- 27 Nov 09, 12:50 GMT
As the Digital Britain bill starts to make its way through Parliament, the row over its controversial measures against unlawful file-sharers is getting ever more heated.
Supporters in the music and movie industries are rejoicing that something is at last being done to protect artists whose property they say has been stolen, while critics of the bill say it represents a fundamental attack on the rights of internet users.
But what's missing from the whole debate is some data. Just how much unlawful file-sharing is going on in the UK and what effect is it having on the creative industries? It's hard to be sure really - the music industry often says that twenty unauthorised tracks are downloaded for every one that's paid for, but I'm not sure how that figure was worked out. The government, too, seems hazy, unable to say how it will know when file-sharing has been reduced by 70%, the target to be attained by the initial deterrence campaign before stronger measures are contemplated.
Then there are the assertions made about file-sharers' behaviour. Critics of a crackdown say they are the very people who spend more on legitimate downloads, and that they would stop if only there were enough well-priced alternatives on offer. The music industry says there is ample evidence that deterrents work, pointing to an apparent rise in sales of music in Sweden following the legal action against the Pirate Bay.
So in an attempt to shed a little more light on this issue, I asked two of the most vociferous lobby groups to answer five questions about file-sharing, supplying me with a little bit of evidence on each of them.
Geoff Taylor of the BPI, the music industry trade body, and Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group, which believes the Digital Economy bill is deeply illiberal, responded with alacrity. Here's how it went - and even if you violently disagree with what either side says, please try to critique their evidence rather than their characters in your replies.
(1) What evidence do we have of the extent of unlawful file-sharing in the UK?
Jim Killock, ORG: Not enough. Most of it comes from the recorded music industry. We also have evidence in a rapid decline in file sharing: Music Ally thinks it has reduced by 40% [110 Kb PDF] .
Geoff Taylor, BPI: Plenty. There are several pieces of substantial research showing that around 7 to 8 million people in the UK are file-sharing music alone. Let's look at two examples.
Harris Interactive conducted research among the UK general public aged 16-54 from February to March 2009, which gave a 23% incidence of music file-sharing using peer-to-peer networks in the UK population aged 16-54, or 8.3 million file-sharers based on ONS population data. This number omits people under 16 completely.
Additionally, Jupiter Research conducted consumer research on behalf of the BPI in August 2007, which predicted 6.7 million peer-to-peer file-sharers during 2008, and 7.3 million for 2009.
(2) What evidence is there of the effect that file-sharing has had on the UK music industry?
ORG: Whatever effect it has, we can assume that effect is reducing.
And the music industry has grown in the last ten years - it has not shrunk, as many would have you believe.
The shift has been towards digital and live music, and away from physical sales.
BPI: The observable link between the onset and growth of peer-to-peer and the decline of UK record sales is an obvious place to start. In 1999, UK trade deliveries were worth £1,133m, compared to £893.8m in 2008.
In terms of academic research - contrary to the claims made by critics - there is study after study which demonstrates the link between illegal P2P file-sharing and lost music sales. These include:
Jupiter Research (UK, 2009): The Analysis of the European Online Music Market Development and Assessment of Future Opportunities [179Kb PDF] - "The overall impact of file-sharing on music spending is negative."
Institute Center for Technology Freedom (USA, 2007): The True Cost of Sound Recording Piracy to the US Economy by Stephen Siwek - This study estimates the damage to the USA economy as a result of music piracy and evaluates the impact on jobs, earnings and lost tax revenues, concluding: "Piracy of recorded music costs the US sound recording industries billions of dollars in lost revenue and profits."
Jupiter Research (UK) - Music Industry Losses. The report concluded that online music piracy cost the UK music industry £1.6bn between 2001 and 2012; in 2007 alone, online music piracy resulted in £159.2m of foregone spend.
Norbert Michael (USA, 2006): The Impact of Digital File‐sharing on the Music Industry: An Empirical Analysis [207Kb PDF] - The study found that file‐sharing had a negative impact on music sales, suggesting that "file‐sharing may have reduced album sales (between 1999‐2003) by as much as 13% for some music consumers."
There is a small number of studies which purport to show a positive relationship between file-sharing and music sales, but these have been subsequently heavily criticised in peer review.
(3) Isn't it true that file-sharers also tend to be the people who spend more on music?
ORG: Absolutely. Every academic study has shown this, for instance the Institute for Information Law study in the Netherlands [1Mb PDF]. Most file-sharing is about discovery - finding new things, as people do with radio - which is why new streaming services have eaten into file-sharing.
BPI: It is of course true that many people who file-share buy music, but it is also true that many file-sharers prefer to free-load with little willingness to pay for music at all. The report from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, based on research from Jupiter Research and Forrester Research [179Kb PDF], succinctly sets out the case.
A recent Demos survey [3.51Mb Powerpoint] garnered plenty of headlines, but its flaws were not widely reported. Firstly, it grouped people who used search engines to discover music in with people who use P2P, but you can of course use search engines to discover music, then listen legally to streamed music for free or buy music.
The study simply illustrated the unsurprising fact that, as a group, file-sharers tend to be bigger consumers of recorded music than non-file-sharers - because most file-sharers are very interested in music while some non-file-sharers don't consume music at all. The net effect of illegal file-sharing in the UK and elsewhere has been to reduce legitimate sales. This is why spending on recorded music has fallen every year since illegal file-sharing began to become widespread.
(4) Doesn't the Swedish example show that when action is taken against unlawful file-sharing , there is a beneficial impact on legal music sales?
ORG: We'd need to see the whole figures to know what was happening, but legal music sales are growing everywhere, not just in Sweden. And the real result of the clampdown in Sweden has been the election of two Pirate Party MEPs with 7% of the population voting for them. Hardly a victory for the music industry.
BPI:It certainly looks that way, and there's similar news from South Korea, where the adoption of new anti-piracy laws has seen music sales rebound after years of decline.
In Sweden, music industry revenues rose 18% during the first nine months of this year, coinciding with the introduction of new laws in April to tackle illegal file-sharing. This isn't the whole story, though: there's also been a ruling on the Pirate Bay and Spotify has become very popular very quickly. But the increase in sales is very encouraging, and there's reason to be optimistic that revenues in Britain could follow a similar pattern if legislation is passed that steers people towards new legal services.
(5) Aren't there now plenty of legal alternatives for people who want to get hold of music online without resorting to file-sharing?
ORG: We can see this is what's happened, but we can also see that Spotify has closed its doors to new customers because the license payments they make are unreasonably high.
Online radio services like Spotify need to have licensing based on revenue share rather than per-play costs in order to make a profit.
Online licensing in general is still very restrictive with unreasonable and arbitrary conditions frequently imposed, including handing over of nearly 20% of their business in Spotify's case.
It would be well worth the Competition Commission taking a close look at the market abuse that is taking place and restricting trade.
BPI: There are more than 35 legal music services in the UK already. The a la carte download model popularised by iTunes has now been joined by many subscription and streaming services - such as Spotify and We7 - with vast catalogues and catering for all tastes and budgets. In the last few weeks alone, Sky Songs has launched, and retail giant Tesco has revamped its entertainment offering. There's more choice of music retailers online than you are likely to find on your local high street.
There is no longer any sensible justification for file-sharing illegally, since many services now allow free access to huge catalogues of music and feature playlist sharing and other social tools.
Sadly, these developments haven't made any significant difference to levels of illegal file- sharing. The growth of new music services will continue to be held back unless new legislation is passed, as it is difficult to justify developing new services when the market includes unauthorised services operating illegally to provide music entirely for free.
- 25 Nov 09, 14:11 GMT
Will the online encyclopaedia that has become the first destination for millions of web users searching information end up withering away, as its worker bees lose interest in keeping it nourished? That's the question raised by a study of Wikipedia editors carried out by a Spanish academic for the Wall Street Journal. It shows that editors are giving up on Wikipedia far faster than new ones are joining, with a net loss of 49,000 editors in the first three months of 2009.
So why are so many of the people who used to compete fiercely to perfect entries on everything from astrophysics to Abba walking away from the project. One theory is that the whole project has simply lost its early innocence, and that's caused editors to drift away. It was incredibly easy in the early years to plunge in and write a new entry - or more likely edit an existing one. That allowed Wikipedia to grow very rapidly into an extremely broad-ranging source of information, and one that was mostly reliable, despite the carping of academics, rivals and many in the mainstream media.
But gradually the utopian idea of a worldwide community of unpaid enthusiasts creating an invaluable resource, making the world's information available freely to anyone with an internet connection, has had to confront a nasty reality - the web is an argumentative place where a few noisy and sometimes malicious folks can spoil things for everyone.
Repeated vandalism of controversial entries - and here I must confess I once tinkered with my own entry to make a journalistic point - has led the Wikimedia Foundation gradually to introduce more and more rules about the way articles are edited. It's clear some early enthusiasts have been put off by the increasing bureaucracy surrounding the project. Just look at the comments on this issue which I've gathered this morning from some "Wikipedians":
"Can't be bothered dealing with the officious self-appointed ruling elite of Wikipedia"
"I find the bureaucracy of Wikipedia really offputting. Little things like their policy on phonetic transcription are suffocating!"
"i stopped editing Wiki when every edit seemed to be hit a wall. it's just become too hard work to stay within the rules."
"combination of idiots constantly changing and disagreeing and how everything you write being screened.."
"The Deletionists took our encyclopedia away."
Mind you, some also questioned the source of these statistics and how they'd been interpreted (a very Wikipedian response!) and others made the very good point that with so much of the world's knowledge already included in the online encyclopaedia there was little to inspire new editors.
This morning I spoke to Michael Peel, who chairs Wikimedia UK, and he admitted there was a problem with communicating the rules to new volunteers:
"One thing we're finding is that people are scared off because they get a standard message (when they try to edit an entry) which is not written as well as it could be."
He said the Wikimedia Foundation was in the middle of a big project to make the site more user-friendly for both readers and editors.
Michael, who is a postgraduate astronomy student and contributes to articles on that subject and on the history of Manchester, says there is still plenty of work to be done:
"It's nowhere near what it could be. In my opinion, it could be a lot bigger, a lot more reliable and a lot better referenced, but that kind of job doesn't appeal to the passer-by."
Even if it does become more difficult to get people interested in contributing to Wikipedia, there's no doubt that user numbers just keep on growing. Wikipedia itself reckons between 28% and 37% of the UK internet population are regular users, with similar figures across much of Europe, North America and Asia - though only 1% of Chinese surfers apparently use Wikipedia.
So this is a project that is suffering plenty of growing pains - but with a Wikipedia entry coming top of Google's search results for just about any topic you can imagine, the online encyclopaedia is certainly not on the wane.
- 23 Nov 09, 11:24 GMT
There's a fascinating story in this morning's edition of the Financial Times, which could signal a big shift in the balance of power between parts of the web and other parts of the media. The piece says that Microsoft has been in talks with the media giant News Corporation over a plan which could see the firm behind papers from the Wall Street Journal to the Sun being paid to stop Google searching its news websites.
The implication is that Microsoft's search engine Bing would be the place to go for news - and that Google would have to start paying if it wanted to retain that kind of content.
The FT's story comes a week or so after the Techcrunch UK blog reported that Microsoft had held talks with European publishers about what sounds like a similar plan to get them onside as part of a battle to make Bing a more attractive and lucrative place than Google for their content.
So is there any truth in either report? Well, a couple of days after the Techcrunch post, I was due to interview a senior executive from Bing, and Microsoft called to ask whether I would be asking about that story. When I said yes I would, they said he could not talk about it - and we therefore pulled out of the interview. Make of that what you will.
All of this comes against the background of Rupert Murdoch's campaign to start getting people to pay for the online content of his newspapers, a move fleshed out last week in a speech by the editor of the Times, James Harding.
But Mr Murdoch has also made it clear that Google - and indeed the BBC - are two major obstacles to this campaign, because they are both major ways to get free news. Meanwhile, Microsoft is anxious to do two things - to give Bing a big push, and to get in on Google's profit margins.
So it's understandable that News Corp and Microsoft might want to unite against the idea that news content on the internet should be free. But there are also plenty of reasons why Microsoft in particular would want to keep these negotiations as quiet as possible.
After all, if internet users get it into their heads that Bing's results are not as unbiased as Google's appear to be, because of an alliance with news providers, then they may well be less keen to switch to Microsoft's search engine.
Ah, but what if Bing were the only place to get quality news because such content had been shut out of Google? Well, that would be an interesting test of just how important news is to the mass of internet users. For we professional journalists, that could be a worrying moment - one where we find out the true market value of our content.
- 23 Nov 09, 08:19 GMT
What kind of technology does the modern multimedia reporter need to master - and where is the boundary these days between the professionals and amateurs? Two questions I've been debating over the last couple of weeks with journalism students at the Cardiff School of Journalism, and with colleagues from other broadcasting organisations at a conference in Paris.
The session at the Festival Europeen des 4 Ecrans was about multimedia journalism, and the challenge that poses to traditional media organisations. My presentation was about the way the BBC newsroom has been transformed by the integration of web, radio and TV journalists but also by the recognition that the audience has changed from passive recipients of news to eager contributors of everything from blog comments to video of breaking news stories. I showed a short video shot on a mobile phone to illustrate the importance of what we call the UGC (user-generated content) hub.
But it looks as though some broadcasters are going even further in getting the audience to do the journalism. Vincent Giret from France 24, a trilingual news channel running services in French, English and now Arabic, described an experiment called "The Observers". The channel has recruited about 2,000 people from around the world who send in short video reports - everything from footage of a bomb going off in Baghdad to an Irishman giving his views on the Thierry Henry "main de Dieu" incident.
There was some sharp questioning from the floor about whether these "citizen journalists" are paid - they're not - and how France 24 can be sure about the authenticity of their reports. Vincent Giret insisted that there was still a rigorous editorial process before anything was shown on TV or on the website.
Then we heard from a man who seems to me the very model of a modern multimedia journalist. Damien Van Achter works for the Belgian TV station RTBF - and his card describes him as community manager, editor developer and journalist. But his role seems to be to act as a kind of new media agent provocateur inside quite a traditional organisation, encouraging older broadcasters to try all the new tools that are now available.
Even while we were setting up our laptops for our presentations he was using tools like Audioboo to record and upload sound to the web, putting video from his phone online within seconds, then showing me how he uses an iPhone app to edit his videos, inserting titles and effects.
His blog, "Blogging the News", is where he brings a lot of his journalist experiments together but it seems most of it is his own rather than RTBF's material - he's really a backroom boy at the station rather than a mainstream correspondent. All the more interesting then that the US State Department, which had spotted his blog, contacted him before Hillary Clinton's visit to Brussels and offered him exclusive access to the secretary of state during her tour.
He seemed just a bit defensive when I asked how the political or diplomatic correspondents at RTBF had greeted this news - he insisted they did the professional job of analysing the politics of the trip, while he provided access and colour, which you can see here.
Now I have struggled to acquire just a few of the multimedia skills that Damien van Achter has in abundance, and while I feel they've enriched my journalism and made my life a lot more interesting, I do think that there are questions to be asked about whether the modern professional journalist can do absolutely everything. If a reporter has to shoot and edit video, record audio and take a few stills, will they still have time to do those age-old journalistic tasks of ringing people up, asking them questions and getting to the bottom of an original story?
The student journalists I met in Cardiff all seemed incredibly talented and multi-skilled - they'd come from a morning in the courts learning about law reporting, but were eager to discuss everything from the way Google Wave might change journalism to which iPhone apps were best suited to mobile reporting. They were bravely preparing themselves to enter a profession in crisis, where the very idea of paying people to do journalism appears to be under threat.
I told them that it was great to learn a wide set of skills, but that news editors would not want to employ someone who could just about shoot a video, muddle their way through a court story, and slap together a few minutes of unpolished audio. They would rather have someone who was brilliant at one thing and they still cared about the fundamentals of journalism. Spotting a story, crafting a powerful intro, telling people something they didn't know - these skills have not been rendered obsolete by the web revolution.
At least I hope that is true. But the big question is whether we will be willing to pay for the craft of journalism - either the old kind or today's multimedia variety - in the coming decade. New technology, from blogging software to YouTube to iPhone apps, is making it possible for anyone, amateur or professional, to make news and give it to the world. What's becoming ever harder is working out how to make a living from journalism.
- 20 Nov 09, 09:26 GMT
This morning I joined a clutch of damp, sleepy and dishevelled hacks - sorry, bright-eyed and enthusiastic fellow journalists - at a briefing at the Department of Business in Whitehall about the Digital Economy Bill.
In brief, this sets out to take Lord Carter's Digital Britain report and turn some of it into law.
Amongst the main measures:
• Action against illegal file-sharing forcing ISPs to take action against infringers. This includes the controversial measure which could see repeat offenders cut off
• Allows the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act to be amended if in future new communications technologies allow content to be copied in new ways
• New duty on Ofcom to encourage investment the spread of next-generation broadband. Part of this involves that £6 telephone tax - but that will be introduced via the pre-Budget report
• Digital "safety measures" to stop firms registering domain names for illicit use
• Age ratings on video games to be made compulsory for all games aimed at players aged 12 and over
Now the most controversial elements are of course those measures against unlawful file-sharers, and the ministers were subjected to a series of questions about the possibility of repeat offenders having their connections suspended.
They were very keen to stress that this was the nuclear option - first of all internet service providers would have to send out letters to those spotted file-sharing on their networks.
The content owners will have to pay a fixed fee, set by Ofcom, to have that letter sent to the ISP's customer.
If that didn't work, then the secretary of state would have to go to Parliament before the ISPs could be forced to press the suspension button - or use other technical measures.
That decision would only be made if the lesser measures failed to cut unlawful file-sharing by at least 70%. But the ministers seemed pretty unclear about the timetable for that 70% reduction - and even less clear about how it would be measured.
While the government says it has the support of the Conservatives for these measures, it has already received some friendly fire from Tom Watson, the former digital minister who is worried about those powers to amend the copyright act, and from the big ISPs, notably TalkTalk.
Stephen Timms, the minister for Digital Britain, insisted that something like 90% of the ISP market supported the policy - his maths seem questionable - and that in any case new business models were making file-sharing less attractive.
On the question of rural broadband - a hot issue I know for some readers of this blog - there was a promise that the £6 landline tax would go a long way to making sure that 90% of the country would get access to fast broadband by 2017.
That new tax, though, will only be implemented if the government manages to get a Finance Bill through before the general election, against fierce opposition.
So two big ideas in this bill - that content owners should be able to pursue file-sharers with severe punishment, and that major public investment should go into next generation broadband. But given the fuzzy timetables and determined opposition, will either of them come to anything?
Update 16:00: In this morning's briefing Stephen Timms suggested that the majority of the internet service providers supported the anti-file-sharing measures - indeed, he claimed that ISPs representing 90% of customers were backing it.
But so far today I've received statements from both ISPA - the internet providers' trade body - and BT, which Mr Timms cited as a supporter, and neither has been exactly enthusiastic.
ISPA secretary general Nicholas Lansman said:
"ISPA is extremely disappointed by aspects of the proposals to address illicit filesharing. This legislation is being fast-tracked by the Government and will do little to address the underlying problem."
Whereas John Petter, managing director of BT Consumer, said this:
"We believe abuse of copyright is wrong. However, we have real concerns about the government's plans and the lack of legal protections for accused individuals. We believe that technical measures are not the way forward and that a system of court fines for repeat infringers is preferable. Such an approach would not only protect innocent people, it could also create a fund that could be used to support the UK's creative industries."
The music and movie industries have welcomed the bill - but it looks as though the government faces quite a battle with the ISPs.
- 18 Nov 09, 11:25 GMT
Facebook is under fire this morning, accused of neglecting its responsibility to help to keep young internet users safe.
The charge comes from Jim Gamble of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, who wants Facebook (and MySpace) to follow the lead of Bebo in including Ceop's "Report button" in its social network.
Mr Gamble says he doesn't understand why Facebook won't take a fairly simple step which would give young users instant access to advice on issues from bullying to viruses and hacking, and would put them in touch with the police if they so wished.
Now, Facebook knew this attack was coming and gave the BBC a fairly comprehensive statement, explaining why the service is not keen on the Ceop button.
It says that it's tried out such systems on a number of occasions, and that they've proved ineffective, actually decreasing the number of abuse reports. It points out that it's an international site and would prefer to have its own global protection system rather than a separate one in each territory. And, in what appears to be a jibe aimed at Bebo, it says:
"We are confident that the Ceop button is an excellent solution for sites that have not invested in as robust a reporting infrastructure as Facebook has in place and one we continue to improve."
The social network - which earlier this month invited the BBC to film the centre in Dublin where it investigates reports of abuse - might appear to have quite a coherent case. But what Facebook has not done at the time of writing is to come on the radio and defend itself against its critics - allowing Jim Gamble to more convincingly argue that a company that won't debate the issue can't have much of a case.
We should also remember that, as various callers to a recent Nicky Campbell phone-in pointed out, there is an age-limit of 13 for Facebook, and there is a duty on parents to monitor the way their children use social networks.
But Facebook appears to have decided that it has nothing to gain by tangling live on air with a respected figure like Jim Gamble.
Facebook is of course a global business, based in California - but it is also now a major British media company, earning plenty of advertising revenue here and having a big effect on millions of lives. With that kind of power, some are asking: does it have a responsibility to answer its critics - especially when it believes that their criticisms are wrong-headed?
- 17 Nov 09, 11:10 GMT
A grand dinner in a glamorous location, a ceremony presided over by a former star of Strictly Come Dancing and a clutch of winners who are stars in their field. No, it wasn't the BAFTAs but the inaugural iAwards event held last night at the Science Museum, with John Sergeant as master of ceremonies.
These awards, which aim to celebrate British companies at the leading edge of science, technology and innovation, were the brainchild of the science minister Lord Drayson and the entrepreneur and "Dragon's Den" dragon James Caan. The aim does indeed appear to be to scatter the same kind of stardust over Britain's leading innovators that the BAFTAs sprinkle over film and television stars. But, as I'll explain later, there's still a way to go before the iAwards succeed in that aim.
First, I should make it clear that I was one of the panel of judges involved in choosing the winners, although you'll be glad to hear there were also some very distinguished scientists and engineers on the panel. There was a mountain of paperwork and some very impressive entries - although there were also too many companies that struggled to
communicate exactly what was innovative about the products they were submitting for consideration.
But here are just three of the winners:
The iAward of the year and iAward for best technology start-up
Horizon Discovery Ltd, Cambridge: X-MAN Model Cancer Patient
This was one of a number of entries from Britain's biotech industry and by far the most impressive. Horizon has in effect created a cancer patient in a test-tube, which should help to identify personalised cancer treatment, reduce R&D costs, and increase patient survival. "world-class scientists doing first-class work, with excellent prospects for impact on the health sector", was how one judge put it.
The iAward for a consumer product
Unilever R&D, London: Pureit
This category included a couple of other strong entrants - a device which screens nuisance calls and a very smart One Touch jar-opener, aimed at solving a growing problem for an ageing population. But the winner was Pureit, a simple water purification device that could bring clean water to millions around the world. It's a jug which removes parasites, pesticides and bacteria with its innovative Germkill battery, designed to clean as much as 1,500 litres of water before it needs replacing.
The iAward for the next big thing
Diverse-Energy Ltd, West Sussex: PowerCube
This was the category which I was in charge of judging, and it was difficult to work out with products from such a wide range of industries what would really be the next big thing. But the Powercube really stood out - it's a fuel-cell-based power system for mobile phone masts, designed to provide a clean, low-cost and reliable alternative to diesel generators. Anyone who's travelled in developing countries recently will have noticed phone masts springing up everywhere, many of them far from mains power. That means noisy and polluting diesel generators and Powercube aims to replace them with a fuel cell which uses ammonia to produce hydrogen. We saw evidence that this innovation was already being effectively commercialised - and could have applications beyond phone masts in all those places which struggle to get reliable and clean energy.
So some very impressive products, providing an encouraging glimpse of British innovation. But something was missing from these technology BAFTAs - looking at those who climbed the stage to collect their awards, I couldn't spot anyone under 30 and precious few women.
And indeed the judges noticed that while many big established businesses in fields like biotech and energy and construction had submitted entries, there was little or nothing from two of the sectors where Britain does have an edge, namely the video games industry and web development. None of those funky young firms in Shoreditch, Brighton or Dundee appeared to have heard of the iAwards. Perhaps they're too busy just struggling to get off the ground - but let's hope that next year's awards can give a rather more rounded picture of the state of British technology.
- 16 Nov 09, 17:49 GMT
Reading the coverage over the last couple of days, you might think that the row over Google's plans to digitise the world's books was fading away.
The search company has responded to the anger of many in the publishing world by making concessions late last week which mean that most non-American titles will not be included. "Google backtracks on putting world's books online," read one headline today.
But actually it's a lot more complicated than that, as I discovered in the genteel surroundings of the Society of Authors in Kensington this lunchtime.
Representatives of publishers and authors in the US and UK had called a few journalists together to explain some of the details of this extraordinarily complex deal.
After an hour I think I might just about have got to grips with it - but let's boil it down to a few headlines.
• The deal envisages the digitisation of millions of out-of-print works that are in libraries in the United States.
• The number of books involved has now come down by 60%, following the decision to exclude most foreign language books.
• But books by UK, Australian and Canadian authors held in US libraries will be part of the programme, unless the authors or publishers opt out.
• Google users outside the United States will not have access to the service.
What was clear from the meeting was that the bodies representing US and UK authors and publishers are united in the belief that the deal is now satisfactory and should go through.
The Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, which collects fees for writers, says it has received around 2,000 positive e-mails from its members, with only four or five opposed to the settlement.
But, I asked how could they all be so sanguine about the prospect of giving Google a foothold in online publishing which might eventually make an already powerful company the dominant force in the future of books?
They insisted that a deal involving out-of-print titles, a sector of the market which was by definition unprofitable, would not set a precedent: "Nobody expects the settlement to be the mechanism to make in-print books available to the general public," said Paul Aiken of the US Authors Guild.
He then picked up his copy of Amazon's e-book the Kindle to make the point that monopoly power currently resided elsewhere:
"Amazon has 90% of the e-book market in the United States, and 75% of the online print book market - Google has roughly 0%. Google entering the market for out-of-print books just isn't going to change the equation."
Simon Juden of the UK Publishers said that he and his colleagues across Europe were working on Arrow, an EU-funded system for putting out-of-print books online, which would be "much more platform-neutral".
Why, then, had his organisation backed this system which was so far from being neutral? "We sit where we sit," he replied, "to get where we are we started with a court action in 2005. In the real world, this is just where we are."
And one other thing is very clear - this story will have many more chapters. Even if the current settlement finally gets the approval of the US court, it may not come into force for some years.
"There are implacable opponents with money and they will appeal it," said the man from the US Publishers Association. So, who knows, perhaps a European online book platform could be up and running while Google's version remains trapped inside the American legal system.
- 16 Nov 09, 08:34 GMT
Shocking figures today on the extent of cyberbullying in our schools. Research for the charity Beatbullying showed that over 60% of 11-18-year-olds said they'd witnessed some form of online bullying. It ranges from unkind words on an instant messaging service to full-blown hate campaigns which in extreme cases have driven some children to suicide.
But, as we shake our heads and ask ourselves how it came to this, shouldn't we also be asking another question: are adults any better?
You don't have to roam far online to find examples of rudeness, aggression and downright bullying. I had a quick scan of the politics blogs - left and right - this morning and these were just a few of the comments I found:
"He should be hung drawn and quartered, as slowly as is possible to maximise his suffering."
"This EVIL person deserves no pity. He is accomplished in one thing only. Utter Cowardice."
"The rest of Parliament should be shot, not hung."
But it's not just politics that is discussed online with this level of vituperation. Almost any area of life - from religion, to the environment to literature - seems capable of attracting those, who when sat in front of a computer, will tap out messages of hate that they would never be likely to express face-to-face with their opponents.
Even a subject that most might see as fairly innocuous, such as which computer operating system might be the best, can spark furious exchanges amongst people who attack each others' credentials, motives, professionalism - or right to exist.
And what do nearly all of these angry people have in common? They are anonymous, leaving just a nom de guerre scattered across various blogs and message boards. Now, anonymity is a vital protection for those who want to protest against the Iranian authorities or reveal malpractice by their employer - or to talk about their own experiences at the hands of school bullies.
But should we have any respect for anyone who launches wounding attacks without having the courage to reveal their own identity? No - arguably not in the playground, nor on an instant messaging service, or anywhere online.
- 13 Nov 09, 10:06 GMT
Three years ago, I filed a series of reports from South Korea, intended to give a glimpse of our high-tech future - and it seemed clear that one phenomenon - mobile television - would be heading our way... presently.
But so far in the UK - and across Europe, as far as I can see - mobile television is the personal jet-pack of consumer technology: something that looks fun but has stubbornly refused to take off.
There have been numerous experiments, rows over different broadcast standards, and quite a few failed launches - remember that Virgin Mobile TV service, promoted by Pamela Anderson, which closed after attracting fewer than 10,000 subscribers?
It seems that a combination of technological problems and consumer indifference has made both operators and broadcasters pause for thought. The trouble is that the various broadcast systems that have been tried out have so far looked too expensive, while television over the 3g network has proved just a bit flaky.
Now, though, there's a new wave of interest, sparked by the proliferation of smartphones with bigger screens, notably the iPhone.
While few people are watching live television, more and more seem to be putting programmes on their phones to watch on the move, and it seems the BBC's iPlayer service for mobiles has also proved quite popular.
Some dedicated gadget fans are also using Slingbox's technology to deliver their home television service to their mobile phones. But this week, Sky launched a mobile TV service aimed specifically at iPhone users, and it set me wondering whether at last someone was going to crack the live TV conundrum.
Sky says it already has around 250,000 subscribers to two mobile sports TV services on a number of handsets - but it has big hopes for the iPhone and its early-adopter user base (due in part to the apps potential and, again, that bigger screen). Around two million people have downloaded a series of free Sky applications, but now the big test will be how many will sign up for the £6-per-month service giving access to all of Sky's live sports output.
But here's the catch - it's only available on wi-fi, so while it may be handy as a cheaper substitute at home for those unwilling to pay full whack for Sky Sports, it's unlikely to allow many people to catch Premiership action on the move.
It's apparently O2 which has decreed that this - like other TV streaming services - cannot be accessed on its 3g network. The operator says that if some people are watching television on their mobiles, others could see their service impaired. And this brings us back to the real problem: an industry struggling to deliver a compelling experience to mobile consumers with technology which isn't yet up to the job.
One live service delivered over 3g is, however, causing a lot of excitement. It's called TVCatchup, and it offers the main channels live to a computer or an iPhone.
I've tried it out over the last few days: catching up with a bit of Strictly Come Dancing as we walked to a firework display; watching the Six O'Clock News on the train home. It's amazing when it works, though prone to freezing when network coverage dips.
There is of course one catch to TVCatchup. The broadcasters appear dubious about its legal status, though I'm not entirely sure what the difference is between a phone streaming a live feed of BBC1 and one of those tiny portable televisions picking up the broadcast signal. In both cases, though, you do need a television licence to watch live TV (see this post at the BBC Internet Blog). (Note to TV Licensing: how about a licence app for phones? Free to those who've already got a licence?)
The appetite for live television on the move can only grow. The question now is who will be able to come up with something that delivers on three fronts - the right technology, a price consumers will pay, and a business model that will survive for more than a few months.
- 11 Nov 09, 08:55 GMT
What connects Italian vegans, Valerie Singleton, and Linux Mint? Well they're all involved in a firm whose business is bringing computing to older users.
Whether or not Simplicity Computing succeeds will be a big test of two things - the appetite of older people to get online and the attractiveness of open source software as a means of dealing with digital exclusion.
Yesterday we took 80-year-old Betty Parsons for her first encounter with a computer. She climbed the stairs at the home of Nigel Houghton, who's masterminding the Simplicity venture, and sat herself down in front of the machine. When it's switched on for the first time, up pops Valerie Singleton - co-founder of the business launching Simplicity - and starts explaining what to do next, much like Microsoft's talking paperclip.
It's very basic - how to use a mouse, how to navigate your way around the simple front page and so on - but it needs to be. It's instructive watching someone using a mouse for the first time. Betty found it a real struggle - and that must be a big hurdle which some people will not clear.
Simplicity runs on the Linux Mint free operating system, and Liam Proven, who's designed the whole set-up, tracked down a company called Vegan Solutions - yes those Italian vegans - which had already produced a software package aimed at older users. He's worked with the Italians to adapt their Eldy software for British use.
So the home page is deliberately stripped down to essentials: six buttons leading to e-mail, web browsing, chat, documents, your personal profile - and more video tutorials by Val Singleton. There are no long menus with bewildering choices and wherever you are in the system, there's another button marked Square One, which takes you back to... well, you can guess.
Liam Proven told me that he was "platform-agnostic" but had chosen a Linux operating system for three reasons:
"Firstly, it means a fairly big price saving because Linux is free, so £70 to £80 is saved on what is meant to be a low-priced computer. Secondly, it's extremely secure so there's no need for anti-virus, and thirdly it runs very much better and faster than Windows on a more limited machine."
But there's a couple of questions to be asked about Simplicity. It's not all that cheap - systems range from £299 without screen or keyboard to £525 for a complete system. Then there are some people who will undoubtedly feel patronised by the very idea of a computer for older users - one woman got in touch with me this morning to express her annoyance - and others will ask why they shouldn't be taught to use Windows like just about everybody else.
When I visited a UK Online centre the other day, a group of older users of varying degrees of computing skill were using the desktops to surf the web and send e-mails, occasionally asking for help from a volunteer. The computers were all running Windows XP and it set me wondering whether this is still the first operating system most novices see when they come to one of these places.
UK Online pointed out that every centre operates independently, obtaining its funding from various sources and choosing what hardware and software to buy. But yes, it appears they almost exclusively use Windows - and mostly XP. A spokesman said: "Many choose Microsoft as it is the leading system used in the workplace or on PCs bought in retail stores and therefore the one customers often wish to learn."
They are also almost all using Internet Explorer to browse the internet - 86% of the computers are on various versions of IE, with just 10% on Firefox - so if you're learning about computers in a UK Online centre, you'll almost certainly be plunged into a Windows world.
So Simplicity is swimming against the tide, and may find some resistance, not from older customers, but from sons and daughters who'd rather see their parents learn the same system as themselves. But Betty Parsons certainly liked the look of it - though getting to grips with that mouse will still be a challenge - and the company says its stand was besieged by eager customers when it showed off a pilot system at an exhibition recently.
There's no reason - except for inertia - why we should all have to start our computing journey using the same system. Indeed, if Simplicity proves a hit, it may encourage others to look at their software and ask why it is so difficult for a first-time user to grasp. Oh, and one more thing - Val Singleton or a talking paperclip? No contest.
- 9 Nov 09, 12:46 GMT
It's the biggest games launch of the year, possibly of all time, a title which is expected to sell 3 million copies in the UK alone over the coming days. It's the subject of feverish interest from fans, and great expectations from retailers, with stores opening at midnight, and a price war launched by one major supermarket chain. But Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 has also sparked off a battle between two prominent Labour MPs with very different views of digital culture.
It started this morning with a story in the Daily Mail about the violence in the 18-rated game. The Mail said critics had accused the creators Activision of being irresponsible - but the only critic named was Keith Vaz, the Labour MP for Leicester East, who said this: "I am absolutely shocked by the level of violence in this game and am particularly concerned about how realistic the game itself looks."
Mr Vaz has been a long-term critic of the games industry, and plans to raise his concerns over Call of Duty in the Commons this afternoon in questions to the culture secretary and his team.
But within hours another Labour MP Tom Watson had hit back. Mr Watson is the former minister for digital engagement, and a prolific blogger and social networker who has shown a willingness to go on the attack over issues like cutting off illegal filesharers since he left the government in April.
He had already shown his impatience with critics of video games and this morning started a Facebook group, Gamers' Voice. The mission statement on the group's page says: "Are you sick of UK newspapers and (my fellow) politicians beating up on gaming? So am I. The truth is, UK gamers need their own pressure group. I want to help you start one up."
I got hold of Tom Watson and he told me that this morning's article had "pushed me over the edge". He said that the voice of ordinary games wasn't being heard:
"Everything that comes out of Parliament in relation to video games is relentlessly negative. There are thousands of people employed in this industry, there are 26 million people playing games. We should have a much more balanced view of the industry, indeed we should be supporting them through difficult times."
Keith Vaz's concern is about one particular level of the game, which involves the gamer deciding whether to kill unarmed civilians. I contacted Activision, and a spokesman pointed out that players encounter a mandatory "checkpoint" before this segment of the game, warning that it contains disturbing elements.
Tom Watson says the content in question is "deeply repulsive" and he would not want to play it himself - but he points out that similar material is in both books and films, and he believes that as long as there is a classification system which is well policed, there is not really an issue here.
Keith Vaz told me he was concerned by the way the manufacturers of the game were glorifying violence.
"Nobody is trying to stop anyone over the age of 18 purchasing this game," he said. But he said government, manufacturers, retailers and parents all had a responsibility to work together to protect children.
He already has a question listed for this afternoon about the steps taken by the government to implement the recommendations of the Byron Report on the classification of video games, and he will follow up with a supplementary about Call of Duty.
But Tom Watson is planning to hit back with his own views on the gaming industry. That's DCMS at 1430, and you can follow this bout of modern warfare on the BBC Democracy Live website - and maybe report back here on your verdict.
- 9 Nov 09, 09:20 GMT
Can Europe compete with Silicon Valley when it comes to smart young web start-ups? When so much of the venture capital money is still based in Palo Alto and Mountain View, it's hard to start a business in Shoreditch or Stuttgart which can take on the world. But in the last week I've met two - Huddle and Soundcloud - which seem to stand a chance, both by offering fairly simple utilities in the internet "cloud".
Huddle is a company based in south London providing office space to users all around the world. No, not a property company, because the offices used by Huddle's customers are in a web browser. The aim is to allow organisations large and small to have an online space, where staff and clients can share documents, calendars, even a virtual whiteboard. You sign up and are then presented with your first "workspace", described in the blurb as " a secure space that you can share with others and use to manage a project, team or client relationship." So then you can invite colleagues to join you in your online office, editing documents, scheduling meetings, and doing all those other tiresome but important tasks of the average office worker.
There is a free ad-supported service, but Huddle is really aiming at businesses which will pay between £10 and £125 a month for large amounts of online storage. Hold on a minute, though, isn't this tiny start-up lying in the middle of the road waiting to be crushed by the biggest name on the web? After all Google's suite of online applications - documents, spreadsheets and presentations - already fulfils a similar purpose, and Google Wave, if it is ever transformed into something vaguely usable, will take the online collaboration business to a whole new level. And they are both free.
Nevertheless, Huddle has managed to grow rapidly. Its commercial director Charlie Blake Thomas told me that its user base was doubling every four months, and the firm was expecting to be "extremely close" to breaking even in the first quarter of next year - though I think we've all learned to take such forecasts with a pinch of salt. Its customers range from the energy firm Centrica to local councils and government departments, so why are they opting to "huddle" when they could share Google docs for nothing? Mr Blake Thomas said his firm offered a more professional and stable service, citing as an example one local council:"They started by using Google Docs but once they'd got 70 or 80 people onboard it just didn't work for them, and they upgraded to Huddle." He also claimed that, unlike a number of Google services, Huddle was not subject to outages.
There's talk of a ground-breaking deal in the offing which will see a company which still has just 35 employees getting the chance to offer its products to thousands of potential customers. Working together in the cloud is a fashionable new trend with plenty of established American giants sniffing a new way to extract cash from customers - but there is just a possibility that a British minnow could steal the business from under their noses.
By contrast, sharing music online is now a pretty mature business - or is it? I discovered Soundcloud a while back when I was trying to find somewhere that would host audio files in the same way that YouTube hosts your video. Nobody else was really making it easy to upload music or other forms of audio and then share it in a simple way which anyone could access.
The likes of MySpace are useful for new bands attempting to promote themselves, Spotify and Napster offer online access to music for fans, but Soundcloud aims to be a simple utility for the music industry, allowing artists, labels, A&R executives to store tracks online which they and their fans can access anywhere.
"It's Flickr for audio" is how the co-founder Alex Ljung described it when I caught up with him last week, making the point that, like the photo-sharing service, it's aimed mainly at creators rather than consumers. So here are a couple of examples. This is a track by the band Them Crooked Vultures, which uses Soundcloud to distribute its music. The band also used MySpace to offer fans a preview of its new album, but Alex Ljung claims 20,000 fans listened on Soundcloud, compared to just 12,000 on MySpace.
And here is the interview I conducted with Alex, recorded on my phone and then uploaded to Soundcloud. Afterwards he explained that he'd been a sound designer in Stockholm when he and a friend Erik Whalforss came up with the idea for Soundcloud - and moved to Germany to make it happen. Now a team of 10 is running a business with over 350,000 customers, with offices in London as well as Berlin.
It is following the same "freemium" route as Huddle, with a limited free service, and then pro accounts at prices of as much as £45 a month allowing a record label to store unlimited amounts of music online. In the next week or so it will be releasing an iPhone app, allowing these pro customers - probably music label executives - to demo their tracks on the move, rather than handing out CDs as they do now.
So two smart web start-ups, both managing to survive and grow through the toughest recession in living memory. They've each received £2-3 million in venture capital funding, and have shown that you can do quite a lot these days with a clever idea and limited amounts of cash. Now comes the tough part - proving they can be profitable. Or, perhaps more realistically, finding a bigger firm to buy them and take them to the next level.
- 5 Nov 09, 10:01 GMT
How much do you know about all the data you have stored out there on the web? And how much control do you have over it? Questions prompted by Google's latest move to deal with concerns about privacy.
The search company has today launched its Dashboard, which it says will allow users to view and control all the data associated with any of the Google products they may use - from Gmail, to web history, to documents and so on. Why should you want to do that? Well it may give you a bit of a wake-up call about just how much information you are leaving stored on servers in California or elsewhere.
It prompted me to do a quick audit of my online data, and work out what control I had over it. There turned out to be a startling quantity of my stuff out there on the web. Amongst the Google products, I use are Gmail, Google Documents, YouTube and Web History. So I have nearly 22,000 e-mails stored, 589 documents, and 63 videos. My search history dates back to December 2006 - I presume that's when I opted into the service - and includes around 8,500 search terms. I'm reasonably satisfied that I have control over that data - after all I can simply delete all that material and opt out of search history if I so wish.
Then there are other photo and video sharing services like Flickr, and Apple's mobileme where I also have hundreds of pictures and videos for anyone to see if they so wish, plus thousands of contacts and calendar appointments which are only available to me. Again I feel pretty confident that I can wipe all of that if I decide that's best.
So what about all the traces I've left on various social networking sites? On Facebook's servers I have a large amount of material, including hundreds of photos posted by me, and quite a few of me posted by others. I can delete my own photos - but not those posted by others of me. And if I really get sick of Facebook I can simply delete my entire profile - and presumably all traces of my networking life there will disappear.
Now let's turn to Twitter. To my slight embarrassment I see that I've contributed over 7,000 tweets since I joined the micro-blogging service in 2007. All of those messages are now searchable by anyone. For the first time, I had a quick glance at Twitter's terms and conditions - and noticed this explanatory note:
"This license is you authorizing us to make your Tweets available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same. But what's yours is yours - you own your content."
Now I've always regarded Twitter as a public place, so it doesn't really worry me that anyone can see what I've tweeted now and in the past. But in what sense do I "own" my content? If I delete my account, my thousands of tweets will still be online for anyone to read.
But there's one aspect of my online life where I'm even less clear about my control over my own data. For a couple of years I've used the Spinvox voice-to-text service - and you may remember that back in the summer I wrote several articles about that company, which included aspects of its data protection policies. I wrote to Spinvox this week with three questions. I wanted to know how long they kept my voice messages and the text transcribed from them, where that data was stored and what would happen to it if the business was sold to another company.
The answers I received were incomplete and slightly worrying. "Messages are stored in accordance with local data protection legislation", was about the sum of the answer to my first question, though I'm still pressing for details of what that means for my personal messages. Spinvox said all the data was held in its secure UK data centres, and if the company were to be sold, the new owner would acquire all of it. What I now need to find out is just how easy it is for me to wipe all of my embarrassing and confidential voice messages from the Spinvox servers if they are sold on.
Earlier this week on Radio 4's Start The Week , Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, who has written a book called Delete:The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age, argued that the internet's infinite capacity to remember can be a real threat to our future reputations. He said that it was so much cheaper and easier now to store data on the internet than to delete it. I thought at the time he was overstating the problem - but looking at my vast collection of online documents, photos and other detritus, I begin to worry that he may be right.
- 3 Nov 09, 09:13 GMT
Remember the price war that was supposed to break out once O2 lost its exclusive contract to sell the iPhone in Britain?
Well, the price plans that Orange has published for the phone show little sign of an eagerness for hand-to-hand combat.
Apart from an entry-level £30 tariff which promises twice as many minutes as O2's deal, the two firms' offers look virtually identical.
Look at what's likely to be among the most popular tariffs, a 24-month contract for a 16GB iPhone 3GS at £34.26 a month, where you pay £87 for the device.
That's identical in every respect to the O2 deal, except for the cost of the device - which is £87.11.
As we suspected, the high price that Apple extracts from operators leaves them little margin to undercut their rivals - about 11p in fact.
But what does stand out when you examine Orange's price card more closely is what it says about the unlimited data that has been an essential part of the iPhone's appeal.
An asterisk next to the "unlimited" leads to a note saying "Fair Usage policy of 750MB/ month applies." Cue plenty of grumbling from potential customers, particularly on Twitter.
The cap appeared to apply to data downloaded via wi-fi as well as via the 3g network, so some concluded that Orange was planning to curb their customers' use of their own home networks.
I called Orange to check this out - and found the company slightly confused about its own fair usage policy. More than four hours later, the press office finally returned with chapter and verse.
There was a 750MB cap for 3g mobile data, and a separate 750MB for data downloaded with their wi-fi partner BT Openzone - you are free to do what you want on your own network.
So how does this compare with O2? That company came back with its own statement, confirming that its "unlimited" data policy did in fact have its limits.
"We reserve the right... to contact customers about their usage if we believe it adversely affects the service of our other customers, eg if a customer uses their SIM in another device for which it is not intended."
So O2 looks to be a little less restrictive than Orange.
But will many really run up against Orange's limit? At first 750MB may seem an awful lot of data to use on a phone - I reckon I get through about 200MB in a heavy month.
But what we've seen so far is that once you offer people "unlimited" data, they rush to use it, and software developers provide them with new data-rich applications.
Streaming audio and video are increasingly popular on the iPhone, and they can chew up your data allowance at an alarming rate.
Last night someone pointed me towards this clause in Orange's Terms and Conditions:
"Not to be used for other activities (eg using your handset as a modem, non-Orange internet based streaming services, voice or video over the internet, instant messaging, peer to peer file sharing, non-Orange internet based video). Should such use be detected notice may be given and Network protection controls applied to all services which Orange does not believe constitutes mobile browsing."
It sounds as though services like Spotify, AudioBoo, Ustream and even Facebook messaging - increasingly popular with O2 iPhone customers - will be out of bounds for Orange users.
The operator is caught between a rock and a hard place. With little room for manoeuvre on prices, it will be hoping that better network coverage will be one factor winning over iPhone customers from O2.
But if too many power users start streaming TV and playing online games on their phones, the Orange network may buckle under the strain - hence the need for a fair usage limit.
Just hours after publishing its price list, Orange appeared to be having second thoughts about that 750MB cap, admitting that plenty of e-mails had been coming in and that it had noticed the rising tide of Twitter comments.
A spokesman told me the cap would be "reviewed" to make sure that it was at the right level.
The problem for the operators is that users no longer see the iPhone and similar devices as phones but as small computers. And who wants to be told 25 days into each month that they must now stop playing around with their computer and just use it to make calls?
Update, 17:20: Orange has been in touch to clarify their iPhone terms and conditions. Here's the company's statement:
"We do recognise that iPhone customers will use popular streaming services such as YouTube, Spotify etc. As a result we do not intend to apply network protection controls to anyone, as long as they are within their usage allowance. The T&Cs are in place to reserve the right to restrict access should they continue to exceed our Fair Usage policy, and our other Mobile data users suffer a reduced data experience as a result."
- 2 Nov 09, 09:03 GMT
I've been abroad on holiday for the last week - apologies for the lack of blog posts - but even 6,000 miles away I couldn't help noticing that it was quite a week for technology news. The UK government promised to press ahead with tough measures against illegal file-sharers, Nintendo admitted that the Wii had "stalled", Facebook was awarded $711m in damages against a spammer, and approval was given for web addresses in non-Latin scripts such as Arabic and Chinese. Oh, and there've been countless Twitter stories - from the new lists function to the soul-searching about the mob effect when Tweeters see something they don't like - but I know you're not interested in that...
What really caught my eye was the continuing forward march of Google. In just one week, the search giant appears to have struck fear into three industries - music, mobile phone makers and the sat-nav merchants - by offering consumers something new, often for nothing. Its OneBox music search service, which has seen it team up with MySpace's iLike, is being billed as a way of drawing consumers away from torrent sites to places where they can choose to pay for tracks. But it will also be seen as a threat to the fragile business models of companies like Spotify.
Google's Android mobile operating system, which had something of a slow start, is now appearing on a plethora of new smartphones, with Motorola's Droid the one currently attracting the most hype - and the inevitable "iPhone killer" tag. Apple can probably be relaxed about any single phone, but how long before there are more people using Android than Mac OS on a mobile?
And one of the services Google will now be pushing on phones like the Droid is free turn-by-turn navigation, which makes sat-nav devices - or the TomTom app on the iPhone - suddenly look very expensive. Investors certainly thought the threat was real - shares in both TomTom and Garmin lurched downhill when the news broke.
There is a danger for Google in this continuing land-grab. Commentators are already drawing parallells between the search firm now and Microsoft in 1995 - and asking when the competition authorities in Washington and Brussels are going to try to cut the company down to size.
That may be a little premature. Apart from in search-based advertising, Google does not have a dominant position in any of the markets it has entered, and plenty of its new ventures (I still don't really get Google Wave) have yet to make the impact that their enthusiastic creators have promised . What's more, there needs to be a plaintiff accusing the firm of anti-competitive behaviour with some pretty convincing evidence before the regulators can start flexing their muscles.
But, as we've seen with the furore over Google Books, there are plenty of people out there who don't swallow the idea that this is a company on a purely philanthropic mission to organise the world's information. And, if they start making enough noise, Google might need to ring up Microsoft and ask for the numbers of some smart competition lawyers.
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