Rory Cellan-Jones

What can music teach telly?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 28 Aug 09, 13:40 GMT

What can the television industry learn from the music business as it wakes up to the threat from file-sharing?

Top GearThat's the subject of a session I'm chairing on Saturday at the Edinburgh Television Festival. A cynic who learned about this sent me this message:

"Music biz teach TV? Greed, backwards thinking and lack of respect for the end consumer."

Someone else said:

"How to alienate its customers by treating them all as likely criminals."

But that's unfair to the people who are appearing on my panel.

Will Page, the economist at the Performing Right Society, is a big thinker about what the music industry has got right and wrong over recent years - and where it's heading.

Peter Jenner, legendary manager of Pink Floyd and former economics lecturer, is not a man to toe the music industry party line.

And Eric Garland of Big Champagne, the media measurement business, has some fascinating data about the patterns he's spotted in unauthorised online access to both music and video.

Chatting to all three in advance, I think they have a few simple lessons that both industries can learn about dealing with a digital world.

Popular is popular

Lady GagaIf you've got a popular product - whether it's Lady Gaga, Top Gear, or Heroes - it's going to be popular on all sorts of platforms. And that includes unauthorised places where fans go to share what they like.

Does that mean you end up earning less from legitimate outlets?

Maybe, though it's hard to get figures. But all that pirated material floating around and being talked about could also be seen as free marketing, sending paying customers your way.

They want it now!

Once your product becomes better known, consumers will want to get it straight away - so you had better make sure that they can get it legitimately before the bootleg version is available.

Look at U2's much-anticipated No Line On The Horizon, leaked online before its launch. Hundreds of thousands of fans got a free copy. Some saw that as clever viral marketing - but it looks as though it damaged sales.

And look at Eric Garland's data on Top Gear. It's a popular show in the United States, but there's a big gap between its broadcast in the UK and its arrival on BBC America. In the interim, impatient fans rush to torrent sites to find it.

TorchwoodThe BBC appears to be learning that lesson - the recent Torchwood series was broadcast in the US shortly after the UK saw it and fans of the cult series were able to get their fix.

Live works

The music business has switched its focus to live gigs, finding that fans who wouldn't pay £15 for a CD are happy to pay £50 or more to see their favourite band live - and to shell out more on merchandise.

And while Hollywood and the TV industry are looking in despair at the huge numbers downloading the likes of Heroes or Watchmen for free, the extent of piracy of live shows is relatively small.

Millions watched May's Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United live, earning TV stations big advertising revenues - but hardly anyone bothered to go online to grab it the day after.

Try everything

Radiohead's "pay what you want" offer for their In Rainbows album is often cited as an example of advanced digital thinking - and the fact that most fans chose to pay very little is flung back by the cynics.

But Radiohead also managed to sell lots of CDs and got a lot of fans to hand over £40 for a deluxe edition of the album. Smart band.

Record labels, and television executives will realise that there are still plenty of ways of extracting cash from people who really want your product. Mind you, if it's rubbish, you will get found out very quickly.

Don't worry, be happy

There's something akin to panic in the boardrooms of TV firms and Hollywood studios.

They're convinced that the wave of internet piracy which has swamped the music business is now going to capsize them too.

But Eric Garland has a message for all those anxious executives: calm down, dears.

TV in particular has a range of business models - unlike music which was wholly dependent on selling circles of pressed plastic in high street stores.

Live television is still watched by millions for many hours each day - and that will continue to make it attractive for advertisers.

So instead of pulling their hair out, smart folks in TV will take a look at the music industry's experience and adapt rapidly to a changing world.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Who is batting for file-sharing proposals?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 25 Aug 09, 15:39 GMT

"Peter just doesn't get the internet..."

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson seen on the display of a video camera during a visit to Visual Planet in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday July 28, 2009That was the instant reaction of one person I spoke to this morning about the government's new measures against illegal file-sharing - and Lord Mandelson's part in them. And this was not someone from digital campaigners the Open Rights Group or from an internet service provider, but a political insider from the same party as the business secretary.

The reaction to tough new proposals which could see those who repeatedly indulge in illegal file-sharing have their internet connections suspended has not, it's fair to say, been universally positive.

An executive from a major software business, who did not want to be named, rang me within hours of the announcement to express astonishment."What are they doing?" he asked. "It just won't work - when so many people have unsecured wireless networks, how are you going to pinpoint who the file-sharer is?"

Another critic was not so shy about coming forward. TalkTalk, whose boss Charles Dunstone has long made clear his distaste for anything that would force his business to police its own customers, put out a humdinger of a press release.

It accused the government of a U-turn and said Lord Mandelson had "caved in under pressure from powerful lobbyists in the content industry." And the company emphasised again that this policy would not work and would be strongly resisted. Other ISPs joined in the attack, albeit in more restrained a manner than TalkTalk.

Who, then, was batting for the proposals? Well, obviously the music and video industries, but even they seemed somewhat cautious in their support for what are seen as pretty radical measures. "We don't want to be seen as crowing," one spokesman told me.

It's important that this should be seen as the latest battle in the war between the content industries and the ISPs for the government's support on the file-sharing issue, with this proving a rare victory for the media barons. My understanding is that the original draft of Digital Britain did contain some strong anti-piracy measures, but that Lord Carter stepped in and toned them down.

Now Stephen Carter has left the government and it appears that Lord Mandelson has tipped the balance back towards the interests of the entertainment industries. While much has been made of the dinner attended by the business secretary and the Hollywood mogul David Geffen - the government insists they never even mentioned Digital Britain - there has also been plenty of high-level pressure from the UK film, television and music industries. They sincerely believe that a vital part of our economy is under threat - and that the issue was not taken seriously enough in the original report.

But this battle isn't over yet. By lunchtime, the Department for Business was putting out a new statement stressing that the government does not believe that "taking tough action against consumers is the right approach in every case" and even suggesting that "we have not changed our policy from the Digital Britain report".

The message seems to be that in the battle over anti-piracy measures, there's still plenty to play for. And if Lord Mandelson really "doesn't get the internet", you can be sure that there will be plenty of people now offering to educate him.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Anonymous on the internet

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 25 Aug 09, 13:58 GMT

This morning, the Today programme featured a debate on the question of anonymity and blogging, made topical by a couple of cases where bloggers have had their identities revealed against their will.

It featured political gossip blogger Guido Fawkes (aka Paul Staines) and Dr Vince Miller, a University of Kent academic who studies the blogosphere.

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I was asked by the programme's producers to write an audio essay which would act as an introduction to the debate. Here it is:

"According to a famous New Yorker cartoon, on the internet nobody knows you're a dog.

There are two views of that anonymity which has been an essential characteristic of the online world.

Either it allows the free expression of all sorts of interesting and subversive voices that would not otherwise be heard.

Or it makes the web a playground for every noisy and offensive bar-room bore - who doesn't even have to put a name to their ill-considered views.

Now it's becoming evident that this anonymity is, in any case, pretty fragile. Two cases have highlighted that fact.

First there was the police officer behind the award-winning NightJack blog>, revealed as Detective Constable Richard Horton after the Times persuaded a High Court judge that bloggers had no absolute right to keep their identities secret.

Then there was the unnamed female blogger who posted a series of offensive remarks about a Vogue cover model.

A New York judge ordered Google, which hosted the blog, to unmask Rosemary Port after the model Liskula Cohen sued, arguing that the comments were defamatory.

Now Google is on the back foot, accused of violating the blogger's privacy .The search company insists it does care about anonymity, and will only provide information about a user in response to a court order.

So, on both sides of the Atlantic it appears that the law is giving little protection to those who believe the internet should be an anonymous space.

There is too a growing momentum in the blogosphere behind the idea that those who want the world to hear their very strong opinions should have the courage to identify themselves - just as they would in a letter to a newspaper.

But - as recent events in places from Iran to Burma to China have shown - for some people, online anonymity can be a matter of life and death."

What I didn't discuss is an issue that sometimes occupies the writers of this and other BBC blogs - who exactly are the respondents who contribute their views on our posts, and should they remain in the shadows?

For instance, I'd love to know more about people like "ravenmorpheus" or "synthil", "hackerjack" or "mighty morfa power ranger".

Now anonymity is a valuable, indeed vital protection for junior staff inside corporations or public bodies, or people from countries with repressive governments, who would otherwise feel unable to contribute their views or provide valuable information to blogs like this.

But doesn't "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" have more credibility if she writes as Josephine Bloggs of Acacia Gardens?

I'd love to hear your views on this matter - and of course if you wish to remain anonymous, that's your choice.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Spinvox saga: What was the staff told?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 24 Aug 09, 18:02 GMT

There have been more twists and turns in the saga of Spinvox, the leading British voice-to-text service that isn't quite as high-tech as it claims. We know that the company has had to employ thousands of call centre staff to transcribe voicemail messages - what's become clearer is the rocky state of the firm's finances.

Last week, a filing at Companies House showed where the company had gone to raise the £15m it found it needed at the end of July after apparently getting through the $100m (£61m) it raised in March 2008. The filing showed that Tisbury Master Fund - an existing backer - had provided a loan, or rather what's known as mezzanine finance, but with some serious strings attached. Tisbury can now demand to be repaid a total of £30m - it looks as though an existing loan due for repayment next July has been rolled up with the new money - by Christmas this year. Finding that money could prove quite a challenge.

As if to emphasise just how difficult it will be, the Sunday Times has reported that what it called "unaudited" accounts showed that Spinvox's losses had climbed 30% to £49m in 2008, with revenues of £10m, far short of what the company's co-founder Christina Domecq had claimed last year would be achieved. A few days ago, I sat down with someone who has intimate knowledge of Spinvox's finances, and after a few rapid sums on the back of an envelope, he too came up with an estimated loss of somewhere around £47m. Spinvox's new PR firm is Brunswick, which I learn was called in by John Botts, who as chairman of both Tisbury and Spinvox, now appears to hold the future of the company in his hands. Brunswick has not sought to deny the story in the Sunday Times.

But here's an interesting question. What were the employees of Spinvox told back in July when they were encouraged to invest in their own company? They were told it was vital that they should swap part of their pay for July and August for share options, in order to see the company through to profitability. But did they know about the document sent to investors making serious allegations about financial mismanagement?

No, says the Spinvox PR team. And did they know about the accounts showing their company had made a big loss in 2008? No again - though they were given monthly updates about the company's progress. I've been looking back at some notes from the 20 July when I spoke to the Spinvox co-founder Daniel Doulton about the share offer to staff.

"We offered staff the opportunity to buy stock now before the next big (investment) round where our value increases by orders of magnitude and they're going to benefit," he told me. "It's only fair that we share the upside with our staff and don't keep it all to ourselves." So it appears they were told that the outlook was very bright.

The week before, Spinvox's Head of Social Media James Whatley, responding to a blog post about the employee share offer, wrote this:

"I'd really like to clarify some things:
1) Headline of piece:
'SpinVox Paying Staff In Stock To Save On Costs' Well, no. Not really.
'SpinVox Offers Staff *Opportunity* To Be Paid In Stock'... is closer to the truth, i.e.: it's the truth.
Remember, the important parts here are 'offers' & 'opportunity'. While this may well be part of a longer term to save money - it's actually a bloody good offer (one that I've taken up myself)."

Mr Whatley, you may remember, wrote a Spinvox company blog post describing the BBC's original story as "a veritable maelstrom of accusations, misapprehensions and sometimes just plain lies". But today, he has left Spinvox. Like many of those who have left, he has apparently signed a non-disclosure agreement, so he won't be talking about his experiences at the company.

So we are unlikely to find out soon whether he still thinks that he and his colleagues were given a "bloody good offer" back in July.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Teenage hackers: Making a better world

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 24 Aug 09, 08:17 GMT

What kind of image does the phrase "teenage hacker" conjure up? A spotty, unfit adolescent, with poor social skills, trying to break into the Pentagon's network from his bedroom? Well, on Saturday, I found out just how inaccurate that is.

I had to pop into central London to get a new passport - and then wait around to collect it. So I went on to a "popular social network" (I won't name it, don't worry) and asked for suggestions as to how I should use my time. Someone pointed out that at Google's offices, around the corner from the Passport Office, an event called "Young Rewired State" was taking place.

I dropped in - and was confronted with a remarkable sight. Around 70 teenagers had gathered for this weekend event which is the brainchild of Rewired State - an organisation thinking of clever ways to free up public data.

The young hackers - I know that word once had negative connotations, but it's how the organisers describe them - were male, female, from near and far, and from all kinds of backgrounds. One wore a "Future Millionaire" T-shirt, others appeared to have their headphones surgically attached to their ears. Some described themselves as hardcore coders, others as web designers, and quite a few already seemed to have part-time jobs in the software industry.

But what they had in common was that they all seemed well-adjusted, sociable and incredibly smart. They split into groups, with mentors from Google and Rewired State, and set about their creative mission to come up with something useful by the end of the weekend. I wandered among the different groups as they spread themselves across the third floor of the Googleplex, taking advantage of the free wi-fi - and food - laid on by the search company.

People on computers at Young Rewired State event

One group was seeking a way to scrape bus timetable information from the Transport For London website, another was trying to give learner drivers easier access to the DVLA's theory test questions, and in another corner an earnest gathering was looking at a flipchart with the heading "Mapping Prison Capacity", and talking about how you put together a Google heatmap.

At lunchtime, they mingled, discussed software, the rights and wrongs of file-sharing, how to get free access to Spotify's premium music streaming service - and how they'd found out about the event through a friend or some enthusiastic teacher. At one point, a girl rushed up to the group I was with and said "we got some data!" - the sheer enthusiasm about the task in hand was infectious.

Then on Sunday afternoon, they presented their ideas to a panel of government officials and web luminaries. Among the winners was that group trying to free up London bus data - TFHell won the "Most Likely to be Bought By Google" award. One of the judges, Ben Hammersley of Wired UK, said he "found the standard of the work produced by 15-18-year-olds in many cases infinitely superior to that produced by government professionals."

Now, you could put a negative spin on all this. On a lovely sunny weekend, dozens of teenagers spent all their waking hours indoors, staring at computer screens and "hacking" into government databases, while munching pizza. But that, like so much written about young people in Britain, is a parody. Meeting the Young Rewired State participants brightened up my weekend - and made me realise there's a generation now growing up determined to use their computing skills to make all of our lives better.

Maggie Shiels

The new tech start-up: US government

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 21 Aug 09, 08:28 GMT

Shortly after President Obama took office, he made a promise to make the default position for government open rather than secret. This is evident today in a host of websites already up and running and being dubbed as part of Government 2.0. Yes, think Web 2.0 but without the overarching social media obsession evident during the campaign.

White provides access to government data and allows the public to create new web applications, carry out analysis and perform research. is "where Americans can see where their money goes." shows where stimulus money is being spent and how. the one-stop shop for government regulations. which is of course where citizens can find out what the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania are up to.

All these websites contain a treasure trove of information, statistics and raw data, but what good is it all and what does all this mean?

Anil Dash from Six Apart, which is one of the most significant players in blogging, said what the government is doing represents the "most promising new start-up of 2009 (and) one of the least likely."

"I am not a Polyanna about this, " Mr Dash told me.

"I don't think necessarily everything that comes out of this will be immediately great. It will take people some time to understand the potential there is for something great to happen.

"In the past, when this information was printed on paper and stuffed into a box and filed in a building no-one had access to, there wasn't any potential for anything great to happen," explained Mr Dash.

Mike Masnick at backs that sentiment.

"With a focus on openness and data sharing... I have to agree with Anil Dash that one of the most interesting tech "start-ups" to watch this year is the federal government of the US. The tech projects they are already coming out with are compelling and well done," said Mr Masnick.

And cities throughout the United States are following suit.

Here in Silicon Valley, San Jose has just just approved what it calls some "sunshine" reforms to ease public access to some city records. The move however was seen by critics as too timid and not going far enough.

San Francisco launched in the hope, said mayor Gavin Newsom, it will "create a torrent of innovation similar to when the developer was given access to the platforms behind popular technologies and devices like Facebook and Apple's iPhone."

Mr Newsom gives as an example the use of data on recycling that was released by the Department of Environment and used by a third party to develop EcoFinder, an iPhone app that helps residents recycle based on their location.

And for Mr Dash and many others who have weighed in on this topic, the crucial factor
is allowing the public to take all this open and easily accessible information and use it in new and exciting ways.

"That is when innovation happens. You build a system for one thing and someone uses it for something different. In the technology world that is very common and these government efforts allow that to happen.

"With the closed system we had in the past, only what government staffers anticipated was what was created," explained Mr Dash.

As part of a project called Apps for Democracy, developers have set up a website to show people "interesting ways to mash up data for the betterment of all."

These include an app called StumbleSafely that uses crime data to help people get home safely after a night on the tiles and Carpool Mashup Matchmaker to help people find carpools.

Others agree that the focus on openness and data sharing is key to changing government and how citizens relate to it.

Tim O'Reilly, the internet guru and the man who popularised the phrase Web.20 puts it best.

"Rather than licencing government data to a few select "value added" providers, who then license the data downstream, the federal government (and many state and local governments) are beginning to provide an open platform that enables anyone with a good idea to build innovative services that connect government to citizens, give citizens visibility into the actions of government and even allow citizens to participate directly in policy-making.
"That's Government 2.0: technology helping build the kind of government the nation's founders intended: of, for and by the people."
Rory Cellan-Jones

Read the manual? Never!

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 21 Aug 09, 08:21 GMT

Ever been on an online discussion forum to inquire about some technical problem you're trying to sort out? Then it's quite likely that after a while you will have received a terse message from some smart-alec, which will end with the acronym RTM, followed by a number of exclamations marks. That apparently stands for Read The Manual! - and in fact the acronym usually includes the letter "f" placed before the "m" to supply added emphasis.

Haynes computer manualWell, sorry, I'm not going to read the manual, as I explained to the makers of a charming Radio 4 programme which you can hear this morning at 1100.

"How to Write An Instruction Manual" is presented by an engineer from King's College London, Dr Mark Miodownik. He's also written this article about the man behind the Haynes Instruction Manuals, regarded by many as the works which define the art of describing in painstaking detail just how something works.

Now if you were acquiring a second-hand car 20 years ago, and were expecting to do your own maintenance, then one of these manuals would have been just the ticket. But, as I told Mark when he came to interview me for his programme, the world has moved on. The whole point of modern devices - from cars, to mobile phones, to wireless routers - is that they are designed for idiots like me who don't even know how to lift the bonnet, and wouldn't know how to proceed if they could. We want to take things out of the box, turn them on and see them leap into action without having to read anything.

There is a serious point here. These days, good product designers know that they must ensure that extraordinarily complex devices can be used by people without any kind of specialist knowledge. When I was at school - oooohh shortly after the last war - there was one computer in the science block. It was attended by what seemed like a team of engineers, feeding tickertape into it, and only physics students wearing white lab coats - I kid you not - were allowed to approach. Now, when I acquire a new laptop, I open the box, chuck out any accompanying paper, and power it up. There may be the odd on-screen instruction but that's your lot, and I often feel I can use my computer without wearing a lab coat.

And if I get sent a new mobile phone to try out, and find I actually need to open the chunky instruction manual in seven languages, I put it back in its box and return it to its makers. Good products today combine excellent technology with an intuitive user interface - and if they don't they are likely to fail.

Dr Miodownik seemed slightly crestfallen at my lack of enthusiasm for manuals. He fears that our impatience with instructions is a symptom of a throwaway society where products become obsolete within months.

I understand why an engineer might feel passionate about what are sometimes rather lovely products in themselves. On our bookshelves at home we have the Eagle Annual of the Cutaways, a collection of beautifully executed drawings from the boys' comic of the 1950s and 1960s explaining the workings of everything from a VC10 aircraft to a "do-it-yourself" petrol pump.

It may be sad that we no longer seem to have that thirst for knowledge about how things work. But I'm afraid I'm just not going to start reading the manual.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Mapping the Afghan elections

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 20 Aug 09, 13:16 GMT

Yesterday, my colleague Jonathan Fildes wrote a fascinating piece about the way text messages are being used to help monitor the presidential election in Afghanistan.

A project combining two technologies developed for use elsewhere in the developing world, Frontline SMS and Ushahidi, is enabling people in remote areas of the country to send in reports of incidents or vote-tampering so that they can be plotted on an online map.

I wasn't the only person interested - Jon received an e-mail last night from US Aid, the American government development agency, praising his piece and describing a similar project.

Screengrab of map of Afghan polling locationsThey've joined up with the likes of Google and GeoCommons to map all kinds of trends and data connected to the elections. So far, they've come up with a series of maps showing everything from polling station locations to levels of violence and opium poppy cultivation.

The project started as an initiative of MIT's Fablab - a department of the American university which describes its mission as exploring:

"[H]ow the content of information relates to its physical representation".

They set up a hard drive in a hotel bar in Jalalabad, where people could come and upload their data in return for a beer.

That data was then mapped for everyone to share. A Fablab team is now back in Afghanistan to collect and map more data, working with the Alive in Afghanistan project described in our article.

Using online mapping as a way of picturing what's happening during crises or elections is a growing trend, used already in countries like Angola, Kenya and India.

Maps have always been important - look at the history of cartography and you'll see what an effect it's had on politics and economics.

So it will be fascinating to see how the Afghan projects develop over the coming days - and whether they do add another perspective on the elections to that provided by traditional coverage.

Update, 09:20: US Aid have been in touch to say they mistakenly credited the wrong organisation with initiating the Afghan election mapping project. They say it wasn't MIT's FabLab but something called the Synergy Strike Force which first set the ball rolling.

And as for the beer for data offer in a Jalalabad hotel bar (comment 2), I too thought it sounded culturally unlikely. But, as you will see from comment 4 below, there is an explanation.

Rory Cellan-Jones

The watchphone: Gadget or gimmick?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 20 Aug 09, 10:43 GMT

Whenever some shiny new plaything arrives on the scene, it's worth asking one question: is it a gadget or a gimmick?

a watchphoneAnd when a nice man from Orange turned up in my office earlier this week, I quickly decided that what he was carrying was little more than a gimmick - albeit an expensive one.

What he'd brought with him was described as "the world's first touchscreen watchphone".

It's made by LG and Orange has the exclusive deal to sell it in the UK on a pay-as-you-go deal for a mere £500.

You can make calls just by tapping on the watchface - I found it pretty awkward - but it comes with a Bluetooth headset which does at least make it easier to receive calls.

It's not really a smartphone - you can't, for instance, surf the web or navigate your way around town with it - but it does have video calling.

We tried it and I was reminded once again why this supposed "killer app" of 3G communications never took off.

You don't really want to stare at the person you're calling, unless you're sitting down at the computer for a long chat with someone far away.

Of course the video calling helps the watchphone achieve what must be its primary aim - to make the wearer feel like a rather retro action hero from a spy movie. James Bond? The Saint? Or maybe Austin Powers?

a watchphoneThe trouble is, that if you'd had one of these phones in the 1980s, you might well have been the object of wonder and admiration as you dialled up Mission Control from your wrist, or spoke to Miss Moneypenny.

But I can't help feeling that anyone seen staring at their chunky LG wristwatch as they make a call is more likely to be a figure of fun.

In short: a gimmick, not a gadget.

But just as I was explaining all this to the man from Orange - while he listened with a fixed smile - a colleague stepped in.

He was a cameraman, with a mild interest in gadgets, but a more pressing need to make his working life easier. "That's the future," he enthused. "I'm carrying all sorts of stuff with me, and just having the phone in a watch, rather than a separate piece of kit, would be a life-saver."

While he blanched at the price, he said he was sure that would come down, and that the watchphone would catch on.

So maybe I'm wrong. But I still think that, like the Sinclair C5, the internet-connected fridge and the Amstrad e-mailer, the watchphone will turn out to be a gimmick rather than the must-have gadget of 2010.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Whatever happened to public wi-fi?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 19 Aug 09, 16:07 GMT

What's your biggest technology disappointment? For me, it's pervasive public wi-fi.

Man using a mobile phoneOnly a few years back a whole host of commercial and community schemes were underway in the UK and elsewhere which promised to blanket towns in free - or very cheap - wireless connectivity.

But as I wander round Britain or visit the United States - I rarely find wi-fi that is both easy to use and affordable.

I'm far more likely to get on the internet on the move using either a 3G phone, or a USB mobile broadband dongle (not cheap either - but easier) and given the soaring data traffic across mobile networks, I suspect that's the same for many people.

Municipal wi-fi, which attracted a lot of interest and investment in the early part of the decade, has proved something of a "bubble" phenomenon with many projects abandoned and others failing to deliver a return for their investors.

I put my view that public wi-fi has been a huge disappointment to Dave Hughes, director of Wireless Broadband at BT Retail.

He'd come on the phone to trumpet BT's announcement that it had now built half a million wi-fi hotspots across the UK, and to set a target of hitting a million by next February.

So naturally he disagreed with my diagnosis - he felt the wi-fi revolution was marching forward.

But eventually we found some common ground. He accepted that wi-fi in the open air had its limitations - and I agreed that in hotels, cafes and airports (when you can find it - it usually offers a much better connection than 3G).

Mind you, I've still not used a wi-fi connection indoors in the UK to make a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) phone call - one of the most attractive uses of the technology - whereas I have downloaded web pages using 3G, despite the cost.

So for now wi-fi appears to have retreated from the park and headed back indoors, to cafes and public buildings. But Mr Hughes at BT isn't giving up.

He says the technology is moving forward and the demand for mobile connectivity is growing exponentially. That's obviously true - the question is which technology will triumph.

It could be Wimax - although this "wi-fi on steroids" technology is doing better in the developing world than in places like the UK.

It looks more likely to be new flavour of mobile network, whether it's called 4G or LTE (Long Term Evolution). Users won't really care, as long as they can get online anywhere at a reasonable price.

But it matters for businesses which will want to offer customers a seamless broadband experience at home and on the move. Mobile operators - already offering broadband at home - will believe that they have the most complete wireless technology offering.

BT - which doesn't have its own mobile network - will be wondering whether it's wise to keep on betting on wi-fi as its solution.

Rory Cellan-Jones

The surfing day

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 19 Aug 09, 08:53 GMT

Those of us who contribute to this website are very happy if stuff we write gets posted first thing in the morning. Why? Because that, we believe, is when most people log on for a quick scan of what's new, and if an article pops up then we believe it has a good chance of building an audience as we approach our peak hour, around lunchtime.

But that may not be entirely true, according to an interesting blog post by Arbor Networks, which monitors internet traffic. They've set about comparing usage patterns in the US and Europe. They've found similarities - but also some striking differences.

Just as my colleagues and I surmised, it does look as though we start going to our computers at around seven in the morning - I have to confess to starting even earlier myself. But traffic carries on building through the day, and it appears to peak on both sides of the Atlantic at around dinnertime - 7pm. By the way, the graph below has brought the US and European timelines together, so 7 pm GMT is 7 pm EDT - or New York time.

Graph comparing North American and European daily traffic

But here are the two big differences - according to this research at least. The Americans - whisper it not in London or Paris dining-rooms - are more proper and polite about surfing over dinner. There is a noticeable dip in US traffic between 6pm and 8pm, when Americans sit down to eat. Whereas in Europe, surfing doesn't tail off until around 8pm - but it then keeps on falling pretty sharply.

As Arbor points out, it appears that Europeans just don't use the internet much at night. While Americans seem to stay online into the small hours, with traffic still at 90% of its peak levels at midnight, it's down to 60% in Europe by then.

Mind you, as a number of commenters on the blog have pointed out, treating Europe as an amorphous mass may not be very useful. We dine at different times - it's hard to get dinner in Spain before 9pm - and we have differing levels of web access. So I'm not quite sure what the lesson is for those of us writing for the web. With a bit of luck this blog post will be posted around nine in the morning - so here's a question. Are you there? Hello? Don't tell me, you're updating your Twitter status.

Maggie Shiels

Disappearing in the digital age

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 19 Aug 09, 08:02 GMT

The author Evan Ratliff has gone missing. Wired magazine has put a bounty of $5,000 (£3,030) on his head. Wannabe private eyes have less than 30 days to track him down to his lair and turn him in.

Mr Ratliff is truly testing the ability to just simply disappear in an age of 24/7 connectedness and digital clues that litter our lives.

It's an intriguing project that at its heart aims to find out "what does it take to up and disappear these days? Not to head off the grid for a few days, mind you, but to actually vanish from your life?"

In a piece Mr Ratliff has written for Wired he explained that one of his inspirations was a chap called Matthew Alan Sheppard who at 42 devised a plan to disappear from the lives of his wife of 10 years and his 7-year-old daughter.

On a weekend away with his family, he jumped into a river as his wife watched and simply seemed to vanish. All searchers found at the time was his orange hat.

But not everyone was convinced he was dead and as the story in Wired reveals, it is the simple things that result in the unravelling of this tale.

Now Mr Ratliff is testing out how easy, or difficult , it is to go on the lam and see how long he can remain hidden at a time when digital information collection, location-aware technology and post 9/11 security measures are everywhere. Or certainly seem to be.

As Mr Ratliff noted "where once you could move a few states over, adopt a new name and live on with minimal risk, today your trail is littered with digital breadcrumbs dropped by GPS-enabled cell phones, electronic bank transactions, IP addresses, airline ID checks, and, increasingly, the clues you voluntarily leave behind on social networking sites.

"It's almost easier to steal an identity than to shed your own," he noted.

To make the chase a little more interesting, Mr Ratliff is dropping digital clues here and there. The magazine is scooping all its intelligence together and revealing IP addresses and other titbits to help anyone trying to track down Mr Ratliff close in on their prey.

While he says that "going on the lam is not like it used to be" Mr Ratliff wants to find out what the Matthew Alan Shepards of the world can't tell us: "how hard is it really, to disappear?"

The hunt is on and only time will answer that question.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Spinvox: Why it matters

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 18 Aug 09, 13:07 GMT

I've spent the last two weeks without the web, occupying myself with little more than beaches, books and barbecues on a Balearic island. But - and sadly, in my family's view - I did take an e-mail device and was surprised to see how many technology stories were breaking in the dog days of August.

Among those which caught my eye were Google's new Caffeine search engine - which, just as Microsoft is getting its search act together, is apparently going to bash Bing. Then there's Facebook's purchase of the Friendfeed social network and a new improved way of searching for what your friends are doing - which some seem convinced will allow Facebook to bash Google. And there was a big deal between Microsoft and Nokia to put Office on Symbian phones - which could allow both to batter Apple in the smartphone market.

But I was most gripped by the continuing saga of Spinvox, which began nearly four weeks ago with our revelations about the voice-to-text service's reliance on humans rather than on speech-recognition technology. While I've been away, there have been a couple of developments.

spinvox_waveform226b.jpgFirst, the company invited a number of journalists and bloggers to its Marlow headquarters for a demonstration of its technology. From what I've read (for example, The Register's piece and this at Techcrunch), the demonstration only succeeded in proving one thing - that the majority of voicemails received were indeed converted to text by humans rather than by machines.

Then Spinvox announced that it had received another £15m in funding - though it's not clear which of its investors have stumped up more cash. And finally, it emerged that a letter had been sent to the company's shareholders making some serious accusations about its management. I've now seen a copy of that letter, which stretches to six pages and goes through the company's finances in some detail. The letter appears to have been written some months ago - it's not clear how long it has been in the company's hands.

Spinvox has commenced an investigation into the allegations, carried out by a law firm and by its auditors Deloitte. But the company's board has also employed the top City PR firm Brunswick and got its lawyers Pinsent Masons to send a stiff letter to various bloggers warning them of dire consequences if they were to consider publishing the document. I understand that at least one former employee has received a letter accusing her of a breach of confidentiality, and threatening her with legal action.

But why, you may ask, does any of this matter? After all, it's a private company, and if its investors are happy to see their money used up very rapidly, that's their business. Well, there are two reasons we should care about the Spinvox affair - and both are connected to the reputation of Britain's technology sector.

First, this could make it harder for many of those eager young technology entrepreneurs I meet in places like London and Cambridge to get their ideas funded - the kind of people who scrimp and save, and sometimes bet their house or their overdraft on the hope that a venture capitalist or business angel will eventually back them. Let's hope then that Spinvox does eventually give the likes of Goldman Sachs, GLG and Toscafund Asset Management a return on the large sums they've invested. If not, they aren't likely to give much of a hearing to the next technology hopeful who comes along with an idea that will change the world.

But more serious, in my view, are the allegations relating to the way that Spinvox appears to have handled many of the call centre staff in places like Egypt, Pakistan and South Africa, who have done much of the work to make the business grow. When our first story about the company appeared, a number of people purporting to be present or former Spinvox employees at call-centres popped up on blogs to describe the call-centre operation. They all made similar allegations - that Spinvox had set impossible targets for its various call-centres, then abandoned them, leaving disputes about unpaid bills in their wake.

Now, anonymous internet users may not paint a fair picture, and we have no way of knowing whether these allegations are true. However, the same story has been repeated time and again and accords with evidence gathered by the BBC.

I forwarded one typical post making these accusations to Spinvox's PR team at Brunswick, and asked them whether it presented a true and fair picture of the way the company operated.

When they came back, it was with this statement:

"SpinVox has an established and confidential procedure for handling any commercial dispute process, and therefore does not comment on allegations made in public forums. We are committed to treating all our suppliers fairly and ensuring the highest quality of service for our customers."

The reputation of a company that, just a few weeks back, was seen as a standard-bearer for UK start-ups has taken quite a battering over recent weeks, for which it blames a smear campaign by former employees.

But reaffirming its original status will require Spinvox to show that it is a firm which relies more on cutting-edge British technology than on transcribers around the world.

Maggie Shiels

Time for an Apple rumour

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 14 Aug 09, 08:22 GMT

Those in the news business doesn't refer to August as "the silly season" without good reason.

Generally speaking, there is less news around and all sorts of nonsense fill the vacuum. Cue the latest Apple rumour campaign. What's next from the men at Mac?

The clever money, for what it is worth, is on some form of announcement about the iPod and/or iTunes on 7 or 8 September. One reason for betting on a music-related development is that music industry sources have said they have been given the heads-up on an Apple keynote.

Before you shoot the messenger, this rumour would certainly seem to hold some sway because Apple has, in the past, used the week after Labor Day to show off its new wares.

As All Things Digital noted, last year it was an overhaul of the iPod Nano and the year before, it was the introduction of the iPod Touch.

This probably lays to rest, at least for a while, the hopes and dreams of some that Apple is set to unveil its so-called "iTablet" or "iPad". Despite the clunky names, the device is believed to be a touch-screen device that is supposed to be a hybrid of the iPhone and a MacBook laptop.

And please note this keynote event will come just one week before Microsoft launches its new Zune HD.

Whatever Apple does or does not introduce at the beginning of next month is of course beside the point because all eyes will be on the presenter at the event. And there is a good chance that Steve Jobs will be back centre-stage for his first public appearance since returning to work after his six months long medical leave of absence.

The digerati will be straining at the leash to get a good look and to assess how well Mr Jobs looks now that he is back at his day job. Me included.

Maggie Shiels

Has Twitter's popularity peaked?

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 12 Aug 09, 09:03 GMT

I know some of our readers are frankly sick to the back teeth of stories about Twitter, well now it seems a leading technology research company is in step with you and feels the buzz surrounding the microblogging service is set to blow up.

In Gartner's 2009 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies report, the company charts what's hot and what's not in the world of technology.

To this aim, they have looked at the maturity of 1,650 technologies and trends in 79 technology, topic and industry areas.

Technologies that are peaking during 2009 include cloud computing, e-books like those from Amazon and Sony and internet TV like Hulu.

Gartner hype cycle graph

On the graph they are at the top of what the company has called "the peak of inflated expectations" with nowhere else to go but down by the looks of things.

Those technologies that have clearly lost their sheen include green IT, video teleprescence, social software and microblogging sites like Twitter.

According to Jackie Fenn, vice president and Gartner fellow as well as co-author of the book Mastering the Hype Cycle:

"Microblogging, in general, and Twitter, in particular, have exploded in popularity during 2009 to the extent that the inevitable disillusionment around 'channel pollution' is beginning".

Ms Fenn went onto say that services like Twitter are earning a place alongside e-mail, blogging and wikis:

"[E]nabling new kinds of fast, witty, easy-to-assimilate exchanges".

But surely that's good news? Well not according to Ms Fenn and her very impressive diagram which shows it is actually heading for the "trough of disillusionment." I don't fancy getting abandoned there any time soon!

Among the most hyped technologies of the year so far are cloud computing, media broadcasting, mobile device technologies, photovoltaic solar energy, virtualisation, enterprise information management and datacentre power and cooling technologies.

But what does Gartner mean by the hype cycle? Well it's about human nature. The cycle charts that crazy giddiness that goes arm and arm with something new and shiny to basically getting bored with it and then eventually realising its value and how it just fits into your life.

In the crystal ball gazing section of the study, Gartner predicts that RFID (those tags you get on products), 3-D printing, human augmentation, mobile robots, home health monitoring, wireless power and quantum computing are technologies that should be emerging into the so called "slope of enlightenment".

All this of course should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.

As Reuters news noted, the report says:

"It will take up to five years for many of today's trendy technologies to become mainstream, including Web 2.0.
"Funny how long hype cycles take to pay out. Three years ago, in its 2006 Hype Cycle reporter, Gartner predicted Web 2.0 would go mainstream within just two years."

It doesn't take a Nobel prize winner to work out that the maths is way off somewhere.

So what do you think are the technologies to look out for along with the ones that are on their way out and have had their day?

Maggie Shiels

The day Twitter stopped

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 7 Aug 09, 11:20 GMT

Of course, it wasn't a full day that the world went without the successful microblogging service (see 'Massive attack' strikes websites). It was just a few - crippling, to some - hours.

But the distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS) that hobbled Twitter and its 45 million worldwide users - and which also sucked in Facebook and LiveJournal - has security experts baffled and concerned.

"Up is down, left is right and black is white," I was told by Cisco fellow and chief security researcher Patrick Peterson.

"These attacks do not make sense. In the last few years, we have seen the criminals build systems to make money and not get caught.

"Now we see them making a big splash with this attack which is of no benefit. It does not put a single dollar in their pocket and it exposes them to the risk of being caught," said Mr Peterson.

A denial-of-service attack generally works by using hijacked computers or botnets to deluge a site or service with thousands and thousands of requests, overwhelming it and rendering it obsolete.

In the case of Twitter, the New York Times said the perpetrators unleashed a wave of spam e-mail messages which infiltrated the service and other sites.

"It's a vast increase in traffic that creates the denial-of-service," said Bill Woodcock, a research director of Packet Clearing House, a non-profit organisation that tracks internet traffic.

The first DoS attack noted by the Washington Post dates back to over a decade ago.

Wikipedia cites a major hit on domain name servers involving AOL and in January 2001. The following month, it was the turn of the Irish department of finance, targeted by students.

More recently, the Iranian government was the focus of foreign activists seeking to help the opposition following June's contested presidential elections.

The US government was affected just two months ago, as was Korea.

"If you go hunting, you want to bag the head of the biggest and fiercest beast to show your strength," Mr Peterson told the BBC.

"So ten years ago, we saw the biggest names on the internet like Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon get attacked because they were the marquee brands of the day. Today, they are going after Twitter and Facebook for the same reason."

But despite these high-profile trophies, Mr Peterson describes denial-of-service as, to all intents and purposes, an outmoded tool in the criminal fraternity.

"You have to be brave or stupid to have attacks this brazen with law enforcement being more active in the realm of cybercrime. There is a serious risk of being caught."

Other industry experts agree.

"Organised crime and other groups have gone off to other things. It's more lucrative for them to use the internet, not to take the internet away," John Harrison of security firm Symantec told

In the blogosphere, some claim that Twitter and Facebook are working together to track down who is behind the attack. Some security experts are also poring through the data. The theories range from a teenager to a Georgian blogger.

For the future, Mr Peterson says the best way to stop a denial-of-service is to employ techniques that alert sites to differences in the way requests are coming in from computers.

"The criminals may have a botnet of around 50,000 to 100,000 infected computers in their control. But there are also 10 to 20 million legitimate users out there and their traffic looks nothing like DoS traffic," explained Mr Peterson.

"If you can get a smart system to detect anomalies, then you can block the DoS bots making 1,000 requests a minute versus one that makes three requests per minute and keep your site online."

However, just blocking access from the IP addresses of offending computers can cause the knock-on problem of blocking legitimate users who do not know that their computer has been compromised.

For Twitter, the implications of the attack are serious.

It wants to be more than a social media brand. It wants to be a communications standard.

And while this has not been seen as a good day for Twitter, it has to ensure such an attack does not overwhelm it next time. Because there will certainly be a next time, says Mr Peterson.

"A few months ago, I would never had predicted anything like this. Denials-of-service were a thing of the past.

"But this is a trend. And I think a lot of people who view DoS attacks as fun will look at all the media attention and it will invite more criminals to try their hand at it," warned Mr Peterson.

Maggie Shiels

Schmidt and Jobs part company

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 4 Aug 09, 08:40 GMT

The clock has been running down on the Apple/Google relationship for some time.

Really it came as no surprise that Eric Schmidt left the Apple board given all the attention that it has garnered for months and months. Everyone saw the writing on the wall when the Federal Trades Commission waded in earlier in the year with its plan to probe the relationship and work out what it meant for competition and anti-trust laws.

Google paintingMr Schmidt is a very smart man in charge of a billion-dollar company and I would hazard a guess that he also saw that things could not go on as they had, even though he excused himself from board meetings when the iPhone was discussed.

My betting is he wanted to give up the job on his own terms and when it suited his agenda and not someone else's. It is highly unusual for a director to leave a board before his or her tenure is up.

Back in May, Mr Schmidt told reporters like myself at a round table that the question of quitting the board position was not one he had considered even in light of the government's interest. I would go out on a limb and say no-one there really swallowed that line.

So what was the straw that broke the camel's back? This is pure guesswork I admit, but the timing cannot be ignored.

As I have reported in my main news story, plenty of people are pointing to the move by the FCC to investigate why the iPhone app store rejected Google's mobile application.

It will certainly be interesting to see how deep that inquiry will be given the dissatisfaction by a number of developers who get rejected and are given no clear idea why.

As regards the Apple/Google affair, the FTC has since come out and said its investigation of the overlapping directorship issue will continue, perhaps proving that had Mr Schmidt resigned earlier this would have been one less regulatory probe the company could have avoided.

John Simpson at the Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit organisation, has applauded Mr Schmidt's move but at the same time criticised the "clubby atmosphere" that prevails in Silicon Valley where everyone seems to be on one another's board.

I don't doubt that this happens in other sectors, like say banking. But it is worth noting that there is a new sheriff in town and regulators are taking a tough line with what is going on in Silicon Valley.

Jo-Ellen Pozner, who is an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, said that because the technology industry is so all-pervasive in our lives and in society, she would not be surprised by even further regulatory scrutiny.

Her advice is for the industry to get out ahead of the issue and be seen to be taking such issues seriously and only cleave to those directors you really need.

"If the industry regulates itself, it can forestall any scrutiny from investors and regulators."

If only Google and Apple had acted sooner, this might have been one headache it wouldn't have had to worry about.

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