraordinarily slow to wake up to the fact that their industry and business model is effectively over. I get a monthly reminder of this incontrovertible fact by the calls from the NZ Herald or Bay of Plenty Times, offering free subscriptions for 6 weeks followed by a heavily-discounted subscription offer, with no term. I can smell the desperation even over the phone.

At the same time their editorial policies seem to have veered away from reporting what's happened, to trying to shift public opinion in whatever direction they think fit.

Recent moves such as forming a cartel to determine what the poor naive public are able to cope with hearing when reporting on the trial of the (alleged) Christchurch terrorist only serve to reinforce the opinion that the journalists and editors believe they know best.

When you add in the noticeable decline in journalistic standards (again, present company excepted), the prospect of having to pay to consume what passes for "premium" content doesn't make me rush to the subscription page.

I expect the paywall to be a short-lived and disastrous experiment that will only place the media barons in an ever-more difficult position.

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