- 3 Jun 09, 16:09 GMT
A few weeks back the controversial web-tracking behavioural advertising firm Phorm got in touch to invite me to a press launch.
The company promised a "new and groundbreaking consumer proposition." I was intrigued - was a company which had fought without success to get ISPs to accept its Webwise product, against a background of furious opposition from privacy campaigners, finally going to get it off the ground?
So I turned up this morning to Phorm's launch at a ritzy Covent Garden location full of anticipation. On the face of it, the product they were showing off seemed reasonably impressive.
Webwise Discover is described as a "widget" which will allow visitors to any website to find content relating to their interests, as shown by their previous web activity. It will be free to the customers of ISPs who sign up, and to websites which want to use it.
So you might go to a newspaper website to read a sports story, and find that you were also directed to a story about wine, because you'd shown a previous interest in the subject. The product seems to be a kind of automated version of Google, delivering results as you browse even before you've bothered to search.
Now Phorm has been controversial for two reasons - the "deep packet inspection" technology which privacy campaigners claim makes the firm uniquely intrusive, and the fact that it isn't clear whether consumers will be allowed to make an informed choice about whether they want to use the service.
The same technology will be employed in Webwise Discover, but Phorm says this will be a purely optional service, offered to customers only if they want it. The company showed us a video of "vox pops" with people on the street, all hugely enthusiastic about the possibility of using this service.
They also unveiled an opinion poll showing 71% of those questioned liked Discover, and 81% liked it when the Webwise anti-phishing product was added on. Phorm executives told us these were almost unprecedented levels of support - even higher than that for the BBC iPlayer at its launch.
So finally the British public is going to get the chance to decide whether or not they want the benefits of having their web traffic monitored, and Phorm will be able to show those pesky privacy campaigners that they were wrong. Err, no.
It turns out that not a single UK ISP or website has yet signed up to Webwise Discover - though it is being trialled by a major telecoms firm in South Korea - and Phorm could give no timetable for a UK launch.
When I suggested that after seven years of R&D, a company that was still by its own description in the "pre-revenue" stage had got us all along to launch the equivalent of a concept car, the Phorm executives seemed hurt. Here they were creating a technology company with global reach, entering one of the world's most advanced internet markets - we should all be proud, rather than carp!
BT, potentially Phorm's biggest customer, completed its trial of Webwise last December, and tells me it is still "evaluating" the product. Is it mischievous to ask whether Phorm has got so impatient with the lack of movement from BT - or Virgin Media or TalkTalk - that today's launch was really designed to bounce them into a decision?
Whatever the truth, I left the Covent Garden event - without availing myself of the Buck's Fizz on offer - and wondering how long a company with 150 staff and no revenue can carry on without getting British customers to use what it insists is groundbreaking technology
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