- 29 May 09, 10:42 GMT
Oh no: another boring report about piracy by a strange body with an obscure title.
That was my first reaction on getting hold of Copycats? Digital Consumers in the Online Age [2.76Mb PDF] - a report for the Strategic Advisory Board on Intellectual Property.
But when I read on, the report was full of fascinating insights into the way that we've all begun to think about the rights and wrongs of online piracy - or rather, "unauthorised downloading", which is how this report for the government carefully describes it.
The authors, from University College London, point to evidence that what they amusingly call the "UK's unauthorised downloading community" now stands at nearly seven million people, and they question the assumption that these are just teenagers and students - it seems older people are downloading too.
They emphasise the sheer scale of it - 1.3 million people online sharing content at one peer-to-peer network at midday on a weekday - and the fact that fast networks are going to make it ever easier to download Star Wars in three minutes or the complete works of Dickens in the blink of an eye.
But what's really interesting are the authors' conclusions about the way people think about this activity. They argue that there are now two cultures - digital and the physical world - and you can't apply one set of rules to the other.
Illegal file-sharing is not only much easier than, say, lifting a CD out of a record store; it has become far more socially acceptable - "if everyone I know is doing it, how can it be wrong?"
They point to growing confusion amongst digital consumers as to what is or is not illegal in a world where there are now so many different ways of getting hold of content. So much on the internet is free - from VOIP calls, to services like Google Earth, to social networking services - that it's hard to remember that you are expected to pay for some things.
In the words of the report, "the vast availability of 'free content' changes existing perceptions of 'ownership' and utility." So, among 15-to-19-year-olds, 69% now do not feel they should have to pay for music.
For the digital consumer, many file-sharing services are now as big - and as trusted - brands as those of any large, legal corporation. So Limewire or Pirate Bay is seen as offering convenience and good service, just as older consumers might have liked to shop at the Co-Op or get their paper from WH Smith.
This report was meant for the culture minister David Lammy, and feeds into the government's thinking ahead of the Digital Britain report, but it may provide him with little comfort.
Criminalising seven million people, it concludes, will have huge costs and may not even work in a globalised economy where other countries my follow different policies. Then again, telling those seven million that it's fine to go on downloading for nothing will make it even harder for the creative industries to develop sustainable online businesses. So, no easy answers in this report.
Whenever I talk to people about this issue, I nearly always get the same response - if only the music and movie industries got their act together and provided cheaper and easier-to-use online services, the problem would go away. Is that really the case?
Yesterday, someone contacted me to point out that Stephen Fry's audiobook was top of the iTunes chart, saying that arguably he had got distribution, price and product all correct.
I replied, asking whether my correspondent would still not opt to download Mr Fry's book for nothing if he could - and whether the big record labels that occupied the number one spot on iTunes in previous weeks had also got everything right. He hasn't yet come back.
However lamentably the music industry approached the internet when the threat to its revenues first became apparent, there are now plenty of legal and reasonably cheap methods of getting hold of its products online. But in a world where it is socially acceptable to download for nothing, many people may continue to believe that it's just daft to pay.
- 28 May 09, 17:04 GMT
Four rebrands in five years tell their own story.
From "MSN Search" to "Windows Live Search" to "Live Search" to "Bing" (by way of "Kumo"), Microsoft's expensive experiment in search reflects the insatiable appetite of chief executive Steve Ballmer to take on Google.
But Microsoft is playing smart and is likely to say that it is trying to compete not with Google, but with Yahoo, currently the number two search engine in the US.
The reason is clear: Microsoft is so far behind Google in search that, in many respects, it is not even in the same race.
While Google enjoys more than 64% of searches in the US, Microsoft trundles along with 8.2%. But Microsoft is at least notionally able to compete with Yahoo, which enjoys 20% of the market.
Microsoft has a history of "coming from behind". It did so with Microsoft Office and it did so with Internet Explorer. But in both cases, it was able to leverage its near monopoly as an operating system to win dominance in the long term.
But the web is a much more level playing field and Microsoft has found itself buffeted by an upstart that, 10 years ago, was being described by some as a novelty search engine.
So along comes Bing, promising more relevant search results and less wasteful clicking.
I was shown a non-live demo of the new search engine; as such, it's hard to form a sensible conclusion.
I can say that Bing is very aesthetically pleasing, and that its design feels intuitive and practical. It groups together relevant information quite well and could improve on the paradigm of searching that we have all become used to.
There are some concerns, however. Microsoft decides which associated and relevant information it will show you - based, in part, on partnerships with local content providers.
This may well be the best related information; it may well not. Who decides, and on what basis?
This is also a staged launch: first in the US, and then in other territories. And there's no dedicated mobile component. Bing feels like a work in progress - and it almost certainly is one. But will a service that is effectively a giant beta be enough to turn heads and to change users' learned behaviour?
Another issue is simple: inertia. Why would people stop using Google and start using Bing?
Microsoft says that 40% of search queries go unanswered. But if users were so dissatisfied with their search engine, we wouldn't see such dominance from one player. And of course, there are differing levels of need associated with queries - some of my searches are speculative because I don't know if the answer is definitely out there, while other are essential.
If the 40% of unanswered search queries are trivial queries, then who cares?
- 27 May 09, 09:44 GMT
Remember when it took five minutes to load a web page - and when every minute on the web meant no incoming phone calls? It's diifficult to recall how we used to live without broadband - until that is, you meet a family like the Shaws. They live just outside the village of Warcup in Cumbria - so far down the line from the nearest BT exchange that the most they can hope for is a dial-up connection.
We filmed David Shaw, as he waited for what seemed an age just for Google to load. Then he cut the connection - so that we could go next door and watch his 14-year-old son John try to get onto Facebook. That took about five minutes, and John explained that he hardly bothered to upload photographs, like his friends, because it was just not worth the wait.
Caroline Shaw told us that it was particularly hard, as they'd moved from a home which did have broadband just as it was becoming ever more vital for the children to use the internet in their school work. "They've got to stay at school to do their homework, which means they miss the school bus - so we have to go six miles to pick them up."
From Warcup, we headed to an equally remote home perched on the side of a hill a few miles outside Alston. But Jules Cadie, an artist and web designer, was very happy with his internet connection, from the Cybermoor Community network. In the 300-year-old converted cowshed which is his office, Jules explained to me that he couldn't have lived here if there was no broadband. "I just couldn't compete with people in urban areas without it."
It's thanks to the passion and commitment of people like Daniel Heery, who runs the Cybermoor network, that areas like this are not being left on the wrong side of a digital divide. He took me to see the future, the fibre being laid on rural roads to give Cybermoor much faster connections. It looks a costly business - holes were being dug either side of a farm gate, so that a pipe could be inserted and fibre blown along it. A lot of work, just to bring a few scattered homes within range of a network that will deliver 20Mbps at first, and more later.
You can't see this kind of network ever being a commercial proposition - Cybermoor gets by on a ragbag of contributions from the NHS, the schools budget, and subscription income. Most of the work to bring next generation broadband to Britain will have to be done by the likes of BT and Virgin Media. But this kind of community effort may provide at least part of the answer to filling the holes in their networks.
We've been using the Cybermoor network this morning to send live television pictures from Alston to London and around the world. Meanwhile, a few miles away, the Shaws are just hoping they can soon get any kind of broadband connection - so that John can put a few pictures on Facebook.
- 27 May 09, 06:04 GMT
The Zune is back - well, sort of.
Microsoft has announced that the Zune will now morph into an entertainment platform - across PC, mobile and console - including HD TV and film content on the Xbox Live service in Europe.
No details of what that content is yet, however, nor how it will integrate, if at all, with an announcement in the UK on Thursday expected to involve a major TV partner
Microsoft also announced a new HD Zune player, with built-in HD radio. And guess what? It's only available in the US - again.
While it's impossible to draw judgement on the first part of the announcement, the launch of a new device once again in the US only must mark the last throw of the dice for Microsoft in the portable player market.
Can Zune ever rise above its place in popular culture as a by-word for coming in second?
More details here.
- 26 May 09, 08:38 GMT
I've just spent a holiday weekend in Ullapool, one of the UK's most attractive,most remote - and dampest - places. It was not my first visit - back in 2003 I came to this fishing port on Scotland's north west coast to film a report on the spread of broadband across the UK.
Back then, Ullapool didn't have it and was pretty annoyed about that, especially as the even more remote village of Achilitbuie further along the coast was being given a high-speed connection, thanks to some scheme or other.
The town was campaigning to get its BT exchange upgraded so that it too could join the broadband revolution. I remember visiting a boat builder who was desperate to use the internet to show customers far away how their boats were coming along.
Six years on, Ullapool has got broadband. While sipping a malt whisky in the bar of my hotel, I sat using the free wifi to download Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's excellent movie podcast. It wasn't particularly fast - the 24Mb podcast took six minutes to download - but it worked.
Plenty of other people were touting laptops around the town - or using the internet connection in Ullapool's bookshop - and I got the impression that it was now regarded as an important amenity.
The website which campaigned for the arrival of broadband is still up - and I noticed this explanation of what the always-on internet would mean: "... there will be no need to log on and off, download times will be lightning fast and fears over the cost of the call will be removed. This means a vast range of services offered on the net would be instantly available - films, music and games, along with local information such as traffic and weather reports."
These days we've all - or just about all - come to take those benefits for granted. There are a few spots in the UK where you cannot get a broadband connection - "notspots" as some call them - but something like 99% of the population is within range of a broadband-enabled BT exchange.
But I'm afraid the companies that provide us with our internet connections can't relax, because the bar has been raised. You'll have noticed that the Ullapool website predicts that "download times will be lightning fast" - well they're not at warp speed yet in Ullapool or many other parts of the country.
In his forthcoming Digital Britain report, Lord Carter will outline the government's plans to give everyone who wants one a 2Mbps broadband connection. So that redefines "notspot" as anywhere which can't quite get to 2Mbps.
Even when we get everyone to that speed - say by 2012 - we will find that they're not satisified. They'll look around and find that half of the country can now get somewhere between 40 and 100Mbps from BT and Virgin Media, and they'll want some of that too.
The whole subject of broadband access in the UK and around the world is something we'll be addressing later this week in a series of reports on TV, on radio and online.
We've commissioned some research - to be published on Wednesday - which will give us a rough idea of just how many homes will fall within the new 2Mbps broadband Universal Service Obligation.
We are also planning a day of broadcasts about the issue from Alston in Cumbria, a place which has consistently refused to stay stuck in the slow lane, first setting up its own broadband network, and now digging up the streets to lay fibre.
I'm writing this from Inverness airport, on my way to Cumbria, and I'm struggling to get online. The map provided by my mobile broadband supplier tells me that I should be able to get a 3g connection here, but when I plug in my 3g dongle to my laptop, web pages take minutes to load.
A few years ago I would never have expected to be able to get online from an Ullapool hotel or an Inverness departure lounge - now I do. We're all getting much more demanding when it comes to the availability and speed of broadband, and that means this is an issue which will be a continuing headache for politicians and internet providers.
- 21 May 09, 11:12 GMT
The investigation by Cambridge University researchers into what happens - or doesn't happen - when you delete those embarrasing snaps from Facebook and MySpace tells us a couple of interesting things.
The first is obviously that you're bonkers to put anything online that you don't want a future employer, partner or aged relative to see - because, if the experiment is to be believed, that embarrasing shot of you in fancy dress at a stag night will remain online even after you've deleted it.
The second is that big social networks like Facebook and MySpace are struggling to cope with a difficult dilemma - balancing the costs of running their networks with their users' demands for privacy.
Facebook insists that photos are removed immediately from its own computers when users delete them, but admits that they take longer to disappear from its content delivery network.
When I sounded puzzled about this the PR person pointed me at a Wikipedia page which explains that a content delivery network is "a system of computers networked together across the internet that cooperate transparently to deliver content to end users."
What Facebook, MySpace and other big websites do is use these content delivery networks to store and distribute all those millions of photos and videos which their users want to share. So you may think you are giving your snaps to one computer in California owned by Facebook - but the Cambridge research appears to show that the photos are actually stored on servers maintained by an external company which runs the content delivery network.
Eventually, the deleted photos will disappear from the photo server's cache. Facebook does explain this process in its terms and conditions, as the report from Cambridge points out, telling users that the deletion process is "similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer."
In other words you may have put your pictures in Facebook's bin, but you will still have to wait for the content delivery network to delete them. True, it is quite difficult to find the "deleted" photos - the researchers worked out their location by carefully noting their URLs before deleting them - but your pictures are still out there in the cloud.
In a telling phrase, the Light Blue Touchpaper blog, where the Cambridge researchers outline their experiment, says the strategy adopted by Facebook and other social networks is understandable because "photos are deleted from these types of sites too infrequently to justify the overhead and complexity of removing them from the content delivery network."
In other words, it's all about costs - something the social networks are struggling to control as their user base expands far more rapidly than their revenue. Facebook in particular has been very successful in bringing in new users around the world. The trouble is that every time a user in, say, India uploads a picture, that costs Facebook just as much money in infrastructure costs as a picture uploaded by an American user. Yet the Indian Facebooker is going to bring in even less advertising revenue than his American counterpart.
Social networking is booming around the world - but the business model still looks shaky. What the Cambridge experiment has shown is that networks like Facebook and MySpace have decided that they just can't afford to give users as much privacy as they might like. And that means that entrusting your photos to the cloud can mean relinquishing control of the way you appear online.
- 20 May 09, 09:21 GMT
A country club on the fringes of London has been the meeting place for all sorts of powerful and interesting people from all over the world for the last two days.
They included political figures like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, business leaders from Sir Richard Branson to Jean-Bernard Levy of Vivendi, media bosses like the BBC's Mark Thompson and Carolyn McCall of Guardian Media Group - and even royalty in the form of Prince Charles and the crown princes of both Spain and Norway.
Who could attract such a crowd? Google, of course. Its annual Zeitgeist event is becoming a rival to the World Economic Forum in Davos for movers and shakers who want to know where the most powerful business on the web is heading.
On the final afternoon, even a few journalists were allowed in for what seemed like a routine demo of products that many of us had already seen - like Google Squared, the "structured data search" which might blow Wolfram Alpha out of the water when it launches, or Gmail Video Chat, which is already out there for anyone to try.
Then, without warning and just as the journalists were in danger of nodding off, two billionaires slipped quietly into the room, and we all perked up. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, and Larry Page, the firm's co-founder, had come to answer our questions..
No, Larry Page revealed, he hadn't tested Wolfram Alpha yet, though his co-founder Sergey Brin had tried the computational knowledge engine - and, of course, any competition was welcome.
Google Video Chat was better quality than Skype and yes, "quite significant" numbers of people were using it - this was Eric Schmidt's response to my sceptical query about the product. Others wanted to know whether Twitter, now increasingly seen as a "breaking news" service by its users, was forcing Google to focus on real-time search.
Larry Page said that speed and relevance were Google's watchwords - the company even gave out stopwatches to its employees to stress that message - but he didn't seem too worried about Twitter.
One subject on just about everyone's mind, however, was privacy. A German journalist appeared particularly concerned that her house could be seen on Street View - to such an extent that Eric Schmidt seemed eager to deal personally with getting it removed.
Street View is just one issue which is helping to crystallise the concerns of both consumers and regulators about the threat which the search giant might pose to privacy. But Larry Page, in particular, seemed determined to prove that he wouldn't let the business be shackled by such concerns.
To the journalists, and later to the whole Zeitgiest crowd during an onstage chat with Eric Schmidt, he enthused about a couple of Google geo-location products: Latitude and an Android application called Tracks, which tell your firends where exactly you are.
And, when asked about EU pressure to reduce the length of time that Google holds on to data, he had a clear riposte. That sort of policy, he explained, could make the data less valuable not just for his company, but for anyone wanting to predict events like a flu pandemic by examining patterns in searches over a long period: "I don't feel the public as a whole and the regulators have engaged in enough of a debate to know what the issues are."
Faced with the prospect of more regulation, guess what? Google thinks that that's a really bad idea. "Historically, when markets get regulated, the rate of innovation slows dramatically," Eric Schmidt told us."We don't think that's a good outcome - we think a better outcome is for us to use good judgement. We take what we see as the consumer interest as our guiding principle."
Google's billionaire bosses are amiable fellows, willing to engage with journalists on just about any issue. But as their company reaches into every corner of our online lives, they are bound to face more questions about how they wield their power. Telling the regulators that Google knows best what's good for consumers may not wash.
- 19 May 09, 10:45 GMT
You will often hear these days that television news ain't what it used to be, that there was a golden age, say 20 years ago, when it was a much more intelligent and useful medium - and of course far more people watched it.
Well, as someone who's been in the TV news trade for more than two decades, I just don't believe it. Yes, the audiences have declined but the standard of the product is much improved.
I've had occasion recently to haul out of the archive some old TV news pieces to show to journalism students. They were, quite frankly, lame - as the students themselves pointed out.
One in particular, about a major economic crisis of the early 90s, was hopeless in telling a complex but important story. It consisted of long swathes of what's known in the trade as wallpaper - meaningless shots of Westminster and ministerial cars driving past - covered with commentary and interspersed with clips of politicians.
Economics was a subject I used to cover, and I must admit that many of my reports were as bad, or worse, than what I showed the students. Economics and business stories have always been a challenge to turn into television.
I have at times told one of our senior editors who trains newcomers to the newsroom that he needs to tell them less about using pictures to describe wars, earthquakes and other dramatic events and more about how you turn the demise of the final salary pension scheme into a compelling TV news report.
Anyway, all that is a preamble for some thoughts on my current preoccupation - turning technology into television, which is, believe it or not, almost as big a challenge.
Mobile phones, computer screens and endless shots of websites make for very dull pictures - and then you have the problem of getting techie people to talk in terms that will mean something to a mass audience.
But the advantage I have today is that while I may not have moved on that far, the creative people I work with - producers, camera operators and picture editors - certainly have.
What's more, the advance in broadcasting technology - from computer graphics, to digital editing, to new means of reaching people via the internet - have made it possible to approach complex subjects and visualise them in new way.
So here's an example.
Last week I decided to try to sell a story to the TV news bulletins on the future of web search, linked to the upcoming launch of the Wolfram Alpha "computational knowledge engine". This was obviously going to be extremely hard to sell to editors during a busy news period, and hard to film.
I wanted both Wolfram and Google in the piece, and while both are fascinating subjects, each is, in picture terms, very dull.
Then there was arranging an interview with the main protagonist, Stephen Wolfram. He was in Illinois, and I didn't think our World News department would think it was worth the cost of sending a crew there.
Instead, after long discussions with Wolfram's PR people, we arranged to chat with him over the internet, which gave us some pictures as we filmed the call from our end. The problem with an internet video call is always the quality - of the audio more than the video.
But Wolfram Research agreed to record the interview at their end, and then send it to me, as a 30-minute 1.8Gb file. Luckily, I was working with Doug Dalgleish, a cameraman who is also a technical whizz, and he managed to make everything work.
Stephen Wolfram is a brilliant and enthusiastic evangelist for his vision of the future of search - but getting a 15-second clip from our interview to use in a two-minute TV news piece was a bit of a struggle. (We did make more of the interview available on the web).
Google was somewhat easier - we were able to go along to their funky London offices and interview a senior executive Mario Queiroz about where search was heading. Still desperate for pictures, we shot a sequence of him using the new Google Squared product and me using Wolfram Alpha to answer the same queries.
In the Google lobby the most popular search terms currently being entered by its global users are projected onto a wall - so that made a nifty location for my piece to camera, linking between the two sections of the report.
But when on Monday we came to edit the piece, we were still faced with a desperate dearth of interesting pictures. Riding to the rescue came Nick Tulip, our picture editor.
Cutting film and later video together has always been a skilful activity, but the arrival of digital editing, allowing all sorts of effects, has transformed the craft and Nick is among the very best and most inventive of the new breed.
I decided that we should illustrate the type of question that Google found hard to answer - how far is the earth from the sun at this moment, how is the population of India growing compared with that of China, how far is it from London to Glasgow? Nick pulled some pictures out of our digital archive, and superimposed a Google search box image over them. He then set about making two rather dull websites somehow look interesting, with the aid of some of Doug's imaginative shots of the Google offices.
The result was by no means a masterpiece and, like all TV news reports, could only scratch at the surface of a complex subject but Nick, Doug and I were all pretty satisfied with our work. But here's the irony. Monday was a very busy news day in the UK with all sorts of stories - the Speaker row, the conflict in Sri Lanka , England's World Cup bid - and our report did not make it onto the domestic news bulletins, though it was shown on BBC World.
So, in my view, we are now able to tell complicated stories much more effectively on television. But, in a busy world, where politics, business and sport are vying for viewers' attention, getting them broadcast is another matter.
Luckily we now have something that was not available to TV journalists two decades ago, the web, so even something that doesn't make it to air can find a lasting home online.
- 18 May 09, 08:23 GMT
Over the weekend one of the most interesting experiments yet seen in giving web users access to massive computing power has gone live. The official launch of Wolfram Alpha is still scheduled for later on Monday, but thousands of users have already had a chance to try this new way of extracting information from the web.
When I spoke via a video call to Stephen Wolfram, the British physicist behind Wolfram Alpha, on Friday night he was still not entirely confident that his "computational knowledge engine" would fire up. His team at Champaign, Illinois had just used one bunch of super-computers to send vast amounts of data to another, and that test had gone, in his words, "horribly".
But, despite a few hiccups when searchers got "sorry" signs, the system seems to have held up. So what's the verdict? Will it be a Google, changing the way we see the web and the world - or will it be be a Cuil, a much-hyped search engine that sinks without trace after the initial interest?
After playing with Wolfram Alpha for a few days, I've found some wonderful things, and vast areas where it is of little or no use. Type in a musical scale, such as Eb major - and it will play back the notes. Look at the weather in London - and it will allow you to compare today with the same day 10 years ago. If you're stuck on a crossword clue and enter a_a_r_m, it will tell you the answer is "anagram". But it is very dominated by US data - so it will tell me the average earnings of waiters in the US, but give me little or nothing about wages in the UK. And even in the United States it has its limitations - ask it for a list of the world's highest buildings and it quickly obliges, but it won't produce a list of the tallest skyscrapers in the US.
As well as trying it out myself, I asked three people who might well have a use for it - a doctor, an economist and an A-Level student - to have a look and give me their first impressions. I warned them that it was not the right place to go to find where the new Star Trek movie was playing (though it does list the cast) or for stories about Jordan and Peter Andre, or any number of other web searches where you're looking for sites, not answers.
The point of it is to answer any question involving data - from historical facts, to scientific knowledge, to share prices - and to present the figures in all kinds of useful ways. But I'm afraid my testers were not terribly impressed:
This tester is a consultant at a major hospital, and he was none too impressed with Wolfram's command of medical data.
"In a nutshell, so far so bad," he told me. "I've asked it various fairly general health questions, including:
- What is the rate of MRSA in UK hospitals?
- What is the survival after stroke in the UK?
- What is the nearest hospital to Oxford?
And I've rephrased these questions several times with no answers. If I get onto my own speciality it is completely clueless. If you don't ask a question but just make a general enquiry about, say, stroke then you can get some headline epidemiological data."
However his 8-year-old daughter fared better. She asked ""How old was Tutenkhamun when he died?" and got the right answer, and, after a bit of tinkering, found out the height of the pyramid of Giza. But, as the doctor pointed out, you could get the same results from Wikipedia.
This economist is always on the lookout for all kinds of data - ranging from governemnt statistics, to company balance sheets, to figures on technology in developing countries. Here's what she said:
"The formats in which it can answer questions are rigid. The source material on which it draws seem limited - I'm very unclear what it's actually searching. Almost everything I tried got the message that it didn't understand my question. Even questions phrased just like some of the examples, with a small change, eg banker instead of forester, got that same answer. There seemed to be almost nothing it could say on my own interests - I couldn't find a way to get it to tell me mobile phone ownership in different countries, which is easily found on the ITU, UNDP and World Bank websites. Oh dear."
The school student
This 18 year old is doing A-Levels in mathematics, politics and history. He was more impressed than my other testers - perhaps because he is younger and more open-minded:
"GDP UK Germany" gets good results,"GDP UK Germany 2000-2008" does not. It also seems good at comparing certain types of data for groups of countries, eg "NATO military expenditure" gets you a comparison of how much is spent in each NATO country, and "EU life expectancy" compares life expectancy in all the EU countries.
Mathematical things seem to work the best, like "volume of a sphere radius 4.5" or "integrate xsinx" or "solve x^2 + 5x + 6".
So not a great set of results overall. But I'm not going to dismiss Wolfram Alpha's chances of success - for three reasons. First of all this, as Stephen Wolfram stressed to me, is a work in progress - at the moment it has got a lot of US data in its super-computers, but not much from anywhere else. Its cry will be "give us your data and we will set it free", so it should be far more useful in a few months' time.
Secondly, where it does work Wolfram is tremendous fun, like a big brother who is just brilliant at sums and wants to show off what he can do. I think a lot of people will visit in the early days just to play.
And finally, it would be nice to have one decent alternative to Google - even one that makes no claims to be better at search. Wolfram Alpha's arrival has already spurred the giant of search to launch a similar product, "Google Squared", which will soon emerge from its labs.
Competition - as Google itself stresses - is a very healthy corrective to complacency, and it's time we had a new kid on the block to show us a different way to use the web.
- 15 May 09, 16:09 GMT
In the middle of a busy day, darting between my office and various locations, I discovered that this was actually National Work from Home Day. Damn! If only, I'd realised, I'd be sitting at the kitchen table, tapping away on my laptop in my dressing gown while tuning in to daytime TV.
But seriously, for me and many other people, technology has now advanced to the stage where working from home is a real possibility. In my house, I have an ISDN line - elderly but reliable technology that allows me to do live radio broadcasting - and a fast broadband connection which means it's very easy to send and receive fast files, and keep up with everything that's happening at the office.
It looks as though quite a few people are not at the office today. I've been sent a mashup adapted from the snow map put together by a web developer Ben Marsh earlier this year as Britain ground to a halt.
This one shows the location of home workers who've decided to proclaim on Twitter that they are at home, in messages containing #NWFHD and the first part of their postcode. So far, they seem to be concentrated in southern England - which either means that southerners are more likely to see the benfits of avoiding the daily commute, or that that is where Twitterers mostly live.
For me, however, it's not really possible to work effectively from my kitchen. I need to be out seeing businesses, I need access to some technology that I can only find at work - like studios - and I need to work with colleagues, like picture editors who may not be so keen to come round to my place. But crucially, I still need to be able to come face to face with my bosses to sell my stories, to convince them that I am working hard, and generally to get things done.
Video-conferencing technology is now making very rapid advances, and will soon be cheap enough for many firms to install in some workers' homes. But will video "face-time" with the boss still prove as useful as the real thing? I remain to be convinced. Technology may be transforming our working lives - but relationships still matter, and it's difficult to have one at the end of a webcam.
- 14 May 09, 16:32 GMT
I've been indulging in nostalgia today, talking about the events of 1999 and 2000 for an Open University programme about the dot.com bubble. They were heady times, when one aspiring online retailer flew New York's top coiffeur to London just to fix the hair of an important member of the team - not a real person, but the "avatar" who welcomed visitors to the online store.
That boom was of course followed by a crash which left the dot.com landscape in Britain riddled with corpses and barren for some years to come. Then there was another much less spectacular boom for technology companies, which ended last year as the rest of the economy plunged into recession. This time, however, the landscape looks a lot brighter and there are some notable survivors still making progress online.
I received a press release this morning headlined "Media Momentum Top 50 Shows the Media Industry Defying the Credit Crunch". As ever with these things, it was a rather over-written account of an award ceremony celebrating digital media successes across Europe. But there did seem to be evidence of three UK firms - Shazam, Seatwave, and Moneybookers - weathering the storm rather well. What I wanted to know, however, was something rather simple - do they, unlike just about every dot.com I met ten years ago, make any money?
Shazam is the company that's received a lot of positive buzz for a service which allows you to hold your phone against any music source and get back a message telling you what that song is. The company was founded in 2001 and it sounds like an amusing gimmick which will never become a sustainable business.
"Three years ago, when all you could do was name that tune, that was probably true," admitted the chief executive Andrew Fisher when he called me from Los Angeles where he's on a business trip. But he says that adding more bells and whistles to the service and a change in the business model have delivered outstanding growth - users are up from 20 million to 35 million since September 2008 - meaning that Shazam is now profitable.
Revenues used to come from phone customers who paid to use the service. But last year, Shazam launched its first free service, an iPhone app, and is now earning plenty of money from advertising and from its share of digital downloads - when you find a song's name, you're pointed at Apple's iTunes store. Just as other online companies are deciding that "free" is not a sustainable business model, Shazam appears to be returning to dot.com economics - and making it pay.
Seatwave was launched in February 2007 as an online exchange where fans can buy or sell tickets for major events. It sounds as if it might have two problems - first, launching just as the economy was heading into problems, and second, being seen as little more than a paradise for touts.
But when I got the chief executive Joe Cohen on the phone, he dismissed the second problem - "we don't get hung up on who's selling on our site as long as they obey our rigorous code of conduct" - and said that building a business during a recession was a positive advantage.
"All my costs have come down, my labour costs in particular, and there's far less competition for good staff than 18 months ago." There followed a blizzard of statistics - "Q1 sales up 300% on last year, burn-rate cut by 60% - but what I really needed to know was the bottom line. Mr Cohen said the business would be profitable next year - and its path to profitability had actually been smoothed by the recession.
Still, let's wait and see whether Seatwave delivers on that promise in a competitive market where regulatory uncertainty and poor customer service have been major issues.
Moneybookers is in that increasingly fashionable area, online money transmission. Its website tells me it "enables any business or consumer with an e-mail address to securely and cost-effectively send and receive payments online - in real-time!"
That exclamation mark is presumably supposed to reflect our astonishment that you don't have to wait three days for your cheque to clear. In effect, it's Europe's PayPal, and is taking advantage of the deficiencies of the old-fashioned banking system in the UK and and other European markets.
Martin Ott, the co-CEO, told me that the company, which he and his fellow German Nikolai Riesenkampf founded in London in 2000, was growing very rapidly. Last year its profits - at least on that slightly dubious EBITDA measure - more than doubled to 18.7m euros. And he says that the recession isn't slowing that growth: "What we see is that, during this financial crisis, customers spend more time at home, going online to seek a bargain. And there are more people starting small web-shops, which need a payments system like ours."
So three UK-based companies either making money - or on the path to profits - in the online world. Two out of three of these dot.com survivors are not dependent on advertising for their revenues, but on good old-fashioned cash paid out by their users. And, as far as I know, none of them is spending money on hairdressers for their avatars.
- 14 May 09, 14:39 GMT
Customers' appetite for mobile data shows no sign of abating, if you look at figures supplied by network operator Orange.
It now has 3.8 million users on 3G phones or with 3G dongles that plug into your computer and give you broadband access over the cellular data networks.
According to Orange, 12,877 gigabytes of data travel over its network to 3G phones and dongles each day. That sounds a lot - but it's actually only about 3.3 megabyes per user.
It's why Paul Jevons, director of products, portals and services, told me: "The 3G dongle market is in the early stages of development; it only kicked off last year."
Dongle subscriptions at Orange have risen 500% in a year and dongle data usage by more than 4,000%. I wouldn't read too much into those numbers - as the base was quite low - but the graph certainly looks healthy.
But there's no doubting the importance of mobile data services - more than 15% of revenues generated by mobile operators globally came from non-voice services in 2008, according to Informa Telecoms and Media.
The challenge for Orange - and for all other mobile networks - is that as subscriptions and usage of dongles and 3G handsets grows, the strain on the networks grows too.
The architecture of 3G networks was never designed with the needs of millions of data-hungry users in mind. If you've ever tried to make a phone call or send an SMS at a major sporting event, you will know exactly that I mean.
With a maximum download speed of 7.2Mbps available to Orange, the reality is that most users will not get close to that speed because of other data users also squeezing the pipe.
Mr Jevons said: "Speeds with dongles have increased quite dramatically - we have plans with industry to further in crease those speeds over time."
Orange, as with other networks, is rolling out ever faster variants of High Speed Packet Access connections, currently at 7.2Mbps, and soon reaching 14.4Mbps. Five cities in the UK will support 14.4Mbps by the end of 2009 for Orange customers.
Beyond that, Orange and others are looking to HSDPA+ technology, which could support 28Mbps, and eventually Long-Term Evolution, which could be even faster.
But the inescapable problem for mobile data is that the greater our demand, the more penalties we will pay in terms of downstream speeds.
"Generally, customers are pretty satisfied with their mobile data speeds," said Mr Jevons.
"However, two things happen - more people use service which means you have greater stress on the network, and once customers use it and get faster speeds, they then expect more."
Orange is managing its network resources to try and spread the bandwidth evenly among users, prioritising certain packets of data and adding more capacity where it knows there is more demand.
Orange also knows that 3G data remains a complement to technologies like wi-fi, and not a competitor.
Increasingly, devices are coming on to the market that can switch seamlessly between data protocols, and the goal is for the user to not even notice the switch.
But there is a long way to go yet.
- 13 May 09, 12:39 GMT
Is your Twitter feed looking a little quieter than usual? Mine is.
If so, that might be because of a change to the service rolled out last night that is causing palpitations among users.
It used to be the case that you could control the types of @replies you saw in your feed. The old guard of Twitter, like me, not only saw replies to their updates from other users, including those they don't follow, but also the replies of their followers to people they don't follow.
More recently, it was changed so that the default setting for new users was that the only replies you saw were from the people you follow to you, or to you and another person you also follow, and not those replies from your followers to people you don't follow yourself.
But you could change this to see all replies, and adopt the system above.
Are you following me?
So what do the changes mean?
However, Twitter have now changed the settings so you can no longer see the replies of people you follow to people you don't. According to Twitter:
However, receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don't follow in your timeline is undesirable. Today's update removes this undesirable and confusing option.
But it seems many users' don't find this underdesirable or confusing. In fact, it is the method many people employ to discover new people to follow themselves.
And the worse part is, Twitter has taken away any control from the user to change these settings.
It would seem that it has done this to streamline the replies feed in order to become less intimidating to new users, who are suddenly overwhelmed by replies that are mere fragments of conversations they are not party to.
What Twitter has not realised is that it is this very aspect of "overhearing" a conversation between people, some of whom you know and some you don't, that makes the service so appealing.
It is what leads you into new conversations, debates and to meet people you otherwise would not have stumbled upon.
Given the noise on Twitter about this change, I wouldn't be surprised to see Twitter follow the lead of Facebook who have made U-turns on feature changes into an art form.
Are you still following me?
- 12 May 09, 14:55 GMT
We are, I'm often told, living in a world in which audiences can access the content they want when they want it and how they want it.
The "long tail" of the internet, the argument goes, has unlocked a never-ending treasure trove of content that is accessible 24/7 on every kind of platform, on the device of your choice.
Really? The truth is that if you have ever tried to find a particular piece of content, and let's talk specifically about film, then you will be hard-pressed to find it online at the e-tailer of your choice and in the format you need.
John Woodward, chief executive of the UK Film Council, has said that a recently launched "search engine" for films revealed a huge disparity between the films available for download and streaming and the demand among consumers.
He said: "60% of people who asked for alerts were looking for downloadable or streamable films.
"Of the 30,000 films listed on the site, only 1,000 are currently available for download or streaming."
So why the gulf? Part of the problem is the "rights windows" for movies that have had theatrical release - they only go on to video on demand services, or download services, for a limited period. And the whole process for getting content onto online services remains locked in an analogue world that worked for physical formats but not for the digital age.
Stephen McGill, director of Xbox and Entertainment in the UK, said rolling out films to Xbox Live was not always a simple process.
He said: "There's lot of legal red tape, country by country - every publisher and movie house has different timings and different ways of working for each region."
The criticism is that content in the digital age is being as tightly controlled as it was in the analogue age. Certainly, there's no sign of a growing library of film content online in the manner that saw iTunes put millions of songs online in a matter of months.
Mr Woodward told me the message to film studios was clear: "Get the content and get the inventory out there on as many platforms as possible and as quickly as possible."
But there's another snag here. While music is finally being unshackled from digital rights management that severely restricted what users could do with their legally bought content, the same thing is not true of video.
In fact, the great fear among consumer rights advocates is that a rush to putting movies on "as many platforms as possible" could lead to a labyrinthine world of differing video standards and digital rights management technologies.
With Hollywood adopting ever more aggressive copy restrictions, there is a growing feeling that consumers are being asked to pay over and over again for the same content but in different formats.
When Blu-ray was first launched consumers were told that the format would support the provision of "Mandatory Managed Copies" of discs, so that users could put the film onto a portable or a home server.
But there is no sign yet of the technology being implemented. And in the world of movie downloads there is no common standard, unlike MP3 for music, just varying flavours of MP4, some of which are tied to specific platforms and portable devices.
The accusation being levelled at the movie industry is that it has learned nothing from the agonies of the music business and is about to walk into the same traps that befell record companies a few years ago.
- 12 May 09, 09:27 GMT
Which celebrity would you want to back your cause? If you were a Gurkha the answer would obviously be Joanna Lumley, but if it were a matter involving technology who better
than Stephen Fry? A while back I found myself pondering whether Mr Fry could kill a gadget after he made clear his distaste for the Blackberry Storm, now I'm wondering just what impact he might have on the campaign to revive Bletchley Park
Yesterday the actor, writer, gadget-fan and polymath came for a look around the wartime decoding centre, at the invitation of the trust which runs it, and I was lucky enough to join his tour.
Last July, a computing academic Dr Sue Black wrote a letter to the Times which sparked off a campaign to try to restore the dilapidated site.
The campaign has had some success - enough money has been raised to put a new roof on the mansion which served as the original wartime headquarters. But most of the huts where thousands of people worked during the war cracking German codes are still in a pretty dreadful state, and Bletchley Park struggles to give its increasing numbers of visitors a coherent picture of what went on and why it was so important, not just to the war effort but to the development of computing.
In fact, I learned a lot more than on previous visits simply by tagging along with Stephen Fry as Simon Greenish, the director of the Bletchley Park Trust, gave him the kind of tour that we'd all like to have.
First, he got to play with a real Enigma machine, one of those used by the Germans to send the coded messages cracked by brilliant minds like Alan Turing.
Then it was off to every corner of the site - from the gate where dozens of despatch riders arrived each day bearing intercepted German messages, to the restored hut 8, where Turing worked on cracking the codes.
One of the new highlights of the site is now the National Museum of Computing, a modest collection which has just got underway but has a wonderful exhibit as its starting-point, Colossus. The world's first electronic computer, which cracked the Lorenz code used by Hitler to communicate with his generals, has been lovingly rebuilt over the last 15 years by Tony Sale, who was on hand to explain its mysteries to Stephen Fry.
As we were walking across the site we came across a family group escorting an elderly visitor on her first trip back to Bletchley Park since 1945. Dorothy Richards told us she had been drafted to Blethcley, aged 18, and for four years had worked on a punch-card machine. She'd had no idea at the time - or for decades afterwards - of how important the work was, but she knew it was top secret: "We had security talks every week in the big house telling us to keep quiet."
When I recorded a quick interview with Stephen Fry near the end of his visit, he stressed how little recognition Mrs Richards and thousands like her had been given for their contribution to bringing the war to a premature end, and urged everyone to visit the site and understand its importance. If Bletchley Park had wanted to recruit an ardent supporter to the cause, it looks as though the visit did the trick.
A few years ago such support would have been welcome but of only minor significance. That was before the social media revolution. Stephen Fry's every move is now followed on Twitter by nearly 500,000 people, and Bletchley Park itself has embraced the micro-blogging service.
Late last year a group of ardent geeks visted the site and decided it needed a presence on Twitter. Among them was Christian Payne (known on Twitter as @documentally), and he was at Bletchley yesterday taking the photos you can see on this post, and ardently tweeting, fliming, and recording every moment.
The moment Stephen Fry turned up by the lake near the mansion another visitor spotted him and tweeted his presence, and what had started as a private visit became a major social media event.
So will this make a difference - in crude terms how much cash will come Bletchley Park's way as a result of the visit? Difficult to say, but what Stephen Fry has done is to reinforce something that was already happening, the building of a virtual community of technically-minded people who are passionate about the place and want to make sure its legacy is preserved. So maybe he can be as helpful to Bletchley Park as Joanna Lumley has been to the Gurkhas. All he needs now is a war-cry to match "Ayo Gorkhali!".
- 12 May 09, 00:01 GMT
It's an emotive and nebulous issue - exactly how damaging is illegal file-sharing to the creative industries?
Generally, it is widely accepted that illegal file-sharing causes great damage and means artists from all kinds of backgrounds are not being paid for the professional work they have done.
Specifically, the creative industries have gone to great lengths to spell out the damage done by file-sharing copyright content without permission.
In today's joint statement from the UK creative industries, the government is urged to force internet service providers to ban persistent file-sharers and a very specific charge is laid.
It says up to 800,000 jobs in the creative industries, out of 1.8 million in total, are threatened.
That's almost half of the entire industry which, the statement says, contributes £112.5bn in revenue to the economy, equivalent to 8% of GDP.
The quoted figure comes from a report produced by consultants called Europe Economics, which was commissioned by one of the creative bodies.
However, it's not so clear cut.
The 1.8 million figure refers to all jobs in the creative industries and related "upstream and downstream sectors".
The 800,000 figure relates to jobs specifically in the film, TV, music and software sectors, including upstream and downstream sectors.
But nowhere in the Europe Economics report does it say that "up to 800,000 jobs are at threat from illegal file-sharing". The figure is used to simply state the size of the four sectors.
As one of the people involved in that report said to me: "Someone could reasonably say that all these jobs are under threat from piracy but this is not to be confused with us saying that 800,000 jobs would be lost if piracy were not eliminated."
In fact, the report talks about "employment gains to be had from a reduction in piracy being very large indeed". Specifically, the report says that almost 10,000 new jobs would be created if peer-to-peer piracy was 100% eliminated.
Without question, piracy threatens jobs, but have the creative industries been a bit loose with their maths and language in order to strike an emotive point?
In fact, the report is strewn with strong language:
• The alliance is "unprecedented"
• Call for "urgent action to save jobs"
• A "unique coalition"
• "Urgent set of recommendations"
• Once in a generation chance to save existing jobs
• "Unprecedented consensus"
• "Critical time"
• "Lawless free for all"
It is clear that the creative industries have run out of patience with the internet service providers, who have long attempted to avoid being turned into the police force of the net.
The problem for the creative industries is that so many people are blase about the impact of piracy.
For example, when a pre-production version of the Hollywood blockbuster movie Wolverine was leaked on the net an estimated four million people downloaded a copy, and the FBI was called in to investigate.
However, critics pointed out that the film went on to make $160m in five days across more than 100 different countries, including about $85m in North America alone.
Apparently Fox, the studio behind the film, believe the takings would have topped $100m in North America had it not been for the leak.
However, figures like $160m do little to convince sceptics who believe the effect of illegal file-sharing is overstated.
As part of the joint statement by the UK alliance of creatives, John Woodward, chief executive of the UK Film Council, says explicitly that the effect of illegal file-sharing is that "films go unmade, DVD sales deteriorate and jobs are lost in production and distribution of content".
He could not be more clear in assessing the impact of unauthorised peer to peer file sharing. But will anyone listen?
- 11 May 09, 09:00 GMT
What will you pay for these days in terms of news and entertainment?
This is a question that's troubling media executives around the world as they battle the twin threats of falling revenues and the spread of free content online, whether put there deliberately or "shared" by consumers.
And in the UK, they're turning for inspiration to one industry which has never been particularly web-savvy but which has shown that it can wring huge amounts of cash from consumers, and which doesn't appear to be suffering much from the recession. That industry is football.
Among the media barons named by the Sunday Times yesterday as pressing Lord Carter to impose a stronger anti-piracy code on internet service providers, I noticed Richard Scudamore's name. He runs not a record business, nor a newspaper or a TV channel, but the Premier League.
It has been extraordinarily successful in getting fans - largely via satellite TV subscriptions rather than at the turnstile - to pay, rather than expecting something for nothing.
While Mr Scudamore believes that his is a media content industry like any other, others across the media landscape have been eager to work out whether they can imitate football's success in turning content into cash.
So what's the recipe?
It seems to be all about providing compelling material that avid consumers really want - and making sure they can't get it elsewhere. I think it would be difficult for any fan to dispute that the quality of football played in the Premiership is better than what we saw 20 years ago. While the influx of the world's most talented players may or may not have damaged the England side, it's certainly improved the football played by the top teams.
Of course, that's happened because of the huge inflow of cash from one source - satellite television - which has paid for the transformation of the game. Over the last two decades, the financial health of BSkyB and that of the Premiership have marched in tandem. And both have worked hard to protect their content from reaching those not prepared to pay for it.
Sky's big investment in encryption technology has been pretty successful in limiting the numbers who can watch illicitly. In recent years, fans wanting to watch football without paying a satellite subscription have turned to the internet - but the Premier League has been vigorous in the defence of its copyright, notably in its ongoing lawsuit against YouTube.
It has ignored the fashionable doctrine that the important thing is to first get your product onto as many platforms as possible, and then to start thinking about how to make money.
Football, though, has one advantage over other media - fans are prepared to pay an awful lot more to see it live rather than waiting even a couple of hours for highlights. And one thing the beautiful game has never done - at least since it woke up to the value of its TV rights - is give anything away for free.
So can the newspaper, movie and music businesses learn anything by looking at the Premier League - can they too get consumers to pay for compelling content by making sure there are no alternative means to get it?
That will be hard because none has the monopoly power enjoyed by the Premier League, and all are struggling to build new fences around content which is already roaming free. True, music is finding that the one thing fans will pay for is "live" - more and more bands are now seeing albums as little more than marketing campaigns for their next tour.
But will newspaper buyers really pay to get breaking news? Only if it is not available elsewhere, and it's difficult to see the world's news providers, amateur and professional, all agreeing to move to a subscription model at once.
And before imitating the Premier League too closely, perhaps they should ask who has really benefited from the football boom. Most clubs still struggle to make a profit, and fans are paying a lot more at the ground and in their TV subscriptions.
So the real winners are the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Dider Drogba, whose £130,000-a-week salaries have been made possible by the Premiership's success in marketing its TV rights and protecting its copyright.
Music fans, news junkies and movie buffs are all benefiting hugely from online distribution - largely without paying. They will be hoping that other media industries don't learn too much from the Premier League.
- 8 May 09, 16:37 GMT
In Britain's broadband league, there's a new number one - or is there?
Carphone Warehouse claims that its takeover of Tiscali gives it more residential customers than any other internet service provider, with BT now in second place and Virgin Media third.
So, having only got into the business three years ago with its TalkTalk service, the purchase of first AOL, and then of Tiscali has made it the biggest noise in UK broadband.
BT disputes that claim - it says it has 4.7 million broadband customers to Carphone Warehouse's 4.3 million. But Carphone says some of those customers (BT won't say how many) are businesses, so it's confident it's the leader in the residential market.
If I were BT, I wouldn't be fighting for that number one spot, nor would I be as keen as Charles Dunstone of Carphone is to claim it. Why?
Because being number one means, as BT has found to its cost, that the spotlight is shining right at you when it comes to all those tricky questions about the future of "Broadband Britain".
First, there's the issue of customer service. If you're the biggest player, you're also likely to have the most complaints - and you need to show how well you can deal with them.
TalkTalk certainly had its issues with customer service in the early days - it claims those are largely resolved - but now it's taking on 1.7 million users who may put an awful lot of strain on its call centres.
Tiscali's dealings with its customers - and I should declare an interest as one who left in despair and even then struggled to escape their clutches - makes TalkTalk's service seem like a combination of Rolls Royce and the Orient Express.
Second, the regulator, the government, and the creative industries will now be looking more closely at Carphone as the biggest representative of the broadband industry which is at the centre of the upcoming Digital Britain report.
The Universal Service Obligation - bringing 2mbps broadband to every corner of the country - was seen as mainly an issue for BT. Now Carphone may have to help find a solution.
Then there's the pressure on ISPs from the creative industries to do more in the battle against illegal file-sharing. Until now, Charles Dunstone has been extremely combative on this issue declaring that he wasn't going to be the internet's policeman, whatever music companies or ministers might say. And judging by my interview with him today - you can listen below - he's not about to change his tune.
And finally there's the Phorm question. Carphone is one of three ISPs to have held talks with the controversial behavioural advertising firm - but it's BT which has copped most of the flak. Charles Dunstone was still stressing today that Carphone hadn't even tested Phorm yet. But the broadband supply business runs on pretty thin profit margins, so Mr Dunstone is going to have to look at every possible means to find new revenue streams, and behavioural advertising is one obvious answer.
So congratulations to Carphone Warehouse - even if your position at the top of the table is disputed. But be aware that every broadband user, politician, regulator, privacy campaigner and music business will now be on your case. Enjoy!
- 7 May 09, 12:23 GMT
Suffering information overload? Trying to find that document, that website, that digital photo from way back when?
Well, there are now plenty of ways you can store that information online - sites like Flickr allow you to keep your photos, Delicious helps you tag and bookmark links, and Google Documents provides an online store for, well, documents.
I've just met the boss of a company that claims it can do all this and more. But will Evernote - and the memories it stores in the cloud - still be around in five years' time?
Phil Libin, the chief executive of Evernote, describes it as "an external brain for everyone". The idea behind the service is that you can store notes, audio recordings, web clippings or photos with Evernote - and they will be accessible on any computer or on a mobile phone. There is an Evernote application for Windows, for Mac and for the iPhone and the service is coming to other phones imminently.
What impressed me was the search capability, which includes a function allowing you to look for text in photos. Phil Libin showed me a search relating to a company he'd met at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Among the results was a photo taken on a stand featuring a man wearing a badge with both his and the company's name on it.
Evernote - which is based in Mountain View, right at the heart of Silicon Valley - launched in June last year, and has so far attracted about a million users worldwide.
There are two options - a free service or a $5-per-month premium subscription which allows you to upload far more "memories" each month, with greater functionality.
I'm always rather dubious about that kind of mix of free and premium (how many Spotify users upgrade to the paid service?), but Mr Libin says that growth in paying customers is now ahead of new free users, and he claims that the company is now on course to be profitable next year.
But Evernote is based just down the road from the one company that seems likely to crowd out a small start-up, Google. And I have to confess that after trying out Evernote earlier this year, I ended up reverting to using Google Documents - it lacked many of the bells and whistles of its new rival, but I wasn't sure that I needed them.
If my behaviour is at all typical, then Evernote may struggle to achieve the critical mass of users it needs. So the big worry for those who have signed up is that the company will be one of the many Silicon Valley start-ups that have a great idea, but don't make it.
Phil Libin is of course confident that his venture won't meet that fate - he says it's actually a great time to be starting a business because there is less "noise" around from other ventures - but he's keen to reassure users that their memories will survive, whatever happens to the company. That's because Evernote stores everything not just online, but locally on your computer - so even if its servers go offline one day, anything that you've synchronised to your PC will be safe.
We are putting more and more of our lives into the internet "cloud" - and that raises all sorts of issues about security and trust. Companies offering these cloud services will need to provide plenty of reassurance to their users over the coming years. But it's refreshing to see that, even in these dark times for investors in new technology, smart companies like Evernote are still being born in Silicon Valley.
By the way, I used another new service which stores data in the cloud, AudioBoo, to record an interview with Phil Libin. You can listen to it here, but just in case AudioBoo disappears from the cloud in five years' time, we've also uploaded it to the BBC's embedded player. After all, we hope that the BBC and all of its online services will still be around for the foreseeable future.
- 6 May 09, 10:35 GMT
"I think it's going to be pretty exciting. A new paradigm for using computers and the web." That's what the creator of Wolfram Alpha told the world recently about a new way of extracting information from the web.
Stephen Wolfram believes his computational knowledge engine will provide a better way of executing a certain type of search query, where you are looking for data, than Google. It will also give you answers directly rather than pointing you to websites where you may find them.
We won't really know how well it works until it goes live later this month - but Technology Review managed to get hold of a login and put it to the test. For the most part, it came up with some quite satisfactory results, particularly for searches involving hard numbers - the term "GM Ford" turned up an array of graphs and tables giving a good statististical picture of the two American car companies.
Inspired by this, and lacking a Wolfram Alpha login, I decided to put some of the other pretenders to Google's crown to the test. Over the last year or so, Cuil, True Knowledge, and Kosmix have all appeared on the scene, offering alternative ways to search - whether by using semantic web techniques or by presenting results in a different way.
Cuil, set up by some ex-Google employees, raised a pile of money and a good deal of publicity last year, promising more detailed results, but has since faded from view.
True Knowledge is a semantic search company started by some very clever folks in Cambridge, England, and is still at the beta stage. And Kosmix is a Silicon Valley start-up, just across town from Google in Mountain View - it promises to give you a rounded view of a subject by assembling data from a variety of searches and sources.
So I tried three of the same searches with which Technology Review tested Wolfram Alpha - plus a take two to give each engine a better chance - and then threw in one of my own.
Here are the results:
SEARCH TERM: Sydney New York
Google: provided links first to cheap flights.
Cuil: linked to helicopter tours of Sydney harbour.
True Knowledge: replied " Sorry, I don't understand that question."
Kosmix: linked to Yahoo answers - with a reply to "how many hours from Sydney to New York."
Take two: distance Sydney to New York
Google: linked to distance calculator sites, which would then provide an answer.
Cuil: "No results were found..."
True Knowledge: "Sorry, I don't understand that question."
Kosmix: Led to WikiAnswers: with the answer - "the distance between Sydney, Australia and New York, New York is 9935 miles."
SEARCH TERM: 10 pounds kilograms
Google: Linked first to a site where you can make metric to imperial calculations.
Cuil: Linked first to a news story about a drug seizure.
True Knowledge: "It sounds like 10 pounds kilograms may be an object that I don't know about yet."
Kosmix: Linked to the same conversion site provided by Google - and a lot of conversations about diets.
Take two: What is 10 pounds in kilograms
Google:10 pounds = 4.5359237 kilograms
Cuil: First result was a Wikipedia entry about "free recoil", apparently about small arms.
True Knowledge: This time after scratching its head the semantic engine comes up with the answer too: 4.5359237 kilograms.
Kosmix: Once again, linked to conversion sites and conversations about diets.
SEARCH TERM: GM Ford
Google: First on the list is a link about a writer called GM Ford.
Cuil: comes up with a list of essays comparing GM to Ford.
True Knowledge: "Sorry, I don't understand that question."
Kosmix: First links to the same Google results - but later to other sites with comparisons of the companies.
Take two: Compare GM with Ford
Google: First link is to a news story on "GM and Ford threaten merger".
Cuil: Link to news story "President Bush speaks out on GM and Ford.
True Knowledge: "Sorry, I don't understand that question."
Kosmix: A bunch of similar links to Google but mostly irrelevant.
Finally, I posed my own factual question - just the kind that Wolfram Alpha is apparently good at answering - Who was the president of France in 1957? And here were the answers:
Google: Went straight to a Wikipedia page about heads of state, with the answer that it was Rene Coty.
Cuil: Wikipedia: Takes you to another Wikipedia page to find that "Felix Gaillard was elected president of France on November 12, 1957."
True Knowledge: Became very confused and asked me to select from these two questions - what or who is the president of the organisation the French national football team in the year 1957? Or "what or who is the president(head of state) of France..." I chose the latter - and got this: "Sorry, I don't know the answer to that question. It sounds like this is something True Knowledge doesn't know about yet."
Kosmix: links to the same Google search results, but also to other resources about French presidents.
As far as I can see, Rene Coty is the right answer - Felix Gaillard was actually the president of the French assembly. But then again, Wikipedia could be wrong.
To sum up, none of the three Google rivals really merited a detour away from most people's search engine of choice, though Kosmix did perform better than the other two in helping you towards an answer, and True Knowledge has the excuse that it's still in beta. Then again, Google itself didn't really supply speedy access to the kind of data-rich results that Wolfram Alpha promises.
There is a need for an alternative way of turning up all kinds of data - I'm always struggling to find government statistics, corporate results, long lost batting averages - so perhaps that will be on offer soon.
But as Kosmix, True Knowledge and Cuil have shown, it's easy to boast about exciting new technologies that will provide "a new paradigm for using computers and the web". It's rather more difficult to deliver.
- 1 May 09, 17:04 GMT
On this quiet Friday afternoon before the May Day bank holiday, I've found myself musing on what exactly is meant by "meme". That's because a link is circulating to a rather wonderful chart/website/mashup, which chronicles internet memes.
The timeline on the chart runs from 1976 right up to today, and it lists all kinds of web crazes, fads and phenomena. So in 1993 there is the Cambridge University computer laboratory coffee-pot, supposedly the inspiration for the first webcam. (By the way, I was disappointed when visting the lab recently at its new site to be told that the coffee-pot had been sold on eBay some years before.)
Spool to 1997 and there's the chess match between Gary Kasparov and the IBM Big Blue computer - which, according to the chart, was the biggest web event to date.
1999 brings the Blair Witch Project, described as a "breakthrough use of the web to promote a low-budget indie thriller". It's illustrated with a YouTube clip - but the video-sharing service wasn't born until 2005, which set me wondering just how we used to share video online a decade ago.
More recently, there's an entry on "I Can Has Cheezburger?" (ICHC for short) and lolcats, a web phenomenon that I have never understood. And after reading that "ICHC was instrumental in bringing animal-based image macros and lolspeak into mainstream usage" I am really none the wiser.
And coming right up to date, the most recent meme listed on the chart is Susan Boyle's audition on Britain's Got Talent which, as the world surely knows, became a huge hit on YouTube.
But after enjoying clicking my way along the timeline, I'm not entirely clear how the entries were chosen - or what we mean by a meme. How does it differ, for instance from a "viral", as in "viral video"?
You may remember a few weeks back we had a discussion here about the Today Programme's viral video - and whether it was the genuine article.
In fact, the very first entry on the internet memes chart is meme, linked to the publication of Richard Dawkins "The Selfish Gene" and there is this Wikipedia definition:
"The word 'meme' is a neologism coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins occuring in 'The Selfish Gene' to describe how one might extend Darwinian principles to explain the spread of cultural phenomena. He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious belief, clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches)."
Some people have told me there is clear difference - a viral is something that is deliberately spread, a meme is an almost biological phenomenon, that just spreads by itself. But that seems to take us back to the viral video argument, where some people were adamant that anything that was promoted by the mainstream media could not be deemed truly viral.
What is clear is that the web is making some ideas - serious and trivial - spread around the globe at an ever faster pace. If the world's online population, in its collective wisdom, decides something is important, we will all know about it pretty quickly.
As anyone who has been online this week will know, fears, facts and fantasies can make their way from Mexico to Manchester faster than a flu virus. Whatever we mean by meme,the internet is a democratising force for ideas. Though, as the internet memes chart shows, an awful lot of those ideas are plain daft.
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