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Why BlackBerry Won’t Be Defining The Future

Early start for 5live’s Wake Up to Money programme this morning, chatting about the launch of BlackBerry 10, amongst other things.

BlackBerry 10 is about more than a new handset: it is about the software and services that underpin it. And if the handset alone was the story, RIM, the BlackBerry’s maker, would certainly be doomed. As it is, the company is only probably doomed.

The BlackBerry was a defining device of its brief age. An age where smartphones were still new and email was a killer app. Smartphones are now cheap and ubiquitous. Email is dull and worthy at best, diminished in value by a thousand alternative means of sending messages.

Having established itself as king of the hill with unmatched email services and military-grade reliability, RIM then went on to attract a new generation of customers as BlackBerries first became popular with celebrities and then dropped in price. The BlackBerry and its BBM alternative messaging service became the platform of choice for a younger generation.

With these falls in price though came a drop in quality and a complete stagnation in innovation. Open letters to the management from a number of anonymous senior staff highlighted poor morale and management structures, lack of direction and a failure to admit that the market was changing around them.

A few years later, under new leadership and having bought in the ingredients of a new product from QNX and TAT, RIM is setting out to reclaim its throne.

Except that it won’t.

The benchmark that RIM has achieved with BlackBerry 10 is today’s standard. Not tomorrow’s. The company has a tenth as many apps available as its rivals. It has a product that is only affordable by the people and companies who have largely already abandoned it; the kids will have to wait for their device. The improvement that it offers over today’s iPhone or Android device is marginal at best.

RIM could do three things now:

  • It could nail the marketing of BlackBerry 10 and gain enough market share to remain sustainable in its current form as a vertically integrated (hardware, software, services) vendor.
  • It could split the company in two or possibly even three, licensing the new and widely-liked software to other hardware companies, selling off the declining hardware unit, and spinning off the device management platform.
  • It could fail completely and get broken up for patents

My expectation is actually a combination of all three: the new software and devices will see a brief rally in the company’s fortunes. They’ll ship a few million of the new devices but not enough to give them any distance from the other hard-fighting also-rans, Nokia and HTC for hardware, Microsoft for software. As it becomes clear there’s more value in the business as separate components than together, it will break up with many of the patents being sold off in the process. The part made up largely of the acquired QNX and TAT technology will go on to licence its software but will never see volumes of the order of Android and even Microsoft.

A sad end for a once powerful company, but the same fate that faces all those who stop innovating.

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The Only Nuclear Power Source We Need: The Sun

Solar power is expensive. That has always been the accusation. By the time you have manufactured large, inefficient sheets of solar cells and mounted them on roofs or in dedicated installations, the cost per Kilowatt Hour (kWh) is much higher than for coal or nuclear counterparts.

Expect that it isn’t. And even if it is, it won’t be.

Comparing Costs

In the last few months there have been two interesting reports on solar power and some fascinating shifts in the underlying technology of the solar cell.

The first report in May last year came from an organisation called GlobalData. It highlighted that solar power is getting more economical all the time, as the efficiency of the technology and the scale of its deployment increases. Using a measure called the Levelised Cost of Electricity to compare sources on an even basis, taking into account the cost of generation, solar power will hit parity with market prices for electricity in 2017.

Solar power will be cheaper than nuclear or coal in just four years time. That’s not long when you are considering the construction of new power plants.

The second report in September last year was slightly more partisan, as it was conducted by a political lobbying organisation in Germany with environmental goals. Its findings are fascinating though.

If you try to account for the environmental and health costs of energy generation, then solar power is already on a par with other forms of generation, and wind power is even cheaper. These costs are not insignificant: take for example, the cost of cleaning up old nuclear reactors, or the cost to the National Health Service from coal pollution.

With societal costs taken into account, wind power costs around 6p per kWh, solar between 10p and 18p. By contrast the societal costs alone of coal are 9p per kWh. New nuclear power plants are way more expensive at between 31p and 54p per kWh.

Increasing Efficiency

Solar power suffers because it does have an environmental cost. The materials from which solar cells are manufactured can be pretty unpleasant, as can the processes used to manipulate them. Certainly a lot of electricity is consumed in the making. And because the cells are relatively inefficient — around 14% of the light energy hitting the cell gets turned into electricity — it’s hard for them to overcome these costs.

This could be changing. The US Department of Energy announced last week that it is investing an extra $12m in its programme of grants for research into advancing solar generation. This is on top of $35m already invested — peanuts in energy terms but at least the intentions are good. This money is going to places like Texas University’s Cockrell School of Engineering where they are already producing printable solar cells with 6% efficiency. These are made by printing a material onto a glass substrate and are up to 10 times cheaper to produce than their chunky current equivalents. Their efficiency is climbing all the time — Swiss researchers at the Empa Research Institute have demonstrated flexible solar cells with efficiency over 20%, though not so easy to manufacture.

Bright Future

There are operational issues with renewables to overcome: such as delivering energy when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. But these are far from insurmountable — certainly when the sums involved are considered. Battery technology is advancing apace and trailer-sized Lithium Ion units already being used to smooth power delivery to cities.

Overcoming these challenges is simply a matter of time and directing resources to the right ends. Increase in electricity usage has slowed dramatically in some western countries (including the US), thanks to greener living and technologies such as LED lighting that are an order of magnitude more efficient than their predecessors. We should be able to generate our remaining needs cleanly and cheaply from the sun.

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What’s Mine is Theirs: Who Owns Your Device and Its Content?

When you take out a mobile phone contract, who owns the phone? When you buy digital books on your eBook reader, who owns the books? What about your digital music?

The days where you would purchase a physical item and and know that it was yours are over. The nature of service contracts, copyright law and cloud-based digital content has blurred the lines of ownership for ever more.

Take your phone for instance. At the end of your contract, you want to jump networks. Call up your phone provider, ask them to unlock it, and away you go. Right? Not necessarily.

In the US now the Digital Millenium Copyright Act has just been applied to phone unlocking (specifically an existing exemption has been repealed). That means it is no longer within your rights to use that device that you believed you had paid for and owned on another network.

The same law does not apply here, and even in the US it is unlikely any mobile phone operator is going to start suing consumers who unlock their phone. But it sets an unpleasant precedent. And governments around the world — including the UK — have shown themselves more than willing to apply bizarre and prejudicial terms through copyright legislation.

What about your eBooks? It turns out that you only licence what you ‘purchase’ from the Kindle store and others. You own nothing, as one Norwegian woman found out last year when she was accused of breaking Amazon’s rules and reportedly had her Kindle remotely wiped.

Music? The stories last year about Bruce Willis taking on Apple in a battle to leave his apparently huge iTunes library over to his kids were totally false. But the issue isn’t, as CNET explained here.

We own less and less. We are paying more and more for what are essentially services. Services that stop as soon as we stop paying. And the more things we have that are digital, connected, or subsidised, the fewer things we will own.

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There Can Be Only One… Network: Why We Need to Make Better Use of Spectrum in the Future

What does this sentence mean to you?

‘This year the UK government will auction off 250MHz of radio spectrum to be used for 4G mobile phone services’.

If the answer is ‘Nothing’ then let me try to explain, because this stuff is important.

The Spectrum Rainbow

Think of a child’s drawing of the world. Land at the bottom, sky at the top, people and houses in the middle.

Now imagine that the sky is divided into 300 million very, very thin horizontal layers stacking up into space. These layers are grouped together into bands — imagine them as different colours like a rainbow. Some are thinner, some thicker.

This rainbow of colours represents the radio wave spectrum. Each colour represents a group of radio frequencies (a ‘band’) we have allocated to different uses. Some bands carry AM or FM radio, some the signals for 3G mobile phones, and some your Wi-Fi network.

Frequencies are measured in Hertz (Hz for short) which represents the number of times the wave oscillates (goes up and down) every second. The frequency has a huge impact on how useful a band may be for different things. High frequencies can carry lots of information but need lots of energy and don’t travel very far. Low frequencies aren’t so good at carrying information but will amble on endlessly over very great distances.

Most modern digital services exist in a sweet spot between 10 Megahertz (10,000 oscillations per second) and 10 Gigahertz (10 million oscillations per second). Here you get a reasonable balance between range, energy consumption and information capacity. Though there’s still a marked difference between the characteristics at the top and bottom of this range.

Each band is a different size, depending on how many layers (Hertz) the relevant governing body has decided to allocate to each use. Bands are typically allocated by the Megahertz (thousand Hertz). Some might have just a few tens of thousands (e.g. Wi-Fi), some might have a few hundred thousand (3G).

My suggested visualisation is by no means scientifically accurate but it does get across one important thing: the amount of useful spectrum available is finite — so we need to make good use of it. Just as we do any other resource.

Back to the Beginning

So back to my opening: the UK government plans to auction off 250MHz of spectrum next year to be shared between up to four different operators — e.g. Vodafone, 02, EE or Three.

Now let’s do some maths.

Take your 250MHz and multiply it by the amount of data that can be carried on each single layer/Hertz. This is measured in bits per Hertz per second, and the ideal world figure for LTE — the 4G standard to be used in the UK — is around 8 bits per second per Hertz. That means that in any one place at any one time, the total data capacity of 4G is around 2 million bits per second or 2 Gigabits per second.

Let’s put that into real world terms. Netflix reckons you need the following in order to stream its content:

  • 1 Megabit per second to watch standard definition TV on a laptop-sized screen
  • 2 Megabits per second to watch standard definition video on a large TV
  • 4 Megabits per second to watch HD video

On this basis 500 people in Oxford Circus or Exchange Square in Manchester could all watch Strictly in high definition at the same time over 4G. That doesn’t sound too bad.

But the real world and the ideal world are very different. According to studies by Ofcom and others a more realistic figure is 1.3 bits per second per Hertz. That means instead of 500 people happily streaming Strictly, you’re down to 80.

Some people are more pessimistic still. That number could be significantly smaller once you take into account the impact of handling different types of traffic and real, real world conditions. Suddenly you’re down to just fifteen people on each network being able to watch Strictly in all its HD glory.*

But I Don’t Care About Watching Strictly in HD

Strictly is just a useful metaphor. 4 Megabits per second is not, in the grand scheme, a lot of bandwidth to demand.

The first portable devices with 4K or Ultra High Definition screens are already starting to appear. These will devour four times the bandwidth of full HD. Every time more bandwidth has become available, we have created services to fill it. Trust me: 4Mbps will feel like dial-up in a few years (and if you don’t know what that feels like, and you really want to experience the web the way it used to be, check this out.

So What’s the Answer?

Check out this chart showing how the available spectrum is chopped up in the UK.

Now think: how many of the services on here could not be delivered over an internet connection? For a start, all broadcast services, and all mobile services could be. This doesn’t determine what you use to carry that internet connection (e.g. 3G), but it does mean you don’t need to allocate chunks of spectrum to specific services. Rather you just allocate spectrum to different means of delivering an internet service.

Because technology will move forward constantly you don’t want to keep reallocating the same spectrum every time a new standard comes along. But maybe break it into two or three blocks with a rolling programme of upgrades, each time a significant new milestone is reached. This way we can ensure there is always enough bandwidth for us all to watch Strictly — and do a lot more valuable (and enjoyable) things, whenever we want to and wherever we are.

*Can I just point out at this point that I am not a particular fan of Strictly Come Dancing — it just happened to be the first programme that popped into my head.

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WIMPs Disappear When Faced with Shouting and Hand Gestures: How We Talk to Computers

WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) has been the way we interface with our computers for the best part of 30 years. All PCs, tablets and smartphones follow this paradigm of user interface design, introduced to the public with the Apple Macintosh in 1984. But could it be about to disappear.

As the venerable Register notes today, Google is building voice control into the Chrome web browser. And as I referenced in my look ahead to 2013 and the recent presentation I did for the ICAEW, gesture controls — much more sensitive than the motion controls we have today — are on their way.

If you are talking to a computer or it is reading your hand gestures, then a display system designed with the keyboard and mouse (and more recently the touchscreen) in mind is probably no longer optimal. What will we see in its place?

Games Consoles not for WIMPs

Games consoles offer perhaps the most evolved version of the classic WIMP, particularly the Xbox360 that has been subtly redesigned over time to take account of the Kinect voice and motion interface. Icons remain but really as an efficient means of graphically conveying the contents of a menu. Windows and drop-down menus are done away with — everything you do is full screen, important at a ten foot remove but possibly less so when up close. But beyond the limited voice commands you still control everything with a pointer — it’s just controlled by your hand. Something completely new is needed if we are to do away with the WIMP altogether.

Games consoles have a relatively low-bandwidth interface between person and machine. Even if I am executing the most complex manoeuvre in Halo it is only ever a combination of left, right, up, down, jump and fire. If I wanted to convey the complexity of language I’d either have to speak to the machine (and rely on it to understand me) or learn how to represent the alphabet in a combination of button presses. This would be a long learning process compared to the very intuitive keyboard, where whatever I press appears on the screen.

Everybody’s Talking

Speaking to a machine has its own problems. If you are in your car or house, or even walking down the street alone, there’s no issue with speaking to your computer, whether you are telling it to call your mum, give you directions to the nearest pizza joint, or dictating a text. But as soon as you are sat on a train, or in an open plan office, it starts to get a little problematic. You can’t dictate a sensitive email or do your lunchtime holiday searches when everyone around you can hear what you are doing. And if everyone on a packed train carriage is yammering away to their devices, both people and machines are going to have a hard time focusing.

Gesture control may be a more private means of interaction with your device, but it’s hard to see how this will be as intuitive as the keyboard and mouse. And how it is going to be sufficiently high bandwidth without us overcoming the same learning curve issue as we might have with keying button presses on a gamepad or something like a chorded keyboard.

What’s Next?

There’s little doubting that the WIMP paradigm and the hardware that supports it is on the way out. But it is far from clear yet what will replace it. The next few years should see some fascinating innovation from hardware and software designers alike — perhaps on a par with that original Macintosh (and the Xerox Alto that preceded it).

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‘Anachronistic Skeuomorphisms’ or ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Look Like the Past’

You may not be familiar with the word, but you’ll certainly have seen a few skeuomorphs. Lino made to look like floor tiles. Plastic trim printed to look like wood. Skeuomorphs are things made to look like other things that fulfill the same function — often new things styled to look like their antecedents.

Modern software is full of skeuomorphs. Calendars with pages that turn like a book. Save icons styled like floppy disks. And my own personal un-favourite, Apple’s iOS podcast app styled like a reel-to-reel cassette recorder. Something almost no-one under the age of 30 is likely ever to have seen, let alone used.

Digital skeuomorphs can be useful. They can be part of a good ‘bridging’ design that makes new technology familiar. But they can also be a crutch, a substitute for good, intuitive user interface design that highlights a lack of confidence from designers. At their worst — like in Apple’s podcast app — they can be a weird anachronism that does more to confuse than anything.

By their very nature skeuomorphs are not the future. They have a limited shelf life: they only make sense as long as the people using them get the reference. And we are now at the point where many common skeuomorphs are becoming unfamiliar to the majority of those consuming gadgets and digital goods. How many people using a digital calendar have ever owned a paper diary? How many have saved a file to a floppy disk? It may not yet be the minority but it won’t be long.

There are enough digital natives in the world now that we can focus on the development of a purely digital visual language for interfacing with common applications and functions. One that doesn’t update the ageing metaphors in use but does away with them altogether. In the next few years I expect to see a fairly radical shift in the design of user interfaces as designers start to gain confidence in the general public’s comfort and ability with purely digital concepts and the interfaces we use to access them.

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Plumbing the Third Home Utility: Internet

In fifty years or so having gas pipes in the house will be as retro as a coal scuttle. The timeline for peak oil may shift this way and that, but when you have a resource that takes millions of years to produce and only hundreds to consume, it’s going to run out sooner or later.

That will leave us with just three main utilities: electricity, water, and internet.

Water is a topic for another day. Today I want to talk about your internet connection, and more specifically the plumbing that routes it around your home once it gets there.

Plumbing Your Connection

I use the term ‘plumbing’ because even if they don’t really understand how it works, most people are familiar with the key elements of a water/hot water and heating system. You have a mains pipe and stopcock where it comes in. Pipes carry the water around the house. You may have a header tank. You have a boiler. You have radiators. You have taps and showerheads. This stuff we have come to know and understand.

A typical netgear modem/router/switch combo

Increasingly people will become familiar with the core plumbing elements of the third utility: internet. You probably already know what has become known as a ‘router’ — the internet equivalent of your mains pipe and stopcock. This device is actually four different things in one:

  • A ‘router’ is strictly a device that connects two networks — the great, wide internet (or at least your service provider’s portion of it) and your home network
  • A ‘modem’ is needed to communicate between your router and the service provider’s network using the relevant standards. Think of it as a translator between the language of your home network and the language of your service provider’s systems. This will be Digital Subscriber Line for most people, connecting over a phone line. Or Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) for those on a cable modem.
  • A ‘switch’ is what enables multiple devices to connect to each other on a network — in this case your home network — routing packets of data between each one. Your home modem/router/switch also includes something called a Dynamic Host Control Protocol (DHCP) server that gives each device on your network a separate address and tells them how to access the wider Internet.
  • A ‘Wi-Fi Access Point’ is what enables you to access the switch wirelessly, providing a Wi-Fi network and the associated security required.

Internet Boilers and Radiators

In addition to this core piece of kit I think we’re going to soon see a number of others become as standard as boilers and radiators.

Network Attached Storage

Everything is moving to the cloud, but there remain good arguments for storing some stuff locally — at least in the short to medium term. Locally stored stuff doesn’t have to be streamed down from a remote location so will arrive quicker and more reliably. It is under your control so you can have confidence in how it is backed up. And we have a lot of digital stuff to store: every song or photo needs around 5MB, films between a hundred and a thousand times that. With HD home videos and an ever increasing pixel count for our digital cameras, our home-generated content alone can rapidly swallow hundreds of gigabytes.

You could store all this stuff on a PC, but better to have something purpose-built for the task that can be expanded as required and accessed over the network by all your devices — PCs, laptops, smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes, TVs and consoles. This is Network Attached Storage and it is very cost effective, starting from around £70 for a single drive unit up to around £310 for a QNAP TS-412 4-bay unit similar to the one I’m currently testing. This has four ‘bays’ where you can insert hard disks to add capacity as your needs grow and is capable of streaming media to multiple devices over your network. QNAP has done a very nice job of explaining all the possible uses on its website here, though you may need to get to grips with a few acronyms.

Physical-World Interfaces

Sometimes digital just isn’t enough — you need to create or control something in the physical world.

Most commonly these days that means printing something out on paper (though before long we will all be rendering objects in three dimensions). Printing from a tablet or smartphone isn’t always easy or even possible by default, so a class of bridging technologies is beginning to appear, making it easier for us to connect our portable devices to our existing printers. These include the beautifully simple Lantronix xPrintServer that I’ve been testing recently. Plug it into your printer and your network and away you go. It discovers your printer and installs the drivers, and from then on you can print from any iOS (iPod, iPad, iPhone) device on your home network — as well as your PCs, laptops etc

The more adventurous can also consider something like the Tellstick Net to control home automation devices such as light switches, blinds, thermostats etc.

Range Extenders

With internet increasingly crucial you don’t want access to be limited to certain parts of the house. The same way you might extend heating into a loft conversion, you’re going to want to extend internet access and one access point won’t always do it. There are a number of options available.

You could send internet over the power lines, using something like the Power Ethernet combined sockets and transceivers I have been using in my home setup for a while. These simply replace a pair of double sockets with single power sockets plus four Ethernet sockets. Here the internet access is carried over the power lines, meaning you don’t need any extra cabling and overcoming any issues with Wi-Fi reach. They won’t give the ultimate in performance but are very convenient.

You could also use a booster like the Netgear WN1000RP. This clever little box plugs into a power socket and pulls in a connection from your existing Wi-Fi network. It then creates a new, stronger signal that fills any black spots. Again it is very simple to set up and works well, albeit again suffering a slight performance drop from your primary Wi-Fi network.

These things are not future technology: they are here now. But they are not in most homes. Soon though they will become familiar as radiators, a standard part of using what is fast becoming our most important utility.

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The Future of the TV: Bigger, Thinner, Smarter, Cheaper (and the Only Aerial Will Be for Wi-Fi)

CES has been the subject of much debate in the tech media the last few days. For the first time I can remember it has not just been geeks salivating at the prospect of more shiny stuff to play with. Some have been genuinely questioning the point of a hardware-focused show in a social, software-driven age.

While some nice gadgets have been announced, there’s no new revolutions appearing that weren’t already in progress. Just about the only major stories from CES so far seem to be about TVs.

This spurred a quick chat I had with BBC Merseyside tonight about growing TVs: with the advent of 84 inch TVs at CES, the presenter wanted to know how big you really need your TV to be. Like any good analyst, I answered his question with a question: what is a television for?

What IS a Television For?

‘Television’ combines two words: ‘tele’ meaning distant and ‘vision’ meaning, well, vision. You can’t say this is inaccurate based on current usage, but the word ‘television’ conjures up very specific ideas for me. Families crowding around a flickering set for appointment viewing like Corrie or the FA Cup final. Dodgy aerials that always needed adjusting. Constant fiddling to get a better picture. That for me was ‘television’. The name describes not just the box in the corner but the programming it carried and the over-the-airwaves means by which that programming was delivered.

The modern television is very different. Appointment viewing is limited to live events and the big reality shows (though even those seem to be declining). Increasingly what we watch through our screens it is not broadcast over the airwaves and it is not watched synchronously with the rest of the nation. It is piped through an internet connection and watched at our leisure. It is interactive content fed from a games console. And increasingly it will be information and applications delivered from the cloud.

For me what was the ‘television’ is really today just another screen. An interactive interface to the morass of applications and content in the cloud that increasingly hosts and defines our day-to-day lives. Less and less will the TV be restricted to video content: more and more it will be a means of accessing calendars, shopping lists, news, games and communications.

The Future Will Be Televised

So what is going to change to enable this?

One interesting development at CES was the multi-user TV, that enables two people to simultaneously watch different programmes on the same TV in high definition. Today this uses glasses but you can imagine some form of micro-mirror based system that enables pixels to be restricted to a narrow field of vision focused on individuals whose head position is tracked around the room.

Motion and voice control is already here in high-end TVs, and combined with the smartphone and tablet these herald the end of the remote control. Not a decade too soon either. Finer gesture control will give us the slickness of tablet-style touch on wall-sized screens.

And these are very much a reality. Once manufacturers nail down how to mass print OLED screens on flexible substrates, 84in screens will fast become normal and even small. Why not have a fully interactive wall if it can be shipped like wallpaper, doubles as room lighting and costs little to run?

Content will not come over the airwaves. Why have a dedicated chunk of the spectrum devoted to TV when any kind of content can be delivered more efficiently over the internet? The only kind of aerial you may find on a TV will be for Wi-Fi or whatever has replaced it.

Flicking Forward

None of this is far away. Around ten years ago I bought myself a top of the range TV. One of the last CRT models, the Panasonic TX-36PD30. Plasma panels were available but they were expensive and didn’t yet deliver the best picture. It had a 36in screen and a list price of over £2000. But by today’s standards it was a relic: enormous body and bezel, small screen, all analogue connections, and totally dumb compared to the smart, svelte, internet-connected digital panels that seem to grace most homes now. Jump ten or twenty years into the future and the ‘smart’ TVs of today will look equally Neanderthal.

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The Future of Heating: From Victorian Plumbing to Milliwave Rayguns

What’s the single biggest consumer of energy in the UK? Heat. More than transport. More than even electricity generation. Keeping our homes and offices warm costs us around £33 billion every year. So said a government strategy document back in March 2012.

It’s a shocking thought initially but easy to believe on reflection. Our position 53 degrees north sees us get cold winds and lots of rain, with 2012 being narrowly the second wettest year on record (2000 was the wettest, weather fans).

Consider our old, draughty houses (OK, yours may be newer and better insulated than mine) and primitive heating systems. Is burning gas to heat water and then pumping it around a load of copper pipes really the most efficient means of keeping the chill off? Good stats are hard to find but I’d suggest probably not based on the winner of last year’s MIT Clean Energy prize. Condensing boilers may be 90% efficient but the rest of the system simply can’t be an efficient way to deliver heat — certainly not in the haphazard way it is installed and insulated in most houses I have seen (including mine).

Underfloor heating and alternative radiators like the ThermaSkirt overcome some of this issue but still suffer the inefficiency of shipping water around. Electric heaters at least carry energy to the radiator in a reasonably efficient manner. But the heaters themselves suffer the same problem as any other radiator: they expend a lot of energy heating things that don’t matter.

In the long term I think we’re going to need a better solution. One that feels a little less Victorian than nests of copper pipes full of steaming water, or giant resistors with fans blowing over them — technology that would have been familiar to Tesla back in the 1800s.

Millimetre wave ray — may need redesigning to fit with your decorThere are options out there, though they may seem a little unpalatable to us today. Check out this article from Wired back in 2008. How do you like the idea of millimetre wave radiation bombarding you as you wander around the house, keeping you warm and only you? Its experimental microwave equivalent was estimated to use just 25% of the energy of current heating systems.

The idea of turning your home into a giant microwave/millimetre wave oven may make some a little squeamish. But we have overcome greater fears. Nuclear reactors raise fewer eyebrows than wind turbines these days. Microwave ovens are in almost every home, despite few of us understanding how they work and there being an incredible furore around them in the early years. And for all the noise around genetic modification, much of our meat is fed on genetically modified grains.

One day you may yet be heated in your home by a ray gun.

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Saturday Edition: Want to Get Fit? There’s an App for That (and a Cloud)

Saturday Edition: Want to Get Fit? There’s an App for That (and a Cloud)

Tonight on 5live’s Saturday Edition I’m chatting about fitness apps. Which is appropriate because in the last six months a fitness app has helped me lose, and largely keep off, around two stone. Today I am half a stone lighter than I was when I went to university (albeit a lot less fit). It feels good and I have to say it has been pretty painless.

How it Works

If you’re not familiar with this type of app, here’s how it works. I told the app — I used MyFitnessPal but there are alternatives — my vital statistics (weight, age, size, activity level) and my target weight and it gave me a calorie target each day. The user-generated database of foods the app can access makes it very easy to calculate the calories for each meal, even if it is composed of lots of random parts (as is often the case if you hate wasting food as much as I do). It can also record cardiovascular exercise and adjust your calorie intake appropriately, as well as recording various other stats (like water intake, strength exercises etc).. You tell the app your weight and each day it gives you a progress report.

Now you can argue about the value of calorie-based diets, but calories do provide a decent guideline to your food intake each day. And my issue like many people’s in the western world is not so much what I eat but how much of it. So MyFitnessPal has been ideal for me.

Food is Only Half the Story

But food isn’t even half the story as far as fitness is concerned. Activity is obviously important and MyFitnessPal isn’t perfect for monitoring that. There are loads of apps out there along with accessories (or ‘appcessories’ as they are increasingly known) that do a much better job. For example, Endomondoand others use the GPS in your phone to track the distance you have covered on a run or ride. They can even use the phone’s accelerometer (the bit that knows when you shake it) to track each step with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Accessories like the Nike Fuel Band and the Jawbone Up add richness to this tracking, monitoring things like the quality of your sleep.

UK company Fitbug is trying to bring together these aspects of fitness management — food and activity — into a virtual personal trainer. Fitbug combines a web-based control panel, tracking app and wirelessly connected sensors such as the Fitbug Air to instantly stream your stats back. What I’ve seen so far is compelling, and the company is making further moves with the launch at global consumer electronics expo CES of the ‘Luv’ blood pressure monitor.

Tracking Meds

This segues nicely into the third part of health monitoring: what you might call your medical health. For a while after I was (re)diagnosed with asthma a few years back I was a heavy user of the now-defunct Google Health service to record my use of my inhalers, and my peak flow readings. It was great to have a record of what I had taken and when, and a benchmark against which to compare when I was concerned about the impact a cough or cold was having on my breathing. The problem was that the data was only as good as my memory: for all the convenience of an app, I still had to remember to record every puff of Salbutamol. Not always easy.

The Virtual Health Service

Pulling this all together, where is this trend going? Staying in good health can be expensive, as anyone with a little-used gym membership will testify. But poor health is much more expensive, for all of us. If we want universal healthcare for all — and I very much do — we need to find a way to improve our general health and limit the largely self-inflicted impact of a modern lifestyle. It’s simply too expensive for us all to remain overweight and unfit. And it’s too expensive to treat health conditions like asthma only when they become acute.

Apps combined with wireless accessories, plus integrated communications in medical devices, could be a fantastic way to both monitor our health and nudge us into better lifestyles. A computer doesn’t need the diagnostic knowledge of a GP to monitor our weight, blood pressure, and in my case, peak flow. It just needs the right sensors and some basic processing to raise flags when we stray too far from our ideals or norms. For now we will need to tell it about our food and drink intake, but it’s probably only a matter of time until that is streamlined. Pulling in our social networks for peer support, as MyFitnessPal and apps like Strava and Fitocracy do, can strongly reinforce the nudge effect.

It may all seem a little ‘Big Brother’, as so many of tech trends based on local sensors and remote monitoring do. But with the right controls in place — this information could have some unpleasant commercial uses — I think it provides a practical and realistic means to nurture our nation’s collective health. And control our growing healthcare costs.

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(Storage) Space: The Final Frontier-Why We Will Have Less Stuff and Less Room in The Future

I helped a friend get set up in his new flat yesterday (the awesome designer/illustrator behind the new Book of the Future brand, Stewart Aitken). Suffice to say he had a lot of stuff. Not quite the avalanche of junk I brought to the Man Cave in 2012, but around 50 boxes altogether, labelled ‘Books’, ‘Comics’, and ‘Random Stuff’.

It got me thinking: how are we going to keep all this stuff in the future, and will we need to?

Mo’ People, Mo’ Problems

It certainly seems likely that population density is going to increase in the future. The United Nations forecasts that we will have over 10 billion people on the planet by 2100, depending on your expectations of fertility. This is 3 billion more than today. Even if we all had just enough children to replace ourselves, extended lifespans would mean that population will still reach almost the same level. Many would argue that there are more people on the planet that it can sustainably support.

Climate-Change Consuming Cities

You can add to this the likely sea-level rise and flooding effects of climate change. Sea levels are likely to rise 80 centimetres and could rise as much as 2 metres by the end of this century. Half of the world’s population lives within 62 miles of a coastline. Many of the world’s largest cities, including London, will be threatened. A lot of people could be looking for a new home unless trillions is invested in flood defence. We won’t be able to save every bit of land from the rising tides, so there will be less to go around.

Return of the High-Rise

Given the lack of investment in any serious space programmes (tentative trips to Mars and commercial satellite launches notwithstanding) we’re not going to have access to another planet to consume soon. And we’re a long way off constructing human habitable space stations.

So what are we going to do? Get cosy. The reality is that we will all have to live a little closer together, likely in smaller spaces. Given that cities enable us to make more efficient use of energy resources, it’s likely that we will see the return of the high-rise apartment block (as suggested by this BBC piece back in 2004), and more mixed-use developments to get people back to city-centre living. Not just young workers but families too.

The Big Compression

If we all have less space, physical possessions will become a real luxury: shelves and shelves of books a thing of the past, or restricted only to the very rich. Of course this is already happening. The rise of the eReader is rapidly replacing the printed word with stored bits. There’s now a whole generation who has barely owned a CD yet have massive music collections. And streaming services are quickly replacing the disc purchase for films and TV boxsets. Whatever you may feel about the loss of these vital, emotional objects (I live in a house crammed with books and still buy CDs, for all my love of tech), it is much more space-efficient to store their contents digitally.

But what about all the other stuff that fills our homes? Toys, clothes, luggage, bedding, objets d’art. What will happen to these when we are space-constrained?

I certainly think the mass of plastic that fills my kid’s toy chests will be gone. Not only will we not be able to afford the space, we won’t be able to afford the materials. As oil extraction drops off and we have to recover used materials more, prices will rise. Toys will need to more and more virtualised. High quality, physical, wooden toys will become real luxuries of which kids will have just a couple.

Clothes will need to become more resilient and reusable. We won’t want to store 93 different outfits, so they will have to go longer without washing (or ideally not need washing at all), be more flexible in their reuse (changing style and colour).

Luggage will become less of an issue as a result: we won’t need to transport as much stuff either day-to-day or on holidays, so we won’t need to keep as many bags and suitcases around the place. Bedding too should benefit from some sort of self-cleaning technology, though it seems likely that at some point we might do away with the rather dark-age concept of the duvet and sheets altogether.

That just leaves us with the pretty stuff: pictures, vases, trinkets. These will remain a luxury, only more so. When you have fewer walls and fewer shelves, you’ll need to be really discerning about what occupies them, though digital frames will become so cheap you can at least have large representations on rotation.

Start Decluttering Today

Generation by generation for the next few decades we’re going to have a serious decluttering exercise. Maybe you could start today? There are worse new years resolutions…

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The End of the Week-and the Weekend

How long before there is really no difference between weekday and weekend? Would it be a problem if we didn’t have a formal weekend any more?

I’m not sure. I’m not saying I want less leisure time — far from it. But in our modern, 24×7 society does it really make sense for most of the country to be off for the same two days each week?

Take an extreme example: hospitals. Some recent research showed that death rates in hospitals leap 10% at weekends when staffing numbers are lower. Does it really make sense that we let more people die because convention says that we all work to a synchronised five days on, two days off?

How about shops? Food shopping in supermarkets is a joy outside of the normal hours — at least in efficiency terms. But come the weekend the experience is hideous. Sundays are even worse than Saturdays, as everyone tries to squeeze in between 11 and 4. If we all had different rest days, it would be a lot more pleasant. It would also free up land, as the car parks could be smaller if the peak demand was lower.

Of course there are problems: without a formalised weekend some employers would likely take (even greater) advantage of employees. Big social occasions might be harder to schedule, and the leisure and retail industries would need to be completely reshaped. Education would have to remain on some sort of fixed calendar, and I’m sure there are many more issues I haven’t considered.

Even if we don’t make a conscious policy choice to do away with the weekend, it is happening. Working hours are extended but more flexible for people like me: I may work during the weekend but I might also take days off (as I have today) to look after sick kids or spend time with friends and family. Or just muck around (if only). As long as I meet my commitments, what does it matter when I do the work?

Increasingly I think my style of employment will become more common (a topic for another day), and when it does, we may see the concept of the weekend become a thing of the past.

Tom Cheesewright