When Google Inc 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 technology companies looking to trial their latest innovations, industry experts say.
They say New Zealand — tucked away deep in the southern hemisphere — offers a tech-savvy, English-speaking population where firms such as Google and Facebook Inc 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,” Fraser said.
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 debuted its timeline feature 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.”
Networking site LinkedIn Corp 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, telecommunication giant Vodafone Group PLC debugged the general packet radio service (GPRS) network which replaced dial-up Internet connections for Kiwis before releasing it internationally.
“It comes down to the fact that [New Zealand] is a perfect microcosm of a global community,” Candace Kinser from technology industry group NZITC said. “Auckland has immigrants as more than 50 percent of its population, from nearly every country in the world, [and] Kiwis take up technology rapidly and use it well.”
Fraser said hosting leading-edge projects helps boost New Zealand’s IT industry, which boasts world leaders in sectors such as computer gaming and digital special effects.
“When these organizations come along, they don’t bring their whole R&D [research and development] department, they just bring one or two key people, along with the new product or technology,” he said. “So we get quite a lot of benefit from that, in terms of people in our technology [sector] getting trained up to fill the void.”
Google’s 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 South Island on Saturday last week, 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 system 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, but it’s been exciting to be part of something new,” he told the New Zealand Herald.