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Posted by laura on

Identity crisis

One ‘internet of people’-related challenge that has been much discussed at previous Northern StartUps is identity. Who are you online? Are you your email or IM address? Your facebook profile? Your LinkedIn profile? Your blog or twitter bio? More importantly, how many more times do you want to have to confirm your identity and flesh out your profile?

Fears for privacy and oversight always come to the fore when issues of identity — on or offline — are discussed. But looking at the amount of information we all share already over the web, I’d be much happier having one or two profiles that I could control tightly rather than tens of disparate online identities.

OpenID solves the problem in part, but LinkedIn and Facebook hold much richer data. I’d prefer it if they decided to give me greater control over how my information is used, then opened up their information to other sites that wanted to access it — with my permission.

Seems to me it would save us all a load of time filling in forms, and hence reduce the barrier to acceptance for a lot of cool applications who currently build their own social networks as a delivery mechanism rather than focusing on their core value. The assumption has always been that it is by collecting user data that you will one day find a revenue model, but the experience of Facebook so far disproves that theory.

Posted by laura on

Increasing the UK’s crunch immunity

Why are we so susceptible to the effects of a ‘credit crunch’? Why should a loss of access to borrowing have such a devastating effect? It seems the modern economy is fueled not by wealth earned but by cash borrowed.

There seems to me to be a parallel with our reliance on fossil fuels. Both approaches leave us borrowing from the future and both have a finite limit. Having seen what happens when we reach a form of finite borrowing limit — a limit defined more by confidence than cash — should we not be looking at what will happen when we run out of oil?

The Liberal Democrats propose to tackle both problems at the same time
. Rather than spend £12.5bn on cutting VAT, they would spend that money on insulating schools, homes and hospitals, building new zero-carbon homes, and expanding and improving the rail network. This would create jobs in the short term, and reduce people’s (and the government’s) energy and travel costs in the long term, making us more immune to future financial challenges. It would also leave us with a long-term green legacy that would benefit the country for years to come.

This is not a political blog and I don’t intend it to become one, but I find it hard to argue with the merits of this suggestion.

Posted by laura on

Downloaders Done for Dodging Damaged Goods

The UK music industry’s latest crackdown on illegal downloads smacks of panic. I’m not saying there is no justification in their actions: you can argue that downloading copyrighted music is stealing as much as walking out of the shop with the CD. And there is some truth in the argument that without the ‘stick’ of potential prosecution, the ‘carrot’ of easy to use, legal downloads (iTunes) won’t succeed in bringing everyone to the right side of the law.

But prosecuting individual downloaders makes the record labels look petty and bullying. They are already perceived as greedy because of the ridiculous proportion of profit they take from artists. And incompetent for letting the online opportunity bypass them. It doesn’t add up to an appealing picture for customers, or investors for that matter.

You have to question whether they have done what is needed to sweeten the carrot for consumers too. I believe (and it has been shown by Steven Levitt in Freakonomics) that even with no ‘stick’, people will most often choose the legal path rather than break the law. Unless the legal option is sufficiently unpalatable, or the illegal option is so distinctly more appealing.

Legal downloads are priced at what appears on face value to be an appealing figure. Yet when you think about the cost of delivering them (tiny) and what proportion of the figure goes to the artist (also tiny), you begin to question the price. Especially since the price per track is not dissimilar to that of CD singles or albums, which have massively higher overheads to deliver and are arguably offer more ‘value’ to the consumer.

When you buy a CD, there’s the innate value of physical ownership (something that appeals to me and many people I speak to) plus the sleeve notes, the future tradeability, and importantly, the lack of copy protection. This last point is vital. If I buy a CD, the music will quite possibly reside in five different locations: the original CD, my media server, my office PC, my backup at home, and sometimes my phone too.

I can only listen to it in one place at a time. My wife doesn’t share my music tastes (or not entirely), and I don’t share music files with friends or over the internet, so I’m not breaking the spirit of any copyright law. Yet if I downloaded all my music from iTunes, this would be impossible (without some bypassing of the in-built DRM). Unless I buy all iTunes-compatible hardware, I would have to let the digital music revolution pass me by.

If the record labels are to embrace digital music, they need to do it properly. I don’t have a problem with going after criminals. Ultimately artists need to, and deserve to, get paid for their work. But when the record labels consume such a massive proportion of the income from music sales, and insist on selling DRM-damaged goods at inflated prices, it is hard to feel the downloaders are wholly responsible for trying to find a better option.

Posted by laura on

Supporting Innovation

The government is turning its attention to support for small businesses. That’s a loose term: 65% of businesses in the UK employ less than 5 people. As one of those businesses, and having started a couple of others in recent years, I have a few tips for how they can encourage entrepreneurship and innovation:

1. Move in to the 21st Century
I am involved in three knowledge businesses and a Web 2.0 startup. Trying to explain or categorise these businesses for the different business infrastructure organisations I have encountered is far too difficult. Banks, accountants, tax inspectors, Companies House all struggle to understand even what are now fairly common businesses like marketing consultancy. They are still set up to deal with butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. There should be an enforced programme of education and standardisation between these companies so that they understand 21st century business — or we will never be the knowledge economy the government so desires.

2. Simplify the rules
Starting a small business is like doing an egg and spoon race over an obstacle course. It is tough enough to get over the line without dropping anything, racing against your competitors, without having to scale the barriers and crawl through the muddy tunnels of bureaucracy. Tax, for example. I’m not saying that it should be lower, just easier to calculate. A thousand pounds plus per year for an accountant to sort out your books is a fair old drain on a small business.

3. Improve support and access to funding
BusinessLink has changed its face again, so I’ll reserve judgement on its latest incarnation, but certainly the mishmash of regional quangos that has existed to date has been absolutely shambolic. It’s as if they were created to give a few random people jobs (and public money) rather than actually help anyone in business. I’d like to see three things: a unified funding directory; a Citizen’s Advice Bureau-style drop in centre with surgeries run by accountants/solicitors/business experts to provide critical advice and a range of support tools (printing/web/internet/business planning software/design templates/fax etc); incentives to banks to support small businesses financially — e.g. underwriting small overdrafts (surprisingly hard to secure).

None of these ideas should need massive funding — in fact they could probably be funded by redirecting existing budgets more effectively. Simplifying tax rules should certainly save money; a standard set of business definitions and education packages could be simply rolled out online. The resulting tax increases from greater innovation and entrepreneurship should certainly provide some upside.

Posted by admin on

Food for Thought

It has been a very foody morning. First a big leftovers breakfast reading Nigel Slater’s enthusiastic descriptions of Christmas lunch preparation from last Sunday’s Observer. Then slumping in a chair, loaded with bubble and squeak, to watch a bit of Jamie Oliver.

It was a rerun of Jamie’s tour of Italy, showing his visit to a Puglian school where he witnessed the quality of food served to Italian youngsters. Even in this poor part of the country, expenditure per head on school lunches was almost three times what it is in the UK. By law all the food had to be organic and there wasn’t an ounce of processed meat any where near the place. Kids were offered one choice only and were expected to eat it.

It was a stark contrast to the situation in the UK. The standards laid out in the Italian schools may be driven as much by a national love of food as a desire to give their kids the best possible start, but the benefits remain. I haven’t looked for any empirical evidence of advantages to learning from eating so well, but there must be enormous advantages for long term health.

Given our ageing population in the UK, and the prevailing health problems in society, there must be a strong argument for implementing a similar health food programme in schools. Jamie’s UK campaign at least increased the spend per head (in theory) but parent power has seen the choices in schools maintained at an unfortunately high number and of a low standard.

In my humble opinion, there is a good argument for telling people what is good for them. If they don’t like it? Time for some tough love.

But the problem isn’t restricted to schools. The standard of food/cooking/eating in this country is generally low. There is a definite two-tier system in place, with the haves increasingly turning towards expensive organic produce and the have-nots sticking with ‘cheaper’ processed food.

Of course the produce is only part of the issue — processed food bypasses the need to cook properly with fresh ingredients. This almost inevitably produces healthier, more nutritious, lower-fat food but is perceived as requiring time. People believe that their busy lifestyles rule out cooking from fresh and even if they wanted to the skills required just aren’t as common as they ought to be.

This all sits at odds with the massive boom in the cooking/eating industries in the UK. But the cult of the cookbook and the celebrity chef are largely the preserve of the organically-fuelled middle classes.

If the next generation of kids is not to be totally obese and dependent on supplements for nutrients, we need a radical solution. I’d like to propose a couple:

Firstly, we should turn the whole of the UK over to organic farming. Yields would fall, production output would decrease, but the price of organic products would fall. We would have to become net importers of more of our produce in the short term but I would hope that as farmers relearned thousand-year old practices we could bring levels up to near self sufficiency again — at least for the basics.

Secondly we need a massive programme of education for future generations, not just light-weight ‘home economics’ that teaches kids to bake a cake. A core part of the curriculum should be life skills, the teaching of which is absent from too many homes. If we are to jump-start good practices it needs to be state funded and state-mandated. No-one should leave school without a basic understanding of the food cycle, and how to cook food from the basic ingredients.

These are two ideas described in very simplistic terms. I could describe them further, and probably will in a future post. There is certainly a theme here that I will pick up upon again — self-sufficiency for both people and countries. And I don’t mean in a freaky, gun-toting, mid-west survivalist kind of way.

Suffice to say this is a blog about the future and technology. I don’t believe all the technology in the world can make the future pleasant, or even survivable, if we are a race of obese creatures incapable of feeding ourselves without the assistance of corporations to process our food.

Posted by admin on

Back to TV 3.0

Just a short one this…or at least that’s the plan. Just read an article on YouTube in the latest issue of Wired magazine.

In drawing his conclusion, the author of this piece references all the lost titans of the dotcom boom (goes the dynamite) and wonders whether YouTube’s sale price ($1.6bn) was vastly — and wrongly — inflated. Is it just another transient fad that will be huge one day and gone tomorrow?

Now what I don’t know is whether the author was joking, but his answer was no. On the grounds that YouTube has 100 million streams a day.

Exsqueeze me?

A user base does not a business model make — just ask anyone who invested in dotcoms on the grounds of a company’s “market share”. What this typically meant is that they had thousands of users in a market that had zero revenue.

Certainly a user base does not make a business model when that user base is concentrated amongst the most fad-driven audience: teens. People are teenagers for a very short period of time, and the new people entering the demographic are constantly searching for the ‘new’. That’s what makes pop music/fashion/teen culture in general so interesting. And it is what makes me question the values attached to any business that is currently hugely popular amongst teens. That popularity will end, sure as it does for any TV show or band targeting that age group.

I lay no claim to being as clever as Larry or Sergey, so I don’t doubt that there was a good reason for paying $1.6bn for YouTube. But I really doubt it was the 100m streams a day that sold it.

The argument for this conclusion is that people want to share the infamous ‘watercooler moment’ — discussing last night’s big happening in the office/school/bus queue the next day. No arguments from me on this one.

But what does YouTube have to do with this moment? Do people really want a destination website on which to find the new ‘thing’? Call me old fashioned but surely they want it on their TV? For all the five-minute funnies in the world won’t get the true mass market away from their comfy armchairs and in to the office to watch TV — especially when they have to access it with a keyboard and a mouse.

What is important is the mechanism for finding good new content, and sharing this content with friends and family. Then you can create a critical mass around a single program that delivers your watercooler moment. Think how much bigger Numa would have been if it had broken out of the confines of the web and been shared from TV to TV.

YouTube currently has the most popular mechanism for recommending/sharing this type of content, but there’s nothing to day something like Digg couldn’t displace it (although obviously it is unlikely that the actual Digg will).

My recipe for TV 3.0 (sorry — again) remains unchanged and I don’t think the interface to it will be a website — at least not in the current mould. Give me a set top box (or a good media PC with a proper 10ft interface), access to charts/recommendations and broadband for streams/downloads, and I think 100m streams a day starts to look puny.

There’s no denying that 100m streams a day gives the Googlers a head start in creating this type of entity, if that is their aim. But honestly, I believe fashion is too fickle for that to translate in to a $1.6bn advantage.

Posted by admin on

Fat Clients

Anyone who uses my marketing services, please don’t take offence. I’m not talking about you.

The title refers to that age-old debate about thin clients and fat clients that ten years ago raised the blood pressure of executives throughout IT-land . Thin clients are just simple machines that allow you to access processing power, storage and applications hosted somewhere on the network. Fat clients by contrast have their own processing power, memory, storage and applications. A nice example is a radio (thin) versus an iPod (fat).

What brought this to mind was a story from The Roundup, about tiny cubes of digital storage that would enable us to carry the world’s knowledge around with us. Surely this would mean the end of the thin client? Why rely on the network when you can carry everything with you?

Of course it isn’t that simple. It is all very well being able to store all of that knowledge, but accessing it is another matter. When you have that much information, the ability to sort, search, and filter it is what becomes valuable. And it will be a long time before a Google-sized server farm can be compressed in to a pocketable device.

The reality is that the industry has settled on a compromise position. Most popular devices today are connected in some way — PDAs via WiFi, PCs via ethernet, phones via GSM etc — but they also all have significant processing power and local storage. Even my phone has a processor running at ten or twenty times the frequency of my first PC, and it has more than twenty times the storage. To me that most certainly makes it a fat client.

Over the next twenty years this obesity epidemic seems unlikely to end. Processing power will continue to increase, even though the current generation of chip technologies is starting to reach some physical boundaries that might spell the end for Moore’s law (hence the move to multiple cores, rather than increased frequencies). Storage capacities are also increasing dramatically, as noted in the article that spurred this post.

But what is increasing quicker than either of these technologies can maintain pace is the volume of data in the world, and our reliance on computers to filter and process that data.

A simple example is HDTV. Just as we are freeing up spectrum in the airwaves by moving from analogue to digital, we increase the bandwidth required to deliver a single station by dramatically increasing picture quality. More data equals more processing power required to turn that data in to something we can use.

There is also the ‘Semantic Web’ to consider, also known as ‘The Internet of Things’.

The idea of the Semantic Web is to make all of the information on the Web usable by machines rather than just people. This would make it much easier for applications to apply some ‘joined-up thinking’ — if you wanted to book an airline ticket, your computer could get data from your diary, find out your historical choice of airlines, check the timetables and prices, and bring you back a personalised selection of options. Today doing that requires either human intervention or a very specialised search engine.

But where the Semantic Web gets really interesting is when you take it out of the Web environment. If there is a standard way for ‘things’ to express and share the data they hold, they can share it with each other to improve our lives. The oldest example is the internet fridge — your fridge could talk to the RFID chip in your milk carton and find out your milk is off. It then contacts your phone via your home network to tell you to buy more on the way home.

The point is that once items like milk cartons start spitting data on to the network, the volumes of data we have to deal with grow exponentially. Milk cartons are the new thin clients — while they don’t let us access the power of the network, they at least contribute their limited knowledge to it in a way that we, or our machines, can usefully access.

Fat — even obese — clients will be required to help us digest this information. However much filtering and filing can be done by intelligence in the network (e.g. Google agents who know your profile and find what you might like from the morass of media outlets), we will always need some local intelligence to help us interpret and interface with the data we receive.

The situation we have today with increasingly powerful networked devices looks set to continue, but the thin devices have found a new role. I, for one, intend to be a thoroughly fat device — certainly by the time the Christmas break is over.

Tom Cheesewright