Weekend news roundup

21 Feb 2011

A quick glance at some of the technology stories breaking in the weekend’s newspapers, including how Anonymous hackers trumped federal security contractors, how we may fear a second dot.com bubble, how Stephen Elop is masterminding Nokia’s hopeful turnaround and where is the Irish Facebook?

Hacking the hackers – Anonymous shows how it can be done

The Observer carried an interesting account of how hacktivist organisation Anonymous is confounding some of the biggest security organisations in the world: “Even as the FBI was conducting its ongoing campaign of surveillance and armed raids against those of us involved in the Anonymous activist collective, that and other ‘law enforcement’ agencies were simultaneously providing resources and work opportunities to a collection of federal contractors, which were themselves engaged in a variety of reckless and unethical activities to which they are now being held to account by the press, if not the government. Anyone who had written up such a situation as fiction would rightfully be thrown out of a publisher’s office for having produced a work of fiction with such a ludicrous plot.

“On the Saturday before last, an article appeared in The Financial Times in which Aaron Barr, head of US federal contractor HBGary Federal, claimed to have identified by name what he termed Anonymous’ “leadership”. The next day, hackers infiltrated Barr’s personal data, as well as that of HBGary Federal and its parent company HBGary, thereafter releasing tens of thousands of company emails, as well as the very document Barr had planned to sell to the FBI, a document that turned out to be both hilariously inaccurate and not-so-hilariously destined to get some undetermined number of innocents raided by government agents, despite them not having any connection to Anonymous whatsoever. We then released all of these materials ourselves, and in doing so revealed documents that included plans to collect information on the family members of political opponents of the US Chamber of Commerce as well as a proposal to attack WikiLeaks and key supporter Glenn Greenwald by means of a range of unethical and possibly illegal tactics now being reported by media outlets worldwide.”

Elop burns brightly in the FT

‘Decisive’ was the word that screamed out at me when I read a Financial Times profile of Nokia CEO Stephen Elop over the weekend. The profile focused on his ‘burning platform’ missive and looked into his present working life and how his decisions are being felt at Nokia – a symbol of economic virility in Finland.

The 47-year-old Canadian was recruited because of his software background: as a trained computer engineer, he had more than a decade of experience with American companies, including Adobe Systems and, most recently, Microsoft. His mission was to help Nokia’s phones to match the sleek interfaces of Apple’s iPhone and devices using Google’s Android operating system.

Yet when Elop announced Nokia’s strategy last week, it sounded to critics like an admission of defeat. Nokia still sells almost two-thirds more phones than its nearest rival, yet it is losing market share at an alarming rate. Known for its un-glitzy “candy bar” handsets, it has struggled to adapt to a world in which phones are increasingly used as minicomputers, and viewed as luxury fashion accessories.

The second dot.coming

The Observer asked a question that occupies the minds of most people who remember the last internet boom – where are these mad valuations heading? Two years ago, anthropologist Sekai Farai was awarded a grant by Columbia University to study the technology start-up community. Her timing couldn’t have been better: a new goldrush is under way as twentysomethings from New York, London and San Francisco dream of making their fortunes from a new generation of internet companies. Sitting in the lobby of Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, one of new-school tech’s favourite hangouts, Farai predicts the boom has just begun.

“People who not long ago started start-ups because they couldn’t get a job are turning down jobs now,” she says. “There’s so much money about. The idea that your idea could be the next big idea is very real. There’s a real air of excitement.” Could it all end in tears? “It always does.”

Right now, though, who wouldn’t be excited? Every week, one of the new generation of internet firms seems to attract a sky-high valuation. Zynga, the social-network games company that has tempted millions to grow virtual vegetables in its FarmVille game, has been valued at $9bn (£5.54bn). Twitter is said to be worth $10bn. Groupon, vendor of online discounts, rejected a $6bn offer from Google and is considering a flotation with a potential valuation of $15bn. Tech watchers say this is just the start: the real boom will come when Facebook, the head boy of the new dotcom frenzy, goes public, probably next year.

Web TV viewers plot course that sends Magnet numbers North

The Sunday Business Post reported that Magnet, which offers broadband and TV services, has signed up more than 6,000 people to an innovative free social web TV service, launched two weeks ago. The service streams live TV over the internet and allows people to tweet or Facebook friends from the same screen. It’s geo-protected, meaning it is only accessible in Ireland.

It’s a response to the growing trend for people to discuss TV programmes online while watching them. Several Irish current affairs shows have made it into the top trending topics globally in recent weeks because of the level of tweeting about them. The service streams RTÉ 1, RTÉ 2, TV3, 3e and TG4.

A TV licence is not technically a requirement for this service, but chief executive Mark Kellett said Magnet was not aiming to disrupt the market for conventional television. He said the take-up would be restricted to a small section of the market, the ‘‘tech mavens and early adopters’’, who he said numbered no more than around 180,000. ‘‘This won’t replace a TV set,” he said. ‘‘This is a complementary service.”

Looking for the Irish Facebook

The Sunday Independent did a story asking which firms could emerge from this country and reach Facebook proportions. It’s been 10 years and more since the dot-com collapse wiped trillions off the value of internet and technology companies worldwide.

Many Irish tech companies, as well as their investors, were pancaked by that crash. Despite this checkered history, it looks like Irish techies could be amongst the best placed to lead our recovery.

With some of our hottest software companies now eyeing up stock markets, it could only be a matter of months before one of them floats on the stock exchange for the first time, with more to follow.

“Over the last few years, stock markets have been quite volatile, so Irish tech companies have largely steered clear of them,” says David Kearney, associate director with Goodbody Stockbrokers. “But more companies are now considering the move towards public markets.”

It is the established companies that survived the dot-com collapse of 2000-2001 that are the most likely to float, according to Fergal McAleavey, director of corporate finance with AIB.

He adds: “Many Irish tech companies raised money between eight and 10 years ago, and the better ones have survived.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years