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Has Apple Had Its Day?

Apple continues to ride high. After years in the doldrums, the resurrection orchestrated by Steve Jobs has been nigh-on miraculous in both scale and longevity. But how long can it last?

The iPod continues to dominate the portable music player market with its slick branding, cool looks and simple interface. Integration with the similarly successful iTunes has created a strong symbiotic relationship that will extend the semi-monopoly even when the iPod is technically inferior to rivals. Today the iPod is so successful that it has achieved that rare feat for a brand name and become a common noun.

Outside the music market, Apple continues to build sexy computers that are gaining increasing attention from the home user. As web, email, and word processing facilities are commoditised and web-enabled, so the old issue of compatibility has disappeared. With computer literacy spreading, so the problem of being familiar with one or other operating system becomes less prevalent: people are more willing and able to switch to Macs. And as digital media has become the new core use for a PC, so the media-friendly Mac has gained friends.

Apple laptops? Well it’s hard to argue with such sexy slabs of aluminium.

So it’s all rosy? Not quite.

Apple wins on a combination of capability and cool. Its products are both easy to use and un-geeky enough to appeal to the general public (particularly women). But both of these advantages are under assault.

On the desktop front, while I don’t hold out great hopes for Windows Vista being sufficiently capable or cool to cause Apple problems, there is another challenger out there: Linux. Although widely dismissed as a potential desktop OS for the tech-fearing consumer, distributions like Ubuntu have been making quiet strides to the point where they present a genuine alternative. Given the increasing computer literacy described above, it really isn’t hard to see people making the switch from Windows to Linux as easily as they might make the switch to Mac OS. Given the cost difference it is easy to see the appeal to students and the like, as well as system builders who might offer it as an option, if nothing else. All it needs is to be cool.

The increasing role for the PC in delivering digital media also provides an opportunity for Linux distributions to get further in to the consumer market. Enthusiasts have balked at the high cost (and initially exclusive distribution) of the Windows Media Centre OS, and while it remains probably the best solution for the (imagined) problem, there are many Linux-based challengers out there.

Apple is probably on the right track here though, by not delivering a product for this space at all. My experience of media centre PCs of all flavours tells me that they are not quite ready for the mainstream — and nor is the mainstream yet demanding them. Still, when the time is right there will be a range of Linux-based options for a robust, functional operating system that will compete with whatever MS and Apple might put out there.

With regards to portable devices, the real challenger is not Microsoft’s Zune or any of the current crop of brand name (and less well known) Asian CE manufacturers. While they might be able to create flashy devices that outlast the iPod’s battery life or have better sound quality, they will never match Apple for cool. But a couple of other companies have had even greater success than Apple at making geek toys cool and getting them in to the pockets of the tech-fearing consumer: Nokia, SonyEricsson, and Motorola.

The RAZR was the watershed: a genuinely fashionable mobile phone. One designed from the ground up to win on form as much as function, not just to have some daft plastic covers stuck on. Lesson learned: the mobile phone manufacturers are delivering ever greater features but also putting some effort in to the cool factor.

Of course Apple plans to launch a phone in the new year, but I’m of the opinion that it is unlikely to be a success on the level of the iPod. More likely another Newton.

And this is where Apple’s success begins to fall apart. Cool is by nature not something that you can hold on to. It is inevitably dulled by success and when that happens the trendmakers begin to look elsewhere. You can hold on to it for so long by spending big (think U2 limited editions, Eminem adverts…etc), but eventually the new cool will overtake you.

On the mobile side, Nokia has a devoted userbase of millions. All they need to do is make their music-friendly products a little less techie and a little more cool and they have an iPod-beater at their fingertips. Especially if someone can force iTunes integration to be opened up to the market (I’m sure some marketing dollars are being spent around Brussels at the moment). SonyEricsson is already there with its Walkman phones, and only suffering slightly from the damaged cool of its Sony parent. Motorola has the best marketing, and also a seemingly limitless budget.

For the desktop and media centre, one of the main fashion trends is rolling in Linux’ favour. Geek chic is going mainstream, with a generation of gamers who grew up with 8-bit games apparently at the fore, creating clothes, movies, art and music from their pixellated memories. This combined with the eco-feel of its brand might be just what Ubuntu needs to make it cool.

I’m not writing Apple off. It will continue to innovate and make successful products. But it appears to be at the top of its curve. And the common noun ‘iPod’ looks set to long outlast the dominance of the device that spawned it.

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I wear a few different hats in my working life, one of which is working with EggHeads, a service that helps people with consumer technology. The service was started with the assumption that while the PC market was probably sewn up, there were lots of new devices appearing that people needed help to choose between, set-up and use. And that they would be willing to pay for this help.

Willing they are, and the service is proving a success. However the biggest workload comes not from requests about iPods, digital cameras or multi-room audio as had been expected. People are still struggling with their home PCs, and particularly with viruses.

Taking a small sample of the last ten call outs for one EggHead. Nine were to do with PCs in some way. Of these, three had hardware problems, four needed their broadband or wireless networks configuring and the other two were calls exclusively about viruses. When configuring the broadband and wireless networks, the EggHead found that two of those computers were also infected.

That is four out of ten computers infected with viruses, and apparently this was a relatively clean sample. Of those four computers, each one had some form of anti-virus solution, and in most cases, more than one.

Having multiple anti-virus programs is known to cause problems, but the programs never flagged this to the user. And now I get to the point: who’s responsibility is it to protect the PC from viruses?

The user clearly doesn’t have the level of knowledge required to maintain and update their own system, and frankly, why should they learn? PCs are sold as consumer electronics items now, and you don’t need any understanding of electronics to watch a DVD or use a TV. So why should you need to learn the inner workings of a PC to be able to safely browse the web or use email?

There is an argument that learning about properly securing your PC is no different to learning to check the oil, water, and air pressure levels in your car. There is some merit in this but it is a flawed argument. Cars have been around for a lot longer than PCs, and pretty much since they became publicly available you have needed to perform the same maintenance. This means that any generation who didn’t have this knowledge disappeared a long time ago, and the basics have entered the public consciousness. By contrast PCs have only been around 25 years, and anyone who had a deep understanding of a PC 25 years ago has had to learn a hell of a lot to still understand a PC today. The required knowledge is changing much faster and people for whom computers are neither a hobby nor a job have no time or inclination to keep up. Why should they?

So perhaps securing the PC is the retailer’s responsibility? After all, if you follow the car analogy, dealerships will service your new vehicle for some time after you buy it. But they would argue that they’re not responsible for someone taking your car for a joyride if you leave it unlocked. They would fix it, for a fee, and this is what the high street PC retailers offer today.

So should it be the operating system provider? Microsoft is certainly attempting to improve its security, but locking down Windows is like trying to defend one city against every army in the world. Because of the Windows monopoly there are an awful lot of people out there all trying to crack Windows out of spite, for entertainment, or increasingly for financial gain. There will always be holes.

So what about the manufacturer? Often today these are consumer electronics companies, and if you follow the analogy back to the DVD player or the TV, it is hard to argue their responsibility. Problems from a virus is the equivalent of your TV getting damaged by a vandal who has broken in to your house. You wouldn’t blame the manufacturer for that.

No more analogies now, I promise. Finally we come back to the end user. It is their responsibility for maintaining the integrity of their PC because unfortunately it has to be. If they are not techie enough or interested enough they can pay an EggHead to look after it for them. But that could get expensive if they are getting a new infection every week.

What will stop that happening is good, intuitive, anti-virus solutions. And it seems today that one just doesn’t exist. Certainly the market leader, Symantec, seems to be more part of the problem than the solution. Its clunky, bloated, Norton Internet Insecurity package seems to be on many of the machines the EggHeads look at. Once it is removed, the computer speeds up significantly, and a more effective solution often finds viruses that have completely bypassed it. Users almost inevitably struggle to configure it properly and keep it updated.

AVG is the geeks’ favourite and for good reason. Its streamlined design, effective scanning and simple operation mean you can use it as a ‘fire and forget’ solution for looking after the PCs of the less technically-minded. They seem to have got closest to a properly ‘consumer electronics’-style solution.

Because this has to be the goal for usability. If someone who can operate a well-designed consumer electronics product such as Sky+ can also install and configure an anti-virus solution, there would be a lot less spam in the world, fewer denial of service attacks, and a lot fewer people screaming at their computers and calling out the EggHeads.

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Why Fi?

Manchester is apparently planning the UK’s largest Wi-Fi hotspot. The RFI for the project only actually mentions WiFi once, but it is much easier to tell the papers about a giant hotspot than to try and explain a mixed-media, multi-service, metro area IP network.

But once you get past the record-breaker hype, and look at the detail of what’s planned, it gets quite difficult to understand what this project is really for. And given that some of the funding for it will almost certainly be public money, that’s quite a problem.

The RFI starts with a very worthy (if a little woolly) intro about some of the issues Manchester faces. Nothing to argue with there. But it is the five suggested usage cases that tell the real story:

1: “Residents using the Network for universal, affordable access to applications such as E-mail, web browsing, instant messaging, entertainment and voice services”
Broadband is now available right across the UK at less than the price of BT line rental. It may not be at the 20–25Mbps envisioned by this plan but it is more than enough for email, web access, voice and entertainment.

2: “Businesses using the Network for remote office connectivity, supply chain integration, customer relationship management and inventory control”
So not only will this network compete for residential customers, it will also undercut business broadband offerings? There is a wealth of options out there for business broadband, from satellite, to p2p wireless, to DSL, to cable, to fibre. Why add one more?

3: “Institutions such as universities and those from the 3rd sector using the Network for increased interaction between their institution and students/members”
Because at the moment no students or universities are online?

4: “Public sector organisations using the Network, access by mobile staff, remote meter reading and remote camera/video surveillance”
Not only can all this be achieved over the existing broadband network, but there is in fact a wireless network already in place and being used to link CCTV cameras in Manchester. What are public sector staff doing that requires 20–25Mbps?

5: “Visitors using the network for remote access applications and local information”
‘Remote access applications’? If they need email, get a crackberry. If they need bandwidth, go to a coffee shop. It’s not difficult to get online when you need to.

Every application of this network can be delivered via existing fixed line, cellular and hotspot services. Why consume valuable resources to replicate these capabilities?

The intro notes that “Manchester has enormous inequalities — 40% of residents lacking NVQ level-2 qualifications, the greatest concentration of deprivation/low skills in the entire region. Many residents are excluded from the benefits of the city-region’s dynamic knowledge economy, being workless or “locked” into low-wage/low skill occupations, living in neighbourhoods characterised by poor health and housing, high crime levels and low levels of trust and social capital.”

Does the team behind this really think that adding more connectivity will solve these problems? I’m not saying it isn’t part of the solution, but given the plethora of options for meeting all of the use cases described above, surely the money for building out a new network could be better spent? Training, small enterprise funding, youth projects — plenty of options spring to mind.

If there is a provable need for WiFi access across the city, then there is a much more cost effective way to deliver it. Bartering.

Just about every business and many of the homes within the city will be connected to the internet. If people want to be able to access WiFi on the move, then get them to share their own access first.

A simply-configured, off-the-shelf access point can be plugged in to anyone’s broadband connection to create a secure mesh network. Any subscriber can access the network, as could indivduals or organisations who the subscribers felt should have access. This would require the co-operation of each subscriber’s ISP but if big public organisations are involved and the PR opportunity is right, then sufficient leverage could probably be brought to bear. Surely each business would be happy to spend £50–100 to give their employees access right across the city? And in areas where broadband penetration is low, use schools, police stations, doctors surgeries and other public institutions to house free access points, focusing money where it is needed most.

I’m not against the aims of this project — they are laudable. But there is a big gap between setting out to tackle deprivation and drive regeneration, and deciding a new IP network is the answer. This thinking may well have been done but the public document and the press coverage to date really don’t make the link very well.

Maybe I ought to respond to the RFI?

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Packets of Entertainment

The marching zombies of convergence took another stride forward today with the mainstream launch of internet TV in the UK. Not TV you watch ON the internet but TV delivered OVER the internet — to a proper tele and everything!

What surprised me is the lack of insight delivered by the mainstream media. I haven’t heard any stargazing futuretalk about how we will receive all our media in 2050. Just the real basics of the ‘what’, the ‘who’, and the ‘when’.

What about the ‘why’ and more importantly, the ‘how’?

Does the general public really only care about what movies they will get and how much each one will cost them? There’s a comment on materialism in there somewhere but it is more the lack of curiosity that saddens me. Or at least the lack of curiosity assumed by the media.

This is another step change in the way we consume media; part of a new media ecosystem that will not just change the behaviour of consumers but all media producers and distributors. And of course their money men: the advertisers. This is cool technology, combined with pop culture, combined with big business. Surely there is a bigger story to be told than just this product launch? All it takes is a bit of imagination. Or at worst, to ask the opinions of a few of the forward thinkers out there who understand the changes that are about to happen.

I don’t count myself amongst that prescient number, but I have listened well enough to see how things are shaping up:

Anyone with Sky Plus will tell you that it completely changes the way you view television. The timeshifting aspect doesn’t only enable you to be more selective about what you watch and when. It allows you to take more risks with programming. Something on an obscure channel at 1am that takes your fancy? Why not record it? It’s free and easy, and if it turns out to crap you only have to watch five minutes and delete it. I discovered Mythbusters this way, and it is now my favourite show (yes I am a true geek).

Now imagine that instead of the 100 or so channels you have through sky, you can access the output of every wannabe director and star on the planet with a broadband connection and a digital camera. Now combine the output of every YouTube auteur with the complete history of all programming. Ever. That’s a lot of content.

So you need to be able to search it effectively when you’re looking for something. Or even better have a system that learns your tastes and actively searches out content you might like — just like TiVo.

This is the future.

Sky Plus + YouTube + Broadband + Google + TiVo = TV 3.0 (sorry, somebody had to do it)

What gets really interesting is this:

1. How do trends form when everyone is watching their own individual TV channel?
2. How do the producers find funding when they have a potential audience of 1?

Answers on a postcard please. There are plenty of them out there.

Of course this applies to all media, not just TV. I’m not saying there won’t be a market for books, CDs or newspapers, but everything will be available too through our own unique and universal media source.

Surely the mainstream media could take time to whip up people’s imaginations about its own future?

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Thirty Miles Per Hour

Early in the 19th century, some people genuinely believed that if a human travelled over thirty miles per hour their head would fall off. Cartoonists depicted what they expected to happen when the first trains cracked this mythical speed. No doubt newspapers jumped on the bandwagon and spread the fear with ludicrous headlines. Daily Mail readers probably shook their heads and wondered what the world was coming to.

We geeks and technologists tend to look back on these times and laugh. But the situation still occurs today. And what is worse, sometimes I think I am one of those people worrying that my head is going to fall off.

Take mobile phone radiation for example. There’s no conclusive data to tell me that mobile phone radiation is or isn’t dangerous. I carry on using my mobile phone safe in the lack of knowledge of whether it will or won’t kill me. But I still get the jitters occasionally when I feel it warming against my face. And I never put it in my front pockets…

GM foods are more of a concern. The scientist in me wants to love the idea of bug-resistant crops with high yields that will feed the third world. The fact that most of these crops are neutered to maintain the farmer’s dependence on the supplier is another issue: the technology appeals and seems to have a humanitarian benefit.

But it all seems a bit turky twizzlers to me. I love food, possibly more than gadgets, and as I have got (slightly) older and (slightly) wealthier I find myself increasingly turning to organic food. It might not look as pristine but feels right, and in most cases, tastes better. By contrast GM conjures in my mind the supermarket tomato, plump and even coloured but without an ounce of flavour.

Where things get really complicated in my mind is looking at the future. I recently heard an acronym that had bypassed me until now: BANG or Bits Atoms Neurons Genes. This is about the ultimate in convergence, bringing together our bodies and minds with the best the silicon world has to offer. The idea is to improve our lives but I’m not sure I like the idea of interfering with my body in such a way. I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) even have a piercing or a tattoo.

On paper the idea is fantastic: a wetware interface to the world wide web, giving you access to all the knowledge the world has to offer at hundreds of gigabits per second. Complete control of the always on environment around you with just a thought. But still…

Part of me enjoys the limitations of the human body. Some of the most interesting art and literature has been created based on the restrictions that the artist suffered. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ they say, but necessity arises from the hurdles we have to leap.

But maybe my mind will change over time. The first time I see someone enjoying their enhanced life it might be like seeing the first passengers whipping along at a bracing thirty miles an hour. And I might just decide that I want a ride too.

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A Turbine On Every Roof

Scenario A
Imagine a salesman came to your door and offered you a wind turbine. It would bolt on to your house, generate part of the electricity you use and reduce your bills accordingly. And, of course, it would be good for the environment. All he wants for it is £2,500.

Ignoring the fact that few people trust door-to-door salesmen, whatever they are selling, the answer would probably be ‘no’. It’s a lot of money, the return on investment would take years, and it wouldn’t be worth the planning hassle with the neighbours.

Scenario B
Imagine a salesman came to your door and offered you a wind turbine for £500. It would normally cost five times that but there is a government grant that will cover the rest. It will pay for itself in just three years. And, of course, it would be good for the environment.

More people would probably say yes at this point. I certainly plan to get a wind turbine for the house when some of the other more urgent things that require my £500 have been done. But still it is a lot of money and a lot of hassle. This is (roughly) the reality of the situation at the moment, and looking out the window will tell you not a lot of people have a wind
turbine on their houses. Yet.

Scenario C
Imagine someone came to you from your existing eco-friendly electricity company. (Because of course you have switched to a green electricity company. Haven’t you?)

Said eco-friendly salesman calls and says he wants to put a turbine on top of your house. It makes no noise, will cut 20% off your electricity bills and he will sort out all the paperwork and have it fitted. Oh, and of course you will be helping to save the world.

Some NIMBYs and refuseniks are still going to say no, but for a lot of people the financial argument here would be compelling. Especially if the tax on non-green sources of electricity were bumped up to make the financial argument even stronger.

These figures are pretty rough (I invite people to send me more accurate ones if they have them) but a wind turbine costs around £2500, and there are government grants available for around £2000 of that. In Scenario C that makes the cost of the turbine around £500 to the electricity company. About the same as a new mobile phone.

Mobile phone companies subsidise the cost of phones to such a great extent that even very sophisticated smartphones are now free if you spend £25 a month or more. Average electricity bills for a family of four are more like £50 per month. So why can’t the electricity companies afford to stump up to subsidise a wind turbine on, if not every roof, then certainly the roofs of those that want them? If the capital outlay is a problem, then there are certainly venture capitalists out there interested in innovative green ideas (Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management for one).

So if you’re reading this, as the business development manager of Scottish Power, Green Energy, or someone else with the power to make it happen, drop me a line. The idea is yours for free. All I ask is that I can be your first customer.

OK and maybe I might ask you to throw some money in to a few other ideas of mine. Did I tell you the one about the biodiesel…

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One Small Step…

So I’m a blogger. Having been using computers and some form of the internet and its predecessors for around twenty years, I’m finally posting my own thoughts up here instead of reading other people’s. But that’s enough about me…on to the first thought.

Tom Cheesewright