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Rory Cellan-Jones

24 hours with Ubuntu

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 23 Oct 09, 13:15 GMT

On Wednesday morning I was on BBC Breakfast talking about Windows 7, and each time I was on air I mentioned Ubuntu, the most popular version of the Linux operating system.

So were its devoted fans pleased?

Quite the opposite, because in my second broadcast I committed an unpardonable sin.

In a rather clumsily phrased sentence - my only excuse is that it came in the middle of a rather stressful live technology demo - I suggested that Ubuntu was a minority sport only for dedicated enthusiasts.

Afterwards, one blogger transcribed my conversation with Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams:

RCJ: "There's something called 'Ubuntu' which is launched next week. It's a whole sort of little community of enthusiasts building operating systems for absolutely nothing and trying to persuade us that we don't need to be in with the big boys but actually most computer users frankly they don't want to bother with that sort of stuff they want something that's there..."
 
BT: "...that everyone else uses.."
 
RCJ: "Yes"

Now I do know - as plenty of angry messages pointed out - that Ubuntu has been around for a long time and what launches next week is an update. But I should have also made it clear that Linux is not an amateur cottage industry, but a pretty substantial affair supporting a lot of firms that market the systems and teach customers to install and use them.

So when I was contacted by one such company, Canonical, I was glad to take up their offer to try out Ubuntu. They sent over a Dell Inspiron Mini, loaded with "Karmic Koala", as Ubuntu 9.10 is nicknamed.

Now we are going to have a fuller exploration of the system on this site next week, but in the 24 hours I've had the Dell, I've gathered some early impressions.

Ubuntu and Windows 7The first is that it starts up pretty rapidly - I timed it at 40 seconds compared with the 55 seconds the top of the range Sony Vaio X takes to boot Windows 7 - and that the desktop has a pleasingly simple look to it, especially once you've replaced the offensively brown background with something more attractive.

The left hand side of the screen has a strip fulfilling the same purpose as the taskbar in Windows or the dock in Mac OS X, with quick access to key applications. You are provided with a range of open source software, from Firefox to Open Office, and can go online to the Ubuntu Software Centre to seek out other applications.

Getting connected to my home network proved reasonably simple - though I struggled to see other machines and devices on my network.

I installed a few applications - including Skype, and a social networking application called Gwibber.

But when I tried to install a free open-source audio editing program, Audacity, it appeared more complex to get hold of an Ubuntu version than the one I've used on a Mac.

I also gave up on attempting to use the music streaming service Spotify, after a warning that, as there was no Linux version, I would first need to get hold of something called Wine which allows you to run Windows apps. Too much bother...

Navigating around an unfamiliar system was fine once I'd worked out that the Ubuntu logo in the top left hand corner of the screen took me home, and for all my simple computing needs - from word processing to e-mail to web browsing - I found Ubuntu pretty satisfactory.

But, even after some help from a Canonical advisor who came and installed a few add-ons such as Flash, I struggled to work out how I would organise photos, music and video with this system.

So would I actively seek to install Ubuntu or any other Linux variant on a machine I already owned?

To be frank, no, because it would not make my computing life any simpler and more pleasurable than it is now.

But getting a small cheap netbook would be another matter entirely, and the big hope for the Linux community is that more companies will follow Dell's lead in selling computers with Ubuntu pre-installed.

Mind you, some netbook manufacturers who've already found a degree of resistance to Linux netbooks have reverted to XP and are now more likely to look at Windows 7 than anything else.

Faced with such consumer inertia it's hard to see Linux making much progress in boosting its miniscule market share. But remember, the future of computing is mobile - and in that new market for operating systems everything is still to play for.

Risking another pasting from its supporters, I'll predict that Ubuntu will remain a very niche product - but it's Google's Android which could bring open-source to the mass consumer market.

Rory Cellan-Jones

A week with Windows

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 21 Oct 09, 08:52 GMT

In computing terms, I live a double life. At work, I use our corporate IT system which runs on Windows XP; at home, I'm a Mac user and have grown accustomed to the Apple environment. But for the last week, I've been living in a Windows world, preparing for the launch of Microsoft's latest operating system.

I borrowed a small, very expensive Sony Vaio X running Windows 7 - the lightest laptop I've ever used - and tried to do as much of my work as possible using the unfamiliar operating system. I didn't carry out the kind of tests you might find in a grown-up review but then most of us don't do that - we just try to get on with new software and only really notice it when it goes wrong.

Rory Cellan-Jones using Windows 7

If you're used to one operating system, trying another is like moving into a strange house - it may all look very nice, but it's a pain trying to find out how to turn up the central heating or where the glasses are stored. But Windows 7 did at least boot up reasonably fast - Microsoft says it's reduced the "footprint" of the system by 50%, and that's made it more efficient.

The first thing I want to do when I switch on is connect to the internet. I'm used to searching out a wireless signal at the top of a Mac screen but I found, without too much trouble, a similar connection area to the right of the Windows taskbar and was quickly online.

The Start button in the bottom left-hand corner still provides the route to the applications, though the taskbar has become a little like Apple's dock, so you can simply drag frequently-used applications onto it.

I set about opening a browser, e-mail and word processing applications, and tried to work out where I would keep my photos and music. That process somehow feels more integrated on a Mac because of the iLife suite that comes with it. But having dragged a few tracks and pictures off my home network into the Vaio, it was reasonably easy to start playing.

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Microsoft Corporate Vice President Julie Larson-Green says Windows 7 has been prepared better than its predecessor, Vista.

But what's really different about using this operating system? The two things that stood out for me were the ability to hover over open items in the taskbar and see what was happening at a glance - and a function which allows you to snap two open windows alongside each other so that you can compare or maybe transfer information between them.

But here's a funny thing. By the end of the week, I looked at what I was doing on the tiny screen - and found that just about everything involved software not made by Microsoft. So I'd installed the Firefox browser in preference to Internet Explorer, and started writing documents using Google Docs rather than Microsoft Word, and checking my e-mail via Gmail. As for music, I'd installed iTunes, and to feed my social networking needs, I placed Tweetdeck on the taskbar.

I had ended up furnishing my new Windows 7 home with some familiar items from elsewhere - so perhaps the operating system matters less than it once did.

Of course, what is really important to Microsoft is not winning over the minority who use Mac OS X or Linux variants, but reconnecting with the many previously loyal customers who were deeply unimpressed by Vista.

This week at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, I met Tony Sale, who has spent 15 years working to rebuild Colossus, the world's first programmable computer used to crack German codes in World War II. At home, Tony has used every version of Windows since 3.1*, but he's stopped at XP. What was wrong with Vista?

"It tried to tell me how to organise my files all the time, I didn't like that." By contrast, Tony says he finds XP very stable and very usable - and he's going to have to be sure that Windows 7 does a similar, or better, job before upgrading.

Computing has come a long way since Colossus, but Microsoft's customers will be asking the same question about its new operating system as the code-breakers did about their new-fangled toy. Does it do the same job better and faster than what we use now?

* As some commenters have pointed out, what Tony Sale must have started with was Windows 3.1, not 3.2 as I had previously written.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Reading the Kindle

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 19 Oct 09, 08:20 GMT

Readers rejoice - the revolution is here at last. The digital earthquake that shook the music business really began to make itself felt with the arrival of the iPod. Now a slightly larger rectangular white object threatens to do the same to the publishing and newspaper industries. The Amazon Kindle has left its US home and is going global.

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Actually, hold on a minute, let's all calm down. After trying out a Kindle over the weekend I'm not convinced it's quite the threat or the salvation which many across the printed media fear or hope it might be.

What does immediately impress is the simplicity and stylishness of the device. Plug it in, charge it, download your first book and you're away. Then subscribe to a digital edition of a newspaper and it is wired to you in the morning, via the Kindle's "whispernet" 3g connection. Just as the iPod was not the first MP3 player, the Kindle is by no means the first digital reader. I've also had a quick play with the Sony Reader, which in its Touch edition is also quite an impressive device.

But the Kindle's integration with the Amazon store is what gives it the edge, while setting off alarm bells in the publishing world. Amazon must be looking at the Apple example, with iPod users herded efficiently to the iTunes store, and hoping that its own integrated system will make it as powerful in digital text as the computer company is in digital music. Which is why the analogue text industries are in a frenzy of fear and anticipation.

Before using the Kindle, I had imagined that it was the newspaper subscriptions rather than the books which would prove the more attractive. But the opposite turned out to be true. There seems to be a pretty good range of e-books in Amazon's store, with a few big hits very competitively priced, and others rather expensive for a 'virtual' product. I bought one of the hits, the Booker prizewinner Wolf Hall, for $8.84. I should explain that Amazon is still running the whole Kindle operation through its US site, which means you pay in dollars - so the Hilary Mantel book cost me about £5.40.

Wolf Hall book and Amazon KindleWhen I started reading, it felt pretty close to the paper experience. There's no glare on the Kindle's screen, so you get simple black text on a cream background, with just enough added bells and whistles. You can make digital notes, search the text, and, if you fall asleep with the book on your face as is my wont, it will remember which page you were on when you turn it on again.

Having also splashed out £14 on the hardback version, I was surprised to find the Kindle Wolf Hall an easier read - although that may be largely due to the fact that the device weighs a mere 400g,and lugging the 1kg book around is a far more back-breaking business. What you don't get is the swappability of a printed book - I'm hardly going to lend the Kindle to a friend so they can read Wolf Hall - nor, as my wife pointed out, do you get your room furnished with attractive book spines.

Then I turned to the digital newspapers. The Kindle Store offers 51 titles from around the world, including four UK papers - The Times, the Daily Mail, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph. They each cost $22.99 per month - about £14. I signed up for trial 14-day subscriptions to the Times and the Telegraph. And was immediately disappointed. You head to the Kindle's home page, click on your chosen newspaper and are presented with a wall of text which is the front page lead story. Struggling to work out what I wanted to read, I found a sections list - Sport, Business, International - but this very dull shop window had no clue as to the precise nature of the goodies within. It all made the idea of reading the paper on the Kindle a very un-enticing prospect.
Telegraph front page next to Amazon Kindle

Suddenly I realised why a book worked on the Kindle but a paper did not. For me, reading a book is an analogue experience - I start at page one and continue until I've finished. A newspaper, on the other hand, is more random, more interactive. I scan the sections and leap from one article to another, much as I do on the web. That's what is already available to me - for free - on newspaper websites, so why would I pay for a less satisfactory digital newspaper? Newspapers have woken up rather late to the fact that they've been giving away content online which could be monetised through e-readers.

There are other reasons why the Kindle may not be quite the game-changer some are claiming. Is a device costing upwards of £200 really going to persuade many people to abandon paper for a screen - especially when you can get a netbook these days for around the same price?

And there will be questions about Amazon's walled garden, which allows some other e-books to be read on the Kindle but doesn't allow titles from its online store to be read on other devices. Other contenders - perhaps including an Apple tablet - may learn some lessons from Amazon and take digital reading to the next level.

The Kindle looks to me like an attractive but expensive niche product, giving a few techie bibliophiles the chance to take more books on holiday without incurring excess baggage charges. But will it force thousands of bookshops to close and transform the economics of struggling newspapers? Don't bet on it.

Rory Cellan-Jones

British games: Small is beautiful?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 16 Oct 09, 09:50 GMT

How easy is it for a small British games developer to take on the world - and actually make a living?

We hear a lot of doom and gloom these days from our games industry - it feels unloved by the government, burdened by higher taxes than the likes of Canada, and squeezed between American and Japanese giants on one side and hungry young start-ups from Eastern Europe on the other.

But I met a remarkably cheerful developer the other day who explained to me how the new economics of mobile and casual games were giving him a chance. Charles Cecil is an important figure in the British gaming industry.

He has been in the business for 25 years and at one time employed more than 40 people, creating big hits like Beneath a Steel Sky and Broken Sword. But now he's really a one-man band bringing in collaborators on a freelance basis.

Beneath a Steel Sky

He says that by the mid 2000s development costs had grown so high and the market so focussed on blockbusters that publishers would cancel development of titles at any stage if it looked as though they might not be huge hits.

When he had a major project ditched in 2004 he couldn't afford to carry on paying a big team so scaled right back.

In any case the economics of being a developer were unattractive. Charles Cecil told me:

"You effectively get 10% of the revenue... which is set against the development costs. It means you very rarely recoup your costs."

But two things have come along to make this developer more cheerful - the growth of casual gaming and the arrival of Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch as a new gaming platform.

This week a version of Beneath a Steel Sky went on sale in Apple's App Store. Now at £2.49 a download, it's going to have to be a huge hit to make Charles Cecil rich - but then again he says the development costs were a fraction of the budget needed to launch a game for a console or PCs.

What's more he gets to keep 70% of the revenues, although it's up to him to do the whole job of marketing and financing the game that is usually down to the publisher.

Casual games sold on the web are also a much more low budget area, where small-scale British developers could find it easier to make an impact.

They're just beginning to wonder - like musicians a few years back - whether they can now cut out the middlemen and talk direct to their loyal fans. But there's a cautionary note from Charles Cecil:

"To be clear, this model works well for smaller, more innovative games. For the hundred million dollar blockbusters, the traditional publishing model is absolutely appropriate."

Britain can be proud of the creative record of its gaming industry - and there are still centres of excellence spread across the country from Brighton to Dundee. But those parts of it which remain independent may increasingly find that small is beautiful.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Palm Pre and O2 - a marriage of convenience

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 15 Oct 09, 08:33 GMT

It's another big week for smartphone launches in the UK.

Blackberry is bringing out a new version of the Storm, the touchscreen phone whose first version received less than stellar reviews, but still sold reasonably well. But far more hangs on another launch - that of the Palm Pre.

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This week I met Jon Rubinstein, Palm's CEO and Matthew Key, head of O2 across Europe, which has the exclusive contract for the Pre.

For both of them this is an important partnership. I put it to Matthew Key that the Pre was a consolation prize after O2 lost its exclusive contract with Apple to sell the iPhone in the UK.

He of course denied that - but went on to outline a relationship with Palm that seemed remarkably similar to the one O2 had originally had with Apple.

It had been love at first sight when he had played with the Pre and now the network was going to lavish the kind of care and attention on this phone that no other product - apart from the iPhone - had received, with a big marketing push and a starring role in its stores in the run-up to Christmas.

But, I asked Mr Key, what about the distinctly dodgy performance of the O2 network since iPhone users started bombarding it with data - won't that be an issue for his new partner? "We recognise we've had some growing pains," he told me, in what I thought was a significant admission.

He said that 02's data traffic had been doubling every three months recently, much of that due to the iPhone, but O2 had been learning about the way smartphones interacted with its network, and was confident of big improvements.

Jon Rubinstein will certainly hope so. He's the man who played a big role in the creation of the iPod which helped revive Apple after its years in the wilderness.

Now he's trying to pull off an even more remarkable turnaround at Palm, and the Pre is crucial to that mission.

It is the first device running Palm's new Web OS operating system, and it's pretty impressive - an attractive shape, easy to use, with a tiny keyboard adding extra functionality to the touchscreen.

And, unlike the iPhone, the Pre allows you to have several applications running at the same time.

But surely, however good the phone may be, it's simply too late. The iPhone has been around for a couple of years - and with Blackberries, Androids, Nokia Symbian devices and Windows phones, there is now a bewildering amount of choice for anyone wishing to do much more with their mobile than just call and text.

Jon Rubinstein countered this argument with a very good point. Early adopters may think smartphones are old hat, but the revolution is only just getting under way. He said:

"We're really at the beginning of this transition from feature phones to smartphones".

Matthew Key chimed in, confirming that just one in 30 mobile users have tried a smartphone so far, so there's plenty of room for growth.

Jon Rubinstein reckons there's room in this market for three to five successful companies - and he believes that it's software, not hardware, which will be the key, giving Palm, with its smart new operating system, an edge.

I'm sure it's true that we're not even at half-time in the smartphone game, which will prove hugely lucrative to the winners.

But Palm, with a brand which is now pretty unfamiliar to the kind of phone users now looking to move into this market, will have its work cut out to make its voice heard above the hubbub.

O2 will be able to move on to another shiny new partner if the Pre fails to deliver - but for Palm, any sign that crowds are failing to storm the shops in search of a small pebble-shaped device could spell doom.

Maggie Shiels

Steve Jobs: Teenage hero?

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 14 Oct 09, 12:58 GMT

You would think most 12-17 year-olds would be getting hot under the collar over the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus. Not so.

Steve JobsIt seems the wayward youth of today has given that honour to a golden oldie - Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

A survey by Junior Achievement, an organisation that educates students on matters related to future employment, found that the Apple boss is the most admired entrepreneur among teenagers.

Of the 1,000 teens questioned, 35% gave Mr Jobs the thumbs up followed by 25% for Oprah, 16% for skateboarder Tony Hawk and a dismal 10% for twenty-something Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The Olsen twins came further down the pecking order, as did fashion model Kimora Lee Simmons with 4%.

Of the people who choose Mr Jobs, 61% cited him because "he made a difference in/improved people's lives or made the world a better place."

Testament to the power of shiny gadgets like the iPod and the iPhone for you.

"We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, so it's no surprise that teens admire famous entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey who have built brands around their personas as well as around their products," said Jack Kosakowski, president of Junior Achievement USA.

Still, it is interesting to see a tech titan like Mr Jobs leap ahead of Oprah - which might mean that a lot of youngsters are truly interested in science and technology as a career and not TV fame.

Rory Cellan-Jones

The Sidekick Cloud Disaster

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 13 Oct 09, 09:48 GMT

A year ago, I visited a giant data centre belonging to Microsoft a hundred miles or so north of Seattle in Washington State.

It was an impressive sight: room after room of servers cooled by by electricity which arrived from a nearby hydroelectric scheme, plus two sources of back-up power if the mains connection should somehow fail. All of this was just part of Microsoft's substantial global investment in cloud computing, to ready itself for a future where we'd all keep more and more of our data online in secure locations like this.

But I had a question.

What if, due to some unforeseeable chain of circumstances, the whole place went up in smoke - taking our valuable data with it? Back they came straight away with an answer - "redundancy". No, no, not mass sackings amongst Microsoft employees responsible for data loss, but backup systems.

In other words, every single piece of data stored in the Washington data centre would also be held elsewhere, just in case. It all seemed pretty satisfactory to me - and indeed I've put more and more of my own data into "the cloud", from Google Documents, to web-based e-mail, to photo libraries stored on Facebook.

Now comes the Sidekick story. Users of a popular mobile phone on the American T-Mobile network have lost some of their data, and the apparent cause is a server failure.

It's being called the biggest disaster yet for the whole concept of cloud computing. The software and the services for the Sidekick phone are designed by a company called Danger, which helps users store their contacts, photos and all sorts of other personal data in the cloud. But Danger was bought last year by - guess who? - Microsoft, so the software behemoth is now going to cop a lot of the flak for this disaster.

The latest update on a T-Mobile forum says:

"T-Mobile and Microsoft/Danger continue to do all we can to recover and return any lost information. Recent efforts indicate the prospects of recovering some lost content may now be possible."

But it also talks of compensating people if they suffer "a significant and permanent loss of personal content" - which sounds pretty ominous.

What's not really clear is what happened to the famed redundancy of Microsoft's cloud operation. Reuters is quoting a statement from the company talking of "a confluence of errors from a server failure that hurt its main and backup databases supporting Sidekick users." But does that mean the backup databases were in the same place as the main ones?

If we're all to entrust our most valuable data to Microsoft's - or anyone else's - cloud, we're going to need to be sure that they tend it as if it were their own. If this kind of reassurance is not forthcoming, then all those forecasts of explosive growth in cloud computing will be, well, redundant.

Maggie Shiels

Steve Jobs and Tinker Bell

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 13 Oct 09, 09:23 GMT

A more unlikely pairing you could never imagine, but the New York Times (NYT) is reporting that Apple co-founder and guru Steve Jobs has been sprinkling a little fairy dust over the Disney empire.

disney storeDisney turned to the man whose firm is known for its design aesthetic because it wanted to overhaul its shops and turn them into the ultimate shopping experience, the way Mr Jobs has done with Apple's outlets.

Jim Fielding, the president of Disney Stores worldwide told the NYT:

"The world does not need another place to sell Disney merchandise - this only works if it's an experience".

The top-to-toe refurbishment will cover 340 shops throughout Europe and America - and some new stores, including a flagship outlet at New York's Times Square.

The idea is to give the Disney retail arm a high-tech makeover to "make children clamour to visit the stores and stay longer, perhaps bolstering sales as a result." There is no "perhaps" about it.

apple storeSo where, you may ask, does Mr Jobs come in?

Well, as a member of the Disney board and a shareholder, he encouraged the Disney management to let their imagination fly.

As a result, Disney is to adopt Apple touches like mobile checkouts and allowing customers to choose film clips to watch or to take part in karaoke contests or live chat with Disney Channel stars via satellite. (Yes, I know there are no karaoke events in Apple stores... but you never know.)

High-tech tricks include walking by a "magic mirror" where Cinderella might appear and speak or the whole store might be made to smell like a Christmas tree if a clip from Disney's A Christmas Carol is playing.

Disney told the paper that it has been working on a full-scale, fully-stocked shop inside a secret location in Glendale, California to shape an overall philosophy and work out any kinks. That was on the advice of Mr Jobs.

While some may consider its shops tired and old-fashioned, Disney is still a retail titan. Its licensed consumer products pulled in $30bn (£19bn) in global sales last year.

And that Tinker Bell connection? Well, a section of the store will be called WWTD: What Would Tinker Bell Do?

As Macworld notes, "it's sort of a Genius Bar except, um, with fairies."

Rory Cellan-Jones

The Big Broadband match: A poor result?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 12 Oct 09, 11:54 GMT

On Saturday evening I found myself watching about ten minutes of online football - for which I'd paid around a pound a minute - before rushing out to take a child to see the film Up.

a football matchI have to say that Pixar's latest animation masterpiece was much better value than the football - and a lot more fun. But how was it for you?

Last week, I said the match could provide a significant test of the state of Broadband Britain - but in the event, poor online "attendance" meant that it wasn't quite as serious an examination as it might have been. But let's see what answers we got to the four questions I posed.

Question 1: Can our infrastructure take it?

The internet did not buckle on Saturday. Perhaps that was because there were fewer people looking to stream it than anticipated, but ISPs seemed to cope fine with the extra Saturday evening traffic. Virgin Media says its network saw a 9.9% average uplift in traffic between 5pm and 7pm compared to the previous Saturday - what it describes as "a mere blip on the radar".

Question 2: Are we fast enough?

Um, that depends. I watched my ten minutes using a fast cable connection and it worked pretty well. But how many people were put off even trying to log on because they tested their connections and found the experience unsatisfactory? And, whatever speed you have at home, football streamed to a laptop just doesn't provide the picture quality that you expect from today's television - in standard definition, let alone in HD.

Question 3: Will we pay?

Kentaro and Perform, the two businesses behind the online operation, talked beforehand of as many as a million people paying to stream this game. Now all they will say is that the total watching amounted to fewer than half a million, and that includes people who paid to see it in cinemas and the troops who saw it via the British Forces Broadcasting Service, which was allowed to screen it for free.

So we're not very clear as to how many people paid for the online experience - and how many of those shelled out £11.99, the match-day price. Not that many, at a guess - but more than might have done so if they'd known that the highlights would be shown on BBC One after a last-minute deal announced after the game was over.

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Question 4: Will we find another way?

Oh, definitely. Sheer outrage at the idea that you'd have to pay for a mediocre viewing experience led many to seek another way. I've received reports of pubs plugging in laptops to projectors - but far more examples of "alternative" ways of finding the match online. From Chinese streams, to justin.tv, to Ustream, it seems that the world's peer-to-peer communities set about "sharing" this game with enthusiasm. I conducted an online vox pop, asking people how they'd watched the game and got back these answers:

"justin.tv - there were about 4 streams available."
"A site called myp2p aggregates the places it was being streamed. I used tvants to watch it (altho Chinese commentry)"
"Bet365 were showing it on their website for free, if you had an account."
"watched it via sopcast on www.myp2p.net"
"dodgy Albanian sports channel" in a pub on a polish TV feed with slightly out of synch r5 commentary over it"
"saw a link pasted on facebook, twas that easy!"
"several pubs in Bristol had laptops connected to big screens was free except for drinks"
"By pressing the red button. Japan v Scotland. Only one game I cared about. Sorry. That wasn't helpful was it?"

Er, no - but I think we get the picture - plenty of people who were interested in the England game found ways of avoiding the official and rather expensive route.

My conclusion? Our internet infrastructure may be just about ready for online football - but the audience certainly isn't - at least not if it has to pay for the pleasure.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Say hello, Wave... goodbye?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 9 Oct 09, 10:46 GMT

Last week, I promised to kick the tyres of Google's shiny new collaborative communications tool Wave - and to let you know how it looked.

Well, sorry for the delay - but it took days for the invitations I'd sent to friends and colleagues to arrive and without anyone to talk to, Wave is, well, pointless. But now that my colleague Jonathan Fildes and technology journalist Bill Thompson have arrived in what we might call the Wave community, I'm sitting ready at my machine and we can see how it might work - if they'd only heed my appeal to come and join me.

Rory Cellan-Jones

As you can see, I've worked out how to add a picture to the Wave - but I'm still slightly puzzled as to what to do next.

Ah, Bill Thompson has arrived and has also found out that you just drag a photo into the Wave. He's added a giraffe.

billt_giraffe.jpg

Another day has passed - and finally, Jonathan Fildes is on board. And here is his first observation:

JF: "As well as trying to reinvent e-mail and communications, it seems Google is also intent on reinventing the definition of a few words in Wave.
 
"The system has its own lexicon. A Wave, for example, is a threaded conversation. It includes messages and updates from everyone invited to the Wave - which could just be one person or several, like we have here.
 
"It's a bit like an e-mail that has been sent backwards and forwards between a group of people, detailing every reply.
 
"But in the case of Wave, each reply is given its own section. Each of these messages - known as a Blip - can be edited and commented upon by other people. This then becomes a wavelet, a subsection of the wave.
 
"Following me so far?
 
"Great, then I'll leave extensions, robots and gadgets to my fellow Wavers.... or you could consult this handy graphic from Mashable's Wave Guide.
 
"Incidentally, I wrote that little section in Microsoft Word and then pasted it in. It seems that Wave doesn't like that approach."

Well, thank you Jonathan for that - I'm sure we're all a little bit wiser. And my goodness, we've got another collaborator joining our wave - welcome to Stephen Fry.

SF: "Bit of a learning curve, but I suppose that's the point. Flakiness to be expected. Elements of a server-side Yojimbo, if any of you use that.
 
"/var/folders/9r/9r9eyhy-EbiaqRVMsWA23++++TI/-Tmp-/com.apple.PhotoBooth-T0x1102d0.tmp.3FirvQ/Photo on 2009-10-08 at 07.59.jpg
 
"That weirdness was an attempt to drag a Photobooth file straight into this Wave. Didn't work."

Stephen goes on:

Not quite sure about this 'Bill Thompson has arrived and has also found out that you just drag a photo into the wave' comment of Rory's .... I've tried dragging a photo in and it didn't work at all. That worked, but was uploaded by choosing the attachments paperclip above.

And he adds:

SF: "Hm.Wish I had more time to explore. http://lifehacker.com/5376138/google-wave-101 might be useful....
 
"Most weird. I just dragged a movie file into this blip and got a black screen which played the movie. But the only way back to Wave was pressing the back button. I'm probably being immeasurably stupid...
 
"Weirdness upon weirdness. Strange Japanese or Korean script is appearing and disappearing and some text appears to be randomly yellow highlighted. Perhaps we've been botted. I shall tiptoe away before I do any more damage."

Jon FildesBye, Stephen, I'm sure it's not your fault. Nearly time to wrap up. Oh, just a minute, Jonathan Fildes - who's at home waiting for his first child to be born - has had time to chip in with this:

JF: "....very little of what Wave does is new. It just brings lots of different applications together into one place, swirls them around and dumps them on the beach. It has a little bit of IM, a little bit of e-mail and a smattering of Zoho or etherpad.
 
"All of these are "pure" applications - they have a very clear use and you know what you're getting and how to use them.
 
"With Wave, the picture is more confused. As one Waver said to me: 'I remain baffled.'"

Well, I'm not entirely sure that our attempt to use Google Wave to review Google Wave has been a stunning success. But I've learned a few lessons.

• First of all, if you're using it to work together on a single document, then a strong leader (backed by a decent sub-editor, adds Fildes) has to take charge of the Wave, otherwise chaos ensues. And that's me - so like it or lump it, fellow Wavers.

• Second, we saw a lot of bugs that still need fixing, and no very clear guide as to how to do so. For instance, there is an "upload files" option which will be vital for people wanting to work on a presentation or similar large document, but the button is greyed out and doesn't seem to work.

• Third, if Wave is really going to revolutionise the way we communicate, it's going to have to be integrated with other tools like e-mail and social networks. I'd like to tell my fellow Wavers that we are nearly done and ready to roll with this review - but they're not online in Wave right now, so they can't hear me.

• And finally, if such a determined - and organised - clutch of geeks and hacks struggle to turn their ripples and wavelets into one impressive giant roller, this revolution is going to struggle to capture the imagination of the masses.

Actually, I had thought that we were finished - but I see that Stephen is butting back in to agree.

SF: "Yes it's preview, (even when it comes out of preview you can bet your gmail it'll be in beta), yes it's new and therefore pardonably glitch-ridden and prone to hanging, but for the moment it's quite hard to see exactly how this contrivance of bolted on gadgets, widgets and tools quite adds up to a new wave of collaborative software.
 
"A major worry must be the spectre of rogue Blip-bots roaming the world wide wave, attaching themselves to public waves (public waves being one of the service's Unique Selling Points), worming their way into systems. It seems like one of those Imperial Stalkers in Star Wars - mighty impressive, but quickly made to look clumsy and far too easy to bring crashing down.
 
"No doubt I'm wrong, but that's my first impression."

Right. Now we really are finished. I think.

Maggie Shiels

Top G-man in Phishing scam

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 9 Oct 09, 09:11 GMT

Over the last few days, many of you will have read all about the phishing attacks on Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and AOL involving more than 30,000 accounts.

Online banking screenshotAnd while the BBC and other organisations have been highlighting the dangers of these attacks for a long time, it is understandable why so many people fall for them.

Cyber-criminals are increasingly sophisticated in their approaches these days and because so many of these fake websites look so authentic, it is easy to understand why users get hoodwinked.

Don't feel bad if this means you because even the most security-conscious and hyper-aware can be taken in. Robert Mueller the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation told the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

"Cyber crime is a nebulous concept. It is difficult to grasp intangible threats, and easy to dismiss them as unlikely to happen to you.
 
"Intruders are reaching into our networks every day, looking for valuable information. And unfortunately, they are finding it, because many of us are unaware of the threat these persons pose to our privacy, our economic stability, and even our national security."

America's top G-man then revealed that he himself was nearly suckered by a phishing attack after he got an e-mail that "looked perfectly legitimate" on his home computer that seemed to come from his bank.

He told the audience that he answered the first few questions, but pulled the plug on the whole thing when he was asked for his password.

In a mea culpa moment. Mr Mueller admitted that even though he is "someone who spends a good deal of [his] professional life warning others about the perils of cyber crime, [he] barely caught [himself] in time."

The FBI director told the audience that he quickly changed all his passwords and tried to brush the incident off to his wife as a "teachable moment". She replied: "It is not my teachable moment. However, it is our money. No more internet banking for you."

Mr Mueller went on to point out that while these scams are becoming a fact of life, it's a technique that terrorist groups are also relying on to fund their activities.

"We know the game of our adversaries. They will keep twisting the doorknobs and picking the locks until they find a way in. But we must not let them in. We must change the locks. We must bar the doors and we must sound the alarms when we notice anything out of the ordinary."

As an example of co-operation across borders, Mr Mueller also announced "a major takedown in an international cyber- investigation", involving a wide-ranging phishing attack that targeted American financial institutions and around 5,000 US citizens.

He said that the FBI, the Secret Service and state and local law enforcement worked closely with their counterparts in Egypt to close down the "largest international 'phishing' case ever conducted."

While Mr Mueller tried to underline the need for everyone to "take ownership of cyber-security," one audience member was not so convinced that cyber-criminals are the real threat to American security.

A written question to the FBI head read, "I'm not worried about a teenage hacker reading my e-mail. I'm worried about you reading it."

Rory Cellan-Jones

Digital music - who's making money?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 8 Oct 09, 08:28 GMT

Suddenly there is a plethora of choices for anyone who wants to obtain music online via a legal route - a rare breed if you believe figures suggesting there are 20 illegal downloads for every legitimate one.

Napster has just relaunched its subscription service in the UK, cutting its starting price from £10 to £5 per month. We7, an ad-supported free streaming service, is boasting that it has more visitors than any other British music website. And of course Spotify is the flavour of the month, adding both a mobile application and desktop downloads for those willing to pay for a premium subscription.

But, as someone who's been using Spotify for a while, and has tried out both Napster and We7 this week, I'm none the clearer as to which will be the first to make a profit - or indeed whether any of them will be around a year or so from now.

Napster, which of course had zillions of users when it was the first major unauthorised download site, has struggled to make an impact since it went legit in 2002. Its UK marketing director Dan Nash told me that a price of £5 a month - which gives you unlimited streaming plus five mp3 downloads - would do the trick, attracting casual music buyers as opposed to the limited band of connoisseurs who sign up at present. Whether £5 is a sustainable price is another matter - but Napster now belongs to the American electronics retail giant Best Buy which presumably is willing to fund it for a while. The new service will also be marketed through the Carphone Warehouse chain which is now working with Best Buy.

As for We7, the chief executive Steve Purdham admits that his service is in the "investment" stage at the moment. He is a technology entrepreneur with an impressive track record, having built and then sold the security business Surf Control for a very tidy sum. He claims that what makes We7 different is that its service is simple and its business strategy ultra-cautious. So instead of making users download an application, as Spotify does, the online jukebox is available through your web browser, and rather than a classic dotcom global land-grab, We7 is focusing on the British market for now.

Mr Purdham says that's a contrast with some rivals: "What they've gone for is pure scale without building in advertising right from the beginning." By contrast, We7 users won't be able to miss the adverts: "In 30 minutes you'll be exposed to 36 ad opportunities."

Mind you, Mr Purdham admits the digital music landscape is littered with the corpses of start-ups which thought free music supported by advertising was the way ahead.

So one service aims to get users to shell out a little cash every month, another expects them to tolerate a blizzard of ads as they listen for nothing. Where does that leave Spotify? Somewhere in the middle. It has rapidly wooed millions of users with an attractive service supported by just a few adverts, which, according to most in the music business, is losing money hand over fist. But it needs to move many of them pretty rapidly to a £9.99 per month subscription, with the carrot of a mobile application and now the ability to keep some of your music on your computer. In the acerbic words of one rival,'they've executed supremely as a PR vehicle," but Spotify now needs to prove its roadworthiness as a business.

Of course, all of this is a massive bet on the behaviour of the modern music fan. For years those who've flocked to the likes of Pirate Bay and Limewire have insisted that they would be happy to use legal alternatives, if only they were both cheap and user-friendly. There are now plenty of services which fit both descriptions - but will music fans step up to the plate and make them profitable?

Maggie Shiels

What is a web browser?

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 7 Oct 09, 12:39 GMT

Do you know what a web browser is? Do you know the difference between a browser and a search engine?

These aren't trick questions, but it turns out that on a random day back in June in New York's Times Square, less than 8% of people polled had any idea what a browser was.

The company doing the questioning was of course really interested in what kind of answers it would get, and was no doubt disturbed at the same time.

That company was Google, which is of course spending a small fortune and a fair amount of time developing its own web browser called Chrome.

Since then, Google has tried to fill the information gap with an explanatory video.

Call it part of a back-to-basics approach, but the video certainly ensures that the viewer isn't overwhelmed with technical information. The same approach has been used in a specially site to educate users.

Google associate product marketing manager Jason Toff explained in a blog post that his reason for creating the site was that his own "unscientific study" among friends showed that they were just as confused about web browsers as the folks of New York.

"Lots of our time each day is spent online, and every page on the web is experienced through the browser. Unfortunately, most people don't realise that there are many browsers out there, which differ on features like speed, security and extensibility."

It is worth noting that Google does not steer users to any particular browser and offers up Opera, Google Chrome, Apple's Safari, Mozilla's Firefox and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Heaven help Google if they hit the streets to solicit answers to the question "What is Google Wave?"

Rory Cellan-Jones

A big match for Broadband Britain

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 7 Oct 09, 09:02 GMT

It's got thousands of football fans enraged, and set off countless pub conversations about our changing national game and the attitudes of those who run it. But the decision to allow live viewing of Saturday's Ukraine v England game to take place solely online will serve one useful purpose. It could provide an excellent snapshot of the state of Broadband Britain.

Wayne RooneyWhy? Because at 1700 on Saturday as many as a million people will be online for what should be the UK's single biggest live-streaming event so far. And that will mean four key questions about Britain's broadband performance could be answered.

Question One: Can our infrastructure take it?

Remember the fuss made by some internet service providers about the strain on their infrastructure caused by the launch of the BBC iPlayer? Well now are they going to have to cope with the far greater challenge of a million concurrent streams of live football.

Just as the National Grid used to have extra power stations on standby for half-time in a World Cup game, when the nation would put the kettle on, will leading ISPs have their chief engineers at work on Saturday evening shouting,"She cannae take it, Captain?"

Question Two: Are we fast enough?

Watching streaming video is generally accepted to need an internet connection of at least 2Mbps - the same speed that the Digital Britain report is promising as a right for just about every household in the country. But will fans across the country be chucking things at the laptop when the image freezes just as Wayne Rooney draws back his right foot to shoot?

We should find out just how many people do have a broadband connection fast enough to make live video an acceptable experience. And don't forget that millions of people experience "throttling" at peak times which, in the case of BT's basic broadband package, makes web video a no-no.

Question Three: Will We Pay?

Every media company in the world is trying to work out whether consumers will pay for compelling online content. And by Saturday evening we will know whether Perform and Kentaro, the companies behind the football stream, have got their strategy right. They're asking a minimum of £4.99, rising to £11.99 on match day for the right to watch online. That seems a lot for an experience that could be a lot less satisfactory than popping down to the pub to watch it for nothing.

Question Four: Will we find another way?

Ah but it won't be available in the pub - or will it? Expect lots of people to find ways of watching the football on something better than a small computer screen. What's to stop your local hiring a projector and beaming the stream from a laptop onto a wall? Looking through the complex terms and conditions on the streaming site, pub projection doesn't seem to be banned - as long as the landlord doesn't charge the customers. Whether the quality of the picture will stand up to a big screen is another matter. But the race to move internet video from the PC to the TV is on - and Saturday's match will encourage more experimentation.

So the Ukraine v England game matters little for our footballing future - but it could prove just how advanced we are when it comes to competing in the global broadband league.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Broadband Britain - how far down the league?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 1 Oct 09, 13:04 GMT

Where is Britain in the global broadband league? Either 25th or 31st, according to the rather confusing Oxford/Cisco Broadband Quality Study, published today.

We've gone with 25th, which already seems just a little embarrassing for a country in the G8 group of nations - but a number of people have contacted us to say that the situation is even worse, with Britain back in 31st place, behind the likes of Iceland and Greece.

I think I now understand what's going on. The broadband quality table in the study uses data collected from speedtest.net in 66 countries, and measures download and upload speeds, and latency. By those measures, the UK, with an average download speed of 4.6Mbps and uploads at 0.5Mbps, is indeed down in 31st place.

But the researchers then add in a measure of broadband penetration to come up with their broadband leadership league. The fact that uptake and availability in the UK are both high pushes us up to 25th place in that table. I've been in contact with Cisco, which funded the study, and they've given me these two formulae to explain how the scores were calculated:

Broadband Quality Score = 55% Average Download Throughput + 23% Average Upload Throughput + 22% Average Latency
 
Broadband leadership is calculated as the squareroot of (BQS (normalised) squared + broadband penetration squared).

Fine, that's clear enough, so why are we so low down the league? The answer, it seems is simple - fibre and cable. Britain has done well in the first broadband wave, using a pretty efficient copper network and DSL technology to get homes across most of the country connected. But other countries are moving forward more rapidly to build next generation networks using cable and fibre-optics.

So let's compare the UK with Sweden, which came fourth in the broadband leadership table. Its download speeds averaged 15mbps - but what really pushed it up the league were uploads speeds of 5mbps, 10 times those in Britain. While Sweden still relies on DSL for 60% of its connections, nearly 40% are now supplied by fibre and cable networks.

SWEDEN

Piechart showing division of Sweden's technology

The UK, by contrast, relies on standard phone lines with DSL for 79% of connections, with the rest coming from cable, and no fibre yet deployed.

UK

Piechart showing division of Sweden's technology

Now while there has been plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the UK at this relatively poor performance, the report's authors were keen to cheer us up. They congratulated Britain for a 40% improvement in broadband quality in the last year - and pointed to Virgin Media's investment in high speed broadband via cable as evidence that the nation was not standing still. They also said our broadband speeds were suitable for today's applications, though we'd need to invest for tomorrow's needs.

And it's fair to say that other studies are much more positive about the UK's performance, notably the European Commission's Broadband Performance Index[76KB PDF], which puts us in fourth place, behind Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark.

But compared to South Korea, where 97% of homes are connected and where the government has said it wants speeds of 1gb/s by 2012, we're certainly nowhere near competing with the world's broadband speed merchants.

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