Category Archives: Irish Times article

Estonia takes the lead in online voting

In 1989, Estonian democracy was limited to a human chain that spanned 600km and two million people from the capital, Tallinn, to Vilnius in Lithuania. The chain was a protest against Moscow by the Baltic states to highlight their continued plight as reluctant members of the Soviet Union, and eventually paved the way for independence and free elections.

Only 14 years after independence, last week Estonia held what is believed to be the first nationwide online election in the world, and it appears to have passed off without a hitch.

Already one of the most web-friendly countries in Europe – leading bank Hansabank estimates that almost 90 per cent of all clients transactions are made over the internet, and the government has promised to make internet access available to every citizen – the Estonian authorities have made this move both to counter growing voter apathy and help increase confidence in their national ID card scheme.

More than 90 per cent of Estonian citizens carry an ID card, with an individual PIN code, to carry out banking or government transactions. Registered voters who had a card as well as a special microchip reader could connect the reader to their home PC, identify themselves on a secure site, cast their vote and then enter their PIN to confirm their choice.

The system was used for the country’s local elections, but the government intends to extend it for the general election in 2007. Citizens were given a three-day window in which to vote, and could change their mind as often as they liked, with the additional option of going to a traditional polling station last Sunday, three days after the online polls had closed.

Each vote cancelled out the previous one, a move which the authorities believe will combat people voting against their will or having their cards stolen and used by someone else. The government assigned police protection to the servers and has made sure that the computer that processes the votes is not connected to the internet.

The system has its flaws of course. Citizens who wish to vote online first have to purchase the microchip reader. At €20 a reader, some observers have noted that it is hardly democracy in action.

President Arnold Ruutel tried to stop repeated voting, saying that it gave online voters a chance to change their mind, something that was denied to those who hadn’t gone online, but he was overruled by the Supreme Court.

And, of a national register of more than one million, fewer than 10,000 opted to vote online.

However, turnout overall hovered around the 50 per cent mark, signalling a steady decline which has horrified politicians in a country which has only just regained its independence after decades of one-party rule from Moscow. It is hoped that if online voting is a success, it will halt this slide as voters will no longer have to leave their living room to have their say.

This scheme, and the ones that will follow across the continent, will remind Irish people of the tens of thousands of unused voting machines, resting at the expense of the Government and the taxpayer in warehouses up and down the country.

The latest word from the Minister for the Environment, Dick Roche, is that it is most unlikely that Ireland’s assembled army of white elephants will be called into duty for the next general election, due at the latest in the summer of 2007. Given that cautious estimate, many people would be surprised if the machines were available for the next round of European and local elections in 2009.

Granted, Estonia has a population a quarter of Ireland, making it easier to run such a system. The number of people who actually voted online tallies with a town the size of Athy. Also, it is still early days – less than a week since the polls closed – and glitches and errors may yet come to light.

But it is important to remember the distinction between the two systems; the Estonians have been voting online on PCs, whereas we merely want to replace pencil and paper with what amounts to an advanced calculator.

Despite the increased ingenuity and global spread of hackers, the Estonian government felt secure that citizens could sit down at home and vote using a global network that is widely perceived to be fair game to any teenager with a smattering of techie know-how.

In this country voters would still be marking their X in the parish hall or primary school as they have since the foundation of the State, just using a more advanced system, and all we have gained so far is embarrassment. Yet we are held up to countries such as Estonia as an economic role model, due to growth that has largely been fuelled by investment from the IT sector.

For some people, the voting machine fiasco was almost inevitable in this country; a committee of unseen alickadoos inspecting rows of grey boxes, perhaps giving them a bash on the side or jabbing a couple of buttons, before passing them fit and ready until the next committee down the line rejects them, and the finger-pointing and buck-passing begins.

Given the cold, super-efficient nature of the Northern Europeans, of course they’d get it right, each dutiful citizen voting with metronomic precision, goes the thinking.

Anyway, isn’t electronic voting a dull, clinical affair? What about the excitement of the count, the convoluted mathematics of the recount, the thrill of hanging around a smoky hall until four in the morning?

But this prevalent attitude is at the root of so much apathy and bemused shrugs when something goes wrong in Irish society. We would do well to follow the developments in this field closely, if only to restore some confidence in the Government’s ability to handle large-scale projects of this nature.After all the recent back-slapping over the success of innovations such as the smoking ban, where we helped lead the way for the rest of Europe and the world, it would be a shame if every time a new country made strides with online voting, we were held up as an example of how not to do things.

© 2005 The Irish Times

Gmail extends domain of Google brand

“One high school crush: In return for a Gmail invite I will email you an image of a notebook page with all of the necessary doodles.”

“There will be little hearts with our initials in them, options on the way I’ll write my married name, and a rough draft of a note expressing how much I’m longing for you. Image will be in black and white, because I’m fresh out of magic markers.”

The above message is not a bizarre take on the lonely-hearts column, but one of thousands of entries on http://www.gmailswap.com, a website devoted to bringing Google’s new e-mail service, Gmail – the “killer app” of 2004 – to the masses.

The uninitiated post up desperate pleas for a Gmail account on the site, and the lucky few with access choose who deserves to be “invited” to join. Other offers include one used husband, a box of loveliness, the punchline of a knock-knock joke and the four elements. One eager mother even offered up her five-year-old’s letter to Santa.

When Google announced in April that it would be taking on Hotmail, Yahoo! and the rest by offering its own webmail service, internet forums were buzzing with the excitement and anticipation that accompanies any announcement by the world’s favourite search engine.

The suspense was heightened further by the fact that Gmail would only be available to a trusted group of employees and friends, who, in time, would be allowed to invite people to join them in the secret circle. Hence Gmailswap, a non-profit organisation (motto: Because People Are Nice) set up to give people a chance to get their hands on an account.

Apart from the one-upmanship, however, why should you change from your old account to Gmail?

Google’s primary boast is the space offered to all users – 1000 megabytes (MB), enough to hold 500,000 pages of emails, according to the company. Hotmail and Yahoo previously offered 2MB and 4MB respectively, but have since upped their free storage limits to 250MB and 100MB in response.

Google also offers a search facility that allows you to search both the web and their own mail. This makes finding individual mails a lot easier than trawling through the subject lines.

Gmail is also billed as being more user-friendly and having a cleaner interface than its rivals. When Google launched its search engine in 1998, the market was already crowded with giants such as Yahoo! and AltaVista. Yet in a few short years, Google became, and remains, by far the most popular search engine on the web, so much so that the verb “to google” is now a generic term.

One of the reasons attributed to this rise was Google’s clean, white interface: the homepage carried little more than the logo and a dialogue box, and all ads were listed beside the search results. Out went the flashing banners, pages crammed full of data and endless pop-up ads.

Google now aims to repeat history by taking on the established giants and once again it aims to use innovation and economy of design as its primary weapons. The overriding advantage of Gmail is the ability to be able to summon up any mail, from any contact and any date, with minimum fuss. And it looks great to boot. What, then, are the disadvantages?

There are a few minor quibbles, according to web development and usability guru Mr Paul McClean, from TDH Interactive: “Contacts can’t be listed as a group, so each one has to be entered separately. Gmail won’t work on some browsers and platforms, including Mac OS9, and old versions of Firefox, Explorer and Netscape. Plus, there is no access to a POP3 server, so you can’t link it to your Outlook account.”

“However, these complaints are all related to the fact that Gmail is still being tested, and will be sorted out by the time the full version is available. The biggest problem for many people is the privacy issue,” he says.

The privacy issue concerns scares that Gmail will “read” your mail. Ads in Gmail are placed in the same way that ads are placed alongside Google search results. Automated search technology scans the content of your emails and matches ads relevant to that content.

The original announcement caused a furore amongst privacy campaigners and one California state senator, Ms Liz Figueroa, tried to block the service through the courts. The campaigners did win some concessions. Google will not be allowed to collect personal data and give them to third parties or produce records using the data, and all searches must be conducted in real time.

Despite all this, it must be borne in mind that many webmail services already scan mail to block spam. Google assures all users that the ads are family-friendly and that “no humans will read the content of your email in order to target advertisements”.

Even at this early stage, Gmail’s success can be measured by the frantic response of rivals who have redesigned their interfaces, increased their storage limits and condemned Google’s alleged “‘privacy invasion”. The full global rollout should begin in a few months. Until then, all you have to do is worry about getting your hands on an invite.

© 2004 The Irish Times

Flickr of personality behind website’s success

Photographs allow people to share a special moment with friends and loved ones. But unless you were a part of that moment, other people’s photos can be like other people’s holidays: not very exciting but still requiring feigned interest.

Photo-sharing sites on the web mean that people can inflict their snaps on you no matter where you are. And, of the hundreds of sites online, the one grabbing the most attention at the moment is committed to giving you access to thousands of strangers’ collections as well. So popular is http://www.flickr.com that it has been bought by Yahoo, which already has its own photo-sharing facility.

Yahoo’s strength lies in its eagerness to offer users as many services as possible and, since its inception, it has achieved this by incorporating small successful operations rather than potentially waste time, energy and money on developing these services itself.

Unlike other sites, Flickr members’ collections are openly accessible to all unless they declare otherwise, and less than 20 per cent choose to do so. This offers a staggering catalogue of images, so to assist browsing through the almost six million photos, Flickr uses a tag system. Users tag their photos and collections with keywords. Recognising that millions of anonymous photos can potentially create a cold online environment, Flickr embraces interaction. Members can leave a description on each photo and other users can leave a comment.

Like-minded folk can join into groups, adding a community feel to what might otherwise be an impersonal experience. The site offers a list of the all-time most popular tags, from Africa to zoo, and of the most popular groups.

Flickr is swiftly becoming a default service, a generic brand. Its ubiquity is another example of how internet brands tend to swallow their particular market.

If it didn’t exist, it is likely that another similar service would dominate the photo-sharing market in the same manner.

MSN Hotmail was so prevalent in the 1990s that for millions the words hotmail and email were interchangeable. Google is so dominant amongst search engines that the term has passed into the lexicon.

Amazon and eBay are similar examples: 10 or 20 per cent of internet users might have other offerings they prefer, but the majority will go straight to the market leaders.

On the high street, you might prefer one bookstore to another because it has better deals, a wider selection or a nicer coffee shop; but if you’re just buying a common paperback, the one that’s closest to you is probably the best choice.

On the internet, in theory all the services are as close as each other. This idea doesn’t take into account that it will take you a much shorter time to find what you want on a site that you have used before, that you know well, have an account with and is included in your bookmarks.

Many sites require registration and for those reared on a diet of hyperlinks and favourites, filling out forms is a turn-off, which encourages the popularity of one standard site rather than a multitude of options.

Why is Flickr ahead of the other options? For starters, its democratic credentials and open access system mark it out from the crowd. It also has the quirky feel that helped propel Yahoo and Google to world domination.

Members are greeted in different languages every time they log on, links are phrased in a chummy manner and the words “you” and “your” are everywhere.

Although to some this might seem a little forced, it is preferable to the sterile atmosphere offered by the major camera companies. Clearly a lot of work has gone into the little details.

“There are lots of theories and ideas as to the reason for Flickr’s immense popularity,” says Caoimhe Burke, a researcher in multimedia at DCU. “Essentially it is the most user-friendly photo-sharing service online, but it offers far more to its users than online photo storage.

“The communities that the service facilitates help to ensure its popularity among existing users and add a unique dimension that serves to attract new members.

“Admittedly it probably has more of a trendy image than other services. The service was conceived and developed by a group of young internet enthusiasts and has become the service of choice amongst the young and hip.” Perhaps the most important of all the factors is Flickr’s appeal to bloggers.

More often than not, a blog will carry the phrase “view my Flickr”, rather than “view my photos”. As blogging becomes more and more popular in the mainstream, it is carrying Flickr with it to ever-increasing exposure.

“Bloggers are attracted to Flickr because the service provides tools that are specifically used for uploading images to blogs,” says Burke, who has looked at the blogging phenomenon as part of her thesis and runs her own blog at caoimheb.blogspot.com

“The majority of blogging software and services are compatible with Flickr, making it an easy choice for users with blogs.

“Flickr also provides code that can be inserted into blogs to produce a badge that displays some of the user’s recently uploaded images and provides a link to their account. This adds a nice extra element to weblogs and a huge number of users are choosing to incorporate their Flickr account into their weblogs.”

Flickr’s generous offerings to bloggers may be paying huge dividends for Yahoo. “News of innovative online applications and services tend to spread at a phenomenal rate via blogs,” says Burke. “Consequently it’s only logical that as bloggers are so well catered for by Flickr it has become a popular choice amongst them.”

© 2005 The Irish Times

Lending website banks on the eBay generation

During a World Cup first round match this week, a soccer fan caught an official match ball booted into the crowd. As the camera zoomed in on the delighted fan clutching his prize, the commentator remarked that the ball would soon appear on “that website where you buy things”.

Assuming he was referring to eBay, this episode highlights just how much the concept of the auction website has invaded our consciousness (the name still appears to cause some people trouble though). It is in this global climate that Zopa.com – an online service that allows people to buy and sell loans from and to each other, rather than the bank – has been slowly gathering pace.

The service works as you would expect: borrowers request loans online, and lenders agree to give them the money for a certain return. However, to minimise the risk of default, Zopa divides the lenders’ money into small amounts and distributes it to potential borrowers.

All lenders and borrowers enter into a legally binding contract with their respective borrowers and lenders. The UK-based firm manages the collection of monthly repayments and if any of that money is not paid on time, it uses the same recovery processes as the high-street banks.

Zopa earns money by charging lenders and borrowers a 0.5 per cent fee, and if borrowers take out repayment protection insurance on their loan, it receives commission from its insurance provider.

So far, there are more than 77,000 members. Average gross returns to lenders since the launch has been 6.8 per cent and, in some markets, over 10 per cent, while bad debt levels remain less than 0.05 per cent. Zopa has also topped consumer watchdog lists for best buys.

Lenders can loan as little as £10 (€14.63) over a period of six months to five years, and from the beginning of next month, there is no maximum limit on the amount being loaned. Money is transferred into the lending account either by a regular bank transfer, or by PayPal. Borrowers pay off their loans by the same method or with direct debit, and there is no charge for early repayments.

The tone of the Zopa site is the same light-hearted, personal tone found on other peer-to-peer sites such as Flickr. This taps into the public perception that the service offered by high-street banks is artificially personal, impersonal or rude.

Zopa positions itself as an institution for the modern age. It utilises the social community aspects of the web that have proved so successful for internet giants such as Bebo, Amazon, eBay and Betfair.

And like any good web community, Zopa users are known only by their anonymous user names, eg warlock3000, kroonmeister and spiderwoman. There is a monthly newsletter, discussion forums and a blog.

But the “team” – not the “board of directors” or “management” – is keen to back up the jaunty graphics and jokey content with serious credentials. Zopa has its own credit referencing system, is authorised and regulated by the UK financial services authority and is backed by venture capital firms Benchmark Capital (which backed eBay’s launch and has taken a stake in Bebo) and Wellington Partners. Even the term Zopa has the advantage of both sounding likea fresh, edgy brand name as well as being a financial acronym for ‘”zone of possible agreement'”, the bounds within which both lender and borrower are prepared to work.

Immediately after its launch in the UK, Zopa was applauded for its ingenuity and even bravery, but many commentators felt that it was a bridge too far and doubted its longevity. However, 18 months later the model continues to function, and co-founder James Alexander believes Zopa is now in a position to prove the doubters wrong.

“We launched in the UK in the middle of March last year. It’s a new model and people are still getting comfortable with the idea,” he says.

“At the time of the launch, the press coverage was very much: ‘Well, this is a great idea and all, but we’ll have to wait and see’. At this stage, a year and a bit later, we’re still here and we’re doing well and we’re in a position where we can share information. We can say why people are using it, we can say how people are using it, we can say what the default rates are and so on.”

He continues: “It started when three people left the online bank Egg to start a business. We had no real specific idea, but we had done a lot of consumer work and the idea for Zopa began to grow.

“Firstly, we wondered why doesn’t eBay do money? Instead of buying and selling stuff, it could buy and sell money. Secondly, why do companies borrow money at lower rates than consumers? Around 200 years ago, if a company wanted to borrow money, they went into the bank and haggled with the manager for a loan and then they went off to the West Indies to try and find nutmeg or whatever. Now they issue debt on a bond market, and we wondered: what if there was a bond market for individuals?

“And the third thing we thought of was family loans. When I went to college a few years ago, I needed some money, so I went into the bank and I asked for a loan and they said ‘here’s the money, you can pay it back at 10 per cent over three years’. So I grimaced at this, and thought about it, and then I went to my dad and asked him for a loan,” Alexander recalls. “He offered me the money at a price lower than the bank but that would earn him more than his savings account. This kind of deal has been going on for hundreds of years and we wanted to explore the possibility of using the internet to increase the numbers of dads and families.”

As well as cutting out the middleman, Zopa boasts it can benefit people with irregular earnings who may have the means to pay back a loan, but slip under the radar when it comes to credit rating.

It caters for people who earn good money but not necessarily into their bank account on the last Thursday of each month, and it allays the fears of those who worry that their savings are being invested by the bank in a manner that they would find unethical.

Of course, borrowers still have to go through a credit rating system, and Zopa is not run by a commune, but the appeal to the consumer is the personal choice and the minimal costs.

“Zopa puts people who want to lend in touch with creditworthy people who want to borrow and it cuts out the middleman, so everyone gets a better deal – it’s better, fairer and more transparent,” he says.

“For lenders, you’re getting a better return for your spare cash. The banks will typically offer you 4-4.5 per cent while we are averaging 7 per cent gross and if you’re prepared to take a punt on a bigger risk, you can earn up to 10 per cent. And it’s not like you’re loaning all your cash to one person; it’s split up between at least 50 people.”

Not everyone may feel kooky newsletters belong in a financial service, and there will always be those who have a basic mistrust of lending money to someone called mooseguy37, or indeed of conducting such arrangements online.

And no matter how badly you paint the image of “greedy fat cat bankers”, it is hard to replace the face-to-face interaction with a trained professional.

The banks are hardly running scared at the moment, but if Zopa continues to grow, expansion and/or copycat firms would seem inevitable. So far it is only available to UK residents, but there have been approaches from firms in over 50 different countries looking to import the service.

There has been no specific interest from Ireland yet, but the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority has confirmed that as Zopa is already registered in the UK, it would only need to apply for a licence to be registered to trade over here.

For the moment, the international spread begins with Zopa’s launch in the US, where a similar service, Prosper, is already running. And as Alexander admits, even if Zopa doesn’t work out, the precedent has been set.

“Zopa is working and it’s working well. We have 77,000 members and have transacted millions of pounds, cut out the banks and people are getting better deals. It’s not just financial returns but also the social rewards,” Alexander says.

“Regardless of what happens to Zopa, lending and borrowing exchanges will take a large chunk of the market, because it is a better and more efficient system that works for the consumer.”

© 2006 The Irish Times

Flock browser makes life easier for net users

The web browser Firefox has reached the milestone figure of 100 million downloads and continues to eat into the monopoly of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, something which was once thought unthinkable.

The browser wars of the 1990s were supposed to be over, with Explorer the undisputed champion. It had become the default application and that, it seemed, was that.

And so it was, until the well-documented rise of Firefox, on the back of added security, improved aesthetics, better features and more than a little global anti-Microsoft sentiment.

Its prime attraction is imagination. Firefox aims to improve your web experience through constant innovation, and it is that flurry of new ideas that threatens to make Firefox the browser that ate itself.

One of the advantages of Firefox for programmers is that its code is open-source, so anybody with the know-how can tailor it for their own needs. This is opposed to other browsers such as Explorer, which is uniform for every single user.

Using this process, a Californian start-up company has released a new browser, Flock, based on the Firefox source code. Flock’s creators have looked at the social networking side of the web and packed their product with features to make interaction easier.

In doing so, they have incorporated all the hottest web technologies of the past few years in one tidy package: weblogging, tagging, RSS feeds, photo sharing, social bookmarking.

Of course, if terms like Flickr, RSS and del.icio.us mean nothing to you and the web is just a handy place to book flights, then Flock is not the product for you.

But increasingly, people are looking to the web not just as a source of information, but as interaction, and these social networking applications are where they are going.

The idea is to help users connect with people rather than just websites. For instance, Flock aims to “take the headache out of blogging”.

Users can click straight through to their blogs rather than having to sign in every time, or highlight a chunk of text and transfer it directly into a post.

This is particularly convenient as blogging can be a labour-intensive project on a daily basis, and any way to make it easier will be welcomed by the community.

Flock also makes it easier to share files, photos and bookmarked pages with the rest of the web, or to view feeds from news sites or other blogs. Some of these features are available as add-ons to Firefox or through portals like Yahoo!, but Flock integrates them seamlessly.

Flock is still in development mode, so although it is available to the public, it’s liable to cause your computer to crash. However, as it is based on the Firefox code, it is already very stable, and the company is aiming for a full release by December 15th.

If it is successful – and it has the media coverage, backing and features to be – Flock will almost certainly take users away from Firefox more so than Explorer. Similar projects will probably surface, with the potential to fragment the burgeoning opposition to Explorer just as it gets into its stride.

The founder and chief executive of Flock, Bart Decrem, who has worked extensively with Firefox in the past, is keen to dismiss these fears.

He explains on his blog why Flock has launched a separate browser rather than just a Firefox extension that could be added on to the parent product, and stresses his good intentions.

“We too love Firefox,” he says. “We want to be able to offer our users a complete end-to-end user experience, including a single browser download, an update service, technical support . . . the works.

“We don’t want to break anyone’s Firefox experience, or have our browser break due to updates either way that have not been fully tested and propagated.

“In the short term, that means that fewer people will play with our stuff, but over the long term we believe it’s the right way to go for us. Of course, there will be many people who are perfectly happy with Firefox and are not interested in trying a new browser.

“The good news for those folks is that there are already hundreds of Firefox extensions, many of them aimed at integrating social services into the browser.”

Essentially, Firefox is in no real danger at the moment. Flock is aimed at a niche market, albeit a very large niche.

The emergence of Firefox has forced all browser designers to rethink their product after a decade of stagnation – Microsoft will soon release Explorer 7, its answer to Firefox – as the public expects more and more features and innovation, and the open-source community will be careful not to let the market slow down again.

What is more interesting is the possibility that Flock is the type of innovation that we will be seeing more and more of as the idea of Web 2.0 takes off.

At present, Web 2.0 is a highly complex concept that the web’s biggest minds have difficulty explaining and many dismiss as a media-friendly buzzword with little substance behind it.

The basic idea is that the web is moving beyond a store of information to something much more dynamic.

By concentrating its energies on social websites, Flock has shown itself to be a product of the new ways of thinking.

“The web has evolved very dramatically from a big library to a library, shopping mall and increasingly, a social space where people exchange information, communicate with each other and share information,” says Decrem.

A recent article by computer publishing guru Tim O’Reilly tried to explain Web 2.0 neither with a snappy definition or a wordy summary, but with practical examples.

He compared Web 1.0 applications with Web 2.0 ones, and the latter group included Flickr, tagging, blogging and syndication – all of which are integrated within the Flock browser.

The second annual Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco will no doubt have moved the transition process on a great deal.

As Web 2.0 changes from being a grand design to something that actually affects the rest of us, its progress will be tracked and moulded on blogs, news forums and other interactive sites.

© 2005 The Irish Times