Tropical Computing

(This column first appeared in the July 7, 1997 issue of The Peddie Report
(The Peddie Report used to be The PC Graphics Report))

I was driving around my new neighborhood a week or so ago, looking at the sand and cactus around me, and for some reason I started thinking about panoramic viewing software. That led me to wonder what had ever happened to Eric Gullichsen, who a couple of years ago had demo’d the first such software I had seen on a PC, and whom I’d known when he was a VR guy, first at Autodesk and then when he co-founded Sense8.

That night when I read my latest issue of The Peddie Report (TPR), much to my surprise I found an item about dear old Eric. It appears he is now living on the island of Tonga in the South Pacific, doling out domain names to folks far and near. I wonder if he still lives on a houseboat like he used to in Sausalito.

Anyhow, what really caught my eye in that article was the following editorial comment from my colleagues at TPR:

Obviously, the reality of living in a tropical paradise outweighs the notion of trying to access one via a desktop computer. We truly hope that this is one technology trend that catches on. Our bags are packed, and we’re just waiting for Microsoft to buy us out. We have an Internet strategy for goodness sake. Cut us a check, and we’re out of here. JPA Tahiti. Hmmm, has a nice ring to it.

Well, my friends, it is a trend and I will be bold enough to try and take at least some credit for starting it. Why? Because as I write this, I am looking out my glass doors at the palm trees in front of my house, swaying in the ocean breeze. You see, two weeks ago, my family and I moved from the hinterlands of
tax-free New Hampshire to the Caribbean island of Bonaire (http://www.infobonaire.com), and we plan on living here indefinitely. And best of all, it didn’t require being bought out by Microsoft to make this move.

Technology made me do it
I (with the permission of my wife) had decided to move somewhere … anywhere at all (other than New England), as long as it ended the stagnation I had started to feel. The option of where to move was limited to places with which we were reasonably familiar and comfortable, the local scuba diving had to be good, and Microsoft couldn’t have an office there (spoils the neighborhood, especially if you’re a Microsoft critic like myself). Most important, whatever location we chose, it had to have viable Internet service readily available, so I could continue my writing career and communicate with editors and others.

As luck would have it, Bonaire gained an ISP in February; my wife and I liked the people and the island; and Bonaire had world-class diving. Poof. Here we are.

The vision of virtuality
Okay, enough background information. One of the oft-admired qualities of the Net is that it enables telecommuting and remote communication. What the visionaries who promote these Net capabilities fail to take into account is the reality of connections and culture other than those of the U.S.

While a Caribbean island might be a somewhat extreme case compared with the business Meccas of Europe, the U.S. and the Pacific Rim, it can be used as an example to underscore the fact that not all places are as compatible with the future as one might otherwise think. This is especially true if your benchmark is the warped perspective that Net computing in the U.S. offers.

Let me provide some basic Bonaire statistics to help put my subsequent comments in perspective:

Government Democratic, part of the Netherlands Antilles, which are part of the Netherlands
Size 112 square miles (one-third of which is a national park and uninhabited)
Location About 50 miles north of Venezuela, 30 miles east of Curacao, and about 80 miles
east of Aruba
Population Approximately 15,000
Primary
industries
Recreational tourism (diving, watersports), rice processing, salt (from the ocean), oil transshipment port
Electrical
power
127 volts (on a good day), 50 Hz
Postal
system
Slow – 2-3 weeks from the U.S., longer to the U.S.
Retail
commerce
Stores open 9-10 am to noon and 2 pm to 4-5 pm weekdays; most are closed weekends
Average
income
$250-700/month, depending on type of unskilled or semi-skilled job
Cost
of living
A gallon of (almost) fresh milk is $6. Housing is expensive (compared to New Hampshire), as are utilities (compared to everywhere but New Hampshire)
Languages Dutch, Papiamentu (a Creole-like language), Spanish, and English

Bonaire statistics
With current first-hand experience of a not so unusual Caribbean island in mind, let’s take a look at some Net and other computing perceptions:

General computing perception Island reality
Internet access is
basically free
You won’t find any $19.95 unlimited access here. Costs run around $5/hour for a 28.8 Kbps modem connection, and faster connections simply are not available.
Everyone has at least 28.8
Kbps access to the Internet
Well … being able to connect at 28.8 Kbps with a modem at the ISP’s, and being able to get 28.8 Kbps data transfers via the Net are two very different things, as I’ve discovered. My effective throughput to/from the Internet is closer to 9,600 to 14.4 Kbps. Makes it pretty painful (and expensive) downloading those “small” 5 Mbyte sample and software files from websites.
Internet backbone
bandwidth will double every (pick a unit of time)
So? The laws on Bonaire forbid anyone but the local telephone monopoly to have satellite transmission capabilities, and the size of the data pipe to Bonaire is limited due to technical and cost reasons.
Sure, we can do real-time
audio/video/whatever over a standard Internet connection
Not at an effective rate of 9,600 or 14,400 bps
Efficiency is critical Let me introduce you to the concept of “island time.” Shops are closed between noon and 2 pm. ASAP means whenever someone gets around to it (anywhere from next day to next month, or so). A common joke here is to say you want something immediately — it shows you have a sense of humor because of the absurdity of the request. So, having a slower Internet connection is not a problem culturally (although the cost of prolonged access is).
Anyone can start an
Internet business
Down here, starting a business requires a lot of patience. We applied for all the permits we needed to do Internet consulting, since that’s a wide open market on Bonaire. We need four sets of permits: a business permit (to form the corporation), managing director’s permits (to run the corporation), work permits (to be able to work at our own business), and residence permits (so we can live here while running our business). We applied for the permits in April, and can still expect the government to take another 2-3 months to approve everything, assuming the process goes smoothly (it rarely does). We’re currently on long-term tourist visas, waiting for the wheels of local bureaucracy to turn (not that we mind the wait too much, being where we are).
Computers are cheap and
widely available
Widely available, perhaps, if you’re willing to wait until a properly equipped model is ordered and delivered from the U.S. or the Netherlands.Cheap? No. As a rule of thumb, with import duties, mark-ups, taxes and everything else, buying computers and other office fixtures usually runs about 2-3 times the U.S. retail price. Occasionally you can get a better deal.

Perception vs. reality

Addressing the global community
In a nutshell, what my experience on Bonaire has shown me so far is that Americans (myself included) tend to be rather ignorant of what a “global community” really is. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I could be heard uttering most, if not all, of the same invalid generalizations listed above. But I’ve learned that the rest of the world (Bonaire being only one locale among many) doesn’t always follow America’s pace or direction, and expecting the rest of the world to change to meet U.S. standards is folly. American companies and Internet potentates need to spend more time understanding and addressing global issues in terms of the Internet.

Conclusion
While slow Internet connections and a wildly different culture from the “I want it now, and fast” are the norm in Bonaire (and elsewhere in the tropics), these items are a reasonable price to pay for having an office in a diving paradise — the sun shines every day, there are no stoplights on the entire island and,  because it’s a desert climate, I don’t have a lawn to mow. I can’t think of many better places to put the Internet’s promise of remote connectivity to the test.

I should end with a caution to not bother trying to register domain names here. That process also works on island time. Eric Gullichsen’s Tonga-based automated domain name server may be a better bet.