BBC BLOGS - dot.Rory

Archives for August 2010

The sound of Britain

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:35 UK time, Thursday, 26 August 2010


Heard any good sounds lately, something that you might like preserved for posterity?

Perhaps nursery rhymes chanted in a playground, the roar of the crowd at a Premiership football match - or something as simple as the waves crashing on a beach?

UK sound mapWell now you have the chance to contribute to an archive of sounds gathered across the country. The increasingly innovative British Library has got together with one of Britain's most interesting technology start up firms to create an interactive sound map of the UK.

The library is inviting anyone to use Audioboo, a smartphone application, to record sounds, and upload them with the tag "uksm".

Then, as long as the audio quality of the recording is good enough - watch out for wind noise is the advice from the folks at the Library - it will be plotted on the map.

The project has been launched nationally after a successful trial in the Sheffield area, and so far there are a couple of hundred recordings.

They include the sound of pigs at a farm near Bath, 4 minutes and 33 seconds of waterfall noise from Cwmaman, the sound of Coral Beach on the Isle of Skye and the sound of someone buying a car at Cinderford.

For Audioboo, it is an ideal opportunity to promote a service which aims to be a kind of audio version of YouTube, but which has yet to find an application that will make it useful to a mainstream audience.

The BBC World Service has been running a similar project called Save Our Sounds, inviting listeners from around the world to contribute recordings of sounds that could be endangered.

Now the British Library's map could deliver a sophisticated soundscape of our country, in all its noisy, or perhaps quiet and understated, glory.

But only if enough people hear about the project and decide to take part. So I'm off to record something on my phone right now. I just hope it makes it past the quality control inspectors at the British Library.

Update, 09:58: Good news - my recording for the UK sound map got through quality control at the British Library and is now plotted on the map. I recorded some audio in the control room of the studio from which Radio 4's Six O'Clock News is broadcast. You can hear it by clicking on the map - or you can go to Audioboo.

Advertising broadband: Still a mess

Rory Cellan-Jones | 13:56 UK time, Wednesday, 25 August 2010


BT's claims in some adverts about the speed of its 20Mbit/s broadband service are misleading - that was the conclusion of an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adjudication published today.

When I first saw the story I concluded that the ASA had finally decided that advertising of "up to 20Mbit/s" or "up to" anything was just too dubious to continue.

But no - in a way the ASA's ruling was even more startling. It has decided that BT, after spending a fortune building out its faster 21CN network, has not provided the evidence to show that customers were going to enjoy faster speeds. Here's the key sentence:

"Because we had not seen sufficient evidence to support the claim that BTs new broadband service was consistently faster than its existing 8 Mbit/s service even at peak times, we concluded that the ad was likely to mislead."

You can understand why BT might be cross about that conclusion - as it made clear in a statement:

"We were concerned by a number of factors in the ASA's adjudication, for example, that not all customers could achieve consistently faster speeds - this was based on the fact that less than one per cent could not do this."

If a company cannot claim that a "faster" service will promise faster speeds, it is difficult to see how on earth it can promote new services or justify investing large sums in building new networks.

But things aren't much clearer from the consumer's point of view. While companies are still permitted to use the discredited "up to" in their broadband advertising, it will be hard to compare services.

As Ofcom showed in a recent report, most customers signing on for "up to 20Mbit/s" deals will get less than 8Mbit/s - at least if it's coming down a copper telephone line rather than via cable.

The Advertising Standards Authority is currently looking at its code on the advertising of broadband - the cable firm Virgin Media is lobbying vigorously for change, and Ofcom is applying more discreet pressure.

But until the ASA comes up with its conclusions the way a "fast" internet connection is sold to consumers will remain a mess.

Android apps: A new goldrush?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:18 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010


Has the apps goldrush moved on from Apple to Android?

Android smartphoneA year ago stories abounded of bedroom developers making their fortune by developing applications for the iPhone App Store but now it looks as though Google's Android Market may be proving a more attractive and lucrative platform for some.

We know that Android, at least in the United States, has overtaken the iPhone in terms of handset sales - not surprising when there are now dozens of devices, whereas Apple has just one.

At first there were far fewer apps for Android and nearly all were free, but a blog post from one developer shows how that's changing. Arron La gives a detailed breakdown of his earnings from an Android application called Advanced Task Manager, which he launched back in February 2009.

So far he has made $50,000 from people who've paid to install the app, and another $29,000 in advertising revenue from a free version. As he says, this doesn't quite compare with the overnight millionaire stories you get about Apple's App Store, but it's still an impressive sum.

The most arresting thing in his list of stats is the $6,200 in advertising revenue this July - 18 months after launching his app, its earning power seems to be growing, with advertising the biggest contributor.

Arron La does have a few grouches about the rather amateurish way Google has been running the Android Market store - and, having found that Google has no useful statistics to hand about how much revenue the store has generated, I can sympathise.

But overall he makes a convincing case that Android is becoming a viable platform for app developers to build a business.

Now let's turn to Apple's App store. Steve Jobs revealed earlier this summer that $1bn had so far been passed on to developers. But one of the best sources of news about app revenues has been the blog of the developer Tap Tap Tap.

In a recent post it revealed that it had earned over $500,000 in just two months from an app called Camera+, which helped make the iPhone's camera more useful.

That really puts Arron La's Android earnings in perspective, doesn't it? But there's a sting in the tail of this story. Apple has now removed the Camera+ app from its app store, apparently for violating its rules.

The app allowed users to zoom in using the iPhone's volume buttons, and Tap Tap Tap says Apple told the company that "changing the behaviour of iPhone external hardware buttons is a violation of the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement."

So Apple's world may still be a better place to mine for gold than Android Land - but the rules are far more strict so don't be surprised if Sheriff Jobs runs you out of town.

Kindle or iPad: Which will change reading?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 13:29 UK time, Monday, 23 August 2010


Is the new Kindle the device that will finally make e-books mainstream, converting real book-lovers to reading in a digital format? The jury is still out on this one, but I think Amazon has a better chance of making this happen than Apple. And that's despite a little experiment I've conducted which suggests the opposite.

ereadingLast week, I was lent the latest Kindle by Amazon, with an invitation to try it out. It's smaller and cheaper than previous versions but built very much along the same lines - it aims to be just an e-book reader rather than an all-purpose entertainment gadget like the Apple iPad. Amazon's strategy is to appeal to people who simply want to read without any flashy extras, and I think it makes sense.

But I thought I already knew what I felt about the Kindle, having tried it out before, so I convened a small focus group - friends and relatives, from 19 to 50, all very keen readers yet not hostile to digital devices. I asked them each to look at the new device and tell me what they thought. And what was the first thing they all tried to do? You've got it: they touched it.

It seemed that everyone in the group had got used to a touchscreen interface, and assumed that this was how you would control any new gadget. Once I'd explained that you had to navigate via physical buttons, they quickly got the hang of it. But they still seemed very reluctant to consider it as a replacement for a real book. Here are a few typical comments:

"The screen size is too small - I have to keep turning the page every few seconds."
"It's very ugly - doesn't it come in pink?"
"I still prefer the look and feel of a book..."
"What happens if I want to lend a Kindle book to a friend when I've finished?"
"I wouldn't want to use one of these on the beach - what if it got wet or sandy?"

So, a fairly typical range of reactions from e-book sceptics. Yet this was a group happy and accustomed to reading news on a screen, scanning blog posts or watching video screens. What's more, my bibliophile friends seemed more attracted by the idea of a touchscreen device like the iPad, with the possibility it offers of a more interactive and multimedia reading experience.

But I'm going to ignore the findings of my focus group - and stick by my belief that Amazon's device has a better chance of transforming the publishing industry than Apple's.

Why? Because the numbers do not lie. Amazon has established its online store as the predominant electronic book retailer. We know about its recent figures showing that it is now selling more e-books than hardbacks, but I've now been pointed towards another piece of evidence that it's trouncing Apple in this market.

ereadingAn American thriller writer, Joe Konrath, writes an interesting blog for authors describing his own apparently successful transition to digital publishing. In a recent post he says that Amazon's platform is many times more important to him than Apple's new online book store: "I sell 200 ebooks a day on Kindle. On iPad, I sell 100 a month."

That's just one perspective - but Mr Konrath also makes the point that Kindle offers authors the chance to cut out the middleman and grab a far bigger percentage of their sales revenues than their publishers will offer. That is likely to give Amazon's platform ever more muscle in negotiating with publishers.

What's more, a quick comparison between Amazon's Kindle store and Apple's iBooks store appears to show that Amazon wins hands down on the price and availability of titles. And of course, there's a yawning gap in prices when you compare the hardware - the Kindle starts at £109, the iPad at £429.

So while my focus group was underwhelmed by the Kindle, I'm betting that price will prevail - and the UK's publishing industry needs to focus on Amazon, not Apple, as it contemplates its digital future.

Update, 15:11: As a number of people have pointed out, books purchased from the Kindle store do not have to be read on a Kindle - they can also be read on an iPad, an iPhone or a PC. Which makes it even more likely that Amazon, not Apple, will be the major force in the publishing industry.

I should also have said that Amazon's ambitions for the Kindle are different from Apple's for the iPad. Amazon will hope to make its money from the software - sales from the Kindle store - rather than the device, while Apple is definitely making huge margins on the sale of its hardware, so profits from iBooks will be less important.

North Korea's propaganda playground

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:53 UK time, Friday, 20 August 2010


Who is the latest star user of social networking tools like YouTube and Twitter? Let me nominate an unlikely candidate: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea likes to style itself. Perhaps the world's most repressive and closed country, it's set forth on a surprising journey into new media, with a YouTube account and a Twitter feed at @uriminzok.

On a quiet news day, I tapped into the North Korean tweets this morning - and found that most of them were in Korean, leaving me none the wiser. Sticking one block of text into Google Translate produced this: "Great Comrade Kim Jong Il started his revolutionary leadership..."; I think you get the flavour.

North Korea on YouTubeBut what really caught my eye was a link to this extraordinary YouTube video. As a colleague put it, it seems to be a kind of Korean West Side Story, and could end up as a viral hit.

What, though, is the point of this activity for a repressive regime that does not allow its own citizens to use anything but a sanitised version of the internet? The answer, it seems, is to wind up South Korea, and it seems to have worked. The South Korean government warned its citizens away from the propaganda on the North's Twitter and YouTube accounts, then tried to block access to them.

Some hoped that web 2.0 would be all about setting the masses free to express themselves. But for some governments, the likes of Twitter and YouTube just provide another propaganda playground.

A multi-tasking moral panic

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:32 UK time, Thursday, 19 August 2010


The news about our multi-tasking media lives has been met with a mixture of shock, indifference - and just a hint of moral panic.

Woman on bed with phone, laptop and televisionAccording to Ofcom, we spend nearly half our waking lives watching telly, texting, surfing the web, and generally using every form of media and communications technology.

That's the headline from the media regulator's annual chunky report on the communications market. And the reactions to the research have been interesting. Some - like me - were not at all surprised by the sheer volume. Never mind half, so far today I've spent just about all my waking hours online, listening to the radio, or talking on the telephone, even while eating breakfast.

Others said this picture of multi-tasking media habits was actually old hat - one correspondent tells me a study 20 years ago showed most magazines were read while watching television.

As ever with anything about the way we use the media and technology, there has been a hint of disapproval, even panic from some commentators. Is it really healthy, they ask, for us to be hopping from one thing to another without properly concentrating? Shouldn't we spend more time communicating with our friends and family? Is Google, as one writer put it recently, making us stupid?

Before we get too worried, a few points that might reassure you. The study shows that the generation which is leading this revolution is actually devoting less time to these activities than the rest of us. 16-to-24-year-olds spend an average of six hours and 35 minutes a day on media and communications, as opposed to the average seven hours and five minutes.

But it is they of course who are the most adept at multi-tasking, so they're actually squeezing more activity into that time - they're more efficient than the rest of us.

Ah, but surely all they're doing is mucking about on Facebook (the study does show that the social network occupies an extraordinary amount of our time online) when they could be doing something more useful with their lives?

Hold on a minute - I seem to remember that when I was a young person a very long time ago, there was a moral panic about teenagers doing nothing more than watch television. It was rotting our brains, we had lost the art of communication.

It's the modern teenager's obsession with their computers and mobile phones which worries parents today - but if you look at what they're doing, much of it involves communication and creativity, not something you could say about the passive activity of television viewing. Whether it is uploading videos to YouTube, contributing to a gamers' forum or simply sharing a joke on Facebook, today's teenage media activities require far more engagement than slumping in front of Dallas or Dynasty.

Still, it will be a comfort to some that the Ofcom study shows that old-fashioned television remains by far our favourite media pastime, despite predictions that it would be killed off in the new media revolution. What's more, television is the activity which appears to demand most concentration - we are less likely to be doing something else at the same time when we are watching a compelling piece of TV.

As a neuroscientist told the Today programme this morning, the Greeks worried about the pernicious impact of literature, while in the 1930s it was the cinema that was going to rot young minds. It's natural that we should ask searching questions about the effect of new technology on our society. But perhaps we all need to calm down - and learn to love our multi-tasking media world.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Realtime Worlds: Game over

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:26 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Shocking news for the British video games industry this week - one of its most innovative firms, created by an industry legend, is in deep trouble.

Screengrab from Realtime world gameRealtime Worlds has called in the administrators and the jobs of 200 staff at its Dundee headquarters are under threat. The firm, which was founded by Dave Jones, the creator of Grand Theft Auto, can only survive if the administrators find a buyer pretty quickly.

The news confounds the expectations of analysts and journalists that this could be a world-beating games firm. Just last October Realtime Worlds was named "hottest prospect" by the accountancy firm PWC at a conference on technology investment. And as recently as this June one journalist was foolish enough to claim that APB (All Points Bulletin), the game the company had been working on for many years, was "the future of games".

Okay, that journalist was me, and I have to confess that it's not the first time that my hopes for a great British technology success story have been cruelly dashed. So what went wrong? Was it the troubled economic climate, which has made gamers more cautious with their cash? Was it the lack of tax credits for the UK games industry? Dave Jones was passionate about the need for government help for the industry when I met him at the E3 conference in Los Angeles, but on his return it became clear in the Budget that this was a lost cause.

A Labour politician has already pointed a finger at the tax relief issue as a culprit, while a Dundee academic blamed the general climate for the industry. But the reason Realtime Worlds is looking over the precipice may be simpler - the game on which it staked its future just hasn't worked.

Realtime Worlds pitched up in strength at E3 to show off its pride and joy, just weeks before its premiere. APB was an online game that took players into a lovingly crafted world where they could rampage around in cars and on foot, committing crimes or chasing criminals. It allowed players a measure of creativity unavailable in other online games, rewarding them for their skill as opposed to just the hours they put in. It was described by one of Dave Jones' colleagues as the culmination of everything he'd wanted to do in his career, from Grand Theft Auto onwards.

But, like a lavish Broadway musical or a Hollywood blockbuster, Realtime Worlds needed APB to be a huge hit, and quickly. It tried to impose an embargo on reviews of the game, so that it would have maximum impact when it went on sale at the beginning of July. That strategy appears to have bombed - games sites resented the embargo and the reviews were mixed at best. On the Metacritic site, APB is well down the league of current PC games - typical comments range from: "When all its cylinders are firing, APB can be quite fun, but that enjoyment is blunted by the fact that its action mechanics and driving are both so clunky" to "style over substance".

Reviews like that are not going to bring the sales and subscriptions Realtime Worlds needed to turn APB into the next World of Warcraft. So here's the cruel truth - generous tax relief or a surge in the economy would not have done much to stop this hi-tech shooting star from falling to earth. In games, as in other entertainment industries, you're only as good as your last hit, and the gamers decided APB was just not good enough.

Is BT's bus lane a net neutrality crime?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:44 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010


Has BT just blown a hole in the concept of net neutrality - in summary, equal rights for all forms of internet traffic? And if the telecoms giant has done that, is this an issue of any concern at all to British web users?

Bus in bus laneIt was a line in an interview conducted by my colleagues at BBC Click which provoked those questions. Jon Hurry, the commercial director at BT Retail told the programme:

"[A]t the moment with our TV service, BT Vision, we deliver entertainment content, video, at peak time to consumers via our network and we prioritise the traffic in order to be able to do this."

So BT is admitting, even boasting that it treats some forms of internet traffic better than others. Indeed, it's making it clear that its own online television service gets prioritised at the expense of its rivals.

Really? After a call to the BT press office I wasn't much clearer. I was told that Mr Hurry had perhaps not made the best choice of words in talking of prioritising traffic. What he meant was that BT Retail bought a product from BT Wholesale - there is an arms length relationship between the two divisions - which gave it an "assured quality of service" for BT Vision.

It was described to me as a kind of internet bus lane, which meant that users even on a 2Mbps line would get a reliable television service without the buffering and freezing that you can experience with web video. BT insists that this does not affect other web users in any way - although in my experience a bus lane always means a slower ride for other traffic - but also says that other web video operators are free to pay for a similar service.

Earlier this month when Google unveiled a similar, but much milder stance, which would see this kind of prioritisation allowed for mobile broadband traffic, it faced a chorus of outrage from the net neutrality purists and a demonstration outside its headquarters.

On the face of it, the BT case seems a much clearer breach of the spirit of net neutrality, but the company disagrees. Just as the regulator Ofcom argued in a recent paper on the issue, BT believes that net neutrality is a wholly different concept in the UK than in the United States. After all, we have a far more competitive market here, with consumers able to choose from a range of broadband suppliers, whereas in the US there is often little or no choice.

"Our view," said a BT spokesman, "is that ISPs should be free to strike commercial deals if content owners want to guarantee a certain level of service."

I asked the regulator Ofcom whether it was concerned, and was told that BT's bus lane appeared little different from the "traffic-shaping" used by many ISPs to throttle back services at times of peak demand. "There are no rules against this," a spokeswoman said.

The regulator and BT may be right to believe that in Britain consumers understand that the world won't end if firms are able to pay to make some internet traffic move faster. So far the issue just hasn't taken off in the UK - but perhaps this is the moment British web users start to get narked about net neutrality.

The Twitter goldmine

Rory Cellan-Jones | 13:36 UK time, Friday, 13 August 2010


How on earth can you make money out of social networking - and in particular from Twitter? A question I've wrestled with but suddenly I'm a little clearer.

Screenshot of TwitterThe answer is in mining the vast flood of data now produced by hundreds of millions of people sharing information over theses networks and it is the reason, some say, that Google is now getting very nervous about the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

At least that was my conclusion after a chat with Nick Halstead, founder of Tweetmeme, one of the few British web businesses to be making waves in Silicon Valley.

Tweetmeme is one of the many small fish which swim along with the great whale that is Twitter. Its main claim to fame is that it invented the button, a simple web accessory that appears on millions of sites, allowing users to share a link to an article on Twitter.

Nick Halstead claims that the Tweetmeme button has been vital in making Twitter a place where people share information by posting links.

"When we started a couple of years back, 100,000 links were being shared a day - now that's risen to more than 12m a day, and we're largely responsible for that."

Yesterday Twitter unveiled its own share button which looked at first like curtains for Tweetmeme. But at the same time the San Francisco company announced a partnership deal with Nick Halstead's tiny business.

It will help roll out the new button and more importantly will get continued access to the torrent of data emerging from the zillions of tweets now produced every day.

That's what Tweetmeme's business depends on - it acts as a kind of supercharged social search engine for clients who pay for a customised Twitter feed. So, for instance, it has produced a small business channel for one customer eager to know what's being said about and by small firms.

Another client is eager to find out what's being said about the search engine optimisation industry on Twitter, and then there's an American Christian group looking for references to religion.

A simple Twitter search won't do the trick, it will be difficult to filter out the noise and get what you want. What you need is direct access to what Nick Halstead calls Twitter's firehose, and sophisticated tools to mine its data.

Giant firms like Microsoft and Facebook are now paying millions to Twitter for access to this data so a tiny business like Tweetmeme, with its 14 London based staff, is grateful for the chance to swim in the same pool.

It explains why the boss of a tiny cash-strapped UK start-up has made dozens of trips to Silicon Valley over the last two years, determined to build a close relationship with the business on which its whole future depends.

And Nick Halstead thinks this new social data business model has big implications for the undisputed king of the search world:

"The world is changing from one where you 'spider' the web - what Google does - to one where you look at what everybody is sharing on social networks. That's why Google is so scared."

Twitter's San Francisco headquartersI'm just back from a holiday in California, where I dropped into Twitter's San Francisco headquarters, and found row after row of empty desks. The company made it clear that they would soon be filled as its workforce continues to expand at a jaw-dropping rate. I wondered just how their salaries would be paid, but now I'm a little clearer.

Google became hugely rich and powerful after it discovered that search results can be turned into gold. Now Twitter, and companies like Tweetmeme, are realising that vast quantities of social data, with their clues as to what the world is talking about and what consumers want, can also be a goldmine.

The battle between the old and new models of search is going to be one of the biggest business stories of the next decade.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.