Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Tango 'green' car, made in the Bay Area

Rick Woodbury, CEO of Burlingame's Commuter Cars, said this in an interview:
I've heard that to innovate, you don't give people what they ask for, but
rather watch what they do. I've been watching what they do for over 50 years
and I find it interesting that people driving cars by themselves with 4
empty seats around them jam up all the freeways, streets, and parking spaces
in cities throughout the world at an incredible waste of time and resources.

It's as if people in a crowded subway all wore back packs that were 4 times
bigger than they are.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, at Texas A&M University,
there are 67-billion dollars wasted every year due to congestion in the US.
There are 5.7-billion gallons of gasoline wasted. This would fill tank
trucks lined up end-to-end, from NY City to Las Vegas and back. That's just
the gasoline wasted due to congestion!

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics there are 118-million
workers in the US. Of them, 92-million drive by themselves to work every day
with 4 empty seats. That's roughly 90% of all of the cars and roughly 80% of
all workers that are driving solo in a car 4 times larger than needed.

Unfortunately, small cars don't solve the problem. A Mini-Cooper takes
relatively the same space on the freeway as the largest SUVs because they
both use a full lane and both must have similar braking distance from the
car in front.

Motorcycles could solve the problem as they can fit two-to-a-lane but are
unsafe, offer no protection from the weather, and give little room to carry
things. Because of that only 0.6% of workers use motorcycles and bicycles
combined. Public transit is only 4.9% because it only works well in
extremely dense cities or corridors.

A freeway lane is 12-feet wide by federal standard. A truck is 9' 4" from
mirror to mirror. That leaves 16" of clearance on either side. In order to
double a freeway lane's capacity, a car would have to be a maximum of 40"
wide in order to have the same clearance in a 6' lane. The Tango is only 39"
wide, so it easily fits in a half-lane. A Tango, however, is much easier to
drive in a 6' lane than a truck is in a 12' lane. Because the driver is cab
centered, one feels comfortable in the center of the lane knowing how close
they are to other cars on either side. In a truck, mirrors have to be used
just to see if one is in within the lane. Also, a Tango is so short that
they would usually not be side-by-side because the braking distance is many
times the length of the car. Not so with a truck. All this is to demonstrate
that the Tango can drive comfortably in a 6' lane or double up in a 12'
lane. We've driven 2 Tangos side-by-side in a single lane for over 40 miles
at freeway speeds and it felt quite comfortable. The University of
California Transportation Dept. and Booze-Allen-Hamilton did a study on a
narrow car of nearly the same dimensions as the Tango and found it would
increase lane capacity from 2,000 cars per hour to 4,400 cars per hour.

For a car to be 40" wide, it would require one of two methods for stability.
If it tilted like a motorcycle it would have to have either manual or
electronically controlled tilting. Both could be problematic. If the system
failed in a turn it could be fatal. To control the weight of a protective
cage manually is not reasonable as you can imagine a bicycle with hundreds
of lbs overhead and to the sides.

The simple solution, is to ballast a car to the extent that it has a safe
rollover threshold--just like a sailboat. As you can see from the size of
the Tango, by the time you put a couple thousand pounds of ballast in such a
small car you have a weight that requires a lot of horsepower to move. To
the extent that there is front and side protection, more ballast is needed.
There is no room for a gasoline engine of sufficient size to run such a
heavy car.

Battery-electric is the answer--and for many reasons. The lead-acid
batteries provide just enough weight in the Tango to achieve the same
rollover threshold as a Porsche 911. As you may have seen in one of our videos,
they also provide plenty of power. This is because, using the same kind of motors
that pull 100-car freight trains in one gear from 0 to 90 mph, fit nicely in
the space between the rear wheels leaving the rest of the bottom of the car
for batteries. The two Tango motors actually produce more than twice the
torque of a Dodge Viper V-10 engine.

Parking is another problem in congested cities. The Tango, being only 8' 5"
long, will fit perpendicular to the curb in 1/4 of a standard parallel
parking space. According to a diagram in a Booze Allen Hamilton / UC
Berkeley study, by striping a parking lot for cars of the Tango's
dimensions, parking capacity is increased by 350%. Parking in San Francisco
in the Avenues, one can park in any of the the 4' spaces that are between
every pair of driveways. According to the parking departments of San
Francisco and Los Angeles, you can park as many Tangos, cars or motorcycles
in a metered space as can fit. If the meter is paid, they all park legally.
If the meter expires, they all get tickets. Seems fair to me!--especially
since there will be more people being sure the the meter is fed. Recently,
in Spokane, I parked in another's space and when the meter was about to
expire I ran into the owner of the other car. We argued over who would pay.
I insisted it was my turn but the owner of the other car said that he was
staying longer and that he should pay.

So, in order to get the Tango to the mainstream as quickly as possible, it
will require overcoming the obvious objections--primarily rollover and
safety. As I mentioned, we've achieved the static rollover threshold of a
Porsche 911. Seeing videos of the Tango racing around corners and parked
perpendicularly on a 30% grade with people trying but failing to push it
over should eventually sink in and convince people that its looks are
deceiving. Even I, who know the rollover chrematistics well, was trembling
when I parked it on upper Stanyan St. in San Francisco. It's a 30% grade
with a stairway for a sidewalk. After rocking it with my terrified
stepsister inside, I was finally relieved of my fears. It just looked like
it would fall over, but in actuality it's at least as stable as any other car.

For safety, we know that we must go to the extreme because everyone
instinctively thinks that small cars are dangerous. I can't tell you how
many times I've heard the comment: "I wouldn't want to be hit by a semi in
that thing." Actually you probably wouldn't want to be hit by a semi in any
car. But if you are, wouldn't it me nice to have a full race car roll cage
protecting you? Well, with the Tango, you do. There are actually 4 times
more side protection bars in a Tango door than in the largest SUV. The 4
bars are also thicker and stronger than that single bar. Furthermore, they
are attached by specially designed hinges to to be as strong as the cage in
front, and have 1/2" steel pins in the rear to attach the doors to the rest
of the cage. The cage is exactly the same as those in race cars that crash at
over 200 mph and has an FIA certification. Race cars don't have air bags but
do use a 4 or 5-point harness. The Tango has 4-point harnesses as are used in
pilot's seats of aircraft.

Range for an electric car is probably the next concern. The beauty of it is,
that since the Tango is not trying to be a family car, the range is not such
an issue. Again, according to transportation statistics, the average commute
in the US is only 20 miles round trip. Even in Los Angeles, it's only 37
miles. So the average commuter would be well-served with lead-acid batteries
which are inexpensive and have a low cost per mile when used within average
commuting distances. I look forward to the day when Li-Ion battery
technologies are economically feasible for 5-passenger cars, but until then,
a lead-acid Tango should be the vehicle of choice for most commuters with
currently-available and currently-economically-feasible technology. A former
Lotus executive has given us projected retail prices based on various levels
of production. With $50-million we could certify the the Tango for the US,
Canada, and Europe, and have the tooling and infrastructure to produce
10,000 Tangos per year that would retail for under $20,000. It is typically
a $1.5-billion investment to get the 100,000 per year volume that is
required to build cars that retail in the $10k to $12k range. The Tango
should be no different. In some ways it's cheaper to build. In other ways
it's a bit more expensive. In the end it should be a wash.

The last main objection, charging, is another win for the Tango. First, the
average commute is a fraction of the range of the lead-acid battery, meaning
that one would just plug in the Tango every night like a cell phone. Most
people I've found prefer plugging in every night to filling their cell phone
with gasoline every few days at a service station that they have no other
reason to visit. If more range is needed, lead-acid batteries can be charged
in 10 minutes to 80% state of charge if 200-amp service is available.
Service stations could much more easily install this service than add a
gasoline pump. Another idea for the future--since the Tango's battery box is
standardized and easily removable, some robotics could conceivably swap
packs in less than a minute which would be more convenient than pouring
gasoline. With leased Li-Ion packs a 300 mile range and quick swapping could
be easier than filling with gasoline or hydrogen.

Since we're talking about the future. Another idea would give the best of
both public and private transportation: 24 Tangos would fit on a
double-decker train car crosswise. Like a ferry, trains could do the major
part of a long commute while Tangoers sat in the lounge enjoying coffee and
a book. They'd have convenient transportation at both ends of their commute
just like using the ferry boats in Seattle, but with much greater ease of

For the Tango to get a foothold so that the doubling of lane capacity can be
achieved, it must have immediate advantages over a standard car.
In California, Europe, and the Orient, lane-splitting is allowed for motorcycles,
some of which are 5" wider than the Tango. The Tango is actually 5" narrower
than a Honda Gold Wing from mirror to mirror. I've noted situations where
traffic jams were so bad coming off of the San Francisco Bay bridge that the
motorcycles were traveling in 20 seconds the distance that it took cars to
travel 20 minutes--a 60 to 1 advantage. The Tango could have done the same.

So in philanthropy, one can give the golden egg, or give the goose that lays
the golden egg. I believe that funding commuter cars is like the latter. It
is Commuter Cars' goal to put 150-million Tangos on the roads of the world
within 30 years or hopefully as little as 15. I believe that when the
average commuter sees the benefit, enjoys the freedom and excitement of
driving a Tango, that they will naturally gravitate toward a tipping point
just as the Model-T and the PC did, and people will wonder how we ever got
along without them.

150-million Tangos, possibly $3-trillion in sales, may sound like a lot, but
it's only about half of the SINGLE-occupant commuters in the world. In the
US alone, roughly 1/3 of the world automotive market, it would have the
following effect. There would be a savings of $39-billion in retail cost of
gasoline to consumers which would be replaced by $5.2-billion dollars of
electricity at retail based on $.10 a kWh. It would also probably save most
of the $17-billion in wasted gasoline due to traffic congestion. The
electricity used may not all be clean, however, it could be, and naturally
will be, as clean sources like solar and wind become more commonplace and
economically feasible.

The goal of Commuter Cars is not to make individuals wealthy, but rather to
create great wealth that can solve great world problems. I believe that the
company can develop, while achieving this goal simultaneously by giving jobs
and education to those who need them so that the poorest people in the world
can increase their standard of living and enjoy the privileges that we take
for granted. This will happen with natural market forces and without the need
for government subsidy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


InnovationBeat - the training newsroom for the Innovation Journalism Fellowship Program at Stanford - has been completed for this round. Big thanks to the readers and the newsroom: the Injo Fellows 2008 and the coaches, G. Pascal Zachary and John Markoff!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Semiconductor Innovation Requires National Support

Henry Kressel, senior managing director of Warburg Pincus, says the US is in need of a public innovation policy. The industry can no longer afford running the big labs that are needed for innovating materials, other structures are needed, involving an important role for national government. Kressel was instrumental for the development of semiconductor lasers and solar cells.

The Crankiest Geek sees television's tommorrow

John C.Dvorak, legendary technology commentator and host of “Cranky Geeks” comments on future of Broadcast television being replaced by IPTV.

Google starts bubble-blowing

Statistics can seem numbing -- column after column of grey, boring numbers. But statistics can also be represented through animations, such as colorful bubbles dancing over your screen.

Last year, Google aquired the statistics animation program, Trendalyzer, from the Swedish Gapminder Foundation. Now the basic functions are available as small software gadget, that lets you put color and motion to your own datasets.

Trendalyzer started as the brainchild of Hans Rosling, professor in international health at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. He searched for a way to tell his students that the “world was getting better;" that differences in standard of living, life expectancy at birth, child mortality and so on were diminishing. His son Ola Rosling and Ola’s wife Anna Rosling-Ronnlund developed the animation software.

At the TED conferences in 2006 and 2007 Hans Rosling got a lot of attention for his lectures on world development, in which he used Trendalyser to illustrate the message. (He also got some extra attention for swallowing a sword-- or to be precise, a 19th century Swedish army rifle bayonet -- on stage.)

The development of Trendalyzer was organized by the Gapminder Foundation and financed with grants mainly from the Swedish International Development Agency. Last spring, Google acquired Trendalayzer from Gapminder; the company also retained the services of Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling-Rönnlund.

The two Swedes have since worked on a new version of Trendalayzer that can be used to visualize and animate all sorts of datasets, from stockmarket statistics to population demographics. Last week Google released the group's first product, a small gadget that can be used together with the Google.doc spreadsheet.

“It is very basic," says Ms. Rosling-Rönnlund. "But you get bubbles and color, you get motion and you can use your own data."

Solar Cells 2.0: in clothing, camping gear -- everywhere?

Imagine being able to charge your laptop on a two-week trek, far away from electrical outlets. That will be possible by the end of the year using organic technology, claims the plastic solar cell company Konarka. What would that mean for people in the underdeveloped world, who live far away from electricity grids?

Konarka is right now building a plant for mass production of printable electronics. The company's technology is flexible plastic photovoltaics, which converts the sunlight into electricity that can be used directly to power electrical gadgets.

It will be possible to weave these fibers into clothes – to keep you warm in the winter – or to cover electronics with them.

This new generation of organic solar cells emerged from the discovery of conductive polymers. In 2000, Professor Alan Heeger at University of California, Santa Barbara, won the Nobel prize in chemistry for this breakthrough.

Conductive polymers, or plastics that conduct electricity, can be liquified into inks and printed onto materials like plastic film. They are manufactured using nano techniques.

After his discovery, Mr. Heeger set out to commercialize the organic photovoltaics and co-founded Konarka.

Konarka is one of many companies who are working intensely on finding the right molecular structure for plastic solar cells, making them cheaper, more effective and mass producible. Konarka says it will be first to market its findings, but critics are saying that the company has raised tens of millions in venture capital and is lagging behind its time table -- and still has no products.

Plastic solar cells have been called the next generation solar technology and have many potential advantages over classical solar cells, made out of silicon wafers, as well as the thin film-approaches.

Silicon cells expensive

"The traditional solar cells are made out of big silicon crystals," says Paul Alivisatos, a pioneer in nano solar technology. "They need to be perfect and huge. You can compare them to a diamond. If you want to coat the desert with diamonds, then that is going to be hard to do."

Hard and costly. Prices for silicon have risen sharply in recent years, partly because manufacturers of the material did not anticipate the spike in demand for silicon solar cells.
“So we thought, instead of coating diamonds so big, what is the absolute smallest size we can make?” asks Mr. Alivisatos, who is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He and his Berkeley research team are working on nanocrystals, both in thin film and in plastic solar cells.

Thin film cheaper but less effective

Thin film -- the other competing solar technology for home users -- mostly uses layers of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium CIGS, as a semiconductor. Thin film is not as effective at converting light into electricity as silicon solar cells, but it is cheaper. Thin film is more susceptible to moisture than silicon though, and therefore wears out more easily. On the other hand, silicon is fragile. Hail is the main reason silicon solar panels break in the field.

What Konarka is attempting to do in organic photovoltaics, companies like Global Solar and Nanosolar have already achieved with thin film technology -- the flexible solar cells. You can order Global Solar’s flexible, portable chargers for $14-15 per watt online. It comes with a plug the same as a car cigarette lighter. To charge a cell phone, you need a cable appropriate for your phone brand (i.e. Nokia) which can be plugged into a cigarette lighter.

Charging laptops is not yet possible. The portable charger lacks enough power.

Although Global solar still has a long way to go in some of its technologies, its vice president of sales and marketing, Tim Teich, is optimistic. “Thin film won’t take over the silicon industry, but we will burst the market with news in architectural- and building integrated products,” he says.

Thin film technology has the edge in maturity over plastic solar cells. But the technology is grappling with the problem of durability, just like plastic photovoltaics. A lot of the thin film companies are spreading the CIGS on glass, which is dense enough to solve the durability problem, but at the same time is the most expensive part of the solar cell.

Another problem is the rising cost of the material Indium, one part of the CIGS formula. “Some people say Indium will run out in 7 years, other say they will discover more with mining,” says Nathan Lewis, a professor of Chemistry at California Institute of Technology.

Whether the mineral is scarce or not is debatable, but researchers are trying to find substitutes for it anyway.

Efficiency solved problem

Ability to harvest the energy of the sun is the most important factor in photovoltaics. But it is not always the most relevant parameter for judging the competitiveness of the different solar technologies. “In some sense the ability of making an efficient solar cell is a solved problem," says Mr. Alivisatos. "Today we have reached even 42 percent efficiency.”

“The big problem is to make a lot" of very efficient solar cells, he continues. "This is very, very hard to do. Nobody knows how to make huge amounts of solar cells."

Instead of efficiency, solar-cell technologies are often measured in dollar per watt, or the cost of the effect they can deliver. The benchmark is one dollar per watt, which is the price for conventional energy sources like coal. Crystal silicon panels of good quality cost 3.50-4.50 dollar per watt. Thin film on the lower end has a price of 2.60-3.30 dollar per watt, according to the thin film company Global Solar.

“Cost per watt is not what matters in the end, because people are buying electricity, not capacity,” says Mr. Lewis.

In order to calculate the cost of the electricity - or energy – that the different photovoltaics deliver, two important aspects should be taken into account: their lifetime and the cost of installation. The installation costs, including hooking up the cells on the roof and attaching them to the grid, actually amounts to half of the cost for the solar cells, in traditional silicon wafers. Traditional wafers last for 30 years, but thin film and plastic solar are still far behind. In order to compensate for that, they have to be cheap to manufacture.

Finding new material

One of the research groups trying to lower the manufacturing cost of plastic solar cells is led by Michael McGehees, a professor at Stanford University's Materials Science and Engineering Department.

On a recent visit to Mr. McGehees' group, there is a buzzing sound from in the Gabelle laboratory for advanced materials, where the group conducts its experiments.

“Here are the glove boxes,” says Alex Mayer, a post-doctorate researcher who is giving a tour of the lab to a visitor.

These are six-feet tall metallic vacuum boxes, into which scientists are sticking their arms into big latex gloves in order to carry the tests. The researchers are trying to find the most effective materials for the active layer of the plastic solar cell. And they are trying to replace Indium Tinoxe, which is the most common transparent conductor that the plastic cells are being coated with.

“You see, different materials absorb different portions of the light," says Mr. Mayer. "We are stacking them onto one another in order to get the best possible effect."

The plastic solar cells that the research group is working on have huge potential, but also face big challenges. One of the toughest problems is the low efficiency, right now at 5.4 percent.

Mr. Heeger, the Santa Barbara professor, succeeded in constructing a more efficient organic cell, a so-called tandem cell. He put two light absorbing layers on top of one another, shaping the cell like a double hamburger. The construction raised the efficiency of light harvesting to 6.5 percent.

Printed electronics the future

But if some of the plastic solar cell problems could be solved, they have the potential to change the world. “Printed electronics is going to be the next wave of electronic products,” says Dan Williams, vice president of product development at Konarka. “People will use printed electronics for displays, battery technology and photovoltaic materials. It is a revolution, I think the whole area of printed electronics is going to explode within four-five years."

The flexibility, light weight and low production cost of organic photovoltaics could make them useful for a wide range of products, which are currently powered by batteries. “Just think about it," Mr. Williams says. "Today the battery is the biggest part in every product, it takes up thirty to fourty percent of the space."

“If we only had a mili part of the power, the gadgets would look differently” he continues.

Mr. Williams hopes that technology development will go hand in hand with the plastic solar cell evolution and that future products will be able to run on much less energy. They would be able to operate through sun power, like some calculators are doing today, or like newer products like for instance One laptop per child-computers.

Konarka’s R&D is today focusing on increasing the durability of the cell, which is now merely five years. The company is trying to discover new encapsulation layers that will better keep moisture out of the cell.

Tesla hits the road

This week Innovation Beat went for a test ride in the all-electric sports car Tesla Roadster that went into full-scale production a week ago.

The silver-gray car is one of 27 prototypes being built prior to production. It accelerated promptly from 0 to 60 mph in several seconds as we entered highway 101 near Tesla’s headquarters in San Carlos.

Tesla assembles the car at a leisurely one-a-week pace at its production site in Hethel, England. The goal is to speed up assembly to 30 cars per week in a couple of weeks, reaching a total output of 600 vehicles for the 2008 calendar year.

The cars are shipped from England to Tesla’s headquarters in San Carlos, California, where the battery pack, transmission and motor are installed. First deliveries are expected in April, with the very first car going to Tesla’s co-founder Martin Eberhard. His car is to be painted dark gray with orange stripes.

Some eye-catching paint is probably a good idea, since the car itself does not generate attention by making loud noice. Compared to a roaring muscle car like the Mustang Shelby, a ride with the Tesla feels like a stroll on the beach in Half Moon Bay – the wind is the only sound you hear.

About 900 people have placed deposits for the $100,000 car. Tesla hopes to increase yearly production to 1,800 cars in 2009.

The 27 prototype vehicles are just made for test purposes. If you expected they would sell as discounted product samples, I am sorry to disappoint you. Another video of the test ride might cheer you up:

Silicon Valley is going solar

Tanja Aitamurto, Moi Mukkolat Photo Agency, for Innovation Beat

Anyone who thought solar energy was all about latte-drinking, Prius-driving green-bums, think again.

Nowadays, solar enthusiasts and clean-tech investors alike only reluctantly speak about the environment. They're in it for the money - and so are the consumers.

"It's kind of funny actually," says Kevin Ruszel, installer for Solar City, as he finishes his work on twelve solar panels atop a roof in San Rafael. "Sometimes we install for people who have two SUV:s standing in their garage, but I guess they just want to save some money."

As far as Solar City's founders Peter and Lyndon Rive -- two brothers from South Africa -- are concerned, there is only one thing you have to watch before going solar - and that is not a movie by Al Gore.

"Just look at your electricity bill," says Lyndon Rive. "In the last years, the prices have gone up with more than six percent each year. And nothing speaks for that to change. We expect solar to be profitable in a non-subsidized environment as early as 2010."

And perhaps the Californians have been scrutinizing their electricity bills lately. Solar City is so busy that their customers have to wait for two months before getting their panels installed. And installers like Kevin Ruszel can cash in.

"I used to work for another solar company," he says while taking a break in the shadow of the ever warmer sun. "But Solar City offered me a higher wage. There is a great demand for people who know how to do this."

Solar City wants to be the "Starbucks of the solar business," as Peter Rive puts it. That means that service and prices are more important than efficient solar panels

"We've actually just started using a new type of panels," Peter goes on. "We install cheaper ones now. They're not as efficient, but that is not the issue. If the customer wants more power, we just install another panel. We rarely have to cover the whole roof anyway."

Solar City is one of the fastest growing solar company in California, and Peter Rive thinks it's the right time to be sprinting.

"At this moment, there is a window of opportunity to establish powerful brands in the solar business," he says.

There is indeed something happening now. Last year saw the biggest amount of cash ever flowing into the clean-tech sector. With more than $ 2.6 billion of investments, the sector has increased eightfold in two years, and most of it is going one place: Silicon Valley.

Why? Well, first of all, the money's already there.

"California has always been in the lead when it comes to venture capital," says Emily Vendell at the National Venture Capital Association, "and the clean-tech sector has all the attributes a venture capitalist is looking for, like public demand and possibilites for innovation."

So the same brains and wallets that sparked the information revolution are now trying to save the world - or at least making money while trying.

Just a few miles from Solar City's offices, a company called Ausra is planning the world's biggest solar-thermo plant. The company's biggest investor is Vinod Khosla, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems. He lured the Australian founders of Ausra to Silicon Valley with a $50 million check.

"California is where the market is," says John O' Donnell, Ausra's executive vice-president. "This is where all the smart and fearless investors are."

Like most other cleantech people in the Bay Area, O'Donnell prefers talking about financial opportunities than about global warming. "When we open up our Las Vegas-factory in May, we will be producing 1000 MW of installations a year," he says. "That's twice the size of anyone else in the industry."

Ausra's business model relies on existing, but cheaper, technology. Importantly, the company's way of storing electricity is cheaper - just simply storing the heat

"It's like a coffee thermos," says O'Donnell. "A coffee thermos stores the same amount of energy as a laptop battery, but it's one hundred times cheaper."

Right now, Ausra is planning a solar farm in San Luis Obispo. The output - 177 MW - is enormous by previous solar standards. That translates to more than 100 new windmills -- and the power plant "only" occupies 484 football fields of farmland.

"With this technology," enthuses O"Donnell, "we can power the entire nation with eight percent of Nevada."

So what about the recession? And what if, for some unforeseen reason, global warming won't be as hip in a few years?

No problem, says the Rive brothers at Solar City. All it takes is for the electricity bills to keep climbing - and people will keep buying solar.

Says Pete Rive, "We've had some customers who've asked us: 'You don't believe in this global warming bull, do you?'"

John O'Donnell's Ausra uses stored thermal heat to
power the grid during peak-hours.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Quickening Race in Video-streaming from Cell Phones

Being a TV-producer is getting simpler. Just point your cell phone in the right direction, and moving pictures will be sent to the web in real time. And that's whether you are filming your cousin’s wedding, the final in the local pub quiz or your own poetry readings.

All you need is a small piece of software uploaded to your phone, and an account with an ambitious new company named Qik.

Qik, of Foster City, California, has developed technology to broadcast video live from most mobile phones to the Web. The company offers a free service -- available on an invitation-only basis for three months. There are several thousand registered users from more than 55 countries, according to Qik co-founder Bhaskar Roy.

Broadcasting live over the Web, from cell phones, is such a new activity that its social, political and economic implications are hard to identify. But they might be comparable to what blogging tools -- and the vast proliferation of bloggers -- have done to traditional media over the past few years. Today, newspapers and magazines face unprecedented competition from self-publishing, chiefly in the form of blogs. Live, inexpensive broadcasting by anyone with a cell phone could create a similar big upheaval in mainstream television.

The success of sites like Flickr, Myspace and Facebook proves that a lot of people want to share pictures -- and their whole lives -- with others. A lot of the content on Youtube is also produced by individuals. Live video adds an extra dimension to current personalized media. Instead of documenting what has happened, you invite other to share the experience in real time.

“The good thing is not just the webstream, but also the interaction,” says Mr Roy.
“We can send messages back to the phone. A blogger doing a video interview can ask the audience for questions to put to the person he is interviewing.”

Three former Oracle employees founded the company less than two years ago.

“We knew video was going to be big, and mobile was going to be big, so this was a natural combination”, says Qik CEO Ramu Sunkara.

He sees live video as a way of communicating that will find users in many different situations.
One example is the way he himself used it, when his seven year old daughter woke up in the middle of the night. A screw in her braces had come loose, causing a wire to pierce her flesh.

Using Qik, Mr. Sunkara contacted his orthodontist, who was able to watch what was happening to the child over the Web. The orthodontist then told Mr. Sunkara how to fix the problem.

Qik's technology is still in “alpha-phase”, according to the company. One challenge is to develop the software for more mobile phone models. Today Qik only works with certain Nokia handsets.

Another challenge is to make it work seamlessly in different mobile telephone systems, with different communication protocols and bandwiths.

But the biggest challenge for the company might come from other companies developing similar services. After all, it is not only Qik that sees live video-streaming as a natural step in the evolution of mobile phones.

Among the other entrants in the race is an Israeli start-up, Flixwagon. Judging from the presentation on its webpage, the service seems very similar to Qik's. Both companies let their users archive the videostreams so they can be watched many times or posted on Web sites.

Like Qik, Flixwagon only works with certain Nokia models. However, Swedish Mobycator -- developer of the video-uploading service, MobyPal, for several different mobile phones from Nokia, Samsung, Siemens and Sony Ericsson -- is now working on live streaming versions.

According to Mobycator management, their live streaming service will be out for beta testing within the next six months.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Breakfast with Steve Jobs, or something of the kind

The other day I had breakfast with Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Or actually he was not Jobs at all; he was the blogosphere personality, Fake Steve Jobs.

And for the record; I was not alone, but sitting with hundreds of Eclipse software developers in the ball room at the Santa Clara Convention Centre.

We were listening to the Fake Steve Jobs, who is really Forbes magazine columnist Dan Lyons, author of the now legendary satirical blog that tries capture through fiction the real spirit of Apple's chief executive officer.

Lyons calls his blog "The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs," and, though a work of imagination, the diary has a strong following, especially among fervent Apple customers who both adore and are awed by the real Steve Jobs.

In an innovation economy, where overblown egos hype new products in search of a temporary advantage, and corporate spin is the weapon of choice, observers might think that exaggerated claims deserve to be ridiculed.

From this perspective, historians looking back at the latest high-tech bubble in Silicon Valley may come to read Mr. Lyons' blog in much the same way that people trying to understand the Wall Street boom of the late 1980s read Tom Wolfe’s "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

The Secret Diary first appeared on the computer screens in the summer of 2006. The writer was anonymous, and speculation over his or her identity began almost immediately. There was even some who believed Mr. Jobs himself penned the blog. Last year, The New York Times revealed Mr. Lyons as the author of the diary.

For Mr. Lyons, 47, writing the diary has been an educational journey. He went from life as a traditional print journalist to a celebrity. While less celebrated than Mr. Jobs himself, Mr. Lyons is today one of the best-known tech journalists in the world.

“I was covering things like IBM," he told his audience on Tuesday. "I was really bored; it was not a compelling job. I felt I could do it in my sleep."

He switched to blogging for Forbes, then -- inspired by the British magazine, Private Eye -- he decided to satirize Mr. Jobs, who after all is only the most fascinating -- and controversial -- personality in Silicon Valley.

“Why Steve Jobs? It’s obvious, I love Apple,” Mr. Lyons said. “But even if I do like their products I think the company is really strange. Their fans are really strange; they are like a cult that makes products."

In this diary, Jobs is presented as a narcissistic corporate titan with strange habits and a totally egocentric way of looking at what happens around him. The fake Steve Jobs, as presented by Mr. Lyons, is such a compelling character that some readers mistook the fake one for the real Jobs, asking for free products, coming up with ideas.

“The best part is that he doesn’t seem to realize that everyone around him hates him," he said. "Jobs is a notoriously bad manager.”

Writing the blog has also been an experience in how much a journalist can actually gain by getting into close contact with the readers, who came up with the name Fake Steve jobs.

“Right now a lot of the blog is actually driven by the audience and their comments," he said. "The audience interacting in real time is something new. It is very live, very dynamic. I get 25-50 emails a day, people doing movies and animation.”

Readers of Fake Steve Jobs already know all the ways he describes friends and foes. Microsoft is “The Borg” and Bill Gates the "Beastmaster". Jonathan Schwartz of Sun Microsystems was “the Pony tail”, until someone from the inside called and said that they call him “Pony boy”. Steve Ballmer is Uncle Fester and Apples own customers -- iTards.

But Mr. Lyons is not without enemies himself as some in the high-tech community thinks he is a lackey for Microsoft -- and an opponent of the open-source darling, Linux. As a Forbes reporter, Mr. Lyons, for instance, wrote favorably about the attempt by the SCO Group to obtain money from Linux users through the threat of litigation.

In a cover story for Forbes 2005, Attack of the Blogs, he also described some of the bloggers in less than favourable terms, with sentences such as: "They destroy brands and wreck lives. Is there any way to fight back?”

The role of humor in the innovation eco-system is the terrain that Mr. Lyons explores. In an industry that often takes itself too seriously, humor can be in short supply -- making Mr. Lyons refreshing.

Here are a few of his quips:

After visiting Macworld for the first time this year, he said, “Windows is like going to be normal again.”

On the plight of struggling Sun Microsystems, he said: “Every other week when Sun announces a new thing, it is always some line of bull.... I mean, how meaningless can you possible be?”

“I covered IBM for years," he observed, "and those were the worst in my life, is still having to go to a shrink to talk about it.”

And what would does the Fake Steve Jobs say about Nokia? "I heard about them but I don’t know what they do," he said. "I think they are some random company from Finland or stuff – or he gets it wrong or says they are from Sweden or something, he always gets countries wrong.”

What about Jim Cramer at Mad Money on CNBC – another media personality who has turned business journalism into entertainment?

“He is terrible," Mr. Lyons said. "I think you only have to look at him as entertainment and, he is an idiot, I can’t believe that he is on TV, I am appalled by it.”

Mr. Lyons' current favourite topic is the fetish over Apple's iPhone.

“I was appalled by the iPhone hysteria," he said. "A $600 phone, I thought it was stupid but also very scary, people waiting outside in the rain for five or six days.”

Fake Steve Jobs can be seen as innovation in journalism, but Mr. Lyons still has a day job to return to at Forbes.

Afterwards, when the roars of laughter from hundreds of nerds had gone by, we talked about the state of business journalism in the U.S. He thinks is too much CEO celebrity, too little serious journalism, except at Forbes, Business Week and Wall Street Journal. The Economist is his big favourite.

“I tried it a little bit in this column with the Forbes; to use a little bit of the humour and voice in what I do for Fake Steve in that forum, but no, I understand its different things, it’s a different mode writing that column.”

So in Forbes the writer you meet is a very traditional tech journalist. No wonder it took people so long to figure out who the real Fake Steve Jobs is. Driving the search was his own publisher at Forbes, Rich Karlgaard. Dan Lyons thinks this is a bit embarrasing -- considering, he said, that at least 50 people knew his identity.

MedApps goes for the Gold (Medal)

This week an unknown company won the business plan competition Mobile Rules in San Jose. Next summer the company will take the pulse of the Olympics in Beijing, China. MedApps, of Scottsdale, Arizona-based company, is launching with style.

The idea behind the Mobile Rules competition is to find new innovative mobile solutions for consumers made by start-up or medium-size companies. There were almost 150 applications to all the categories.

MedApps sells a system that monitors a patient's health by collecting, analyzing and sending data to the health care providers. The system, for example, sends information of the glucose level and blood pressure to the doctor and stores the data to the patient's file. The health-care professionals can monitor the patient's health and react to the problems as they occur.
It's mainly for people suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes, but it also looks for customers with good health to prevent the diseases.

"People need to have their health record with them especially nowadays when people move from one doctor to another," says Kent Dicks, the President and CEO of MedApps.

The system requires a small, blue plastic device that will be sold through drugstores in the next three to four months. The patient's data is sent from the device via Bluetooth to his or her cell phone. The phone sends the data to a central server that the doctor can access.

Mr. Dicks says that the prize will be 120-400 dollars depending how sophisticated system the patient wants to have. There will be also a monthly fee for the service, probably some tens of dollars.

In future, MedApps would like to offer its service through any mobile phone. The information will be stored on the phone's memory card.

The system also takes care of the patient's health by speaking, in one of many languages, such phrases as, "Did you exercise today?" or "Have you taken your medication?"

Mr. Dicks says that the system can also help to prevent chronic diseases by, for example, pushing the customer to exercise.

This summer, 50 athletes on the U.S. Olympic team are expected to use MedApps devices to monitor certain body functions. This device already has received FDA-approval.

On Wednesday, MedApps won the category for the best business plan in the annual Mobile Rules competition organized by Nokia and FinNode, the Finnish innovation center in Santa Clara.

The founder of the competition and the director of the FinNode, Pekka Parnanen, said that the judges were impressed by MeApps' strong and experienced management team.

"They had a clear vision of the market and what the customers need," Parnanen says.

MedApps has been financed by an angel investor in Luxembourg. The company, which received an initial investment of $1 million, said it wants to raise an additional $8 million to $10 million later this year.

In the another category in the Mobil Rules competition -- the award for the best multimedia mobile application -- was won by a company that makes a music player that tailors its play lists to specific users. The Social Player -- from MyStrands Inc. of Corvalis, Oregon -- recognizes the type of music preferred by its owner, and then tries to anticipate and supply other music the person might enjoy.

“There is so much content today, people need tools to discover the things they like,” says VJesus Pindado, Vice President of Business Solutions for MyStrands. "The product itself isn't revolutionary but the technology behind it is.”

According to Pindado, MyStrands hopes to gain recognition, new contacts and new distribution channels as a result of winning the competition.