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Archives for September 2010

Isabell's idea: Proving green girl geeks are cool

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:13 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

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A 16-year-old who turned up at a hacking event a couple of months ago may just have achieved two great things. If Isabell Long's idea works, it could make a major contribution to getting Whitehall to cut its energy use.

Isabell Long

Isabell Long at Young Rewired State, 2010

What's more, she could convince others that messing about with software and data is not a sad activity undertaken only by teenage boys who need to get out more, but is in fact really rather cool.

Let me explain. The prime minister has today challenged government departments to make big savings in the energy they use over the month of October.

Big deal, you might say, we've heard that kind of green tokenism before and it never amounts to much.

But the difference this time is that the energy savings made by each department will be highly visible, recorded each day on an online table. And that's largely down to the efforts of Isabell.

She turned up at an event called Young Rewired State, where 15-to-18-year-old software developers - and yes, there are plenty of them - get the chance to work with government data to create something useful.

Ideas came teeming out of the teenagers: from a social network for people taking books out of libraries to something called Better Off in Bed, which would examine jobs and work out whether you were better off working or on benefits.

But Isabell's idea reflected her green interests. She had spotted that various government departments were now publishing data about their own energy use, but it was spread over a number of different websites.

She decided to gather it all together in one place and create a Whitehall energy league table so that the public could see who really was making an effort.

Isabell told me:

"I started coding last year; I really love it and the whole community around it. I think there needs to be far more awareness in schools - they should teach coding at GCSE. It's not just for geeks and I hope to be a developer later on."

Somehow 10 Downing Street, which was looking for an eye-catching way to promote an energy-saving competition, got to hear about Isabell's idea.

After a few weeks of toing and froing and general Whitehall head-scratching, it has now been put at the centre of David Cameron's energy challenge. You can see her idea, GovSpark, right here.

Emma Mulqueeny, who runs Young Rewired State, and is a passionate advocate of the benefits of opening up government data, is naturally over the moon about all of this.

"We're especially proud," she says, "that as one of only three girls attending Young Rewired State, Isabell's work on GovSpark has been recognised in this way. We started this to coax the coders out of their bedrooms and bring them together to work with government data."

But here's the irony about an idea which could contribute to saving government money. Young Rewired State has tried and so far failed to get government departments to sponsor next year's event. At a time when they're waiting to hear about the effect of the cuts, it isn't surprising that they're being cautious with their cash.

But will another Isabell turn up next year to prove that girl - and boy - geeks can help save public money? Only if someone scrapes together enough funding to make it happen.

ACS:Law: The leaked list and the Digital Economy Act

Rory Cellan-Jones | 17:18 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

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The names of thousands of people accused of illegal file-sharing have been leaked onto the internet, along with their addresses, and in some cases the titles of adult films they're alleged to have shared and even their credit card details.


Christopher Graham: 'Anyone who holds personal information has got to take their responsibilities seriously'

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham: 'Anyone who holds personal information has got to take their responsibilities seriously'

The ACS:Law case, covered in detail on this site, is obviously deeply worrying for anyone whose name is on the leaked lists, and raises data-protection issues which the information commissioner is now investigating. But are there wider implications for a future campaign of action against file-sharers?

You may remember the hoo-hah about the Digital Economy Act which was rushed into law at the end of the last Parliament. Much of the controversy about the act surrounded measures which might see alleged file-sharers having their broadband connections temporarily suspended.

But that was only ever going to happen as the second stage of an anti-piracy drive. First, the plan is to get thousands of letters sent out by internet service providers to customers suspected of involvement in file-sharing. The idea is that these warning letters will prove a sufficient deterrent, and that there will be no need to move to more draconian action.

But the ISPs, which lobbied hard against the Digital Economy Act, are still furious about its implications. They say it's unfair that they will have to pay some of the cost of the letter-writing campaign - even though 75% will be paid by the copyright owners - and the effect on their relationship with their customers.

The ACS:Law case may provide ammunition to their case. The law firm's technique has involved trawling the internet for evidence of people who are illegally sharing files. That produces a list of IP addresses and the next stage is to get a court order to force the ISPs to hand over the actual names and addresses of the broadband customers involved.

ACS:Law - one small law firm operating on behalf of a handful of copyright owners - appears to have sent out thousands of letters to broadband users demanding compensation for its clients. I've been speaking to just one of those who found himself on the list. He is a Sky subscriber and received a demand for £1,200 from ACS:Law, along with an allegation that he had shared a couple of porn movies online.

He insists he is innocent and has refused to pay. But his anger is directed not just at the law firm but at Sky for handing over his details without telling him. The company points out that it had no choice after receiving a High Court order, and that it cannot contact customers in advance because that might pre-empt an investigation undertaken by a third party.

But the result of ACS:Law's campaign is that thousands of people are now angry not only with the law firm but with their broadband supplier. The ISPs have already estimated that when the Digital Economy Act kicks in, they will end up sending out hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of letters to their customers, with what they believe will be disastrous effects.

TalkTalk, the ISP which has been most vociferous in its opposition to the Act, has already leaped on the ACS:Law security breach as an example of what happens when you hand over customer information. Here's what TalkTalk's Andrew Heaney said in a blog post:
"It's a stark reminder of the dangers of giving out customer details to third parties in trying to combat filesharing. While we do not condone illegal filesharing, we have consistently argued for better ways of combating copyright theft. Handing over customer details to law firms to seek 'compensation', based on accusations from rightsholders, is not the answer."

Mr Heaney says TalkTalk has never handed over customer data to ACS:Law or any other legal firm. Other ISPs suggested that was because no demand had ever been made, but Mr Heaney told me that was not the case: "We're continually approached by lawyers from ACS:Law and other firms and have consistently said 'no'. We've said, 'Let's have a debate in court if you think you've a reasonable case.' None of them have ever taken us up on the offer." He went on: "I'm not going to expose my customers to letters that they would consider bullying and threatening."

TalkTalk, which is seeking judicial review of the Digital Economy Act, seems to be preparing for battle if and when it is put into effect. But others may be less eager to join in. Sky, which of course is both a content owner and an ISP, is keen to stress that it supports action against file-sharers, and may even co-operate with ACS:Law again, if and when the law firm puts its house in order.

But this week's events will certainly make all internet service providers even more aware that they face an uncomfortable period ahead when they may be forced to hand over data which could incriminate their customers.

Objects which tell the story of technology

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:12 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

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Which single object sums up life in 2010? The marvellous Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects is coming to an end, and on 14 October the British Museum will reveal what it has chosen as the final object. While that one has already been selected, there is also a chance for anyone to contribute his or her ideas in two categories.

First, you can nominate your own object of today: something that represents human ingenuity and the challenges facing humanity in 2010. And there is still time to upload your own historical object, with a description of what it says about the world at the time it was in use.

The ideas for the object of 2010 are arriving thick and fast on the website. Scrolling through, you will find plenty of nominations for the iPhone and other mobile devices, but other suggestions include the plastic bag, an online avatar, a wind-up radio, the Large Hadron Collider and the Hubble Telescope. I was struck by these three suggestions:

"a discarded Coca-Cola bottle (with the grooves) - our throwaway consumer society, found all over the world."
"the digital camera - today everyone is an artist."
"Gibson 'Les Paul' electric guitar. For its influence in changing the face of popular music and, therefore, culture."

I have been pondering my own choice, which has, of course, got to be a piece of technology. At first I thought of choosing one of those USB memory sticks as a symbol of the effect of Moore's Law on our lives. As processing power continues to double every 18 months or so, we are now able to store every photo, every document we own on a small stick that you can get for under £10. Soon, no doubt, the British Museum might store its entire archive on such a device.

Sim card

 

In the end I plumped for the mobile phone simcard. Why? Because it, more than any individual phone, sums up the mobile revolution which is still changing our lives in all kinds of ways. Since the simcard's birth it has transformed the way we communicate, it has become a means of identity and is now on the way to becoming a digital wallet too. That's just in the developed world; in parts of Africa the sim is even more important.

I've heard tales of Ugandan women being given simcards as wedding presents by female friends, as a way of guaranteeing their continued independence. Then there are the migrant workers who are now able to charge up their sims with cash, so that it can be transferred to their families hundreds of miles away without the need to spend days travelling. By bringing news, whether it is of family events or market prices or football scores, to people who have been starved of information, it is giving some countries a chance to leapfrog straight from the 19th to the 21st Century. So that's my object of 2010.

But what of older forms of technology that have been nominated by readers of the 100 Objects website? They range from the very recent to objects hundreds of years old which tell us something about the changing effect of technology on our lives. So there's a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, "the computer that opened up access to computing for a whole generation". Someone else has contributed a Baird Televisor, "the last time a lone inventor working in difficult conditions... could invent something that would change the world." Then from the 19th Century there is an early example of a manufactured iron nail, and from the English Civil War, a solid cannon ball.

Murphy radio

 

My house is home to plenty of technology, but I struggled to come up with anything that might be considered a historical object. My 1995 signed copy of Bill Gates' autobiography did not quite cut the mustard. Then I remembered that, up in the attic, I still had the ancient radio that was part of my childhood.

A little research on the internet and an appeal for help from a social network provided me with as much information as I needed to get my Murphy A122 radio catalogued on the 100 Objects website. Here's what I wrote:

"This is a battered old Murphy radio that must have been made some time in the 1940s or 1950s, but was still the main radio in the home I grew up in in the 1960s and 1970s. It was - and would still be if I got round to getting it mended - an object which combined beauty with functionality. When you turned the knob to switch it on, an orange glow would gradually light up a darkened room on a winter's evening. The sound from the wooden cabinet was rich and warm. It was normally tuned to the Home Service or the Light Programme, but I remember scrolling through the frequencies and hearing stations from across Europe - the list of place names in the Long Wave window runs from Reykjavik to Ankara to Berlin.
 
It's a reminder of the first piece of communications technology that really brought the world - or at least Britain - together. Before the age of television, families would gather round radios like this to hear the wartime news bulletins, Winston Churchill speaking to the nation, or perhaps an episode of Take It From Here. 30 years later, I used to crouch beside it to hear the football results on Sports Report. So, for me, it speaks of childhood, and of the history of technology."

For me, this has been a thought-provoking exercise. My two objects, a radio and a simcard, show what extraordinary changes technology has wrought even in the short(!) space of my life. Now it's your turn - please contribute your thoughts about objects which tell the story of human ingenuity, both here and on the History of the World website. And if Twitter is your thing, you can tweet your choices with the hashtag #objectoftoday.

Belfast: Signs of a tech heartbeat

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:21 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

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What do you think of when you hear the name Belfast? A battered city with high unemployment still riven by sectarian divisions? Or a new economy powerhouse, where movie stars shooting at the city's new film studios rub shoulders with hi-tech entrepreneurs in the city's fashionable Titanic Quarter?

The first view is unfair, the second perhaps just a little too rosy. But after 24 hours spent meeting many of those trying to give Belfast a brighter future I've certainly had my perceptions changed.

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Since I started looking into the Belfast tech scene a few weeks back, I've been put in touch with dozens of smart people and clever companies eager to tell the world that this city is on the up. We've been broadcasting this morning from the small premises of Intelesens, almost on the runway of the George Best airport.

This is a company making what it bills as "the world's first intelligent wearable vital signs monitor". It's a neat piece of kit that allows doctors to monitor a patient even, as the chief executive Michael Caulfield put it to me, "when you're away on a fishing trip in Donegal."

Chart showing Rory Cellan-Jones' heartbeat

 

I've been wearing one of the sensors this morning - it sends a read-out via the phone network to a computer and you'll be relieved to hear that my heart is beating healthily.

But let's check up on some of Northern Ireland's vital signs. One huge advantage is its education system.The schools have very high standards and the universities, which have always produced plenty of skilled graduates, are now also generating a number of start-up businesses where they can work.

Intelesens is the result of some ground-breaking research at the University of Ulster's bio-mechanical engineering department - and at least one recent graduate from the university has been taken on by the company. That's a healthy cycle.

Another good sign is that people who left to make their way abroad are returning to start new businesses. We met Greg Maguire, who has spent the last decade or so in California working as an animator on movies from Harry Potter to Avatar. He's now come home to set up Zoogloo, an animation business that will draw on the skills of what's increasingly a media city.

Greg says that after coming through the troubles and then a period of reconciliation, the city is now ready for regeneration - and he wants to be a part of it. "It's a fantastic place to be right now,"he told me, "to me it feels likes San Francisco was before the dotcom boom."

Titanic Quarter, Belfast

 

Then there's Steve Orr who has returned from San Diego, where he started a successful technology business. He now runs the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast's Titanic Quarter in the docks where the doomed liner was built a century ago. When I suggested it was an unfortunate name for a place meant to symbolise the refloating of Belfast as an industrial centre, he came up with the old line "well, she was alright leaving us."

With the Belfast humour comes a serious point about the city's industrial heritage and the skills still present here: "The potential is huge - we have a history of being able to invent and discover and create and that's never left us."

I've met plenty of other inspiring businesses. There are established firms like Lagan Technologies which aims to be a world leader in software that allows governments to interact better with citizens. There are small start-ups like Speechbubble, providing businesses with multilingual presentation tools. TAnd tere are early stage research-based firms like Sophia Search, which is trying to help organisations mine vast quantities of data to unlock its meaning and value.

While the city is alive with possibilities, businesses are desperately short of one thing - capital. One recently-formed Belfast angel network proudly boasts that it's already helped to inject £2m into early stage businesses here. If you bandied around that kind of sum in any other hi-tech centre, people might assume you were talking about the taxi budget.

I popped into a networking evening at the Science Park to find a lively crowd discussing opportunities in the mobile world. At a similar event In London the chatter would have been fuelled by plenty of alcohol - here discussions took place over cups of tea. They know there is plenty of potential here but they'll wait until it is realised before cracking open the champagne.

Mobile misery: My need for speed

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:54 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

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I want to make a confession about an embarrassing obsession which dogs me wherever I go, an addiction that I just can't shake off: I need to be connected to the internet and when I can't get online I get testy and nervous. Colleagues travelling with me sigh wearily as I exclaim, "yes, I've got a 3G signal," then moan, "100k - call that broadband?"

iPad

 

On my trip to Dundee and Belfast I've made sure I'm well equipped to be online 24/7. I have a laptop, an iPad, two mobile broadband MiFi units on different networks and a smartphone. But guess what? It's still a struggle.

W-ifi should be my greatest friend, but in airports, hotels and other public places, I find it both expensive and unreliable. What's more, having already paid for a lot of mobile broadband data, I'm determined to use as much of it as I can.

So far, my experience of getting online via 3G networks has been distinctly patchy. In a hotel in Dundee, I ran speed tests on the three different networks I've got with me. Vodafone barely got to 0.5 Mbps, while both Three and O2 struggled to get above 0.1Mbps.

In the city centre, I seemed to be getting a better signal so when I took a call from 5 Live asking me to do a live radio spot, I offered to make the most of my technology by broadcasting over the internet. Then, when I called in, the Skype connection was so shaky that I headed for the security of the BBC studio with its dedicated line to London.

In a hotel near Edinburgh airport last night, things looked a lot better. Determined not to pay £5 an hour for wi-fi, I ran tests on my 3G dongles and found better news. Both Vodafone and Three were offering a healthy 1Mbps, although the O2 network on my phone still barely delivered 0.2Mbps.

I settled down to watch Spooks on the iPlayer via 3G. It worked pretty well at first, but just as the episode reached its breathless dénouement, the screen froze as the network apparently stuttered to a halt. Foiled again. (Ironic really as the Spooks agents never seem to have any troubles having live video conversations with Harry back at HQ.)

Now you might say my sad obsession with getting connected is of no great concern to anyone else. But I say you're wrong. If the UK is to punch its weight as a high-tech, connected, nation then our infrastructure needs to be a lot better, especially when it comes to mobile broadband. And I need to be able to find out what happened at the end of Spooks, wherever I am.

Can Dundee play with the big boys?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:19 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010

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After a day in Dundee I can't make up my mind - is this city ready to take its place as one of the world's biggest centres for the games industry? Or will it remain a backwater in a business where all the real action is taking place in Canada and the US?

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There are plenty of reasons to be cheerful when you visit Abertay University's Centre for Games Education. We arrived on the first day of term, the place bustling with eager new students. Our tour of the state-of-the art facilities included the Hive visualisation lab where graduate students worked on all manner of fascinating projects, from monitoring stress levels during play to using 3D animation techniques to involve the public in planning decisions.

Most impressive, though, was the very first lesson in animation for some of the class of 2010. In a room packed with computers, the lecturer instead handed out packs of sticky notes and asked the students to make simple cartoons, to teach them the basics of how animation has worked from the days of Georges Melies.

As well as what you might call the softer creative skills, some students here will also need the high-level maths and physics demanded by games programming. Everywhere we went there was a sense of pride and purpose that studies once derided as the equivalent of golf-course management should now be recognised as a key contributor to one of the UK's fastest-growing industries.

Barry Petrie and David Hamilton

 

The hope is that these students will provide much-needed talent for an industry still suffering skill shortages - and may even start their own businesses, just like Barry Petrie and David Hamilton, the co-founders of Digital Goldfish. They left Abertay five years ago, and worked as a supermarket shelf-stacker and a hospital security guard before devoting themselves full-time to their business.

It was the success of Bloons for the iPhone, a game licensed from a New Zealand company which got Digital Goldfish off the ground, and the economics of "app" games for new platforms are proving attractive to this and other small businesses across Dundee.

As we travelled around the city one subject was on everyone's minds - the demise of Realtime Worlds. The company founded by Dave Jones, the creator of Grand Theft Auto and a Dundee legend, had promised to move the city's games sector up to a new level with its online blockbuster APB. When the game flopped after its launch earlier this year, the company collapsed, and the confidence of many of Dundee's smaller firms took a hit too.

Developers say that the loss of a company which had swallowed up £100m in investment, has made it almost impossible to talk to banks about funding. The image of the young industry has also been damaged - Realtime Worlds was the games company that visiting politicians came to to see, and there is nothing else of a similar size here.

Person walks past computer screen at Abertay University

 

Back at Abertay, Paul Durrant - who has spent more than a decade cementing links between the university and the wider games industry - was determined to cheer me up.

"One of this country's key strengths," he told me, "is its creativity and its ability to generate its own intellectual property: original ideas which have been turned into mass-market products. Our only problem has been getting the investment behind them."

He also thinks that the changing structure of the industry, where mobile and casual games are created by tiny new businesses, plays to Dundee's strengths. "If you get a critical mass of small developers, that may be enough."

I hope he is right. I'm sure it would be a comfort to the swarms of young games entrepreneurs clustered in tiny offices and reconditioned mills across Dundee if one of the lumbering giants of their industry pitched up in their city. EA, Sony, and Microsoft have all had work done by small developers here - but shouldn't at least one of them take a permanent trip to Tayside?

Can hi-tech jump-start the UK?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:37 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

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Can hi-tech and new media firms help kick-start the UK economy, and create jobs to replace some of those about to be lost in the public sector? And can they do it anywhere but in London or Cambridge? That is what I'm trying to find out this week on a trip to Dundee and Belfast, two places with ambitions to be hi-tech clusters, but facing plenty of hurdles.

It was a call from someone in Belfast about a month ago that set me thinking. Why, the caller wanted to know, did the BBC take notice of tiny tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, or London, or perhaps Cambridge - but never venture further afield in the UK? Well, the obvious answer is that, in this country at least, much of the action does take place either near the capital or in Cambridge, which, as the home of companies like ARM and Autonomy, has become our most successful technology cluster.

But I was intrigued by the suggestion that we were missing out on some good stories emerging from Belfast. When I asked for more detail, I was soon being bombarded with information about a clutch of small but vigorous tech start-ups. Some of them are in the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast's Titanic Quarter, which has plenty of public money behind it, others in the centre of town at the StartVI incubator, set up without government subsidy. So we will be there on Wednesday and Thursday to see just what kind of contribution tech start-ups can make in the area of the UK most dependent on public sector jobs.

Screengrab from Realtime World's Crackdown gaqme

 

First stop though is Dundee, which for the last 15 years has been doing its best to make a name for itself in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the new economy, the video games business. The city has, what seems to be one of the prerequisites for a technology cluster, good links between a university and the business community. Abertay University, with its degree in computer games technology, has long been active in this field, and was recently chosen to run a government fund investing in the games industry.

But I will be interested to see how Dundee's games sector is coping with the recent demise of one of its biggest players, Realtime Worlds. As I was arranging where to film today for a report we are broadcasting tomorrow, I found plenty of tiny developers working on phone games, but struggled to pinpoint any firm big enough to give this cluster some real weight. Twenty years ago, before Cambridge really took off as a technology location, locals said nothing would happen until the area had at least one billion-dollar company. Now it has several - and that's what Dundee and Belfast may both need if their hi-tech ambitions are to be realised.

As I was writing this I came across an interesting post on the American technology blog Gigaom about the challenges of starting a firm far from the traditional centres of investment. The author was Drew Curtis, the founder of Fark, a website where users comment on news stories. He has grown the site into a pretty lucrative business, without leaving his Kentucky home. He admits that getting access to capital has been a struggle - "we're too small to qualify for tax incentives, too large from a revenue standpoint to qualify for startup grants" - but does not regret staying. And he ends with a killer point - unless someone stays and succeeds, there will never be a role model for other entrepreneurs:

"the major obstacle I had to overcome living in Kentucky was the learning curve. No one in the state had any idea how to grow, operate, and monetize a website the size of Fark. These days, there's one guy who does know."

So what I will be looking out for in Dundee and Belfast is a few examples of companies with big ideas and staying power. Do get in touch if you know of any.

Facebook Places: Where are you now?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:41 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010

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Where are you just now? It's 8 in the morning and I'm in the pub just round the corner from my house - or at least that is what I've told my Facebook friends. The social network's Places function, launched in the United States last month, has just been made available in the UK.

Rory Cellan-Jones profile on Facebook Places

 

Using the Facebook app on my phone, I can now tell all my friends where I am - and see where they are if they choose to use Places. So far, I can see that a clutch of technology correspondents are at somewhere described as Facebook London (and that a former colleague is at Tesco Express in Cardiff "201 km away" from my location). I imagine that they were keen enough to accept the social network's invitation to pitch up for breakfast and hear about the new feature.

As I'm on a day off, I've chosen to keep an eye on it from home, rather than rush into Soho to hear about its wonders while munching on a croissant. But I think I get the idea. The ability to broadcast your location makes the social network that bit more indispensable to the millions who use it to organise their social lives. So, for instance, I can log into Facebook Places in the evening and if all the other technology correspondents are telling me they are in some swanky bar I can head on over sharpish and join them for a drink.

The opportunities for advertisers are obvious - every local business within a few hundred yards popped up when I was "checking in". For a decade at least I've been hearing that location-based services are the next big thing for the mobile industry. The location-sharing Foursquare social network, with its exciting contests where users fought to be the mayor of their local coffee shop, was the tech flavour of the month a few months ago. Now a network with 500 million users is moving in and becoming the mayor of mobile location.

But in my mind there is still one big unanswered question to be settled - just how many people are eager and willing to tell the world where they are? The privacy concerns are obvious, though Facebook has done a reasonable job of making sure users know the implications of using Places and have to opt in to sharing their location.

What I don't buy is the idea that millions will look at Facebook, spot that Joe is in a cafe just yards away and Tracy is in a pub across the road and then arrange to meet up. Perhaps I am too old to get this, but it strikes me that Places is aimed at quite a small section of the social network's users, people whose social lives are so busy but fluid that they need to organise a series of chance encounters.

But who knows, checking in via your mobile phone may soon be all the rage. And by the way, I am not really in the pub at breakfast time, I'm sitting at my kitchen table. I don't want to broadcast my exact location to the world - but I would like to make my life seem a little more exciting than it really is. Perhaps that will prove to be the real use for Facebook Places.

Explorer 9 and a better web

Rory Cellan-Jones | 18:15 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

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Looking for the best way to surf the web? In recent years, Internet Explorer has been the last place to look for innovation - the likes of Firefox and Google's Chrome browser have led the way in making web-surfing faster and more rewarding. Now Microsoft claims it's regaining the lead in the browser wars with Internet Explorer 9.

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The company has poured a lot of thinking time and investment into its latest version of the browser. While Explorer is still used by around two-thirds of all web users, it's clear that the advance of first Firefox and then Chrome has made Microsoft wake up and smell the coffee.

Executives say they have realised that PC users spend around 60% of their time on the web - so a good browser is vital to the whole Windows ecosystem. So what's different, and will it convince anyone who has deserted Explorer to return?

Speed is the first thing you notice. I was shown a demo in which the fish in an animated web aquarium swim around happily in Explorer 9, while struggling to move at all in the latest version of Google Chrome. Microsoft says this is all down to what it calls hardware acceleration - any site with graphics is sent to your computer's graphics processor, which previously has not been used by a browser. "Instead of using 10% of the power on your PC, we're now using 100%," says Leila Martine, who runs the Windows consumer business in the UK.

But the big claim is that this re-engineered browser finally brings a web experience which has been stuck in the past right up to date.

"Over fifteen years the web has progressed," says Leila Martine, "but not to the same degree as other technologies."

So Moore's Law has meant chips have got faster, computers have got more efficient, devices have got smaller and more powerful - but websites still look as if they are marooned in the 20th century. Now, or so Microsoft claims, you will get the all-singing all-dancing multimedia sites which the latest web technologies make possible.

A number of sites have already been optimised for Internet Explorer 9; among them Amazon, eBay and IMDB. But what struck me when I was shown Amazon's impressive new Book Shelf, where it was easy to pick a book and riffle through the pages, was that it looked just like an app of the sort you now get on a mobile phone.

"This looks like an application," Leila Martine agreed, and went on to show me how website owners could create site preview buttons that would sit on your computer task bar, much like the button you click to launch a phone app. "From a brand perspective they're able to create much more rich and immersive web applications."

We've heard a lot lately, notably from Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine, about the death of the web as apps give users a more pre-packaged user-friendly experience. Now it looks as though Microsoft is trying to "appify" the web, something that will certainly have brand owners and advertisers licking their lips.

For once, Microsoft's rivals may need to take some notice of what the once sleepy giant of the browser business has been up to. I'm not sure that Firefox or Chrome users will flock back to Explorer - and of course it's only Windows users who will be able to use it. But as Google itself says in a statement about the new browser "competition drives innovation for the benefit of users".

With new open standards and new browsers competing for the attention of users and websites, it seems the web is adapting, not dying.

In Nokia World the fightback has begun

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:25 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

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I've spent the morning in another world. It's located in a vast gleaming building in a remote spot in east London, and it's packed to the brim with people who will tell you that they have seen the future of mobile phones and it will be dominated by a very clever Finnish company which still knows best what people want. Welcome to Nokia World.You might not believe if you saw the vast and impressive show Nokia has laid on at London's Excel centre that this was a company in trouble. Crowds of developers, technology analysts and journalists flocked into an opening keynote where Nokia unveiled four new models with the usual hoopla.

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The morning started with Niklas Savander, Nokia's marketing boss,  telling us that his firm still dominated the smartphone market, selling more phones than Apple and Android combined. And there was a sly dig at Apple, when he boasted that Nokia's devices worked "whichever way you hold them".

And then the main presentation by Anssi Vanjoki, the man who runs the handset business, explained why the new phones, and in particular the N8 would blow the opposition out of the water. The hardware was better, the software was superb, the Ovi services outshone anything that the likes of Google's Android could offer. The mesage was clear - the fightback has begun. Although, as I found after a quick web search, Mr Vanjoki had made the same claim in a blog back in July.

If any phone is designed to win Nokia back its reputation as the coolest smartphone brand - rather than "the one your dad has" as an analyst put it to me - it is the N8. I had a quick play with it, after the keynote. On stage, the big boast was that you could plug it into your telly and play HD video straight from the phone, and that it had a fabulous 12-megapixel camera delivering better photos than any other phone.

That emphasis on the hardware struck me as missing the point - do people really buy phones these days for the quality of their video replay - or even for the number of megapixels they promise? I think it's the software that matters, and here Nokia does appear to have made progress. At first glance the Symbian 3 operating system on the phone looks much more intuitive than its predecessors. In fact it makes the N8 work just as easily as, ooh, an Android or an iPhone.

Will that be enough? I'm sure the N8 will sell well, but the problem for Nokia may be that it still won't deliver the chunky profit margins enjoyed by Apple. And is Nokia's own board confident that its new range of phones and the latest version of Symbian will be enough to win back its reputation as the most innovative firm in the mobile industry?

It seems not because Annssi Vanjoki resigned yesterday, after failing to convince the board that he, rather than Microsoft's Stephen Elop was the man to lead Nokia back to the promised land.

In such difficult circumstances, Mr Vanjoki did a great job today of promoting the company he is now leaving after more than a quarter of a century. How ironic it would be if the phones and the strategy which he has been instrumental in shaping end up making the sun shine again in Nokia World.

Can Elop give Nokia back its mojo?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 13:26 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

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Well now we know how deep the crisis is at Nokia. For the first time in its history Nokia has gone outside Finland for its new Chief Executive. In a press conference at its headquarters just outside Helsinki this morning, the company unveiled Stephen Elop as the man who will guide it into a better future.

 

Putting a foreigner in charge of a company which is a huge source of pride to Finland is a radical step - a bit like making an Italian the manager of the England football team. And who knows whether it will prove any more successful.

Stephen Elop

Mr Elop's mission, to put it crudely, is to give Nokia back its mojo. The company is still the giant of the mobile handset world - but it knows that it has lost what you might call thought leadership. Whereas the industry once looked to Finland to see where phones were heading next, it's now more likely to look to Silicon Valley or Seoul.

So why on earth has Nokia chosen a man from Microsoft, which has continually failed to translate its desktop dominance to the mobile world? Well Stephen Elop has only been at Redmond for about eighteen months, and has an impressive track record in the web software world, having run Macromedia, the inventor of Flash. He was introduced by Nokia's chairman, who praised his "strong software background and his track record in change management."

But Mr Elop now has the unenviable task of trying to change a company whose culture successfully turned it from a wellington boots conglomerate into a global communications giant - and then went suddenly wrong.

That culture has reflected Nokia's Finnish homeland - quiet, understated, clever people getting on with the job without making much of a fuss. On a couple of occasions I have visited the company's headquarters, an airy wood and glass structure overlooking a lake, and come away impressed by the sense of purpose and the lack of a hierarchy. We happened across the then chief executive Jorm Ollila eating in the canteen, and he agreed to an interview then and there.

But the company seems to have failed in two areas - integrating its excellent hardware with the right software, and explaining to customers what it is about Nokia's products that should excite them. One of the first things the new boss will have to consider is whether he should end Nokia's reliance on the Symbian operating system and get into bed with Android, which is now powering many of the hottest new smartphones.

Stephen Elop made a good start at today's press conference in showing that he is a better communicator than many of his Finnish predecessors. The Canadian was also careful to try to build bridges with his new workforce and its homeland, going to almost embarrassing lengths to stress the links between Canada and Finland - they're both in the Arctic Circle and both love ice-hockey. Oh, and he's buying a house in Helsinki.

Nokia has huge strengths and its finances are still pretty sound. There is no reason why it should not be able to win back its reputation as the leader in mobile innovation. But Mr Elop will need to move rapidly - Nokia's rivals, from Apple to Microsoft, are not going to stand still while he sorts out his new home.

My Google alphabet

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:41 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010

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"Welcome to Google Instant - feelings of euphoria and weightlessness are normal. Do not be alarmed."

That's the message that Google puts up every time you try out its new instant search service. Euphoria? I'm not sure that it will be greeted in that way by either users or advertisers, but both are likely to be disorientated by what is a radical change in the way we search - and the way we advertise around search. More on this from Maggie Shiels.

Screengrab of Google Instant

But what Google Instant does let us do is construct an instant alphabet which gives an insight into both the world's, and our own, current interests.

Let me explain. The moment you put even one letter into the Google search box, it starts predicting what you are looking for and giving you instant results. The example in the demo at Mountain View was "W", which instantly provided the weather for San Francisco. And for every letter of the alphabet, Instant has a top recommendation with instant search results.

I have been typing each letter into the search-box to come up with my own Google alphabet - and it is slightly disturbing. As I'm signed into my own Google account as I do it, I presume the results reflect my own interests, as well as those of millions of other users. What strikes me about my alphabet is that it is dominated by big corporate brand names - that "F is for Facebook" is no surprise, but why on earth is "D for Debenhams", a store which I can't remember visiting in either the real or virtual world.

What does seem likely is that very short search terms will become much more valuable - can you actually bid for "D"? - and that longer ones will go down in value to advertisers. Anyway, here is my alphabet - and I would be interested to hear how it differs from yours:

A is for Argos
B is for BBC
C is for Currys
D is for Debenhams
E is for eBay
F is for Facebook
G is for Google Maps
H is for Hotmail
I is for ITV
J is for John Lewis
K is for KLM
L is for Lotto
M is for MSN
N is for Next
O is for O2
P is for Paypal
Q is for QVC
R is for Rightmove
S is for Sky
T is for Tesco
U is for Utube (?)
V is for Vodafone
W is for weather
X is for Xbox
Y is for YouTube
Z is for Zara

Update 1310: Oh dear, it appears I still don't know my ABC after all these years. Somehow I left out V - which turns out to be for Vodafone.

It also seems that anyone using Google in the UK gets similar results. Google tell me that you only get a personalised result if you sign in to your gmail account and have web history enabled - and then only on searches that you have done before. Perhaps Google Instant is rather more of a blunt instrument than it first appears.


Lovefilm and Livescribe: Hybrid hopefuls

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:35 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010

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Go digital or die - that's been the accepted wisdom for a while for every firm hoping to keep up in a fast-changing world. But this week I've talked to two firms which seem to have found a middle way between the analogue and digital worlds.

One is still doing something as old-fashioned as putting products in the post, the other is trying to revive handwriting by reinventing it for the digital age.

Post box

Lovefilm is a movie rental service that puts thousands of DVDs into the post each day to more than a million customers across the UK and parts of Europe.


A business which depends on shifting physical products in an industry which is rapidly going digital sounds doomed - and just look at what has happened to Blockbuster in the United States for an example of the threat posed to old-fashioned movie rentals.

Now it has to be said that Lovefilm is moving down the road towards digital delivery at a fair pace - subscribers can already watch some of its titles online without waiting for the postman, and it's eager to get onto new platforms such as games consoles and the Apple TV set-top box.

But when I spoke to one of the company's backers, he was certain that a rapid transfer to a purely digital approach would not work in the short term.

"The graveyard of digital-only services is pretty full," he told me, mentioning a UK video-on-demand service called Home Choice which never really caught on and a number of false starts by BT.

"What everybody has missed," he said, "is the power of a hybrid model". The core business at Lovefilm is apparently still very profitable, and the belief is that this provides a good platform to start marketing digital services, which could then deliver better margins to the business as a whole.

This seems to make sense to me - plenty of people have lost money by failing to keep up with new technology, more have wasted it by over-estimating the pace of change.

Our broadband infrastructure will be one limiting factor for any business hoping to deliver media online - as my Lovefilm friend put it, "the letter-box has unlimited bandwidth - whereas if we chose to stream all of our movie catalogue on the same day we would bring the internet down."

With talk of a stock market debut later this year, investors seem to have bought into Lovefilm's twin-track strategy. And the venture capital community is also expressing enthusiasm for another technology firm today, with Silicon Valley's Livescribe announcing that it has received new funding.

Livescribe is another kind of hybrid, with a mission to reinvent writing. Its product is a digital pen which matches the notes you write on special Livescribe paper to an audio recording of whoever is speaking. so you can tap on each word with the pen and hear back exactly what was said.

The company's founder is Jim Marggraff, an engineer who is also a brilliant presenter of his own product - quite an unusual combination in my experience. He showed me some new features Livescribe is bringing out, including a function which allows you to take the handwritten notes from your livescribe book and e-mail them to someone, along with the audio recording.

This struck me as a delightful if rather retro idea. Perhaps it could revive the art of letter-writing, even bring a new twist to the love letter? Mr Margraff agreed, and said he had been Livescribe electronic handwritten notes to his wife.

My concern is whether there is really a big enough market for this proposition. It obviously appeals to journalists with poor shorthand, or to wealthy students taking lecture notes, but surely this is one area where most of us have already gone digital, tapping notes direct into a keyboard rather than committing them to paper first.

I also think there's just a little too much friction in the process if you could wirelessly beam the notes and audio from the pen direct to the cloud, rather than having to plug it into a computer, then it might be a compelling product.

Still, just as Lovefilm is betting that consumers will stick with an old-fashioned way of getting hold of movies for quite a while, Livescribe believes the habit of writing with a pen will stay in fashion - as long as it's given a digital twist.

Jim Marggraff tells a compelling story about his product and he confirmed to me that he had given the same demo he gave me to his new investors before they signed up. It obviously did the trick.

Time will tell, though, whether his pen computer will give handwriting a new lease of life or just prove an interesting diversion on the road to a fully digital future.

Travel and tech

Rory Cellan-Jones | 11:52 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010

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"Why do I do this every day?" For years, these words were painted in big white letters on a fence alongside the M40 motorway on the approach to London.

It always sounded to me like the anguished cry of a commuter and it will strike a chord with anyone trying to get to work in the capital today.

A tube strike has brought travel chaos - of little concern to those of you outside south east England but a subject dominating conversation around the water-coolers, both real and virtual. What's this got to do with technology, I hear you ask.

Well two things - commuters and media organisations are using the latest social media tools to document the travel situation and to obtain information, while beginning to ask whether spending hours on the move is really necessary in this connected age.

One innovation is a crowdsourcing experiment run by my colleagues at BBC London. They have set up a London Tube Strike Map to plot commuters' experiences as they head across town.

It is the brainchild of Claire Wardle, who has been working on the intersection between social media and newsgathering. She explains here here how she decided to use the Ushahidi platform, which was invented to plot civil unrest in Kenya, to gather pictures, reports, anecdotes from London travellers.

So here are a few snippets: "Willesden Junction Station - long queues", "Dollis Station closed - contrary to TFL website", "Paddington Station - Hammersmith and City Line not stopping."

Now this is all information that should be available either from the Transport for London website or from the BBC's own travel news service, on radio, TV or the web.

But official sources still struggle to keep up to date - sometimes the crowd is faster with the news, as long as you accept that these are anecdotal rather than official reports.

There were about 90 reports on the map by mid-morning, which seems a little sparse to me. But Claire Wardle was satisfied as the project had only been publicised on Twitter, rather than on air, and the whole exercise had been something of an experiment.

A few lessons have been learned - each report really needs a time stamp to be useful in a fast changing situation, and more people may need to be accustomed to using smartphones if the traffic to maps like this is really going to take off.

But surely there is a simpler technical answer to coping with traffic chaos - just work from home. Many of us now have all the technology you need - a computer and a decent broadband connection to do as much of our work from the front room as we could in the office.

But I sense there is still reluctance by many employers to allow staff out of their sight. I asked a few people on a popular social network about their employer's policy.

Quite a few were allowed to stay home, but others said the practice was discouraged: "we were told to make it in if we could - ie come in", "we are being robust: no extra home working, take holiday if you can't get in" and "no but if we work through lunch we can go home early."

Of course, the BBC would be perfectly happy for me to work from my high-tech home studio, broadcasting down an ISDN line, or sending video clips over my fast broadband line.

But I struggled in for a meeting at my office with people from a technology firm who had come all the way from Cardiff to see me. We could have just talked on the phone but I think we achieved more gathered around the same table, especially as I dragged in a couple of colleagues to take part.

Even in the connected age, face to face contact still matters. But that message "Why do I do this every day?" has now disappeared from the fence alongside the M40. Perhaps the graffiti artist is now working from home.

Battling with networks

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:15 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

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Berlin: Every now and then I like to give you a glimpse behind the scenes in the chaotic life of a technology journalist who often struggles with his own technology. In Berlin for the last couple of days the battle between me and my gadgets has been particularly intense.

Andrew Webb

To cover the IFA Consumer Electronics show I brought with me the following: one laptop, one iPad, a Kindle (both to shoot rather than use in broadcasting), a digital audio recorder, two microphones, a smartphone, a blackberry, and my new friend Comrex. This, I should explain, is a piece of broadcasting kit which allows you to do live radio via either a wireless network or using a 3G card.

More importantly, I brought Andrew Webb, a multi-skilled cameraman/editor whose main job is to film pieces for the web - he knows he only got the job because of his name. As well as shooting material for this site, I asked Andrew to help me film reports for network news, always a high pressure assignment.

First I had to make my new radio kit work, something I've struggled with in the past. I needed to do some live broadcasting early in the morning from my hotel room - and immediately hit a hitch when the Comrex was unable to join the hotel's wi-fi network because instead of just a password it needed a complex log-in.

I turned instead to the wi-fi produced by a mobile 3G dongle, or MiFi. Network coverage looked a bit thin, but once I'd put the MiFi on the window sill, we were up and running - and speaking to the world.

Our first television report seemed to be going equally smoothly. Having raced around the IFA show we made our way to the BBC Berlin bureau to hand over the digital files to an editor. We had booked a line to feed the story to London at 1730, well in time for the Six O'Clock News. As we fed our material London told us they could see the pictures, but the audio was not coming through.

With minutes to go, the fault on the line somewhere between Berlin and London - nobody could agree where - was endangering our report. But Andrew realised he could extract the sound track and send it over the Internet by FTP to London, where an editor managed to paste it onto the pictures just in time. Phew.

Today we were asked quite late in the day to file another piece for the One O'Clock News. With no time to get to the BBC bureau we had to try to feed that over the wireless network in the IFA media room, packed with the world's techie journalists. it turned out to be painfully slow - so again we found a window, fired up the trusty MiFi, and got our one and a half minute report across to London in about 40 minutes, just about hitting our deadline.

I filmed some of the process on my phone to make a shockingly poor web video which does at least give you a flavour of our day.

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What lessons do I take away? Networks, whether they be wireless, 3G, or a fibre line from Berlin to London, can always let you down. In which case you need smart human beings to get you out of a hole.

Challenging Apple's ambitions

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:32 UK time, Thursday, 2 September 2010

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Berlin: Is today the day the consumer electronics industry's fightback against Apple begins? Most of the big names from the gadget world are in Berlin for the IFA consumer electronics show which is now becoming one of the best events to see new products launched.

Escalators at the IFA conference, Berlin

Apple of course is not here - but lo and behold, on the eve of IFA it held its own big show, where the highlights were further moves into the worlds of digital music and TV, and its very own little social network, Ping.

But in Berlin, Apple's rivals, big and small, are striking back. Last night, determined not to be upstaged by the news from California, Sony unveiled its music and video streaming service Qriocity. This will now be available in Europe, after launching in America earlier this year, with video first followed by a music service by Christmas.

Sony is hoping that it can persuade the millions who own its hardware - TVs, Play Station 3 consoles, Blu-Ray players - that there is an alternative to Apple when it comes to getting online access to content. What Sony lacks though is the software muscle that iTunes gives Apple. With 160 million people now registering their credit cards to an iTunes account, there's a lot of inertia in the digital media market.

Then there was an announcement from Spotify, still a small business but one on which the music industry has pinned big hopes. In an alliance which combines two of the most innovative software and hardware firms involved in music streaming, it has teamed up with Sonos, makers of upscale multi-room music systems. Owners of Sonos kit will now be able to use it to stream Spotify's catalogue around their homes.

For Spotify, these are exciting yet dangerous times. Over the coming months the music streaming service could conquer America and grab a huge share of the digital music market - or it could be crushed by the likes of Apple and Sony. Teaming up with Sonos is one small move to make its premium service more compelling, but it really needs to break into the American market soon - otherwise it could end up as an interesting but short chapter in the history of the digital music revolution.

But the real challenge to Apple's ambitions comes from Google's Android mobile operating system. We've already seen Android phones begin to overtake the iPhone in some markets - now we're going to see a proper challenge to Apple's latest cash cow, the iPad.

Samsung and Toshiba are among a crowd of companies unveiling tablet computers at IFA, many of them running on Android. They are almost all going to be cheaper than the iPad and do much the same. Only the sheer power of the Apple brand, along with the integration with its App Store, could keep the iPad ahead of its new rivals.

Apple has a history of entering existing markets and transforming them - the iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, the iPad wasn't the first tablet. But the increasingly closed nature of the Apple ecosystem is already driving some consumers elsewhere. Perhaps in Berlin in 2010 we will see the likes of Samsung, Sony and Spotify finally begin to wrest attention away from the man in the jeans and the black jumper who is always offering "just one more thing".

Update 15:25: I have now had a brief play with the two new tablets from Samsung and Toshiba. Samsung's Galaxy Tab looks, at first sight, as though it might give the iPad a run for its money. It gives easy access to movies, music, and books - just like the iPad. But it also allows you to make phone calls, take pictures, and watch Flash video, none of which is possible with Apple's device. I'm not sure about the size though - seven inches makes it more like a rather unwieldy phone and I'm not sure I'd want to stuff it into my pocket.

The Toshiba Folio 100 is bigger, a bit like a more widescreen iPad. Again, it does most of the things that an iPad does, but although, like the Tab, it runs on Android, it has a slightly clunky interface. And because the Google OS isn't yet built to work with screens this big you have to rely on Toshiba's own apps rather than the Android Market.

Overall, neither device is going to make existing iPad owners go "wow" - but the fact that both will be priced at well below Apple's product they could persuade new tablet buyers that Android is the future.

HD voice: Can you hear me now?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:35 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010

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How much does the audio quality of your mobile phone calls matter to you?

Woman talking on mobile phoneNot much if you are to believe the mobile industry. After all over the last 20 years the operators and the manufacturers have spent billions of pounds upgrading their networks and perfecting their handsets.

But while everything else about the mobile experience has been transformed, there has been no real improvement in the quality of our audio calls.

But now Orange is betting that call quality does matter to a significant number of consumers. It has become the first operator to launch HD voice, which promises the biggest improvement in voice calls in 20 years - indeed just about the only real advance since we moved from analogue to digital.

Why has it taken so long? It sounds to me that the problem was inertia - why spend the money unless you were clear about customer demand? But Orange says the answer is a long wrangle over standards.

Until the whole industry could agree on a new codec - the software which encodes data to send it over the network - everybody stuck with the existing way of channelling voice data around the world.

Now that has been agreed and, combined with new hardware in the form of HD ready handsets, it can deliver what Orange describes as "crystal clear calls".

We decided to put that to the test, making calls between two HD handsets over the Orange handset, then calling from the same place using a standard phone over a non-HD network. You can hear the two calls below:

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The difference is noticeable, although I'm not sure you could quite describe the HD call as "crystal clear". Orange says it is not just about a software change in the network - the new handsets developed by the likes of Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung can all deliver better audio as it leaves the caller.

So will HD Voice take off in the same way as HD TV has? Unless all the networks decide this is something they need to offer to their customers as a matter of course, I think this could be a slow burner.

You can watch HD TV whether or not your neighbours has it, but if you decide to get one of Orange's HD phones you will only be able to make an HD call to someone on the same network who also has one of the new handsets.

So a network effect could be slow to arrive - although improvements in the audio quality of VoIP calls, made over the internet rather than a phone network, may spur the industry into action.

Orange has already launched HD voice in Moldova and says it has improved customer perception of its network. But unless customers start telling other networks they need to go on HD, we are likely to continue to find that our phones are great for playing online games, checking the football scores, or monitoring your heartbeat - but still lousy at making phone calls.

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