Yearly Archives

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Twitter: Life’s Red Button

I popped in to 5live last week to talk about Twitter’s review of the year with Aasmah Mir. In the process I did some thinking about what it is about Twitter that has so captured people’s imagination. I didn’t get a chance to squeeze what I came up with into the chat on air so thought I’d put it down here.

For me Twitter is a bit like the red button for your TV: rather than passively observing what’s happening in the world it gives you a feeling of interacting, of being involved. Getting your information direct from the participants in major events — whether they be activists or celebrities — makes you feel that bit closer top the action.

That is true for both the dominant modes of use of Twitter that I see: the ‘few to many’ broadcast practiced by celebrities, and the ‘few to few’ interactions of niche groups connected permanently through ‘friend’ relationships (mutual followers) or more fleetingly through hashtags. For example, there’s a noticeable excitement from people following even fairly mundane live tweets from an event that may not be there if they were just reading a transcript or watching a video after the fact. Even though they’re not physically there, they feel somehow like they’re in the room.

This works because of the nature of Twitter, both that the posts are near-instantaneous, and that the reader can digest them in near real time because they are so short. It is these things combined with the very personal nature of the posts, that for me gives Twitter that sense of being close to the action, and hence its appeal.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Contactless Payments – The End of Cash?

I’ve been trialling a watch that could replace your wallet. The device contains a small slot for what looks like a SIM card from a mobile phone. This is in fact a payment card that communicates with the till when then watch is held to a reader, now being installed in shops around the UK. There’s no PIN number, but there’s a limit on transaction size and the account has to be topped in advance, so that you can’t be cleaned out if the watch is stolen.

This is, in short, a replacement for cash. It is designed for the many small purchases that we make throughout the day: newspaper, chocolate bar, sandwich, train ticket, coffee etc. And for me it is a lot easier.

The fact that it is in a watch is something of a distraction, albeit that it is a very sensible place to put a wireless payment card. The point is that both Visa and MasterCard are piling money into these ‘contactless’ technologies, with merchants rapidly beginning to fit out their stores with NFC readers that will enable people to pay with a wave of the hand, whatever medium the payment chip may be held in.

Darryl Morris on Radio Manchester joked about my prediction that we will see the end of cash within our lifetimes: I think that is a very safe bet. It will hang around for certain uses but in five years time I would be amazed if I am still carrying coins in my pocket on a regular basis.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

4G and WiFi: Completing the UK’s Coverage

Talking about 4G on 5live last weekend, one of the issues that was raised was that of coverage: even with the next generation of mobile network, won’t we still have the same issues that we do in rural areas with 3G?

The answer is a complex one, but with a potentially positive outcome for users.

It is pretty hard to give 100% coverage of the UK with a single network technology. There’s just too much terrain to cover and it isn’t economically viable — nor necessarily desirable to local residents — to stick in a base station and mast to cover every square inch. Even the 800Mhz frequency set aside to carry the signals for 4G (currently used for analogue TV) will have issues, despite being ideally suited for range and building penetration. An additional frequency, 2.6GHz, will be used to boost capacity in metropolitan areas, but this doesn’t help out in the country.

However, 4G is about more than just capacity. It is the first truly all-IP standard. That means the whole thing is build on the technology that underpins the Internet, not hacked together from ageing telephone standards as 3G was. What that means in practical terms is that it should be relatively straightforward for 4G devices to use other types of network, even roaming from 4G straight onto WiFi.

Of course for this to be of value outside of the range of your own home network, there will need to be other networks for you to roam onto in areas where 4G is weak. Fortunately there are already efforts in train to make logging on to new networks quicker and easier. Combine this with the extension of programmes like BT’s Fon, which shares portions of people’s home networks, and you can see how 4G plus a mesh of WiFi networks could give us much complete network coverage.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

4G: What it means and when it’s coming

The fab Jenny Culshaw invited me onto 5live Drive last night to talk about 4G. O2 is expanding its trial of faster mobile broadband into London, reigniting interest in the next generation of mobile technology. Here’s a little summary of my thoughts on the subject, assembled in advance.

The term 4G doesn’t mean an awful lot. Is basically defined by a set of speed thresholds: a mobile network is deemed to be 4G if it can deliver 100Mbps to a handset on the move and 1Gbps (1000 Mbps) to one that is stationary or moving slowly. O2 is trialling the first iteration of a technology called LTE, short for Long Term Evolution which doesn’t quite hit these dizzy heights but has the potential to in later versions. So the standards body for telecoms, the ITU, lets them call it 4G.

There are lots of ways to deliver a 4G service — mostly different variations on the same principle concept that involve sending multiple channels of information down the same few small chunks of bandwidth. But it is this bandwidth that is key.

Our airwaves are crowded in the developed world, with limited space for new services once you take out what is already in use for TV, radio, Internet and military applications. As a result in the UK we won’t be getting 4G until some spectrum has been freed up by the completion of the switchover from analogue to digital TV. This will free up the valuable 800Mhz band, ideal for delivering 4G services.

In the interim we may see some services appear on the alternative 2.6GHz band, but this is not so well suited to the application. Services at this frequency will be limited to urban areas as the range is short and the signal is less capable of penetrating buildings.

Of course those are the areas where current 3G networks are under most pressure, so providers such as 3 who are approaching capacity on their networks are very keen to see this spectrum licensed as soon as possible.

Beyond that though we will have to wait until 2013 to see 4G appear in earnest in the UK, with the auction for spectrum now delayed until late 2012. When it does appear, expect instantaneous web page loads and a much richer mobile web experience — more video and interactivity, 3D game streaming and heavy promotion of very rich content (audio/video/game) downloads over the air. And some killer applications that as usual,mhave yet to be invented.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

DLNA and UPnP: A Multimedia Mess

For the last couple of weeks I have been trialling a variety of devices that utilise the UPnP and DLNA ‘standards’. As you can probably guess from the punctuation, I’m not very impressed with the uniformity of these standards. Universal Plug and Play is anything but universal; the Digital Living Network Alliance is more of a ragtag assortment of manufacturers.

These standards are designed to enable the sharing and control of media — videos, photos, music — around the home (amongst other things — UPnP is somewhat broader). In theory this should mean that a UPnP server should be able to serve content to any UPnP enabled media player, and that any DLNA controller should be able to send content to an equivalently enabled device. Yet in few of the cases I have tested this has this worked first time.

This is an issue because these are standards for consumer equipment. If they were aimed at geeks like then it wouldn’t be such an issue: we secretly enjoy the diagnosis and fettling required to get everything working. But most consumers want things to be genuinely plug and play: if it says it should work, it should, and straight out of the box.

The fact that it doesn’t causes two distinct problems:

  • It slows adoption of technologies that could be attractive to consumers and profitable for manufacturers
  • It plays into the hands of vendors like Apple who control the whole technology stack to ensure functionality

I have no problem with Apple’s success: I’m writing this on one Apple product with others on each side of me. But I would like to see more competition. Because not all companies can be Apple, for competition to exist there needs to be standards where they can co-operate.

The standards as they are today are barely worthy of the term — certainly based on my experience of the last couple of weeks.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Smartphone: The New Centre of Your Digital World

Predicting the future is never an easy task. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it is fun to try. Let’s face it: wrong guesses are more entertaining than right ones. Like the Replicator in the original Book of the Future, a machine that can copy just about anything atom by atom. According to the Book of the Future we should have these by now, and I’m pretty doubtful we will see such a thing commercially available in the next fifty years (though I’d like to be wrong).

If you look much closer to the current day, it gets much easier to see the line that trends are taking. One thing is particularly clear to me at the moment: the smartphone will replace the PC as the centre of our digital worlds for the next twenty years.

That may sound like a safe bet but think about what it means: Firstly, that though the keyboard and mouse aren’t going anywhere soon, the form factor we know as a PC will soon be second fiddle. Apple’s iOS5 largely removes the need to have a PC to get the most out of a smartphone. Most of our access of digital and content will come through the small (probably touch) screen of a smartphone.

The smartphone will also be the arbiter of your identity. It will provide your access to your finances, friends, travel, media, entertainment and government services. Rather than syncing content from your PC to your phone as you do today; instead your phone will give your PC identity so that you it can access your services.

That’s a lot of faith to put in a single device, particularly one that is effectively leased to you by a corporation.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

I Am NOT Your ‘Friend’: Laziness in Social Media Etiquette

I am pretty forgiving of lapses in social media etiquette. After all it is still being established. But one thing that has really started to annoy me is people selecting the ‘friend’ tab when making unsolicited connections on LinkedIn. This irritates me for two reasons: they are clearly not my friend, and they have ignored the other more appropriate options such as ‘other’. I can cope when people put in an explanation in the accompanying message but they invariably don’t.

So, to avoid incurring my wrath, here is the proper way to make an unsolicited connection on LinkedIn*:

  • Do NOT choose the ‘friend’ option: select ‘other’
  • FIND the person’s email address if required through Google — it’s not hard
  • Write a message explaining WHY you want to connect and what the advantage for the other person might be (Tip: you selling me something is rarely an advantage for me)

In the long term we may become friends — I hope we do. But if today we are not and you want to connect, please show that you have some manners and follow the tips above.

The world will be a better, happier place.

(*Note that LinkedIn suggests that you shouldn’t connect to people you don’t know but I think this is bunkum: as long as you have a good reason to want to connect that makes sense to both parties)

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Don’t Kill the Messenger: Why BBM isn’t to Blame for the Riots

I’ve been on the radio this morning and will be again tomorrow explaining BBM to the unfamiliar. It’s a funny phenomenon: so confined to a specific audience in this country that there hasn’t even been much media interest in it — until now. Compare that with Twitter, the journalist’s choice of social network, which has been hyped beyond belief.

I confess I’m not even on BBM: there’s no reason for me to be. I can only think of three friends (including my wife) who use Blackberries and I have numerous channels of communication with them (sometimes I even talk to my wife face to face).

But for a large chunk of our Blackberry-wielding youth (37% of young smartphone owners have a Blackberry according to Ofcom) BBM is the primary form of digital communication, outstripping email and SMS and bypassing Facebook. Twitter’s barely on their radar. (Another confession: this is far from hard data and purely based on experience working with young people — though I’m sure there’s data somewhere that will back this up).

It is for this reason that BBM has been used in the co-ordination of the riots over the last few days. There’s been some speculation about its supposed security but this is something of a misnomer. Just because the network is closed and not transparent like Twitter doesn’t mean it is necessarily hidden from the prying eyes of the authorities. As Simon Bisson pointed out on ZDNet, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) gives the police all the clout they need to get access to Blackberry-owner RIM’s data, and then to cross reference this data with mobile operator records to identify devices, locations, and perhaps even individuals. RIM’s statement this morning would suggest they might be co-operating with just such research.

Even if this weren’t the case — and I very much doubt the looters are familiar with the ins and outs of the RIPA — it isn’t for security reasons that these people have used BBM. It is because it is what is in front of them. It is their defacto form of digital communication and it makes communicating with individuals or groups quick and easy.

It is also free. Blackberries are the gateway drug for smartphone addiction: cheap handsets and budget contracts with unlimited access to BBM makes them very appealing for the young.

So, media friends, this is why BBM was used to organise the riots: because it was there. It’s not sinister and it’s certainly not to blame. It’s not even secret or private really — not if you’re in the UK and the police have a good enough reason to want to look.

You might need to look elsewhere for the cause of these riots.



Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Future of TV – FiveLive Follow-Up

I appeared on Richard Bacon’s show on BBC Radio FiveLive this afternoon, talking about the future of television, prompted by the forthcoming YouView launch I expect. Here’s an expanded version of what I hope I said (I’m writing this in advance as a way to structure my thoughts).

As video technology has advanced, so the ways in which we consume video media have evolved. As far as I can see there are four distinct viewing modes that have developed:

  • The first to appear was appointment viewing: where the family gathered around a single little screen to watch major news or sporting events, or the big programmes of the day. This scheduled viewing persists today with soaps and the major reality shows — X-Factor, Apprentice etc — but we now interact with the shows via SMS and red button, and the ‘family’ now includes a nationwide audience debating the shows live over the various social networks.
  • The advent of the video recorder brought us time-shifted viewing, so that we could watch our favourite programmes — or often televised films — whenever we liked. The clunky tapes and complicated interfaces have now been replaced with slick digital video recorders making time-shifted viewing the norm for many people.
  • The video recorder, and then the DVD brought us demand viewing: the ability to watch the programmes of our choosing at our leisure. This mode has been revolutionised by the wide availability of broadband services allowing us to stream or download content from a wide variety of services: 4OD, iPlayer, iTunes and more.
  • Finally, technology has made it so easy to produce, distribute and access video that it is practical to make and consume video in very small chunks — clip viewing. This accounts for most of the content on video sharing sites, whether it is user-generated, clipped from an existing content piece, or professionally produced for the medium.

From my perspective none of these modes is mutually exclusive. Just because YouTube exists we haven’t stopped watching scheduled television, though our attention is now naturally more divided than it was when there were fewer channels. How we access all of this content has naturally diversified as well. The big flat screen in the living room is great for shared experiences and high production value content: films, sport, drama. Tablets are great for demand viewing when you’re away from home (particularly for entertaining kids in my experience). Clips tend to be picked up as links from Twitter, Facebook or news sites when in front of the computer, or increasingly on the mobile (bandwidth permitting).

The challenge for the TV industry is finding successful ways to make revenue from this newly diversified pattern of watching. How do you make a case to advertisers (or to the government for your licence fee) when your viewers are consuming content in a variety of packages across multiple media channels and different devices at different times of day and night? It’s hard for the broadcasters to get their head around, let alone the advertisers.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Consciousness Question: Can We Hack Our Own Brains?

On Friday night I went to the premiere of the new David Lodge play, ‘Secret Thoughts’, at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. It’s based on his novel ‘Thinks…’, about the relationship between a cognitive scientist (actually a philosopher) and an English lecturer at a fictional campus university.

The play was fantastic (tickets available here) but one scene in particular started me thinking. The two characters have a long discussion about the nature of consciousness and the ability of scientists to measure and analyse it like any other physical phenomena.

The English lecturer is determined to hold on to her belief that there is some irreducible ‘soul’ at the core of consciousness — something that exists outside of our understanding and that will continue to do so. The cognitive scientist argues that it’s all just a function of neurones and synapses and that we are fundamentally just super-advanced biological computers.

As you might guess I hold to the latter view, not that I think that in any way diminishes the wonder of our being.

I started thinking that we are increasingly in control of the machine that carries our consciousness around. That although the two are inextricably linked today, we have an awareness and understanding of the biological effects that change the way our minds operate. Though our knowledge is far from complete, we know the way hormones affect our mood. We manufacture drugs that can alter the operation of our brains.

The more aware we become of our own internal processes, and the more our science advances, the more opportunity we will have to consciously program the software of our own being. That’s quite a mad idea: like a computer writing its own software.

Such an idea has been explored by Iain M. Banks in the Culture novels. Here humanoid beings with thought-controlled drug centres inside their bodies can reprogram their brains on the fly — or at least moderate the effects of the autonomous systems. They can even change their own sex if they want to.

Elsewhere in science fiction the idea is taken further — ultimately to the separation of the ‘me’ from the ‘meat’. Marvel comics contain stories of human consciousness transplanted into android bodies. In Stargate ‘ascended’ beings live as pure energy, their consciousness having moved beyond the physical realm.

While I’m not sure that consciousness could exist without some sort of medium to carry it — a processor for the software — I do love the idea that we could advance to the point that we’re no longer subject to the limitations of our evolved form. That we could override our biological imperatives and act more logically — at least in certain areas. It sounds cold and possibly a little Vulcan (to continue the sci-fi references) but when you look at what disastrous decisions emotion can lead to, perhaps that’s not altogether a bad thing.


Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Social Media and The Hive Mind

Science fiction is full of instances of the ‘hive mind’, a collective consciousness shared across small groups or even entire species of beings. The narrative varies: sometimes they act as one individual through many bodies, and sometimes they have distinct personalities but share their thoughts through some form of telepathic communication.

While we’re a long way from telepathy, you can see the parallels between the latter description and the current generations of heavy social media users. We freely share many of our thoughts across the networks to our friends and family wherever they are. As a result I know what my friends are thinking, what they are doing (or have been doing) and where they are.

Some people are clearly more open than others: I consider myself a fairly heart-on-the-sleeve sort, but I can’t imagine sharing some of the updates (or pictures) posted by some in my network. But I can see that level of broadcast intimacy becoming increasingly the norm. It feels very in sync with the current culture of emoting, present in music, celebrity revelations, lifestyle magazines and newspaper columns.

And as the friction involved in sharing updates becomes lower, I can see us sharing more and more. Some of it will be automated (such as location), much of it will be banal. But it will all contribute to a kind of background hum that gives us an extra sense of what is going on with our connections. We are already developing and using meta analysis tools that will help us sift meaning from this hum: just look at trends on Twitter if you want to see the most popular memes circulating the earth.

Where will this all end? Well if you take my rosily positive view of the world, it could all work out quite nicely. Tying this flight of fancy back to present day issues, imagine a global consensus based on the collected thoughts of the species. A grand, global, technologically-inspired version of proportional representation. It would provide an interesting take on democracy.

I just hope our judgement — and our wit — can keep pace with the advances of technology.

[This blog posts finishes a train of thought started on the way home from FiveLive last night talking about the fact that young people are switching from SMS to instant messaging according to a report from Mobile Youth. My take? Not surprising given that IM is lower friction and lower cost.]

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Security vs communication. Privacy vs freedom. The personal policy challenges of the connected generation

Ok that’s a pretty grand title for a very short post. But it’s a big old issue. We are all increasingly connected in our day-to-day lives across a thousand and one different networks: social, financial, geographic, corporate, legal and technological. The price of access to these networks is usually the sharing of some information, whether that agreement be explicit or implicit.

Unfortunately this wealth of human information provides a fertile environment for the criminal and the hacker. The more data we reveal, the greater the threat to our personal security and that of our employers and service providers. That threat can be mitigated through precautions — mainly education but also software and policies — but it seems unlikely that it can be completely extinguished.

For me there is a huge amount of interest in watching the change in social norms of our society as we integrate and embed all of these new information sources and communications channels. But the even bigger interest is in how we adapt to the changing threats and balance our response to them against our desire to enjoy the benefits of our newfound technological freedom.

[This is what I would have said on Radio FiveLive last night if it was a longer slot…and perhaps if it was on Radio 4… 😉 ]

Tom Cheesewright