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The new dotcoms

By Chris Keall

Friday 12th May 2006

Text too small?
In truth, since the tech wreck it hasn't always been fun writing a technology column. I've even made the obligatory attempt to make storage sound zany and cool. But lately things have been heating up again. Here are some scenes from the front lines.

Community-driven classifieds
Fairfax buying Trade Me sparked a lot of comparisons to, a US classifieds site that, with its five million registered users (and counting), is putting the willies up stateside newspaper chains.

Last November I heard craigslist founder Craig Newmark speak, but he just did not sound much like Sam Morgan. The San Franciscan's demeanour is unassuming, and many of his ideals hippy-ish (he apologised for the war in Iraq about five times). Yes, he does now have a breadhead dimension to his site, by dint of Ebay's purchase of a 20% stake, but Newmark and a small team still have total control of the business, and his site retains its determinedly downbeat, text-only mess of a homepage. Corporate, it's not.

Yet beneath his folksy exterior, Newmark's ambitions are much bigger than Morgan's, going by the two entrepreneurs' records so far.

Trade Me is, at its base, an online version of Trade & Exchange, built around the sale of second-hand goods.

Craigslist, on the other hand, has grown to resemble a fully rounded classifieds section with its jobs, rentals, housing, personals, services, community notices, gig guide and for-sale sections.

Now I'm sure Fairfax may have similar plans for Trade Me. But Trade Me will now be judged by different standards. Even Fairfax's first, extremely timid attempts to increase fees drew howls of rage, gleefully covered by other media. Users are losing the feeling that it's 'their' site.

In contrast, craigslist has maintained its community feel through Newmark's upfront leadership, lots of user input into the way the site's run and lively discussion groups on many topics. Next, Newmark wants to turn his users into citizen journalists to create the site's own newsfeed. While all this has been going on, Newmark's troops seem to have barely noticed that he's not only introduced fees for most listings, but that they cost more than newspaper classified ads in many cases.

Over the past couple of years, craigslist has expanded to cover scores of US cities - and scores of cities around the world. The opportunity to create a local equivalent is still wide open. If I was, or any of the second-tier Trade Me competitors, I would re-tool quick-smart to follow the craigslist model (incidentally, craigslist recently added an Auckland site, though it's little known and thinly populated. So far).

Digital TV
One of the first things returning TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis did was reaffirm his commitment to digital broadcasting. Good man. Ellis was lampooned for boosting digital TV during his last tour of duty but getting nowhere. However, in his absence, things have moved along apace.

At Unlimited's sister publication >>FFWD, we gatecrashed TVNZ's digital broadcasting trial late last year, using a standard Sky Digital dish and a cheapie MySky-style set-top box from Topfield (with two TV tuners, and DVD and hard drive recorders). Two facets really impressed. One, picture quality was superb. Digital broadcasting doesn't necessarily mean a stunning image. A satellite-based digital signal will always be better than the analogue, land-based transmissions that most non-Sky-subscribing TVNZ viewers see now. But in Sky's case it's stuffed too many channels into its available bandwidth, leading to pixelation during fast-moving sports events. Two, TVNZ was sharing the trial broadcast, and results, with CanWest. Ganging together to create a new technology platform that could see off Sky TV is a potent idea. (Digital TV, by the way, is not to be confused with high definition or HDTV, which offers a much better picture again, but is years away here.)

Better, there's already a successful precedent. Last year in Britain, the BBC set up a free-to-air digital service called Freeview, offering 20 TV channels and 80 digital radio channels for a one-off installation fee of £60. By Christmas, more than five million subscribers signed on.

Rick Ellis has obviously taken note, and now he's got the weapons to mount his digital attack. If I were Sky TV, these developments would make me very, very nervous.

Internet phone calls on your cellphone
Telecom already has a headache on its hands with voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services like Skype, which offers calls to other Skype users or, for a small fee, cheapie internet calls to any regular telephone number. It's an increasingly popular choice to replace landline calls - even if it's just for a specific, regular phone date with, say, your Wellington or Sydney office.

Soon it could be Vodafone's turn to feel the pain. Nokia recently unveiled the 6136, the first mobile phone designed with VoIP in mind. The idea is that you use your regular cellular service provider most of the time but when you're in your office, or anywhere with a wi-fi network, your Nokia 6136 cellphone automatically re-routes your calls over the cheaper internet option. There are a number of political hurdles here, such as how Telecom or Vodafone could be induced to host the necessary VoIP Nokia server. But a quick call to the Telecommunications Commissioner can achieve a lot in these times.

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