Weekend news roundup

31 May 2010

A quick glance at some of the technology stories breaking in the weekend papers.

Openet planning €250m IPO?

The Sunday Independent reported that Openet Telecom, the Irish software group backed by the ‘Simon Cowell’ of the technology sector, Barry Maloney, is planning to float in the US “early next year”, according to sources. The company is looking at a valuation of up to €250m.

Last week, it was widely speculated that giant technology firm Cisco was looking to buy the Irish company. However, it is understood that Openet and its backers would prefer to float next year instead. The company is believed to be in the process of choosing investment bankers to advise on the potential Initial Public Offering (IPO).

Maloney has identified and bankrolled a series of star firms at an early stage in their development. He is also the man who ploughed $15m into social-networking site Bebo before selling his stake for almost $160m. Maloney’s Balderton Capital is believed to own about 47pc of the company, having first invested up to $20m in 2001.

A float by Openet would be the first technology IPO since the dotcom boom of the early Noughties when Riverdeep Iona, Trintech and Parthus all raised money from investors.

Why video games do matter

The Sunday Times carried an interesting history of the video game with the thesis of why video games are so important. Spacewar! was an affront to computer science. Created in 1962 by a bunch of fun-loving computer students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this game of galactic dog fighting blew a raspberry at the starchy world of academia. MIT’s professors were far from impressed. These students had used – nay, abused – a $120,000 state-of-the-art computer not to further scientific understanding but for frivolous entertainment. It bordered on scandalous.

Fast forward nearly 50 years and the descendants of Spacewar! have spawned an entertainment business that rivals the film industry in size. The game industry spends, makes and loses billions creating experiences that thrill millions, and governments compete to woo games companies to their shores with generous tax breaks.  And the appeal of games has never been broader. From the internet cafés of China and the pensioners enjoying tennis on a Wii to the commuter playing Bejeweled on their mobile or the office worker sneaking in a game of Solitaire on their PC when the boss isn’t looking; games are everywhere.

Games have also evolved far beyond the primitive days of Pong and now deliver interactive experiences that blow away the lazy stereotype of games as vacant and violent time wasters. Sim City, for example, took dry urban planning theory and condensed it into an accessible, easily understandable and enjoyable slice of mass entertainment. Then there’s the 2007 game BioShock, which introduced a new generation to the libertarian ideas of Ayn Rand and delivered one of the most memorable fictional settings to grace any medium in recent years with its underwater Art Deco city Rapture. These are not one-offs, there are hundreds of other examples out there.

Games have also changed our culture more widely. The success and global influence of Japan’s game industry has encouraged many in the west to become interested in Japanese culture as a whole. The success of Pokémon, in particular, paved the way for the spread of anime films and manga comics in the west.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg: privacy became too complex

Facebook’s chief operations officer Sheryl Sandberg penned an interesting op-ed in The Observer on Sunday, outlining the company’s new approach to appeasing the privacy concerns of the world at large. She wrote that when the first steam-powered vehicles arrived on the roads in Britain midway through the 19th century, parliament passed a law which stated that at least three people must be employed to drive them, one of whom should be walking in front carrying a red flag. It was not until 1896 that the Highways Act allowed vehicles to be driven without such restrictions.

“Initial responses to new technology often have to be adapted as usage patterns become clearer. That was true on 19th-century British roads; it is true on the internet today. Media regulations to encourage the local production of content are becoming anachronistic with content available to all. Copyright laws are having to be updated to take account of today’s practices. Most relevant for Facebook, the right approach to privacy needs to take account of how consumers actually use social networks and what they want.

“Although many internet companies have to deal with privacy issues, this is particularly challenging for social networking sites, whose very purpose is the sharing of information. Facebook has recently been criticised for being cavalier with users’ private data and for not being clear enough about how our privacy controls operate. We plead innocent to the first charge and guilty, up until now, to the second.

“Privacy has always been a central focus for Facebook. From the time Mark Zuckerberg launched the service in his college dorm room through to today, privacy has been a core part of our offering. In the early days, Facebook consisted of static pages where people could share some basic information about themselves and a single picture. Over the past six years we have enhanced our service considerably. With these changes we offered increasingly complicated privacy controls, not because we were cavalier about privacy but the contrary – because we take privacy so seriously. The result was that, for many of our users, these controls became far too complex.”

Will Facebook’s new settings appease the web?

While Sandberg was quite open on the subject, The Guardian’s technology editor Charles Arthur believes the world at large will need convincing. He wrote that groups gave a half-hearted welcome to Facebook’s announcement on Wednesday night that it would roll out new, simplified privacy settings to its 450 million users in the next few weeks.

The UK group Privacy International reacted with “disappointment and frustration”, saying that “the latest changes merely correct some of the most unacceptable privacy settings on the site. Very little has changed in terms of the overall privacy challenge that Facebook and its users need to navigate.”

Instead it said that the changing of the settings – which previously required users to navigate through up to 150 different settings to control who could see their data, to a simpler four-tiered version plus a “customise” option – was “merely a red herring”.

The problem, it said, is that “Facebook operates on a business model that requires it to monetise the data harvested from customers.”

But Zuckerberg was insistent yesterday that the company does not sell any personal data to advertisers or marketers, and that people misunderstood how its targeted advertising system worked.

Facebook’s adverts will still target individuals even if they share absolutely no data with anyone, he explained: “The principle is that we don’t give any information to advertisers. None. They come to us and say that they want to hit a certain group of people, and we target the ads ourselves. We take the ads, and show them to the person that we think is interested. So it doesn’t matter who you’re showing your information to. It doesn’t matter if you share it at all. It makes no difference to the advertising or the advertisers.”

World Cup frenzy, satellite boom

The Sunday Business Post’s Adrian Weckler reported that from next month broadcasters and television manufacturers will try to sell us new TVs and new channels in time for the World Cup. But there is another way to get your high-definition World Cup into your living room: using Freesat.

Ninety per cent of Irish households watch television through cable providers or Sky. But Freesat and DIY satellite equipment is an alternative that is growing in popularity.

Freesat is a free television service aimed at Britain and the North. Funded by the BBC and ITV, it is targeted at British households who are outside the coverage areas for analogue and digital terrestrial television (DTT) networks. But because of our proximity to Britain, Irish households can also get the service.

It is available to anyone with a satellite dish and a basic decoder. There is no monthly or annual subscription to pay. What you do not get from the service is RTE, Sky or any premium film and sports channels. For these channels, you must rely on an analogue aerial.

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