New Tools

Best Of NDN's Mobile Policy Work

This Wednesday, former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and Suzanne Hall of the State Department will be joining NDN as we release a new paper on the “Mobile Revolution, Revisited.” Tim Chambers authored the first version of this paper back in 2006 and the ensuing five years of election engagement, mobile-enabled revolution, and technology-based international development has proven his work to be prescient and its update incredibly timely.

NDN and New Policy Institute have long been on the cutting edge of mobile policy. We were among the first to not only recognize its game-changing potential for election strategy and community development, but also among the most outspoken advocates of public policies that supported the growth, adoption, and spread of mobile technology. Our Global Mobile Blog has also consistently provided a vital window into the challenges and opportunities these technologies face around the world. In preparation for this Wednesday’s event we have assembled ten of the most influential pieces on mobile that NDN has released. Simon Rosenberg addressed many of these issues in his forward to Crashing The Gate, Marcos Moulitsas' critically acclaimed book, in 2006. Our efforts on this front stretch back nearly a decade and continue to be a priority for us. We hope that you’ll reacquaint yourself with some of NDN’s ground-breaking work on this front and join us on Wednesday, March 7th. As always, we welcome your feedback and thoughts. 

1. Mobile Media in 21st Century Politics - Tim Chambers and Rob Sebastian. September 1, 2006

2. A laptop in Every Backpack - Alec Ross and Simon Rosenberg. May 1, 2007

3. The 50 Year Strategy - Simon Rosenberg and Peter Leyden. December 2007

4. Harnessing the Mobile Revolution - Thomas Kalil. October 8, 2008

5. Obama: No Realist He - Simon Rosenberg. June 16, 2009

6. The Power of Mobile - Alec Ross (Video). June 26, 2009

7. Governance and the Internet Ecosystem - Tom Tauke (Video). March 25, 2010

8. Connection Technologies in U.S. Foreign Policy - Sam DuPont. September 10, 2010

9. The Age of Possibility - Simon Rosenberg (Video). April 29, 2011

10. The Employment Effects of Advances in Internet and Wireless Technology: Evaluating the Transitions from 2G to 3G and from 3G to 4G - Rob Shapiro and Kevin Hassett. January 18, 2012



Friday New Tools Feature: A Day of Portentous Products

Today, two important consumer releases mark substantial advances in the widespread adoption of new media. First, Verizon released the Droid and Droid Eris, two smartphones which may be ushering in the age of Android. The Droid has gotten excellent reviews, and though there are still some kinks to work out before any Android device delivers the same shiny, seamless experience as the iPhone, the Droid is actually a superior phone in a number of ways. Furthermore, Android's open-source philosophy means we'll see more and more handset makers producing quality products like the Droid, with next-gen phones on the way from Asus, HTC, and others. Android is flexible enough that it's being used to power everything from netbooks to Barnes and Noble's new e-reader, and as mobile processors increase in power (several 1gHz Snapdragon-powered phones are in the works as we speak), the line between phone and mobile computer will continue to blur further.

The second major release today was Netflix's (free) PlayStation 3 streaming disc, which leverages BD-Live technology to allow anyone with a PlayStation 3 and a Netflix account to stream thousands of movies and TV shows in DVD quality to their TV quickly and easily (a feature which has already been available on the XBox for some time, and should be coming to the Wil soon). This may not seem like such a big deal, but although I will often hook up my computer to the TV to watch streaming movies on Netflix, many people (like my parents) have Netflix but don't take advantage of the excellent streaming feature. Having this ability built in to devices like the PS3 and other BluRay players moves Netflix streaming more squarely into the mainstream, perhaps presaging the impending decline of all physical media.

These products on their may not be game-changers, but they both evince a sea change in the media and communications environment, a change that will have profound consequences for those caught unprepared. Smartphones and streaming media are no longer marginal technologies - as their ecosystems flourish and prices drop, the power and convenience they offer consumers will mean that they quickly become the norm.

The Irony of the Net Neutrality Debate

Last week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski held a hearing to introduce a new set of rules intended to preserve the free and open internet and to start a public discourse regarding whether or not they will be formally adopted.  To be clear, this post is not meant to support or oppose the rules themselves; rather, to comment on the nature of the discourse in its inception stages.

As dialogue surrounding FCC regulations on net neutrality becomes an issue with increasing visibility, so does the importance for each voice to be heard.  Like America, the Internet was created "for the people, by the people," so why would anyone try to silence the people?

By undermining the voices of eminent minority groups like the NAACP and the NCLR, Art Brodsky, the Communications Director at Public Knowledge (PK) is doing just that.  A comment on his blog post suggested that

"...the saddest part of the whole affair to date is the role of groups representing minority populations. For whatever reason - whether they believe what the Big Telecom companies tell them or not - many organizations seem to land on policies that hurt their constituencies and fall into ludicrous traps one suspects are not of their making."

His sentiment implies that well-respected organizations known for their century long fight for equal rights may be duped into a "trap" based on their so-called loyalty to "Big Telecom companies."  At worst, Mr. Brodsky is trying to silence strong civil rights organizations.  At best, his condescending commentary intends to devalue their intentions, research, and history.

After Mr. Brodsky posted his comments last week, Sylvia Aguilera, Executive Director of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP) responded in a letter by demanding that PK "immediately repudiate the damaging statements."   Now, PK has linked the minority groups' positioning to loyalty based on monetary contributions - effectively suggesting that they are being bribed into taking their stance.  It would be naïve to think that operations of this sort never happen, but it is presumptuous and demeaning to suggest that money is the only factor on which their stance is based.

NDN has a history of partnering with organizations such as the NAACP and NCLR on a variety of issues, including the recent debate on the Vitter-Bennett amendment regarding the census.  Therefore, we can attest to their sincerity and leadership in advocating for their respective communities' interests.

For someone that advocates an open source platform as Mr. Brodsky claims to by supporting net neutrality, it seems ironic that he would try to silence the developing discourse on this topic.

Friday New Tools Feature: Smartphones Go Mainstream

They're no longer just for early adopters; as 2009 winds down, a cornucopia of new smartphones are hitting the market, and they're shaping up to be really good. With the Palm Pre (and future phones running its slick WebOS), all of the new Android phones coming out (2 or 3 new ones coming to Verizon alone very soon), and even a few decent Windows Mobile phones, 2009 looks like it will be the year that ushered in the age of the smartphone.

It has taken a few years for retailers to catch up after the iPhone revolutionized the mobile phone; many have continued to focus on featurephones, essentially regular phones with gimmicky selling points, instead of fully taking advantage of the mobile platform. But that is finally changing in a big way. Particularly tantalizing is the new Motorola Droid (left), Verizon's first real competitor for the iPhone (and the first phone on Verizon in a long time that I actually really want). Though I'm lukewarm on their advertising campaign for it, the Droid does indeed look to be a potential iPhone killer, and might be just the comeback that Motorola needs right now. 

Perhaps iPhone killer is not the right way to put it - there's plenty of space for competition in the exploding smartphone market, and the iPhone is still doing just fine. In fact, this quarter AT&T sold more iPhones than ever - a full 74% of AT&T's new activations this quarter were iPhones, which is a pretty incredible statistic. It points to what I believe is a sea change about to take place in the mobile sphere. Within the next year or two, smartphones will no longer be the exception, but the norm. I've written before about why that's a good thing from the perspective of narrowing the digital divide. But it will also have a profound effect on domestic politics - as mobile devices become the primary entry point to the communications network for more and more people, outreach efforts will have to adapt. However, we should not see this just as a challenge but also as an opportunity; mobility and location-awareness have the potential to revolutionize politics (since, as they say, all politics is local). 

Friday New Tools Feature: Parting Reflections on the American Dream

Today, sadly, is my last day as a full-time employee of NDN, though I will continue to blog from Thailand, and hope to remain very involved with the organization. I've had a really great time working here, and learned a great deal. So I thought that today, I could just quickly reflect on why I think the work NDN does is so important. 

When we talk about our proposals to put a laptop in every backpack, or to provide free computer training to every American, we tend to stress the economic reasons for doing so - helping our workforce stay competitive in a 21st century global economy, etc. But I really believe that it is about much more than that. It is about taking steps, however modest, towards realizing the American ideal of equal opportunity, which for so much of our history has existed only nominally. 

Libertarians like to talk a lot about freedom, but they mean it only in the formal sense - a lack of restriction. Usually, one finds that they really only mean unlimited market freedom, the unfettered right to exploit others for the acquisition of wealth, without any convincing philosophical or reality-based reasoning. They reject any effort by the government to confront the deep structural inequalities in our society which make a farce of the ideas of personal responsibility and equal opportunity, and the occasional exception does not diminish this fact. For every Barack Obama or Sonia Sotomayor, there are tens of thousands who fall through the cracks.  

American philosopher John Dewey understood this - he understood the difference between nominal freedom and effective freedom. Here's a brief quote on the difference between freedom as the libertarians understand it, and what it actually means to be free:

Exemption from restraint and from interference with overt action is only a condition, though an absolutely indispensable one, of effective freedom. The latter requires (1) positive control of the resources necessary to carry purposes into effect, possession of the means to satisfy desires; and (2) mental equipment with the trained powers of initiative and reflection requisite for free preference and for circumspect and far-seeing desires. The freedom of an agent who is merely released from direct external obstructions is formal and empty. If he is without resources of personal skill, without control of the tools of achievement, he must inevitably lend himself to carrying out the directions and ideas of others.

Dewey wrote that a century ago, in 1908, but it's just as true today as it was then, in this new gilded age where the richest 10% own 71% (or more) of our wealth, and the bottom 40% own just 0.2%. Today, as computers and the internet become ever-more integral aspects of our society, access to these tools can make a great deal of difference. Of course, I would argue that this is nowhere close to enough. But it's a good step in the right direction, and we need more of those to actually more forward together toward a more just and equitable America. 

New Tools Update: AT&T Gives the OK for 3G VoIP

In a reversal of their previous position, AT&T has declared that they will allow voice-over-IP services such as Skype to operate on their 3G network, essentially "un-crippling" the service, which could only be used over WiFi before now. As an AT&T iPhone user, I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, this will be a useful addition, particularly for making cheap long-distance calls.

However, on the other hand, this move is likely to further strain the capacity of AT&T's 3G network. In this case, their arguments for why they need to be able to manage their network traffic are actually legitimate, as iPhone use has pushed their 3G to the "edge," so to speak, particularly in urban centers, where it often slows to a crawl. So, my desire to be able to do whatever I want on my phone is sort of balanced by my desire to be able to do ANYTHING on my phone. 

We will see how it works out, but kudos to AT&T for embracing openness. 

New Tools Update: More Augmented Reality Apps Hit the App Store

Ever wish you could have Wikipedia all around you? It's not just me that wishes for things like this, is it? Well, if you have an iPhone 3GS, you now have Wikipedia everywhere, thanks to two new apps, Cyclopedia and WikiTude. WikiTude has been on Android for a few months now, but just arrived for the iPhone. Cyclopedia looks to be basically the same thing, but with (in my opinion) a more attractive interface. Either way, the relatively low number of geotagged Wikipedia entries  will prevent this app from totally changing your life, at least for the moment. But, it's still pretty darn cool.

Perhaps the bigger news is that Layar, the most widely-used augmented reality platform, has just submitted its app to the iPhone app store. Rather than being an app designed to layer a specific data set (such as Wikipedia entries) over physical space, Layar is a platform which supports a whole host of different data sets. Again, these still need some work to be truly game-changing, but things are certainly starting to get interesting, and as more AR apps break into the iPhone scene, the technology will quickly become more mainstream.

Friday New Tools Feature: Next Steps for Twitter

The creators of Twitter have admitted that they are still learning about how people use their service. It seems that they have learned some important lessons, because they are in the process of adding several important new features to Twitter that should significantly improve the user experience and expand functionality.

The first big addition is the inclusion of lists into both and the Twitter API. This is a simple concept, but will help a lot with trying to manage the often-overwhelming flow of information that results when you begin following more than 50-100 people (depending on how compulsively you check for updates). The basic idea is that you'll be able to organize the people you follow into lists, publically visible by default, allowing you to categorize and prioritize your contacts, and helping other users sift through them to find people they may be interested in following. It's also great news that this will be built into the API, because like many Twitter users, I'd much rather interact with the service through a third-party application like TweetDeck, Twhirl, or Tweetie than through

Another key improvement to the API is the addition of geolocation. Of course, there are several Twitter services that already support geolocation, but with the addition of this feature into the Twitter API, it is likely to take off in a much bigger way. I've written before about location-based services, but the main problem with many of them is that not that many people use them. Not all that many of my friends use Twitter, either, but way more than Loopt or Foursquare, for example. And location awareness seems like a natural for Twitter, which is very often used on mobile devices.

Beyond the obvious boons, like the ability to see where your friends are tweeting from at any given moment, this will also open up some other interesting possibilities. For example, see the new app Buzzd, which just hit the app store recently. As TechCrunch explains, Buzzd

will bring up a list of venues close to you that are currently popular based on people talking about them on Twitter and Buzzd. It also uses some location data pulled from Twitter. Right now, that data is pulled from users’s Twitter profiles, so it is imprecise, but with the Geolocation API... that will soon change.

There are endless other possibilities... for example, you could map chatter about political candidates in certain areas. Once location-tagging becomes more widespread, these kinds of applications will become increasingly useful in reality, and not just as fun tech demos.

Netflix, Cable Companies, and the Evolution of Video

Last week, Wired ran a piece entitled "Netflix Everywhere: Sorry Cable, You're History." It makes a salient point about the contrast between cable's current content-delivery system and the general internet-age trend towards personalization and individualization:

It is odd, in an era when the Internet seems able to worm its way into every part of life, that nearly all of us still watch television the old-fashioned way, piped over cable or beamed in by satellite and available only in bloated packages of channels programmed by network executives.

The point is well-taken. However, I don't buy the underlying premise of the article - that Netflix is in direct competition with cable companies. Netflix is, first and foremost, an internet-based service for renting or watching movies - hence the name Netflix. Yes, Netflix also lets you watch plenty of TV shows, but only after they have been released on DVD. This is fundamentally different from what cable companies offer, which is access to a wide variety of live programming or "new" content.

Rather than framing this as a fight between Netflix and cable, it might be better to think of how cable companies can learn from Netflix's success. And indeed, it seems that they are learning most of the right lessons - several cable companies and Verizon are all launching pilot IPTV programs which will eventually offer much of the same functionality as Netflix, but for new television programming. These services, it seems to me, are likely to peacefully co-exist, and what little overlap there is seems unproblematic.

My hope is that the cable companies really push this effort to its logical conclusion. I recently canceled my cable TV subscription because I found I was wasting too much time watching things I didn't really care about - there were lots of channels, but not much on at any given time that held my interest. However, add a robust recommendation engine and the ability to choose when to watch - an interactive "Dan channel" that would likely consist of the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, the Wire, and sports - and I'd certainly reconsider my decision.

Friday New Tools Feature: Evolve, or Die

The digital age has brought us countless wonders of innovation, and dramatically changed the way we live our lives. Most of my friends can't imagine how people lived before cell phones and Google, and we barely remember life before iTunes. But this rapid and dramatic shift in the media and communications landscape has not been easy for everyone; whole industries are being forced to evolve or perish.

Probably the worst industry in this regard has been the music industry. Their reaction to change has been extremely reactionary and ugly, from the RIAA's ridiculous fines (most recently, a verdict resulting in a multi-million-dollar fine for two dozen songs downloaded from Kazaa, or $80,000 per song), to their new attempt to collect royalties for 30-second sample clips on iTunes (Gizmodo's expletive-laced reaction to this announcement was likely mirrored by most consumers). Unfortunately, fining file sharers is not a sustainable long-term business model. And that's not just a problem for the music industry; it's a problem for those of us who like music, because artists still need to be discovered, promoted, and yes, even paid. What Radiohead did with the release of In Rainbows, where it allowed fans to pay what they wanted for the album, was a brilliant idea, but not a workable solution for many lesser-known bands without Radiohead's status.

Another sector which has been hit hard is journalism. Different publications have taken different routes to maintain their viability; the New York Times, while keeping its site free, is experimenting in paid webinars and other unconventional strategies, while the Wall Street Journal is expanding its pay-wall strategy to include iPhone and BlackBerry apps. Different publications may not be able to adapt in the same ways and expect the same outcomes - what works for TIME may not be the same thing that works for "The Nation." But as Frank Rich pointed out, even with the rise of citizen journalism and blogs, in the end we will still get what we pay for. If we want to have a real democracy, we need much more good journalism, not less. I don't think that the press is doing an incredible job as a whole right now, and throwing money at that problem wouldn't necessarily fix it, but we will have even bigger problems if we allow professional journalism to die.

Finally, we have telecommunications and cable companies. Perhaps because they are so intimately tied in with the digital revolution, these industries are actually doing a pretty good job of evolving as everything coalesces towards one giant communications and entertainment network. Verizon's CEO just announced that instead of worrying about the increasing number of people canceling their land-line phone subscriptions, they will be focusing more on video telecommunications through their FiOS network:

Mr. Seidenberg said that his “thinking has matured” and that trying to predict when the company would stop losing voice landlines “is like the dog chasing the bus.”

Likewise, the cable industry has begun to focus on IPTV, and on making the viewing experience more personalized, interactive, and portable. And that's a good thing. Those accustomed to watching everything for free on the internet may take a little while to come around, but it looks like that model may also be unsustainable; even Hulu is now going to add subscription content and pay-per-view.

Of course, things can change very quickly, and the landscape will likely look quite different in five years, as more and more of these functions migrate to mobile. And those that are unable to adapt will fail: as NOFX said a number of years ago about the record industry, "dinosaurs will die." But if we as consumers value things like music and journalism, we also have to be willing to accept that these things do cost some money to produce, and if we want something better to step in and fill the vacuum, we need to be ready to support good ideas and models by putting our money where our mouths are.

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