- 30 Jun 09, 08:53 GMT
As millions upon millions of people rush to the internet to find out the latest on Michael Jackson, the underground network of spammers have sensed a business opportunity too good to miss.
They figure that at such a time, people have their guard down in their eagerness to substantiate rumours and half-truths. That has meant, for the legion of internet swindlers, this has been the ideal moment to trot out spam e-mails and throw up malicious websites to infect victims' computers.
As news of Michael Jackson's death was coming through, the scams started appearing almost instantaneously. As the days have passed, the guys behind these nefarious operations have stepped up their game.
"It might take them some time to really pounce on this issue. They are catching up pretty quickly, though."
Spam is the most common way for fraudsters to find victims after these types of events. The easiest way to lure people into the trap is to trick users to click on e-mail attachments so that the online crooks can infect computers and take command of them for more underhand activities.
Symantec says the spam about Mr Jackson gets more convincing every day. One message promises a YouTube video showing the exclusive "last work of Michael Jackson." Unfortunately all users get is a malicious programme that steals their passwords.
Another example is that of a promise to show the "latest unpublished photos" of the so-called Prince of Pop if people click on a link which actually installs a password-stealing programme on users' machines.
Dodgy solicitations are even coming in the guise of legitimate news organisations that seem like the real deal because they contain accurate enough information to persuade people to click on the link. Others promise access to secret songs.
In an e-mail I received from Websense Security Labs ThreatSeeker Network, they warned about spam e-mails offering recipients links to unpublished videos and pictures of the late pop star. All of course fabulously enticing to see in this frenzied atmosphere.
In some cases the spam may force a pop-up message asking users to update their copy of Adobe's Flash. This is seen as a standard hacker tactic notes ComputerWorld.com as a way to install spyware.
One of the newer scams that Sophos has noticed is a malware-free scam that tries to get people to send money to the bogus "Michael Jackson Organisation."
Symantec has drawn up a list of scams that will soon become commonplace as a result of Mr Jackson's surprise death and that of Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon.
These include things like spam with subject lines trying to peddle fake medicines, Twitter tweets about these deaths with links to all sorts of malicious websites and sites claiming to host videos of the last moments of these individuals lives. The purpose is to actually peddle fake goods or malware or even collect and validate live e-mail addresses to sell to the highest bidder for spamming.
The age old advice is to only visit sites you are familiar with and trust... yes, that would be the BBC. Added to that, the security community also recommends users do not click on every link that pops up related to the story, don't open e-mails from people you don't know and of course keep security solutions up to date.
In a blog, Sophos reckons naturally enough things will get worse before they get better.
"It is likely that more Michael Jackson-themed malware and spam is on its way however. It is advised that users be especially vigilant when they receive messages or links related to this news."
Such are the times we live in!
- 29 Jun 09, 15:57 GMT
If you thought the people behind the Pirate Bay were going to keep a low profile after losing that epic court battle over copyright, think again.
Their latest venture is called Video Bay, and after a period of reasonably private testing, they're now giving the wider world a glimpse of its workings.
And what they appear to be planning is a rival to YouTube, and one which will cause even more outrage to the film and music industries than did the original file-sharing site.
You can't get much of an idea about the plans for Video Bay yet - a message on the home page says:
"This site will be an experimental playground and as such subjected to both live and drunk (en)coding, so please don't bug us too much if the site ain't working properly."
But you can see that some video has already been uploaded, and much of it seems to be the kind of copyright material - music videos, TV episodes - which would instantly attract a warning notice and probably instant deletion if uploaded to YouTube.
Still, wasn't that exactly what YouTube looked like in its early days, before the takeover by Google and the multi-billion dollar lawsuits from media firms unhappy about the use of their content?
I put that point to a spokesman for Google, who insisted that the comparison did not hold water. He said that, right from the start, YouTube was run in accordance with the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the EU's e-commerce directive. So that meant that if content owners spotted their material on the site, they could contact YouTube and get it taken down sharpish.
But once Google took over, that was not enough to satisfy Viacom, which felt that a giant corporation ought to be able to police the site and deal with abuse of copyright.
And that forced Google to introduce what it calls its "Content ID" system, which automates the process of spotting copyright content the moment it is uploaded.
Media firms then have a choice - they can either have it deleted (like my classy video of Brentford v Exeter City), or choose to "monetise" it (as Cat Stevens record label did when I inadvertently used his music as a backing track).
Google says that media firms are mostly choosing the latter option: "they've gone from wanting to block it to seeing YouTube as a platform where they can make money," as the spokesman put it.
We can only speculate what Video Bay will look like when - and if - it is finally launched, but it seems possible that, unlike YouTube, it will allow users to upload more than 10 minutes of material at a time. That will allow the provision of episodes of TV series, or extended highlights of sports events - just the kind of material that content owners are most keen to protect.
But content owners claim they are now looking to work with new platforms rather than instantly reach for their lawyers - so will their attitude to Video Bay be more lenient than it was to YouTube in the early days?
Unlikely - unless the Pirate Bay folks are suddenly going to come over all law-abiding, agree to take down any copyright material, and police their site for anything that may contravene the rules.
Or perhaps the world's media industries will decide that Video Bay can be an exciting new advertising platform and work with the Swedes to develop it.
Anyone betting on either of those outcomes?
- 26 Jun 09, 15:55 GMT
So how big a web event was the death of Michael Jackson - and how did the internet cope with the strain?
There's a lot of hype around - and precious little hard information - but it's a fair bet that the global nature of his fame, and the sudden nature of his untimely death will have produced huge traffic around the world wide web to certain sites.
As Maggie Shiels reported earlier, the traffic was on such a scale that even Google News struggled to cope, and a number of sites - notably, TMZ which broke the story - were unavailable at times.
There are some statistics around - Hitwise tells me that Twitter had its biggest day ever yesterday, and it's virtually certain that the record will be broken again today. Websites like this one are seeing traffic far above normal levels, and our article on Michael Jackson's death could well end up as the most-read story in the history of the BBC News website by the end of the day.
But did the internet actually buckle? Well, there was some strain - but it seems to have come through well.
In the United States, a company called Keynote, which monitors internet performance, says popular news sites showed marked slowdowns for three hours from about 2230 BST: "The average speed for downloading news items doubled from less than four seconds to almost nine seconds," said Shawn White from Keynote. "During the same period, the average availability of sites dropped from almost 100% to 86%."
But guess what: in Europe overnight, there was no spike in internet traffic. Interoute, which operates Europe's largest fibre optic voice and data network, sent me graphs (see below) showing traffic through the three key internet exchanges in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and London. At all three exchanges, traffic was either around the same as normal overnight, or, in London's case, actually a little lower.
So what's going on? Well for one thing, the kind of people who were online late at night may well have decided to leave their computers and turn on the television for the breaking news. Then there's the fact that much of the increasing traffic across the internet in recent years has been in the form of web video, whereas news of Michael Jackson's death was spread through less bandwidth-heavy social networking and news sites.
Jonathan Brown of Interoute told me: "The 140 characters in a Twitter message doesn't really take up a lot of internet traffic. When you have something like Barack Obama's inauguration - a continuous streaming video coming from one destination which everyone is going to - then you really see a big spike in traffic."
So individual sites may have struggled for a while to cope with a big surge in traffic. But an internet which is gradually adapting to handle vast amounts of video did not come close to buckling.
- 25 Jun 09, 15:14 GMT
After nine years at the BBC, I've decided to say goodbye to Auntie and to "pursue other opportunities", as is sometimes said.
I've had three wonderful years running the technology section, interviewed some of the biggest names in the business and covered some of the best stories.
I leave dot.life in the capable hands of Rory Cellan-Jones and Maggie Shiels. And in the crack online tech team, they'll continue to write the day-to-day journalism because they recognise how important the subject area is.
As author Carl Sagan once said:
"We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology."
For those who want to stay in touch, you can find me on Twitter.
- 25 Jun 09, 14:45 GMT
Microsoft has just issued a press release and blog about the pricing of Windows 7 when it arrives on 22 October, which is so complex and so full of PR guff that I would have chucked it straight into my virtual bin, if I hadn't had a briefing from the company earlier today.
Luckily, during that telephone call with John Curran, Windows business lead, Microsoft UK, a story did emerge. And it's this - European consumers will be offered a browser-free Windows at a decent price to satisfy those fussy folks at the European Commission. The trouble is, that's unlikely to please either Brussels or consumers.
Microsoft is in the middle of another epic battle during its long war with the European Commission over the alleged abuse of its monopoly position. This time the issue is the bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows, the subject of complaints from rival browser makers.
Earlier this month Microsoft came up with a ploy it thought might satisfy the Commission, promising that Windows 7 would be released in Europe without any browser.
Today we learned that this would mean that European users who wanted to upgrade would have to install the full version - if they'd been offered the simpler upgrade, that would have simply imported their existing browser, almost certainly Internet Explorer, into their new setup.
But Microsoft says it's giving European users that full version for the same price that it would normally charge for an upgrade - £79.99 in the UK.
But here's the problem. You upgrade from XP or Vista to Windows 7, and then find you've got no browser. No problem, I hear you say, you just go and download one - say Firefox, or Chrome, or Safari or maybe Internet Explorer 8. Using your browser. Ahh...right.
Microsoft told me "we will have some answers" to this issue, but admitted there were "challenges and complexities" involved. But the company pointed out to me that the vast majority of Windows 7 users were likely to be people buying new computers, and the manufacturers were likely to pre-install a browser on those machines.
So what will the likes of Dell, Toshiba, HP or Lenovo choose to install? Internet Explorer 8, perhaps?
John Curran from Microsoft said the whole aim of the European version of Windows 7 was to make sure that the company was "in full compliance with EU law." I rang a man in Brussels to ask whether the European Commission was impressed by Microsoft's behaviour.
The sound of loud harrumphing came whistling down the line. "For them to claim they're doing this in order to comply with European law is just nonsense," he told me, although he used a slightly stronger term than nonsense.
He explained that Brussels had suggested an alternative approach, whereby consumers were offered a "ballot screen" when they first turned on a Windows 7 computer, allowing them to choose from a menu of different browsers.
And he pointed out that if the whole business ends up with Microsoft somehow persuading manufacturers to install Internet Explorer on their machines, then consumers will be no better off.
Microsoft believes it's offering European consumers a compelling product while satisfying the concerns of the regulators. But the next move will come from Brussels - and it looks likely that Microsoft will be ordered to offer not a browser-free Windows 7 but one with a full menu of choices.
- 25 Jun 09, 12:21 GMT
In the last few days, the media here in Silicon Valley could be forgiven for losing it a bit over Steve Jobs and the news about his liver transplant. The way information has been stalked down, you might think we've been covering some ailing head of state or member of a royal family.
The thing is that here, to some degree, that is just what Steve Jobs is.
You see, there are very few colourful characters to flip out over in this part of the world. There isn't really that much in the way of bad behaviour. The megalomaniacs tend to operate on the down-low. And the gods of geek are very different from those of rock that most emulate or admire.
Think about it for a second.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, keep such a low profile they are almost invisible. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, is like everyone's favourite uncle with a wicked glint in his eye. Facebook's Mark Zuckerburg also plays the inconspicuous card, along with the founders of Twitter, who are settling into a different stage of their lives - one with wives and babies and dogs and cats.
So why the obsession with Steve Jobs, who shuns the limelight and does not court publicity in any shape or form?
A big part has to do with how he has transformed Apple and its products into some of the most talked-about in the world. And, of course, there is the whole issue of his health five years after his battle with pancreatic cancer and what it means to the future of this publicly-traded company.
Mr Jobs appears to be a complete enigma. He doesn't give interviews; he is described as a genius and a visionary; he doesn't want to talk about the past and he only wants to focus on the future.
While Mr Jobs jealously guards his privacy and controls the flow of information regarding his own life, he is a star performer when he gets on stage at those Apple events touting the latest software upgrade or iPhone release. He does not come across as some tortured soul who prefers the company of bits and bytes. He seems really comfortable in his skin.
Over the last year, the amount of information that the Apple chief exec has allowed to be made public about his health has been minuscule. In the last few days, it has been like a torrent.
Timing, of course, is all. The cynics note that news of Mr Jobs' liver transplant coincided with the release of the new iPhone 3GS on a Friday, giving analysts plenty of time to absorb it so that, come Monday, the markets would not overreact.
As some started speculating about whether Mr Jobs had used his wealth and influence to leapfrog others to a transplant, he and his handlers moved quickly to nip that in the bud.
In a highly unusual move, the hospital went on the record and issued a statement about why Mr Jobs was selected: "whoever is on the top of the list, they're there because they're the sickest".
Not only that, the doctor who runs the transplantation unit at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis then met with local reporters to talk more about it.
We all know that had to have happened with the express approval of Mr Jobs himself, a move that certainly has everyone wondering what he is up to, given his previous attempts to stymie all conversation about his health.
Does this mark a new beginning? A turning point? Either way, this game of cat and mouse is not set to stop any time soon.
- 25 Jun 09, 11:22 GMT
We aim to serve on this blog, so when a reader of my last post asked for some thoughts on the interesting stand-off between Google and China over web censorship, I set to work.
Or rather, I got in touch with an old friend who knows far more about this subject than I do. Quentin Sommerville, formerly a business correspondent in London, is now the BBC's Beijing correspondent.
Not only has he lived in China for the last four years, he's a very tech-savvy guy, and has plenty of knowledge of the workings of the Great Firewall of China.
So I sent him some questions - and he gave me some very useful answers.
Quentin, what exactly is going on with Google in China right now?
"On Wednesday night, Google's international and Chinese websites were unavailable in many parts of China. Gmail disappeared too. Service has now been restored, at least in some places. China's internet watchdog says that Google promotes porn; the state broadcaster CCTV on 18 June broadcast a report saying something similar."
Just a minute: I thought that those "don't do evil" folks from Mountain View had done a deal a few years back which meant that they could go on operating in China in return for censoring certain search terms?
"They did. If you search Google China for anything political or naughty, you get the following message:
"'According to the local laws and policy, part of the search results are not shown'
"Chinese internet users are even prevented from searching for the names of their leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiaobao.
"Of course, there are plenty of Chinese search engines that link to porn. The suspicion among some internet users is that Google's rivals are using government connections to hobble their foreign competitor."
This is all part of a wider web crackdown in China, isn't it? What's this Green Dam carry-on all about?
"Ah, the Green Dam Youth Escort. It is net nanny software that has to be installed on every computer sold in China from 1 July. Beijing claims that the filter's primary aim is to block pornography, but it will also restrict access to sites that contain politically sensitive sites.
"The US says it might violate trade rules - in fact, everyone seems to hate it. Especially Chinese internet users. Even parts of the state media have come out against the software.
"The Green Dam appears to have been badly written, and parts of it may have been lifted from a rival US software filter. Those who have decoded it say that it will put computers at greater risk from hackers.
"Also, it works by looking for flesh tones as well as keywords, but has also been found to block sites which contain lots of the colour pink. I'm also reliably informed that it doesn't block pornography featuring dark-skinned performers."
Does this affect the way Chinese people can view bbc.com?
"BBC News in English is available in China, but our Chinese site remains blocked."
Now, I know that you, Quentin, are a fanatically heavy user of the web on every form of device - how are you finding surfing in China compared with in the UK?
"Despite the government's best efforts, the internet is a fairly vibrant place in China. Bloggers here often complain that we exaggerate the effect of the controls. Many users know how to circumvent the government's various firewalls and other blocks.
"Internet campaigns against cases of injustice or corruption are occurring more frequently, with some notable successes (perhaps that's why the government is so afraid).
"I find surfing okay here, although it drives me nuts when my iPhone automatically takes me to Google's Chinese site, rather than the international site - not much use for a journalist in China."
So there we are: some fascinating insights on the issue of web censorship in China. I find it always pays to go to an expert - and then pass off their knowledge as your own. So thanks, Quentin!
- 24 Jun 09, 15:53 GMT
A glitzy launch in a trendy Shoreditch location, with technology journalists flying in from all over the world - it sounds like the kind of event that Apple would lay on. But this was the unveiling of the phone that could - just could - provide a worthy challenger to the iPhone.
Yes, I know you've heard it all before - everyone from Blackberry to LG, from Samsung to Nokia - has stepped up to the plate with smart and shiny touchscreen devices which were going to prove that Apple's success in the smartphone stakes was a mere flash in the pan. And they've all failed to knock the iPhone from its perch because none has had its sheer usability.
But could the HTC Hero - the new device unveiled in Shoreditch - finally crack it?
The Taiwanese firm has a good track record in making smart devices, hitherto mainly on the Windows Mobile platform. But its phones have appealed mainly to techies rather than a wider market - a fact implicitly acknowledged in the launch presentation. They showed us a series of interviews with people on the streets talking about their mobiles - and a frequent comment was "phones have too many features made for techies."
So the Hero, a phone that takes Google's Android operating system and makes it even more user-friendly, is aimed fairly and squarely at non-techies. In the presentation there was hardly a mention of all those aspects the true geeks love to hear about - the 5 megapixel camera, the expandable memory, the AGPS - all of which are present on the phone.
Instead, the focus was on "putting people at the centre", allowing the user to personalise the device to the nth degree. So, for instance, you can have everything about one friend - their e-mails, their texts, their Facebook statues, their Flickr photos - all in one view. You can choose which applications - e-mail, music, weather - to make easily available, and which to hide, and you can have different settings for work, home, or holiday.
The look and feel of the phone was also a major theme, from the angled mouthpiece to a non-smudging touchscreen. It wasn't "hard and slippery" like some other phones, we were told, but soft to the touch, thanks to a Teflon coating. Now, in the few minutes I had to play with the Hero, I can't say that its non-slip coating was particularly exciting - but I was impressed by what I could see of the user-interface.
The iPhone has succeeded because it has made what were "geeky" things simple - from viewing a web page to trimming a video and sending it to YouTube. The Hero seems to have learned that lesson.
But Apple has also succeeded in the phone business because of its marketing strategy. It has one device, on one network, acompanied by one enormous marketing blitz, and when consumers hear the word "iPhone", they recognise that in a way they don't recognise the N96, the Omnia or the Viewty.
Here's where the HTC device may run into trouble. It's being offered across Europe by two networks, Orange and T-Mobile. Fine, as long as they unite around one marketing message. But when I returned to my desk from the launch, I found an e-mail from T-Mobile headlined "G1 Touch Joins T-Mobile Android Family." Puzzled, I rang to inquire whether this was yet another phone, but discovered that T-Mobile had decided to sell the Hero under its own brand, with no mention of HTC.
Convincing consumers that the Hero is more fun, fashionable and usable than the iPhone was never going to be an easy job. But giving it two different names is going to make that all the harder.
- 24 Jun 09, 08:31 GMT
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) is taking a leap into the digital age.
The organisers hope to act as a kind of one-stop shop for anyone interested in Jewish films and film-makers (see Four Short Films About Love and Not Another Jewish Movie), billing it the IMDb of Jewish film.
The festival's executive director Peter Stein told me:
"What we are trying to do is bring some of the essential aspects of what a film festival does in four walls to the online world. We are talking about offering not just great content, but also context and meaning and a sense of community, and migrating all of that to the online space."
This means, of course, podcasts, streaming media, educational materials and social networking opportunities - but the tool that the organisers really want to encourage people to use is the ubiquitous mobile phone. They want anyone who comes to the physical festival to keep their phone on in the theatre. Yep, I said "on".
Rather than sitting back and munching on the popcorn, the festival hopes that audience members will give instant feedback - and use VoIP technology to interview film-makers who can't be there in person.
"We want to create relationships between films and the audience over time. Relationships between people who are not in the same place at the same time," explained Mr Stein.
The project is being backed by a number of foundations, including that set up by film director Steven Speilberg, the Righteous Persons Foundation, and hopes to provide "a living archive and educational tool for Jewish history and film for future generations".
The SFJFF sees this as part of a broader trend of film festivals, film-making and educational content moving online and stakes a claim that "we are one of the first culturally-specific film festival organisations and the first Jewish organisation to do this".
- 23 Jun 09, 12:00 GMT
Last week, to the bemusement and slight irritation of my producer, I said on camera as I filmed a piece about smartphones on the Isle of Wight ferry that I was doing the story there "for reasons too complicated to explain."
Well, the reason was that my real purpose for heading to the Isle of Wight was that I was on a mission to meet the house that tweets and learn more about an "internet of things". Complicated enough?
The house in question is an idyllic 16th century thatched cottage, just a 10-minute walk from the beach on the south coast of the Isle of Wight. It belongs to Andy Stanford-Clarke, who revels in the wonderful title of "distinguished engineer and master inventor" at IBM.
He's also a man who brings his work home in the form of all sorts of projects to link his house to the outside world and monitor its activities, using the messaging software that is his key professional interest.
A while ago, he installed sensors on various objects around the house - the electricity meter, a bathroom window, some outside lights, even a mousetrap - and then channeled information from them via GPRS to a dashboard on his mobile phone, allowing him both to monitor energy usage, or even to change it by, say, switching off those outside lights.
But now he has gone a whole stage further by signing the house up to Twitter. (Its account is andy_house, but you can only follow it if Andy lets you.)
The messages from those sensors now appear as "tweets". Here are a few recent ones:
"bathroom heater turned on"
"400 litres of water used so far today"
"gym temperature is cold"
"security system: door open"
So Andy can now follow exactly what his house is doing, in the same way as he might monitor the activities of Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, or any other of the millions of Twitterers - and who is to say whether it is any more or less interesting than them? At least he can be sure that it really is his house sending out the tweets, rather than a PR person.
But this Isle of Wight home isn't the only object communicating with the internet in this way:
• The Red Funnel ferry which brought me to the Isle of Wight also has a Twitter account(@Red_Ferries" 06:01 - Red Eagle is leaving Southampton")
• Tower Bridge lets the world know as it opens and closes (@towerbridge: "I am closing after the MV Dixie Queen has passed downstream")
• The giant Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank tells us where it is pointing (@LovellTelescope:"Obs: space (10:57:01.634 +56:13:57)")
• And there is even a New York house plant with a Twitter account to communicate its needs(@pothos "URGENT! Water me!").
According to Andy Stanford-Clark, this is the beginning of what he calls "an internet of things". "It's a world where little devices, thousands, millions, trillions even, will be connected to the internet," he explained.
"They will each be telling us about one little piece of data that they know about and by mining that sea of data we can know more about the world that we're in."
As wireless technology becomes cheaper and better there is no reason why every item in a shop, every building, every vehicle should not be online - not necessarily through Twitter but on any other web service that comes along.
Andy says there are big implications for businesses - retailers for instance, keeping track of fresh food:
"Think of all those RFID tags - already 1.3 billion of them, enabling retailers to track where their goods are in the increasingly sophisticated and just-in-time supply chains. Some of these tags tell you if chilled food was warmed up in transit, so you can reject spoiled food before it reaches the shelves and the consumers."
But for all this to happen, he says three ingredients have to come together - instruments to measure what devices are doing, connections to the internet and other devices, and intelligence to make sense of the sea of data. It's what he calls the three "I"s: instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee has spent many years talking about a machine-readable web, and it looks as though the machines - that is, computers - may well end up "reading" about the activities of other machines.
I sat musing on this at my kitchen table, wondering whether it might soon be instant messaging my sofa. Obviously not - but why, some time in the near future, should my lawn not be able to send out a Tweet asking the garden hose for some water?
I put that question to Andy Stanford-Clark, and he could see no reason why that would not work. Whether we want our machines talking to each other is of course quite a different matter.
- 19 Jun 09, 08:59 GMT
Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. We've all heard about the cyber-battle between the Iranian government and opposition protestors, with a flood of information coming from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sources, despite the efforts of the authorities to block web access. But this image - in a blog by the security firm Arbor Networks - really tells the story of the Iranian regime's strategy:
Arbor collects and analyses internet traffic data from 100 ISPs around the world. This graphic shows internet traffic to Iran - and you can see what happened at 1330 GMT on Saturday, the day after the election. The state-owned telecoms company simply pulled the plug, halting all internet communication with the outside world. Then, over the following days, traffic was gradually allowed through again, albeit at a much reduced level.
I spoke to Craig Labovitz of Arbor Networks, in whose blog this graphic appeared, and he had an interesting interpretation of what was going on. Why, for instance, had Iran not simply kept the tap turned off? Craig believes the authorities were buying time to install the filtering tools they needed to have a functioning internet infrastructure, but one over which they had some measure of control. So he reckons they gradually turned the tap back on as they put the filters in.
We talked about two very different countries that have also attempted to control the web; Burma and China.
"Burma in 2008 wasn't very delicate," he explained, referring to the regime's reaction to large-scale unrest. "They simply turned it all off, so there was six weeks without a phone call or an e-mail."
China, by contrast, has a very sophisticated filtering infrastructure, allowing for a completely open interchange of traffic with overseas trading partners, while maintaining strict control over access to forbidden sites and search terms.
Iran seems to be somewhere between the two. As a reasonably sophisticated economy with plenty of trade, it cannot afford simply to cut off links with the outside world, but it hasn't developed the skills of those who built the Great Firewall of China. "Iran is struggling with its strategy," says Craig Labovits,"and the traffic flows show that struggle."
The government is also struggling to compete with an opposition that call on the skills of one of the world's most vibrant blogging communities and plenty of tech-savvy folks.
Once you have begun to infuse your society and your economy with the chaotic and open spirit of the web, it's hard to return to an age where the state can tell you what to think. Hard, but as China shows, not impossible.
- 17 Jun 09, 18:00 GMT
For the last week I've been trying out two very smart new phones and concluding that this is the year the mobile web revolution really comes of age - for those that can afford it.
The phones will be seen as the rivals in a heavyweight contest for the affections of consumers who demand an awful lot from their mobiles. One is the iPhone 3GS, the phone Apple hopes can build on the momentum generated by the success of the iPhone 3G.
The other is the N97, Nokia's latest N-Series device, which the Finnish giant of the mobile world believes can put its upstart rival from Cupertino in its place.
I needed help in this task - it's hard to give two phones a real-life test at the same time, when one of them will not have your usual number in it, so won't be used in anger. So I enlisted my producer Jonathan Sumberg. I told him that the N97 was supposed to be a smartphone that was idiot-proof - and he was the man to test that. But I also knew he was both a long-term Nokia user, and someone who saw little point in using the web on a mobile - so would this phone change his view? Here are his thoughts:
"Test driving this Nokia phone was a bit like working with Rory. It's a cliché, but it really was love hate.
I have always been a Nokia man, and while I have an Apple at home for a computer, I have never bought into the must-have-iPhone crowd. Every mobile I have ever owned has been a Nokia, so obviously I was excited about this one.
The touch screen took a few days to get used to, but after a while, I loved it. Better than the other touch screen I've tried, the Samsung Tocco, and with a really useful home page you can personalise to reduce the endless button pressing.
The keyboard LOOKS cool, but I am not sure who would actually use it for texting. I can tell my wife to 'put the oven on as I am leaving work' faster as a predictive text than one I would type out letter by letter.
The voice control worked well, most of the time. But I don't know why people would use it though - the thought of hearing "no match found" again fills me with horror. Frankly, if I want to call my wife or set an alarm or view the calendar, I'd rather press a few buttons.
The internet also worked well, and I was able to read up all the tech news on the BBC website. It was clear and I could zoom into the pages very easily.
Then I went to the Nokia Apps store, Ovi. Sadly this part of the test drive was the most frustrating. Having seen a little of the iPhone apps store, I knew Nokia had a lot to live up to. It took an age to register, and after an hour of trying to download a free Darth Vader ring tone, I gave up. Too many error messages.
It's at this moment, when frustration levels can go no higher, that I see myself telling Rory why I view my phone as just a device to call and text, nothing more. I know this makes me sound like a dinosaur, but if I want the web, I can use a computer, if I want my music, I can use an iPod.
Because I was frustrated, I didn't try to buy any music - I did however attempt to listen to some songs before I bought. As an iTunes user, I assumed Nokia would make this easy too. Nope. Again, after 20 minutes of trying to preview a Beyonce song, I gave up.
Quite a few negatives there, so you might be surprised to read that when Rory called me to part with the phone, I was rather reluctant. I loved the camera, I loved the touch screen, and I loved how much easier it was than the phone it replaces, the N96.
At first sight, the new iPhone looks identical to the old one - which is not a bad thing as the device crafted by Apple's Jonathan Ive is already regarded as a design classic.
There are some hardware differences, but it's a case of evolution not revolution. The key aspect, according to Apple is speed - that's what the "S" in "3GS" represents. And the phone does seem much faster when it comes to launching applications and loading web pages.
The other big change is aimed at improving the iPhone's weakest aspect, its camera. It's had a modest increase in megapixels from 2mp to 3mp - but it now includes autofocus, and a clever touch screen widget which enables you to choose just where to focus. While this leaves it still some way behind the N97's 5mp camera with its Carl Zeiss lens and flash, the iPhone now takes a surprisingly good picture.
And - at long last - it now has video capture too. This launches swiftly, takes perfectly acceptable moving pictures, and has one of those classic Apple touches, a very simple editing interface which allows you to top and tail your video clip and send it to YouTube.
However poor the iPhone's original camera, it was so easy to use that its pictures were far more likely to be uploaded onto the photo-sharing site Flickr than those from any other camera - the Nokia N95 came a very distant second. Expect the same thing to happen now with iPhone videos on YouTube.
I'm not so sure about two other innovations - the Voice Control feature and the inbuilt compass. At first sight - or sound - Voice Control is a brilliant party trick. You say to the phone "Play songs by The Killers", and a few seconds later out comes "Mr Brightside". But the more I tried it, the worse it seemed to get. "Play songs by U2" resulted in the phone trying to call Motorcyle News, and attempts to make calls or control the music went completely haywire. As for the compass, it may well help you find whther you're walking south or north, but it's hardly going to change your life .
But the real difference is not in the hardware but in the new 3.0 version of the iPhone's software. This fixes a number of long-standing grumbles from the phone's users - the lack of MMS messaging, the challenge of finding an old e-mail or a contact without a decent search function, and the absence of cut-and-paste, which made writing anything long a real pain.
The software also allows you to use your phone as an external broadband modem for any computer - though it will cost you £15 per month for 3gb.
The sheer usability of the iPhone has always been its main selling point, and it's now even more simple to operate. But of course all of these new software functions are available to exisiting iPhone users, without paying the hefty bill for a new phone.
So two phones which will probably appeal to existing fans of each brand. Whether either will prove a real game-changer is open to doubt. The iPhone isn't quite different enough from its earlier versions to win over a whole new crowd - and the N97 doesn't quite have the wow factor needed by a must-have gadget.
By the way, you may notice that the video which accompanies this piece features just one tester, myself. Letting the producer creep onto screen is always a bad idea - but he has edited the video and I hope you'll agree he's done a very nice job.
Update 1512, 18 June: A couple of points have been raised about this post, in comments and in messages to me.
Some people are asking why we didn't compare other phones, notably the Palm Pre and the new Android phone from HTC. Well, this was never meant to be a comprehensive review of the smartphone scene - just a look at the two phones coming out in the UK this week.
The Palm Pre might have made for a good comparison - except for the fact that it hasn't launched in the UK and we have no idea when that might happen.
The other criticism is that I failed to see what a breakthrough the compass on the IPhone will prove to be.
Now, it's true that the compass is more about telling the phone where it is rather than the user. That enables the kind of application now appearing on Android phones which enables them to "look" at a scene through the camera and overlay information.
This development, "augmented reality" as it is known, is getting many people in the mobile industry very excited. But remember when 3G launched and you were told that video calls would be the "killer app"? I'm still not sure that the compass will change the world, but maybe I should not have been quite so dismissive.
- 16 Jun 09, 19:35 GMT
This morning, as he visited the Crystal Palace digital television transmitter, the Prime Minister made an extraordinary promise. Just hours before the publication of Digital Britain, he said this:
"Britain's going to lead the world. This is us taking the next step into the future, being the digital capital of the world, making the necessary investment."Make no mistake - that is a hugely ambitious statement - a bit like the manager of Manchester City promising that his team will win the Champions' League within the next couple of years.
International comparisons of broadband speeds are pretty difficult - nobody seems to collect reliable data - but to be top of the league you have to compete with the likes of South Korea and Japan, where many householders have come to think that 100Mbps is just about the least they can expect from their internet connection.
So surely Lord Carter would have to pull a rabbit out of the hat in his long-awaited report - after all, the 2Mbps minimum service level that we've been hearing about for months was never going to make Britain the "digital capital of the world"?
Well there was a rabbit, in the form of a levy on every landline to help pay for next-generation broadband.
The government knows that BT and Virgin may well end up bringing fibre connections to as much as two-thirds of the country - though mostly fibre-to-the-cabinet rather than right to the home - but they won't reach the final third because their investors just won't foot the huge bill.
That's where the landline levy comes in. But, at £6 a year on every phone, this new tax is not going to be a huge moneyspinner - it'll raise between £150 and £175m a year, according to the department for business.
I put in a quick call to the Broadband Stakeholders' Group, which calculated last year that taking fibre to every corner of Britain would cost as much as £27bn. Perhaps unsurprisingly this industry lobby group was determined to be positive, insisting that this cash would make a real contribution to keeping Britain in the fast lane.
That may well be the case - but will we lead the world? Look at Australia, where the government promised in April to invest over £20bn to build a fibre-to-the-home network reaching 90% of households. That plan makes Lord Carter's look very unambitious.
Now given the state of the public finances, the UK government was in no position to promise a multi-billion pound investment - and even a £6 tax on the phone bill may not prove too popular.
Still, over the next decade, as much as £1.5bn in extra funding will go towards giving Britain faster broadband. Will that make us a world-champion? Possibly. But, as Manchester City have found, you can spend an awful lot of cash these days and still struggle to reach the top of the league.
- 15 Jun 09, 12:00 GMT
For the past few weeks, the war of words between the creative industries and the internet service providers has become ever more bruising, as Lord Carter's Digital Britain report nears completion.
The music and video companies have demanded that the ISPs take strong action against illegal file-sharers, but they've responded by saying that they don't want to be internet cops, and that anyway beating piracy is a hopeless mission.
But today, there's a sudden outbreak of peace between two of the parties - Universal Music and Virgin Media. The ISP has unveiled a deal where its customers will get unlimited access to download as much music as they want from the Universal catalogue, free of copyright protection, for a monthly fee.
When I was called about this by a PR person, my first reaction was that this was interesting, but far from ground-breaking. After all, there are other "all you can eat" music subscription services.
Then I read further down the press release and found what Virgin was offering in return - action against persistent file-sharers. Here's the key paragraph:
"This will involve implementing a range of different strategies to educate file sharers about online piracy and to raise awareness of legal alternatives. They include, as a last resort for persistent offenders, a temporary suspension of internet access. No customers will be permanently disconnected and the process will not depend on network monitoring or interception of customer traffic by Virgin Media."
That sounds like the "technical measures" that the creative industries want included in the Digital Britain report, as a backup to the despatch of warning letters. But by promising "a temporary suspension of internet access" for persistent offenders, Virgin appears to have gone further than any other ISP in acceding to the demands of the music industry.
What isn't clear is just how they will identify candidates for suspension without network monitoring or interception of customer traffic. How will they know what customers are up to, or whether the files they are sharing are copyrighted, if they don't have a close look at their traffic?
These are questions that I'm about to put to the boss of Virgin Media, Neil Berkett. I'll keep you posted. But, as things stand, it does look as though someone has blinked in the war over piracy.
Update 1503: Having just met this deal's two protagonists, I think I'm a little clearer about what this is about.
Lucian Grainge, the chairman of Universal Music Group International, and Virgin Media's chief executive Neil Berkett were both keen to stress the "carrot" in the deal rather than the stick. They insisted that this kind of unlimited deal was just what customers had been demanding.
"We're giving them what they want," said Neil Berkett, "they will change their behviour."
"We've listened to consumers, we've listened to our artists, this is a real game-changer, we hope," said Lucian Grainge.
But when it came to the stick, Mr Berkett was very keen to play down the steps that would be used against file-sharers: "Yes, there are measures - no different really from what we are already doing; we're using the same technology as all ISPs."
As far as I understand, this means that it would still be Universal spotting the persistent file-sharers linked to Virgin's IP addresses. But Virgin will then get in touch with the customers, with a graduated response, which would culminate in "temporary suspension" of the user's broadband service if he or she failed to respond.
Virgin and Universal seem confident that the whole initiative will have a major effect on attitudes to illegal downloads, even suggesting that it will help achieve the government's target of cutting illegal file-sharing by 70%.
But there are a whole lot of questions still to be answered. Will other music labels come on board before the service's launch, which is due "before Christmas"? How much will the monthly subscription cost?
Will people who've grown used to "free" music from file-sharing really be happy to start paying even a modest fee? And is there a danger that some Virgin broadband customers will be so put off by the company's measures against file-sharers, however limited those might be, that they will choose to move to another ISP?
- 12 Jun 09, 10:07 GMT
When I heard Gordon Brown reveal the name of his latest celebrity appointment in the Commons, I was intrigued. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, now charged with helping free up government data for all to use, is not a political animal. Had the founding father of the web realised, 3,000 miles away in Boston where he is based, that he risked becoming embroiled in Westminster politics? After all, it took only a few hours for Sir Alan Sugar to come under attack after his appointment as the government's Competitiveness Czar.
But when I got hold of Sir Tim on the phone yesterday, he was adamant that this was not some party political job, but part of a grand global mission. He pointed me towards a speech he'd made at the TED conference in California about the issue, where he stressed the importance of setting free all sorts of public data, part of his continuing efforts to reframe the web as a tool for interpreting numbers as well as words.
"I had the audience chanting 'raw data now'!" he said. I listened back to that talk and yes, Sir Tim did manage to set a chant echoing through the crowd, though even a roomful of Californians had to be jollied along before playing ball.
The unworldly scientist became a lot more circumspect when I asked him for concrete examples of the kind of data that might be released, sidestepping my question about putting MPs' expenses online.
He was also unwilling to concede that the UK might have a poor record of releasing data so far. He produced an anecdote about the Department of Transport putting out data about bike accidents, which was swiftly transformed by an outsider into a map, and said he saw some enthusiasm within government which he would encourage: "It hasn't been clear how to do it, exactly what format to put it out in, how to index it and keep track of it."
Sir Tim encouraged bloggers to come up with ideas for the kind of data they would like to see made available. He may soon find himself swamped with suggestions, and then he will have to tackle the Whitehall bureaucracy, and some thorny questions about privacy, security and the commercial value of some public data. What, for instance, will be his line to the Ordnance Survey, which has clashed with "free our data" campaigners over its wish to continue making money from its mapping data, rather than simply putting it out there for anyone to exploit?
Now some cynics might suggest that the government needs no lessons in releasing valuable data into the wild, after all those stories of missing laptops, lost discs and USB sticks. But will the cry "raw data now" resound through the civil service, with Sir Tim leading a chanting crowd of bureaucrats through Whitehall? "We'll see - listen carefully!" was the web creator's advice. But I fear he may be in for a bruising few months, as he tries to convince Sir Humphrey et al to let it all hang out.
Still, we've at least taken his message onboard. I've posted our entire phone interview here, apart from the bit where I asked Sir Tim what he had for breakfast to check sound levels. Our little contribution to freeing up public data.
- 10 Jun 09, 15:21 GMT
A quick update to our story last week on the throttling back of the iPlayer at peak times by BT. You may remember that BT suggested there was a real issue for the BBC to address when it came to managing iPlayer traffic. But now the company has made a far more explicit call for the BBC to stump up some cash.
Just before I was due to discuss the whole issue on Radio 4's You and Yours, the programme received an e-mail from BT, with details of their position.
The e-mail talked about the huge costs of bandwidth to deliver iPlayer programmes, and said that Internet Service Providers could not be expected to pay for everything in a highly competitive broadband market.
It also said that the BBC and other content owners "can't expect to continue to get a free ride". They would need to make a fair contribution to the cost of delivering online video and other content.
BT also pointed out that Lord Carter's Digital Britain review next week will call for broadband for all at high speeds and low prices - and said making that happen would involve content owners paying their fair share.
Now while other ISPs have grumbled about the impact of the iPlayer on their costs, I could not remember BT ever making such an forthright call for cash. And when I called the company, a spokesman made it clear that this was a new stance, and BT was happy for the world to know about it.
This comes in the context of negotiations between the BBC and ISPs, and obviously both sides are manoeuvring in advance of the Carter report. So far the whole issue of net neutrality - the idea that the internet should not discriminate between different types of traffic - has not made much of an impact in Britain.
Now Britain's biggest internet service provider is making it clear that, in a cut-throat broadband market, something is going to have to give - and net neutrality may have to be chucked overboard.
- 9 Jun 09, 10:40 GMT
As ever, there was huge excitement amongst Apple's loyal fanbase (does any other commercial business have fans not consumers?) as news emerged last night of a new iPhone.
But, in the UK at least, the excitement has swiftly turned to anger over the sheer, eye-watering expense of owning the iPhone 3GS. So are O2 and Apple in danger of alienating existing iPhone users while doing nothing to attract new customers?
Contrary to expectations, O2 has retained its exclusivity over the iPhone but it looks as though that was at a price, and one that is now being passed on to consumers.
If you sign up to an 18-month contract for the new phone, at £34.26 a month, you'll still pay £184.98 for the 16gb version or £274.23 for the 32gb handset. Is there another phone that will cost you that much when you sign up to a chunky contract?
It's the early adopters, those who bought the original iPhone and then upgraded to the 3G version, who are really spitting tacks. They somehow thought they were special, and, just as last time, would be offered a deal to make upgrading to the 3GS affordable. But no. The only way they can upgrade is to buy out the remainder of their contracts and start again - which would be massively expensive.
O2 indicated to me that it was slightly unrealistic to expect the firm just to write off the big subsidy they'd already enjoyed on the 3G version - but some dedicated fans are already starting online petitions to complain about the cost of an upgrade.
But if the loyalty of the fanbase is being tested surely there's something to woo new users to the iPhone? Not in the UK. While there is a price cut in the US for the old iPhone 3G, that isn't the case here.
It'll still cost £96.89 on an 18-month contract - and I can't see cash-strapped young phone fans rushing to buy something that can't even claim to be the latest hot phone.
O2 was keen to point out that the 3G iPhone was now free on a 24-month contract - but are many people really willing to tie themselves in for that long?
Now Apple and O2 have never pretended that the iPhone is anything other than a premium product with a premium price and so far that strategy has proved remarkably successful.
One retailer told me this morning that people would still be queuing round the block when the new model goes on sale on 19 June. I'm not so sure. Those queues are usually made up of long-term Apple fanatics - but even they may not be willing to pay the huge price needed to become a 3GS early adopter.
- 9 Jun 09, 09:15 GMT
The World Wide Developers Conference is a marquee event for Apple, at which the company usually tries to build plenty of buzz and then knock one out of the park with a big product announcement.
That headline-grabbing moment failed to materialise this year; in all honesty, the two-hour event was, well, a bit boring.
A stream of execs trotted out a series of hardware and software improvements; as one analyst told me, these were just "iterative improvements...and far from earth shattering".
Sure, there were some cheers and applause for price reductions on Macs and on Snow Leopard. And of course, the hundred-buck saving on the iPhone 3G caused a bit of excitement but there was really nothing that set the heather on fire.
Even when Apple's head of marketing, Phil Shiller, came to the big "a-ha" moment and announced the new iPhone 3GS, it was with little fanfare. None of the famous set-up used by Steve Jobs to great effect when he utters the words "one last thing."
I was third row from the front, squeezed in with a bunch of serious snappers with their souped-up cameras - but, throughout the keynote, many of them seemed to find it hard to let their shutters fly.
The event just seem to lack energy and sizzle. Rather unusually, there were some technical glitches that many might associate more with Microsoft than Apple.
When software boss Scott Forstall donned a white lab coat to blow up a balloon, the necessary hot air did not happen. It was all part of a stunt to illustrate an app aimed at making science more fun and interactive for kids. Pasco's Wayne Grant handed the affair with aplomb.
Don't get me wrong: the Apple crew did a fine and professional job, but it did seem as though they were placeholders - as though the series of announcements was a precursor for something that might excite later in the year when Mr Jobs gets back in the driving seat.
And while there was little chance that he was ever really going to put in an eleventh hour appearance here, many attendees I spoke to are looking forward to his return. Not because they believe that anyone has done a poor job in Mr Jobs's absence, but simply because he is just one of those guys who manages to add some fizz to proceedings and shake up the apple cart.
Interestingly enough, some findings released by the website Glassdoor give a bit of an insight into the last few months at Apple. The site allows users to write anonymously about life within their company and to blow off some steam.
While Glassdoor says Steve Jobs earns a 91% approval rating as a boss, the culture he has nurtured falls flat.
Some recent comments from hardware and software engineers reveal the pressure they are under to stay ahead of the field.
"Great company but long hours," wrote one senior hardware engineer; another said: "Apple is very secretive. Schedules are tough and change a lot. Releases, and crunch-time seems omni-present."
Another proffered a suggestion to bosses by writing "value your employees more, try to keep them from getting burned out. They are not always replaceable."
This is advice that Mr Jobs might be willing to heed now more than ever, given his own situation.
- 8 Jun 09, 15:56 GMT
In the battle between the music and movie industries and the file-sharers, have we seen a swing to what you might call the Pirate Party? Well yes we have, quite literally, in the case of Sweden, where one member of that country's Pirate Party was elected to the European Parliament.
Sweden is of course the home of the Pirate Bay, the file-sharing website which lost an epic court battle a while back. It's also the base of Spotify, the legal music service some see as the best response yet to file-sharing, and it's a place where the battle over the rights and wrongs of the whole issue has raged with particular intensity.
So fiercely, that it has even led to the foundation of a political party. The Pirate Party's mission is to reform copyright law and fight for citizens' rights to privacy. Here's an extract from their website explaining their vision:
"All non-commercial copying and use should be completely free. File sharing and p2p networking should be encouraged rather than criminalized. Culture and knowledge are good things, that increase in value the more they are shared. The Internet could become the greatest public library ever created. The monopoly for the copyright holder to exploit an aesthetic work commercially should be limited to five years after publication."
This is the kind of stuff that sends a shiver down the spine of music industry bosses, after a string of notable victories in their battle to defend copyright. As well as winning the Pirate Bay case, they've seen the French government push through a "three strikes and you're out" policy against file-sharers, and they've won a battle in Europe to extend copyright for performers from fifty to seventy years.
Now there's the prospect of a party in Strasbourg arguing for what sounds like the abolition of copyright - after all even its five year limit on commercial exploitation may be meaningless in a world where file-sharing is legalised. The music firms will point out that just 7% of Swedish voters backed the Pirate Party - but it's interesting that a single issue party has shown that something as complex as the debate over file-sharing can mobilise voters.
We in Britain are gearing up for a similar debate when the government's Digital Britain report is published next week. The creative industries have been arguing for tough action to force ISPs to act against file-sharers, and the ISPs have been lobbying furiously to make sure that doesn't happen.
We don't have a Pirate Party here - but if we did would Charles Dunstone be its leader? The boss of Carphone Warehouse has been repeating the warnings he gave us a few weeks ago about the hopelessness of battling online piracy - and has gone as far as to say that the pirates will always win.
It is clear, both from survey evidence and from the comments that we receive on this blog, that many people just don't see illegal file-sharing as a crime, however hard the media industries try to persuade the public that it's just as bad as shoplifting.
And there was just a hint last week that the government may be more inclined to listen to Mr Dunstone than to the media industry bosses who've been demanding action. Last week, the then culture secretary Andy Burnham - now replaced by Ben Bradshaw - indicated that Digital Britain would not be about forcing ISPs to cut off file-sharers, with the government preferring a consensual approach.
The copyright issue has yet to become as hot a political potato in the UK as it is in Sweden, but politicians here will be be wondering who they need to appease most, the media barons or the seven million people who indulge in illegal downloading. Don't be surprised if there's a swing to the pirates here too.
- 5 Jun 09, 09:48 GMT
The Antichrist of Silicon Valley has been in London this week.
At least, that's the title that Andrew Keen, a strident critic of web utopianism, revels in. Mr Keen is a British-born entrepreneur who made his fortune in Silicon Valley and then decided, with all the zeal of a reformed smoker or lapsed Catholic, that everything the web 2.0 evangelists stood for was evil. What really gets his goat is the idea that the web liberates everyone to become a journalist, film-maker, musician - or encyclopedia author - thereby devaluing the work of professionals.
His book The Cult Of The Amateur is an enjoyable rant against web orthodoxy which sometimes descends into bathos as he describes how seasoned professionals are being put out of work by amateurs with a YouTube account or a penchant for editing Wikipedia entries. It would take a heart of stone, for instance, not to weep for the advertising professionals whose careers he sees threatened by kids making viral ads with a handycam and sticking them on YouTube.
At a dinner in London, Andrew Keen challenged an assembly of web worthies - entrepreneurs, thinkers, even a few grubby technology journalists - to explain why they were so enamoured of the amateurs. Why, he wanted to know, was there such reverence for the citizen journalists and bloggers and musicians who were eating our lunch? He seemed particularly offended by Wikipedia, expressing incredulity at the idea that the whole project depended on people who worked for nothing.
But whether or not you agree with Mr Keen's analysis that "Web 2.0" is a threat to our culture, his analysis is now beginning to look a little dated. Amateur hour on the web may be drawing to a close. True, new technology is lowering the barrier to entry in all sorts of professions. In my own business, journalism, it's never been easier or cheaper to write, record and film reports for the world to share.
I was asked this week by the BBC's School Report website to give my top ten tips for aspiring young technology journalists, and was keen to stress that it was very easy these days for anyone to get involved without first being part of a mainstream media organisation.
But what is now becoming clear is that it's much harder for amateurs to get an audience. Who, for instance, are the most successful bloggers? Well, many of them are actually old-fashioned professional journalists working for mainstream media organisations which pay them to blog.
And whatever we were told a couple of years back about unsigned bands making it big on MySpace and new film-makers breaking into the big time on YouTube, I've yet to spot the new band or movie which has made a major impact without the help of a record label or a studio. The professionals have woken up to the power of Web 2.0 - and are moving in to colonise it.
There was a long discussion at the dinner with Andrew Keen about the difference between an amateur and a professional, but to me it seems pretty obvious - professionals get paid, amateurs do it for love.
That's not to say that people in all walks of life - writers, musicians, politicians, perhaps even bankers - don't start off driven by creative or idealistic passions rather than by the need to make a living. But many of the amateurs will either fade away, discouraged by their failure to command an audience, or will turn professional.
Certainly, many of the Web 2.0 companies - from Facebook to YouTube to Twitter - seemingly started off with hardly a thought as to how they might profit from their activities. Now harsh economic times are forcing them to look down at the bottom line rather than up at the stars.
Andrew Keen may be right that we have an excessively romantic view of the amateur. But he shouldn't worry too much. His success is proof that there is still a good living to be made as a professional writer and provocateur.
- 5 Jun 09, 09:34 GMT
Yes, dear readers, it's that time of year again: rumours abound about what Apple will or will not do as Monday's World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco approaches.
As usual, the company is tight-lipped - which, as always, just adds to the frenzy. That, of course, is the way they like it and the way we always play it. At least we all have our roles down pat!
Unsurprisingly, this year's rumours centre on the iPhone, which has sold around 21 million handsets in its roughly two-and-a-half short years.
Let's not forget that it still ranks third behind Nokia and Research in Motion's BlackBerry. And let's throw in the unknown factor of the Palm Pre, which launches in the States this weekend and which some industry watchers have touted as a serious challenger to Apple.
Rumoured iPhone features include better battery life, a video camera, memory upgrades, a speedier processor and a digital compass. There has also been talk of a cheaper handset, selling at around $99-$149.
The previously-announced improvements to the operating system via a software upgrade should be rolled out, adding in-app commerce, live streaming and the ability to cut and paste. There will also be some new numbers on the app store - which, earlier in the year, passed the one billion download mark. But does all this really set the heather on fire?
Well, it would if "you know who" were doing the honours from centre stage. Apple's founder and CEO Steve Jobs has been on sick leave since the beginning of the year and is due back at his desk at the end of the month.
Naturally, the "will he / won't he" question of Mr Jobs making an appearance at the WWDC comes down to a fact that nobody really knows, except for the chosen few and his nibs.
The BBC will be there to report on whether or not the rumour mill got it right this time and whether Apple pulls out its famous "one last thing" to wow the crowd.
- 3 Jun 09, 16:09 GMT
A few weeks back the controversial web-tracking behavioural advertising firm Phorm got in touch to invite me to a press launch.
The company promised a "new and groundbreaking consumer proposition." I was intrigued - was a company which had fought without success to get ISPs to accept its Webwise product, against a background of furious opposition from privacy campaigners, finally going to get it off the ground?
So I turned up this morning to Phorm's launch at a ritzy Covent Garden location full of anticipation. On the face of it, the product they were showing off seemed reasonably impressive.
Webwise Discover is described as a "widget" which will allow visitors to any website to find content relating to their interests, as shown by their previous web activity. It will be free to the customers of ISPs who sign up, and to websites which want to use it.
So you might go to a newspaper website to read a sports story, and find that you were also directed to a story about wine, because you'd shown a previous interest in the subject. The product seems to be a kind of automated version of Google, delivering results as you browse even before you've bothered to search.
Now Phorm has been controversial for two reasons - the "deep packet inspection" technology which privacy campaigners claim makes the firm uniquely intrusive, and the fact that it isn't clear whether consumers will be allowed to make an informed choice about whether they want to use the service.
The same technology will be employed in Webwise Discover, but Phorm says this will be a purely optional service, offered to customers only if they want it. The company showed us a video of "vox pops" with people on the street, all hugely enthusiastic about the possibility of using this service.
They also unveiled an opinion poll showing 71% of those questioned liked Discover, and 81% liked it when the Webwise anti-phishing product was added on. Phorm executives told us these were almost unprecedented levels of support - even higher than that for the BBC iPlayer at its launch.
So finally the British public is going to get the chance to decide whether or not they want the benefits of having their web traffic monitored, and Phorm will be able to show those pesky privacy campaigners that they were wrong. Err, no.
It turns out that not a single UK ISP or website has yet signed up to Webwise Discover - though it is being trialled by a major telecoms firm in South Korea - and Phorm could give no timetable for a UK launch.
When I suggested that after seven years of R&D, a company that was still by its own description in the "pre-revenue" stage had got us all along to launch the equivalent of a concept car, the Phorm executives seemed hurt. Here they were creating a technology company with global reach, entering one of the world's most advanced internet markets - we should all be proud, rather than carp!
BT, potentially Phorm's biggest customer, completed its trial of Webwise last December, and tells me it is still "evaluating" the product. Is it mischievous to ask whether Phorm has got so impatient with the lack of movement from BT - or Virgin Media or TalkTalk - that today's launch was really designed to bounce them into a decision?
Whatever the truth, I left the Covent Garden event - without availing myself of the Buck's Fizz on offer - and wondering how long a company with 150 staff and no revenue can carry on without getting British customers to use what it insists is groundbreaking technology
- 2 Jun 09, 09:20 GMT
When the BBC launched its iPlayer at Christmas 2007, there was a deal of muttering from some internet service providers about the effect on their networks and their costs of handling a flood of video streaming traffic.
Then it all seemed to go quiet for a while, despite an even bigger surge in traffic than most had anticipated. Now, though, the BBC appears to be at daggers drawn with the giant of the UK broadband market over the impact of iPlayer.
I was contacted a short while ago by a BBC colleague who wanted to tell me an interesting story. He worked in the technology department at the BBC, but was also a BT customer on the basic broadband package. And he couldn't help noticing that every evening, his speed was dropping to such a low level that watching the iPlayer became a much less satisfactory experience than usual.
This chap had access to the infrastructure behind the iPlayer and so was able to investigate further. What he found was that BT appeared to be throttling back iPlayer speeds for its Option 1 customers to somewhere around 700kbps between teatime and midnight.
Bit of a shame, I thought, but I bet BT makes that perfectly clear when you sign up to their cheapest package. But when I looked at the BT Total Broadband site, I was unable to spot any such warning. It was only when the BT press office pointed me at the fair usage policy, buried deep within the website, that I spotted this clause:
"[W]e do limit the speed of all video streaming to 896Kbps on our Option 1 product, during peak times only, which is between 5pm - midnight every day."
So what that means is that if you buy a basic "up to 8Mbps" service from BT, you will find that you are viewing one key service - if that's how you see the iPlayer - at under 1Mbps.
When I suggested to BT that they were not being exactly frank with customers about this policy, they hit back strongly. They insisted that the policy was not having a detrimental effect on the way customers could view iPlayer, because it worked perfectly well at lower speeds.
But the company also suggested that managing the effect of iPlayer traffic was as much a job for the BBC as it was for BT. Here's the key sentence in their statement:
"We believe there is a real issue that content owners like the BBC need to address and we are currently in discussions with the BBC executive to ensure that our customers get the best possible experience in the future."
Now, this is an interesting contrast with BT's apparent stance two years ago, when a spokesman was quoted as saying: "We're not up in arms about iPlayer, we're not complaining to the BBC or discussing it with them."
What we're seeing is the rumblings of a revolution, where the infrastructure providers start demanding that media owners help pay for the cost of their pipes. That is obviously a threat to the principle of "net neutrality" (the idea that the internet should not discriminate between different types of traffic), but change may be inevitable.
BT and other businesses will ask why they should pay to provide a platform for the ambitions of media companies to reach audiences in new ways. The broadband market in the UK is fiercely competitive, and ISPs offering broadband at £7.78 a month are bound to want to limit their costs.
What will be important to consumers is that they get clear information about what they are buying. Catch-up TV is now becoming one of the main attractions of having home broadband - so if you sell a product which makes using that service difficult or impossible at peak times, customers need to know about that.
For now, though, the stage is set for quite a clash between a broadcaster proud of some very innovative technology and determined that it should be as widely used as possible, and a telecoms giant struggling to manage an explosion in the use of its network without forcing customers to pay more. Something has to give.
- 1 Jun 09, 19:56 GMT
There were plenty of surprises and big announcements at this year's Microsoft conference at E3.
A new Halo game from Bungie. Metal Gear comes to the Xbox. The Beatles do downloadable content. Splinter Cell: Conviction. Spielberg touting the Xbox's new control system.
But for me the biggest announcement was Xbox Live's integration into the wider web; albeit a small step towards the open web.
Much of this is down to Twitter and Facebook, which have a set of APIs which make it relatively easy for third party developers to build bridges to their audiences.
Xbox Live has had MSN Messenger support for some time - but it's a peripheral part of the experience.
If Microsoft can persuade developers to build integration of Twitter and Facebook into their games then we will see the true social explosion of gaming and hopefully lifting the myth that gaming is somehow anti-social.
Sony tried to exploit the 3D web with Home but so far the experiment would appear to relatively unsuccessful in terms of the impact with audiences.
The success will lie in the integration of these technologies but with 200 million Facebook users and 20 million Twitter users, combined with 20 million Xbox Live users Microsoft is making a bold statement about the future of gaming.
- 1 Jun 09, 13:58 GMT
Last year's E3 was a bit of a letdown, in truth. The return to the Los Angeles Expo Center sparked hopes of a return to the unashamed bombast of previous years.
But the show floor took up one small, blink and you miss it, part of the centre and the rest of the conference was held in small meeting rooms, and hotel suites.
It left the big three console makers carrying the torch but here too there was little to shout about.
Microsoft tried to turn the Xbox into more of a family friendly console with its re-design for Xbox Live, while Sony stressed the long game and talk of the PlayStation 3 decade, while Nintendo pretty much rested on its laurels and announced little of note.
In all, E3 2008 was a bit of a letdown, which is why 2009 is all set to be a classic.
So here are my predictions for this show:
Microsoft Xbox 360
I'll be very surprised if the reports of a new controller for the 360 did not turn out to be true. Microsoft may not be a great innovator, but it knows when it needs to follow the innovation of others and I think a Wiimote/EyeToy-like device is on the cards.
Xbox Live will continue to iterate and I expect a raft of new digital content services for the platform - but I'd be surprised if they were anything other than North America exclusive. Hulu is the current darling of video streaming services and I can see the logic in putting the service on the 360 as an exclusive.
Last week Microsoft UK unveiled its deal with British broadcaster Sky for live and on demand video content and so I wouldn't expect anything else for the UK market in that area.
Sony PlayStation 3
A new PlayStation Portable is a certainty and one of the worst kept Sony secrets in recent years. The leaked specs, video footage and photos show a more genuinely handheld device, ditching the UMD drive and focusing on downloadable content. It looks like it is pitched squarely at the iPod touch and iPhone market.
I've been told that the rumoured PS3 Slim is indeed real but will not be announced at this E3. But Sony has to make a substantial price cut announcement if it hopes to compete.
I'm also led to believe that a game I was shown more than a year ago now, and got me quite excited, might, just might, be unveiled at this E3. And I've also been told that the game has changed enormously since I first saw it...
I don't expect any hardware changes to the Wii and instead I think the focus for Nintendo will be games, games, games.
I expect lots more details of the already-announced Zelda game, plus plenty of details about a new Mario game. Shigeru Miyamoto is in town and I expect him to lead announcements with increasing focus on social participation online.
Nintendo also needs a price cut for the Wii if it is to re-energise sales.
There are always big surprises but here are the games I'm expecting to make a splash at E3:
Rock Band: Beatles. Will the Beatles finally go online and offer downloadable tracks?
Halo: ODST I think the campaign mistakes of Halo 3 will be rectified in Bungie's Halo swansong
Modern Warfare 2: It looks like Infinity Ward is gunning for the biggest Hollywood-blockbuster style game of all time. And I think they are capable of pulling it off.
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