June 30, 2010

IAccessibility: Policy Imperative, Industry Challenge

As Congress debates an overhaul of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a separate debate related to one of the lesser-known provisions of the 1996 Act is also underway, with the potential to critically impact on future information and communications technology innovation. What complicates this instance of digital post-convergence/pre-chaos/current collision, is the highly emotionally-charged nature and topic of the debate: Ensuring communications and Internet accessibility to individuals or varying ability or disability.

Section 255 of the 1996 Act, implementation of which was debated for many years, requires telecommunications products and services to be accessible to people with disabilities, to the extent that such accessibility is "readily achievable." The definition of readily achievable has always meant different things to different people, but the FCC, disability advocates and industry players generally agreed it to mean “easily accomplishable, without much difficulty or expense.” Of course “much difficulty” and “much expense” were situational definitions at best.

In any event, per Section 255, if manufacturers cannot make their products accessible, then they are required to design products to be compatible with adaptive equipment used by people with disabilities, again, “where readily achievable.” To the extent that adaptive equipment technology in certain instances did not keep pace with mainstream information and communications technology, manufacturers of the latter were often compelled to include what might be considered “retro” technology in otherwise cutting-edge solutions to ensure interoperability. Such compromises, in my opinion, were worthy of the goal of extending accessibility as readily achievable as possible.

In terms of the application of Section 255, it was defined to cover wired and wireless telecommunication devices, pagers, and fax machines, other products that have a telecommunication service capability, such as computers with modems and equipment that carriers use to provide services, such as a phone company’s switching equipment. Of note, the possible functions of a product are key in determining coverage. If a product can provide telecommunication services, then that portion is covered - for example, televisions generally are not covered by section 255, except where a set-top-box enables e-mail communication or Internet access, and then only that device is covered.

During the debate around the implementation of Section 255, there were moments bordering on the absurd. However well-intended (truly) the provisions were, the myriad of disability advocates demanding accessibility features threatened to overwhelm innovation – particularly in the mobile space - as debate floundered in the miasma of trying to address the broadest spectrum of abilities and disabilities in terms of accessibility. In the end, however, reason prevailed, and under the ever-nebulous “readily achievable” rubric, manufacturers did indeed innovate select creative solutions to address accessibility challenges – if not in every device, then across a portfolio of devices - while not derailing the promise of mobile broadband multimedia, and all under the auspices of light FCC regulatory oversight incorporating a reasonable and reasonably managed complaint process.

As a brief aside, related to the reference above to addressing the broadest spectrum of abilities and disabilities in terms of accessibility, consider how the Americans With Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability. While the ADA does not provide a list of disabilities, it does define a legal test to decide if a person has a condition that is severe enough to be an ADA disability. As such, the ADA defines a current disability as “a medical condition or disorder (called an impairment) that substantially limits a person in doing basic activities (called major life activities). “ Examples of major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, sitting, standing, lifting, learning, and thinking. The point of the reference in the paragraph above was to emphasize that designing every product to be accessible to such a broad spectrum of potential abilities and disabilities would be beyond readily achievable, it would be, in fact, utterly impossible.

Earlier this month, Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) re-introduced “The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act,“ (also known, in Congressional parlance, as H.R. 3101) , which, with references to Section 255 and other related accessibility-focused regulation and legislation, would extend Section 255-like requirements to cover every provider of Internet access service and every manufacturer of Internet access equipment, unless it would be an undue burden, to make user interfaces accessible to individuals with disabilities (as defined by the Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended). “Undue burden” has stepped into the “readily achievable” space, and is defined as “significant difficulty or expense” – a seemingly significantly higher threshold. To the extent that threshold could not be achieved, like Section 255, H.R. 3101 would require that the equipment or service be compatible with existing commonly used peripheral devices or specialized customer equipment, unless, again, that requirement would be an undue burden.

The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act would cover a broad swath of the Internet industry, introducing rules and regulations where they may not have been applicable, or not perceived, or not enforced in the past. Of note, H.R. 3101 has a special focus on video, which offers an illustrative example of the challenges the bill, if enacted, will introduce across the digital spectrum. In terms of video, for instance, the bill would require that any apparatus that receives or plays back video programming and has a picture screen of any size be capable of decoding closed captioning, transmitting and delivering video description, and conveying emergency information. Notably, “video programming “ is specifically defined as “including programming distributed over the Internet or by other means”. Specific accessibility requirements would include mandating that any apparatus to receive or play back video, including using the Internet, allow control by individuals with disabilities and that on-screen menus, guides and/or navigational devices be accompanied by integrated or peripheral audio output and/or other accessibility solution to enable control by blind or visually impaired individuals unable to read the visual display. These requirements impact on everyone from YouTube to TV manufacturers to PC venders and beyond, including as well the accessories – mice, keyboards, remote controls – such services and/or hardware rely on.

The intent of H.R. 3101 is laudable, and yet, as the debate matures, there will doubtless be numerous exchanges bordering on the absurd as advocates representing individuals and groups across the ADA spectrum drive their individual interests while industry positions itself to both protect bottom lines and explain what is and is not technologically, commercially, and meaningfully achievable all-the-while operating within the basic laws of physical reality. There will be moments of clarity and compelling reason. There will be moments in which reason, logic and honesty are utterly ignored. The role of lawmakers and regulators throughout the process should be as an honest broker shepherding a debate that results in reasonably achievable, commercially- and humanly-meaningful compromise that drives rather than stymies innovation, market-based competition, and, of course, meaningful accessibility.

Meanwhile, there are a variety of solutions already market-tested and deployed. For instance, Microsoft’s Active Accessibility (MSAA) and UI Automation initiatives are aimed at providing better access for individuals who have physical or cognitive difficulties, impairments, or disabilities. And, there are literally dozens and dozens of screen readers available for vision impaired Internet users, and equally numerous video relay and video captioning services for hearing impaired users. These are positive, if not fully comprehensive, steps in the right direction.

Going forward, Internet accessibility – as driven by both regulatory and public demand, both spurred by the increasing integration of Internet activity into our daily lives – may well prove to be a cottage industry as lucrative as “green technology” has become. Watch this space in terms of start-ups and VC activity…

June 25, 2010

Latest on Network Neutrality...

'Round and round and round we go, where we'll stop, nobody knows...

The Senate Commerce Committee yesterday (6/24/10) questioned three FCC commissioners about FCC Chairman Genachowski's oft- and passionately stated intent to assert more control over the way broadband providers manage Internet traffic by extending existing telephony authority to regulate Internet access as well. Genachowski was not present at the hearing. Not surprisingly, Committee Democrats voiced support for the FCC's actions as essential to driving ubiquitous broadband, while Republican counterparts challenged the plans, expressing concern that such regulation would stifle innovation.

The FCC proposals, which would include an overhaul of the $8 billion Universal Service Fund - which currently subsidizes phone service for low-income folk and rural areas - to instead allow for funding new Internet access in rural areas. The bigger question though, is, of course, whether the FCC has or can contrive to extend any authority over Internet traffic or services in general. Indeed, as previously blogged, Genachowski's proposals fly in the face of the April Federal Court ruling that concluded that the FCC overreached when it sanctioned Comcast for deliberately slowing some of its subscribers Internet traffic.

I applaud Genachowski's initiative in the context of it shining a brighter and brighter light on both the need for accelerated broadband deployment and the imperative to curb access provider abuse of market power. As said before, the debate itself is serving as regulatory oversight of a sort. I worry though, just a bit,that it may also serve to delay the very deployments that are critical to our broadband future...

Stay tuned.

June 24, 2010

Online Privacy: Challenges and Opportunities

Almost a decade ago, there were fierce policy debates in regulatory backrooms about how digital privacy might be managed as the commercial Internet blossomed towards the multimedia broadband wonder that it is today. The heart of the dialogue was whether or not people should “opt in” to or “opt out” of use of their personal information for advertisement, experience customization, personalization, etc.

While there were already countless laws on the books and regulations promulgated to protect consumer privacy, financial transactions, health records, etc, and so forth (although almost all drafted in the pre- or early-commercial Internet age and arguably ill-fit or un-tested in the digital world), the opt in-opt out debate – focused on driving commercial value from the Internet – was a watershed.

In markets where, for instance, direct mail and telemarketing were commonplace, the initial kneejerk was in the opt out direction – if someone didn’t like the use of their data they would have the option of stopping the process (if, of course, they even noticed). In other markets, where such practices were frowned upon (or even illegal), opt in was the preferred mechanism.

Long story short, opt in emerged as the status quo, and specifically in the context of people opting in based on the concept of “informed consent.” In other words, people had the right to a full description of how their data might be used in advance of agreeing to its use. Notably, the general public was largely unaware that this debate was taking place, nor that a common policy had been defined and agreed.

Over the last 10 years, reaching a crescendo as social networks have exploded allowing people to share more personal information, there has been growing consumer concern related to identity theft, cyber/real-world stalking (via e.g. Google Streetview or mobile location-social network mashes like Foursquare, Loopt and Gowalla), and other privacy intrusions or mis-uses of personal data. The fundamental question facing people today is: Even if I opted in, was my consent really informed?

The most recent and perhaps most resonant hullabaloo has been around Facebook’s iterative editing (and lengthening) of its privacy policy and settings, culminating in the introduction of Facebook’s “Instant Personalization Program.” Overnight, the IPP resulted in Facebook members suddenly broadcasting their activities on a wide variety of otherwise unrelated websites, like Pandora, Yelp, and Microsoft docs.

Notwithstanding Facebook's Zuckerber Washington Post “apology” (which was not his first and anything but, and included the strangely cultish mantra “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected…a better world”), opting out of IPP is doable, yet only truly effective if all of your FB friends do as well (if any of your friends visit the other websites without opting out, they get your info anyway).

Meanwhile, in the less mainstream/not-yet discovered/feared realm, sites like Spokeo offer downright spooky profiles based on publicly available digital data. Spokeo, which bills itself as “not your grandma’s phonebook, asks for nothing more than a name and city and state.

The results: Name, phone number, street address (without the specific number), household members (an incomplete list in my case), age, ethnicity, marital status, occupation, hobbies (not sure where this wild list came from), estimated home value, gender, zodiac sign (they got it wrong for me, but only by a month), level of education, home ownership, length of residence, basic socio-economic data on your neighborhood, and, of course, a Google Earth shot of the immediate neighborhood, with your house and neighboring grayed out.

And that’s the free offering. For $2.95 a month you can get a one year membership that will fill in the blanks and add photos, videos, etc. pulled from social networks, blogs, etc., as well as (I’m really not sure what this might entail) religious and political and other affiliations.

For whatever it may be worth, Spokeo is only one of many such sites offering similar “services.”

So, with all of the above said and known, and despite the efforts of groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Online Privacy Alliance, The Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to better educate consumers on how to protect themselves online, the general population remains somewhat schizophrenic in it’s behavior and concerns. To wit, in a recently conducted (private) poll of a statistically relevant population (100’s, relatively affluent, ranging in age 15 to 45), the following results emerged:

• Almost 2/3’s of respondents are online daily for non-work/school experience, split more or less evenly between 1-2 hours and 3-5 hours daily.
• Few perceive benefit from personalized ads (based on service provider understanding of their online activity), half simply don’t care, almost 1/3 are slightly unnerved and 10%+ consider it an intrusion.
• Over half of the surveyed population make online purchases regularly or often, 2/3 recognize a remote possibility of identity theft, 25% are completely unconcerned, only a small percentage are deterred from online financial transactions for privacy concerns.
• 3/4 most trust their credit card companies to manage such transactions, with Paypal a second preference (essentially an extension of their credit cards), more than half neither trust nor distrust Apple and Google, while half list Facebook as least trusted.
• Over half of respondents use their mobile device to go online at least 1-5 hours a week, with another 1/3 going online 1-5 hours daily.
• ~60% rarely use location-based services (mapping, social location, etc.) on their mobile device, but almost 20% report using same more than 10 times a week or “practically always” (evenly split).
• Just over 10% perceive a benefit from customized services linked to their mobile device location but almost 50% would find it somewhat unnerving (29%) or an intrusion on their privacy (21%).
• No clear trusted party for managing such services emerged, indeed, 51% listed “no-one” as most trusted partner. To the extent trusted parties might be ranked, wireless operators/service providers edged out Google, with almost 50% listing Facebook as least trusted.

From a policy perspective, the good news is that EPIC, CDT, EFF and the Online Privacy Alliance seem to be united in promoting market-based as opposed to heavy-handed regulatory-based solutions to ensuring privacy protection without bringing digital commerce and social activity to a grinding halt. That said, they are also actively engaging in Washington to ensure that egregious behavior does not go unchecked – for instance, EPIC recently led 14 other organizations in filing a joint complaint with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) related to Facebook’s IPP. And, these groups are maintaining their initiatives to educate the general population appropriate individual protection. For instance, EFF is tracking Facebook’s privacy changes closely and providing clear instructions how to adjust personal settings accordingly, to the extent that Facebook makes that possible.

And, in the face of Congress preparing measures to regulate online privacy, and the FTC warning it will endorse such efforts if the industry fails to step up self-regulation, Internet companies like Yahoo and Microsoft and advertising giants like WPP are promoting a new market-based system to police privacy abuses by companies that track consumers' Web-surfing habits for ad targeting (see WSJ report).

Further good news for those of us who are fans of market-based solutions is the fact that (as also reported by the WSJ), venture capitalists – including top tier firms like Kleiner Perkins and Accel Partners - have identified privacy as a new investment opportunity and are pumping millions of dollars into privacy-related start-ups.

• Online privacy start-up ReputationDefender Inc. which provides a service to monitor what is said about an individual online and can help remove private information from certain websites, will soon disclose that it has raised $15 million in new venture funding—even though the company wasn't actively looking for new cash.
SafetyWeb Inc., which helps parents monitor their kids' online activities recently closed $8 million in funding.
• And the well-branded Truste (a not-for-profit until 2008), which offers seals of approval to websites that meet certain privacy standards, recently raised $12 million.
SocialShield Inc., funded by Venrock Associates and others, like SafteWeb has launched a web service that parents can use to help them track and analyze their children's online behavior, telling parents when others have posted and tagged photos of their kids online, giving them a chance to have them removed, among other thing.
• And, Abine Inc., funded by Atlas Venture, recently launched a product that can block online tracking and opt out of online ad networks.

As consumer awareness of privacy threats increases, even if behavior is not changing apace to address the threats, the market is responding with appropriate solutions and, hopefully, genuine commitment to self-regulation. But, all it may take to trigger potentially over-zealous lawmakers and regulators to step in will be more snafus from Facebook, a monster-scale case of identity theft, or a gruesome headline or two related to cyber-stalking.

A space worth watching, both in terms of personal security and business opportunity.


June 23, 2010

The unholy - or perhaps holiest - alliance...

Watching Nokia’s slo-mo-but-steadily-accelerating crash and burn over the last couple of years has been painful to say the least. And there seems to be no end in sight, yet, perhaps, appearances aren’t, as they say, everything…

The collapse dates back to the Nokia reorganization in the mid-00’s that took a chaotic hodgepodge of nine devices Business Units and combined them into three new and focused Groups: Enterprise Solutions (aimed at dethroning RIMM), Multimedia (driving the future of mobile computing), and Mobile Phones (delivering bread-and-butter volume feature and entry phones). The unintended result was a strong focus on the high-end in Enterprise Solutions and Multimedia, and a natural gravitation towards the low end in Mobile Phones, which sought to capture and hold emerging market share. The door was left wide open for Samsung and LG to capture the mid-range feature phone space, where they continue to dominate today.

The acceleration of the meltdown came with another reorganization at the end of 2007, this time uniting the three separate devices Groups into one. Enterprise Solutions had essentially failed, Multimedia was poised to succeed, and Mobile Phones was chugging along in the low-end, so Nokia rightfully sought to achieve the efficiencies of a single devices Group, married up to a newborn Services Group, together meant to drive new hardware-software blended experiential Solutions into the market. The unintended result, in part influenced by an ill-timed global economic crisis, was the sacrifice of high-end device momentum - just as Apple was crashing the party and Android was a glint in HTC’s eye - as Nokia laser-focused on share, share, share. And that meant moving volume. And that meant driving low-end, entry-level phones.

There have been two additional reorganizations since, neither doing much harm nor good, neither speeding things up or slowing them down – just moving the pieces and bodies around. But, meanwhile, companies like China’s MediaTek are making Nokia’s much-vaunted global scale and efficiency less relevant in the low-end, enabling multiple Indian and other Asian companies to deliver the same $27 phones with $3 margins that have been Nokia’s mainstay in entry-level devices.

So, struggling to catch up in the high-end (where Apple and Android rule), just another middling player in the mid-range, and getting pressed hard and fast on the low end, and with its “me-too” suite of Ovi-based service offerings not having taken off to add value and differentiation to the Nokia device experience, and with its share price hovering above what would have been an inconceivable 5 Euros just two years ago, what is the one-time mobile giant and leader to do?

When I left Nokia a year-and-a-half ago, I recommended to senior leadership a North American recovery built on a departure from the global cookie-cutter approach. I have since repeatedly promoted that same strategy, both in this blog and in informal exchanges with Nokia: Scrap Symbian and deliver Android-powered devices. Just in North America. Recover here, where brands are made and broken. Then leverage that success globally.

Had Nokia taken that approach a year ago, Motorola would have crumbled, HTC would not now be a household brand, and RIMM would be yet more perilously hanging on than they already are today. But with seemingly Wang-like myopia, Nokia has stayed the Symbian course, pursuing Maemo (now MeeGo) on the side.

Notwithstanding my previous recommendations, frankly, a Nokia shift to Android at this point would be if not too little, certainly too late. It just seems so hard to fathom, a company with a history of risk and innovation watching the world go by… But, again, perhaps appearances aren’t everything.

Recall that there’s another tech giant out there struggling to succeed in the mobile space, a giant with which Nokia has had an on-again-off-again collaborative relationship, and with which, based on some personal historical knowledge, Nokia has maintained a regular senior level dialogue. Microsoft.

It’s a way out of an otherwise seemingly endless downward spiral, and I’d like to believe the plans are already in place and maturing. A Nokia-Microsoft alliance would shake the mobile space to its figurative knees. Indeed, as MS is poised to launch a refreshed mobile OS at year’s end, a suite of Nokia devices powered by that OS – if it’s everything it’s promised to be - could captivate the market. Such a bold move would certainly benefit both companies’ share prices, and, related, the sheer audacity of the move would give Nokia the opportunity to jettison it’s long-term commitment to Symbian as a mobile computing OS, instead allowing that OS to become the feature phone solution it’s destined to be. Wither Meego? I’m not so sure, but in the near-term we’d see the market boil down to three mobile computing OS’s – Apple’s OSx, Google’s Android, and Windows Mobile (or whatever it may be called) championed by Nokia. Yes, this would certainly eat into Nokia’s device margins, but it might also make Ovi much more relevant, and drive revenues through that channel that make up the difference.

Just imagine…

June 16, 2010

Streaming Internet Video to the Big Screen

It's been awhile since I posted a tech tip here (if you visit the "mobile related posts" drop-down to the right of your display you'll see that it was once a staple).

In any event, and with zero focus on mobile, as streaming Internet video and content to the TV is becoming more and more commonplace, I thought I might offer some handy guidance....

Until the big CE guys (HDTV, DVR and set-top box venders) mainstream their Internet-enabled offerings, in terms of both selection and price point, (and, by the way, the potential for all of this Internet-enabled CE simply begs in advance for a consistent UI), your alternatives are multiple.

Apple TV takes a combined hardware/content approach, but has experienced limited uptake at best. And, of course, Google has announced its intent as well - Google TV - we'll wait and see what becomes of this... Even Netflix has gotten into the bundling game, teaming up with hardware partners like Roku. And, of course, if you happen to have a Wii, PS3, or XBox360 around the house that isn't otherwise in use for its primary purpose, any of the gaming consoles will support Internet streaming and, well, some limited clunky browsing as well.

Beyond the mainstream, there are any number of lesser-known hardware venders that are pushing Internet streaming-enabled HTPC's (Home Theater PC's - check out Mvix's HD Home, Acer's Aspire Revo, and Dell's Inspiron Zino for examples) and NMT's (Networked Media Tanks - check out Popcorn Hours' range of products, Western Digital's TV Live, and EGreat's somewhat chunky machine for examples) - but these things ain't any cheaper than the Apple solution (ranging from a couple hundred bucks to a thousand), nor, yet, any more mainstream.

While the hardware side of the equation has yet to mature, what most people are doing is simply hooking their PC's or laptops to their big screens and either streaming direct specific content providers (from YouTube to the networks - ABC, NBC, CBS - we've all grown up with, and beyond) or from Amazon or Netflix, or via Hulu, Boxee, or Hillcrest Lab's Kylo. The first two are basically content aggregators, Kylo is actually designed (Mozilla-based) as a true multi-functional optimized-for-TV web browser - worth checking out. Why? Because Kylo isn't just about streaming video - although it excels at that - it actually converts your big screen into a full, easy-to-view and easy-to-navigate Internet browser.

After you've hooked your PC to the TV (a simple process for weekend geeks but perhaps a challenge for the average Facebooker), the extended user experience - from the couch, as it were - is still a challenge. A wireless mouse and keyboard make it easier, and Hillcrest's Loop Pointer - a Wii-like remote - is a true marvel. Again, the latter is worth checking out (and, strangely enough, the Hillcrest technology incorporated in the Loop in part powers the Wiimote as well).

And there are other solutions as well. For those of you who are iPhone or iTouch owners, ASRock's AIWI is another clever solution. Strangely, there is no Mac version of the software, but if you download the free client to your PC and install the free app on your iPhone/iTouch, you get a WiFi- or Bluetooth-powered remote of sorts for your PC. In short, the iPhone/iTouch app allows you to use the touchscreen as a virtual mouse (and, in terms of the online gaming solutions ASRock is powering, the app also harnesses the iPhone/iTouch accelerometer for a pretty cool experience, albeit still quite limited in terms of game selection).

'Nuff said for now... Later.

June 02, 2010

Let the wireless broadband tiering begin...

Mobile operators are taking first steps to introduced tiered billing for wireless broadband access, laying the groundwork and creating the model for fixed broadband to follow - the market-based (as opposed to regulatory-based) solution to network management (not "neutrality") that I've been discussing in recent posts on the topic.

For more detail, check out Verizon's approach; AT&T Mobility's approach.