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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on


Another slot on the beeb this morning, commenting on Manchester City FC’s plans to introduce contactless payments through mobile phones. If you have ever used an Oyster card on London Transport you get the idea. Instead of a paper ticket you just wave your mobile phone at a sensor on the gate.

The concept of combining NFC with mobile devices is not new. DoCoMo in Japan has been at it for a couple of years now, enabling people to shop, and pay for taxis and vending machines with a wave of their ‘Osaifu Keitai’ (mobile wallet). Given the importance people place on carrying their mobile phone (33% would be more concerned about losing their wallet or even their wedding ring according to a survey from Nokia), it seems likely that the mobile phone will be widely adopted as a form of payment.

This presents certain issues. Security for a start: constantly getting your shiny handset out and waving it around is tantamount to asking to be robbed according to the UK police.

The more functions your mobile combines, the more valuable it becomes and the more painful losing it will be. At the moment when you lose your credit card, you generally use your mobile to call it in. What happens if your mobile is your credit card? Not only will people have your card information, they will more than likely have all the information they need to steal your identity.

Culturally there are some barriers to overcome too. One of the producers of the show pointed out that people love to collect tickets as souvenirs of gigs or special journeys. Once it is all electronic that will come to an end. But given that by then all phones will be capable of capturing high quality video, audio and stills by then, there will probably be enough digital souvenirs to satisfy people.

Now we just need to work out a way to pin videos to a corkboard on the wall.

At some point I’ll cover the more ‘Big Brother aspects of this technology, and why it is appealing to marketeers…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Mashup: North West Tech Booming

I am spending more and more time networking in the North West tech industry at the moment, and there is a real buzz building. The ingredients are all there for a potentially explosive period of growth.

The first ingredient is the talent, and the universities of Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield seem to be both attracting that and shaping it in to some very high quality — and creative — graduates.

The second ingredient is entrepreneurship, something I am pleased to see very much in evidence. While many of the people I meet at the various networking events may be stronger on the technological aspects of their creations than the business potential, they are rarely short of ambition.

The third ingredient is finance, and the number of angel investors and venture capital people appearing at tech networking events around the North is significant. There is cash out there for the right ideas.

Once you have these ingredients, you need to create the right environment for combustion, before you apply the igniting spark. I think both the environment and the spark might come from Lee Strafford’s Project Sahara — now known as theNetStart.

This idea has developed massively between the time I first heard Lee discussing it at one of Manoj Ranaweera’s startup events last month, and last week’s Mashup Manchester. It is designed to be a physical space supported by skills and infrastructure, in which software entrepreneurs can congregate and build their ideas in a collaborative environment. There will be three centres across the North of England, probably linked to University campus locations.

The spark that might ignite it all is Lee himself. He didn’t seem too thrilled by the suggestion that a few people have made to post a YouTube video of him delivering his manifesto for the project, but that might be the only way to convey his enthusiasm.

I really hope this project reaches fruition, and all the signs are that it will. This might be the start of an ‘In-digital Revolution’ on a scale to match the industrial revolution that fuelled the growth and prosperity of the North two hundred years ago.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

We Demand Free WiFi

I have long argued that there is no argument for publicly funded municipal WiFi. But I do think there is a big argument for businesses to offer WiFi as a free value add. Why?

First, it costs so little. If you have broadband in place already, you’d struggle to spend more than £100 on hardware that could deliver 802.11g over a reasonable radius with sufficient bandwidth and security to prevent it affecting your own company’s demands. If you sell a couple of cups of coffee or a couple of extra sandwiches every month as a result, then the bandwidth is paid for.

Secondly, doing it now is still sufficiently original to have a good impact on your brand. Look what value McDonalds has managed to get from it. Just think what it could do for a nice, local cafe or bar.

Thirdly, you could make money out of it. Don’t sell the access, use it to sell your own services or may be advertising. Set your SSID to ‘The best coffee and free WiFi at Dave’s Cafe’ and get a nice big antenna so that people in all the local offices get it when they turn on their laptops. Set up a login screen when people connect that contains advertising. If you’re a retailer, enable customers to order large items from the shop floor rather than the counter (admittedly few will today, but many might tomorrow).

Finally, no-one is clinging on to the paid-for WiFi idea in the US, so why should things be so different in Europe?

Unfortunately, the one place where there really ought to be free WiFi access it is rather more complex and expensive to deliver. The train. But given the ridiculous prices (£110 London to Manchester. Seriously?), I think the least Branson could do is enable us to earn some of that back while we’re travelling.

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


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.

Tom Cheesewright