Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Should you be buying and selling textbooks at Amazon?

I have long predicted the demise of conventional textbooks, but they are hanging on. For now, the textbook is king.

Faculty like textbooks because they save them time. There are only a few candidate books to choose among for a course, they come with teaching material like PowerPoint slides, review questions and test banks, the publisher maintains a Web site for the book, and the table of contents determines the course syllabus.

As teaching loads increase, faculty are driven to rely more heavily on textbook publishers. (I stopped using textbooks years ago, saving my students a lot of money, but costing me a lot of time).

I still think textbooks will fade away, but while you wait for the demise of the $100 textbook, you can use Amazon's beta-test textbook buyback service to ease the pain. A student with books in good condition can ship them for free to Amazon, and receive Amazon gift card credit as payment. That credit can be used to purchase new or used textbooks for other classes or anything else. Textbook ordering is also simple -- enter the ISBN numbers of the textbooks you need, and a one-click search returns links to all of them.

Amazon also offers many textbooks in electronic form for distribution on their Kindle e-book reader. The current Kindle has significant limitations as a textbook reader, but it also has some advantages, and many companies are working on other devices. (Maybe textbooks will be a killer application for the much rumored Apple tablet or whatever Hewlett Packard is cooking up).

The average US student spends $702 annualy on required course materials, and, as shown below, about 23% of that goes to the bookstore and distribution. Amazon hopes to get a piece of that.

(Click on the picture to enlarge it).

Let us know if you have been buying or selling textbooks online or using an e-book reader like the Kindle.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Open Government Directive -- maybe some things can change

President Obama appointed Vivek Kundra Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) earlier this year. Kundra had been Chief Technology Officer for Washington DC, and espoused a strong "Web 2.0" vision for citizen participation, government transparency and cloud services, but he was surprisingly inexperienced. John Dvorak, a respected technical journalist, looked into Kundra's education and background and questioned his qualification to manage 71,000 IT workers and 10,000 IT systems -- asking whether Kundra is a phony.

InformationWeek, a trade publication for IT managers, just named Kundra CIO of the year, emphasizing his vision more than listing his achievements.

On December 8, we saw what may be a major step toward implementing Kundra's transparent government vision -- issuing the Open Government Directive. (You can see Kundra in the announcement video). The directive orders Federal agencies to:

  • publish government information online
  • improve the quality of government information
  • create and institutionalize a culture of open government
And they are to start immediately -- each agency is required to
  • identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value databases within 45 days
  • create an open government Web page within 60 days
  • develop and publish an open government plan stating how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities within 120 days
This activity will be tracked in an open government "dashboard" with statistics and visualizations showing how each agency is doing with respect to openness. The dashboard is to be on the Web within 60 days.

It is noteworthy that they are not talking about PDF copies of reports, but publishing data in machine readable form so it can be analyzed and summarized by others -- journalists, scholars, business people, politicians, etc.

This sounds real. The Sunlight Foundation, which has led the movement to use the Internet for government transparency, is optimistic. (You can hear more in this interview of their policy director, John Wonderlich, who sees this as "a real commitment to systemic change within the government").

It will be interesting to see how things look after those 45-120 day deadlines have passed -- we can check the Open Government Dashboard.

Perhaps Kundra's inexperience has an upside -- he may be too naive to understand that getting government bureaucracies to publish data and listen to the public is "impossible."

Monday, December 14, 2009

LTE version 1.0. TeleSonora begins 4G cellular service in Scandinavia using Chinese equipment

We cover cellular networks and generations in discussing mobile and portable connectivity.

Today might be considered the first day of the fourth generation -- TeleSonera began offering commercial LTE (Long Term Evolution) service in central Stockholm and Oslo. This is LTE 1.0. It is not built into phones; it is not offered outside of Oslo and Stockholm; there is no competition; it does not fall back to 3G or WiFi; there are no tethering applications for creating portable WiFi hot spots, but it is here.

The service delivers download speeds in the 20-80 Mbps range and will cost 599 Swedish Kronor ($85) per month. There will be no data cap while the service ramps up, but after July 1 2010, they will impose a 30 GB-per-month cap. It also requires a Samsung plug in modem. The current version of the modem is LTE only, but they will soon have one that can fall back to the 3G network where LTE is unavailable.

When TeleSonera began testing in Oslo last June, they said rollout would begin in 2010, but demand for high speed mobile connectivity convinced them to push the start date up.

The equipment is manufactured by Huawei, a Chinese company. You may think of China as a manufacturer of cheap toys and other consumer goods, but they are becoming world leaders in high tech areas like telecommunication. Huawei European equipment sales were $3 billion in 2008, compared to just $160 million in 2003. Forty of the world's fifty largest telephone companies are now Huawei customers and 75% of their 2008 sales were outside of China. Globally, Huawei is the second largest mobile connectivity manufacturer.

Check this short video tour of the Stockholm base station, which has both 3G and the new LTE 4G equipment.

Verizon's FIOS Internet connectivity is $70 per month for up to 25 mbps download and 15 mbps upload. Would you rather have that or TeleSonera portable service in Stockholm?

What new applications and devices might this service enable?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Too cheap to virtualize? Intel's data center on a chip and the Carnegie-Mellon FAWN project

We discuss the evolution of server hardware configurations, and we may be witnessing the start of the next chapter.

Just as virtual servers -- which share processors -- are becoming popular, we see the cost of processors shrinking to the point where they may not be worth sharing. Intel has demonstrated a 48-processor chip which includes shared memory and an on-chip network connecting the processors. The power/speed trade off can also be adjusted under program control. As Intel says, they are working toward a "data center on a chip."

The FAWN project (fast array of wimpy nodes) at Carnegie Mellon University is prototyping this approach, and they say the results are promising. Preliminary results with FAWNs indicate that they are cost competitive with conventional architectures, but consume 3-10 times less power. Power consumption is a large and growing portion of data center cost.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Swedish report calls for openness and competition at all network levels

The Swedish Telecoms Regulator has issued a 150 page report (in Swedish) on open networks and services with a two page abstract in English.

The report focuses on the importance of open, competitive markets and networks at five levels:

  1. Natural resources (use of and access to land, ducts and spectrum)
  2. Infrastructure (passive cables and masts)
  3. Transmission (equipment for transportation of bit-streams)
  4. IP/Internet (equipment for traffic direction and IP addressing)
  5. Content and services (content, services and end user equipment)

This multi-level approach sounds like that presented by Brough Turner, and it has worked well in Stockholm and throughout Sweden, as shown by their high rank on Internet-related indices:

Broadband Performance IndexEuropean Community Commission1
E-readiness rankingsEconomist Intelligence Unit2
Networked Readiness IndexWorld Economic Forum2
Broadband Quality ScoreSaid Business School4