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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Today It’s Phone Numbers, Tomorrow: Relationships. Why Our Computers Will Know Our Friends Better Than We Do

A couple of weeks ago I was on BBC Breakfast talking about the stress that can be caused when our Facebook circles — mostly work and life — overlap. It reminded me of a paper from a recent conference I attended at Lancaster University where an academic was trying to address precisely this issue.

Overlapping online relationships is not a new problem: Google was trying to solve it with the introduction of Circles in Google Plus. If you’re not yet a user of this particular entry in the pantheon of social networks, Circles are a way of circumscribing the different segments of your life into multiple overlapping groups of contacts. You can choose which of your circles receives each status update/piece of content. Your family might see things your friends don’t, or you might have different circles of business colleague who are privileged with different levels of information.

This isn’t a bad solution but it is a little clunky. I could try to define my relationships with contacts in the rich, minute detail that truly represents every day life, but this would take a long time to set up properly, and make every post on the network painful as I tried to decide which circles ought to see everything.

Instead I — like many people — have historically maintained just three ‘Circles’, albeit using an even less sophisticated approach than Google Plus’s Circles: Facebook is for friends and family, LinkedIn is for work, Twitter is for friends and work. Anything I wanted to post in any of those networks I have mentally edited for appropriateness to the relevant network.

There are of course finer controls over access within the social networks — particularly Facebook with its own version of Google’s Circles — but the reality is that few people use them. Particularly when they are having a good time: the posts that happen late at night after a couple of shandies are likely to be the ones that cause the most issues with both your work and social lives.

So we either all need to become a lot more open, or we need a more sophisticated solution.

This is where the academic comes in. Dr Jose M. Such at the Security Lancaster research group is working on a system that can automatically determine our level of ‘intimacy’ with different contacts based on our previous interactions. And based on data from Facebook the group has already produced a software tool that can model intimacy with 90% accuracy.

This intimacy score enables a system to automatically determine the proper privacy policy between you and each other member of the network.

For example, it could decide whether I can access an item — say a photo — based on my relationship with the owner of the item. It could also take account of the intimacy scores between me and all the people tagged in the photo before it made a decision. I’d probably never see this calculation — the picture just wouldn’t appear in my timeline if the compounded intimacy scores didn’t justify it.

In the early days I think it’s unlikely we would allow such a system to make all the decisions for us. At the minimum we might want ‘Pull’ and ‘Push’ buttons alongside the ‘Like’ to adjust the intimacy level between ourselves and others. And we may need more than one dimension in the scoring: there are different levels of intimacy in the office environment that are entirely separate to those in our social lives. Apart from the occasions that the two overlap, which is where this whole conversation started in the first place…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Joy of Tech Facebook Messenger to Take on SMS

I was on 5live’s Saturday Edition this week talking about apps: You candownload the Joy of Tech podcast based on the show here or Listen Again to the show here.

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It was the twentieth anniversary of the text message last week. But it’s unlikely to see another anniversary of the same magnitude. Alternative messaging platforms have been stalking the simple SMS and are poised to take over — in a relatively short space of time.

Cross-platform apps like WhatsApp send SMS-style messages but over the Internet rather than the backchannels of the mobile phone system. This is cheaper, more efficient, and enables richer features (real-time chat, delivery/read receipts, integrated video/images etc) at no extra cost. As a result WhatsApp now has an estimated 250 million users (according to this Guardian piece).

But Facebook already has a billion users, and it continues to grow at a healthy rate in the developing nations (source). If Facebook can convince a sufficient proportion of us to use its new Messenger application over SMS and the other Internet-based alternatives, it could rapidly take a significant chunk of the messaging market.

In 2012 the world is likely to send around 10 trillion SMS messages. But within a couple of years that number is likely to tumble as more and more of us move over to Internet-based messaging. Facebook is likely to play a big role in this but I don’t think that is the endgame.

What the success of SMS, Twitter and WhatsApp show is that there is a value in the ability to share short text-based messages. They have a number of advantages over voice in many circumstances: they can be sent and received discreetly, they can contain rich content like web links and images, and they can be shared easily with one or many people. For these reasons, though the number of messages sent via SMS is likely to go down, the total number of short messages will continue to climb.

Initially commercial, proprietary systems will drive this growth. But after a while it doesn’t make sense to us as users to be locked into single network that may not be the one our friends choose. When short messages form a large proportion of Internet traffic, surely it makes sense to have an Internet standard for short messages? The same way we all use different services and software to send, receive and manage email but all are interoperable.

Facebook is likely to leverage its short message service for short term gain but in the long term, I believe and hope that we will all be able to chat away on an open Internet standard for short messaging.

 

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

My Sleeves Are Too Long: Why Home Fabs Will Replace Fashion Factories

I struggle with clothes. Apart from having a limited sense of style, I also have a slightly odd body shape. My neck is thicker and my chest broader than my height would imply. Even with my newly svelte figure (I’ve shed over a stone and a half in the last few weeks — a different story), I have trouble finding clothes that fit. Most noticeably, the arms are too long in any shirt or jacket that I buy to fit around my rather chunky neck*.

I am not alone in this. By definition, most people have a body shape that is not average. Finding something as basic as a pair of jeans that fit all of our various contours is a challenge for most people.

As a solution we could all have our clothes made to measure. This is a very pleasurable experience — I have a couple of bespoke suits — but it is a rather expensive way to fill a wardrobe. And I can’t see my tailors (the estimable Long, Berry and Wild on Manchester’s Lever Street), making me a hoodie or a snowboarding jacket, so my fashion options may be a little limited.

In the future I can see that there will be a better alternative. And it starts with 3D printers — or at least their descendants.

3D printers have been one of the big tech stories of 2012, as their price has tumbled from the tens of thousands to the single thousands. It won’t be long before your local PC World, Maplin or even B&Q starts selling them for under a grand. And from there the price is likely to tumble further.

But what about fashion? It’s unlikely that the first few generations of 3D printers will be capable of dealing with the variety of materials and manufacturing methods involved in something as complex as a technical jacket. But down the line larger, more sophisticated fabricators or ‘fabs’ will almost certainly be capable of assembling clothing matched to our exact measurements.

Even these devices may have their limits: larger or more complex designs may require a trip to the shops still. In fact this is almost certainly where these devices will first appear.

It’s important to note that these will not be robot cutting and sewing machines: the process is not one of cutting out a pattern and stitching. It is a process of laying down consecutive layers of liquid material that then sets and is bonded together to form a complete whole. While energy intensive this should be much less wasteful.

And the results should be fine and intricate constructions with much less stitching between segments and layers — a process little different to how clothes were made in the middle ages — as whole garments can be constructed as single pieces.

There are, as usual, many questions to answer for this little dream to be made reality: for a start how will we deal with the various materials the machines will need to use? Will it all be synthetics or will they be able to handle cottons and other natural materials? Will the economics stack up vs mass production of clothes that roughly fit? How will the licensing of designs work?

All to be discussed and dealt with, but not insurmountable challenges. And when they can be nailed, I might finally have sleeves that don’t drape over my hands.

*Crueller friends might suggest my overdeveloped neck is required to support my rather large head.

 

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Facebook Fear: Why Our Social Circles Will Continue to Stress Us Out

Off to BBC Breakfast this morning to comment on some research out of Edinburgh University that says the overlap of our social circles on Facebook causes us anxiety. In the simplest terms, we don’t like it when our mum/boss sees us knocking back tequilas at 3am on a school night. But there’s also a serious point here about how our social lives are exposed to potential employers — and cost us roles as a result. 50% of employers in the study confess to having rejected a candidate based on their online profile.

In the pre-social network days, there was a very simple barrier between our social circles: geography. It was unlikely you would bump into your mum at the bar at 3am. Even if there were photos of the event, they were likely in a cardboard folder under someone’s bed, not available to view online. Sometimes this geographic barrier was breached, providing plenty of juicy material for sitcoms, but even then the news could only spread by phone, post or, believe it or not, talking face to face. You might be the talk of the village square but it would probably be restricted to the village.

These days any transgression — or just a simple good night out — can be shared via the web in real time, and unless you’re careful about controlling who sees it (not always front of mind when having fun) it can reach all manner of people.

Google Plus launched with an inbuilt solution to this problem: Circles. You define where in your social network someone sits, and then you can choose which ‘Circles’ see each update. Facebook has since followed suit with a list of different ‘networks’ based on the things you have in common with friends — employer, school, family etc.

The problem with these answers is that they are a little clunky. As I say, if you’ve had a couple of shandies, selecting the right networks for every update when posting pics of your antics is probably not top of your mind. Let alone that of the friends posting pics of you.

The situation is unlikely to improve soon. We are still evolving a proper social network etiquette, and ourselves learning how to use the networks to maximum potential without causing ourselves a disadvantage now or in later life. Laws are growing around this shifting core of digital grammar, but they will always be defined by the societal norms rather than the other way around. All the while the data we share online is gathering power and finding more and more uses. How long before your insurer can legitimately look at your online profile to determine what sort of risk you present?

Ultimately though, we will need to find a solution, and one academic at Lancaster University is already proposing just that. A means for social networks to learn about our friends and contacts and establish on our behalf who should see what. For example, if you post a photo at 3am on a school night from a district packed with nightclubs and Facebook knows that three of your non-work friends are also in the same location, it might assume the picture shouldn’t be shared with your mum or your boss. It’s a simple example but you get the idea.

We’ll still need a level of manual control, but if social networks can really start to understand us, maybe we can start to be completely ourselves online, posting without fear.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Back to Basics

It’s always a bad sign when bloggers blog about their own blogging. But occasionally if you believe you have any readers at all, it feels kind of necessary.

Hence this brief post to explain why all the custom styles of this blog are disappearing for a while to be replaced with a nice, clean Twenty Eleven theme, with a few kludged customisations and a home-made logo.

The reality is that the old template was assembled when I had a lot more time to blog: reviewing gadgets, playing with tech at home and sharing my views. Today CANDDi consumes most of my time, and I get enough opportunity to spout opinions thanks to the patience of producers on BBC Breakfast, 5live, Radio Manchester and the other local stations that let me pontificate on air. The blog is a little unloved and the old template, shaped for a much greater output, made this abundantly clear.

So for now it has been replaced with a more pared-back theme. I will keep it updated and endeavour to post at least weekly, and I’m sure the blog will live again in its full form once CANDDi has earned us all our millions.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Smartphones: Users Want Benefits Not Baubles

There’s been a lot of grumbling from the tech community this week about the lack of a big spangly new feature in the iPhone 5. But really, what do people want?

Many of the mockups created by dreamers around the web featured standout features like projection keyboards or even built-in projectors. But these always seemed pretty unlikely additions to me.

A projection keyboard would have a lot of ‘wow factor’, but if they were that good then we’d all have one now — they have been commercially available for a few years now. And the built-in projector: cool but really, how useful?

Both of these things would dramatically bump up the cost of each device and increase its bulk. Whereas the real iPhone 5 has remained the same price as its predecessor and smaller in weight, volume, and thickness.

The real iPhone 5 has been optimised for our day-to-day usage, rather than pimped out with unnecessary baubles. And that’s the way it should be. That’s why it has become the fastest selling model yet.

There will be big leaps forward in the technology of mobile phones in the coming years but not every generation is going to have the first touchscreen, the first GPS or true voice control like Siri.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Coming Soon: Electric Cars You Might Actually Want to Own

It may surprise you to know that most petrolheads love the idea of electric cars. At least I believe the real ones do. Sure we will miss the raw sound and contained fury of the combustion engine, but real car lovers are excited by the prospect of great electric cars: perfect weight distribution, huge torque, and rapid, unremitting acceleration.

Sadly the reality is some way from this dream. As well as being ugly, electric cars today are utterly impractical, requiring long charging times for very short (circa 100 mile) ranges. No petrolhead lusts after a Nissan Leaf.

They might however, desire a Tesla Model S.The exception to the electric car rule for some years now has been the Tesla Roadster. The Lotus Elise-based two-seater had supercar performance and looks to match. Sadly it didn’t have much in the way of space for passengers or the weekly shop and came in at a tidy £87,000. Not exactly a practical option for most.

This summer though, Tesla brings the Model S to the UK. It’s still expensive, starting at an expected £40,000+ for the base model, but this sleek Aston-esque saloon is a genuine alternative to some of the more upmarket family car options. If you were considering a high-spec BMW, Mercedes, or even Maserati (you lucky thing) then the Tesla is worth a look. With a 300 mile range it is a lot more practical — it would actually get you from Manchester to Reading and back (my usual business round trip) with a bit of a top up during the day — something no other electric car on the market today could achieve.

This is just the start though: advances in battery technology particularly will see electric cars fall rapidly in price and increase dramatically in performance over the next 20 years. Take this week’s announcement from BAE for example. The company has managed to integrate battery chemistry into a carbon fibre-type material, enabling the actual structure of a vehicle to be turned into a giant battery. It’s some way off commercialisation with the requisite level of output but it shows the direction in which things are moving.

Of course we we still have to generate the electricity in the first place, and if one study this week is to be believed, this process generates more pollution than burning petrol inside a car engine. Researchers in China looked at particulate emissions (rather than CO2) and compared the output from a variety of different vehicles and their power sources, concluding in headline-grabbing fashion that electric cars were more polluting than their petrol counterparts.

This is, of course, not remotely true unless the vast majority of your power happens to come from coal, and you have very low standards for emissions control — as is the case in China. In just about any western country where the power is generated from cleaner sources, and the emissions are filtered, the math looks very, very different — not that you’d know that if you read the Daily Mail story on the subject.

In summary then, electric cars are coming and they will (eventually) be both, cool and practical, appealing and green — whatever the Daily Mail might say. You just need deep pockets if you want one in 2012.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Facebook’s IPO: Bargain or Bubble?

Facebook is expected to file for its initial public offering today, with an initial placement of around $5 billion valuing the company between $75bn and $100bn. Should we (or our pension funds) all be piling in with our cash?

Not in my opinion.

Facebook is a fascinating company with a very successful product, as is clear from its 850 million users worldwide. I use it daily, as do most people I know. Facebook is also believed to be fairly profitable, with estimates ranging from $1bn-$2.5bn for 2011 — we won’t know for sure until it files.

But even if the top end of these estimates is true, it is being valued at 40x its profit. And I’m afraid I just don’t see it growing to justify those valuations.

To give you some context, total global spend on online advertising, the primary source of Facebook’s revenue, has been estimated in the region of $70bn. There are a lot of companies competing for a share of that pie. The valuations discussed put a premium of $100 on every one of Facebook’s users: when did you last pay for something on Facebook?

Most importantly for Facebook as an investment proposition though, is the fast-moving and fickle nature of the tech industry. You only need to look at once-lauded names like Bebo and MySpace (or Nokia and Blackberry) today to see how far and how fast user affections can shift. Innovation in this sector rarely comes from companies encumbered by shareholder expectations. It is the nimble start-ups driven by ideas and enthusiasm that tend to shift the market. Start-ups like Facebook once was.

For me the rot has already set in at Facebook. The platform reminds me of RealPlayer in the 2000s: a once-great product that became bloated and slow as time went by and the drive to extract revenue from its users became ever more imperative. I watched this change closely, as I was doing PR for RealNetworks at the time. Today Facebook has endless features and bolt-ons, and multiple pages of settings to tweak. As sleeker, slicker, less involved options come along I can see users progressively, even without consciously making the decision, slipping away.

For this reason I don’t expect Facebook to justify investment today — certainly not in the long term. It’s just opinion, and I may be proven wrong, but that’s part of the joy in predicting the future.

Tom Cheesewright