Semacode to link Camera Phones to Web

Wired News writes:

Technologists have long dreamed of a clickable world, where machine-readable tags link physical objects to the universe of information on the Web. That dream came closer to reality this month with the release of Semacode, a free system that lets camera phones convert bar codes into URLs.

In many respects, bar codes make ideal URL tags. Ink and paper are cheap. Translating URLs into bar codes is easy. Unfortunately, hardly anyone owns a Web-enabled bar-code reader. A company called Digital Convergence tried to give away its CueCat bar-code reader to achieve the same thing. But consumers yawned, the press scoffed, and Digital Convergence faded away.

Canadian programmer Simon Woodside, the creator of Semacode, had been tinkering with modified CueCats when he started to consider the possibilities of using camera phones as bar-code readers instead. Market penetration would take care of itself, he reasoned. Equipped with the proper software, the camera phone would make a dandy URL bar-code reader.

After a year of development, and with help from his associate Ming-Yee Iu, Woodside released the Semacode system.

Semacodes themselves are standard URLs in the form of two-dimensional Data Matrix bar codes. A Java applet on the Semacode site transforms text URLs into Semacodes. In turn, the downloadable reader for camera phones translates Semacodes into URLs and loads them into the phone’s browser. The process requires little more than centering the Semacode in the camera’s display and pressing a button.

But unlike the commercial products, Semacode is an open system. Rather than putting a tollgate between the physical world and the Web, Semacode simply bridges the two.

What do you do with Semacodes? In theory, you can stick a Semacode on any physical object about which people want more information. At San Francisco Bay Area transit stops, people have pasted Semacodes linking to real-time arrival information from NextBus. This week, the art group etoy will issue Semacoded uniforms to 500 children participating in its etoy.Day-Care-2 project at the Nieuwe Domeinen arts and architecture festival in Amsterdam. A quick scan of the uniform would link to the children’s Web page with real-time information about them.

Woodside had other suggestions: Businesspeople could put Semacodes on their business cards to link to constantly updated contact information. Museums could tag exhibits with Semacodes to provide information in multiple languages. And yes, Woodside said, stores could mark their merchandise with Semacodes.

But mainstream acceptance may not come easily. Semacode faces a classic technology Catch-22, in that few people will install the software if there are no Semacodes to read, and few people will create Semacodes if no one has installed the software.

Yahoo Groups Alternative

Sillybean wants something to run on the Intranet:

I run a Yahoo group at work. I inherited it from the creator, who presumably set us up there because while the university offers Listserv, it doesn’t provide us with the other goodies Yahoo offers — calendars, polls, file repositories, etc.

However, one departmental sysadmin with nothing better to do has blocked one of our members, saying he can’t imagine why we’d need to use Yahoo instead of the university’s resources. After I finished rolling my eyes, I went in search of some sort of alternative that we can set up internally. (I would like to get us off Yahoo for reasons having nothing to do with this incident.) We don’t use all of Yahoo’s features; we need:

– Files area
– Link lists (easy enough to do manually if we have to)
– Database (a contact list with customized fields)
Polls
– Calendar

I would also like to either have a listserve run through this tool, or to have this present a better interface to Listserv’s archives. All the items above should be open to any group member. Ideally, we’d be able to run more than one group using the same software.

So far, phpGroupWare is the best candidate I’ve found. PHProjekt and dotProject are also contenders, but they’re more oriented toward focused project management, while we’re more free-form.

Linux on the Desktop

Excerpts from a vnunet.com with Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik:

I speak to very high-level customers and government leaders who are starting to build next generation information systems. It starts with building on standardised hardware. We’re starting to see the [necessary] application performance on Linux. With dependable architecture, infrastructure and security, we believe we can now achieve what they need on a desktop.

You’re seeing companies like Salesforce.com emerge that will deliver that sales force automation functionality as a managed service in the same way we’re distributing our desktop…
The computing paradigm is changing. Whether it’s your word processor, email package or calendar, it will be a web service in five years time. The desktop was built over twenty years. Most people in 1995 wouldn’t have thought email would be their preferred method of communicating with their loved ones.

Web services is how we’ll distribute this desktop product. If you go to redhat.com or use the Red Hat network, that’s a web service [using] XML-RPC. The issue about web services is vendor neutrality if one vendor controls XML, or chooses to license the XML format or XML data schema.

[The advantages that companies see in Linux are] cost, performance, standardisation and no vendor lock-in. They’re the big four. Lower operating cost, improved performance, improved reliability and not tied to a single vendor. They were saving [millions] getting rid unreliable systems causing lots of expense and headache. One of those Wall Street banks now has one administrator for 800 machines. One did it then everybody else came rushing to him to say: ‘how did you do that?’ Now nine out of the 10 leading Wall Street banks are Red Hat customers.

Google’s AdSense

WSJ writes how some entrepreneurs are seeking to exploit Google’s AdSense:

Here’s how the system works. AdSense serves text ads to sites that have related content — for instance, a Dell ad might run on a site about computers. Advertisers pay when user click on the ads, anywhere from a few pennies a click to $20 or more for particularly sought-after topics. Google shares a percentage of that bounty with the Web site owners, though it doesn’t reveal the specific split.

To exploit this, some sites enlist in the AdSense program and build pages targeted at topics that are likely to draw high-value ads, automatically “served” from Google.

“I find the most competitive and most expensive areas, and build sites around them,” says Howard A. Brown, 36, the owner of Studio City, Calif.-based Real Results LLC, who runs sites on mesothelioma, depression and dyslexia. The eventual goal, he says, is to find sponsors for his sites, but in the meantime, AdSense “is a quick way to add some revenue.”

Ed Kohler, a search-engine marketing consultant in Minneapolis, has a more complex strategy — essentially AdSense arbitrage. He buys cheap ads to draw users to his site, HaystackInANeedle.com, where he writes about topics that will attract expensive ads. If a reader clicks on his cheap ad to come to his site, and then leaves the site by clicking on an expensive ad, he makes money on the difference, minus Google’s cut.

For example, Mr. Kohler wrote an article last September about shopping-cart software, something of interest to e-commerce companies. He tweaked his article to make sure the right Google ads — those worth $3 or more per click — would be served onto his site. (One of the expensive search terms: “best shopping cart software.”) Then he bid for several search strings like “evaluating shopping cart software” that were available for five cents a click. If someone who searched for “evaluating shopping cart software” on Google was directed to Mr. Kohler’s site, and then clicked on one of his ads, he would be paying just five cents to get about $1.50 from Google, depending on the Google split.

“If one in 10 are clicking out [through an expensive ad], I do okay,” says Mr. Kohler. He says he used to make about $150 per month on the shopping-cart software article alone. That’s down to $75 per month now that Google has tweaked its payment system to charge advertisers less for some clicks.

Underpinning this new cottage industry is a recent shift in search-based ads, which is the fastest-growing form of advertising on the Net, generating about $2.5 billion in revenue last year. Google and archrival Yahoo Inc. have expanded their programs beyond search engines, enlisting publishing partners to place these text same search ads on content pages. So, in addition to running alongside Web-search results, the same Dell ad could run next to an article on a news site about personal computers.

Yahoo has kept distribution narrow, choosing mostly large publishers, including ESPN.com and The Wall Street Journal Online. But Google has opened its AdSense program to a wider audience, serving ads everywhere from trade publications to personal home pages. Small sites seeking to capitalize on high-value keywords enroll their sites in the program, and then work to attract Web traffic, often by tweaking their sites to climb in search-engine rankings.

US VoIP Market

Barron’s writes:

VOIP gradually has become good enough to become the backbone of some corporate-communications networks. Voice quality on an Internet call, in most cases, now equals that of calls placed via the old circuit-switching network. And the spread of broadband Internet access has set the stage for an assault on the vast consumer-telecom market by VOIP firms.

“It feels like the early days of the cellular business, or the cable business,” enthuses Sandy Miller, a managing director at 3i, a Menlo Park, Calif., venture-capital firm that has invested in Vonage of Edison, N.J., a privately held VOIP provider. “It’s as large a potential new market as I can think of anyplace across technology.”

And because the new technology routes calls in “packets” — clusters of data — it allows users to tap into nifty new services, such as calls that follow you from phone to phone, voice mail sent to your e-mail in-box and cheap conference calling. Many of those aren’t available through old-fashioned circuit-switched networks. Recently, several companies have announced plans to offer VOIP over Wi-Fi — letting consumers make voice calls over the ‘Net via a wireless connection to their laptop, desktop or hand-held computer.

Perhaps most important from an investor’s point of view, VOIP allows new competitors into the phone business. The Bells, in particular, face a flood of rivals, ranging from well-capitalized cable outfits to shoestring-financed startups and resuscitated dot-coms once given up for dead. The coming free-for-all will change the face of the U.S. telecom business. This is, in short, a very big deal.

To be sure, the voice-over-Internet protocol revolution has a long way to go. For starters, to use VOIP, the customer must have broadband-cable or DSL Internet access, or be in the franchise area of a cable company providing phone service. That is a target market of less than a quarter of U.S. households, although the number is increasing. (About 22 million American households now have broadband access; the total will hit 47 million by the end of 2007, according to AT&T.) And VOIP still hasn’t gained much traction among those who could use it now. At the end of 2003, there were perhaps 150,000 residential VOIP customers. Even if you assume 100% annual growth, the figure wouldn’t hit two million until 2007 — and that would be less than 2% of 109 million U.S. households.

Nonetheless, the early results are eye-opening. Vonage, the market leader in consumer VOIP services, had 7,000 consumer customers at the end of 2002. Now, it has north of 155,000, the total is increasing at the rate of 20,000 a month and CEO Jeff Citron says 350,000 is reachable by year end. AT&T, which is rolling out its Internet-based CallVantage service, expects one million residential and business users by the end of 2005. By then, almost all of the major and secondary cable companies will be offering Internet-based telephone service of some sort. Even the Bells are jumping into the fray, initially with service for business, but eventually for consumers too, as the Bells’ residential customer base shrinks.

The article discusses five markets for VoIP: carrying long-distance and international calls, corporate VOIP networks (IP-PBX), PC-to-PC Internet telephony, prepaid calling cards and the home market.

Bill Gates Talk

Here is the transcript of the talk Bill Gates gave at the Microsoft CEO Summit 2004. A nice overivew of new technologies. This is what he had to say about email, collaboration, RSS and blogs:

E-mail suffers when you have lots of people collaborating and different attachments that are going back and forth. And the creation of this idea that, whenever you want to work with somebody, you just create a Web site — called a SharePoint Web site — that’s been very explosive in the last year as we’ve built that more into Office. Office, even if you have the latest, will make a hint that when you send an e-mailed attachment that, do you really just want to click here and we’ll just make a Web site that everybody can go to and see what’s going on there?

What happens very quickly when a company adopts that is you get all different templates for these shared Web sites for starting a project, for doing a meeting, for discussing what’s going on with a customer. It’s phenomenal to see how quickly that takes place. So, the next generation of collaboration really is about bottoms-up creation of Web sites where the IT department doesn’t have to get involved. In fact, you can just have a few people administering 50,000 different sites and those sites get staged out and everything in a simple way.

Another new phenomenon that connects into this is one that started outside of the business space, more in the corporate or technical enthusiast space, a thing called blogging. And a standard around that that notifies you that something has changed called RSS.

This is a very interesting thing, because whenever you want to send e-mail you always have to sit there and think who do I copy on this. There might be people who might be interested in it or might feel like if it gets forwarded to them they’ll wonder why I didn’t put their name on it. But, then again, I don’t want to interrupt them or make them think this is some deeply profound thing that I’m saying, but they might want to know. And so, you have a tough time deciding how broadly to send it out.

Then again, if you just put information on a Web site, then people don’t know to come visit that Web site, and it’s very painful to keep visiting somebody’s Web site and it never changes. It’s very typical that a lot of the Web sites you go to that are personal in nature just eventually go completely stale and you waste time looking at it.

And so, what blogging and these notifications are about is that you make it very easy to write something that you can think of, like an e-mail, but it goes up onto a Web site. And then people who care about that get a little notification. And so, for example, if you care about dozens of people whenever they write about a certain topic, you can have that notification come into your Inbox and it will be in a different folder and so only when you’re interested in browsing about that topic do you go in and follow those, and it doesn’t interfere with your normal Inbox.

And so if I do a trip report, say, and put that in a blog format, then all the employees at Microsoft who really want to look at that and who have keywords that connect to it or even people outside, they can find the information.

Jeff Jarvis provides a wider view:

Gates wasn’t talking about blogs as blather. He was talking about blogs as tools for personal and business publishing of any kind of information. And he was talking about RSS as a new means of communication and distribution.

This means that, of course, Microsoft will embrace blogs and RSS in its tools, from Word to IE. It also makes Google look smart for buying Blogger (without a strategy then).

Providing publishing tools and space will be an essential service in the near future — for businesses, for family shopping lists, for unlimited sorts of publishing — and the war to win that space is just beginning.

Forget giving me virtually unlimited free email space. Give me virtually unlimited blogspace (and bandwidth).

I’m not sure how this will shake out for companies. It’s easy to argue that blogging toolmakers should consider moving to Maine and opening a B&B (with or without selling to Microsoft) — but then again, as personal and business publishing gets more specialized, there may be opportunities in creating specialized tools. Wouldn’t it be great if the Microsoft Word blogging tool allowed plug-ins? Yeah, it would be great.

The smart way to look at Gates’ blessing is to think about blogging as a platform for any kind of publishing, communication, and distribution. Bill will.

TECH TALK: Crucible Experiences: Lifes Tests

I first came across the term crucible experience when I was reading a book by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas, Geeks and Geezers. I thought about it again recently when I was interviewing a candidate and asked him what his crucible experiences were. Just as I asked him, I began to also think about my own crucible experiences. More on that later. First, let us understand what a crucible experience is.

We probably encountered the word crucible in chemistry classes in college. A crucible is a vessel used for high temperature chemical reactions. It is made of material that does not melt easily. Bennis and Thomas elaborate: The American Heritage Dictionary defines a crucible as a place, time or situation characterized by the confluence of powerful intellectual, social, economic or political forces; a severe test of patience or belief; a vessel for melting material at high temperature. Blending these three definitions, we use crucible to refer to an intense, meaningful and often transformational experience.

That is the context for a crucible experience something which transforms us, and shakes and shapes our lives. We have all gone through these experiences in our life some of these experiences last a short time, others much longer. Either way, they help change us in some way. More often than not, these are intense and deeply personal experiences, which we would rather not talk about. Even thinking about these experiences makes us want to purge them from our memories. But whatever happens, they leave an indelible mark on us for the rest of our life.

Crucible experiences have a way of testing us. They bring out aspects of our personality that we did not know existed. We can think of them in other words (for example, adversity). In each case, they help build our character be it as an individual or in the workplace. These events can be voluntary for example, a difficult and dangerious trek we decided to take. At other times, they just happen leaving us rushing to react. It is also at times like these that we realise whom we are really close to. All in all, the crucible experiences are character-building. While we are going through these experiences, we may wonder why is it happening to us. But later (sometimes much, much later), when we reflect back, we realise that there was definitely some good that came out of it.

Each of our lives is the sum of our experiences. As Albert Einstein said, The only source of knowledge is experience. Add to that Benjamin Disraelis quote, There is no education like adversity. Take them together and you can think of crucible experiences as lifes step functions: each taking us to a new, higher level, as long as we are willing to learn.

Tomorrow: Leaders Learn