- 28 Nov 08, 16:42 GMT
A young producer on Radio 4's Today programme got a shock the other day when he logged onto Facebook. In his newsfeed was an item posted by a friend linking to a photo, allegedly of the mother of Baby P, the child killed in the recent notorious case. Various obscene and threatening comments were then posted next to the photo. Facebook is removing the picture and other details when notified by members, but new groups keep popping up.
The names of the baby's parents are also being distributed via text, and presumably on other web outlets. A court order protects the identity of these people and no mainstream media outlet would even consider breaking that ruling. So what are the responsibilities of social networks when their members break the law in this manner - and how carefully should they police the material that is generated by their users?
It all comes down to how you see the likes of Facebook and MySpace - are they just technology platforms, playgrounds for their users to exploit as they will? Or are they now becoming major media businesses facing the same regulatory demands as a broadcaster or a newspaper? The networks would like to be treated much the same as telecoms businesses - after all nobody is suggesting that the mobile network on which that text about Baby P's parents was sent should have any responsibility to stop that happening.
But there is growing pressure from politicians and regulators, who, as the online child safety expert John Carr told me, "are getting more self-confident, more assertive, about the internet, and are no longer convinced it's lawless and ungovernable." Mr Carr, who acts as an advisor to Facebook's rival MySpace, pointed out that MPs on the Culture Select Committee had ordered social networks to be more proactive in their policing of their members.
Nicholas Lansmann, chief executive of the Internet Service Providers Association said on the Today Programme that sites like Facebook are "not the police of the internet" and worked under the "notice and take-down regulations", which required them to remove illegal content once notified about it. He said that system was working well but that it was very difficult to tackle what were in effect millions of self-publishers particualrly given the cross-border nature of the internet.
Facebook is becoming the place where millions of British people get news, views, and all sorts of media content, and that means it will be under the spotlight more and more. It has a perfectly decent case to argue when it comes to its self-regulatory model - so shouldn't it be out there making that case?
- 27 Nov 08, 17:51 GMT
Who or what decides whether a new gadget flies - or fails? Is it the quality and quantity of the advertising? The reviews in newspapers and magazines? Word of mouth among consumers? Or, in the UK at least, could it be the views of Stephen Fry?
In the old days, any new product launched by a major consumer brand was accompanied by a marketing blitz that would almost guarantee decent early sales. Then eventually the reviews in newspapers and specialist magazines and word-of-mouth from happy or disgruntled consumers would determine whether a new car, camera - or mobile phone - would be a long-term hit or miss.
Now the whole process has been accelerated by the web and is far more difficult for companies to control, with early pictures and opinions emerging online before the real "specialists" have had a chance to deliver their judgment. But with so many different views of products - from technology blogs, from specialist online forums, from any old Facebook friend - it becomes difficult for consumers to filter the noise and get a clear view. That is where a "trusted guide" like Stephen Fry comes in.
As well as being a much-loved entertainer, Mr Fry has built a reputation as one of Britain's most knowledgeable gadget lovers - though as the second person in the UK to buy a Mac (after Douglas Adams), his passion for anything made by Apple is pretty clear. He is particularly keen on smartphones and has written at length about the various delights and disappointments of using them.
So along comes the Blackberry Storm, with an avalanche of advertising from Vodafone - which has the exclusive contract in Britain - and plenty of excitable speculation amongst the kind of people who really, really care about whether a new mobile phone has wi-fi, and whether it can turn the bath on before they get home.
Then on Twitter, where he has quickly built an audience of more than 20,000 followers, came this series of messages from Stephen Fry:
"Been playing with the BB Storm. Shockingly bad. I mean embarrassingly awful. Such a disappointment. Rushed out unfinished. What a pity."
"Yes, I blame n'works more than RIM. Problems are terrible lag: inaccurate t'screen, awful, slow and fiddly text input. I SO wanted to like it."
"Plus the GPS maps won't work - issue with BIS connections. I see from forums postings this is widespread in the UK. iPhone killer? Ha!"
Those short bursts of instant reaction were then recycled and passed on by other Twitter users. As the "Twitterati" tend to be early adopters who are likely customers for new smartphones, this is a more important audience than its numbers might suggest.
Mr Fry was by no means the only expert to be deeply unimpressed by BlackBerry's new baby. David Pogue of the New York Times, another very influential technology pundit, has also given it a stinker, and his views are now racing around networks like Twitter.
I'm sure there will still be some decent sales figures for the Storm in the early weeks - unless that advertising blitz has been completely misdirected - but what a high-end product like this need is a buzz of anticipation and that's been silenced by Messrs Fry and Pogue.
So a couple of "trusted guides" - or "super-advocates" as someone else described them - could have sealed the fate of a product of huge importance to both RIM and Vodafone. What's the lesson for the gadget-makers? Maybe they need to spend more time hanging out on social networks and listening to what is being said. Or perhaps they should get their products thoroughly tested by Stephen Fry and David Pogue before they are launched - rather than sit and watch their damning views go viral.
And having had my say, what does Stephen Fry himself think? I asked him - this was his response:
Crumbs Rory! Do I have the power to kill a gadget? Of course, like all pusillanimous people I enjoy the idea that I could make a gadget - but break one?
If I really thought my influence was that great it might make me a little wary of being quite so definite and it would probably force me to be more specific about all the features/pricing/services, as a responsible tech journalist should be. As it is, I hope people know I am no more than an enthusiastic, passionate amateur (I'm including the French sense of the word amateur - lover). It gives me no pleasure to be negative about the BB Storm and I know that many people have been looking forward to receipt of theirs and were very disheartened to hear my loud disappointment. But, honestly: play with the Storm for two days as I have and you will admire my patience at not throwing it out of the window... I do like the Bold though. Could live with that. But to return to your point. The net should make us all equal in our influence. Okay - more equal.
- 27 Nov 08, 13:10 GMT
In the States, the day after Thanksgiving has been dubbed "Black Friday".
A jolly moniker for the day that retailers throughout the country hope will pass to the sounds of ringing tills. Okay so I know tills don't ring anymore, but you get the gist.
Of course with the global financial crisis spelling doom and gloom for the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, retailers are being more aggressive than ever in trying to persuade shoppers to crack open the credit card or spend their hard earned dollars.
So for anyone with the cash to spend, there are bargains galore to be had.
This year of course life is very different for everyone in the world of retailing and that includes the maker of what is regarded as some of the coolest products on the planet, Apple.
In the past, Apple has offered discounts of between 5-10% at this time of year.
But with e-commerce sales for October increasing a miserly 1% on last year, retailers are pulling out the stops to get shoppers into their stores by increasing the discounts and jump-starting Black Friday with online promotions.
The likes of BestBuy and Amazon, which are approved Apple sellers, are offering reductions of 15% with savings of $250 (£162) on new MacBook Pros and $159 (£103) off new iMacs. It doesn't look likely the iPhone will be hitting the bargain bin any time soon.
"We believe the reason retailers are willing to take a hit is due to the ability of Apple products to draw people into stores and the high likelihood that these customers will purchase high-margin accessories including cables, cases and speakers," said Mr Wu.
I know I will get lambasted for writing about this subject, but there is a point to all of this and that is that Apple guards its price point as fiercely as the Yeoman of the Guard protects the crown jewels. While it generally offers a small discount at this time of year, Apple is also upping the ante in light of the tough economic times.
Although this promotional poster doesn't give much away, the company has made it known it will price match any product sold by a competitor. Some industry watchers say this is to ensure anyone shopping for Apple products does so at an Apple store or online.
Michael Oh, president of TechSuperpowers, an Apple reseller, said while it's not great news for him this is just market reality at work.
"They're saying 'As retailers, we need to be competitive in an extremely difficult environment.' From that standpoint, they have to tell their staff, do whatever you can to get the deal."
All of which shows that times are just as tough for Apple as they are for everyone else and that the company is no more recession proof than any other retailer in the present climate.
- 26 Nov 08, 14:20 GMT
It seems an open-and-shut case, a no-brainer.
Thousands of ageing session musicians, who earn on average less than £15,000 per year, are being denied a living wage because of unfair copyright laws. Whereas composers and authors get to keep their rights for 70 years after they die - or rather, their heirs do - for performers, the cut-off point comes 50 years after the original performance.
The effect is that musicians who played on some of the classic tracks of the early 1960s will be denied what is in effect their pension because the royalities will dry up just as they really need them. Take Tom McGuinness, who played guitar in Manfred Mann on that classic track Do Wah Diddy Diddy. The song was released in 1964 - so in 2014, Mr McGuinness will stop getting any payments.
Now he's among a number of musicians who've sent a video message to the prime minister urging him to change his mind about an EU plan to extend copyright. In the video, Mr McGuinness says, "I've been a working musician for 44 years now and I've made records which have been hits and records which have been misses. I don't understand how ethically and morally you do not support the extension of copyright."
So, should Gordon Brown pay heed to the musicians' appeal and put his weight behind a European Commission directive that would extend performers' copyright to 95 years? Well, if he does he will be swimming against the digital tide - and against his own government's stated policy of making copyright less complicated.
In the internet age, content new and old is making its way online, where it is being shared, mashed up, recut and generally recycled. Just go to YouTube and search for Manfred Mann. You'll find Do Wah Diddy Diddy straight away, but I very much doubt that if you end up watching the old television show where the song is played, Tom McGuinness will get a penny in royalties. Now YouTube's owner Google is, as we've previously noted, collaborating with copyright owners who want to identify their material on the site, and sometimes to erase it. But, in the intellectual property wars, the file sharers are winning.
So there's an online revolution underway against any kind of copyright. But that revolution doesn't just involve the mllions who indulge in illegal file sharing. Even copyright owners are finding that the complex web of rights and royalties involved in any piece of content they own is making it quite tricky to put that material online.
All big media businesses - including the BBC of course - are desperate to distribute more of their programmes, their music and their films over the internet but they are finding that this involves extremely complex negotations with the artists who created that material. When it comes to exploiting archive material, the whole business is even more painful. They won't want that process made even tougher by an extension of copyright for performers.
So the idea that musicians like Tom McGuinness should continue to reap some modest reward for their creativity sounds appealing. But if Gordon Brown decides Do Wah Diddy Diddy is a cultural treasure that needs further protection, there will be a chorus of boos from those who believe copyright law is a brake on innovation.
- 24 Nov 08, 09:35 GMT
Just about every Web 2.0 firm has got a business model which depends exclusively on advertising - and right now a lot of those plans look very shaky, as online ad revenue starts to flatten.
What that means is that millions of users of everything from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to video sharing businesses like YouTube and Seesmic may find those services either more annoying to use - or may see them disappear altogether. The days of free content with no ads and no aggro are drawing to a close.
So why am I just a little troubled by an advertising scheme which could make Twitter - a social network where I spend far too much time - more viable? The scheme is called Magpie, and it encourages Twitterers to sign up and then act as a vehicle for small ads to be inserted alongside their tweets. The deal is that they match keywords to your "tweets", then post "magpie" tweets in your name with adverts, and you then get paid for that. I was struggling to understand how it worked and asked my Twitter followers - one explained it rather nicely.
"It's a very simple three-stage process. (1) Sign up to Magpie. (2) Ad-tweets appear in your stream. (3) All your followers block you."
That of course is the problem. We, the users, don't see Twitter as a business but as a place where we go to hang out and talk amongst ourselves. If you met a friend in the pub and he casually inserted into the conversation "thought of taking the Daily Beast? you really should - there's a free DVD with every copy...", you would quickly decide he was a friend no more.
But of course Twitter does need to start earning some money pretty quickly if it is going to survive in these difficult times. The trouble is, Magpie is not owned by Twitter - it appears to be a joint venture based in Berlin and Birmingham - and it isn't clear whether any share of the revenues from these ads will head off to California to the firm which actually makes them possible.
Somehow the owners of everything from Faceboook to Twitter to YouTube are going to have to find ways of monetising them more effectively. But turning social users into online billboards sounds a surefire way of losing their custom - so you won't be finding any Magpie ads in my twitterstream.
- 20 Nov 08, 12:50 GMT
If you're a mobile phone user - and we in the UK have more than one phone each - prepare for a marketing blizzard over the coming weeks. Christmas has become a vital period for the mobile operators and retailers, and it's often a chance for them to give a bit of welly to something new.
This year, among the new handsets jostling for attention, are two very different products which tell us something about the way the mobile market is going. I've had a play with both the Blackberry Storm and the INQ1 over the last few days - but I'm not entirely convinced that either handset will deliver what its makers are hoping for. Because both are made by firms convinced that we want something different from what they've offered us so far.
The Storm is the first touch-screen Blackberry and the latest, most serious attempt by its makers RIM to break out of the business market - which has been a pretty happy hunting ground for the Canadian company and make its way into every consumer's pocket.
On the plus side, it's got just about the shiniest, most vivid screen I've seen on a phone. Watching a movie on it would be a pleasure, and it has all the multimedia capabilities that you would expect on a high-end handset. But for a phone aimed at the consumer, who may not have the corporate back-up that many existing Blackberry users enjoy, it's extraordinarily complicated to set up and I spent a long time trying and failing to synchronise with my desktop computer.
Of course, it's the touch screen which is the key selling-point of the Storm. It's described as "funky" by Vodafone, which has got an exclusive deal to sell the phone, and it clicks in an interesting way when you press on it. But both I and my colleague Dan Simmons found it difficult to use, not very responsive, and generally rather frustrating.
What a Blackberry has always been brilliant at is e-mail - and it's simply harder to write and receive an e-mail on a touchscreen Storm than to hammer away with your thumbs on the keyboard of an old steam-driven model. So business users may be reluctant to switch to a Storm, and, in a depressed market, RIM and Vodafone may struggle to find consumers who think it's worth paying around £40 a month to own such a smartphone.
The mobile operator Three is coming at the market from the opposite end with its cheap and cheerful INQ1 phone. Three spent billions on a 3g network and then tried to persuade us that we wanted to make video calls and download music - which the firm now admits was a complete waste of time. It's now convinced that there's a huge section of the mobile population which wants to use its fast data network to surf the web and chat on social networks - but doesn't want to pay for a smartphone. Hence the INQ1 - or, as it's been dubbed, the Facebook phone.
It's an unremarkable handset - nothing like as cool as the Blackberry Storm - which you wouldn't want to use to watch video or download music. The makers says the INQ1 isn't a smartphone, but a social phone so it has Facebook, instant messenger services, and Skype right there on the tiny screen. Three has decided the killer app for the mobile phone of the future is - wait for it - communication.
Now I didn't find the phone particularly easy to use - for my ageing eyes it was almost impossible to read the screen while updating my Facebook status - but I don't think the INQ1 is aimed at me. As someone on a contract with plenty of call minutes thrown in, I'm not sure why you'd want to make a Skype call from your phone. However, the INQ1 contracts offer very sparse minutes but plenty of data, and for the kind of young user who relies on texts and instant messages, rather than calls, it could be attractive.
So two very different views of what we want from a mobile phone - a shiny, all-singing, all-dancing fashion object which can do just about everything you'd expect from a small computer and a utilitarian communications device which you might not want to wave under your friend's nose. Which of the two will perform better at Christmas? The result of that contest will tell us something about our economic well-being, as well as our tastes in technology.
- 20 Nov 08, 09:45 GMT
You know things are getting bad when the often thought of mighty Google starts acting like most Silicon Valley companies amid the global economic crisis that is rippling throughout the country.
For weeks the advice being doled out to starts ups has been to hunker down, conserve cash and concentrate on the core business. But how worrying is that Google is heeding that same advice by pulling the plug on Lively, a product which was launched less than five months ago as a rival to the virtual world Second Life?
In a blog posting headlined "Lively no more", the company said "Despite all the virtual high fives and creative rooms everyone has enjoyed in the last four and a half months, we've decided to shut Lively down at the end of the year."
Google said it was a "tough decision" but that it wanted to "ensure we prioritize our resources and focus more on our core search, ads and apps business."
Many outside and within the company may well agree with that sentiment given that more than three quarters are under water with their share price. A year ago it was over the $700 mark and this month it hit historic lows of under $300.
There have been plenty of commentators and analysts calling for Google to return to its roots and stop messing about with distracting projects like geo thermal energy, space travel and the like.
Of course the company is in a lose lose situation here. There has to be kudos given for having the guts to axe something that just wasn't working yet it also makes one wonder what is next?
- 18 Nov 08, 15:20 GMT
Apologies for mentioning another Google product so soon after the last one - but its Voice Search service could be a real winner. Only trouble is, it doesn't work unless you speak with a San Francisco accent.
Google has chosen to launch mobile voice search first on Apple's iPhone rather than on its own Android platform - which is either a breathtakingly open and platform-neutral gesture or a tacit admittance that this isn't quite the finished product, so let's smooth out the wrinkles on their platform, not ours.
You install the application on the phone and are then directed to a handy video explaining how it works. It explains that the search will also find local information without you needing to say where you are - so if you say "movies tonight" it will find local San Francisco cinemas. Or presumably London films for me.
You simply tap on voice search, then speak into the phone. The search engine thinks for a few seconds and then delivers its results - and in my case they are in pure gibberish. My first search was for "next train, West Ealing to Paddington." It delivered me some useful information about "neck strain" - but no train times. "Barts and East London National Health Service trust" came out as "bulk terminal service trucks".
Then I tried repeatedly to search for my colleague Robert Peston - up came some results on Robert Haxton , Robert Hester and Rupert Sheldrake. Other searches for names proved equally fruitless (you can imagine what it did with "Rory Cellan-Jones")and when I said "Nikesh Arora" - he's Google's European boss - the message said "Don't get that." The only two names it recognised first time were Steve Jobs and Jerry Yang - it' obviously speaks fluent Silicon Valley.
It was only when I offered up some easier queries about nearby restaurants and films that this smart new idea proved at all useful. My search provided phone numbers for local cinemas and restaurants, with Google working out that I was in West London.
Now Google does stress that its voice search application works best with commands spoken in a "North American" accent, but even when I tried my best West Coast twang, the voice engine simply flung its arms up and shrugged its shoulders in despair. Voice search has the potential to be a killer app for new smartphones - after all we're far more comfortable with shouting into our phones rather than tapping at their keyboards. But if it's to take off in the UK, it's going to have to learn to speak our language.
- 18 Nov 08, 11:17 GMT
I wrote this piece for the BBC's in-house newspaper Ariel. But it feels appropriate to reproduce it here because it's about you - the audience - and whether broadcasters who try to get closer to you by using tools like blogs or social networks are wasting their time.
Are broadcasters who use social media tools - Facebook, Twitter, blogs - really getting closer to the audience? Or are they just on an ego trip? That was the theme of a discussion at the recent Radio at The Edge conference and, as one of the panel which debated this weighty issue, I can confidently say yes - and oh definitely.
As Fi Glover got the debate underway I found myself being barracked by another panellist, the comedian and radio presenter Iain Lee, for "Twittering" live from the stage. I will admit that Twitter, which involves sending out short messages to a circle of "followers", is fast becoming an addiction. To someone who has hitherto had little contact with the audience, apart from the odd insulting letter, it's very satisfying to receive instant feedback. Around 1,300 follow me on Twitter, and they are a very engaged audience, with strong views on technology and ideas about how it should be covered.
When I said in a "Tweet" last week that I was looking into addiction to online games I immediately got useful replies, including one which sent me to a psychiatrist at the Tavistock who became the key figure in my story. Then, minutes after I did the story on Today, I got more Twitter messages attacking me for being unfair to gamers. I was then able to point them at a blog post I'd written with more detail and that became a forum for a vigorous debate about the pros and cons of online games.
So a social network and a blog provided a lot of added value and did indeed get me "closer" to the audience. But which audience? The 1,300 people in my Twitter community know a lot about technology but if I devote too much time to them, then I'm in danger of letting down millions of viewers and listeners who will never go near a social network. Then there's the fact that small pressure groups can hijack these networks - open source software groups are well-organised but should I listen to them more than Windows or Mac users?
And there's another danger in the process of self-revelation that Twitter in particular involves. A writer from an internet scandal-sheet who was at the Radio At The Edge debate wrote "the more of themselves media people reveal, the more the public sees them as clueless, self-referential and narcissistic." He then went and searched my Twitter updates and found plenty of embarrassingly banal messages, including this one:"Just had my first go at washing the dog - she's looking at me with big sad eyes." Evidence, according to the writer, of "your licence fee at work".
I still think that experimenting with everything from social networks to YouTube to blogs is a useful way for broadcasters to get into conversation with the audience. But better keep the dog out of it.
- 18 Nov 08, 08:16 GMT
Now the hard work for Yahoo really begins.
Jerry Yang has decided he has had enough of living a miserable life as the embattled CEO of Yahoo and will step down from the post when a successor is found. The end was always coming but it seemed to take an age in doing so.
The chatter of late has been increasing about just how long Mr Yang could hang on at the top. And he himself really got the Valley wagging earlier this month when he took part in a one on one conversation at the Web 2.0 Summit and said that he thought the best thing that Microsoft could do would be to buy Yahoo and that it was for sale.
Well with Microsoft's $33 a share offer almost seeming like a distant dream and the historic lows of $10 plus a share a reality nightmare, who could blame him for giving it a try?
Hindsight is fabulous but it is obvious now that Mr Yang knew something no-one else in the room did that day and that was that he would soon be announcing his decision to quit as boss.
In an e-mail to employees he said that "all of you know that I have always and will always bleed purple," in homage to the colour of the Yahoo logo and as evidence that he still loves the company he co-founded with David Filo back in 1994.
But it is clear that someone more business savvy and not shy to get out and tout the company from the rooftops needs to take over.
The amazing thing about Yahoo that one forgets amid the carnage of the last year is that it attracts phenomenal business.
The latest fun fact on the site reveals that if Yahoo users joined hands to form a chain, they would wrap around the Earth 11 times. What that translates into is 88.4 million mail users who spent 25 billion minutes reading e-mail according to comScore.
The company also has a growing share of the US search market at over 20%. It ranks as the top US news and finance site with more than 18 million visitors and scored big on election night with 7.6 million unique users. And so the numbers go on, yet Yahoo has been a wounded animal for some time and Jerry Yang has been flailing around trying to hold it all together.
The next twist in this saga is speculation over who will take over with several naysayers putting Yahoo president Sue Decker down for not having enough experience and being too closely connected to Mr Yang.
Fresh from an election defeat though is Meg Whitman, the former boss of eBay who was on Senator McCain's team. She might be looking for a new challenge if she doesn't try to clinch the Republican nomination for California governor.
While the question remains as to whether or not Mr Yang was pushed or jumped, one thing is for sure, the decision is a win win for both Yahoo and Mr Yang.
With some new blood at the helm, perhaps Yahoo will stand some chance of recovery.
For Mr Yang, who will remain with Yahoo after the new CEO takes over, it means more time to spend on his other passions: golf and good wine.
- 17 Nov 08, 15:25 GMT
Mapping has always been a vital part of new web services - and it's getting more important as the web goes mobile. In the UK, there are two powerful forces in web mapping - the Ordnance Survey and Google Maps - and now they are squaring up in a battle that could have serious implications for those trying to free up all sorts of public data.
The Guardian, which has run a long campaign to encourage public bodies to "Free Our Data", has got hold of a document from Ordnance Survey which warns local authorities about the implications of taking information gathered from OS data and plotting it on Google Maps. The basic message is "that's our intellectual property - don't think you can simply get away with handing it over to our deadly rival."
The Guardian thinks all sorts of new public data projects - especially the winners of the government's Show Us A Better Way competition - are going to be hamstrung because they are likely to want to use OS data and then plot it on Google maps. The Ordnance Survey - which is now an arms-length government agency - reckons it's just doing its job by defending its property rights. It's also keen to point out that Google is simply a commercial organisation that will seek to profit from any data handed over by advertising around it.
One casualty could be the Home Office's Crime Mapping initiative. As police forces use Ordnance Survey data to map information about crime, it will now be impossible to take that and put it into Google maps.
An Ordnance Survey spokesman told me the real problem was in Google's terms and conditions which allow the search company, in his words, to "reproduce, modify and distribute content that is entered into their maps." The spokesman said talks had been taking place between the OS and Google about changing those terms, but in the meantime, "We won't allow people to overlay our information onto Google maps. We have to protect our information."
So we have two commercial organisations at loggerheads and at least one very cross politician looking on from the sidelines. Tom Watson is the cabinet office minister on a personal mission to show that the government can be smart about breaking down the data barriers and letting the public in. The cabinet office tells me that the move by Ordnance Survey "came as a shock" and "doesn't fit in with our openness agenda". Apparently Mr Watson is in a series of meetings trying to get this sorted.
One arm of government has told Ordnance Survey to make a business out of its data, another has decided that data should be "free". And should ministers really be backing Google in any battle with its own agency? I don't envy Mr Watson - finding his way through this mapping mess is going to be a struggle.
Google have just phoned to stress that they believe Ordnance Survey has misrepresented its terms and conditions. They say that when we hand over data to Google Maps, they are not claiming ownership of that information, just the right to crawl it and use it for marketing purposes. I'm not sure that will settle the row.
ANOTHER UPDATE - 24th November
Buried in the Pre Budget Report is a line about the Ordnance Survey, whose future is being examined in a review of all "trading funds", as this kind of agency is called. The Treasury says it's considering "the potential for innovation and growth from increasing commercial and other use of public sector information" and that "for the Ordnance Survey, this will involve consideration of its underlying business model." Sounds like those who want the OS to be far more free and easy with its data may be close to victory.
- 14 Nov 08, 15:45 GMT
The idea that your mobile phone could become a digital wallet has been around for a long time. Here's an object that we carry with us wherever we go. If it could be loaded up with digital cash wouldn't that make life easier - for the users, for retailers who wouldn't need to handle cash, and for the network operators who might eventually become players in the banking industry?
But, in the UK at least, mobile money has been a long time coming - in fact, we're making less progress in this area than at least one African country. In Kenya, a system for transferring money between people with mobiles, Mpesa, has been a big success. It enables migrant workers, for instance, to send money home without the trouble of a long bus journey carrying cash.
Now today comes news of another attempt to create a mobile currency. It's called Beem and the press release describes it as "making mobile payments a reality today". Well, almost.
I went through a lengthy and quite complex sign-up process to try Beem out - understandably that involves a number of security hurdles - and eventually managed to load £10 from my bank account onto my phone. The idea is that you can then pay for various goods and services simply by sending an SMS.
So now I'd like to "beem" a payment somewhere. The only trouble is, there appears to be nothing to buy. Beem says a number of companies have signed up - including pizza restaurants and a taxi service. But when I clicked on my area on their website it showed only the pizza firm and that was marked "coming soon".
What Beem - or any other digital money service - needs is a network effect. Once lots of retailers are signed up it becomes more worthwhile for customers to adopt the system and that then encourages more retailers to sign up. Mobile money has proved its worth in countries where many people don't use - or don't trust - the banking system. But we're not quite in that situation here yet. Meanwhile, there is £10 trapped in my phone and looking for a way out.
- 13 Nov 08, 08:50 GMT
Since our story on World of Warcraft "addiction" was broadcast, I've been contacted by a number of angry gamers - including a BBC colleague - who charge me with painting a tired, cliched picture of their pastime and say "addiction" isn't a word that can be applied to obsessive gamers. So here's how the story came about.
When we started planning our treatment of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion a few days ago, it was going to cover fairly obvious angles - a global gaming phenomenon, with 11 million players from a wide age range, sets out on a new quest, which could reap its owners even greater heaps of gold than they've already accumulated.
Then my colleague Chris Vallance from iPM forwarded me two e-mails his programme had received. They were both from teachers who were deeply worried about the impact that online games were having on some of their teenage students. Each said that they'd seen students become addicted - and that had led to some dropping out of their studies. And once those messages became a topic on the iPM blog, it was World of Warcraft that was being fingered as the main source of concern.
I began to research the topic of Warcraft "addiction" further - and soon messages were flooding in. But the one that convinced me that this was a real story - not just a "games are evil" scare - came from the Tavistock Centre in London.
Dr Richard Graham is a very experienced psychiatrist who has been treating troubled adolescents for many years - the very opposite of a tabloid bandwagon-jumper. But, in very measured terms, he explained that he had been seeing an increasing number of clients for whom addiction to online games - and that meant almost exclusively World of Warcraft - was a real problem.
He described how the teenagers lived their lives almost exclusively in this virtual world, falling behind with their studies, damaging their health, and failing to engage with their peers in the real world. "One young man described vividly to me a sense that having achieved very high success in the game, when he switched off he felt downgraded." The real world, it seems, does not retain any appeal for some who feel they can achieve more in World of Warcraft.
The young people he meets are putting in quite extraordinary hours "in-game": "Some of my clients will discuss playing for 14 or 16 hours a day without breaks and for those the consequences are very severe." And he pointed out that these were only the people who made it to his consultations - some others never turn up because they don't want to lose time that could be spent online playing the game.
After meeting Dr Graham, I headed down to the store where hundreds were queuing for the midnight launch of "Wrath of the Lich King." There were plenty of people in their 20s and 30s - and even older - who insisted, with some justification, that this was a hobby like any other. A couple who had travelled down from Gateshead to be at the launch laughed at the idea that they were "addicted". If they chose to spend their evenings on a World of Warcraft raid - quite a social experience - rather than down the pub, how did that harm anyone? Good point.
But there was also a clutch of teenagers, expecting to get the expansion and then stay up half the night playing it. They told me that it wouldn't affect their studies - and their parents were mostly cool about it. For the majority that's probably true, but according to one study 10-15% of players do end up getting addicted.
Dr Graham says part of the problem is that young people now face so many demands at school that games can be an escape: "They experience a heightened sense of reality that is more stimulating than the drudgery of homework." But he stresses that it's no use being a Luddite about online games. "We need to engage with young people to think about these worlds they inhabit as that might help us create more of a dialogue with them when they are running into difficulties."
Blizzard, the makers of World of Warcraft, say the game has been given a "rest" system, which rewards players for taking a break. Paul Sams of Blizzard says parents have also been empowered: "We've put in a robust parental control system so that parents can control how much time their kids play, and when they play and it's all managed."
Millions of people are going to derive hours, days, even months of fun from Wrath of the Lich King. But for a few it will become a dangerously addictive world where they spend far too much of their time. And I don't think it is irresponsible to report that story.
- 13 Nov 08, 08:13 GMT
For Silicon Valley, knowing that Google is still making wads of cash and hiring people has of late stopped people panicking about the economic crisis. But despite having billions in the bank, it seems even this behemoth is not immune to the vagaries of the marketplace.
While looting hasn't broken out yet on Charleston Blvd, there is concern. And that concern was heightened when Google's share price took a real knock and dropped yesterday to below $300 (£204) to $291 for the first time since 2005.
Anyone reading the runes, and really you don't have to be an expert at this, will deduce that even Google is taking a hit from a marked slowdown in online advertising amid this downturn.
But more bad news is waiting in the wings.
Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney said that search-engine marketers, who place ads with companies such as Google, have been telling him that they "almost universally expect the fourth quarter to be the weakest they have ever experienced."
All of this is gloomy stuff for investors but also for employees. An estimated 75% started working for Google around two years ago and are now finding their shares completely under water.
But with nowhere else to go and people being laid off right, left and centre most employees will no doubt just have to suck it up in the hope of an eventual uptick.
Still it doesn't helping knowing that a year ago this month a Google share was worth more than $700 and peaked at the end of November at $741. Ah the good old days!
While Googlers may decide to keep their heads down for the moment, there are predictions floating around from the likes of Jason Calacanis at Mahalo that Google will start laying people off in the New Year.
Still it could be worse for the Google gang.
Just down the road in Sunnyvale, Yahoo just can't seem to cut a break. Their share price nosedived to $10 (£6.89). That equates to a loss of $31 billion in shareholder value since turning down Microsoft's acquisition offer of $33 (£23) earlier in the year.
Still lots of attention is being paid to Google because if the pink slips really do get handed out at the Googleplex as some fear, that will signal a real tectonic shift in the Valley's psyche.
- 12 Nov 08, 10:45 GMT
Overnight, and with little fanfare, Google has released another product which should help
in its quest for total domination of the web. It's added voice and video to its Gmail chat service. For Skype, the service which has become synonymous wih internet telephony, this is something of a wake-up call.
Once you download the plug-in from Google, the idea is that you can then call - and even see - the people you contact with the Gmail chat service. I can't yet tell you how it works because I'm writing this in bed at 0645, and I feel it's a little early to call.
But Google already has many millions using its Gmail, and they may now constitute a big audience for a voice service. Of course relatively few people with a Gmail address use the chat function at the moment - but they may now think it is worthwhile.
For eBay, which owns Skype, this is not great news. It may well have nearly 300 million users - but it is still struggling to show that it can turn a decent profit from them. Now along comes yet another copycat service - but this time it's badged with the best-known brand on the web.
But Microsoft too will be watching this move with unease. A few weeks after it announced its big move into cloud computing - or "software plus services" as it prefers to call it - its deadly rival has added yet another application to its web offering. From now on, you'll be invited to spend more and more of your time writing, reading, sharing and talking in Google's cloud. Microsoft - which of course is very well entrenched in the chat business with MSN messenger - will be trying to convince us that a Windows world is a better place to hang out.
- 11 Nov 08, 08:29 GMT
I heard something shocking the other night when I visited some friends. As their teenage daughter set out on a dark evening, she explained where she was heading: "I'm going Westfield, innit." It was not her mangling of the English language that shocked me - that'll be familiar to anyone with teenage children - but the fact that she was heading to a new shopping mall, Westfield. Why on earth was someone of her generation bothering with a visit to a real world shop, rather than opening her laptop and going online for a little light retail therapy?
By now, according to the internet visionairies of the late 90s, the high streets should be deserted, full of boarded-up shops, with the odd piece of tumbleweed blowing past. Back then, it was assumed that online retailing would soon triumph over traditional stores. A combination of convenience and the lower prices that came from operating without all those shop-fittings would do for the High Street.
Of course it didn't work out like that. Amongst the many casualties of the dotcom crash were all sorts of fancy etailers, from boo.com to clickmango, which over-estimated the public's appetite for online shopping and shoppers' patience when asked to wait in line for a shiny website to load on a dial-up connection.
But now could a recession accelerate the death of the High Street and the triumph of online shopping? The British Retail Consortium - which has always been a bit sniffy about the impact of the internet - has just published its first set of online shopping figures, alongside its regular survey of the High Street. It shows that, while sales fell on the High Street for the first time since 2005, online sales rose by more than 16%. The BRC is keen to stress that online only accounts for about 4% of total retail sales and says online sales growth "looks eye-watering but don't run away with the idea that the internet is 'killing the High Street'".
And it's true that online retailers still look puny compared to the High Street names. This week I visited a firm I've watched closely for the last decade, the online gadget retailer Firebox.com. Back in 2000, two years after its birth, this business just about survived the dotcom collapse. It was fortunate enough to have grown modestly in the early years, with a handful of staff and a small office where everyone helped in getting the orders out. In 2003 it made its first profit - something that has still eluded a number of online retailers - and its steady growth has continued. Now it has a big warehouse on a Croydon industrial estate, and is cautiously optimistic about Chrismas. But this is still a small business, with just 50 permanent employees. Those dotcom dreams of taking over the world have been replaced by more modest ambitions.
But firms like this, with smaller overheads than their High Street rivals, may have a better chance of surviving a deep recession than some of the big retail names. Shops selling electronic goods, books and music will find it ever harder to compete. The economics of "the long tail", where web operators can make money by offering a vast selection of goods that no single store can acommodate, may now prove irresistible.
So the internet may burrow deeper holes into the High Street, but it won't kill it. A website cannot replace the social experience of shopping. And without all those shiny new shopping malls, where would teenagers have to hang out? Innit?
- 7 Nov 08, 13:46 GMT
It was the coronation of the Queen in 1953 that saw television enter many British homes for the first time, the moon landing in 1969 inspired millions to go out and buy a colour TV, and it may have been the 2006 World Cup that persuaded lots of us that we needed to start thinking about flatscreen and HD. But did Barack Obama's acceptance speech on US election night mark the moment that web video came of age?
While millions watched the speech live in the US and some stayed up to catch it in the UK, a huge and growing audience has used the web, either to stream it live, or to catch up afterwards.
One internet service provider, PlusNet, claims that online TV viewing in Britain soared threefold in the small hours of Wednesday morning as viewers tuned in to watch Obama's triumph. It seems a lot of people were watching via their computer rather than going downstairs to turn on the television. "We saw two different types of behaviour," says Neil Armstrong of PlusNet. "People staying up late to catch the coverage online, and then from 0730, people logging on at home or at work to watch what they had missed."
And it's the way the web allows you to catch up with video you missed live or failed to record which has really come up trumps. The Obama speech is attracting millions of views on YouTube, where it's available in various forms - put there by broadcasters, and by viewers who've taped it.
Many people tell me they viewed it on Barack Obama's site, where a YouTube video is embedded. But the speech has also driven a lot of traffic to mainstream media sites - from the New York Times, to the Guardian, from the Daily Telegraph, to the BBC.
My colleagues tell me that on Wednesday 1.7 million people viewed the Obama speech on the BBC website, and another 230,000 watched on Thursday. So an event that attracted a pretty small audience on broadcast television - although over half a million were tuned in to the BBC's live election programme at 0500 - has already garnered an audience of about two million on the web. By comparison the biggest number of viewers for any clip in one day during October was 390,000 - for "Monkeys work in Japanese restaurant".
Now the Obama speech, with 2.4 million YouTube views in a couple of days, has got some way to go before it breaks web video records - an Avril Lavigne video and the Evolution of Dance have both had more than a hundred million views. But it looks to me as though a 17-minute speech in Chicago will be seen in retrospect as the event that made millions realise that the internet could let them replay history whenever they wanted.
- 6 Nov 08, 10:40 GMT
Jerry Yang's comments at the Web 2.0 Summit that: "The best thing for Microsoft to do is buy Yahoo" might have sounded desperate to some especially coming just hours after Google nixed a search advertising deal with the internet portal.
Mr Yang was also somewhat put out by Google's decision to walk away from the agreement because the heat coming from Washington was too much.
Though it did look like the Department of Justice was going to pursue an anti-trust suit over the search advertising deal that would have given both companies control over most of the market.
Still seemingly stinging from Google dumping Yahoo before it could dump Google, Mr Yang told a packed crowd that he was: "Disappointed they (Google) didn't want to defend it."
The decision at the end of the day didn't harm Yahoo's share price which rose 4% as a result to $13.92.
Perhaps it was that share price that prompted some mischief from Mr Yang when he put it out there that: "We're willing to sell the company."
That is of course at the right price. And no one knows what that is, except of course Mr Yang and he wasn't giving anything away on that front. But many shareholders will no doubt have some thoughts on that given that Microsoft offered $33 a share for the company back in May before negotiations went south along with their investment.
Microsoft is not responding to Mr Yang's advances though, with the billions in cash it has in the bank, it could surely get Yahoo for something of a knock down price compared to what it was prepared to offer earlier in the year.
For Mr Yang, this was a rare public appearance and one that many in the Web 2.0 crowd thought was going to get cancelled because he would know it would be a double whammy of awkward questions. Microsoft is never far from an interviewer's mind and today there was the added news of Google.
Another reason for the no show speculation was the circulation of a fake e-mail/memo that went around Yahoo priming staff to expect a major announcement suggesting Mr Yang was going to resign.
John Battelle, who hosted the conversation with Mr Yang at the Summit in San Francisco, acknowledged that it had been a tough year for the CEO and a tough 24 hours as well.
But Mr Yang pointed out that he was a fighter and his appearance in front of this tech crowd was proof of that.
"My personal belief is if you're not in the game to win, you shouldn't be in the game, and that's the way that I try to encourage the whole company to think about it."
- 5 Nov 08, 13:31 GMT
If you work in the music industry, or more particularly in a high street music retailer, then a new report makes depressing reading. Verdict Research says video games sales will outstrip music and video sales in the UK this year.The video games business has had a startlingly good year - sales up 42% - while music is still in the doldrums.
Mind you, Verdict has chucked in hardware - consoles, controllers - along with the games in its figure for the video games market, which is a bit like including MP3 players and TVs for the music and video sales. Still, it's pretty clear that playing, rather than listening or watching, is becoming Britain's favourite - or at least most lucrative - leisure time activity.
What's really gloomy for the high street is that music fans seems to have got out of the habit of leaving home to buy a CD. It's the internet that's to blame - not so much file-sharing or even legal downloads, as physical sales from online stores. Verdict reckons that less than two thirds of CDs and DVDs are now sold in stores rather than online.
Little by little, though, the music retailers do seem to be finding a way to cope with this changing world. How? Partly by turning into games stores. HMV, which was having a miserable time a year ago, reported a big rise in profits a few months back, and boasted that a new store format was paying off. Those new stores are designed to attract games fans, with, in the words of the company "a social hub providing access to entertainment websites, multi-player games zones and transactional kiosks." Zavvi - once Virgin Megastores - is following a similar route, offering less music and more space for games.
So it may be time to write the obituary for the old-fashioned music store. From now on it may be easier to find a rare early edition of Doom on the high street than to buy Bob Dylan's bootleg series on CD.
- 5 Nov 08, 10:15 GMT
Life was so much simpler on election nights in the old days. You slumbered in front of the telly into the early hours, occasionally switching channels - if you were a real political anorak - to check on who was getting the results more quickly. Then you went to bed and got the result the next morning.
But today's interactive, digital multi-platform election viewer is presented with a much more rigorous challenge. At times last night, as I tried to follow the US elections, so much data was coming at me from so many sources I felt my brain might explode. I was hopping through every possible TV channel - the BBC, CNN, al-Jazeera, France 24, to name but a few.
I was surfing any number of websites, from the BBC's live text coverage to the New York Times, from the Huffington Post to Google News. There was a constant pinging from my Twitter feed, as friends provided a stream of instant analysis of the coverage and the politics.
Then there was Twitter's election site which tracked anything anyone anywhere was saying about the election - from a disgruntled McCain supporter:
"Went to eat at chili's so we could ignore the obama victory. They sat us right in front of a tv w/ cnn on. :-( "
To someone heading for the Chicago park where the Obama victory celebration would take place:
"We're in! Now in the holding area right outside the park."
Still, until just after 0100, this great flood of data produced very little that meant anything to me in terms of the result. CNN had beamed their Chicago reporter via a hologram into their New York studio - an amazing but utterly pointless advance in election technology. The BBC had two bloggers scanning their laptops in a Times Square studio - though neither seemed to have any fresh insight into the race. And conflicting rumours were scurrying around the web at ever greater speed.
All of this new technology was not delivering faster results. In fact, you got the sense that the networks, burned by previous misleading exit polls, were being ultra-cautious in "calling" states for Obama or McCain.
It was only at about 0200 that the picture really began to clear, and that was because the networks were finally becoming confident enough to call some of the key states. And what were the blogs and tweets and websites telling the world? That "Fox has called Ohio for Obama" or "CNN says Obama leads in Florida." So despite the proliferation of new voices that the web has delivered to election coverage, it was still the powerful voices of the old media - the mighty networks rich enough to pay for a mammoth polling operation - which brought the news to homes across the United States and much of the rest of the world.
Watching this election was certainly made far more enjoyable by the interactive, communal experience offered by the web. Alone on the sofa, with my family long since tucked up in bed, I was nevertheless connected to a worldwide community, and so able to shout at the TV or the web - and get a response. In fact, online friends kept me up and watching far later than I'd planned. But did the denizens of Web 2.0 get the news of an Obama victory more quickly than the couch-potatoes? I don't think so.
- 4 Nov 08, 09:00 GMT
This election has relied on technology like never before to campaign, to get the vote out, to raise money, to harness volunteers and hopefully to return results as quickly as possible.
But it also seems that voters themselves are using technology as a way to ensure their vote is counted and their voices are heard. Yes even eight years on from the hanging chad debacle in Florida that left the 2000 election on a knife edge, people refuse to place their trust in the system.
Already Twitter, which has had its share of problems with downed service times, seems to be performing well ahead of d-day on election.twitter.com. A stream of comments and observations from users are flooding in so fast there isn't time to read them properly. Think ticker tape on speed.
"Just received my fourth call from the Obama campaign. Yes we can," tweets one user while another notes; "John McCain doesn't run for history. He is history." And yet another tweet says: "Lonely McCain supporters getting shouted down in Times Square," to "Gotta go walk my dog. Be uncool but American Vote McCain."
Over at twittervotereport.com, there's the chance to see voting in action and get real time feeds from people across the country.
Nick Bergus tweets that: "There is a huge early-voting line at the North Liberty Community Centre (in Iowa City), and has been since voting opened."
While Sarah Braun says: "I voted at my kitchen table weeks ago, dropped my ballot at the Library, Oregon is awesome." And libertyisforme tweets: "Florida drama: election documents found on junction of 1-4, 1-275."
These tweets give an insight into the mood of the country and the voter and a view that makes you feel at the heart of things. Of course it's a view from a certain kind of voter in a certain part of the country, and sure it's hard to imagine the potato farmer from Idaho tweeting their comments.
Likewise, YouTube will also only present a certain point of view but it will probably turn out to be one of the biggest outlets for voters to have their say and even show themselves casting their ballot through the site's "Video your Vote" partnership. Collaborators include everyone from Rock the Vote to Voto Latino and from Citizen Media Law to the Centre for Governmental Studies.
Another major partner is PBS, the equivalent of the BBC stateside, where TV anchor Judy Woodruff explains some of the thinking behind the project.
"We are looking for videos that documents the excitement, energy and last second campaigning on Nov 4th in addition to the issues you find at voting places like long lines, broken machines and any other roadblocks to casting a ballot. Elections have never been perfect."
The site shows a map of the country and offers videos shot by voters themselves on their phones, their cameras and by various interested groups and organisations. They cover early voting, notable voter, voting perspectives, voter intimidation, polling place problems and registration problems and mostly they give a personal view of what it's like voting in what has been billed as one of the most historical elections ever.
And let's not forget all those mobile applications out there to keep voters in touch with every twist and turn of the election and polling day itself.
And while it certainly seems that technology is putting power back into the hands of the voter, take note because all these tools will be coming to an election near you.
- 3 Nov 08, 10:16 GMT
Among the dozens of press releases which landed in my inbox last week was one with this arresting message:"A new survey reveals that a third of pensioners are keen online gamers."
Is that a story? Of course it is! The popular perception of online gamers is one of acne-scarred youths in darkened bedrooms, glued to their screens playing World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto, with an occasional pizza break.
In fact, this survey shows it's just as likely to be grandma sitting down after switching off Strictly Come Dancing for her daily Warcraft quests or a little drive-by shooting. And some of them are really addicted - the research shows that 118,000 British pensioners are online playing games for more than 15 hours a week. Wow!! It looks as though all of that feverish marketing from Nintendo and the like about spreading gaming to a new demographic is paying off.
Not so fast. This vision of wrinkled Warcrafters bears as much relation to reality as any other piece of questionable PR that lands on my desk. Look a little further down the press release and "a third of pensioners" translates into 24% of all pensioners, and 30% of state pensioners. Still, pretty impressive numbers, on the face of it. So how was this survey conducted? Well it involved "2,644 people surveyed at the end of September 2008." Sounds like a good sample - but what were they asked?
The question was this: "On average how many hours a week do you spend playing online games over your broadband internet connection?" Uh, oh, it looks as though the survey was conducted online - so all of those 2,644 respondents were people with broadband. In other words, they were among the minority of pensioners who are web users. The most recent figures from National Statistics show that 70% of people over 65 have never used the internet. So, the 24% of online pensioners supposedly playing games actually adds up to 7.2% of all pensioners.
And what about those 118,000 fanatical elderly gamers - 1% of 11.8 million UK pensioners according to the press release? Well even if you accept the extremely questionable premise that you can get a picture of the habits of the entire population from a survey like this, that number comes down to 36,000.
And what did they understand by online gaming? According to the press officer, that could include online bingo or any number of other "casual" games. Right. So we have 7% of pensioners playing anything from bingo to Sudoku to the Telegraph crossword online. Not quite such a good story.
So who is trying to sell this innumerate marketing ploy? It's a broadband comparison site - I won't name them - and their motives are pretty obvious. The website of the market research firm (again, I'm sparing their blushes) used to conduct this survey boasts: "XXX has already carried out thousands of surveys on behalf of our clients to make their brands into newspaper headlines. Simply let us know who you want to target with your campaign and let XXX take aim." It's a common tactic - conduct a survey, come up with some outlandish result, exaggerate that result in the headline on your press release and - hey presto! - your company's product gets free publicity on TV and in the newspapers.
So, while I'll admit that I've occasionally fallen for this kind of stunt in the past, I'm going to resist it this time. But don't be surprised if you pick up a paper this week and read "Secrets of the Granny Gamers."
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