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.


  • Comment number 1.

    The section on Google Earth above reminded me of the absolute GENIUS who painted an enormous willy on the roof of his parents' house, which was there for a year (!) before Google spotted it. Anyone remember that? It has to be one of the best light-hearted stories of the year.

  • Comment number 2.

    Nice round-up of the year.

    Looking forward to hearing about your Ubuntu experience. However, I am not sure that you (or other media outlets) do give Ubuntu/Linux fair coverage, compared with the coverage you give Apple despite their overall share of the market.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think technology that involves social issues are always going to be perceived as bigger than other technology because by definition, it involves a lot of people. But the way I see it is there's more important stuff going on behind the scenes. The actual technology enabling this to happen.

    In 2010 (and beyond!), when it comes to people dealing with technology, I'd like to hear more "how does it do that?" instead of "look what it's doing".

  • Comment number 4.

    You might want to add in the little bit of news that Google announced it was entering the Desktop OS market with Chrome OS in 2010.

    As for using Linux for a whole day, the "name me another mainstream media outlet which gave it more prominent coverage this year" comment muddies the water. You write for a technology audience, and as I work in an IT environment I know that more of my colleagues who are more likely to read your articles run Linux. According to W3Schools stats from there site ( Linux and Mac use is increasing among the more IT literate (an assumption based on W3Schools target audience), therefore its your responsibility to represent this non-Windows based viewpoint and at the very least know what your talking about and there is no way you can do with only 1 days use of Linux.

    The fact that other main-stream media outlets may not represent Linux properly is not a benchmark you should be using as it's assuming that other outlets are doing there jobs properly.

    On a related issue regarding Windows usage, I'm sure you're aware of the Operating System usage of visitors for the BBC website. There is a core problem as many people at work (including me) have to use Windows and therefore your stats are potentially skewed to a significant degree. So in truth you can't know really that if someone only accesses the BBC website during the day at work whether they would ordinarily be interested in more Linux, Mac or Windows based news items.

    Thats just my 5 cents..

  • Comment number 5.

    C'mon Rory... You got the hump when the Ubuntu/Linux community failed to be incredibly grateful for you're frankly rather (granted unintentionally) dismissive article didn't you...

    It's fair enough, Linux isn't a majority sport yet - but i'd be prepared to wager it's market share isn't sufficiantly smaller than Apple's to justify the enormous slant in your coverage.

    And given the reaction your post saw I'm somewhat astounded that your more through review of Karmic Koala took quite so long to get round to... Is the single most debated topic you've ever blogged on really of secondary importance to the ridiculous spinvox story?

    Anyway, Merry Christmas to all - regardless of your OS!

  • Comment number 6.

    Eugh, I'd like to apologise for some rather dodgy spelling and punctuation in my previous post...

    Like anyone cares!

  • Comment number 7.

    By the time rory does his more thorough breakdown of Ubuntu 9.10, what's the betting 10.4 will be out?!

    One would also hope that Rory spends at least 1 month with the alternative OS, you can't learn to drive for the first time in 1 day, so I hope he doesn't expect to learn a whole new OS and way of doing things in anything silly as 1 day. Now, I know your blog is more of a personal thing so you can say what you like about it but if you're going to do that, at least get the tech correspondants writing about the new releases on the main tech pages to balance it out and give us linux fans something other than facebook/twitter/spinvox/microsoft and apple stuff thank you.

    All the best to one and all, peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind ... not that that will happen while us humans:

    1. scrabble around trying to make mountains out of paper (money) so we can claim to be "so rich it hurts" - afterall, can't take it with you when you're gone!

    2. believe there is a god

    3. think we have the devine right to kill each other and pretty much any other species we feel like in the name of "fun".

    Anyway, here's to the future - hope that one day mankind will stop cutting out the lungs of this fragile planet (the rainforests).

  • Comment number 8.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 9.

    Why apple's software gets more coverage than other minority operating systems, the answer is in plain sight really:

    Macs are most commonly used by people not comfortable with "hard" technology: like journalists and PR people, in fact most of the kind of professions you get in the BBC!

    Apple is simply in their minds more often, it's what they use, it's what their friends use.

    Though proportionally it doesn't have anywhere near as the market share, you would never know from the BBC's constant free advertising for them, I agree...

  • Comment number 10.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 11.

    Oh, it's called systemic bias by the way, Wikipedia has a good article on it:

  • Comment number 12.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 13.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    "..getting to play with new operating systems."

    from your lack of feedback on your Ubuntu experience I read this to mean that you've been too busy to "play". shame.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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  • Comment number 18.

    This is the first time I have looked at this blog and was surprised at just how narrow a view of technology it appears to present. Technology is about the comercial application of science and engineering, and is not limited to information technology alone as the blog would suggest.

  • Comment number 19.

    To be honest, this is no different from any other year since the Internet became popular - just involved more people and different companies. So, lets go back not one year, but more than ten.....

    I remember chatting on WBS in the mid 1990s. 1.5 million members, we used to chat, create our own websites, blog, share images and so on. Many also had Geocities sites (that shut this year) where they ran everything from personal blogs to fan sites. Some search engines, controversially, started talking about including these pages in their searches.... (guess which one did?)

    We were using ICQ like crazy for instant messaging and those who had early DSL (not in the UK!) were using voice chat. People liked the multi-window of ICQ allowing for multiple chats and conferencing.

    MUDS were the online games (though limited appeal).

    File sharing was common (via ICQ and other ways) and was criticised by many. Copyright issue was a common argument with many arguing that the internet was a different world and normal law should not apply ... to anything! Some of those same voices were also shoving malware into the files to take advantage of low OS security.

    There was a myth that Porn was paying for the internet and was therefore a necessary evil.

    There was a growing worry about child pornography, but the ISPs became angry at the idea that they should check their users personal web pages, even those held on the ISP servers, or block the usenet groups used by paedophiles - they said it was not their job to police the internet .... familiar argument?

    We were rapidly learning about privacy back then and the realisation that if you put it up on the web, someone else may find it.

    Infoseek was one of the main search engines of choice, Google was still stuck at Stanford.

    Web pages used Gif animation and Java Applets rather than Flash, and audio was often in the form of midi files as audio files were a bit big!

    But what people were doing and talking about back in 1995 on the web was exactly the same as now, just with a few less bells and whistles. The web may be in far more homes now than back then, but it is culturally identical and the issues exactly the same.

    It has been an arrogance of the industry that they have changed the way humans communicate and have somehow created a brave new world.

    They haven't - human beings still communicate in exactly the same way as they have for millennia, using sound and sight. If anything, the internet is only just catching up with the idea that what it offers is a very incomplete version of communication compared to how human beings communicate when physically facing each other.

    And the conversation has not changed either. People still like talking rubbish over the fence with their neighbours, so much so that the biggest money making opportunity is being regarded as trying to emulate that real life situation as closely as possible - that is what Facebook is, just a simulation of a idea that is thousands of years old.

    I am reminded of the lyric "Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss," from the Who song "Won't be fooled again."

    Except we are - time and again.

  • Comment number 20.

    The web may be in far more homes now than back then, but it is culturally identical and the issues exactly the same.

    I really can't agree with that. The culture has shifted hugely from a more anarchic self-supporting community feel to a much more hierarchical producer->consumer relationship. There seem to be a lot of newer users that think that the internet is something 'out there' that they look at, not something that they join and become a part of. When the old community wanted to do something they would define a protocol and get on with it; the new community volunteers themselves to be locked up in whatever walled garden offers them the shiniest baubles.

  • Comment number 21.


    I remember when Lineone was launched in The Times back in 1997. My partner was one of the moderators for the service's chat system.

    The community was made up of non-technical internet "users" who wanted e-commerce, chatting, blogging (still called web logging then), social networking, and so on and so forth.

    They did not know how the internet worked, who invented it and quite frankly (and quite rightly) did not care. They had no intention or interest of being an active part of some sort of revolution in technology; they were simply consumers and the internet was the way the got to consume.

    And if it was shiny and had more bells and whistles, and preferably took less buttons to get it to start and work, then it was that much more popular.

    Just like now, in fact.

    Very techy friends of mine were critical of services like Lineone, AOL and then Freeserve with their non-technical approach to internet customers. They were very critical of the users too, saying that if people could not be bothered to learn they had no right to use the internet.

    And of course, those wonderful, non-technical users were outnumbering my techy friends within weeks.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 23.

    Have to admit the spinvox story was definitely one of the most uninteresting of the year and don't really understand why it got so much attention.

    I'm one of the crowd who would much rather have such stories replaced with ones exploring the wealth of open source technologies out there..

  • Comment number 24.

    The Spinvox story kept going and going. Seemingly almost to the point that everything Spinvox did was accompanied by a blog post here saying why it was the wrong thing to do.

  • Comment number 25.

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  • Comment number 28.

    @ringsting-iom Despite also being one of the open source crowd I thought that the Spinvox story was a cracking piece of proper journalism, and it's one of the things the technology section needs more of - a critical look behind the gushing press releases to the real truth about whatever this week's next big thing is.

    That said, there really should be more free software coverage. While Rory's assertion that the amount of Ubuntu coverage was "a fair crack of the whip, in relation to its overall share of the operating system market" may be true for the specific case of Ubuntu, it's not really a sensible way of looking at things. Free software is more than just individual products like Ubuntu and Firefox that happen to have free licences, it's a movement that has a much bigger overall impact on most people's lives than (say) Apple does. The principle and politics of it are an interesting counter to the proprietary world's view of users and their (lack of) rights, and an organisation that has a commitment to educate and inform really ought to be talking about that more.

    Even if you ignore the politics as such, the practical implications of software freedom are to allow the construction of things that simply wouldn't have been possible with proprietary licencing; things like Google (which relies on lots and lots of machines, and on being able to modify the OS to suit their requirements), Amazon web services (now underpinning many of the web start-ups this blog does write about), and the LHC computing grid (vital to the work of the world's biggest science experiment). None of these things could have been created without free software, and Linux in particular, but that overall picture seems to be missed in a flurry of small and mostly inconsequential fluff.

  • Comment number 29.

    I am not sure there should be more coverage of free software as such.

    Really, the technology blog should look at the issues that are most appropriate for the BBC core audience.

    That may include free and open source software or the issues around it, or it may not.

    In the same way that people complain here that the BBC seems to be promoting Twitter, it should not be seen to be promoting the Open Source side of the tech industry over any other part of it.

    Talking of which, I noticed a most blatant bit of product placement on a BBC trailer on the News Channel this week. Sadly, I cannot remember exactly what it was promoting, but the main character in the trailer sits down and picks up their Apple laptop, with a beautiful clear shot of the Apple Logo right in the middle of the screen.

    A few years ago this would have been breaking every rule in the book, to be honest. Now? Not sure - but I would say it is breaking the spirit of those rules.

  • Comment number 30.

    The really interesting thing about Ubuntu and other operating systems is the process which virtually forces users to buy a Microsoft operating system when they buy a PC. For a brief moment last year it was possible to get several Netbooks with a free non-Microsoft OS, but now they all have XP or W7 installed and we have to buy them. So Ubuntu users have to pay Microsoft. Why? What forces PC makers to bundle XP or W7? Why no EU anti-trust action to ensure free competition, when we have had such actions about (eg) browsers. Why no investigative journalists delving into the murky mechanisms behind this strange constraint on trade. Why can't I get a refund on a bundled OS I don't use - I might see some virtue in all that obsessive MS validation apparatus if I could get my XP validation key cancelled and receive a refund!

  • Comment number 31.

    RE: September: Water or the web

    Technolgy consumption will continue to push the prevalence of Social Networking. Organizations such as and OLPC (one laptop per child) will benefit by having social networking and global bandwidth availability. It will be the platform for new ways to impact people and to assist others anywhere in the world. A connected framework for people to share knowledge and interact will create a world of new opportunities. Many entrepreneurs are customizing social networks to respond to specific needs. Access to education, for example, will benefit 3rd world countries tremendously. Sites such as,, , , , or even Youtube etc will allow anyone to have access to educational tools. The next wave of innovation will provide even more value added service to anyone with a computer which they otherwise would have been denied.

  • Comment number 32.

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  • Comment number 33.

    What a year this has been for me as well, I've really embraced social media, I've on Gather, and I've got my own blog on Live Journal. It is hard work though, and I'm still not sure what benefit it has.

    Are we not just, as a human race, becoming less efficient and wasting time by using social networks like Twitter and Facebook? Or is it doing the opposite and allowing things to be sold more frequently, our time to be used more effectively and essentially increasing the amount of work we do and the stresses on life?

  • Comment number 34.

    > Are we not just, as a human race, becoming less efficient and wasting time by using social networks like Twitter and Facebook?

    Personally I just think everyone went OTT on social networks this year, especially on Facebook as you mentioned above. Facebook must have cost industry millions worldwide, more than sick days probably. I know of many companies that have banned it now.

  • Comment number 35.

    Facebook is really a plea when used at work, i'm pretty sure it should be banned from all the companies. I don't know how people can stay focus when every minute they have a new notifications... Well, I know the answer : they can't.

  • Comment number 36.

    I think 2010 is proving to be the real social year - proving that its here to stay and the limits are endless.

    Personally I think the foundation for most new businesses from now on will need to have a fundamental element of web ‘social ability’ involved, whether it is a dedicated online social 'arm' or adapting its products to be more accessible to everyday people - social & localised is the way of the web!


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