Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Out of Africa: Will Google solve Africa's worst tech-market failure?

Since electronic mail arrived in sub-Saharan Africa, a strange process unfolds every time one African writes to another African -- even when both are in the same continent. The mail zooms out of Africa, either by an undersea cable or a satellite link, stops briefly at a computer server in Europe (or very rarely the U.S.) and then bounces back to its destination in Africa.

Weirdly, even if two people in, say, Accra, are emailing each other, the messages go first to Europe and then back to Ghana.

To call the process a form of "digital neo-colonialism" doesn't explain why the strangeness continues. African email travels the world not because of any technological inevitability but because human beings have made it that way. At least the human beings who run the world's major email systems. Neither Hotmail nor Yahoo nor Gmail maintain any email servers in Africa. And since they don't, email within even an African city does its strange dance.

The answer is to put a server farm into Africa. Simple? The major tech companies fret about the high costs of doing business in Africa. About unreliable electrical power. About physically securing the server farm. And then there is the basic math. With only a small percentage of Africans using the Internet for email, they wonder whether the cost of maintaining a server farm in Africa is worth the benefit of doing so to African computer users.

The benefit to Africans, by the way, is not obvious to an American. The cost of having server farms thousands of miles way comes in higher-bandwidth charges. Running emails through satellites and undersea cables isn't free. The mailing is free, but not the bandwidth. So Africans essentially pay a "corporate tax" in order to carry on their free emailing through the major services.

Now I must make a full disclosure. None of my information comes from Yahoo, Microsoft or Google. These companies throw a blanket of secrecy over their server farms; so they are not only mum about the absence of an Africa hub. Still, actions speak louder than words anyway, and my sources in Africa tell me we are about to get some action.

For many months in 2007, Google studied the costs and logistics of opening an African server farm. The company sent a team of people to Rwanda last summer for the purpose of scoping out feasibility. Not coincidentally, the daughter of Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, also spent time in Rwanda last summer. Last year, Schmidt himself hosted the president of Rwanda at Google's headquarters.

I teach a class on technology journalism at Stanford Universityand last May Schmidt came to speak to my class. In an unguarded moment, I asked him about Rwanda. When conversation turned to a possible server farm, he went dark, though he did agree that the first server farm in Africa (for a global mail service) would be a boon for Africans.

That server farm may still get switched on, though not likely in Rwanda. It seems the Googlers tired of the obstacles to a large operation in this landlocked country that is still recovering from an awful 1994 genocide. Instead, Google is believed to be close to choosing Kenya, a booming East African country that has the most international links of any African country save for perhaps South Africa. The choice of Kenya seems logical, though a bitterly disputed national election at the end of December has unleashed ethnic hostilities in the country. With Nairobi suddenly burning, Google may hold off on placing a server farm in or around the city.

Since Google doesn't talk about these matters, we will have to wait our turn. But a server farm for at least some of Africa's emailers now seems inevitable. And whomever opens this facility will score many important points and not only with Africans, but with a global digital community that still tends to overlook the world's poorest region. The multinational computer and software companies need a role model -- a successful company who can say we are investing big money in Africa, not just giving handouts or selling Africans our products.

Google, as so many other things, may be that role model. Africans wait.

Out of Africa: the next big thing is phone charging

In the streets of every electricity-starved African city, the new meeting place is the local phone chargerâ''the man with an outlet who can rejuvenate your mobile phone â'¿ for a price.

More mobile phones are getting charged in Africa than ever. In recent years, phone usage has exploded. Today nearly one in five people own a phone, from nearly nothing 10 years ago. The World Bank, which supplies these statistics, calls Africaâ''s mobile phone market, â''the fastest growingâ'' in the world.

The spread of mobile telephony is one of the great development success stories, one largely driven by private investment now totaling in the billions of dollars. The only trouble is that supplies of electricity havenâ''t grown nearly as fast as dial tones.

Some of the worldâ''s leading telecom companies are trying to address Africaâ''s electricity gap through clever innovations. Motorola tested both solar-powered and wind-power cell-phone base stations in sunny Namibia, in southwestern Africa in 2007.

The idea is that rural Africans, about half of whom live off the grid with no hope of getting connected anytime soon, at least will be able to make a phone call. In African cities, mobil-telephony service is excellent, but frequent electricity outages leave peopleâ''rich and poorâ'' scrambling to charge their phone batteries.

Enter Wasswa Abbey, owner of a dusty storefront in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Abbey runs recreation and after-school programs for children in his neighborhood. On the side heâ''s begun to charge mobile phones for people who donâ''t get electricity delivered to their homes. â''This is a slum,â'' he says of his neighborhood. â''Many people donâ''t have a place to charge their phones.â''

A complete charge costs about 30 cents, about the price of a one-minute phone call.

When I met Wasswa at his shop, he was charging five phones, a good day for him, he says. For his customers, trust is key. He is well known in his neighborhood for his community work. â''Customers trust me not to use their phones while charging,â'' he says.

Up the street, on a second meeting, Wasswa, took me on a walk of his neighborhood. We passed a few other shops offering charging and then we came upon a construction site: a new cell tower rising up a mere 100 yards from his shop.

Yet there are new electricity sources coming into the neighborhood, which highlights one difference between the new technology of wireless telephony and the older system of electricity transmission. Mobile phone calls are managed by digital computers and theft of calling time is virtually impossible. Customers buy prepaid cards and then run down their â''unitsâ'' like clockwork. By contrast, electricity is carried over wires. The juice can be stolen; so can the equipment. In poor neighborhoods, many customers donâ''t pay their electricity bills. Prep-paid services are only beginning, and they require smarter, more expensive meters, which themselves are targets for thieves.

Investment in mobile phone services rises, while investment in electricity stagnates.

And another customers drops off a phone for Wasswa to charge.

Getting ready for the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show

logo.gifI spent several hours today getting ready for the Consumer Electronics Show by going through hundreds of emailed press releases, invitations, and announcements. Iâ''m not quite done, but I donâ''t have to finish to make a few predictions.

â''TVs will go from thin to anorexic, as TV manufacturers will tout the flatness of their new models. Many of these â''thinâ'' models, however, will have unsightly bulges in back, that wonâ''t be counted in the measurements. And the thinnest will either be prototypes or will be so expensive they may as well be prototypes.

â''Bill Gates will give his keynote wandering around a stage set representing a living room, kitchen, and home office, predicting the future. We will have seen this future before, but it wonâ''t be any closer to reality than it was five years ago.

â''There will be no free lunch. The box lunches provided for the media will be eaten by hungry bloggers while print journalists, rushing from appointment to appointment, starve. (Uh oh, is this a metaphor for 2008?)

â''One weird product will find itself into every story about the show, print or online. It may never actually get into consumer hands, but itâ''ll get a lot of buzz. Contenders this year: Spykee, the wifi spy robot; Sonic Impact, an under-the-bed speaker system that doubles as a vibrating massager; and the Iona Cube, a radio that changes stations depending on which side is up.

Check back here starting Jan. 6th for news from CES.

Sad Holiday for Space Station Astronaut

The upcoming holidays will be bittersweet for orbiting astronaut Daniel Tani. Yesterday, Tani's mother was killed in a collision between the vehicle she was driving and a moving train in Tani's hometown of Lombard, Ill., according to a report from the Associated Press. Tani was supposed to have returned to Earth this week with the crew of shuttle mission STS-122, in time to celebrate the holidays with his family, but faulty sensors in the external fuel tank caused NASA to postpone the flight until next month (see our prior entry "Glitch Grounds Space Shuttle for Weeks").

Rose Tani, 90, of Lombard, near Chicago, died from injuries suffered after she attempted to pass a school bus that had stopped at a railroad crossing to wait for the train to pass. A local ABC News affiliate, WLS-TV, reported that the crossing gates had apparently not closed in time to prevent the accident. Tani was informed by a flight surgeon at NASA's mission control shortly after it received the news.

"We'll do everything we can to help him through a very difficult timeframe," said Eileen Hawley, a spokeswoman for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The 46-year-old Tani is nearing the end of his second mission in space. He previously flew aboard mission STS-108, in the Endeavour shuttle, to the International Space Station (ISS) in December of 2001, where he performed his first spacewalk. As a member of STS-120 and ISS Expeditions 15 and 16, Tani has performed numerous spacewalks to help with construction work on the orbiting science platform. He has been in space since 23 October of this year.

Tani is married to the former Jane Egan, of Cork, Ireland, and has two small children, ages 3 and 1. His father is also deceased.

"He is obviously pretty sad," the astronaut's brother, Richard Tani, said in Thursday's edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. "He was pretty close to her. We are all close to her. She was loved by everyone."

NASA said Tani's duties will be reassigned to his current crewmates, station commander Peggy Whitson and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.

"Before anyone launches, they understand that unfortunate things could happen and that's unfortunately part of the difficulties, hardships and risks of space flight," NASA spokesman Jim Rostohar said in an article today in the Chicago Tribune.

Tani is believed to be the first American astronaut to lose a close family member while in space, NASA spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier said.

Our condolences go out to the members of the Tani family on their loss, especially at this time.

Ode to the Pulsar P2 LED Watch


My refurbished Pulsar P2 "Astronaut" LED watch came in the mail today, an early Xmas gift to myself that I've been anticipating for more than ten years. That's about how long it's been since my dad gave me his old watch and I've been looking for someone to fix it ever since.

A recent fascination with the new crop of LED watches coming out of Japan led me to pull the old P2 out of the bottom drawer of my dresser a couple of weeks ago and renew my search for a repair person capable of replacing the battery. My first stop was a jeweler in downtown Minneapolis who had assured me over the phone that he could fix the watch no problem. You can guess how that turned out. Oh, they don't make batteries for that watch anymore. And there's corrosion inside that has probably rendered your watch useless.

Useless? You mean the watch that Roger Moore wore in his debut as James Bond in "Live and Let Die" can be disabled by the ravages of, ahem, time? I took the watch back from the repairman and told him rather snootily that I was sure I'd find the right batteries somewhere in the pipes of the Internets.

Indeed, I found a kit from the Small Battery Company in the U.K. that would let me use Energizer 357 batteries in place of the old Eveready 355s my dad's watch came with back when he bought in 1972. I was five years old then, and I clearly recall the sense of amazement I felt when he brought that watch home and flashed up the time in tiny glowing red lights. Pulsar was established as a brand by the venerable Hamilton Watch Company in 1972 ostensibly to market the first digital watch ever sold to the general public. It would be 35 years before I could call my dad on the phone and tell him that the LEDs were made of aluminum gallium arsenide and make a gallant effort to explain to him the wonders of compound semiconductor LED technology, which was why he paid more than $500 for it (the 18-kt gold version sold for $2100) lo those many years ago.

Unfortunately, the Small Battery Company only ships its precious wares to EU countries, so the kit--which is basically just some strips of rubber that help position the smaller 357 battery to fit the 355 slot in the watch--was out of my reach. I'd resigned myself, not unhappily, to the prospect of shelling out for one of those crazy new Japanese LED watches that display time in binary code when I somehow found my way to Retroleds, the site of a watch repairman and vintage LED watch merchant by the name of Ed Cantarella, who also happens to run He assured me he could fix whatever needed fixing for a reasonable price. So I shipped the watch off to him a couple of weeks ago and within a day of his having received it, I got an email with the subject line "Say 'Hello'" as in Hello, World. Ed had my watch working on his bench. Somewhere in Michigan, an electrical engineer (once I saw the "Hello" subject line, I suspected Ed was an EE and he confirmed this), had brought a piece of my childhood back to life.

After a painless Paypal transaction, I received the watch today. It worked well enough, but the time was off by an hour. How, I wondered, do I change the time on this thing? After fruitlessly pressing the two indentations on the back of the watch where it reads "MIN" and "HR," I started fiddling with the band, hoping to unlock some secret 007 mechanism.

And I did. Inside the clasp is a small compartment that houses a "U"-shaped magnet. Touch the magnet to the MIN and HR indentations and, voila, the time changes. What better way to while away a lunch hour than unlocking the secrets to vintage electrotechnology and in the process opening a window on the wonder of childhood. Merry Christmas, Ed Cantarella, and thanks for the memories.


Norad Santa-tracker meets Google Earth

image_about_santa.jpgNoradâ''the North American Aerospace Defense Commandâ''has been tracking Santa since 1955, when a Sears advertisement offering a talk-to-Santa hotline accidentally gave a the number of the Continental Air Defense Command, Noradâ''s predecessor. Today, the Norad web site explains, Norad follows Santaâ''s journey around the world using radar, infrared sensors on satellites that zero in on Rudolphâ''s nose, special â''Santa-Cams,â'' and fighter pilots in F-15 and F-16 jets. Norad used to make this information available via phone, now itâ''s on the web. Norad tracks Santa in six languages, German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese.

Itâ''s a great tool, Iâ''ve used it for the past few years; pointing out Santaâ''s imminent approach helps encourage excited children to get to bed early, so they can make sure theyâ''re asleep before Santa starts getting close. In previous years, the Santa tracker looked much like the live route maps on international airline flights, a map of the world overlaid with a simple path and icons.

This year, however, Norad Santa-tracker has been integrated with Google Earth, so it will likely be a lot flashier. I had yet to download Google Earth (I hadnâ''t realized the Mac version was available), but took Noradâ''s advice and did so today, so Iâ''ll be ready to track Santa on Christmas Eve. Thereâ''s also a widget to add to an iGoogle page.

Iâ''d love to tell you what I think of the latest version of Santa-tracker, but this is one application you canâ''t test ahead of time; Norad doesnâ''t start sleigh-hunting until 2 a.m. Mountain Time on Christmas Eve.

Norad does let you send a letter to Santa while youâ''re waiting. Santa replied to my email quickly, and confirmed that Iâ''m on the â''Niceâ'' list. He also said that fog is predicted for Christmas Eve, so Rudolph would likely be flying and that he just got a new sleigh with all the latest upgrades. Santa sounds like a classic early adopter.

Mars Satellite Spies What May Be Active Glacier

In a controversial conclusion, a scientist working for the European Space Agency (ESA) says that a formation on the surface of Mars is a relatively recent glacier.

The BBC Online features a report today stating that new images from the Mars Express spacecraft suggest the existence of a large active glacier near the Martian equator. Still unconfirmed, the prospective glacier may be a significant source of water on the surface of the arid Red Planet.

"If it was an image of Earth, I would say 'glacier' right away," Gerhard Neukum, chief scientist on the spacecraft's High Resolution Stereo Camera, told BBC News.

While glacial activity on the Martian surface has been spotted before, it has been regarded as the residue of ancient geophysical processes, occurring millions of years in the past. On Mars, scientists generally believe, surface ice cannot last for long before being sublimated into vapor in the thin atmosphere. Thus, some think that recent glaciers are the result of ice pushed up from beneath the surface of the planet. Neukum, who works at the Free University of Berlin, is one of these.

In the case of the prospective "young" glacier, he estimates that water moved up from underground in the last 10 000 to 100 000 years.

"We have not yet been able to see the spectral signature of water. But we will fly over it in the coming months and take measurements. On the glacial ridges we can see white tips, which can only be freshly exposed ice," Neukum told the BBC. "That means it is an active glacier now. This is unique, and there are probably more."

He speculated that the new discovery could be a breakthrough in the hunt for possible life on Mars. The potential glacier, which rests in the planet's Deuteronilus Mensae region, would very likely be a target for future exploration by robotic rovers if proven out. Should microbes exist deep underground on Mars, kept alive by liquid water, they may be able to reach the surface within the ice flow of such recent glaciers.

If so, these images from the Mars Explorer will have provided an invaluable clue as to where to seek them. That would be a fitting holiday present for the administrators of the European space program. The 25th of December will mark the four-year anniversary of their spacecraft's arrival at Earth's closest neighbor.

Microsoft doesn't have the only Santa chat-bot

Microsoft may have had problems with their chatty Santa getting into x-rated conversations and have had to cut off his Internet access, but there are plenty of other Santa chat-bots online, for kids who would rather IM Santa their wish lists rather than wait in that endless line at the mall.

I tested three. Santabot has nice wintry graphics and a simple interface. But Santabotâ''s kept asking me questions about music; I had a hard time getting him to get to the issue at hand, that is, what I want for Christmas. Finally, we got there. I asked for an iPod, Santabot gave me a hard time. â''Why would you want an iPod?â'' â''But why do you want one?â'' And then he redirected the conversation back to talking about what kinds of music I like. You'd think, with such an interest in music, that Santabot would know why I wanted an iPod. But I was willing to move on, and tried asking for a bicycle. Santabot thought it was odd that I wanted only one bicycle; he suggested they might be cheaper in quantity. Iâ''m not sending my kids to this Santa.

Next, I visited the Santabot offered by the Artificial Intelligence Foundation. This Santa got right to the point, that is, what did I want for Christmas? I asked for an iPod, and he said heâ''d add it to my list, which is what Santa is supposed to say. He also remembered me from visit to visit; when I went back later to show him to my kids and asked for something else, he pointed out that my list was getting a bit long. However, this site had an animated Santa head and text-to-speech conversion, both were horrid, the AI Foundation should have stuck to plain text chat.

The Santabot at CD Newswire is a bit of a smart alec. I asked for an iPod, Santa said â''Oh my goodness!â'' I tried for a bicycle, and this Santa replied, â''As if!â'' And then he wanted to know if I left the cookies for him or the cockroaches. When I mentioned that I always leave him a glass of brandy along with the cookies, he asked if Iâ''ve ever considered a career as an elf.

Iâ''m thinking that line at the mall suddenly doesnâ''t look so long.

Future of Nanoelectronics: 20-Hour Battery Life for your Laptop


When people think of nanotechnology in electronics they like to imagine molecular electronics, but it may be the mundane that pushes nanotechnology further into the electronics industry.

Imagine a laptop battery that could last 20 hours rather than 2. That is what you call a unique selling point, and surely something that has long been sought by computer manufacturers.

Some of you might remember NEC letting it be known (back in 2001, then in 2003, and again in 2004--the picture above gives you an indication of how long ago this was) that they had a fuel-cell battery enabled by nanotechnology that would last for 40 hours, and it would hit the market by 2004. It was never released to the market, and is hardly mentioned now except for those who question, â''Whatever happened toâ'¿?â''

The latest entry into the fray of improving upon Li-Ion battery technology comes from Yi Cui, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford.

The beauty of this solution isâ'¿well, itâ''s not a fuel cell with all its incumbent limitations. Instead it simply replaces the lithium in the anode with silicon nanowiresâ'¿thatâ''s very simply.

Supposedly, current manufacturing techniques can easily accommodate this solution. That said, it is still just research, although Cui has announced the launching of a start-up to commercialize the technology.

Expect a lot more in the field of battery technology. Pretty safe bet that this is just the tip of the iceberg.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More