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NZ emerges as guinea pig for tech firms

19 June 2013, 10:06

Wellington – When Google chose New Zealand to unveil secret plans for a balloon-driven Wi-Fi network last weekend, it cemented the country's reputation as a test bed for global tech companies looking to trial their latest innovations, industry experts said.

They said New Zealand, tucked away deep in the southern hemisphere, offers a tech-savvy, English-speaking population where firms such as Google and Facebook can quietly test new products without risking major fallout if anything goes wrong.

"We tend to be early adopters, any technology that reduces the tyranny of distance we're keen on," said Malcolm Fraser, chief executive of the Auckland-based Future Cities Institute, who has researched the trend.

"We're a small market, which means it doesn't cost that much to test something here and if anything screws up we're far enough from major markets for it not to have a spillover effect."

Facebook has enthusiastically used New Zealanders as guinea pigs, last year trialling a scheme where users can pay to make their posts more prominent on friends' newsfeeds.

It also rolled out its timeline feature first in New Zealand in 2011, saying at the time: "As a global company, we need to gain perspective and insights from outside the US.

"New Zealand is a good place to start because it's English speaking, so we can read the feedback and make improvements quickly."

The LinkedIn social network also tested its endorsement feature in New Zealand last year, but Fraser said the country had been a laboratory for experimental technology since the mid-1980s, when the world's first electronic payments system was introduced.

In the early 2000s, telecoms giant Vodafone debugged the GPRS network which replaced dial-up internet connections on Kiwis before releasing it internationally.

"It comes down to the fact that (New Zealand) is a perfect microcosm of a global community," said Candace Kinser from technology industry group NZITC.

"Auckland has immigrants as more than 50% of its population, from nearly every country in the world (and) Kiwis take up technology rapidly and use it well."

The Google foray into New Zealand, dubbed Project Loon, is perhaps the most ambitious high-tech test carried out in the country, aiming to bring internet to the two-thirds of the global population currently without web access.

It involved sending 30 helium-filled balloons to the edge of space above the South Island last Saturday, each carrying transmitters capable of beaming Wi-Fi internet access down to antennae on properties below.

The ultimate goal, which Google admits remains a distant dream, is a network of thousands of such balloons creating a network that provides online access anywhere in the world.

The first person to access the web under the scheme was dairy farmer Charles Nimmo, who said he appreciated the chance to work with one of the world's largest companies to push the frontiers of technology.

"It's been weird," he told the New Zealand Herald. "But it's been exciting to be part of something new."



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