Archive for the ‘Comment’ Category

Chinese Social Media

May 24, 2012

QZone is one of China's biggest online social networks

One of the interesting aspects of research for the book was finding out more about how social media is used outside the West. In particular, there is a huge, and mainly homegrown, Web 2.0 environment in China. Services such as QZone, RenRen and CyWorld dominate their home market and have hundreds of millions of users.

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago whilst reading about the Facebook IPO. The Guardian published an analysis by technology editor, Charles Arthur, which included the following quote from Ed Barton, a digital media specialist:

“Facebook depends on advertising, and I would highlight that the fastest-growing internet media markets are China and the Far East, India and Brazil. Facebook’s potential is nowhere near as strong in those as it has been in the US. And in those markets there are often a number of locally oriented social networks already in place.”

With billions in the bank from its IPO, the normal route to expansion for Facebook might be a major purchase in one of these emerging markets. But things are never that simple in one-party-state China. The IPO may have run into local difficulties in the last few days, but the battle for Chinese users is a longer term strategic challenge for the company.

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Bubble 2.0?

May 2, 2012

My new book on Web 2.0, which comes out later this month, concludes with a brief review of the prospects of us entering a second Internet stocks bubble. Although somewhat forgotten now (eight years is an eon in computing), the original concept of Web 2.0 emerged out of the dot-com crash that followed the Internet bubble of the late 1990s. With the Facebook flotation and recent purchase of Instagram this has become a topical issue, and I was interested to read a piece on GigaOm which reviews the evidence for and against.

2012: meme or mayan?

January 11, 2012

The turning of the year is always a time for foresight, but 2012 has been imbued with special significance thanks to the Mayan Long Count calendar. Despite our impending doom, on the Web there’s the usual slew of new year prediction stuff: a proper Apple TV – to be or not to be; will cloud computing continue to storm; can Windows 8 save Nokia, or even Microsoft; how long will e-mail last as a form of communication. However, amongst the low-hanging fruit there was a handful of more interesting and thought provoking predictions so here goes (in no particular order):

On the Web 2.0 front, entrepreneur Elad Gil has predicted that 2012 will be the year of what he calls ‘social curation’ – with services such as Pinterest and Storify showing the way. Fast Company predict a significant new player will emerge in online social networks in 2012 whilst Gartner are arguing that by the end of 2014, at least one social network provider will become an insurance sales channel.

In the wider technology arena, Intel predicts that 2012 will be the year that ultra-books – razor-thin laptops which use very little battery power – will come to dominate the PC market, whilst Vivek Wadhwa at the UC Berkeley blog argues that it’s ultra-cheap tablet computers that will become all the rage. Silicon Republic predict that the London Olympics will be the key event to kick-start serious interest in electric wallets using Near Field Communications (NFC) as an enabler of mobile commerce.

Finally, the television looks set to become an important technology battleground in the coming year. As well as the plans for Apple to enter the TV market, Google has announced various developments in this area. However, something that hasn’t received the attention it’s due (and which we were trying to get people to think about back in 2007) has been highlighted by MSNBC: 2012 will be the most significant year in TV display technology since 1997, thanks to the introduction of super-high definition OLEDs, a technology that uses a lot less energy than LCD.

All this assumes, of course, that we make it to the end of the year without galactic alignment, geomagnetic reversal, or alien invasion.

Now the iPad can measure your vital signs

November 18, 2011

How excited do you get playing with your iPad? Would you give up your lunch hour to spend a few precious moments staring into its ten inches of LCD loveliness? Philips thinks there are plenty of us who would, and they have developed the VitalSigns app to provide us with an excuse – if we feel we need one.

You place your iPad on a table, set the app running and then just look at the screen. The iPad’s camera tracks tiny colour changes in your face – undetectable to the human eye – and equates them to heart rate. It also detects the movement of your chest to calculate how fast you’re breathing.

The disclaimer says that the app is strictly for fun – you can email the results or post them to Facebook or Twitter – and that readings are not intended for diagnosis or clinical monitoring or decision making. While this may sound a trifle strange, in the wider world the app is part of an emerging trend of self-measurement. There is, according to a recent article in MIT Review, a growing movement of ‘self trackers’ – fitness fanatics, geek obsessives and the genuinely ill – who are using an array of new gadgets to obtain near-constant feedback on their health. Building on techniques used in sport and hospital intensive care wards, these devices allow the user to monitor, record and analyse different health-related functions.

Of course we shouldn’t be surprised. Smart meters that report back details of our energy use are now old news, even if we haven’t quite got round to installing them yet. The Philips device and similar self-tracking systems are just part of the first wave of technology that feeds data back to us.

Raspberry Pi, but not for lunch.

November 11, 2011

There have been whispers about the Raspberry Pi über-mini computer for several months now, but in recent days the project has come out of skunk works and is garnering some press attention. Essentially, the plan is to design and build a credit card-sized, programmable computing device for as little as $25 (around £15). The technology is based around an ARM 11 microprocessor and the GNU/Linux operating system. An SD card provides storage (unsurprisingly at this price there is no hard disc) and a HDMI connection means that a consumer TV can be attached.

The organisation behind it is the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a UK registered charity that wants to put the fun back into studying computing by manufacturing an ultra-low cost computer and distributing it to schools so that they can teach computer programming to children. Genius. In the late 1970s, people like me cut their programming teeth on similar, although much less powerful, single board hobbyist computers such as Nascom and Kim. With the rise of commodity computing, and brands such as Apple, IBM, Dell and Microsoft, these kinds of machines all but disappeared. The Raspberry Pi team are trying to recreate that spirit of adventure, and as one of the developers, Eben Upton, puts it in a YouTube video:

“Young people don’t have a platform they can learn to program on. I’ve been programming since I was ten, most of my friends who are in the industry have been programming since they were ten, [but] there aren’t a lot of ten-year-old computer programmers anymore. This is going to be an enormous problem for our industry.”

The overall aim seems to be to get these devices into schools, particularly in the UK, and there is talk of a scheme that asks every purchaser to donate one to a local school. As the UK’s coalition government continue to scratch their heads over how to get growth going again it could do far worse than look at this scheme to help fire up the imagination of a new generation of coders.

UK Government tries to stop ‘low priority’ Semantic Web

May 24, 2010

At lunchtime today the UK’s Department of Business announced the first round of government cuts, including: “£18 million by stopping low priority projects like the Semantic web”

Could this be right? Was the new coalition government really going to stop the next stage of the Web – sometimes referred to as Web 3.0 – in which artificial intelligence (AI) techniques are introduced to the Internet? How would they do this? Ban the use of RDF (one of the key standards involved) or close down the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards body that oversees it?

After an outbreak of fevered twittering, the Department updated its text to read:

“stopping low priority projects like the Institute of Web Sciences (researching semantic web technologies)”

So, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The Semantic Web is safe. But this is a breathtaking example of short-sightedness on the part of UK Plc.

The Institute was announced in March with Web inventor, and Englishman, Sir Tim Berners-Lee slated to be heading it up. It was to be based at Oxford and Southampton, universities with strong Internet and AI research pedigrees.  With British companies having pretty much missed out on Web 1.0 and 2.0 explosions (look at the roll call of names of the top twenty Web companies:  Google, Facebook, E-Bay, Amazon etc.) we had a good chance not to miss out on Web 3.0. Looks like as a nation we are about to drop the ball yet again.

So well done on yet another own goal. The UK’s new government has shot down one of the few emerging industries in which we could genuinely claim some world-class prowess.

From bowling alone to tweeting together

May 13, 2010

Last week’s General Election in the UK was supposed to have been the first where the Web, and in particular social media tools such as Twitter, took over from television as the primary vehicle for communication and debate. It didn’t quite turn out that way as the TV leader debates dominated the campaign. Despite this perhaps temporary set-back, a new journal paper by the veteran human-computer interface expert Ben Shneiderman and a colleague, Harry Hochheiser, argues that social media could reverse the forty-year decline in civic, political and community-group participation which was articulated in Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling alone”.

In order to do so social media designers, civic leaders, and community managers will need to:

“deploy the right social media interfaces to restore participation in social, civic, political, and economic institutions” (my italics).

By this they mean interfaces that are, of course, so easy to use and intuitive that just about anyone can engage with them. But also they argue we need to develop ethical systems that help foster participation and trust between individuals online and deal with issues such as privacy, accuracy and destructive behaviour. For example, social media allows anonymity in things like blog postings, by letting people ‘hide’ behind funny pseudonyms. Does this practice act as a barrier to trust and accuracy? They argue that these and many other questions form a major new research agenda for the computing and social sciences and note the launch last year, in the US, of the National Initiative on Social Participation (NISP).

Naturally, they have also launched a Facebook page to take their ideas further.

Gutenberg fights back

February 16, 2010

My colleague Gaynor has started a blog focused on the two things that she claims dominate her working life: words and nerds. One of her first posts reports on a workshop we went to the other day at which Nottingham writer Jon McGregor talked about his new book and its radical, ‘Berlin’,  semi-hardback, physical format. Despite all the talk about e-books there is still innovation going on in Gutenberg publishing. Worth a read at: http://wordsandnerds.wordpress.com/

Hey Apple, where’s the e-paper?

February 2, 2010

Simon Jenkins writes in Friday’s Guardian:

“I am amused that each development of the e-book renders its pages more like print on paper. Its LED gets more like daylight, its page-turning more finger-friendly, its packaging more appealing”.

His point is that e-books seem to be trying to replicate the experience of reading a ‘real’ book, but in fact the comment about LEDs becoming more like daylight disguises an important technology issue and it is one of the distinguishing features between previous e-readers and the Apple iPad. That is, we have the e-book, but where’s the e-paper?

To date, the e-books that everyone has heard about have used electronic paper – essentially a black and white screen that replicates the optical properties of paper and is therefore easy to read. Vast research efforts have gone into this, particularly from UK companies such as Cambridge University spin-off, Plastic Logic. These displays can be read for long periods of time, in a variety of light conditions (without eyestrain), and use far less energy than conventional displays. This therefore means lighter batteries, a significant factor in the weight of any portable device. Whilst these factors were all meant to help an e-reader seem more like a book, they have also resulted in e-paper devices being more environmentally friendly devices than standard laptops, in terms of in-use energy consumption at least.

What’s interesting about the Apple iPad is that it is not moving in this direction. It features an LED backlit display and Apple seems to be gambling on the added interest of a colour screen to override any shortfall in readability (colour e-paper displays are not yet available commercially due to quality and design issues). As an e-reader its primary function seems to be dedicated to making Apple a major player in the electronic book market through its iBook service. In this respect I’m sure Apple will be successful and unless a colour e-paper product (or equivalent) comes along fairly sharp-ish it seems at least possible that their new device might kill the e-paper product category.

Forget ubicomp, think sofacomp

January 21, 2010

Just before Christmas I took delivery of a WikiReader a small, handheld device that has the entire contents of Wikipedia stored on it. It’s a simple little thing – basically a souped-up version of those little electronic dictionaries that have been around for years. Hit the search key, type in a search term through the touch-screen keyboard on the black and white, 7cm square screen and it will display a list of options for you to select the right Wikipedia entry.

I decided to road test the device during the family Christmas. Obviously Wikipedia is always changing, but it seems to be stable enough for most articles (and you can order updated memory cards). In fact, it was a massive hit and saw near continuous action on the sofa. Whenever anyone had a question about a TV programme that was on, or an actor on the screen, or a word they needed the meaning of, or details of a place they were reading about in the paper, the cry went up to ‘pass the Wikireader’. Based on this experience I think the company in question may have a bit of a hit on their hands.

All this has helped my thinking around the endless speculation about Apple’s iSlate. If the device turns out to exist and if it is some kind of all-in-one tablet that provides access to a range of multimedia – e-books, films, music etc – then it could have a real place on the sofa. Who wants to get off the chair and head upstairs to log on to use the PC or fish the laptop out of the briefcase? The iSlate will just sit on the arm of the sofa. In our house at least, the WikiReader has shown the way. The next step in computing is to the sofa.