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Archive for June, 2006


June 29th, 2006

Google Checkout: Is Google losing its way?

Google Checkout: Is Google losing its way?

Google’s long-threatened PayPal killer is live. Google Checkout is supported by an API and there’s a one-button option for accepting payments on your website.

Unfortunately, they’ve adopted a familiar ‘we are the world’ mentality we often see from US organisations, not telling you until you try to register that it’s only open to US residents. So we can’t take it for a spin to tell you how good it is.

So far there are about 50 stores participating, but Amazon and Ebay aren’t among them. The idea is that you can use a single Google account to pay all of these shops without sharing your credit card details with them. But I’m not convinced you’d want to shop at many of them regularly.

Google’s got some catching up to do. PayPal claims it has 100 million account holders in 55 countries worldwide.

What made PayPal successful was the auction market and Ebay’s ability to promote PayPal payments with listings. Google’s taken inspiration from this: in future, text adverts placed against search results by companies accepting Google Checkout payments will be indicated with a shopping cart logo. Adwords advertisers will also benefit from lower charges than everyone else: the standard charge is 2% + $0.20 per transaction. Adwords advertisers can receive $10 of payment for every $1 of Google Adwords advertising spend, free of Google Checkout charges. By contrast, PayPal charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction (scaling to 1.9% for bulk traders). (Both figures are US$ for comparison purposes – Paypal’s UK charges vary.)

It’s possible that Google’s brand will carry it a long way into the small business market, where PayPal hasn’t really dug in as deeply as we might expect. It seems more likely that Google Checkout will be a sort of loyalty bonus for existing Adwords advertisers.

For a company so large that’s driven almost exclusively by advertising, Google’s pretty vulnerable. If successful, Google Checkout will enable the company to create a new revenue stream while also building loyalty to its advertising network. Given its massive reach, Google doesn’t need to have a huge sign-up rate to create significant returns.

Google’s been criticised in the past for not taking stronger action against clickfraud, where advertisers must pay for fraudulent clicks on their adverts. The company still has to build a lot of confidence in its ability to manage financial transactions.

I can understand how Google comes to enter every technology market going: it has the opportunity, has smart people, and has the freedom. Above all, it has that geeky desire to keep making things. But some of those things are closer to its goal of ‘organising the world’s information’ than others are. Google maps, Google Spreadsheet, Google Base, Google Trends, Google Notebook, Google Calendar and Google Page Creator are clearly part of that vision.

Google Web Accelerator, Google Talk, football community Joga.com, Sketchup and Google Checkout don’t quite belong. They might be great technologies. They might be great ideas. But just imagine what Google could achieve if it really did dedicate 100% of its energies to organising the world’s information instead of getting sidetracked by the fact it can do whatever it wants.

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June 28th, 2006

Is the internet anti-social?

Is the internet anti-social?

There’s a story on the wires this week about a report from some sociologists at Duke University which claims that Americans are becoming more socially isolated, with fewer close personal friends than a decade ago. A number of contributing factors were cited, but the one which seemed to catch the headline writers’ attention was the increasing impact of the internet on our lives. “Social isolation linked to web” – claimed the headlines, but here’s an extract from the university’s press release which shows this ‘link’ to be somewhat tenuous (my emphasis):

The researchers speculated that changes in communities and families, such as the increase in the number of hours that family members spend at work and the influence of Internet communication, may contribute to the decrease in the size of close-knit circles of friends and relatives.

So the researchers speculated that the internet may be one of a number of factors at play here. Not exactly a rock solid scientific correlation, but more than enough for the press to start throwing rocks at the web.

This illustrates an odd attitude amongst many in the media and society at large, that there’s something fundamentally ‘not right’ about spending time online – it’s weird, anti-social and should probably be discouraged. People who spend too much time on the internet are sad, lonely geeks.

But why does the internet have such a bad reputation? Millions of people have, for decades, spent the bulk of their free time sat in front of the TV, shoving fish-finger sandwiches into their mouths as they soak up the latest episode of whatever dreary soap opera they’re addicted to, and this is seen as normal behaviour. If you spent a lot of time reading novels, people would consider this to be a wholesome, almost intellectual pastime, even if all you ever read were Andy McNab books.

Passively consuming conventional media is seen as socially acceptable behaviour, but a lot of people still don’t ‘get’ the web and think of it as weird and antisocial. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, and those who share this attitude will be left behind in the greatest social revolution the world has ever seen.

Far from being a medium for isolated, solitary individuals, the internet is enabling people to extend their social networks in ways never before imagined. Human relationships are no longer confined to the people we happen to live close to, and while we’d be fools to discount genuine interaction with our neighbours, the web makes it easy to build relationships across all geographic and political boundaries. It’s great that we can talk to people on different continents as easily as people who live on the same street, but this is about so much more than a simple, inexpensive means to communicate over long distances.

The development of the printing press, radio and TV helped to create a media paradigm in which a handful of powerful people (the church, governments, media barons) dictated the content agenda – the few were able to exercise strict control over what was broadcast and published for consumption by the many. Those days are over.

We’re seeing a rapidly increasing number of people creating and sharing their own content through blogs, video-sharing services, podcasts and other web based mediums. Through discussion forums, wikis, and other community driven web sites people are reaching out and communicating with each other in an environment where the only thing that they’re judged on is what say. The message is clear – people are much more interested in being creative and interacting with other human beings, than sitting in front of the idiot box having bland McMedia and corporate propaganda blasted into their brains.

There is clearly still an enormous market for commercially generated content, but people are turning away from the conventional broadcast model (which can be adequately defined as “being told what to watch and when to watch it”). The web offers an unprecedented level of freedom in terms of how content can be accessed, and by contrast television, radio, newspapers and other old-economy media now seem rigid and archaic.

If you understand the scope of what the web really offers people, you’d be stupid to expect them to not want to spend more time using it. Comparing the web with broadcast and print media, or thinking of it in terms of a communications tool simply doesn’t do justice to what is happening here. The web is quite unlike anything that has existed before and it’s still in its infancy, there’s a lot more development to be done and a lot of new ideas waiting to take form.

Right now, anybody with access to the web can easily publish any kind of material, from static text to video, which can be accessed by the one billion people currently online around the world, who can in turn respond to, contribute to, improve, disprove, or otherwise manipulate and interact with that content. As the web continues to evolve, people are constantly developing increasingly sophisticated and imaginative ways to interact with each other online, for business, politics, science, art, fun and a million different reasons.

Over the past ten years the web has changed the business world in ways nobody could have predicted, and now it’s doing the same to society. If you don’t get it, if you don’t understand why people are spending so much more time online, if you still think it’s anti-social and weird, you may as well retire now and go and live a cabin in the woods, because it’s only going to get weirder from here.

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June 27th, 2006

Corporate bloggers beware

Corporate bloggers beware

Via cheeky tech PR blog The World’s Leading, I came across a couple of bizarre online exchanges involving people who should perhaps know better.

An individual calling him or herself ‘Amanda Chapel’ has been doing the rounds of high profile PR blogs, including that of Aedhmar Hynes, CEO of Text 100, and Shel Holtz, CEO of Holtz Communication and Technology. ‘Amanda Chapel’ tries to undermine these beacons of the PR community by writing rambling and confused criticisms in the comments section of their blogs.

To many people, it would be fairly obvious that this is the work of a troll – a person masquerading under an anonymous identity whose sole objective is to make provocative comments in order to goad other people into an unseemly public scrap.

Anyone who has done their time in internet chat forums will be wearily familiar with the troll’s tactics, and instead of rising to the bait, will simply ignore the troll until it goes away (which it does if it is not ‘fed’ with attention).

Extraordinarily, both Aedhmar Hynes and Shel Holtz have attempted to engage the troll in conversation, resulting in increasingly vicious exchanges that make no one look good.

This nicely illustrates the dangers inherent in corporate blogging. It’s very fashionable these days to invoke the ‘markets are conversations’ mantra, and to believe that by having a public-facing corporate blog, you are engaging in conversation with your market. However, when your ‘market’ is someone who simply gets off on having public arguments, it’s doubtful whether you’re furthering your business by having a public ‘conversation’ with them.

Don’t get me wrong – I think blogs are wonderful communications tools, and they can work marvellously when deployed internally. But major corporations should think very carefully before using them as a public communication channel. The internet is a very different environment from the ‘real’ world, and it has its own benefits and its own dangers.

Despite their claims to the contrary, I very much doubt that many senior executives in major companies have a lot of experience of down-and-dirty online networking. Until very recently – if indeed it’s not still the case – that was seen as the province of geeks, saddos and loners. The irony is that those same ‘geeks’, ‘saddos’ and ‘loners’ are better equipped than corporate chiefs to operate in this ‘new’ networking environment. It’s probably wise to listen to what they have to say.

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June 26th, 2006

Does Microsoft's new ad profiling really work?

Does Microsoft's new ad profiling really work?

Microsoft has been talking about using demographics to target people with web advertising. While current advertising is often based on keywords people are using in current searches or content they are currently reading, demographic profiling will enable advertisers to target the reader rather than the activity/content. That means that campaigns can follow readers across participating websites. It will also make it easier to conduct branding campaigns so people are aware of products before they go searching or even (shudder!) buying offline.

Through Hotmail and various other subscription services, Microsoft already knows a fair bit about its users. Now it’s previewing a tool that it claims will enable you to predict what the demographics are for a particular website.

There are a few surprises in store. For example:

  • Fiorelli (top rank in Google for keyword ‘handbags’) – is Male oriented, with .59 confidence.
  • Maxim Magazine (a news-stand boys’ magazine which has the page title ‘Girls Sex Sports’) – is Female oriented, with .55 confidence.
  • Saga (tag-line ‘serving people aged 50 and over’) – has a peak audience of 25-34 year olds (36% of estimated traffic) with 18.27% of visitors being 50+
  • David Gilmour (60-year old guitarist with rock band Pink Floyd) – Female with .87 confidence. This was the highest confidence we could get out of the tool.
  • Shiny Shiny (blog about female-oriented gadgets) – Male with .61 confidence

There were also cases where it appeared to get the gender right, but not with much confidence:

  • We tried a leading global brand of men’s magazine, which is only for sale to tall people, and found it’s Male oriented with only 0.58 confidence.
  • Shopping site Handbag.com (.53), feminist blog Gendergeek.org (.54) – both Female, but with low confidence ratings

For over half the sites we tried, the results seem extremely counterintuitive. Even for the sites where the tool gets it right, it’s with such a low confidence level that you can’t use this to differentiate those it’s probably got right and those where it’s way off course.

The apparent quality of these results makes it hard to trust the results for websites where we have no real idea of what the demographic profile is.

Perhaps Microsoft is right about the surprising results. But if it is, it will need to educate its advertisers so that they come to trust its research over their own gut instinct. If it’s wrong, Microsoft still has a lot of work to do in identifying dubious data in its database. Until it fixes that, advertisers are likely to be nervous about using demographics to target their advertising. That I can say with, ooooh, .73 confidence.

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June 23rd, 2006

Is 'free content' always 'bad content'?

Is 'free content' always 'bad content'?

The FT reported this week that the Royal Society is to experiment with making its scientific journals available free on the internet.

Doing away with the traditional subscription model, the world’s oldest learned society will ask the contributors themselves to pay a GBP300 fee to make their papers available immediately online.

While the ‘open access’ model should speed up vital research in the scientific community, it has nevertheless raised concerns about the ability of journal publishers to pay for a proper peer review process, which is designed to maintain the quality and originality of scholarly content.

The prevailing view that ‘the only good content is paid-for content’ seems to be holding up, as criticism also continues to mount over the quality of the information provided by free resources like Wikipedia.

Yet those online information sources that insist on barricading their content behind subscription forms and password entry boxes risk isolating themselves from important and high-profile debates. For the increasingly influential blogging community, content that can’t be linked to is content that may as well not exist.

I would have liked to link to the FT’s news article in the first paragraph of this post, for example, but it’s subscription-only. And it’s not just us – there are another 46 million or so blogs out there that can’t link to the FT either. If the paper wants to be involved in the cut and thrust of modern online debate, it needs to change its strategy sharpish.

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June 21st, 2006

High-speed wireless internet – it's all relative

High-speed wireless internet – it's all relative

Today I have been using an old-fashioned dial-up connection to browse the web, sort out my email and keep in touch with colleagues via IM.

Sadly, this wasn’t due to some post-Coupland ‘retronet’ whim I had while stumbling on an old modem in my boxroom, but out of necessity. Until yesterday my Netgear DG834G 54Mbps wireless firewall router had sat quietly anonymous on a pile of unlabelled CDs, flashing its LEDs comfortingly but otherwise behaving itself for the last two years. It connects by an Ethernet drop cable to a DIY desktop and happily shakes hands with any laptops that care to drop by my house, with polite indifference. In fact I never had any problem with it at all until it stopped working altogether.

After numerous tech support calls with BT and Netgear, the diagnosis was that it’s broken and I need a new one. I have to send it off to some nameless third-party refurb company Netgear hires to do its dirty work in the UK. I can choose either to wait until someone receives it and then sends me one that should work by ‘standard service’ return post in 7-10 days, or I can pay $38 dollars and have them send me the new one first in a slightly shorter ‘executive’ turnaround and then send them my broken one in 7-10 days. Or ‘when I can be bothered’ as I would more truthfully call my own personal ‘standard’ service.

Irked at the very thought of this whole process, and far from confident the refurb would last me two more years, I am contemplating just paying the retail park premium and buying a new router tomorrow lunchtime. The thing is, do I go for the same unit, a similar box by Linksys or D-Link or another of Netgear’s rivals just out of spite, or get something altogether snazzier?

The 54Mbps wireless 802.11G standard was first usurped by a GT enhanced 104Mbps ‘turbo’ version (which I assume uses an exhaust-driven supercharged gas compressor to blast data down the cable in faster bursts). I had happily ignored this show-off interim standard at the time. ‘Only buy every OTHER new-fangled technology that you see’ – everyone knows that.

But now I keep reading about an even newer, even better 802.11n standard, and I have to admit to being tempted into buying unratified tech once more. This ‘n’ version of wireless is allegedly capable of increasing the wireless LAN speed of my old ‘g’ unit (See what I did there? No? Good for you) by adding MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output). MIMO works by sticking zillions more transmitter and receiver antennas on a much niftier box to allow for increased data throughput through spatial multiplexing. Or something. Anyway, the important factors to consider here are as follows: it’s potentially much faster; but it isn’t ratified yet, lots of people think it’s ropey still, and it’s unlikely to get the blessing of the great and good until next year; but manufacturers including Netgear and friends have already made ‘n’ kit and are shipping it to shops near me now; and it isn’t all that pricier than ‘g’ stuff.

Anyway, I was almost convinced until I decided to read the trusty San Francisco Chronicle tech section and discovered its view on the whole debate was: ‘Nah, I wouldn’t bother if I was you, why not just hold off for a bit longer and borrow some old kit off a mate or something?’. Alright, that wasn’t verbatim, but it’s what this column made me think, and I’m too tired and emotional to bother looking for contrary argument now. So the SFC wins, and not for the last time.

It’s another day of dial-up tomorrow then, before I get on the blag or start digging through boxes in the garage for some cranky 1U ADSL router from back when wireless broadband was ‘bleeding edge’. For all my umming and ahhing though, and despite a reasonably concerted effort to research the subject online (at an average speed of 38Kbps) do you know what swung my decision in the end? The Chronicle article was written by a guy called Dave Einstein. I’m not going to start arguing with a fella who can probably predict how much my defunct router’s demise deflects the gravity of the Sun. What difference is a few meg per second going to make to my Outlook schedule, cosmically speaking?

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June 19th, 2006

Mobile mafia formed as convergence gathers pace

Mobile mafia formed as convergence gathers pace

Huge news today about a mega-merger taking place between European telephony giants Nokia and Siemens. The two companies are set to merge both their mobile and fixed-line businesses to create one of the world’s biggest networking companies.

According to this story from the BBC, both companies will retain a 50 per cent stake in the resulting infrastructure company – Nokia Siemens Networks – which will be headquartered in Finland and target annual sales of 16bn euros (GBP11bn) by 2010. The Wall Street Journal estimates the value of the deal, to be completed by 1st January 2007, at around 25bn euros.

The merger follows quickly after a similarly gargantuan deal between Alcatel and Lucent Technologies earlier in the year.

In an official statement the firms said the merged company would gain “a world-class fixed-mobile convergence capability, a complementary global base of customers, a deep presence in both developed and emerging markets and one of the industry’s largest and most experienced service organisations”.

No indication of staff losses as a result of the merger have yet been given by the management of the newly formed company. Nokia Siemens Networks will be run by Simon Beresford-Wylie, currently the boss of Nokia Networks.

Other useful sources on this story:
Washington PostReutersZDNetNYTimes

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June 16th, 2006

Is Google eyeing up Microsoft's domain? Or is sharing just caring?

Is Google eyeing up Microsoft's domain? Or is sharing just caring?

Google’s technology playground ‘Google Labs’, has launched a limited test of a new spreadsheet package – the imaginatively named Google Spreadsheets. It’s a free service that Google says will allow users to: “quickly and easily create, store and share basic spreadsheets on the web”.

Google is most keen to draw attention to its sharing capabilities. Users can specify who they want to share their spreadsheets with just by entering their email address. They can then edit documents collaboratively with these other sharers simultaneously in real-time!

We can’t confirm yet just how ‘real-time’ this collaboration really is in practice, but we’re cautiously optimistic. However, there doesn’t seem to be any way to deal with any ‘conflict editing’ at this stage, which worries us a little, as it could potentially make the whole sharing aspect a bit of a nightmare. As we all know, it’s bad enough when a foolish Microsoft Office user goes for the ‘read only’ version in Excel and then decides to make changes at the same time as an unwitting colleague…

Early misgivings aside, this seems to be a good basic spreadsheet option. There are other products out that can give it a run for the money, though. Check out iRows, which even has a handy World Cup tracking spreadsheet should you want to check out who won out of South Korea vs Togo. Or see exactly how England really performed against both Trinidad AND Tobago yesterday evening…

If you fancy stepping into Google’s playground, why not check out Google Spreadsheets for yourself for a limited time?

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June 15th, 2006

Netscape Digs Digg

Netscape Digs Digg

Fans of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci will be familiar with the idea that culture and counter-culture are locked in an eternal struggle, each scoring points off each other with neither side ever truly winning the day.

Two new beta services introduced by AOL’s Netscape division this week nicely illustrate the Gramscian battle shaping up between the established internet media and their plucky young Web 2.0 opponents.

Netscape Beta, which looks set to become the new Netscape homepage, is a site where users can submit news stories, and other users can vote and comment on how interesting they are. Popular stories percolate to the top, providing a snapshot of what people are really interested in today.

Sound familiar? Of course it does – ‘community news’ startup digg.com has been providing exactly the same service since way back in 2004*.

Not content with (ahem) paying tribute to Digg’s look and feel on its news site, Netscape has also launched a beta of Netscape Videos, which combines the personal video publishing functionality of another startup, YouTube, with the same sort of user voting system that it’s placed on the news site. It’s a sort of YouTube + Digg = Netscape Videos deal.

Why is AOL looking to tiny startups for inspiration? Because the people that use the internet are deserting monolithic, marketing-heavy sites like AOL in droves. Instead, they’re playing about on collaborative sites that let them share photos and music, stream home-made videos, publish their blogs, submit news stories they found, chat with friends and generally just have a whale of a time on their own terms. Forbes magazine reported that YouTube had 12.9 million visitors in March of this year, for example.

Will the new Netscape kill off Digg and YouTube by incorporating their innovations into its corporate strategy? Only time will tell. But with VNU reporting today that Digg has a site redesign up its sleeve for next week, it seems the spirit of Antonio Gramsci is alive and well in the crazy new world of Web 2.0.

* If you want to be picky about it, technews site Slashdot has been doing that kind of thing for, ooh, aeons, in internet years.

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June 15th, 2006

Some letters from America: Scoble departs Microsoft

Some letters from America: Scoble departs Microsoft

This week the US tech press has been full of outspoken blogger Robert Scoble’s departure from Microsoft. Scoble, who ran the Scobleizer blog, discussed, praised and, when needed, criticised Microsoft. He handed in his resignation on Saturday (just another working day at Microsoft?) and at the end of the month will start a new job as vice president of content for Silicon Valley technology and business podcast start-up PodTech.net.

Scoble is considered to have changed the public’s perception of the world’s largest software company by discussing it with an openness that would worry most companies of any size. Scoble pointed out that Bill and co. didn’t mind his frequently outspoken views as “Bill loves arguing out ideas”.

His departure is a great loss to Microsoft. He helped to humanise the company and bridge the divide between the software behemoth and its developer community – not only through his own blog, but also through his role in creating Channel 9, an online forum and blog intended to ‘provide a new level of communication between Microsoft and developers’. Scoble can also lay claim to being the top search result for “Microsoft geek”…

Read Scoble’s first exit interview with Microsoft Watch’s Mary Jo Foley here.

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June 14th, 2006

Robot footy World Cup winners will challenge humanity in 2050!

Robot footy World Cup winners will challenge humanity in 2050!

We loved this story, courtesy of the BBC, announcing the opening of the 10th annual RoboCup, getting underway today in Bremen.

It’s a lot busier than the traditional human competition, with over 400 teams of robots from 36 countries competing to get their metallic gauntlets on their own version of the World Cup. Interestingly, the tournament organisers have higher ambitions than just watching a load of remote-controlled bots clumsily batting a chunk of tin around each year. They reckon that in 2050 the winners of the RoboCup will be able to beat the real World Cup champions at their own game. Seriously!

“RoboCup 2006 is the first step towards a vision,” Minoru Asada, president of the RoboCup Federation told the Beeb. “This vision includes the development of a humanoid robot team of eleven players, which can win against a human soccer world champion team.”

Well, yeah, maybe, if they drove around the pitch at 100MPH and had ball cannon fitted to their feet, we can begin to have ‘a vision’ too. If that’s progress, we’ll ensure our old-fashioned flat back four are pocketing multi-tools…

But it’s the phrase ‘human soccer’ that begins to scare us just a little, you see. The ‘Brazil’ of the 10th Robocup come from Japan, but fittingly compete in that up and coming humanoid category. Be afraid, Mr Rooney, these guys will crunch those metatarsals without even changing gear…

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June 9th, 2006

Microsoft gives Vista beta public airing- put down that ball and dig out regedit!

Microsoft gives Vista beta public airing- put down that ball and dig out regedit!

If the imminent kick-off of the 2006 Fifa World Cup is doing nothing to float your boat, perhaps spending the weekend kicking the tyres of the most eagerly awaited software since the upgrade patch for sliced bread will?

We’ve been dying to get our hands on Microsoft’s long awaited new operating system Windows Vista since we fist saw screenshots over a year ago, so we’re delighted the latest full beta version was made available for public download Wednesday. Microsoft’s ‘Customer Preview Program’ provides a testing period in which millions of Windows users can put the latest iteration of the new operating system through its paces prior to full commercial launch scheduled for January 2007. Anyone registering for the test version will get Beta 2 and release candidate 1.

If you fancy a play, you can either download the CPP version from Microsoft’s website or pay to get it sent to you on a DVD. We recommend you build a fresh partition or find an alternative to your main PC for installation though – Microsoft is warning that CPP software isn’t ideally suited for consumer use, and is really geared up for software developers and clued-up Microsoft techies who will be better positioned to handle any bugs and glitches ghosting around the Vista machine.

If you’d prefer a safer challenge, Internet Explorer Beta 2 is also now available for free download.

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