Tuesday, December 29, 2009

To Infinity and Beyond! (Well 2010 Anyway)

buzzlightyeartoystory320 Everywhere you look on the internet every publication is doing a top 10 of some sort or other. Time.com is even doing a “Top 10 Everything of 2009”. Some of the more intriguing lists are the future lists - What we expect, desire or dread in 2010. While most of us aren’t that much aware of it, it also the end of a decade so the looks-back are not just for the year, but also for the millennium so far. A recent study shows that Americans consider it to be the worst decade since the 60s.

Better people than I are no doubt doing retrospectives of the year and decade in Nigeria. Instead, I stay narrowly focused on looking to the year and decade ahead in technology for Nigeria. This won’t be an highly cerebral analysis of what’s coming down the road. Instead, it will be a wish of what I would like to see come down the pipe in the coming year. So, in no particular order here’s my list of 8 things I would like to see in 2010 and beyond.


1. Number portability

Number portability is a law in place in the US and other countries that allows you to move from service provider to service provider with your existing phone number. So I can change from MTN to Zain, Glo or Etisalat without having to give my MTN number. The benefit of this to the customer (me) is that there is no customer lock-in. If I decide that a provider no longer meets my needs, then there is no constraint of convenience that ties me to that provider. The vendors would be a lot less complacent about how they treat customers if they had no means to hold onto to them other that the quality of their service.


2. Government regulation of 3G internet access.

3G internet access is currently provided by the GSM providers. It is the most convenient form of mobile internet access and one of the fastest internet connections available in the country right now. it is also fiendishly expensive and the restrictions the providers put on its use are bizarre. I have typed more than a few words about this in the past year. The National Communications Commission and the Ministry of Information need to step in and knock a few heads like they have done with voice and with text messages.


3. Free and fair elections.

This is not a technology wish per se, but a wish to see how technology can be used to give us free and fair elections. I am not talking about electronic voting necessarily, in fact, that has consistently been discredited all over the world. I am more interested in seeing technology being used to monitor, validate and secure the vote.


4. Electricity.

All of modern technology for all sorts of uses such as education, agriculture, health care, wealth creation or entertainment are dependent on electricity. The last decade brought us from a nation of effectively no phone communication to the point of being the fastest growing market for mobile telecommunications. The new decade has to be the one in which every hut has regular power supply.


5. Data sets

One of our national embarrassments is the lack of large data sets about our country and citizenry that can be used for planning and commerce. I would like to see publically available data sets generated and made public by both the private and public sectors. For example, the census information and be published online transparently and publically such an ordinary Nigerian can use the data to plan a business and understand who and where his potential audience is. Another example is a system that gathers data on the traffic flows in Lagos and uses it for better urban planning, but can also be accessed by ordinary citizens to figure out where there is a a bad traffic jam and plan alternative routes. We can use data sets about the largest concentrations of crime are in cities to make real estate investment decisions as well as more effectively deploy police. We should have access to school performance data that we can use to decide where to send our kids.

The “Data.gov” project of the US government provides information about this kind of thing.


6. App stores.

There is an explosion of Blackberry usage in Nigeria. It is probably the fastest growing mobile device segment in the nation. And yet for most people they are limited to email, IM, a few other built in applications and a relatively poor internet access experience. As every iPhone and iPod Touch user knows, the glory of a smartphone is in the mobile applications that can be downloaded for it. All of the major smartphone vendors now have sites and tools that allow you to download additional programs that significantly increase the functionality and the pleasure of your mobile phone. The problem is, as I mentioned my rant about the fencing of Africa, these so-called “app stores” are not available to us in Africa. That is just plain wrong. The vendors either make those app stores available to us, or we build our own phone operating systems and app stores here in Africa.


7. Official support for the iPhone.

We need to stop having to jump through hoops in Nigeria to get the iPhone. It’s officially available in Cameroon. Cote D’ivoire. Niger! Enough said.


8. Original and Useful web apps.

I’m kind of tired of multiple social networks. Legwork. NaijaPals. Kukuruku. Naijaborn. These Facebook and Twitter clones don’t actually add any value to me and fragment my user experience. I stick with Facebook because it gives me a richer toolset, a broader scope and the same amount of localisation that these others can give me. Now if one of them would do something useful with the Twitter API (application programming interfaces that let a third party use the data or tool of a site in another site or program) or the Facebook API then I will sit up and pay attention. My point is the up and coming tech start-ups in Nigeria need to give us true innovation and/or true value. Something that can make life easier and better such as 1SpotSearch.com does or like Kilonshele.com has the potential to be. It doesn’t have to be something utterly out of this world. Just something that once we have it we wonder how we lived so long without it.

So this is my tech wish list for 2010 and the decade to come. One or two of them would involve the government initiating or running things, but most of them don’t. I firmly believe we have to build a society where the people create for themselves what the nation’s leaders are not. We do it everyday already with our boreholes, generators and cars. Why not with other things that we can spread to other Nigerians and indeed the world.

Realistically, I think maybe half of them are realisable in the new year. The rest may stay in the realm of wishes or take much longer to realise. Then again, this is Nigeria. Anything can happen. See you in 2010.


What are you tech desires of 2010? Let me know in the comments.

Image of Buzz Lightyear courtesy Disney/Pixar via 3 News.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Digital Crossings First Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone! This is our first Christmas, but we don't have any Digital Crossings type content for this year. You could say I didn't think that far ahead. However, I will share something I wrote a long time ago. It's not tech stuff, but it does reflect our specifically Nigerian and African perspective and our philosophy on advancing the African and Nigerian perspective. It's called "An African Christmas"

Why sing we songs of mistletoe?
Why exalt we the pure white snow?
What meaning, tell, Rudolph's nose?
What romance bears fireside repose?
In an African Christmas.

Why not dream of Harmattan air?
Why not laud bluest atmosphere?
Extol the smell of burning grass.
Sing you of dust not frost on glass
In an African Christmas.

It's not the seasons of the year
That tinge the wondrous Christmas air.
But Mary's infant meek and mild,
Praise then, all men, the Holy Child
In an African Christmas.

©2003 Oladejo Adebola Fabolude

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Facebook Goes Public (So To Speak)

 Facebook.com, the world’s most popular online social network has just updated its privacy policy and settings. This isn’t just a a change in the wording of their policies, but a change in the settings.

Facebook’s success is arguably tied to two things. On an internet that had anonymity as one of its most attractive features, they created an environment where people were required to use their real identities. This would not have been a successful play without the other thing – the complete privacy of your personal information.People who wanted to see your material had to be invited and had to accept to be your “friend”. So you controlled the access list to your data yourself. On the basis of this and several other smart moves, Facebook has risen to over  350 million users.

With its new privacy policies, Facebook is beginning to change it’s emphasis on keeping your information private and is actually encouraging you to make your information (updates, pictures and whatnot available for all the world to see on the internet. In other words, you and the info you share about yourself on Facebook could end up in a Google or Bing search results. A lot of us really wouldn’t want to do that. There is a financial benefit to this. Searchable information is valuable information and the major search engines are willing to pay Facebook for that information. So for all their wording in their new policies about your being able to more finely control access to your data, they are really hoping you let it all become public.

However, if you would rather stay with your data as private as they were before, go carefully through the new settings Facebook has made available at the privacy centre in your Facebook profile or in the pop-up screen that may come up the first time you visit Facebook since the new settings kick in. Choose settings that maintain or improve the amount of information privacy that you have.

On the other hand, you may be comfortable with the whole world having much more information about you, your thoughts, interests and relationships. If so, I’ll see you online.


And yes, my baby is home. She was nestled in the crook of one arm as I wrote this. Why else do you think the post is so short?


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Born, this 17th day of December, 2009

Born, this 17th day of December, 2009, a baby girl. And she is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

From a hospital reception. Waiting.

I wait for word that my daughter has been born. Daughter. Such a strange word. I'm used to "sons". I have two of them. Lovely boys. The best little men there can be. But a daughter? Wow. I'm not even sure what that means. I have wanted girl children. Would have been perfectly happy with only girl children. Having been a father of sons for over seven years, having a girl of my own is such an odd concept. A pleasing one. An exciting one. An out and out scary one.

What do I do with this alien invader whose devastating weapon will be a cute smile, a shy look (perhaps) and the word "Daddy" as only a girl can say it?

What do I do the first time I set eyes on her, hold her in my arms and know that in a way that a baby boy never can she has completely changed my world?

Will she be light-skinned or share her mom's dusky beauty? A fat baby or a thin one? Will she have a rich head of hair? Well arched eye brows? Will she be the hungry kind or the kind that needs coaxing through each feeding? When will she first open her eyes and see me and recognize me as me? What will be that unique thing that, only minutes old, will undeniably mark her as her?

Where can I get a shotgun, no, a Sherman tank to guard her against any and all? How many cartons of Raid do I need to guarantee that no mosquito ever gets near her? Where do I get the wealth to cater to her every need? Show me the fount of wisdom to which I will roll a fleet of tankers to fetch an unending supply.

A daughter. Ouch.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Microsoft Office 2007 Home and Student Edition Sale may not be as Magnanimous as we First Thought (but it’s Great anyway)

OfficeBrand_compare_2 The six thousand five hundred naira sale of Microsoft Office 2007 Home Edition I blogged about last month is on. For those who missed the post, I wrote that for a period of 6 weeks, Microsoft would be selling the Home and Student Edition of their popular productivity suite at significantly reduced rates in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. This edition has Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote and allows you to install on up to 3 computers. I suppose three of you could band together and split the cost and install on your computers. You can then draw lots as to who gets to keep the media. At least I think you can do this, but you may have to check the end-user licensing documentation to see whether this kind of sharing is allowed.

The sale should have kicked off officially today, but was already available at some shops as early as last Friday. I picked up mine at Park n Shop.

I had applauded Microsoft’s magnanimity for this offer which makes the software temptingly cheap. It is a good deal and those with pirated versions of this and other versions can get legitimate very quickly. However, I have had to reassess my perspective of how generous Microsoft is being. Microsoft Office 2010 is currently in public beta (that means not finished yet but usable enough to test in real world scenarios) and is slated for release in the first half of 2010. So on the eve of the release of the next version of Office, Microsoft is conducting a fire sale of the old version. This is basically a case of the old practice of trying to get as much cash out of a dying horse before sending it off to the knackers for glue (and make a little more money from the glue too).

So, while the price is great, if you are at all interested in Office 2010 and whatever new and useful features it may have, you may want to skip buying this year’s model and wait on the next one. I was going to list some of the cool features that are coming in that version, but TechRepublic has a great list of features so you can look them up there. It is nearly guaranteed that you will be paying a lot more for that version of Office when it comes out than what this one is going for right now. Mind you, we all throng the shops looking for rock bottom sale prices for shoes, clothes and other stuff (Burlington Coat Factory, Primark, and the old Oshodi Oke anyone?) so I am not suggesting that Microsoft is being insidious in what they are offering. I’m just saying this might not quite be as charitable as it first appeared to be.

Now if you are like me and like technology, you can actually download the Office 2010 beta and use it until October, 2010 according to the Microsoft website. In addition, after the beta expires you can download the trial version and use that for at least another 3 months. In short you can use the beta and trial versions of Office 2010 for about a year or so before actually having so shell out money for it. However note that beta software is unfinished software. It won’t always work right. It will have problems – some of which will affect your documents. So you shouldn’t commit important documents to it. Don’t run you business on it. You could end up crying and finding out that you can’t sue Microsoft for it.

The bottom line is that the deal Microsoft is offering right now is pretty cool, however there are other options available, and a better product coming down the line from Microsoft themselves.

Now that I think about it, I wonder whether Park n Shop will give me a refund.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Equipping the Children

MUA AND FRIENDS VISIT SOUTH AFRICAN SCHOOL CHILDREN! Some months ago, we talked about getting game systems for our kids, what would give us the best value in terms of ease of use and family friendliness. We reminisced about how we had fun using decidedly non-technical bits and pieces, and odds and ends. Times have changed. Now play has a very electronic bent with all the associated benefits and all the new risks.

However, while that is about entertainment, education and childhood development equally have taken on an electronic bent. In order to have a leg up in the world we live in today, we absolutely need to have our kids start on computers at an early age. Look at it the same way we look at the utterly essential “3 R’s””: Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. Many of us nearly drove our parents batty as they tried to get us to string complete words together without misspelling or turning letters back to front. They underwent that self-torture because they realised how the ability to read and write clear correct English (though it could have been any other language) was foundational to academic and life success.

Similarly, we need to give the same kind of energy into raising our children today as “digital natives”. Digital natives are people who grew up with information technology tools and toys. People who grow up this way are quick to grasp and adapt to the rapidly changing pace of technology. They seem to have an intuitive understanding of how they are used and how they can be modified or manipulated to do almost anything. The thing about raising your kid as a digital native is that it will put him or her on a level playing field with other digital natives around the world.

So what do we need to do? First of all get the tyke a computer - and I don’t mean one of those bizarre pretend laptops with the 3 inch LCD screens and blocky graphics. I mean an honest-to-goodness PC (though you could actually do pretty much say similar things about the iPhone/iPod Touch and similar devices). You can get a perfectly adequate one for well under fifty thousand naira. Secondly, we need to get them the right software. The immediate thought that comes to mind is straight-up educational material. While all that is good, the computer is a complete experience for education, entertainment, and communication. In getting software for a system, all this needs to be kept in mind.

Third is an internet connection. At the heart of today’s computer-based society is the internet and all it has to offer. Of course there are risks and we will talk about them one day, but for the most part, with some simple precautions, your kids can be safe on the internet. The internet provides access to a huge volume of material for children that are great to help them grow. Over the next few days, I will point us at some of them.

All these are just tools. Now you have to sit with the kid and help him or her over the learning curve for the system itself, then the learning curves of the various programs and websites that you have validated. After all, the computer is just the tool, the software on top and the internet technologies are the things that are real value. You also need to set clear time boundaries on how long they can use a computer per day. Give them time limited projects and assignments, do the projects with them.

As you continue to do stuff like this, you will be providing your child what is needed to be prepared for the digital world we live in.


Image courtesy of Maritime Union of Australia at www.flickr.com

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Great Firewall of Africa.


Africa The Great Wall of China is an awesome piece of world history and architecture created in the so-called Middle Kingdom between the 5th and 16th centuries BC. This wall stretches for over 8,000 km and was built to protect the nation then from invasion. The “Great Firewall of China“, is a euphemism for the technology the Chinese government has put in place to control what websites (mostly from outside China) their citizens can see. This prevents people in China for accessing what their governments consider to be unacceptable content. They are locked away from the rest of the digital global village seeing only of filtered view of the world. The major international internet services such as Google and Yahoo have also been a part of the Great Firewall by filtering their content as required by the Chinese government.

There is another great firewall. Unlike the Chinese one, this is not imposed by any government and it is not to keep anything from getting in. Rather, it keeps much of a continent locked out. It is not acknowledged, identified or much commented about. However, it is similarly bad for the people encircled by it. It is an insult to their right to access internet resources across the world. I refer to the Great Firewall of Africa.

A couple of years ago, after I got my first debit card, I tried to purchase something online from HP.com. The order failed. Apparently HP doesn’t accept credit or debit cards that are not issued by US banks. Good enough. That is their choice. However, I recently discovered that if you do have a US issued card, and you try to make a purchase from an IP address that is outside the US, (even if the delivery address is in the US), the order will not be successful - and they won’t let you know why. It took a conversation with their support people to discover this. Now this may not be only Africa or Nigeria specific, but anecdotal evidence suggests that other online service providers do explicitly block out Nigeria and other African nations. I work with several Americans and several of them have testified that they cannot access their bank accounts and other personal web services from within Nigeria. The only way they can do their transactions is from the office because their internet connection is routed through the UK and the US.

Services like PayPal provide financial services that make it simple, safe and efficient to move funds and perform transactions on the internet. You can tie a PayPal account to a bank account and efficiently conduct commerce, funds transfers and other services with ease. PayPal is famously not available to Nigerians, - not by IP address, but by any form of indication that you are resident in Nigeria. Their services are simply not available in way that they can be consumed by Nigerians in Nigeria - and they are not the only one. Google Checkout is a system for masking your credit card information and placing orders online. Well Google will happily register my Nigerian issued debit card in their system, but will not let me make Nigeria a shipping destination.

Wikipedia has this to say about the phenomenon called IP banning: “IP banning is also used to limit the syndication of content to a specific region. To achieve this IP-addresses are mapped to the countries they have been assigned to. This has been used to devastating effect most recently to target Nigerian IPs due to the perception that all business emanating from the country is fraudulent. Thus making it extremely difficult for legitimate businesses based in the country to interact with their counterparts in the rest of the world. To make purchases abroad, Nigerians rely on proxy companies to mediate transactions”. While IP blocking or banning is the most blatant form of discrimination, I find what HP is doing more insulting. At least with the banning, I don’t waste time on your website at all. At HP you spend time, do all the ordering, then your payment is rejected.

The reason Wikipedia gives is also the main reason many sites do what they do to us in Nigeria. From one perspective, it’s understandable in the light of the 419 problem. On the other hand, as I asked someone today, if they block access from Nigeria to prevent fraud, what do they do to prevent fraud from inside their own countries where the incidence of fraud is far greater? According to the Internet Fraud, Scam and Crime Statistics - 2009, the following stats about fraud perpetrators hold true:

· 77.4% were male and

· 50% resided in one of the following states: California, New York, Florida, Texas, District of Columbia, and Washington.

· The majority of reported perpetrators (66.1%) were from the United States; however, a significant number of perpetrators where also located in the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Canada, China, and South Africa.

The person I was speaking with had the perspective that all of us suffer from the activities of the fraudsters. Not just in the risk of being defrauded, but from our freedoms being curtailed in order to protect themselves.

Examples abound of this tacit discrimination against us and it’s not just about websites. technologies like the iPhone and the Blackberry limit what applications you can download and install, they determine what music you can buy or stream for free. All based on where you live. The XO, a special notebook designed for the poor children of the world can only be purchased by governments, or by US residents once a year. So as individual Africans we cannot contribute this innovative computing technology to our own communities because One Laptop Per Child did not take our abilities into account.

There is a fundamental disdain being demonstrated for Africans and Nigerians. It may be subtler, but no different from the mentality that thinks we live in trees and don’t wear clothes. It is the same insult that dumps toxic chemicals on our shores. It is the limited mindset that focuses on giving aid to Africa rather than engaging the African entrepreneur in a way that is a real win for all parties. It is a missed economic opportunity, and it is their loss.

As it is, all I have spoken about is ecommerce examples. Who knows what sites there are that hide useful knowledge and information simply because of conceptions (no doubt some are true) about Africans and Nigerians. Information that could be a precious resource to us all.

What should we do about it?

First of all, I think we should scream as loudly as possible. Rather than the Minister of Information complaining about jokes in a Sony advert, the ministers of trade around the continent should be putting pressure on our trading partners across the oceans to make companies remove these unjustified blockades. Nigeria, let’s use our oil as our leverage.

Secondly, we should develop our own home-grown solutions. We are a continent of very smart people. We know our peoples’ needs and interests. We know the terrain better than anyone from outside. We can create products and services for our internet that will rock the world. Let’s do an India on them and make them clamour for our technology expertise. Let’s make them come to us.


Image Courtesy of jonhardm at Flickr.com