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Archives for November 2010

Google v Regulators: The battle begins

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:58 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010

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It's been predicted for years - and now it has finally happened. The company that many see as the most powerful force on the internet - and some believe abuses that power - is being investigated by a major competition regulator.

Google sign

 

The EU has launched an inquiry into complaints that Google has favoured its own price comparison services at the expense of rivals. The charge, from companies like Foundem, is that users searching for something like "best price for Canon cameras" see results from Google's own shopping service ranked far above links to rival comparison sites, and that sponsored links also come out higher.

The rivals believe that when Google claims that its search algorithm is a completely objective device, simply hunting down the best results for users, that's hokum. Instead, they say, it's tailored to meet the voracious commercial ambitions of its creator. The case for the prosecution has been rehearsed over the past few months in this blog funded by Foundem.

The inner workings of Google's PageRank system will now presumably be examined by investigators in Brussels, although they will find that it's a moving target, chaging almost every day.

Google appears to have learned from the mistakes of other high-profile American targets of the EU regulators. Instead of greeting the news of the inquiry with outrage and bluster, it has issued a diplomatic statement, stressing that it always does its best to make sure everything in its search business works accurately and fairly but "there's always going to be room for improvement, and so we'll be working with the Commission to address any concerns."

But the search giant obviously thinks the accusations are baseless. Insiders say price comparison sites like Foundem don't come top in searches for a good reason. Someone searching for, say, a hotel room in Barcelona, wants to be taken direct to sites in Barcelona, not to a price comparison site where they can then begin their search again. And the case for the defence is amplified in this post by Danny Sullivan oon his Search Engine Land site.

This is just the very beginning of what is likely to be a very lengthy investigation - and we are a long way from seeing any penalties imposed on Google. But any company which has the power and dominance in a market that the search engine giant enjoys is bound to attract the attention of the regulators. Microsoft, for example, was at war with the competition authorities in Washington and then Brussels for more than a decade.

Now they are turning their sights on a new behemoth. How ironic that it's happening just as Facebook is beginning to challenge Google's status as a web superpower. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should start hiring some competition lawyers in readiness for its turn in the firing line.

Can a tablet David take on the Apple Goliath?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:39 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010

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Everyone loves a David-and-Goliath story, don't they? And for sheer audacity a tiny business formed this year called Exo PC has to be applauded. After all, it's hoping that its 11 staff can take on the mighty Apple with a product that claims to be better than the iPad.

When a man called Kevin Dark got in touch a week ago and asked me to take a look at a new tablet computer, I have to confess I had to stifle a yawn. Suddenly, everyone and his brother is bringing out a tablet, and promising that it can beat the iPad. What's more, the machine ran on Windows 7, which doesn't seem optimised for tablet use at the moment.

But I always enjoy playing with a new gadget, and I was also intrigued by the firm behind it. Exo PC was formed in January 2010 by two Canadians, and is primarily a software company. One of the founders had an idea 10 years ago for a touch-based user interface for a Windows machine, but struggled to find the hardware.

Now the company has found that hardware, and, according to Mr Dark, has built an enthusiastic online community to support the idea of the Exo PC. So I arranged to get my hands on one.

The first thing that strikes you when you lift the slate out of its box is the sheer size and weight of it - some people find the iPad too heavy, but this is is bigger and weightier.

Turn it on and you first see a classic Windows 7 startup and desktop; then you find that special Exo PC user interface which has been 10 years in the making.

Screengrab of Exo PC tablet desktop

A series of bubbles are ranged across the screen, each occupied by an icon. I thought at first these might be apps, but most are simply links to web pages, although there are a few simple games. Kevin Dark tells me that you can simply install Windows software on the tablet, and that developers are starting to build apps for it too.

I quickly managed to do three things that are impossible - or at least challenging - on an iPad. First, I clicked on the iPlayer link on the home screen and found that I was able to watch live television on the Exo PC; on an iPad, that's only possible if you go to a site called TV Catchup.

Watching TV on the Exo PC tablet

Then I realised that the tablet had a tiny forward-facing camera, and had Skype pre-installed, so within minutes I was on a video call to a friend. There's no camera on an iPad - though surely that must be coming in the next version.

And finally I went to the BBC website and watched a couple of videos - on an iPad I would have been told to install Flash, which would then prove impossible.

The Exo PC also has all manner of ports - HDMI, USB, and SD card reader - making it far more connected than an iPad.

The touchscreen interface is more responsive than on some other tablets I've tried. You can plug in a DVD player and watch a movie on the 11-inch screen, and generally do most of the things that you could on a netbook computer.

Pretty impressive - but I still have to confess that I wasn't really wowed by the Exo PC. I found it a slightly cumbersome mixture of Windows machine and media tablet. Without the wide range of easy-to-use apps that you get on an iPad or Samsung's Galaxy Tab, you're left with a very heavy surfing device that isn't as intuitive to use as those two - and with a four-hour battery life that means you can't leave home without a charger.

One thing that Kevin Dark told me provides a clue to my misgivings:

"Our hardware may not be as 'pretty' as the iPad, but we believe most people know that choosing functionality over aesthetics is the better option in the long run."

I think that misses the point. Form and function are inextricably linked - iPad users find the look of their tablet "pretty", but also enjoy the beauty of the way it functions.

Still, the Exo PC, which is already on sale in parts of Europe, will be coming to the UK soon, with prices roughly the same as an iPad for equivalent storage.

Then we will see whether there is a market for a tablet running Windows 7. At the moment, I'm sceptical, but if this tiny firm can work with Microsoft to produce a rather prettier experience, then maybe the Exo PC can score a few hits on the Goliath that is Apple.

Hacking smartphones with ease

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:40 UK time, Tuesday, 23 November 2010

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Many of us carry almost every detail of our lives on our phones - so how secure are we from those who might want to know what we're saying and doing on the move? We know how insecure the voicemail of some famous folk turned out to be a few years back; surely today's sophisticated smartphones are much less vulnerable?

I've been conducting an experiment with a company which offers to protect the phones and e-mail accounts of high-profile individuals - not, I hasten to add, because I fit either category but to find out how vulnerable all of us with modern mobiles might be.

So I challenged Tom Beale of Vigilante Bespoke to do his worst with my iPhone 4. First, I asked him to get through the initial layer of security, the passcode on the front screen. There's a well-known method for this, which Apple keeps trying to patch, but it proved a matter of moments for Tom, who was soon looking at my contacts.

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This is obviously worrying if you lose your phone; in that case, there is a way to remove everything on it remotely. And Apple points out that its latest software update for the iPhone, released on Monday, has now fixed this problem once more.

Of greater concern was what Tom showed me about the danger of connecting to wireless networks on the move.

He and a colleague used a netbook computer to set up a wireless access point. They called it "BTOpenzone", a network my phone and many others look out for and join. I watched as they showed me a range of devices in their office in London's Soho looking at the network - including my phone.

Tom explained to me that any mobile, when not connected to wi-fi, transmits what he called probe requests looking for networks which it has used previously. "Probe requests are essentially a loud shout - is there any wi-fi access point near me with the name 'BTOpenzone'?"

My phone then connected to the access point - it was dumb enough just to check the name, rather than comparing the address with others it had previously used.

"Once the device is connected to our access point," Tom explains, "its user is able to browse the web as normal. Unbeknown to them, the web traffic is being transmitted through our computer. The program examines the traffic between users and websites, looking for data containing cookies."

Among my cookies - the small pieces of code which smooth our path to frequently-visited sites - was at least one for Facebook. Within seconds, Tom had access to my account on the social network: he didn't have my password, but the cookie allowed him to masquerade as me.

My attackers could do whatever they liked: change my status, read through my contacts and so on.

They then moved on to the final stage of the demo, using a program they'd written to send me a spoof text message. Having spotted my wife's phone number on Facebook, they sent a message which popped up on my phone appearing to come from her. In the wrong hands, of course, such a program could provide scope for all sorts of mischief.

I should stress that while we used an iPhone for this experiment, other smartphones are equally vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.

So what should we learn? Obviously, it's not a good idea to leave your valuable phone lying around, or to respond to texts from friends which seem out of character.

The main lesson must be how insecure you can be if you sit in a public place and go online using an open network. I'd heard about Firesheep, a tool demonstrated recently as a warning of the dangers of open networks and unencrypted cookies. But sitting and watching as your entire life - or rather your social-networking life - is laid bare is very sobering.

Facebook sent me this statement about the security issues this demonstration appears to raise:

"Facebook takes the security of people using the platform very seriously. We advise people to be very careful about the information they access or send from an unsecured public wireless network. We're working hard to make Facebook the safest platform online, and are currently investigating how to best roll out more secure login processes, including SSL, that will enable people to use Facebook on unsecured wi-fi networks with total peace of mind."

But Facebook is just one of many services whose mobile users are vulnerable to the kind of attack we've demonstrated. So, better safe than sorry: from now on I will be switching off the wi-fi button on my phone whenever I leave the security of my home or office network.

The future of government transparency - and online petitions

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:09 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010

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Is the government beginning to wonder whether its passion for transparency is going a bit far?

I'm on the way to an Oxford digital event, reading what appears to be a masterplan for the government's web strategy by Martha Lane Fox, published on the web for anyone to see.

Rather, I'm reading a brief description by Simon Dickson on his blog of the document, which he says he found merely by searching for "Martha Lane Fox directgov review". The missive to the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude apparently recommends a dramatic increase in the scope of Directgov's operations, making it the front end for all government transactions.

In other words, if you want to do business with the government in any way - paying your tax, getting a driving licence or selling computers to the civil service - Directgov is the place to go. The document has now disappeared, but there seems little doubt that it is authentic.

This plan is due to be published later this week and it will be interesting to see whether it is watered down in any way before then. The open-government lobby will be happy to see the whole process played out in public, but ministers may be grinding their teeth at how difficult it is to frame policy in public.

And is another transparency initiative - the Number 10 petition site - about to go west? The service was launched by the previous government, which soon found itself swamped with calls to change policies or even sack the prime minister. It went on hold during the election; if you try to launch a petition today, you get this message:

The overall future of all HMG digital comms and engagement is bound into the Martha Lane Fox review, which will be announced imminently. The future of e-petitions will be part of that review.

Yet sources close to Martha Lane Fox say this was never meant to be part of her review. The plot thickens.

Pudsey and the social networks

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:05 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

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Charitable fund-raising has always been a sociable affair - from lavish society events to "bring and buy" sales at the local school. But has the social media revolution of the last five years transformed fund-raising - and more importantly, has it made us more generous?

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

On the first point there seems little doubt. It feels like we are at the peak of the charity season - on Friday the BBC's annual Children in Need appeal takes place, with another frenzy of activity big and small around the country. There are plenty of other calls on our generosity - from Movember, where men grow moustaches in aid of prostate cancer charities, to an appeal by friends of the Bletchley Park computing museum to save for the nation the papers of the code-breaking genius Alan Turing.

What they have in common is their use of social media to spread the word; indeed, some of the smaller fund-raising efforts are based entirely online. In 2005, the internet was already central to the strategy of plenty of charities and amateur fund-raisers but back then, the principal tool was e-mail.

In 2010, it is the social networks, in particular Facebook, which have become the key platform for online giving. For anyone under 35, and for quite a few older fund-raisers, the obvious way to raise money is to create a page on a donation site and use your Facebook profile to promote the appeal.

Pat Heery

My colleague Pat is attempting a moustache [READ MORE]

I've been looking at an interesting presentation given by Jonathan Waddingham, digital strategist for donation site Justgiving at a fund-raising conference this summer. He says that the number of people raising funds has doubled in the last three years. During that period, the traffic arriving on his site has changed radically in nature.

Back in 2007, much of it came from e-mail services; now 46% is from Facebook. Just 3% is from Twitter, which underlines the fact that the micro-blogging service is still pretty micro in many of its effects on British life.

Another interesting fact: more than half of the online fund-raisers using Justgiving were under 35, while in the offline world it's generally older people involved in charity appeals.

The newer, younger, social fund-raisers are speeding up the whole process, tapping into their personal and professional networks and persuading their contacts to hand over money in a hurry, via the click of a mouse rather than by cash or postal order.

But hold on a minute: is that the whole picture? A report from the Charities Aid Foundation [531Kb PDF] makes less encouraging reading. It looks at 2008 and 2009 and finds an 11% decrease in donations compared to the previous two-year period. That, says the report, reflects the recession and a fall in very large individual donations.

My Children In Need appeal

'I've set myself a ridiculous challenge this year'

As for the method of donation, direct debit may be on the rise, but 48% of donors still chose to use cash, and the number claiming Gift Aid - something promoted by online giving - appears to have plateaued.

So that rather changes the picture. Yes, thousands of people are finding that social networks are a great place to raise a few hundred pounds for a favourite cause. But the big sums are still coming from major corporate and individual donors, and the Charities Aid Foundation's report concludes that encouraging higher earners to give more should be a priority for the charitable sector.

Still, if you want to see innovation, enthusiasm and a sense of community in fund-raising, look to the newer media. And it would be remiss of me not to mention an appeal that uses Twitter, Facebook, eBay, YouTube and Justgiving in support of Children in Need: https://www.justgiving.com/rorycellanjones/.

Google and Amazon: Morality and the web

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:34 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

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The giants of the web have long insisted that they should be regarded not as media firms, responsible for the content that appears on their platforms, but as technology businesses shaped purely by their users' desires. But in the last 24 hours two web giants have shown, in very different ways, that this line may no longer be tenable.

The first example is Google. Until recently, the search giant insisted that if searchers turned up something unsavoury - from a jihadist video to the encouragement of anorexia - that was not really its responsibility. The algorithm did its work and that was that - you could not argue with what popped up on the screen. But today Google has announced that people who search for terms relating to suicide will see a message with contact details for the Samaritans.

Google says it hopes that by providing a highly visible link to the confidential support line, it can help those who are suicidal or distressed to reach help. In the United States the same approach has resulted in a 9% increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Line.

This may appear to be a wholly sensible and humane initiative but it might not have happened a few years back. Google has previously insisted that there are only two ways of appearing in its search results - the morally blind choices made by its algorithms and the sponsored links and ads paid for by those who bid for search terms.

Now there's a third reason - the public good. So perhaps there could be other messages planted next to search terms. If you look for jihadist videos or bomb-making instructions, should you get a link to a confidential police line? In the past, Google might have said "yes, if the police want to bid for those terms" - but could that now change?

The second case involves Amazon.com, the online bookseller. Last night a storm broke out on Twitter about a book which apparently promoted paedophilia. There was outrage that the retailer could see fit to make such a publication available, and threats of a boycott.

The book appears to have got on to the site through Amazon's self-publishing programme, where the only limits are what the retailer deems offensive - and there's no detailed guidance on what that means.

But Amazon issued a statement saying it would be censorship not to sell certain books because Amazon or others thought their message objectionable. That approach may be in keeping with the original spirit of the web, but is not one that you can see being adopted by any traditional media firm or high-street retailer.

And the irony is that it's the web which has made so visible an obscure book which might years ago have been passed around furtively among a few dozen men in some American city. Now it's the web and its global community of users which may force Amazon to change its mind about censorship.

Apple and Android: Powering up the smartphone league

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:18 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010

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Want a glimpse of how fast the mobile world is changing? Take a look at the latest figures on handset sales from the research firm Gartner and you'll find that, in the space of one year, several earthquakes have shaken the market.

First of all, the market is growing rapidly again, with sales in the last quarter up 35% on the same period last year. But what stands out is the 96 % rise in smartphone sales. One in five handsets sold was a smartphone - what were once expensive toys for executives and gadget freaks are entering the mainstream.

Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy phone

 

And it's Apple and Android which are powering this smartphone revolution. Apple has now grabbed fourth place in the overall handset market from RIM, makers of Blackberry, after a stellar quarter which saw 13 million iPhones sold around the world.

But it's the performance of Google's Android operating system across a range of handsets which is the big story. In the third quarter of 2009, Android phones had a 3.5% share of the smartphone market, this time that has soared to 25%.

Android and Apple, with their very different approaches, have grabbed this lucrative new market by the throat, and as the Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza puts it, there's little time for others to react:

"Any platform that fails to innovate quickly - either through a vibrant multi-player ecosystem or clear vision of a single controlling entity - will lose developers, manufacturers, potential partners and ultimately users."

Of course, Nokia fans will point out that they are still top dog in both smartphone sales and the wider handset market. But a firm which has long set a target of commanding 40% of the overall market has seen its share drop from 36% to 28% in the last year. Twenty-nine million smartphones running Symbian were sold in the quarter - but you can bet that the profit on each of them was a fraction of that achieved on the 34 million Android and Apple phones.

Nokia brought control of the Symbian operating system back in-house this week, after it became clear that the idea of an open system which would be endorsed and supported by a wide coalition of manufacturers was not going to fly.

In Roberta Cozza's words, Nokia failed to turn Symbian into a vibrant multi-player ecosystem, now it must try again as a single controlling entity. By Q3 2011 it will need to prove that the new strategy is working - but by then of course the world will have changed again.

Can Black Ops and Kinect save the game?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:45 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010

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For an industry that is always teetering on the verge of hysteria, this is a week where the PR has reached new levels of hype.

We are seeing the launch of the "fastest selling product in entertainment industry", followed by the arrival of a technology that is going to transform our relationship with the screen.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

 

I'm talking, for the uninitiated, about Call of Duty: Black Ops, the latest edition of the games industry's most lucrative franchise, and Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox, a sensor device which turns your body into a games controller.

But no wonder the PR folks are getting excited - this has been a pretty mediocre year for the games industry, and they are desperate to give things a lift in the run-up to Christmas.

If you want to know how well an industry which was supposed to be recession-proof has come though the last year just have a look at the share price of the UK retailer Game. A year ago it stood at £1.60, now it's hovering around 80p.

Game blamed a lack of big releases in the first half of the year and lower revenues from Nintendo's Wii, and now it's pinning all its hopes on a Christmas boost from Call of Duty and Kinect.

But what we appear to be seeing is a major upheaval in a business where nobody is quite sure where they are heading next. Some of the middle ranking operators must be wondering whether they can stay in the game. Only a few giant companies can afford to make a blockbuster like Call of Duty.

It's estimated that developing and marketing the last version, Modern Warfare 2, cost around $250m. That's fine when you've got a game that recoups more than $1bn in revenue, but as we've seen in the UK in the case of Realtime Worlds, if it under-performs it can kill a company.

Farmville

 

Then you've got a different ecosystem where businesses like Playfish and Zynga make online and casual games on a skinny budget. A whole new breed of gamers are finding everything from Farmville to Angry Birds to Plants versus Zombies a compelling way to pass 20 minutes every day without shelling out for a packaged product at their local Game store.

On an even smaller scale, you have bedroom developers rushing to make games for the app stores now servicing hundreds of millions of smartphone users.

Meanwhile both Microsoft with Kinect and Sony with its Move motion sensor are trying to bolster their gaming platforms and take business away from the Wii. Already some of the hardcore Xbox gamers are sneering at Kinect as being useless for the kind of titles they play - which is surely missing the point.

Microsoft hopes to reach just the kind of family audience now served by the Wii and is also using the Kinect project as a laboratory for all sorts of smart technology which may end up elsewhere.

By contrast, Nintendo's console, launched as the family friendly alternative, will be home for the first time to the Call of Duty franchise - will Super Mario Galaxy fans really graduate to an 18-rated game with a Cold War plot?

To sum up, everyone in the industry - developers, publishers, console makers and retailers - is wandering around an unfamiliar landscape.

It's a world full of promise and danger, where the bold can grab unimaginable riches, where the little guy can come from nowhere to destroy an experienced player - and where the rules seem to change every five minutes. Now that could be a great game.

Silicon dreams?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:48 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

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Here's the plan - let's get some of the biggest names in technology to invest in east London so that the area can become a rival to Silicon Valley. So will San Francisco, Palo Alto and Mountain View be shaking in their boots when they hear the prime ministerial vision outlined this morning to a gathering of hi-tech hopefuls?

Sign displaying

 

Probably not - which is not to say that the idea won't be welcomed by the small technology firms currently clustered in an area around London's Old Street, known by some as Silicon Roundabout. The arrival of Californian giants like Facebook, Google, Intel and Cisco, which have all promised David Cameron either investment or advice for his east London tech hub, can only serve to add to the buzz.

Right now, east London has nothing more than a shoal of hopeful minnows, so a few giant fish will at least give the area more of a hi-tech identity. The government says that we are not bad at starting firms, but not so good at growing them into world-beating giants. The problem is that the likes of the music streaming service Last.fm, a Silicon Roundabout success story, get to a certain size and then sell up, often to an American giant.

The government hopes that the presence of the likes of Facebook, coupled with the collaboration of prestigious London universities like Imperial College, will help replicate the kind of environment that has made Silicon Valley such an engine of American growth.

What about any concrete measures to make it happen? There is some money - £200m in equity finance, though that is cash that has already been announced.

There is the "new" entrepreneur's visa, designed to lure individuals with bright business ideas to Britain - though this is just a modification of an existing scheme which the government says just hasn't been delivering enough entrepreneurs to these shores.

And there's a commitment to re-examine intellectual property laws for the internet age. Of course, that was done a few years back under the previous government's Gowers Review - but again, the coalition seems to think that wasn't fit for purpose.

What many entrepreneurs will say is vital for this dream to be realised is a change of culture to one where it is natural for young people with bright ideas to abandon their studies and start a business - as Mark Zuckerberg did to start Facebook, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin to make Google a world-beater.

From what I see of Britain's start-up scene, we are getting there, but it takes time. After all Silicon Valley did not take off for many decades after Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded their company in 1939.

And is east London really the prime site for the UK's tech champion? Some would say that Cambridge, already home to several billion-dollar technology companies, has a better claim, or the Thames Valley, where a host of major firms employing thousands of people are clustered along the M4.

Still, the start-up crowd, sipping cappuccinos in Shoreditch cafes, has just been given a wake-up call from the very highest levels of government. The test will be whether they can now go on to create the Googles, Facebooks and Ciscos of tomorrow.

Times subscribers: News from behind the paywall

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:29 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010

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We've had rumours, estimates, surveys and guesswork about what's going on behind the Times paywall - now finally we have some hard facts. Times Newspapers says 105,000 customers have paid to visit the Times and Sunday Times websites since the paywall went up four months ago, while another 100,000 have a subscription to read the papers online as well as in print.

Screengrab of Times online frontpage

 

So does that add up to a success likely to be copied by other papers? Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, says this is an encouraging start, and the Times' editor James Harding told the Today programme it was the first time in more than 200 years that a paper had managed to get anyone to pay for a format other than print.

The real test of this great experiment is whether it will deliver more revenue than was available to the papers when their content was freely available online.

There are still some imponderables. We know that the 105,000 includes those who have paid for the more expensive iPad app, or to read the papers on Amazon's Kindle but we don't know the split. We are also unclear just how "sticky" these paying customers are - in other words, whether or not they renew their subscriptions at the end of each week or month.

We do know that around half are paying monthly - that's £8 for the website or £10 for the iPad app - and the rest are paying £1 for a day's access. By my very rough back-of-the envelope calculations that adds up to annual revenue of around £7m.

On top of that there will still be some advertising revenue, and with 100,000 paper subscribers having activated their digital editions, the newspapers have a total online audience of 200,000.

Now, once you try to work out what the size of the Times online audience was before the paywall went up you enter the murky world of web statistics. So by one measure, which looks at traffic to a website, the Times used to have a global audience of more than 20 million a month. But Nielsen, which uses a panel to measure web audiences much as it does with television viewers, reckons the true figure in the UK was 3.1 million.

So if we assume that much lower figure is accurate then the Times has suffered a drop in its online audience of more than 90%. But those who remain will be more valuable to advertisers - a study by Nielsen found they were reading more of the paper and tended to be better off than the passing trade which used to skip through the free website.

With a paper like the Guardian now earning around £40 million a year in online revenues, I think it's safe to assume that Times Newspapers has yet to achieve the same revenues from its paywall experiment that were available when its website was free. That's not to say this adventure has failed. The Times has shown that there is an audience, albeit small, willing to pay for digital content, and other newspaper groups are rushing to imitate parts of the experiment, notably the use of tablet computers as a paid platform.

One thing though did strike me about James Harding's interview on the Today programme this morning. He said his journalists' fears that they might be cut off from the online conversation had proved groundless. Really? That's not what I've heard from at least one reporter, frustrated to see rivals enjoy all the online buzz around their stories now denied to a journalist hidden behind the paywall.

And when there was a brief chink in that wall, allowing anyone in for free for a couple of hours, Times columnist Caitlin Moran encouraged her Twitter followers to rush in and grab what they could.

Still, as Mr Harding will no doubt point out, these are very hard times for the newspaper trade, and good journalism costs money. Maybe the Times great experiment can prove that online readers value the words of Caitlin Moran and her colleagues so highly that they are even prepared to pay for them.

Android tablets: Big enough, smart enough, cheap enough?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:55 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010

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Six months after swarms of shoppers queued to buy Apple's iPad, today marks the beginning of real competition in the tablet market - and it comes from Android. I've spent the weekend playing with three new Android tablets and trying to work out whether they are smart enough, big enough, and cheap enough to compete with the machine that has defined this new market.

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The Samsung Galaxy Tab, a seven-inch tablet unveiled in Berlin in September goes on sale this morning, while both the Advent Vega and the Toshiba Folio are larger iPad-sized devices which should be available in the next couple of weeks. All three are running Android and are early entrants into a market which could be the biggest thing to happen in consumer electronics for a decade.

Right up until the moment the iPad went on sale there were plenty of questions about whether there was a space in the market between the smartphone and the netbook for another device and, if so, what exactly people would use it for.

The sales figures for Apple's shiny plaything then proved the sceptics wrong, and every month technology analysts have been raising their forecasts for the tablet market as a whole. What's more, the iPad is already invading businesses as well as homes, finding a much wider range of uses than had been imagined.

So let's look at the Android challengers and work out whether they will expand this new market - or even take some of it away from Apple.

I'm not going to say much about the Advent or Toshiba because I was supplied with devices that were not quite the finished product and there'll be a couple of tweaks before they go on sale. But both promise to be substantially cheaper than the iPad and a first glance suggests they will offer a decent enough surfing, viewing and social networking experience.

Their real disadvantage is a lack of apps. They are running on an operating system which is not quite ready for tablets. Android 2.2 is still really a smartphone system, and Google does not allow devices with screens bigger than seven inches to have access to its app marketplace. That will change when a new version comes out next year, but for now the larger tablets have jumped the gun.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab is another matter altogether, a very polished product with a number of features that don't exist on the iPad. So what should be the key comparisons? As is my habit, I turned to a popular social network and asked which three tasks I should set for the Tab. Some suggested jobs that seemed more suited to the workplace such as:

"The ability to annotate a document, save and send the annotated version so it's compatible with all formats and OS."

However much some people - me included - have found that tablets can function as work devices, I reckon they are primarily going to be sold as multimedia playthings. So it was this suggestion that I thought most suitable:

"Get a film onto it and watch it. Get a book onto it and read it. Read the beeb news website and watch a video news clip."

So I'm going to take those in reverse order.

Read the BBC News website and watch a clip

This is a good test of what will be a prime use for any tablet, simple web surfing. I used the Google voice search function on the Tab to get to the site, where I found pages rendered quite swiftly and efficiently. I headed straight for the Technology section, of course, and clicked on a video, which, after a short pause, played without a hitch.

On the iPad, surfing around the BBC News site was equally smooth - until I came to that video. Because the iPad does not support Flash I wasn't able to play it. I could have used the BBC's iPad app where some of the videos are available, but on this test the Android came out on top.

BBC News video on an Apple iPad and a Samsung Galaxy Tab

 

Get a book onto it and read it

After glancing quickly at the Tab's "readers hub", which offers access to various newspapers and magazines, and to the Kobo online book store, I realised there was a simpler way to get a book. I'm already reading Howard Jacobson's latest novel on an iPad via the Amazon Kindle store. The Kindle platform works on a range of devices, including Android tablets, so I downloaded the app and then the book and I was away. Like the iPad, the Tab has advantages and drawbacks over e-readers without backlit screens - it's great in the dark, but not so good in sunlight.

The question now is whether the newspaper and magazine groups which have embraced the iPad like a drowning man offered a lifebelt will be just as enthusiastic about Android devices. My guess is that they will wait to assess the size of a somewhat fragmented market before diving in. But one paper, the Financial Times, is already promising an app for the Samsung tablet.

Text of a book on the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab

Get a film onto it and watch it

On the iPad this is pretty easy - if you are happy to shell out for a movie from the iTunes store. Apple, for good or ill, offers you a seamless media experience if you stay inside its iTunes walled garden - outside it's a bit trickier.

On the Galaxy Tab, I found the Samsung Movie store, which required a lengthy sign-up process. But typing on the small screen wasn't much easier than on a smartphone so I abandoned it and went to my computer where I finally managed to get registered and chose a movie. Then I got stuck in an eternal loop where the Tab kept asking me to sign in again before I could download - after half an hour I gave up in frustration and watched a couple of movie trailers. The screen is fine, the quality reasonable, and I can see people watching downloaded movies on a train, but I'm not clear why they would use this at home - and the evidence from iPad users is 80% of them never take the device out.

FIlm playing on Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab

So I reckon Samsung won the web test, Apple wins on movies, and it's a draw on books, making it 1-1 overall.

But the Galaxy Tab does have some other advantages over the iPad. It can make phone calls - though you'll look very Dom Joly if you don't use a headset. There's a camera to shoot stills and make video calls, if you can find anyone with the right kind of phone. There's access to an impressive range of apps - I installed the Ocado shopping app complete with barcode scanner - though I found Google's marketplace was subject to frequent glitches. And Google's various services, from voice search to navigation, add to its functionality.

There are two big doubts for me about this device, its size and its price. Is there really a big enough niche in the space between a smartphone and an iPad for a tablet with a seven-inch screen? It's too small to be a comfortable place to type more than a short message, whereas on the iPad I managed to write most of this blog post. It is being sold as a more mobile device but you can do just about everything the Tab does on a much more portable smartphone.

And, while there's still some fuzziness about pricing from mobile operators, a sim-free price tag of £529 looks pretty steep. Yes, it's about what a 3G iPad costs, but that's established itself in the market. Surely Samsung needs to undercut Apple's device if it's to find much of an audience?

Still, once the much more affordable Advent and Toshiba tablets are in stores, there will be a decent choice of alternatives for consumers who want a touchscreen computing experience on the move. But it may be the spring before we see an Android that is big enough, smart enough and cheap enough to take on the iPad.

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