Friday, February 11, 2005

VoIP didn't kill Telstra, Again!

One of the fondest bits of the telco journalist’s utopia in Australia is that there’s a technology just around the corner which will destroy Telstra.

Telstra is about as popular in Australia as Microsoft. The enthusiasm for “get Telstra” stories is so strong that it overrides any consideration of factual rigour.

The story de jour is from Gerry Barker of the Age.

"As Telstra is groomed for its final leap into full privatisation, its biggest cash cow, the vast fixed-line public telephone network, is under threat. On one hand is Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP for short, which promises calls to anywhere in the world for as long as you like, all included in the monthly broadband internet charge."


The caveats on "free" calls are too broad for me to deal with comprehensively, but: VoIP services only offer "free" calls to other members of the same network. PSTN termination has to be bought. And many of the broadband phone services charge their own monthly fees in addition to the broadband charge, and many or most VoIP services offer no indialling from the PSTN.

"VoIP is now cutting thousands of dollars a month from phone bills for big corporations, including banks, municipalities and the Victorian Government."

True, but the internal use of VoIP for the PABX has nothing to do with the consumer's use of VoIP. Corporate VoIP doesn’t much erode the PSTN – it erodes Frame Relay, which is right now the most common way to interconnect dispersed PABXs.

The author then tells us that VoIP is difficult because it involved "converting a sound into packets of data that are sent to the internet, routed through various servers, reassembled at their destination and converted back into sound."

That's the easy part. We've been digitising voice on the phone network for decades (OTC engineers were very excited at the first digital exchanges in the early 80s).

What makes VoIP difficult is not the transmission, but trying to replicate the stability and ubiquity of the PSTN.

Then we have the obligatory Skype worship. Skype, says the author, "allows computers to connect to telephones".

Mostly, not.

Most Skype conversations are between computers, with the SkypeOut service (allowing you to buy PSTN call minutes) brand-new. And whom do you think gets money when you buy a Skype call to a Telstra phone? Some of it goes to Skype, some to the minutes reseller in the middle, and some to…

Yep. Telstra, again.

Even if you make a “free” call on VoIP, the carriers will get something: money from the ADSL link, or perhaps Internet transit fees for the ISP traffic.

Of course broadband will erode "fixed line telephone" revenues, but consumers will still need some way to get their packets onto the VoIP network. That's going to mean, for most Australians, an ADSL connection over the copper customer access network. That network is mostly owned by Telstra - which means it will derive revenue from VoIP, because customers will have to pay for their ADSL service.

"Telstra is expected to have its entire network equipped to handle VoIP traffic by the middle of this year."

Wow. And to think that 1997 demo at Netcomm used the Telstra network with no Telstra enablement whatever…

(PS: if you want to run VoIP, read the Skype EULA first. Then go and sign up with someone who doesn’t want to own your soul…)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

VoIP Security: the Story Overlooked in the Rush to Reprint the PR

When the VoIP Security Alliance was formed, the press release put (as Puck might put it) a girdle around the earth several times over.

And with the ready-made news story right there in the wire filler, nearly nobody saw any need to add value to the story by noticing that Skype and Vonage, the biggest brands in VoIP, have left industry standing at the altar like abandoned bridegrooms at a Moonie mass wedding.

Wired was the exception here: it spoke to the two VoIP firms, got their dismissal of the need for VOIPSA down and reported them, and left it at that.

Other than Wired, though, IT journalism worldwide was more or less content to stick with the simplistic. Going no further than the VOIPSA media release, which mentioned VoIP spam and eavesdropping, the top-and-tailers of the IT press view went no further.

This also means they were happy to take their lead in punditry from these two examples of threats; they assessed the need for VOIPSA according to their view of eavesdropping and VoIP spam, and looked for nothing more.

But the worst of it was the way the race to post the syndicated wire piece gave the world a nearly instant single view of VoIP security and VOIPSA. Around 60 stories were visible to Google News this morning; most of them identical and, through no fault of the VOIPSA press release, promoting a restricted of VoIP security.

Wired demonstrated that it wasn't that hard to call Vonage and Skype and get their comments; although the reflexive love for VoIP meant the Wired story didn't reflect much in the way of hostile, or even difficult, questioning.

Still, because it was the best of an otherwise inadequate bunch of reports, the Wired story is here:,1282,66512,00.html?tw=wn_tophead_1

Certainly more worthwhile than any press release reposts.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

New Scientist Suckered by "News to Me" Syndrome

One of the most fatal traps for the journalist to fall into is "news to me": where someone considers a story as newsworthy because they hadn't heard of it before.

It's a particular vulnerability of anyone writing about technology, because tech journalists come to the story expecting it to be new. The very first thing the new IT journalist needs to learn is that most of it isn't news; it's just that they haven't seen that particular slideshow before.

Most of all, though, you get "news to me" syndrome when people outside, or on the periphery, of IT dip a toe into a story that sounds interesting, or listens to a phone call from someone, and they lack the background to nip the "news to me" syndrome in the bud.

It gets really sad - tragic and inept - when "news to me" bites a credible source, only to result in other news outlets recycling old news because one news outlet did so.

Here's the "news to me" syndrome in spades from no less a source than New Scientist: which the author hasn't heard of Zombies before (that is, virus-hijacked home computers being turned into spam sources), so he writes it up as "news" because some self-publicist (in this case Spamhaus) says it's news.

It's a story at least a year old, as this source from CNN clearly demonstrates:
"Your computer could be a 'spam zombie'
NEW YORK (AP) -- Next time you're looking for a culprit for all that junk mail flooding your inbox, have a glance in the mirror.
Spammers are increasingly exploiting home computers with high-speed Internet connections into which they've cleverly burrowed."

(Published in 2004; link at

But, of course, New Scientist is a credible source, so if NS gets suckered by the "news to me" syndrome, all judgement from all sources goes out the window. Hence this CNet News piece:
"Zombie trick expected to send spam sky-high
Published: February 2, 2005, 11:25 AM PST
By Dan Ilett and Jim Hu
Special to CNET
Spam levels are about to skyrocket, according to experts who warned this week that spammers have developed a new way of delivering their wares."

What's really sad about this is that CNet already knew about zombies, at least a year ago. So it's been double-whammied: not only did it not notice that the "news" story from New Scientist wasn't news, it didn't even notice that it had already been running stories about zombies.

The supposed news was that zombies are learning to spoof the address of the mail server at the ISP, rather than using the mail address of the home machine as the "from" address for spam.

Nonsense; this isn't news.

Spoofing isn't new; choosing the address you spoof isn't new. Nor is the discovery of a mail route any particular rocket science. Nor does it need any esoterica about getting the virus to "send a network query to the ISP to discover the address of its mail server".

Here's the easy way to discover the mail route between the spammer and the zombie:
1) infect target computer;
2) the first message the target computer sends is back to its source;
3) analyse the return message to retrieve the ISP's mail address.
Step (3) could easily be automated.

So: have we a new development? Not particularly. Have we news? No. It's just that New Scientist, which is not an IT magazine and never will be (it's a great science title, I love it, but it's not an IT rag) didn't have the onsite skills to tell the difference between "news" and "news to me".

It would be easy to criticise Spamhaus for deceiving New Scientist, but that's a bore. Spamhaus was merely playing a PR game; one of the many tasks of the journalist is to pin the balloon. If you can't, you aren't in the game.

Monday, February 07, 2005

A recipe, and a reason for it.

My own recipe for pancakes is seriously "gold code", having been the Sunday breakfast for about 15 years. It only fails for people who can't follow four-step instructions.

Put two cups of plain flour and four teaspoons of baking powder into a food processor, and spin it for about five seconds.
Put in two eggs, run the food processor for about 15 seconds.
Put in a pint of buttermilk (Australian buttermilk works better than English, I know from experience in both countries), whizz for about 30 seconds.
Cook on a not-too-hot frypan oiled with Canola spray. How thick and large you like your pancakes is your own decision.

The reason I mention this is because you can substitute sour skim milk for the buttermilk, if you're in the wrong country or if there's no buttermilk on the supermarket shelf.

Of course, in the era of Internet refrigerators, you'd be in real trouble because there's no more sour milk, as this author writes:

Soon the family refrigerator may read the RFID tags of its contents, then alert you to fetch another carton of milk, toss an out-of-date product or cut back on cholesterol consumption. In Italy an appliance maker has designed a washer that can read RFID-tagged garments and process them accordingly. "It's going to be huge for industry," predicts futurist Paul Saffo. "RFID will start to arrive in 2004, and it will unfold over a decade, and we will wonder how we ever lived without it." (Time Magazine, 2003)

A shill? Maybe, but a shill given the imprimatur of Time Magazine a little while ago.
(For those who see Time as the epitome of disinterested journalism, I will remark that Texas Instruments was very pleased with this story as an example of media placement.)

I really wonder if the journalists who crib these sorts of examples from industry press releases, or run them as quotes from conference presentations, understand how stupid it sounds?

Underneath a superficially-plausible scenario is a set of assumptions which renders the whole idea into comedy - but the combination of a triumphalist view of technology (rampant in IT journalism) and a blinkered mindset which can't see the assumptions means an uncritical and positive press for what is, objectively, arrant nonsense.

The cargo cult of the reminder refrigerator assumes:

- that someone too dumb to read a use-by date will have their lives changed by showing it on a screen instead of on the package;

- that someone too forgetful to remember the milk will change their ways because the refrigerator told them to buy it;

- that refrigerators store only packaged goods with a manufacturer's use-by;

- that the use-by date is a binary (the milk expired at midnight!);

- that the use-by date suffers no dependencies except the product's time spent in the home refrigerator (arrant nonsense - take a look at an overstacked freezer in the supermarket one day);

- that the support infrastructure exists and can be trusted;

- that there's no variation in the contents of the refrigerator from one week to the next, nor any need nor opportunity to select between different brands (what boring lives these visionaries must lead!);

- that there's no supply-side variation in product availability;

- that tag data will remain static; and

- that there's no use for sour milk (see the recipe above).

Because the assumptions go unchallenged, the "use-case" survives.

It's a revealing commentary on the lives of the futurists, the marketing genii driving development, and the writers who fall for it all: what we see is a bunch of male geeks, academics, marketing wonks and tech writers who, to a man, are so inept that they can't buy milk without Mumma Fridge's help. Not only do they fail to see the indignity in this, they work hard to bring it about.

To me, and most certainly to my slow-food enthusiast wife, the "RFID Refrigerator" is a classic case of functionality without utility.

Even if the technology does what its shills tell us, that functionality has no relevance to our lives.

The Cargo Cult
Whenever the IT media is pushing functionality-without-utility, you can bet it's because the utility exists not for the consumer, but for the industry.

The RFID refrigerator is a good example: it needs a huge support infrastructure provided by the IT industry. It needs ubiquitous tagging; those tags need huge amounts of software with vast development consulting among customers; it needs lots more silicon in lots more places; it would create an eternal demand for support services.

In short, the RFID refrigerator is a story cooked up and endlessly hawked around the media for the sole purpose of selling not the fridge, but the rest of the stuff wrapped around it.

It matters not at all that consumers will lose rather than win.

People buying refrigerators will be asked to give up:

- privacy (by accepting ubiquitous tagging);

- autonomy (Mamma Fridge nagging me about the milk);

- freedom of choice (I'll bet that the automated fridge restocking services will be favoured with exclusive contracts with premium brands);

- information (one of the great ripoffs of Internet shopping is the frequent pretence that the e-tailer is the cheapest option);

- personal freedom (because once you start putting software in consumer products, you start replacing "ownership" with an EULA).

Moreover, the fridge depends on consumer-side infrastructure. It needs access to the broadband connection (more Ethernet or WiFi to sell), security from the Internet connection (more firewalls and more software), and so on.

To examine a few of the assumptions I listed earlier, in terms of "benefit to industry":

that refrigerators store only packaged goods (an industry benefit, not a consumer benefit);

that the use-by date is a binary (an industry benefit, not a consumer benefit);

that there's no variation in the contents of the refrigerator from one week to the next, nor any need nor opportunity to select between different brands (an industry benefit, not a consumer benefit).

Moreover, any change in tag data which renders today's use-by inoperable generates income for the industry.

All of these things are to the benefit of the industry, but not to the consumer. Nearly all of them would cost money for a "service" which falls somewhere between incremental and useless.

In other words, the consumer is being sold a shiny gadget, the refrigerator, as a distraction from what he or she is losing.

The thing is it's so easy to think of the downsides of the cargo cult. Here I am on a Sunday morning in Sydney, knocking off lists of "what's wrong with the idea" in a few minutes while my wife takes a shower.

Any journalist who can't manage to think of these things without help is stupid, lazy, or glare-blind.