Maker Faire.

Stopped by the Maker Faire yesterday at the San Mateo Fairgrounds–right in our neighborhood–and checked out some of the amazing contraptions and creations hacked together by amateur inventors, tinkerers, and madmen. Highlights included two huge jets of flame that shot 20′ or so into the air, courtesy of the very cool-looking Oakland-based welding arts cooperative, The Crucible. And just down the way from the fire cannons, a bunch of minimalist, hacked-together bikes by a guy whose website, Woodenbikes.com, details the wheeled contraptions he’s made out of 2x4s, plywood, and old curtain rods. I’ve posted pictures of the Jensen Tweney clan riding these bikes on Flickr. And Shacker has even more cool pictures from the “Faire.”

Would have stayed longer–I was fascinated by the rocket-launching happening in the parking lot and I really wanted to learn more about Prius-hacking in “The Ultimate Garage” but Clara was getting tired and my feet were getting sore. Great event, hope it returns next year!

[tags]makerfaire[/tags]

Maker Faire.

Wi-Fi everywhere.

Fon founder Martin Varsavsky wants to create a Wi-Fi network with a million hotspots. (By contrast, iPass–currently the largest network–has about 43,500.) He’s got his work cut out for him. Read more in my article for Technology Review, appearing today on the TR home page.

Fon Hopes its Hotspots Will Rival Cellular

Sure, you can browse the Web from your local coffee shop, thanks to its Wi-Fi connection. But what about leaving your cell phone at home and using cafes and other Wi-Fi “hotspots” to place free or cheap Internet-based phone calls using a laptop or Wi-Fi phone? Not yet.

Spanish startup Fon wants to change that predilection for cellular, with a rapidly growing Wi-Fi network owned by its users, rather than a big telecommunications company, and based on shared access. In order to create a large network of hotspots, the company is encouraging network members — mostly, average consumers — to give away Wi-Fi access in exchange for getting free access at other Fon hotspots. Members can use that access, in turn, for Web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging — or Skype-like Internet phone calling.

Wi-Fi everywhere.

Fon Hopes Its Hotspots Will Rival Cellular

Sure, you can browse the Web from your local coffee shop, thanks to its Wi-Fi connection. But what about leaving your cell phone at home and using cafes and other Wi-Fi “hotspots” to place free or cheap Internet-based phone calls using a laptop or Wi-Fi phone? Not yet.

The problem isn’t bandwidth — Wi-Fi has enough capacity to support voice calling with software like Skype. And it’s not hardware — several cell-phone manufacturers have recently released handsets with the ability to place calls via Wi-Fi. Rather, it’s the patchy distribution of today’s Wi-Fi networks, which makes cellular-type roaming impossible.

“If making calls from hotspots were really a successful model, then where are all the pay phones?” says David Chamberlain, principal wireless analyst at In-Stat, a high-tech consultancy in Scottsdale, AZ. “The value of mobility far outweighs any cost factors,” he says, leading people to use more expensive cellular service, even if cheap, fixed options are available.

Spanish startup Fon wants to change that predilection for cellular, with a rapidly growing Wi-Fi network owned by its users, rather than a big telecommunications company, and based on shared access. In order to create a large network of hotspots, the company is encouraging network members — mostly, average consumers — to give away Wi-Fi access in exchange for getting free access at other Fon hotspots. Members can use that access, in turn, for Web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging — or Skype-like Internet phone calling.

Since its launch in late February, the startup has amassed a network of 31,000 registered users (“Foneros”), and is currently adding 200 new users each day. If each of those users were to set up special Fon Wi-Fi routers, Fon would instantly become one of the world’s largest networks of Wi-Fi hotspots. To date, though, only a minority of them have acquired Fon routers — the company won’t say exactly how many, but it expects that a large number of them will do so, given that there’s no benefit to registering without also creating a Fon hotspot.

Fon founder Martin Varsavsky has set his sights well beyond, though. “If you really want to create a ubiquitous Wi-Fi signal, being the largest network in the world is not enough,” he says. “We need maybe a million hotspots — that would be a number where you would find Fon very frequently everywhere you go.” As many as 300,000 of those hotspots would be in the United States, he projects, with the rest in Europe and China, Japan, and Korea — areas where Fon is concentrating its marketing efforts. By contrast, the largest current network of hotspots, iPass, has around 43,500 hotspots worldwide, with some 13,400 in the United States, according to JiWire, a South San Francisco, CA-based company that tracks hotspot locations worldwide.

Fon’s service provides Wi-Fi access for any application, including Web surfing, downloading music, or playing games. But the company’s ambitious plans for coverage make it especially attractive for telephoning services — that’s one reason eBay’s Skype division has invested in the company.

At the heart of Fon is a simple principle: Let me use your hotspot, and I’ll let you use mine. Fon users join the network either by purchasing special routers from Fon or by installing the company’s firmware on a compatible Wi-Fi router. Fon routers do not provide open access: all users must sign in.

Once registered, future Fon users will have a choice of participating in one of two ways (named in honor of Linux creator Linus Torvalds and Microsoft founder Bill Gates). “Linus” users’ access points will provide free access to other Fon users, and in exchange Linuses will be able to use any Fon hotspot in the world free of charge. “Bill” users, like nonmembers of Fon, will pay $2 per day for access to other people’s Fon hotspots; but, in return, they’ll be able to charge $2 per day for access to their own hotspots, a fee that Fon will split with them 50-50.

The Fon network, which is in beta testing, currently supports only Linus users. A second version of the network software, with support for Bills, will be released by the end of May, Varsavsky says.

The company also plans to let users customize their routers’ welcome pages, so that people who sign on at a Fon hotspot can see information placed there by the owner, such as a map of the neighborhood or list of favorite local cafes. “People will socialize through their Wi-Fi,” says Varsavsky. “You move to a neighborhood, nobody knows you, and then you start sending your Wi-Fi signal, and people will get to know you.”

Internet service providers (ISPs) have traditionally cast a jaundiced eye on users who allow neighbors and passers-by to share their broadband Internet access via Wi-Fi. However, Varsavsky claims that ISPs are fans of Fon, because it discourages freeloading. Fon routers are open only to other Fon users — who by definition have their own routers and broadband connections elsewhere — or to non-Fon users who are paying the $2 daily fee.

Indeed, Fon has already signed co-marketing agreements with two European ISPs, Glocalnet in Sweden and Jazztel in Spain, to sell Fon routers to their customers. (Varsavsky is also a cofounder of Jazztel.) Fon has also attracted some high-profile backers, with a $22 million investment from Sequoia Capital, Index Ventures, eBay’s Skype division, and Google.

“Fon is something that has a tremendous potential,” says William A. Stofega, a research manager at IDC, a market research company based in Framingham, MA. “The question is: Can they execute?” Telecommunications companies that also provide Internet access may prove to be nervous about Fon’s ability to support Internet-based telephony, which would rob them of long-distance minutes, Stofega says. To succeed, he says, Fon will have to scale up quickly and deliver reliable service. Furthermore, in cities rolling out citywide Wi-Fi networks, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, Fon may have trouble convincing people that it’s worthwhile to use a for-fee network.

Other experts are also reserved. “While the Fon model is not a new concept, it’s certainly the best-funded community effort of its kind to date,” says David Blumenfeld, vice president of marketing for JiWire. “Fon’s success will largely be determined by how much prime real estate [urban hotspot coverage] it’s able to secure. However, as Wi-Fi moves beyond the laptop into phones, digital cameras, and gaming devices, the market opportunity is only getting bigger.”

Varsavsky admits his company faces challenges. Still, they’ve gathered a lot of momentum in a very short time. Says Varsavsky, “The idea that you share a little bandwidth at home and in exchange roam the world for free is very appealing to people.”

Link: Fon Hopes Its Hotspots Will Rival Cellular

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

Fon Hopes Its Hotspots Will Rival Cellular

tinywords returns.

The daily haiku journal I publish, tinywords — which I like to refer to as “the world’s tiniest magazine” — has resumed publication. I’m working on some enhancements to the site which I hope to be able to announce in the next couple of weeks.

I’ve ended a short, ill-conceived flirtation with WordPress as the content management engine behind tinywords, and returned to the custom PHP-MySQL engine I built for the site. WordPress is a great blogging tool (I use it for the Tweney Review) but it wasn’t well-suited to the particular needs of my haiku zine. Unfortunately, I had about 6 months’ worth of haiku, along with their comments, that had been published on the WordPress site. I also really liked the design of the WP site, which was based on the lovely Manji by Khaled Abou Alfa.

So, I spent a few half-days last week porting the design, the haiku, and the comments from WP to my own system. Moving the haiku was easy; moving the comments, a little trickier. That’s because WP’s comments table was keyed to posts in its own table, which obviously have different ID codes than the haiku in my own database’s table. The process wasn’t pretty (export to CSV, import into OpenOffice Calc, munge data, clean up, rearrange columns, export back to CSV, then import into the new database) and took far longer than I thought it would. I hope I never have to do that kind of thing again.

Two lessons learned along the way:

1. Always test your SQL selection statements before using them in a “DELETE FROM” query.

2. Always make backups of your tables before running a “DELETE FROM” query that might, say, accidentally delete every last row in said table.

Many, many thanks to Scot Hacker at birdhouse hosting, which hosts tinywords, for restoring my accidentally emptied table from a regular nightly backup.

tinywords returns.

Flag smarts.

mostly US flags Much as I lean to the left, I have to admit that lefties often make really stupid choices when choosing how to stage their protests. Too often these protests happen out of some vague sense of anger and outrage, with very little attention to the message they’re conveying. ie: Bad branding. Case in point: Burning American flags during Gulf War I did nothing except piss people off. Burning dollar bills, now that would have been more on point.

Similarly, Critical Mass riders clog the streets of San Francisco on Friday afternoons, aggravating people who just want to get home to their families. It would make much more sense to hold the protest on Monday mornings. That way, they’d be stopping people from getting to work. Many people would sympathize with them, and they’d also have an economic impact, not just a symbolic one. As it is, I hate Critical Mass. And I’m an avid bike rider (and I don’t even live in San Francisco)!

One of the biggest bonehead moves by the left happened in 1994 during the protests against Proposition 187, which denied many services to illegal immigrants. Millions of people massed in the streets of LA, San Francisco, and Sacramento, to show their opposition to the bill. Many of them were waving Mexican flags. In one photo opp, the Prop 187 supporters had won the battle. Their pro-immigrant opponents had made the case for them, making immigration look like a Mexican invasion rather than a struggle for civil rights. 59% of the voters went for Prop 187, many of them no doubt terrified by the thought of an army of flag-waving Mexicans overrunning the state.

So it was good to see American flags in the recent rallies supporting immigration rights. In fact, Cardinal Roger Mahoney even told protesters to put away non-US flags. It shows that somebody has been paying attention.

Flag smarts.