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Gil Friedlander, Tawkon CEO

Gil Friedlander, Tawkon

What do you do when you suspect something’s bad for you but you just can’t stop doing it? That’s a question many cellular phone users have been asking themselves, with reports of radiation emissions from their mobile devices raising serious questions about the safety of our increasingly un-tethered society. A new Israeli startup may have the solution.

Tawkon has entered the fray with an inexpensive application for the iPhone that warns users when radiation levels have inched up too high and provides advice on how to counter the potentially negative effects.

The company says that its solution gives users the information and tools to avoid mobile phone radiation as much as possible by “mapping” their homes or offices so they’ll know where they’re exposed to significant levels of mobile phone radiation. It also supplies simple precautionary measures to minimize radiation, based on a user’s location and phone usage.

However, you won’t find this app on your iPhone any time soon, because Apple has banned it. Apple says that Tawkon is a diagnostic tool that would create confusion for iPhone owners from a usability perspective. Tawkon believes that Apple doesn’t want its customers to install an app that appears to advise them to talk less – even though its stated aim is to make it safe for them to “talk on.”

Tawkon founder and CEO Gil Friedlander is taking it in his stride. He says that his company is in discussions with Apple and that he is “optimistic and hopeful that the issue will be solved soon.” He insists that he’s not an anti-cell phone zealot. “We love our phones, too,” he says of the Tawkon team. “We won’t give them up. But we can help people use them more responsibly.”

In the meantime, the company is pressing forward with porting the application to other devices, starting with the Blackberry then expanding in the coming year to cover Google’s Android operating system and the Symbian OS used by Nokia phones.

Friedlander describes the Tawkon app as “like infrared goggles – suddenly you can see at night. We view ourselves the same way. We give users the ability to see and feel non-ionizing radiation. Once you know whether you’re in a red, orange or green zone, you have the information you need to take action.”

That action might be to move to a different location until the radiation levels drop, or to plug in a headset or use a speakerphone in your car.

Tawkon can’t actually measure a phone’s radiation – it’s just software after all – so the app relies on processing a dizzying array of factors, including your location, environmental factors such as the weather, Bluetooth functionality, how close your phone is to your body (utilizing the iPhone’s proximity sensors), antenna orientation (are you holding the phone vertically or horizontally), GPS and even the phone’s built-in compass. The app then prompts users with a vibration or tone when the radiation levels reach a dangerous threshold.

Some of the worst places to talk in terms of radiation are a room with thick concrete walls (a basement, elevator or, in Israel, the sealed room mandated from the time of the first Gulf War), and a moving vehicle (such as a train, car or bus) when the phone is switching off between cellular broadcast towers. In all these cases, the phone has to work harder to connect to a signal, hence the radiation goes up.

In some cases, the locations where radiation is highest can be surprising. “In my apartment, radiation in the washroom is high,” Friedlander says, “while the rest of the house is decent.” In 80 to 85 percent of cases, there’s “good coverage and radiation is pretty low, especially in an urban area,” reassures Friedlander.

No one knows exactly how – or even whether or not – radiation will cause serious medical problems in another 10 years, but the government isn’t taking any chances. Israel’s health ministry has recommended that children under the age of 18 shouldn’t use mobile phones at all – young people’s brain tissue is still developing. In the US and Europe, however, similar precautionary warnings have not been issued.

Friedlander and his staff of six in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya have been working on the Tawkon technology for 18 months now, going live with the still unclear iPhone version earlier this month. The app will be marketed direct to consumers via the various hardware manufacturers’ app stores for just under $10 a download.

Down the road, Friedlander says, he would be “delighted to partner with cellular phone operators,” where he believes that a tool to bring real value and safety to customers would be an absolute win/win. “We are aware that it’s challenging for them,” Friedlander admits. “For many years, they’ve just not addressed the issue.”

Friedlander is originally from Canada and studied at McGill University in Montreal. Tawkon has raised money from private investors in Canada, the US and Israel. Is he looking for larger investors? Probably not. “I don’t see the company as a big venture capital play,” he says. “It’s not a very capital intensive business. We don’t require tens of millions of dollars.”

If the app sells well – and Friedlander reports that the company has received thousands of inquiries since the TechCrunch blog about technology startups broke the story of the Apple ban – a small company like Tawkon could do quite well for its owners, partners and employees. The press is certainly interested. Tawkon has been inundated with press requests, from the Washington Post in the US to Channel 2 and The Marker business and technology print and online newspaper in Israel.

With the total number of cell phones in use said to be some four billion, and of these half a billion smart phones, Friedlander is optimistic that “it’s almost like an endless market.”

Ultimately, Tawkon is not all about the money. “Most of the time, you develop and sell a technology that reduces costs for a phone operator,” Friedlander says. “We were looking for something that can make an impact on the well-being of our friends, family and community. Being able to help the user is very important. We saw a real opportunity.”

This story on Tawkon first appeared on Israel21c and has since been written about by a number of top international newspapers and magazines.

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Kindle 2I’ve written before about how I believe the physical nature of books will change…much sooner than most of us can imagine. Within 10 years, 20 years tops, there will be virtually no print books being published – we’ll be consuming content exclusively on portable reading devices. Newspapers will fall even sooner.

Today’s text readers include the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, The Plastic Logic Que and, of course, the iPhone and its various cell phone based derivatives. Future products – perhaps even the long rumored Apple “iPad” – will undoubtedly be much easier on the eyes and intuitive to use than what’s currently available.

But how about the creation of books? Bob Stein of the Institute of the Future of the Book suggests that the same phenomena of “crowdsourcing” that forms the backbone of content creation on social media – from blogs to Facebook – and that has made Wikipedia the world’s largest and most popular reference source, will be applied next to novels, biographies and all sorts of non-fiction.

The initial reaction of traditional authors – myself included – has been a quick harrumph. You can’t displace a well-trained and experienced writer with the power of isolated individuals across the Internet.

Or can you?

Stein gives the example of a well-known biographer who receives a $2 million advance, goes off for 10 years to research and write, and returns with his latest best-seller. Crowdsource me? says the writer. Not going to happen.

But at the same time, there is undoubtedly a newly minted PhD in Creative Writing who grew up on Facebook who has no problem writing in public and letting her thousands of friends and followers contribute. It may seem improbable today, but then so does the total demise of a hard cover book you can hold in your hand.

You can already see companies exploring this space. WeBook is probably the best known. Founded by Israeli serial entrepreneur Itai Kohavi and backed by some of the biggest names in venture capital, the site allows anyone to start a book topic and solicit submissions from other WeBook members who can also collaboratively edit the book in real time for all the world to see. WeBook runs periodic votes where members determine which books WeBook should actually publish (gasp) in print.

The startup Vook is more traditional in that most of what this company publishes is written by a single author, but it breaks the traditional mold by including video as an integral part of the storytelling process. “Vooks,” of course, are digital only.

Group written books are actually not that new. Take a look at the Talmud, the massive work of Jewish law, folklore and history. The original source material for the Talmud was oral, written by multiple authors and handed down from generation to generation until it was finally written down.

Legally, publishing crowdsourced books can be pretty tricky. The Internet culture of free sharing makes it tough to solicit help on a book and then charge for it. For example, I have a personal crowdsourcing project called SiddurWiki and I’m still trying to figure out the lawyerly language so that content on the site can be widely distributed electronically at no cost, while at the same time, be set up so that I can also sell it and make a profit.

So what does an established, traditional author (or an electronic publisher of any type, for that matter) do in such turbulent times? I think that individual authors have to begin thinking of themselves as hybrid writers and managers. It’s not enough to lock yourself in a room with just a typewriter (boy, that really dates me!) Rather you have to view your work as a “product” that needs leadership.

Writers of the future will be need to be cheerleaders, evangelists and social media experts, as well as dedicated craftsmen.

Ultimately, writers won’t go the way of the dinosaur. Indeed they’ll be as valuable as ever: a single person will still need to put it all together. But the process that leads up to that is about to change forever.

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Why the New iPod Nano is a Game Changer

by Brian Blum on September 10, 2009

in Products

Video capabilities are a game changer

Video capabilities are a game changer

There was lots to like in yesterday’s iPod announcements from Apple. But the most important was the addition of a camera and video functionality to the venerable iPod Nano. Apple practically invented the MP3 market and continues to dominate player sales. The iPhone changed consumer’s perceptions about what a fully-featured smart phone must include.

Now Apple is expanding its reach into video, directly taking on the popular Flip as an in-your-pocket always there live motion recording device. What’s significant is that it’s a completely new market for Apple and if the company applies its usual business savvy, it could grab significant market share.

Yes, it’s true that the iPhone already allows you to take video, but that device is much larger – too big, for me at least, to comfortably fit in a pocket. And with the required phone contract, it’s nowhere near as cheap as a Nano – $150 for an 8 GB unit that records in 640×480 quality (that’s twice the memory as the Flip, by the way).

It’s also true that nearly every cell phone sold today can take video, but if you’ve ever seen the quality of the resulting clips, you’ll be underwhelmed.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to snap some video but didn’t want to lug around my Canon camcorder, which itself was much smaller than my previous Hi8 machine. On our recent vacation, I brought the Canon but never took it out of my backpack. Not once.

The video quality of the new Nano should be about that of the original Flip and the pricing is identical. That’s not quite what I’d want – the $199 Flip HD takes much better video, and I’m sure Apple will release a Nano HD, though we may have to wait awhile. Apple has given the Nano a few special effects, but not the fancy video editing that the iPhone has.

One downside (and it’s a biggie): the Nano ONLY takes video. You can’t use it as a still camera. That means I’ll have to lug around a regular digital camera. And there’s no wireless (not that I expected that) like the iPhone where you can post those candid videos online immediately.

Why no stills? Steve Jobs told The New York Times that adding high pixel resolution including autofocus would have bulked up the device too much.

All told, if Apple executes well on this one, it could definitely be a game changer in the pocket video space, meaning even more YouTube videos of cats flushing toilets and fat kids waving light sabers. But for businesses it will also mean faster product demos, shots from conferences, interviews, home video tours (great for Realtors), and even documentation of in-house meetings.

Two other new features of note in the improved Nano:

FM radio tuner

A number of years ago, I bemoaned the fact that no iPod could pick up radio stations. When I visit a country outside of Israel, I enjoy listening to the local radio stations. It gives me a feel for a city’s vibe. But now I rarely listen to terrestrial radio, preferring Internet-only stations like Radio Paradise and WOXY.

The iPod Nano’s radio tuner has some cool features – like the ability to pause your broadcast up to 15 minutes and to see which song is playing, then click to buy it later from iTunes – but for the most part this feature seems too little too late.

Pedometer

The Nano has long been Apple’s iPod of choice for joggers like me who primarily want a small device that you can strap on your arm. So the addition of a pedometer is a welcome feature. How many kilometers is that one-hour jog? Now I’ll know without having to carry a second device.

There are other goodies in the new Nano too that bring it closer to the app-centric Touch and iPhone without sacrificing its sleek form factor. Now, what I’d really like? A tiny iPhone, the size of a Nano. No rumors yet, but knowing Apple, anything is possible.

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