Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ignore Us At Your Peril

 crowd-celebrating0001 Last week I wrote about the multi-storey car park at MMA2 and used it as a point to express my concern about what could potentially be the beginning of decay at that airport. After writing that post, I went over to MMA2's website and submitted a complaint on their help page. In the week since, I have not been contacted by email.

A few weeks ago, I did a piece on MTN in which I criticised their mobile Internet service. Now I didn't send a link to them to them via email, instead I sent them a link on Twitter. I never got an response or a comment and shortly afterward @mtn_nigeria disappeared from Twitter.

One of Nigeria's greatest shames is the abysmal electricity situation. A movement called the Light Up Nigeria Movement (or LightUpNigeria) was started on Twitter and now has its home at www.lightupnigeria.org. LightUpNigeria is intent on using the Internet and other media to raise a groundswell of voices putting pressure on the Nigerian government to address the electricity problem. In fact several events are planned by LightUpNigeria to mark the upcoming Independence Day anniversary.  The movement has even drafted a Proclamation. I have not been able to find any indication that this effort has been acknowledged by the government.

These three examples, particularly the last one, show the ability to use the Internet and its technologies by Nigerians to engage service providers and governments. The problem is the service providers and government are not engaging us in return. Twitter and it’s home-grown clones like NaijaPulse and Kukurooku in particular are excellent tools that can be mined to find out what web-savvy Nigerians thinking and focusing on are and Facebook, is a great place to engage one on one with customers and constituents.

Aside from these tools, there is the Nigerian blogosphere where the more eloquent Nigerians engage in conversations in their blogs on politics, technology, faith, their loves and their pain points. The wealth of Nigeria’s brain trust is freely available on the internet for every business, institution, and government agency to harness for product development, process improvement, idea generation, crime prevention, technological advancement, and societal transformation.

However, they are not listening.

There are over ten million Nigerians – people living in Nigeria – on the Internet. Not to mention the vast number of Nigerians in the Diaspora who remain very relevant to the Nigerian story.  That may account for less than 10% of our population, but we are growing everyday. You can’t ignore us. And I don’t mean filling our inboxes with unsolicited email messages or taking over every whitespace on Facebook. Loy Okezie pointed out that more and more Nigerian businesses are engaging in the use of social media (Facebook, twitter et al), but I am unconvinced that they are using these tools the right way. The day of the one-way blast of adverts is at an end. Mashable recently did an article on how to use social media to collect feedback from customers. Our political and business organisations have to engage us. Hear what we have to say. That encourages us to listen to them in turn. When our voice finds its way into products or processes and we see evidence of that, it wins and keeps our loyalty.

It seems like Barack Obama has been US President forever, but it was only a year ago when he won the election by, amongst other things, engaging the minds and hearts of the Internet generation in the US, a strategy he is continuing as president. Assuming the Republicans were doomed to lose the elections, the other Democratic hopefuls lost out, in part, because they did not realise just how vital it was to capture this demographic. Instead Obama turned them into his army of volunteers. He used the Internet to tell them his vision for the country, and by listening to them, he made them his voice.

We know what Nigeria is now, we are no USA, we do not have the depth of internet penetration that the Americans have. However, a savvy governor or a smart brand can use the Internet to create a movement for unstoppable positive public action or to exponentially extend the power of their brand. LightUpNigeria is doing the reverse – letting the leaders know what we are agitating for, keeping the pressure on. It is extremely unwise for the government not to figure out some way to use this ready, willing, and eminently able movement, virtually presented on platter of gold, to tackle the electricity problem, to “crowd source” the solutions. Nigerians are the among scrappiest people on the planet. We have shown our ability to adapt to the worst and thrive. We can figure it out and show the world a solution that will amaze. The relevant government ministry should actually sponsor the conversation on www.LightUpNigeria.org, give regular updates on progress, highlight the various contractors doing specific projects and inform Nigerians of setbacks.
At the very least they should soothe the beast before it becomes savage.

This post is not about electricity or infrastructure problems. It is about the fact that the coming of the internet age to Nigeria is an end to the inability of the people to speak and be heard. We will speak with our tweets and our blogs and that will eventually become our speaking with our votes and with our money. Listen to us now and one day, when our voice is powerful enough, that will be the sound that will carry you in our high offices, or to the highest pinnacles of business success.

Ignore us and you do it to your peril.


Photo Courtesy of mattinnigeria.wordpress.com/

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Someone Save Our New Airport

There are many things to love about the relatively new domestic airport in Lagos, the so-called MMA2 (Murtala Mohammed Airport 2). For me, it isn’t the large open spaces in the terminal building, the fact that there is near constant electricity to power the place, the abundance of escalators to move up and down or the departures area that gives the illusion of actually being in a modern airport.

My favourite thing is the multi-storey parking lot with the automated ticketing machines for entry and exit. Being a Lagosian with the parking problems we have, I appreciate the need for such a structure. Having been at airports and similar facilities in both the US and the UK, I know the efficiency of an automated ticketing system. The first time I used the one in at MMA2, I was almost childishly thrilled to press the button and have the machine print me out a ticket. Admittedly, I was less than thrilled that I had to go to a counter to pay at the time I was leaving. I was looking forward to being able to swipe my ATM card across the face of a scanner and getting the necessary amount deducted from my account. Of course, the standard process that InterSwitch uses would have required that I also enter my PIN and that is not exactly the smoothest way to move through a toll point. While there is nothing wrong with there being a keypad provided for that, it isn’t the only option. There are ways around this of course. For the frequenter of the airport parking lot, there could be pre-paid cards that can be swiped across the scanner and deducts the necessary amount from the card or even better, a wireless system that does knows your credit situation before you even reach the barrier. Then there are various mobile phone based solutions.

Of course, the solution I encountered – manual payments – do work and are still in use in car parks in developed parts of the world. Just like in those societies, at MMA2 you get a payment receipt that also has a barcode that you swiped across the scanner on your way out.

At least that was the way it was. During my last 2 or 3 visits to MMA2, spread over about 3 or 4 months the automated system hasn’t been working. There has been an attendant who writes out a ticket then raises the barrier. This is terribly inefficient, open to human error and abuse, and a waste of technology infrastructure. Maybe the system is broken down, maybe the electricity problems that plague the whole nation is bedevilling the airport. Maybe they ran out of printer paper. Either way something that should basically be humming along by itself with minimal human involvement other than maintenance isn’t working. That spells trouble for the entire airport infrastructure.

Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon story in our fair nation. It is a quite common story and much ink and keyboard presses have been been generated on the subject. My voice is just one of the groundswell of discontent. Still the ink should be spent and the bits must fly across the internet. Today, it is the ticketing system at the car park. Tomorrow it is the lift, then the escalators, then the luggage carousels (or whatever those things are called), and the security systems and whatever aircraft management mechanisms are planned or in place will follow.

So, this is calling on the Lagos State government, FAAN, the various banks and corporate organisations who are invested in the airport or whose multi-storey adverts adorn the walls of MMA2. Put maintenance systems in place. Put accountability systems in place to watch over the maintenance systems. Hire whoever needs to be hired. Fire whoever needs to be fired. Arrest whoever needs to be arrested. Before we spend multiplied billions to build a new airport at Epe, let’s keep the one we already have working at peak efficiency, let it be an institution that we can be proud of.
Someone, save our airport.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Price of Zero – Web Edition

Why the Web?

Zoho Two posts ago I talked about using free and open source versions of popular software. In that list I deliberately avoided web-based solutions. By web-based I don’t mean software you get from the internet as everyone of the offerings can be downloaded from the web. Web-based software is web-resident software – software the you use inside of a web browser.

Why would any Nigerian resident want to use web-resident software? We generally have slow spotty internet connectivity that cannot be depended on to stay online. Some ISPs claim to offer guaranteed connections with fatter data pipes. These offerings are not really all they are advertised to be, are unreliable and rather expensive. We all wait to see what GLO-1 will bring to the table, until then web-based doesn’t seem very attractive. Yet there are benefits that could make you consider them.

First a web-based solution means you are not tied to a specific computer. Many web-based software not only provide you with the functionality on the internet, but also provide you document storage online too. So you can go anywhere, use any computer and as long you have an internet connection, you can work. You can even access many of them on your cell-phone.

Secondly, you gain the benefit of more robust backup for your data. You create documents online, if you lose your computer in some way, you just need to get another one and logon.

Third, updates are handled by the provider. For the more technically oriented ones among us we are aware of constantly having to get the latest updates and installing the newest patches. With web-based software you get the latest functionality without lifting a finger. Having said that one piece of software that you do need to update often enough is the web browser itself, but most of them make it pretty easy to do. Mostly a two click process.

Another great benefit is that the people with different computer configurations can access the software. So someone with a netbook and someone with an mobile workstation can use the same tools equally well. Someone with a Windows-based computer can use the same tools as someone with a Mac, Linux or Unix computer.

Lastly, most web-based software have collaboration and online communication built-in enabling multiple people in multiple locations work together on the same thing without ever actually meeting each other. You can do that with some computer-based software but that kind of feature is native to many web-based software.

Of course, as we said about the desktop software, you may not get the same range of features that you get from the non-free versions, but you very often get all the features you actually, truly need.

So without further ado let’s look at a few examples.

 Zoho (Alternative to Microsoft Office).

Zoho is a one of the most comprehensive web-based office alternatives out there. Zoho has a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation tool, a calendaring tool, a web conferencing tool, a document management system and email. In my opinion, it is even better than the better known Google Docs.

SnapPages (Alternative to FrontPage, Dreamweaver, etc).

SnapPages is one of many tools that enable you develop pretty sleek looking web-pages without professional skills and too much effort. There are actually a lot of tools out there that you can use to bring smooth looking sites to the world. Many of the blog services, Blogger, WordPress or TypePad provide templates that you can implement with a minimum of pain. Of course, If you want a web address that is not attached to some other company’s name like digitalcrossings.blogspot.com, you need to spend some money – though not much – to get a unique name like www.digital-crossings.com.

Gantter (Alternative to Microsoft Project).

Anyone who has to do any amount of project planning has used Microsoft Project. Zoho has a project tool, but I don’t think it is one of their free tools. Gantter immediately loads into a very familiar project planning layout and you’re off and running.

The list could go on and on. If you have some that you use, how about sharing them with us?


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why does MTN want to charge me 470,000 naira for 3GB of data?

Bundles of Naira I'm not exaggerating. I did the math. MTN charges 15k per kilobyte for me to access the Internet via my mobile phone. When that is multiplied by 3GB (314572 KB), it comes to four hundred and seventy-one thousand, eight hundred and fifty-nine naira, twenty kobo.

I chose 3GB because MTN offers a standard data package at 10,000 naira per month with a data allowance of 3GB. What this means is that if you exceed 3GB, you get charged 15 kobo for every kilobyte over that 3GB. This may not seem too bad (actually it seems horrible) and would appear to make my point not only moot, but inaccurate. However the caveat is that this 10,000 naira and other packages are only available to you when you buy their wireless 3G modem with a dedicated SIM. In other words, if you have a completely data capable phone such as the iPhone, and most other modern smartphones, you are can only access the Internet with MTN at the 15k per kilobyte charge using your phone. Hence, if you attempted to use the equivalent of their standard data package, then your potential bill is nearly half a million naira.

Nothing on their website suggests the 10,000 naira package is only for their wireless modem or PCMCIA data card. In fact, quite the opposite. However I walked into their service centre at the Palms and asked about using one of their contracts on my 3G phone. The lady there told me it wasn’t possible, that I had to get one of the devices they provide. I didn’t believe her. I figured that she was clueless, until I exchanged a few email messages with MTN and spoke with one of their customer service people. It really isn’t available for mobile phones.

Unbelievable. On the other hand, maybe not so unbelievable. MTN has a history of throwing expensive pricing at the Nigerian customer base and seeing which would stick. For instance, in the early days, they tried to make us pay for voicemail, but the old Econet forced them to drop that by offering the service free of charge. If memory serves me well, they also tried to make us pay for checking our balances and again had to drop that idea. That was then, this is now and the pattern doesn’t seem to have changed. Now let’s be clear and let’s be fair. The other GSM service providers, Glo and Zain, also charge 15k per kilobyte for incidental usage. Etisalat do have a data deal, but for some mysterious reason are silent on usage pricing on their website. However Glo and Zain offer monthly package deals like MTN and the packages they do offer however provide the kind of flexibility that MTN doesn’t offer and are available on phones – not just modems and data cards. Zain for instance offer the following package options:


They also recently provided an “all you can eat” package for N15,000.00 monthly. Though there is some negative discussion ongoing about this over at Mobility Nigeria. Glo offer the following:


I am not suggesting that Glo or Zain’s packages are perfectly good and that everyone should flock to them. I point them out instead to show they provide much more flexibility and more options for people to work with than MTN does. I have seriously considered one of the smaller Zain packages as a mobile complement to my home broadband service. The reasons I haven’t moved from MTN are two-fold. The room I work in our office building is such that the only service provider whose signals are strong enough for me to receive or make the occasional phone call is MTN. Secondly, I have used this number for years and this is what my contacts know me on. I’m not ready yet for the hassle of changing numbers and having to inform everyone of the change. I also am not a two phone person. Now if only the NCC would implement number portability…

I am not attempting to tell MTN how to run their business, merely advocating for better service offerings. I am also focused on them because they are my primary provider and are uniquely placed to have the largest impact on the industry if they so desired. MTN have shown themselves to be creative or at least on the leading edge of technology in what they can bring to the table with services like the 3.5G network, Google SMS, C-Track, DSTV mobile, OneWorld, and others. They have been the longest lived, most successful GSM provider in Nigeria thus far. They have great breadth, but are, in this writer’s opinion, lacking in depth. It would only take a nimble upstart to replace them at the top of the hill. Econet could have, but, well we know what happened to them (sort of). Now if MTN only matched the Zain offerings number for number, their superior network coverage would make it more attractive to users. If they just moved the decimal point to make it 1.5 kobo per kilobyte, we are still talking about nearly 50,000 naira – still bizarre, but not mind-bogglingly so. They could even go the route of agile non-GSM operator Starcomms with their 100 hour and 250 hour bundle packages. Or even better do something really radical. They might even (gasp) crash the price, do 0.5 kobo per kilobyte, and make everyone else in the industry scramble to adjust. They would still make a fabulous profit.

One last thing. Congratulations to Glo on the arrival of their submarine cable, Glo 1 at Alpha Beach. Now if they would be so kind to run a line to my house. It isn’t too far away.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Price of Zero

Most Lagosians who started working with computers about the same time that I did had their first experiences with computers assembled from parts bought in the legendary Otigba Street area of Ikeja. It wasn't just the hardware that came from Otigba. The software came from there too - and it was pirated. Many a sophisticated computer user today would never have had the software their life depends on if not for the “Mega” CDs that put thousands of dollars worth of software on single CDs that sold for not more than a few hundred naira.

Now many of us actually pay the authorised price for software. We may not agree that the price is fair - and the truth is that software pricing can be fairly arbitrary, but those are what the people who invested their time and energy in developing the software want us to pay. We can agree to pay the price - otherwise the only right thing to do is not use the software. In any case, companies like Microsoft are heavily investing in all sorts of mechanisms to protect their software from unauthorised use.

computervillageikeja Despite my Otigba roots, I strongly advocate that people pay the legal price for the software they use. Because I work in IT, a lot of people have approached me to "help" them install Microsoft Office on their computers and Norton Antivirus on their new laptops. I always advise them to buy authorised copies. Often times they don't take the suggestion seriously.

The thing is software isn't cheap. Windows itself makes up a significant part of the cost of a prebuilt computer. Office is another 200 dollars or so depending on the version - and antivirus software can be an annual subscription as much as 40 dollars. Which is why I also suggest to people use free and open source versions of the software.

There are lots of free alternatives to the software we have grown used to. Many of them work the same way as the more familiar ones. Even those with fewer features are very attractive at the price they come at. I'll give examples of free software and the familiar non-free software that they replace. Everyone of them can be downloaded from the internet.

Ubuntu Linux (alternative to Microsoft Windows).

Windows is the only computer operating system most of us know, but there are a huge number out there. Ubuntu Linux is probably the easiest one for Windows users to grasp with the least amount of effort. The thing about Ubuntu and other forms of Linux is the that they belong to an entire ecosystem of free software. Linux is also less prone to viruses obviating the need for antivirus software.

Openoffice.org (Alternative to Microsoft Office).

Openoffice.org (yes, the “.org” is part of the software’s name) is a full featured office productivity software suite. It includes the usual suspects – a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation program and even a database tool. It's greatest strength as an alternative to the Microsoft suite is that it can create, open and save most files created in Office without losing the formatting. This means that you can have Openoffice.org on your home PC and still be able to use files that were created by office users or create documents at home and use them on Microsoft Office installations.

AVG Antivirus Free (Alternative to Norton/MacAfee/CA antivirus).

There are several free antivirus suites out there. Many of them are free offerings that are a reduced feature version of a paid for version. For example AVG Free is the free version of AVG antivirus suite. Avast also has free version. Many of these free versions have limited feature sets devoid of things like antispyware, firewalls, spam filters and other security tools. On the other hand, there are many standalone products that do these things by themselves and they are free.

Gimp (Alternative to Adobe Photoshop).

For those who do their own photo-editing, both professional and otherwise, Photoshop is the preferred choice. Of course, only the truly professional are willing to pay the hefty premium the software fetches. Adobe have some scaled down versions that are cheap, but for a completely free alternative, the Gimp is the most preferred choice.

DoPDF (Alternative to Adobe Acrobat).

We all use PDFs, the Adobe document format that is the preferred format for storing and sharing completed documents. Historically, to create them you had to have the full Acrobat software - which isn't free, separate from the reader which is free. Now very many tools can save as PDF including OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office 2007. There are also standalone PDF "printer" software such as DoPDF that after installation you treat like a printer and print any document to and it creates a PDF. This is one of those examples where the non-free application gives you many more capabilities, but most of us don’t need those features.

These are just a few examples of free software all which will run on Windows and Linux (except the antivirus which is Windows only). I have deliberately left out internet-based options - software that only works in a web browser while you are connected to the internet.

Let’s do something. Post a non-free software that you use in the comments, and I’ll try to point you at a free alternative. You can also do this via my twitter account.There is a whole constellation of rich software for the very attractive price of zero that are more than adequate to your needs.