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Archives for March 2011

Minnow Microsoft v the Google Giant

Rory Cellan-Jones | 14:42 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011


It's a familiar story - a scrappy little underdog launches a competition complaint in Brussels about the giant that dominates its industry. Ten years ago it would have been Netscape accusing Microsoft of abusing its monopoly power - today it's Microsoft charging Google with the same crime.

Screengrab of blog outlining Microsoft complaint against Google


Microsoft's first ever competition complaint is not just a wonderfully ironic turn of events, it's a measure of how the balance of power on the web has shifted. A decade ago control of the desktop and what applications lived on it was still all important - now it's the control of search which delivers huge power and billions of advertising dollars to Google.

So, despite the fact that Office and Windows continue to deliver healthy profits every quarter, Microsoft is determined that its Bing search engine should make serious headway. In Europe at least, that's not happening. According to Microsoft, Google has 95% of the search market.

Now it claims that Google is using its power unfairly to maintain that dominance. Its complaint - which as Google points out is just an addition to an existing anti-trust case in which a Microsoft subsidiary was already a complainant - is that the search company is putting walls around content that rivals need if they are to compete.

In a long blog post, Microsoft's chief legal counsel Brad Smith outlines a series of areas where he says Google is impeding competition. He claims that it's very difficult, for example, for rivals to get proper access to YouTube - owned by Google - for their search results.

He points to the Google Books plan - blocked by a US court last week - as another case where any other search engine will get poor access to valuable content, in this case millions of books.

And he says that Google uses its business relationship with leading websites to block them from installing competing search boxes on their sites.

Google is saying very little. When I spoke to the company I was told they still had not seen details of the complaint. Perhaps they should try to search for "Brad Smith blog Google complaint". When I did that, Mr Smith's blog post popped up right near the top of my Google results, but on Bing was much harder to find. I'm not quite sure what that tells us, except that search is a dark and complex art.

Anyway, Mr Smith's blog concludes:

"We readily appreciate that Google should continue to have the freedom to innovate. But it shouldn't be permitted to pursue practices that restrict others from innovating and offering competitive alternatives. That's what it's doing now. And that's what we hope European officials will assess and ultimately decide to stop."

Substitute Microsoft for Google, and that is very much the message that the EU was given year-after-year by companies frustrated by their inability to compete with Windows or Internet Explorer. And when big fines were handed down, Microsoft's supporters in the US lambasted Europe for trying to punish a company that had grown big by taking risks.

Now, though, Microsoft is keen to employ the same EU regulators as a weapon against Google. That could mean a long and tortuous process, or, if Google's lawyers learn from Microsoft's experience, they may try to reach a quick deal with the EU rather than face the risk of a huge fine.

And here's another irony about this case - just as Brussels was still investigating Microsoft's dominance when its power was fading, so the world may have moved on by the time the Google inquiry is over.

The search giant is increasingly nervous about its failure to make a splash in social networking, where Facebook rules the roost. Today's launch of Google +1 - a version of Facebook's "Like" button - is just the latest in a series of moves to try to make the business more social, with little success to date.

So what price, come 2015, another big EU anti-trust case, with Google accusing Facebook of abusing its dominant position in social networking? You heard it here first...

World Stores - searching for retail success

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:10 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011


Sometimes this blog is accused of an obsession with Silicon Valley, at the expense of home grown technology businesses. It's true that the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter make plenty of news - but when I come across an interesting British start-up I'm keen to let you know about it.

Screengrab from World Stores website

And WorldStores, a business based in Twickenham, has a fascinating tale to tell - it appears to have found the secret to successful online retailing. In just a couple of years the firm has launched 76 niche retail sites, mainly selling large items for the home and garden. And that at a time when selling those kind of products on the high street has been the way to lose money in a hurry.

So why is this business on track to boost revenues by 70% this year? According to the two founders, the secret lies not in the products but in mining web search data. "All the answers to online retailing are in the data," says co-founder Joe Murray. "We've managed to build an entire business around reverse-engineering the retail process," explains his partner Richard Tucker.

So instead of taking a bedroom furniture business and working out how to put it online, their starting point is Google. "We looked though thousands of different keyword searches," says Joe, "and spent two years analysing the data to find categories that have a large volume of searches that don't really deliver a satisfactory result."

The founders, who previously ran a search engine optimisation business, turned up a lot of product categories they felt looked promising and started building websites and contacting suppliers. So there's a cagesworld, a mattressesworld, a barstoolworld, and many more.

Google, as well as being used to to identify new retail opportunities, plays another vital role. WorldStores uses paid search to market its sites. So, for instance, if you search for pet cages, you are likely to see an advert for

But the founders say the whole operation would not work without a close relationship with their suppliers. They pride themselves on getting 70% of the 170,000 products they sell delivered to the buyer the next day. That means a complex logistical operation, with their own technology installed in the supplier's warehouse.

Here's one example. The mattresses site is largely supplied by a clutch of tiny firms based in Batley and Dewsbury in West Yorkshire. They have been in a precarious position: too small to supply the big chains and with their traditional customers, the local high street furniture store, dying out.

Now, says Joe Murray, they've been transformed into just-in-time operations. "They get an order from us, they make a mattress in twenty minutes and the van picks it up for delivery the next day."

So World Stores is an interesting mixture: a marriage of search technology and quick-footed niche retailing nous. Backing from the venture capital firm Balderton has helped it to grow rapidly, and its founders are now casting a glance at the German market, which they reckon  is a couple of years behind the UK in exploiting search.

There's no guarantee that this plucky little British business will make it big - after all, it's competing with the mighty Amazon, which now stocks plenty of home and garden furniture.
But wouldn't it be nice if a company from Surrey showed that you don't have to be in Seattle or Silicon Valley to master the art of selling online.

Amazon puts music into the cloud

Rory Cellan-Jones | 14:51 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011


It’s huge in books, makes the leading e-reader, and sells a lot of CDs and DVDs - now Amazon has made a bold play to become the biggest thing in streamed music. The big question is how the e-tailing giant has picked its way through the music rights minefield to launch ahead of its rivals.

Babies listening to music


Amazon’ s new service is called Cloud Drive, and it gives anyone who signs up 5Gb of space to store their music - or videos, or any other files, if you are so minded. Online storage is nothing new - look at services like Dropbox and Evernote or even Soundcloud, which is an online store for audio files. And streaming music businesses - from Spotifty to - have been around for a while too.

What it does allow you to do is stream music you already own to any computer or Android phone - though not to Apple devices - for free. Spotify lets you do that too, but only if you’re a paying customer handing over £10 a month.

But Spotify has not arrived yet in the US - it’s still involved in painful negotiations with the labels. And in any case it is not the rival that Amazon will have had in mind when launching Cloud Drive. Two other digital media giants, Apple and Google, are both rumoured to be on the verge of launching cloud-based music services.

But now Amazon has got in first, offering a service which could deliver a one-stop shop for music fans - buy an MP3 from its online store, upload it to your cloud drive, and then have access to it and all your other music wherever you go. Unless, of course, you want to listen on an Apple device – unsurprisingly - there is no iPhone or iPad app for the Amazon cloud service.

Wanting to see how it worked, I went to this morning, installed cloud drive on my home computer, uploaded an album I had stored in iTunes, drove to work, and then listened to it on my office PC. I then found out that the service is restricted to US customers, so I’m not entirely sure how I managed to get access - and Amazon UK couldn’t explain either.

The reason other cloud services have been slow to take off - and why Amazon’s music cloud may not arrive in the UK for a while - is the thorny issue of copyright and licensing. Amazon is saying there are no licensing issues in the United States because copying your own files to the cloud is no different from putting them on an external drive. You’ve already paid for that song - so why should clicking on it from another computer earn the artist more money or infringe copyright in any way?

But in the UK, Amazon’s lawyers may be casting their eyes over a couple of tricky issues. First, there’s the fact that the legal position in the UK about the right to copy music - or even burn a CD - is still pretty hazy. Then there are the provisions in the Digital Economy Act, which was designed to combat illegal file-sharing. If and when that controversial law is actually implemented, the use of so-called web lockers - which the record industry says are often used for piracy - could become tricky. And what is Cloud Drive if not a web locker?

The kind of service that Amazon is offering has been possible for years - what’s surprising is that it has taken so long to arrive. But a combination of legal uncertainty and record label wariness is still making digital innovation a slow and wearisome business in the music industry.

Quakebook - a triumph of good will and social media

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:20 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011


It started with a call issued on Twitter on Friday 18th March, a week after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Now hundreds of writers, video journalists and editors around the world have come together to create a book designed to raise funds for the Japanese Red Cross.

Quakebook cover

Quakebook is the brainchild of a British man living in Japan who goes under the sobriquet
"Our Man in Abiko". After his Tweet, he fleshed out his idea in a blog post that Friday.

"I'm looking for contributions from anyone who has something to say about the earthquake (eg where were you when it happened, what did you feel? How have you helped? Did it change anything in the way you live your life? Are you coping with grief? Or just bewildered behind a barrage of media images?) I'm not looking for windy poetic stuff, just honest stuff. Aim to write 250-300 words or so - equivalent to a short blog post (or one page of a book)."

What followed looks like a triumph of the collective good will and organisational power of the internet. Contributions flowed in from Japanese people and expatriates caught up in the earthquake and its aftermath. Video images, photos and graphics were also supplied, but perhaps most important was the role played by those people around the world who wanted to help with the editing and organisation of the whole ambitious project.

Among them was a Cumbria-based writer and community organiser Lindsey Annison. She told me why she had got involved: "As an author, but without the necessary credentials to actually write for the book - I hadn't lived through the earthquake - I offered to help in any way I could."

As well as editing some contributions, Lindsey set up a blog for the project, and used the corporate social network Yammer to help organise the massively complex operation that publishing a book in a week involves.

I spoke to her on Sunday, when she'd been up for 36 hours as the project struggled to get over the finishing line. There were all sorts of questions she and the other Quakebook volunteers were trying to answer - could they get Amazon to sell the book, what sort of copyright arrangements did they need, what should they charge.

"If you'd planned this, it would have taken months," Lindsey explained. " There are editors in Brisbane, the US, Japan, all over the place. It just wouldn't be possible without the internet and social media."

A glimpse at the activity on Twitter, where the Quakebook community is using the hashtag #quakebook, gives a flavour of how the project has been organised. Ourmaninbiko - the man with the original idea - tweeted this:

"People of twitter, what do you think about a creative commons (ie cool to copy) copyright for #quakebook Good/bad for charity? Thoughts?"

Others were using the hashtag to try to persuade Stephen Fry to tweet about the book - they've already had a celebrity endorsement from Yoko Ono. There is also a Facebook fan page and a YouTube channel, so it should be possible to promote Quakebook through social media without ever having to spend a cent on advertising.

The book will appear first as a digital download, and then it is hoped that there will be a print edition as quickly as possible.

As I write it is difficult to say just how successful this unique publishing project will prove. But it has already provided a masterclass in how to use the internet to organise something ambitious and complex.

It has also demonstrated just how much good will there is out there amongst the global online community, if only you can tap into it.

Gaming battle: 3DS v iPad 2

Rory Cellan-Jones | 06:00 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011


It's a big day for gadget launches in the UK, with both the iPad 2 and the Nintendo 3DS arriving in stores. One is a new games console, the other a multi-purpose device which offers games and much more. But which will rack up the biggest sales and which will do more to change the video games industry?

iPad 2

It's the new iPad which is creating all the buzz but, amongst young gamers, it's the Nintendo device which is the focus of more excitement. Which is interesting because we keep hearing about the death of the console, as gaming goes casual and moves onto a whole host of different devices. From Farmville on Facebook, to any number of games apps on smartphones and on the iPad - gaming has undergone a revolution in the last couple of years.

I've noticed this trend in my own home. My 12-year-old son Rufus asked for my credit card the other day to pay for a game called Minecraft. This, like a number of other games he has found recently in the limited time allowed for gaming by his very strict parents, is played on a PC.

And what with Maple Story and Grand Fantasia on a computer, Plants v Zombies on the family iPad, and Angry Birds when he grabs my phone, he seems to have little time left to play on a console.

Nintendo 3DS

But now Nintendo claims that the 3DS will breathe new life into handheld gaming on a specialist device. With millions of children already familiar with the DS experience, there's a big potential audience for the new model, which boasts a 3D camera and promises games and movies in three dimensions, all without using glasses.

As someone who has both poor eyesight and a profound ignorance of game play, I decided I was not in the best position to test the 3DS. So I contracted the job out to Rufus - he was told that he would get a couple of days to play with the console, and would then have to hand it back after completing his homework. Here's his review:

"The 3DS is a marvel. It's one of the first pieces of technology in history to show 3D without glasses. It's bright and brilliant, and although it doesn't have any games currently (mostly), it has a Mii maker, an online Mii game, a bunch of Augmented Reality games and a game called Face Raiders, which all make use of the 3D and the motion sensors.
"But, know it for a fact, the 3D can damage your eyes if you play it to an extent. Tone it down every once in a while. 9.5/10."

A couple of footnotes - a Mii is a player's avatar, as used on a Wii console. And when he wrote about the 3DS not having any games currently, that was before I gave him Nintendogs to try out.

Anyway, if my son and his friends are anything to go by, the 3DS will be a big hit and parents can expect plenty of pestering.

Apple's iPad 2 - which costs at least twice as much - may struggle to match Nintendo's sales numbers, but will probably earn more, both for Apple and perhaps for games developers too.

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All sorts of industries - newspapers, television and education have invested an awful lot of hope in Apple's tablet as the platform for a digital profitable future. But it's games makers who seem to have done best from the first generation of the iPad. The chart of best-sellers in the Apple app store is full of games, from Angry Birds, to Shrek Kart HD to Real Golf 2011.

Now Apple is hoping that the new version, with its gyroscope to make action games that bit more engrossing, will make further inroads into the market. I had a quick demo of one first person shooter game, and was impressed by the way the landscape moved around me.

But Nintendo, for one, is determined to prove that there is still plenty of room for a dedicated games device. Apple may be changing plenty of industries but it's too early to write the obituary of the games console.

The social bubble

Rory Cellan-Jones | 13:43 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011


Back in 1999, it seemed anyone with a daft idea with dotcom attached to its name - say, - could walk into a venture capitalist's office and walk out with millions of dollars in funding.

Screenshot of Color

Now, in 2011, it seems the same is true - except that you need to utter three words, social, photos, and app.

Overnight yet another hot new smartphone application, Color, has been launched by a Silicon Valley startup. It's a new way of sharing photos online, based on your location.

That's not at all remarkable - from Instagram to Path, sharing pictures in all sorts of different ways is a hot area right now.

What's amazing is that the company behind Color has attracted investment of $41m from some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley's venture capital community.

Now you can build an app in your back bedroom for virtually nothing, so it's not exactly clear what all that money is for, except recruiting lots of staff and opening a big office.

To be fair, one reason that the likes of Sequoia and Baine have been so generous is the quality of the people involved in Color.

They include Bill Nguyen, who created the music-streaming service LaLa and sold it to Apple, and the former chief scientist at LinkedIn, the professional social network which just signed up its 100 millionth member. So people with a track record of turning good ideas into valuable businesses.

Screenshot of Color

How they are going to pull off the same trick with Color is not clear. The app has a new twist on photo-sharing - allowing you to see the photos of people nearby using the app, rather than those uploaded by friends. And everything you do with Color is public.

It’s not an immediately attractive concept - when I tried to explain it someone pretty technically savvy his response was: “So people nearby who are taking pictures can see my pictures whether I want them to or not? Creepy!”

Still, we all thought the same about other social media startups like Twitter which turned out to be huge hits. And I can see that at huge events like Glastonbury it might be fun to see what everyone else around you was posting.

But the problem with arriving on the scene laden with cash and making a big noise is that you need to be an instant hit, especially if your app depends on the network effect to become useful.

When I tried it out, it was difficult to see the point because nobody else nearby was using the application. And with influential bloggers like Robert Scoble already bad-mouthing Color for similar reasons, it is hard to see many deciding that this is something they have to try.

Right now, though, with sky-high valuations on everything “social” - from Facebook to Groupon to Zynga - the venture capital  community seems willing to pay any price to get in on something that might be big one day.  A few of their bets will pay off - but if the dot com bubble is anything to go by, most of those who invest in the social bubble will lose their shirts.

The 4G auction - a beginner's guide

Rory Cellan-Jones | 14:54 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011


Remember the sale of the century, or was it the sale of the millennium? Back in 2000 the 3G auction raised £22.5 billion for the Treasury and set the framework for mobile phone services in Britain for the next decade.

Today Ofcom has fired the starting gun for an even bigger sale of mobile spectrum which it believes could prove even more significant. But the mobile operators are hoping that it will turn out rather cheaper for them than the 3G sale.

4G mobile internet dongle for laptop

The regulator is calling this the 4G auction, and despite the cries of purists who insist that is just a marketing term to cover an ill-defined collection of new mobile technologies, that is the name that will stick. So let's try to answer a few questions about 4G.

What is spectrum?

Spectrum refers to the airwaves over which all wireless communication - radio, television, mobile voice and data - takes place. Ofcom says spectrum is a fundamental commodity which is of increasing value over time.

What is 4G and why do we need it?

4G refers to the next generation of mobile networks, which promise faster speeds, in particular for data. Ofcom says there has been an explosion in the use of mobile broadband in the UK since the arrival of smartphones. It's expecting mobile data flows to continue to soar, as tablet computer sales take off and smartphones become mass market devices.

What's up for sale?

The sale, which Ofcom hopes will happen early next year, will involve two blocks of spectrum which should fulfil two purposes - making mobile internet coverage both wider and faster.

The first block, the higher frequency 2.6gGHz band, should make all those smartphone users who are trying to watch video or play games online just a bit happier. It's suited to providing large amounts of capacity over a compact area, so should help ease the congestion on city centre networks.

The second block, the 800MHz band, is currently used for analogue television and becomes available next year once the digital switchover is complete. It is suitable for bringing mobile data services over wide areas, so it could mean that people in rural areas will find mobile broadband a better option than the fixed line variety.

Who will win?

The auction will determine the future of the UK's four remaining mobile operators - Vodafone, O2, Three, and Everything Everywhere, the amusing name for the merged Orange and T-Mobile networks. For Three in particular it's a matter of life and death - the company feels bruised by a recent Ofcom ruling which saw other networks allowed to use their old 2G spectrum for 3G services.

Smart phone user


So what happens next is probably a huge row - various operators have already held up the process for years with legal action. The plan set out by Ofcom today is designed to ensure that all four operators end up with enough spectrum to compete nationally. That makes it less likely that Three will object - but there's every possibility that another operator will hold up the auction by challenging the rules in court.

How much will the auction raise?

This sale involves 80% more spectrum than the 3G auction, so if the operators bid with the same eagerness shown for 3G licences back in 2000, then you might expect as much as £40 billion to end up in the Treasury's coffers.

But nobody thinks that will happen. The operators claim that the huge sums they paid in 2000 had a disastrous effect on their subsequent investment in 3G networks. It's true that the promise of the mobile internet, touted during the 3G auction, did not arrive until around seven years later.

Ofcom thinks that was more probably due to the fact that the auction took place at the height of the dot com bubble. The regulator won't say how much it expects the 4G licences to fetch. But a similar auction in Germany raised something like £4bn.

Is the UK falling behind?

Yes, if we're comparing the UK with Germany, the USA and Sweden, which have already started to roll out 4G networks. Ofcom admits that things haven't moved quite as rapidly here as it might have hoped, but says it's full speed ahead now. But even if everything goes to plan, consumers won't see any 4G services before 2013. By then the mobile operators could be struggling to cope with the torrent of data from all those video-watching, game-playing, web-surfing smartphone and tablet users.

Technology for all ages

Rory Cellan-Jones | 14:40 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011


When I heard about a project aiming to make technology less intimidating for the older generation, I wondered whether it might be just a little bit patronising. Why should we assume that when you reach a certain age you need a phone with big buttons, or a younger helper to guide you around the web?

But instead, a morning spent at Surrey University's Digital World Research Centre taught me something about where technology might be heading in the future. Psychologists, computer scientists and product designers, in a team led by Professor David Frohlich, have been working with elderly people to try to come up with some gadget concepts.

Elderly couple with laptop

It's all part of wider national programme called Sus-IT, sustaining IT use by older people to promote autonomy and independence. What's different about the Surrey scheme is the part played by elderly people.

I met John and Sonia Williams and Margaret Fry, all in their seventies, and each helping to refine the various gadget concepts with Professor Frohlich and his team. They had varying degrees of familiarity with new technology - from Margaret who had used a computer at work for years, to John who admitted he had never been near one and was only just getting to grips with a mobile phone. But what they had in common was an eagerness not to be left behind by the modern era.

We saw three different ideas for products that would help older people towards a more useful relationship with technology, while reconnecting them with the past. First, the story lamp - when you place an object or a photo beneath it, an audio recoding tells you a story around it. So the photograph album reminds you who were the people in the pictures and what they were doing.

Then there was the reminiscence radio, in effect an iPhone "This Is Your Life" app, allowing the user to click on a timeline and hear music and memories from the past.

And finally the travel glasses, which project images from the present or past onto the lenses, allowing the user to travel around the world or even into the past without leaving their armchair.

Now all of these were concepts, rather than finished products, but Professor Frohlich said the point of the project was that the elderly people had played a part in shaping them. He referred to them as his co-designers and explained: "We ask a very simple question; what would you like to keep, lose or change about the idea and as they think about that and work through it as a group, it's less threatening."

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Halfway through the morning at Surrey University, something struck me. The ideas being piloted here were similar to those I'd seen at Microsoft's research laboratory - they all involved abandoning the traditional computer and keyboard in favour of what are called natural user interfaces. Touch, talk, and motion look like becoming the ways we interact with computers in future - often without realising that the computer is there at all.

When technology firms design new products, they look to early adopters for ideas and approval - the elderly are shut out of the process. Yet across today's technology industry, the most successful new products are those which are easier to use. So the Surrey academics and their elderly collaborators could be helping to shape the gadgets of the future.

Happy birthday Twitter - here are my top tweets

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:17 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011


I’d like to say happy birthday to an old friend - although when I say “old” we’ve only known each other for four years. During that time, the way I run my working life and communicate with friends, contacts, family and the wider world has been transformed. I’m talking about Twitter, which was born five years ago today.

Whenever I’ve written about the micro-blogging service (and is that really a good definition any more?) there have been plenty of complaints from those who think Twitter is a) a waste of time, b) not a proper subject for this blog, c) believe it will be gone as soon as the next fad comes along.

But I think that the business founded in San Francisco in 2006 has really proved over recent weeks that it is part of a profound change in the way we communicate. So I’ve selected a few tweets which tell the story of Twitter as I’ve experienced it.

This image of a downed plane in New York's Hudson River was posted to Twitter by Janis Krums (@jkrums)

This first one will do nothing to change the minds of those who think Twitter is a waste of time. It is my very first tweet in May 2007: “Watching The Apprentice”.  Why on earth would you be interested? But things could only get better.

Never mind 140 characters - this is a one word tweet: “Arrested”. It was sent by James Buck, an American student who was covering an anti-government demonstration in Egypt when he was arrested. The tweet alerted his friends in the United States and Egypt as to what had happened  - and was an early sign of how powerful a tool Twitter could be.

I noticed this tweet from the Californian blogger Robert Scoble as I woke up one morning in May 2008. He had spotted a tweet from a Chinese blogger about an earthquake and was off to check the US Geological Survey website. I turned on the radio but the massive earthquake had not yet made the news. It was the first sign that Twitter might be the place to see breaking news.

Tweet from Robert Scoble



Janis Krums was on a New York ferry when an aircraft landed in the Hudson River. He took out his phone, snapped a picture and uploaded it to Twitter. It was the first image of an extraordinary event, and proved that Twitter could be about more than just 140 character trivia.

Now this was trivial - Stephen Fry got stuck in a lift and told the world, as this memorable Twitpic shows. But the British actor and writer was among the first celebrities to spot the potential of Twitter as a means of communicating directly with fans, rather than through the traditional media. Despite falling out of love with Twitter on several occasions and going quiet for days on end, he now has an audience of 2.3 million followers. Other celebrities looked - and learned.

This tweet is no longer online, having been removed by the police. In January 2010 Paul Chambers, frustrated to find his travel plans disrupted by snow,  tweeted this: “Robin Hood airport is closed..You’ve got a week and a bit to get your **** together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high.” The police and the airport did not see the funny side. Mr Chambers was arrested, fined and lost his job.

He was one among many, including politicians, sports stars, and even the odd BBC executive, to discover that careless tweeting could prove costly. But his case also showed that the Twitter community would rally around a member in their hour of need. After his conviction, thousands repeated his tweet, using the hashtag #iamspartacus.

During the UK general election of 2010, the political classes suddenly decided that Twitter was the place to be. This tweet by William Hague signalled that the Conservatives’ coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats were back on, after hours when it looked as though they had stalled. It was Twitter, not 24-hour news channels, that was first with this news.

Tweet by William Hague announcing resumption of talks with Liberal Democrats



On Friday 11 March I woke up at 0630 - and did what I always do first, checked Twitter. I spotted this tweet, with news of an earthquake in Japan and a tsunami warning. This time, when I turned on the radio, news was beginning to filter through of the terrible events, although at that stage it was not the lead story. But within an hour Twitter was overflowing with information and pictures from Japan and mainstream news organisations, where checking social networks is now second nature, were reflecting what they saw there.

So, yes, Twitter is still full of trivia and celebrity gossip, and sure, it does need to prove it can be a sustainable business. But if it were to vanish tomorrow,  I would be among the millions seeking out another way to communicate and share news at lightning speed.

Sky News: 'The iPad is our future'

Rory Cellan-Jones | 14:16 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011


Whatever you think of Rupert Murdoch, give him credit for one thing - his news empire has made all the running in terms of digital innovation over the last year. First, by putting up paywalls around the Times and other titles, then by launching an iPad-only newspaper, and now with a rather impressive new iPad app for Sky News.

The application goes further than anything I've seen so far in delivering a television news service crafted for a tablet computer. You can watch live TV, choose on-demand videos, even spool back during a live event to see what you've missed.

Then there are interactive graphics, text articles and photos to give more background on the top stories of the day. What it doesn't do is breadth of coverage - if you want to know all about events in Japan, you will find a wealth of material. But try to find what's happening in, say, business or technology, and you'd be better off heading elsewhere.

Sky News iPad app screenshot

Sky News boss John Ryley certainly wasn't underselling the app, which is the result of a year's work and substantial investment. "It's one of the biggest developments since our launch 20 years ago," he said at the London launch. And, like Rupert Murdoch, he was starry-eyed about the potential of the iPad: "We believe that tablets are the future of news consumption."

But here's the big question, with this and the other Murdoch news innovations - will consumers pay for them? The Sky News app will be free at first - and will remain so for Sky's 10 million customers. But for anyone else, that will soon change: "This is a premium product and we will be charging for it," says John Ryley. How much, he did not say, but the chatter is that it will be in the region of £5 a month.

Rupert Murdoch with iPad


Sky bosses seem confident that people will be prepared to pay. When I questioned whether there was any evidence of consumers paying for television news anywhere in the world, they pointed to their premium HD News channel which, they say, has attracted plenty of paying customers, although there were no numbers forthcoming.

But across the Murdoch empire - of which Sky News may soon be a distant cousin - the evidence that paywalls are working is still hazy. Last November we heard that just over 100,000 people were paying online for The Times, though how much and how often wasn't clear.

As for The Daily, Murdoch's iPad pride and joy has been free since its launch in the United States last month, but faces what a News Corp executive calls its "moment of truth" next week when readers start having to shell out 99 cents a week for access. The fact that the paywall has been raised weeks later than originally planned does not suggest a whole lot of confidence.

And elsewhere the early enthusiasm about the iPad being the future of news and publishing seems to be fading. A number of magazines have seen a lot of excitement around their first iPad editions, but then fading interest as the months go by.

I'm sure plenty of people will want to play with the very impressive Sky News app - and it should encourage other news organisations to up their game in this area. Perhaps it will prove to be the future of news, as its creators claim. But it may end up as just another app, battling with Angry Birds for the attention of consumers who have shown that little impresses them for long.

David Braben: An Elite gamer

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:24 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011


It's BAFTA night - no, not one of those little affairs involving Hollywood stars or soap actors, but the video games version. It's the biggest awards ceremony of the year for an industry which is becoming more important to our economy than movies or music.

David Braben

And, while the BBC does of course take an impartial view of these matters, I am hoping that someone who represents the best of Britain's games sector walks away with at least one of those golden masks.

David Braben's company, Frontier, has been nominated for two BAFTAs for its work on Kinectimals, a family game which was one of the launch titles for Microsoft's Xbox Kinect system. I spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon at the firm's Cambridge offices with David, discussing the science which goes into games, his worries about whether Britain is producing enough of those scientists, and finally persuading him to have a quick play with something which, nearly 30 years ago, took the art of gaming onto a whole new level.

For a whole generation, Elite, created by Braben and his fellow Cambridge student Ian Bell, is what first turned them into gamers, hunched over their BBC Micros for hours at a time. Its 3D graphics, its open-ended nature, its creation of a virtual world and an in-game currency - all foreshadowed the way the industry would develop.

But, while it was great to get a quick demo of Elite from its co-creator, I'd really come to talk about the present. Frontier stands out as one of the few British games developers competing with the big players on the major platforms while retaining its independence.

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While many great games are still made in the UK, much of the industry is now foreign-owned and that leaves its workforce vulnerable when the games business goes through one of its periodic downturns, and head offices in California or Paris are looking for savings.

David Braben stayed in Cambridge after graduating and in 1994 founded the business he still runs. "It's a really good place to be based because of the university", he explained. The company, which now employs more than 200 people, seeks out students in computer science, maths, and physics as potential employees.

You might think that Kinectimals, a game that allows children to adopt an animal and go on adventures, was a pretty simple affair, not requiring much science. Not a bit of it. A team of more than 100 worked on it for 16 months, and making the animals move in a realistic manner involved some heavy lifting: "There's all the science and maths of the skeleton tracking," Braben explained "There's also modelling and drawing the movements, the physics of how the skeleton works."

As well as the scientists, making the game also required people with what the boss called more "touchy feely" skills - designers, writers, artists, animators. Our universities churn out plenty of them, but Braben's concern is of a growing skill shortage in the sciences: "A real problem is there are way fewer graduates coming through the system now than there were five years ago," he explained. "Computer scientists are down by a factor of two."

Creating video game

But Braben is not the type to sit around moaning about the industry's problems, or obsessing about the need for tax credits - he's doing something about it. He and some friends in the Cambridge technology sector are looking at ways of reintroducing into schools the kind of basic programming skills he learned, and which seem to have disappeared in an ICT curriculum which teaches how to handle Microsoft Office and little else.

They've a cunning plan for a very cheap programmable device which could fire young imaginations today in the way the BBC Micro and Elite did 30 years ago. More on that in due course.

For now, good luck to all the nominees at the games BAFTAs, but especially to Frontier, which is showing how British science and creativity can combine to create something we can be just as proud of as The King's Speech.

Net neutrality: Who cares?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:40 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011


Do you care about or even understand the issue of net neutrality? I bet that for most people the answer is first net what? And then no. But here's another question - if your broadband provider started throttling back the speed at which you could use some services - say a Skype video call, or a BBC iPlayer stream - would you care then?

road sign

On Wednesday, the culture minister Ed Vaizey will gather figures from across the broadband and media industries to discuss net neutrality - and whether there is a role for the regulators. The big issue here is whether a principle sacred to internet pioneers - that all traffic over the network is equal - is in danger of being watered down and, if so, whether something needs to be done.

Some broadband firms want to be free to charge media firms to give their content priority, while some content providers are adamant that this would harm consumers and stifle innovation.

I should point out at this stage that the BBC has a dog in this fight.

The former head of Future Media and Technology Erik Huggers said this in a blog post last year:

An emerging trend towards network operators discriminating in favour of certain traffic based on who provides it, as part of commercial arrangements, is a worrying development. Media organisations like the BBC fear that they are about to see all sorts of roadblocks placed between them and consumers on the internet.

At the heart of all this is what's called traffic management, the techniques used by Internet Service Providers to control the flows of data across their networks. When you sit in front of your computer at 6pm watching a video buffering, you are probably seeing the effect of the brakes being put on by your ISP.

Today the Broadband Stakeholders Group is publishing a voluntary code of practice on traffic management. BSkyB, BT, O2, TalkTalk, Three, Virgin Media and Vodafone have all signed up to pilot a code which is intended to promote a bit more transparency about exactly what they do to direct and control the traffic on their networks. The practice is, they say, a vital tool in supporting the efficient operation of the internet and providing a good experience for the

The code defines two kinds of traffic management - that relating to particular broadband deals, such as data caps and speed limits, and practices aimed at making sure a network operates effectively during peak hours and other periods of congestion.

But the controversial element is what are called managed services, deals between ISPs and media firms to guarantee a certain level of service, presumably in exchange for a fee. The Broadband Stakeholders Group says its document is agnostic about managed services, but its code should end up giving consumers and policymakers a clearer picture of what is going on.

I'm not so sure. Any consumer reading through the BSG's document may come away with a headache and little understanding of what the whole row is about.

So let's take one example and see it from both sides. The video sharing site YouTube
is now part of a huge and powerful business, Google. Yet its output, all those millions of videos, uses up vast amounts of bandwidth. So shouldn't ISPs be allowed to charge a little bit to deliver that content, rather than see their networks become increasingly unstable??

But here's the other side. Imagine what would have happened if in 2005 when YouTube's founders got the site going, they had been told that they would have to pay even a tiny amount to shift their content over the net? The site - and the revolution it unleashed in the way we share video - would have been stillborn. Net neutrality, the argument goes, has meant there are almost no barriers to innovation online.

Ed Vaizey's net neutrality summit on Wednesday may grab few headlines. But it could be crucial in shaping the way the internet develops in the UK over the coming decade.

Cookie madness or consumer protection?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:18 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011


"Are you going to write about this cookie madness? UK Tech web industry will suffer massively if this goes through..."
Shopping cart icon and cursor

The message which came to me via Twitter this morning proved one thing - that Christopher Graham had succeeded in his wake-up call to British website owners. Yesterday the Information Commissioner told firms and public sector bodies they needed to get ready for 25 May, when an EU directive could force them to change the way they use cookies.

Cookies, you may or may not know, are now essential to the running of most websites. They are small text files which do everything from remember a password, to counting your visits to the site, to serving you up advertising which is likely to match your tastes.

Now the EU directive means that website owners will have to obtain the consent of users before installing cookies on their computers. The web industry in the UK which was apparently unaware of this issue until yesterday has reacted with outrage. "Unworkable", "super-stupid", "meddling bureaucracy", were among the milder comments I saw.

Many are complaining that this will disadvantage European sites as they compete with others which are not facing the same restrictions. Nick Halstead runs Mediasift, which operates a range of websites, all using cookies. He told me:

"If we are suddenly required to put big pop-up boxes warning people that they are going to be tracked, even if they are for benign reasons, the user won't read the warning and will just go to a US site that does not have that same warning."

It appears the EU has moved on this issue after complaints from privacy campaigners, concerned about the use of cookies to track every detail of web use for behavioural advertising.

But website owners seem united in their feeling that this directive is an over-reaction: "People just don't care that much about privacy," says Nick Halstead. "Old versions of Internet Explorer used to warn you about cookies, but they stopped because people found it too annoying."

One business, however, welcomed the new rules. Debbie Procter of Wrappers, which sells covers for gadgets, told me that her site made a point of not tracking its customers. "There should be space on the internet for businesses that don't use cookies". She was worried that too many sites would become addicted to using cookies to follow their customers' every move: "We don't know how powerful behavioural advertising might be, it's about a balance." It is worth pointing out though that Wrappers also uses Amazon to sell its products and that website just would not work without cookies.

It may, however, be time for everyone to calm down about cookies. EU governments still have not worked out just how the directive will be implemented in domestic law, and what form "consent" to cookies will have to take. In the UK, the internet advertising industry appears confident that reminding people that their browser settings allow them to block cookies will be enough, while the Information Commissioner's Office seems to think that they will need to do more.

My suspicion is that consumers will actually notice very little after 25 May, and the definition of consent will be pretty vague. But at least the publicity now being given to this "cookie madness" may alert a few more people to the ways in which their web behaviour is tracked. Then we will find out just how many people really care about their online privacy.

Russian bank: Facebook worth $76.4bn

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:03 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011


Facebook is now worth $76.4bn - that's the latest extraordinary valuation put on a company which is becoming the poster boy for a new dotcom bubble.

Man blowing bubble

Facebook's value just keeps on inflating

Just a few months ago, an investment led by Goldman Sachs valued the social network at $50bn. Now, a group of analysts at an investment bank has looked at how the business is growing and come up with something 50% higher.

To put that figure into context, it makes Facebook worth more than the likes of Kraft Foods, Honda, Disney or Barclays. If, that is, you believe it and many will be sceptical, not just because of the outlandish figure but because of its source.

The analysis comes from a Russian bank, Otkritie - in a report on [944KB PDF], a Russian social network operator which is an investor in Facebook. That 2.38% stake in Mark Zuckerberg's business, made in 2009 at valuation of $10bn, is the biggest asset of a business which floated in London in November.

If investors take the latest valuation seriously, shares in - formerly known as Digital Sky Technologies - could leap ahead, though it's interesting to note that the bank's analysts put a Sell recommendation on their report.

So how did the Otkritie analysts reach their conclusions? The bank decided to look at where Facebook might be in 2015, given its current rate of growth, both in user numbers and revenues. Four years ahead is a very long time horizon for a business like this. But when I spoke to Tibor Bokor, one of the report's writers, he explained their methodology: "The faster it grows, the further ahead you have to look."

By 2015, Otkritie reckons Facebook will have 1.2 billion users and revenues of nearly $17bn. That means that the bank is making two key assumptions - that Facebook's user numbers will continue to grow more rapidly than the global online audience, and that its share of a growing online advertising audience will race ahead. Here's how it puts that:

"We estimate that Facebook captured just 2.7% of ad budgets in 2010. We expect vast improvement in the company's ad monetization, with its share increasing to 20% in 2015."

Otkritie concedes that this will be a huge challenge. What it does not say is that it would also involve a major change of tack from a CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who has always put growth in the user base ahead of earning advertising dollars.

I put it to Tibor Bokor that many would see his report's conclusions as outlandish. He demurred, insisting that if anything it was conservative: "I would say the risk is on the upside, to be honest."

I also asked him how his team had come up with new figures for current Facebook users - 620 million - and he conceded that this figure and the revenue numbers were garnered from various websites, rather than from the company itself.

But he said it was up to investors to judge: "It's an extrapolation of recent trends. The question is how far investors are willing to extrapolate." Right now, it seems that investors are just desperate to get their hands on shares in Facebook, and the easiest way is via shares in

On its press release about the report Otkritie says it is "among the top 30 most reliable Russian banks", not a description that will impress everybody. But is its work on valuing Facebook any less rigorous than that undertaken by a rather better-known bank Goldman Sachs when it decided on its $50bn figure?

By 2015, that $76.4bn valuation may have been shown up as Russian pie in the sky, like the figures investment banks plucked from the air to value dotcoms in 1999. Or perhaps we will look back on it as just another landmark in Facebook's journey to world domination...

Whatever happened to mobile music?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:54 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011


Whatever happened to the mobile music revolution? You know, the idea that your phone would become a digital juke box, the main way to access and pay for the world's music? So far, it just hasn't happened, but today the British digital music business We7 is having another go. The success or failure of its mobile music app will tell us more about the economics of digital music services, which have so far proved very fragile, and whether anyone can prosper in the shadow cast by Apple.

We7 player


We7, which is backed by the musician Peter Gabriel, has decided that previous offerings like Nokia's Comes With Music failed to take off for two reasons - connectivity and cost. Listening to a streaming service over a 3G network is still a hit-and-miss affair, and the kind of mobile customers who might be interested - 16-30 years olds - are none too keen on paying for such a service.

So We7 has decided, both on the web and on mobile phones, that radio is the future. In other words, what its users are now mainly being offered is a personalised radio station - you tell it you like Katy Perry or Vampire Weekend and it plays you a stream of songs that match your taste. The music is free, but supported by advertising unless you upgrade to an ad-free subscription service - very few do, as far as I can gather.

The trouble with offering that on a mobile phone is that, even if the music is free, the user can rack up a big bill for mobile data. So We7's plan is to load up your phone with music when you're on a wi-fi connection and store it on your phone, to be accessible whenever you want it.

man wearing headphones(getty)


It all sounds very clever - but I'm still not clear how an ad-supported service like We7 - already in quite a crowded digital music market - is ever going to become sustainable. When I spoke to Steve Purdham, the CEO, he said the whole industry was still loss-making: "Nobody is making money," he told me.

He pointed out that Spotify in Europe was seeking out new investors - apparently successfully - and Pandora in the United States was preparing an IPO or stock market flotation.

"The fact that we are all looking for funding says that nobody is making money yet."

But he said there had been a big improvement over the last three years, on both the revenue and the cost side. "Three years ago the economics were impossible, but now we are making ground." Advertisers were getting much more interested in the audiences that music services offered, while the music labels were getting more realistic about the rates they charged for licensing.

In particular, they were prepared to offer much better deals for radio services, rather than on-demand streaming businesses like Spotify, where you choose which tracks you want to hear. But is the kind of young phone users that We7 is targeting really going to want a service that invades the personal space which a phone now represents? "They don't care," says Mr Purdham. "They expect to be surrounded with adverts, the clever thing is not to be too invasive."

He is betting that his model - a radio service on the move - is the way forward.

"It's about making it personal, making it easy, making it portable."

But We7 is a small player. It is trying to do what the giants of the mobile world and the big record labels have been attempting for years - to provide a mobile music service to rival Apple's iTunes. And so far a combination of poor marketing, clunky user interfaces, and high data costs have left them as also-rans.

I haven't seen any statistics but I wouldn't mind betting that the revenue from mobile iTunes downloads dwarfs anything earned by anyone else in this market. Perhaps that's about to change - but don't bet on it.

Old enough to surf on your phone?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:30 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011


Tried surfing on your mobile phone lately? If so, you may have found that quite suddenly you can't visit certain websites until you've reassured your network that you are over 18.

O2 age verification notice

Having seen this story about the issue, I thought I would try myself to visit one of the sites mentioned. It is called Jalopnik, and is all about cars - not a particularly racy subject, you might think.

But sure enough, when I visited it from my phone on O2's 3G network, up popped a message warning me that I needed to be over 18 to see it. I now need to contact my account administrator, whoever that is.

Next stop was the O2 blog which explains:

"Over the last few months we've been gradually migrating our customer base onto a new age verification platform. We've completed, which will ensure all our Pay & Go and Pay Monthly customers are protected by the age verification system."

O2 - which is not the only network doing this - says the policy is designed to give reassurance to parents whose children are now using smartphones. Fine, but surely a contract customer like me has to be over 18 so why am I having my surfing censored?

The network explains that some parents are now buying monthly contracts for their children, so it's not safe to assume that phones are being used by adults.

But who decides which sites get blocked, and why does a site about cars end up ringing alarm bells? Apparently the networks have set up something called the Independent Mobile Classification Body (PDF) to categorise websites - and its work is not yet perfect. Sites which have been wrongly categorised will be "whitelisted" once mistakes are pointed out.

Getting your age verified by your network is a bit of a faff -  you have to pay a pound via your credit card, though you then get £2.50 credited to your mobile account. It's all causing a deal of grumbling from the network's customers.

"We do apologise for the inconvenience but it's a simple process aimed at protecting children," an O2 spokeswoman.  

This whole policy has wider implications for the debate about policing the web, and protecting children. Social networks like Facebook have said age verification is a really difficult thing to do - and that means they can't know whether users are under the age at which they are permitted to join.

But now the mobile networks have shown that there is at least a way to verify parental permission via a credit card, pressure may grow on other sites to do more to check that people are who they say they are.

iPad 2 and the return of Steve

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:17 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011


For a man who, according to one American tabloid, is supposed to be at death's door, Steve Jobs was in fighting form as he unveiled the iPad 2 in San Francisco. The arrival on stage of Apple's founder, who is away on sick leave, was the biggest surprise of a launch which mostly matched up to the rumours that have been around for some weeks.

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Mr Jobs began by telling us that this was an event he couldn't miss - but within moments he was on the attack, saying that 2011 threatened to be the year of the copycat, as Apple's rivals rushed out tablets that just could not compare to the iPad. There were sideswipes at Samsung - how many Galaxy Tabs had they actually sold rather than putting on the shelves? And at Google's latest version of Android for tablets - had anyone got round to making apps for it yet?

Then we got the actual launch, with all the usual hoopla conducted by the maestro in the black sweater. There were slick demos, punctuated by applause from the crowd, with polished videos extolling the virtues of the old iPad - some of the images suggested it could fly an aircraft, cure the sick, or teach every child to become an attentive student. Whereas we all know that most kids are using it to play Plants versus Zombies.

As for the new version, it was "dramatically" faster, "dramatically" thinner, and had a "smart" cover which put the iPad to sleep when you closed it - "so cool" enthused Jobs. The main difference, though, seems to be the two cameras, front and rear, which allow you to make video calls, something which many Android tablets can already do.

What has not changed is the lack of connectivity - no USB port or SD card slot - so getting something in or out of this machine still means talking either to iTunes or the cloud.

I had a very brief chance to play with the tablet at the London launch event, conducting a slightly bizarre Face Time video chat with an Apple employee in California where neither of us knew quite what to say. My impression was that Apple had produced another pleasing device, but one which was not dramatically different to the original.

What impressed me more was the arrival of two apps, iMovie and Garage Band, that should turn the iPad into a portable video editing and sound mixing studio. They will be available for existing iPad users after a software upgrade.

Still, Steve Jobs promised that 2011 would be the year of the iPad 2, and made some pretty bold claims about the way his company was taking computing beyond the PC.

So is he right? Just before the event I cast an eye over the Motorola Xoom, just one of a clutch of upcoming devices running Android Honeycomb, the version of Google's operating system optimised for tablets. It too seemed fast and slick, with similar capabilities to the new iPad.

There is now real competition in the tablet market and it is by no means certain that Apple will prevail. Android fans will point to the fact that their operating system raced past the iPhone, in terms of sales at least, within a couple of years, and this time manufacturers are better prepared. Apple's supporters will tell you it's all about the apps, and there are zillions for the iPad, only a handful for the Xoom and its equivalents.

What you cannot deny is that Apple has once again shifted the focus of an entire industry. As 2010 dawned, netbooks were all the rage and many doubted there was room in the market for another type of device. A year on, every major manufacturer is throwing money at tablet development, and it is netbooks which suddenly look short of a raison d'etre.

And what really made it a good day for Apple was the reappearance of Steve Jobs. There was a reminder in his closing remarks of the way he has shaped his company's philosophy: "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough," he told the crowd. "It's technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that make our hearts sing."

Apple has plenty of brilliant designers and engineers behind Steve Jobs. But is there anyone waiting in the wings who can match him as a performer, a philosopher and a strategist? I doubt it.

Broadband: Still not delivering

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:13 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011


Two big conclusions about broadband from today's Ofcom survey - the days of "up to" advertising may be numbered and copper as a means of getting the high-speed internet into homes now looks obsolete.

Laptop computer with cables

Ofcom's survey, which involved connecting monitoring equipment to routers rather than just a software speed test, gives us a mixed picture of the state of British broadband. On the positive side, Virgin Media and now BT, with its Infinity service, are both beginning to offer some very good speeds to much of the country.

The investment in fibre - either to the home or to the cabinet - is beginning to pay off. Virgin's up to 50Mbit/s service is now available to nearly half of the UK while BT Infinity, promising up to 40Mbit/s, now passes around 15% of homes.

Crucially, both deliver something approaching the advertised speeds and BT Infinity is even giving upload speeds of as much as 8Mbit/s. That is a big contrast with the service customers are getting from the old technology, ADSL, which comes down a standard copper phone line.

In fact, Ofcom's research shows that the higher the speeds that broadband customers are promised on ADSL packages, the less they get. So on an "up to 20Mbit/s ADSL" package, 69% of users surveyed were actually getting less than 8Mbit/s. The problem is that the further you live from the exchange, the slower the speeds down a copper line.

It was this graphic in Ofcom's presentation of the results that really told the story. It compares the speeds achieved by those on an up to 8 or 10Mbit/s service - the purple dots - with those for customers who've upgraded to a 20 or 24Mbit/s deal - the green dots. The dots are plotted along an axis showing the distance from the exchange.

Ofcom chart showing broadband speeds

So at less than a kilometre from the exchange, those on the faster packages are getting better speeds. But at anything over 2km, there appears to be little or no difference.

Now BT invested large amounts in upgrading its ADSL network to make it fit for the 21st Century and squeeze much faster speeds out of those copper cables. It looks as if that investment has not really paid off - at least for broadband customers. Perhaps it might have been better for the company to have saved its money to spend on the fibre network it's not rolling out.

Ofcom wants the ISPs to stop advertising "up to x" broadband deals unless they can show that at least some of their customers will get those speeds. At a briefing for journalists, the Ofcom boss Ed Richards was asked what "some" meant, and suggested 5% would be fair. So, with just 3% getting anywhere near their promised 20Mbit/s in the Ofcom research, that kind of deal could no longer be advertised. Instead, the regulator suggests advertising should feature a typical speed range or TSR.

BT is unhappy with that idea and says Ofcom risks confusing the consumer. But Ed Richards says markets work well when consumers have the best information. His ambition is that the TSR should do the same for the broadband market as APR has for the banking industry or MPG for the motor trade - provide an agreed standard that everyone can understand.

Oh, and one other piece of news. Ofcom is working on a national broadband speed map, searchable by postcode, so that consumers can work out what is on offer in their area. It is exactly what this blog suggested last week - though I'm assured they had been working on the idea at Ofcom Towers long before they saw my post.

Vodafone and Google: A question of trust

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:31 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011


In today's ultra-connected world we are increasingly dependent on a few big technology firms to keep us online and look after data. So when anything goes even slightly wrong there is something close to panic. That's what happened yesterday when two giants, the mobile operator Vodafone and the biggest web bruiser of them all, Google, each suffered what might once have been brushed off as a minor stumble.

Vodafone and Gmail logos


Vodafone's problems started in the early hours when a gang reportedly armed with sledgehammers bludgeoned their way into one of the company's facilities in Basingstoke in Hampshire. They damaged or stole some equipment - we're still not sure exactly what - and the result was that hundreds of thousands of Vodafone customers in southern England lost all their voice and data services for much of the morning.

A few years back they might have made a quick call to Vodafone, grumbled a bit, and waited for the service to be restored - as it was, around lunchtime. Not in 2011, when social media spreads information and consumer outrage within minutes. Vodafone says it immediately told the police about the incident - which happened between 0100 and 0200 in the morning. But it was not until after 0900 that a short and quite uninformative statement appeared on the company's website.

Reasonable enough, you might say - staff needed to get into work and find out what was going on before reacting. But in a 24/7 world where Twitter is alive with rumours and complaints from your customers, and any company, you need to move faster than that.

Then there were the probing questions. Why, asked many customers, was Vodafone's network so vulnerable to a single incident at one location? A good question, because the people who run giant data centres and similar facilities are always telling me about the principle of redundancy - if one link in the chain fails, it should not bring the network down because there will be back-up systems.

So I put that to Vodafone who responded thus:

"We have robust plans for dealing with network issues and traffic management, but this incident involved the physical theft of equipment which is a very rare occurrence."

Well a theft may be a very rare occurrence, but you would nevertheless think that a business the size of Vodafone had plans in place to deal with just such an event.

Vodafone's problem was local, but Google's issue with its Gmail service had greater significance for it's global business. Some Gmail users - about 0.02% of them according to Google - woke up on Monday to find their inboxes empty and their mail data apparently eradicated.

The cause, as explained in this Google blog post, was a software bug inadvertently introduced by the company itself during an upgrade of part of the service. Again,users asked how could this happen if, as the blogpost itself puts it, "we have multiple copies of your data in multiple data centers?"

Google says that, in rare instances, software bugs can affect multiple copies of data.

Now the search giant appears to have been much more deft than Vodafone in handling the communications side of this issue and Gmail users are being reassured that their data is being restored. But this still looks like a more serious problem because of the reputational damage to a growing area of Google's business.

In the early days of the Gmail service, when it was just another experimental add-on, an outage like this would have been an acceptable hazard of using something new. But Google is now marketing Gmail and other applications as a suite of professional tools that can compete with Microsoft's Office, and there is some evidence that this is now paying off.

We are being encouraged to put our data into "clouds" belonging to just a few giant businesses - Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook - with the promise that it will be both private and secure. But consumers are already suspicious of those promises after a number of disturbing incidents.

So every time a bug - or a few sledgehammers - disrupt customer connections to the online world, trust in these clouds will diminish a little more.

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