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Archive for October, 2006


October 26th, 2006

Google custom search: the web the way you want it

Google custom search: the web the way you want it

As you might have read, Google this week launched its Custom Search Engine (CSE) programme. With CSE, you’re the editor, deciding which sites are in and out.

You can give Google a long list of websites to search and have those results used exclusively or prioritised over the rest of Google’s index. You can also give it a list of websites you’d like to exclude from the results, such as your competitors or any sites whose views you strongly disagree with.

Google’s not giving too much control away though: you can’t tell it where you want sites to rank, so whether it’s using its full index and prioritising your picks or only searching within your chosen few, it will rank results according to how relevant it thinks they are. Sometimes we’ve seen it trumping all our chosen sites to list another site from its organic results at the top of the index. Other times we see the results more mixed up.

Your customised search engine is hosted by Google and can also be seamlessly integrated in your own website. It’s easy to set up – it took us much longer to patch it into the navbar than it did to do all the clever stuff making the search engine work. Our own search engine prioritises the news sources we watch in preparation for the Prompt Newsletter. We haven’t excluded any sites – for search engines to be useful, they have to deliver results. We’ve just made it easier to find quality sources of information for technology, media and marketing news.

This launch is a great move on Google’s part. Sites like Rollyo have been enabling people to roll their own search engines for some time, by creating a list of guru sites on a particular topic and enabling them to be searched from one place. The limitation is that you need a different search engine for each area of expertise. Google’s strength is that it can supplement the hand-picked sites with the rest of its index. We hope you’ll find our search engine more useful than the default Google in researching technology or media, but you can still use it to research motoring, flower arranging or anything else. It’ll work just fine.

Google’s also acquiring a lot of expertise on what are considered guru sites. As search engine marketers/spammers (delete according to your attitude) have become adept at using links to increase their apparent popularity, Google is probably looking at other ways to find out what constitutes a quality site. I’m sure Google’s worked out that a website that features in many Custom Search Engines is worth bumping up its own rankings.

This is a great tool for all kinds of businesses. It provides useful, sticky content and like all Google web services, it’s free. Play with our search engine, let us know if we’ve missed any important sources, and then go and create your own.

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October 25th, 2006

Computers will kill us all, apparently

Computers will kill us all, apparently

Last night’s Horizon programme on BBC 2 was all about artificial intelligence, a subject close to my heart, so I was quite interested to find out whether the programme makers would do the topic justice, or if we’d be treated to an hour of insensible pseudo-science from the likes of Kevin Warwick. Fortunately Captain Cyborg didn’t make an appearance in the show, but while some genuinely interesting areas were touched upon, these were interspersed with the kind of ridiculous apocalyptic scaremongering which now seems to go hand in hand with any media coverage of AI.

The general theme of the show was that computing power and AI research is accelerating at such a pace that it now seems plausible, even likely, that within our lifetime we will reach the Singularity, the point at which computers will equal human intelligence. If you can match human intelligence, you can also exceed it, so it stands to reason that once we reach that point, we will be able to build machines that are far, far more intelligent than us. Godlike, as the show’s narrator repeatedly pointed out.

The show featured interviews with plenty of reputable people working in this field, including Ray Kurzweil, and staff at the Brain Mind Institute, so it was shaping up to be an interesting and rational examination of the topic. But then it all went a bit wrong, the narrator started telling us that creating highly intelligent computer systems would result in people being turned into super-human cyborgs. And, of course, there was the unquestioned assumption that any such highly advanced computer system would immediately go mental and make wiping out humanity its first priority. This seems like something of a confused leap to me:

Scientist A: “Congratulations professor, we’ve finally created a computer with super-human intelligence. This is a truly historic moment! Which of the great scientific challenges shall we set it to work on?”

Scientist B: “I’ve got a better idea, let’s all get cybernetic brain implants instead, so it can control our minds and ultimately destroy the human race.”

Scientist A: “Yeah, ok, why not. What’s the hotkey to start the ‘Crush Humanity’ sub-routine on this thing?”

Then they trotted out Hugo de Garis, an AI researcher with something of a ‘science fiction’ attitude to it all. According to Professor de Garis mankind faces a brutal and inevitable all out war in which supporters and opponents of AI (cosmists and terrans, as he calls them) will fight to the death for control of civilisation. I’m not making this up.

Next up the program makers threw in a thread about the Unabomber, pointing to this lone wacko’s bombing campaign against universities and angry anti-technology manifesto as proof that the AI wars had already begun. What should have been an interesting investigation into the current state of AI research turned into the usual sci-fi rubbish, somehow equating the development of smart computers to the end of the human race. The point they never seem to make in these programs is that if the computers start getting too uppity, we can always just flick the off switch, which is what I should have done to my TV last night.

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October 23rd, 2006

Browser wars? What, again? Zzzzzz….

Browser wars? What, again? Zzzzzz….

Firefox 2 has been released, as has Internet Explorer 7, and people are talking about Browser Wars all over again. But does anybody really care? I mean, anybody apart from the kind of rabidly anti-Microsoft open source evangelists who genuinely believe that using IE constitutes a crime against humanity. Sure Firefox may be technically better that IE7, and it might adhere more rigidly to the kind of arcane web standards that most ordinary web users neither know or care about, but for most people’s purposes are the two browsers really that much different?

I personally use Firefox because I quite like the tabbed windows, but frankly I could just as easily use Explorer and it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to me or my browsing habits. I suspect the same is true for the vast majority of people. Browsers do a very basic thing and as such they can’t deviate from the script too much, so if you ask me, the difference between Firefox and IE is the same as the difference between Asda and Tesco toilet paper.

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October 20th, 2006

Google and YouTube Redux

Google and YouTube Redux

Commenting on our analysis of why it makes sense for Google to buy YouTube, Tess Alps, chief executive of television marketing body Thinkbox, wrote:

Would just like to counter your assertion that the viewing of broadcast advertising is going down. In fact it has never been higher. […]

[But] with so many more channels, growing all the time, the viewing to any individual transmitted programme or spot is likely to decline, hence your MTV example. For instance there are about five opportunities to watch Lost, via C4 and E4,within the first week following its initial transmission so the total audience is split 5-ways.

Tess then sent some statistics from BARB showing that people in the UK still watch over four hours of television a day, and that advertising-driven commercial TV is watched by over 90% of the population each week.

So we accept that plenty of people are still watching television, and seeing television advertising. But the emergence of non-traditional multimedia channels like YouTube is still creating additional challenges for broadcasters who are already suffering financially from the effects of the television audience fragmenting into smaller niche audiences.

The wholesale ‘flight to the internet’ imagined by some of TV’s detractors may be illusory, but there’s no denying that broadcasters and advertisers need to embrace the ‘new television’ if they’re to continue making money. If it starts making broadcast content available by paid download, for example, GooTube may shift the balance of power in the television industry in the same way Apple’s iTunes did for the music industry.

The signs are already there. In July, US broadcaster NBC commissioned a sitcom whose pilot had been rejected by the networks, but which attracted an audience of 300,000 when it was uploaded to YouTube. In the UK, Google has already secured distribution rights for content from ITN and Talkback Thames, as well as tennis from Wimbledon and English Test cricket, among others.

Victor Keegan writes in today’s Guardian that “the [YouTube] revolution is well underway: it just needs to be monetised.” He envisages GooTube achieving this by putting ads on the home videos uploaded by its users. I’ll imagine a different scenario: GooTube ditches its piratical DIY user base and turns itself into a subscription provider of professional broadcast content. The iTunes of downloadable television? I wouldn’t be surprised.

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October 17th, 2006

One day in history: 17 October 2006

One day in history: 17 October 2006

The National Trust is today inviting Brits to contribute to what it is calling ‘the biggest blog in history‘.

National Trust director general Fiona Reynolds told the BBC: “We want this day to have its own place in history and be a snapshot of everyday life at the beginning of the 21st Century.”

The project is responding to widespread concern that while daily life has never been better documented, most of today’s blogs are unlikely to outlive their creators. The blogosphere will doubtless be here in some form in a hundred years’ time, but any blog documenting today will likely have perished. The forest lives on, while the trees within it eventually die.

So there is a role for a project that gathers a slice of daily life and preserves it for future generations, warts and all. This, sadly, is not it.

The biggest problem is that the National Trust has not been bold enough. It is sanitising the historical record at the point of creation, outlawing content that is racist, sexist, political or ‘offensive or misleading in any way’. What that last part means is anybody’s guess. I’m not convinced I’d consider the National Trust to be the best judge as to what will offend people today and in the future, though.

For the record to be historically useful, the right of free speech should trump any concerns about political correctness. By banning swearing, the National Trust is effectively stifling how people may express themselves or some of their views. Banning politics, as if it didn’t matter to everyday life, is patronising in the extreme. The National Trust is also insisting that under-18s get permission from their parents to contribute, which is way out of touch with the MySpace generation.

There are some legal oddities too: firstly, the copyright licence requires contributors to hand over all rights in their work to the National Trust. If we really wanted to preserve this data for future generations, you’d think a creative commons licence would be more useful. Secondly, contributors must agree to a stiff clause saying they will indemnify the project’s operators from any legal fees they incur as a result of a contribution. I can’t see what benefit people receive in return for taking on that open-ended risk. Thirdly, contributors must waive their moral rights, which exposes them to the risk being misrepresented.

The concept is flawed by two things: firstly, the fact that the only blogs that are recorded are those entered at the project website, which means contributors know they are supposed to be writing for the historical record and will change what they write accordingly. Secondly, contributors are urged to write about how history has impacted their day, which will lead to many contrived and meaningless contributions.

Meanwhile, millions of ordinary people all over the world will have an ordinary day today. There will be joy and sadness. There will be excitement and drudgery, success and failure. Much of it will be blogged, without restraint and with passion. If we could archive a cross-section of the real blogosphere today, that truly would be valuable to future generations. Just don’t tell anyone until it’s been safely preserved. We wouldn’t want to skew the record.

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October 13th, 2006

Top tips for PR photos

Top tips for PR photos

When readers open a magazine, their eyes flick over the headlines, images and captions before getting into the meat of the stories. Pictures are gateways to the real news and any stories that carry them have an unfair advantage when it comes to capturing the reader’s attention.

Press releases sent with pictures are also more seductive for editors. Leaving aside all the opportunities that require pictures (such as product review spreads), publications like to use pictures throughout to make their pages look more interesting. Given two stories that are roughly equally interesting to readers, the one with a strong picture stands a much better chance of coverage. In some cases a weaker story with a good picture will get coverage over a stronger story. Print is a visual medium.

So what makes a decent picture? Follow these rules and you can’t go far wrong…

  • Tell the story. Try to photograph the most important aspect of your story. The promo picture of the iPod Nano next to a pencil, showing it was the same width, told almost the entire story. If you’ve made a new appointment, take a picture of your new hire, perhaps stood outside his new office with the company logo in the background. New software features? How about a screengrab that shows them in action.
  • Don’t overdo it though. The cheesier the better for local newspapers, but few other publications will want to see you handing over six foot cheques, shaking hands over a contract or wearing daft costumes. Don’t pretend you spend all day smiling on the phone either. Hang up for your photo.
  • People count. Every story – even a good technology story – is about people. If you can show someone using your product, you’ll bring it to life.
  • No holiday snaps. Yeah, you’ve got a nice smile and your wife thinks it’s the best photo she’s seen of you. But how can the world take you seriously if you accompany a story about a new server with a picture of you sipping cocktails? Wear a suit. Look the part.
  • Find a decent photographer. Wedding photographers and other high street professionals will often do you a head and shoulders portrait. They’ll pose you well, use charitable lighting and make sure you look your best.
  • Get the rights. If you’re working with a professional, make sure you’re buying the copyright. Don’t even bother meeting them until clarifying this. Many will be happy to do this, but some will refuse outright. Ring around.
  • Do it right. If you really can’t get a professional to shoot you, at least use a decent camera, get it in focus, eliminate red-eye, and make sure that you don’t have trees growing out of your head. A picture is worth a thousand words. When editors see pictures taken on webcams or taken next to an unnoticed public toilet, most of those words are ‘Ha’.
  • No firing squad. It’s a camera, not a gun. Smile. Or at least, don’t look so terrified. People often shoot photos against walls to get a neutral background (good idea), but end up making their subject look like he’s about to be shot. You’ll get best results by sitting at 45 degrees to the camera, sitting up straight and turning slightly to face the lens.
  • Shoot colour. Most magazines are colour nowadays and even the black and white ones can usually use colour prints. Look at it like this: it’s a lot easier to automatically strip out the colours than it is to hand-colour a greyscale photo.
  • Provide prints and scans. Some editors do still prefer to receive prints, so have that option as well as providing digital scans. Make sure you can provide scans at 300dpi in the publication’s required format.

If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: your press portrait could be seen by thousands all over the world, including many of your colleagues, peers and prospective employers. People will forget all the product specs but remember what the product looked like. You’re not just shooting photos. You’re making memories.

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October 6th, 2006

Why Would Google Want YouTube?

Why Would Google Want YouTube?

Just as we were thinking of knocking off work for the weekend, news came through from the Wall Street Journal that Google is reportedly in talks to buy internet video darling YouTube for $1.6 billion.

But given that Google already has its own online video sharing technology, Google Video, why would it be spending its pocket change on a new one?

Put simply, YouTube is *the* online video brand. Its name has become as synonymous with online video as MySpace has with online social networking. If this deal is going ahead as reported, Google isn’t paying $1.6 billion for a technology – it’s paying it for a name.

Critics will inevitably point out that it’s a risky move, as YouTube is stuffed to the gills with pirate content that could impinge heavily on Google’s reputation for ‘not being evil’. But people who have been monitoring the recent upheavals in the entertainment industry will have an idea what Google may have in mind.

Across the board, cinema visits are down, television viewing is down, and consequently broadcast advert viewing is also down. The 18th September issue of Red Herring reported that MTV saw a 28% drop in ratings from 2005 for its recent Video Music Awards show. The previous day, Wired editor Chris Anderson showed on his blog how US box-office takings started falling dramatically in 2005. Yet in July, Nielsen NetRatings estimated that YouTube’s US viewer figures had grown by 297% in the first six months of the year.

These figures are symptomatic of a fundamental change in the way people are choosing to access and consume their entertainment – and the entertainment and advertising industries are being forced to respond. By acquiring the leading brand in online video sharing, Google will be in a position not only to reach out to YouTube users with the advertising that is already providing the lion’s share of its revenues, but also to court music video promoters, film studios, TV production companies and every other Tom, Dick and Harry in the visual entertainment industry.

If the move makes sense for Google, it also seems to makes sense for YouTube. Forbes magazine reported in April that the company had secured $11.5 million in VC funding in the previous 12 months, yet estimated that it was burning through $1m a month in bandwidth costs serving video to its 12.9 million users. Working out the maths isn’t very hard.

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October 5th, 2006

Technology by any other abbreviation would smell as sweet

Technology by any other abbreviation would smell as sweet

Okay, so you’ve found our blog, but do you really know what a blog is, and where the term blog originates? What about RSS? Or VOD, or PVR? Or even IM?

According to a story on BBC Technology News, there’s a chance that even extremely sophisticated blog browsers such as yourselves may not have a complete grasp on the techy terms you might hear bandied about daily. “Britons are increasingly tech-savvy but are still bamboozled by tech jargon”, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation – yes!) claims.

All this FUD (if you don’t know, you probably don’t need to) has been caused by new research from Nielsen/NetRatings which has revealed that although British people love buying cutting-edge technology they often don’t understand the terms that describe what their shiny new toys are actually capable of.

So, for example, while 40 per cent of people online receive news feeds, 67 per cent didn’t know the official acronym RSS stands for really simple syndication. Likewise 75 per cent didn’t know VOD was video-on-demand, or that PVRs were personal video recorders. Mind you, 57 per cent didn’t even realise IM was short for instant messaging.

Oh and by the way, for the 34 per cent of respondents that had heard the term blog but weren’t sure what it meant – it’s a contraction of web log, can be used as a noun or a verb, and refers to a periodically updated website written in a journal style. Usually.

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October 3rd, 2006

Today is the Day against DRM

Today is the Day against DRM

Defectivebydesign is leading a campaign today to take action against digital rights management technologies.

These are systems that are used to restrict how you can use data, including the encryption on DVDs and audio formats such as iTunes’ AAC that restrict how you can copy music or where you can play it.

This campaign isn’t about attacking copyright: it’s about attacking restrictions on fair use of copyright material that people have legally acquired. Say I buy a CD, for example. Should the record company be allowed to decide what CD players I can play it in? Doesn’t that defeat the object of having a CD standard in the first place? Increasingly, record companies include software on CDs to stop you from being able to copy them using a PC. That software can make the CD unstable in certain audio players (typically portable and car players). Additionally, the software typically works by installing non-standard and unrequested software on the user’s PC.

Last year, Sony caused a stink by including software on audio CDs that had the side effect of introducing a hiding place for trojans. The software installed itself automatically without asking for permission. Sony believed its right to stop you copying its content (which incidentally does not extend to copying for your own use or backup purposes) must override your right to decide what software is installed on your machine.

Last week we reported in our weekly newsletter that the British Library has expressed concern about DRM. Its worry is that DRM will be used to stop content from ever entering the public domain. If all copies of material in circulation are effectively locked, how can they be freely copied or adapted once copyright expires?

As the Defectivebydesign website reports, activists spent time at the weekend warning people at the Apple store in New York about DRM. The website quotes an unnamed Disney executive as saying: “If consumers even know there’s a DRM, what it is, and how it works, we’ve already failed”. Raising awareness of DRM is key to the battle and today is the day to do it, Defectivebydesign says.

We can’t help thinking that they’re pushing their luck by trying to get Bono on board though. Yes, he’s politically aware. Yes, he speaks his mind. Yes, he’s got the Pope on speed dial. But, wasn’t he the figurehead for one of the iPod’s biggest media splashes ever, when it launched a special U2 edition iPod? And didn’t he say that he did all that hardware promotion for free, the only kickback being any sales of the band’s music that it generated? If Defectivebydesign wants a rock icon to lead the campaign, they still haven’t found what they’re looking for.

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