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Posted by laura on

Why Facebook is a Web 1.0 business

A slightly more structured (and less Guinness-fuelled) version of a rant I was having in the pub last night post NS20….

I believe that Facebook is fundamentally a web 1.0 business. Specifically it is a modern version of AOL and Yahoo’s portals.

These failed ideas wanted to be your single source for all your information and applications online. It seems to be that Facebook is currently trying to be the same thing: everything you want, as long as you go and log in on facebook.com.

The reality is that the web is naturally decentralised. Great ideas and applications rarely exist in the same location. People want and expect their ‘best of breed’ applications to be widely distributed, not locked in a single box. Likewise there’s no real reason for application developers to exist in a controlled environment when they have the whole web to play with.

Both the walled garden and the portal approaches have been repeatedly discredited over the last few years. So why won’t Facebook open up, look outside its walls, and see the value in connecting and sharing more? Executed correctly, I think this could be the answer to its revenue challenge.

Posted by laura on

The Austerity Congress: Mobile World Congress 2009

As usual, the last few days spent in Barcelona have flown by. At the world’s largest gathering of mobile phone manufacturers, service operators, network vendors and all the ancillary companies and media, time for quiet contemplation is a rare thing. So it’s only now, sat in a cafe at the airport, consuming the obligatory cerveza and Iberico ham sandwich that I’ve really had time to collect my thoughts about the event.

The first thing to note is that the mobile industry is not immune to the economic downturn. Even if their revenues haven’t yet seen the impact of reduced consumer spending and restricted access to credit, companies at the show were universally conservative in their approach. Most companies brought around 20% fewer staff, and there was none of the extravagant gestures seen in previous years. No all-expenses-paid parties for hundreds of hangers on, no sponsored Smart cars blaring out music around the airport, few monstrous billboards wrapped around whole buildings.

That’s not to say that the event was dull. Two of the eight halls still featured towering stands promoting the latest, flashiest technologies to hit the market. On the consumer side, new handsets featured solar panels, miniature projectors and 3D interfaces. Great accessories from companies like the quirky, French Parrot showed how the mobile phone will increasingly be the hub for our digital lives, allowing the transfer of photos from phone to frame with a wave of your hand, and providing audiophile-quality speakers for your iPhone. On the network side, vendors promoted high-bandwidth all-IP networks designed for super-fast mobile broadband. With the next iteration of the current 3G mobile phone standard still three years out (depending on who you talk to), there was a real resurgence in interest in WiMAX, an alternative technology available today.

But the overriding message was one of optimisation: making the most of what you’ve got. Increasingly vendor marketing is about how products will make the most of the networks’ current investments. While innovation in the consumer device continues apace, it seems the next few years might be a period of retrenchment for the operator networks. They need to get their current networks up to scratch in order to cope with the rapid growth in popularity of today’s technologies.

Mobile broadband take-up — both on devices and laptop dongles — has been spectacular in the UK and other developed markets, to the point where the demand is testing the capabilities of networks in busy areas. That trend is set to continue with Microsoft and Nokia announcing their own equivalents of Apple and Google’s App Stores, to enable users to easily find additional applications for their mobile phones. These applications often require connectivity, increasing the volume of traffic flowing over the networks.

I’ll be interested to see how these new marketplaces stack up against the booming Google Android and Apple iPhone equivalents. And how the networks cope with the continuing boom in network traffic.

Posted by laura on

Twitter’s Critical Mass Attracts a New Convert

As you will see from the left had side of the page, I have joined the Twittering masses. Rather belatedly, I admit.

I have known about Twitter for a long time, probably since it won an award at SXSW in 2007. However I never saw the value in it for me. Whether or not anyone likes reading them, I like writing my long-form blogs. I wasn’t in the habit of sharing updates about my location, or photos with the world at large. And back in 2007, few of my friends were using Twitter.

Things have changed. Constant updates to my Facebook status and a brief but enjoyable trial of Brightkite on my iPhone have shown me the fun and value of sharing brief, sometimes image-driven updates. Tweets won’t replace my longer entries, but they will supplement them. More and more friends are questioning my non-presence on Twitter. There now seems to be critical mass of users in my community, making it valuable to participate — and possibly costly to remain outside the group.

It is this final factor that has tipped me over the edge. The all-consuming gravity of a networking phenomenon has again pulled me in. Let’s see how long this one lasts. I guarantee it will mean I spend even less time on Facebook.

Posted by laura on

Social media etiquette

I just received an invitation to a press briefing. Via a Facebook message. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if I used my Facebook account for professional purposes. But I don’t. I don’t connect to any clients on Facebook. I was a member of the UK tech journos and PRs group (although I have today left it). Someone (not me) did create a group to promote Net Records, one of the start-ups I’m involved in, but it wasn’t me. Of all the many ways on offer through which people can contact me, I have never told someone to reach me on Facebook in a professional capacity.

So why would they choose to contact me that way?

Say someone lists a range of phone numbers in their email footer — usually an office number, maybe a direct dial, and increasingly a mobile number. You wouldn’t ignore all of those and call them at home. The same rules apply to social media. I have a dedicated email address for my blog that I list publicly. I use LinkedIn for business networking. People can even just leave comments on the blog. So why bypass all that and contact me on Facebook, which I reserve for personal relationships?

The fact is that the woman who contacted me clearly uses social media differently. Her rules are different. She is almost a decade younger than me and from a different country. The web may be global but the etiquette for us both is very different and there is no fixed standard yet.

Etiquette is important. It defines the little details about how we behave towards each other and how we act in the presence of others. The little rules that if breached can feel like an insult, or an invasion of privacy, however small. It will take time for a broad standard to be adopted across the web, and they may never translate well across international and cultural boundaries. For now, I think we all should be a little cautious about how we use social and communications media, and ensure we don’t assume that our rules apply to everyone else.

Posted by laura on

Wishlist: mobile social networking on a wearable computer

Continuing a (very) occasional series on gadgets I would like but that don’t yet seem to exist. This idea started when carving (falling) down the snowy slopes in Verbier over new year. Posh, I know.

We were a big group, all of different skill levels and hence all travelling at different speeds. Navigating the less-than-well mapped slopes was tough. Managing to join up at chosen meeting points even harder without multiple costly and confusing mobile calls. At the same time I was trialling a helmet-mounted (or in my case, head-mounted) camera and listening to music on my iPhone.

As we rode the lifts up to the top for another run we regularly discussed our respective playlists, and I found myself thinking: “ Wouldn’t it be cool if we could all listen to the same playlist?” Clearly all plugging in to the same iPod was never going to work, so the tunes would have to be streamed wirelessly (humour me and ignore the PRS/digital rights implication for a moment).

That got me thinking about a wireless mesh network that would stop us sending high volumes of data over the expensive and less-than-reliable cellular network. Then I figured, wouldn’t it be cool if the network could identify people against their devices (like a Nintendo DS) and allow us to access various social networking features: automatically discovering people in your Facebook friends list when they come in to range (if you have chosen to be discoverable); sharing photos, images and videos (perhaps streamed live from a helmet/lapel mounted camera). Add in a mapping and navigation system and you have an incredibly useful tool.

The wearable bit comes in when you begin to think about the interface for all this. You certainly don’t want a screen and keyboard when you’re hurtling down the slopes, but you will need some sort of button-based affair and a display. Lots of companies have been making iPod and mobile-phone compatible clothing with such arrangements for a while now. Maybe a more sophisticated version of these items could contain a small screen.

Hardware-wise, the ideal is obviously something compact and robust, like a mobile phone. All of the features above could easily be added to a Gphone or iPhone, and probably some already have (BrightKite being a good example). But for something with a little more raw power, easy development and cheap peripherals, a Netbook would be a great start. You could probably assemble the hardware to do everything I list above for under £300 (maybe slightly more with uprated battery and storage).

The techy elements could be incorporated very discretely — certainly into ski-wear — so you wouldn’t look like a total dork. And I think the market for something like this is actually pretty huge. There’s the sports angle (cheap tactical gear for paintballing is one idea a colleague suggested), but also just the kid on the street angle. Revenues could come from all sorts of places — hardware sales; location-based advertising; data backhaul etc. Given that the mesh network would never be the total solution for connectivity, it may even appeal to the mobile operators.

Be interested in any comments. I’m quite tempted to look into funding to see if someone could begin to develop the idea, or at least look at its feasibility.

Posted by admin on

Ethernet: The most important technology you never hear about

Ethernet is one of those inventions that few people know about, and rarely gets discussed outside of businesses and the very geekiest of homes. If you are only vaguely familiar with it, you might know it as the square ports on the back of your broadband router. Yet Ethernet now underlies much of our global communications infrastructure, and its reach is only going to grow in the coming years.

Ethernet is a standard that defines the physical connections, and the electronic operations that allow groups of computers to communicate over cables made from either copper or optic fibre. Today your network in the office or at home almost certainly relies on Ethernet. But in the near future this reach will be drastically expanded.

Already much of the core infrastructure that drives the internet relies on Ethernet. Soon the mobile phone networks are going to be increasingly reliant on Ethernet too. It is fast becoming the universal language for digital communication, whatever form that communication may take. CCTV networks use it, music systems use it, games consoles use it, banks use it — almost every transaction we make in life will soon be sent over Ethernet.

The exact date on which Ethernet was invented is not clear, but many trace it back to a memo sent by Robert Metcalfe to his employers at Xerox PARC, the development powerhouse that also spawned many of the ideas now incorporated in the modern PC (the mouse, the graphical ‘windowed’ interface). Like many great ideas, his proposal was initially rejected. Well done that man for sticking with it.

Posted by admin on

BBC iPlayer: Broadband Bottlen

I spoke briefly to an executive in the telecoms industry yesterday. I mentioned that many people I spoke to had seen a fall in broadband performance (based on anecdotal evidence). He suggested the biggest problem is the change in the type of applications that people are using, and cited the BBC iPlayer as an example. I don’t know why this simple thought hadn’t occurred to me but it makes perfect sense. I feel a bit daft having not jumped to that conclusion myself.

Even the simplest websites increasingly include sound and video clips, animated introductions, and large graphics, all of which take advantage of the increasing bandwidth available to users. That’s fine when just a few people are using those rich-media sites while the majority browse email or train times. But when the rich-media applications — such as the iPlayer — go mainstream, the experience degrades for everyone as the pipes clog up.

All the points I have made previously about our creaking national broadband infrastructure remain, but I now believe the problem is going to worsen quickly. All the more reason for us to begin the painful and expensive process of rolling out fibre optic connections to the home, before all the clever business models we have built on the availability of broadband data begin to collapse.

Posted by admin on

Spam Spam Spam Spam: The History of Spam

Quick pop in to the BBC Radio Manchester offices yesterday to comment on the 15-year anniversary of the term ‘spam’. It was coined on a user group to describe unsolicited marketing emails, and comes from the Monty Python sketch set in a cafe selling little else.

Yesterday was not the real anniversary of spam, which can apparently be traced back to a marketing executive for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) almost fifteen years earlier. And some would argue there’s a big difference between that sort of legitimate business contact and the rather more illegitimate content that floods our inboxes today.

The problems stems from one simple fact: being a spammer is profitable. So profitable that the rewards outweigh the small risk of prosecution and the ignominy of being one of the most hated people in the world — certainly during the period between 8:30 and 9:30 that so many working people spend clearing their inboxes of junk.

As I was leaving the studio, another guest made a suggestion: charge 0.1p for every email sent. The economics are vague but the idea makes sense. The only way to stop spam is to make it economically unrewarding to send. This is of course hugely complicated, and punishes everyone — not just the offenders. But it is quite possibly the only way to halt the problem: the spammers are as technologically capable as those fighting the problem, and there is no prospect of international law-enforcement tackling the issue any time soon.

Tom Cheesewright