28 July 2006

Anniversary - Quick Post Reminder!

For all those who couldn't bare to read through the two previous posts soliciting feedback, here's another plea!

Actually I've had some feedback and from unexpected sources too, so thanks everyone! But I'd like more. If you are reading this blog, please just let me know in whatever way you can without embarassing yourselves!

Anyway, I haven't gone away (yet). I've just been remarkably busy and I'll be explaining a bit more about that in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, here's what to expect coming up:

1. Review of Linton 2006 Music and Ale Festival (wozzat?). You'll have to wait for that one (until I get the stereo mix of the videos I took in fact!). But if you're interested in the man who has more strings on his guitar than teeth (and his guitar is a 54 Stratocaster!), do come back. Hint: I'd accept the same number of teeth if I could play the guitar like him!

2. A brief mention of Zune, and what it may mean for the world of iPod.

3. Review of an interesting exhibition at the Barbican Gallery in London on futuristic architecture from the 50's through the present day.

4. Review of my new Nokia N80 phone - the first Nokia wi-fi phone (to my knowledge). How has 3G evolved in the last year, and in general the feature set of the higher end phone? All courtesy of a crazy business model for the mobile industry that makes keeping your 1 year old phone a daft proposition (well, the screen was almost unreadable due to scratching). I didn't really want to replace my old phone, as this would surely be increasing autism rates worldwide, but then I figured "better my 1 year old phone than the real villain - the iPod", remembering to thank the Express on Sunday for educating me about this truth :-)

Stay tuned! And, in the meantime, send me your comments on where you'd like the blog to go!

21 July 2006

Hobsblog Anniversay - Where to now?

The previous post looked back at 1 year of Hobsblog - what I'd covered, and particularly what I'd learned from it. This post is about looking forward and really, really needs YOUR input.

Obviously, I could continue on doing the same sort of stuff - a good dose of Apple and other IT news focused around the personal computer and gadget world, biking, photos, media and DRM, and any other topics that catch my eye. I could also introduce a few new things. One idea I had evolved from when I considered setting up a website about Customer Service (with a GoodService site and a BadService site). People would be able to post their experiences in an effort to name/shame companies (and reward good ones). I shelved the idea after realising that some people have views of customer service that are actually quite irrational and that I would be constantly deleting or editing posts that did not really reflect what I was trying to achieve (eg. the unavailability of a particular strawberry at Waitrose is NOT cause for a complaint imho).

So, I am thinking instead about using Hobsblog for the odd posting of Good and Bad Customer experiences - particularly around topics whereby the internet has been used to communicate with a company via Contact Us or email. I have a number of villains lined up - Thames Water, Central Trains as examples already. I also have a couple of very good customer service examples too - particularly from a small company selling products called Good Oil, Good Dressing etc under the goodwebsite.co.uk brand. Even Cadbury's have positively surprised me. If this is a topic you'd be interested in on the blog, then I might give it a go. I would really like to have an effect on the dire levels of customer service being performed by some organisations.

But really, the rest is over to you the audience. In the end, this blog is only useful if there are readers of it. I don't even need you to comment (though it would be nice occasionally). But, I honestly don't know how many of you there are. So, I would ask as many of you who read this blog however often to let me know what you think or just let me know you are there. You can easily add an anonymous comment to this entry with just one word (!). But I'd welcome more feedback from you. Here's what I'd love to know (assuming you know by now the areas I have something useful to write about):

How could I make Hobsblog MORE valuable to you the readers?
• What subjects could I cover more of?
• What subjects should I cover less of?
• Is anyone interested in the Apple stuff (and Microsoft, Sony, Google, IT in general)?
• What style changes would you like to see (I'll assume that no one wants LONGER articles!)?
• Is frequency of posts too low or too high?
• Would you like me to just link to interesting things rather than write a long essay on it :)?
• What about the personal things - photos, travelling, etc? More or less?
Is it TOO opinionated (I know it's opinionated, but that's the way I am).

This blog was initially for me to learn about blogging. Mission (partially) accomplished. For me to continue in any meaningful way is about it being valuable to others. Does it do that today or could it do that? Please use the most convenient way to communicate your support, your criticisms and/or your ideas as to where Hobsblog is to go for the next year and more.

Thanks for reading this over the last year, thanks for any comments you've made, and thanks especially for any comments you make in helping me take this forward into year 2.

Hobsblog Anniversary - A Review

Today marks the 1 year anniversary of my entry into blogging, and I thought it worth stepping back a bit and reviewing what, if anything, has been achieved. In the next post, I will take a look forward.

My original idea was to see what blogging was all about. I was starting to see how it could be used as a tool for companies to reach out to their clients, partners, employees etc. in a much more interactive way than a corporate website ever could. I wanted to see how much was involved, what level of commitment is required, how hard it would be to continue to write material, and whether any interactions can be encouraged to create greater value to myself and/or to my readers. Let's come back to these points later.

I've gone back and done a little analysis (back of an envelope) to see how much I've posted and on what topics. Here are some results which may or may not surprise you:

Total number of posts: 227 - averaging around 4-5 entries per week.
The maximum posts in a month was 44 in January 2006, and the minimum was December 2005, with just 8. I think I'm managing to maintain a reasonable output - around 65 posts were made in Q2.

I haven't done any in-depth looking at the number of words, but I long-ago abandoned any pretence at keeping articles compact. I would suspect that if anything, the articles have on average increased in size over the year. I know many of the articles are long - and indeed overly so. Such articles often get several iterations of editing, and they ALWAYS grow in size as I write it - providing more links and bringing in more background, points etc. This is just my style and I don't seem to be able to change this!

What I did want to take a look at was the topics that I have covered.

I came up with a list of subject areas that I have written about. These subject areas are not particularly well-defined, but I think would equate well to keywords or tags for the articles. I quickly and unscientifically went back through the postings to see what "tags" I would put on the articles. Most articles would have just one tag, but a few might have more than one (the odd article escaped this treatment altogether). I would only apply a tag if the article was PRIMARILY about that subject. An article on Apple's iPod and DRM for instance might have both Apple and DRM/Media as tags. Here are the results:
apple..........64 (28%)
apple related*...20 (9%)
cycling.........8 (3.5%)
journalism.....8 (3.5%)
other IT.......26 (12%)
gadgets/software....15 (6.5%)
humour...........11 (5%)
people I know.....9 (4%)
travelling......8 (3.5%)
microsoft......23 (10%)
sony............13 (5.5%)
politics/issues....14 (6%)
sports.........5 (2%)
science/nature....10 (4.5%)
drm/music/media....19 (8.5%)

* related to Apple (eg Mac software but not primarily about Apple)

So, it isn't ALL Apple here you know! There was a particular surge in January with a number of articles around MacWorld 2006 considering how the Intel transition might pan out. But a big question for all of you is whether you'd like to see more or less of this topic? Having worked with Macs since 1984, bought probably in excess of 500 machines in my career, and having met Steve Jobs personally on a couple of occasions (including being interviewed personally by him), I do feel it's a subject I know well and can provide a reasoned commentary on things, even if from the enthusiast/supporter point of view. But of course, there are better commentators (and writers) out there doing similar things (Jon Gruber's Daring Fireball springs to mind). I would like to think some of the postings have been reasonable and insightful. The post "7 reasons Apple went with Intel not AMD" back in September has proven pretty reasonable for instance way before most people knew what a Core Duo chip was. I also think I provided a reasonable commentary on the introduction of the iPod video - predicting it as a music player that COULD do video, and also correctly forecasting that iPod nano sales had surpassed a million within the first month.

On other subjects, I have nothing but my career and personal experience, passion and/or a modicum of common sense (!) to add. I have tried to bring attention - but in a reasoned way - to issues I feel passionate about - DRM and the music/media business; journalism; political issues such as personal privacy. I've also tried to inject a bit of humour or link to others far more humorous than myself. But writing is not an easy medium for this. People who know me may detect the tongue in cheek more easily than others who don't. The article I wrote on "Nazis and the iPod" which was really about my disdain for the Daily Hate (sorry, Mail) did not really hit the button. And, I think in honesty the weakness of my writing style is that I try to take aim at too many things in one article instead of focusing down on a point and making it more incontrovertibly! But I have a disdain for over-simplifying a complex world. I believe that each subject needs a holistic treatment. That's why I had 7 reasons Apple went Intel - all valid in my view and influencing to the decision to some degree. Others would have said simply Apple went Intel for X reason.

I am personally pleased with some of the other posts I have made - some of which have a more lasting element - such as the Hoar Frost photos, whale watching, travelling, travelling, more travelling and my folding bike and bike riding experiences. And, strangely it is some of these that get commented on the most - sometimes from people I know but more often not. It is this that makes blogging fun, interesting and valuable. I pass on a bit of knowledge/observation/photo, but I get so much back from it.

So what has not worked so well? I think the low number of comments has been a disappointment. I tried to make comments easier to make - comments can be made anonymously, and I don't think I've ever rejected a comment. But, they do require some effort (but conversely, I've never had comment spam!). I think there are a lot of subjects here that I'd like some more debate on, and that debate is not being had here! I think the bigger problem of course, is that the blog is not widely read. It has been picked up sometimes without any effort, but very rarely. There are no usage statistics on places like Technorati for it, (yet I know it is read by a few people!) I've recently been adding tags and experimenting with other things (eg Feedburner RSS). It is now easier to find posts (eg via a Technorati search), but the wider web does not pick up on this blog very often. Of course, I didn't set out to get a wider interest. But I have to say that to continue the investment in some topics is crazy without a wider audience and the debate that comes from that.

A word on the hosting is in order too. I've found Blogger.com to be pretty reasonable as a place to host the site. It's had some major technical problems at times, and it's own search does not appear to work most of the time (but not all!). It lacks categorisation (at least as far as I can tell), and it lacks a separate comments feed which would be nice. Posting is easy usually via browser (though Safari is more limited than Firefox), but I can also (and have) use e-mail, a dashboard widget, and send a post from my phone. Including photos is also easy - including again from my phone directly, though resolution is an issue. I'd like to find a tool which allows me to do a bit more - tie into my website for instance, and I'd like that to be on the Mac. However, iWeb is not that tool (at least in version 1.1). Rapidweaver - an application I covered here a few months ago, may be a suitable next step (especially with some new themes released for blogging), but I am wary of the effort it will take to switch (and it still lacks mobile blogging features). Moving the blog is not exactly likely to increase readership - quite the contrary. So, if I move it, it has to be as part of a greater plan. More on that in the next post.

What have I learned?

I've learned quite a lot - primarily about the effort to produce content. I've learned some of the basic technical aspects, but there is more here I could know with better use of features like trackback. But, content is King! It takes a lot of work to get a better quality article, and it's all too easy to put out garbage. For the organisations and people I work with, a business blog would be advisable in only a couple of cases. And, even then, it would take a commitment to generate content, and also some work to get the blog noticed. While I have got a couple of these people interested and STARTING to look at things like RSS, most of the potential readers of their blogs are still a long way from that.

In fact, I still find myself preaching even just basic RSS use to many people even though I know it would change their internet use more than any other single thing they've done since getting broadband (only my beloved other half has jumped into it, and she does use it consistently for tracking general news and science stories). So, while these potential-bloggers could be early movers in their field, it's a chicken and egg approach that means effort is spent cajoling potential readers to sign up in any way - email subscription, web page visit, etc. You can't just blog and people will come, especially in a field outside where the geeks congregate. It IS changing, but slower than it should.

Having said that, for the people I've identified, I am absolutely convinced they could improve their business by blogging and working on creating a community of interested people with their blog at the centre of that. I will continue to encourage them to venture out into the world of blogging.

So, that's the review of the last year. Feedback on what's been here would be very useful to me. But, I'd most like you to head over to the next section which looks forward. It's been fun, interesting and instructive. But it also needs to evolve. Pop to the next post, have a quick read, and then leave me a comment and help make Hobsblog better (or put it out of its misery)!

18 July 2006

iPods, autism and journalism

I can't even believe I'm writing this, but I am and I will.

In my recent post on journalism, I suggested that I would steer clear of stories on Apple to avoid clouding a post with any bias I may have. After all, my issues with the press transcend anything that Apple may produce.

But this article I came across today really takes the biscuit, and I am forced (temporarily I promise to suspend my use of Apple-related stories in my onslaught against the stupid (British) press.

Here's the headline:
Toxic iPod link to shock rise in autistic children

(yes, really, honestly)

It comes from the Express on Sunday (another British rag of course, though a tabloid one), via Thomson. I can't exactly vouch for the Express headline - typically for such a newspaper you can neither find the article nor search the newspaper on the web, but I will assume it was the same. Here we go with the first paragraph:

THE huge rise of autism in Britain is linked to old iPod batteries, mobile phones and other products of the electronic age, a leading scientist claimed this weekend.

Let me preface this by saying that I am very worried about autism. I support the Cure Autism Now foundation in the US (though I should do more), and I have some wonderful friends who have been affected by this to a great extent. I could link you to a website that would bring tears to your eyes (as well as laughter and joy). I take research into autism very seriously. For a while I was even taken in by the MMR scam which I think has proven a complete red herring and demonstrated a fundamental failing in the way scientific research and the media interact (primarily because of greed and ego of course). But that's for another day.

For all I know, the scientist mentioned here may be doing great work and maybe on to something (toxic heavy metals for instance), but the reporting of it is truly disgusting. How much is the scientist himself to blame? I have in fact checked out his publication record, and it is quite distinguished, though he is relatively new to the field of autism. At first, I thought it might be a coincidence he has a book to promote (I'm not going to publish the link as that would be aiding, but you can find it at Amazon)? But, I've thought more about this, and don't think that's likely. Looking again at the statements attributed to him, I think he mentioned the word iPod almost in passing among a number of themes. I think he's made a mistake by picking a brand (if he did). The blame lies fairly and squarely on the reporting. The reporters obviously do not consider it their mission to do something positive. Or if they do, they have a very, very poor understanding of cause and effect or the ability to understand the magnitude of the issues being reported. They should certainly give up writing about health and science if after hearing Dr Lathe, their interpretation is that toxic iPods are primarily or even slightly to blame.

Where do we begin with this? Let's look at just a few of the things that are so fundamentally wrong with this article:
1. iPods have been around since November 2001. The number disposed in landfill would be quite tiny in any country. The amount of "bad stuff" leaked out (if any) would be minute even now.

2. The number of iPods ever produced is dwarfed by the number of mobile phones by a factor of at least 150:1. Mobile phones however have been popular since the early 90's and we are encouraged to trade in our phones on an annual basis for the latest model of course. I would imagine that the number of iPods built is about 1/250th the number of mobile phones the world has ever produced. Why on earth would you not use the mobile phone as the prime culprit in reporting this story? If you wish to change behaviour that would have a greater effect. (Personally, I also doubt the mobile phone is to blame either).

3. I would imagine that the iPod represents at most around 0.2% of all electronic goods ever produced that use rechargeable batteries in some degree, and mp3 players collectively would not exceed even 0.4%. That's probably a high estimate. What about batteries from disposed laptops which are far larger for instance? Yet, iPod batteries are not amongst the list, they are first in the list.

4. Are Li-ion/polymer batteries better for the environment than using multiple disposable AA batteries or rechargeable NiCd/NiMh batteries? I don't know for sure, but I'd be surprised if the answer is no. I can count on my hands and feet the number of such (Li-ion) batteries I've ever used (and I still have most of them). But I imagine the number of disposable batteries is in the high hundreds.

5. What device are people most likely to dump in landfill? Is it the expensive 3 year old mp3 player or the walkman they've had for 10 years gathering dust or the first generation digital camera? If you want to change behaviour focus on what is going to make a difference.

6. The original author points out that Mercury seems to be the prime heavy metal implicated in this. I can pretty much guarantee that no Apple product or battery in an Apple product has any mercury whatsoever in the last 10 years if ever. Mercury is not permitted in electronic goods to my knowledge. However, it did appear in things like flourescent lights as mercury vapour for many years. If mercury is in landfill it didn't come from iPods. Mercury was also used in tiny amounts in some versions of the MMR vaccine.

7. I should also point out that recent research on mercury and autism revealed that removing mercury from the MMR vaccination had NO effect (zero) on autism rates. So, in fact Mercury may have nothing to do with autism (Google it yourself, folks).

8. The author mentions "every ship that sinks, every rusting car..." contributes to toxic metals. So, in fact the problem is far, far wider than just consumer eletronic goods again. By my calculations all the iPods ever shipped weigh just 6,500 tonnes - so about 1/2000th of the weight of cars scrapped just in the UK each year (approx 2m). Indeed, approximately 80,000 tonnes of tyres were disposed in UK landfill sites last year. Do you think 80,000 tonnes of tyres each year is perhaps slightly worse than immediately disposing of all the iPods ever made in a landfill in Berkshire? Why, why, why "toxic iPods"?

9. What about other causes of mercury and toxic metals in the environment such as dentistry, and crop spraying/agriculture. Again, these are surely bigger causes. In the latter case, that's a more obvious way in which such things can get indirectly into our bodies.

10. Apple (and other quality electronic consumer goods manufacturers) offer a recycling policy which could have been pointed out in the article and again, publicity of this could actually make a difference to people's behaviour.

I would be happy to eat an iPod of anyone's choosing (1st generation through to 5th, via mini, nano and shuffle) if anyone can produce even the slightest real evidence that a particular person is autistic because of an iPod battery (higher incidence near a Cupertino landfill anyone?). Heh, I'd even eat one of my own iPods. It might take me a few weeks to do it crushed and sprinkled in my breakfast cereal, but I would.

Of course, many of you reading this will say that I'm over-reacting, the story is not about iPods and that "iPod" is used generically for MP3 players (which is a GOOD thing for Apple). People understand enough that they would not think Apple was the prime culprit but that all electronic devices are equally at fault (not true of course). But, I'm afraid I take a dimmer view of society's comprehension skills (especially of people who read the Express on Sunday). Such reporting does nothing to alter the fundamental behaviours that may (or may not) contribute to this problem (and irrespective of autism, battery disposal/electronics goods disposal, and indeed ANY disposal IS a severe environmental problem). It uses one brand to draw attention to the article (succeeded in that one!) but it puts the blame on that brand for a problem that is about our own selfish behaviour and laziness and in which that brand is far less culpable than many other brands and companies (even household names). Apple should sue for libel/slander/defamation (you can tell I'm not a lawyer) and put the Express group out of existence. That would be a public service to us all indeed.

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17 July 2006

Good news from the EU!

Better late than never (though in the case of Microsoft's fines, I'm not so sure), the EU Court of First Instance has thrown out the merger of Sony's record label with BMG which reduced the number of major record labels down to 4 (and with Warner and EMI expected to tie the knot, that number would have gone to 3).

I never understood how this could have been allowed in the first place - this is an industry that needs LESS concentration not more as it has been shown to act as a cartel and oligopoly (and through it's various trade bodies around the world such as the RIAA and BPI) taking an anti-consumer stance and holding back rightful enjoyment of legally-owned copyright.

Well done EU!

Note: Thanks to Ars Technica for the link - it was something I meant to post on last week!

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More on British Journalism

Last week I noted that much bad publicity for Apple seemed to be originating in the UK press, and questioned some of their journalism standards. While mentioning a few other issues where I believe journalism has a lot to answer for (eg MMR), I focused on Apple, not just because I am clearly a fan, but feel that my knowledge should allow me to be a better judge of the accuracy of such reporting.

Nevertheless, Charles in his comment to the post defended the quality of journalism in this country. Rather than being cheap, simplistic, or opportunistic, it was just "journalism".

Now, in my ongoing (one-man, and no doubt futile) quest to raise standards of journalism in this country, I'm going to try taking this whole issue further. And to do that, I'm going to remove any tainting of the argument by eliminating any issue to do with Apple Computer from the discussion. After all, Apple is capable of looking after itself, and the issues I'm trying to raise are far more important to the public of this country than any company or business - unfairly maligned or not.

My premise is this:
Journalism in this country has dumbed down; it writes articles that do not do justice to the complexity and full issues of a topic; it often single-issues the whole thing into some sort of X is Good, Y is Bad argument; it is led by fashion with little or no vision; there is also a concentration of ownership of the press at work that also leads to questions of impartiality both in political and business reporting. Basically, it has, I belive, lost its way. It no longer informs or educates, it merely tries to shock or create emotion. It is the ultimate spin machine in relation to politics, celebrity, business, etc. and in so doing invites the worst behaviour from all those whose professional or personal lives touch it. I'm not just talking about the Big Brother, Hello magazine, tabloid world of journalism. I'm talking about the broadsheet market. I think it's also had a degrading effect on some of our broadcast media reporting as well. I (in another case of cutting off my nose, Charles) long ago gave up listening to the Today programme which used to be so brilliant. But, I'm not alone. I have come across many people who have given up listening to this programme, and more knowledgeable commentators than me have questioned some of the reporting there.

To get the ball rolling on this and see if there is any common ground, let's start by taking something I think is a comparatively straightforward example of what I'm suggesting.

Last week, the (British) Times reported on the government's Energy Review publication with the following headline:
TV standby buttons will be outlawed

The first paragraph of the article went like this:
"The Government is to outlaw standby switches on televisions and video and DVD players to cut the amount of electricity wasted in the home."

The article did not link to the Energy Review document itself (c'mon Times, you can do better), which (for your benefit) is here.

I'm not going to dwell on the rest of the article nor on the 218 page government report (which looks to cover a wide range of interesting topics). I'm going to focus on that headline (which I thank Ars Technica for bringing to my attention). It's quite a claim that stand-by buttons will be outlawed after all. Of course, at a simplistic level, it's not a bad idea, but in reality what is bad about stand-by is that it was implemented very poorly in older devices (and some new ones), so doesn't save a lot of power. But if implemented correctly (e.g. in computers that have sleep functionality) it can actually be very good indeed for the environment. I was somewhat amazed that our government had decided that ALL stand-by functionality was bad and would be outlawed. So I downloaded the report. I searched for standby - no hits; I searched for stand-by - 3 hits. The most notable entry was this (which contained 2 of the search hits):

2.23 Aiming to limit stand-by power consumption, which in 2004 used 8% of all residential electricity and is a rising trend, is also a priority for the Market Transformation Programme. We will continue to press at international level for full implementation of the International Energy Agency’s 1 Watt initiative to reduce stand-by power consumption.

This is quite a clear statement and in no way can be misinterpreted that stand-by features are to be "outlawed".

Now, granted, the article was in the technology section of the Times, and their remit might be somewhat limited, but this simple example neatly sums up my disillusionment with journalism. I cannot understand:

1. Why in a review of a major policy document of 218 pages with important implications to everyone, does the article headline and lead with an issue that is addressed primarily in just one sentence and one paragraph of the document?
2. Having chosen its lead issue, why does the newspaper then clearly use a headline which is just flat-out wrong, and cannot be in any way justified from reading the report? A reader (especially one who glances at the article as most will) is left misinformed in both fact and overall in relation to the topic itself.

It would be particularly useful if either of the authors Lewis Smith or Mark Henderson could explain to me the answers to the above. Assuming we won't be so lucky to have them grace the comment pages here, perhaps I can beg Charles to defend his fellow technology journalists on this one? (Or, preferably, agree with me that, at least in this case, I have a point!)

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14 July 2006

Stunning new Intel Conroe Chips

I've mentioned in several posts over the last year about Intel's re-emergence as a leader after AMD's performance domination in recent years.

Last month Intel introduced the Woodcrest (new Xeon) chips to great acclaim for the server market, and now is the turn for "Conroe" - the desktop variation of the Core 2 platform.

This in-depth review from Anandtech is excellent reading in understanding how far this chip is ahead of Intel's previous Pentium D offerings, and shows how it beats every AMD desktop chip today in every benchmark.

Expect a Conroe to find its way into an Apple computer coming your way very soon. And chalk another one up to Apple's widely-derided decision to choose Intel (rather than AMD) a year ago.

Personally, I'm waiting for the mobile version - Merom - to be released and even then may wait until early next year for the arrival of the next generation mobile platform codenamed Santa Rosa which will support flash memory and next generation wireless. Of course, if I hadn't been a fool and bought the last generation Powerbook G4 thinking it'd be a while before professional Intel Powerbook's, I'd be writing this on a MacBook Pro today!

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Daily Show and Ted Stevens

I posted here last week about the amazing comments of Republican Senator Ted Stevens concerning the internet. I mentioned then how the Senator had featured on Jon Stewart's Daily Show quite frequently.

So, I was particularly delighted to see Jon Stewart himself take up the two issues of net neutrality and internet gambling and featuring the Senator himself.

Classic Jon Stewart stuff. Make sure you stay through till the end of the sketch!

Thanks to Good Morning Silicon Valley for the link.

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12 July 2006

Human Powered Vehicle Achievement

I came across this article from Velovision magazine about a recent new record in Human Powered Vehicle distance. 49 year old "Fast" Freddy Markham rode 85.991km in one hour! There is also a link in the article (saving you the trouble, here it is) to the blog postings of Rob English - flying the flag for UK in more than just name - who also rode in the event and achieved second place with 80.203km (on a borrowed bike a few days after landing in Arizona!). It is worth reading his entries for both the Friday and Sunday of the event at the very least to get an idea of what's involved.

I recently hit about 33mph for an extended period on the flat, but only with an enormous tailwind behind me. Usually, I'm pretty happy to be riding at 18mph, and more usually on around 15-16mph. OK, my bike isn't designed for that type of performance, but I know for sure that it's my body that accounts for the biggest difference!

Great story, and great achievements of everyone involved - especially Fast Freddy!

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11 July 2006

Apple and the Media

I argued in this post that Apple's French problem seemed to be a much bigger problem because of the way the company was being reported in the media worldwide.

Today, I came across Leander Kahney's Wired Column "Are Apple's Customers Rebelling?". He has noticed much the same as me. Perhaps we're both paranoid as (overzealous) defenders of the Apple faith, though Leander is not afraid to attack Apple when he sees fit. Leander's point is that Apple gets lots of good publicity on the upside, but it seems it can also get lots of publicity on the downside too - way out of proportion to the scale of the problem, or next to a competitor with a similar problem. We (supporters) perhaps shouldn't be too defensive, and accept that for the good there is also the bad, however unreasonable.

But I'd like to pick up on something in Leander's article that he doesn't comment on but that I think is noteworthy. He mentions three negative articles about Apple in the press. The common theme is that all originated in the UK - The Telegraph, The BBC and The Scotsman (he forgot to mention the Mail on Sunday also originated the attack on one of Apple's manufacturers who also manufacture for Dell and HP). As someone who is not a particular fan of the UK press, is there something in this? Is this just another instance of our press taking the underdog, building it up, then attempting to destroy it? I don't believe it's just that our press only takes one or two anecdotes and happily reports that as scientific FACT (eg MMR Vaccine/autism). There is something cultural at work in our country and embedded in the media that means we never allow ourselves to enjoy success or let success flourish. Whether it's a football player (Wayne Rooney standup), cricket team, athlete, business person, politician or company, we have a tendency here to build them up and take perverse pleasure in bringing them down. This may be a worthy attribute at times and used in the right way, but very often we don't build people up or bring them down for the right reasons (Wayne Rooney stand up again).

Is it British fair play at work - checks and balances coming in to operation? Or, is it that great British "Chip-on-the-Shoulder" mentality? Or is it just cheap, simplistic, opportunistic, journalism?

Back to Apple. While they seem to have come in for some heat in this country, I have seen considerably less reporting here of Dell's travails. The exploding laptop seems to dwarf any technical issue that has allegedly plagued Macs/iPods, yet has been little-reported in the mainstream UK press to my knowledge. Furthermore, some other Dell problems such as Customer Service and with the Office of Fair Trading in the UK itself seem to get little attention here. Neither has their (disappointing) financial and market share performance been reported in a big way in the UK except in the Financial Times. Yet, next week, Apple's Q3 figures will be announced and a flat iPod number will undoubtedly be picked on here as heralding another pointer to the "end of the iPod phenomenon". The quality, price, service and so forth of Dell in the UK is more of an issue to the average UK consumer than Apple's while the respective market shares are around a 4:1 ratio. Of course, an exploding laptop story is arguably as unfair on Dell as Apple because it is such an isolated incident. But I don't think for one minute, the press adjudged that as the reason not to run with it. And, if not Dell, what about Sony? They have had more than their fair share of disaster stories in the last year, but again never seems to register on the UK mainstream press radar screen as significantly as even a minor Apple faux-pas (Sony's proprietary ATRAC, ConnectMusic Store, and of course the Rootkit shenanigans for example are far more evil than anything Apple is accused of).

Now, perhaps I can goad our occasional commentor Charles to stop by and defend the UK journalistic profession that I so enjoy having a go at. If it is just simply the reverse of the iPod halo effect then why does it seem a preponderance of the negative Apple stories originate in the UK?

Postscript and Disclosure: I have today gone out and bought 200 shares of Apple into my US IRA retirement account. I think it important to mention that, while also setting myself up beautifully for those of you who wish to come back and taunt me for my foolishness, beginning as early as next week's Q3 financials! I now have 600 shares - the earlier 400 were bought, believe it or not, the day after October 1987's Black Monday at an effective price of $9.75 and have since been all over the place!

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Affordable WiFi Comes to the UK?

I have been tracking the release of a new product into the UK market from The Cloud since it was announced earlier this year. The Ultra WiFi product is now available and promises unlimited WiFi for £11.99 a month (for a 12 month contract).

I have been struck by the complete inability of the wireless network providers to offer any attractive packages for the average person - especially as teasers. Hourly charges have in my mind been extortionate (circa £5 an hour), and of course, when you want it and when you have time to sign up are 2 different times. The all-you-can-eat charges have been very high until now.

In my case, I would really like access to the internet when I'm travelling around London (primarily) on business. I'm happy to pop into a coffee shop for instance for 5 minutes of quick surfing (and another reason a £5 an hour charge is silly - in fact time charges are silly because I have a perhaps irrational fear that I won't be properly logged off). I'd probably use it also for VoIP too. So, The Cloud's offering is quite tempting.

Until you look at the fine print, that is. There are two clear problems with the offering:

1. You are limited to only hotspots operated by the Cloud (and even some of those are currently disabled for this product). So, despite roaming arrangements, with this product you cannot access BTOpenzone, T-Mobile and others as part of the monthly charge. That severely limits it's usefulness IMHO, especially as their own HotSpot locator does not make it easy to find only The Cloud's access points. Even if they had to put a small extra charge on the roaming stations (eg a few pence per megabyte), then it would have made the product more useful. But right now, I think the limitation is too much.

2. The second limit is a bit naughtier still. Called "unlimited" and "all-you-can-eat" in various parts of the marketing, the fine print notes a fair usage policy of just 1GB a month. That is not very much and could be eaten up quickly if doing a simple 1 hour video conference for instance. Personally, I doubt I would use anything like 1GB a month (my home/office usage is around 2-3GB/month these days), but I feel a hard limit set so low is very disappointing.

Here's what a provider needs to do to offer a really compelling product in this country:
1. Offer a low flat rate entry cost for, say, up to 200MB/month for £5.99. I would sign up for this in an instant.
2. Additional MB can be downloaded for, say, 5p/MB up to some sort of cap, limiting total cost.
3. Use of ANY (or many more) WiFi access points subject to an additional small uplift (say a few/pence per MB, or less usefully, a few pence per minute).

Such an offering - lets' call it WiFi Pay-as-you-go - would be very compelling for those who wish to dip their toe into this without committing a large sum of money over 12 months for something that may not work for us. ADSL providers such as Metronet tried this tactic with much success, and in fact some element of PAYG has become prevalent in most ADSL contracts now with take-up in the UK very high. If WiFi is to become mainstream - and rival 3G - something like this is needed, and UltraWiFi is just not enough.

Anyone else have experience of the Cloud, or any views on these products? It seems to me that the WiFi providers have been very unambitious in the UK, and we should have a far greater market by now. What do you think? What's needed to make this more mainstream?

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06 July 2006

Apple's Big French Problem

It has long been argued that any publicity is good publicity. I've never believed that, and Apple must be ruing the reporting of the French "iTunes" law more than the law itself.

Let's get the law itself out of the way. I haven't read the newest details, but I know enough that a law designed to deal with a particular problem by placing restrictions and burdens on a particular technology will fail. The particular problem here is copyright. DRM is one (technology) method employed to protect that copyright. (Physical media is another method in the non-digital world). The law as passed seems to be a compromise over what was originally planned - and a compromise not in consumers' interests but in the interests of large companies (eg Vivendi Universal). The law is full of holes and outs. It will be a minefield to navigate a way through this, and will doubtless consume many companies' lawyers for many years. DRM has not been outlawed (one outcome that at least would have been clear and very pro-consumer). No large company I am aware of has an answer to interoperability except in as much as it protects their own interests (ultimately at the expense of the consumer). The law does nothing to ensure consumers' rights in the copyrighted material they purchase can be exercisable in a fair way into the future. It is a mess. And, Apple has come out of it the worst - despite not even having close to a dominant share of the French market.

But it is in the wider world market that Apple has suffered the most, through the simplistic and ignorant reporting of the issue. If I had a $1 for every time I've read that "music purchased through the iTunes music store can only be played on iPods" I'd be able to join the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation as runner-up to Warren Buffett. Why is it reported this way? Lack of space? Lack of intelligence? Bias? Somehow, Apple has been portrayed the villain that the French law is going to correct. But Apple is not the villain in DRM. (If you wish to comment on this here, then please kindly read the piece by John Gruber on Interoperable DRM first, THEN make your points on what you disagree with).

Sure, Apple has created a great opportunity for itself to actually give the world an alternative to Windows Media. And should it achieve a market dominance which it then abuses like the convicted monopolist that is Microsoft, then it should clearly be righted. But it has not achieved a market dominance anywhere yet, and certainly not in France. The French law will tilt things back in Microsoft's favour - not just through the law, but through the reporting. Microsoft's DRM is every bit as evil a DRM as Apple's. For people who like to have a choice in computer operating system, it is actually more evil. And, would I rather have my CD music encoded in an open format such as AAC which is offered by iTunes as a default (and is NOT an Apple format), or in WMA which is controlled by Microsoft? I understand the vast majority of the music on music players today comes actually from the original CD's and for many of us will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future. The reporting of the French "iTunes" leads relatively ignorant consumers (who only read the headlines and first paragraph of such stories) to believe that somehow it is Apple that has limited them, not the record companies in the first place. And how many people who turn away from Apple because of this will buy a Sony player which has EXACTLY the same issues as Apple only more restrictive in terms of devices that can be used, formats used, OS's supported and DRM flexibility?

Or when they purchase some music from eg the HMV store (See Charles Arthur's article from last year though the HMV link may be broken) instead of from the iTMS, will they know that their rights to burn the music and play it on multiple devices are considerably less than they are from the iTMS? (Note: check out Napster's ToS as another example of that!) The problem is, no journalist in the mainstream press really understands what the limits are of each system, and few are able to really critique it (exception Walt Mossberg who nails it pretty well in this column). Let's see what Michael Gartenberg of Jupiter Research has to say on it:

Let's be clear. The iPod is an open device. I can buy an iPod and never ever need to buy a song from Apple in order to make it work. In fact, the iPod supports the most common format for digital audio, MP3 and the bundled software allows users to easily convert their CDs into music for the iPod in MP3 or AAC format. Second, if you do buy a song from Apple through the iTunes music store (and there's a lot of reason why you might want to do that) you can easily burn the song to CD and then import it back into iTunes as an unprotected MP3 or AAC.

I get that not everyone wants an iPod but these issues that folks complain about are just non issues as far as I'm concerned. In fact, you face pretty much the same issues with just about any device you purchase. The nice part is, no one's forcing anyone to buy an iPod. There are plenty of good alternatives like the Clix, Gigabeat and Sensa lines from iRiver, Toshiba and SanDisk.

Note that Michael is picking up on what he overhears people are saying about the subject and that most of it is wrong. That they have been misinformed is in no doubt. Who is to blame? No wonder companies like Microsoft and Sony are staying tight-lipped on the subject even if they know that the French law (in theory) is problematic for them also. Anything that stops the runaway iPod train is a good thing for now in their eyes. And, the record companies also would like nothing more than Apple to be brought down a peg or two. I strongly suspect such companies to be behind the French law, and to have influenced the reporting of it. Silly conspiracy theory? Well, let's not forget that the recording industry has already had a significant impact on anti-terrorist laws across the EU as sponsored by our own UK and which I highlighted in an earlier blog posting. Our wonderful pro-consumer Lord Sainsbury ensured that such legislation could be used by the recording industry to find "terrorist" music pirates by ordering their ISP to hand over information.

It is somewhat ironic in the week in which the EU is set to fine Microsoft over $500m (and of course, we consumers who were hurt by their behaviour will receive nothing), that the French have handed Microsoft such a coup to allow WMA to become one of Microsoft's future monopolies (and let's not forget some of the EU case was in fact exactly about WMA). No doubt, eventually the anti-consumer problems created out of this legislation will be addressed, but not before the damage is done (DRM'd material for everyone providing of course you have a Vista-equipped PC? Linux and MacOSX out of the question.)

There is even further irony if the rumours published just yesterday on the possibility of a Microsoft-branded WMA player (I use WMA rather than MP3 for a reason) come to pass. Yet Microsoft is adopting the very same approach used by Apple that is being attacked with not a mention in the press!

Whether this episode will be an important turning point in Apple's success with the iPod is hard to gauge at this point. It might be just a small blip as the iPod goes from strength to strength. But if the iPod becomes just another player in a WMA-Plays-for-Sure DRM-dominated world, we will surely look back on this time as pivotal. Apple would have been undone not by their own actions, but because the iPod has become synonymous with MP3 player and so ubiquitous. Poor understanding by lawmakers and press would unravel the success of one company without leading to a better consumer solution. No doubt that self-same press would blame it on Apple having a "locked-in approach", while failing to recognise that it was exactly that approach that made it so successful (in their eyes too) by making it so simple, reliable and usable. There are those in the press that fear an Apple monopoly (rather than DRM lock-ins) on music players, and want to avoid that before it becomes a reality. But, at this stage, the market is working very well indeed, and the only market in which this is even close to a reality is in the US market - certainly not in Europe. That market is capable of dealing with itself. For those that have a beef with locked-in DRM, then really the complaints should be more widespread and include the even more proprietary WMA (which has both DRM AND format control with one company), and the equally nasty Sony ATRAC/Connect format.

But the fundamental problem here which no one seems to want to address is the issue of copyright itself - not how some part of it is enforced. This should be where the debate is held. The EU should enforce copyright as a pan-European single-market right (there should be no need for a French iTMS and a UK iTMS for instance). And it should ensure that minimum and fair consumer rights to enjoy the copyright they have purchased are enshrined in legislation. That should also allow for the transfer of that copyright unless such copyright is enjoyed as a rental. I mentioned in an earlier post the issue with digital maps on GPS receivers. This actually is a far worse problem financially for consumers today than music is but has no visibility yet (volume? userbase?). What about movies? What about computer games (what a scam when you must pay twice for the game on 2 different formats!)? What about digital images of fine art?

When you purchase copyrighted material it is for you to enjoy as you please (within reasonable limits), and it is fundamentally wrong that an oligopoly of companies in each business area (music, movies, games, etc) control the copyright on their terms only. The EU could achieve a radical restructuring of the relationship between copyright holder and consumer with some clever legislation. Personally, I would accept DRM as part of the technical implementation of such a solution provided my rights were enshrined. I would even be prepared to pay a fee should I wish to change the DRM or to transfer my ownership of it. In this day and age of micropayments, is it really too difficult to design a system which registers our purchase and ownership of each copyrighted piece we obtain, and then allows us to enjoy that in any format we so choose for an unlimited time? It could even permit transfers of material - perhaps with a small cut going back to the original artist each time. You could register or you could choose not to register. Those that register might pay a little more over the lifetime of the work but would essentially have an insurance policy so that they could enjoy the material as formats change and in the event of fire or other destructive event. If our long terms risks of purchasing copyrighted material (format obsolesence, destruction, theft, etc) were reduced, would we buy more now? I think I would (glances at large numbers of unplayed videos on the shelf, but not as large a number as would be there if DVD had not come along, and then HDDVD/BluRay - I haven't bought a DVD lately either!).

Anyhow, that's the Hobsblog solution - admittedly not thought out in detail. I believe those that wish for a DRM-free world are wishing in vain even if I would like to think a fair balance would be reached between artist and consumer (with a reinvention of what's in between). I'm sure those that object to DRM in totality will disagree with me. But what about those who accept some form of DRM today? Would you prefer this type of approach to protecting your rights long term on the copyright material you purchase? That if you wish to switch from Windows Media Format to Sony ATRAC Connect you can do so subject to a small transfer fee? That if you buy maps from one company, you can exchange those maps with those from another company that supports your new device? That if you buy a digital image on JPEG you can have it in JPEGX+ format in 20 years time (though at the same original quality)? Come on lawmakers and the press - attack copyright law NOW!

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05 July 2006

Government and the Internet

Senator Ted Stevens is a Republican representing the state of Alaska in the US Senate. He is influential on many committees, and is frequently to be seen on the hilarious Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (screened in the UK on More4/Channel 4 daily).

This transcript of a recent speech is truly scary (and funny). And, before us Europeans laugh it off as "couldn't happen here" I urge you to consider some of our own politicians. Let's face it, can you name a UK politician who gets the internet? And, the recent example from France (more about that in a future post) doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Our politicians worldwide are trying to meddle and tinker with the internet. That is bad enough - don't legislate technology, legislate for people's rights, the rest will take care of itself. But when those self-same people don't really have a clue about what they're talking about, it is very ominous indeed.

04 July 2006

First time GPS Experience with a Garmin GPSMAP76C

I like to investigate my gadget purchases in detail before making them - as I did with my Canon PowerShot S2 IS camera earlier this year. But just before leaving for the Algarve I suddenly decided that it might be quite useful to have a GPS device. After all, we were going somewhere we didn't know that well, and we were intending to do cycle rides all over the place with maps that were less than O/S quality. I really didn't know much about GPS, navigation and the capability of devices so it was hard to even decide what I would like to have in my first device.

A few months ago, I had been toying with the idea of getting a bluetooth GPS receiver for my mobile phone and using software on the phone for navigation. TomTom Mobile seemed to be a potential solution. However, I wasn't even sure that I wanted "navigation" per se. And given the low battery life of the phone, did I want to put all my eggs in one basket? Would it all be a bit of a compromise? And how would it work on a bike with 2 different bits of kit?

So, I lowered my expectations a bit and looked more at dedicated GPS devices for outdoors use. These would tell me where I was and allow me to track a route for instance. They would also tell me my speed, altitude etc, though with my bike computer, I get these anyway. I would probably be able to download and upload tracks and points on my own-devised routes, though I was not intending to do this initially. I then did a bit of searching and came up with one major stumbling block - Mac support. It seems that the vast majority of devices support only Windows computers, and even worse, that they do this using the truly ancient RS232 (serial) connections. USB is supported on such devices only by use of an additional USB-serial converter. For Mac support, I noted a number of third party solutions that would theoretically give me some functionality with many devices ranging from freeware through to the well-reviewed but certainly not free MacGPSPro. So, I felt a bit better about getting my Mac to communicate with whatever device I eventually chose, and decided that at least if I went directly for a device with real USB connections, that would probably be a better bet long term (and not require an additional dongle). I also noted that Garmin had claimed at the start of this year that they would be fully supporting the Mac by the end of 2006, which seemed a good sign. However, just last week they admitted to being behind on this project, so who knows what and when we'll see anything.

I checked a few sites and looked at reviews, and found what appeared to be a great deal - a Garmin GPSMAP76C for £99 all in. This is not just a modern GPS receiver but also has mapping built-in with a colour screen. It was listed on some sites for multiple times this amount, and had retailed for over £350 I believe. Admittedly the basic maps included are indeed basic and couldn't be used for most vehicle navigation, but if I liked it I could always buy other maps - both route and topographic - and upload those into the device (once Garmin actually supports the Mac that is). I was trying to see what the catch was with this, but at that price I couldn't. Just in case, I decided to visit the store directly and see it for myself. In real life I was a bit shocked at the size - it's not really a pocket device for instance. And in the design department its no iPod. But I felt the rest of the features and the almost-no-brainer price meant I could try out a full-featured device cheaply and see which things I would like in a next generation version. Surely I'd be able to sell it on eBay without losing much money (the same device was actually selling at about £200!)? So, I rationalised the decision and went for it!

Experiences so far:

General use in Car and Plane: The device is quite useful in the car in places you don't know because the maps cover the basic road system across Europe (in the UK this includes all motorways, most/all A roads and even some B roads). So it certainly helped us track our route to our villa in the Algarve, but not without the detailed instructions. It also shows even quite small towns which may not even be on the included roads, but this still aids in navigation. On the plane the device wasn't much USE (after all I wasn't the pilot) but it was a lot of FUN! It gave me just about everything I've seen on a Virgin/Emirates screen - under my own control. I suspect the device will only do this for Europe, but it was still good to be seeing which places we were flying over, what our speed was and our height. Note however that you need a window seat to use it and to hold it very close to the window itself!

Bike riding use: I was not able to get the handlebar mount in time, so it sat in a bag on the rear of the bike which lessened it's use. But it helped us several times - indeed even saved our bacon once - again courtesy of the mapping features. On one route, we had chosen a very minor road, which turned unexpectedly into a track. We continued on this for many miles as it traversed its way up a mountain. We'd expected to hit a more major road some time back. I'm not sure why I waited so long, but when I looked at the device, the track it drew on the screen relative to the major road we had been on showed clearly we had taken a different route (though the paper map showed it as a road, not a track). In fact, we were going in the right direction and had made good headway even though it was not the road we'd intended. Of course, I could have checked earlier, and the mapping wasn't vital - it was easy to map lat/long to the map itself. But it certainly cheered us up as things looked to be getting difficult. Otherwise, it also helped several times showing us our direction using the compass and helping us see our altitude. I was even surprised how accurate the speed reading was, though there were some blips that meant the maximum speed would sometimes show as some silly number. But miles covered matched very closely to our speedometer. I have now ordered the handlebar mount, and look forward to using it throughout a ride. Incidentally, the screen is good even in bright daylight. Battery life using rechargeable AA's is about 8-10 hours of full-on use, which seems reasonable. So, I'm a complete convert for this for bike use - why did I wait so long?

Other points: I had some initial problems downloading tracks onto my Mac using some freeware/shareware applications. It turns out this was probably a Garmin firmware version issue which meant that the usb port did not behave properly. Eventually using VPC5 on Mac OS9 on my old Powerbook I was able to install both the mapping software AND to upgrade the firmware (not simple though - drivers for mapping and for other features must be different; Garmin's failure to answer support requests is also not a good sign). Connecting back to my Mac the device was then able to upload and download track data (though not maps). I downloaded the tracks from our Algarve rides, and mapped them onto Google Earth which I was trying for the first time. Cool indeed! An example of one of our routes is found here.

I then decided to purchase a copy of MacGPSPro which is perhaps the only serious application for Macs that allows use of many of the receivers on the market (Garmin, Magellan, etc). I'm still trying to understand all it can do and whether it's worth the $50 fee (no demo version, but a 30-day moneyback offer is included). Although MacGPSPro can do lots of things with maps (paid or free) it can neither read the Garmin maps or upload it's own maps to the Garmin receivers. I know this is more an issue with Garmin's proprietaryness than MacGPSPro, but it does limit the usefulness of the application, and may mean that all I need really is a simple trackloading software combined with GoogleEarth for doing much of what I'd like to do.

I think also the cost of the maps is a real problem to major adoption. It's not that I object to paying, say £150 for the maps, it's that I might pay that once, and have to pay it again if I switched devices. Really, when we buy maps we should be buying the RIGHT to the map in copyright terms with a much smaller amount due if we decide to switch devices or for different formats. This got me thinking about DRM and music again and put the problem in perspective. DRM is a solution to a problem (not a great solution, but one nonetheless). To legislate against the solution is wrong - it's just a technology. The legislation should be about the problem - which is copyright. Let's get this right once and for all. If I buy something copyrighted, my rights to my enjoyment of that copy should be clearly defined, no matter how it's actually enforced. I should be able to swap the technology used to enjoy my copyrighted material simply and cheaply assuming that it can't be universal. I should not have to buy it again. Don't legislate for DRM - legislate about copyrights - for music, writing, works of art, images etc. Anyway, I've got a bit off-topic here. Back to that one on another day!

Anyhow, my conclusion is that I really like having a GPS device (despite its size and design). It was very useful and will be more useful as I learn more about it. Touring cyclists who haven't used GPS yet really should try one and see the benefits such devices can bring. In the end I'm pleased with getting some basic mapping in the device as well, as it certainly aids in understanding where you are relative to other places. At £99 the GPSMAP76C is a pretty damn fine deal from GPS Warehouse (no affiliation), but there aren't many left! Just stock up on batteries!

I'd love to here from people with more knowledge on this subject than me - especially in regards to using such devices for bike touring, or feel free to ask a question if you're interested in some more detail.

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