Yearly Archives

30 Articles

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Half A World Away

Half the planet now has a mobile phone — ish. There are now 3.3bn mobile phone subscriptions worldwide according to Informa Telecoms and Media, but many people in richer countries have multiple subscriptions. In the poorest countries mobile penetration is often under 10%, and mobile phones become public amenities.

The contrast between rich countries and poor is stark,. But it is often the poorer regions that bring the most interesting uses of technology. Following the example of some enterprising individuals, some African operators are turning mobiles in to payphones, bringing telephony to rural regions for the first time. In Eastern Europe wireless infrastructure has been used to bypass the crumbling landline system to enable shopkeepers to take credit card payments and provide widespread access to broadband.

While we might all be dribbling over the latest mobile devices, a slightly modified version of the old adage holds true: ‘necessity is the mother of the [most valuable] innovation’.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Science’s Bad Rep: J’Accuse

As I’ve noted before in this blog, I’m a big fan of Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog and Guardian column. His latest piece on the myths of homeopathy is certainly worth a read. In it he raises an interesting point: why is there such a broad distrust of ‘mainstream medicine’ and science in general?

It’s a big issue, and getting to the root of it could be the work of a PhD thesis or three. Whatever the root cause, there’s certainly some people, groups, and organisations who can be accused of promoting the view that science isn’t to be trusted.

J’accuse just about every religious group for a start. I don’t like to cause offence to the religious — in part because I am related to a large number of them and it could make family gatherings a little awkward. But accepting the tenets of just about any mainstream religion is a fairly fundamental rejection of science.

Dr Goldacre has covered homeopaths, and I think it is safe to roll most of the rest of the alternative medicine movement in there. I have relations who have been convinced that they can test for intolerance to a specific food by putting some of it in their mouth and trying to lift a heavy weight. They claim that they can lift the weight under normal circumstances, but it becomes impossible with milk/wheat/whatever under their tongue. I’ll stop there to maximise my chances of still getting a Christmas present, but you get the picture.

Politicians have to take some of the blame. In this country for their equivocation about supporting the sciences; elsewhere for more serious charges. Like promoting herbal remedies to AIDS over safe sex and real medicine, while millions die. A number of religious figures are on the charge sheet for the same offence.

Finally — at least for my list — the media’s up there too. Falling for every entertaining quack (Gillian McKeith) or sciency-sounding press release promoting fish oil, herbal remedies, and wacky diets. Or indeed pieces of dodgy research, like that linking MMR and autism. Step forward Daily Mail.

I could talk about many more groups, and give many more examples, but this would become an essay rather than a blog post. The fact is that when you look at the constant abuse and misuse of science, it is hardly surprising that the general public seems sceptical. The legitimisation that is given to alternatives to reality — often alternatives that are more palatable than reality — means it is no great surprise that people choose to believe them.

My worry is that society begins to regress towards an Age of Disenlightenment (a word?). Unless the world of science gets better PR, we might return to the days of shamans and faith healing. We need an army of Johnny Balls touring the country, expounding on the wonders of modern science to the nations schoolchildren. Might be a good use for cloning at least…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Downloaders Done for Dodging Damaged Goods

The UK music industry’s latest crackdown on illegal downloads smacks of panic. I’m not saying there is no justification in their actions: you can argue that downloading copyrighted music is stealing as much as walking out of the shop with the CD. And there is some truth in the argument that without the ‘stick’ of potential prosecution, the ‘carrot’ of easy to use, legal downloads (iTunes) won’t succeed in bringing everyone to the right side of the law.

But prosecuting individual downloaders makes the record labels look petty and bullying. They are already perceived as greedy because of the ridiculous proportion of profit they take from artists. And incompetent for letting the online opportunity bypass them. It doesn’t add up to an appealing picture for customers, or investors for that matter.

You have to question whether they have done what is needed to sweeten the carrot for consumers too. I believe (and it has been shown by Steven Levitt in Freakonomics) that even with no ‘stick’, people will most often choose the legal path rather than break the law. Unless the legal option is sufficiently unpalatable, or the illegal option is so distinctly more appealing.

Legal downloads are priced at what appears on face value to be an appealing figure. Yet when you think about the cost of delivering them (tiny) and what proportion of the figure goes to the artist (also tiny), you begin to question the price. Especially since the price per track is not dissimilar to that of CD singles or albums, which have massively higher overheads to deliver and are arguably offer more ‘value’ to the consumer.

When you buy a CD, there’s the innate value of physical ownership (something that appeals to me and many people I speak to) plus the sleeve notes, the future tradeability, and importantly, the lack of copy protection. This last point is vital. If I buy a CD, the music will quite possibly reside in five different locations: the original CD, my media server, my office PC, my backup at home, and sometimes my phone too.

I can only listen to it in one place at a time. My wife doesn’t share my music tastes (or not entirely), and I don’t share music files with friends or over the internet, so I’m not breaking the spirit of any copyright law. Yet if I downloaded all my music from iTunes, this would be impossible (without some bypassing of the in-built DRM). Unless I buy all iTunes-compatible hardware, I would have to let the digital music revolution pass me by.

If the record labels are to embrace digital music, they need to do it properly. I don’t have a problem with going after criminals. Ultimately artists need to, and deserve to, get paid for their work. But when the record labels consume such a massive proportion of the income from music sales, and insist on selling DRM-damaged goods at inflated prices, it is hard to feel the downloaders are wholly responsible for trying to find a better option.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Gadgets for Girls

Sexism and sweeping generalisations alert. Asked to comment on the rise of gadgets — and specifically gaming — for girls on the beeb on Monday, I identified three trends:

1. Build it (in pink) and they will come
As a confirmed feminist, I was sceptical about the appeal of brightly coloured goodies to the fairer sex. Turns out that the stereotype isn’t far wrong. In a straw poll of women, taken very unscientifically over the weekend (i.e. in the pub), my wife was the only dissenting voice. The rest quite happily admitted that they would be more likely to buy a device if it was pink.

This unscientific research is backed by (some) empirical evidence. Anyone remember the clamour for the first pink iPods?

2. Content is Queen
Button mashing first-person shooters (generally) only appeal to young(ish) men. Shoot ’em ups, beat ’em ups, and sports games were never going to get girls on to consoles. For that we needed games about dancing, singing, and looking after pets. I wish I were joking, but however much this might follow Victorian expectations about female identity and personality, simple fact is that you are far more likely to see women playing Dance Dance Revolution or Singstar than Far Cry or Halo.

This applies to the general function of gadgets, as well as the content of games. The following responses seem to be typical: iPod? ‘Great’. Blackberry? ‘Useful’. High Definition TV ‘Why?’. Men care more about the bits and bytes; the stats that say I have more inches/pixels/megabytes than you do. They want a bit more information about what’s going on under the hood, even if they don’t really understand it. Women just want something that fulfils a function and fulfils it well.

3. Make it Friendly
The interface is vital in making gadgets appeal to women, and that doesn’t just mean ensuring that it is well designed (or ‘simple’ if you are looking to take offence). Anecdotal evidence suggests that active interfaces that are closer to real-world activities appeal more to women. The obvious example is gaming, with the introduction of cameras, microphones and motion sensing. But you could also argue that this applies to the scroll wheel on an iPod, which is more like leafing through a stack of CDs than the prior button-based interfaces.

Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood here, I’m not saying that women don’t like or can’t use gadgets. US sales figures show that technology buyers are split roughly 50/50 between men and women. There are plenty of technology literate female gadget lovers (witness the success of the shinyshiny blog), and plenty of female gamers who love the more violent or sport based games. But to appeal to the majority rather than the minority, these are the criteria that manufacturers seem to be applying.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Switch: What If?

Time for another Wired-magazine inspired entry. This month’s issue looks at the possibility of a breakthrough in cracking ethanol from cellulose. Current biofuel technologies are inefficient and don’t present a real alternative to oil. But if this breakthrough comes — and billions of dollars of venture capital investment suggests it will — the world is going to be a radically different place…

Imagine if the US no longer relied on oil for fuel, but instead could grow its own ethanol without a dramatic impact on food production. The effect would be far reaching. For a start us Europeans could stop being so uppity about their 83-litre V8 SUVs spitting out tons of carbon dioxide. Without the demand for oil, US interest in the Middle East would likely fall sharply. Would having so many troops stationed in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait seem like such a good investment (political, financial, and most of all human)?

With the demand for fuel oil slashed, surely the economics of other oil products would change. The price of plastics and other by-products might rise to make currently disposable products rather more expensive. Clothes, white goods, cars, gadgets, Swedish furniture, CDs and DVDs — many of the trappings of consumerist life might become economically unviable.

Combined with the current trend towards ecological thinking and organic food, there might be a wider trend towards quality. A return to objects designed to last a lifetime. Obviously the price would be higher, but it is a much more sustainable model. It could trigger a switch to materials that are currently considered too expensive for everyday objects — lightweight ceramics and composites for example. Traditional industries like tailors and carpenters might see business boom….

Of course this is all a bit utopian, but there’s no harm in being optimistic when all the world seems to think only in terms of doom and gloom.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Sk(h)ype

There I am, struggling for inspiration, when along comes the story I’ve been waiting for. My favourite type of story. The one that proves that I (and a lot of other people) were right all along: $2.6bn was rather too much to pay for a company that gives its product away free. eBay has taken a $900m hit to write down the value Skype, the VoIP company it acquired just two years ago.

I have been wrong about these things in the past: MySpace was very much worth the $580m that News International paid for it, if only for the $900m advertising deal that it scored with Google soon after. (Disposing of what will be a dead asset in a year or two might knock some of the gloss off that deal though).

But with Sk(h)ype (thanks to whichever wag first came up with that) it seems that all of us who looked incredulous at our screens on September 12th 2005 were more on the money than the management of eBay and the no-doubt numerous advisers they employed.

It’s not that I don’t like Skype. Though the appeal of the product has tarnished somewhat since its debut, I still use it on a daily basis. But for all the noise around it, and its success in penetrating the consciousness of the general public, it has not had the expected impact on the telecoms market. While it may have killed the prospects for a thousand small VoIP carrier startups (hello Vonage), the major telcos are still charging largely what they were beforehand. WiFi hotspots are not a morass of users skyping each other from mobile devices.

My biggest question over Skype was always its future. When the world’s largest telcos are already investing in a total VoIP infrastructure (with BT in the vanguard) that should decimate their cost base and enable them to roll out some very funky services, what is the need for a proprietary, software-based VoIP client with iffy quality and reliability? It had a very small window for success, and a very lofty target — to become a standard for voice communication to compete with GSM or SIP before the incumbent telcos completed their own VoIP infrastructure. Though I doubt it was ever put like this to the CEO of eBay, if it wasn’t portrayed as a potential world-beater, how on earth did they come up with such an enormous valuation?

Even with phenomenal marketing this was only ever a ‘good’ product. It was an incremental, rather than radical, change. And even with some of the most impressive marketing in recent times, that isn’t enough to change the face of a market.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Supporting Innovation

The government is turning its attention to support for small businesses. That’s a loose term: 65% of businesses in the UK employ less than 5 people. As one of those businesses, and having started a couple of others in recent years, I have a few tips for how they can encourage entrepreneurship and innovation:

1. Move in to the 21st Century
I am involved in three knowledge businesses and a Web 2.0 startup. Trying to explain or categorise these businesses for the different business infrastructure organisations I have encountered is far too difficult. Banks, accountants, tax inspectors, Companies House all struggle to understand even what are now fairly common businesses like marketing consultancy. They are still set up to deal with butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. There should be an enforced programme of education and standardisation between these companies so that they understand 21st century business — or we will never be the knowledge economy the government so desires.

2. Simplify the rules
Starting a small business is like doing an egg and spoon race over an obstacle course. It is tough enough to get over the line without dropping anything, racing against your competitors, without having to scale the barriers and crawl through the muddy tunnels of bureaucracy. Tax, for example. I’m not saying that it should be lower, just easier to calculate. A thousand pounds plus per year for an accountant to sort out your books is a fair old drain on a small business.

3. Improve support and access to funding
BusinessLink has changed its face again, so I’ll reserve judgement on its latest incarnation, but certainly the mishmash of regional quangos that has existed to date has been absolutely shambolic. It’s as if they were created to give a few random people jobs (and public money) rather than actually help anyone in business. I’d like to see three things: a unified funding directory; a Citizen’s Advice Bureau-style drop in centre with surgeries run by accountants/solicitors/business experts to provide critical advice and a range of support tools (printing/web/internet/business planning software/design templates/fax etc); incentives to banks to support small businesses financially — e.g. underwriting small overdrafts (surprisingly hard to secure).

None of these ideas should need massive funding — in fact they could probably be funded by redirecting existing budgets more effectively. Simplifying tax rules should certainly save money; a standard set of business definitions and education packages could be simply rolled out online. The resulting tax increases from greater innovation and entrepreneurship should certainly provide some upside.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Extra Sensory Perception

After decrying the sensory overload that some of us are suffering, I want to offer a slightly more positive view on the wealth of comms technologies available. It stems from a defence of IM blogging services such as Twitter and Jaiku, that I read a couple of months back (though I confess I can’t remember where — possibly Wired).

Many people just don’t ‘get’ these services — basically tiny blogs of a few words or characters, telling you what the blogger is doing at that moment. They criticise them as pointless and narcissistic. But the commentator in said forgotten article pointed out that the constant stream of information from your friends as they go about their lives becomes a type of extra sense. You begin to know instinctively where a person might be at a given time, and you get a much better idea about how their day/week/life has been going.

As long as the human brain can adapt to the vast amount of information streams available, bite-sized information streams like this may indeed begin to give us a form of sixth sense. We are already adapting in some sense, to pop-ups from our IM, text alerts with football scores and electronics screens in high streets and train stations throwing out snippets of information. Even the free papers given away on commuter routes now seem to be written to appeal to those used to receiving all their information in 160 characters or less.

Imagine if we found a way to begin absorbing these streams of information in a more comfortable, automatic, subliminal fashion. Imagine how well informed we would be, and how much better our decision making might become, if these streams began to cover a whole range of information. You could stay in bed five minutes longer knowing that the traffic is fine that morning; pick up a bunch of flowers on the way home because you know your partner has had a rough day; choose to go to the gym another day because the pool is closed for repairs. All this information is available to us today, but we either have to seek it out, or it has to be fed to us. In an ideal world, we could just absorb it and use it.

It’s not quite ESP as forecast in the Book of the Future, where people with psionic powers go in to battle and can divert missiles and damage enemy space ships. But it’s still quite an exciting prospect.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Where’s My JetPack?

I did another little slot on the radio the other day, talking about the technologies that futurologists thought would be commonplace by now. There are plenty to choose from that excited us all twenty years ago but remain distant dreams.

Jetpacks for example, have never overcome their various technical challenges. Even if they did, there would serious issues of user error to overcome. Assuming people could be trained to be perfect pilots, there is still the problem of ensuring that no-one runs out of fuel at 5,000 feet.

The authors of the Book of the Future thought that laser guns would be standard issue on the battlefield by now. The last demonstration of a portable military laser I saw was somewhat less than effective. It required sustained contact for a few seconds to cause a mild singeing of the eyebrows. You can just imagine it: “Hold still Mr Bin Laden, I’m trying to shoot you…”

The most distant dream from that book remains the Replicator. By 2000, the authors believed a device would be able to rearrange individual atoms using lasers, to recreate any product or substance. It sounds fabulous — I could do with one right now to recreate me a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. But sadly the technology remains some way off.

Without my replicator or jetpack, I guess I’ll just have to walk to the cafe.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

MySpace is Dead

I have long asserted that the prices paid for hot Web 2.0 properties are a little nuts. My belief is that they are only valuable because they the latest fad, but fads — by definition — do not last. Especially when the fad is amongst the most fickle consumer group — young people. Now I can add a little science, or at least economics, to prove my gut instinct.

Admittedly this is based on a very limited amount of knowledge. I am currently reading ‘The Undercover Economist’ by Tim Harford, a fantastic book that should be part of the national curriculum in every country. Few books give more insight in to the way the world works in so few pages. It explains the basic rules that govern the value of a company: their potential for earnings, and their scarcity.

Apparently most company’s shares come to rest around a price to earnings ratio of 16. So companies that are worth much more than 16 times their earnings must have great scarcity power.

I would argue that this is true of very few hot Web properties. They generally don’t do anything that could not be replicated or improved upon. And given the fickleness of the consumers they target, their long-term value has to be seriously questioned. Even revolutionary ideas like Skype seem to be losing some momentum — though the figures may not show it, certainly amongst my peers I have noticed a steep decline in its use. News Corp’s acquisition of MySpace may have been vindicated by the subsequent advertising deal it signed with Google, but MySpace most of all looks very vulnerable to its users departing for new pastures, notably Facebook.

I believe there are opportunities to create more lasting Web 2.0 ventures but they need to rely on more than novelty — they need scarcity power. If you can provide information and resources that are not available anywhere else, or at least are more difficult or expensive to find elsewhere, then you can create a lasting proposition — assuming you can maintain the scarcity.

Like any good scientist, I intend to test this hypothesis. Watch this space — I’ll be inviting readers to join the beta community.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Ill Communication

I’ve spent the last four weeks trying to move in to a new office. Once I finally got the keys, the only challenge was to get a phone line and broadband up and running. Complaints about problems getting DSL live are completely cliched. But that doesn’t seem to have driven the providers to improve service — at least not in my limited experience.

Despite there being six landlines previously connected to said office it has taken a month to get working broadband. Even then it only happened because I supplied my own router and rang up to get the login details. The supplied router is apparently somewhere near Bolton at the moment…

This isn’t just a random rant though. Problems like this are massively detrimental to small businesses like mine, and highlight the true nature of ‘Broadband Britain’ today. The best analogy I can come up with is that we are running a car with the body of a Bugatti Veyron and the underpinnings from a steam train. Though my final hold-up was down to human error, the major part of the delay is down to the ageing infrastructure.

Thankfully the national infrastructure is in the process of being upgraded by BT — one of the more forward-thinking national carriers. I just hope that when the 21CN is complete, we get improvements in operational performance to match the improvements in the network.

Tom Cheesewright