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The Week in Geek – Sept. 24, 2007

Upward Mobility in Africa
 The cell phone is the single most transformative technology for world economic development according to Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs. For people living on a few dollars a day, a mobile phone can dramatically improve living standards by saving wasted trips, providing information about crop prices, summoning medical help, and even serving as a conduit to banking services. As an example, consider that a group of poor fishermen in the Indian state of Kerala increased their profits by an average of 8% after using mobile phones to find the best local marketplace prices for sardines. Profits rose even though consumer prices for fish dropped 4%, because the fishermen no longer had to throw away unsold catch previously lost by sailing into a port after all the buyers had left. Or look to Grace Wachira, who runs a small business knitting cardigan sweaters in Muruguru, Kenya. Before cell service came to her village, she had to walk several hours to the nearest town or ride in a communal taxi to buy yarn or meet customers, and she never knew whether the person she wanted to see would be there. Now she uses her mobile to arrange for yarn delivery and to communicate with buyers. Microcredit (the concept behind last year’s Nobel Peace Prize) is frequently used by entrepreneurs to acquire ‘village phones’. The phone owner leases out phone calls as a business, and empowers those around her to be more efficient. By 2015, two billion more people will have mobile phones, most from developing nations. The pace of change is breathtaking – in 2001, there were just 500,000 telephone lines in Nigeria. Now Africa’s second most populous nation has more than 30 million mobile subscribers. With numbers that big, handset makers are embracing vast markets of world poor that are often overlooked by other multinationals. Tech isn’t a panacea, but the handset is like an economic nutritional supplement that can increase growth, stability, and opportunity. A required reading for future semesters! Also see the Slide Show.

Halo3: Microsoft Invents a New Science of Play
The Halo series is Microsoft’s biggest gaming franchise. The release of Halo2 coincided with the first profitable quarter for XBox, and it launched XBox Live as the leading platform for game play over the Net. The opening gross for Halo2 was bigger than the Spiderman 2’s record-breaking box-office take. Having spawned Halo figurines, novels, t-shirts, and with a major motion picture delayed but still-promised (Peter Jackson is involved), some claim Halo is a geek touchstone akin to this generation’s Star Wars. The goal of Halo3? To be so good that users buy XBox 360 just to play it and in the process launch MS Entertainment to its first profitable year. Bungie Games, the MS division responsible for the title (which, curiously, started out as a Mac game shop) has assembled some 600 gamers of all levels to analyze over 3,000 hours of game play to make sure Halo3 rocks. Wired’s cover story offers a fascinating look at how Bungie is defining and refining the science of game enjoyment in what is one of the world’s most sophisticated development studios.

The Forbes 400 Richest
 Tech rock stars hold five of the top 8 positions on the list of Forbes Wealthiest Americans. A recent Wired article explains why geeks may make the most effective philanthropists. Most brains shut down as tragedy amplifies, but the geek mind (and presumably Gates has one of the geekiest) appreciates that if x is bad, 2x is twice as bad and 1 million x is very, very bad indeed and deserves urgent, targeted attention. Get rich fast and save the planet!

Best Places to Launch a Career
The BusinessWeek cover story talks about how accounting firms are hot, and this is true. But in the Top 10 ranks, four are in the business of tech (IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Accenture), while the top three (Deloitte, PwC, and Ernst & Young) heavily hire tech students for their increasingly large IT and consulting groups. The data are clear – study tech (as a primary or supporting major) and you’re positioned for the very best career launch. Check out the special report, which includes videos profiling accounting recruiters and a JP Morgan analyst, plus several bonus articles and tables. Happy hunting!

On the Record – Reed Hastings
NetFlix competition with Blockbuster is heating up. While NetFlix continues to be profitable, Blockbuster has been hemorrhaging cash almost continuously for several quarters with no clear profit path in site. But for the first time, the NetFlix customer base shrunk last month. Hastings says it’s more due to non-use rather than BlockBuster defections – his firm has 7 million subscribers, while Blockbuster’s TotalAccess has only a third that number. NetFlix also continues to invest in customer experience, recently abandoning e-mail support in favor of a 24 hour call center. As NetFlix prepares to fight a two-front war, using a 50 warehouse distribution center network against, and a fledgling download service against rivals such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple that all have set-top box solutions, the firm continues to have some of the most innovative human resource programs around. Employees set their own hours, determine their own vacation time and compensation mix (stock vs. salary), are paid at rates well ahead of rivals, and poor performers are given a generous bonus as they’re shown the door. Hastings, who was named a Director at Microsoft earlier this year, continues results-oriented innovation in ways both seen and invisible.

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