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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

The internet of things vs the internet of people

Time for a little blog flurry, catching up on a few ideas that have been bouncing around for days, weeks, months…

The internet of things has been forecast as the ‘next big thing’ for some time. And I’m a strong believer that eventually, it will be huge. Every single thing around us will have some form of connection, and share information about its properties. Tapping this mass of information will lead to a highly intelligent, automated environment.

But in the mean time, it seems the internet has become very much one of people. Applications like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and blogs have made the web in particular very personal. And that trend looks set to continue based on last night’s debate at Northern StartUp.

The most interesting startups last night were all about location. The idea is captured in its purest form by mapme.at, a service that allows you to track and record your location and cross reference it with a range of media: tweets, photos, playlists. This allows you to see (and share) on a map what you were (or are) saying, doing and seeing at any given time and place. Is it just me or is that very cool?

Obviously being cool doesn’t make you millions in itself, but like Twitter, mapme.at seems to be beautifully and irreducibly simple. That for me, combined with its openness, is a recipe for popularity, if not yet financial success.

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

How primitive are we?

As a society we like to think of ourselves as pretty sophisticated. Technology has advanced so much in the last hundred years that it is easy to look back a century and feel proud of our achievements. But have we really come that far?

Rather than compare ourselves to our past, how about comparing ourselves to our imagined future? Being an optimist I’m more of a fan of the Roddenberry-style utopian vision than the darker, post-apocalyptic nightmares (though the latter make for better films).

Unlike the societies of Star Trek or even Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, our society is still driven by personal gain rather than the advancement of the race. I’m not advancing communism as the way forward — it has been proved that it is hard to harness the base human drives that push us forward under that system. Rather I’m saying that the underlying instincts that drive us are still very individual and not that much different from our pre-historic ancestors. Unfortunately I don’t think our instincts will evolve until we are all sufficiently comfortable that personal advancement is less vital.

That will require incredible economic and scientific leaps forward. Yet scientific advancement seems to be increasingly bound up in economic terms. Money is only spent where there is a clearly definable product as an outcome. Research for its own sake seems to be less and less prevalent. It seems to So, I was pleased to hear that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is pushing for a £1bn injection into research funding from the government, as part of the stimulus package. For both reasons both economic and geeky, it would seem like a hugely valuable investment.

PS: Ever heard of the Singularity? The idea that the rate of scientific advancement will become exponential when machines start designing better machines? That can be looked at in two very different lights, depending on your optimism. Many people believe it’s not far off though…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Ground control to Major Tom…

It’s here. The long-planned Book of the Future redesign from my very talented business partner at The Lever, Mr Jack Carpenter.

A round of applause please for Jack. Personally I’m delighted. Love to know what you think in comments or feedback via Twitter.

If you’re interested in a blog redesign like this yourself then get in touch with us at The Lever. Discounts for anyone who references Book of the Future when they call or email.

Can you hear me Major Tom…?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Twitter just the start of technological ESP

The original Book Of The Future contained a page about Extra Sensory Perception. While I loved the picture of the ‘ESPER Battlecruiser’, and the description of its crew’s capabilities, I’ve always thought the whole spoon-bending thing was a bit of nonsense.

I remain sceptical of a human ability to read and influence minds remotely, at least at our current stage of evolution. But we are beginning to develop a kind of technological ESP.

Twitter has been defined as a social sixth sense. It’s a nice term and it gives non-users an idea of one of its main benefits: a constant awareness of the key events in your friends’ daily lives. But it does more than that.

Though I am relatively new to Twitter, it is fast becoming my primary source of media via links to interesting stories and videos. It is also beginning to have an impact on my diary, highlighting to me events I want to attend but didn’t previously know were happening. And this is just following twenty-odd people!

I believe that Twitter is just the beginning. I have written before about the ‘internet of things’ — the idea that some form of intelligence and connectivity will increasingly be a standard part of everyday objects. Everything from egg boxes to armchairs will be connected to the net and sharing the information it holds.

Imagine that intelligence being delivered to our brains in a way that doesn’t distract from our conscious acts, but that gives us an added level of peripheral vision about what’s going on in the world. The news feeds, social updates, and calendar reminders we set for ourselves today combined with dynamically generated information about the world around us. All the anecdotal examples we can think of today are pretty prosaic (car needing a service, milk being out of date, train running late) but history shows that all the best applications come once the platform is in place.

Sometimes we all suffer an overload of information, even with the current level of technology. So its easy to imagine today that this would all be too much. But human beings are evolving to match the built environment. I believe we will become better at processing large volumes of information concurrently (rather than being infantilised by technology as Baroness Greenfield has suggested).

Though I like my occasional analogue week, I find the idea of technological ESP really appealing.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

BBC’s The Big Questions: Luddites 1, Bookofthefuture 0

Just got home from Bury Grammar School for Boys and the filming of The Big Questions with Nicky Campbell. Haven’t watched it back yet but pretty sure I lost the debate on the measure of public opinion. Not really all that surprised about that though, and thoroughly enjoyed participating.

It’s amazing how well a lot of the participants spoke under that kind of pressure with very little preparation. I’m getting used to winging it in live environments now but I thought many of the other participants were very impressive. Particularly the precocious Jordan who I have encountered before. Amazed some enterprising producer hasn’t put him on the track to stardom yet.

All in, you can’t really advance the debate in a 20 minute slot, but it was good that it gets aired, especially following the idiocy of recent headlines (such as the Daily Mail’s ‘Facebook gives you cancer’). Even Dame Ann Leslie, a Daily Mail contributor, conceded that was ridiculous. As Bidisha so cleverly put it, we are in the throws of a communications revolution, and it will take time for the new order to be properly established. But I remain convinced that when it is, we will all agree that the change has been — on the whole — positive.

When it has gone live, you’ll be able to watch it here.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

2009 through a seven-year-old’s eyes

We seem to have lost some of our sense of wonder about technology. Excitement and opportunity have been replaced by a general sense of fear about new developments. ‘Ugly’ wind turbines, carcinogenic foods, ‘dangerous’ mobile phone masts.

Where there’s not that visceral fear there seems to be something worse: apathy. We expect technology to be so amazing now that it has stopped wowing us. Even I, as a total gadget-lover, have found it hard to get excited about some of the latest products to hit the market. I’ve struggled to find products to put forward for the Life Lessons slot on Sam Walker’s snow. At Mobile World Congress I was ambivalent about the new range of devices on show.

Part of this is down to the way that technology development has changed over the last twenty years. No longer is all the cool stuff in new hardware. Rather the innovation is happening in software — largely on the web but also on platforms like Android and iPhone, and on the games consoles. Most of the hardware that this cool stuff runs on is just one form or another of computer. The form factor may have shrunk, the interfaces improved, and the power increased, but they are all fundamentally computers. From a hardware perspective, nothing really new.

I love cool software but it doesn’t quite engender the same excitement in me as hardware. I love building a new computer because it is about slotting the right parts together like super-expensive Lego. I loved choosing all the components of my home cinema system separately to build up the best system that I could for the money. If I was in any way half decent at coding, I might get the same thrill from software. But though I am a half-decent linguist, programming languages have never been a strong point.

Anyway, my point, and where this whole blog started, is that occasionally we need to remind ourselves just how far we have come. How amazing are the technologies that we consider mundane. I had a moment this morning where I thought about what my seven-year-old self would have made of my life. It’s something I do periodically, often as my next birthday approaches. Stood waiting at the station, I listened to Springsteen, checked where the train was up to, caught up on Twitter feeds, read a few emails, looked up some articles on the web, and played some games. I did all this on the same, tiny, thin, wireless device. What I would have given to have access to such a device at seven years old. All the entertainment, communication, and knowledge possibilities that it contained.

Just occasionally I think we all need to look at the world through the eyes of a seven year old, and realise what wonder we have created. It might make us all a little more excited and a little less fearful.

Tom Cheesewright