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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Food for Thought

It has been a very foody morning. First a big leftovers breakfast reading Nigel Slater’s enthusiastic descriptions of Christmas lunch preparation from last Sunday’s Observer. Then slumping in a chair, loaded with bubble and squeak, to watch a bit of Jamie Oliver.

It was a rerun of Jamie’s tour of Italy, showing his visit to a Puglian school where he witnessed the quality of food served to Italian youngsters. Even in this poor part of the country, expenditure per head on school lunches was almost three times what it is in the UK. By law all the food had to be organic and there wasn’t an ounce of processed meat any where near the place. Kids were offered one choice only and were expected to eat it.

It was a stark contrast to the situation in the UK. The standards laid out in the Italian schools may be driven as much by a national love of food as a desire to give their kids the best possible start, but the benefits remain. I haven’t looked for any empirical evidence of advantages to learning from eating so well, but there must be enormous advantages for long term health.

Given our ageing population in the UK, and the prevailing health problems in society, there must be a strong argument for implementing a similar health food programme in schools. Jamie’s UK campaign at least increased the spend per head (in theory) but parent power has seen the choices in schools maintained at an unfortunately high number and of a low standard.

In my humble opinion, there is a good argument for telling people what is good for them. If they don’t like it? Time for some tough love.

But the problem isn’t restricted to schools. The standard of food/cooking/eating in this country is generally low. There is a definite two-tier system in place, with the haves increasingly turning towards expensive organic produce and the have-nots sticking with ‘cheaper’ processed food.

Of course the produce is only part of the issue — processed food bypasses the need to cook properly with fresh ingredients. This almost inevitably produces healthier, more nutritious, lower-fat food but is perceived as requiring time. People believe that their busy lifestyles rule out cooking from fresh and even if they wanted to the skills required just aren’t as common as they ought to be.

This all sits at odds with the massive boom in the cooking/eating industries in the UK. But the cult of the cookbook and the celebrity chef are largely the preserve of the organically-fuelled middle classes.

If the next generation of kids is not to be totally obese and dependent on supplements for nutrients, we need a radical solution. I’d like to propose a couple:

Firstly, we should turn the whole of the UK over to organic farming. Yields would fall, production output would decrease, but the price of organic products would fall. We would have to become net importers of more of our produce in the short term but I would hope that as farmers relearned thousand-year old practices we could bring levels up to near self sufficiency again — at least for the basics.

Secondly we need a massive programme of education for future generations, not just light-weight ‘home economics’ that teaches kids to bake a cake. A core part of the curriculum should be life skills, the teaching of which is absent from too many homes. If we are to jump-start good practices it needs to be state funded and state-mandated. No-one should leave school without a basic understanding of the food cycle, and how to cook food from the basic ingredients.

These are two ideas described in very simplistic terms. I could describe them further, and probably will in a future post. There is certainly a theme here that I will pick up upon again — self-sufficiency for both people and countries. And I don’t mean in a freaky, gun-toting, mid-west survivalist kind of way.

Suffice to say this is a blog about the future and technology. I don’t believe all the technology in the world can make the future pleasant, or even survivable, if we are a race of obese creatures incapable of feeding ourselves without the assistance of corporations to process our food.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Back to TV 3.0

Just a short one this…or at least that’s the plan. Just read an article on YouTube in the latest issue of Wired magazine.

In drawing his conclusion, the author of this piece references all the lost titans of the dotcom boom (goes the dynamite) and wonders whether YouTube’s sale price ($1.6bn) was vastly — and wrongly — inflated. Is it just another transient fad that will be huge one day and gone tomorrow?

Now what I don’t know is whether the author was joking, but his answer was no. On the grounds that YouTube has 100 million streams a day.

Exsqueeze me?

A user base does not a business model make — just ask anyone who invested in dotcoms on the grounds of a company’s “market share”. What this typically meant is that they had thousands of users in a market that had zero revenue.

Certainly a user base does not make a business model when that user base is concentrated amongst the most fad-driven audience: teens. People are teenagers for a very short period of time, and the new people entering the demographic are constantly searching for the ‘new’. That’s what makes pop music/fashion/teen culture in general so interesting. And it is what makes me question the values attached to any business that is currently hugely popular amongst teens. That popularity will end, sure as it does for any TV show or band targeting that age group.

I lay no claim to being as clever as Larry or Sergey, so I don’t doubt that there was a good reason for paying $1.6bn for YouTube. But I really doubt it was the 100m streams a day that sold it.

The argument for this conclusion is that people want to share the infamous ‘watercooler moment’ — discussing last night’s big happening in the office/school/bus queue the next day. No arguments from me on this one.

But what does YouTube have to do with this moment? Do people really want a destination website on which to find the new ‘thing’? Call me old fashioned but surely they want it on their TV? For all the five-minute funnies in the world won’t get the true mass market away from their comfy armchairs and in to the office to watch TV — especially when they have to access it with a keyboard and a mouse.

What is important is the mechanism for finding good new content, and sharing this content with friends and family. Then you can create a critical mass around a single program that delivers your watercooler moment. Think how much bigger Numa would have been if it had broken out of the confines of the web and been shared from TV to TV.

YouTube currently has the most popular mechanism for recommending/sharing this type of content, but there’s nothing to day something like Digg couldn’t displace it (although obviously it is unlikely that the actual Digg will).

My recipe for TV 3.0 (sorry — again) remains unchanged and I don’t think the interface to it will be a website — at least not in the current mould. Give me a set top box (or a good media PC with a proper 10ft interface), access to charts/recommendations and broadband for streams/downloads, and I think 100m streams a day starts to look puny.

There’s no denying that 100m streams a day gives the Googlers a head start in creating this type of entity, if that is their aim. But honestly, I believe fashion is too fickle for that to translate in to a $1.6bn advantage.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Fat Clients

Anyone who uses my marketing services, please don’t take offence. I’m not talking about you.

The title refers to that age-old debate about thin clients and fat clients that ten years ago raised the blood pressure of executives throughout IT-land . Thin clients are just simple machines that allow you to access processing power, storage and applications hosted somewhere on the network. Fat clients by contrast have their own processing power, memory, storage and applications. A nice example is a radio (thin) versus an iPod (fat).

What brought this to mind was a story from The Roundup, about tiny cubes of digital storage that would enable us to carry the world’s knowledge around with us. Surely this would mean the end of the thin client? Why rely on the network when you can carry everything with you?

Of course it isn’t that simple. It is all very well being able to store all of that knowledge, but accessing it is another matter. When you have that much information, the ability to sort, search, and filter it is what becomes valuable. And it will be a long time before a Google-sized server farm can be compressed in to a pocketable device.

The reality is that the industry has settled on a compromise position. Most popular devices today are connected in some way — PDAs via WiFi, PCs via ethernet, phones via GSM etc — but they also all have significant processing power and local storage. Even my phone has a processor running at ten or twenty times the frequency of my first PC, and it has more than twenty times the storage. To me that most certainly makes it a fat client.

Over the next twenty years this obesity epidemic seems unlikely to end. Processing power will continue to increase, even though the current generation of chip technologies is starting to reach some physical boundaries that might spell the end for Moore’s law (hence the move to multiple cores, rather than increased frequencies). Storage capacities are also increasing dramatically, as noted in the article that spurred this post.

But what is increasing quicker than either of these technologies can maintain pace is the volume of data in the world, and our reliance on computers to filter and process that data.

A simple example is HDTV. Just as we are freeing up spectrum in the airwaves by moving from analogue to digital, we increase the bandwidth required to deliver a single station by dramatically increasing picture quality. More data equals more processing power required to turn that data in to something we can use.

There is also the ‘Semantic Web’ to consider, also known as ‘The Internet of Things’.

The idea of the Semantic Web is to make all of the information on the Web usable by machines rather than just people. This would make it much easier for applications to apply some ‘joined-up thinking’ — if you wanted to book an airline ticket, your computer could get data from your diary, find out your historical choice of airlines, check the timetables and prices, and bring you back a personalised selection of options. Today doing that requires either human intervention or a very specialised search engine.

But where the Semantic Web gets really interesting is when you take it out of the Web environment. If there is a standard way for ‘things’ to express and share the data they hold, they can share it with each other to improve our lives. The oldest example is the internet fridge — your fridge could talk to the RFID chip in your milk carton and find out your milk is off. It then contacts your phone via your home network to tell you to buy more on the way home.

The point is that once items like milk cartons start spitting data on to the network, the volumes of data we have to deal with grow exponentially. Milk cartons are the new thin clients — while they don’t let us access the power of the network, they at least contribute their limited knowledge to it in a way that we, or our machines, can usefully access.

Fat — even obese — clients will be required to help us digest this information. However much filtering and filing can be done by intelligence in the network (e.g. Google agents who know your profile and find what you might like from the morass of media outlets), we will always need some local intelligence to help us interpret and interface with the data we receive.

The situation we have today with increasingly powerful networked devices looks set to continue, but the thin devices have found a new role. I, for one, intend to be a thoroughly fat device — certainly by the time the Christmas break is over.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Bricks vs Bits

I’ve just completed a long overdue clearout, selling off old PDAs, games consoles and other knickknacks in a bid to lessen the financial impact of Christmas. In the event it was so successful it covered the cost of all my Christmas presents and will even pay for a few beers.

The values of all the tech items I sold were fairly predictable, just from watching a few auctions of similar items and getting a feel for the price. I was pleasantly surprised at the value fetched by a few museum pieces (Apple PowerBook 5300c anyone?), but what shocked me most was the price paid for a pair of shoes.

I had bought a pair of designer hiking boots at an outlet shop for just £20, worn them once and realised they were just a millimetre too small for my fat feet. Their eBay selling price? £45.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I bought a designer t-shirt — again at an outlet shop — for £10 a couple of years ago and sold it online for more than twice that to a guy in the US.

Both incidents could be sheer good luck on my part, and I have yet to test this effect empirically, but it does seem that certain items go for more on eBay than they do in the shops. There might be a business model there somewhere, buying up cheap designer goods and selling them online. But first I want to know why it happens.

I have a few theories, and I think they give us some insight both in to the mind of the shopper, and perhaps the future for shopping:

1. Value-Brand Rejection
I’m sure there is a proper term for this, but it is pretty clear that some people just don’t want to be seen shopping in ‘value’ shops — TK Maxx, Aldi etc. I can understand it. I shop for nice clothes in cheap places and would be quite happy for most people to believe I paid full price for the apparently expensive outfit I might be wearing. Status is important to all of us, but some of us are shallow enough to measure status by where we shop — or at least be concerned that others will judge us that way. Hence when people want a bargain, they would rather buy it from eBay than risk being seen hunting down that bargain in person. They might even admit it — getting a bargain on eBay still has a certain cachet.

2. Convenience
There’s no arguing with the web for convenience, certainly when compared to the jumble sale that is most ‘value’ clothes shops. If you are looking for a pair of hiking boots and find them at half their RRP you are bound to think they are a bargain — especially as they will be delivered to your door.

3. Reach
eBay has more than 10 million users in the UK alone. That is an incredible audience against which to market a single item. And the chances are that even if it is a niche item you may well find a buyer. The t-shirt that was neglected in the outlet store until its price fell to £10 immediately found a number of interested people amongst the millions searching online.

If my theories are accurate, then how will they affect shoppers and shops? People’s rejection of value brands is unlikely to change, although there will always be some that overcome the issue (‘Pradamark’). People will always appreciate convenience too, although this is balanced out by the social aspects of shopping and the need to try clothing items on.

Reach is what is key: the reach of the Internet retailers. People are getting more tech-savvy, and Internet access is increasingly ubiquitous. Hence there is likely to be a bigger audience for online shopping from home, and as bandwidths increase and technologies improve, the home shopping experience will become richer. Think virtual reality or 3D screens; webcams that can accurately size you up and deliver an onscreen representation of how you might look in a certain item.

But it is the reach of the internet in to the high street that will cause the biggest change. Once you have enjoyed the social aspect of shopping and tried the item on, why pay the full high-street price for it when you can find a better deal online? Even if the feted municipal WiFi networks don’t take off, there will soon be limitless bandwidth available to your smartphone. A built-in RFID tag reader (to capture information about the product without typing it in) would enable you to very easily run a price-check online, and even allow you to order the product on the spot from wherever you might find the best price.

I’m already trying this approach for electrical goods and computer parts. It is clunky without the RFID reader, and slow and expensive over GPRS. But it works, and has saved me money on a few occasions where I have ignored a tempting high-street offer when I have found a much better deal online. Ignoring the thrill of the impulse purchase is tough, but when there is more than a £10 price difference, it is easy to justify. And it also makes you feel pretty smug. I think that could be enough to make this a popular approach.

This could be the start of a real war for customers between the shops with bricks, and those with bits.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Answer to Our Green Transport Needs

I covered 360 miles in a round trip on Friday and Saturday. In spite of all my environmental guilt, I drove. Why? Simple economics.

The choice was pretty stark. Taking the train would have meant leaving at 22:55 on the Thursday night and travelling for over nine hours with four changes. The return leg would have taken four hours. Total fare: £98, not including any taxis I would have needed at the other end (at least one at over £20).

Driving meant leaving at 05:30 and driving for three hours to get to my destination. The return meant leaving at 11:00 and driving for three hours to get back again. Total cost: around £25–30 in diesel.

So the train was four times as expensive, took more than twice as long, and was less than half as convenient. Yet fares continue to rise.

I think it is fairly obvious how this ties in to the future. Climate change remains the elephant in the room that most of us continue to ignore. But it is not out of bloody mindedness or lack of desire to change things. It simply isn’t realistic to take many of the decisions that we would like to.

I would greatly prefer to travel on the train, reading a good book or getting some work done, rather than spending six hours dodging the incompetents who inhabit the middle lane of Britain’s motorways.

But I cannot afford to spend an extra £90 or seven hours on travelling, and I am in the majority.

So what needs to change? Much as I like the idea of a dramatically improved rail network, clean, quick and subsidised for all, it ain’t gonna happen. There just isn’t a sufficiently large financial incentive for the private sector to drive such development, and the current government is not brave enough to renationalise the infrastructure and pour in the required investment. The next government will be ideologically opposed to such a move, whatever Cameron’s green credentials.

Instead I think we will see a renaissance for the pariah of the environmental lobby, much as we have for nuclear power. The answer to all our clean, green transport needs? The car.

Society is now too dependent on a means of getting themselves and their goods from A to B that gets them from door to door. The road network is the only really complete transport solution. But if it isn’t going to choke us all, or cause us all to have heart failure from road rage, a few things need to change.

1. Fuel
There are fuel options out there that are not perfect but a lot better than what we have today. I don’t believe electricity is the answer for the mainstream. Until there are serious developments in battery technology, the power to weight ratios are no good, the recharging too time consuming and inconvenient, and the source of electricity uncertain. Instead, liquid fuels such as biodiesel from recycled cooking oil and crops, plus ethanol from corn seem a strong option. They can be delivered through the existing refuelling network and they have a business and taxation model that everyone understands. They will also demand minimum changes to the performance we expect from our cars. Though neither is without issues, the benefits vastly outweigh the problems.

Unfortunately the money being spent by the oil companies on lobbying and PR to dismiss these options is vast. Even I was convinced that there simply weren’t enough acres of land to grow the fuel we need until I read otherwise (thankyou Wired).

2. Design
Cars have advanced a million ways and none. They are still fundamentally the same beast they ever were — a lump of steel with four wheels and an engine. The next phase of design doesn’t have to be revolutionary but there does need to be a significant evolution to improve efficiency further. Lighter metals, composites and ceramics are currently too expensive to make it into the multi-million-selling family hatchbacks but they will over time. Recyclability is obviously key, but safety too needs to improve, in part to compensate for the generally low level of ability displayed by drivers….

3. Training
But technology alone cannot compensate for this. While I am not a fan of the ‘nanny-state’ (where it exists in any sense other than some Daily Mail myth), I do believe that we have to improve the regulation of drivers. Looked at objectively it seems incredible that we are willing to put the incredible power of a modern car in to the hands of people with so little training. If driving were a niche sport, or perhaps was conducted only by the employees of a small industry, it would be regulated much more heavily. Licences would be renewed every five years; health and safety measures would be much more rigorous.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to retake my test every five years. But poor driving has much more wide-ranging effects than accidents, injuries and deaths. For example, congestion (and stress levels) could be dramatically reduced by better educating people and enforcing standards for motorway driving.

4. Culture
It’s an old hobby horse but I have to take it for a ride once more: 4x4s. We need to do something to prevent people from unnecessarily owning and driving vehicles that are dangerous to them, those around them and the environment. For the majority of owners, 4x4s are a statement of fashion and ego. Any argument from a parent about it being for safely transporting their kids — an argument you hear too often, even from people you previously thought sensible — makes my blood boil. Completely ignoring the actual facts about the safety (or otherwise) of 4x4s is one thing. Ignoring the damage it could do to someone else’s kids and the future of the race as a whole is unforgiveable. The answer? An additional driving test for 4x4s that requires the owner to demonstrate the ability to drive it off road, an appreciation of maneuvering and parking such a large vehicle, and a knowledge of fuel economy and the effect that burning fossil fuels has on the environment.

Again I don’t wish to be misunderstood. I’m not anti-materialism. I like to buy nice things and all things considered, I’m probably a bit of a show off. In fact I plan to own a 4×4 at some point. But it will be for a purpose that requires that type of vehicle. Not for the school run.

If we can address these issues, I don’t have a problem with the car remaining our primary mode of transport. What will not solve the problem though is the recently proposed road charging scheme. I agree with the basic principle of charging for use. But penalising people for travelling on busy roads at rush hour is absurd, when the public transport alternative is so clearly inadequate.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

BOTF Around the World

It seems I’m not the only person inspired by the Usborne series of books about the future. For those of you who also feel a little nostalgic about them, here’s a collection of links to the Usborne BOTF community. Please feel free to add your own, or others as you find them.

— Resourcefulrobin over on Flickr had the little brother to BOTF called Future Cities. She includes lots of images from the book here. BOTF was a compendium of other smaller volumes including this one. I’ll find out what the others were when I’m home at Christmas, assuming my mum hasn’t ‘cleared out’ this one as she has a habit of doing with some of my other possessions (yes mum, I do still remember my Scalextrix going to the charity shop).

— Nathan Shumate also had a copy of Future Cities. He gives it his own review here, and looks at how many of the predictions came true (a surprising number, although not all 100% accurately).

— Virtuapimp picks up the same page of BOTF with some comments here

Doing some digging on Amazon, you can actually find a copy of BOTF and its component parts!

— Here for BOTF (no images unfortunately).
— Future Cities for just £2.21
— Along with “Robots: Science and Medicine into the 21st Century”, which I guess probably made up another part of the BOTF.

At least I know what to do if mum actually HAS thrown my copy out…

Anyway, Usborne, if you ever want some people to contribute to/edit a new edition of this book, you know who to talk to.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Has Apple Had Its Day?

Apple continues to ride high. After years in the doldrums, the resurrection orchestrated by Steve Jobs has been nigh-on miraculous in both scale and longevity. But how long can it last?

The iPod continues to dominate the portable music player market with its slick branding, cool looks and simple interface. Integration with the similarly successful iTunes has created a strong symbiotic relationship that will extend the semi-monopoly even when the iPod is technically inferior to rivals. Today the iPod is so successful that it has achieved that rare feat for a brand name and become a common noun.

Outside the music market, Apple continues to build sexy computers that are gaining increasing attention from the home user. As web, email, and word processing facilities are commoditised and web-enabled, so the old issue of compatibility has disappeared. With computer literacy spreading, so the problem of being familiar with one or other operating system becomes less prevalent: people are more willing and able to switch to Macs. And as digital media has become the new core use for a PC, so the media-friendly Mac has gained friends.

Apple laptops? Well it’s hard to argue with such sexy slabs of aluminium.

So it’s all rosy? Not quite.

Apple wins on a combination of capability and cool. Its products are both easy to use and un-geeky enough to appeal to the general public (particularly women). But both of these advantages are under assault.

On the desktop front, while I don’t hold out great hopes for Windows Vista being sufficiently capable or cool to cause Apple problems, there is another challenger out there: Linux. Although widely dismissed as a potential desktop OS for the tech-fearing consumer, distributions like Ubuntu have been making quiet strides to the point where they present a genuine alternative. Given the increasing computer literacy described above, it really isn’t hard to see people making the switch from Windows to Linux as easily as they might make the switch to Mac OS. Given the cost difference it is easy to see the appeal to students and the like, as well as system builders who might offer it as an option, if nothing else. All it needs is to be cool.

The increasing role for the PC in delivering digital media also provides an opportunity for Linux distributions to get further in to the consumer market. Enthusiasts have balked at the high cost (and initially exclusive distribution) of the Windows Media Centre OS, and while it remains probably the best solution for the (imagined) problem, there are many Linux-based challengers out there.

Apple is probably on the right track here though, by not delivering a product for this space at all. My experience of media centre PCs of all flavours tells me that they are not quite ready for the mainstream — and nor is the mainstream yet demanding them. Still, when the time is right there will be a range of Linux-based options for a robust, functional operating system that will compete with whatever MS and Apple might put out there.

With regards to portable devices, the real challenger is not Microsoft’s Zune or any of the current crop of brand name (and less well known) Asian CE manufacturers. While they might be able to create flashy devices that outlast the iPod’s battery life or have better sound quality, they will never match Apple for cool. But a couple of other companies have had even greater success than Apple at making geek toys cool and getting them in to the pockets of the tech-fearing consumer: Nokia, SonyEricsson, and Motorola.

The RAZR was the watershed: a genuinely fashionable mobile phone. One designed from the ground up to win on form as much as function, not just to have some daft plastic covers stuck on. Lesson learned: the mobile phone manufacturers are delivering ever greater features but also putting some effort in to the cool factor.

Of course Apple plans to launch a phone in the new year, but I’m of the opinion that it is unlikely to be a success on the level of the iPod. More likely another Newton.

And this is where Apple’s success begins to fall apart. Cool is by nature not something that you can hold on to. It is inevitably dulled by success and when that happens the trendmakers begin to look elsewhere. You can hold on to it for so long by spending big (think U2 limited editions, Eminem adverts…etc), but eventually the new cool will overtake you.

On the mobile side, Nokia has a devoted userbase of millions. All they need to do is make their music-friendly products a little less techie and a little more cool and they have an iPod-beater at their fingertips. Especially if someone can force iTunes integration to be opened up to the market (I’m sure some marketing dollars are being spent around Brussels at the moment). SonyEricsson is already there with its Walkman phones, and only suffering slightly from the damaged cool of its Sony parent. Motorola has the best marketing, and also a seemingly limitless budget.

For the desktop and media centre, one of the main fashion trends is rolling in Linux’ favour. Geek chic is going mainstream, with a generation of gamers who grew up with 8-bit games apparently at the fore, creating clothes, movies, art and music from their pixellated memories. This combined with the eco-feel of its brand might be just what Ubuntu needs to make it cool.

I’m not writing Apple off. It will continue to innovate and make successful products. But it appears to be at the top of its curve. And the common noun ‘iPod’ looks set to long outlast the dominance of the device that spawned it.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

ResponsibilIT

I wear a few different hats in my working life, one of which is working with EggHeads, a service that helps people with consumer technology. The service was started with the assumption that while the PC market was probably sewn up, there were lots of new devices appearing that people needed help to choose between, set-up and use. And that they would be willing to pay for this help.

Willing they are, and the service is proving a success. However the biggest workload comes not from requests about iPods, digital cameras or multi-room audio as had been expected. People are still struggling with their home PCs, and particularly with viruses.

Taking a small sample of the last ten call outs for one EggHead. Nine were to do with PCs in some way. Of these, three had hardware problems, four needed their broadband or wireless networks configuring and the other two were calls exclusively about viruses. When configuring the broadband and wireless networks, the EggHead found that two of those computers were also infected.

That is four out of ten computers infected with viruses, and apparently this was a relatively clean sample. Of those four computers, each one had some form of anti-virus solution, and in most cases, more than one.

Having multiple anti-virus programs is known to cause problems, but the programs never flagged this to the user. And now I get to the point: who’s responsibility is it to protect the PC from viruses?

The user clearly doesn’t have the level of knowledge required to maintain and update their own system, and frankly, why should they learn? PCs are sold as consumer electronics items now, and you don’t need any understanding of electronics to watch a DVD or use a TV. So why should you need to learn the inner workings of a PC to be able to safely browse the web or use email?

There is an argument that learning about properly securing your PC is no different to learning to check the oil, water, and air pressure levels in your car. There is some merit in this but it is a flawed argument. Cars have been around for a lot longer than PCs, and pretty much since they became publicly available you have needed to perform the same maintenance. This means that any generation who didn’t have this knowledge disappeared a long time ago, and the basics have entered the public consciousness. By contrast PCs have only been around 25 years, and anyone who had a deep understanding of a PC 25 years ago has had to learn a hell of a lot to still understand a PC today. The required knowledge is changing much faster and people for whom computers are neither a hobby nor a job have no time or inclination to keep up. Why should they?

So perhaps securing the PC is the retailer’s responsibility? After all, if you follow the car analogy, dealerships will service your new vehicle for some time after you buy it. But they would argue that they’re not responsible for someone taking your car for a joyride if you leave it unlocked. They would fix it, for a fee, and this is what the high street PC retailers offer today.

So should it be the operating system provider? Microsoft is certainly attempting to improve its security, but locking down Windows is like trying to defend one city against every army in the world. Because of the Windows monopoly there are an awful lot of people out there all trying to crack Windows out of spite, for entertainment, or increasingly for financial gain. There will always be holes.

So what about the manufacturer? Often today these are consumer electronics companies, and if you follow the analogy back to the DVD player or the TV, it is hard to argue their responsibility. Problems from a virus is the equivalent of your TV getting damaged by a vandal who has broken in to your house. You wouldn’t blame the manufacturer for that.

No more analogies now, I promise. Finally we come back to the end user. It is their responsibility for maintaining the integrity of their PC because unfortunately it has to be. If they are not techie enough or interested enough they can pay an EggHead to look after it for them. But that could get expensive if they are getting a new infection every week.

What will stop that happening is good, intuitive, anti-virus solutions. And it seems today that one just doesn’t exist. Certainly the market leader, Symantec, seems to be more part of the problem than the solution. Its clunky, bloated, Norton Internet Insecurity package seems to be on many of the machines the EggHeads look at. Once it is removed, the computer speeds up significantly, and a more effective solution often finds viruses that have completely bypassed it. Users almost inevitably struggle to configure it properly and keep it updated.

AVG is the geeks’ favourite and for good reason. Its streamlined design, effective scanning and simple operation mean you can use it as a ‘fire and forget’ solution for looking after the PCs of the less technically-minded. They seem to have got closest to a properly ‘consumer electronics’-style solution.

Because this has to be the goal for usability. If someone who can operate a well-designed consumer electronics product such as Sky+ can also install and configure an anti-virus solution, there would be a lot less spam in the world, fewer denial of service attacks, and a lot fewer people screaming at their computers and calling out the EggHeads.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Why Fi?

Manchester is apparently planning the UK’s largest Wi-Fi hotspot. The RFI for the project only actually mentions WiFi once, but it is much easier to tell the papers about a giant hotspot than to try and explain a mixed-media, multi-service, metro area IP network.

But once you get past the record-breaker hype, and look at the detail of what’s planned, it gets quite difficult to understand what this project is really for. And given that some of the funding for it will almost certainly be public money, that’s quite a problem.

The RFI starts with a very worthy (if a little woolly) intro about some of the issues Manchester faces. Nothing to argue with there. But it is the five suggested usage cases that tell the real story:

1: “Residents using the Network for universal, affordable access to applications such as E-mail, web browsing, instant messaging, entertainment and voice services”
Broadband is now available right across the UK at less than the price of BT line rental. It may not be at the 20–25Mbps envisioned by this plan but it is more than enough for email, web access, voice and entertainment.

2: “Businesses using the Network for remote office connectivity, supply chain integration, customer relationship management and inventory control”
So not only will this network compete for residential customers, it will also undercut business broadband offerings? There is a wealth of options out there for business broadband, from satellite, to p2p wireless, to DSL, to cable, to fibre. Why add one more?

3: “Institutions such as universities and those from the 3rd sector using the Network for increased interaction between their institution and students/members”
Because at the moment no students or universities are online?

4: “Public sector organisations using the Network, access by mobile staff, remote meter reading and remote camera/video surveillance”
Not only can all this be achieved over the existing broadband network, but there is in fact a wireless network already in place and being used to link CCTV cameras in Manchester. What are public sector staff doing that requires 20–25Mbps?

5: “Visitors using the network for remote access applications and local information”
‘Remote access applications’? If they need email, get a crackberry. If they need bandwidth, go to a coffee shop. It’s not difficult to get online when you need to.

Every application of this network can be delivered via existing fixed line, cellular and hotspot services. Why consume valuable resources to replicate these capabilities?

The intro notes that “Manchester has enormous inequalities — 40% of residents lacking NVQ level-2 qualifications, the greatest concentration of deprivation/low skills in the entire region. Many residents are excluded from the benefits of the city-region’s dynamic knowledge economy, being workless or “locked” into low-wage/low skill occupations, living in neighbourhoods characterised by poor health and housing, high crime levels and low levels of trust and social capital.”

Does the team behind this really think that adding more connectivity will solve these problems? I’m not saying it isn’t part of the solution, but given the plethora of options for meeting all of the use cases described above, surely the money for building out a new network could be better spent? Training, small enterprise funding, youth projects — plenty of options spring to mind.

If there is a provable need for WiFi access across the city, then there is a much more cost effective way to deliver it. Bartering.

Just about every business and many of the homes within the city will be connected to the internet. If people want to be able to access WiFi on the move, then get them to share their own access first.

A simply-configured, off-the-shelf access point can be plugged in to anyone’s broadband connection to create a secure mesh network. Any subscriber can access the network, as could indivduals or organisations who the subscribers felt should have access. This would require the co-operation of each subscriber’s ISP but if big public organisations are involved and the PR opportunity is right, then sufficient leverage could probably be brought to bear. Surely each business would be happy to spend £50–100 to give their employees access right across the city? And in areas where broadband penetration is low, use schools, police stations, doctors surgeries and other public institutions to house free access points, focusing money where it is needed most.

I’m not against the aims of this project — they are laudable. But there is a big gap between setting out to tackle deprivation and drive regeneration, and deciding a new IP network is the answer. This thinking may well have been done but the public document and the press coverage to date really don’t make the link very well.

Maybe I ought to respond to the RFI?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Packets of Entertainment

The marching zombies of convergence took another stride forward today with the mainstream launch of internet TV in the UK. Not TV you watch ON the internet but TV delivered OVER the internet — to a proper telly and everything!

What surprised me is the lack of insight delivered by the mainstream media. I haven’t heard any stargazing futuretalk about how we will receive all our media in 2050. Just the real basics of the ‘what’, the ‘who’, and the ‘when’.

What about the ‘why’ and more importantly, the ‘how’?

Does the general public really only care about what movies they will get and how much each one will cost them? There’s a comment on materialism in there somewhere but it is more the lack of curiosity that saddens me. Or at least the lack of curiosity assumed by the media.

This is another step change in the way we consume media; part of a new media ecosystem that will not just change the behaviour of consumers but all media producers and distributors. And of course their money men: the advertisers. This is cool technology, combined with pop culture, combined with big business. Surely there is a bigger story to be told than just this product launch? All it takes is a bit of imagination. Or at worst, to ask the opinions of a few of the forward thinkers out there who understand the changes that are about to happen.

I don’t count myself amongst that prescient number, but I have listened well enough to see how things are shaping up:

Anyone with Sky Plus will tell you that it completely changes the way you view television. The timeshifting aspect doesn’t only enable you to be more selective about what you watch and when. It allows you to take more risks with programming. Something on an obscure channel at 1am that takes your fancy? Why not record it? It’s free and easy, and if it turns out to crap you only have to watch five minutes and delete it. I discovered Mythbusters this way, and it is now my favourite show (yes I am a true geek).

Now imagine that instead of the 100 or so channels you have through sky, you can access the output of every wannabe director and star on the planet with a broadband connection and a digital camera. Now combine the output of every YouTube auteur with the complete history of all programming. Ever. That’s a lot of content.

So you need to be able to search it effectively when you’re looking for something. Or even better have a system that learns your tastes and actively searches out content you might like — just like TiVo.

This is the future.

Sky Plus + YouTube + Broadband + Google + TiVo = TV 3.0 (sorry, somebody had to do it)

What gets really interesting is this:

1. How do trends form when everyone is watching their own individual TV channel?
2. How do the producers find funding when they have a potential audience of 1?

Answers on a postcard please. There are plenty of them out there.

Of course this applies to all media, not just TV. I’m not saying there won’t be a market for books, CDs or newspapers, but everything will be available too through our own unique and universal media source.

Surely the mainstream media could take time to whip up people’s imaginations about its own future?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Thirty Miles Per Hour

Early in the 19th century, some people genuinely believed that if a human travelled over thirty miles per hour their head would fall off. Cartoonists depicted what they expected to happen when the first trains cracked this mythical speed. No doubt newspapers jumped on the bandwagon and spread the fear with ludicrous headlines. Daily Mail readers probably shook their heads and wondered what the world was coming to.

We geeks and technologists tend to look back on these times and laugh. But the situation still occurs today. And what is worse, sometimes I think I am one of those people worrying that my head is going to fall off.

Take mobile phone radiation for example. There’s no conclusive data to tell me that mobile phone radiation is or isn’t dangerous. I carry on using my mobile phone safe in the lack of knowledge of whether it will or won’t kill me. But I still get the jitters occasionally when I feel it warming against my face. And I never put it in my front pockets…

GM foods are more of a concern. The scientist in me wants to love the idea of bug-resistant crops with high yields that will feed the third world. The fact that most of these crops are neutered to maintain the farmer’s dependence on the supplier is another issue: the technology appeals and seems to have a humanitarian benefit.

But it all seems a bit turkey twizzlers to me. I love food, possibly more than gadgets, and as I have got (slightly) older and (slightly) wealthier I find myself increasingly turning to organic food. It might not look as pristine but feels right, and in most cases, tastes better. By contrast GM conjures in my mind the supermarket tomato, plump and even coloured but without an ounce of flavour.

Where things get really complicated in my mind is looking at the future. I recently heard an acronym that had bypassed me until now: BANG or Bits Atoms Neurons Genes. This is about the ultimate in convergence, bringing together our bodies and minds with the best the silicon world has to offer. The idea is to improve our lives but I’m not sure I like the idea of interfering with my body in such a way. I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) even have a piercing or a tattoo.

On paper the idea is fantastic: a wetware interface to the world wide web, giving you access to all the knowledge the world has to offer at hundreds of gigabits per second. Complete control of the always on environment around you with just a thought. But still…

Part of me enjoys the limitations of the human body. Some of the most interesting art and literature has been created based on the restrictions that the artist suffered. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ they say, but necessity arises from the hurdles we have to leap.

But maybe my mind will change over time. The first time I see someone enjoying their enhanced life it might be like seeing the first passengers whipping along at a bracing thirty miles an hour. And I might just decide that I want a ride too.

Tom Cheesewright