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Archives for May 2011

New beginning

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:10 UK time, Thursday, 12 May 2011

Thanks for reading this blog. As of today, it is moving to a new home, where there will be more, much more. Come and see my new page which, as well as my blog posts, will showcase more of my BBC output, including audio and video, and soon my tweets. You can follow me here.

The Apprentice does mobile apps

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:44 UK time, Thursday, 12 May 2011

The eyes of the technology world were on The Apprentice last night as the contestants created two compelling mobile apps. Actually, lets be honest, the eyes of London-based technology journalists were glued to the screen last night, watching with mirth, horror and some envy as a clutch of their colleagues snagged parts as extras in a reality show where two teams competed to make the worst app. (Spoiler alert - if you're a fan of the show and haven't seen the episode yet, read no further until you have visited the BBC iPlayer.)

Slangatang app

The role of our fellow tech hacks, Mike Butcher from Techcrunch, Stuart Miles of Pocket-Lint, and Nate Lanxon and Michael Parsons of, was to act as expert reviewers of the applications created by the two teams. The fact that they showed any enthusiasm for either app is a tribute to their acting skills.

The male team came up with something called Slangatang, an app which allows you to annoy your friends by shouting out catchphrases in a variety of unconvincing regional accents. "Who'd want that on their phone?" I hear you cry, but to be fair there are a lot of dafter apps - think iFart - which have done really well. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that it might be just dumb enough to work.

And Mike Butcher, writing on Techcrunch all the way back in October, seemed mildly impressed:

"If they get it right and introduce the features they plan, it's the kind of thing that could go viral, especially if celebrities get involved."

The chaps at Wired were less convinced, worried that the app might prove offensive

But if Slangatang looked weak, the female team's effort had me - and plenty of my fellow viewers - slapping my head in despair. They came up with another audio idea - Ampi App - with sounds to shock and noises to nuisance, though for the life of me I couldn't work out what users were supposed to do with a series of pig, elephant and other animal noises.

With only the chaps at Wired backing Ampi App, and the boys proving far better at presenting their work, the techies and most of the huge Twitter audience agreed that Slangatang was home and dry.

Then the results came in. The apps were made available for free download for Nokia, Blackberry and Android phones, though you may not be surprised to hear that Apple didn't agree to rush them into its App Store. More astonishing was the fact that thousands downloaded both apps, with Ampi Apps and its lame noises the clear winner.

What we learned was a few simple lessons. That people will try anything if it's free. That in a global marketplace, something that's stupid in any language - like a phone that makes animal noises - is a better bet than an app that speaks to a local sense of humour in a cod Welsh accent.

And that marketing and metadata are vital in getting your app seen amongst the millions competing for attention. The women may have been rubbish at presenting to an audience, but they somehow managed to get noticed on the global stage.

The real winners from last nights Apprentice were not the Venture team and their Ampi App, but Grapple, the software firm which built the two apps in a big hurry. There is an interesting piece about the firm on the Pocket-Lint site, and it can't harm their business to have been exposed to a television audience of eight million.

What would be nice now would be to have a rerun of the contest, with both Slangatang and Ampi Apps available for download again. Sadly, it appears that is unlikely to happen. Perhaps Lord Sugar thinks we have all suffered enough.

PSAs some have pointed out, "hundreds of thousands" did not download the apps, as I originally said. In fact, the female team had 10,000 downloads, compared to 3,000 for the boys.

MicroSkype - wow and why?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:36 UK time, Tuesday, 10 May 2011

"Wow" and then "Why? That's what the technology world is saying about the news that Microsoft is paying $8.5bn to acquire Skype.

Skype website

We've grown used to seeing outlandish prices paid for businesses without a proven path to profit. But this is the third time Skype has been sold and the asking price this time was roughly four times what the investors who bought a majority stake in the business paid back in 2009.

So why is a business which has fewer users than Microsoft's own Windows Live service and is still not profitable worth so much? One person who does not believe Microsoft has overpaid is Ben Horowitz. Now that's hardly surprising - his investment firm Andreeseen Horowitz bought a stake in Skype in 2009 and so has just made a huge return.

But in an interesting blog post, Mr Horowitz points out that similar scepticism greeted the 2009 deal and explains why the world was wrong then and is wrong now to think that shifting technology will leave Skype "in the dust" and its investors out of pocket.

Just two years ago, with Google Voice about to steamroller all opposition and Apple apparently planning something similar, it looked as though Skype would fade into irrelevance as the web went mobile.

That's proved completely wrong. Google Voice has not taken off in a big way, and is still not available outside the United States, and many users of Apple devices still prefer to use Skype rather than the FaceTime service which has been the subject of so many expensive advertising campaigns.

Ben Horowitz says that what Microsoft is getting is a brilliant team of technologists, led by the founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, who have repeatedly proved that they can keep Skype at the forefront of modern communications.

Now Microsoft hopes to be a major force in the way we meet online, perhaps in business video conferences as well as in all those social encounters which Skype already facilitates.

So yes, there are some good reasons why Microsoft wants Skype. But I think we are still entitled to say "wow" about the price, and wonder whether the buyer was panicked into the deal on hearing that Google or Facebook might also be interested.

What makes a video viral?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:02 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

Last Thursday I wrote here about a plan to put an ultra-cheap computer in the hands of British schoolchildren in an attempt to get them interested in programming. The blog post - and the accompanying video which I'd shot on my phone - sparked a reasonable amount of interest, though nothing spectacular.

YouTube video of the £15 computer


But, in a hurry to get the video off my phone and into the BBC system, I had decided that the quickest way was to put it on YouTube from where it could be downloaded and processed. After the blog post was published, I linked to the original video on YouTube - and within hours my inbox was filling up with comments.

I watched with mounting amazement as views to my YouTube clip accelerated. By Thursday evening it was heading to 10,000 views, but through Friday and Saturday the line on the YouTube Insight page - which I admit became something of an obsession - climbed ever more steeply, passing through 100,000, then 200,000. On Sunday the rate of growth started to slow, but by Monday morning nearly 400,000 people had viewed the clip.

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Now I've put other clips onto YouTube over the years, and some have attracted a degree of interest, notably Stephen Fry praising Windows phones. But that got fewer than 9,000 views, so nothing in comparison to the Raspberry Pi clip.

The fact that the clip was shown and promoted on the BBC website obviously makes a big difference - but that was also the case with this clip about the auction of a very early Apple computer, yet it attracted fewer than a thousand views.

I've used the word viral in the title of this post, and many will quite reasonably object that a video promoted (though not linked to) from a mainstream site can never be described as viral. But it's still a puzzle to me to work out what catches the imagination of casual web clickers and what leaves them cold.

There's a clue in one previous viral clip posted by my former partner in blogging Darren Waters. His video of a Microsoft Xbox console at a games show suffering the notorious red ring of death proved immensely popular - and I think there are three reasons for that.

It was about a subject of great interest to a technically literate section of the web population, it was exclusive footage, and it was picked up and spread by a host of bloggers. Similarly, a lot of tech-savvy types are interested in new cheap forms of computing - and my video was the only way to see the Raspberry Pi device and hear David Braben talk about it.

All I need to do now is find something else that everybody wants to see and get some exclusive video. Any ideas would be welcome.

A 15 pound computer to inspire young programmers

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:50 UK time, Thursday, 5 May 2011

It's not much bigger than your finger, it looks like a leftover from an electronics factory, but its makers believe their £15 computer could help a new generation discover programming.

The games developer David Braben and some colleagues came to the BBC this week to demonstrate something called Raspberry Pi. It's a whole computer on a tiny circuit board - not much more than an ARM processor, a USB port, and an HDMI connection. They plugged a keyboard into one end, and hooked the other into a TV they had brought with them.

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The result, a working computer running on a Linux operating system for very little, and a device that will, like the kit computers of the 1970s and 80s, encourage users to tinker around under the bonnet and learn a bit of programming. And it's a yearning to return to those days that is driving Braben and the other enthusiasts who are working to turn this sketchy prototype into a product that could be handed to every child in Britain.

They believe that what today's schoolchildren learn in ICT classes leaves them uninspired and ignorant about the way computers work. David Braben says the way the subject is taught today reminds him of typing lessons when he was at school - useful perhaps in preparing pupils for office jobs, but no way to encourage creativity.

Raspberry Pi is a non-profit venture, whose founders are mostly part of Cambridge's thriving technology sector. Their hope is that teachers, developers and the government will come together to get the device into the hands of children who may not have access to a computer at home or would not be allowed by parents to "muck about with it".

In some ways, the project resembles the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) scheme, which sought to create a laptop for children in the developing world at a cost of $100. OLPC was successful in promoting the idea of cheap computing, spawning lots of netbook imitators, but has struggled to get the price as low as they promised and to convince governments to back the idea.

There's a lot of work for Raspberry Pi to do. The volunteer team has to produce a better working prototype, has to show that it really can be manufactured for around £15, and then has to capture the imagination of the people in the educational establishment who will decide whether to give it the thumbs up.

So there is no guarantee that a new generation will discover that there's more to a computer than turning it on, updating your Facebook status, and making a Powerpoint presentation. But wouldn't it be great if an idea dreamed up by a group of Cambridge enthusiasts ended up inspiring young people here and perhaps across the world to engage with computers in a new way? I will keep you up to date here with how Raspberry Pi develops and my colleagues on the BBC's Click technology programme will also be taking a look at the project.

Spotify takes on Apple

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:22 UK time, Wednesday, 4 May 2011

It's a young company, growing rapidly but with an uncertain future and now Spotify is trying to take on the might of Apple. That's not the line its pushing as it revamps the free version of its streaming music service but that's what lies beneath the new strategy - which makes it either brave or foolhardy.

Spotify logo

You may remember that a couple of weeks ago, Spofity announced strict new curbs on the amount of music that users of its free ad-supported service could play, apparently under pressure from music labels unhappy that free music was eroding CD sales.

Now those same users are being offered two things, the ability to manage MP3 players like the iPod through Spotify, and a new download service which offers cheaper deals if you buy lots of tracks at a time. Gustav Soderstrom, the man who has designed the new product, insists it's not just a compensation prize for the curbs imposed on free users. He says this is an idea conceived over a year ago after research into how people use the service and what they want from it.

There's a lot of talk in Spotify's press release about giving users the same experience as premium subscribers by allowing them to take their playlists with them on the move. They can only do that, though, with music they already own, so what is really being pushed here is a revamped download offering.

The Swedish firm freely admits that the existing download service - its third source of revenue alongside advertising and subscriptions - has been a bit of a disaster. Prices for single tracks have been too high to attract much interest and it was never clear to me who would buy when they could get music for free, with adverts.

Now, after more lengthy negotiations with the music labels, it has come up with something it believes will prove irresistible to the kind of people who build huge playlists on Spotfiy and would like to take them with them on an MP3 player. So if you buy 10 tracks at a time, they are priced at 80p each, but if you want 100 you will pay 50p apiece.

Every aspect of this new service is aimed at iTunes, the Apple software which is not universally loved but has a virtual stranglehold on digital music. If Spotify's plan works, its users will soon be syncing all of their music onto their iPods without going near iTunes and they will be able to sync over their home wi-fi, something Apple's software still does not allow. Then when they want new music they will find it cheaper to get it from Spotify's download service rather than the iTunes store.

So should Apple be worried? Well it may be more concerned by the activities of a much bigger business closer to home. Amazon, whose MP3 store has been around for awhile, has just launched a price war in the United States, cutting the prices of top chart tracks to 69 cents - nearly half of what iTunes charges.

When and if Spotify finally hatches the deal with the music majors that allows it to launch in America, then Apple may pay attention to its upstart challenger.

But in the meantime, this new plan for what I described to Spotify executives as their freeloaders - they weren't enthusiastic about that term - really needs to work. While it's real aim is to turn the nine million free users into paying customers as quickly as possible, the music streaming service needs to keep a steady flow of new arrivals coming through the door.

Last month's bad news about limits to the service is bound to put some off trying Spotify, even though the brakes aren't applied to new users for six months. Now the firm has to hope that that a new way of managing their music will keep more customers coming and perhaps persuade a few of them to buy the odd track too.

More than 200 million people use iTunes and hand Apple their credit card details to manage their digital music. If Spotify can persuade even a small share of them that it has a better way of doing things, then it may at last find the path to profitability.

Twitter captures the Osama Bin Laden raid

Rory Cellan-Jones | 11:05 UK time, Monday, 2 May 2011

I turned on the radio at 0700 this morning - and heard the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. I immediately picked up my phone and tweeted this fact - only to be bombarded with messages saying this was now very old news. In the age of Twitter you have to be online all night to keep up with events.

Already this is being described as another huge day for the micro-blogging service - "Twitter just had its CNN moment", as one American website put it, comparing this event with the first Gulf War, where millions suddenly woke up to the fact that cable news was the place to observe a war unfold in real-time.

I assumed that Twitter had merely been very fast to pick up on what more conventional news sources were saying - but it appears not. More than an hour before President Obama delivered his address with the news of the operation, this tweet from a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld popped up:

screengrab of tweet

So Twitter was first with the news, partly because it has become the medium now used by people in the know to spread information. But what was more remarkable was that the raid on the Bin Laden compound was actually tweeted live by a witness who didn't realise what he was seeing.

Late yesterday evening, a man called Sohaib Athar, who describes himself on Twitter as "an IT consultant taking a break from the rat-race by hiding in the mountains with his laptops," reported the presence of a helicopter hovering above Abbotabad:

He then went on to document first his annoyance about the helicopter's noisy presence, then an apparent explosion, and his dawning realisation that something big was going on. Eventually, he tweeted:

"Uh oh, now I'm the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it."

Sohaib Athar, or @reallyvirtual, had been transformed within a couple of hours from an obscure IT guy in Pakistan to an eyewitness to history. According to new figures from Twitter, he is among a global population of 200 million users. Such is the power of this network that it has become the key resource for older media trying to stay ahead of events - a journalist who does not use Twitter is now like one who abjures the mobile phone.

Other crowdsourced online news sources - from Wikipedia with its swiftly updated Osama Bin Laden entry to Google Maps which rapidly had a location for his Abbotabad compound - also proved their worth.

But there's a harsh lesson for some news organisations trying to adapt to the digital age. I looked at The Times and the Telegraph iPad apps this morning and neither had changed their front pages to reflect the news about Bin Laden. Most days, it does not matter that iPad editions "go to bed" at the same time as the papers. This morning, it made them look like 20th Century relics - and if users are being asked to pay for the apps, as is the case with The Times, they may have some searching questions about what they're getting for their money.

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