Monday, March 3, 2014


Mobile phone carriers have every reason to be afraid. Very afraid. WhatsApp announced its intention to enter the voice segment. With almost half a billion active users, WhatsApp boasts a subscription that is within spitting distance of Airtel, the second largest mobile network in the world.

The prospect of cheap international voice calls will not go unnoticed by chat users. Operators have seen a sharp drop in text (SMS) revenues as users have shifted in droves to mobile chat applications. A similar migration to VoIP will be a deadly blow to many networks. Mobile terminated revenues will shrink. Lucrative international calls will all but disappear. WiFi originated calls will be difficult to block. Unlike skype, WhatsApp takes advantage of existing phone numbers and subscriber recruitment is almost automatic.

New, affordable smart phones such as the one showcased by Firefox at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona will allow emerging markets to skip traditional voice in favor of packet-switched calls.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Android vs Tizen

Back in September 2009, I wrote about the challenge posed by Google's new operating system Android to incumbents Apple, Nokia, Blackberry and LG. Since then Android has dominated the mobile phone platform. Based on Linux, the OS benefits from code contributed by a legion of programmers across the globe and available royalty-free to hardware manufacturers and software developers.

A formidable response is on the horizon. An association of some of the largest players in the electronic industry is backing Tizen, a new mobile OS platform. Tizen, like Android, is based on the Linux kernel and should benefit from the combined strengths of members such as NTT DocoMo, Huawei, Samsung and Intel. It should be interesting to see how Google responds especially given that two of the main contributors to the rapid rise of Android (Samsung and Huawei) appear to have changed camp.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fabrice is the man!

Fabrice Bellard, best known as the author of FFmeg and QEMU software, is back in the news. His company Amarisoft has released a 4G LTE base station running entirely in software on a stock PC. The result is a 4G platform priced at least ten times less than a traditional box.

This is good news for small network operators and private companies e.g. off-shore oil rigs, remote mining operations and adhoc network providers. Amisoft has not released the cost of the software but the price for the radio front end (based on the Ettus N210 and SBX daughter board) is around $2,000.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Microfinance: The Emperor's Old Clothes?

Trouble is brewing within and around the microfinance industry. Some industry watchers have been particularly scathing of the impact (or lack thereof) of microfinance on alleviating poverty. For forty odd years microfinance was touted as the vehicle for delivery of low cost capital to the poor leading and thereby creating opportunities for local enterprise. Today the microfinance industry is accused of not only delivering neat profits for some but of also gifting influential organisations such as the World Bank a formidable political tool.

Microfinance is premised on the belief that providing the poor with access to affordable capital stimulates entrepreneurship, creates jobs and helps to drive poverty out of their communities. That is all very well as long as there is a market for the said entrepreneurial goods and services within the community. In other words, while microfinance may tackle the supply side there is scant empirical evidence that it simultaneously boosts demand (Say's Law). This facilitation of financing has led to too many entrepreneurial businesses chasing too few customers and employing too few people (except the business owners who subsist on poverty wages).

A Radio Transmitter for the Masses

Any amateur dabbling in radio technology knows the high cost of hardware. Peripherals designed to work with software defined radios (SDR) can cost anywhere between $150 (Funcube) to $4,500 (Matchstiq).

While the Funcube operates between 64 MHz and 1,700 MHz, the Matchstiq transceiver covers signals from 300 MHz to 3,800 MHZ with channel bandwidth up to 28 MHz. The two devices have established niche markets, not every radio hobbyist is willing or able to fork out the sums involved, less so newbies.

Enter the Realtek  DVB-T dongle. Antti Palosaari, a DVB kernel developer, discovered that the  RTL2832U chip found in Realtek DVB-T dongles can be reprogrammed to transfer raw radio signals (I/Q samples) to a host computer. This presents hobbyists with a low cost ($20) software defined radio which can be used to receive raw signals between 52 and 1700 MHz. An obvious digital signal processing candidate is FM radio. Unfortunately, because of the inordinately high demand for the device within the amateur radio community, the Realtek dongle is now impossibly hard to get.  Now that is good news for engineering.

An Apple A Day Keeps Samsung Away

Last week Samsung was hit with a billion dollar fine for willfully lifting smartphone technology off arch rival Apple Inc. At the heart of the legal spat is a software technique that appears to make icons bounce at the edge of a phone and another that allows a user to 'pinch' and zoom in or out of a section on the phone screen.

Apple's i-devices are powered by iOS, an operating system based on a system developed by the Darwin Foundation. Android, an OS released by Google, drives Samsung smartphones. The ancestry of both operating systems can be traced back to open source software based on UNIX; FreeBSD in the case of iOS and Linux for Android. The software features in contention all rely on UNIX internals. No UNIX means no pinching and no bouncing.

Both Apple and Samsung should be eternally grateful to the University of California at Berkeley for releasing patent-free BSD Unix into the wild.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Raspberry pi: Take a byte

Troubled by a distinct decline in the computer skills of A level students applying for a seat in the Computer Science department at Cambridge University, Eden Upton and colleagues set out to build a low cost, bare-bones computer in the hope of stimulating interest in programming.

In January 2012 the Raspberry Pi will be on sale for as little at $20. Based on a 700 MHz ARM processor, this little Linux computer sports a USB port, 128 MB of RAM and HDMI interface. Targeted at teenagers the computer can play Blu-ray-quality videos and a host of other multimedia content. Only the imagination limits the possibilities gifted to programmers by the Raspberry.

Developing countries should take advantage of the low cost of procurement and ownership. Rural internet cafes are financially feasible as most of the expensive components (e.g. workstations, routers, back-haul radios) can be replaced with the computing power of the Raspberry and other open source hardware devices such as software defined radios.

2012 will be an exciting year.