Rory Cellan-Jones

Plastic Logic's long journey to Vegas

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 31 Dec 09, 12:07 GMT

In Las Vegas next week, a twenty-five year journey could come to a successful conclusion, when a British company launches what it believes will be a triumphant combination of science and technology. Plastic Logic's e-reader, the Que, will be unveiled on the opening morning of the Consumer Electronics Show. It could be one of the show's stand-out products - or it could end up buried under an avalanche of hype about a forthcoming rival device from a better-known firm.

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This journey began in the 1980s at Cambridge University's world-renowned Cavendish laboratory, where the physicist Richard Friend was working on carbon-based materials for semi-conductors. He tried and failed to get electronics companies interested in the plastic light-emitting diodes which emerged from his research - but when he teamed up with another Cambridge lecturer Henning Sirringhaus, they ended up finding ways to print transistors onto plastic. It was this work which led to the development of the light, flexible displays which Plastic Logic believes will revolutionise the way we read.

On a snowy day just before Christmas, I went to meet the two men at Plastic Logic's offices on the Cambridge Science Park. They are both still teaching at the university, while keeping an eye on the progress of the firm they founded in 2000. And while it has taken a decade for Plastic Logic to bring its first product to market, Sir Richard - he was knighted in 2003 - was confident that the long wait would be worthwhile:

"The most impressive thing is it's an integration of fundamental science and world-leading engineering - it's the thing that the British are not supposed to be able to do."

At that stage, they were not able to show me the final product, but I was allowed to handle prototype displays developed in Cambridge and then manufactured at their plant in Dresden.

They are light and flexible, and Professor Sirringhaus told me the aim was to provide the same experience you get from paper, rather than the one you get from the glass which is needed for conventional screens:

"The whole reading experience is about holding something that is unbreakable.
"It's light; you can treat it like paper; you can stuff it in your briefcase. If you want to read a business document or paper, then the weight of the glass used in conventional technology is quite significant."

Plastic Logic has signed deals with a number of major newspaper groups, including the Financial Times and USA Today, to make their titles available each day on the Que e-reader. The product, which will enter a fast-growing market dominated by products like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, will be aimed principally at the business market. While the technology would permit a roll-up screen, it seems they've gone for something more conventional, so the Que may not look that different from e-readers with a glass screen.

Picture shows: (l-r) STEFAN BUTLER as Roger (2nd from left), MARTIN FREEMAN as Chris Curry, EDWARD BAKER-DULY as Hermann Hauser, SAM PHILLIPS as Steve. TX: BBC FOUR Thursday 8th October 2009The other crucial figure in the story of Plastic Logic is Herman Hauser, the scientist and venture capitalist who's been involved in many of the ground-breaking businesses to emerge from Cambridge over the last two decades - you may have caught him in Micro Men, BBC4's recent drama about the rivalry between Sinclair and Acorn Computers. He put up the money back in 2000 which allowed Friend and Sirringhaus to form Plastic Logic, and he's been instrumental in raising more finance as the years have gone by.

What's really amazing about this business is that that it has gone all the way from research in a laboratory, to manufacturing a product, to building a global sales and marketing team - much of that operation is now based in California - without sacrificing its independence. Which might just be a mistake. A less courageous option would have been to license its technology to Amazon or Sony - or maybe Apple - and let them use their undoubted marketing expertise to sell the idea of plastic displays to the world.

There are now convincing reports that Apple has an event scheduled for late January where it will unveil a mystery new product. The blogs and fan sites are alive with feverish speculation about the iSlate - supposedly the name of a tablet computer which will provide everything from books, TV programmes and music to the solution to global warming.

I'm as fascinated as anyone to see what Apple really has been hiding up Steve Jobs' sleeve, but I hope that amid all the hullabaloo, the launch of Plastic Logic's Que next Thursday will not be overlooked. I will be in the United States to cover this and a number of other technology stories next week, when this blog will have a new look and a new name. So thanks for listening in 2009 - and see you next year.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Spinvox: The end of the saga

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 30 Dec 09, 18:22 GMT

The call with news of a deal in the technology sector came mid-afternoon on 30 December, a day when much more important news was breaking, so I realise that the sale of Spinvox to Nuance may not attract a lot of attention. But it brings to an end the remarkable and rather sad story of what seemed to be one of Britain's most promising young technology businesses.

At the beginning of 2009, Spinvox was apparently riding high, winning awards for its ground-breaking voice recognition technology, recruiting some of the brightest and best in the telecoms and marketing industries, and signing big contracts with the world's leading telecoms operators. But behind the scenes, it was wrestling with huge issues surrounding both its technology and its finances - issues that we revealed on this site in July (see here, here and here).

Now a company that had raised well over $200m from blue-riband backers like Goldman Sachs and Carphone Warehouse has been sold for $102.5m (around £64m) and about a third of that in Nuance shares rather than cash. The Nuance press release unveiling the deal makes no mention of the company's founders Christina Domecq and Daniel Doulton, and in fact features no quote from anyone at Spinvox - highly unusual in this kind of announcement. So the deal raises a number of questions, which I've put to both Nuance and to Spinvox

(1) Will the backers get their money back?

Neither company was at all forthcoming on this issue; but bearing in mind that a £30m loan - due before Christmas - needs to be repaid, it appears there's little left for the investors. Those who were in at the start - like Carphone Warehouse - may have written off their stakes already. As for Christina Domecq, who at one stage had the biggest stake: hers were ordinary shares, so will rank behind those of investors who came in with refinancing late in the day.

(2) What happens to Christina Domecq and Daniel Doulton?

The chief executive Christina Domecq - and to a lesser extent her co-founder Daniel Doulton - were highly-visible standard-bearers for the company until this summer, since when they have disappeared entirely from view. So will either or both stay on? "We're talking to them... a lot of knowledge, a lot of history, a lot of capability in those folks," was what Rich Green of Nuance told me about the founders, but he would go no further.

(3) Will the staff, and in particular the Cambridge Speech Lab, be retained by Nuance?

Again, Mr Green was complimentary about the skills of the Spinvox staff and in particular about its Advanced Speech Group at Cambridge headed by Dr Tony Robinson. "Spinvox has a lot of great people, Cambridge is part of the value of what we're acquiring." But he could not give any details of who would be retained by Nuance, explaining that there would be an "integration process" over the coming weeks. One former employee tells me that a number of current staff are planning to hand in their notice on Monday, in the expectation that they have no future with the company.

(4) Why is Nuance doing this deal?

Nuance told me back in the summer that Spinvox had no technology that it didn't have already. And this afternoon, Rich Green repeated that: "Nuance voice-to-text technology is second to none." So why on Earth is it buying Spinvox? Surely it's the chance to take over those contracts with global telecoms firms? "The contracts and global coverage are part of it," he granted, and went on to explain that Spinvox brought a lot of operational expertise to the party. That expertise, of course, extends to the operation of call-centres around the world, and it's not entirely clear how many of them will be retained by Nuance. But at just over $100m, the deal may seem to the American company a reasonably cheap way of reinforcing its position as a leading speech-recognition firm while being introduced to some big potential customers.

So the curtain may have fallen on the Spinvox saga - but there are still plenty of questions left unanswered.

Update 1350, 31 December: The data question

Last night, I was contacted by someone who pointed out that I'd omitted one key question: what happens to Spinvox's data?

I'm told by a reliable source that over 100 million voicemail messages dating back to 2006 - both the audio and the transcribed text - are still stored by Spinvox, amounting to 100 terabytes. It's a very valuable resource - so much so that I'm told that a major search engine company was also looking at buying the business in recent months, making it clear that it was interested only in the data - not in the technology.

Now a spokesman for Spinvox has confirmed to me that all of that data will simply be handed over to Nuance as part of the deal.

There are obvious privacy issues here: did Spinvox users realise when they signed up that their private messages might be stored for years, then handed over to an American company?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Gadgets of the Noughties

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 30 Dec 09, 09:40 GMT

Just before Christmas I spent a very enjoyable day at home playing with gadgets with two technology pundits. Yes, I know it doesn't sound arduous, but it was work - we were filming a report for BBC Breakfast on the gadgets of the Noughties.

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We went to some effort to assemble a collection of devices dating from around 2000 to help us illustrate how much has changed. So we had a Psion Revo, a first-generation iPod, one of those Nokia "Matrix" slider phones, and the first Canon Ixus digital camera.

To someone as old as I am, 2000 seems like yesterday, so I was amazed to find how antique these gadgets felt. The iPod was a chunky brick, with no colour screen, the camera provided two-megapixel snaps at an outlandish price and the phone seemed incapable of going online or updating my Facebook.

Psion 3AMind you, the Revo still looked like a very capable mini-computer, the kind of device that might have one day evolved into a multimedia tablet. I had a series of Psion organisers and I remember making a far-sighted piece at the end of 1999 predicting that this fast-growing British firm might put the wind up Microsoft over the coming decade - well, we all make mistakes.

We asked Stuart Miles of Pocket Lint and Kat Hannaford of Gizmodo to think back to 2000 and try to remember what really excited them then about technology. Kat, who was 14 and living on a remote farm in Australia, was gripped by gaming:

"The Playstation 2 was coming out, but I had to wait a bit because it was quite expensive. And then there was the internet, which we didn't get until later that year."

Stuart, who was 24 and working as a technology correspondent for the Times, had just got himself an APS camera - which turned out to be an interim technology:

"Digital cameras were just starting to make their way onto the scene - 1 or 2 megapixels and very expensive - but the possibilities seemed endless."

In the last decade, we've seen all sorts of technologies become obsolete as the pace of change has accelerated.

BBC News website in 2000The cathode ray tube is becoming a distant memory for many as televisions have become flatter, bigger, and high definition. VHS has disappeared from most living rooms, to be replaced first by DVD, and perhaps now by Blu-Ray (though that too looks like an interim technology) and increasingly by IPTV such as the iPlayer. Big music systems with CD players and separate amplifiers are also vanishing quickly, with docks for portable players and streaming music devices popping up in many homes. And of course, more and more phones are now smartphones, with users rushing to install applications that help them run their lives or simply enjoy themselves on the move.

But, I asked my two pundits: if you had to choose a gadget of the decade, what would it be?

After a certain amount of umming and ahing, Stuart Miles came up with two:

"For me, it's either the launch of the Canon 300D - the first sub-£1,000 digital SLR camera, or the launch of Sky+ - as it's changed the way I watch television and freed me from the schedules."

For Kat, though, the real advance is the advent of high-definition technology:

"It's revolutionised all aspects of home entertainment. With the introduction of flat-screen HD TVs, the Blu-Ray format and subsequent players, and consoles like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 capable of playing the most brilliantly-detailed games, the quality of home viewing has changed forever."

Well, my two gadget pundits are very knowledgeable - but I'm afraid they're also both completely wrong. The "gadget" of the decade has to be the one thing that has made every other development possible - broadband.

modemWe started the Noughties listening to that annoying dial-up noise as we connected to the net at 56kbps; we ended it with nearly three quarters of British homes enjoying a permanent connection at up to 50Mbps, and increasing numbers able to enjoy mobile broadband at speeds home users would have killed for in 2000. We may moan about unsatisfactory broadband services, and look enviously at countries like South Korea - but living in a connected world became a reality in the Noughties.

Rory Cellan-Jones

2009 - the social year

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 23 Dec 09, 10:00 GMT

As the year draws to a close, I've been looking back at some of the stories I've covered here, and trying to work out what 2009 really told us about technology. It's been a year which has seen Windows, Mac and Linux users all getting to play with new operating systems. It's seen the mobile web really come into its own, and more and more of us have been entrusting our data to the cloud. But above all, it's been the year of the social web, with billions of people finding new ways to communicate everything from their campaign to make Rage Against the Machine the Christmas number one, to their fury at repression in Iran. Here are a few of my highlights:

January: Tech gloom, and a classic Twitter picture

Twitter picture of plance crash landing on the Hudson riverThe year began with the technology world apparently deep in gloom, with Sony, Microsoft and Nokia all unveiling some dreadful results. Mind you, one company, Apple defied the recession, with sales and profits continuing to soar. Its share price however was depressed by the confirmation that its presiding genius Steve Jobs was in poor health.

This was also the month when an aircraft made a crash landing on New York's Hudson river - and a spectator Janis Krum used his phone to upload a picture to Twitter, confirming the arrival of the micro-blogging platform

February: Spotify blooms, MySpace fades

This month I asked whether Spotify would change the music business. Suddenly the free ad-supported music-service was the hottest young technology business in Europe, with a whole industry hoping that its arrival signalled the moment that consumers tired of illegal downloads. Spotify has continued to blossom - though profits still seem a distant prospect - but there's not much evidence yet that music piracy is dying.

One former web star in less than rude health was MySpace. When I met its founder Chris DeWolfe at Mobile World Congress he insisted that the social network had not lost the cool factor, despite being overtaken by Facebook. But a few months later he was gone as MySpace's owner Rupert Murdoch decided to "unfriend him" in his campaign to turn round a fading business.

March: Google up your street

Google street view carOne company seemed to provide a technology story just about every week this year. In March the big Google news was the arrival of Streetview in the UK. The search giant thought there'd be a universal welcome for a service that allowed you to roam the streets of British cities and spot that the people who'd bought your old house had repainted the front door in an ugly shade of green.

It was hugely popular - but there was soon a backlash from those who felt their privacy was being invaded. In Broughton near Milton Keynes the locals stopped a Streetview car and sent it on its way out of their village. A metaphor, perhaps, for the growing resistance to the power of Google in all sorts of spheres.

April: Making web video pay

This was also the year of web video, when millions discovered that the internet was now the quickest and cheapest way to get access to moving pictures of just about anything interesting.

Screengrab of Susan Boyle on YouTubeSo, another Google product, YouTube, was the place where more than 100 million went to see the most unlikely new celebrity of 2009, Susan Boyle. ITV's "Britain's Got Talent" discovered the singer from West Lothian but YouTube turned her into a global phenomenon.

The first pictures of Ian Tomlinson being pushed to the ground by police at a G20 protest - he died shortly afterwards - appeared on the Guardian's website, and newspapers big and small ramped up their video offerings in search of a new business model.

Getting huge audiences for online video was easy, making money from them has proved a lot more difficult. although YouTube now claims that it's earning substantial amounts from advertising around its video clips.

May: The culture of copying

Throughout this year the debate about illegal file-sharing and what should be done about it raged back and forth, with the government's Digital Britain report the focus for some furious lobbying by the media industry and internet service providers.

In May a report by a body, The Strategic Advisory Board on Intellectual Property, was slammed by what you might term the file-sharing lobby for including some questionable figures about the impact of web piracy on the music industry. But its description of Britain's copying culture and warning against trying to criminalise the seven million people who were members of this "downloading community" now looks prescient. After all, the Digital Economy bill, with its measures against persistent file-sharers, hasn't won universal support - particularly from the ISPs who may have to enforce the new law.

June: Iran and the internet

Each time unrest breaks out in countries whose governments are uncomfortable with complete freedom of expression, we now see protesters looking to the web and mobile phones as tools of dissent. So it was after the disputed elections in Iran. It seemed at first that the opposition was winning the digital battle, using mobile phones to record police brutality and organising marches and distributing news via Facebook and Twitter. But the government learned quickly how to silence - or at least quieten - these channels of protest. And while events in Iran were of intense interest to the outside world in June, the attention span of the digerati is not much longer than a tweet. While the online protests continued, the Twitterverse moved on to new topics - such as Tiger Woods or that boy in the escaping hot air balloon.

July: The spinning of Spinvox

In the middle of July I received information that one of Britain's brightest young tech start-up companies was not quite what it claimed to be. Spinvox, which converts voicemails into text, was carrying out most of that job using a string of call-centres around the world rather than the advanced speech recognition technology of which it boasts. This was proving an expensive way of transcribing messages and had implications for the company's privacy standards and for its finances - in July it had asked its staff to take some of their pay in the form of stock options to help it through to profitability.

The company described the allegations as "a veritable maelstrom of accusations, misapprehensions and sometimes just plain lies" - we stood by our story. As I write, Spinvox is on the verge of a sale to an American speech recognition firm. It remains to be seen whether the investors who backed it with over £100m will see much of their money back.

August: Does Mandelson "get" the internet?

Over the summer Lord Carter's Digital Britain report, published in June, was being transformed into a bill that was supposed to shape Britain's future as a digital economy. And by late August it was becoming clear that the media industry bosses who had been somewhat disappointed with Stephen Carter's anti-file-sharing measures were having more luck with Lord Mandelson. As the plan emerged for a "nuclear option" - temporarily disconnecting persistent offenders - one Labour politician muttered "Peter doesn't get the internet". The media barons disagreed - at last someone was taking seriously the huge threat posed to Britain's creative industries by the culture of free.

September: Water or the web

Rory Cellan-Jones and Martin Rogena outside a hut with a laptop computerUntil this summer one part of the world was left stranded by the digital revolution, without a reliable and affordable connection to the internet. Then the first of a series of cables landed on the East African coast, bringing broadband from across the Indian ocean. We travelled to Kenya and Rwanda to report on Connected Africa, and found inspiring stories of the hope behind the hype. In Kenya, farmers without running water or electric power told us they wanted to get online so they could market their crops abroad. In Rwanda, a nation still recovering from a traumatic recent history was betting that the fast internet could lift it out of poverty.

October: Ubuntu and the OS wars

This was the month when I found out just how passionately many people feel about a subject that leaves millions cold -the nature of their computer operating system. After trying out Windows 7 for a week, I gave Ubuntu's Karmic Koala just 24 hours. While I found the latest version of this Linux operating system simple and pleasant to use, my failure to fall in love with it - or to spend as much time with it as Windows - provoked rage amongst its supporters, and brought a record number of comments to this blog. I said I would give it a longer trial, and while that's not been possible to date, I am hoping to fulfil that promise in the near future. But did we at the BBC give Ubuntu a fair crack of the whip, in relation to its overall share of the operating system market? Absolutely - name me another mainstream media outlet which gave it more prominent coverage this year.

November: Murdoch v Google

The online and paper versions of the TimesThroughout the year the grumbling from old media about the internet has grown more persistent, with the web blamed for destroying the economics of content production and promoting the idea that everything from music to movies to news should be free. Rupert Murdoch has led the chorus, with Google his main target - he feels the search giant feeds off the content of his newspaper empire without paying for its meals.

In November reports suggested a possible deal between Murdoch's News Corp and Microsoft's Bing to give that search engine preferential access to news, shutting out Google.

In this titanic battle between old and new media barons, it then appeared that Google had blinked, by making it just slightly more difficult for readers to find a chink in newspaper paywalls. But this battle has far to go, and in 2010 we will learn exactly how Rupert Murdoch plans to persuade readers that online journalism is worth paying for.

December: Facebook offends some friends

The year ended with another story about the social web. Facebook has perhaps been the outstanding new media success story of 2009, growing its audience to over 350 million people worldwide. But it still appears nervous about the impact of a much smaller social network Twitter, and the changes it made to its privacy settings, encouraging its users to share more information with the world, seemed to reflect that. There has been a backlash, with privacy groups claiming that users had not signed up to a network where so much would be visible, and some teachers fearing that their schools would now force them to leave Facebook. But we've seen rows like this before, and Mark Zuckerberg's company has just kept on growing.

Will 2010 prove to be the year Facebook floats on the stock markets, and starts making some serious money? The sceptics say it's an ephemeral business, which can never turn millions of users into billions of dollars. But that's what they said about Google back in 2004.

So, a very social year, and as it draws to a close, let me wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas. Whatever your operating system - or your social network - I hope you'll stay on our friends list in 2010.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Twitter, Iran and #uksnow

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 18 Dec 09, 09:28 GMT

I know how much some of you hate stories that mention a certain microblogging service - but Twitter is the source of two interesting stories today.

First of all, it disappeared for about an hour at around 06:00, with the website and Twitter applications both failing to function.

Screenshots on some blogs appear to indicate that Iranian hackers - angered by Twitter's supposed role in fomenting opposition in that country - took the site down.

If so, it's a powerful demonstration that social networks are becoming an important battleground, both for liberation movements and for their opponents.

And there's another story rather closer to home. As snow sweeps across Eastern England, Twitter is once again a useful place to find information - as long as it doesn't crack under the pressure.

But amid the steady stream of tweets about snow depths and road conditions, a row has broken out over something rather peculiar - just who owns the UK snow?

Or rather who owns #uksnow, the "hashtag" used by twitterers to identify and find tweets about this subject.

Back in February, when the snow was so heavy it even kept hardy London children from school, an inventive web developer called Ben Marsh saw all the #uksnow tweets and had an idea. Using their postcodes, he plotted them all on a map giving a real-time picture of what was going on.

Yesterday he resurrected the idea with a new map, which you can find here.

I had already said on Twitter that I was planning a trip to Cambridge today, and Ben kindly sent me a message drawing my attention to his map. But minutes later. I was getting a message from another twitterer, Julian Bray.

First, he advised me to "forget cambridge a whole snow dump tonight" then went on "ps I invented the #uk snow hashtag last year and March(sic) hijacked it! ie my intell.prop."

It seems that Mr Bray is cross that his "invention" of #uksnow has been forgotten, with all the recognition going to Ben Marsh. I think it's the first time that anyone has claimed intellectual property rights to a hashtag.

All sorts of possibilities open up - after all, popular hashtags can be used millions of times, so maybe I should now create #hashtagdispute, assert my IP rights, and demand payment every time it is used.

All very interesting - but perhaps less important than the apparent cyber-warfare between Iran's government, the opposition and Twitter.

Social networks are transforming the way we communicate; they're also becoming the place where we fight - over issues big and small.

Maggie Shiels

Tweeting outrage over boy's death

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 18 Dec 09, 08:51 GMT

Readers of "mommy blogger" Shellie Ross are used to her sharing information about her life through her blog and also through her Twitter stream.

No-one, however, expected a tweet she sent out on Monday that has sparked a storm of protest, criticism, headlines and sympathy. Here is why.

At 17:22 local time from her home in Florida, Ms Ross tweeted that:

"Fog is rolling in thick scared the birds back in the coop."

Eleven minutes later, her son called 911 to report that his two-year-old brother Bryson was floating unconscious in the pool.

The paramedics arrived at the house at 17:38.

At 18:12, Ms Ross tweeted again:

"Please pray like never before, my 2 yr old fell in the pool."

Screenshot of tweet

Tragically, five hours later her son Bryson was declared dead. At 23:08 Ms Ross returned to her Twitter account to update her 5,400-plus followers. "Remembering my million dollar baby." She also included a photo of Bryson in the post.

The case has now fuelled a debate about parenting and of course about how much someone should share about something so personal. There are equal amounts of shock, sympathy and anger about the affair.

And naturally enough, much of it is being conducted over the internet, especially through Twitter and a number of blogs.

Ms Ross tried defending her actions by answering her critics via Twitter but has since made her Twitter account private - no doubt given all the media attention the case has attracted.

One mommy blogger who has been vocal in her view of how Ms Ross conducted herself is Madison McGraw. She wrote on her blog:

"Maybe if she (Ms Ross) wasn't tweeting, her son might still be alive."

As well as critics, Ms Ross has had supporters speak out on her behalf.

Those who know her called her a devoted mum. One friend told Florida Today that "blogging is a community" and that asking Twitter followers to pray was not unlike asking a congregation to pray.

Rebecca Phillips of the spirituality website agreed.

"If you believe in the power of prayer and have an urgent situation like this mother did, you want as many people praying as possible. She probably felt very helpless."

Ms Ross has hit out at the opprobrium being heaped upon her by using her blog. She especially takes a swipe at the media.

"If it were not for you, I could mourn in peace. Let's try this why don't we, leave me alone, find your next victim and let my son's memory be one of good and peace and strength."

While Ms Ross and her family deal with a terrible loss, the question is being asked about how much one really should share with the rest of the online world.

Another issue is how much support one can get online when something this devastating happens.

Is this case an example of the power of social media or its misuse?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Britain - the digital champion?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 17 Dec 09, 09:35 GMT

If you live in the UK, be proud - you're a citizen of one of the world's most advanced countries when it comes to digital communications. You're more likely to have switched to digital television than anyone else, you enjoy some of the highest levels of broadband availability in the world while paying the lowest prices to use mobile phones and the internet.

That's the picture painted by the media regulator Ofcom, whose annual compendium of international media and communications habits is full of fascinating titbits, like a rich Christmas pudding. Did you know for instance that the average British viewer watches three hours and 45 minutes of television every day, and that we've seen a bigger increase in TV viewing than any other country? Mind you, we still have some way to go before we catch up with the Americans, who lead the world with four hours and 37 minutes in front of the box each day.

Then there's the fact that the British are the second biggest texters in the world, sending 83 billion last year. Mind you, I was surprised to learn that the USA leads the world in texting - I was under the impression that Americans were a little backwards in all things mobile. Maybe they're now falling in love with SMS just as the rest of the world moves on to the mobile web. After all, the stats also show that the UK is a leader in accessing social networks on the move - 3.5 million people visited Facebook and its rivals on a mobile in the third quarter of this year.

As a country where you can make money online we're also ahead of the pack, leading the world in online advertising, and spending more on digital downloads than any other country in Europe. Mind you at £2.24 per head on downloads last year - that's roughly 10 times what the Italians spent - I don't think the music industry can relax yet about wallowing in digital profits.

And what about our general connectedness? Well Ofcom proudly lays out figures showing we have more broadband connections per household than anyone apart from the Canadians, the best 3g coverage, and the highest level of HSPA connections - that's souped-up 3g - outside Japan.

Just a minute, I hear you ask, I thought we were in the broadband slow lane. Well, buried so deep in the report that I had to ask Ofcom to retrieve it for me, is one table that doesn't paint quite such a glowing picture. Figure 4.47 shows the proportion of broadband connections with a headline speed above 8Mbits/s. In the UK that's 10% - whereas in the Netherlands it's 37%, in Sweden 33%, in France 26% and in Germany 16%.

Ofcom showing proportion of broadband connections with a headline speed above 8MBits/s

That accords with another report issued a week or so back by the OECD. It showed the UK well down the speed league, and more significantly found that investment in fibre was racing ahead in other countries but had barely started in Britain. The OECD's report included some economic analysis which suggested that government investment in faster broadband could be justified even if it delivered just small benefits in areas such as health, electricity, education and transport.

I was pondering some of these issues as I was out walking the dog on a bitter London morning. While I walked, I listened on my phone to an excellent radio programme about the advance of technology in the last decade, A Googling We Will Go. The programme streamed via the BBC mobile iPlayer, arrived first over my home wi-fi, and then via a 3g phone network. But just as it was getting really interesting, about half a mile from my front door the 3g network gave out and the programme stopped. I had been disconnected from the information superhighway, just a few miles from central London.

What kind of metaphor that provides for the state of Digital Britain I'm not sure. But perhaps Ofcom could have been just a little more cautious in its claims about our status as the champions of the connected world.

Maggie Shiels

Sexting teens

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 16 Dec 09, 08:20 GMT

If you think your offspring is not involved in sexting, think again. That is clearly the message from a new survey that reveals the habit is becoming more and more common among teenagers.

Teenager with mobile phone (posed by a model)Sexting is, as Wikipedia puts it, a "portmanteau of sex and texting." Or if you like, it is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically mainly from one cellphone to another.

The Pew Research Centre carried out a study in September involving 800 teens.

It found that 30% of 17-year-olds who have phones have received sexting photos or messages. Eight per cent say they sent such images.

In the 12-17 age bracket the numbers may not be as high, but it is startling to think of youngsters this age involved in such practices.

Four per cent with a mobile phone have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves via text and 15% say they have been on the end of receiving such material.

"It's an issue that teens grapple with and deal with in their lives, and one that deserves attention," said Amanda Lenhart, the Pew senior research specialist behind the "Teens and Sexting" report.

The problem has also caught the attention of lawmakers who are struggling with how to deal with a worrisome trend which also resulted in at least two teen suicides in the past 18 months.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has said that six states have passed laws aimed at sexting. Another five or so tried and failed and yesterday members of the Virigina State Crime Commission refused to recommend legislation involving sexting.

In California, there is a slightly different twist to the issue with the supreme court taking on a so-called landmark case involving a police officer and text messages discovered on an official police department pager.

At issue here is the same one of privacy but also what rights an employer has to read texts on a company provided device.

It certainly seems that the problem is taking on a life of its own and that while it may seem like a harmless activity among some young people, it has to be remembered that those convicted of sexting could end up becoming registered as a sex offender.

That is what happened to Phillip Alpert.

When he was 18-years-old he had an argument with his 16-year-old girlfriend and in anger forwarded a nude photo of her to their friends and family.

He was prosecuted and found guilty of sending out child pornography. Mr Alpert is now a registered sex offender.

On the issue of technology, the Pew's Ms Lenhart noted:

"The cell phone is such a vital part of these teens' lives that it isn't surprising that it's a major source of content for them - both positive content and content that's more worrisome."

The Pew Research centre also said that in 2004, 18% of 12-year-olds had a cellphone compared to 58% today. Five years ago, 64% of 17-year-olds had a mobile and today it is 83%.

Those numbers concern Parry Aftab, the executive director of who told "It's not 'that kid' who's doing it, it's your kid," she said.

"If your kid hasn't taken a (suggestive) picture and shared it with somebody else, in all likelihood they've seen one, they may have possession of one or they may be sending them around."

Education among teens is seen as one possible solution. Recently James Lipton, the host of Inside the Actors Studio, has had a starring role in a series of public service adverts aimed at getting teens to stop sexting.

It is clear that in this digital age the rules are very different and young and old alike are learning the consequences of putting so much of themselves out there for others to discover.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Spinvox: A question of Nuance?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 14 Dec 09, 14:10 GMT

Remember Spinvox? The British voice-to-text start-up has been out of the news since the summer, when we revealed some serious questions about its technology and its finances.

Screenshot of Spinvox websiteNow the Sunday Times has reported that the company is close to a £92m sale to the American voice technology giant Nuance.

A source at Spinvox told me a few weeks back that talks were under way with Nuance - but there had been rumours of a sale to just about every big technology name you could mention. This time, though, it looks as though a deal really is in the offing.

For one thing, the Spinvox PR machine is not rubbishing the story; for another, today's deadline for the company to repay a £30m loan has been put back to the end of January, apparently to let the negotiations proceed.

The real questions are what exactly Nuance is considering buying - and why. Back in the summer, on the very day my first article about Spinvox appeared, Nuance got in touch with me.

They wanted to boast about their own world-leading technology, while implicitly criticising Spinvox, both for its claims about its ground-breaking speech recognition work and for its attitude to privacy.

Nuance told me in July that Spinvox was "absolutely not ahead of the game", and the company's spokesman was also keen to stress that "in the current climate about data privacy, being transparent is absolutely critical."

So why, just a few months later, would Nuance be interested in buying the Spinvox?

Well, there are relationships with some of the world's biggest mobile operators - notably a giant contract to supply a service to up to 100 million subscribers in South America.

Those kind of deals take years to hatch, so Nuance may see Spinvox as a short cut to a lucrative relationship with the likes of Vodafone and Telefonica.

Then there's Spinvox's Voice Message Conversion System, D2 - or "The Brain", as the company dubs it.

Speech experts at the firm still insist they have developed something innovative, even if it's more a case of humans aided by technology than technology aided by humans.

But the real value may lie in all the data that Spinvox has accumulated over the years, in the form of millions of voice recordings and the text derived from them.

How much of it is still stored on the company's servers is unclear - although I've just noticed this line in the Spinvox terms and conditions:

"We may establish general practices (and change such practices without notice) and limits concerning use of the Services, including, without limitation, the maximum number of days that messages or other uploaded Content will be retained by us."

It also makes clear that this data may be sent around the world:

"We may transfer your information outside the European Economic Area. Again, we will endeavour to comply with the Data Protection Act in respect of such transfers."

What I can't find is any reference to what happens to your old messages if Spinvox is sold to another business.

So if this deal does go through, customers will want to know what it means for the privacy and security of their data.

Shareholders will also be asking what a sale to Nuance would mean for them. Some early investors - such as Carphone Warehouse and Invesco - have already effectively written off most - if not all - of their money.

And what of those Spinvox staff who heeded appeals this summer from their boss Christina Domecq to take part of their wages in the form of stock options to help the business through to profitability?

A number of those employees have now left, but they may now be pulling those share options out of a drawer and wondering whether they are worth anything.

Rory Cellan-Jones

'Cooling-off' for mobile phones? Not on the High Street

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 14 Dec 09, 08:55 GMT

Thinking of getting a new mobile phone for yourself or as a present this Christmas?

ShoppersWell, here's a piece of advice you might want to read before you buy it in a shop. It turns out that you often get more leeway if you buy online or on the phone rather than on the High Street.

I learned this when the friend of a friend rang me in high dudgeon last week. She was due an upgrade, had gone into an Orange store to seek advice - and walked out with the Sony Ericsson Satio.

A few days later, she realised that she hated the phone - and that's probably a pretty common experience these days when the look and feel of the operating systems of these sophisticated mini-computers are key to the experience.

But when she rang the store to ask if she could exchange it, she was told she was stuck with the Satio - there was no "cooling-off period" for handsets.

I called Orange to check this out - and learned about something called the Distance Selling Directive, which was implemented by the UK back at the beginning of the decade.

It gives added protection to consumers who buy products on the internet or over the phone, and in particular guarantees them a cooling-off period in which they can withdraw from a contract for any reason.

But when you buy in a shop, you don't have that protection - once you've bought the phone and signed the contract, you're there for the duration, unless the equipment is faulty.

Orange said it was no different from other operators in applying the rules in this manner, and after a ring-around, that does appear to be the case.

Until a few years ago, many shops did offer a cooling-off period - then one operator said it was ending the practice and most of the others followed suit.

One retailer explained that if you open up a phone and turn it on, it then becomes second-hand goods, and has to be sold as a refurbished phone at a lower price - so you can see why they would be unsympathetic to customers who had simply changed their minds.

I did find three operators - O2, Virgin Mobile, and Talk Mobile - which still offered a cooling-off period to customers who bought in shops.

But as far as the rest of the industry is concerned, the message appears to be clear - go to the shop to try out a new phone, then head straight home to order it online.

Now it's confession time. I wrote this and then headed straight to a shop to buy a mobile phone for an 11-year-old. But it's his first phone, and if he doesn't like it, I have a Christmas message for him - tough!

Rory Cellan-Jones

A YouTube election?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 11 Dec 09, 15:57 GMT

Will 2010 bring us the UK's first "internet election"?

Well, obviously not.

The internet has been around since the 1970s, and the political parties started dipping their toes in the waters of the web back in 2001. But it will be the first YouTube election.

At a gathering in Westminster last night, an audience made up of parliamentary researchers, political groupies and just one MP was reminded that the video-sharing website was only founded in 2005 - too late to play a part in that year's general election.

Next year's, though, could be a very different affair.

The meeting had come to hear Steve Grove, YouTube's head of politics and news, who had come from California to spread a simple message to the good people of Westminster: the video-sharing site had a huge effect on the last US presidential campaign, and it could do the same for you.

YouChooseFirst, he showed a video featuring highlights from that 2008 campaign - from a candidate caught out when filmed on a mobile phone using questionable language, through Obama meeting Joe the Plumber, to all sorts of voters using YouTube to get their messages to the parties.

The message was that both the candidates and the voters had used YouTube and other web-based tools to bypass the mainstream media and to speak directly to each other.

By the end of the campaign, Barack Obama was getting more than a million views for campaign videos, and Mr Grove said he'd been told by US broadcasters that they'd struggled to cope with the sheer volume of content produced by the politicians.

More important, though, was the way the voters used YouTube and other social media platforms to discuss the issues, put their own messages out and engage directly with the politicians.

Steve Grove"It's not just a shrunken TV screen where you can pipe out your political commercials to a new audience," Mr Grove insisted. "It's actually a dialogue, more like a window into your campaign."

But does the American experience, where candidates have months, even years, to build up an online campaign really tell us much about what will happen in a much shorter and more intense UK general election campaign?

Mr Grove says candidates has better be prepared:

"When the election is called... and the 90% of people who haven't been paying attention start paying attention and go to YouTube to search for the candidates' names, they're going to quickly get a sense of what that candidate is about."

What really caught the attention of the Westminster audience was Steve Grove's list of top ten tips for campaigning with YouTube. Here they are:

1) Build an audience
• steady stream of footage builds subscribers and grows audience
• create one video per issue
• better to post one video every day than seven videos on one day

2) Personalize your campaign
• video is the most effective way for the electorate to get a sense of who you are

3) Optimize your videos
• good title, rich meta-data, subtitles and captions
• enable syndication: embeds, Facebook, Twitter
• time of upload - hit peak hours: 10am to 2pm
• stick to one message per video, and in most cases two minutes is all you need
• be fast, be first

4) Target your audience: Insight
• use YouTube Insight to get data on what demographics and what geographies are watching your video the most
• also discover how they're finding your videos - through search, related videos and so on

5) Test your message
• listen to comments, rankings, video responses: use YouTube as an automatic focus group

6) Ask for ideas, questions, and feedback from voters
• use existing YouTube functionality, or Google Moderator

7) Pay for Promotion
• join the "Promote Your Video" programme to buy placement on search results pages

8) Drive action to your cause
• buy Promoted Video credits on YouTube, and you can use a "call-to-action" overlay to drive traffic to your site

9) Kill harmful smears
• respond rapidly to smears, and use the same words in your metadata so your response comes up along with your opponents' views

10) Search every day
• keep searching for yourself and your key policies on YouTube so you're always aware of what voters are seeing.

Now, some of these ideas may not really work at all in the UK - there were some wry smiles at the obvious self-interest of number eight, where YouTube is encouraging candidates to pay up to promote their campaign websites through the site.

Given the limited resources available to UK candidates - and the far stricter rules on campaign spending - prospective MPs may be reluctant to commit as much time and money to this one form of communication with voters as their US counterparts.

All the parties are now scratching their heads and trying to work out what impact YouTube, Facebook, microblogging and the blogosphere will have on the campaign, though I have the impression that most MPs still believe the mainstream media will play a far more important role.

Would there have been more than one MP, for instance, at an event on campaigning run by a newspaper group?

It's also slightly distressing that just about all of this innovation is coming out of American companies. But there is some very interesting home-grown work on putting voters in touch with the issues.

Just today, a site called Where Does My Money Go? was launched, giving all of us access to a lot of detailed information about where our tax money is spent.

So it might be a YouTube election, but it may also be a DIY affair, where smart young British web developers give voters all sorts of new ways to engage in the debate and keep the politicians on their toes.

And if you want to hear a short interview I recorded with Steve Grove, here it is:

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Maggie Shiels

Science and the sexes

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 11 Dec 09, 14:54 GMT

A big conundrum facing the US, the UK and many other European countries is this: how do you keep young people engaged in science and mathematics, and how especially do you keep young girls fired up about the subjects?

Sally RideIn a chat with Dr Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, she talked a lot about the stereotypes that create and sustain the situation: girls being led to think that science is a boys' subject; preconceptions of science as dull; the idea that it's just too downright hard.

I certainly remember those messages seeping into my brain, even though I was actually - I'm happy to say - a whizz at trigonometry and consistently scored top marks in my accounts exams.

Dr Ride points out that all children are interested in science. It is innate. They are born curious. They like to know how the world works, how their bodies work, how their favourite toy works and so on. If you are a parent, you know that at a certain age the favourite question of every child is "Why?".

While these stereotypes have persisted for years, Dr Ride believes that the issue has to be tackled at this early stage in order for there to be change up the pipeline.

She also told me that the country has to get excited again about maths and science and she applauds President Obama's efforts with his newly-launched Educate to Innovate initiative:

"On and off, there has been political will to changes things - but this feels different. This feels very special with this president, and perhaps that is because he has two young daughters and is very focused on the importance of a science education."

And while she laments the present situation, Dr Ride recalls how the space race of the 1950s and '60s caught the imagination of the nation:

"When the Soviets launched Sputnik, it completely changed the focus of US education. Suddenly, maths and science became the most important things that could be taught to our kids.

"It became a national priority - and it became really cool to want to be a scientist or an engineer. A lot of kids grew up dreaming of building rockets to the stars. Over the years, we have lost that magic, that focus, that spark."

For years, Dr Ride says, she has worked to redress the balance and to get children hooked on science and maths - especially young girls, who tend to drop the ball on the subject when they are ten and 11.

She runs a company that creates programmes and products to educate and inspire children in these subjects, and with ExxonMobil, she has set up a science academy aimed at helping teachers learn how to get children excited about science.

Sally RideDr Ride told me that science was in her blood from a very young age and that she just never lost the passion for the subject. Her plans to either get a job as a research scientist or as a teacher went up in smoke when she saw an advert in the local Stanford student newspaper:

"I had just finished my PhD and was about to start applying for jobs when I saw the Nasa advert. They were looking for astronauts and it was the first time in ten years that they were taking applications and they were looking for women. It was when I saw that ad, that I knew this was something I wanted to do. Something that I had to do."

Dr Ride was one of 8,000 people who applied, and only one of six women included in a class of 35.

And the rest, as they say, is history as Dr Ride became the first American woman and the then-youngest American to enter space as a member on Space Shuttle Challenger.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Facebook: Are you a broadcaster or a whisperer?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 10 Dec 09, 09:52 GMT

Had you looked at your privacy settings on Facebook before this week?

No, me neither, and I have to confess that I had some trouble finding them when I set out to look. And I'm by no means unusual.

In a conference call with the company, I asked how many had actually bothered to adjust those settings before this week's initiative asking them to do so. Between 15 and 20% was the answer.

Screenshot of privacy settings on Facebook

So for the vast majority of Facebookers the enforced visit to their privacy settings imposed by the company in the last 24 hours will have proved a novel experience.

Facebook says it has acted to give everyone more control over how they share their information, and made it simpler too.

One key change is that big geographical networks - like London or Australia - are going. Once Facebook moved off the campus, they provided many new users with their starting point but they've become far too big and have led to privacy gaffes, including one notorious incident.

Earlier this year a woman shared photos of her husband in his swimming trunks and the location of their flat with the six million people on Facebook's London network. Which might have been OK had she not been the wife of the incoming head of MI6.

From now on there are three basic privacy settings - you can share with friends, friends of friends, or everyone, which means the whole of the internet.

There is also a custom option but that's only likely to be used by people who've already fiddled with their settings.

While you do get to choose, Facebook makes recommendations for how many people you should allow to see each category of information.

So for instance it says you should allow your status updates and some basic personal information to be seen by everyone, while your photos should be restricted to friends of friends, and your address just to friends.

One Facebook friend was not impressed:

"As far as I see it, profile pic, friend lists, pages - and a few other 'insignificant' details, ie, status & sexuality are now on view to EVERYONE - and I've not found away to hide these, other than by deleting the information from your actual profile."

This did not please my friend. "I'm a teacher & we're supposed to hide our profiles from current students."

Facebook told me it was too simplistic to say that users were now being encouraged to be less private, but did admit "we believe users will feel comfortable sharing more" and conceded that Twitter - or rather what it described as "services for people wishing to share with a wider audience" - had made an impact.

What is clear is that users of social networks are now splitting into two camps - what I would call the broadcasters and the whisperers.

The broadcasters see social networking as a very public medium, somewhere to get their message across to as many people as possible, whether it's their rage at the fact that the 07:53 from West Wittering is late again, their support for an X Factor contestant or their views on the government's pre-Budget report.

The whisperers still see the networks as private places, where they can communicate with close friends without their employers, their mums and dads, or any curious passer-by listening in.

While there's no real point in being on Twitter if you're not prepared to "broadcast", it seems Facebook wants to be in both camps.

But will it really be possible to cater for everyone, from the most public users to those seeking just a private conversation with friends? I'm not sure.

You may not be surprised to hear that I put myself firmly in the broadcasting category. I quickly realised that Facebook was not a private place so that it was best not to put anything there that I didn't want the world to see.

In any case, I now spend far more of my time on Twitter, where there's even more danger of letting slip something private, but at least everyone is clear that it's a public space.

Oh, and if you want to keep track of my social networking gaffes you can follow me at

Maggie Shiels

American infoglut

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 10 Dec 09, 09:10 GMT

Does your head ever feel like it is about to explode because of the number of e-mails you read, videos you trawl though, websites you browse, blogs you consume, programmes you watch, games you play and media you download?

In the States, Americans not only have a reputation for muffin tops and lardiness but it seems they can also add information overload to the count.

A survey just released by the Global Information Industry Centre of San Diego University reveals that households in the US consumed a mind boggling total of 3.6 zettabytes of data and 10,845 trillion words in 2008.

Zettabytes haven't exactly become common parlance yet and according to Wikipedia a ZB is a "unit of information or computer storage equal to one sextillion bytes." The university says a zettabyte is 1,000,000,000 trillion bytes.

Those explanations don't really cut it, but the brains behind this report have said it is equal to covering the continental United States and Alaska in a 7ft high stack of thick paperback novels.

The aim of this report called How Much Information is to look at all forms of American communication and consumption in a bid to create a census of the information consumed.

So where is it all coming from? Exactly where you expect as this graph shows.

Graph showing hourly information consumption

What is more surprising is that while I think I never have time to read books, it seems on average I actually gorge on around 100,000 words of information a day.

What the study says that really means is that all those words are hurtling headlong via various channels like TV, radio, the internet, texts, videos, tweets and so on.

In the age of the internet though it is the goggle box that is winning out.

People averaged around five hours watching TV and 2.2 hours listening to the radio. The computer comes in third at just under two hours, video games an hour and reading a poor and distant fifth place with just a half an hour of time.

Men working on laptops"The report is a snapshot of what the information revolution means to the average American on an average day," says report author Roger Bohn who is also the Centre's director.

Surprisingly gaming saw a big leap with 18.5 gigabytes per day for the average consumer - that's about 67% of all bytes consumed says the report.

In a piece of good news for all those social/casual gaming companies out there, the study notes that around 80% of the population plays some kind of computer game, including casual games such as my favourite, Bookworm and the like.

Mr Bohn says:

"Games are almost universal, but most of the gaming bytes comes from graphically intensive games on high-powered computers and consoles, which have the equivalent of special-purpose supercomputers from five years ago."

Gazing to the future, the Centre say the information landscape will change by 2015 thanks to the widespread use of HDTV, mobile TV and video over the internet.

The report acknowledges that as information consumption is expected to continue to grow, there are some real problems to worry about.

"What is clear is that we consume orders of magnitude more information than can be stored on hard drives or transmitted over today's internet," says Internet pioneer Larry Smarr and the director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.

"Even small changes in how Americans consume information would have serious implications for network planners and require large-scale investments."
Maggie Shiels

Can Google now see, hear and search in real time?

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 8 Dec 09, 11:11 GMT

"Take that, Bing!" That seemed to be the message underlying Google's announcement of its new search features at the Computer History Museum in California.

Packing the biggest punch was real-time search - as shown off in the company's short promotional video.

Google told us that the feature is live, but may take a few days to roll out across the world - in the meantime, Google Trends gives a sense of the look and feel.

Google real-time search

When the company's big guns - search VP Marissa Mayer, engineering VP Vic Gundotra (ex-Microsoft, by the way) and Google fellow Amit Singhal - came on stage, it was clear that their aim was to put the competition on notice, the competition in this case being Microsoft and its search engine Bing.

Lately, Bing has been grabbing the lion's share of headlines: finalising its search deal with Yahoo; introducing 3D maps; another deal with microblogging service Twitter and, less happily, that half-hour outage last week.

While Google remains the search giant with a 65+% share, Bing's deal with Yahoo ups the ante as the joint partnership prepares to lay claim to nearly 30%.

And so Google has fought back and claimed to be the first search engine to include real-time search in its results pages. There are of course other - smaller - services offering real-time search including Collecta, One Riot and Crowdeye.

Mr Singhal told me that he thought real-time search was as much of a breakthrough as Google's 2007 upgrade to universal search, when the company began providing results from books, maps, videos, news and books as well as from web pages.

Addressing the crowd of reporters and bloggers, Mr Singhal used the same kind of hyperbole as we heard back then:

"At Google, we are never satisfied. It takes a tenth of a second for light to go around the world. At Google we will not be satisfied until that is the only barrier between you and your information."

So there was the headline announcement for Google. There were other interesting features. For example, Mr Gundotra had fun showing off "visual search" - where search queries are made of pictures instead of words.

Snapping a picture of a wine bottle with his phone, he said that this kind of computer vision was one of the toughest challenges, as all sorts of information popped up in the search results box.

I'm not sure how much wine was drunk in the process of coming up with a name for this feature, but you certainly have to be sober to say Google Goggles a few times in a row.

Mr Gundotra - who, I should add, was clearly not intoxicated in any shape or form - literally spoke in tongues when demonstrating another feature, "voice search".

Screenshot of Japanese-search-by-voice demoHe did well getting results in Chinese for McDonalds in Beijing, but stepped aside when it came to demonstrating Japanese, the new language that is now part of the product.

There was also the launch of "what's nearby" for Google Maps on Android phones, which will give users a list of 10 of the closest places to them, including shops and restaurants.

All these developments, concluded Mr Gundotra, add up to "the beginning of the beginning":

"When you take a sensor-rich device and you connect it to the cloud - yes, it could be that we are at the cusp of an entire new computer era."

Google CEO Eric Schmidt clearly agrees. Anticipating all these announcements, he opened @ericschmidt, his Twitter account. Yes, this is the same Mr Schmidt who, earlier in the year, said "speaking as a computer scientist, I view all these as sort of a poor man's e-mail systems."

All that, of course, was way before Google formed a partnership with the popular micro-blogging service.

It's interesting to note that the photograph for Mr Schmidt's Twitter account shows him wearing a flak jacket.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Christmas shopping: Online v High Street

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 7 Dec 09, 10:02 GMT

It's supposed to be the biggest, busiest day of the year for online shopping - and as the amount we spend online grows each year, then today should bring a new record.

Online retailer's warehouseI'm spending the day in's giant warehouse off the M1 (they're rather sensitive about the exact location so I won't give it away) where they're madly packaging up DVDs, books, games consoles and other presents which will then be despatched across the UK.

In past years I've visited similar giant sheds run by Amazon and Argos, and have come away with the impression that online shopping has become the way most people now deal with Christmas. But that turns out to be wrong - what's surprising is not how much online shopping there is but how little.

The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that just 3.9% of retail sales now take place online. The Internet Market Research Group - which represents online retailers - puts the figure much higher, at between 10 and 15% but they include tickets, travel and digital music sales, which aren't counted towards the government figures.

Tthere's no doubt that online shopping is growing - though there was a bit of a hiccup last year - and is particularly popular at Christmas.

So last December its share of retail sales was 3.7% compared with just 2.8% in the summer. But it's still very much a minority sport. Take, which says it is the UK's second biggest online retailer. Its annual turnover is £450m, which makes it a respectable business - but when you look at Tesco's UK turnover for 2008 of £35bn they are still just a minnow.

A decade ago, as online retailing began to take off there were all sorts of outlandish predictions of how rapidly it would grow - if you believed some pundits, the high streets would be left deserted as we all retreated to our computers to do our shopping.

Some early experiments showed that it was not going to be that easy - remember or America's Webvan? But others learned from those disasters and continued to grow, though even Amazon's profits look puny when compared with those churned out by Tesco.

Christmas shoppersWhat we've found is that while the internet is now the natural place for shoppers to look for books, DVDs, or gadgets, the high street remains the popular choice for a lot of other goods. Some households may choose to get their groceries online or look for designer clothes - but most food and fashion shopping still takes place in the real world.

Why people choose to brave the cold and the crowds to buy presents on the high street is something of a mystery - but maybe that annual ritual of endless queues, sharp elbows and Slade ringing in your ears, is still more attractive than just clicking your way through your Christmas shopping.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Freemium: Can Spotify learn from Evernote?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 3 Dec 09, 12:30 GMT

As companies struggle to find an online business model that doesn't involve giving their product away and hoping that advertising will pay the bills, the term "freemium" has become all the rage.

It means allowing users to start with a free service, then trying to persuade them that if they pay they'll get something much better.

This is an idea which a number of newspapers are now trying out, but Spotify, the streaming music service, is probably the best-known technology firm to adopt the freemium model.

It's grown rapidly by offering a free service supported by advertising, while trying to convince users they'd be better off upgrading to a £9.99 per month subscription by offering bonuses such as mobile applications and better quality tracks.

But how well is this working? It's hard to say because while Spotify is quite keen to shout its overall user numbers from the rooftops, it's less eager to break out how many are actually paying customers.

Phil LibinWhich isn't the case with Phil Libin, the founder of another freemium service, Evernote. Back in May I wrote about this Silicon Valley start-up which allows users to store documents, notes, pictures, audio and various other bits and bobs of our digital lives, both on its servers and on their computers and phones.

Mr Libin wasn't particularly forthcoming back then about how many of his subscribers were upgrading to the premium service - so when I met him again this week I didn't expect to learn much more.

But to my surprise he pulled up a presentation - stored in Evernote of course - with a huge amount of detail on the crucial figures. "We've decided to experiment with full transparency on the numbers," he said with a grin. "Who knows, it could be a mistake."

First of all he admitted that the few adverts that come with the free service only produce negligible revenue - making the business dependent on subscriptions, then he took me through the numbers that matter.

So it turned out that back in May, Evernote had 900,000 users, of whom just 12,000 were paying $5 a month for a premium subscription. Today, that's risen to two million users, with 31,000 premium subscribers.

Hmmm - so about 1.5% are choosing to pay - that doesn't sound a very cheerful state of affairs. But Phil Libin came charging back with a series of spreadsheets and graphs telling a more encouraging story.

They showed that, of the brand new users that joined in any month around half would leave within weeks - but those that stayed would almost all remain loyal thereafter, and would be increasingly likely to upgrade.

Mr Libin rejected my idea that he should make the free version slightly less attractive to encourage users to upgrade more quickly. "We want our free service to be as good as possible because the longer they use it the more likely they are to convert."

But what really makes Evernote look like a sustainable business is that its costs are so low - nine cents (about 6p) per user per month. I was surprised that it wasn't much higher, given the cost of running an ever larger data centre.

Phil Libin explained that, while I might think of Evernote as a cloud application, much of the work is actually done on the user's computer, so that keeps the cost per user down.

Mr Libin believes the statistics he showed me about his users proved that he'd found a winning recipe: "They stay a long time, they convert more as they age, and their costs stay flat - that's what you need to make freemium work."

So can Spotify - and others - learn from that recipe?

The problem may be in the costs of growth. I wouldn't mind betting that every new Spotify user loses the company quite a bit of money, once the costs of licensing the music and streaming it are taken into account.

The question then is how many of them will upgrade to the premium service - and how long will they wait before doing so?

Evernote claims its well on the way to proving that the freemium model can be profitable. It will be interesting to see whether Spotify - or News Corp for that matter - can make it work too.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Did Google just blink?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 2 Dec 09, 09:13 GMT

In one corner the battle-hardened bruiser of the old media world, in the other the cocky young giant of the web. The fight between Rupert Murdoch and Google over how online journalism should be funded is quite a spectacle. Now it appears that Google may have blinked by making it just a tiny bit harder for readers to find a chink in newspaper paywalls.

Rupert MurdochRupert Murdoch has made clear his desire to see other papers in his worldwide stable follow the Wall Street Journal's lead in asking readers to pay for at least some of their online journalism. And he's also expressed, in forceful terms, his view that Google - and the BBC for that matter - are an obstacle to those plans because they provide a route to so much free news.

One particular bugbear for all newspapers is that a Google search allows readers access to their content even if it is behind a paywall. But now, in a move announced on the Google news blog, publishers will be given a little more control.

Readers arriving via Google will be able to click through to five stories a day on a paid site like that of the Financial Times but if they try a sixth time they will come up against a subscription page.

Now in truth, this is quite a minor concession. How many people do use Google to seek out a story from just one source rather than the whole web? I've just tried and it's quite hard work - you need to put "source: 'Financial Times'" after your search term to find just FT articles, for instance. (That said, I have now clicked through to six stories and so far the new policy doesn't seem to have been implemented.)

But this may still be a significant moment in the battle between old and new media. Rupert Murdoch has been mocked for attempting to put the genie of free web news back into the bottle - a hopeless mission according to the digital utopians. But by playing hardball, and apparently talking to Microsoft about a deal to make his content available only via the Bing search engine - he appears to have got the Google to blink. Round One to Murdoch then - but there's a long way to go in this contest.

Rory Cellan-Jones

The politics of crowdsourcing

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 1 Dec 09, 13:50 GMT

The Conservatives have obtained another leaked document, a government report on public sector IT.

Laptop computerThis leak isn't likely to generate lurid headlines, as the report on transforming government by using "interactive (web 2.0) tools and processes, cloud computing technology and service-oriented architecture (SOA)" isn't exactly dynamite.

Still, the Conservatives have come up with quite a clever idea - they've put the document online and are inviting the public to comment on every part of it as they frame the party's response.

They've built a website called Make IT Better, and say their aim is " to throw open the process and allow people to contribute their ideas on how policy should be designed".

They're calling this "crowdsourcing" policy - but how far is it likely to go and will it prove a major feature of political engagement from now on?

The Conservatives say they've already used this idea back in 2007 to enlist the public's help in shaping their manifesto, with a site called Stand Up, Speak Up.

Their online communities editor Craig Elder told me that experiment had worked well, with members of the public contributing all kinds of ideas which would eventually play a part in next year's manifesto.

But the government says it's already used the same crowdsourcing techniques. The Cabinet Office, having dismissed the leak as an early draft of a document that would be published before Christmas, insisted that it had already done plenty to get the public involved in policymaking.

A spokesman pointed to examples such as the Power of Information Taskforce report, which was put online for comments for three weeks before publication, and to The Show Us A Better Way competition, where people were asked to submit ideas for online services.

Politicians in opposition and in government are latching onto the idea of using the web to engage with the wider public.

But, as anybody running any blog will know, there are plenty of dangers inherent in an online conversation. What happens when, instead of helpful contributions from enlightened readers, you are bombarded with vituperative comments from single-issue fanatics?

Having said you'll listen, should you decide policy by the weight of comments you receive? And if you decide that you know better than Dave from Dagenham or Deidre from Dundee what's in the interest of the country, won't they end up feeling worse about you than if you'd never consulted them in the first place?

"You've got to take the risk," says Craig Elder, "you'll get a lot of good stuff when you engage." But he admits that, when it comes to framing policies, "at the end of the day you have to make a decision about what's sensible and what's not".

Next year's general election will see the parties determined to prove that they can use everything from YouTube, to blogs to Twitter to get their message to the public - and, in theory at least, to listen to what voters are saying.

Britain's first truly digital election may mark a profound change in the relationship between politicians and the public. Then again, we may end up finding out that the public would rather just be left alone.

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