bbc.co.uk Navigation

Rory Cellan-Jones

Can a charity make file-sharing taboo?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 30 Apr 08, 14:57 GMT

Laura, aged 17, has seen the error of her ways. "I used to use Limewire but didn't realise it was wrong and my parents didn't know what I was doing." For those who don't know, Limewire is a file-sharing application widely used by teenagers to share music.

Now, though, a children's charity is spreading the word that downloading music can be both illegal and unsafe, and in its press release it quotes Laura in support of that message.

Boy listens to musicThe charity concerned is Childnet, which campaigns to improve internet safety. It is sending a leaflet to schools, colleges and record shops in 21 countries with the aim of helping teachers and parents to encourage young people to "use the internet and mobile phones safely and legally to download music."

The message can be boiled down to "Limewire - bad, iTunes - good" although it doesn't use those exact words.

The campaign is backed - and funded - by the music industry and it looks like a clever new tactic in what has so far been a pretty unsuccessful campaign to change the behaviour of young music fans. They've tried lawsuits, they've asked ISPs to cut off the accounts of persistent file-sharers - but a "hearts and minds" campaign fronted by a charity must have a better chance of success. Or will it?

It may be too late to change the behaviour of a generation which has grown up with the idea that music is free. The other day I asked the teenage children of a friend how much music they downloaded. "Oh I'm always trying new stuff," one said. "Yeah, hundreds of tracks in the last six months," the other chipped in.

And how much did they buy? They looked at me as I was mad. "No, we get them off Limewire," came the reply. And they're not unusual - Childnet itself points to figures suggesting a third of young people across Europe now use file-sharing sites to swap music - a far higher proportion than use the likes of iTunes.

And while parents may worry about some of the dangers their children face online, is there any evidence that the legality of music downloads is amongst their major concerns? A child caught shoplifting from a record store would be seen as a source of shame to many a family - but I don't get the impression that many would feel embarrassed to admit that junior was indulging in a little light file-sharing upstairs in his bedroom.

The music industry has spent the last decade pushing the message that file-sharing is akin to theft. Now it has the backing of a respected charity. But will there be thousands more Lauras, giving up file-sharing and paying for their downloads? Don't bet on it.

Darren Waters

The best things in life are free

  • Darren Waters
  • 30 Apr 08, 14:10 GMT
CERN relinquishes all intellectual property rights to this code, both source and binary form and permission is granted for anyone to use, duplicate, modify and redistribute it.

With these words the world wide web was truly born. On 30 April 1993 the two directors of the Cern particle physics lab, W Hoogland and H Weber, signed a document that made the web free to use, adapt, change, grow and develop.

It was a remarkable decision. It turned the internet from a physical network of computers into a practical tool for sharing because finally there was simple data management system which made it easy to connect to and share information across machines.

Jack Schofield over at the Guardian, chides us for doing "web birthday" pieces. But he's missing the point somewhat.

This is about a seemingly simple decision which transformed the fortunes of the net.

As Robert Cailliau who worked at Cern told me: "We had to convince them that this was going to take off and it was a really big thing. And therefore Cern couldn't hold on to it and the best thing to do was to give it away."

Without a free web, he said, "we would have had some sort of market share alongside services like AOL and Compuserve, but we would not have flattened the world".

I think that decision is worth noting.

Rory Cellan-Jones

GTA - the outrage fades

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 29 Apr 08, 09:08 GMT

May 1996, - and as a reporter on the BBC's business programme Working Lunch, I spend a morning filming at a games business in Dundee. The firm is called DMA and has made its name with a game called Lemmings, which has sold over 20 million copies. But the team of developers is now putting the finishing touches to a big new project, a game which involves car chases, robberies and assorted mayhem in a fictional American city.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions


We chat with the software developers, film the motion-capture team, and beam it all out live to a lunchtime audience. Then, as we drive our satellite truck away I take a call from a journalist on a tabloid newspaper. He's seen our broadcast and wants a contact number for DMA. The next day his paper features one of the first shock-horror stories about Grand Theft Auto, the forthcoming violent video game which encourages criminal behaviour by the young and must be banned.

Looking back at those pictures today, it seems extraordinary that the crude 2-D graphics of the original game could have been considered so dangerous - a bit like accusing Cluedo of causing a spate of murders in the library with lead piping. But, as we know, that was just the beginning. Throughout its history, GTA in its various manifestations has attracted controversy like no other game series - and that has probably done the franchise no harm at all.

But here's a funny thing. With the arrival of Grand Theft Auto IV, the mood seems to have changed. This is ten times more realistic, immersive and interactive than the original version - and so, if you believe that games can warp young minds, that much more dangerous. But the chorus of anger and accusation has faded. This launch is being seen more as an economic and cultural event rather than an opportunity for another row between the pro and anti-censorship campaigns.

Perhaps that's because, in the wake of the Byron review, we're all more aware of the video games ratings system - and there's an understanding that an 18 game like Grand Theft Auto is aimed at an adult gaming audience that might equally go out and buy 18-rated movies without anyone making a fuss.

But maybe it's also a sign that gaming is entering the mainstream. Until recently, most journalists knew little or nothing about video games, seeing them as something acne-scarred teenage boys did in darkened rooms between bouts of mugging and car-theft. Now a generation which grew up with games can take a more measured view. For the first time, many parents are themselves experienced gamers, and so the generation gap is closing.

Don't expect the arguments over video games content and its effect on young minds to disappear completely. But maybe the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV marks the moment when we can all be just a bit more grown-up about games.

Darren Waters

Grand Theft Auto steals the show

  • Darren Waters
  • 28 Apr 08, 10:38 GMT

It's out on Tuesday, is being showered with 10 out of 10 reviews like a bride with confetti at a wedding and is on course to be the biggest video game of 2008.

Grand Theft AutoMore interestingly, perhaps, the game's release feels more like a cultural event than a marketing event. And I don't think the same was quite true of Halo 3's launch.

Cultural events which hit the mainstream are pretty rare in gaming, which makes Grand Theft Auto's release all the more important.

In the UK I've heard some grumbling from journalists who had to trek down to Rockstar's offices to play the game, rather than be handed copies. But I imagine the company is feeling pretty sensitive right now after the long, drawn-out and painful process that saw Manhunt 2 finally released in the UK.

On the marketing side, Microsoft has done its best to try and make the game's release feel like an Xbox exclusive - with lots of adverts tying the two products together.

Sony has settled for releasing a GTA IV PlayStation 3 bundle - and I can see the sense in that; GTA IV is the game many PlayStation 2 owners have been waiting for to justify the purchase of the more powerful console.

It will be very interesting to see a breakdown of sales across the two consoles.

All the signs are pointing to GTA IV being hailed a masterpiece - and I'm looking forward myself to playing the game on Tuesday, even though I've never really fallen in love with the franchise.

I've always admired the technical brilliance of the titles, rather than the narrative, or derived true pleasure from the gameplay mechanics.

I also think it will be very interesting to hear just who goes out and buys the game and who ends up playing the game.

More than 8m sales are predicted. And I predict a fair chunk of that audience will be below 18, the age rating in the UK and 17, the rating in the US.

The US classifier has already issue a reminder to parents about game ratings in the light of GTA's release and in the post-Byron UK retailers had better be very careful about who they hand the game to.

Maggie Shiels

Fake Steve Jobs on how to blog

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 28 Apr 08, 09:35 GMT

If you are going to make your debut on the blogosphere who better to give guidance than the fake Steve Jobs?

He came to San Francisco to do a presentation and add some light relief on the final day of Web 2.0, a gathering of something like 8,000 people who are involved in shaping the future web. He was sans black turtle neck in case you were wondering. And that bong thing in the cartoon is a piece of pure imagination according to the creator.

So for those of you who don't know who fake Steve Jobs is, let me give you some of the back story.

Dan LyonsFake Steve Jobs is a really cool guy named Dan Lyons who actually has a grown up job as an editor at Forbes Magazine. He got the idea for the blog after being totally lambasted for writing a piece in the mag about bloggers and how awful they were.

Too young to retire and too old to start all over again. He is only fortysomething by the way. But he says he could sniff a seismic shift in the media world and he knew it was time to change or die. He saw that blogging was growing in popularity and he thought he would give it a whirl and at least learn a new trick in the process.

That's when Dan hit a wall. He might have believed it was a really, really great idea but his bosses at Forbes didn't. So Dan thought, what the heck, I'll do one on my own and have fun with it at the same time. In the green room he told me that the inspiration for the 'fake' blog came from the diary that Craig Brown writes for Private Eye.

The reason for anonymity was also driven by fear. Fear that he would be kicked into touch by his bosses if they found out he was blogging. Dan says he never expected it to be so huge.

He told the Web 2.0 faithful that in no time he was getting 90,000 hits a week and then all of a sudden it just went on fire and a manhunt was started to unmask the fake Steve Jobs.

Some people even opined that the fake Steve was the real Steve taking the mickey out of the rest of the wired world. Suffice it to say, Dan says the Apple guru doesn't read the blog and he has never met the guy. He's also not so sure he wants to, given his reputation for ruthlessness.

But you know what they say about satire? The reason it works is because it cuts close to the bone and usually has a grain or two of truth in it.

To get where Steve Jobs is today, you need focus and a thick skin because the fake Steve isn't the kind of guy you want to take home to mama.

This 'benevolent dictator', as he styles himself in his profile, is arrogant, swears like a trooper, is mean, ruthless, bad-tempered, big headed, and full of it.

Dan on the other hand is this approachable, affable, funny guy who wants to be liked and is frankly likeable. He is social and mixes easily with people and waxes lyrical about his wife and twins back at home in Boston. Can you imagine the real Steve kicking back like that with mere mortals?

The truth is that not many people really know what the real Steve is like. His persona is so tightly controlled. He doesn't do interviews and you don't see him lapping up the celeb circuit. That's a good thing, by the way.

In fact this is indicative of the way Apple works.

Anyone in the media who has had to deal with Apple knows that it is easier to get the code for launching a nuclear warhead than find out ahead of time about new Apple products. And the fact that Dan portrayed the PR machine in his slideshow as a woman atop a tower armed with a gun overlooking Apple really chimed with the audience.

So did other illustrations such as Oracle CEO Larry Ellison as a pimp, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as Uncle Fester and the company's shifting of Vista as an elephant who has just pooped with the headline "Vista drops tomorrow".

Slagging off Microsoft always works at these conferences and had the crowd roaring with laughter.

While there is little doubt that Dan has had fun with his fake Steve Jobs life, he admits the blog 'is like a monkey' on his back. He also says that unlike British people who get satire and irony, a lot of Americans don't and are sometimes horrified by his blog.

Mind you he did reveal that Steve 'Woz' Wozniak who co-founded Apple with Jobs totally gets what the blog is about. Which must be something of a relief given his portrayal in it as a baboon - and the fact the two recently met. Dan says Woz introduced him on stage and they later exchanged T shirts. "He's just a cool guy. A regular bloke," says Dan.

Audrey HepburnBut back to the advice part of our conversation. Blogging is a daunting task to take on and Dan told me I should take a leaf out of his book and adopt the persona of someone I really admire. I said Audrey Hepburn, who I once interviewed, but I pointed out that she was dead. Dan said that was a plus because the dead can't sue. He also revealed that he is thinking about doing another blog in the guise of a dead person, though he wouldn't reveal who.

If you have any suggestions for fake personas let me know. I won't be allowed to do it, but it might be fun imagining what I would say in that person's voice.

And as to criticisms, Dan said I shouldn't do what he did initially which was to neuter them. He said all comment was good. Well all except the one he got from some guy who posted a fake Craigslist ad about him trawling for kinky sex.

Fame does indeed have its ups and downs.

Oh just in case you were wondering the fake Steve uses a Mac Air Book. Namaste!

Rory Cellan-Jones

Who's top of the tech chart?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 25 Apr 08, 13:45 GMT

Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Yahoo. All have published results over the last week that have been scrutinised closely for any clue about whether an economic downturn is likely to dampen spending on gadgets and software. What they all seem to show is a remarkably robust appetite for technology spending. But who's doing best? I've extracted one significant number from each set of results - and created a chart ranking the five in order of current achievement.

1. Nintendo.

Ninetendo Wii $2.48bn. That's Nintendo's profit for the last year. Not just a 48% rise on the previous year, but the biggest profit ever made by a games company. The Wii effect contunues to work its magic on a business which was thought doomed to irrelevance just a few years back - and is now one of Japan's most valuable companies. Will new games continue to refresh Nintendo's profits - or will the new audience of family gamers fade away when the novelty wears off?

2. Apple

Apple CEO Steve Jobs holds the MacBook Air2.29 million. That's how many Mac computers Apple sold in the last three months. Which reinforces our earlier blog posting about Apple's growth now being led by Macs - not iPods or iPhones. The iPod certainly did the job of making Apple matter again - but now as sales flatten off, it's the firm's success in winning converts to the Mac OS which is the real moneyspinner. Having expanded its following beyond the cult of Mac-lovers, Apple just needs to keep the newcomers interested with constant innovation. Easy....

3. Google

Google logo42%. That's how much the search firm's revenue was up in the last three months, compared with the start of 2007. A figure which confounded expectations of a slowdown in the remarkable Google growth story - and set the scene for a week of good news about the technology economy. As we reported, the firm is now Britain's biggest earner of advertising revenue, overtaking ITV. But one small shadow - Google's revenue in its home US market failed to grow much. Is that the first sign of a downturn in the US hitting the technology sector?

4. Microsoft

Microsoft sign$4.75bn. That was the revenue earned in three months by the Microsoft division which develops its Office software. Which goes to show that Microsoft's core products are still extraordinary moneyspinners. But that figure was actually a shade down on last year. And when I looked at the rubric which accompanies Microsoft's forecast of future earnings, one item stood out: "Actual results could differ materially because of factors such as challenges to Microsoft's business model". The real threat to its business model comes from the firm at number three in our chart - and that's why Microsoft wants to buy number five.

5. Yahoo

Yahoo logo
$27.30. That was the Yahoo share price on Thursday evening - about a dollar down on its level before Tuesday's results which actually exceeded market expectations. What that says is that the market does not believe Jerry Yang's promises of a better future as an independent company, nor is it betting on Microsoft coming up with an improved offer.

Let's have another look at the chart when these five next report earnings. By then, though, we may have to find a replacement for Yahoo.

Darren Waters

Introducing our new SF reporter

  • Darren Waters
  • 24 Apr 08, 16:30 GMT

The observant among you will have noticed a new byline cropping up in our news stories and features of late.

Maggie ShielsMaggie Shiels is the BBC's new technology reporter based in San Francisco and she's been tasked with reporting from one of the great hotbeds of innovation in the world. Obviously, every one of us who writes about technology and is based in London is green with envy.

Her presence in Silicon Valley strengthens our journalism and hopefully gets us closer to the stories that matter most to you.

Given her enviable position, it made sense to include her as one of the dot.life bloggers. So she'll be joining Rory and myself as a contributor.

Welcome Maggie.

Maggie Shiels

About Maggie Shiels

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 24 Apr 08, 16:22 GMT

Being based in Silicon Valley for the BBC, I am in the greatest part of the world when it comes to innovation and technology. And that makes me one of the luckiest people in this business; to be in the eye of the storm when it comes to reporting on the next and the new that will change all of our lives.

I have worked for the BBC in many guises - from presenting Newsbeat on Radio 1 to working for Breakfast News. And from fronting news programmes on Radio Scotland to working as a stringer in the Bay area for five years from 2000.

One of my most 'notable' achievements was interviewing Audrey Hepburn and Spinal Tap. Not together I hasten to add, but that would have been some double act.

My timing seems to be impeccable, whatever way you look at it. I arrived in the Valley at the height of the frenzy of the dotcom boom - the days when companies that were going public threw lavish parties and spent a couple of million dollars on getting bands like the B-52s to rock the night away with them.

I watched and reported on its rise and peak and then its 'surprising' crash. I know, it seems odd looking back that no one took on board the fact that whatever goes up must come down.

I left San Francisco and the Bay Area after the 2004 general election and I did a bit of traveling after that with my partner before landing back in Scotland for a while.

This is my second stint here. And again I come back at an important time in the industry with the rise of web 2.0 and of social networking. Oh and did I mention there is another election that is really setting the heather on fire?

Talking of heather, I am also a Scot. I mention that apropos of nothing really, except that it might be of interest. Or not.

For excitement and relevance in the world of technology, the Bay area is simply bursting with ideas, talent, energy, and an amazing can-do attitude. People really believe they can change the world here and if their first idea is a bust, they just pick themselves up and keep on trying.

My son is nearly three years old and I look at how he interacts with the technology we have around us in our home. To him it's all part of the fabric of his life. He knows what to do with a computer, a remote control and a mobile phone.

It is that ease with which he treats all this gadgetry around him that makes me realise more than anything, I have to keep up with him or I am sunk. And if I want to get an edge over him, then this is where it is at.

And I am over the moon to be here and to be able to keep you as plugged in as I can with what is going on, and report on just who it is that is shaping our world.

Darren Waters

What kind of net do we want?

  • Darren Waters
  • 24 Apr 08, 14:51 GMT

Is the future of the internet threatened by a return to closed and proprietorial attitude to networks and connected devices?

That is the central thesis of Professor Jonathan Zittrain's recently published book: The Future of the Internet And How To Stop It.

It's a great title. And a great central question to pose to readers.

Zittrain is the Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University and co-founder of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society - which essentially means he's worth paying attention to.

I've just posted a feature based on an interview with him, which you can read here.

In the book he gives a great précis of the net's origins and points out the great strength and weakness of the net - that its open architecture allows for incredible innovation but also leaves it open to attack and assault from malicious hackers.

He argues that the weakness is a price worth paying and questions whether the security that closed services like Xbox Live and devices like the iPhone offer is too high a price for the lack of innovation.

Do we want a return to centralised innovation, he asks.

Well, do we? Do you feel the open net, with its viruses and malware, should give way to a more centralised series of networks, which are perhaps more robust?

Darren Waters

What does Live Mesh mean?

  • Darren Waters
  • 23 Apr 08, 09:22 GMT

Lots has already been written about Live Mesh, Microsoft's newly-announced web platform for devices and applications. You can read our story here.

_44592524_mesh226.jpgIf you want more background I'd also suggest Cnet's excellent FAQ and Zdnet's Mary Jo Foley on Ten Things To Know About Mesh.

We'll be getting some reaction to Live Mesh from the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco later today.

But quite a few things struck me immediately about Mesh.

First of all, it's a platform: That's important because it means developers can grow Mesh as a service, adding more devices, more applications. Microsoft promises an "open data model and protocols". Let's wait and see just how open these prove to be and what constraints are put on third-party developers.

The platform will be hosted on Microsoft's data centres: More and more of our digital lives are being hosted on data centres owned by largely faceless corporations, be they Microsoft, Google or Yahoo. Customers are going to be need more robust privacy assurances about our data; how is it stored, transmitted, encrypted, backed up?

If I were to ditch Mesh as a service, can I be sure that Microsoft eliminates any trace of my data from its servers? I'm not saying there's any reason to be suspicious - but we need to ask the questions.

Mesh will work on Windows and Mac: Microsoft looks like it is finally waking up to the fact that it cannot tie the web experience into the use of Windows. Microsoft is beginning to articulate the web as an operating system in its own right; an open platform of applications and services that sits about the traditional OS layer, be in Windows or OS X.

For too long the cash cows of Microsoft, Windows and Office have also been inhibiting its freedom in the web space. Microsoft has been torn between a business model which ties people to specific platforms, and a realisation that the web is turning everything on its head.

In a strategic memo delivered to staff this week Ray Ozzie wrote: "Over the past 10 years, the PC era has given way to an era in which the web is at the center of our experiences."

This might sound like common sense - but it's a huge statement for Microsoft to make.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Has Yahoo done enough?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 22 Apr 08, 23:13 GMT

This is when the rubber hits the road." That was how someone close to the Microsoft/Yahoo contest put it to me recently, looking forward to tonight's first quarter results from Yahoo.
yahoo_google_times_sq.jpg
Both sides saw these numbers as just about the last play in their battle of nerves. Microsoft has given Yahoo until Saturday to make an agreed deal or face a hostile bid at a lower price. Disappointing figures would leave Yahoo's board with no place to hide, good numbers might give it a breathing space.

So now Yahoo has come out with figures that beat market expectations. Analysts predicted a 12% rise in first quarter revenues to $1.32billion, and Yahoo delivered a 14% rise on the year to $1.35 billion. First reaction came pinging to my laptop in an excited Twitter from the leading technology blog Techcrunch: "Wow, Yahoo revenue way high!" Now, giving the market $30 million more than it expected is fine - but is it really that spectacular?

jerry_yang.jpg"CEO and founder Jerry Yang certainly thought so. He began Yahoo's conference call with analysts by saying how proud he was of results that were "all the more remarkable given the economic climate and the uncertainty created by Microsoft's unsolicited bid".

He went on to repeat Yahoo's message that Microsoft was trying to buy it on the cheap - and that the board had a cunning plan to maximise shareholder value by pursuing alternative options.

No new revelations though about what those alternatives may be. But his colleagues then chimed in with glowing reports of progress in executing the new strategy Mr Yang brought in last year. That included the goal of sharpening up its performance in search to compete more effectively with Google - which has apparently now been achieved. So why then has Yahoo felt the need to start a trial of Google's AdSense technology?

And one quarter of good figures do not make a trend. After all, Google's revenue for the same quarter was $5.2 billion, up 42%, so the gap between it and Yahoo has widened further. I've just searched out the figures from the same quarter in 2004. Back then Google's revenues hit $652 million, just behind Yahoo's $758 million. Just four years on, Google hauled in four times as much cash as Yahoo. Who's betting on that gap closing any time soon?

So perhaps these figures don't change the game much. Yahoo is still being backed into a corner by its giant unwelcome suitor, and nobody is rushing to its rescue. Let's see what happens to the share price when the market opens on Wednesday.

Google shares soared by 20% after its spectacular figures last week. If there's no sharp rise in the Yahoo price, the market will be sending a message to Jerry Yang and his board that it is time to fall into Microsoft's arms.

Oh, and by the way - a quick message from me to those investment analysts on the Yahoo conference call. When you get half an hour with the man at the centre of the biggest takeover battle the technology world has seen, wouldn't it be a good idea to ask him whether or not he's talking to Steve Ballmer?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Intel Classmate - the Rufus review

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 21 Apr 08, 22:49 GMT

The great thing about children is the fresh eye they bring to, well, just about everything.

Take computers, for instance. Most adults are now likely to have quite strong feelings about different operating systems and if you present a Mac fan with a Windows machine - or vice versa - they will be prepared to hate it even before they've booted up.

But when I returned from Nigeria last year with the XO laptop presented to me by the One Laptop Per Child team in Abuja, my nine-year-old son Rufus did not say "Dad, it's a Linux machine you idiot, I can't be doing with that open-source nonsense."

Instead he took it away and went on a voyage of discovery. Without any prompting from me - all I did was enter the household wireless key so he could get online - he quickly discovered all kinds of ways of communicating and creating with the XO.

So, having cut his teeth on one laptop aimed at the children of the developing world, we asked him to try out its rival, the Intel Classmate. And once again, he had no preconceptions.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

"Oooh it's blue," was his only comment, when I handed over the laptop, and from then on the Classmate was "the blue one", the XO "the green one". He got straight to work. The Classmate runs Windows XP, which was familiar from school.

"It acts just like a normal Windows computer," he said. "Of course you can use 'Paint' and 'Write' - and everyone knows Internet Explorer." Actually, Rufus is more used to Apple's Safari browser, and thinks Google is how you search, but he was not disconcerted to find himself on the MSN home page once he had launched Explorer.

Asked to enter a search term, he immediately chose "games", which was a bit of a clue to his main field of electronic interest. And what really grabbed his attention on the Classmate was the opportunity to play.

"There are some very exciting games. Minesweeper, and 3D Pinball - which is a bit noisy - and a whole lot of internet games which you play with other people. There's also Solitaire and Hearts and a game called Freecell which I'm not quite sure how to work."

When I pointed out to him that he was really just using the laptop as a games machine he insisted he had also found out how to study. There is some educational material on the Classmate, including the Maths Toolkit, but, after leaving it with Rufus for a couple of days, I saw no evidence that it had been much used.

Intel says the laptop has been "optimised for the classroom", so perhaps it needs the input of a teacher to get a young user like Rufus more engaged.

rufusclassmate203.jpgSo how did the Classmate compare with the XO - which in the accompanying video is being used by Rufus's best friend Tyler Woodstock? They both have built-in cameras, but Rufus noticed some differences: "On the camera on the green one you can actually record videos and take pictures, but on the blue one you can only see your face."

I was convinced that Rufus must have missed out on an image capture button on the Classmate, but neither of us could find it, so even if it is there, it lacks the usability of the XO camera.

The mesh networking that magically delivered conversations on the XO with Peruvian children is apparently also a feature of the Classmate too but Rufus failed to find any means of communicating - either email, or instant messaging. Nor did he get immersed in anything like the animation programme Etoys which he loved on the XO.

But the Classmate did feel chunkier and more robust than the XO, with a keyboard Rufus seemed to find more comfortable for typing, and he also liked the bright screen.

So what is his advice to prospective buyers? "People who like games might find the blue laptop more interesting, while people who want to learn and do peaceful things would like the green laptop."

Hmm, those "peaceful things" sound good to me. But if he had to choose between the two laptops which one gets his vote? "Both of them are good at different things. And I like both these things." Ah, ever the impartial reporter, refusing to give an outright endorsement to one product - either that or chronically indecisive. Now where does he get that from?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Mobile broadband - a spat over speed

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 21 Apr 08, 15:50 GMT

How fast can you go with one of those dongles that give you mobile broadband and which have had an extarordinary impact on the data flowing across mobile networks? A war of words has broken out over the speed issue, with one mobile network reporting another to the Advertising Standards Authority.

vodafonestick203.jpgThe row is over Vodafone's big promotion of its mobile broadband offering which promises speeds of "up to 7.2 Mbps". The complaint comes from 3 - a much smaller operator than Vodafone, but one even keener to flog its own wireless broadband offering.

3 says the ads give the impression that users can (and will) reach speeds of 7.2Mbps, whereas that is extremely rare - if not impossible. It says it's advising its own customers that they'll get 1-2Mbps on a 7.2Mbps dongle.

A quick call to Vodafone reveals that they agree that 7.2Mbps is very unlikely, though they claim that in exceptional circumstances users may get that speed in "momentary bursts". They claim that they offer a more solid and reliable service than their rivals - indeed they pointed me towards customer reviews which said the Vodfaone service was a lot faster than that offered by 3.

Their best guess for the speed customers will actually experience is "between 1 and 5Mbps", and they say users are happy about that. "We do manage expectations in our promotional material and at point of sale," a spokeswoman told me.

3dongle_207.jpgI popped into a Vodafone store for one of their brochures and could not find any of that "expectation management" apart from some very small print that says "subject to network coverage." So will the Advertising Standards Authority wave a big stick at Vodafone?

Unlikely in the extreme.

After all, when there was similar criticism of the way fixed broadband speeds were advertised, the ad watchdog batted the complaints back to the media regulator Ofcom. A spokeswoman at the ASA told me the issue was "very complicated", indicating it was well nigh impossible to work out a fair way of describing likely broadband speeds when there were so many variables.

gavindandstacey203.jpgMany of you may say that most customers are now so clued up that they will know that "up to 7.2Mbps" actually means around 2Mbps out there in the real world. Well, maybe, but the real problem is that the mobile operators are now beginning to market their offerings as a real alternative to fixed-line broadband.

So what those who are pondering giving up the fixed line really need to know is this - if I'm watch streaming video on my laptop at home, will a 7.2Mbps dongle give me something roughly similar to 8Mbps fixed broadband? Or will Gavin and Stacey freeze in mid-flow?

Darren Waters

Is it lift off for Linux?

  • Darren Waters
  • 21 Apr 08, 12:13 GMT

I had a very interesting conversation with Mr Ubuntu, aka Mark Shuttleworth, at the end of last week and you can read the resulting news story here.

080421_shuttleworth432.jpgHis main point was that Linux, and use of Ubuntu, was on the rise. He also had lots of interesting things to say about open source more broadly, the Microsoft-Yahoo deal etc, which I thought I'd detail here as a Q&A.

Q: Will a combined Microsoft-Yahoo deal impact on the open source world?

Mark Shuttleworth: It will be very interesting for Microsoft, if the deal goes through. They will have 20,000 people (at Yahoo) who are firm free software advocates reporting to Steve Ballmer.

That is going to change Microsoft culture in a healthy way. Talking to Microsoft employees I get the sense they realise they can't transform that company into a Windows-based company without killing it.

It will be healthy for them because they will be in the same position as their customers - having to use open source software alongside proprietorial software and finding appropriate places to do each of these things.

That will make them a more normal company

Q: How is Linux innovating beyond the desktop?

Mark Shuttleworth: We are seeing a lot of innovation in the consumer electronics area - all driven by Linux.

Motorola, for example, has said that 60% of their phones will be running on Linux within three years. I expect that figure to not stop at 60%. It will power on right past that.

The majority of the new small phone manufacturers are a real hotbed of innovation in China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan and are using Linux as a platform.

It suggests that Linux enables anyone to innovate. One of the harshest criticisms I ever saw coming from the proprietorial software world of Linux was that it only copied the ideas that had already been proved in the commercial software world.

This is quite deeply offensive to anyone who has been close to the open source. If you look at all the innovation in internet itself, which is largely powered by free software, and then if you look at the innovation placed on top of that - everything from YouTube to Facebook, eBay, Amazon, Google - these extraordinarily innovative technology companies are really powered by free software.

Now increasingly we are seeing innovation happening on things that every day consumers use, like Firefox.

If you look at innovation in the web browser - Firefox faced a long walk in the desert as it reached for feature parity with Internet Explorer. But once it reached that it became an extraordinary hotbed of innovation.

Anybody who had interesting idea about how to make the browser better could build that as a Firefox extension.

Q: What impact can open source have in the commercial world?

Mark Shuttleworth: Open source is the key. The tech industry has tended towards natural monopolies, towards a single company which comes to dominate the whole platform - it's true of databases, true of operating systems, of every category of software, due to the network effect.

Open source is the very best defence we have against that underlying tendency.

Q: What are the common misconceptions of open source and Linux?

Mark Shuttleworth: One of the key things is that end users are very often not aware that a particular piece of software is open source or not - and that's a good thing.

For example, when people sit down in front of an Apple computer [they don't know that] a lot of key capabilities are produced as open source.

Folks should adopt the best software for themselves. Increasingly that's open source.

I'm willing to bet the majority of people in the UK are running Linux in the home if they have a set top box or digital photo frame, or wireless access point.

The vast majority of those devices are powered by Linux. And the economics of them only possible because of open source.

Q: What do you make of Microsoft's assertion that Linux infringes many of the firm's patents?

Mark Shuttleworth: Microsoft has said there might be patent infringements but haven't said which patents Linux/Ubuntu might infringe.

Anybody who works in the Linux industry is very confident that if Microsoft were able to say which patent issue needs to be addressed then Linux folks would either invalidate that patent or find a way to implement Linux without trampling on that intellectual property.

There's no culture of piracy in the Linux community. It does everyone a bit of a disservice when Microsoft characterises the open source community as being cavalier with intellectual property.

In fact, the open source community is extremely respectful of intellectual property rules.

It's disingenuous of Microsoft to say there are patent issues and then refuse to say what they are. It looks to me like they are trying to create an element of uncertainty.

Q: Will you be returning to space in the future?

Mark Shuttleworth: I'd really like to. I expect to. It's a great privilege and not something I'd want to squander.

I feel I have to do some other things on earth that justify me taking up a precious seat.

I stay in fairly close contact with folks who run the Nasa and Russian projects so if the right opportunity comes up...

Rory Cellan-Jones

Twitter at the tipping point

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 19 Apr 08, 09:42 GMT

Suddenly everyone is talking Twitter. Just as Facebook hit the mainstream a year ago, so the short message social network has become the media flavour of this month - to such an extent you can even find me talking about it on the Today programme.

But I'm not convinced that Twitter is really going to spread in the way Facebook did, beyond the digerati into millions of people's lives. What's more, I'm struggling to understand the business model.

The appeal of Twitter - and the thing that has persuaded me to spend more time there than on other social networks - is that it distills the essence of Facebook and chucks away most of the annoying stuff.

I'd long tired of all the poking, vampires, SuperWalls and countless applications which cluttered up what was once a clean interface. What I still value is the status updates which allow me to see at a glance what my friends - and distant acquaintances - are up to, and that is what I get on Twitter.

I first joined a year ago, then ditched it after protests from a wife driven mad by my constantly tweeting phone. I've reactivated it in the last month after noticing how many Facebook friends were linking to their Twitter updates. This time around, using a desktop application called Twhirl, and another Twitter app on my phone's browser, has made the whole service more flexible and attractive - and less noisy.

Mind you, the only people I'm really finding there at the moment are what you might call the hardcore technology crowd. I've just glanced through the list of 50 Twitterers I'm following right now, and they're almost exclusively other technology journalists, bloggers, entrepreneurs, BBC colleagues and other vaguely techie types. So I'm still visiting Facebook to keep abreast of what the rest of my social circle is doing.

Unlike Facebook, whose tipping point came as students left college and spread it through the workplace, Twitter shows few signs of breaking out of its core demographic. The non-tech people I talk to about it still don't get the point.

Now this may not matter if the million or so regular users (that's the best guess I've seen) make up a prosperous, focused community who can be served targeted advertising. But so far Twitter has not pushed any advertising at its users, and it is difficult to see where - on a service which is all about using limited space to communicate - it will find the real estate to place marketing messages.

Now despite the chillier wind blowing through the technology investment scene, Ning, a site which enables users to create their own social networks, has just raised new capital at a valuation of $500 million. It has apparently found that targeting advertising to its myriad of micro-communities is a lucrative path to follow, with each of those networks sharing in the revenue.

Ning had an advertising-based business model from the start, but it's far more difficult to introduce ads to a bunch of people who've grown used to a nice clean service, where they can concentrate on communicating. Just ask Facebook.

Apparently Twitter's managers are indeed wary about antagonising users with advertising, and are talking instead of marketing premium accounts to businesses who would use it to communicate with Twitterers like me. I don't think that is going to be any more attractive to the community.

I shared a communal cold shiver with a fellow technology journalist the other day when a PR firm started "following" both of us on Twitter. It's the eternal problem for social networking entrepreneurs. The minute they start to try to "monetise" their users, they risk eroding the very thing that this community values - clean, noise-free communication.

So I'm sure we will be talking about Twitter a lot in the coming months. But unless its founders find a way to make money from all that twittering by the end of this year, the conversation could die.

Darren Waters

May the force be with you

  • Darren Waters
  • 18 Apr 08, 13:57 GMT

Forget multi-touch, or tilt control accelerometers... Microsoft researchers have been working on force sensing technology that would let you bend/twist/stretch/squeeze your handheld device in order to control it.

The research has been carried out at Microsoft's Cambridge lab by James Scott, Lorna Brown and Mike Molloy. You can read their research paper here (pdf). All the images in this post come from the research paper.umpc228.gif

The technology allows users to apply force to their portable device in order to carry out on-screen actions, such as flip a page in a document or switching between applications.

The researchers noted that more and more devices are becoming, in effect, large screens, with fewer physical buttons. They believe the technology could work in parallel with existing human computer interfaces, like multi-touch and tilt.

The technology uses four sensors that are embedded into the casing of the device so it does not have to be made out of special flexi-material.

twist228.gif

The authors state: "With force sensing, the user interacts with the casing of the device, turning an otherwise passive component that just holds the device together into an active input surface."

To research the tech, the scientists made a prototype using a Samsung UMPC and gave visual and audio feedback to the user when applying force.

The scientists wrote: "The current prototype provides a click sound when enough force is applied to reach the end of the animation and lock in the new view.

"We plan to incorporate richer audio cues in future, eg cues which also match the physical action taken such as a crumpling sound or page-flicking sound."

The scientists noted: "Compared to shaking or tilting the device or using a touch screen, force sensing allows the screen to be kept at the most natural viewing angle and un-obscured."

The report makes some recommendations about changes needed to the sensors used as well as some conclusions about how much force is needed to be employed.

For example, should more force equate to a quicker pace of action, such as turning the page?

They concluded: "It allows mobile devices to avoid using up valuable form factor space on keys and therefore to be smaller, and it turns the passive casing into an active input thus maximising the utility of the whole surface area of the device."

So what do you think? Do you feel the force?

Darren Waters

The iPod tax resurfaces

  • Darren Waters
  • 17 Apr 08, 19:20 GMT

I completely missed this story earlier in the week - so my thanks to the Guardian and others who reported it.

Essentially the British Phonographic Industry - that's the UK record industry - is arguing that there should be a tax on devices that allow you to format shift.

You can read the BPI's letter here.

They are asking for a license to be levied on every device that facilitates format shifting - ie copying.

The letter says:

Enormous value is derived by those technology companies and manufacturers who enable consumers to copy. UK creators and rights owners are legally entitled to share in this value - as they hold the exclusive right to reproduce their music - but are currently excluded from the value chain.

My hunch is that most ordinary readers of this blog will find this suggestion laughable.

But I would love to hear from a musician, an artist, a band who feel this suggestion has merit.

Not a producer, or publisher, or record label - but the creative talent, the song-writer, the session musician etc.

Please - if you are one of those and feel that the ability to copy a track from a CD to an iPod is taking food from your table, then let us know.

After all, the BPI purports to represent you.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Google - about to overtake ITV

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 17 Apr 08, 18:09 GMT

Over the last three years I've made frequent visits to Google's London offices opposite Victoria station - and every time I go back the search firm seems to have filled more space.

This week the funky offices and the free canteen were sparsely populated but only because just about the whole London workforce had gone off on the annual Google ski trip.google_canteen432.jpg

And what are most of the eager young Googlers doing? Selling advertising or talking to Britain's biggest brands about how they can move more of their marketing budget online.

Because it's easy to forget that as well as being an extraordinarily innovative firm, Google is also rapidly becoming Britain's biggest advertising business. The latest figures - released on Thursday evening - show how rapidly it is growing in the UK, earning $803 million (about £407m) in the first three months of 2008, about 40% up on a year ago.

Let's put that into context. Last year, ITV's net advertising revenue was £1.5 billion. So, even if you just multiply Google's earnings by four and assume no further growth this year, Britain's biggest commercial television business - the original "licence to print money" - is about to be overtaken by an American upstart which only arrived in the UK in 2001.

google_staff203.jpgYou could not ask for a starker example of the threat to traditional media from the online world.

Marc Mendoza - whose media buying agency is putting a lot of its clients' budgets online - tells me that Google now has about 80% of the UK online advertising market. It turns out he's referring to search, where Google has crushed all opposition, and of course there are other forms of online marketing.

Still, the latest figures I've seen put total UK online ad spending at around £2.8 billion last year, of which Google had nearly half. That's a stunning share, and with the acquisition of DoubleClick now completed, Google looks set to be bigger in display too. The company's founders were also sounding very bullish in their results conference call about their prospects in the mobile advertising market.

So who's got a problem with this? Microsoft, obviously - that's why it is determined to win its battle for Yahoo. With an infinitesimal share of online advertising, it is paranoid that the Google business model has more of a future.

But here in the UK, the internet service providers are desperate to shore up their wafer-thin subscription revenues with some advertising cash. That's why they're looking seriously at Phorm's web tracking software which promises to serve up targeted ads.

At an open meeting this week Phorm's chief executive was hammering home the message that there needed to be an alternative to Google.

All those young Googlers in their multi-coloured Victoria offices signed up to an edgy, radical business which was admired - even loved - by the rest of the industry. Now, though, Google has grown into the biggest kid on the block, and is eating everyone else's lunch. I don't think there's going to be much love flowing its way from now on.

Darren Waters

Toys leave me a-twitter

  • Darren Waters
  • 17 Apr 08, 16:13 GMT

I've been using Twitter a lot recently, thanks to the application Twhirl.

twhirl.gifIt's powered by Adobe AIR, which means it runs on both Macs and Windows, and makes using Twitter more pleasurable because it lives outside the browser in an "always-on" fashion.

As soon as a Twitter friends drops a new post I get a little chime and it appears in the Twhirl window.

But just as I was enjoying Twhirl, along came Alert Thingy - another AIR application that makes using FriendFeed more of a pleasure.

And because FriendFeed is a composite of many online tools, including Twitter, I've since switched to Alert Thingy.

But now I've just learned that Twhirl now supports FriendFeed too.

So... every few seconds my laptop chirrups and chimes with new Tweets and new FriendFeed alerts from both applications.

It's a battle of the hyper-connected, AIR-powered tools.

Ultimately it means keeping up-to-date with the minutiae of people's lives has never been easier; if you're into that sort of thing.

Oh - and both Twhirl and Alert Thingy are great demonstrations of just how cool Air applications can be.

PS: Just to repeat what I added to the bottom of my earlier post, the BBC has now upgraded its blogging software so that, amongst other things, it better withstands the volume of comments we get. From today if you want to comment on any BBC blog you will need to register first. You can read more about this on the Editors' blog.

Darren Waters

First impressions: Classmate 2

  • Darren Waters
  • 17 Apr 08, 15:19 GMT

id="showplayer"> type="application/x-shockwave-flash">

I'm writing this post on one of Intel's new generation of laptops designed for the developing world - the Classmate PC - and it's quite a task, mainly because my fat fingers are too large for the keyboard.

This is the machine that arguably ended Intel's relationship with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), makers of the XO laptop. According to Intel, OLPC wanted the firm to stop making the Classmate. Intel refused and pulled out of their deal.

Whatever the truth - the Classmate is definitely a rival to the XO's ambitions in the developing world generally and in education in particular

I've been playing with the Classmate for a few days and my first impression is that the two laptops herald from polar opposite philosophies about how to end the digital divide.

We've written lots about the XO and the first Classmate, so I won't repeat myself.

Certainly, the Classmate 2 is exactly the sort of machine you would expect a commercially driven firm to make for the developing world.

It's a cut-price, cut-down laptop that runs XP moderately well, and connects to the net without a hitch. In fact, it accomplishes most tasks thrown at it without a hitch and its underpowered processor only really struggles when it is attempting to multi-task.

It has been designed with education and the developing world in mind, says Intel, and yes, there are a small number of unique features. It has mesh networking - so that laptops can piggyback their wireless and create ad hoc networks.

But this feels like a feature pilfered from the XO and added only because it was such a glaring oversight in the first machine.

When you first connect to a wireless network it searches for other teachers' laptops on the network. It also comes with a nifty handle velcro-ed on to the machine for carrying and has a "water resistant" keyboard.

But that's about it, to be honest. It's small, well-made, quite rugged, with a decent keyboard and decent screen, albeit in only 800x400 resolution.

The key difference between the Classmate and XO is the different approach to software and operating system.

The XO comes with a variation of Linux installed - a user interface designed specifically for education, and applications built to support the educational environment.

The Classmate machine I'm using comes with XP loaded as standard - but there are options to have Linux.

And while there are plans afoot to port XP to the XO machine, it remains by and large a Linux machine.

There is educational software pre-loaded onto the Classmate machine and a teacher can monitor the work of children from a host machine.

The use of Windows gives the Classmate a recognition and sense of security to governments and educators looking to buy laptops for schools.

After all, Windows is the world's most dominant operating system.

So what else has changed with the second generation Classmate laptop?

Not much: the second gen laptop now has two models (7 inch and 9 inch screen) and has a built-in webcam.

It's clear the re-design of the Classmate is more about making the machine more design friendly to consumers and educators in the developed world than improving the internals of the machine.

Last year nine-year-old Rufus Cellan-Jones gave his impressions of the XO laptop. We've given him a 7-inch model and expect his comments some time next week.

The machines go on sale for between $300 and $500, which is a lot more expensive than an XO, more expensive than an Asus EEE PC and probably a lot more than many educators can afford to pay.

Nicholas Negroponte's dream of one laptop per child - whether an XO or a Classmate, is still some way off.

PS: The BBC has now upgraded its blogging software so that, amongst other things, it better withstands the volume of comments we get. From today if you want to comment on any BBC blog you will need to register first. You can read more about this on the Editors' blog.

Darren Waters

The Phorm privacy debate - London

  • Darren Waters
  • 15 Apr 08, 18:33 GMT

I'm at the Phorm privacy meeting in London, where the creators of the controversial online ad system are coming face to face with some of their most vocal critics.

I'll be blogging throughout the meeting with key impressions and writing a report on the meeting for Wednesday's news pages.

UPDATE 20.43:
That's a wrap. News story up tomorrow morning.

UPDATE 20.12:
Mr Hanff says: "Phorm has to be opt in. You can't take implied consent on a human right."

Mr Hanff argued that privacy is a human right.

He added: "I'm concerned about the potential future use of the technology and the potential for creep."

UPDATE 20.06:
The final speaker is Alexander Hanff, someone who has campaigned against Phorm.

He says: "What Phorm is trying to do is to turn people into products; a global warehouse selling pieces of us to highest bidders."

UPDATE 19.53:
Phorm's technical officer Mark Burgess takes to the stage.

He emphasises that Phorm does not "compromise the user experience".

After concerns raised that Phorm can cause some page requests bouncing back and forth between the destination website and the Phorm system, he says that happens in less than 1% of the browsing experience.

UPDATE 19.45:
The mood of the meeting is very good. There are about 100 people here, in case you wondered.

UPDATE 19.38:
Dr Clayton wraps up saying: "It has to be informed opt in. I don't think it improves the stability of the internet. I think it's downright illegal in the UK."

UPDATE 19.25:
Dr Richard Clayton, who has said Phorm is potentially illegal, says Phorm is making the internet more dangerous and not safer.

He also says the system is counter intuitive because it uses a cookie to opt out, not opt in.

"Deleting cookies means you delete the cookie that opted you out and so you opt in. This is backwards and not helpful."

UPDATE 19.17:
Mr Ertugrul concludes by tackling the issue of legality and whether Phorm breaches RIPA because it makes an ilegal interception of people's browsing.

He makes the point that the body which is questioning Phorms's legality with respect to RIPA is the same body which attacked RIPA when it was first being proposed by government.

UPDATE 19.02:
Kent Ertugrul says Phorm can transform online advertising, helping everyone from blogs to newspapers because the ads are targeted to the user not to the content on the page.

"The internet today is two to three professionals - Microsoft/Yahoo/Google and 9,999,999 hobbyists. That is the internet today.

"Phorm makes all websites capable of making a living by publishing interesting content to consumers who get it for free.

"Even the smallest website can make money. That is a big deal."

UPDATE 18.53:
Phorm CEO Kent Ertugrul takes to the stage.

"We're saying this is a revolution in privacy. And I hope to convince you of that.

"We cannot know who you are - it's impossible."

UPDATE 18.44:
Simon Davies, of 80/20 Thinking, which carried out a privacy impact assessment on Phorm, introduces the session.

"This meeting cannot possible resolve the issue of legality. It's the elephant in the room.

"But unless there are senior legal counsel here to reflect we will end up with a bunfight.

"It's a crucial issue. But I don't want us to get bogged down in a legal quagmire that results in us having no outcome."

He added: "Hopefully at the end we can reach some sort of conclusion about how to move forward."

UPDATE 18.37:
PR exercise or genuine attempt to engage with the public? Perhaps both?

Attendees are handed a document from Phorm upon entering the meeting which compares Phorm with major search engines.

It makes the point that Phorm does not store any personal data while search engines do.

It's a fair point. But it's not the point that critics have been making for some weeks now.

They question if it's legal. They question the ethics of having an ISP snooping on your browsing activity full stop.

PS: From 1800 UK time this evening (16 April), we'll be doing some essential maintenance to all of the BBC's blogs. As a result of this, you won't be able to leave any comments on our blog posts from that time until early morning on Thursday, 17 April.
There's more about this on the editors' blog from Giles Wilson.

Rory Cellan-Jones

iPhone price cut - weakness or strength?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 15 Apr 08, 15:40 GMT

O2 has announced it's cutting the price of the 8GB iPhone from £269 to £169. It's a big surprise, somewhat reminiscent of the one third price cut Apple introduced two months after its American launch. Those who've bought an iPhone in the last two weeks will get £100 back.

But the difference is this - it appears to be simply an O2 promotion, with Carphone Warehouse joining in, without any involvement from Apple. I've just confirmed with them that the price at the Apple store will stay the same - so there are going to be plenty of unsold iPhones stacking up there.

Apple won't say whether it is cutting the price it charges O2 for the phone, but I'd be amazed if it is lopping £100 off. So why is O2 giving away what must be all of its profit margin? A spokesman at the mobile operator reassures me that the phone has been its best-selling handset ever and this is simply a "promotion to maintain momentum".

The new 16GB version isn't coming down in price, so perhaps O2 has seen customers trading up and is worried that the 8GB version looks a bit dear.A woman walks past an iPhone advert in central London

But there has just been a massive and expensive-looking advertising campaign in the UK national newspapers, so it looks as though that may have been a waste of money. And the man at O2 admitted that “a lot of people who wanted it have now got it" and that the price has been holding some potential customers back.

So a few questions hang in the air.

What does Apple - notorious for controlling pretty strictly the pricing of its products - think of the behaviour of its sole UK operator? Has the iPhone, after a sparkling debut, turned into a sluggish seller in the UK? Or does this simply mean that the 3G iPhone will be arriving in June when O2's cut-price promotion ends?

Darren Waters

Who will determine the future of computing?

  • Darren Waters
  • 15 Apr 08, 14:30 GMT

In the last few months I've spoken to senior executives at companies like Intel, Nokia, ARM and Symbian and I'm beginning to think that a new front in the battle for computer dominance is emerging.

Essentially there appears to be two approaches emerging - a "bottom up" approach from companies like Nokia, Symbian and ARM, who are turning mobile phones into portable computers, and a "top down" approach from the likes of Intel who believe spin offs of desktop computer chip technology can power future portable devices, including phones.Nokia N810 WiMax web tablet

The middle ground that everyone is pitching for is the undoubted future of computing - the smartphone. In the not too distant future smartphone sales will overtake laptop sales, and in the medium term the power and capability of these phones will rival what we can do with laptops today.

But who will power these phones? Who will provide the wireless networks?

Intel dominates the desktop and laptop landscape and recently launched its Atom chip - aimed squarely at the portable device market.

Intel boss Paul Otellini has talked often about his vision for mobile internet devices - pocket computers with the power of a desktop able to give you the full internet experience wherever you are.

But he and Intel know full well that the Atom will need to dent the mobile phone market if it is to grab a slice of the emerging smartphone category.

Standing in the way of Intel is British firm ARM. At the moment ARM dominates the mobile space with about 98% of all handsets using at least one of the firm's chip designs. Six of ARM-designed chips are inside the iPhone, for example.

And the firm is soon moving to multi-core designs for its chips - significantly ramping up the power, while not sacrificing battery life.

So the big question is whether Intel has left it too late to try and crack the mobile market?

If the future of computing is determined by portable computers absorbing mobile phone functionality then Intel will probably win out.

But if mobile phone manufacturers produce devices powerful enough to rival laptops then it will probably be the likes of ARM and Nokia who will dominate.

But it's not just in chip design that the battle lines are being drawn up. These future devices will be able to move seamlessly between different wireless networks - from 3G, to Wi-Fi, and to 4G technologies like LTE and Wimax.

And on the one side we have Intel pitching Wimax as the 21st Century solution to our wireless needs, while Nokia is squarely behind LTE.

In reality the two may complement each other - just as 3G and Wi-Fi are beginning to.

But given the potential of both technologies - as high-speed, relatively long-distance networks - the battle for the airwaves may be just as fraught as the battle for future of our computers.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Dell - looks matter...

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 14 Apr 08, 15:14 GMT

Does Dell care about looks? Not just about the look and feel of its products - once derided as beige boxes by Steve Jobs - but about how it projects itself as a brand?

I ask because I've just returned from a slightly frustrating trip to meet Michael Dell. Now here is a man with a fascinating tale to tell about building a business from his college room that became a management school case-study for its production and direct sales skills. A man who then realised a year or so back that Dell was losing its way, and returned as chief executive to put things back on track.

So when Dell offered us an interview with their founder and second-time CEO, we jumped at the offer. The catch was that he was in Venice, glad-handing European customers, and we could only have 15 minutes.

Now whatever you might have heard about the extravagant budgets at the Beeb, it wasn't a no-brainer that my bosses would give the go-ahead for this trip. But they reckoned this was a great interview to get so we bought a couple of budget airline tickets and a one-day travelcard on the vaporetto and headed across the lagoon to the hotel where Dell was holding its shindig.

Then things began to go wrong. If you're interviewing the man in Venice you want it to look like Venice, right? No. We were shown to a conference room inside the Hilton where Mr Dell was staying. It was a perfectly nice room in a perfectly nice hotel, but it could just as well have been in Virginia, Vauxhall or Valencia as Venice. Looks certainly matter in television, and most companies understand that.

Okay - so maybe the schedule could be squeezed so that we could just pop outside before or after the interview for one shot of Mr D looking out at the glories of Venice? Not a chance, said the PR person,nor could we move to a room with a view over the lagoon.

Desperate to make things look more interesting, I suggested that Mr Dell could have with him an innovative product which would tell a story about where his company was heading - you may remember that Paul Otellini brought a jar of Intel's Atom chips into our recent interview, and Bill Gates was keen to show off his surface computer when we met in Las Vegas.

Good idea, said the PR woman, and a few minutes later came back with a tablet notebook computer. Fine, though the tablet is one innovation which seems to have proved about as popular as the wristwatch computer.

Maybe Michael Dell thinks the same, because five minutes later the PR returned with the message that "Michael thinks it would be a distraction." So no visual aids. Then there was the issue of time.

Now although we had been told it was just a 15 minute slot in Mr Dell's timetable, I have never known that not to stretch to half an hour once you've had time to put a microphone on the interviewee and then get a couple of editing shots afterwards.

What is more, Michael Dell had arrived 10 minutes head of his meticulously planned schedule. But just eight minutes into the interview the PR woman called out "three minutes left" and after 11 minutes I was obliged to stop.

In the short time we had, Mr Dell started with a list of numbers showing how brilliantly his business was performing and how well the new strategy was coming together - but it was only when we moved onto the subject of design that I felt we were getting to the heart of the issue.

Historically, most of Dell's revenue has come from supplying computers to companies, not consumers. The trouble is businesses - which used to lead consumers in adopting new technology - are now the laggards. How many of you now have a better computer with a more advanced operating system at home than at work? I know I do.

And, as Mr Dell conceded, businesses care more about security and reliability than looks. So had he woken up late to the importance of design?

I quoted a story I'd read about an executive who had suggested a few years back that Dell should offer a computer in a range of colours and been batted back by the boss. He was not amused by a tale he said was untrue: "It's a good story... however ill-informed or incorrect it may be." Anyway, nowadays, he insisted you could have his products in any colour you fancied, and they were winning design awards left, right and centre.

But when I asked what new products we could expect next from Dell, the answer was vague in the extreme.

Now it is true that Dell is spending more money and time thinking about the look and feel of its products, and winning some praise for the results. But if Dell really does believe that looks matter, shouldn't its PR department know a bit about making the boss look good on television?

Darren Waters

iPlayer on the PlayStation 3

  • Darren Waters
  • 14 Apr 08, 09:07 GMT

Last week I wrote about the BBC doing a deal with Nintendo to get the iPlayer on the Wii.

I also speculated about the reasons why Nintendo was the first of the current generation of consoles to get the iPlayer, rather than the 360 or PS3.

Top Gear on the iPlayerI felt that Microsoft's need to swallow the iPlayer into the Xbox Live network may have been a step too far for the BBC, while the situation with PS3 seemed a bit more opaque because a small tweak to the console's built-in browser should have the iPlayer up and running very easily.

Well, it looks like some enterprising PS3 owner has acted unprompted to get the iPlayer up and running on the PS3.

Type the URL ps3iplayer.com in a PS3 browser and it will play streaming iPlayer programmes.

I've not tried it myself but comments on some blogs report mixed success with getting it to work.

The creator of ps3iplayer.com also has some choice words for the BBC:

It's mainly a demonstration of how easily the BBC could support the PS3 with their Wii version. This does nothing more than mask your PS3's user-agent string and makes half a dozen changes to make the JavaScript and CSS function correctly on the PS3. It only took a day to produce, so come on BBC - how about implementing this properly?


UPDATE:

It's clear this development hasn't gone unnoticed inside the BBC. Anthony Rose, the BBC's head of of digital media technology, has written on our sister blog, the BBC Internet blog, about ps3iplayer.com

He's impressed. He also says iPlayer on PS3 is being investigated and will be launched officially "in due course".

I hope PS3 owners are pleased.

Darren Waters

Wii becomes home of online video

  • Darren Waters
  • 9 Apr 08, 19:09 GMT

How ironic that it is the Nintendo Wii, and not the Playstation 3 nor Xbox 360, that becomes the first of the current generation of consoles to have a truly dynamic range of online video content.

The BBC's announcement of a deal with Nintendo to put the iPlayer's streaming service on the console makes something of a mockery claims by Sony and Microsoft that their consoles are the true multimedia machines.

Forget please, if you will, that it is the BBC working with Nintendo and the fact I work for the BBC - it's not relevant to what I want to talk about.

BBC iPlayer logoIt's clear that the BBC has been talking to all console makers about the iPlayer. So why is the service on the Wii and not the PS3 or Xbox 360?

According to the Beeb's Erik Huggers it's because Sony and Microsoft wanted to "control" the iPlayer.

He said: "If you want to get on the PlayStation or Xbox, they want control of the look, the feel and the experience; they want it done within their shop, and their shop only."

Now what does that mean? Bearing in mind I only have one side of the story - I've asked Microsoft and Sony to respond to this - it would seem that Microsoft and Sony were placing too many demands on the corporation.

The streaming iPlayer is essentially a web service - it runs on Flash, near enough the world's most ubiquitous software development and so means any connected device that supports the right standard of Flash can play BBC content.

Both the Wii and PS3 have a web browser - and so in theory users could access the iPlayer directly.

But neither console - at present - support the form of Flash used in the iPlayer.

Clearly Nintendo is rectifying this - but is also going one stage further and offering a dedicated channel, which acts as a one click button to the iPlayer service.

Reading between the lines it would seem Microsoft was unwilling to work with the BBC unless it was given more control over how the content was accessed and presented inside Xbox Live, its walled garden online service.

It seems more puzzling for Sony to take this approach. It has said often that PS3 is an "open platform" and all it would take is a small update to let gamers access iPlayer in the web browser.

I think this is almost inevitable - and so Sony gamers shouldn't be too distraught.

For Microsoft the issue is more tricky because the 360 doesn't have a browser so any service has to "integrate" into Xbox Live.

I'm guessing that Microsoft wanted the content but not the iPlayer branding.

I also suspect that the BBC's free iPlayer service probably doesn't hold too much commercial interest for Microsoft because the company can't take a cut from the cost of rentals or downloads.

But given the paucity of video content on the European Xbox Live service, this would have been a quick win for the company.

What's more interesting is that the BBC's work with Nintendo has gone a step closer to achieving what many companies are working at - namely, bridging the gap between the web and the TV.

I suspect that ITV and Channel 4 will also be looking closely at how the BBC/Nintendo deal develops.

These are exciting times for online video - I feel we're close to a tipping point when it comes to people's use of and access to such video services.

From iTunes, to Channel 4's 4OD, ITV.com, iPlayer, PVRs, Joost and video on demand - TV will never be the same again.

UPDATE: I'm updating here because - as I'm sure you know - our comments system is a bit, ahem, flaky.

A couple of follow up points.

I may work for the BBC but I have no inside knowledge on the iPlayer. I don't work with the team, don't know them and I'm speculating as a journalist with the same kind of interest in online video as many of you have.

That said.... people have asked why the Wii gets a streaming service and there's still not a download version of iPlayer for Macs/Linux?

I have no idea. I'm guessing that it's because the Wii's streaming version of iPlayer is a quick win while a download version for Mac/Linux that has the type of DRM producers require to "protect" their content is a more involved process.

Some have also asked why the iPhone got a version of iPlayer when it doesn't support Flash.

As Anthony Rose explained...

it's because the iPhone does support a high-quality streaming format.

Streams mean not having to necessarily worry about copy protection - although the iPlayer team did have to make a few tweaks when some enterprising souls found a way to hack the streams.

Downloads mean you do have to worry about copy protection.

There are LOTS and LOTS of arguments about the efficacy of DRM - and I won't go into them here - suffice to say that producers and content makers demand the protection of their rights and the BBC has a duty to act on those demands.

There's lots more detail about the iPlayer over at the BBC Internet blog. It's a great read.

They really are in the know.

What I would say is that all I've read, heard and seen about the iPlayer leads me to believe that the team behind it, and the BBC more broadly, is committed to getting the iPlayer on to as many platforms as possible.

An elderly woman plays the WiiGiven that the licence fee is universal, it's in the BBC's best interests to open up the iPlayer to everyone.

The BBC is limited by resources, as much as any organisation, but it seems likely the iPlayer will end up on PCs and Macs, on many mobile platforms, consoles, and set-top boxes.

But I repeat - I'm just speculating.

UPDATE TWO: Nick Reynolds, editor of the BBC Internet blog, has been in touch. He wants to respond personally to some of the comments.

So over to you Nick:

"Hi - I am the editor of the BBC Internet Blog. Here are some other links relevant to this discussion.

Gary's comment (number 10) and Paddy (number 26), iPlayer streaming is already available on the Mac. Mark Thompson has said that iPlayer downloads will be available on the Mac by the end of this year.

Stephen's comment (number 6), Ashley Highfield has discussed the question of the BBC's relationship with Microsoft in the Groklaw interview referred to in this post."


Rory Cellan-Jones

Will opt-in 'phinish' Phorm?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 9 Apr 08, 18:34 GMT

The argument continues - is the web tracking software business Phorm a big brother intent on snooping on your broadband line or a helpful service keeping you secure from web danger while serving up delightfully targeted ads?

Some of the finest minds in the world of privacy, encryption and the law, have turned their minds to these issues - including most recently Dr Richard Clayton - and I certainly don't have the technical knowledge to pick apart their arguments.

But now comes what could be a killer blow to Phorm's ambitions in the form of new guidance from the Information Commissioner, Britain's data protection watchdog. I bet executives from Phorm scanned through to the end and felt pretty chirpy about the Commisioner's conclusion that their products can operate in compliance with the data protection legislation.

But it's a couple of paragraphs in the middle that really throw a spanner in the works, when the document suggests that the Webwise product should only be offered to consumers on an "opt-in" basis if the firm doesn't want to fall foul of something called PECR - Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations.

Now tell me, what do you do when you come across one of those online forms that tells you about some fantastic new service your bank/online retailer/ISP is offering for nothing and invites you to tick a box if you DON'T want it - in other words opt out?

I suspect most people don't bother - and so they get the service.

But what if you are asked to tick a box if you DO want it - to opt in? Equally, I suspect people are reluctant to make even the minimal effort that's required to opt in, and take-up is much smaller.

Then imagine that the service in question has been the subject of major controversy with a high volume of web noise suggesting users should avoid it all costs.

What's more one of Phorm's three clients Carphone Warehouse has already bowed to pressure, and decided it will only implement Phorm's webwise product on an opt-in basis. Surely then, an "opt-in" Phorm will be a minority taste - and that won't be of any use to ISPs hoping to sell advertising on the back of it?

When I phoned Kent Ertegrul, Phorm's chief executive, he strongly disputed this analysis. First of all, he insists that the Information Commissioner's document does not mean "opt-in" is the only option.

Secondly, he believes the process of telling customers about Webwise will fulfil the requirement for "valid, informed consent" that the law requires, with a web page giving all the details of what's involved and inviting customers to say yes or no, followed by later reminders that the service is switched on.

Finally, he rejects my suggestion that Phorm has lost the PR war long before it gets off the ground.

"We've only heard from a small group of vocal opponents so far. The public has answered very clearly in neutral polling that this is something they want."

The BT trial of Webwise is about to start and Mr Ertegrul is confident it will prove his case - that this is an attractive way of blocking unwanted adverts and internet fraudsters.

But is it really likely that BT and Virgin will choose to bring in Phorm on an opt-out basis when their bitter rivals at Carphone Warehouse are promising it will be opt-in? And in that case, who'd like to calculate how many of these firms' eight million or so broadband customers will say yes to Phorm?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Mobile net takes off - but can you afford it?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 9 Apr 08, 11:39 GMT

It was quite an extraordinary graph in the middle of quite a dull PowerPoint presentation.

3's graph of data useThe line started last October last year at a low level, and then leapt to a point 14 times higher by this March. What the 3 mobile operator was showing a group of journalists and telecoms analysts was the flow of data over its network.

Now 3 has been a bit of a disaster, pouring billions into building Britain's first 3G network, then twiddling its thumbs nervously as customers used it mainly for calls, rather than video or web-surfing.

So what's behind the sudden explosion of data use? One word: dongles, those plug-and-play devices that give your laptop mobile broadband wherever you go.

3 says that while users may have been downloading a million music tracks a month, that involved minimal amounts of data compared with the industrial quantities consumed by home workers now plugging their laptops into the mobile internet.

And 3 is not alone - Vodafone has seen data use on its network surge since it started pushing dongles.

Customer with a 3G phoneWhat's driving all this is that the 3G networks are getting faster. 3 claims its network, which is now merging with that of T-Mobile in the UK, can deliver 3.6 Mbps right now, and will accelerate to 7.2 Mbps later this year and to 14.4 Mbps by the end of 2009.

With those kinds of speeds on offer no wonder there's excited talk of mobile broadband competing with fixed line.

But hold on a minute - two things need to be sorted: price and speed.

We all know that the speed claims by the fixed line operators have been, well, dodgy. Kevin Russell, 3's UK chief executive, describes the advertising practices of the broadband industry as "not much better than estate agents or second-hand car dealers."

He also concedes that that his 3.6 Mbps network will only deliver between 1 and 2 Mbps to users. I've been testing one of the dongles, and have found coverage pretty patchy and slow - and of course indoors it can disappear completely.

Then price. A Google executive was at the same event pressing home the message that the mobile industry had to make its pricing much simpler if the mobile internet was really going to take off.

He put up a slide showing an advert from one mobile operator explaining a supposedly simple data tariff:

“When it comes to understanding the costs [we] have made things easy. Basically, you're charged per page you look at, not per minute spent browsing. Each page costs between 1p-5p, depending on the number of images it contains.

“Browsing and downloading is charged at £x per megabyte (a megabyte being equal to roughly 250 pages).”

Point taken. Anyone reading that would have no idea what it was going to cost them to surf on the move.

The operators know that flat-rate, all-you-can-eat data tariffs are the future - but they are still worried about just how much we will want to eat and whether their networks can cope.

So while 3G mobile broadband is really taking off, it's unlikely - as even Mr Russell concedes - that it will replace fixed broadband.

But the technology it really threatens is Wimax, commonly known as Wi-Fi on steroids.

BT's new boss is talking of investing in Wimax to cover the big mobile gap in its portfolio.

But by the time that investment is in place Britain will be covered in High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) 3G networks - and they may just be fast enough to satisfy the appetite of most mobile broadband users.

Darren Waters

Google - the genial web host?

  • Darren Waters
  • 8 Apr 08, 17:19 GMT

Last night Google launched a beta of what it calls the Google App Engine - a service which will host developers' web applications.
"So what?" I hear you ask.
Google App Engine

Well, more than 10,000 people signed up in less than 24 hours to the beta and it's an important sign about the direction that Google is going as a company.

And my use of the word "host" is a bit misleading - sorry - the Google App Engine enables developers to run their applications on Google's infrastructure.

Google will offer the CPU cycles, the server space and the bandwidth - the whole shooting match, in effect - to developers. They will also offer use of Google APIs for e-mail, signing in and signing out of users etc.

There's no doubt that hosted services, from web applications to programs we associate mainly with desktop computing, are the future.

From productivity programs to gaming experiences - it's all shifting into the cloud.

I was at an event at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year and Raph Koster shocked some fellow gaming luminaries when he pointed out that Flash would soon have the graphical flexibility and capability of games consoles from just a few years ago.

Increased bandwidth, the evolution of tools like Air and Silverlight, and broadband penetration coupled with Moore's Law is combining to make the future of computing something we'll experience down the pipe and not necessarily hosted on our own machines.

So Google's plunge into this makes sense. It wants to be a part of this future.

But more interesting will be what Google says it will be able to do with the applications and resultant data that it will host on our behalf, on the behalf of developers and companies.

Google could help drive standards not just for the web as we understand it today, but for each and every device that is being connected to the net now and in the coming years - from TVs to cars, from fridges to mobile internet devices.

For companies like Amazon and Salesforce.com, it means big competition in this marketplace right now.

But longer term I hope Google's entry into this will help turn the web into a truly open, cross platform space.

Some fears have already been expressed. Jack Schofield at the Guardian has queried if hosting your app on Google's infrastruture might well leave you open to being bought by the firm in one simple swallow - after all, your entire application already fits inside the Google empire if it's on their servers.

So big bad corporation tries to swallow web development and developers? Or brave new frontier for web development?

You decide.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Intel's quiet but passionate boss

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 7 Apr 08, 22:45 GMT

So who are the three most powerful figures in the technology industry right now? How about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Paul Otellini.

"Paul Who?" I hear you cry and you'd be right because Mr Otellini has nothing like the visibility of either of the other two.

Paul OtelliniHe is a rather grey, managerial figure - compared with the uber-geek Gates or the charismatic and slightly scary Jobs.

But if you believe that Moore's Law is what has driven the growth of the entire computing industry in the last three decades and that Intel has been at the forefront of applying the logic of the law, then Mr O is a pretty important guy.

So we were pleased that Intel's chief executive agreed to answer questions sent in by BBC readers, viewers and listeners.

And when we met in a rather nondescript hotel room in London's docklands, I found he had plenty of interesting views about our technological future, coupled with a touching fervour about his company.

For unlike Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who have built their companies in their own image, Mr Otellini has been built by Intel, a company he joined 34 years ago.

It's a business with a more conservative culture than is typical of the technology industry, so it was no surprise that its chief executive arrived for our interview in in a grey suit and tie, rather than the black sweater or open-necked shirt favoured by many of his peers.

We had half an hour - he had just been in one long client meeting and went straight out after our allotted time into another.

He arrived carrying with him a small capsule which summed up what he wanted to say about Intel. It contained a thousand of the new Atom chips (Mr Otellini said someone had been asked to count them into the jar), processors designed to power the mobile internet devices Intel believes are the Next Big Thing.

The Atom will compete with the low-power chips made by ARM, currently dominating the smartphone market, and it's by no certain that Intel will win this battle.

Mr Otellini, who has seen Intel extend its lead over AMD after faltering a few years back, knows that this is an industry where, in the words of one of his more colourful predecessors, "only the paranoid survive."

So he wanted to push the message that, whatever the charges that Intel is an arrogant monopoly, this is an industry where constant and rapid innovation can turn a winner into an also-ran every 18 months.

Mind you, Paul Otellini didn't seem too paranoid - except about my suggestion that he try switching off his Blackberry for an hour or so and letting the e-mails pile up.

He seemed slightly puzzled by the sheer range of questions - from the Nigerian who wanted to know why the Classmate project wasn't moving more quickly, to the Iraqi who wanted to know what Wimax would offer his country, to the man from Northampton who wanted to know why a PC can't be turned on and off like a television .

But he handled them all with aplomb, showing just a modicum of irritation when I brought up Nicholas Negroponte's charge that Intel had acted in bad faith when it pulled out of the One Laptop Per Child project.

And his final answer showed that beneath the grey suit and measured words, Paul Otellini can be passionate about the company where he has spent more than half of his life: "It's not often that a corporation can say with legitimacy that I've changed the world, because of what I do the world is a better and different place. Where would the world be without what Intel has built?"

And with that, he picked up his briefcase and his capsule of Atoms, and hurried off into another client meeting.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yahoo to Microsoft - back off Ballmer...

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 7 Apr 08, 14:04 GMT

Great news. After two months of tedium, the Microsoft/Yahoo battle has caught fire again. On Saturday, Steve Ballmer wrote to Jerry Yang and his Yahoo board threatening all sorts of mayhem if they didn't agree a deal within three weeks.

Jerry YangNow Jerry Yang and Yahoo's chairman have written back - and despite the "Dear Steve" and the "very truly yours", this is anything but a cordial reply. The letter makes it clear that substantial negotiations have been going on between the two sides but says Microsoft "mischaracterises the nature of our discussions with you". And it gets pretty personal, addressing Mr Ballmer directly on the issue of who is to blame that those talks have stalled: "Steve, you personally attended two of these meetings and could have advanced discussions in any way you saw fit."

But the most wounding jab relates to Mr Ballmer's suggestion that the economic climate has worsened for internet companies over the last two months. "Not for us, mate, though it's not looking too brilliant for you" is the underlying message in a letter which points out that Microsoft's falling share price has cut the value of its bid.

Steve BallmerYahoo's board is saying it can play hardball with Ballmer - and is confident that it has the backing of its shareholders. What it still needs to prove to those investors is that it has a way of making their shares worth more than Microsoft is offering - either by extracting a higher bid, selling to someone else or continuing to grow Yahoo as an independent company. Watch the share price over the coming days for any clues about the outcome of this battle. Right now it does not tell a story of a company which can expect a higher bid to come along.

So what are Jerry Yang and his fellow directors up to? The best guess must be that they are betting that they can still persuade Microsoft to up its bid. But what started as a slow-moving and supposedly "friendly" game of corporate chess has now become a high-stakes poker game with no love lost on either side.

Darren Waters

The great mystery of wi-fi

  • Darren Waters
  • 7 Apr 08, 11:32 GMT

Wireless networks are a mystery.

One moment they are working perfectly, the next there is no connection and you are left scratching your head.

LaptopCertainly that's my experience with my Macs at home. And I'm not alone; there are widespread reports of problems with Macs losing connections or dropping connections.

My experience is no different. I have a laptop and a desktop Mac and some days both machines will start dropping the connection inexplicably.

I've tried changing router - but the problem persists.

Other people are having the same issue - but there's silence from Apple on the matter.

The latest problem is my wireless LAN. My machines - Macs and PCs - no longer see each other on the local area network.

God knows why. Nothing has changed in my settings. I've not updated firmware or altered the firewall. It would seem the problem this time is my router - as I can see a colleague's machine when logged into a different wireless network.

But this is the problem with wi-fi; and in many ways a metaphor for many people's experiences with technology at large.

If I can't fix a problem with my home network and I'm a technology journalist, what hope do other people have?

Wi-fi has taken off globally despite the many flaws - from security limitations and set-up difficulties to confusing standards and draft formats.

The advertised speed and range of wi-fi is a standing joke - and the official roll out of the next standard 802.11n has been beset with delays.

Frankly, it's enough to make me want to buy 100 metres of Ethernet cable and start wiring the house up.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Microsoft to Yahoo - talk or else...

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 6 Apr 08, 08:03 GMT

There've been suggestions in recent days that Microsoft was about to give up on its bid for Yahoo, having got tired of being stonewalled -and nervous about the worsening economic outlook. Instead, Steve Ballmer has abandoned the softly softly approach and sent a letter to Yahoo's board making it clear he is now willing to play hardball.

The letter gives the board three weeks to sit down and "negotiate a definitive agreement on a combination of our companies". And then comes the ultimatum - if Yahoo does not respond then Microsoft will get heavy. It will go straight to the shareholders, attempt to get a new board elected, and - this is the bit that matters - come back with a lower bid. Or rather one which, in a rather deliciously threatening phrase ,"will have an undesirable impact on the value of your company from our perspective which will be reflected in the terms of our proposal."

Yahoo's board seem to have hoped that by unveiling various new initiatives , making cosy noises to the likes of Google, and pointedly ignoring the wolf at the door, they could persuade Microsoft to walk away quietly. But the fall in the share-price in the middle of last week as rumours of a Microsoft withdrawal began to swirl showed that this was not a pain-free strategy.

So now it looks as though Yahoo's directors have a choice - do a deal at Microsoft's current price, or convince shareholders that it's worth seeing the share price fall in the short-term because your board has a cunning plan for long-term growth. Mind you, it's also clear from Mr Ballmer's letter that Microsoft is now nervous about the economic climate in which this deal is being pursued, so there is pressure at his end too. Thankfully, for those getting a little bored by this protracted saga, it looks as though we will soon hear how it is all going to end.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Music versus TalkTalk - it's war...

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 3 Apr 08, 22:05 GMT

When I walked into Charles Dunstone's office at Carphone Warehouse's giant blue shed on a West London trading estate, he was in fighting mood. Brandishing a document, he told me: "They've sent us the most unbelievably rude letter." They were the BPI - the music industry's trade body - and Mr Dunstone, whose TalkTalk business is Britain's third biggest internet service provider, saw that letter as a declaration of war.

Charles DunstoneThe BPI has been writing to all the big ISPs with a proposal. It wants them to warn their users that file-sharing is not an acceptable activity - and then disconnect those who ignore repeated warnings to desist. The ISPs don't like the idea of chucking out customers - but they and their trade association have been keeping a low profile on this issue. Not so Carphone Warehouse. Charles Dunstone was so angry about that letter, which he says threatened legal action if he didn't comply with the BPI's demands within 14 days, that he issued a call to arms. "TalkTalk rejects music industry threats and refuses to become internet police" said the press release that came hurtling out of that shed in Acton.

Mr Dunstone is angry for two reasons - he doesn't want to start telling his customers how to behave, and he thinks the music industry is trying to make him pay the price for its failure to adapt to the digital age. "They're not just shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted - the horse has left town, got married, and started a family."

So what's the other side of this story? Well the music industry thinks Carphone Warehouse is being mischievous. The BPI has issued an equally combative press release which says "TalkTalk either seek to misrepresent our position or just doesn't get it." The trade body says it is not asking ISPs to police the internet, but simply to act on evidence that it will provide about users who are engaged in music piracy.

Lurking in the back of this very noisy battle is the government. The BPI believes that it has convinced ministers that the ISPs need to play their part in the battle against file-sharing. Jeff Taylor of the BPI told us: "The government says if ISPs do not start helping to deal with this problem in a helpful way then there will be legislation."

Charles Dunstone says he will fight all the way against any move to make him cut off customers engaged in file-sharing - and he doesn't believe there is any chance that the government will bring in laws to force him to do that. Mr Dunstone is pretty well plugged in to the current government - so he's probably right. Ministers have been lobbied with some vigour on this issue by the music industry - but the BPI may find that supportive mood music from the government doesn't translate into new laws.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Blinkx - another way with web video

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 2 Apr 08, 17:01 GMT


What do you want to watch online - and how do you want to watch it? That's been the nagging question we in the broadcasting business have been asking recently - and it is an even bigger puzzle for those who have poured big money into internet video, from Joost to Babelgum, from YouTube to Veoh.

Some believe it's all about low quality, edgy clips which you can graze on at your laptop - others see the internet as simply a way of delivering quality content in high definition to your plasma screen. Or perhaps you want to be able to click onscreen and get a wealth of information from the web about what you're watching? That's what Blinkx, a company launching a new online video service, is betting can make it stand out from an increasingly desperate crowd.

Its BBTV application promises to take a ragbag of content, from news clips to documentaries to independent films, and present it to you online with Blinkx's added ingredient - clickability. The idea is that you are watching a news item about monks in Tibet, you click and get the entire commentary on screen, use that to navigate to the section which interests you, and then click again to draw down all that rich information that the web can provide.

Now Blinkx is an interesting company. It was born as a spin-off from the Cambridge search firm Autonomy and its main product is a video search engine which delivers superior results by examining the audio and picture content of clips as well as their titles. It floated on AIM last year, and when I met the Chief Executive Suranga Chandratillake in London this week he said it was on course to make revenues of between $6 and $8 million in its first six months as a public company. Though, of course, it is still loss-making, with around $1 million a month going out the door every month.

But isn't it too late for another video wannabe to enter this market? Joost, with its wealthy backers and plenty of content deals, appears to be struggling to convince viewers to come onboard. As far as I can see, the audience has decided that it wants either YouTube or mainstream television - and the likes of Blinkx may fall through the gap in the middle.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Social networks - will the government crack down?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 2 Apr 08, 14:04 GMT

Last week we had the Byron review, today we have Ofcom research on children and social networking and on Friday the Home Office will publish what it calls "Good Practice Guidance for the Providers of Social Networking and Other User Interactive Services". The overall impression coming from British regulators and ministers is that the government is preparing to crack the whip over the issue of safety for child users of Bebo, MySpace and Facebook.

Two girls sitting at a PCBut that impression is false. Why? Because the government knows it has little or no power to make the social networks change the way they do business. After all, none of the big players are based in Britain. What it can do is make the mood music change so that it is difficult for the networks to ignore the message that they need to clean up their act.

I have been passed a draft copy of that new Home Office voluntary code - and let's be clear it is just that, voluntary. So for instance it says "service providers should consider" putting 999 and other emergency numbers on their sites for children to call if they feel in danger. They should "minimise the risk of users under the age of 18 accessing adult or other age inappropriate content" and they "should continue to evaluate technologies that identify and verify the age of customers for their effectiveness". This final recommendation is at the heart of the matter - knowing how old someone is can be vital, both to prevent under-age children from accessing these sites, and to keep out adults posing as children.

But the companies - and the government - know age verification brings a whole new set of problems. How do you enable the networks to make these checks without giving them access to exactly the kind of data that most internet users won't want to hand over?

In summary, the networks are under pressure to clean up their act - but the government has no means of punishing them if they don't. So why is it bothering? Well the obvious answer is that the young audience is moving away from television to the internet. Regulation of what they see on television is getting even tighter, with the recent banning of advertising of junk food, a move which makes the economics of making commercial television for children very unattractive. But on a social network they can watch all kinds of video content and be bombarded with advertising which could be unsuitable for their age group.

The regulators have woken up to this anomaly - but they've realised they can only work through persuasion. When it comes to issues about safety and privacy it looks as though the networks will fall into line. But will they be quite so keen to give up on advertising of fizzy drinks and fast food?

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

BBC.co.uk