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Archives for February 2011

The Turing papers: Saved

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:22 UK time, Friday, 25 February 2011


He was one of the founding fathers of modern computing. He also played a crucial role in the work to break the German codes which were key to the outcome of the World War II. Yet, despite his stature amongst the technical community, I sense that the name Alan Turing is still not that widely known, particularly amongst today's school students.

So, it was wonderful to hear the news that a collection of rare papers relating to Turing's work as a scientist and code-breaker has been saved from disappearing overseas.

Alan Turning (SPL)

Following a donation from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the papers will now be kept at Bletchley Park, the wartime code-breaking station which is now also a museum. I spoke yesterday to Simon Greenish, who runs the Bletchley Park Trust, and he was naturally overjoyed.

Very little in the way of documentary evidence survives from Bletchley Park's wartime history - its work was, after all, so secret that many of those who worked there did not tell close relatives what they had been doing for years afterwards, and most of the paperwork was destroyed.

"Now we are going to have a tangible link to Turing," Simon Greenish explained.

The papers include offprints of Turing's scientific articles. Among them is "On Computable Numbers", seen as one of the key documents in the history of computing. They were given to Max Newman, a colleague at Bletchley Park whose work on mechanising the code-breaking process makes him another important figure in the history of computing.

Today's news is also a great triumph for the people who've used modern methods - social media in particular - to campaign to preserve the heritage of Bletchley Park.

It was Gareth Halfacree who started a petition to save the Turing papers when he heard they were being put up for auction last year.

And for the last couple of years, the computer scientist Dr Sue Black, has worked tirelessly to get her colleagues in academia, the technology community, and the wider world to see the importance of what Bletchley Park and Turing did for Britain.

Thanks to them, maybe the name Alan Turing will now become rather better known to later generations of schoolchildren.

Microsoft and Apple: Competing on the high street

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:51 UK time, Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Seattle: I've just visited two shiny temples to technology, brightly lit places with keen, well-informed and helpful staff, and a welcome for anyone who wanted just to play on the laptops, mobile phones or tablet computers.

Yes, one was an Apple store, but the other, just a few doors along in a shopping mall in Bellevue near Seattle, was a Microsoft store. The software giant has now opened seven of these shops in the United States, an attempt perhaps to copy Apple's very successful experiment in selling its products direct to the public in an environment designed to reinforce the brand.

Apple store
Microsoft store

The one I visited, just a few miles from Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, seemed to have much of the recipe about right - good design, plenty of room to look at the products, and without the overcrowded shelves and apathetic salespeople you get in many big electronic retail chains.

But it did seem to be proving less of a draw to shoppers than its neighbouring Apple Store. That might be just because it has only recently opened, or it could say something about the different ways the two companies are organised to address their markets.

Inside Microsoft store

Apple is one of the most vertically integrated businesses you can imagine. It designs and owns all of its own products, both software and hardware, and while it does not manufacture, it exercises tight control over the suppliers in China who produce the iPads, iPhones and iMacs. And, while you can buy Apple products from outside retailers, the firm has made huge efforts to sell direct to consumers, either online or through its fast-growing chain of stores.

By contrast, Microsoft, despite its image as the overwhelming force in the software industry, has always been reliant on relationships with other firms - the computer makers who have installed its software on their machines, the phone manufacturers who've adopted its mobile operating system, and the retailers who have sold Windows 7 or Xbox consoles to consumers. And even in its new stores, Microsoft products have to jostle with other brands - from Samsung to Acer to Lenovo - creating a much less uniform experience than at the Apple stores.

These different approaches - the vertical or the horizontal - had come up in discussion with Microsoft's research and strategy guru Craig Mundie a few hours earlier. He pointed out that in the 1980s and 1990s, it was Microsoft's strategy that had proved the winner. Because Windows was released to the PC makers to install on any machine it ended up grabbing most of the market, while Apple's refusal to licence its operating system gave it complete control, but of a very small niche.

In the smartphone market, however, Apple's strategy has worked out until now - total control over the software and the handset has produced a phone for which consumers were willing to pay a premium. But Google's very different approach, allowing anyone to install Android on any kind of phone, is now taking the market by storm. Craig Mundie reckons that Microsoft's partnership with Nokia is a third way, giving the two firms a measure of control over both hardware and software.

Microsoft probably won't worry if crowds do not flock to its new stores - they are just a small exercise in making the brand look a bit cooler, rather than a key plank in the strategy. For Apple, though, the rise of its retail chain has mirrored the extraordinary surge in its profits over recent years, so if the crowds in the stores begin to melt away, that really will be cause for concern.

Microsoft's future: Only Kinect

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:03 UK time, Tuesday, 22 February 2011


Seattle: It's the latest craze among video gamers, who use it to navigate the rapids in a virtual rubber dinghy or to dance along to Lady Gaga. But make no mistake, Xbox Kinect is a very serious business, vital to the future of Microsoft.

Microsoft Xbox Kinect


Just how important I've been finding out at an open day at Microsoft's headquarters at Redmond near Seattle, where technology journalists were given the rundown on where the software giant is focusing its massive research and development effort. I will be bringing back a couple of television reports about all of this to be broadcast next week, but let me sum up the message from Microsoft - only Kinect.

There was one news announcement during the day - the Kinect technology is to be opened up to outside developers. It has already grabbed the attention of hackers (not a word used by Microsoft) who have put videos on YouTube of their experiments. They range from a 3D video captured with the Kinect sensor, to a shadow puppet application, to an amazing hack which enables a user to become invisible.

Now the software development kit will make it far easier for outsiders to create new applications for what is turning out to be an extraordinary piece of kit. They will only be permitted to use it for their personal entertainment, with a commercial release coming later.

"We want to capture the enthusiasm that's been shown by the technical community," explained Craig Mundie, the man who has run Microsoft's research effort since the retirement of Bill Gates. "Sometimes we do the innovation, sometimes we're led to future innovations by seeing things that happen in the community. By releasing the SDK we are letting people stand on our shoulders."

He was speaking during a day which saw a series of demonstrations of projects by some of the 900 PhD-level researchers Microsoft has around the world. And here's the striking thing - just about every one of them involved taking the Kinect technology developed by those same researchers to the next level.

So we saw a screen which presents two different images to two viewers sat side by side. The Kinect camera tracked their eyes, presenting one object to one person, something completely different to the other. In future, then, you could sit in front of the television watching football, while someone else watching the same screen got a soap opera.

Two researchers from Microsoft's Cambridge laboratory walked around a group of us with the camera, producing a 3D representation of the reporters and the space in which we sat. This is something that could only be done by a $100,000 scanner before now - Microsoft wouldn't let us take pictures of this, being less than eager to see rivals copy this idea.

Then there was a demo where Kinect digitised an object put on a table in front of the viewer, delivering a 3D virtual version, which could then be manipulated by someone at the other end of a video conference. Got a new product you want to show customers thousands of miles away? If this idea does become a reality, then you could save on air travel.

For Craig Mundie, the whole day was about his belief that we are at a turning point in the history of computing, where we relinquish the mouse and the keyboard and begin to interact in a more natural way with devices that understand us better.

But for all this very impressive research into potentially life-changing technology, it's been the likes of Apple and Google, not Microsoft, which have brought innovation to consumers in the last decade. Having watched the iPad redefine computing and Android take over the mobile phone world, Mr Mundie and his team of boffins needed to prove that blue-sky thinking could deliver real-world hits.

That they have done with Kinect - as a games platform. Now they need some of those wider applications to catch on, and show that Microsoft is a company that can change the future, rather than living off its 20th Century inheritance.

Mapping broadband

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:04 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011


Seattle: How good is Britain's broadband coverage and how many communities are missing out? As we've found over recent years, they are hot political question that are very difficult to answer because of a lack of data. Maybe what we need is a national broadband map - like the one that has just been unveiled in the United States.

National Broadband map


The map gives detailed coverage of broadband access in every American community, allowing users to see who the providers are in their area, the different technologies employed, and the speeds they offer, right down to street level. There are all kinds of useful tools to examine the data, and work out how different places compare. It also carries special reports on the differences between urban and rural areas and which regions have no broadband availability at all.

Overall, the map and an accompanying report from the US government suggest that between five and 10% of Americans do not have access to broadband at the speeds necessary for tasks that are becoming essential - uploading photos, viewing video and so on. But the number of households actually subscribing to broadband has risen from 63% to 68% in the last year.

I'm in Seattle for a couple of days, and I can see that the suburb where I'm staying, Bellevue, is very well sorted when it comes to broadband, with everything from Comcast's fibre running at up to 100Mbps, to wireless broadband from the likes of T-Mobile at 6-10Mbps. This is an area packed with hi-tech businesses so it's hardly surprising that it's wired for the future.

I then picked another town at random , Amarillo, Texas. Not quite so good - nothing above 10Mbps. And elsewhere the picture is a lot less positive - indeed most of the American press coverage of this new map has zeroed in on the gaping holes in broadband availability, which show up as white spaces. Here's a report in the Charleston Gazette:

"West Virginia is a vast island of white space except for the eastern Panhandle, the Charleston-Huntington corridor, the Beckley area and a few colored splotches along Interstate 79."

The report goes on to point out that the state ranks 48th in terms of speed rankings.
The Washington Post's headline warns of a digital divide and goes on to say that the survey finds that "Americans in lower-income and rural areas often have slower Internet connections than users in wealthier communities."

So two conclusions. First, the United States does not have quite such an advanced broadband infrastructure as you might expect - indeed, it does not look that different from what we have in the UK. Secondly, information is always political.

The more consumers know about how their services compare with their neighbours, the more they will press for change and improvement. The US map will be updated every six months, and each new version will spark more stories about regional and international comparisons and campaigns for more government spending to close a digital divide.

Isn't it about time then, that we had a similar map in the UK so that we can work out more precisely the scale of the challenge for a government committed to delivering the best broadband in Europe by 2015? Over to you, Ofcom.

Blackberry: Still looking smart

Rory Cellan-Jones | 11:24 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011


In a packed noisy hall on the Barcelona fairground I came across a middle-aged man driving a sports car at dangerous speeds. Jim Balsillie was wielding a tablet computer and was not to be interrupted until he had finished the race. Then the co-CEO of RIM put the Blackberry Playbook down and gave me a clear message - don't expect my company to give up on the smartphone race.

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Last Friday that appeared to be the message from Nokia's Stephen Elop as he unveiled his firm's smartphone partnership with Microsoft - "it's going to be a three horse race," he told us, and he wasn't including the Blackberry amongst the horses.

Jim Balsillie looked surprised when I suggested to him that his firm has been left behind by Apple and Android and now risked being run over by the Nokia/Windows machine.

"Are some people writing us out?" he asked in tones of wonderment, and then reeled off a string of impressive statistics: Blackberry was the number one phone in the UK in 2010, number one in the Americas, number two in smartphones around the world, and grew sales by 70% in 2010.

And he painted a picture of an even brighter future of continued growth, much of it coming from the Playbook he was still clutching. You might think there were now too many tablets out there, with impressive new Android slates this week from the likes of Samsung and HTC. But Mr Balsillie thinks there's going to be a big shift towards this form of computing, and that his PlayBook will be a standout device. "This is not just another tablet, it's the tablet," he told me.

Then he ran through the specs - full Flash, full HTML5, dual core processors, an open web environment and open tools. The word open kept coming up - without mentioning the iPad, he was sending a clear message that the PlayBook was going to do lots of things that Apple just won't allow. In the great philosophical battle between Apple's walled garden and Android's wild open spaces, it's clear which camp RIM is in.

So is he right about the ability of the Canadian firm to keep ahead of the game? Amidst all the noise about Apple and Android, Nokia and Microsoft it has been easy to forget about Blackberry. But there has been quite an extraordinary transformation in its image - from the exclusive tool of e-mail-obsessed business road warriors to teenage plaything. The free Blackberry Messenger service now seems to be the preferred communication channel for millions of 15 to 25-year-olds, for whom the acronym BBM has entered the language.

The worry must be that the high-end customers, on whom RIM had such a tight hold through corporate chief information officers, are beginning to desert. Those CIOs are often doing Blackberry no favours, imposing such strict limits on how staff use the smartphones - no apps unless we approve them - that they spark a revolt, with young executives demanding an iPhone instead.

And will those teenagers stick with Blackberry once they grow out of their BBM years? Or will they, along with large sections of the smartphone crowd, switch to Android, or even Windows Phone 7?

Well some interesting research from a company called MediaCells suggests that, in the short term at least, the Blackberry is not going to get squeezed out of the race. It has looked at the UK phone market in 2010, and made a prediction for this year. Mediacells reckons all the major operating systems - except Symbian - will enjoy rapid growth, but guess who will come out on top? Yes, the Blackberry, just edging out Android, followed by Apple, with Windows Phone 7 a distant fourth.

"RIM will continue to acquire consumers from ailing platforms," says the report, "as the social media consumer demands QWERTY capability for prolific updating of Twitter and Facebook."

At an awards ceremony in Barcelona last night, Apple's iPhone 4 won device of the year - though the company "couldn't be bothered to send someone along to collect the prize", as the compere Jonathan Ross almost put it. By contrast, HTC, which unveiled another clutch of good-looking Android phones at Mobile World Congress, was the manufacturer of the year, and its CEO Peter Chou did turn up, winning warm applause from the crowd.

The mobile industry, which admires but does not like Apple, has fallen in love with Android but perhaps it's time it paid just a little more attention to Blackberry.

My mobile day

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:41 UK time, Tuesday, 15 February 2011


Barcelona: If you want to know what's going on in the mobile world you have to head to Barcelona in February, where the latest phones are unveiled and the movers and shakers from the industry gather to sell their wares and tell us what comes next.

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The Mobile World Congress is also something of a nightmare to cover because so much is happening at once - and getting connected is a game of chance as the networks buckle under the strain. Here's how it worked for me on Monday.

0700: I'm up to broadcast live from my hotel room to the BBC World Service and the Today programme. Unfortunately the hotel wi-fi has slowed to a crawl overnight. No matter - I have a 3G mi-fi unit which was working fine last night. But when I turn it on nothing lights up on its screen. I plug it in to charge it but still nothing. Eventually I realise that the unit is on and I'm online - it's just that the screen is broken. Using an application called Luci Live, I complete my two broadcasts without a hitch. Phew.

0930: The first appointment of the day is with Microsoft, and on the way in I meet Rafe Blandford, a very smart telecoms writer who runs the All About Symbian website. Now that Nokia is ditching Symbian and going with Windows Phone 7, he needs to switch focus and it's clear he is setting about doing just that.

Andy Lees


Upstairs, Andy Lees, the Mancunian who runs Microsoft's mobile division is relentlessly upbeat about the prospects for Windows Phone 7, now that it will have the weight of Nokia behind it. He mentions the integration with the Xbox Kinect system,which will be demonstrated in the afternoon by his boss Steve Ballmer, and the arrival of Internet Explorer 9 on the phone.

When I point out that Windows phones languish way behind Android in the smartphone market, he says they've only been out for a few months. Well, yes, Windows Phone 7 is new, but Microsoft has been in the smartphone business for a decade. Who let Apple and Android run away with the market?

1130: Another live broadcast from within the noisy and packed halls of Mobile World Congress. The connection is so poor that in the end we resort to - wait for it - a mobile phone. Meanwhile my cameraman is tinkering with some live television kit that uses no fewer than six simcards to to get online. It has been used to broadcast live pictures from Egypt - but at Mobile World Congress it tells us there is not enough bandwidth. We will try again on Tuesday.

1200: We head to the Google Android stand, a playful open-source environment with a playground slide and lots of green robots. It is packed with delegates looking at the new devices and apps on show - the momentum behind this operating system is the theme of this show.

1300: Samsung's stand is, as at just about every technology event, an ornate and expensive affair. Nearly all the focus is on just two devices, both upgrades of existing products. Samsung has unveiled a new Galaxy phone and a larger Galaxy tablet running, yes, you've guessed it , Android. I ask the firm's UK boss Simon Stanford whether Android is taking over the world. No, no, no, he tells me, don't forget our own system Bada, which is making great strides. But how many consumers talk about their Bada phones?

Man demonstrates LG 3D phone at Mobile World Congress


1330: On the LG stand crowds have gathered around what's being described as the world's first 3D smartphone. It shoots video in 3D, and then allows you to view the effect without wearing special glasses. Now I'm among those people whose poor vision means they cannot enjoy 3D. I still can't see it being anything other than a gimmick on a phone.

1430: Surprise me, I tell Motorola's Andrew Morley, as I arrive on yet another stand where Android devices are prominent. And luckily he does, with a display of how convergence is becoming real. The latest Motorola smartphone can be docked in a kind of dumb laptop terminal, which then uses the device as its operating system. The idea is you can go on the road with just a phone and this dock and yet have advanced computing power at your fingertips. Neat idea - but if I could find space in my luggage for a laptop dock surely I would bring a laptop?

1600: Back to the hotel, because I've more live broadcasting to do and I don't trust the networks at the trade show. For a while my technology works a treat and I'm able to take part in the World Services's Digital Planet programme from my room, via a 3G connection. Then it stops working again for no apparent reason. I decide it's time to go out - throwing things against the wall never helps.

1900: At a dinner with Orange and a clutch of mobile analysts there's talk of Android's ubiquity at this show, of whether there are now too many tablets, and of whether NFC - the technology which allows contactless payment, is finally going to take off. Orange's mobile boss Anne Bouveret talks with enthusiasm about a trial her company has run in Nice, where phone users have been using NFC handsets to pay for small items and get access to public transport. I tell her about a similar experiment in London some years ago - NFC and contactless payment seems to be the innovation that is always about to happen. Anne Bouveret says so many handsets are now having the technology built in that the tipping point has come.

2200: I head back to my hotel to try to fix my connection problems. My 3G dongle is working well - but the Luci Live application which I've been using to broadcast on the radio seems to have given up. To bed, wondering how to get on the radio in the morning.

0600, 15 February 2010: Awake early, I see a message on the Android phone I've borrowed for the week. Unfamiliar with the system, I can't work out how to read it. When I call the BBC sound operations room in London the engineer who answers turns out to be an Android fan. He explains how to retrieve the text - which is about what's gone wrong with Luci Live and how to fix it.

0630: I've fixed it. London can hear me loud and clear. Only trouble is, the early morning business programme has dropped me overnight. Bah - back to bed.

Android marches on

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:14 UK time, Monday, 14 February 2011


Barcelona: Who's the biggest noise in the mobile phone industry right now? No, not Apple, and, despite all the excitement of that shotgun marriage on Friday, it's neither Nokia nor Microsoft. As the Mobile World Congress gets underway in Barcelona it's clear that Google's Android is fast becoming the industry's 800lb gorilla. If a little green robot can be a gorilla.

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I got here late on Saturday, and since then just about every conversation has come back to Android. Google, which has lurked on the sidelines in previous years has a big stand at the event this time, with a giant Android looking benignly down at the milling throng. Or so I'm told by the company, as the showground has not opened yet. The CEO Eric Schmidt will be speaking here, one of his last engagements before he moves upstairs to the chairman's office.

The early product announcements are mostly about new Android handsets, joining the 150 or so that are already out there. That should help extend the lead that Google's ecosystem - that seems to be the term of the moment - already has over its smartphone rivals.

But it's not just in mobile handsets that the green robot is on the march. When I met Google's Hugo Barra outside the Fira exhibition grounds he was wielding a Motorola Xoom, the tablet used to demonstrate the latest version of Android a couple of weeks back. At first glance it looked impressive - and there are already a bunch of other tablets lining up in Barcelona to prove that Android is now better suited than it was before Christmas to work on a larger screen.

Samsung, for instance has already updated the Galaxy Tab which came out in the autumn, giving it a bigger screen and better camera. And I've seen another very impressive tablet from a major manufacturer that will be unveiled later this week. All this before Apple has even confirmed that the iPad 2 is on its way.

Mr Barra was keen to enthuse over the flourishing Android ecosystem, and promised that there would be lots of surprising new devices on show here. He was much less forthcoming on the Nokia Microsoft deal - "it's too early, we don't know any details".

And on whether Android was generating much in the way of profits, either for Google or the manufacturers, Mr Barra was again tight-lipped, just suggesting that a better mobile internet experience was a good thing that would give Nokia more muscle in mobile advertising.

But overall it all looks good for Google. Just one small cloud though. When I wandered down the Ramblas on a pleasant Sunday morning, doing "vox pops" about what was the coolest phone, hardly anyone mentioned Android. The iPhone - with the occasional Blackberry from teenagers - still seemed to be the industry icon. Maybe that is simply because the Android brand is spread over so many different handsets - and maybe it doesn't matter to Google as long as those sales figures keep soaring - but it is that aura around the iPhone which allows Apple to reap such extraordinary profits.

By the way, one thing never changes at Barcelona. Late last night I swear I heard a howling sound echoing across the city as technology journalists struggled to send their copy and their pictures over creaking hotel wi-fi systems or 3G networks. The phones are getting smarter - but the networks still don't look that clever.

Can Nokia Windows be a smartphone contender?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:32 UK time, Friday, 11 February 2011


So what do we think of today's love-in between two giants of the technology world? A marriage of excellent hardware and the latest and best mobile operating system which together will produce world-beating phones? Or, as one cynic put it, two turkeys coming together, and failing to produce an eagle?

Rumours of a deal between Microsoft and Nokia have been circulating for some days - but what was announced this morning went much further than many had expected. In effect, Nokia is handing over its future - in smartphones at least - to Microsoft and Windows Phone 7.

That means bye-bye Symbian which will be allowed to wither on the vine. The loudest laugh at this morning's news conference came when one journalist quizzing the two Steves, Ballmer and Elop, described his publication - "All About Symbian".

It's amazing how quickly Nokia's Symbian handsets have gone from being the hottest phone you could own, as the N95 once was, to "the phone your dad has" in the words of the analyst Ben Wood. So can Nokia Windows really become the third horse in the race, giving Apple and Android a run for their money as Stephen Elop claimed when I sat down with him and Steve Ballmer today?

Well it would be an achievement even if it overtook the Blackberry maker RIM, written out of the race by Mr Elop, and let's not forget that HP is also staking a claim to be a big player, with its new WebOS phones.

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The two partners each bring something the other needs to this marriage. Nokia does know plenty about building great hardware - its N8 was a top-drawer piece of kit, with one of the best cameras you could find on a phone, but let down once again by Symbian. The Finnish firm also has long-standing relations with the big network operators and a residue of goodwill, in Europe at least.

Microsoft contributes rather less. After years of underwhelming Windows mobiles, with software that felt like a bad day on a PC desktop, its latest operating system has proved a refreshing change, even winning the approval of Stephen Fry. But, despite the good reviews, Windows Phone 7 has so far made little impact on consumers. All we know is that around two million handsets have been delivered to shops but not how many have been taken home.

Microsoft has been clear that this is a non-exclusive agreement with Nokia, so other manufacturers will still be making Windows phones. How keen the likes of HTC will be to do that when all Microsoft's attention will be on its new buddy's phones is not clear.

In theory, marrying some of the great hardware expertise of the Finnish company which invented the smartphone with the software skills of a business with extraordinary research firepower at its disposal should be a no-brainer.

But both firms will need to show that they can move faster. Stephen Elop, in that infamous "burning platform" memo, worried about the slow pace of innovation at Nokia. And, while Windows Phone 7 was unveiled at Mobile World Congress last February, it did not hit the shops until October.

This year's mobile phone industry beanfeast gets underway in Barcelona on Monday, and I will be trying to keep up with the flood of announcements of new handsets. The rest of the industry has been watching today's events with fascination - but with no word on when the first fruits of the marriage will be unveiled, Nokia Windows' rivals will be intent on galloping off into the distance.

Nokia's burning platform

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:48 UK time, Wednesday, 9 February 2011


It is one of the most combustible and gripping documents ever to emerge from a major corporation. When I first saw the leaked memo from Stephen Elop, the Nokia chief executive recruited from Microsoft last year, I had some doubts about its authenticity. After all, it looked far too frank and well-written to have been penned by a corporate boss.

Stephen Elop


But now we've confirmed that the document first published by Engadget is the real thing - and that means Friday's event where the Nokia boss will unveil his strategy for the ailing mobile giant will be even more eagerly anticipated.

For the past few months, fans of the Finnish business and its phones have been insisting that its troubles have been overstated. They dismiss the idea that Apple or Google have transformed the mobile industry and say it would be madness for Nokia to ditch the Symbian operating system or the newer MeeGo project in favour of either Android or Microsoft's Windows Phone 7.

Now it is clear that Stephen Elop profoundly disagrees with that analysis. He tells his colleagues that their company is like a man standing on a burning North Sea oil platform and must decide whether to plunge into icy waters or perish. He is brutally frank about Nokia's failure to keep up:

"While competitors poured flames on our market share, what happened at Nokia? We fell behind, we missed big trends, and we lost time."

Here he is on the challenge from Apple and Google:

"The first iPhone shipped in 2007, and we still don't have a product that is close to their experience. Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable."

Ah, but surely Nokia is handily placed to dominate the developing markets where its cheaper phones have been grabbing a hefty share of the market? No comfort there from Mr Elop either:

"At the lower-end price range, Chinese OEMs are cranking out a device much faster than, as one Nokia employee said only partially in jest, "the time that it takes us to polish a PowerPoint presentation." They are fast, they are cheap, and they are challenging us."

So what's the answer - MeeGo? The CEO says the joint venture with Intel is an example of the great innovation still going on within Nokia, but it's much too slow to get products out - "at this rate, by the end of 2011 we might have only one MeeG product in the market." As for Symbian, the operating system which once ruled the smartphone universe, it is proving to be "an increasingly difficult environment to work in."

Which all begs the question - what is Mr Elop's plan to get Nokia off the burning platform, and does it involve climbing aboard someone else's rig? He does say that the new battlefield is not devices but ecosystems which bring everything from apps to advertising to developers together, and "we're going to have to decide how we either build, catalyse or join an ecosystem".

So does that mean that on Friday Nokia will announce that Symbian and MeeGo are dead and it will henceforth be developing phones using the Windows Phone 7 system - or even the open-source Android? That sounds far too radical - after all, huge amounts of cash and time have been poured into development work.

But now that the Canadian CEO has lobbed a hand grenade into the quiet, understated culture of Finland's mobile giant, all bets are off.

PS. I had mistakenly called Mr Elop American when he is in fact Canadian. This has now been corrected above.

The future of friends: Who can topple Facebook?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:00 UK time, Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Facebook has won the social networking wars, right? The likes of MySpace, Bebo and Friends Reunited have fallen by the wayside as Mark Zuckerberg's friend machine trundles onwards, to complete its mission of world domination. Or maybe the story isn't over, and someone else will come along to show us a better way of networking?

Facebook logo


In the final episode of The Secret History of Social Networking on Radio 4, we look at where this phenomenon is heading next - and whether Facebook will continue to rule the roost. We hear from a clutch of new networks, with different ideas of how we will live our online lives in the future.

For Foursquare, it's a vision of life as a kind of boy scouts' game, on the move sharing your location with friends and collecting points, badges and mayorships along the way. But can they make even a dent in Facebook's appeal, when their ideas have already been copied by the much bigger network?

Path, the San Francisco network founded by a former Facebook executive, believes we all want to share more of our lives, in the form of photos and video clips, with a far more restricted collection of friends. Its idea is a smartphone app where you record key moments for your nearest and dearest, rather than telling all to the world. But, despite managing to attract quite staggering sums from investors, the start-up seems to be making little progress in winning users over to its concept.

And then there's Kiltr, a social network which believes the future of friendship is local. Kiltr is aimed at Scots and the Scottish diaspora around the world. Its founder Brian Hughes Halferty says giant networks like Facebook don't suit everybody: "There's a lot of noise in the bigger networks," he explained. "And what we'll see happening is the user base of these networks gradually splitting off into more fragmented networks, based on specific interests, and potentially shared values, even a localised, regionalised approach."

And Kiltr isn't too fussy about whether you're actually Scottish - I've joined with no credentials whatsoever.

There's no reason why local and specialised networks should not prosper in the shadow of Facebook, though they may struggle to put much of dent in the audience of a site which has shown, from Egypt to East Finchley, that it can be all things to all people.

A bigger threat may be mounting concerns about security and privacy. A number of rival networks are being set up with the explicit promise that they will give users more control over their data and their privacy than is on offer from Facebook.

Diaspora attracted plenty of interest when it announced its plans last June in the middle of a row over Facebook's latest privacy settings. Its founders quickly raised a sizeable sum from online well-wishers, with their plan to give people more control over who sees any aspect of their online activity.

Nothing much seems to have happened since, and Diasora looks like it might struggle to find enough people who really care about this issue. But one of the founders Daniel Grippi insists the idea still has widespread appeal amidst concerns about Facebook: "Even non-technical people understand that this is a problem, and that something has to be done about it in the short term. Owning your own data is a huge selling point and a natural step forward."

And others are even more strident in their view that Facebook has taken web users in the wrong direction. Johan Stael von Holstein whose MyCube network allows anyone to keep a safe copy of all the data they have put on a social network, says parents in particular need to be aware of the dangers of Facebook's social graph: "Their kids will never have to go to an interview again because they'll just be recruited on the social graph that Facebook holds for them, that they're selling to companies... this is a nightmare that George Orwell would be jealous of."

Facebook's sheer scale is now putting it in the firing-line - from cybercriminals who see it as a great place to launch an attack, from parents worried that it is not doing enough to protect children from stalkers and cyber-bullies, from neuroscientists concerned about what it is doing to our brains and our concepts of friendship.

The network does seem aware of these threats to its reputation. Yesterday a senior member of its privacy team spent an hour briefing journalists about all the ways Facebook is trying to make sure its users can lead happy networking lives, free from the attention of stalkers, spammers, bullies and bugs.

But when I asked whether the emergence of rivals like Diaspora had focused minds, he replied "I don't know much about it to be honest," and asked me to explain what it was about. He, like just about everyone I've met from Mark Zuckerberg's empire, seemed supremely disinterested in what was going on elsewhere in the networking world, focusing entirely on what is going on inside the business.

And, for now at least, that seems a perfectly sensible approach. By my reckoning, more than a quarter of the world's two billion internet users are now on Facebook, and traffic to the site keeps growing. By one measure it has now overtaken Google. With that many friends, no wonder nobody at Facebook is losing sleep over the threat from rivals.

AOL's Huffington hopes

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:06 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011


For the second time in a week, we are seeing a bold bet on the future of online journalism. AOL, once the biggest name in online content, has splashed out $315m (£222m) on the Huffington Post, the blogging empire founded by Arianna Huffington in 2005. That move comes just days after Rupert Murdoch launched his iPad newspaper, The Daily. So now we have two media empires making very different assessments of what the future of news online looks like.

Screengrab of Huffington Post website


AOL is sticking with what became the accepted web wisdom, that readers will not pay for online content, and advertising is the only business model. The Huffington Post is the most successful example so far of a site that takes what you might call amateur or citizen journalism, builds a big audience around it and then convinces advertisers that it is a good venue to engage with customers.

It will now join AOL's other titles, including the technology sites TechCrunch and Engadget, in an editorial offering to be run by Arianna Huffington. What a coup for the socialite who became an evangelist for the power of the web to transform journalism. In an American media world still largely dominated by old-established giants like the New York Times and the Wall Steet Journal she championed the right of new voices to be heard.

During the 2008 election campaign, one Huffington blogger Mayhill Fowler got a great scoop, reporting Barack Obama's comments on "bitter" people who clung to guns and religion.

When Ms Huffington visited the BBC a few months later, I asked her what the HuffPo contributors got paid for their work. She seemed taken aback and replied that they did it for the glory of having their voices heard .

The Huffington Post does have a paid editorial team, but still relies on unpaid interns and that volunteer army of bloggers to keep the sprawling site fed with content. Not all of them are content with the arrangement - Mayhill Fowler left after a row about not getting paid - and now that they have seen a price put on their efforts by AOL they may be even less happy.

A bigger worry for AOL may be the timing of this deal. I have just spotted this on the question and answer site Quora: "Why is The Huffington Post's traffic plummetting?"

It does seem that the rapid growth that characterised the early history of the site has now come to a halt, with one Quora user blaming the quality of the content: "What used to be seen as a revolutionary and fresh way to get news and information now seems tired, sensationalist, and a little desperate."

But the new partners insist they are creating the right offering at the right time. Here's what Arianna Huffington says about the deal:

"By combining HuffPost with AOL's network of sites, thriving video initiative, local focus, and international reach, we know we'll be creating a company that can have an enormous impact, reaching a global audience on every imaginable platform."

Wow, exciting stuff - but look back into AOL's history and you may find a few worrying precedents. The 2000 merger with Time Warner, for instance, was hailed as the perfect marriage of old and new media - but ended in bitter recriminations and divorce.

More recently, there was the purchase of the social network Bebo for $850m (then £417m) - which turned out to be one of the worst-timed deals ever. Within months it was clear that Bebo was last year's big thing, and it was eventually sold for less than one-100th of the purchase price.

Now Rupert Murdoch's latest venture, The Daily, is an equally risky bet on a different vision of the future - that if online news is nicely packaged by professional journalists you can get consumers to pay for it. Mr Murdoch also has a chequered history when it comes to his investments in the online world.

But, for once, anyone who cares about the future of online journalism will hope that both he and AOL can make money from their different ideas of what readers want from the web.

After all we have had plenty of failures in the quest to deliver a sustainable business model for news, so journalists, of every variety, would welcome at least one success.

Cyberwar or cybermirage?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:34 UK time, Friday, 4 February 2011


The threat of war in cyberspace grows by the day.


We have already seen attacks launched on Estonia and Georgia, and the Stuxnet incident, which saw Iran's nuclear programme come under threat from a piece of malware this shows us how vigilant we need to be.

And as well as the state-sponsored assaults, there are bands of cyber terrorists who pose a real danger to our national infrastructure, capable, for instance, of sending a wave of sewage down the Thames just in time for the London Olympics.

Today the British Foreign Secretary William Hague will call for international agreement to combat the threat of cyber warfare, with countries urged to sign up to something between a highway code and a Geneva Convention for the internet.

But hold on a minute - are we now in danger of overhyping all of this?

Recently I spent a day at a conference listening to some very clever people discuss these issues in grave terms. I can't name them because the meeting took place under the Chatham House rule, but suffice to say they included a number of those responsible at the highest level for protecting Britain from cyber threats, in both the public and private sectors.

They all seemed terribly worried but as I looked round the room I realised that just about everybody had some interest in promoting the problem. The public sector people, facing big cuts in their budgets, had found something that the Treasury seemed prepared to fund, even as the rest of the defence budget went south.

The private sector executives know that billions of pounds worth of contracts are being handed out as countries try to shore up their cyber-defences and naturally they want their share. And yes, even I had a motive for talking up cyber terror - it does make for a good headlines.

But after a morning listening to thousands of words about the scale of the threat, the new government structures designed to protect our national infrastructure, and the way the private sector could feed into that process. I was left somewhat bemused.

Yes, there's evidence that criminals are launching attacks on banks and other private sector businesses, that consumers are suffering from the effects of cybercrime, and that poor security is allowing government secrets to flood out onto the internet. But where is this cyber terror or indeed warfare?

Everyone latched onto the Stuxnet incident - "if it was done to them, they could do it to us" the cry went up. But it became evident that nobody quite understood what had happened in Iran and whether it really was a symptom of a wider threat.

But there was a sober voice at the meeting, a man who had been studying the evidence of the nature of cyber threats. The danger of cyber terrorism, he told us, seemed limited. Terrorists got more publicity from a car bomb than from taking down a computer network, which was a complex operation to mount.

And many of the incidents referred to as cyberwarfare were "nothing of the sort". He pointed to the attacks on Estonia, on Georgia and South Korea, and quoted American officials describing them as "annoying and embarrassing", rather than really damaging. After all, they had caused no casualties or loss of territory. Cyberwarfare, it seemed, could only be a "support function", rather than a primary weapon.

After hearing this measured assessment, we moved straight on to a man from the private sector. He told us that cyberwar was going on right now, largely invisible to the public, from a whole variety of actors. He quoted the IRA, "You have to be lucky all of the time, we only have to be lucky once," and he called on the government and the private sector to spend even more on shoring up Britain's cyber defences.

Maybe he was right and we should not be complacent about the dangers to our national security lurking in cyberspace. But in the past the ICT and security industries have found it very easy to scare governments into spending huge sums on initiatives that have not always proved their worth.

Remember the Y2K bug that was going to devastate computer systems when 1999 became 2000? Or the desperate need for an identity card system and a massive NHS computer project? Previous governments took advice from the "experts" on those issues, and now the politicians have bought in to the idea that huge sums need to be spent to shore up our cyber defences.

And who is advising ministers on cyber security? Presumably the same giant international IT suppliers who have always rushed to help out. One person suggested at yesterday's event that maybe the government needed to use small start-up firms to address the cyber-security problem. That sounds attractive and if Cybergeddon does not happen in the next decade we might at least be left with a stronger digital economy.

Murdoch's Daily: News industry saviour or sideshow?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:25 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011


New York's Guggenheim Museum was the focus for all eyes in the newspaper industry yesterday afternoon.

The object attracting interest was not some ancient artefact but an Apple iPad or rather a brand new newspaper which will only be available on this and eventually other tablets.

Screenshot of The Daily

The Daily is attracting such interest because it's been launched by a man who has repeatedly proved that he can change the terms of the media industry's game.

Rupert Murdoch now appears to believe that he has found the Holy Grail - a device that will persuade readers it is still worth paying for journalism and it comes in the shape of an iPad.

The cynics will mock his infatuation with Apple's tablet, but then his obsession with another technology, satellite television, was also derided and look how that turned out.

Mr Murdoch was supposed to be unveiling The Daily with Steve Jobs a couple of weeks ago, then Apple's CEO took sick leave. But News Corp's boss did reveal that he'd spoken to Mr Jobs last week, who'd told him his new product was "a great app". No surprise there, because Apple has made sure that it gets a share of the revenue from this and any other newspaper apps.

For once, Murdoch's rivals in the newspaper trade are also hoping that he does succeed - they are equally desperate for a life-raft in these miserable times for their trade. So what's The Daily like and will enough people stump up their 99 cents each week to make it pay?

Screenshot of The Daily

I've had a brief play with the digital newspaper, having acquired it using a friend's American iTunes account. Once you've managed to install what is a fairly chunky download, you find a very slick product. You arrive at a carousel, where you can swing through sections which start with news, followed rapidly by gossip, opinion, arts and life, apps and games and sports.

There is hard news - The Daily has a reporter in Cairo who has delivered the first edition's lead story about Egypt, and there are some stunning photographs from the protests there, coupled with a pithy summary of how the country got to this state. It is though, The Daily, not the Hourly, or Minutely, so what you get is yesterday's news - the Egypt story already looked way out of date.

But hard news is not what this paper is about, it's more of a magazine. The overall impression is of middle-market frothy fun with plenty of multi-media twists, from the video clips that accompany movie reviews to Sudoku that allows you to compete with others online.

Although this is a product that is only available to paying customers, the paywall is somewhat more permeable than those surrounding the Times and Sunday Times in Britain. You can share articles with others on social networks, even if they're not subscribers, which should be a good way of creating more buzz about the paper.

But will The Daily win enough subscribers to cover its costs? At less than a dollar a week it is priced far more competitively than some traditional papers with iPad editions, the Times in London, for instance, costs £2($3) a week. So it shouldn't be beyond the means of those affluent Americans prepared to pay for a iPad. The question is what will keep them paying that dollar week after week.

Screenshot of The Daily

They are presumably the kind of people who are already more likely to be newspaper readers, and while they may give the Murdoch effort a try, it is not clear that they will stick with a product which does not give them content they cannot get elsewhere. The evidence so far is that users flock to try out the first editions of magazines like Wired on the iPad, then melt away when the next one comes along.

But Rupert Murdoch seemed supremely confident about the finances of his new venture. He told the journalists at the launch that after writing off the $30m development costs, The Daily would cost less than $500,000 a week to run and that, he implied, would be a piece of cake.

Now remember, Apple takes a cut though perhaps less than the 30% it charges other app developers. So a rough calculation suggests that he needs nearly three quarters of a million subscribers to keep paying their one dollar a week, a hefty proportion of current iPad owners in the United States.

Still, the media mogul told us that there would be 50 million Americans would own a tablet of some kind by the end of 2011.So if the buzz around The Daily convinces a lot of these new tablet users to give it a try then maybe Mr Murdoch's new baby will manage to pay its way.

If that happens, the beleaguered newspaper industry will raise a cheer but it will still be just a small victory in the campaign to find a new business model for journalism. And Rupert Murdoch will still have to work out whether it's worth carrying on printing those old-fashioned papers which cost so much to deliver to a dwindling bunch of readers

PS Apologies in an earlier post it read that all eyes were on the Smithsonian when in should have said the Guggenheim Museum.

Android topples Symbian, but Apple gets the cash

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:35 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011


The latest figures from mobile phone industry watchers paint an amazing story. Google's Android operating system, just a couple of years old, has taken the smartphone market - where just about all the profits are made - by storm. But guess who's actually collecting most of the profits? Not Android but Apple.

Two people using smartphones


First, the sales figures. The research firm Canalys says 2010 was the year the smartphone went mainstream, with sales up by 80%. Throughout the year Android advanced up the league, passing the likes of RIM (makers of the Blackberry) and Apple. But in the final quarter Android smartphones outsold those using Nokia's Symbian operating system, a quite extraordinary achievement.

Nokia, after all, invented the whole idea of a phone as a mini-computer more than a decade ago, with its fabulously expensive Communicator. It went on to dominate the market, and even in 2009 it commanded 46% of all smartphone sales, according to Gartner, with Android having just 3%.

Now the figures for the last quarter of the year showed 32.9 million Android-based phones shipped worldwide, compared with 31 million running on Symbian. Apple was way behind on 16.2 million, just ahead of RIM on 14.6 million.

So a grim story for Nokia, which relaunched Symbian last year but has seen its market dominance evaporate in just a couple of years. Later this month, the Finnish firm will unveil the new strategy worked out by its incoming American CEO Steven Elop. There will again be speculation that Symbian is for the chop, and Nokia could do the unthinkable - and switch to Android.

But surely these figures also look like bad news for Apple? Not if you look at a set of charts produced by a research firm called Asymco. It has examined profits as well as sales for the whole industry - not just the smartphone sector - and it turns out that Apple is eating just about everybody's lunch.

Chart showing profit shares of eight mobile phone providers

The big blue band in the chart represents Apple's profits, making up about half of the total earnings for the whole industry. By contrast, the returns made by the biggest Android handset maker HTC look meagre, and as for Motorola, makers of the Droid, the thin green line representing its profits is barely visible.

Now Google will not be too worried by this - after all its mission is to get its operating system, its search engine and its mobile ad service onto the handsets of millions of consumers, and that is working. With Android grabbing market share, and the iPhone hauling in huge profits, both Google and Apple can be happy about how the smartphone war is working out. For everyone else, it is becoming a struggle to make an impact or make a profit.

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