- 30 Sep 09, 10:29 GMT
Apple's iconic "Big Brother" advert is one of the most famous commercials in the business. Its prime-time airing took place on 22 January 1984 in the middle of the Super Bowl.
With more than a nod to George Orwell's novel 1984, the advert warned of a future where soulless drones unquestionably soak up the words of their dictator who speaks to them from a large screen. Moments later a gorgeous nameless heroine in red shorts and a white tank top comes running down the aisle with a hammer in her hands while apparently being chased by the thought police.
She hurls the hammer at the screen just as "Big Brother" is telling the faithful "we shall prevail." The screen is destroyed in a shock of bright light and the commercial ends with text which reads "On January 26th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984'."
Well now get set for the sequel on YouTube.com and you will see why 1984 is so not like 2009. And I think it is fairly safe to say that this follow-up does not have the approval of Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs.
For 1984 take two, a Silicon Valley start-up called doubleTwist is sending Apple a very pointed message. Monique Farantzos, one of its co-founders and a former physicist told me why:
"For many back then, Apple symbolised the rebel and that whole 'think different' attitude but honestly I don't think they can say that anymore."
"I see Apple as the new Microsoft and so it felt natural to do this advert this way."
Let me give you a bit of background on doubleTwist.
As you will see from stories here on the BBC, the company is big into reverse engineering which is something the likes of Apple are not terribly keen on. The aim is to let users take their digital media like songs, movies and other files and transfer them easily between say cell phones, cameras, laptops and iPods.
DoubleTwist might have a thing about Apple because this is its second go at the company. Back in June, they took out a massive billboard advert next to the Apple store in San Francisco offering "the cure for iPhone envy." It was of course a free doubleTwist download.
In the latest version of the advert, the drones in the video are wearing white ear buds and round white spectacles. Their master tells them "no other choices shall detract from our glory and our domination will be complete." As he utters his prevailing words at the end, the heroine does her damage and the video closes by saying "On October 6th, doubleTwist brings you... choice."
"Our billboard was brought down after pressure from Apple so it kind of felt that Apple is not just about shiny new gadgets," Mr Farantzos told me.
"There is a darker side as they become more powerful. That includes where iPhone applications are getting rejected, where Google voice is turned down, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) investigaton or the Palm Pre being blocked. There are many of these examples and we wanted to point out that the emperor has no clothes."
Ms Farantzos said the video was two and a half months in the making and came about during a visit to Tokyo. It was her idea to use the white ear buds in the advert because it suggested conformity.
She admitted that she isn't sure if Mr Jobs will take too kindly to their re-working of the advert and their message, but she hopes on one level he gets it.
"I hope he will see the parallels of this small company going after the status quo. He used to be there 25 years ago and now it is a very different story," said Ms Farantzos.
- 30 Sep 09, 09:22 GMT
Earlier this week, I spent an hour inside Google's London headquarters chatting to two developers, swapping photos, editing documents - and playing a bit of sudoku. What was unusual was that Lars Rasmussen and Stephanie Hannon were joining the conversation from Sydney in Australia.
That is where the Google Wave development team is based and they were demonstrating the search firm's hottest new application, which is now being made available to around 100,000 trial users.
I knew that Wave was a collaborative tool that had caused a great deal of excitement when it was demonstrated at a Google developers conference in May. But it took me some time to puzzle out what makes it really different - and, despite its sheer cleverness, I'm still not entirely sure that it will take off.
Lars and Stephanie started the demo by launching a "wave" - much like starting a conversation - and inviting me to join (I was using the login of a London-based Googler). Then we began exchanging messages - rather as you would in any instant messaging application. The only difference seemed to be that we each could see what the others were writing even before they had sent their messages, which meant that even before I had completed "how is the weather in Sydney?", Lars was typing back that it was sunny.
When I suggested that this appeared to be little more than a combination of e-mail and instant messaging on steroids, they said that was not a bad description but there was a lot more. Collaborative editing, for instance, which allows you to alter documents or messages sent by others in the wave, as well as your own. Then there is the ability to post photos into the wave and let others share them, or edit them. But it's also a new platform open to developers - Lars and Stephanie showed me a sudoku game, which is one of a number of Wave plugins already available, even before the launch.
They described a few user cases - you might want to plan a trip, swapping maps, editing schedules, and then posting photos to the wave afterwards. Or perhaps you might be working with a team on a major report for your employer, using Wave to write, discuss and edit the document.
But surely the kind of people who want to plan a trip together will use the likes of Facebook to do that? And there are already tools which let colleagues collaborate on work projects. I use Google Docs, although I often find it difficult to persuade others to join up - they usually prefer to have the document e-mailed to them.
And that's the big question: will Google Wave achieve the network effect it needs to be a real winner?
I can see that it's a useful way of bringing together the best aspects of e-mail, instant messaging and social networking sites in one browser-based application. It's been developed by people for whom it is natural to collaborate online - but is there a critical mass of users like that out there?
I asked a friend who often works on big reports with a team of people scattered around the world whether Google Wave might be the answer for her.
Right now, she tends to e-mail reports in Microsoft Word format, back and forth, with changes clearly visible simply by the date-stamp on each version. She had immediate questions about Wave.
For example, could one person be in charge of editing? And could you work offline, so that you could read your Wave document on, say, a plane and then upload the changes when you landed?
Google says that there is a playback function which allows you to remove or edit contributions, and it's working on an offline version. My friend still seemed dubious, and she's reasonably open-minded - so maybe getting the network effect going will prove a challenge.
It's worth remembering too that not every Google product is a winner - for every Gmail, there's a Google Answers languishing in the outer reaches of cyberspace. Still, the proof of the pudding will be in what those 100,000 test users find to do with their waves. I hope to be among them, so will report back when I've given the tyres a good kicking.
- 29 Sep 09, 11:42 GMT
"Unleash the data." It has become a virtual mantra in Washington since President Barack Obama pledged to open up a treasure trove of information locked away in files, computer systems and cardboard boxes.
Government 2.0 as a concept is not new, but the present administration has put its weight behind it like no other - and that has been getting entrepreneurs and the technology industry excited.
In an earlier post on the subject (The new tech start-up: US government), Anil Dash of Six Apart told me that the government's innovations represent the "most promising start-up of 2009 (and) one of the least likely" because it is allowing third parties to take all that information and to mash it up into useful applications and tools for the public and for agencies to use.
The effort is being largely led by the US tech gang of chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra, chief information officer Vivek Kundra, Federal Communications Commission chair Julius Genachowski and director of new media Macon Phillips.
But at ground level, it is the likes of Greg Whisenant - the founder and chief executive officer of Crime Reports - who are trying to do useful things with the data.
CrimeReports.com actually started three years ago; Mr Whisenant says that the company got off the ground thanks to progressive views at a local level among law enforcement agencies.
Washington DC and San Jose police forces were the first to sign up to let Mr Whisenant and his cohorts develop software tools to help these agencies understand crime trends and share information with the public in "an immediate or near-immediate timeframe and at a street level."
The lightbulb moment for Mr Whisenant came a few years previously when he was working on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist and accidentally let a burglar into his apartment building. He told me that the surveillance tape clearly showed him going through the door first and holding the door open for the burglar.
"This just showed me the chasm that existed between the public and law enforcement.
"It's certainly beneficial to get the public thinking about this in the context of where you live. If I don't know what is happening around me, I can't make better decisions or change my behaviour to accommodate what's going on around me."
In other words: had Mr Whisenant known there was a spate of local burglaries, he might have questioned the guy before practically ushering him through the door.
Soon after, Crime Reports was born. In simple terms, it overlays police reports onto maps so that users can type in an address and find out where arrests have been made and what kinds of cases police have been called out on. Users can also configure e-mail alerts to notify them of crimes in places they are interested in.
Mr Whisenant says his service really took off when Google Maps came along and allowed companies like his to plot crime.
This Utah-based company boasts of being "the world leader in online crime mapping". It has over 500 law enforcement partners across North America and is in the middle of signing up its first UK police force.
San Jose now claims to be the first police department in the nation to let residents find out where, when and why police were called to a particular area. Police chief Rob Davis says it helps police officers see trends in crime in particular areas instantaneously:
"It's Monday and I come in and I go, 'what's being going on in the last three days?' I can click on this link and put in the last three days' dates and see what has been going on in my beat. Before we used to get these updates on a six-month basis."
And what he hopes will happen next is local people reacting by helping officers do their job more effectively:
"If, all of a sudden, there's a bunch of icons showing drug activity, the residents are going to see that as well. What are they going to start looking for? Suspected drug activity. And where are they going to go as a result? Call us when they see a suspicious person."
Mr Whisenant says the number of agencies taking up his service is growing by about 50 a month, and in large part he credits that to President Obama and his desire to open up as much data as possible.
"We have this radical shift that is going on and that will reverberate not just at the federal level, but at state and local level as well. Government 2.0 as we see it now emerging would not be happening under another president."
Plans for Crime Reports include releasing an application programming interface (API) for developers to build on, an iPhone application and a way for local people to set up neighbourhood watch schemes.
Mr Whisenant also warns that there will be many stumbling blocks for Gov 2.0 - not least the problem of how to make much of the data relevant and useful.
"I feel the driving parameters for success are time- and location-aware based apps. Local is the piece of this puzzle that will make the big difference, giving people something that is personally relevant to their life.
"It's a case of letting a thousand flowers bloom. It will take some time and some experimentation - but in the immediate future, there will be a lot of innovation."
- 29 Sep 09, 10:10 GMT
The search for ways that news organisations can make money online is gathering pace, with Rupert Murdoch's pledge to start charging for online content spurring others into action.
So far, there's not much evidence that readers are willing to pay for journalism on the web, unless it's very specialised - so the digital strategy of one venerable British publication will be examined very carefully by media owners.
The Spectator, the weekly political magazine first published in 1828, has just launched an iPhone app. Nothing particularly interesting about that, you may say. After all plenty of other news organisations, from the New York Times to Sky News to the Telegraph, have already launched applications allowing access to their content on the iPhone and other smartphones.
But all those apps are free, while the Spectator asks iPhone users to pay. The app only costs 59p - and for that you get access to that week's issue plus a searchable archive of 200 older editions. But next week you'll have to pay another 59p for your next Spectator, or £2.36 for thirty days.
The publishers hope that as well as generating subscription revenue, the app will make the magazine more attractive to advertisers - there is an innovative feature which allows you to tap on a phone number in an ad and have yourself put through. Shocking news, then - here's a publication which believes that readers will pay, and pay again, to get access to its content on their phones.
It's prepared the way by starting to restrict how much of the magazine's content you can get on its website for free. That has apparently sparked a leap in the number of digital subscribers who pay around half the price of an "analogue" reader for a year's access. The website acts as a shop window for the product, with a few free samples - but to read much of the content on any platform - paper, web or phone - you need to show the colour of your money.
So it begins to look as though the Spectator has come up with a compelling new digital business model. Until, that is, you actually try the iPhone app, which is a complete dud.
First of all, you need to be online every time you want to look at the magazine. You may think you've downloaded this week's edition but if you switch to another app, then return to the Spectator, you have to wait for the page you were reading to download all over again. It's pitifully slow on a 3g network and not that much better on wi-fi.
Worse, it's just a facsimile of the paper version, and there's no easy way to search it or to jump to a particular article. After half an hour of trying to make it work, I gave up without having read a single article.
The Spectator deserves credit for trying to transform the economics of online journalism. But on the iPhone at least, it needs to go back to the drawing board.
- 28 Sep 09, 12:15 GMT
So a mobile phone network is getting a new phone - or rather a phone that's already been available elsewhere for a couple of years. No big deal, eh? Well, think again. When the news broke this morning that O2 was losing its exclusive contract to sell Apple's iPhone, and that Orange would be selling the phone in the run-up to Christmas, there was huge interest.
It went straight to the top of the list of most-read news stories on our site and social networks were buzzing with the news. Clever old Apple - the whole marketing strategy around the iPhone has been masterful, and now it's scored another winner.
By keeping the phone exclusive to one network since its UK launch in November 2007, it's given it an air of, well, exclusivity. O2 has worked extremely hard to promote the iPhone over the last couple of years - and, it seems, has handed over quite a lot of cash for the privilege. Now, just as the shine is beginning to fade, Apple hands the phone to a network with a huge incentive to give it another massive marketing push.
But here's the key question yet to be answered by either Apple or Orange this morning: what is going to happen to tariffs?
You can't believe that Orange will go into this market charging the same as O2 - and if it does, questions may be asked by the competition authorities. So there's the juicy prospect that an iPhone price war may break out by Christmas - though given the big subsidy operators hand over for a handset like the iPhone, don't expect too much.
Customers will also be glad to have a choice of operators given the strain that the flood of data from the iPhone appears to have put on O2's network. They may find Ofcom's research on mobile broadband coverage in the UK [667 Kb PDF] a useful guide to whether Orange or O2 is stronger in their area.
But what of the operators? This morning, O2 was putting a brave face on things, stressing its pride in its record with the iPhone - but also the fact that the network is about to offer the Palm Pre. As one analyst put it to me, "you knew they were losing the iPhone exclusivity when they unveiled the Pre deal."
Orange is of course punching the air, delighted that months of painful negotiation have ended with it winning the prize. But should the network really be celebrating?
A few months back, a telecoms consulting company which has long been sceptical about the importance of the iPhone and its value to operators released a pretty devastating report. Strand Consult's The Moment of Truth: A Portrait of the iPhone set out to demolish what it said were 10 myths about the "miracle" handset:
"1) The iPhone drives data traffic into mobile operators networks
2) The iPhone helps operators attract new customers
3) The iPhone is good business for mobile operators
4) The iPhone is dominating the mobile services market
5) App store is a huge success that has revolutionised the services market
6) There is money to be made by developing applications for the iPhone
7) It is iPhone customers that are generating the majority of online mobile surfing traffic
8) The iPhone has a large market share
9) The iPhone was the first mobile phone with a touchscreen
10) The iPhone is a technologically advanced mobile phone"
Now I'm not sure that the Strand report's one-sided view of the phone's significance to the industry really bears too much scrutiny. I don't see, for instance, how you can deny that the App Store has been a huge success, and one that has been imitated by the rest of the industry. But one thing does seem true - the iPhone appears to have done far more for Apple, both in financial and marketing terms, than it has delivered for the operators around the world which have fought for the right to sell it.
So today's news is good for consumers and good for Apple - but does it really mean a brighter future for Orange?
- 25 Sep 09, 11:24 GMT
Just when it seemed that everything was shaping up for a battle of the bands on the issue of illegal file-sharing, peace has broken out between musicians over the issue.
Previously, the likes of Lily Allen, Elton John and James Blunt were lining up to support the government's tougher stance, while artists like Billy Bragg and Radiohead's Ed O'Brien of the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) were warning against alienating fans: it looked as though there was little hope for harmony.
Yesterday afternoon, as he visited the Brit School for the Performing Arts in the company of the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw and Leona Lewis, Lord Mandelson was asked about the opposition to his plans from the FAC - which has argued that what's needed is more carrot and less stick.
He said that many more artists supported his proposals, which include temporary suspension of the internet accounts of repeat offenders, a measure he described as modest and fair:
"We can't see a situation where people are producing content without being compensated. We want to see talent protected and properly compensated."
Leona Lewis wasn't tempted to come to my microphone, but the BPI issued a statement with some comments from the star about how important it was "that people understand how copyright means that performers and writers can actually end up making a living out of their work", so it appeared she was in Peter and Lily's band rather than singing from the Radiohead hymn sheet.
Little common ground, then - but last night the Featured Artists Coalition held a meeting to hammer out a position on the whole issue. What emerged was a statement which first of all expressed the artists' support for Lily Allen and condemned the "vitriol" directed at her in recent days.
The FAC then went on to throw its weight behind a "three strikes and you're out" policy - not quite as draconian as the Mandelson disconnection plan, but a lot further than just about any country apart from France has gone in the battle against file sharers. This is a massive U-turn from an organisation which, a few weeks back, seemed to think that file-sharing might even be a good promotional tool for artists.
So it looks as though Lily Allen has made quite an impact, despite shutting down her It's Not Alright blog, and retiring bruised from the battle after a lot of unkind comments about her stance. One American music industry pundit, Bob Lefsetz, even questioned whether artists were bright enough to comment on this issue.
But Lily has had the last laugh - her fellow artists have united behind her, and she appears to have shifted the terms of the debate. And Lord Mandelson must be even more pleased this morning. The initial reaction to his toughening up of the Digital Britain proposals was pretty negative - but now he's assembled quite an impressive chorus of approval.
All he's got to do now is convince the internet service providers that they should be happy to police their customers - and that will prove rather more tricky. But look out for the New Year's Honours list - how does Dame Lily sound?
- 25 Sep 09, 08:41 GMT
While Captain Kirk and the members of the Starship Enterprise were tasked with boldly going where no-one has ever gone before, those attending Intel's developer forum (IDF) were given an equally weighty mission.
"You developers are the dreamers in our culture. I encourage you not to be afraid to dream that big dream. What if? What if? What if?"
These were the words of LeVar Burton who played Geordie la Forge on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation.
As the chief engineer constantly seen fixing machines or discovering new scientific phenomena, perhaps it was fitting that the actor came to IDF to inspire. And even more fitting that he made his comments during the company's big play for the future of television.
Mr Burton told the audience that he firmly believed early episodes of the programme helped encourage young viewers to take up science and to go out and invent and come up with new ideas.
He said that he was a geek thanks to literature and that, in his mother's house, "you read a book or got hit in the head."
As a youngster, Mr Burton told the audience that he was drawn to science fiction writing but that "it was rare for me to see heroes in the pages of those novels that looked like me, a person of colour". Gene Rodenberry, the creator of Star Trek, changed all that for him.
"When the future comes, there will be a place for you."
Mr Burton said that for him the two most influential and powerful words in the English language are "what if" and he encouraged the developers at IDF to go out and make the "link between what we imagine and what we manifest".
And he noted that "human beings manifest machines. It is what we are hard-wired to do."
Mr Burton wound up by posing the question:
"What are the contributions you are going to make in our present that will lead us to our future?"
He ended using the words of his friend and fellow actor Patrick Stewart in the role of Jean-Luc Picard: "make it so."
Update 1134: Apologies to all enraged Trekkers and appalled Trekkies. After carefully avoiding either of those divisive terms throughout this post, the last line contained a clanger, conflating Captains Picard and Clark. This has now been rectified.
- 24 Sep 09, 12:24 GMT
Whose world do you live in? Where do you keep your increasingly unmanageable pile of data - contacts, e-mails, photos, browser bookmarks? For years, the likes of Microsoft and Apple tried to persuade us to live exclusively with them, while various web businesses - from Yahoo to AOL to Google - invited us round to their places and suggested that the more time we spent with them, the happier we would be.
Now the mobile industry, whose customers have been pretty promiscuous up to now, is doing its best to persuade us to settle down in their world. Nokia has already started offering everything from music to an app store. Today Vodafone launched something called 360 at a big glitzy event in a converted tramshed in East London.
Confused by all the free smoothies and muffins, the glossy video and marketing material, battered with "compelling" and "exciting" buzzwords, it took me some time to work out what 360 was all about. "Today is the first step in making the internet more personal," left me no clearer.
Ah, I get it. It's about synchronising your contacts, your calendar, your e-mails, on your phone and on your desktop, PC or Mac.
It also involves a range of new devices from the likes of Samsung featuring the 360 service. At the heart of it is a so-called "dynamic" address book, which shows all of your contacts' various numbers and social networking details, and brings floating to the front those you've engaged with most recently.
But just a minute, surely I can do that already through say Apple's MobileMe, or Google Sync, or Windows Live Sync? And new phones based on the Android operating system do the same clever tricks with your contacts book.
Ah, but there's more. With Vodafone maps, on which you could enter data such as favourite restaurants, an app store, and a music service - a "very compelling music experience". And you can search the phone and quickly discover anything stored on it, or out on the web.
It all looked pretty smart - but why would you want to do all this in Vodafone's world, when you can already do it elsewhere?
The company's chief executive Vittorio Colao made a good point about the relationship between consumers and their mobile operators: "Customers trust us... they allow us to take small amounts of money out of their pockets every day."
And, while 360 will only be launched in eight European countries before Christmas, he's betting that a large slice of Vodafone's 300 million customers around the world will eventually sign up. What's more there's a big pitch to content providers still looking rather desperately for ways to make money in a web world.
"Everybody who digitises - we can help them monetise," he explained. One example, a Spanish newspaper developing exclusive content for 360 users. So was it about holding on to customers or earning new revenues, asked one journalist at the launch. It seems they go together - if you can hold on to more customers, they will generate more data traffic and that will boost revenues.
It's pretty clear why Vodafone has put so much effort into its 360 offering. As voice revenues dwindle, data is where it's at. But here's a question: have you ever met someone who identifies themself a a Vodafone fan - rather than a Google groupie, a Machead or a Windows true believer? I'm not entirely convinced that there's a huge crowd desperate to live in a Vodafone world - but there's a lot of money riding on the success of venture, so maybe it will work.
- 23 Sep 09, 16:38 GMT
Remember all the hullabaloo around Lord Carter's Digital Britain report, the blueprint for the future of everything from fast broadband to Channel 4 to illegal file-sharing?
Well, shortly after its publication in June, Stephen Carter headed out of the government and it all seemed to go quiet for a while. There were even rumours that much of the report would never result in legislative action - but now the various rows which attended its publication are bubbling up again.
This morning, the Digital Minister Stephen Timms confirmed that one of the most controversial measures would go ahead:a 50p per month tax on landlines to fund superfast broadband. There had been speculation that it would be shelved because of a convention that any tax introduced shortly before an election should have cross-party support, but Mr Timms said the broadband levy would be in a Finance Bill before Christmas.
Cue another row. The government may have seen this as a sensible way of pump-priming investment in the fibre-optic network that many believe is vital to Britain's economic future - but it seems nobody is satisfied.
The lobby which believes we're already way behind our overseas rivals in building fast broadband says the money is too little too late. But just about everybody else - including the Conservatives - seems to believe that it will be an unjust tax, hitting elderly people who may have no interest in broadband and poorer people who will pay the same as the rich.
When I asked my fellow social network users for a few comments, they were mostly hostile:
"It's a damned awful idea - nationalising the internet, by the back door!!"
"so if we agree to the 50p broadband 'tax' it's ok to download what we want then? Otherwise its not a tax, it's a price rise."
"seems unfair that my 86 year old nana is taxed further for something she doesn't use, but needs a fixed line in her home"
"tell them it's a [minced oath deleted] joke, I pay the same tax on a crappy rural 2Mb link as someone with fantastic 10-50Mb. thieves..."
I tried to point out to this last correspondent that he was missing the point - in fact, those of us in towns with fast broadband connections will effectively be subsidising him if he ends up getting fibre optic cables laid to his door.
But it's clear that this tax is going to be a hard sell - after all, the public will start paying for a fast network some time before it's delivered to homes across the country, and will be cynical about whether the money will really be spent where it's needed.
Mind you, amid the rage about the telephone tax, its critics also need to address some questions. Do you believe that it is vital for the UK to build a next-generation broadband network? Are you confident that the market alone will deliver that? If not, how do you propose that we fund it?
And now there's another row brewing about Digital Britain after Lord Mandelson's decision last month to insert into the consultation process tougher measures against illegal file-sharers, notably plans to disconnect repeat offenders. That plan also received a pretty hostile reception but I gather that the business secretary has been cheered in recent days by the support of artists like Lily Allen, James Blunt and Elton John for his proposals.
Tomorrow, Lord Mandelson is expected to visit the Brit School for the Performing Arts in Croydon to press home his message about the importance of defending the creative industries from file-sharing - though it's not clear whether Lily, James and Elton will form an impromptu backing trio. And there'll be a rival gig in the evening when the Featured Artists Coalition - which represents musicians who want to have more control over their work - meets to hammer out a position on file-sharing.
So far, FAC members like Billy Bragg, Blur's Dave Rowntree of Blur and Radiohead's Ed O'Brien have been pretty sceptical about whether draconian action will work. So prepare for a battle of the bands.
- 22 Sep 09, 11:10 GMT
The One Laptop Per Child project is no longer about laptops. That might sound bizarre, but it comes from one of the leading executives in the charity which aims to bring cheap but effective computing to children in the developing world.
I've followed OLPC quite closely for a couple of years, visiting a Nigerian school running a pilot with the little XO green and white machine, interviewing Nicholas Negroponte, the visionary thinker behind the idea, and now in Rwanda filming the biggest implementation of the scheme outside Latin America.
I veer between optimism and pessimism about its prospects. Walking into a village just outside the Nigerian capital of Abuja and being greeted by dozens of children all wanting to show off their laptops was an uplifting experience. But on that trip, I also interviewed the Nigerian education minister who made it quite clear that laptops for children were low on his priority list, whatever commitment a previous incumbent might have given to order hundreds of thousands of them.
Now I've learned that the scheme appears to be on the retreat in Nigeria, and the school I visited is no longer involved - which must be very disheartening for children who had embraced the idea with such enthusiasm.
Meanwhile there have been plenty of internal wrangles, with one OLPC faction determined to make sure the laptop sticks to its open-source roots, while another believes that only a Windows machine will make much headway in many countries.
And the credit crunch hasn't helped - the charity had to impose severe cuts in its workforce after its "Give One, Get One" promotion - where American buyers help fund laptops for the developing world - failed to prove a winner.
So it was cheering to come to a primary school on the fringes of Rwanda's capital Kigali and find that more than 3,000 children had access to XO laptops and were using them in creative ways.
In one class, a teacher was showing the pupils how to make a simple animation; in another, they were learning about journalism, using their laptops to put together a newspaper - though I bet it will be full of glowing reports about Rwanda's transformation, much like the government-supporting New Times - and a third class was learning about the solar system, using materials stored on the laptops.
Rwanda has now ordered more than 100,000 XO laptops and plans to roll them out to as many schools as possible, with part of the funding coming from the sale of mobile phone licences. Finally, OLPC has found an African country which appears to be committed to going beyond a pilot and making the laptops an integral part of its education system
So it was something of a surprise when I met David Cavalllo who runs OLPC's operations right across Africa and he told me, "We don't want to be a laptop company." But, as we discussed the project's future over a beer in a Kigali hotel, I came to understand what he meant. One Laptop Per Child isn't really about hardware or software, it's about a philosophy of education. In any case, the idea of small low-cost laptops has proved so compelling that the computer industry has picked it up and run with it:
"If the market creates low-cost high quality machines, all the better - that's a huge success," Cavallo told me, though he appeared dubious that the likes of Intel would provide products that Africa could afford.
OLPC will now concentrate on making its laptops cheaper and even less power-hungry - and I got the impression that the shiny touch-screen prototype unveiled a year ago might never become a reality. But the real focus will now be on promoting the project's central idea, that children learn better when they are active and involved.
That's not an easy idea to sell in Africa where education systems tend to favour Victorian methods of strict discipline and learning-by-rote. But David Cavallo believes that Rwanda is proving receptive because of its traumatic recent history:
"After the troubles that were here, there's an incredible focus on human rights, on human development... so there's a broader view of education towards full human development that you don't always find in other countries."
Indeed OLPC has moved its entire training operation from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Kigali as a mark of its faith in the country. From what I saw, Rwanda is actually quite hard-headed about what the laptops might bring - at the school I visited, the man from the education ministry told me the aim was that out of 3,000 pupils, 100 would go on to become software engineers.
Nevertheless, the well-meaning but sometimes unrealistic visionaries from OLPC who want to change the world with a laptop seem finally to have found willing partners in the young technocrats now trying to turn Rwanda into a knowledge economy. Both have set themselves seemingly impossible targets - but if one succeeds, maybe the other can too.
- 21 Sep 09, 08:40 GMT
I've spent the last few days in Rwanda - and I'm still trying to make sense of what I've seen. So here are a few snapshots.
Driving through some of the most beautiful landscapes you'll find anywhere - lush, rolling hills, with terraced fields and farmers bending to tend their crops with ancient tools, rather as if we'd been transported back to 16th Century Tuscany.
A child carrying a heavy load of wood on his head down a dusty red road while behind him a luxury coach packed with spanking new laptops draws up to give a taste of the internet to a village which doesn't even have electricity.
The village choir gathering to practice a few yards away, a woman with a drum beating out a rhythm while the rest make a beautiful sound.
Peering down a manhole in the centre of Kigali to see the fibre-optic cable network which now stretches right across this country- while a crowd gathers and a man tries to interest me in one of the hard-boiled eggs he is selling.
A dusty schoolyard with children kicking a ball around - then inside to a classroom where each of the pupils is brandishing a small green and white laptop, and most are calling out to the teacher desperate to be the first to answer his question.
And finally, in the Kigali Memorial Centre, photos of children, with captions detailing their favourite foods and pastimes - and then details of exactly how they were murdered.
It's just 15 years since the genocide that left a million people dead and tore apart the fabric of Rwanda's society and economy. While the shadow of those terrible events still looms over this country, what's remarkable is how far it has come and how ambitious it is to go a lot further.
We saw what appeared to be a steely determination on the part of President Paul Kagame's administration to use technology to transform an agrarian economy into one based on the knowledge industries - in other words to move from the 18th century to the 21st century in a couple of decades.
So there's a rush to build that fibre network, plus a mobile phone network that would be ahead of anything yet in use in Europe, but the real priority is to train young Rwandans - and the majority of the population is under 20 - to compete for the kind of jobs that are currently done in places like Bangalore or Shanghai. That means pushing through schemes like the One Laptop Per Child project, sending far more Rwandans to college - even switching the official language from French to English to convince outsourcing firms that this country may be a location for call centres.
There is a darker side to this ambition - an impatience with dissent, and a pretty rigid control from the top. But one Rwandan civil servant told me the country just didn't have time to hang around and debate everything:
"If you're one of the G7 countries you have time. When you're close to the bottom and you're impatient to get up the ladder, you can't wait for everyone to jump on board."
But the real hope lies in the aspirations of the young. Just about everyone we met in Rwanda was under 35 - including a whole new breed of young technocrats, many of whose families appear to have returned home after 1994 to help rebuild the country. Then there are the schoolchildren who've already started to benefit from the ICT program.
So a few examples of the kind of people who might lead this country to a better future:
27-year-old Manzi Olivier, whose parents brought him home from Burundi in 1994, is now working on a mobile broadband project in Kigali after graduating from a South African university - he talked with engaging passion and optimism about his country's prospects; 17-year-old Alain climbed aboard the 'ICT bus' in the village - and was quickly checking his e-mail, logging on to Facebook and trying without much success to watch a Rihana video on YouTube; 13-year-old Pascaline from a poor district of Kigali, who had quickly become the best in the class at using her laptop and shyly told me that she wanted to become a doctor. And even the young man who haggled with me over the price of his masks and t-shirts at the craft market had put down a print-out of a computer course to sell his wares.
We all know how much bad news has come out of this continent over recent decades - and some of the worst emerged from Rwanda. There's no guarantee that a country which is still hugely dependent on foreign aid will achieve its ambition to become a high-tech knowledge economy. But let's hope that Rwanda can give us some good news from Africa.
- 18 Sep 09, 14:00 GMT
How much can you find out about a country in one afternoon? Not a lot - but spending half of it at the Ministry of Information can be quite an education.
We got into Rwanda's capital Kigali around lunchtime, and were immediately struck by the differences compared to Kenya.
Mombasa had been hot and humid, the pace of life seemed hectic, the roads chaotic and pot-holed, and the fabric of the town, apart from the tourist hotels and a few official buildings, seemed to be in a poor state of repair.
Kigali, by contrast, seemed rather like a quiet provincial town - the roads were good, the buildings well-maintained, the people appeared relaxed.
The climate, too, was more benign in this town spread out over a series of hills, refreshed by recent rains.
There's a difference too in the politics.
I'd been briefed by a number of Kenyans that whereas their country was an argumentative, flawed democracy, with a lot of corruption but also plenty of entrepreneurial flair, Rwanda these days was a "benign dictatorship", where things tended to get done, if the man in charged willed it to happen.
That man is President Paul Kagame and what he wants is for Rwanda to become the digital hub of East Africa. Roads have been dug up for fibre to be laid, technology firms from around the world have been recruited to help the country's digital ambitions and ordinary Rwandans have been told to shape up and get online.
But to make all that happen he has built a formidable bureaucracy - and one that captured us the minute we landed. To work as a journalist in Rwanda you need a permit from the government for which you pay $200 - about £130.
First, you go to one government department to hand over the money, then you head across town to the Ministry of Information to get the letter you need if you are to work.
There, as I found, you can wait quite a long time, but I spent it in the office of a man called Desire, who processes the applications and then takes them through for the minister herself to sign.
While I sat at the civil servant's desk, I leafed through a copy of the New Times, a Rwandan newspaper that tends to follow the government's line.
Once again, this was a bit of a contrast with the Kenyan press, which is full of lurid tales of violent crime and corruption.
Still, the New Times had some interesting material. There was a story about a scheme to give 35,000 mobile phones to farmers so that they can take part in a government scheme which will inform them about market prices for their crops.
There was a clutch of statistics about Rwanda's economy - I learned that in 2007, the income per capita was $315, but the economy was growing at a rate of 16% per annum.
Best of all, there was this article about a new broadband cable about to go live in Kenya - lifted in its entirety from Adam Blenford's story on the BBC website, though they were good enough to give him a byline and to credit the BBC.
I teased my new friend Desire that as the BBC had contributed this article, the Rwandan government should let us film for free - he laughed a little nervously.
The paper finished, I whiled away more time recording an AudioBoo which you can also hear below. Finally, Desire returned from the Minister's office to hand over our accreditation to my ever-patient producer Jonathan Sumberg.
It looks impressive enough - let's hope it works as we're about to head out into the countryside to film an exciting new digital project.
- 17 Sep 09, 08:56 GMT
Coming to Africa to report on the new broadband cable was always going to be a challenge to our own technology. How would we get our video and audio reports back to London and then broadcast live?
These days we try to save money when we're away from the office by sending our material over the internet rather than booking an expensive satellite link. But despite the arrival of the fibre-optic cable in East Africa, there's still very limited bandwidth in most places.
Sending a 5Mb audio file from our hotel, for instance, took almost half an hour - so it was not really going to be a practical way to send a 100Mb compressed video report, let alone my colleague Dan Simmons' piece for this week's Click, which weighed in at an uncompressed 1.2Gb.
So the answer was to go to the one place where you should be able to get online at a decent speed, the Seacom cable landing-station in Mombasa. The kind folks there rolled out two ethernet cables for us, and on Tuesday evening we sent a video report almost five minutes long to London in just over 15 minutes.
Having sat cursing the wi-fi in hotels across Europe as our video took hours to crawl back to base, this was a welcome change.But on Wednesday we faced a bigger challenge - broadcasting live on TV and radio for nearly twelve hours.
Using broadband to go "live" is a trick we've tried at home during a couple of our Broadband Britain tours. It's hairy, because we use two methods which are just slightly experimental. VPoint is video-conferencing software, which broadcasters originally adopted mainly to broadcast from warzones or other places where immediacy was the priority and Luci Live is live audio software, with which I've tangled more or less successfully a number of times.
Both depend on some kind of internet access, and often they can deliver slightly sub-standard levels of picture or sound if you haven't got a reasonably speedy connection. With VPoint for instance, it's not wise to use a panning shot - or for the presenter to move around a lot if they don't want to look like a badly oiled robot.
So we prepared with some trepidation for a day in which we were going to be swiftly moving from radio to TV broadcast and back again for 12 solid hours.
We arrived at the landing-station in plenty of time for cameraman, picture editor and all round technical genius Neil Drake to set up his battery of equipment - which included an emergency satellite dish and a satellite phone in case the broadband connection failed.
But from the first appearance on BBC Breakfast until the last on BBC World, in the pitch black, things went remarkably smoothly. There was one little wobble in the middle of the day when the pictures got very jerky - and we started - but it turned out that our laptop had overheated and once it had been given a rest inside the air-conditioned landing station, our images looked crisp and clean once more.
A broadcasting exercise that we had found tricky in locations from the west coast of Scotland to the west coast of the USA proved reasonably simple in Kenya. So why am I telling you all this in a blog post about Africa? Because it illustrates the very point we were trying to illuminate by coming to here, that new technology could now link this region up to the rest of the world, with profound effects on its economy and society.
Today we're off to a country whose president certainly believes in the transformative power of technology. And tomorrow I'll be giving my first impressions of Rwanda - at least I will if I can get a good internet connection.
- 16 Sep 09, 08:21 GMT
What kind of mood is Kenya in as the fast internet revolution arrives? Excited, yes, enthusiastic certainly - but also impatient and just a little bit cynical. This is a country with a vigorous and argumentative democracy - but whose people have earned the right to be cynical about the promises made by politicians and corporations. They were promised fast broadband at an affordable price - but a few weeks after the fibre cable went live, they're questioning what it will deliver.
Not much cynicism, though, at St Charles Lwanga Secondary, a school crying out for connectivity. We arrived to a fantastic greeting from the choir, dancing and singing about President Obama, revered here as the son of a Kenyan father. We were then shown to the one classroom out of 12 which did have computers. The 20 reconditioned PCs had been donated by British companies through the Computer Aid charity, and pupils were hard at work on a Word document.
But what they didn't have was an internet connection. The head teacher Peter Watoro explained that while a couple of computers in his office were connected, the bill to put every class online could be as much as £350 a month - way beyond the means of the school. Now he hopes and believes the cable will bring that cost down.
Our next stop was the Blue Fin Cyber Cafe in downtown Mombasa where, for a princely 20p, I got half an hour's surfing. Mind you it was at a snail's pace - a quick test revealed that I was downloading at an average speed of 0.1Mbps.
The owner told us that he was not yet connected to the fibre link - but when he was, his customers would get faster web access for no extra cost. There again, he was only promising a doubling of speeds, so don't expect to watch YouTube at the Blue Fin. Like just about everyone else he laid the blame at the door of the internet service providers - "true competition hasn't hit the market," he explained.
So then we talked to an ISP. Jacque Mbandi of Access Kenya wanted to give us the good news about the faster service her firm could now offer business and residential users. But when she read out the prices we had to make her repeat them a couple of times.Previously, she explained, they'd sold businesses a 1mbps connection for around £2,500 a month. Now post-fibre, as she put it, that had come down to around £750.
Better news for home customers - they used to pay £30 a month for a 256Kbps connection, now they'd get 512kbps for the same £30. Now that's probably around what you would have paid in the UK for broadband a few years back, but in this country it puts in the luxury bracket. Jacquee Mbandi admitted that most Kenyans wouldn't be able to afford broadband for a while - but she denied that the ISPs were profiteering, insisting they had to recoup the extra costs of building their own fibre networks.
The most cynical, but also the most exuberant person I've met in Kenya has been Tonee N'Dungu. He came on the overnight bus from Nairobi to meet us, so keen was he to put over the viewpoint of a new tech-savvy generation.
Tonee, who seems to have at least three jobs in the media and social networking field, met me on the public beach in Mombasa. He immediately produced two laptops, a smartphone and a mini video camera, all tools of his trade.
"We're all on Twitter, Facebook - anything that allows us to express ourselves," was how he described young Kenyans, and he said the arrival of good internet connections could be the biggest event since independence for his generation.
Then he explained why he was cynical; "I've seen how things work in my country - there are always strings attached, nothing comes for free." It was the last mile to the home that mattered - and the danger was that millions of people outside the big cities would miss out.
Tonee may be dubious about the promise of a wired Kenya - but he already seems to be halfway there. As he travelled back to Nairobi, he was still in a frenzy of communication, sending messages on Twitter on his phone from the bus. The road to this country's digital future may be littered with potholes, but the energy of people like Tonee should help Kenya get there.
- 15 Sep 09, 08:21 GMT
What does Africa need more - easy access to fresh water or better cheaper internet connections? A no-brainer you might think, but a journey I took out from Mombasa into the countryside set me thinking.
My guide was Martin Rogena, a Kenyan working for an organisation called KickStart, which supplies irrigation pumps to farmers across East Africa. Martin is also a big believer in the power of the internet to transform countries like Kenya.
We set off down a bumpy road through a poor suburb of Mombasa, lined with small shops. Every other one seemed to be selling mobile phones or offering to recharge them - and every few yards there was a stand selling fresh water at around 20p a litre.
As we drove, Martin explained that Kickstart was a charity but it didn't give away the "Moneymaker" pumps it supplies - "if you did that, the farmers would just stick them in a corner and not use them." So they charge around £50 for a portable pump - far short of the cost of making and supplying them - and they are now in use right across drought-stricken areas of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Our destination was a little settlement among some low hills about 10 miles from the beach where the Seacom cable bringing broadband to the region comes ashore.
The farmers who worked a small patch of land there had clubbed together to buy a pump. They use it to draw water from the hole they excavated last year to collect rain, a supply now dwindling fast after a very dry period.
We watched as they watered their crop of tomatoes which, along with a field of maize and some other vegetables, was the means of support for around 20 people. Then we visited their homes - simple mud huts, with chickens and dogs sharing the yard where the children played.
These people had very little - finding the money for the pump had obviously been a big deal - but nearly all of them had mobile phones. While there was no electricity in the village, a tall 3g phone mast stands on the hill above it. The farmers explained that the phones - which they have to take to a nearby shop to recharge - had made them feel much more connected to the rest of Kenya.
Then, as we sat outside one of the huts, Martin Rogena got out his laptop, plugged in a broadband dongle, and went online at a reasonable speed - he was picking up the signal from the nearby mast, which is in turn linked to the fibre-optic cable at the coast. But why, I asked, did a faster internet connection matter to a charity which was trying to alleviate the impact of drought?
He explained that Kickstart collects data from every pump it supplies across the region, sending staff armed with laptops to talk to the farmers and make sure they are getting the right results. From its Nairobi office, It also needs to communicate with donors around the world and with its branch office in Tanzania.
The charity is already finding that faster broadband is making communication easier - and is cutting costs, though perhaps not to quite the extent that has been promised.
"Any dollar we save means we get more pumps to the people," says Martin, "and our mission is to end poverty."
The farmers had never been on the internet - but they too were excited about what it might mean for them. "It will help us find information to help us improve the way we farm." said one. "We will use it for marketing our crops to other countries outside Kenya," said another.
We headed back into Mombasa, past lines of women carrying water containers on their heads. This country is short of lots of things - water, electricity, books for schools. But there is a great thirst for better connectivity - and who are we to say that they've got their priorities wrong?
- 14 Sep 09, 08:49 GMT
The first stop on our journey in East Africa was a nondescript building in an idyllic location looking out over the Indian Ocean. In fact, the Seacom Landing Station is worse than nondescript - it's the kind of building which Prince Charles might describe as a monstrous carbuncle, located right next to Mombasa's most imposing sight, Fort Jesus, built by Vasco da Gama in the 16th century.
But maybe the identikit shed above the beach where the Seacom cable comes ashore may one day be seen as a historic site in its own right - the place where East Africa finally got a decent connection to the internet.
Mahmoud Noor, an impressive young Kenyan telecoms engineer who runs the station, was immensely proud of it.
"It's a privilege to be part of history, to be giving the first real broadband connection to the East African region" he told me. "As Obama says, we are on the right side of history."
He lifted a manhole cover to show me the cable, which looks pretty flimsy, stripped of the armour which protects it on the floor of the ocean. But this is just one link in a network stretching from Mumbai to Kenya, and along the cost of East Africa, and bringing the fast internet here for the first time.
Then Mahmoud took me on a tour of his small empire - no more than a few prefab rooms housing servers, equipment installed by the internet service providers who will now link customers up to the cable, and, most important, a couple of standby generators.
"Power is one of our biggest problems," he admitted, explaining that electricity rationing meant that you could see around three power cuts a week at the moment. The generators would allow them to keep on running for three months.
In the transmission room, Mahmoud sketched a few sums on a piece of paper to show me the increase in capacity promised by the cable. He said it could carry 114 million voice calls simultaneously - and that was around 240 times the previous capacity of Kenya's telecoms system. This country, like the rest of East Africa, has been dependent on satellite links to hook it up to the outside world - and that's made getting online both expensive and slow.
So the cable - and others now arriving on this coast - could make a huge difference. But what I hadn't quite realised until I got here was how much all of this depended on the mobile phone networks. The mobile industry is visible everywhere, from the huge adverts for the two main operators, Safaricom and Zain, to tiny shops selling mobile access or offering the chance to use M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer scheme.
I'd heard that far more people here had access to a mobile phone than had bank accounts - but apparently it's also more common than access to fresh water.
And with the fixed line telephone system something of a national joke, mobile will be the route to the internet for most. So, despite the promise of a big leap in speeds, customers will be getting online via 3g phone networks linked to the new cable. A quick test on my laptop showed download speeds of around 256Kb - better than what was on offer before, but some way from broadband. And we've just passed a big advert offering a broadband service for 2,999 Kenyan shillings a month - that's around £27 which is way beyond the reach of most Kenyans.
It was Mahmoud Noor's infectious enthusiasm about the revolution the cable could bring which really struck me on my first day in East Africa, But now comes the hard bit - delivering on that promise for millions of Africans eager to be connected.
- 11 Sep 09, 08:46 GMT
I'm off on a trip this weekend as one of a BBC team hoping to give you some new insights into how technology is shaping a fascinating part of the world.
It's a place where you can get a vision of the mobile future, where millions of people use their phones to run their finances and as their main point of access to the web.
But it's also an area where millions of people have a huge and unsatisfied thirst for faster connections to the rest of the world - and a belief that this could change their lives for the better.
I'm talking, of course, about Africa. Across the continent, there's the promise of far more reliable and speedy internet connections arriving via fibre-optic cables.
A clutch of commercial and government projects have been racing to give Africa the bandwidth it needs.
Now there's a winner in that contest - the Seacom cable laid under the sea from Mumbai to the East African coast.
It has come ashore in South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya - and internet service providers are just beginning to hook up customers who should now benefit from much speedier connections.
The coastal countries will benefit first, but there's huge excitement too in places like Uganda and Rwanda, where governments are promising that their citizens too will soon be connected to the cable.
Just how important this is was summed up for me by a BBC colleague, Joseph Warungu, who grew up in Kenya. He described just how difficult it was even to make an international phone call back then:
"If you wanted to call London, you had to book it in advance with the international operator and you'd be given a slot. You then had to hang around your house for the operator to call you when they found a free circuit...not necessarily at the agreed time. It could take hours for the call to come through and when it did you just hoped and prayed that your party on the other end was available otherwise it was a long wasted day."
Now Kenyans - and many other Africans - have seen their lives transformed by the arrival of mobile phones, with commercial operators succeeding in delivering a decent service where state telecoms companies had a long record of failure.
But to get onto the internet they've usually had to rely on those same mobile connections, which have been both expensive and slow.
And even businesses with a fixed line web connection struggle - witness this week's very amusing story about the South African firm which found that a racing pigeon was a quicker way of moving data than an ADSL line.
But Joseph Warungu reckons the cables could complete a digital revolution, which could be as significant for many African countries as the arrival of independence in the 1960s.
So our project - which we're calling Connected Africa - involves us heading first to Mombasa, where the Seacom landing-station in Kenya is located.
We're planning to spend a couple of days recording the impact of the new connection in the weeks after it was switched on.
Then next Wednesday, we are hoping to use the connection to broadcast live pictures and sound - a plan which is already bringing me out in a cold sweat as we all know just how unwise it can be to depend on brand new technology.
From Kenya, we head on Thursday to Rwanda, where we will spend a couple of days filming a report on how that country is hoping to use the cable to fulfil its ambitions to be Africa's digital hub. I'm planning to post daily updates about our experiences on this blog from Monday. From Wednesday, there will also be a wealth of material in a special Connected Africa section of the site, and you can catch us on radio and TV from Mombasa.
Like the cables, this project has been a long time in the planning - so I'm hoping we can deliver. Watch this space.
- 10 Sep 09, 10:05 GMT
In Scotland, we have another way of putting it: "fur coat and nae knickers." And that's what Apple's "Only Rock 'n' Roll" event boiled down to.
Sure, there was a video camera for the iPod Nano and a voice recorder, pedometer and FM radio. There were some price reductions and a bigger iPod Touch at 32 and 64 gigabytes.
For iTunes, there was some nifty software and a feature that lets you buy liner notes, lyrics, photographs and memorabilia - the equivalent of those old LPs Mr Jobs made fond reference to.
Oh, and let's not forget 30,000 ringtones.
But most of the press, analysts and guests were really there to see Apple's own rock star make his first big appearance following a medical leave of absence: Mr Jobs was treated for pancreatic cancer in 2004.
The hype and second-guessing beforehand was feverish, but there was little doubt that he had to turn up given how the market has reacted in the past to the merest hint of him having the sniffles.
And he didn't keep us in suspense for long, taking charge from the start. Mr Jobs sounded emotional when he talked about his liver transplant and said that he was able to stand in front of us thanks to the generosity of a 20-year-old who died in a car crash.
While he soon got down to business, there was a lot of flash bang but not much whizz. Given that the iPod is now nine years old, perhaps it's understandable. After all, what more can Apple make it do? Have it make you a cup of tea?
Accompanying these iterative upgrades was a plethora of stats: 100 million registered iTunes users; 220 million iPods sold; 8.5 billion songs sold; 1.8 billion app downloads.
But nothing really detracted from the main news: Steve Jobs was back centre-stage and running the show.
Remember, this is a man who could well afford to put his feet up and move on from the stress of running a multi-billion dollar company, but who told us: "I'm back at Apple and loving every day of it."
While this might be reason enough, the pressure is on. Analysts I spoke to were disappointed by the product announcements and hoped that the famed "Apple tablet" will appear in the new year and set the heather on fire.
Meanwhile, Apple will jealously guard its boss from the prying eyes of us in the media. Every time I, or another journalist, pointed a camera in the direction of Mr Jobs to get a more "intimate" post-show snap of the boss chatting to his execs and guests, a burly chap in a black shirt would "happen" to block the shot.
On a side note, Google CEO Eric Schmidt watched the presentation from the front row, evidence perhaps of no hard feelings after his departure from the Apple board.
I don't know how some big-name tech companies felt, though, because I know of two big firms and one smaller one that moved their own press events because they knew that all eyes were on Mr Jobs. And they sure didn't want to play second fiddle there.
And for the traditional "one last thing", we got the delightful Norah Jones to serenade us - and she got a kiss from Mr Jobs.
- 9 Sep 09, 08:42 GMT
In these straightened economic times, everyone both in work and looking for work are trying to find something that will give them that edge.
One of the most obvious ways is to get a clutch of amazing references about what a wonderful employee/colleague/boss/leader you are and how you have helped take the company from strength to strength.
If you are looking for a job, you are hardly likely to offer a reference that does nothing but paint you in a glowing light.
Likewise there are bosses who will pen the most poetic prose in order to help what they regard as a useless employee out the door.
And more importantly, in this litigious age we live in, managers will write references that will not come back and haunt them.
Step forward a new idea by Marty Manley - an entrepreneur, union man and former assistant Secretary of Labour under President Clinton who created the Office of the American Workplace to regulate labour unions and promote workplace innovation.
Mr Manley is also the founder of Alibris.com the premier global exchange for used, rare and out-of-print books.
Through his start up company called Reputation Networks, Mr Manley has dreamed up an alternative to the old style reference called WorkScore.
In essence it operates like a cross between someone's medical record and their credit score only it is applied to work. Mr Manley explained:
"Employers in every organisation live or die over their ability to hire and develop people with specialist professional skills.
"Most of it is still being done on resumes and references which are self interested documents and therefore employers are having a harder and harder time getting accurate information about people."
Added to that, Mr Manley said reputations are moving online but the problem there is that in a lot of cases "inaccurate information spreads quickly and can do real damage."
He describes WorkScore as "the first social resume" that provides a profile of what you can do with ratings from fellow workers you have invited to comment on your skills.
Those comments are then given a score and aggregated, much like a bank would score your credit worthiness when it finds out if you pay your bills on time or not.
You also rate the person who is rating you and what your relationship is. So if you say the reviewer is a close contact and fair minded, then that assessment will count for more.
If you say they are loony tunes with an axe to grind, then the rating will count to a lesser degree.
Of course this mirrors the original issue with references in that you will presumably only pick people to review your work if you know they are going to do so in fairly fabulous terms. And with WorkScore you can delete the stuff you don't like.
Mr Manley added:
"It actually solves the Lake Wobegon problem where all children are above average and shows real strengths because it represents the accumulated knowledge of people who know your work really well."
Added to that, your WorkScore moves around with you and is not static and will have a summary that is searchable by employers.
It is also a two-way street, because users get to rate their workplace. Something that Mr Manley said is useful for prospective employees considering applying to certain companies for a job.
"I am not sure that WorkScore can scale quickly into a trusted brand that stands for accurate work assessment.
"I do hope it works, because it really could make information about skills and accomplishments transparent and portable, and it gives workers more control of their personal brands".
WorkScore is in beta testing, so for the moment is free.
- 8 Sep 09, 14:02 GMT
Today's deal which would see a merger between Orange and T-Mobile in the UK is obviously sending tremors through the mobile industry - and it's causing further excitement amongst investment bankers who've now see two huge corporate deals in two days after yesterday's news that Kraft wants to gobble up Cadbury. But, to ask the classic question often thrown at me by news editors - what does it mean for shoppers?
In other words, will mobile phone customers be better or worse off, once they can only choose from four operators rather than five? At first sight, it's bad news - surely one business with 28 million customers and 37% of the UK market will have too much power to influence the price and availability of mobile phone contracts?
When I sent a frivolous e-mail to one high-powered European telecoms analyst asking about the implications for shoppers, back came this reply: "The risk for shoppers is to see less competition and less favourable prices on the UK market."
So presumably the various regulators - at the EU, the Office of Fair Trading, and Ofcom - will step in to stop this deal from going ahead?
Well, those I've spoken to in the industry this morning think not. Yes, they'll all run the rule over "T'Orange", as some wags have already christened it, and they may even demand that bits of the business are sold off.
But in the words of one big UK operator, "consolidation works for everybody". His argument went like this - we already have a more competitive market than in any other European country. France has just three big operators, Spain four, and in Germany the two biggest players have more than 80% of the market.
A merger would leave Britain with three chunky players - Vodafone, O2 and T'Orange - with Three still hanging in there and desperately trying to provide customers with something innovative to make an impact.
Then there are the MVNOs - mobile virtual network operators - like Tesco and Virgin, who will continue to invigorate the market with some fresh ideas.
In chimed an analyst, with thoughts about the level of competition in the UK as desperate operators tried to lure the shoppers with ever more complex offers. "The UK market had an unbelievable 500 new deals activated in June," Brad Rees of Mediacells told me. His argument was that if the merger reduced this "tsunami" of offers it might actually be easier for customers to get to grips with the market.
Cut-throat competition, argued another contact, wasn't necessarily good for investment either. It had left the industry as a whole, unwilling to spend the sums necessary to build better networks. That point certainly rings true - as more and more of us start using the mobile internet, the strains on the networks are becoming ever clearer. Neither T-Mobile nor Orange has been that successful in the fast-growing mobile broadband area - perhaps their joint network will now be able to offer some real competition to Vodafone, currently the leader in this area.
So the message seemed to be that we will see fewer shops cluttering up every high street with confusing mobile deals, fewer but better phone masts, and an industry able to concentrate on improving customer service. In fact, as I made my calls around the mobile industry, it was hard to find anyone who thought that this merger was a bad thing - even rival operators seemed relieved that the long period of uncertainty over T-Mobile's future in the UK was coming to an end.
But perhaps that unanimity should send a few warning signals to shoppers. After all Vodafone - which you might presume would be one of the big losers from this deal - saw its shares rise this morning, with the market apparently betting that less competition would be better for everyone's profits.
So the market has decided the future's bright for T'Orange and the whole mobile phone industry - but whether that is quite such good news for shoppers remains to be seen.
- 7 Sep 09, 10:59 GMT
The Spotify application approved for iPhone use by Apple a few weeks ago - to the surprise of some, given the possible threat to iTunes - is up and running in the App Store this morning. What's more, there is also a version of the music-streaming service available for Google's Android mobile software, somewhat earlier than expected.
So the day of reckoning has arrived. Not just for Spotify or for the music industry - but for all those who believe that the future of online content depends on a mix of free and subscription content.
The Spotify app is only available to those who upgrade to the premium service - in other words, you have to be ready to pay £120 a year to get mobile access to unlimited music from its catalogue. While there is plenty of excitement about the new apps, it's by no means certain that this will prove a winner.
One person who will be looking on with particular interest is Rupert Murdoch. He has made it clear that he wants his News Corp titles - such as the Times and the Sun - to start charging for some online content as does his Wall Street Journal. Some are sceptical about his chances of getting online readers to cough up. But you can bet there will be a sophisticated offer, with a lot of free material plus a varied diet of premium extras - including, perhaps, mobile content only available to subscribers. Rather like Spotify.
So if the fast-growing music service fails to convince plenty of customers that it's worth paying quite a hefty price to take your playlists on the bus, then its backers will not be the only ones singing the blues.
Maybe Rupert Murdoch - whose own MySpace music offering has failed to make much of a splash so far - will be signing up to Spotify and sharing some playlists with friends. I'm sure both he and Daniel Ek, Spotify's founder, would join in this classic Motown chorus:
"The best things in life are free
But you can keep 'em for the birds and bees
Now give me money, that's what I want."
- 3 Sep 09, 08:40 GMT
So peace has broken out at last in the titanic battle between YouTube and Britain's songwriters.
Professional music videos will now be available to UK users again - though many may not have noticed their absence, given the proliferation of music content put on the site by its users.
So what's the deal - and who's won this battle? And more importantly, will Pete Waterman get a lot more than £11 for all those views of Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up? My answers to those questions - not sure, a score draw, and probably not.
Both sides are citing confidentiality in their refusal to give any details about the deal they've struck. All we know is that a lump sum has been handed over by YouTube to the Performing Right Society.
It will then share it out with its members between now and 2012, using its own formula to decide who gets what.
But so coy was the PRS about the details of the deal that at one stage it was not even prepared to say that it was better than what was on the table before - though finally a spokesman told me "we do think it's a better deal," before warning that songwriters were not going to be earning fortunes from YouTube.
Still, it's clear that both sides needed this deal - and are happy to have sorted things out. Google, YouTube's owner, needed it for two reasons - PR and profits.
The search giant, once seen as the chippy but smart upstart of the tech world, is now being accused of bullying everyone from smaller software businesses, to songwriters, to authors who are unhappy about its plan to digitise their books.
But peace with the PRS not only deals with that particular PR problem, its part of the process which is turning YouTube from a costly diversion to a big moneyspinner.
If content owners start to see the video site as just another useful platform rather than a threat, then everyone can start making money from advertising.
As for the PRS, it's smart enough to know that its members' future income depends on recognising the potential of new digital services - and then striking the right deal with them.
It's already reached licensing agreements with the likes of Spotify and last.fm, and is now pleased that its relationship with YouTube has been repaired.
But what about Pete Waterman?
It turns out that there was just a little spin behind his claim that Google only paid him £11 after the Rickrolling craze which saw the song he co-wrote for Rick Astley go viral on YouTube.
"If 154 million plays means £11," he told one paper:
"I get more from Radio Stoke playing Never Gonna Give You Up than I do from YouTube."
The truth is that all of that £11 came from the UK - the only place where the PRS has a deal with YouTube - and only a small minority of those 154 million viewers were UK-based.
He may now get a little more from those people - if the craze takes off again - but nothing from the rest of the world. Poor old Pete.
- 3 Sep 09, 08:14 GMT
At GDC, the company announced its aim to revolutionise the way games are distributed and played by streaming on-demand games over the internet from servers as much as 1,500 miles away.
The hope is to provide high quality gaming on low-end machines. The end result will only be affected by the user's internet bandwidth.
The company's secret sauce involves a video compression algorithm designed specifically for video games that can encode and compress video into data in about one millisecond.
When I spoke to inventor Steve Perlman at GDC earlier this year, he told me "video games are the last media sold as packaged goods and, yes, OnLive disrupts that retail model."
Lots of demos at GDC went according to the script in a controlled environment but now there is the chance for gamers to test things more in the wild and get involved in what Mr Perlman views as 'the brave new world.'
After months of "evolving the technology and installing lots of servers in our data centres," the company has just announced it is opening up its internal Beta to outside gamers.
OnLive says it's planning to set up a series of different test groups to put the system through its paces and use the data to improve the product.
"If OnLive is able to scale and meet the demand, it could pose a significant challenge to a game console industry that's weathered the storm of multiple hardware cycles, but might face an uphill battle against a truly great on demand service," said Barb Dybwad of Mashable.com.
While there are a thousand differing viewpoints about the future success or otherwise of OnLive, one notable voice out there is Trip Hawkins. As the founder of Electronic Arts, he is often dubbed the Godfather of the gaming industry.
In a piece in PCmag.com, he told the interviewer that he felt that cloud-based games will gain a great acceptance and that games delivered by, and played through, the cloud will eventually drive a lot of the innovation in both desktop and mobile games.
Mr Hawkins also said that the cloud might become the most disruptive, as well as the most efficient, way to play and deliver games.
One of the most important factors in the success of OnLive, and other types of services like this, will be what and how it charges customers whose wallets are no doubt feeling weary in these straightened times.
- 2 Sep 09, 09:56 GMT
A few months ago, a smart 15-year-old intern at the investment bank Morgan Stanley caused quite a stir with a report on teenagers' media habits. The City seemed amazed by his insights - kids don't like to pay for stuff, teenagers aren't on Twitter - though to some observers, they seemed pretty obvious.
But last night a City think tank, the Centre for The Study of Financial Innovation, tried to drill down further into this subject. A panel of teenagers was assembled and interrogated in an attempt to find out what the media habits of Generation Y (or "Generation Whatever" as one cynical father at the session had it) meant for the spending patterns of new customers for financial services.
So here's some of what the dozen or so young people had to say at what the CSFI described as a "Yoof" round table:
This, to state the obvious, is the "always on" generation. "I'm always online when I'm doing my homework," said one girl, to a gasp from the adult audience. "I've several tabs open (in a browser), and I'm listening to my iPod at the same time. "
And where exactly are they going online? Facebook of course.
It remains the dominant social network in the lives of these teenagers - all seemed to use it to socialise, and as their prime means of communication. Updating your status and sharing photos were the main activities - but they did think the network had some weaknesses. It wasn't much good for video or music and the chat application was pretty unstable and annoying.
They did see the possibility of moving on to other networks. "Nobody over 25 should be allowed on Facebook," one girl put it. Her demographic analysis went like this - "Bebo 11-14, Facebook 15-25, Twitter 18 and over."
One sophisticated 16-year-old said he thought Twitter was beginning to take off amongst his friends. So sophisticated that he was aware of its unreliability as a source of facts: "I posted that a flying horse had been found in Alaska and suddenly I had 100 followers."
And the girls said Twitter was an attractive way of tracking celebrities.
This was quite an affluent group, with most having mobile phone contracts, rather than pay-as-you-go phones. Asked how much they spent per month, the figures climbed ever higher from £20 to £35 to £45. Quite a few had high-end handsets like iPhones or Blackberries. Most saw texting as the best way to talk with friends when out - but reverted to Facebook at home "because it's free".
Yes, the majority admitted they had downloaded from unauthorised sites. But quite a few of the panel were uneasy about illegal file-sharing - partly on moral grounds, but also citing concerns over quality and security. "Limewire (a popular file-sharing network) is rubbish," said one. Just about all of them seemed aware of the free streaming service, Spotify.
To the apparent dismay of one of the elderly interrogators - a new media enthusiast - television seemed to have an enduring appeal for the teenagers. Yes, they often watched the BBC iPlayer and YouTube, but some were even tuning into live television if there was a particular programme they wanted to catch.
And television advertising seemed to be viewed with a degree of enthusiasm - in stark contrast to web ads. One girl went as far as to say she'd like a whole channel devoted to ads. But a boy summed up the mood of the panel when it came to online advertising - "when you're online you have a focus - if you're doing friend stuff you don't want ads."
A girl agreed, suggesting TV was more passive - " you accept that you'll see the adverts there."
Privacy and security
For all the talk about irresponsible teenagers posting material online without thinking of the consequences, this group all seemed very clued-up about the dangers of online life.
"Yes, of course we understand the privacy settings, we had a session at school about it" was one response when I asked whether they knew how to make sure Mum couldn't see your Facebook pictures.
"I would never put my personal stuff like banking on Facebook," said another, apparently unconvinced that it was a safe place to spend money. But they saw mobile phones as more personal than computers, therefore more secure.
The focus of the think tank session was on how banks and other financial services companies might build relationships with young people, given their new media habits.
While many of the panel had bank accounts and various forms of payment card, they all seemed wary about banks trying to "friend" them. But, it seemed free music might be a draw: the question "If the bank said we'll give you free tracks, would you be their friend?" from one of the audience got a mildly positive response.
Still, some age-old rules of teenage finance remain constant. How do you pay for stuff online? "Mum's credit card," responded one girl, quick as a flash.
So there we have it, a Facebook generation, open to Twitter, wary of online advertising, willing to be wooed away from file-sharing, and increasingly savvy about online privacy.
But then again, as someone said about Morgan Stanley's report on teenage media habits, "the plural of anecdote is not data". Maybe it's time for one of the banks to invest in some real research about Generation Whatever...
- 1 Sep 09, 15:02 GMT
If the coverage of technology on this website and across the BBC seems a little thin today, sorry, but there is an explanation.
The team behind that coverage is on an awayday (in a BBC office rather than a country house hotel you'll be glad to hear - and there aren't even any biscuits).
But we are discussing something rather important - what direction should our technology coverage take?
We started with a "vigorous" discussion on what makes a tech story, with plenty of healthy disagreement.
Should we, for example, cover product launches like Apple's iPhone or a new Sony PS3?
Some felt they had no place on the BBC, others pointed out that some launches marked a sea-change in technology and were worth covering.
What about financial stories, such as Microsoft's attempts to take over Yahoo - or plunging share prices of leading technology firms?
Let's leave them to the Business team, some argued - while others felt that our readers and viewers wanted to know how tech firms were faring financially, as well as what products they were launching.
And there was quite a punch-up over video games - with one group arguing that coverage of games and gaming culture was a vital part of any technology coverage, whereas others felt this was an area that should be in the entertainment section.
Oh, and I think we now all agree - stories about Twitter need to be pretty startling to justify their presence on this site or on the airwaves.
Then we heard an interesting take on all this from an outsider, the technology editor of a major newspaper.
He started by relating one of the many quotes about what news is:
"[N]ews is stuff I care about, and stuff I want to pass on".
Then he set to work to categorise our coverage under four headings, with only the fourth really meeting with his approval:
• Security scare stories, about viruses, malware, phishing etc.
Frightening people but not giving them enough information about what to do.
• Gee-whizz stories - "in five years time you"ll all have personal jet- packs" - which often give misleading impressions of how much technology can deliver.
• "Something should be done" stories - covering petitions for Alan Turing to be honoured or Bletchley Park to be saved.
• Really useful stories, which tell readers something they didn't know. Gratifyingly, he gave as an example our revelations about Spinvox.
Now that is undoubtedly an outrageous misrepresentation of our coverage by a jealous rival. Ahem.
We set to work to tell him about the valuable stories that he'd ignored in his parody of our fine journalism - the ton of advice about staying safe online, the gee-whizz story about new barcode technology which proved hugely popular among readers, the wealth of information about Bletchley Park and the history of computing in Britain, which we see as a valuable contribution to public knowledge.
But maybe, just maybe, he had a point. Perhaps we are a bit too scattergun in our coverage of technology and need to focus more on where we can deliver some added value.
My personal view is that we should aim to deliver useful - but not excessively specialist - information to as wide an audience as possible.
But when I suggested that we should not be too geeky (mainly because I lack the geek credentials of some of my colleagues), others countered that it was important to serve niche audiences.
But what do we know? Let's hear your opinions about what makes an interesting technology story - and which ones should be covered by the BBC.
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