Yearly Archives

13 Articles

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Car lover not planet hater

I love cars. I love their complexity, their style, their power and their function. I was lucky enough to have a car from a young age: while I was still learning to drive my parents very kindly bought me a slightly dilapidated 1970 Volkswagen Beetle, which I proceeded to clean up and respray (following the application of copious quantities of filler), and fit with a series of ever-more Heath Robinson-esque stereo arrangements.

This fabulous transport became the group taxi for my friends for the next few years, and took me down to Cardiff and up to Manchester, as well as on more prosaic lunchtime trips to the nearest drivethru McDonalds. I think the fact that it also allowed me to ferry my younger sister from place to place encouraged my parents’ generosity, but I was no less grateful for that. It was an incredible thing to have that degree of freedom at such a young age.

I’m not sure I truly appreciated the freedom a car brings until a few years later. After University I went without a car for a few years, following the sad, quiet collapse of the Beetle’s engine/bodywork/chassis/suspension, and the passing on of my next car, a hand-me-down Metro Mayfair that had belonged to my Grandma. While I didn’t have a car I coped fine, getting the train to work and everywhere else. But after working for a few years I decided I wanted a car again — as much, I confess, out of sheer consumerism as a real need. I set my heart on a BMW 3-series coupe.

What a revelation. I started driving out to a local watersports lake just outside the centre of Reading where I was living at the time. It was only miles from my house but it was totally inaccessible by public transport and the cost of a taxi would have been prohibitive. Having the car enabled me to participate in a sport that was otherwise closed to me, and through which I met a great new set of friends. The car also made me more valuable at work: with it I could travel to client meetings without the help of a (usually more senior) colleague, which meant that I was let off the leash to handle more client contact on my own. Once I had the car again, giving it up would have meant giving up my major social activity, and becoming reliant on colleagues again at work. There was no going back.

Unfortunately the BMW was neither the cheapest car to run, nor the most environmentally friendly. A few months after moving to Manchester I sold it and bought a rather more eco-friendly turbo diesel.

I can’t imagine not having a car now, especially with the arrival of a baby. I know people can and do manage, but our whole society is built around individual transport to specific destinations. I could say I wish that it weren’t the case, and certainly I would like public transport to provide a more viable alternative. But the honest reality is that I like the freedom and individuality that the car offers. The ability to go exactly where I want in a manner and environment that I have defined.

So does that make me a bad person? I don’t think it does. The things I love about the car do not make it a bad thing. I’m not wedded to the petrol engine: I’d love there to be a real and environmentally friendly alternative. I know a lot of the carbon footprint of a car is laid down in its manufacture rather than its use, but again this is a challenge that can be addressed, if not totally overcome. I don’t think it is the car per se that is the problem: it is just today’s cars.

Likewise I don’t think being a car lover necessarily makes you a planet hater. The environmental impact will always be a factor in my future choice of cars and I think anyone for whom it’s not should rightly be pilloried (that means you in your Chelsea tractor). Wherever it is most practical I will continue to use public transport (I’m sat in Euston station typing this).

But I will continue to love cars, and I confess, will dream of driving a V8 monster when I’m chugging along in my somewhat more eco-friendly diesel.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

High-Speed Rail

Just been interviewed by Real Radio about the newly announced high-speed rail link between London and Glasgow. I haven’t expanded my remit to cover transport now — just a random collaring at Piccadilly station. Good topic for a quick blog entry though, while I ride the standard speed train down to London.

Do we need a high speed rail link? My natural inclination is to say ‘yes, of course’. It’s cool new(ish) tech; it will make me more time-efficient; it cuts the arguments for the more carbon-intense options of flying and driving. But I find I’m not without concerns.

At £34bn, it’s not going to be cheap, and somehow that cost will inevitably be transferred to the traveler. Now that I have other people booking trains for me (in advance), I’m finding the costs a little less oppressive, but the trade-off is the lack of flexibility. The nature of work travel means that sometimes it is hard to predict when you will want to travel, but the price of open off peak tickets is absolutely prohibitive. I can already foresee a situation where I know the train could get me home in an hour, but I have to wait three hours for the next train my ticket allows me to take.

Higher speed also doesn’t fix the main problem with trains: they get you to where the tracks end, not where you want to go. Even if it only takes an hour to get into London, I would still choose to drive to meetings around the south east because of the cost and complexity of getting to smaller stations, and then from the stations to the meetings themselves. Without a car it takes huge amounts of time and money — neither of which I or most people can afford in a working day.

Despite all this though, on balance I am in favour of the new link. On occasions it will be very useful, and, I hope, the price might not be too painful.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Digital Britain: Investing in the transport network

Popped down to the BBC this morning to talk with Alan Beswick about the Digital Britain report, unveiled yesterday. The papers have been full of news about the ‘tax’ to pay for the future of the UK’s broadband infrastructure. The government has proposed a 50p per month levy on all copper lines to go towards a next generation fund for ‘superfast’ broadband — i.e. fibre to the home (FTTH).

Personally I’m all for this. Think of the internet as a transport mechanism, the successor to the motorway and the train line rather than an evolution of the phone. It performs the same functions: connecting people to their places of work and leisure, carrying products from the vendor to the consumer. Looking back, who would baulk at a small levy to pay for the trains or the motorways? (Apart from environmentalists with the latter)

The only problem for me with this report, is its lack of ambition. 2Mbps by 2012 is a noble target for universal access, but the risk is that it sets the bar a little low. Alongside this I would have liked to see a little more detail about what the stretch target should be for FTTH. This is a point I made in the consultation process for the report through the response from the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce’s IT Committee (which I helped to draft).

It’s a small gripe though: the report acknowledges that a lot of the drive towards FTTH is unlikely to come from massive investment from BT, and is more likely to be driven on a regional basis — good news for groups like our own Manchester Digital Development Agency, currently rolling out fibre in north Manchester. The phone line levy should provide them with a pot to keep pushing the rollout forward.

In all it’s great to see the government taking a holistic view of the digital economy in the UK. If the only thing the papers can find to gripe about is a £6/year ‘tax’, then the report’s authors should consider it a job well done.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

CCTV Call Awakens Freedom Fears

Two years ago I wrote about CCTV. We are the most watched nation on earth, and my concern was that the police/government might try to automate the monitoring of CCTV images with some kind of computer system. I don’t have too much of a problem with isolated cameras, monitored by human beings: you can argue (rightly or wrongly) that they have a preventative effect on crime and at worst provide evidence after the fact.

Link all the cameras together and apply some form of intelligence though, and a single person or agency can begin to monitor people’s lives in great detail. That for me is an invasion of privacy, the downsides of which overwhelm any security arguments.

At a conference last week the director of information for the Association of Chief Police Officers reported that officers are being overwhelmed by the volume of CCTV data available. One of his major concerns was that officers cannot track a car in real time using Automatic Number Plate Recognition.

This for me sounds very much like the top of a long and greasy slope. At the bottom of that slope is automatic facial recognition and real-time tracking of people.

Sure I can see the security benefits. But do they outweigh the risks?

However right-minded they might appear, you can’t just hand powers over to a government and trust they will always be used responsibly. Look at the current government’s record: rendition; torture; infiltration of protest groups; heavy-handed control of demonstrations; RIPA.

We live in a very safe, democratic society, but at the fringes our rights to privacy and freedom of expression are definitely being eroded. We all ought to be aware of further changes. You never know how future governments might use the powers we give them today.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Identity crisis

One ‘internet of people’-related challenge that has been much discussed at previous Northern StartUps is identity. Who are you online? Are you your email or IM address? Your facebook profile? Your LinkedIn profile? Your blog or twitter bio? More importantly, how many more times do you want to have to confirm your identity and flesh out your profile?

Fears for privacy and oversight always come to the fore when issues of identity — on or offline — are discussed. But looking at the amount of information we all share already over the web, I’d be much happier having one or two profiles that I could control tightly rather than tens of disparate online identities.

OpenID solves the problem in part, but LinkedIn and Facebook hold much richer data. I’d prefer it if they decided to give me greater control over how my information is used, then opened up their information to other sites that wanted to access it — with my permission.

Seems to me it would save us all a load of time filling in forms, and hence reduce the barrier to acceptance for a lot of cool applications who currently build their own social networks as a delivery mechanism rather than focusing on their core value. The assumption has always been that it is by collecting user data that you will one day find a revenue model, but the experience of Facebook so far disproves that theory.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Why Facebook is a Web 1.0 business

A slightly more structured (and less Guinness-fuelled) version of a rant I was having in the pub last night post NS20….

I believe that Facebook is fundamentally a web 1.0 business. Specifically it is a modern version of AOL and Yahoo’s portals.

These failed ideas wanted to be your single source for all your information and applications online. It seems to be that Facebook is currently trying to be the same thing: everything you want, as long as you go and log in on facebook.com.

The reality is that the web is naturally decentralised. Great ideas and applications rarely exist in the same location. People want and expect their ‘best of breed’ applications to be widely distributed, not locked in a single box. Likewise there’s no real reason for application developers to exist in a controlled environment when they have the whole web to play with.

Both the walled garden and the portal approaches have been repeatedly discredited over the last few years. So why won’t Facebook open up, look outside its walls, and see the value in connecting and sharing more? Executed correctly, I think this could be the answer to its revenue challenge.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Austerity Congress: Mobile World Congress 2009

As usual, the last few days spent in Barcelona have flown by. At the world’s largest gathering of mobile phone manufacturers, service operators, network vendors and all the ancillary companies and media, time for quiet contemplation is a rare thing. So it’s only now, sat in a cafe at the airport, consuming the obligatory cerveza and Iberico ham sandwich that I’ve really had time to collect my thoughts about the event.

The first thing to note is that the mobile industry is not immune to the economic downturn. Even if their revenues haven’t yet seen the impact of reduced consumer spending and restricted access to credit, companies at the show were universally conservative in their approach. Most companies brought around 20% fewer staff, and there was none of the extravagant gestures seen in previous years. No all-expenses-paid parties for hundreds of hangers on, no sponsored Smart cars blaring out music around the airport, few monstrous billboards wrapped around whole buildings.

That’s not to say that the event was dull. Two of the eight halls still featured towering stands promoting the latest, flashiest technologies to hit the market. On the consumer side, new handsets featured solar panels, miniature projectors and 3D interfaces. Great accessories from companies like the quirky, French Parrot showed how the mobile phone will increasingly be the hub for our digital lives, allowing the transfer of photos from phone to frame with a wave of your hand, and providing audiophile-quality speakers for your iPhone. On the network side, vendors promoted high-bandwidth all-IP networks designed for super-fast mobile broadband. With the next iteration of the current 3G mobile phone standard still three years out (depending on who you talk to), there was a real resurgence in interest in WiMAX, an alternative technology available today.

But the overriding message was one of optimisation: making the most of what you’ve got. Increasingly vendor marketing is about how products will make the most of the networks’ current investments. While innovation in the consumer device continues apace, it seems the next few years might be a period of retrenchment for the operator networks. They need to get their current networks up to scratch in order to cope with the rapid growth in popularity of today’s technologies.

Mobile broadband take-up — both on devices and laptop dongles — has been spectacular in the UK and other developed markets, to the point where the demand is testing the capabilities of networks in busy areas. That trend is set to continue with Microsoft and Nokia announcing their own equivalents of Apple and Google’s App Stores, to enable users to easily find additional applications for their mobile phones. These applications often require connectivity, increasing the volume of traffic flowing over the networks.

I’ll be interested to see how these new marketplaces stack up against the booming Google Android and Apple iPhone equivalents. And how the networks cope with the continuing boom in network traffic.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Twitter’s Critical Mass Attracts a New Convert

As you will see from the left had side of the page, I have joined the Twittering masses. Rather belatedly, I admit.

I have known about Twitter for a long time, probably since it won an award at SXSW in 2007. However I never saw the value in it for me. Whether or not anyone likes reading them, I like writing my long-form blogs. I wasn’t in the habit of sharing updates about my location, or photos with the world at large. And back in 2007, few of my friends were using Twitter.

Things have changed. Constant updates to my Facebook status and a brief but enjoyable trial of Brightkite on my iPhone have shown me the fun and value of sharing brief, sometimes image-driven updates. Tweets won’t replace my longer entries, but they will supplement them. More and more friends are questioning my non-presence on Twitter. There now seems to be critical mass of users in my community, making it valuable to participate — and possibly costly to remain outside the group.

It is this final factor that has tipped me over the edge. The all-consuming gravity of a networking phenomenon has again pulled me in. Let’s see how long this one lasts. I guarantee it will mean I spend even less time on Facebook.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Social media etiquette

I just received an invitation to a press briefing. Via a Facebook message. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if I used my Facebook account for professional purposes. But I don’t. I don’t connect to any clients on Facebook. I was a member of the UK tech journos and PRs group (although I have today left it). Someone (not me) did create a group to promote Net Records, one of the start-ups I’m involved in, but it wasn’t me. Of all the many ways on offer through which people can contact me, I have never told someone to reach me on Facebook in a professional capacity.

So why would they choose to contact me that way?

Say someone lists a range of phone numbers in their email footer — usually an office number, maybe a direct dial, and increasingly a mobile number. You wouldn’t ignore all of those and call them at home. The same rules apply to social media. I have a dedicated email address for my blog that I list publicly. I use LinkedIn for business networking. People can even just leave comments on the blog. So why bypass all that and contact me on Facebook, which I reserve for personal relationships?

The fact is that the woman who contacted me clearly uses social media differently. Her rules are different. She is almost a decade younger than me and from a different country. The web may be global but the etiquette for us both is very different and there is no fixed standard yet.

Etiquette is important. It defines the little details about how we behave towards each other and how we act in the presence of others. The little rules that if breached can feel like an insult, or an invasion of privacy, however small. It will take time for a broad standard to be adopted across the web, and they may never translate well across international and cultural boundaries. For now, I think we all should be a little cautious about how we use social and communications media, and ensure we don’t assume that our rules apply to everyone else.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Wishlist: mobile social networking on a wearable computer

Continuing a (very) occasional series on gadgets I would like but that don’t yet seem to exist. This idea started when carving (falling) down the snowy slopes in Verbier over new year. Posh, I know.

We were a big group, all of different skill levels and hence all travelling at different speeds. Navigating the less-than-well mapped slopes was tough. Managing to join up at chosen meeting points even harder without multiple costly and confusing mobile calls. At the same time I was trialling a helmet-mounted (or in my case, head-mounted) camera and listening to music on my iPhone.

As we rode the lifts up to the top for another run we regularly discussed our respective playlists, and I found myself thinking: “ Wouldn’t it be cool if we could all listen to the same playlist?” Clearly all plugging in to the same iPod was never going to work, so the tunes would have to be streamed wirelessly (humour me and ignore the PRS/digital rights implication for a moment).

That got me thinking about a wireless mesh network that would stop us sending high volumes of data over the expensive and less-than-reliable cellular network. Then I figured, wouldn’t it be cool if the network could identify people against their devices (like a Nintendo DS) and allow us to access various social networking features: automatically discovering people in your Facebook friends list when they come in to range (if you have chosen to be discoverable); sharing photos, images and videos (perhaps streamed live from a helmet/lapel mounted camera). Add in a mapping and navigation system and you have an incredibly useful tool.

The wearable bit comes in when you begin to think about the interface for all this. You certainly don’t want a screen and keyboard when you’re hurtling down the slopes, but you will need some sort of button-based affair and a display. Lots of companies have been making iPod and mobile-phone compatible clothing with such arrangements for a while now. Maybe a more sophisticated version of these items could contain a small screen.

Hardware-wise, the ideal is obviously something compact and robust, like a mobile phone. All of the features above could easily be added to a Gphone or iPhone, and probably some already have (BrightKite being a good example). But for something with a little more raw power, easy development and cheap peripherals, a Netbook would be a great start. You could probably assemble the hardware to do everything I list above for under £300 (maybe slightly more with uprated battery and storage).

The techy elements could be incorporated very discretely — certainly into ski-wear — so you wouldn’t look like a total dork. And I think the market for something like this is actually pretty huge. There’s the sports angle (cheap tactical gear for paintballing is one idea a colleague suggested), but also just the kid on the street angle. Revenues could come from all sorts of places — hardware sales; location-based advertising; data backhaul etc. Given that the mesh network would never be the total solution for connectivity, it may even appeal to the mobile operators.

Be interested in any comments. I’m quite tempted to look into funding to see if someone could begin to develop the idea, or at least look at its feasibility.

Tom Cheesewright