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Archives for April 2011

Can Vevo's videos make money for music?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:36 UK time, Thursday, 28 April 2011

Have you ever watched a Lady Gaga video? Hundreds of millions have, mostly on YouTube. So who's making any money out of that? To my surprise - and to yours too I suspect - it's a business called Vevo, and it may well be the first example of a successful digital venture from the music industry.

Lady Gaga

The business is jointly owned by two music labels, Universal and Sony, and Abu Dhabi Media, and this week it has been spreading the word about its UK launch. But even while it's been building its business in the United States, Vevo has already been a major force in UK music video distribution - although virtually invisible.
So if you look for just about any artist's videos on YouTube you will find that they've been put online by Vevo, which has licensing deals with all the major music labels. When I met Rio Caraeff, the former Universal executive who started the venture, he explained that the industry had originally licensed its videos to far too many places. "That's good for the consumer, "he said, "but all of those places are selling the same content to advertisers."

Now though, he says, the advertisers have less choice, because the industry, through Vevo, presents a united front.

"Vevo can say to advertisers, only we can present you with 60 million video viewers in the 18-34 demographic. Ubiquity for the fan, scarcity for the advertiser is the best way to maximise the value of the content."

And while he wasn't releasing any numbers, Mr Caraeff said the business was on the path to profitability, and was succeeding in its mission to convince advertisers that music was premium content in the same league as sport or TV drama.

This set me thinking about Spotify, another digital music business which appears to have a less comfortable relationship with the big labels, as we've seen recently. Rio Caraeff said he'd decided that video was a much safer bet than another audio business - and explained that was because he'd studied the psychology of music-label decision-makers:

"If I'd made it an audio business people would have been worried about cannibalisation and the impact on the incumbent business model."

So, for Vevo, he'd managed to negotiate the kind of global and long-lasting licensing deals which are still eluding Spotify.

But can Vevo, created by an industry which has repeatedly failed to embrace the digital era, succeed where other efforts have failed?

"There's a history of failed ventures," admits Rio Caraeff. "Did the music industry create Spotify, did they create YouTube, did they create iTunes or the original Napster? No." But he says all the businesses created by the music industry were based on protecting the legacy business model - whereas Vevo is focussed on what music lovers want.

It is of course also focussed on a free advertising-funded model. What's ironic is that the labels appear content to see Vevo pump out music to millions of YouTube viewers for nothing, while remaining nervous about letting Spotify do the same. Even if Mr Caraeff understands the psychology of the music industry it remains a mystery to me.

Sony goes offline

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:00 UK time, Tuesday, 26 April 2011

For millions it's been a lost weekend, unable to play online games or stream films or music to their games console. The PlayStation Network has been down since last Wednesday, victim of what Sony will only describe as "external intrusion".

This looks like something of a crisis for a firm trying to position itself as the major force in home entertainment - and it's also worrying for any business trying to persuade consumers that the "cloud" is a safe place to store valuable content or personal data.

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The 75 million people with PlayStation Network accounts have plenty of questions about the outage. They want to know what caused the problem at the network, whether their credit card details have been compromised, and crucially, how soon they will be able to get online again.

But so far Sony has been less than forthcoming on any of these issues. A spokesman told me Sony engineers were working around the clock but that the company wants to make sure it has a long-term solution to the security problems with the network, rather than just rushing to patch it and restore access. "We can live with the short-term embarrassment," he said. "The protection of our consumers is paramount."

WIth Xbox owners rushing to play the hit new game Portal 2 with online friends, this was not a great time for its rival console to be offline. It was also unfortunate timing for today's unveiling of the device which Sony hopes will make it a major contender in the battle with Apple's iPad. The Sony Tablet, which will go on sale in the autumn, looks promising. It comes in two forms - one with a 9.4 inch display another with two 5.5 inch screens.

The tablets will be integrated with other Sony devices so you will be able to use them as remote controls for your television, and to project content on to the bigger screen. And the promise is that users will also be able to get music and video from Sony's Qriocity service, and play games... via the PlayStation network.

So the Tablet looks ready to rival the iPad in terms of hardware and content - but only if Sony's network is back online and enjoys the trust of the consumer. Maybe that is the reason the company is taking so long to fix whatever it found last Wednesday. Better to leave millions of gamers frustrated for a few days now than to have the network fall over later this year, just as Sony Tablet owners try to stream a film or play a game.

iPhone tracking: creepy or cool?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:50 UK time, Thursday, 21 April 2011

"Pretty creepy but also kind of cool," is how one young friend described it. He was talking about a piece of software, which looks at a file on your iPhone or iPad and then uses it to generate a map of all your movements with the phone.

The file which sits on your phone and on the computer with which it is synchronised was discovered by two security experts, Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan. They proceeded to build an application enabling iPhone users to access the file's data and then map it.

Just twelve hours after it was revealed, mapping your movements has become something of a craze. Naturally, I've tried it, and have spent some time zooming in and out of a world map, and finding out where and when I've travelled with my phone.

Map of Rory Cellan Jones' movements around the UK based on iPhone data


Map of Rory Cellan Jones' movements whilst skiing based on iPhone data

As you can see, I have criss-crossed southern England and Wales over the last year. And then there's my skiing holiday in January - you can see me landing at Chambery in Southern France and making my way to and from the slopes.

This obviously has intriguing implications for anyone who possesses one of these devices. What, for instance, if you had told your wife that you were off on a business trip - when in fact you had slipped off to the slopes with some mates - and she then managed to track down your iPhone location file? (I should stress that this is an imaginary scenario).

For divorce lawyers, particularly in the United States, the first question when taking on a new client could be "does your spouse own an iPhone?" And law enforcement agencies will also be taking a great interest in the iPhones - or iPads - of anyone they are tracking.

There has been a mixture of amusement and outrage at this news. Other researchers say they discovered this some time ago. The point is that millions of Apple customers probably didn't read that material. And some privacy campaigners are saying that Apple should have been far more open about what it was doing.

The company can however point to this clause buried somewhere in the 15,200 word iTunes terms and conditions:

"Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. For example, we may share geographic location with application providers when you opt in to their location services."

This will still be a matter of concern to some users, so journalists have naturally been asking Apple to answer a few questions about the issue. But in its normal manner, Steve Jobs' firm has said nothing. Which you might think is pretty creepy - and not that cool.

Digital royal wedding: or #rw2011

Rory Cellan-Jones | 14:43 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Could 29 April give us the biggest live event the internet has ever seen? I’m talking of course about the Royal Wedding, which will attract a huge global television audience. But this morning St James’s Palace unveiled plans to make the day a huge interactive event - and the first Royal wedding with a Twitter hashtag #rw2011.

The fact that the engagement was announced via the @Clarencehouse Twitter account showed the Palace’s digital ambitions - now the hope is to follow that up with a truly interactive and social media wedding. “This is first for us,” a spokesman said at a briefing this morning. “It’s a new and exciting way to add to the enjoyment of the Royal Wedding.”

Clarence House announce the engagement on Twitter


So the official Royal Wedding website will be at the centre of an operation which will use Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Flickr to provide material about the day’s events - and to solicit content from the public.

The biggest innovation is that the broadcast footage of the royal wedding will be live streamed on the Royal Channel on YouTube. The pictures will be from the BBC - but the commentary will be in the form of a live blog, provided by a couple of St James’s Palace press officers typing away furiously, while keeping an eye on Twitter and other networks.

There’s another YouTube innovation - a video Wedding Book launched today which allows anyone to send a message of congratulations to the happy couple. You won’t be surprised to hear that will be pre-moderated.


Royal YouTube channel


Then there’s a Facebook Event on the British Monarchy page, where you can click to say “I’m attending” the Royal wedding. No guarantee that you will receive an invitation to the Abbey, but the promise is that you will have a “virtual” experience of the day, and Facebook is also launching a “Stories” app inviting anyone to describe how they celebrate the day.

Google will play a key role in keeping this operation afloat, running the YouTube channel and hosting the official website as a Google app.

So far, the website, with nine million page views, has enjoyed reasonable if not spectacular traffic. But on the day, it could come under a lot of strain with millions around the world experiencing the wedding as a “two-screen event”, watching the television while interacting online.

The wedding could surpass Barack Obama’s inauguration as a live web event, testing the web infrastructure in the same way as the National Grid used to see a power surge when people put the kettle on after a big football match. Let’s hope Google has a data centre or two on standby.

One question - why is the Palace doing all this, when the web population will be providing plenty of its own content around the wedding? We are told that it’s partly because Prince William and Kate Middleton are part of a generation that has grown up in a digital, interactive world - and are themselves enthusiastic users of new media.

But there are limits. Asked whether either of the couple would be updating their relationship status on Facebook on 29 April, a spokesman smiled and said: “Pass.”

Read the rest of this entry

Sir Tim turns the tables

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:55 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Our interview with the web's creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee threw up some interesting news lines. The man asked by the broadband minister to sort out the row over net neutrality told us progress was slow - and made clear where he stood.

While he understands the need for the ISPs to manage the traffic on their networks, he is adamant that they should not be allowed to discriminate between different content providers. That would be like the days when AOL controlled your internet experience, he said, and it would end innovation online.

So it's clear that Sir Tim is not exactly a neutral arbitrator - he thinks net neutrality is a vital principle which must be defended. The big ISPs may not be too happy about that - though they will feel much warmer about his criticisms of the Digital Economy Act, which they have delayed through a judicial review.

At the end of our interview, Sir Tim turned the tables, asking for the right to interview me. He asked some tough questions about the BBC's ability to compete in the information age, and when he would be able to use the iPlayer in the United States.

Some of what he asked was way above my paygrade and I should stress I had no insider information and I was making it up as I went along. But I promised in the spirit of openness and transparency to put his interview online. Here it is:

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Sir Tim on an open, democratic web

Rory Cellan-Jones | 13:01 UK time, Monday, 18 April 2011

"Geeky but important" - that's what one of the slides said about open web standards at a conference in Oxford to mark the opening of the World Wide Web Consortium's UK office.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee


You might say the same - with knobs on - about Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who opened the conference. The inventor of the web is extremely important - and still insufficiently recognised in his own land, given the scale of his achievements. While giving a talk to an engineering trade body recently, I put up a slide of Sir Tim - and asked some students in the front row to name him. "Err, the guy from Apple?" came the response.

But the man who two decades ago laid the foundations for our modern information era is also very geeky. When he speaks, usually without notes, ideas spill out of him at a rapid rate and, like a web surfer clicking on links, he tends to go off at a tangent.

In Oxford he was no different, giving us a potted history of the internet and the web which headed off in all sorts of directions at once. But he also had some interesting and important things to say.

Sir Tim stressed that, while it might seem we had made huge progress since the invention of the web, with 25% of the world's population now using it, it would be complacent to take that view. Instead, he asked: what are we going to do about getting the rest of the world on board? The infrastructure is there, so why are so many people still not taking advantage of it?

He lauded the web's power to promote democracy but again said that we had taken it for granted, "until Egypt goes and shuts down the internet".

He talked of social networking's power to connect people - but lamented the way debates on Twitter always seem to tend to extreme views.

And he said that open data programmes, which have seen governments in the US and UK allow citizens far greater access to their data, were vital to the democratic process. At a time of cuts in government spending, Sir Tim stressed that initiatives to promote transparency were all the more important.

So, through the mist emerged a clear picture of what still drives Sir Tim. He wants a web which is open, friendly, civil and ever smarter - and he wants governments to behave better towards it. Important stuff, and I'm sure you'll agree of interest far beyond the confines of a geeky conference.

Spotify: Not so free as it was

Rory Cellan-Jones | 17:00 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

Bad news today for millions who've relied on Spotify for free music. The streaming service announced that it was putting a cap on their access to its huge library of music - they will only be able to listen for a maximum of 10 hours a month, and can listen to any single track no more than five times.

founders Martin Lorentzon (L) and Daniel Ek talking in front of a giant Spotify logo

Cue anguish on social networks - "what fresh hell is this?", "weeps", "noooooo", and "Limewire (the file-sharing site) makes a reappearance" were among the comments I received.

But I'm hearing that Spotify had the move forced upon it by the record labels and the move reflects continuing tension between the fast-growing digital service and the music industry.

It seems that the original licensing deals which enabled Spotify to get off the ground a couple of years ago are coming to an end - and some of the labels in some European countries are getting restless about how much of their content is being given away for free, with minimal fees in return. Yes, 15% of Spotify's users are now paying customers, but as the service grows, millions of tracks are being played for nothing.

As someone put it to me, "the guy whose bonus still depends on CD sales is cutting up rough".

And it's worth remembering that Spotify is locked in a seemingly endless round of negotiations with those same labels about launching in the United States. Against that background, the streaming service has apparently decided to allay some of the concerns by putting strict curbs on what users can get for free.

I ran some of this past the respected music industry analyst Mark Mulligan. He said it seemed a plausible scenario, with the record labels still thrashing around in desperation as they try to work out how to make profits in the digital age.

"The industry is in trouble, downloads aren't working, CD sales continue to plummet, and Spotify was an easy target."

But he also thought that it was convenient for Spotify to blame the labels:

"Their own numbers still aren't adding up - they may have needed to do this anyway."

The record labels, for their part, know they need to support new digital services. After all, Spotify has persuaded one million people across Europe, most of them pretty young, to pay for music, something the labels find ever harder.

Spotify and the record labels are locked in a marriage that neither seems to be enjoying - but each needs the other if they are to survive into a profitable future.

Fujitsu and the final third

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:45 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

Hurrah - Fujitsu has banished the broadband blues from the final third. That, no doubt, will be the reaction in government to yesterday's news that the Japanese firm is planning a fast fibre network to serve five million homes which would otherwise be left in the broadband slow lane. But before we get too excited about this new dawn for British broadband, we need a little more information. Namely, what will it cost, where will it be available, and how much public money will it need?

man sitting under a tree with a laptop

First, let's look at the context. Right now, if you want to get a superfast broadband connection - and that really means one based on fibre - you have limited choice, either BT or Virgin Media. And if you're not in the two thirds of the country those two firms say they can afford to reach over the next couple of years, then tough.

So Fujitsu's plan to build its own network - in conjunction with Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Cisco - does two things. First, it provides the possibility of a third player in the fibre game, though one which will be closely allied with Virgin. So internet service providers (ISPs) without a fibre offering should be able to provide one via the Fujitsu network - if they don't like the look of BTs Openreach which will also be offering them a wholesale fibre deal. More competition, which sounds good.

Secondly, five million homes in rural Britain now have a real chance of getting fast broadband - and even, according to Fujitsu, having a better deal than is available in the towns. The company says that by delivering fibre direct to homes, rather than to pavement cabinets as BT mostly does, it can promise speeds of up to 1Gbps. Cue mutterings from BT about why on earth anyone should want those speeds - but for rural campaigners whose battle-cry has been "final third first" this sounds like very good news.

And Fujitsu says it's helping to push the UK up the global broadband league, and we need to be more ambitious about the technology we use. The UK is 27th in the OECD broadband rankings, Andy Stevenson of Fujitsu told me. You need 1Gbps from day one.

So to the questions - first of all, what will it cost to build, and then to buy? When the debate about next generation broadband was raging a few years ago, some huge figures were bandied around for the cost of bringing fibre to the whole of Britain - something in the region of 28 billion. Now Fujitsu is talking of building its network for two billion, which seems a bargain.

The company is getting access to BTs infrastructure - its ducts and poles - and that means there may not have to be too much expensive digging up of roads. Nevertheless, questions are being asked about how the sums add up. BT put out a pointed statement calling for more clarity and behind the scenes is frankly disbelieving: if we can not see the business case for this, how can they, asked one insider. We don't understand how they're getting it to this cost unless they're going to charge rural customers a lot more.

Still, its in BTs interest to be sceptical about the arrival of what could be a powerful new competitor - and the telecoms giant did spend many years saying fast fibre broadband was not really needed and not affordable, before deciding that the investment case did in fact add up.

But it's important to remember that this new network won't reach all of the final third - and we are not at all clear exactly where the five million homes to be offered this fast lane to the future will be. That all depends, says Fujitsu, on where the £530m set aside by the government for rural broadband projects is allocated.

That money, set aside from the TV licence fee, is crucial to the building of this network - work won't start without it, and Fujitsu is clearly hoping to get the lion's share of the cash. The company thinks the government would rather deal with one big provider operating nationally than dozens of small local projects - and judging by the enthusiastic reaction of the broadband minister Ed Vaizey to yesterdays announcement, it looks as though that's right.

So Fujitsu has gone a long way to providing an answer for the rural broadband campaigners, the government, the ISPs wanting a competitive fibre wholesaler - just about everyone except BT. All we need now is a bit more detail on how it all adds up.

Small ads, big business but not for the local paper

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:25 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

"Wanted - new source of income for ailing industry. Anything reasonable considered." For decades, classified ads similar to that were the lifeblood of local newspapers - or the "rivers of gold" as the veteran newspaper man Roy Greenslade described it to me.

Local newspaper board

Now, though, the rivers have dried up as the ads have moved online. That means the entire business model for regional newspapers is under threat  - and this week I've been getting different perspectives on whether it's time to write the obituary of the classified ad, and with it the future of local journalism.

A visit to Gumtree, the ads website owned by eBay, provided ammunition for the view that the end is nigh. Sam Taylor from Gumtree stressed the sheer quantity of ads - nearly three million on a site which now counts among Britain's most visited e-tailers, with more traffic than the likes of

"The benefit you've got is the volume," he explained. "So the more people place ads, the more people you've got looking for them. And that means you've got more choice at a local level."

Of course, the other point is that many if not most of the ads placed on the site are free - and that makes it almost impossible for a local newspaper to compete.

But I've also met a man with an inspiring story to tell about how regional newspapers can hold on to classified ads and compete in the digital age. Sir Ray Tindle, now 84, founded his newspaper group with the money he was given on being demobbed at the end of the war.

From a small office in Farnham in Surrey, he now presides over a business which has more than 200 titles across the UK, some of which have been in existence since the 19th Century.

He pointed with pride at the papers lining the wall of his office and in particular the Cornish and Devon Post which still carries advertising on the front page. "If the editors let me, I'd always have advertising on the front," he told me.

Sir Ray concedes that the business has suffered a bit during the downturn, with recruitment advertising in particular well down, and some decline in the rest of the classified ad revenues.

Sir Ray Tindle

But he says the Tindle Group remains profitable, and he laughed off the idea that the internet was killing off small ads: "We've still got most of what we had," he says. "The internet is a marvellous thing but when you get to the level of the local papers, everyone looks at it, because it's local - you're not going to go far to buy a bicycle."

Hyper-local news is all the rage on the internet now - but Sir Ray can claim that it's been his idea all along. He pointed to another paper on the wall, the Tenby Observer, and told me that when he had bought it many years ago, it was in trouble because it was not local enough. A previous proprietor had changed its name to the West Wales Observer.

"I told them every line had to be about Tenby, and they chucked out all the stuff from Pembroke and Haverfordwest," says Sir Ray. The result, he says, was that circulation soon tripled.

And when I popped round the corner to the high street offices of the Farnham Gazette, where shoppers drop in to place a classified ad, I found what appeared to be a thriving hyper-local newspaper. The chief reporter was busy on a couple of stories - about Farnham of course, not Leatherhead or Guildford and sub-editors were checking copy from local reporters.

While advertising has taken a big hit, it seems this paper and the rest across Sir Ray's chain are still making money and providing local communities with proper journalism. The Tindle Group even has a digital operation with a paywall. If you are a Farnham resident who has moved away, or you are Tenby-born but live in London, you can pay to download a digital edition of your local paper.

So there you have it - a newspaper group with a defiant message: there is still a place in the digital age for local adverts and local news. The trouble is that, nationally, the numbers tell a different story. The likes of Gumtree keep growing, while the revenue for local papers from classified advertising dries up.

When I suggested that the internet had made local papers irrelevant and obsolete, Sir Ray Tindle told me in the politest possible way that I was talking rubbish and offered me a bet - that local newspapers would still be around two hundred years from now.

I hope he's right, but I think they will need to find a replacement for classified ads and they haven't got 200 years.

Two tablets to take on iPad

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:41 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

At last they are coming, the products that will give Apple's iPad a run for its money. I've had a glance at a couple of tablets in the last few days, that might just challenge Apple's dominance in a market that the company kickstarted last year.

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The first is the Motorola Xoom, leading the charge for Google's Android operating system. We've already seen quite a few Android tablets, notably the Samsung Galaxy Tab, but they've barely managed a dent in the iPad's almost total dominance of the market. That might be because they were running a system designed primarily for smaller screens, but now Android Honeycomb, tailored for tablets, is here and the Xoom is the first to show it off in the UK.

My first issue was with turning it on. I eventually found the power button on the back of the tablet next to the camera, not a great place for it, especially as you have to keep returning to it when the Xoom goes to sleep. It's a small detail, but just the kind of thing that Apple seems to get right.

Mind you, once I'd turned it on the Xoom proved an impressive device, fast, and with an intuitive user interface. The high resolution 10" screen made videos and photos look great. The five megapixel rear-facing camera produced better pictures than its equivalent on the iPad 2 - and while I still can't quite see the point of taking photos on a tablet, it's a great place to view and edit them. There's a front-facing camera for video calls too - I tried out Google Talk with a colleague, which worked well, but as yet there's no Skype app.

For your surfing needs, the Xoom features Google's Chrome browser which has two advantages over the iPad's Safari - it has tabbed browsing allowing easy switching between different sites, and it supports Flash, so you can watch all those web videos that aren't visible on Apple's tablet.

But there are two main weaknesses in the Xoom - the apps and the look and feel of the device. Right now there just aren't enough Android applications that are up to the standard of the best on the iPad - like the social magazine Flipboard, or Apple's own iMovie editing app and Garage Band music application. And by contrast with the IPad 2 the Xoom feels heavy and a little cumbersome. In other words it's great compared with the first iPad, but Apple has already moved on.

The second device I got to examine was the Blackberry Playbook, which goes on sale in the USA next week and in the UK by the end of June. When I say examine, I mainly sat back while the co-CEO of RIM, the Canadian firm behind the Blackberry, put the tablet through its paces.

Mike Lazaridis, who founded RIM back in 1984, proved a deft and enthusiastic demonstrator. He plugged the Playbook into a large television screen via an HDMI cable to show off some hi-def video content, which looked great. Even more impressive, he was then able to surf the web and use various apps on his small screen, while the video kept on playing on the television.

The Playbook looked slick and capable, though I still have some doubts about whether a 7" device will find a large gap in the market between smartphones and larger tablets like the Xoom and the iPad. Mr Lazaridis is confident that its sheer portability is a key attraction, but if that's the case I'm not entirely sure why there is quite so much stress on the ability to plug it into a television.

The Playbook will also need to work hard to convince developers to build the apps it needs to compete with Apple and Android. But from what I saw it is an impressive piece of hardware which should attract plenty of customers amongst the existing Blackberrry crowd - the business types, that is, not the BBM teenagers for whom Blackberry is now a cool brand. RIM says it's looking to attract both its enterprise users, with the promise of a link to their existing Blackberrys and the device's trademark security, and the average consumer. I'm not entirely sure the Playbook can bridge that gap.

Whilst we were chatting about his new toy, in which RIM has invested so much of its future, Mike Lazaridis was bubbly and enthusiastic. Then I asked a question about RIM's problems in India and the Middle East where it has been in battles with governments concerned that the Blackberry is just too secure for their police to monitor.

Suddenly, the atmosphere in the room chilled, Mr Lazaridis told me my question was unfair, and his PR executive informed us that the interview was over. We were there, apparently, to discuss the new product and nothing else.

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RIM is not alone amongst technology firms in wanting to exert tight control over its message but it seems surprising that the company would not address an issue of great interest to its customers across India and the Middle East.

Up your street - Microsoft's take on Streetview

Rory Cellan-Jones | 07:59 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

If you live in London you may see a car with cameras mounted on the roof coming down your street over the coming weeks. You are likely to assume that it's those folks from Google refreshing the Streetview service which shows views along just about every road in the UK. But you'd be wrong - the car will be operated by Google's deadly rival Microsoft.

As it tries to make its Bing search engine a more potent rival to the company that dominates search, Microsoft is sending its cars across London to start building something called Streetside. This service is already available in the United States and is now coming to Europe. According to Microsoft, Streetside "provides a true-to-life view you can explore to get a feel for a place and plan your activities. Travel along streets, view storefronts and parks, and navigate to destinations without an address".

Microsoft Streetside car

Ah, you might think, that sounds just like Streetview. No, no, says Microsoft, it's very different. For one thing, we won't be going up every street, just sticking to downtown areas and tourist locations. For another, we will be far more careful about telling everyone in advance that we are doing this.

When Google was gathering the images for Streetview it ran into a number of privacy rows, notably when residents of a village near Milton Keynes forced the driver of one of its cars to turn around and depart because they were unhappy about his cameras peering over their hedges.

So Microsoft has set up a website and a telephone hotline with information about where its Streetside cars will be. It is also promising that, like Google, it will blur faces and car number plates, and it says this:

"We accept requests to blur or remove images of faces or persons, homes, cars, acts of violence, nudity and unlawful material."

Above all, it stresses that it is not going to be scooping up personal data from home wi-fi networks as Google did in the incident which caused the biggest single row over Streetview . Though it turns out that anonymous data from wi-fi networks plays a vital role - alongside GPS technology - in building an accurate picture of location, so Microsoft would like to use it eventually.

But given the scale of this task, and the privacy issues, why on earth does Microsoft want to spend time and money building something that will be a lot less comprehensive than Google's Streetview? Because, the company explains, location-based services are about to become a huge business and Bing cannot compete with Google in that market without its own street-level imagery.

But do consumers really get any benefit from having two rival sets of cars heading up their streets taking photos? It is as if two rival electricity companies both decided to lay power lines down the same street. Perhaps we need Streetview to be made open-source, a national grid or public good that anyone could use for a fee set by a regulator. Just a thought...

Gold plated bills

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:52 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Any idea whether you're getting a good deal from your mobile phone contract? No, me neither - but according to a group of Oxford mathematicians behind a start-up firm called Billmonitor, we are collectively wasting nearly £5bn a year by being on the wrong deal.

Samsung Galaxy and iPhone 3G handsets


Having put nearly 30,000 bills through their sophisticated number cruncher, they've found that most people massively overestimate how much they will use their phones - and so end up on a more expensive contract than they need.

I used their system to look at my bills - and found that I was using roughly one third of the 600 minutes a month I'm allowed, and just under my 500Mb data allowance. But I turned out to be among the minority of mobile users who would not benefit by moving.

But even the millions who are on a gold-plated tariff may not be able to do much about it in the short-term, though you may be able to get a cheaper deal from the same operator halfway through your contract. And if we really were able to save £5bn a year, the operators would have to respond to losing such a huge chunk of their revenue by adjusting prices.

What I found more interesting in Billmonitor's report was what it showed about the changing pattern of mobile phone use - and the impact that the mass adoption of smartphones is having on our habits.

So here's what an average mobile phone subscriber in the UK looks like. Every month, they will talk for 240 minutes, send 300 texts, and use 133Mb of data. The voice calls, somewhat surprisingly, are still slightly on the rise, but texting is up nearly 50% on a year ago and data use has more than doubled. As the graph shows, the average user is piling on more data every month as they surf the web on the move.

Graph showing average monthly data use by UK mobile phone users

Average monthly data usage by UK mobile phone users

A few more insights into our mobile lives:

  • UK subscribers send 2.7 texts for every call
  • The average call lasts two minutes 35 seconds, and users spend around eight minutes a day calling
  • Calls peak at around 5pm each evening
  • The average user sends eight texts a day. Texting peaks later, at around 9pm
  • Women's calls are on average five seconds shorter than men's but they make 11 more calls a month. They are also heavier texters, sending 21% more a month than men, but men use 50% more data each month than women.

But it is the explosion in data use that is really striking.

A few years ago, the arrival of smartphone contracts bundled with unlimited data made millions of phone users far more relaxed about going online. Now, though, the mobile operators are trying to put the brakes on. First they introduced caps on those unlimited deals, now they're beginning to separate out data as an optional add-on to a contract.

We are spending an average of 16 minutes a day using our phones to call or text. But there are no figures for how long we are tapping away at apps, updating our social network statuses, or checking out football scores on the web, though I wouldn't mind betting that for many people that is now the main use for their phones. But the years when that was a free bonus bundled in with a smartphone contract are drawing to a close.

UPDATE: As has been pointed out, I got the abbreviation for megabytes wrong. It should be 133MB, not 133Mb.

Copyright: The Google question

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:31 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

Imagine it is the mid-1990s and a couple of smart Cambridge computer science students come up with a brilliant new way of searching the web. They drop out of college to try to start a business called Google - but give up because they discover the UK's copyright regime is just too restrictive.

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page


It's just a story, of course, but an important one - because it was the inspiration for a major government review of our copyright laws. When David Cameron announced the Hargreaves Review into the intellectual property system and growth back in November he said this:

"The founders of Google have said they could never have started their company in Britain.The service they provide depends on taking a snapshot of all the content on the internet at any one time and they feel our copyright system is not as friendly to this sort of innovation as it is in the United States."

Now the Hargreaves Review panel, whose members visited Google and other Silicon Valley firms, are due to hand over their findings by the end of the month. The entertainment industries have been lobbying hard against any major changes to the copyright system, and grumbling that the government seems more inclined to listen to Google than to British creative businesses which contribute far more to our economy.

So two questions - is it true that Google could not have started here, and if so what should change?

First of all, it's quite hard to find out when and in what context the founders of Google said that - and whether they explained what they meant in more depth. After all, it's clear that there were all sorts of factors that meant Google started in Silicon Valley - the culture, the availability of capital, and the fact that Larry Page and Sergey Brin were students at Stanford: a place with a long history of innovation and entrepreneurship.

But the prime minister in his speech in East London last year referred to America's fair use provisions, "which some people believe give companies more breathing space to create new products and services".

The laws in the UK do give some protection to firms wanting to copy material online, but not the blanket fair use provision that exists in the US. In its submission to the Hargreaves Review, Google suggests that the UK should learn from the American experience: "We believe that the US regime - with its inherent flexibility - is a better way to ensure new and untested innovations are not killed before they get off the ground."

But this review is about making the ground more fertile for future Googles - so I asked a small British search company whether it felt our copyright regime posed a threat to its existence.

True Knowledge is a fast-growing semantic search business - or "answer engine" as it describes itself - founded in Cambridge by William Tunstall-Pedoe. He told me that it was far too simplistic to say that the UK copyright regime would have prevented the birth of a Google - and it obviously hasn't stopped his firm getting off the ground.

"There's only one internet, with a lot of internationally accepted norms," he said, giving as an example the Robots Exclusion Standard, a convention governing how search engines are allowed or barred from crawling content on the web.

Mr Tunstall-Pedoe did feel that the UK would benefit from greater clarity about copyright law: "It's not going to be transformational but it would be helpful," he said.

So what can we expect from Hargreaves? Given the circumstances under which the review was set up, you might think it was a racing certainty that it would recommend the adoption of America's fair use regime in the UK.

But here's a funny thing - those lobbyists from the creative industries who were so angry about the way the review was framed now appear a lot more relaxed. "It's going to be a damp squib," one of them told me this week.

There have been repeated attempts to tinker with the UK's copyright regime, the most recent being the Gowers Review of 2006. Its main impact was to prevent a strengthening of the regime by an extension of recorded music copyright to 95 years.

Now we wait to see what this latest review decides on the balance between protecting our creative industries and encouraging innovative start-ups. Right now, the media giants seem confident that Google's story has not proved as convincing to the Hargreaves panel as it did to the prime minister.

Can Facebook win Obama the 2012 election?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:27 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

Is Facebook now the most important weapon in a politician’s digital armoury? Barack Obama certainly seems to think so. The US president has just launched his re-election campaign, and Facebook seems to be at the centre of it.

Obama campaign logo


The Obama Facebook page, created way back during the last campaign, has this message at the top from the president:

“Today, we are filing papers to launch the 2012 campaign. Say that you’re in.”

Saying that you’re in means telling your Facebook friends that you support Obama and want him back as president in 2012 - a very cheap and viral way of getting your message out, compared with the huge cost of running a traditional American campaign.

The campaign website looks very sparse right now - indeed, it makes a point about being a work in progress - so the Facebook page, which is already “liked” by nearly 19 million people, looks more likely to receive the most traffic. The possible Republican contenders also have a big presence on the leading social network, though Sarah Palin, with 2.8 million fans on her page, seems to be far ahead of others from her party, even though it is by no means certain hat she will run.

As for other digital tools, a YouTube video was used to launch the campaign, joining the many Obama videos which were a feature of the last Presidential race. Twitter, though, seems less prominent.

The 2008 Obama campaign became a byword for innovative use of digital technology and social media - although all the excitement about the use of Facebook and YouTube concealed the fact that older techniques such as email databases and telephone banks may have been more important.

When I was covering the digital side of Britain’s general election last year, all the parties appeared desperate to learn lessons from across the Atlantic. But British politics became fixated not on Facebook, but on Twitter. Suddenly, it seemed every MP, every candidate, every spin-doctor was tweeting day and night.

While Twitter is now an essential tool for anyone wanting to tap into political news or watch a story unfold, many political strategists are sceptical about its value as a medium to spread your message and engage new supporters. They point to the fact that Facebook has a much wider audience, and is better suited to local campaigns.

For the dull work of gathering a crowd to go out and knock on doors, a network which is already employed to organise everything from book clubs to anarchist demos may be the better choice.

Twitter may be the home to the chattering classes, Foursquare is the thing amongst twenty-something New Yorkers with great social lives, whereas Facebook, in the disparaging words of the digital prophet John Perry Barlow is "the suburbs". But that is where most people live - so no wonder Barack Obama thinks it is the place to win an election.

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