- 28 Jan 09, 12:29 GMT
Only eight days into the job as chief executive officer of Yahoo, and Carol Bartz had the fairly thankless task of announcing the company's quarterly results for the end of 2008 amid one of the worst economic periods for years.
Joining her was chief financial officer Blake Jorgensen who played his part throughout, crunching the numbers. The other person along for the earnings announcement ride was co-founder, ex-ceo and now Chief Yahoo, Jerry Yang. But here's the thing, during the roughly hour long presentation and question and answer session, Mr Yang said nada.
It seemed rather strange that his presence was announced not once but twice, yet he said nothing - and none of the analysts called on him to speak. Neither did Ms Bartz, though she certainly referred to him in more oblique ways.
From the get-go Ms Bartz made it clear that she has her work cut out after taking over from Mr Yang. "There are fundamental issues that need to be addressed," she said, "sharpening strategic focus, increasing the pace of decision making and continuing to streamline the business."
For those not paying attention Ms Bartz added: "We need to bring more clarity to our strategy, speed innovation and be maniacally focused on users ... These things are absolutely addressable."
Forgive me if I am wrong, but was she hinting every so slightly that these were all areas the company had not excelled in under Mr Yang's stewardship and she is going to have to clean up his mess?
Well, just in case anyone was labouring under a misapprehension, Ms Bartz later stated: "I did mention it twice that this organisation is very complex. It is hard for people to get speedy answers and to make decisions. The good news is that's easy to fix. I happen to be pretty good at that sort of stuff."
I could imagine Mr Yang staring hard at his hands or some speck of dust throughout these various exchanges. But whatever he felt, he kept his own counsel and said nothing. For all intents and purposes, he might as well not have been there.
On other matters, Ms Bartz tackled the other elephant in the room - namely whether Yahoo is going to sell its search business to Microsoft.
While on the one hand she said "I didn't come here to sell the company", she also said "everything is on the table." And that might include a possible deal with AOL.
But if anyone is thinking of low-balling Ms Bartz, or trying to get her to sign a quick deal for quick bucks, she had this message: "This is not a company that needs to be pulled apart and left for the chickens. That's my Wisconsin coming through!"
- 28 Jan 09, 11:15 GMT
At the moment there is no greetings card for Data Privacy Day, but this is its second year and 27 countries around Europe, Canada and here in America will use it as a springboard to educate and make users aware of the best way to protect their information online.
As the first state in the nation to set up an office of privacy protection, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proclaimed Wednesday "California Privacy Day."
A range of events are being held throughout the world to mark the day from panel discussions to cocktail parties and from outreach projects to seminars and workshops.
With a constant barrage of reports of how cyber criminals are wreaking havoc on the internet, there is a renewed effort by privacy advocates to push for more to be done to protect consumers and to hold companies accountable for what they do with information that is gleaned from our online activities.
In the States, a group called the Future of Privacy Forum is calling on President Obama to appoint a chief privacy officer to create standards for how personal information can be captured by search engines, social networks and mobile browsers.
"With this administration, how data is handled is going to be far more central than ever before," Jules Polonetsky, co-chair of the Forum and a former chief privacy officer at AOL told the Washington Post.
"We have people enthusiastically interacting with the government - wanting Barack to be our Facebook friend - yet we don't have an accountable figure to help shape information policy."
Microsoft, once the target of so many privacy groups, has commissioned some research into what concerns users have about going online.
For its study the company spoke to a sample of people in Dallas and in San Francisco.
Their comments ranged from: "Once you get in the internet, I don't think there's any control" to "I think we should be as cautious as we can, but also the companies that we're dealing with should protect the information."
And from: "We're aware of the risks and the safeguards to take, there are other people who maybe aren't as aware" to "I find I have more trust in a company when I have the option of opting out....or unsubscribing to them."
The software giant's chief privacy officer Peter Cullen told me that their findings refute the belief that most people, especially the young, are cavalier about the information they give away about themselves.
"There is a sense of resignation," explained Mr Cullen. "Most people realise they are making trade-offs when online. While they are not always comfortable about those trade-offs, they do it because of the value they get from the services online or sharing information online gives them.
"They would prefer to have much more control and feel better about sharing that information and that's where education comes in."
To that end Microsoft is involved in hosting a major community discussion on the issue in San Francisco for Data Privacy Day.
I'll be moderating the debate at the city's public library and I'll let you know how I got on.
- 23 Jan 09, 17:52 GMT
Should a broadband connection be compulsory for every UK resident ? Well of course not, but if you haven't got one yet, prepare to be battered into submission.
Digital Britain - a major report from the technology minister on our high-tech future - is due to be published next week (which is very inconsiderate of Lord Carter as I will be away on holiday). And it looks as though the report will focus on measures to close the digital divide and ensure that everyone in the UK gets access to broadband. So how are we going to get there?
Right now around 60% of households have broadband. That leaves the government with two issues to address - finding a way to connect the 1% who just cannot get it, and persuading the 39% who haven't bothered that they really, really need it.
The 1% problem may not be too tricky to solve - as long as enough money is thrown at it. Mobile and satellite solutions should patch the holes in the fixed-line network.
But what is going to make over a third of all households decide that finally it's time to get connected? Someone in the broadband industry admitted to me that ISPs haven't really worked very hard at this. "The market has never been very good at this - it just doesn't understand this type of consumer. They'd rather concentrate on competing for the two-thirds who've got it and upgrading them, rather than going for the one-third which they don't understand and don't know how to get to."
So what do we know about these people? There is evidence that, with take-up of broadband slowing, there is now quite a substantial slice of the population which is in no hurry to join the revolution. An Ofcom report last year looked at reasons for people not having broadband - which it describes as "voluntary or involuntary non-ownership".
"Voluntary" non-ownership means people who just don't want it - that accounted for 16% of the population in Ofcom's survey and most of them said they just did not need it. "Involuntary" is that group which would like broadband, but finds it too costly or too difficult to use.
So this latter group may have to be wooed with cheaper and more user-friendly services. The problem here is finding ways of subsidising the minority, without distorting a market that works pretty well for the majority right now. So if you're paying £15 a month for your broadband, how will you feel about your neighbour getting "broadbandforall" at just £5?
Getting everyone online will be hard. After all, nearly 30% of households don't even have a computer at home. The answer here, according to someone I chatted with at a big ISP, is television.
Just about everyone has one of these, so they may have to be the route to the fast internet for many - though linking the TV screen to a broadband line won't necessarily deliver the educational benefits the government is seeking. Do we really want children who don't have a computer at home to do their homework on the telly?
One measure that would drive take-up amongs the "voluntary" non-users is making more government services available exclusively online. But just how popular a measure would it be to tell the elderly, for instance, that they could collect their pensions online but not at the post office?
So I will be interested to hear what ideas Lord Carter has to make the internet as common a utility in British homes as running water. But maybe compulsory broadband isn't the answer.
- 23 Jan 09, 12:51 GMT
For a certain kind of person, posting hoaxes about the health of Apple boss Steve Jobs seems to be a growing sport, albeit one in very bad taste.
Among the most notable was a citizen journalist report on CNN last year claiming Mr Jobs had had a heart attack. And then there was the accidental publication of his obituary by Bloomberg.
In the latest case someone distributed a "breaking news story" purporting to come from Wired.com under the name of one of their reporters, John C Abell.
At a brief glance it could have looked genuine enough, and for a while on the Twitterverse plenty of people believed it and tweeted about it. Other sites like Mashable and Gizmodo also joined in the chatter. It was apparently one of the most shared links on Twitter for a few hours.
But the headline should have been a pure giveaway: "Breaking: Steve Jobs in has had a Cardiac Arrest." And the article is littered with spelling mistakes - "Paulo Alto", "ambulence", and so on.
Wired.com explains "the hoaxer was able to create a cursorily valid-looking page using our public upload image viewer, whose URL was not a secret and which generates a page containing an image under a genuine Wired logo banner". Wired says this has now been patched.
These and other reports have all affected the stock price. Even announcements from Apple and Mr Jobs himself - or sometimes their absence - have caused the markets to wobble.
For months some Apple investors and analysts have complained that the company should be more forthcoming about the health of someone who is regarded as being so closely tied to its fortunes. The usual reply from Apple has been that Mr Jobs' health is a private matter.
And while we in the media try not to over-react to every rumour and half-rumour, they can be hard to ignore when the Apple PR machine refuses to throw cold water on them and instead responds with the simple answer that it doesn't comment on rumour and speculation.
Until the recent announcements by Mr Jobs about the true nature of his health problems, the previous hoaxes were so believable because everyone could see how gaunt he looked and Apple's code of silence worked against itself.
This time round this particular piece of fiction was pretty poorly written but it was cloaked in a credible looking veneer. Of course Apple can't spend its every second responding to every cockamamie story. But the company may be asking itself whether, had they been more willing in the past to speak up, then these false rumours might never be able to get off the ground.
- 22 Jan 09, 17:50 GMT
It's been a dreadful 24 hours for companies in the technology industry - with just a couple of exceptions. Microsoft, Sony and Nokia have all announced poor results. The tech giants who appeared confident six months ago that they would ride out a recession are now rushing to blame the global downturn for their individual problems
Microsoft says 5,000 jobs are going worldwide in departments ranging from HR to IT. This is the first time in its history that the company has cut its workforce (other than a bit of natural wastage).
The cuts follow an 11% fall in net profits, and Microsoft blames "the further deterioration of global economic conditions". So how did that make itself felt? Microsoft had been expecting the PC market on which it depends for Windows revenues to grow by more than 10%. Instead it was flat, with a fall in sales of desktops only partly offset by the surge in netbook sales.
Steve Ballmer is not underplaying the seriousness of the situation - he told analysts on a conference call that the economy was "resetting", and he didn't expect a quick rebound. Hard-pressed consumers who couldn't afford to refinance their homes weren't going to rush to buy PCs.
He also came out fighting, saying that Microsoft had come from a zero share of the netbook market to 80%, and suggested that customers would look far more critically at the kind of price premiums that they paid for a Macintosh compared with a PC.
Nokia also had some chilling news for the whole mobile phone industry. This was not so much a 69% fall in profits as its forecast that the global handset market would shrink by 10% in 2009 - this in an industry which has had nearly a quarter of a century of continuous growth, apart from a small fall back in 2001.
Nokia saw sales of its own handsets fall around the world. In China sales were down 36% compared to the same quarter in 2007. With companies pinning their hopes for growth on developing countries, this is very scary.
Sony appears to be in an even grimmer position. It had already announced job cuts and warned of a record loss this year. The company is keen to blame the strong yen for its woes, but it's clear that it also has problems competing in some key product areas. Its TV division keeps losing money, and the PlayStation 3 has been bested by Nintendo's Wii and by the Xbox 360.
The idea was that gamers would pay a premium for a console which was technically more advanced than its rivals. That strategy was already in question and as the recession hits consmer spending it looks even more dubious.
So amidst this gloom who is still prospering? Well, Apple of course as we mentioned earlier, though I still think there's a question over whether consumers will carry on paying a premium for its products through the recession. Another business defying the gloom is Britain's Autonomy, a database-search company which more than doubled its profits in the last quarter - and promptly announced it was spending $750m buying another software firm.
This is not a great time to be running a technology company - but for just a few, it's a chance to grow bigger while their rivals hide under the table and wait for the recovery.
- 22 Jan 09, 09:11 GMT
A year ago, Apple's shares stood somewhere around $155 when I posted here about a hugely impressive set of results. The shares fell back because Wall Street was disappointed with Apple's forecast. They then climbed to around $200, before plunging downhill with the rest of the market.
Now Apple has produced another sparkling set of figures for the last three months - perhaps even more impressive given that they come in the depths of our harsh economic winter. Record quarterly revenues - more than $10bn for the first time - record profits of $1.6bn, and the company is now sitting on an enormous cash pile of $28bn. So surely the shares will now leap ahead from their current level of $83? Well, maybe. Let's first take a closer look at the results.
Where is the cash coming from? 22.7m iPods, 4.7m iPhones, more than 2.5m Macintosh computers - and a profit margin of nearly 35%, with Apple benefiting from falling component prices.
On the analysts' conference call, Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer and Tim Cook, the stand-in CEO in the absence of Steve Jobs, basked in the admiration of Wall Street, with some analysts prefacing their questions with congratulations.
So is Apple that rare corporate creature - the recession-proof business? Well, lurking in the results there were just a few warning lights.:
iPods: Despite having more than 70% of the MP3 player market, the iPod just keeps on growing. But has it finally peaked? Apple revealed that all the growth in the last quarter came outside the US (where sales actually fell) and, but for an amazing last week when frenzied present-buyers apparently stormed the stores in search of Christmas presents, there would have been an overall fall. Endless innovation - colour, video, touchscreen - has so far kept new buyers coming. It is difficult to see what the next trick will be.
Mac: While the halo effect of the iPod and iPhone continues to drive customers to the Mac, there was a major shift away from desktops to portable computers. iMac sales, compared with very good figures the previous year when a new version came out, actually fell while the Macbook range saw sales rise 34% after it was refreshed in the autumn. Tim Cook said that this was all part of an industry-wide shift away from the desktop and that Apple had outperformed the market. But the growing phenomenon in portable computing is netbooks - cheap pared-down machines. Apple has stayed out of this market so far and Tim Cook was dismissive of netbooks - "less powerful than customers want, cramped keyboards, small displays... we don't think people are going to be pleased with those type of products". They are of course unlikely to provide the kind of margin Apple has achieved with its bigger shinier laptops. But perhaps they're just what a customer wants in a recession?
iPhone: The "Jesus" phone has comfortably passed Steve Jobs' prediction of 10m sales by the end of 2008 - but were quarterly sales of 4.3m just a tad disappointing? Wall Street had expected more. But Peter Oppenheimer and Tim Cook were more bullish about this product than any other during the call. "We continue to believe we are years ahead of the competition," said Oppenheim. But there is of course plenty of smartphone competition out there now . Earlier this month, Palm unveiled its Pre, the closest imitation so far of the multi-touch iPhone. Without naming Palm, Tim Cook issused a clear threat to rivals who might copy Apple too closely: "We like competition as long as they don't rip off our IP (intellectual property). We will not stand for having our IP ripped off and we'll use whatever weapons we have at our disposal."
Of course, the big unanswered - if not unasked - question during the conference call was when and whether Steve Jobs will return to the helm. But Tim Cook - an obscure figure until now to most outsiders - did himself no harm with a calm, if combative performance as he outlined Apple's performance. But the company admits that the road ahead through a global recession lacks "visibility", so these will be testing months.
A constant stream of innovative new products has kept customers coming to the Apple stores, even in a holiday season which was bleak for many retailers. Now, with nothing very new in those stores and consumers hunkering down for hard times, will this be the quarter where the iMachine finally comes to a halt?
- 21 Jan 09, 09:45 GMT
So how was it for you? Yesterday I wrote that, while the Obama inauguration might be a big new media happening, it was also the kind of event where the old medium of broadcast television could be the best place to enjoy it.
Mid-afternoon, I sat down to try to experience the inauguration (or #inaug09 as Twitter users tagged it) in as many ways as possible, both new and old. I turned the television on my desk to the BBC's output. I opened several tabs in the browser on my laptop to monitor various sites and social networking feeds, and pointed the desktop at the BBC News site.
Oh, and surely there must be a mobile route to the event? I downloaded the new Ustream application to my phone, and attempted to watch live there. This was the one aspect of my activities that impressed my colleagues, who were mostly watching the standard television output. I wandered around the office, showing off the stream of the AP coverage, to plenty of oohs and aahs.
But it was quickly stuttering, then freezing, and I decided that, like a dog that can stand on its hindlegs, streaming video on a mobile phone is merely of curiosity value when you have access to something better.
The joint operation between CNN and Facebook did look impressive. Once you'd worked out how to get there, you could watch CNN's stream from Washington's Mall while updating your Facebook status and seeing exactly what your friends - and the rest of Facebook - were saying about the event. It was an instant online party. Then, seeking something much plainer I turned to WSJ.com which had a feed without any commentary.
All the while, I was looking at Twitter for a bit of instant feedback and the odd picture from the event, though one Tweet summed up rather well the slightly random view you got from this vantage point:
jamesgraham: "Reading inauguration coverage on twitter is a bit like the Sermon on the Mount...in Life of Brian: 'blessed are the cheesemakers?'"
But then the internet (or the office network) seemed to creak under the strain. The streaming video packed up completely on some sites, and was unsatisfactory on others. And wherever I went online, the video was not quite live - seconds, sometimes minutes behind the broadcast version.
So, as Aretha Franklin launched into what seemed to British ears an electrifying rendition of "God Save The Queen" (it was actually "My Country Tis of Thee), I concentrated on good old-fashioned live television for the rest of the ceremony.
Old media won the day for me, albeit with some enjoyable social networking spice. But what do the figures show for the rest of the world? Facebook and CNN were soon shouting from the rooftops about their collaborative effort. 600,000 status updates were posted through the CNN.com Live Facebook feed, and 18 million live video streams were served up, as compared with around five million on the day of the presidential election, their previous record. And that experiment where they asked for photos of the moment Obama took the oath, and then stitched them together into a 3D mosaic worked a treat.
Our own BBC site was getting heavy traffic - about 30% above a normal day at around 1700 GMT UK time, though that dropped back once the event was over. But, as my colleague who looks at web traffic predicted, it wasn't a record-breaking event. 7.4 million people used the BBC news site yesterday, some way short of the 10 million who turned up on US election day. The stats coming out of the US paint a mixed picture, with records broken for social networking traffic but not for news sites.
What is clear is that this event will have a long tail on the web. YouTube videos were already being posted within minutes - here's one of that Aretha Franklin performance - and video and text of the inaugural speech are going to be available online for students for generations to come, along with the kind of user-generated content that just did not exist 10 years ago.
But for every person who surfed, tweeted and streamed their way through 20 January 2009, there were many more who just sat on sofas around the world and watched the TV. There is always nonsense talked about television audiences for global events - I think the 1.5 billion mentioned in some places has just been pulled out of a hat - but it is clear that in the US and around the world hundreds of millions were tuned into live television at noon Washington time.
Mind you, the Obama administration is already looking very 21st Century in its own approach to new media, with a new version of the White House website going live, just as the new president started his slightly halting path through the oath of office.
The website now features a "blog" - though one that does not appear to be written by the president or any other named individual and does not allow readers to comment. Perhaps there's a little work to be done before we can say there's a Web 2.0 White House.
Update 2008-01-23 1657: Thanks mute_posting for the heads-up: that slip of the keyboard is now fixed.
- 20 Jan 09, 01:00 GMT
Will Barack Obama's inauguration in Washington today prove to be the biggest new media event ever? Maybe - but it could also turn out to be a triumph for the old media.
If you want to watch the event live, then there are innumerable ways. Here in the UK you can see it on BBC1 and, if you have multi-channel TV, on Sky News, CNN or plenty of others. But that is just the beginning. If you're at a computer rather than in front of the telly, it will still be very easy to watch the swearing-in of President Obama live, with everyone from Joost to C-SPAN - and of course this site - offering a live stream.
Then there is all the social networking and other interactive bells and whistles. So Facebook and Twitter will be alive with comments and links, and just about every other site will be telling you theirs is the best place to be to experience the swearing-in of the 44th President.
One of our rivals, CNN, has what sounds like a great idea. It is asking anyone who is attending the inauguration to take a photo at precisely 1200 (1700 GMT) when Obama takes the oath and send it to the cable news station. They will then use a Microsoft program called Photosynth to create what could be an extraordinary 3D image of a moment in history.
The BBC website also has all sorts of plans. There will be a live event page, with reports from correspondents in the field, blog posts, and Twitter messages. There will be video reactions sent in by users of services like Seesmic and Qik, and there will be a "mood map" with people around the world invited to say whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about an Obama administration, and their reactions then flagged on the map.
I looked back at our online coverage of the inauguration of President George W Bush in January 2001. It looks pretty plain vanilla - lots of text, but no embedded video or social networking. Of course back then in the dim and distant past, nobody had heard of Facebook, MySpace or Twitter - because they did not exist.
So, given all of this innovation, how many people will choose to be online rather than on the sofa for President Obama's inaugural speech? Back in 2001, the BBC site was used by around one million people on an average day, whereas these days an average audience is six million, and that rises to 10 million for really big events, like the US Presidential election back in November.
But one of my colleagues, who analyses our web traffic, isn't convinced that the inauguration will be a big online event, pointing out that it doesn't play to the strengths of the internet. He told me that big web events involve a lot of data, like an election, or a lot of conflict, with people coming online to argue. With Barack Obama already elected and the sole focus of the event, there is not much information to digest - and not a lot to argue about.
What this feels like is a classic television event. Of modern inaugurations, that of Ronald Reagan in 1981 drew the biggest US television audience with around 42 million people tuning in, while George W Bush's second inaugural address in 2005 was watched by just 15 million. There are predictions that President Obama will bust all records - in the US and globally. So this looks like an event that could see the old media - or at least one of them, broadcast television - stage a fightback.
But the great thing about the online coverage is that it will be around for years to come, as a resource for history students and schoolchildren. I've been looking at YouTube, where I found plenty of videos of President Kennedy's celebrated inaugural address. Barack Obama's acceptance speech in Chicago was the most popular piece of video ever on the BBC site, with 1.7 million views. Perhaps his inaugural address - if he gets it right - will break that record?
- 16 Jan 09, 08:08 GMT
At an internal BBC event yesterday, I described Twitter to a group of colleagues, most of whom had never used the micro-blogging service.
"It's like a very fast, but not entirely reliable news agency," I said, and got a cheap laugh by naming a genuine news agency which has that reputation.
Now, twice within 24 hours, I have received first news of a breaking story by looking at my Twitter feed.
On Wednesday evening, I was travelling home from a night out, glanced at my phone and saw one of the people I follow on Twitter talking about Apple's new statement on Steve Jobs' health. That meant I could get straight to work on filing a radio piece.
Then on Thursday evening at around 2145, I was staring at my laptop, idly checked Twitter, and saw someone saying that it was amazing that a plane could land on water and that everyone would survive. So on went the BBC News Channel, and the most extraordinary news pictures for some time appeared.
But one of the very first pictures to be posted from the scene was obtained by a Twitterer from Sarasota, Florida, Janis Krums, who was on a ferry and took a snap on his phone and immediately posted it on Twitpic. Twitpic is a site which is helping in the transformation of Twitter from a pared-down messaging tool into a multimedia service - and a great platform for citizen journalism.
Last time I looked, more than 97,000 people had viewed the picture. He has since been interviewed by a number of media organisations and says in a recent tweet: "[t]he last few hours have been intense." I bet.
We've also discussed the tricky issue of what checks journalists should make when scooping up what's on Twitter for broadcast - we know, for instance, that some of what came out of Mumbai turned out to be inaccurate (see "Twitter - the Mumbai myths").
But Mr Krums' picture, taken on the rather low-quality camera on an iPhone, already looks to be a classic of the new age of citizen journalism. So maybe my cheap crack about its reliability as a news agency was a little wide of the mark.
Update: Janis Krums, the Twitterer who took a picture of the Airbus from a ferry which came to its aid, explains how it went round the world.
- 15 Jan 09, 16:25 GMT
It was meant to be a day in which I learned about the role technology is now playing in education - but it turned into a painful lesson in how technology can bite you. A visit to BETT, the ICT-in-education show, seemed a great idea.
I've long felt that the story of the ICT revolution in schools has not been properly examined - certainly by me. After all, the government has invested £5bn in giving schools in England everything from broadband connections to electronic whiteboards - but are we clear that there has been an educational dividend from that investment?
So I promised the News Channel a series of live broadcasts and the News At One a taped report from the show. Cue total tech disaster - everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
First of all, our satellite truck just couldn't lock onto a signal outside Olympia - and by the time it found one, we were too busy putting together our One O'Clock package to go live.
We finished editing in a cubby hole, kindly lent us by the organisers, at exactly 1300 GMT - not unusual in a world where we work very close to the wire. The report was due on air at 1320 GMT so we had plenty of time to export it to tape from the laptop where it had been edited with the Avid program and take it outside to the satellite truck. First problem - the laptop simply refused to export the file to tape.
Undaunted, my cameraman/picture editor suggested we should just plug his laptop into the truck via a Firewire cable. Cue frantic search for the right cable - and then by 1310 GMT we were ready to feed. No cause for panic, then - until the laptop crashed. Every time we tried to launch Avid, we got an incomprehensible error message. We crept closer and closer to our slot, with me jumping up and down in despair. Finally, we had to admit failure - and the bulletin had to do without our report. In the circumstances, my bosses were very understanding - though there were the usual jibes about a technology correspondent at a technology show being let down by technology.
Which set me thinking. The problem with advances in the technology we use - whether in journalism or the classroom - is that they can impose huge stress on those who use them. I walked round the BETT show admiring all the tools that are now available to today's teachers - from netbooks, through electronic whiteboards, to the cheap cameras being wielded by an enthusiastic group of students from a London school making their own report about the show.
But then I remembered what one very experienced teacher had told me a few weeks ago. He said the best form of teaching was still all about chalk and talk, and that the technology had been a hindrance not a help. He described student teachers overburdened with work and losing confidence because they now felt that they had to prepare a Powerpoint presentation for every lesson on the electronic whiteboard.
Now, I do think this particular teacher - though he denied it - was from the Luddite tendency. But I think the point about stress was well made. In all my years editing pieces out in the field on tape, I can never remember an occasion when machine failure has stopped us getting on air. But twice in the last couple of years a laptop has refused to spew out my precious report - leaving both me and the editor helpless. With the old machines, you could at least bash them - somehow laptops don't respond to that treatment.
Let me be clear - I do believe that just about all these advances in the technology used by both teachers and journalists are worthwhile. But each time a transition comes along, there is bound to be a lot of stress for the practitioners - and that is sometimes ignored by their manager.
Anyway, eventually we did get the video files out of one laptop and onto another, and our report was finally shown on the News Channel. In case you missed it, you'll find it embedded here - but what it doesn't show is any of the pain involved in making it.
- 15 Jan 09, 09:23 GMT
The fact that Steve Jobs' admission that his health issues "are more complex that originally thought" really comes as no surprise.
It now has. And the third piece of information - that Mr Jobs is taking a leave of absence - caught everyone on the back foot.
Naturally, many are worried that he is now saying his health is worse than he thought, but relieved that the "'c" word was mentioned nowhere in the three paragraph communique. Mind you: does that really matter? The markets are so jumpy about the whole affair that if the guy sneezes, the share price drops.
Another reason for taking time off work is the fact that Mr Jobs feels that "the curiosity over my personal health continues to be a distraction not only for me and my family, but everyone else at Apple as well".
Alas, that is not about to change.
Come the summer, if Mr Jobs is not back at the helm and if he perhaps misses Apple's own World Wide Developer Conference, bet your bottom dollar that share price will yo-yo all over the place.
The Silicon Alley Insider makes an interesting point about the whole affair. The blog suggests that lawyers are presently sharpening their teeth to launch a shareholder lawsuit over what Mr Jobs knew about his health and when he knew it. The argument about how much a senior executive should reveal about his or her health when running a public company just won't go away.
And while it seems crass and in bad taste to raise this as an issue, it is certainly something that may lurk in the background.
Apple, of course, is not alone in having bad news to announce.
One final piece of Silicon Valley twittering: Techmeme's Gabe Rivera tweets that this is a perfect time for other companies to get out their bad news while attention is elsewhere. We can be sure of two things: first, there's certainly plenty of bad news to go around and second, we do live in cynical times.
- 13 Jan 09, 22:55 GMT
Carol Bartz is undoubtedly the type of CEO who tells it like it is.
During her conference call regarding her announcement as the new boss of Yahoo she told those listening to give the embattled company some "friggin' breathing room".
A former colleague of hers at Autodesk told the Associated Press that she was known to talk like a sailor and didn't worry too much about how people felt in order to get the job done. She admitted as much when she said she regards herself as a "straight shooter" who is ready to "seize the opportunity".
Proof of her no nonsense approach came when she went on to say that "Yahoo is a company with great assets that frankly could use a little management".
Charles Cooper over at CNET described her as "an old-school technology executive who has thrived in crises that would have overwhelmed most of the good old boys she's competed against since the 1970s".
Mr Cooper noted that at the software company Autodesk she "crushed a rebellion of prima donnas" and when the internet revolution happened she rebutted analysts with the quip "You'd be happier if we were selling plastic-wrapped fruit baskets over the internet?"
When she stood down as CEO at Autodesk, revenues had grown from $300m to $1.5bn - a classic yah-boo-sucks to the money men.
Ms Bartz is wasting no time in getting on with business at the Sunnyvale HQ. Straight after her conference call she held a management meeting. Now that would have been an interesting get-together.
She will mark a big change from co-founder Jerry Yang who has been put through the wringer for his management style. Some say it's resulted in the once mighty internet portal lying bloodied and bruised in a dark back alley waiting for an ambulance. Will Ms Bartz bring it back to health?
Kara Swisher at AllThingsD.com is a big fan: "It's like watching a digital version of 'The Gladiator'."
Silicon Valley, it seems, has a new all-action heroine.
- 13 Jan 09, 16:47 GMT
Two sets of figures out today confirmed what I'd expected - that amidst all the economic gloom, online retailing continued to boom at Christmas.
One set of statistics came from Nielsen Online [pdf], which puts web traffic under the microscope. Its report says that traffic to the top ten UK retail websites was up by 37% in the last quarter of 2008 compared to the previous year.
No surprise that Amazon is at the top of the list with a monthly audience of 15.6 million. But that was a rise of just 18% on the previous year, whereas the figures for some traditional retailers were far more spectacular. Argos saw its audience rise by 32%, Marks and Spencer had a 46% rise and Littlewoods' audience was up 66%.
Earlier the British Retail Consortium had issued its survey for December, and it was packed with gloom and doom. "Worst December in Survey's History," was the headline on the press release, and it's obvious that the high street had a pretty miserable Christmas. But right at the end was this line: "Non-food non-store sales in December were 30.0% higher than a year ago." That means online retailing to you and me, and it's a far better performance than was predicted, even by the online retailing industry.
In the past the BRC, which in the main speaks for the big high street retailers, has been sceptical about the share of total retail sales enjoyed by the online sector. It puts it at under 4%, while the IMRG, which describes itself as "the voice of e-tail", claims it is much higher at around 15%. Whatever the true figure, two things are clear - online spending is growing rapidly, while high street spending is shrinking.
Back in the late 90s the dotcom evangelists told us that online start-ups would crush the dinosaurs of retailing and leave the shopping malls and high streets deserted. That didn't happen - but a decade later the online retail revolution is finally happening. And funnily enough, the dinosaurs are now leading the charge.
- 12 Jan 09, 10:56 GMT
Every year the Consumer Electronics Show ends with an event called Last Gadget Standing. For a show where global manufacturers spend vast sums on elaborate displays, this event is a curiously homespun, even amateur affair - a bit like a talent show at your local pub. But for me it's one of the best ways of working out where technology is heading.
The idea is that ten gadgets and their makers battle it out on stage in front of an excited audience. There are two winners, chosen by public acclamation (there's a high-tech clapometer in the hall) and by an online vote.
So here's a run-down of this year's finalists, with my personal take on them.
MSI Wind Netbook
First up, one of the many netbooks on display in Las Vegas this year. This one has a 10" screen but its USP is that it has a hybrid storage solution - part hard disk, part solid state drive. Its makers claim that gives it extraordinary battery life - up to 20 hours. Workmanlike, but dull.
Bug Labs Bug
Not satisfied with the gadgets that Apple or Sony are pushing your way? The idea of the Bug is that you can make your own. You start with the bug base which is a tiny Linux computer - then you can snap on a whole range of modules, including a camera, a keyboard, a motion detector, a 3g module and a tiny projector. So the presenter plugged together a device which would detect someone coming into your room, take a picture, email it, and project it on to the wall. Smart stuff.
Eye-Fi Video Card
Last year's winners of this event, with a wifi SD card that sends photos direct from your camera to the web. This year they returned with a product that does the same thing for video - and there were whoops in the hall as they brought a Johnny Cash lookalike on stage and beamed video of him direct to the web as he sang. But when I asked afterwards how long it would take to upload video, they admitted it could be hours on the kind of network most of us use. So why wouldn't you just transfer the video to your computer?
WowWee Joe Bot
The latest toy robot from this CES regular, Joe Bot responds to voice commands. He is also an example of why presenters should not work with children, animals - or robots. After first responding well to the command "dance for these good people, Joe", he then turned truculent and refused to cooperate. Having seen last year's WowWee robot on sale at less than half-price in a Las Vegas shop, I fear for Joe's future.
Motorola Zine ZN5
A cameraphone which boasts that it's a camera which happens to have a phone attached. The Brummie presenter from Motorola did a great job of selling it and the pictures did look very good but guys, in the end it's just another cameraphone.
T-Mobile Android G1
You may just have heard of this one - the first mobile phone to use Google's open source Android platform. The presenter did a good job, showing off the way the GI used Google's Streetview to navigate him around Las Vegas. But hey - we know about the G1 - where's the G2?
EmWave Personal Stress Reliever
From the wacky end of the gadget spectrum, this device is supposed to deal with all your stress - from putting the household budget on red at the casino, to trying to hit a deadline when you're eight hours behind London. As far as I understood the presenters, you put your thumb on it, which gives you a heart-rate variability readout, then you manage your breathing to synchronise it with your heart-rate. Confused? I was.
ClickFree USB Cable
This again left me somewhat confused. It's a USB device you plug in to your computer to make backup much simpler and less error-prone. But you still need an external drive for the data. Maybe it's me but I don't quite get it.
Flip Mino Video HD
The latest version of the tiny video camera with the big red button. Perfect for those who can't be bothered to fiddle with settings, but just want to shoot video on the spur of the moment. Rather more expensive, though, than some rivals unveiled at CES. And I'm not convinced that HD is what we want from budget camcorders.
After seeing a fellow journalist using this computer-in-a-pen at the show, I was already impressed, and the presenters here showed it off really well. So you're at a press conference or lecture. You take notes with the pen, which also records audio, on special paper with microdots built in. If your shorthand, like mine, is non-existent, you'll look back at your notes and puzzle to understand them. But tap on any word you've written down, and your recording will replay at the exact same point in the lecture. Clever, really clever.
So take your pick. I was most impressed by Bug Labs Bug and by the LiveScribe Pen but, like the judges on Strictly Come Dancing, I was out of tune with the public. The online audience voted for the Emware stress reliever, while the hooters and the hollerers in the hall chose the Eye-Fi video card. As an American politician said after being voted out, "the people have spoken, the bastards."
- 12 Jan 09, 09:51 GMT
Regulars attending CES, the world's biggest consumer electronics show said that in order to survive the whole week of events, you had to pace yourself.
Naturally loose clothing (this comment is not at all influenced by the fact the Adult Entertainment Expo was in town at the same time as CES), comfortable shoes and plenty of water were a must for wandering the three different halls housing 2,700 exhibits.
But if you were really smart like Matt, you would have brought your own personal Segway to help transport you up and down the 1.7m net square feet that the expo took up.
Matt admitted it was a boon because of a slightly dicky back, but also said it was a great conversation starter.
"While it's handy to get around, I am amazed at the number of people who have stopped me to talk about it. It's been an interesting way to make friends," he told me.
While CES was all about the world of electronics and plugging a product, entertainment was not very far away.
Hey - it is Vegas, after all - and everyone likes to put on a show. Even if you have to make it yourself.
Over at the HP stand, that was just what was expected.
Conference-goers were required to become movie makers and were given the chance to create five frames of a stop motion movie by moving the little stick man.
"We wanted to show off the creative side of HP and kind of get people to roll up their sleeves and get dirty with it," said Pete Conolly.
Those looking for a more energetic way to express themselves were given inspiration over at the Avid stage.
There Mark and Brett from the Rock Steady Crew, which was at the forefront of hip hop, were helping sell DJ products by gettin' down with some heavy moves.
Alas, no takers from the CES crowd.
If you were looking for some light relief, every other exhibitor seemed to be staging some kind of Ultimate Rock Band/Guitar Hero event or mock "Jeopardy!" show - much, I am sure, to the horror of the real presenter Alex Trebek who was at the Sony booth.
In one version of the primetime quiz, the contestants were dressed up as Harry Potter, Amy Winehouse and, er, I haven't a clue.
The focus was ridicule and fun at the same time. The hit question of the day seemed to be what would the competitors say to hostess Natasha to chat her up.
One guy had to go ask his friend in the audience... and readers, I cannot repeat his line because I think you would be offended by it. Needless to say, it was pretty base and involved bodily functions passing as humour.
Meanwhile the Harry Potter guy, who looked like he'd magicked himself out of school, was still more risqué with his one-liner concerning his magic wand. Again, I will leave it all to your own imagination.
One of the more enthusiastic crowds I stumbled across was hanging out to see "Fatal1ity", a twelve-time world champion in five different games.
Johnathan Wendel was there to sell his own line of products from headsets to mouse mats. But he was also there to show how great a master of the shoot-'em-up gaming world he is.
Anyone who scored just one frag (or kill) against Fatal1ty (or Johnathan) won a bunch of expensive gaming software.
But even when he played with a handicap, like having his computer screen covered up save for a 3x3inch cut-out or having one hand behind his back, Johnathan's opponents never knew what hit them.
First up for humiliation were Anesh and Rod who were beaten into negative territory, and that set the mood for the session.
Not one person got a kill against Fatal1ty who was hyped as one of the big celebrities of CES, along with a host of sports stars, Tom Hanks, Usher, Stevie Wonder and Will.I.am. Exalted company indeed.
Of course there was the obligatory massage to be had to help winkle out the knots and stresses of jostling with an estimated 150,000 people, or being humiliated at the hands of Fatal1ty.
Free booze and food were par for the course, as well as a load of useless free swag.
I blagged a plastic easter egg with putty inside it; Rory got a USB drive and my editor Mark takes top place with a pair of white socks that you can stick together so that you don't lose them in the wash!
- 10 Jan 09, 05:58 GMT
This is my sixth trip to Las Vegas - and I can honestly say that last night was the most fun I've ever had here. And, before you ask, it involved none of the sins with which America's party town is usually associated, though we all got pretty high - at least a few thousand feet.
We had been invited to film aboard an aircraft which was demonstrating an onboard broadband system which is now going to bring the web to airline passengers. That involved a trip out to Henderson Airfield, twenty miles outside Las Vegas, where we climbed onto a quite extraordinary aircraft - a 1952 flying boat.
It belongs to a company called Row 44, which was set up five years ago by John Guidon, a British electrical engineer who emigrated to the US more than twenty years ago, and Gregg Fialcowitz, who has founded a number of software businesses.
We took off at twilight and headed towards Las Vegas - and very quickly we were online, and at a pretty decent speed. We wanted to try a couple of "firsts" - at least they were firsts for us - a live broadcast from a plane, and a video call.
It was always going to be tricky to go live onto BBC World, and although we did manage to contact London, and they saw us for a minute, a software glitch then froze the picture. So we moved on to or next challenge.
Down on the ground, Maggie Shiels was waiting for my Skype video call - and, wonder of wonders, it worked. Well, the pictures worked anyway. The cabin of the flying boat was not pressurised and we could not hear each other above the roar of the engines. First, we resorted to holding up pieces of paper to our webcams, then we started Twittering to each other. It was all rather eccentric but hugely satisfying.
Row 44 isn't the first business to put the internet on a plane - Boeing's Connexion service was launched a few years back, but discontinued after the aircraft maker decided it was not going to be commercially viable. But John Guidon told me his company had come up with a better business model, and was already installing its equipment on aircraft in the United States. Later this year it should turn up in Europe.
Seeing Vegas by night from a small aircraft, while surfing and twittering, was a great way to spend an hour. (You can see some amateur video shot by me if you follow this link).
But, I hear you asking, do we really want to see the internet reach every corner of our lives? Isn't it a bonus to have somewhere that you can't be reached? Well, maybe, but I'm afraid it looks to me as if you won't have a choice - the internet is getting airborne, and for those of us addicted to connectivity that means one more place where we can obsessively check our email.
- 9 Jan 09, 10:53 GMT
The App Store is such a runaway success that it has spawned a whole industry, with developers beavering away to produce applications that will not only delight users but also make money.
The most recent success story is of course the iFart. Yes, for a mere 99 cents it does what it says on the box!
It has made thousands of dollars for the creators, got its own website and given birth to all sorts of iFart sounds, including the cheekily named "silent but deadly," "bombardier" and "Jack the Ripper."
But while it remains one of the top downloads at the App Store, one thing iFart failed to do was get nominated for a "Best App Ever Award." Is that sniggering I hear in the background?
The awards are the brainchild of Jeff Scott who runs the website 148apps, so named because that is the total number of apps you can download at once on your iPhone or iPod touch.
His aim is to "recognise the best apps, not just the best selling apps, during the last year."
Well, what about iFart?
"I'm protesting all farting apps," declared Mr Scott, who told me that the nominations were submitted both by the public and a panel of industry experts.
"What is interesting, despite my own view, is that the public didn't even vote to have them included. It shows this app is a one trick pony.
"Sure you will laugh at it for five minutes and after that you will probably never look at it again," he said.
The awards are about more than that, and Mr Scott said his real reason for doing the whole thing was "to shine a light and raise awareness about some of the apps that are fantastic but not so well known."
"It's hard to rise above the noise. Unless you are highlighted by Apple or get into the top 100 list, it's hard to be found," he explained.
The supreme winner of the competition, the Best App Ever for 2008, was Shazam. This listens to a song playing on the radio, in a store, on TV, wherever, and it can tell you what the song is.
It was a triple whammy for Shazam, which also picked up the Most Innovative App and the iPhone Wow App.
High praise indeed.
- 8 Jan 09, 19:59 GMT
I knew something was wrong when I walked onto the vast plaza in front of the Las Vegas Convention Centre as I arrived at CES. In past years this area has been a tented city packed with the marquees of some of the major brands who have overflowed from the cavernous halls. This year the place was half deserted - Microsoft, of course had a giant tent, showing off their in-car software ventures, but other top names seemed to have retreated inside the hall. "A few weeks ago quite a few decided they could stay away this year," a passing CES employee told us.
It is clear that the global recession has taken its toll on this show - but the many who have still come don't appear to have trimmed their spending. In fact, as the show opens, the stands inside the hall look more lavish, more packed with shiny new gadgets than ever before. At a preview event the night before the show opened, there was a seething throng getting a glimpse of everything from toy robots to laser television, while scoffing free hamburgers and knocking back cocktails. You'll be glad to know that I'm on a New Year detox, and abstained.
Sony had the most arresting product to be unveiled on the first day - an 8" netbook, with every kind of connectivity from 3g to wifi to GPS. It also has a startling $900 price-tag which certainly differentiates it from the more pared-down cheap and cheerful netbooks on the market.
Sony has a huge piece of CES real estate, where journalists packed into a pre-show press conference. To the bemusement of those not from the US, the presser began in the style of the popular quiz show Jeopardy, which is being broadcast from the Sony stand this week - it's a product of the firm's television division.
But Sony's US boss Stan Glasgow seemed to be aware that it was his industry that was in jeopardy - the words "global recession" fell from his lips within minutes. Of course, like every other big player here, Mr Glasgow is insisting that his business is better placed than its rivals to weather these stormy times. There are hordes of happy clappy electronics executives with fixed smiles, trying to keep cheerful.
But this is a city where house prices have fallen by a third over the last year, and where even the upscale hotels on the Strip are offering big discounts on rooms - at least once CES leaves town.
This is not a great time to be persuading consumers that they really need the latest laser television or top-of-the-range laptop. So while Sony's 8 inch Vaio looks very pretty, it may well be the rather less shiny but much cheaper netbooks we are seeing here that catch the eye of cautious consumers.
- 7 Jan 09, 15:55 GMT
It was only after I had driven three times round the Google campus without finding building 43 that I really got a sense of the scale of the place.
We had come to Mountain View to find out whether the search giant was still nimble enough to innovate and just getting to our appointment was a challenge which proved how big the company had grown.
Once inside, we were allowed to roam around virtually unfettered and get all those shots that have become something of a cliche in depictions of Google. The kitchens where employees come to make a skinny decaf latte and grab some of the free fruit or a chocolate bar.
The play area strewn with Lego - apparently the founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are huge fans. The pool table with its notice reminding players not to thump their pool cues on the floor - presumably to avoid disturbing any geniuses working below.
Despite the sheer scale of Google its headquarters still has the feel of a college rather than a company with groups of people strolling around holding a laptop (they each get to choose whether it's a Mac or a PC) and talking intensely.
But we'd come to see Matt Cutts, an engineer here since 2000, which in Google time makes him a real greybeard. He told me that when he arrived they had one building, the "Googleplex" and when they added another one for the sales team that became known as the "moneyplex". Now even he finds it difficult to navigate around the campus.
Google makes great play of the fact that it allows engineers to spend 20% of their times on blue-sky projects, personal hobby horses which may end up going nowhere but may produce a Google News.
Matt insisted that the early spirit of freedom and experimentation was still there in the culture. But when I pressed him on whether even Google could afford that luxury in harder times, he admitted that people like him now had perhaps to be a little more focussed on the bottom line. But he said the one day in five spent on personal projects was not being discarded.
Despite the ventures into new areas - the Chrome web browser, voice-activated search, Android - Google still lives and dies by the quality of its search engine. Matt Cutts told me 400 adjustments to search had been made last year. I'm sure the people over at the "moneyplex", watching anxiously to see whether the growth in online advertising spending falters, remind their colleagues daily of the need to keep focussed on the core business which has proved such a huge money-spinner.
Outside Building 43, we found the skeleton of a dinosaur, one of the artefacts adorning the campus. A reminder, perhaps to the engineers inside of what happens to those who stop innovating. But right now Google appears more likely to make its rivals extinct.
- 7 Jan 09, 10:25 GMT
There is no doubt that Apple's last keynote at Macworld was a big let down so to get over it I decided to take a wander around the hallowed halls of the expo itself. And even there, Apple dominated the space with a massive array of demos and products.
The company's Phil Schiller had said in his keynote that he wanted to talk about the Mac and that it was appropriate given that's what the show is all about. He revealed that last year Apple sold 9.7 million Macs and that sales grew twice as fast as the rest of the industry.
The one piece of hardware that he announced was the 17" MacBook Pro, which many people were expecting last year. Apple have produced a TV advert to boast about its thinness, lightness, eight hour battery and its greenness.
One Apple floorwalker, who was not allowed to tell me her name but was allowed to show me what she looked like, told me the computer was a big draw at the demo booth. And with just four of them on show, there were plenty of people crowding around to get a look at the machine that will hit stores at the end of the month for $2799 (£1930).
There was plenty around the hall to make me smile.
Like a magpie I was drawn to the bright colours on display at Speck where Bill Linn was hovering around like a later day medicine man pulling out all sorts of swag from a bag laden with goodies.
He showed me a number of computer cases that you can use to cover and protect your laptop with and also a skin for your desk top in all sort of fab colours. But the company's new product was something called candy shell for the iPhone. An iPod Touch version is in the works. Bill told me the name is because "it's hard on the outside and soft on the inside and comes in four delicious colours." Just like, you guessed it, candy.
Bill's assistant Edith Yang showed off the colours which are called lemon drop liquorice, key lime jawbreaker, cranberry white truffle and watermelon gumball. Full marks for inventiveness and to hell with plain old green, yellow, red and orange.
One person clearly having too good a time doing his job was Turner Kirk, decked out in a white suit, a white hat and sunglasses.
He was demonstrating sound. Or rather a "sound" app called Ocarina that can be downloaded for the iPhone or the iPod Touch and works by blowing into the microphone, tilting the device and covering holes with your fingers to make music.
Smule co-founder Ge Wang told me they make "interactive sonic media" that centres around three key aspects.
He said: "[W]e love sound especially when combined with the iPhone. We believe people are expressive and we want to bring that out. And we have the social component where people can record and share their music and follow it on a world map."
Ocarina was the number one app for three weeks running in November and sells for 99 cents.
Ge said: "Turner embodies what we are all about. He makes music, is expressive and convivial." I want to know his secret for keeping his suit white.
Forget all notions about the game you might have played as a kid, this is a simple device from a company called Neat Products that lets you listen to your music hands free but without worrying about losing it.
All you do is clip the hangman into the bottom of the iPod or iPhone where you would normally put the charger and then clip it onto your belt loop or bag or whatever and you are good to go.
Nicollette Ernst said they showed the product at Macworld last year but this year, as is the fashion, it now comes in a bunch of cool colours like pink, yellow, purple and blue.
Lincy Chan was working her magic with a newly released product from Smith Micro called Manga Studio 4 for the Mac.
It's aimed at professional artists like her who create manga - Japanese comics - and Western style comic artists, the best known being Dave Gibbons who is an illustrator for the Watchmen.
The software lets artists produce ready-to-publish comics. But Lincy, who is the author of the Rhysmyth series of graphic novels, said it saves her a lot of time.
"It's helped me a lot because if I created my drawings in the traditional way on paper, it would take me about three days to do one page. With this software it takes one to one and a half days."
Need a pick me up? Perhaps Scott Ohlgreen can help you out. He used to be a writer and found that he was drinking way too much caffeine. He invented Brain Toniq.
"I was just looking for something that would tweak brain chemistry. Kinda act like caffeine without the caffeine. I also wanted it to be something that was natural and good for you."
Scott said he had just finalised an order for 250,000 cans for a supplier in Scotland.
Now as a Scot myself I think it might give our other national drink, Irn Bru not whisky, a run for its money. How effective a hangover cure it will be requires some committed research!
While the can says "the clean and intelligent think drink," Scott makes no claims that it will make you smarter.
Brian Sorem from Radixd did the taste test for me and declared it "refreshing, not too sweet and very natural tasting."
He also claimed he "felt a little smarter." Yeah!
I have to confess all that walking about with two bags, two laptops, recording device, and camera was really taking a toll on my back. That's when I stumbled upon nada-chair and Kreig Gaughenbaugh persuaded me give it a try.
It involves a couple of straps that loop around your knees and are connected to a back support that sits at the base of your back as you sit down. It's made of one piece of material and helps with posture and stability.
I sat with it on for about 15 minutes and while not quite ready to tackle the trapeze, I really felt it take the strain out of my lower back.
Inventor Victor Ross said he initially made it to help with sitting yoga positions but found that it works for any of the 80% of the population who suffer from some sort of back ailment.
He's been coming to Macworld for 20 years and said his biggest customer base is the computer worker tied to their desk.
"Our product might look geeky but it does the job and helps with all that back stress," said Victor.
And yes it comes in other zingy colours besides black.
The great thing about Macworld is getting the chance to mingle with the community. Raines Cohen has been coming to the expo for 24 years. He is a diehard Mac man and started a Mac users group in Berkeley.
Okay so he might not sound that different from a lot of the Mac faithful, but let me ask you how many of them dress up as a pirate?
Gotcha. Well Raines' reasons are environmentally driven. He told me he noticed "with the increase in temperatures there is a decrease in the number of pirates. So if there are more pirates out there, that should reduce global warming."
He wasn't able to explain the pirate skirt as opposed to breeches.
Anyway it's proof that one should not take life too seriously at all.
Free hugs and kisses
The best booth at the whole of Macworld was that manned by three teenagers.
Melissa Benzo, Kate Vasconcellos and Alex Little set out on a mission to spread some sunshine and happiness to the folks of Macworld. They had obviously heard about the keynote!
Alas it seemed the Mac faithful didn't want to be cheered up because they had only raised $3 by giving out kisses and attempts to give away free hugs were not whole heartedly embraced.
"We want to brighten everyone's day," declared an exuberant Alex.
"The world is so serious. Everyone at Macworld is so serious. We just want to make people happy."
Kate and Melissa agreed and said "we are having fun and it's all about the hugs."
We don't know if Phil Schiller paid them a visit.
- 6 Jan 09, 22:07 GMT
The crowd was expectant, the media throng hurtled into the hall at the Moscone Centre and fought for the best camera position, and the audience gave the speaker the usual warm welcome accorded to the keynote presenter at Macworld.
So why did an hour and a half spent listening to details of Apple's shiny new products leave me just slightly underwhelmed - at least until the last five minutes? I don't think it was entirely the fault of Steve Jobs' less than charismatic stand-in Phil Schiller. Sure, he didn't pepper his keynote with as many "awesomes" and "really cools" as his boss. But then he didn't have anything really awesome to unveil.
When he started with a slide promising Three New Things, I was mildly excited. An iPhone nano? A tiny notebook computer? A big price cut? Err, no.
First, we had nearly an hour on an upgrade to the iLife suite of software. Sure, the upgrades to iMovie and iPhoto looked great. Facial recognition and geo-tagging is a clever way or organising your photos, and iMovie's latest incarnation seriously impressed my cameraman who uses far more expensive professional video editing software. But, hey, we get an upgrade to iLife every year, don't we? Hardly really new, and we didn't need all the wearisome details.
Then another twenty minutes on an upgrade to iWork, Apple's productivity software. But does anyone really use this rival to Microsoft Office, apart from hardcore Mac devotees who wouldn't sully their hands with anything emanating from Redmond? Ah, but here was something really revolutionary - iwork.com. So Apple will now allow you to put your documents online in the "cloud" so that they can be accessed anywhere by anyone. But even though it will start off as a free beta, it will eventually become a paid-for service. Just a minute - Google offers something similar , if less sophisticated, for nothing. So is this really going to change the world.
The final "new" thing was a 17" Macbook Pro. So does an extra two inches really count as novel? Phil Schiller made great play of a battery life of up to eight hours. That sounds great - but it's achieved by embedding the battery in the laptop. So in the unlikely event that the power supply fails, you will end up being without your computer for days while it is repaired.
That was the point I got up and headed for the exit to tell my bosses in London that Macworld had produced nothing new. But luckily there was One More Thing - and it was pretty good.
The deal with the big four record labels to make every track on iTunes DRM-free may well be the day that marks the demise of the copy-protection software for music. It's also an important moment in the fractious relationship between Apple and the music industry. Each side has got a bit of what it wanted - Apple has the DRM-free music Steve Jobs called for nearly two years ago, while the labels have got some wriggle room on pricing, with three different prices for tracks.
So we were relieved to emerge at last with a story. But for me the highlight was the show's finale, Tony Bennett singing "The Best is Yet To Come." The only problem was that the Apple faithful emerged from the Moscone Centre wondering whether that was really true.
- 6 Jan 09, 17:12 GMT
You know you've reached a tipping point when people try to take you down.
That is what has been happening to the popular microblogging service Twitter. The company's blog revealed that "33 Twitter accounts had been 'hacked' including prominent Twitter-ers like Rick Sanchez" (who is an anchor on CNN) "and Barack Obama" (who we all know as the president-elect).
The person who took over and sent fake messages from Rick Sanchez's account tweeted that "I am high on crack right now might not be coming into work today".
It might seem funny on the surface - but not if it's happening to you.
I can almost imagine pre-pubescent teenagers snorting with laughter behind their hands, but these attacks are no joke. People's reputations are being messed around with. So too is the credibility of a service that is growing in popularity and has proved its value in breaking news stories like the recent Mumbai bombing.
Another attack concerned Bill O' Reilly, the tv host of tv's The O'Reilly Factor. The official Fox News Twitter account posted the message "Breaking: Bill ORiley is gay". (Their spelling mistake, not mine.)
And Britney Spears had her account hijacked by someone writing lewd messages concerning certain parts of her body. Barack Obama's account, which was last used in November on election day, posted a link to a third party survey with the lure of $500 in free gas.
Biz Stone, Twitter's co founder, has said the company immediately locked down the accounts and investigated the issue. On the Twitter blog, he said the accounts are now back in the right hands.
Mr Stone wrote that the "accounts were compromised by an individual who hacked into some of the tools our support team uses. We considered this a very serious breach of security and immediately took the support tools offline".
It was a double whammy for the service which also got hit by phishing attacks.
Mr Stone added: "In addition to this Monday morning madness, we're coming off a wacky weekend where lots of folks were tricked into participating in a Phishing scam aimed at Twitter users."
There is little doubt that this is a sign of the times for Twitter and as it continues to grow in popularity, there will be more attacks. Mr Stone admitted as much and said "Twitter has gotten a lot of attention recently, which could be reason enough for an attack."
It doesn't help that the service is a darling of Silicon Valley and of many bloggers and journalists alike. Having such fans makes it more of an attractive target to hackers who get to see their attempts written up. But it also puts Twitter in the hot seat with the onus resting firmly with the company to do more to strengthen security and maintain the credibility of the service.
- 5 Jan 09, 16:52 GMT
It seems the cat and mouse game between Apple boss Steve Jobs and the press and blogosphere has ended ... for the moment.
This morning he sent out an email that said "I've decided to share something very personal with the Apple community". As you may have read in our news story, Mr Jobs has admitted to being ill these past few months but not knowing the reason why until recently. He has now said it is due to "a hormone imbalance that has been 'robbing' me of the proteins my body needs to be healthy".
Certainly his appearance at last year's World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco set off a storm of rumour and counter-rumour. Even amid that hurricane of supposition, Mr Jobs refused to discuss the issue of his health publicly and Apple answered questions by simply saying it was a "private matter".
The only journalist Mr Jobs talked to about the issue was the columnist Joe Nocera of the New York Times, but he swore him to secrecy. That was despite Mr Nocera's attempts to try and persuade him otherwise, especially given that he was the CEO of a publicly traded company with investors and shareholders. What Mr Nocera did write at the time was that Mr Jobs did not have a life-threatening illness. It seemed to calm the waters, a little.
But when Apple announced just a couple of weeks ago that Mr Jobs would not be taking centre stage at the Macworld Expo which starts this morning, the rumour mill got back in full swing.
As we all know, a story loves a vacuum. I am just as guilty as everyone else in being too willing to repeat the chatter going on out there just in case some of it was right. I certainly know some colleagues in the industry who have been preparing obits on Mr Jobs.
Now it seems the very public discussion about his health this time was too hard for even Mr Jobs to ignore, and he himself said in his email that "stories of me on my deathbed" are premature. He also stated "I have given my all to Apple for the past 11 years" and that he will be staying on as CEO.
That will be news to gladden many at this week's Macworld as well as investors and shareholders. The markets certainly reacted well to the announcement and AFP reported that Apple's share price jumped by nearly 4% in pre-market trading.
The Twittersphere is already alight with comment as is the blogosphere. There is no doubt that in the coming months there will be a constant clamour for updates on Mr Jobs' health. One thing I can predict with some certainty is that he will be unwilling to give them.
The notoriously private Mr Jobs has said as much himself in his email: "I've said more than I wanted to say, and all that I am going to say, about this." Mr Jobs might hope this will close the chapter on the issue. Alas I don't think that will be the case.
And while it is good to know he is on the mend, I think the future will be very much about what the company does to find and groom Mr Jobs' successor.
- 5 Jan 09, 15:21 GMT
So Gordon Brown's plan to create 100,000 jobs might well involve massive public investment in next-generation broadband. The Prime Minister told the Observer that such a project could be the modern equivalent of the huge programme of public works undertaken by the Roosevelt administration as it tried to lift the USA out of the depression in the 1930s. Here's the key quote:
"When we talk about the roads and the bridges and the railways that were built in previous times - and those were anti-recession measures taken to help people through difficult times - you could [by comparison] talk about the digital infrastructure and that form of communications revolution at a period when we want to stimulate the economy. It's a very important thing."
It may be very important, but what is far from clear is just how much public money for a new fast broadband network the PM is talking about - and who would get it.
There is now widespread agreement that the route to a high-speed, future-proof network is through fibre - and that means putting fibre-optic cables right into homes across Britain. The cost? Well it depends who you believe, but the Broadband Stakeholder Group reckoned it could be as much as £29 billion.
There are plenty of small-scale fibre projects up and running - from plans to run fibre through the sewers to community broadband groups which are trying to make sure remote parts of Britain are not left out. Perhaps they will find it easier to get grants.
But it looks as though there are only two companies with the scale to take a fibre network right across the UK - BT and the cable firm Vigin Media. Here is where any public sector involvement gets devilishly tricky. I am sure BT and Virgin would be very happy to accept a few billion from the government, but BT in particular might well prefer another option - light-touch regulation. After all, the firm has already hinted that it would be happy to pour billions into a next-generation network if only Ofcom would be somewhat more relaxed about letting it make a return on that investment. BT's rivals, however, will be warning against the dangers of using government money to give even more muscle to the biggest player in the market.
Then there is the fact that once you declare that the "digital infrastructure" is a vital public service, everyone will want an equal stake in it. When broadband is a purely commercial service, companies can argue that they would love to deliver it to every nook and cranny in Britain - but their shareholders won't stand for it. Once the public sector is involved, every household may come to see fast broadband - like free healthcare - as a right, not a privilege. In short, then, finding the public money to pump into fast broadband might be the easy bit. Designing the pumping mechanism will be a lot harder.
Meanwhile, a cautionary tale about promises of publicy-funded broadband. I'm writing this in San Francisco, where I'm covering Macworld. As a broadband addict, keen to update my status on various social networks and send the odd blog post, I've been roaming the streets in search of wifi. It is less easily available and more expensive in this high-tech city than you might think. San Francisco's mayor came up with a plan back in 2004 to provide free wifi to the whole city. But, after a lot of ins and outs, that plan was scrapped in 2007 amid doubts about its financial viability. So the Prime Minister might do worse than give Mayor Gavin Newsom a call to see if he has any tips on the economics of public broadband.
- 5 Jan 09, 08:13 GMT
Following the American election, a favourite parlour games in the living rooms of Silicon Valley has been asking: Just who will land the job of America's first ever chief technology officer? Well, the wait will soon be over because an announcement is expected on Wednesday.
There has been some concern that the person who will take up the post has not yet been named, given the president-elect's penchant for using technology to get his message out on the campaign trail and now as he waits in the wings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
With just over two weeks to go, the role of CTO is one of the few senior appointments that remains unfilled. Many expected an announcement around the same time Mr Obama named his science and technology team just before Christmas. But it was not to be.
Whoever lands the job, they will have no shortage of help in working out what they should tackle first. As I have written previously, there is a specific website that has been set up where ordinary citizens can vote on the CTO's main priorities. And of course there is the transition team's own site which has been encouraging people to do the same.
On obamacto.uservoice.com, the number one priority with nearly 13,000 votes is "ensuring the interent is widely accessible and network neutral." That is followed by nearly 10,000 people voting for the future CTO to "ensure privacy and repeal the patriot act."
While the appointee will undoubtedly have to be someone who can straddle over the worlds of Washington's political power brokering and Silicon Valley's high geekdom, a range of names has already been doing the rounds. They include Google's Eric Schmidt, who helped advise Mr Obama and has himself said several times that he wasn't interested in the job and Vint Cerf, the so-called "father of the internet" (who's also a Google exec and Chief Internet Evangelist").
Other names that have been talked up include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and even, believe it or not, Apple boss Steve Jobs who will not be appearing at this year's Macworld in his usual capacity as chief Mac cheerleader, be that for health reasons or not.
Amid all the names, I note few women mentioned. And that's despite some strong contenders like Anne Mulcahy, the boss at Xerox, her CTO Sophie Vandebroek, Cisco's CTO Padma Warrior, Meg Whitman formerly of eBay, Anne Livermore of HP or Safra Catz who is president and former CFO at Oracle.
There, now: that wasn't so hard.
All of course is set to be revealed this Wednesday. Place your bets now, please.
- 2 Jan 09, 09:01 GMT
When you sign up to cover events like these, and hand over your e-mail address, you are bombarded for weeks with press releases urging you to cover the products of thousands of companies. Each of them issues what seems like a compelling invitation to come to their stand and see something truly innovative.
So one says I should "Come and Meet the New HeatShift by ThermaPAK Technologies. New must-have laptop accessory". Another insists I should "Please try to make an appointment or drop by to see our award-winning eco-friendly packaging products." Should I rush to film "the world's first multi-user, multi-touch interactive learning center designed specifically for early education?" Or maybe "a fully interactive online music and dance website that links directly to people's iPods" is worth a look? What about "the first ever internet-connected gardening device?"
It becomes impossible to see the wood for the trees and after a while, I'm afraid, just about all of these e-mails get deleted unread. We could just get to the shows, see what takes our fancy, and busk it. But television, at least, does need a little advance planning - so here is what we are thinking of featuring right now.
The only other time I've attended this event was when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone - which provided us with one big story. This time, of course, Mr Jobs is not attending - and that means we are not betting on any major product launches. But there are some fascinating questions to be answered. Will there be a cheap "netbook"? Probably not - why would Apple want to get into a product category where profit margins are so slim? Will there be a new device - or perhaps an updated Apple TV - to give the firm a bigger role in online video? Will iTunes begin to offer a subscription service? Could we see an iPhone nano? Inevitably, though, a lot of the coverage is likely to focus not on products, but on the future direction of the company. Will Apple just bunker down for the hard economic times ahead - or will it use its huge cash pile to snap up some smaller businesses? And of course the really big question - what happens to Apple if and when its charismatic leader decides it is time to hand over the reins to someone else?
Right now, we're planning two big themes for our television reports from Las Vegas - the future of television, and recession tech, by which we mean smaller, leaner less power-hungry gadgets for these difficult times.
So we hope to look at how far OLED has got on delivering on the promise of the thinnest screens with the sharpest pictures, at somewhat more realistic prices than we've seen to date. We will be filming 3-D televisions(in 2-D, sadly), tiny projectors that can throw a video from your MP3 player onto the bedroom wall, and those glasses that project a movie onto the lenses.
If 2008 saw the rise of the netbook, we expect to see dozens more small, savvy devices on show at CES. In halls packed with enough kit to drain several local power plants, there will be plenty of companies claiming that their products are planet-friendly - or can even cut your energy bills.
We will also be keeping an eye on the development of touchscreen in all sorts of devices, trying to work out whether we're any closer to building a "digital home" that can be worked without a computer science degree, and looking at just how much progress Blu-Ray has made since it won the high-definition format battle last year.
So those are our early plans - but we expect to have them derailed by the unexpected. And if you've some thoughts on what we should be chasing down in San Francisco and Las Vegas, do let us know.
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