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Archives for December 2010

Tech in 2011: Who knows what's next?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:00 UK time, Friday, 31 December 2010


It's time for me to look into my crystal ball and tell you what's going to happen in the technology world in 2011. Actually, let's scrub that. Predicting the future is a mug's game: just ask the man with the personal jetpack eating his lunch in space-age tablet form. Instead, in the manner of circumspect (or desperate) journalists everywhere, I'm going to ask a series of questions about the year ahead.

Will TV and the internet finally get married?

The keenest technophiles will say this has already happened: they are using all sorts of clever little boxes to stream internet content to their televisions. But the consortium behind YouView - the BBC, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5 - is betting that when its set-top box is finally launched in 2011, it will give web-connected TV mainstream appeal.

Virgin Media, BskyB, and Google all have similar ambitions, so if by the end of the year we are not getting used to having television delivered via our broadband connections, then something will have gone terribly wrong.

Will Facebook float?

The latest valuation of Facebook put its worth at around $45 billion, but for the investors who funded the social network in its early years, that is still virtual money. Making it real would mean an IPO - a stock market flotation - which Mark Zuckerberg has always resisted. So far, Time's Person of 2010 has been right every time he has rejected the advice to sell up or at least float his baby. But with the markets looking pretty healthy, might he finally decide it's time to cash in before the latest tech bubble bursts?

Don't bet on it - but it could be a great time for another social network, Twitter, to cash in before the questions about its business model become impossible to answer with a straight face.

Will iPad 2 keep Apple ahead?

As ever, Apple has said nothing about a new iPad, but there is plenty of evidence that a second version of the tablet which rocked the tech world in 2010 will have its second coming in 2011.

When it is unveiled, iPad 2 is likely to be thinner and lighter than its predecessor and to feature a camera for video calls. By then there should be a clutch of Android tablets - and the odd Windows slate - with similar or better functionality. They are also likely to undercut the iPad, which experience shows will stay around the same price at which it launched.

But don't bet that Apple's device will be toppled from its perch. The aura of cool around the iPad - however much it may be despised by some of the digerati - is not going to fade soon, and there is a vast reservoir of untapped demand for the tablet from a less techie audience which will not accept a substitute.

Mind you, when it comes to e-readers, here's one confident prediction: Amazon's Kindle will prove a far more popular place to buy and read e-books than the iPad.

Will location, location, location finally matter?

The word "location" seems to pop up in just about every press release from a technology firm. I've just deleted one about a "location based events app with a Social Game", having decided there were at least a couple too many 2010 buzzwords in that sentence.

Location-based services have been the next big thing in the mobile world since I-don't-know-when. The promise has been of a goldmine for retailers and operator in a future where mobile phone users are bombarded with messages from merchants as they walk past their doors with their location-aware handsets.

In 2010 Foursquare - a location-based social game - started to show how that vision might work, albeit for a niche audience mainly made up of sociable young New Yorkers.

But unless 2011 brings us a huge advance in the performance of mobile networks, coupled with a transformation of consumer behaviour, I think this is a revolution that may be postponed once again.

Will Google get sociable at last?

From Orkut to Buzz, Google's experiments with social networking have failed to catch fire. With so much web chatter about the threat Facebook now poses to the search giant, it looks certain that Google will feel obliged to try again with a networking initiative. But this interesting post on another social network suggests that it's just not in Google's DNA to get sociable.

"I worked at Google in 2005 and briefly on the Orkut team. I encountered an environment that viewed social networking as a frivolous form of entertainment rather than a real utility, and I'm pretty sure this viewpoint was shared all the way up the chain of command to the founders.
"At that time, hardly anyone at Google actually used Facebook, so they just didn't understand what people were getting out of social networking products. Incredibly, many people on the Orkut team did not use their own product (let alone Facebook) outside of work. By contrast, everyone I know who worked at Facebook was a passionate user of that product."

Will asking - and answering - questions be the next big thing on the web?

The post above was on Quora, a new social network devoted to the asking and answering of questions, and it came in response to the question "Why haven't major companies like Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo succeeded at social networking?" It's hardly a new idea - from Yahoo Answers to, web services promising to build a database of useful answers have been trying and generally failing to catch on for more than a decade.

What's different about Quora is the social aspect, the focus on technology and the quality of the responses. Because it has been colonised by early adopters from Silicon Valley, you are quite likely to find knowledgeable people answering your questions, and on occasion company executives giving some real insight into what is going on inside their businesses.

While it's been around for more than a year, in the last couple of weeks of 2010 Quora seems to have caught on in a big way, with leading tech bloggers enthusing about it, much as they did with Twitter in 2007. The problem for this young business is that it may now suffer from the reverse of a network effect. The more people join, the less useful it may get, as all sorts of ignoramuses - like this blogger - clutter up your feed with poorly thought-out questions and answers.

But maybe I should simply pop over to Quora and ask it whether it will be huge by the end of 2011? In the meantime, a Happy New Year to all readers of this blog. If you have some questions and answers about next year's technology news, do feel free to comment below.

Skype's mobile video moment?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 11:36 UK time, Thursday, 30 December 2010


You've heard it so many times before - but is this the day that video calling finally takes off? Skype has just updated its app for Apple's iPhone 4 and iPod Touch, making it possible to use the front-facing camera for video calls.

Apple has made great play of its own FaceTime video calling feature on those devices, but there's little evidence yet that it's taken off. That may be because there's little network effect - until you find someone else with the same device you can't make a call, though an update bringing FaceTime to the desktop makes that a little easier.

But the plain truth is that the market leader in voice - and video - communication over the internet is Skype, with 124 million users each month around the world; it is going to be difficult for Apple or anyone else to build a rival base of that size.

That surely makes Skype mobile video calling an attractive option - many of us will have friends and family who already use the technology, so we can try it out. The other big advantage over FaceTime is that you can make calls over 3G, as well as wi-fi.

Skype on a smartphone

I tried it out this morning, as I was walking to catch a train to work. Within moments, a rather scruffy figure loomed into view on my phone - and I was video calling an old friend and colleague. Given that we were talking over a 3G network, the quality was perfectly acceptable, though in future I think my friend's voice will be quite sufficient.

If you combine the millions using Skype over the holiday period to talk to friends and family in far-flung places with the growing population of iPhone and iPod touch users, the innovation has plenty of potential. But there are a few questions.

Will it, for instance, come to other mobile platforms? I asked Skype this morning about Android - now quite possibly a bigger mobile community than Apple's iOS - and got the distinct impression that mobile video for Android devices would be coming soon.

Then there's the reaction of the mobile networks, which could provide trouble on two fronts. First, it's another way in which they lose control over their customers' calling - and spending - habits, Second, it could flood their already fragile networks with another tidal wave of video data.

Skype tells me that a video call uses data at approximately 600Kbps; by my calculations a one-minute call would use around 4.5Mb of data. (Full disclosure: I asked friends on a well-known social network to do that sum, so blame them if the figure is wrong.) If we presume that people will still opt to make most of their video calls over wi-fi rather than 3G, that should not chew up too much of a user's monthly data allowance - although it means you certainly won't want to make a 3G Skype call when abroad.

But it looks likely that the internet will have to handle even more video traffic, raising further questions over net neutrality - how likely is it that the networks and the ISPs will soon decide that packets containing video calls should cost more than those containing other data?

The other big question is for Skype itself - can it cope with this kind of traffic? Just before Christmas, the company suffered its biggest-ever technical disaster when millions of users suffered a 24-hour outage leaving them incapable of using the service. Skype says that was down to a bug in a version of its software for Windows, which caused a chain reaction, overloading its servers and bringing down much of the network.

The more vital Skype becomes to the way millions of people and businesses communicate, the less acceptable such an outage will become. So Skype had better be sure that millions of mobile video callers are not going to send the whole network crashing down again.

Tech in 2010: Touchy, feely, fun

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:00 UK time, Tuesday, 28 December 2010


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Was there ever a year in which technology changed so rapidly? No, I know this was not a 1969 moon landing kind of year, or a 2008, when the Large Hadron Collider was switched on. I'm talking about personal technology, and the way we relate to it - for 2010 was the year we got all touchy and feely with our computing devices.

Looking back on a year in which new gadgets seem to have arrived every week, I'm going to focus on three types of device - and three big technology brands, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, which have once again proved that giant companies can still innovate.


This was the year when smartphones went mainstream. Suddenly it seemed that a phone that did not easily allow you to go online or install apps was not worth having.

And just about every single new smartphone featured a touchscreen - three years after Apple unveiled its first iPhone in 2007, touch has become the way we relate to our phones. Apple continued to innovate with the iPhone 4, with its much improved camera, but its launch was marred by a growing realisation that this excellent mini-computer was actually rather poor at making phone calls.

There were also smart new phones from Blackberry, the business phone whose growing popularity amongst teenagers is one of the more surprising developments of recent years. Nokia, far and away the market leader, pinned all its hopes on the N8 - only to find it had still failed to produce a knockout touchscreen smartphone. And Microsoft, very late in the day, brought out Windows Phone 7, an operating system which proved startlingly useable and fun.

But it was Google with its Android operating system which had the best of 2010. If you were looking for the very latest in apps, on phones with the most innovative hardware, Android was the place to go. Late in the year, its sales started to overtake those for the iPhone. More importantly, it provided some real competition for Apple, both in terms of technology and philosophy.

The iPhone is still the phone which gives the most intuitive and elegant experience of the mobile internet - as long as you accept that Steve Jobs is in charge of how you use it and what's on it. But Android is the wild frontier, where anything might happen. Just look at the comparative treatment of apps giving access to Wikileaks data on the two different platforms - Apple moved swiftly to a ban, while Google just stood back and let stuff happen.


My year began in the United States, watching the launch of a tablet computer which was going to change everything. No, Not Apple's iPad but the Que, a product developed by the British firm Plastic Logic. At its Las Vegas launch, the Que promised to deliver newspapers, documents and books to well-heeled business users via a slick touchscreen interface. Sadly, it never went on sale.

Just a couple of weeks later Apple's tablet did make its debut, amid the usual "this changes everything" hoopla from Steve Jobs. He was to prove correct - but it's easy to forget all these months later just how sceptical many were about the potential of the iPad. Here's just one comment posted beneath a review in the Guardian back in January:

"No Flash
Limited to Apple apps
Afraid this one is going the way of the Cube."

But the gadget buying public did not care about those limitations and have rushed to buy Apple's tablet, unlike that Cube which bombed a decade ago. With 14 million sold in 2010, it is now Apple's fastest selling product ever

"The public are fools", has been the response of the uber-geeks, who have now transferred their allegiance to Android. But the rest of the computer industry begs to differ, rushing to bring out rival tablets - the most successful of which are on the Android platform.

And the app revolution, unleashed by the iPhone, has been given a new lease of life by the iPad. Publishers have rejoiced, seeing the potential to earn money from online content for the first time, and games developers have rushed to exploit a new source of revenue.

Now Apple is preparing to bring apps to the desktop, revolutionising the way we buy software. That's a prospect which must leave Microsoft wondering again why a rival which seemed doomed in the late nineties is threatening to best it in another area where it once was dominant.

Games consoles

But guess who proved the biggest innovator in the games world in 2010? While old stagers like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft set new sales records, it was Microsoft that did most to widen the appeal of console gaming.

Kinect, the motion capture system which turns the player's body into a games controller, has been an instant hit, with 2.5m units sold in its first 25 days. While Sony too has been innovating with its Move system, it looks as though Kinect has given the XBox a real edge in the console wars.

More importantly, it has shown that years of effort from the scientists in Microsoft's research labs can actually pay off in both commercial and strategic terms. The science behind Kinect may play a far bigger role than encouraging us to leap about to Lady Gaga in a dance game, or run on the spot while competing with friends and family in a virtual Olympics. The fact that hackers have rushed to open up the secrets behind the technology and find new applications for them shows that Microsoft has at last found a product that is ahead of the curve, and has an aura of cool about it.

Mind you, the games industry in 2010 was not all about advanced technology. Casual games, many of them played on Facebook, became ever more popular, with millions of people spending time tending their plots on Farmville or indulging in a spot of murder and extortion with Mafia Wars.

Perhaps the most successful single new product of the year was a very simple game, developed by a small Finnish company, which involved throwing birds at pigs. Angry Birds started as an iPhone app and is now appearing on just about every platform imaginable.

What does that prove about tech in 2010? That simple fun is a great sales pitch - and that even in a time when Google, Apple and Microsoft dominate the technology world, the little guy can still break through.

If you have your own view of what was the single most important or successful technology product of 2010, please feel free to comment below.

Foursquare: Urban life as a game

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:13 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010


I've just seen the future of social networking at a company which is going to make its founder unimaginably rich. Or I've just met a man who thinks the whole world behaves like young New Yorkers and that is going to prove his undoing. I really can't make up my mind about Dennis Crowley and his location-based social network Foursquare.

Screengrab of Rory's Foursquare app


Just like Twitter, Foursquare used the SXSW technology and music festival in Texas as a launchpad - Dennis and his team pitched up there in 2009 and were a big hit. Since then they've steadily built a following and when I visited their offices in New York's East Village I was told  that more than five million people were now using the network, 40% of them outside the USA.

If you think the future of social networking is mobile and location-based then Foursquare might be the business that shows the way forward, Here's how it works - when you sign up, you install an app on your smartphone. Then, whenever you go somewhere, you "check in", notifying your Foursquare friends of your location. At each location you can win points or badges, and if you become the most frequent visitor you will be crowned the mayor of that place.

Dennis Crowley and his circle of New York friends had already tried this idea out with a service called Dodgeball, launched before smartphones became commonplace. "That was how we kept up with people. We felt like were living in the future. We knew that if we could make that work for a larger population of users that could be a very popular service."

But he realised that something more was needed to make this network take off, and the team started asking itself some questions:

"How do you turn life into a game, how do you crowd-source your experience of the city, how do you get rewarded for going out and seeking out new experiences?"
Dennis Crowley


So  Foursquare is half game, half social network, but what's really unusual is that it appears to have had a business model built in right from the start. The idea is that shops, restaurants and other local services will reward Foursquare users who check in frequently with special offers - and will then in turn reward the network for bringing in extra customers. Dennis Crowley explained this:

"Every check-in is like a loyalty flag - I went to a pizza place round the corner and checked in, I went to a coffee place this morning and checked in. And as those repetitive behaviours happen my friends learn  about the places I go to, and the merchants understand that I'm a regular customer."

And the whole mayorship thing becomes very competitive, with users determined to be top of the heap, whether it be at the sushi restaurant, or the coffee stop, or maybe their gym.

The trouble is that most of us live rather duller lives than Dennis and other young New Yorkers. I asked what the point would be, for instance, of me checking into the supermarket every week:

"You could do it for your own personal history, to say I've been there ten times." And he admitted he did it himself: "I actually check in at the supermarket to compete with this guy who's got the mayorship there."

What Foursquare is trying to do is turn the dull parts of our lives in the city, as well as the more exciting aspects, into a mobile social game. I remain sceptical that there is a wide audience for this, but as the song goes, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus, and, as Dennis Crowley reminded me, they laughed at the idea of other social networks too: "Look at Twitter - who's going to want to share what they're thinking all the time, look at Facebook, who wants to connect with all these people?"

My visit to Foursquare was one of the last stops on my journey around the world of social networking for a forthcoming series on Radio 4. On the way, I've been reminded of the power of this new mode of communication, as a way of sharing information and connecting with friends, old and new.

Last night, for instance, I went to dinner with some New York friends who only knew I was in town via my Facebook status updates. Across the United States Twitter followers have given me all sorts of handy tips about people to meet and things to see. 

But it's now, as I try to return home to my family in snowbound Britain for Christmas, that networking is really beginning to matter. I've started anxiously following Twitter feeds like @HeathrowAirport and @UnitedAirlines to work out whether my flight on Wednesday evening from New York's Newark to London really is going to take off. 

Even better, I've been able to crowd-source information from friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter who are attempting the same kind of journey or are just eager to help. So here's hoping that I will soon be checking in at home - I think that may be one place where I can still be the mayor.

Wayne Ting, nearly a billionaire. Or how Facebook won

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:16 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010


I've just met a man who dropped out of college six years ago to work full time on the social network that had grabbed the attention of everyone on his Ivy League campus.

Wayne Ting

Wayne Ting

No, not Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, but Wayne Ting, the creator of Campus Network. I was fascinated by his insights concerning the small things that meant Facebook became huge while his network faded away.

Wayne has now gone back to college, studying for an MBA at Harvard; I went to meet him after going to have a look at the college dorm where Mark Zuckerberg started, as it was first known, in 2004. But in 2003 Ting was studying at Columbia, another Ivy League college.

That year, he and another student Adam Goldberg launched a website called CUcommunity. They had seen another early social network, Friendster, but none of their friends was on it:

"We thought you needed a community where people would feel safe and where they had enough social nodes - that was college."

Their network quickly caught on, and soon three quarters of Columbia students were using it. CUcommunity was quite a sophisticated network, offering photo-sharing and blogging, as well as the poking and friend lists that Facebook would later make familiar. "It was the place you would go to if you wanted to find out what was going on," says Wayne.

They had always planned to take it to other Ivy League colleges, and by 2004 the two students were leaving Columbia and heading to Montreal to work full-time on what they were now calling Campus Network.

They hired three software programmers, and got themselves an office which was also their home.

"We used to get up really early and hide the airbeds under the desks because we didn't want our employees to know we were homeless."

They threw themselves into the project, but to no avail. Facebook, which had launched at the beginning of 2004, was soon cleaning up on campuses across the USA. It was when they saw traffic begin to dip on their home territory, Columbia, that Ting and Goldberg decided to throw in the towel.

Why did Facebook, which launched later and was a less sophisticated network, still win the day? Wayne Ting thinks there were two main reasons - the speed at which Facebook moved, and the very simplicity of its early format.

Facebook had 90% of Harvard students using it within days of its launch and then very quickly started moving to other campuses. So when Campus Network turned up at those same colleges it was too late:

"The network effect is incredibly powerful. It takes a lot of time to create and look after a profile - you will always choose the network with more people."

But the Campus Network founders thought back then it was strange that students would choose Facebook:

"Why would you go to a site that only had poking and a photo when you can share photos, share music share your thoughts on a blog?"

Today he concludes that people just weren't ready for that level of sophistication back then - in fact it may have put them off Campus Network.

"A good website should have functionalities that 70 or 80% of users want to use. We had functions that only 10% wanted - nobody blogged, nobody even blogs today."

The result was that the network seemed a little too geeky:

"You started to get folks that were less cool, they weren't the hippest kids on campus - and that had a negative network effect."

Of course, the irony is that Facebook gradually added all those functions that had been on the rival network from the start:

"What Facebook did that was incredibly smart was to hook them with the friending and the poking and then they learned with their users, and added functionality slowly over time as users became more comfortable."

Just a few small details in the execution of a business can make the difference between coming first and coming nowhere. Wayne talked admiringly of Mark Zuckerberg's focus and his ability always to think about the next thing. When I asked him what he thought when he saw how wealthy and powerful his contemporary had become, he admitted: "It's difficult not to feel some sense of envy."

The man who could have been a billionaire, if his network hadn't been just a little too sophisticated for its own good, had that most attractive of American traits, an ability to laugh at and learn from failure. Wayne told me he had been to see The Social Network, the film about Facebook, and had been amused by the bit when the Winkelvoss twins had claimed that it was all their idea. "My thought was - we had it six months before you had it, should we sue?"

And he takes comfort that he's played a small role in the creation of what is now a huge industry:

"I don't know that many people in their entire life who've had a brush with a 40-billion-dollar idea. We didn't capture it - but I'm proud that we are a part of that story, however small."

Four faces of social networking

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:56 UK time, Monday, 20 December 2010


The past, the present, and the future of social networking - the four people I met on my last day in San Francisco making a series for Radio 4 all had fascinating insights into where the phenomenon had come from and where it was heading.

John Perry Barlow

In a house lashed by a winter rainstorm, perched above Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, we found one of the most passionate voices about our digital culture. John Perry Barlow is best known as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, the essential counterculture band whose passionate fans, the Deadheads, were eager early adopters of online communities like the Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link).

John Perry Barlow


Throughout our interview, the man who founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation kept harking back to his life in a small town in Wyoming, where he spent years as a cattle rancher.

Ever since, he told us, he'd been trying to find the same sense of small-town community in cyberspace. The Well, whose members met in "meatspace" as well as online, had been a great experience. He told how, at Well parties, the members of the community emerged blinking into the real world, and discovered the faces behind the words.

John Perry Barlow seemed disappointed by today's social networks, and in particular the one that has really taken the online experience to the masses. "Facebook is like television, the opposite of what I was looking for," he grumbled. "It's the suburbs, not the global village."

He was a little more enthusiastic about Twitter, which he is using to promote the cause of online freedom. During the Wikileaks saga, one tweet by @jpbarlow echoed across the battlefield:

"The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops."

He remains, however, sceptical about the progress that has been made in building sustainable online communities. Although he does see one personal upside - "a guy gave me his parking space the other day," he laughs. "He said he liked my Tweets."

Howard Rheingold

Just down the road in Mill Valley lives the writer, teacher and journalist Howard Rheingold, probably the leading documenter of the growth of online communities. Welcoming me into the cabin where he still spends his days writing he told me, "I've spent my life alone in a room with a typewriter."

Howard Rheingold


He got online in the 1980s, partly because he saw the benefits to a writer of a computer over a typewriter, but also to lessen the isolation of the writer's life.

In a clever marketing move, the founders of the Well gave free membership to journalists, and the result was a real sense of buzz around the San Francisco online community in the late 1980s. It was this which Rheingold documented in his book "Virtual Communities", the first time that phrase was coined.

He tracked the way these communities nurtured members through good times and bad, through love affairs, divorces and deaths. During the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, he watched and participated as members of the Well spread the news and checked out each other's safety: "The first thing I did then, as in later events like 9/11 was to go online."

In recent years Howard Rheingold has used a blog and a Twitter account, @rheingoldsbutt, to give a frank account of his treatment for colo-rectal cancer.

And he is far more optimistic than John Perry Barlow about the direction taken by online communities in recent years:

"How has my life been changed by social networking? I write about it, I teach about it, most of my friends are people I met online, when I was seriously ill I received support from people I met online. Every aspect of my life has been altered and for the most part for the better."

Biz Stone

I met the co-founder of Twitter at the end of another dramatic week for the micro-blogging site - or social network if you prefer. He'd just returned from New York after presenting a Tweet of the year award to the satirical journalist Stephen Colbert, and the more trivial matter of tying down another $200m investment in the firm by the ritzy venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins.

Biz Stone


In August I had visited the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, which is in offices previously occupied by another social network, Bebo, and was struck by how much had changed since then. The rows of empty desks had filled up, and the company, now valued at $3.7bn, had overflowed onto another two floors.

Biz Stone reminded me that when they'd launched it in 2006 Twitter had been anything but an instant hit. It was only at the music and technology festival SXSW in April 2007 that it took off, as a critical mass of techie early adopters gathered to socialise. "One guy tweeted from a crowded bar that he was moving to another quieter place," Biz explains."By the time he got there, there was a line outside."

Since then tales of the Twitter effect - from the monitoring of Californian forest fires to the organising of a popular uprising in Moldova - have become commonplace. "My phone was jammed with messages asking how I'd started a revolution," he recalls. "I had to go and look up Moldova in Wikipedia."

Two questions remain about Twitter. Is it a social network, and can it really make the money it needs to justify the huge valuation? Biz Stone and his colleagues are cautious about calling it a social network - he describes it as an information platform with social aspects.

He is far clearer about my question about Twitter's business model, insisting that innovations like promoted tweets provide the business with a profitable future.

Still, having raised $370m so far from its backers, Twitter will need to start proving pretty rapidly that it can start generating sizeable revenues. Otherwise the rumblings from those who are comparing it to MySpace and Bebo, social networks that soared and then faded, will get ever louder.

Dave Morin

Or could a man I met in an office with great views over San Francisco's Bay Bridge be the face of the future of social networking?

Dave Morin


Dave Morin looks far too young to be running Path, a company which has attracted backing from a host of prominent angel investors, but in fact he's a veteran of social networking.

Morin tells me he's been using Apple computers since he was four, went to work for Steve Jobs' company after college, and then moved to Facebook, where he was a key software engineer in the network's early years. He left at the beginning of 2010, wanting to do his own thing after helping launch the Facebook developer platform and Facebook Connect.

And his idea is a social network that connects you more intimately with far fewer people, than Facebook or Twitter. At the moment, Path is just an iPhone app that encourages users to share their "paths" through life with a maximum of 50 people. You take a picture on your phone, tag people and places in it, and then share it just with close friends and family rather than the world.

Dave Morin makes great play of research by an Oxford academic which concludes that nobody can really have more than 150 friends. Professor Robin Dunbar says our brains just can't cope with more than that number, and in fact we struggle to interact really intimately with more than a couple of dozen people..

So perhaps we are wasting our time on the likes of Twitter and Facebook which encourage us to compete to earn more friends or followers, and maybe Path is closer to John Perry Barlow's idea of recreating small town communities online.

But despite a personal tutorial from the chief executive, I didn't really get Path. Surely anyone using it would also need to persuade their close friends to move to Path from other networks before it became valuable? And to me at least that seems quite a stretch.

Still, Dave Morin should not be underestimated - his track record at Facebook shows he knows a thing or two about building social networks. And in asserting that there is room for more than just Facebook and Twitter in this new industry, he is repeating a message I've heard from everyone on this trip - the story of social networking has only just begun.

The Birches of Bebo: Timing is all

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:48 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010


Who has actually made money from social networking? I mean the real folding stuff, not the theoretical billions that are now supposed to be in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg.

The MySpace founders walked away with a bit of cash after they sold to News Corporation, but I've just met the couple who have made more from the business of sharing social lives online than anyone else.

Michael and Xochi Birch

Michael and Xochi Birch

In a mansion with views across to the Golden Gate bridge live Michael and Xochi Birch, a lovely couple who are the best proof I know that money really can make you happy. Their social-networking story is all about fabulous timing.

A decade ago they were working in London - Michael is British, Xochi American - for insurance companies. Having decided that was not a lot of fun, they took out loans against their flat and moved to San Francisco to live with Xochi's parents while they worked on some ideas for some web companies.

A few years later one of those ideas paid off in the form of Birthday Alarm, an online greetings card site. "Quite suddenly," Michael explained,"we went from making $10,000 a month from it to $10,000 a day."

That gave them the cash to launch an idea that they'd been working on for a while, a social network. "Friendster had launched," Michael remembers. "A friend e-mailed me a link to it, I spent 30 minutes on it, and thought it was the best thing I'd ever seen."

"It really reminded me of Big Brother on the TV," adds Xochi. "You just couldn't stop watching it."

After starting and quickly selling one network, Ringo, they used the money they were earning from Birthday Alarm to launch a more serious effort. They called it Bebo.

It rapidly became a huge hit - not in the United States where they were based but in Britain and Ireland, and in particular among schoolchildren. In fact, the first story I ever did about social networking was about teachers wanting to ban Bebo from schools over concerns about the way it was being used.

The reason it took off in Britain was all about timing. In 2005 Facebook was still only on campuses and MySpace had yet to make much impact outside the US. "We caught up with MySpace in a matter of months," says Michael."I remember speaking to someone from MySpace who said we were this 'annoying thing' happening to them in the UK. In the US we struggled because we had to get people to migrate away from other networks."

Bebo's fortunes peaked in 2007. "For one month we overtook Google in terms of time spent online in the UK," says Michael. But Xochi says they did not feel secure even then. "It really felt like a race - we felt we were racing MySpace and Facebook in the UK and chasing after Myspace and Facebook in the US."

I met the couple in the UK that year and asked them whether there was any truth in the rumours that they were planning to sell the business. Of course not, they told me, we want to keep growing it ourselves. Michael laughs when I remind him of that, and admits: "We were saying to one another we should probably sell it. But you're never supposed to say you're selling a business."

He concedes that the looming threat from the competition meant they needed to get out while Bebo was still highly valued. In 2008, after negotiations with a number of bidders, they sold to AOL for $850m in cash, of which the Birches netted over half. Again, timing was all.

"It was in the right space at the right time." says Michael Birch. "We sold it and then the whole world economy crashed a few months later. So it turned out to be great timing."

Under AOL, Bebo went into a rapid decline. The Birches believe that was partly due to the neglect of the new owners, but accept that it was always going to be hard to compete with Facebook. Then, earlier this year, AOL sold it on to another company for what Michael describes as "1% of what they paid us for it."

The Birches are now rich enough to just hang out with their children at their lovely home, which even features a "London pub" where Michael can act the landlord at parties. But they are still working, setting up a number of web vehicles and one charity venture.

Birch pub

This week they revealed that they had taken a stake in a social-networking business. It's called Bebo, and they say they believe, that under its new owners Criterion Capital it can find a decent niche. "It's going to be about self-expression," says Xochi. "it's going to be about being on a site where your friends are, not your parents."

The original Bebo lost out to Facebook because its young members felt the new network where their older brothers and sisters hung out was more grown-up and cool. Maybe they are starting to think that Facebook is a place where an older generation is always peering over their shoulders. Or maybe not.

Nobody, least of all the Birches, thinks Facebook is going to lose its dominance any time soon. But perhaps there is enough room in the social networking space for some smaller more specialist players. If that does turn out to be true, then the Birches will have proved again that they have an invaluable business skill - good timing.

On my social-networking trip, I'm asking all my interviewees to give a short answer on how social networking has changed their lives. Here's what the Birches said:

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Zuckerberg: Back from the future

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:43 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010


What a day we picked to pitch up at Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters on our journey through the past, present and future of social networking. As we arrived, news was emerging that the founder Mark Zuckerberg had been named Time magazine's Person of the Year.

The place was quietly buzzing with excitement, with Facebookers feeling that, after a year in which rapid growth has been accompanied by oodles of controversy, the award was recognition that their company really was changing the world in the way their founder has claimed.

Inside the Facebook offices

A sign on the wall of Facebook's headquarters

It might seem strange that Time chose 2010 to crown Zuckerberg as the world's most newsworthy citizen. After all, it was in 2009 that it became evident that Facebook was here to stay and was going to be a web superpower. And this year was when a movie came out painting the Facebook founder as a ruthless, socially-inept monomaniac.

Actually I think The Social Network captured, albeit in an exaggerated and slightly unfair manner, the drive and focus that enabled a man in his early 20s to ignore all the warnings of his elders and betters and build Facebook just the way he wanted it. The fact that such unpromising material - two hours of awkward young men staring at screens - could turn out to be a movie with such a wide appeal may have played a part in Time's decision to choose 2010 to make its central character the person of the year.

It was not, however, Mark Zuckerberg that we'd come to see at Facebook, though my producer Mike Wendling was left scrambling unsuccessfully for his camera when a distinctive figure in jeans and baseball shoes came loping through the lobby, arriving slightly late for another day running the show.

Mark Zuckerberg's office

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's office

The man we had come to interview probably gave us a far more compelling and articulate account of why Zuckerberg has been such a huge success than the Time Person of the Year himself could.

Chris Cox was studying computer science at Stanford in 2005, and thought Facebook was a passing fad for college kids - until he got invited to an interview at a company which then had 40 employees.

He was so enthused by what he heard about the ambitions of the network that he gave up his studies:

"The energy in the room was just infectious. They were trying to build a very expansive and large vision. That was the thing that drew me in and surprised me As a young person excited by big ideas I just couldn't help but drop out and join."

Far from the frat-house atmosphere you might have expected of a business run by a college drop-out, Cox found his new boss ran a deeply serious operation:

"I just remember Mark as a very quiet, very serious guy who was sitting there working all the time. It was not a very playful, very joyous atmosphere - it was 'guys let's do this thing'."

It's hard to remember now, but in 2005 and 2006, Facebook was not seen by many as the next big thing.

"Nobody was betting on us," Chris Cox told me. "We were a fad, a footnote to MySpace, or a bunch of irresponsible college kids just hacking stuff together."

Each time the business did anything new, both its users and the commentators told Facebook it was getting it all wrong. Moving off the campus and into high schools and businesses was seen as a huge error. "They said it will stop being cool,you will fail - and our users weren't excited about having their younger brothers and sisters at school and then their bosses on Facebook."

Cox was instrumental in the arrival in 2006 of the Newsfeed, which turned Facebook from a simple directory into a social newspaper documenting your friends' activities. "Nobody liked it - I remember my entire inbox filling up with messages saying please turn this off, we hate it."

Through these storms, the man who in the firing-line, from users, investors and the technology bloggers, apparently remained calm:

"Mark has an amazing equanimity about these things. It's one of his defining characteristics. He projects this sense that he's in the future and everything's cool there, and he's come back a few months to where you are just to tell you it's gonna be fine."

As I left, having scrawled my name and a plug for my forthcoming radio series on the giant Facebook wall in the office, I reflected that so far, Mark Zuckerberg had been proved right.

Rory Cellan-Jones writes on Facebook wall

Writing on The Facebook wall

Throughout the various rows over privacy, the concerns about cyber-bullying, the scepticism over whether a social network could ever make money, this quiet, and still slightly awkward man has retained his equanimity.

You may find Facebook one of the curses of modern life, a place where too many people share too much in an unthinking manner, you may believe that it's damaging the minds of a whole generation. But the man from the future keeps coming back to tell his troops and the rest of us "it's all gonna be fine". And for Facebook and its founder right now, things could hardly be finer.

Friendster, Facebook and the Well: Rejecting anonymity

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:26 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010


Remember Friendster? No, me neither - it never made an impact in Europe. But this was the social network that promised to be the next big thing on the web, before first MySpace and then Facebook ran off with that title. In fact, it grew so fast that it fell over, its technology unable to cope with the surge in demand.

In my journey through the history of social networking I have met Friendster's founder, another man who can claim to have reinvented the way we communicate.

Jonathan Abrams

Jonathan Abrams, founder of Friendster

In 2002 Jonathan Abrams, a Canadian software engineer who'd already worked for major technology firms and started a couple of businesses of his own, found himself with time on his hands. It was the depths of the dotcom crash and he wondered whether his career had already peaked.

He told me that gave him the space to pursue his idea of a website that would enable his friends to run their social lives better. More and more of them were using online dating sites but he saw a major flaw - who knew who the people in the other end really were?

He decided that a place where you used your own name and managed your offline social life with an online presence would be attractive. "Before Friendster," he explained, "most of the way people used technology was anonymous and they were interacting in a virtual world completely disconnected from the real world. The difference with Friendster was you used your real name, real picture, and interacted with people you met in the real world."

He was right about the appeal of this merging of the real and virtual worlds. He started with his own friends on a password-protected site, but Friendster rapidly went viral. "People found the site fun and useful, they wanted their friends to be on it so they would bug their friends to join and then it grew exponentially."

Within a year it had attracted millions of users, lots of excited media coverage, and had won big-name venture-capital backing.

So what went wrong? Just about everything. Abrams fell out with his backers, the firm rapidly went through four chief executives, and there were huge technical problems. "The site barely worked for two years," is how the founder puts it.

Eventually he left, and has since been involved in a number of other start-ups. We met at his latest venture in San Francisco's SoMa district, an empty office suite with furniture in boxes, about to become the Founders' Den, a shared social space for entrepreneurs.

Friendster is still around, advertising itself as a social gaming platform, and apparently enjoying a measure of popularity in Asia, where the majority of its users are now based. But whatever happens to it from now on it has played one vital role - helping Facebook grow without major technical hiccups. David Kirkpatrick's fascinating book The Facebook Effect, he recounts how Mark Zuckerberg fretted about what had happened to Friendster and determined that his business would not allow technology failure to drive users away.

Stewart Brand

Online pioneer Stewart Brand who started the Whole Earth Catalogue

Earlier I had met a very different and much older online community pioneer. Stewart Brand is something of a legend in the Californian counterculture movement, the man who started the Whole Earth Catalogue, a kind of analogue Facebook group for eco-types, and then took it online with The Well, the Whole Earth 'lectronic Link.

But what struck me was that the very principles that were later to prove successful at Friendster and Facebook - demanding that members used their real names, mixing offline and online networks - had been tried out in the 1980s at The Well.

Because Stewart Brand decided that the new online community was going to reject the anonymity that was then the norm on bulletin boards and other early computer forums. "This was politically against the grain," he told me. "The whole idea was that anonymity freed people to say important stuff and all I could see was that anonymity freed people to insult each other without retribution and they did so with abandon. Very responsible corporate people and scientists, when they had the opportunity to speak anonymously they did so with such viciousness and ferocity, it took my breath away."

Soon the new online community was thriving, its members debating everything from the meaning of life to the nature of sexuality to the merits of different computer operating systems - and then meeting up in the real world to continue the conversations.

This community wasn't the Garden of Eden - Stewart Brand and other leaders had to try to control the behaviour of "trolls" who began to infest some of the conversations - but it proved sustainable, and is still around 25 years after its birth.

You might think that someone of Stewart Brand's generation and political background would look askance at the development of Facebook, with its mostly trivial content and its increasingly commercial nature. Not a bit of it

"Facebook is fantastic," he told me, explaining that he saw some of the same principles in action under Mark Zuckerberg that had governed The Well: "I'm really impressed at a lot of the instincts that Zuckerberg has had. Taking non-anonymity as an absolutely fundamental value of his company and thereby beating off the competition. A Facebook identity is one of the most valuable things his company offers. The lack of anonymity is what gives it value."

On the internet nobody knows you're a dog, according to the famous cartoon in the New Yorker. But, if you were to believe the social networking pioneers, Fido would be better off coming clean about his idenitity on his Facebook profile.

The networking pioneers

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:01 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010


Who should be regarded as the founding fathers of social networking, the phenomenon that now joins hundreds of millions of people in online conversation? Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook in his room at Harvard in 2004? Or maybe Jonathan Abrams who founded Friendster and was all set to become the biggest mover and shaker on the web - until Zuckerberg came along.

In California, where I'm making a radio series about the history of social networking, I've met two people who have a better claim to be pioneers. Both are much older than either Zuckerberg or Abrams and both have their roots in a 1960s culture which saw technology as just one way of changing the world.

Lee Felsenstein


My first stop was in Berkeley, the cradle of the counterculture, where I had come to meet Lee Felsenstein. He had studied here in the 1960s and had been swept up in, what he described to me as, the revolution that spread from the University of California campus across America. That revolution, he explained, had built a powerful community in and around Berkeley, and he had been determined to use his skills as a computer scientist to keep that spirit alive.

We met outside a scruffy fast-food joint in the student quarter because this was the birthplace of Community Memory, the first real attempt to build an online meeting-place. In 1973 in Leopold's Record Store, which stood on this site, Felsensetin and a few colleagues installed their project's first machine.

"They had a musicians' bulletin board at the top of the stairs so we put it next to that," he explained. "We had a teletype terminal in a cardboard box I built. It had a clear vinyl cover so you could see what was being typed. "

Anyone coming up the stairs was invited to come and use the terminal to write a message.

"We thought there would be considerable resistance to the idea of computers invading the counterculture ," Lee Felsenstein told me. "We were wrong. One of us would stand by the terminal and invite people to use the computer. At that point their eyes would brighten up and they'd say 'Oh wow can I really use it?'"

Many of the musicians were soon abandoning the paper bulletin board and moving to the computerised version. But there were other users of Community Memory too, from a poet coming to type a couple of verses to promote his wares, to people seeking apartments or cars.

"We did not constrain the topics that items were indexed by," Mr Felsenstein explained. "When you wrote something you were told to think of a word that someone might use to find this item."

Thirty five years before Twitter took off, it seems the idea of hashtags to connect conversations was taking off at Leopold's Records.

The project went through various ups and downs, dying and then being reborn a couple of times, but survived into the early 1990s, when there were 10 terminals dotted around the San Francisco area for anyone to use.

I explained to Lee Felsenstein the idea of the blue plaque that we put on British buildings of historical significance and asked him what a plaque mounted on this site might say. He came up with this:

"Here in 1973 was opened the first public access computer system for use by people with no familiarity with technology. The door to cyberspace was opened here for the first time and it was found to be hospitable territory."
Larry Brilliant


My next stop was at the Skoll Global Threats Fund in San Francisco, where Dr Larry Brilliant continues his lifetime's work as a doctor battling against diseases such as polio and smallpox. But we'd come to hear the story of how he co-founded an online community called The Well in 1985.

The Well, or Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, built an online community of 50,000 people in the San Francisco area years before the web was created. Its guiding genius, as Dr Brilliant was keen to stress, was Stuart Brand, who I'm meeting later this week.

But Larry Brilliant had a fascinating tale to tell about the technology behind this community. The story began when a helicopter vital to a public health project the doctor was running in the early 80s crashed in the Himalayas. "We needed to find a way to get it a new engine in a hurry," he explained. Using contacts in Silicon Valley he managed to set up what may have been the world's first internet tele-conference, bringing together charitable backers in the United States, the engine maker at France's Aerospatiale and the US ambassador in India.

The result was that 36 hours later a new engine was on its way to the Himalayas. Larry Brilliant returned home to the United States, where he was a professor of public health, and told this story to an old friend. That friend was Steve Jobs, who had supplied a very early Apple computer to the Asian health project. "Steve told me I ought to turn the idea into a business. I didn't really know what a business was back then."

But he forged ahead with the online communications project and took the idea to Stuart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalogue was already a counterculture hit, listing all kinds of products for people interested in sustainable living. The Well was born out of that meeting, and seven other online communities also used the technology, though none with the same success.

The Well went on to provide more inspiring stories of the power of online communication, as its members used its forums to share their lives, their thoughts, and their passions - whether it be for obscure technology questions or discussions about the meaning of life..

I asked Dr Brilliant, as I'm asking everyone I'm interviewing for my radio series, how social networking had shaped his life. "In every conceivable way," he said, explaining how his career which has included a spell running Google's philanthropic arm had continually involved people he'd met through this early social network. "When I go to Silicon Valley I meet people whose companies or ideas got started on The Well, either as participants or observers. Every step I took after The Well was shaped by it."

These two founding fathers of online communities had one delightful and surprising characteristic in common. Both Lee Felsenstein and Larry Brilliant, while nostalgic for those pioneering days in the 70s and 80s, refused to be curmudgeonly about the modern networking world.

Despite coming from a counterculture that greeted the first adverts on the internet with outrage - apparently it was two lawyers spamming fellow members of an early bulletin board - they were both enthusiasts for Facebook and Twitter, which depend on advertising for their futures.

But then again why should I be surprised? Each man had a vision of a future where technology could both strengthen and enrich the ties between us. Now, ever so gradually, they see that beginning to happen.

A social journey

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:20 UK time, Friday, 10 December 2010


We have had plenty of reminders this week of the power of social networking.

Twitter displayed on a mobile phone

Twitter, for instance, has been an invaluable tool for anyone following the denial of service attacks launched by the Anonymous group of web "hacktivists" against firms which have severed links with Wikileaks. Students involved in sit-ins and protests have used both Facebook and Twitter to organise and to spread the news of their activities.

Five years ago, before these networks took off, something like the UK Uncut movement, which was apparently formed after a conversation in a pub, would have been much harder to organise.

Yes, "flashmobs" organised by mobile phones have been with us for a while, but the sheer size of the modern networks and the speed at which they connect people has transformed protest - as well as just about every other area of modern life.

But the history of social networking stretches back much earlier than 2004 when Facebook was founded.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) has been around since before the birth of the world wide web, and is still the platform of choice for what you might call the hacker community.

Right now it's alive with debate and rancour amongst those involved in the attacks on websites such as Amazon, PayPal and Mastercard.

And further back than that, in California in the 1970s and 1980s, various groups experimented with ways of using the new communications technology to build social networks.

In fact, some believe the starting-point for the journey that led to Facebook and Twitter was a teleprinter machine at record store in Berkeley. There, in 1973, locals would drop by and leave messages on the machine for friends, with one message leading to another until a community formed around the teleprinter terminal.

Next week I am travelling to the United States to start making a series for BBC Radio 4 called The Secret History of Social Networking. It will aim to examine how the idea of online communities was born, why so many of the early networks failed to take off, and where the phenomenon is heading now.

With the producer who came up with the idea, Mike Wendling, I will be visiting the people and places at the centre of this secret history, starting in Berkeley at that record store. If we can find it. Along the way, I will try to give a flavour of our social journey here on this blog. So come here next week to see how we are getting on.

Who's afraid of Google's book store?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:10 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010


After many delays Google has finally got into the bookselling business. Its eBooks store is only available in the United States for now, but it is far more ambitious in scope than might have been imagined.

An e-book reader

I had thought that the search giant might dip a toe in the water with free titles and some of the out-of-print books it has been scanning under its controversial Google Books programme. In fact, it appears to have a wide selection of current titles at keen prices.

For example, I found Michael Lewis's excellent account of the people who bet on the credit crisis The Big Short for $9.99 - the same price as on Apple's iBooks store but a lot cheaper than the $25.73 charged at Amazon's Kindle store. Then there's Howard Jacobson's Booker-winning The Finkler Question, going for $5.69 on the Google eBooks store, as compared to $6.22 at Amazon. The book isn't available in Apple's store which does seem - from my experience - to have a pretty limited range of titles.

You can read Google's books online, where they are stored in the cloud, or you can download them to read across a number of devices - on a computer, on an Apple iPhone or iPad, on any number of phones or tablet computers running Google's Android operating system. One place you can't read them, of course, is a Kindle.

Once it has assessed early reactions to the store, Google is likely to bring this venture to the UK next spring - so what reaction will it get here? One online magazine which tracks the e-book industry seems surprised by all the fuss, insisting there is nothing new about the service. "[When Google] does arrive it'll still be nothing more than a 'me too' store duplicating services and features which already exist," says Martin Hoscik on the ebookmagazine site.

That ignores the fact that the digital publishing market in the UK is in its infancy, with sales of consumer e-books in 2009 amounting to just £2.1m. We may have plenty of choice already - from, say, the Waterstones site to Kobo Books - but there is a huge market to play for and you can't ignore the effect that the arrival of a giant brand like Google could have, as e-books move from the geeky preserve of early adopters to the mainstream.

Having spoken to booksellers and publishers, I'm hearing plenty of enthusiasm about the Google store. My impression is that both are pretty desperate to see the arrival of a service which could provide real competition for the Kindle store, and prevent Amazon from building a virtual monopoly in the electronic bookselling market here.

The Publishers' Association told me it understands a UK launch is "imminent", and says it will be an exciting offering similar to what's been unveiled in the United States. Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic have had plenty of run-ins with Amazon over pricing, so they are enthusiastic about another route to the electronic market.

The retailers are if anything even more enthusiastic because Google is offering independent booksellers a chance to sell e-books through its new service. "At the moment if you're an independent bookseller, it's very hard to compete with Waterstones or Amazon on e-books," a spokesman at the Booksellers Association told me. "Now they'll be able to reach a global audience through Google."

It is consumer attitudes to this new technology which will now be crucial. Do they see e-books as Google does - virtual products, living in the cloud, and available just about everywhere? Or are they still focussed on hardware, in the form of something like Amazon's Kindle, which has so far proved very successful in marketing the whole idea of e-books?

I've a sneaking suspicion that it is hardware which will matter, but next year we should find out whether Amazon or Google has a better chance of becoming the big beast of the e-books industry.

Britain's broadband questions

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:08 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010


So now we all know about the UK's broadband strategy, don't we? Every community will get a digital hub so that by 2015 the UK has the best fast broadband network in Europe. Is that clear? Well, not exactly - it raises all sorts of questions so let's try to answer a few of them.

What is a digital hub?

As far as I can understand, this is going to be one of those green cabinets you see on the pavement with cables hanging out of them. The idea is that every community will get one of these cabinets, packed with fibre-optic connections to the net, even in places where the likes of BT and Virgin Media don't see a commercial case.

What is meant by every community?

When I spoke to a government PR man he used the term "virtually every community" - and made it clear that if you lived up a mountain you were unlikely to have one of these digital hubs outside your front door. But thousands of communities across Britain will now be able to bid for the cash to build their own fast network.

Where is the money coming from?

All of the £830m of public money that will be spent on this project over the next seven or eight years will come from the BBC licence fee. Some of it is the surplus from the Digital Switchover Fund, the rest from the licence fee settlement negotiated between the government and the BBC last month.

Who decides how the money is allocated?

The starting gun has been fired for local authorities, community groups, and companies big and small to start bidding for this pot of money. So there will now be a bit of a bunfight, and it will be the job of Broadband Delivery UK, a new quango, to decide between the competing claims. As the 2015 deadline for building Europe's best broadband network approaches, BDUK officials will find themselves under ever closer scrutiny from their political masters.

What's BT's role?

Before the election, the Conservatives were pretty sniffy about the company which still dominates the UK's broadband infrastructure, promising to bear down upon BT and force it to allow rivals access to its network. But today's announcement was full of praise for "BT's fantastic range of measures" which were going to do much of the job of rolling out superfast broadband. Smaller ISPs are now wondering whether they will really get a look-in, and are urging the government to do more to force BT to "unbundle" its fibre network.

What kind of technology will be used?

That will be decided by whoever builds out the local networks from those digital hubs. It could be fibre to the home, it could take advantage of new mobile spectrum which will now be made available, and in remote places it could be satellite broadband which fills in the gaps. The result is that there will not be a uniform service - some places will still get a slower connection than others.

What happened to that 2Mbps by 2012 target?

That Universal Service Commitment has been put back to 2015 - but with the promise that communities which have struggled to get anything more than dial-up speeds will then leapfrog straight into the fast broadband era. The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt says there was not enough money set aside by the last government to make it happen - Labour says it means some places will wait another five years for broadband of any kind.

How likely is it that we will build Europe's best broadband by 2015?

Ah, well it depends what you mean by "best". Right now, according to the Global Broadband study by Cisco and the Oxford Internet Institute, the UK is in 13th place in Europe, a long way behind the likes of Sweden and the Netherlands. And some figures released today by the OECD show the UK isn't even in the game when it comes to delivering fast fibre networks. But the governement says that it will use four criteria - speed, coverage, price and choice - to decide whether the UK has met its goal. It's unlikely that we will accelerate past the speedy Scandinavians, but the more competitive UK market, where prices are already low and choice is wider than in many places, may allow the government to declare that Britain is best by 2015.

Google, Amazon and the end of web innocence?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:17 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010


For the giant web firms born on America's west coast, one principle has always been sacrosanct: commitment to freedom of expression.

Screenshot of Wikileaks website


That's been accompanied by an insistence that they are technology platforms, not media businesses, and so can't be held responsible for the actions of those who use their services.

Last month I noted that two of those giants, Amazon and Google, were diluting that pure stance in the face of commercial and political realities and now it seems to be happening again.

First, Amazon, the company you probably know for selling books and which also has a large-scale service for hosting websites. One of these had been the Wikileaks horde of leaked US diplomatic cables - but no longer, prompting suggestions that Amazon was bowing to pressure from American politicians and sparking outrage from some customers who felt that the company was abandoning a commitment to free speech. "Guess I am going to have to find somewhere other than Amazon to do my Christmas shopping," responded one tweeter; Wikileaks' own Twitter feed put it like this: "If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment they should get out of the business of selling books."

Just as when the online retailer decided to remove a book promoting paedophilia from its virtual shelves, Amazon appears to have realised that a giant American business cannot simply ignore public opinion or political realities. Mind you, it's hard to know exactly what Amazon thinks - I've tried repeatedly over the last 24 hours to speak to the firm, with no success. The company has put out a statement denying that "a government inquiry prompted us not to serve WikiLeaks" and going on:

"Amazon Web Services... does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them."

The second case is Google, where the pressure has come from some within the media industry, angry at what they see as the search engine's amoral stance on copyright infringement. Google has insisted until now that it's not its fault that a search for "Lady Gaga MP3" tends to lead users straight to illegal download sites - it's all down to the mysteries of the algorithm. It's also maintained that its only aim is to give search users exactly what they are seeking.

But over the summer at least one music industry trade body was lobbying Google, in what was apparently a "constructive dialogue", to make it a little harder for users to find pirated material. Now Google has announced a series of measures which it says "will give rightsholders choice and control over the use of their content." Two parts of the announcement appear particularly significant.

Google says it will act to prevent terms that may be connected to piracy appearing in "autocomplete" - so when you start typing "Lady Gaga MP3", the search engine won't automatically suggest "free download" or "torrent". And Google says it will try making authorised content a bit more obvious in search results.

So does this mean the company is tinkering with that sacred algorithm to promote "good" results above "evil" ones? Absolutely not, says Google, and links to sites that illegally host copyright material will still show up in search results.

It does seem likely, though, that when you search for Lady Gaga in future you may find yourself looking at a video leading to an official download service, rather than to a file-sharing site. Is that what users are really seeking?

A few weeks ago the search firm made the number of the Samaritans visible to people searching for terms relating to suicide, a move obviously in the public interest but one that opened the door to pressure for more tinkering.

The innocent days when young web firms could pretend that they were simply agents of free expression based on neutral technology seem to be coming to an end. They have grown up into giant media empires, so they can expect every lobbyist, every politician and every pressure group to want to shape the way they do business.

Access all areas: Life-changing technology

Rory Cellan-Jones | 07:00 UK time, Thursday, 2 December 2010


How much has technology changed your life in the last couple of decades, since we became an always-on connected society? For many of us, the arrival of mobile communications and the world wide web have provided a huge step forward in the way we communicate - but for one group, the disabled, these technologies really have proved life-changing.

I've been making a short television report for the BBC's Access all Areas series looking at the impact technology has made on the lives of disabled people. We visited the Oxford Centre for Enablement where they are testing various technologies that could help people with very limited mobility to interact with computers.

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We saw Dr Philip Anslow using one of those technologies, Eye-Gaze, to help him continue to work as a radiologist despite being almost completely immobilised by Motor Neurone Disease.

And we spent an inspiring morning at the Frank Wise Special School in Banbury, watching teachers use everything from a Wii games console to an iPad to give severely disabled children improved access to learning and better ways of communicating.

The head teacher Sean O'Sullivan explained to me that the disabled had been early adopters of technologies which were now becoming commonplace in homes - touchscreen computers, for instance, had been used 25 years ago in his school.

But my best source of information on this subject has been Adrian Higginbotham, who accompanied me for much of our filming. We met him at Banbury station - he'd tweeted and texted me from the train to report progress - and we strode up and down the platform with his guide dog Mac, while he showed me how a blind man uses mobile technology to make life easier.

Adrian is one of nature's geeks at home and at work, where he advises schools on the use of technology. In his pocket, a Nokia smartphone muttered continually, alerting him to incoming e-mails, texts and tweets which he could then have read out.

Twenty years ago, Adrian tells me, technology was something that was "done" to disabled people - but now the smartphone revolution is just one thing that's putting them in charge:

"We've gone from an age of big machines and people having to sit in front of them, and, particularly for disabled people, it being a service that was provided and you had to be grateful for, to now, when people depend on technology for their independence."

A similar point was made by another blind man, the BBC's political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue. He says it's not the big flashy technology that's making the difference but simple things like "talking" buses and improved access to communications tools:

"Simple access to PC technology has opened up a whole world of jobs to blind people in particular that wasn't possible before. Clerical work for example, and research. I remember all too well having to beg and borrow peoples' eyes when I started as a reporter, for them to read cuttings to me from the library, whereas now I can get the stuff electronically and read it independently."

And he too says advances in mobile phones have made life a lot easier: "I used to carry phone numbers around in my head. But over the past five years, simple software solutions have made mainstream mobiles accessible not just to make calls, but also to use contacts, calendars, email and internet."

So plenty of progress, but there is more to be done. Adrian Higginbotham points out that some technologies originally developed for disabled people, like talking books, sometimes become less accessible when they are adapted for the mainstream. Amazon was forced to adapt its Kindle e-book when American universities complained that it was not accessible to people with visual impairments.

And there is currently a vigorous campaign to try to ensure web developers understand that websites have to be just as accessible to everyone as public buildings.

But my brief acquaintance with this fascinating subject has taught me one thing. Clever manufacturers should keep a close eye on what disabled people are doing with gadgets because they are the pathfinders, showing the way to better, more useable technology.

Update 14:20: Some people have pointed out a huge irony about the video which is embedded in this post - it lacks subtitles so it is not accessible to people with impaired hearing.

We are trying to get that fixed for this particular video, but my colleagues who work to put clips on the news website admit that this is a serious issue. Getting subtitling burned into every video that plays on this site would be a complex operation - but I know they are scratching their heads about ways of doing it. I will come back with any news on how this is progressing.

Virgin's web TV walled garden

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:50 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010


2011 looks set to be the year when the long-awaited marriage between television and the internet is finally sealed. Google TV, already out in the United States, should be in Europe soon, and YouView, the internet TV joint venture berween the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, will be coming along in the spring.

This morning Virgin Media unveiled a product which claimes to be ahead of the game, a set-top box which it describes as "the UK's first next-generation entertainment platform". Virgin is using TiVo, which pioneered digital television recording, to power a service which it claims will bring together TV, on-demand and the web in one box.

Users will now be able to do all the things they can already do on any personal video recorder, plus get access to over 4,000 hours of on-demand content - mostly the last week's programmes from the main channels - and a variety of web applications. Most of the television content will still arrive via the Virgin network, but a 10Mbps modem in the box will make sure those apps, which provide access to YouTube and to social networks, run smoothly.

Screengrab of Virgin TiVo service


That 10mbps will in effect be a separate motorway to the web, and customers will continue to use their standard internet connection for general surfing. I was given a quick run-through of the service this morning by Virgin Media's director of digital entertainment Cindy Rose.

At first, it all looked very familiar, with an electronic programme guide (EPG) from which you can view or record programmes - although on this EPG you can go back in time to select something you missed earlier in the week. The real difference showed up when Cindy searched for a favourite programme, House. As well as recent episodes of the medical drama, she was able to get information about the cast and then click through to other programmes in which they featured.

So we ended up with an episode of Friends, in which the House star Hugh Laurie appeared. From there, we could go to a Friends "blooper" tape on YouTube. What you won't get from Virgin's version of "web TV" is any real feeling of being on the web. This is very much a walled garden approach - you don't get a browser, and Virgin Media decides which apps you can have, from a very limited menu at the moment.

"You can't plug your laptop into our box," said Cindy Rose firmly. "There's no access to the open internet". It's a big contrast to what the likes of Google TV and YouView are promising viewers, but she believes this will be a selling point: "It's different from every other connected TV proposition on the market. It's the first time we are able to showcase the power of our network in entertainment."

And by separating its online television content from general web surfing, the company claims it will offer a better experience than services which will fight for bandwidth out on the open internet.

I asked whether companies like the movie subscription service Lovefilm would be allowed onto the TiVo box - and was told that might be possible if a deal could be done. But the walled garden approach means Virgin has the final say on what its customers can do - so if it decides it would rather they could only choose the in-house movies, that's what will happen.

So what we're seeing is two different philosophies about internet connected televsion. Platforms like Google TV - and to a lesser extent YouView - believe that the viewer wants the freedom to pull all sorts of content from the web onto the big screen. Virgin Media thinks viewers want a little more connectivity but would still prefer to sit back and let someone else manage the shape of their viewing experience.

So far, web users have preferred the "born free, roam wild" approach - whereas, despite the proliferation of channels and the arrival of on-demand TV, most viewing is still of the traditional "turn it on and see what's on" variety. Over the next year we will find out which philosophy works best when you bring TV and the web together.

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