Kim Dotcom’s Mega illustrates how innovation differs from invention

Bram van der Kolk (left) and Mathias Ortmann discuss technologies to protect privacy at NetHui

Bram van der Kolk (left) and Mathias Ortmann discuss technologies to protect privacy at NetHui

While reviewing notes made while talking to Mega chief technology officers Mathias Ortmann and Bram van der Kolk, I was reminded of an earlier discussion about innovation and invention not being the same.

Kim Dotcom is Mega’s front man. Ortmann and van der Kolk do the background business development work.

Earlier this month the company released an Android app allowing customers  on the move to browse and otherwise deal with files stored in Mega’s cloud.

Like many other aspects of Mega’s technology, the Android app is innovative. But it wasn’t Mega’s invention. The company acquired the app from its developers and have since weaved it into Mega’s offering.

There’s no question Mega is an innovative business. Adding encryption to consumer cloud storage was a smart move. The company is also innovative about the way it talks to its customers.

However, as Ortmann and van der Kolk make clear, there is very little in Mega’s technology that was invented by the company. Their skill is bringing together other people’s inventions in new and creative ways, then getting it to market. That’s the essence of innovation.


LiveScribe Sky smartpen let me down at NetHui

Livescribe Sky and the starter notebook

Livescribe Sky and the starter notebook

From a journalist’s point of view LiveScribe’s original Pulse smartpen was one of the greatest gadgets of the last decade.

Pulse was a large ball-point pen that can record sound as you write in a special notebook. It syncs to a computer and downloads the audio along with an image of the pen-written notes. Point the pen at the notes, or your cursor at the on-screen notes and the audio track picks up from that point. There was also an add-on handwriting recognition app.

For my work it was nothing short of brilliant. I could find a quite spot at an event like NetHui, go back over the highlights of a session and write a great, accurate story in minutes.

Sadly my Pulse smartpen died. I replaced it with a newer model, the Wi-Fi Sky smartpen. And that’s where my problems begin.

I’ve used the Sky smartpen at other events, but NetHui crams more sessions into a day than conventional conferences. The original pen was good for a whole week on a single battery charge, the Sky barely makes it through a working day. In fact, the battery ran out of juice before Monday was over.

That’s not the only problem. Although there’s a solid wi-fi network at NetHui, it was congested at times. I set the pen to sync when I close a file – that’s normally at the end of a session. Syncing rarely takes long, it can take less than a minute, but at NetHui I was often ten minutes into the next session before syncing finished. Not good.

The other change between the Pulse and the Sky was switching from a stand-alone LiveScribe app to syncing with Evernote. Evernote is fine, but being able to turn my handwritten notes into text was a great productivity helper, the new software doesn’t seem to do this.

Between batteries draining too fast and time lost through syncing, I missed some great quotes, I still have handwritten notes, but that’s not as useful as being able to pluck quotes out of the air.

Ten things we learned from NetHui 2013

Three busy days, a total of 65 sessions and hundreds of conversations meant NetHui gave everyone who took part plenty to think about. It’s an open conference, organisers encourage delegates to participate. That makes it New Zealand’s biggest technology learning experience.

There’s no way to squeeze all the insights into a single, simple blog post. However a few big themes emerged:

1. We can change the internet

9242102875_cd9744dc37_mIf I came away from NetHui with just one thought, it is that New Zealand’s internet community wields the power to change things. The message came up again and again in different guises. Monday’s InTAC workshop was specifically about influencing New Zealand’s internet future, many of us attending committed to small tasks pushing those goals forward.

2. We can change politics

Clare Curran test-marketing the adopt-an-MP idea on Gareth Hughes

Clare Curran test-marketing the adopt-an-MP idea on Gareth Hughes

A remark from Labour communications spokesperson Clare Curran may have sparked a movement. She suggested the audience adopt an MP to tell them about matters like copyright law and other online issues. Within a couple of hours a team of NetHui geek women, Aurynn Shaw, Merrin Macleod and Megan Bowra-Dean whipped up a site to make that task easier. Brilliant work. See more at

3. Information security and privacy hot button

Rochelle Furneaux,  Mathias Ortmann and Bram van der Kolk discuss technologies to protect privacy

Rochelle Furneaux, Mathias Ortmann and Bram van der Kolk discuss technologies to protect privacy

People may feel powerless to do much about information security and privacy, but that doesn’t mean they are happy with the status quo and it doesn’t mean they aren’t groping for ways to regain control. While they may have belonged to geeks in the past, I sensed a definite mood that these issues are moving onto the broader political agenda. That’s something our leaders need to watch closely.

4. The establishment position on surveillance isn’t monolithic

9250268161_f7b6b78e1f_mThe panel on state surveillance didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but it’s clear New Zealand’s establishment doesn’t present a united front when it comes to spying on citizens. Meanwhile there were clear and well articulated objections from delegates. Going by the mood at NetHui the government is out of touch with popular feeling and with the expert security community on this one – that’s a politically awkward place to be.

5. Poorer schools have more to gain from the internet than rich ones

Technology can do wonderful things for education. As Point England principal Russell Burt made clear, it can transform the lives of those students at the bottom of the economic heap and give people a voice.

6. There’s little love for Sky TV

I lost count of how many negative things people said about Sky TV at NetHui. I didn’t hear one remotely positive comment. Does this matter? More than you might imagine. While people at NetHui like to think of themselves as ordinary New Zealanders, in reality they are in the technology vanguard. Many, if not most, live post-TV lives. Soon the rest of New Zealand will catch up.

7. Limited optimism on rural broadband

Facilitator Reg Hammond kickstarts discussion on rural connectivity

Facilitator Reg Hammond kickstarts discussion on rural connectivity

We’re seeing real traction getting broadband out to remote areas of New Zealand, but huge barriers remain to filling in the “nooks and crannies”. The biggest issue seems to be dealing with low income consumers and places like marae. There are parts of this job that simply can’t be left to market forces. My gut feeling is that politicians and industry players are putting the more difficult rural connections in the “too hard” basket. This may not be fixed without more public money.

8. The future is uncertain, that’s not a bad thing

9241934625_e415bf5477_mBlogger and keynote speaker Quinn Norton is watching the social changes driven by an open Internet. She talks of an “emergent and feral collective”. While this functions far better than you might expect, it is unpredictable and chaotic. There’s also uncertainty about what the UFB network will deliver, discussions on possible “killer apps” hit a brick wall – although I have an opinion on that:

9. New Zealand recorded music is a worse shape than we thought


Russell Brown and Samuel Flynn Scott discussing the state of the music industry online

Everyone knows the recorded music industry is in a bad way and that digital sales in no way make up the shortfall. What wasn’t obvious until NetHui is the utter collapse of recorded music sales. Music lawyer Chris Hocquard says even The Warehouse isn’t trying any more. Retail music sales have collapsed with shift away from physical. NetHui’s music panel isn’t sure if the sales have gone digital.

10. The people have spoken

Delegates are encouraged to speak

Delegates are encouraged to speak

Participation is NetHui’s greatest strength. Delegates don’t just get to hear from industry experts and gurus – there are many chances to contribute. I suspect this is especially true for women and other groups which can at times struggle to get a hearing at technology-focused events. I’m convinced I learned more from the crowd than from the stage over the three days of NetHui.

NetHui 2013: Labour-saving device


Paul Buchanan on the State surveillance of online communications panel

Using the GCSB capabilities to make sniffing more efficient is all a labour-saving device to gather more info with less human oversight.

Dr Paul Buchanan, international geopolitics and non-traditional warfare consultant, speaking at NetHui 2013.


NetHui 2013: GCSB bill too important to rush


Convener Laurence Millar and the panel discussing state surveillance at NetHui 2013. From left to right: Laurence Miller, Dr. Paul Buchanan, Ian Apperley, Sir Bruce Ferguson and Michael Wigley.

Legislation proposing to extend the powers of the Government Communications Security Bureau is too important to rush through Parliament without more debate. That’s the consensus of the panel discussing state surveillance and the GCSB at NetHui 2013.

Significantly the panel included former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson who told delegates there’s a need for an apolitical, but robust debate about this kind of legislation. Ferguson says it’s not possible for a completely open debate, but some of it could be transparent: “The current bill requires proper research.”

He says there’s a genuine need for intelligence agencies and, generally, New Zealand has the right balance between the right to live freely and he need for security.

Ferguson says he didn’t agree with the prime minister’s appointment of the new GCSB head. He says it should be an independent appointment, not an old school friend of John Key’s. He says that, previously, for the GCSB to spy on a New Zealander, the director needed a warrant from the head of police or the SIS.

The panel also included cloud consultant Ian Apperley, solicitor Michael Wigley and security expert Paul Buchanan.

Fig leaf

Buchanan won applause from the audience when he described terrorism as “a fig leaf used by the intelligence industry to legitimise what they do”. He says the reality is that 90 percent of their work involves spying on other states and agencies. And anyway, “with Prism and all the other intelligence at their disposal, the US government couldn’t stop the Boston bombings”.

He also says terrorism is a terrible thing, but it isn’t a threat to any state or democracy. Buchanan thinks fighting terrorism should be treated as a criminal matter, not a war, and dealt with by Police.

Not just governments

Apperley describes targeted spying is “a necessary evil”, but says wholesale surveillance of a population is unacceptable. However, it pointed out these days it isn’t just government keeping an eye on the population, big corporations and rogue actors like hackers are watching too. He says privacy becomes an individual’s responsibility and it isn’t something that can be left to ISPs.

As a cloud consultant, Apperley would like New Zealand to become the “Switzerland of the south”, a place people everywhere could trust to look after information. He says this is incompatible with the connection to the five eyes surveillance program.

Legal objection

Prime minister John Key says the NZ Law Society’s criticism of the GCSB bill is completely wrong. This annoys Michael Wigley who says: “Well Mr Key, you know best, we’re just lawyers with a concern for civil liberties, the rule of law, due process, we’ve studied this for years, but you’re the boss”.

Wigley is concerned about the serious risk of extra-judicial overreach and says the idea that the existing GCSB law is unclear is patently false. He says: “Any second year law student could understand the law.”