04 December 2007

Movie Recommendation - Shut Up and Sing

Watched "Shut Up and Sing" last night - a documentary about The Dixie Chicks and how they went from heroes to zeroes in the US Country Scene because of one comment from singer Natalie Haines at a UK concert about President Bush just before the outbreak of war with Iraq.

The best movies I've watched lately have been documentaries, and this is wonderful. As someone who supported the war (though primarily for human rights reasons), I have no problem with what she said. But the reaction of (some of) the US public is truly frightening, and the consequential cave-in by business and the media is something every citizen should be concerned with.

I'm not sure I was more impressed by Natalie's ability to withstand the attacks and death threats or by the way the other two band members supported her and stood together throughout a very long and protracted episode (and how incredibly normal they all are!). Well done Dixie Chicks!

If you value free speech, this one is a great watch.

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Incredible Video

There's not a lot I can add to this, but if you haven't seen this video on chimps outperforming humans at memory tasks, do go. It simply is amazing, especially the speed of it.

Then read the article afterwards.

(Yes, I know I should have embedded the YouTube video here, but I didn't have time to set that up yet).

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03 November 2007

O2 and iPhone Fair Usage Policy

A conversation with an O2 store manager, fresh back from iPhone training:

Me: "So, what IS the fair usage policy for the 'unlimited data plan' going to be on the iPhone accounts?"
O2: "40Gigabytes"

Me: "Really, that actually seems quite high to me and not what I had read. I had even heard that it might be as low as 200MB. Are you sure?"
O2: "Oh, no, sorry, the 40GB is for our new home broadband package. But it's very high for the iPhone, definitely."

Me: "Er, so, what actually is it?"
O2: "Um, er..." rummaging around various papers, and the website (which said nothing other than "fair usage policy applies"). "...I'll call a guy who's sure to know".

O2 guy on phone with other O2 guy: "A customer here wants to know the iPhone fair usage policy amounts". pause and more pause. Quite clearly the guy who's sure to know doesn't actually know.

Slightly embarassed O2 guy to me: "He thinks it's either 70MB or 200MB. Either way, that's a huge amount of data on a phone."

Me: "Really, as low as 70MB? That doesn't seem to be too much for what is described as unlimited data".

O2: "For email, it's all text and there's not much else you'd get that is large".
Me: ??? (too gobsmacked to contradict him).

So, I leave non-the-wiser, except that I have confirmed that o2 retail is just as poor as I expected. The only thing the store manager (post training, remember) knew that I didn't is that the sales opening time is not 6pm, but 6.02pm. (geddit?). He was very proud of that. Oh, he also knew (or thought) they would have 60,000 on sale in the 400 odd o2 stores, and that they might get delivery that day (Friday) for the week ahead - (hope their security is tight).

Nevertheless after 10 years with Orange and Nokia, I have my PAC number and will be in line on Friday (mercifully at an Apple store), with no qualms whatsoever about switching. While I was impressed with the last Orange rep I spoke to, I have had a very poor year with them at every level with a completely defective handset (Nokia N80) that was essentially unusable for the things it promised, and poorer than any recent phone I've had in terms of basic interface and even for the job of making calls and sending texts. Despite my 3G plan, I have almost never used the web browser, and I would not countenance emailing with it. The Wi-Fi feature was so badly implemented as to be worse than not having it as it could not be disabled. I have a list of fundamental problems with the phone, some of which should have been addressed by firmware which never came. While the N95 successor may have fixed some of these shortcomings, I have generally heard negative things from most recent real users of these devices after a short time of actually using them. (An interface requiring 16 different button presses before you start typing the body of an sms is completely ludicrous.)

I do wish Orange (a lesser company than they were imho), or Vodafone, had won the rights, but I have known from the minute I saw the announcement that I would get one (did you imagine anything else?). Having briefly played with an unlocked one, that decision was vindicated.

While clearly a cost of around £900 over 18 months is a lot, it is not much different than the plan I had with Orange including the upgrade cost for the N80, which did not include wi-fi hot spot access and had severe caps on data and SMS. I know that I will use the features of this device, which I would not (and could not) on the N80. The equally expensive N95 would not have rectified most of the N80's shortcomings in my mind.

However, somebody please at O2, sort out what "unlimited data plan" and "fair usage policy applies" really means. And, the latest wording on the website "All usage must be for your private, personal and non-commercial purposes" does not inspire confidence in that regards. Nor does "(not) use your SIM Card or iPhone to allow the continuous streaming of any audio / video content, enable P2P or file sharing or use them in such a way that adversely impacts the service to other O2 customers". C'mon, are you serious? In reality, any usage of a shared service like a cell causes degradation to the others on that cell.

While I do not expect to use the iPhone as a replacement broadband + computer device, I don't see that "unlimited" and "70MB" go together, nor restrictions about zero business/commercial use. These clauses are both stupid and unenforceable.

I am, perhaps, trusting too much in the regulator to intervene if such ridiculous limitations are in reality applied. Nevertheless, I will be in-line somewhere off Regent Street starting Friday afternoon. Hope to see you there!

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Blogging hiatus and ChargeBox

Just a quick note as to my recent blogging silence. Hopefully you've all (the two of you that is) not gone away.

I've been working increasingly long hours and that is only going to get worse for a while longer. For the last 36 months (the last 18 months of which in a part-time consultant FD role) I've been involved with an exciting company called ChargeBox®, and as of the 1st November, I will be taking over as MD - even if just for a year or so until the founder, Toby returns from an extended sabbatical helping Oxfam in Nepal.

ChargeBox® is a kiosk for the 21st century - in our case charging mobile phones, smartphones, mp3 players and portable game consoles in a secure locker. We've designed the ChargeBox®, got it manufactured in the UK (yes!) and are developing a global brand with kiosks now in France, Iceland, Spain, Ireland, Turkey, South Africa and, soon, Papua New Guinea. You can also find them in 14 high street phone stores of a certain mobile phone company I couldn't possibly mention. Our ChargeBox is equipped with a GSM module allowing 2-way SMS and GPRS data connections for monitoring purposes and even a payment-by-SMS function. Our web-based IT system allows us to monitor the performance of every ChargeBox® around the world with a SIM card. We were featured on BBC Click earlier this year.

We're still very small, and we have a lot of challenges, but we're hoping for some major progress soon, both domestically and internationally. If you use a ChargeBox®, let me/us know what you think.

Visit our website at http://www.chargebox.com to find out more, to look at maps of where they are and instructions on how to find a chargebox when you're out and about.

I will look to bring back some blogging around this subject and my usual rants in the months ahead. Unfortunately, much of what I'd like to say about growing a small company has to remain confidential (because of our clients), so that makes some topics off-limits. Do keep subscribed, and do let me know your thoughts on ChargeBox® if/when you get a chance/need to use one.

Inevitable iPhone post coming up (in case you thought I'd gone soft)....


20 September 2007

Wales looks to the future...

I came across this article today with Plaid Cymru (the Welsh political party) banning wi-fi in its schools. Lots of comments from ignorami, and none from anyone knowledgeable.

Added to this story from last week where a school governor and Labour party researcher called the Welsh language "practically brain dead" on an internet chat room (He later claimed he meant to say "dead" not "brain dead"). He was forced to quit for his honesty and reality. I don't have a problem with Welsh being taught and people electing to learn it. But to pretend that making this compulsory does not reduce learning of some other subjects of more vocational use is just plain delusional.

In this day and age of globalisation and competitiveness, it strikes me the Welsh are heading towards being the Amish of the EU with these sorts of attitudes. I find it particularly sad that in both cases the stories are reported as if there is only one side - the side of the Luddite. No wonder Wales is a permanent drain on the UK and EU taxpayer to subsidise its industry.

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03 August 2007

Life Returns to Normal? (humour)

I posted about the devastating floods in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire a couple of weeks ago. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected with no electricity and no water for almost two weeks. Thousands of businesses have been devastated through damage or the by-product of the economy as it normally is, just coming to a halt. (Of course, our experiences next to South East Asia are themselves relatively trifling).

So, it was good to see, while on a cycle ride through Herefordshire today, that life has obviously returned to normal as witnessed by THE major news in the Hereford Times which I was able to snap for your benefit. Note that The Hereford Times is THE key local newspaper for one of the areas most affected by these floods.

I continued to suffer fits of laughter for the rest of the bike ride, wondering for instance whether the reporter thought that seagulls should be able to distinguish between guide dogs and ordinary dogs (presumably fair game for seagulls), or whether the reporter felt that SOMEBODY had to act - perhaps by issuing ASBOs to the anti-social seagulls? Or maybe, seagulls have a code for divebombing which awards additional points for getting guide dogs or blind people as in the 70's film Death Race 2000? Unfortunately, I cannot answer these questions as I couldn't bring myself to buy a copy.

But in the end (sadly and humourlessly) the sheer inanity of this headline is just another tiny bit of evidence in my slowly growing dossier on the patheticness of the British press (and perhaps its readership). While a troubling incident to, er, the blind person and indeed the guide dog, after such devastation, and indeed, even without it, are there not more public interest stories in Herefordshire deserving of our attention than this? (Yes, there are, fortunately the BBC has many).

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26 July 2007

Holding the Observer to account (again)

Back last year, the (Sunday) Observer newspaper - sister to the Guardian - ran a truly amazing full-page article entitled "Why the iPod is losing its cool" by David Smith, supposed technology correspondent.

In this article, Mr Smith, claimed that
Sales are declining at an unprecedented rate. Industry experts talk of a 'backlash' and of the iPod 'wilting away before our eyes'

This article was written as a factual piece not an opinion piece. I made mention of it in this blog post, but decided not to attack it then. After all, perhaps David knew something I didn't and that iPod sales WERE in freefall?

I further chose not to comment on it after Apple's first quarterly announcement post the Smith article when they demonstrated once again iPod sales had risen 35% over the previous year. I again avoided the urge to comment after the December quarter when sales rose an astonishing 50% over the previous year (a year when both the iPod video and iPod nano had been introduced to much acclaim). I chose not to comment on it after Apple's Q2 announcement in April, when sales were up 24%. But now, a full 4 quarters of reporting has passed, and really, I can't let it sit any longer.

In the quarter just gone, iPod sales were up again - 21% in fact over the same quarter last year. In that 12 months, Apple's iPod sales were 35% up on the previous year. In that last year, Apple has sold over 50million iPods which represent 47% of all iPods ever sold. In other words, Apple has in the last 12 months sold just about as many iPods as it did in the previous 5 years COMBINED. Furthermore, in the iPod's history, it has never suffered a sales decline on a year-over-year basis on any measurable financial quarter.

That doesn't sound like a product that is either "losing its cool" or suffering from "declining sales at an unprecedented rate". I haven't seen too many analysts dissing the iPod either (though there's always a few media boys).

What was the reason for Mr Smith's article? Was it to try to create a backlash? Was it influenced by another company about to launch a product? Was he hoping to be able to claim when a possible iPod decline came along that he was first? Or was it just absolute stupidity and ignorance?

Would Mr Smith or the Observer like to apologise and to admit they have been wildly wrong? Would they care to write a similar full page article gushing about the apparently unstoppable iPod phenomenon? Given how the Observer can not even bring itself to apologise about a life and death issue it has got blatantly wrong, I'm not holding my breath.

(I'd like to think there ISN'T a conspiracy here and that it is plain ignorance. I suspect Mr Smith used two sequential quarters of iPods sold to point to a decline. That's a pretty poor way to use statistics that surely anyone at school is taught about. It was also an "unprecedented rate of decline" because there had never been a decline (and there still hasn't unless you believe consumer products exhibit no seasonality).

How about owning up, David, and saying you were absolutely and completely wrong? Or are you going to try getting the same message out again in the hope that at SOME point in the future, you will actually be right?

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Apple Overtakes Hewlett Packard

A quick observation following the market today digesting Apple's Q3 results announced last night.

Apple has now overtaken HP in terms of market capitalisation (as of 26th July at 14:45 GMT). (Market Capitalisation is the figure that represents the total enterprise value attached to that company by the stock market). That is quite an achievement, as it was little more than than a year ago that it overtook Dell Computer. Apple is now close to double Dell's market capitalisation. To match HP, Apple has done very well indeed. It's not as if HP has had a bad time either - taking significant business from Dell in recent quarters.

Apple has also overtaken Oracle in the last year. The next target, ironically, is Intel - currently around $141bn. Then Google at $158bn, closely behind Cisco and IBM each in the $170bn range. Overhauling any of these companies could happen with a good year or two for Apple, though it would also require comparative stagnation for those companies. I certainly wouldn't bet against Google!

Microsoft is still a long way ahead of the rest of the IT industry with a market cap of around $280bn. We'll have to wait a while longer before that is even a possibility.

As always with such numbers, there is a lot of variation from hour to hour and day to day. Apple and HP will no doubt each be trying to push ahead of each other over the coming few months before a clear trend emerges. But for now, we've got a 1-1 draw in the first match of a long season.

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25 July 2007

iPhone Sales Numbers - BEFORE Q3 results

I'm writing this BEFORE Apple announces today's earnings, but AFTER the crazy market/media reaction to news that AT&T "only" activated 146,000 iPhones by 30th June.

What IS amazing is that in 30 hours, from 6pm Friday to midnight Saturday, 146,000 iPhones were purchased, taken home, unboxed, plugged into a computer, and then successfully activated. Had anyone suggested such numbers even a day or two before the iPhone was released, they would have been considered an optimist. Now, some are comparing the 146,000 number to some mythical 1million figure some analysts ended up speculating on.

As far as I can recall, I have seen few analyst projections of 1million iPhones and certainly not even in the few day initial period. I have seen numbers as low as 50,000 (originally from Shawn Wu of American Technology Research, and general Apple bull) to perhaps 350,000 from Goldman Sachs. Some of those numbers were then doubled AFTER the weekend (to 700,000 in the case of Goldman Sachs).

But remember here, the weekend includes a Sunday - only the second full shopping day the iPhone was on sale. How many iPhones could not be activated at first (certainly a few by some rumours)? How many iPhones did not get activated by the Saturday evening because the person hadn't had time, was keeping the iPhone as a present, or whatever other excuse? How many iPhones were ordered from the online stores on those days for later delivery?

And, what is success anyway? Is failure just the inability to hit whatever highest number some analyst (perhaps a naysayer anyway) set just to create a headline?

At 146,000 iPhones sold in 30 hours, Apple and AT&T created a revenue stream of $292m to share between them over 24 months.

Today, Apple will report its own financial figures for the last quarter (its financial close period which began BEFORE the iPhone was released is the fundamental reason it has not been legally able to comment on sales before this time). Apple may also (like AT&T) choose to report just the 30 hour period (or perhaps 33 hour period in its case being based on the West Coast). But, even in this period it will include over the counter sales - not activations. It may also account for sales via the AT&T store differently - as these essentially are sales as a wholesaler of the product.

My wild guess at this point is that Apple will report sales of around 225,000 or more for the 30 hour period. And, if they are to report sales for the first week, or first month (we're just 2 days away from that point), we will genuinely see that they will have between 400,000/700,000 and 500,000/1million iPhones in people's hands today (firstweektarget/firstmonth target). I suspect Apple's control of PR extends to its agreement with AT&T and allows it to publish the first important headline numbers for sales.

Sales of more than 500,000 iPhones will be a 2 year revenue stream of at least $1billion between Apple and AT&T (they are currently the sole retailers - so no other retailers to split with). Not bad for one month!

Contrast this with Zune and XBox360.

Assuming Zune sales so far of 1.2m, and even assuming full retail price of $249, this is $298m in revenue - almost exactly equal to the revenue from the 146,000 AT&T activations. Only this has taken Microsoft not 30 hours, but more than 8 months. It is also a widely held belief that Microsoft has not SOLD 1.2m Zunes, but shipped them. Many remain unsold on shelves. And, there has also been some significant discounting from the $249 price, to say nothing of the retail margin.

XBox360 has been with us for about 20 months. 11.6m units shipped (but not necessarily sold). Assume price of $299 again, and we reach $3.468b. Then take the $1.2bn cost of repairs announced recently out of that - and we have a number approaching $2bn - for 20 months!

I know which company I would be betting on today.

We will see crazy headlines today, and we will see unpredictable market reaction whatever the numbers. But what is already clear is that Apple has a phenomenal hit on its hands. Reviews have been overwhelmingly outstanding. Sales have been very robust indeed - whatever these sky high forecasts make you think the boundary of success is. Apple is only to be praised for seemingly being able to just about keep up with demand (something in the past it has not been good at, with fair criticism from the same quarters who now say any unsold stock is a failure!) Any commentary on today's numbers that doesn't recognised the success for what it is - both in technical and business terms is very delusional (or in the pockets of some of Apple's and AT&T's competitors).

I'll be writing on the financial numbers after they come out. I'll be paying particular attention to what the sales of iPods and Macs have been in the last 12 months. But, if the market reaction is negative today, look at this as your best time to pick up Apple stock for some time.

Disclosure: the author holds 600 shares of Apple, and last time he bought shares was 11th July 2006 - a little over 12 months ago when they were as low as $54. I hope you followed my advice then!.

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22 July 2007

Pathetic Observer non-apology

I posted about this a couple of weeks ago.

Today, buried well inside the paper and after the editorials and most commentaries was a "clarification."

Really, this is just not good enough. Speaking with friends last night, they are strongly influenced by such reporting (which was of course copied and run by the other mainstream press groups). We have trusted our newspapers to give fair and balanced reports based on fact. This article and its subsequent coverage in the other press has set back public understanding of this subject by several years and unreasonably made the public question science even more, ironically when it is proper science that is the only way to truth in this, rather than the mumbo-jumbo "science" practised by Wakefield. Will The Observer make an apology over their sycophantic piece on him from the same edition after he is found guilty of professional misconduct by the BMA, as he surely will be? There are serious consequences of this public misunderstanding.

I will leave it to Ben Goldacre (Bad Science columnist at the Guardian) to give his verdict on the Observer "clarification", with suitable links to the whole sorry story. (Ben, I don't think they made a hash of apologising! They didn't apologise at all for the article and the mistakes - only a weak apology for not trying harder to contact one of the people they quoted! Surely, an apology for actually quoting somebody you didn't speak to wouldn't have been too difficult would it as a start?)

I am still considering abandoning my subscription to the Observer over this. Today's article makes that more likely not less. They had a chance to set the record straight, but all they've done is to compound their mistakes and demonstrate that they either don't get it, or don't want to get it.

UPDATE: I have indeed cancelled my subscription for the Observer. It doesn't save me very much - just about £10 per year, as I will now revert to just a Guardian subscription. I have also complained to the Readers' Editor. I feel better!

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Surreal Experience

On Friday, we witnessed the most torrential rain I've ever seen in the UK - a truly massive amount of water descending in London in just an hour or so. We spent several hours sorting out the problems caused by an overflowing gully to the flat downstairs.

Having checked traffic reports which seemed to be generally ok (c'mon Highways Agency/AA/RAC/BBC etc can't you do better than this?), we headed off for the weekend at 7pm on a journey that usually takes us 2 hours. We arrived 6 hours later, but at least we arrived. We passed possibly 300-400 vehicles which had been left stranded at the side of the roads all the way from Swindon to Ross-on-Wye. We went under the M5 motorway, which at almost midnight was at a complete standstill. While we had numerous in-water experiences of our own, we probably didn't have anything worse than about 300mm. I think had we been earlier, we'd have been stranded like many of the others.

Here's a link to some photos on the BBC site by local people, the first one being the M50 motorway very close to us. Look also at number 37 to see it getting even worse! Here are some from Gloucestershire - including underwater Cotswold villages which we passed close to.

As my partner Sue pointed out, weather is a great equaliser. Among the stranded cars was a rather distraught Bentley!

What a summer this is turning out to be!

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20 July 2007

XBox360 Double Whammy

The news on XBox 360 failures is truly quite amazing - easily on a par with the Sony laptop battery recall episode last year. Amazingly Microsoft's stock has hardly budged. There are very few companies in the world that could withstand a write-off of over $1bn so easily. Yet, I don't think Microsoft has yet done the right thing by its users. I think this post makes many reasonable points. Microsoft should do a recall and fix this problem for good. However, I would say that, based on comments attributed to Microsoft VP Peter Moore (see same link),

In our interview with Microsoft corporate vice president Peter Moore, he pointedly declined to offer specifics about what was causing the problems on the grounds that he is not a technical person, nor would he answer whether the flaws should be attributed to design or manufacturing.

it's not entirely clear that Microsoft has a complete solution to this problem even now.

However, it was not this particular issue I wanted to post about. It seems that Microsoft used that tried and trusted PR technique of burying bad news on a day of other bad news. In this case, its own bad news. Hardly commented on was the amazing confession that they had failed to hit their target of selling 12million XBox 360's by end of June 2007. Maybe those that read this saw that they had sold 11.6m, so it wasn't after all that far off the target. But let's look a little closer at this. Only in January this year did Microsoft revise its target from 13-15m units to 12m. So, it is now at least 1.4m below the target it had just 6 months ago, and perhaps up to 3.4m below. So, it's not 0.4m of 12m (just over 3%) but between 11 and 22% below.

There's another way to look at this, too. By the end of December, Microsoft had sold 10.3m XBoxes. It has since sold just 1.3m boxes. Instead of the 3-5m for that period (as per Microsoft's own December targets), it has sold between 1/4 and 1/2 of that number. This is the truly amazing statistic and something I'm surprised has not been more widely commented on. During this time, Microsoft introduced the XBox 360 Elite, and it has had ample product to sell globally. Despite this, its sales have been less in the most recent 6 months than the first 3 months of its life when it was limited to the US market and very supply-constrained. These statistics are available here.

Now, in fact, things are not as bad as this, but only if you understand the phenomenon of channel stuffing - whereby a vendor records sales by stuffing products on shelves even though they remain unsold. This is widely reported as how Microsoft account for both XBox and Zune sales and why individual figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is highly likely Microsoft stuffed the retail channel with lots of XBox 360's leading up to Christmas last year, perhaps so it could meet its target then of selling 10m by the end of 2006. So, either you think Microsoft missed both targets, and engages in this practice, or you think it only missed the current one - by a large margin. It's pretty bad either way (in fact a cynical person might suggest that channel stuffing is continuing and that the situation is even worse than the numbers suggest). And, a nasty by-product of that strategy is if you were to buy an XBox 360 today, it is quite likely you may be buying one made sometime last year and subject to the potential failures noted. As Microsoft have not published serial number ranges, this makes it pretty hard to guess what you're getting.

(As an aside, I don't believe Apple can account for sales in the same way due to its own retail presence which accounts for a significant chunk of sales. At the very least, I believe that Apple would not be able to call an iPod sale via its own online or retail stores a sale until it was sold to a real customer).

Really, this XBox 360 sales fiasco is a BIG deal, and it should have been picked up as such. I am somewhat surprised in all honesty, as I had expected the XBox 360 to be a winner. Back in 2005 before any of the new generation consoles was released I posited that Sony would be the loser and that it seemed Nintendo might defy the odds and with the XBox 360 would be the other winner (not a bad forecast for a non-gamer!). At this point in time, both the high-end consoles are struggling badly, despite (or perhaps because of) the huge companies behind these products. There has been just one winner so far - the company that focused not on stuffing untried/unproven/unwanted technology in to a device then subsidising its high price, but on delivering a value product that consumers adored, could afford and all the while making sure that it makes a profit from each unit sold. Both Microsoft and Sony are behaving almost as state-sponsored monopolies delivering what they THINK the public want, using the vast resources of their other monopoly/semi-monopoly businesses to get by. Microsoft's failings have opened the door to Sony who, while being late to the party, at least have the better-specified box. Instead, they should have been dead and buried. A real price cut from Sony (not the reduced price for discontinued models) at this time might allow it yet to beat Microsoft.

Some will say that new games about to be delivered for the XBox 360 and other developments will rescue it from this lull. But unless Microsoft sells at least 10m more units before the end of the year, its shareholders should be calling for it to pull the plug. Even then it will have TOTAL sales for 2 years of around the same as the iPod for just Christmas quarter 2006. Indeed, its own sales for this calendar year will be barely above 2006 calendar year sales. The supposed "future of gaming consoles" selling less in its second full year than its first is a pretty bad sign.

Update: Is this in fact a triple whammy with reports that Robbie Bach (head of the MS division that includes XBox) sold over $6m of Microsoft stock just a few weeks before these announcements? Or a quadruple whammy to include this week's news that Peter Moore (see above) has left?

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19 July 2007

Hobsbog....An Admission

I have been overcome with admiration for the string of Cabinet ministers who have come out today and admitted they smoked cannabis. What guts to come out right after the first admission from Jacqui Smith (who at least came out first). I'm 110% sure that opportunism was not a factor in these new admissions - just honesty and integrity.

I would therefore like to take this opportunity to admit that I, too, have smoked cannabis on one occasion in San Francisco, and on one occasion in Amsterdam. I did this purely to ensure the smooth conclusion to business deals by showing my empathy with the real criminals who were obviously addicted and probably dealers in their spare time. I absolutely did not inhale, and I was not affected by it in any pleasurable way. I would never do it again, and I hope those that do now are put away for a longtime as they should know better, especially now as the Independent has told them it's a BAD thing.

< /sarcasm> but unfortunately not < /end mass hypocrisy from mainstream media and political establishment>

09 July 2007

The British Press...(continued)

I've run a number of posts here about how badly our newspapers report on certain subjects. Yesterday, however, we reached a new low, with two sickening articles in the Observer about MMR and autism, including a cringing interview with the person who has done most to spread FUD, and consequently led to increased deaths and serious disabilities via higher (perhaps quasi-epidemic) measles and rubella infection rates. The main article was the front page headline.

I almost cancelled my Guardian/Observer subscription on the spot, but then how would I get my regular dose of ire?

I will not go into this subject in too much detail here, as there are far more qualified people, and better writers to boot covering this development.

I will instead first link to Ben Goldacre's Bad Science post which covers the developments pretty well, links to other stories, and has some interesting developments (including one of the two scientists the Observer quoted as "privately supporting an MMR link" apparently accused the Observer of fabricating comments, and therefore presumably leaving the Observer with just one of the seven academics thinking this way. Evidence shown on Ben's post seems to show this "academic" as somewhat unhinged and unprofessional at the very least.

Other links to follow include:
A reasoned article at Breath Spa for Kids
Or have a look at the journalist's qualifications for writing about this subject!

Also look out for articles at The Holford Watch
- an anti-dote site to one of the more ridiculous "media nutritionists" who pass themselves off (to the gullible press) as scientists.

MMR WAS a valid idea to be researched as involved in (some cases of) autism. But it has been researched ad nauseam and shown not to be involved AT ALL. The damage done because of the insistence on this link is severe around the world and especially in this country. What is so sad to see is how the supposedly-intelligent broadsheets run with this stuff.

Perhaps, those who believe in good science reporting should complain to the Press Complaints Commission?

Incidentally, if anyone dares to say the Observer is balanced because Goldacre writes a column for the (sister) Guardian, then please also show me when he's been on the front page, or where an editorial has taken up his piece to correct an earlier sare and FUD article?

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05 July 2007

iPhone in Europe

Just one comment on the plentiful rumours each day about exactly which carrier is going to get the exclusive rights for iPhone in Europe (one day it's Vodafone, then it's T-Mobile, maybe in Germany, maybe not), then it's O2 in UK, Orange in France....

Most of the rumours say it's going to be the same 2.5g device as in the US. But I'm going out on a limb here and say that it will NOT be that. As I understand it, only Orange supports Edge in Europe. Other carriers have either slower 2G (GPRS) data networks, or 3G networks.

Given the lack of availability of wi-fi hotspots (at least for free) in much of Europe, the importance of 3G (or at least fast networks) is going to be MORE important in Europe.

My prediction is that Apple will release the 3G iPhone in Europe. At the very least, I do not believe they will release a slower one than the Edge version in the US. In making this prediction, I am betting against the supposedly more informaed Times, FT etc all reporting on this matter so certainly.

On a similar theme, while Apple appears to have agreed a 2 year exclusive with AT&T in the US, I do NOT believe they will agree such an exclusive in European markets. This is because they are more fragmented than the US (eg. typically 5 providers in many markets often with similar shares). Sure, there may be country exclusives. But I don't believe they'll be for much longer than a supply shortage would exist.

The mistake most media is making is that the deal and product that is in the US is the deal and product that will be made here. I don't think it is right to make that assumption. Sure, there will be similarities and the AT&T deal gives us a number of pointers. But no more.

What is important in all this is that Apple holds their ground and has driven the service providers so that they do not cripple the device. I'll be posting soon on why the Nokia N80 I got last year is the most disappointing phone I've had and how the UI on the iPhone trounces it.

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03 July 2007

The definitive iPhone review?

Trust AnandTech and Anand Lai Shimpi himself to write what is probably the definitive iPhone review - all 20 pages of it.

What I like about this site is that they do a thorough job of every test they do. Second, they have no particular agenda other than doing a great job. This is not a pro-Apple site per se (though Anand did I believe switch to Mac last year).

If you thought the pro-Apple journalists such as Walt Mossberg and David Pogue are not independent enough, you should certainly read this one.

On a related note, I think this article at Blackfriars marketing gives great insight into Apple's business strategy. Admittedly unlike the iPod (which Apple didn't have to bring to market), they were always going to have to build a phone as a defensive measure. What is so remarkable is that they've entered this market and turned it inside out. They say the best form of defense is attack, and this product will define the starting point of a long-overdue period of innovation in both products and services for the mobile industry.

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18 June 2007

Waterfield Designs Laptop Luggage - The Best?

One of the pleasures of buying a new laptop is looking for new luggage to carry it in!

In my case, I need a versatile arrangement that gives my laptop protection when it's travelling with me on my Brompton bike. Occasionally, I might not have my bike, so need something a bit more businesslike. And then, there's the weekend trips. In short, I need something for every occasion.

Over 4 years ago, I bought a Waterfield Designs sleeve case for the 15" Titanium Powerbook. It has done great service and still looks as good as new. It was able to handle my slightly wider PowerbookG4 also, and so it has been used almost every day since. I got a few additions with the bag to handle other goodies too. I'm particularly pleased as to how the sleevecase has provided protection as I've ridden over bad roads around London. Apart from the quality and style, what has stood out for me with Waterfield was the initial buying experience. I got quick answers to my questions, and the most amazing thing was that after I ordered the stuff, it arrived less than 48 hours after I ordered it. That was San Francisco to London! Unbelievable.

So, while casting glances at other luggage, it was only natural I consider Waterfield Designs for my new MacBook Pro (17"). The range has been updated gradually over the years but still covers the same sort of needs. This time, I decided to add a flap to the sleevecase for those odd occasions I may just have the case and it's raining. I also got tempted by the combination deals, and decided that a Cozmo bag in addition to the sleevecase would provide a solution to every need. With this option, an extra gear pouch is included for free. With the current dollar/pound rate the whole package was pretty attractive - even with shipping, so I settled on that.

Again I got quick and clear answers to my questions. This time I took a slightly cheaper option on shipping (I still don't have the MacBook Pro). I still received the whole order in 3 days flat!

The verdict: Fantastic! These bags are really well made (they are made in San Francisco, not in some cheap labour country). They are well-thought-out with great details, and accents. They work well individually or in combination, and I know they will last. They are practical and protective, but also look great. If I need it, I also know I'll get great service. I can't recommend these guys highly enough. If you need laptop luggage, don't just look at the Apple Store.

Aside: The one frustration with packing my laptop is our stupid UK plug. It is so large in every dimension that it always causes something to bulge. Why can't someone invent a foldable UK plug whereby the prongs can fold away neatly for carrying?

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15 June 2007

Vista Marketshare

In my previous recent posts I've mentioned about my purchase of XP Pro for use on my about-to-be-delivered MacBook Pro.

I bought my copy at Amazon.co.uk and I thought I'd look at what was/wasn't selling on Amazon. I was amazed to see that XP Pro was indeed the top selling Microsoft OS on this site in 11th place (on all software titles). The first version of Vista was in 30th place. Only one other copy of Vista was in the top 50.

Wondering if this was a UK phenomenon, I popped over to the US Amazon site. Similar situation. This time, XP Home was in the top 25 at 15th place, and XP Pro somewhere in the 25-50 range. The first version of Vista was at 62.

I checked also at NewEgg a popular site for system builders, and it seems again that more people are buying XP than are buying Vista. Now some might argue the fact that Vista has so many versions dilutes it's position. But really there are also many versions of XP (Home/Pro, 32bit/64bit, OEM, Full,etc), and the gap in the position of XP and Vista is so significant that I do not believe that sum(copies of Vista) > sum(copies of XP).

I have always expected Vista to be a success, and I recognise that there is quite a difference in the PC world than the Mac world for doing upgrades etc. But to think that 6 months after the full introduction of Vista, when given the choice, more people are buying a 6 year old OS seems very strange indeed. That is a sad reflection on Microsoft's strategy and something that should cause them long-term worry. I know for sure that 6 months after Leopard is (eventually) released, the same will not be true on the Mac platform.

As a final aside, I did this check a day after Amazon.com had introduced a Leopard pre-order and was amazed to see Leopard in 1st place across ALL software, and Leopard family pack in 3rd place. Not only that, but even MacOS Tiger (10.4) was ahead of any copy of Vista (in 55th place)!

A visitor from outerspace would make a very different conclusion on the operating system market than is reality if presented with these figures. But, would they infer a more accurate view of the future?

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Why XP Pro over Vista?

In my previous post I discussed my purchase of XP Pro. Why not go for Vista, you may ask? Is it your dislike of the Redmond monopoly again getting in the way of rational decisions?

In fact, I came very close to purchasing Vista. I wanted to see what the very best Microsoft can do is like. I also felt that a more recent OS would be more secure (and also require fewer changes - I'm not sure how many security downloads my copy of XP Pro will require immediately after install).

But in the end, Vista would have required me setting aside at least 20GB of my laptop hard disk - something that I don't want to give up. (XP should take as little as 5GB comfortably).

In addition, Vista does not work well today as far as I can tell with Virtualisation applications - especially if you also want to use a bootcamp partition. Part of this comes down to the new activation requirements in Vista which are torturous. While legal under license terms to do Virtualisation + Bootcamp (as far as I can tell) with the higher end versions, it is not practical to do so today. Also, the virtualisation solutions do not support Aero yet, so I wouldn't have been getting the full Vista experience except in Bootcamp (and probably quite hard to change between the two).

Finally, Vista is more expensive than XP Pro, and for the amount of use it will get, is just not worth it for me. I would have probably got the Ultimate version (for business use and virtualisation), but not used most of the features.

Coming up - an observation on Vista take-up.

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I feel dirty...

Not because I haven't blogged for almost a month - though that, I should also be ashamed of - but, because I've just received delivery of my license for Microsoft XP Pro. Yes, you read that right.

But, do not worry, it's all in the best possible taste. I have ordered a 17" MacBook Pro and am expecting delivery next week. I will be running Windows XP on it both via BootCamp and via virtualisation. At this point, it looks like I'll be going down the VMWare Fusion route, rather than Parallels. I think VMWare is being aggressive in pricing, support and adding features as it comes from behind vs Parallels. We'll see.

I don't expect to use XP much, but I have some home automation components that haven't been updated since I stopped using an old Toshiba Libretto. My Virtual PC copies have never really worked on these items due to poor performance when doing serial operations.

I also wanted to have XP around to experiment a bit as well as to demonstrate to the great unwashed the flexibility of the Mac platform these days.

Looking back, I have bought a lot of Microsoft software over the years ranging from Multiplan, Excel/Word, followed of course by many copies of Office and Office X. I've also had Windows 95 and 98 via copies of Softwindows and Virtual PC. But these became poor when Mac OS X came along (I had to reboot into OS9 to get reasonable VPC performance).

Later this year I will undoubtedly purchase Office 2008 for Mac. I fully expect XP Pro and then Office 2008 to be the last Microsoft OS and Applications that I ever buy again.

Next up... Why XP Pro over Vista?

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15 May 2007

How reasonable is this?

I cannot believe the BBC being dragged down to this level.

How can you name a potential suspect in a case like this? A suspect who police say there is not enough evidence to arrest (should they even be saying anything)? What sort of society have we moved into?

Of course, it's not just the BBC - it seems there isn't a major media outlet that hasn't been party to this. Anyone who has participated in this "outing" should be ashamed. This is no better than medieval justice.

I don't always agree with Andrew Collins on his views (in fact, rarely), but I think this blog post sums up my views well on this whole sad affair, and it all seems to be heading in even worse directions.

20 April 2007

WMA RIP Follow-up - H.264 to kill VC-1?

Following on from my recent post in which I claimed Windows Media Audio (WMA) was effectively dead and that I hoped the battleground would now move on to ensuring the same happened to WMV (by a hopefully victorious by MPEG-4 Part10/AVC/H.264), I was encouraged by two pieces of news last week.

The first was a report over at The Register about how Microsoft had got "mugged" over VC-1 codec patent terms by the other companies who had claims to some patents that were part of this standard (VC-1 is a fundamental part of WMV). In essence, Microsoft gets less than many of its competitors for every VC-1 license. As Microsoft gives this away in many of its products, it actually costs it money. The article also argued how H.264 had become the preferred codec for many people. I am seeing this mentioned increasingly in blog postings etc.

I can't comment on the accuracy of this article, though the author's knowledge seems pretty deep on the subject.

However in the same week, Microsoft itself released a long-expected XBox 360 update. One of its features includes H.264 playback capability. (A side note for AppleTV bashers - XBox360 also only does 2-channel audio playback!)

I think this move is equivalent to Microsoft's inclusion of AAC playback on its Zune player and is indeed a smart move. With Sony using MPEG video standards also, and of course AppleTV, iPod and other Apple products leveraging this standard, it seems to me that Microsoft is also acknowledging that at the very least, it must let the market decide, and that it cannot impose VC-1 on the world.

Those who produce content in H.264 can easily supply such content to iPod owners, Mac owners, AppleTV owners, Sony PS3 and PSP owners, many Nokia phones, as well as to XBox360 owners. Unfortunately, due to resolution and other differences in device capabilities, there may still have to be multiple versions of the content, but use of a single standard will certainly simplify things for many content providers (and users). It would thus seem a suicidal move for a content company to produce just VC-1 material and limit its market. Likewise, a company producing a playback device would be foolish not to provide for H.264, and may consider cutting WMV/VC-1 support.

It is still too early to decide this matter, but I think it is certainly a move in the right direction. If both WMA and WMV's influences are curtailed I think it's a great win for the consumer. These were Microsoft's opportunity to impose the next lock-ins on users (after Office formats were opened up), and competition authorities had failed to do anything about it. I personally believe it is lock-ins such as these that have prolonged Microsoft's massive hold on the computer user (how could any business user NOT use MS Office?). In this post-PC world of many and varied devices, Microsoft will have to compete on capability alone - though with the backing of it's huge reserves and user inertia to help it along the way, it is still very much able to flex its muscles. That's good news for Microsoft's competitors, and it's even better news for us consumers. In the end, perhaps the market has done the job that the competition authorities were unwilling and incapable of doing*. It has taken too long and there are legacy issues (eg BBC tying itself to Microsoft's "standards" for some of its initial services to consumers thus locking out Mac and Linux users, while adopting H.264 for others). But, it is at least happening.

What do you think? Is H.264 going to become the de facto codec for video for the next generation of devices? Can/will Microsoft impose its own standard after all? Is something else going to do it (Flash, DivX, etc)?

* Footnote: Of course, there is a counter argument, that it is not so much the market that made it happen, but Microsoft's own internal failings. After all with WMA, WMV, Windows Mobile, Windows CE, XBox, Vista in every flavour imaginable etc. it certainly ATTEMPTED to cover every base. If Microsoft had executed well, it would surely have nailed this and the competition authorities would be spending the next 5-10 years trying to unravel it.

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04 April 2007

Hilarious Joy of Tech Cartoon

The Joy of Tech cartoons have been excelling themselves lately with some very witty content.

Yesterday's cartoon about reaction to the EMI/Apple announcement is most amusing.

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03 April 2007

British press reaction to EMI/Apple

I've stuck by my pledge to steer clear of British newspapers' technology sections. And a slight decrease in blood pressure has ensued.

However, I couldn't help come across the Guardian Editorial's curmudgeonly and ignorant commentary on the EMI/Apple announcement I covered yesterday.

Who gains from this deal? Well, the public does — a bit (my emphasis).

The public is the LARGEST beneficiary of this deal, although perhaps that is only strictly true if it is repeated by most/all of the other labels. The significance of this deal to the public is HUGE. The whole DRM edifice has had a key structural pillar removed and it will surely crumble. The key beneficiary from this has to be the law-abiding, music-lover. The secondary beneficiaries are those who innovate to make the most of this development. Apple and EMI may be two of those companies, and the bricks and mortar retailers may be the losers. But those outcomes are far from certain.

Until now, what are called digital-rights management (DRM) restrictions meant that you could buy an EMI track from Apple's music store — but you didn't really own it.

You owned it then as much as you owned it now. You could in theory (and legally) do the same with it then as you can now. Just now, it will be easier and potentially with a higher quality.

Some will not be happy at paying a premium for the privilege, especially as many smaller labels and online shops already sell music free of copy protection — and cheaper, too.

You have a choice. And if you buy an album, you pay no premium. If you buy a single you have both flexibility AND better quality. And you can move from lower quality to higher quality/noDRM by paying the difference (no additional penalty), just as you can move from buying one or two tracks to buying the whole album at no penalty (due to recent "Complete my album" feature). I am over the moon that both the restrictions are removed AND the quality is improved (the latter I did not expect).

Mr Jobs has only recently joined the chorus calling for DRM-free tracks, but this deal makes him look like a consumer champion.

Of course, Jobs' actions for Apple should be in Apple's interests as a business entity. But please name me someone/anyone in the entrenched music industry who has made this issue clearer? Do you ignore his claims that this is the way Apple wanted to do it from the start? The apparent DRM lock-in to iPod came only because of the runaway success of the iTunes/iPod phenomenon. Plenty of other companies could have made this happen then. And of course, it is not a lock-in. Jobs pointed out the futility of operating 2 business models - physical and download - in which the physical is unencumbered and the download has been loaded with restrictions.

Jobs IS a consumer champion in that he has done more for the music-loving public than any other CEO involved in the business. He has been rewarded for that by the public who have overwhelmingly chosen his products. He has been pilloried by a select group of press (concentrated somewhat in UK and Europe) who somehow resent this success. Please score Jobs next to Gates, Bronfman (Warner), Vivendi/Universal, Sony (home of Rootkit), etc. Please suggest an industry figure who should be added to that list ahead of Jobs?

Apple probably will lose some sales from iTunes, but its iPods are the real money-spinner.

I guarantee that Apple will increase its sales from iTunes as a result of this arrangement. This announcement is about levelling the playing field between physical and download. Apple's marketshare of downloads MAY decrease, but it's share of the overall music market will undoubtedly rise as barriers to buying download vs digital (or pirated of course) have been significantly changed. This one statement proves how little the Guardian understands the business it's writing about.

Furthermore, the move does NOTHING directly to help iPod sales. In fact, if anything it gives people a freedom to move away from iPod if they have (in rare cases) a substantial investment in music downloaded via iTunes. It will help iPod sales ONLY if the public perceive that the extra freedoms justify more iPod purchases either absolutely or at the expense of other players. Jobs is brave enough to see that anything that benefits the consumer CAN benefit his company if they can react well. Compare that to our Redmond-friends who take the view that the more they benefit the established oligopolies, the more they will benefit.

And, as Jupiter Research has pointed out, the format the unprotected tracks will be sold in is not supported by many digital-music players. Mr Jobs was very keen yesterday to point out that DRM-free music can be played on non-Apple machines. But that requires other manufacturers to license the technology first. So the iPod, which has already sold 90m worldwide, keeps its chokehold on the music industry for now.

Again this is just bollocks. Here is what the premier Jupiter analyst Michael Garten berg had to say. My interpretation of Michael's views are far closer to what I've written here, than the Guardian have interpreted (and I see no mention of what they quote in Michael's post).Perhaps the Guardian were the "media outlet" referred to in Michael's later post - When reporters set agendas which is truly hilarious (if not frightening)? Michael of course was a (brief) Microsoft employee, and is considered the leading Jupiter analyst in this area.

The Guardian has also written in such a way that it implies Apple is the one that grants that license or (at the very least) that there are restrictive issues involved in getting that license. It confuses the issues of the format of the tracks, the restrictions involved and the technology of the players. From a player perspective, there are many players that support the MPEG-4 Advanced Audio Codec standard (note lack of word Apple there), that Apple has CHOSEN to support and LICENSED to offer. I do not know what the licensing terms are for AAC and how they compare for instance to either MP3 or WMA. But AFAIK, anyone can license AAC should they wish to. My last 2 Nokia phones do that, so does much Sony and Sony Ericsson equipment. Even the Microsoft Zune will play AAC! Companies that have chosen not to, have made that decision deliberately and they are the fools.

If Apple had chosen to use MP3, it would have been dropping the quality of material or increasing file size even further by using 16 year old technology. AAC is the logical and approved heir to MP3. It would be like Apple bringing back the 5 1/4" floppy drive to support the laggards.

If Apple had chosen to use WMA, it would have been choosing a proprietary (though licensable) format locking people into the business practices of that well-known and convicted monopolist that is Microsoft. WMA has also been shown in numerous tests to be inferior to MPEG-4 AAC (indeed only WMA Pro which is not used by most players comes close to AAC in quality). You can find links to this on Wikipedia as easily as I did and make your own mind up. Apple has successfully taken on the proprietary WMA standard and defeated it to our long term benefit. Not by imposing it's own proprietary standard but by choosing an open standard. Try to imagine the parallel universe that is WMA-dominated (Microsoft rights, viruses, incompatibilities, etc) and you will surely see this significance. Apple was ALONE in this fight. The competition authorities should be turning on the companies that insist on licensing a proprietary standard. Any music sold in WMA format for instance should be pounced on as anti-consumer whether DRM'd or not.

In 5 years time, people will all be using the open MPEG-4 AAC with just legacy use of MP3 and maybe WMA. We will all have benefitted from that. It will be because of Apple's choices that this is the result. No other company has done more to push that better, open standard than they have (watch the same happening for MPEG-4/AVC/H.264 video).

With this move (and assuming others follow), Apple has broken the tight linkage between the selling of music online and the iPod. They had earned that linkage through doing a great job, and they have not abused that position (yet). The opportunity is out there now for other companies to innovate and offer great download services. Or, for others to innovate and offer great players that allow people to use everything they'd already bought on iTunes or used on their iPod. Or for others to provide an even better service than iTunes/iPod. There are now far less restrictions at least as far as iPod/iTunes goes. I will be able to buy my music from anyone who supports MP3 or MPEG-4 AAC and use it on my iPod or other device that supports either MPEG-4 or MP3 (you should be easily able to downconvert from AAC to MP3 with imperceptible quality loss from a 256kbps AAC file, compared with from CD). I will also be able to enjoy my purchased music from anyone who provides a player which supports these (open) standards. Sorry about the WMA-retards. You got what you deserved.

Apple has offered others the opportunity to get into the iPod world. Sure you could do that through eMusic and a few others. But they were limited by the major labels insisting on DRM. Without DRM, anyone is free to offer iTunes OR iPod users material if the licensee agrees. And this is what it has always been about - the licensee. Apple has opened the download market to anyone and there are no restrictions for those people entering the market - at least any that are governed by Apple (contrast this with Microsoft/WMA). It has done that because it has its sights set on the music market as a whole. As I said in the previous post, this is about having 30% of the music market rather than 70% of the music download market which itself is only 10% of the overall music market.

It is up to the consumer to vote with their wallets. They can support EMI's choice - either with Apple or without, and send a message to the other major labels. If enough consumers withhold support from the other labels by refusing to purchase that material (remember to boycott the CD's too if you really want change!), then perhaps the others will get that message. I, for one, will support EMI's move by choosing some of their material to buy online (it's a pity that it's so difficult with this label's rather poor roster of artists!).

I applaud Jobs and Nicoli for their actions. Sure they are self-serving. But they are self-serving because they embrace change and innovation, not because they preserve the status quo. One (Apple) is done from strength, the other (EMI) from weakness, perhaps. But they are still bold moves. WE are the main beneficiaries. Let's seize that. And, to the Guardian, perhaps if you can't comment gracefully or accurately on news you seem to have no grasp of you should perhaps just keep quiet?

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02 April 2007


Well, not exactly RIP - Rest In Hell maybe more appropriate.

Today's announcement is a great demonstration that Steve Jobs' Apple has learned from its past mistakes about failing to open up key technologies at critical times.

For consumers, the great advantage of this announcement, beyond of course the obvious DRM and quality issue is that it will move the world towards an MPEG-4 world. That is an open world - not governed by any single company. Perhaps people (and journalists) will finally twig that neither of the A's in the synonym AAC stand for a computer company! For Apple, the victory is that the world did not end up with WMA and a comfy lock-in between the content providers and Microsoft dictating just about everything about how, when, where and for how long we could use the material we'd bought. Essentially global adoption of WMA would have squeezed Apple and indeed any other non-Microsoft device out of the equation. The significance of this cannot be underestimated, but I suspect it will never be seen that way as we have no insight into the parallel universe in which WMA took over. And, note to Norway, along the way, not a single consumer has been harmed in the making of this story!

Just as importantly, it should cement MPEG-4 as the standard rather than leaving the lowest common denominator (MP3 - a 16 year old format) as the "future" of sound. Most listening tests give AAC-coded material the best possible ratings of any lossy format with well-coded 128kbps AAC close to lossless. (If you don't believe me, check the Dolby site, some audiophile sites, and Wikipedia, who can point to these tests). Only the very highest levels of MP3 encoding and WMA Pro (which is not in common use in players) even come close to AAC at the same bitrates.

I've no doubt that Apple will continue to sell content ONLY in AAC format, and so any stragglers in the portable player market would be foolish not to support it. And furthermore, many music stores would be best advised to adopt it in order to maximise the music quality for the same bitrate (when compared with MP3). Those using WMA will be faced with the choice of using MP3 or AAC if they wish their music to be compatible with the dominant music player on the market today. Apple's choice of (and pushing of) the latest open MPEG standards has paid off this time and we are all beneficiaries.

There is of course the slightly inconvenient issue for such stores of having still to support DRM'd music until the other companies relent. That is an advantage that Apple has squeezed by this move. But this is great news for independent stores and labels who will make the most of this.

For Apple, apart from the defeat of WMA, they open up the digital download market for iPod users to many more companies, so on the one hand they would seem to be loosening their hold on the digital download market. But, as Steve pointed out in his "Thoughts on Music", it's more important for the digital market to be on a level playing field with CD. Apple have music retailers such as Walmart in its sights. It is not looking backwards at the download competition (it regularly compares itself to Amazon, Borders etc, rather than to Yahoo Music, and other download peers). It would rather have 30% of the music market (100%), than increasing its already massive share of the download-only market that would be permanently limited in scope to perhaps just 10-20% of the total market in a DRM world. Conveniently perhaps, it should also help to reduce concerns of the (misguided) competition authorities which had threatened to cause consumer confusion and waste a lot of Apple resources fighting.

Is it self-serving for Apple? Yes, of course - that's what they're about (as any company should be in commerce). But once again, Apple have shown that by moving in the direction that favours the consumer, they position themselves to benefit too. That is in stark contrast to its arch competitor.

With greater adoption of MPEG-4 this should also help Apple in the next battleground of video where WMV (and Microsoft IPTV) need to be neutralised. I'm sure that's where Apple has it's sights on. MPEG-4 AVC (or H.264) is the open way forward, is again better than any other existing technology out there, and needs to win out.

From a selfish perspective I have never found Apple's DRM to be limiting in any way, and I had no concerns that if they did abuse their position, there would be plenty of solutions from legal to not-so-legal that would come to the consumer's aid. In that regards, the bigger thing for me is the move forward in music quality. I still like to be able to listen to the best possible version of a song in certain situations while having the convenience of small size for others. With 256kbps AAC, I see really little downside compared with CD, (though I generally found it very hard to distinguish 128kbps AAC from real CD in a few listening tests).

Now, with the quality issue sorted (which I didn't necessarily expect), the convenience of online purchase/instant gratification has levelled the playing field if not tilted towards the future. With easier competition between music stores, we can look forward to greater innovations including such ideas as "Complete my album" introduced just last week by Apple which is a unique download-only differentiator (can't be done easily with physical media). Expect to see more variation in offerings including bundles of music, video, concert offers, and digital books that only the internet can provide. These are the sorts of initiatives that can breathe life into the music industry and hopefully signal an intent to grasp the future rather than defend the dead-end single/album status quo.

This is a great announcement for music loving consumers, for the music industry, for Apple and for any number of innovative small companies out there (eMusic, Bleep, etc). Well done to EMI for showing some nerve here. Hope the other 3 from the industry cartel will grasp the nettle!

Update: Added link to EMI press release for those not on Planet Earth.

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23 March 2007

TeraBytes at Home

I just purchased a 1TB external disk from LaCie for about £230 (ex VAT). This will be primarily used for backups at first and directly connected to our laptops. Longer term, I may use it as a NAS-type device (a networked disk perhaps using Apple's AirDisk). But the 1TB figure seemed pretty monumental to me, and got me thinking back to how quickly this has developed.

A few years ago after an article in the Independent by "Cursor" claiming that disk drive technology had seen 200 times compound growth, I checked their calculations (which were wrong) and showed that in fact, disk drive size had doubled approximately every 11 months versus chip technology which had doubled every 18 months (the infamous Moore's Law). I got a quick reply and correction from Cursor (Charles: are you listening) admitting a rushed job on doing the exponentials.

We all agreed nevertheless that doubling every 11 months had been phenomenal and was still 63% better than chip technology. I think since that time disk drive technology might have slowed a small amount (though chips have continued to develop along Moore's Law lines, albeit with a slowing down in clock speed advances). Of course, at this time, the real star is NAND Flash storage that is growing at a faster rate than either.

But 1TB at home seems just amazing. To put that in a few perspectives:

- 1TB for £230 is equivalent to 23pence per GigaByte, or just .023 pence per MegaByte.
- 1TB is 12,500 times an 80MB disk (that was the size of my first major disk purchase (for a Mac II in 1998 which cost more than this).
- 1TB disks come in a size no bigger than the 80MB disks of old, and are also better in every other respect - power, seek time, reliability, transfer time, noise etc.

That is some achievement. Interestingly, the transfer time of this disk in Firewire800 mode is such that it can transfer over 80MB in one second, which is conveniently equal to the full size of my first hard disk!

Of course, back in the 80's nobody would have thought that the average consumer would require terabytes of data storage. But with uncompressed storage of music, storage of our digital photo collection, and increasingly video storage, it is quite easy to see 10TB being necessary in the not-too-distant future. What about the 1PetaByte home? That is 1,000, million, MegaBytes! Is it really that far off?

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08 March 2007

Government, its (Cycling) Citizens, and the Internet

In my experience of our government's use of the internet to improve services, the scorecard is pretty low so far. Just yesterday I noticed that my favourite rail information site operated (strangely) by Wandsworth council could no longer be found. This site used to be incredibly fast, and give you information on any route in the UK including stops, and including all the stops the train took on each journey, the trains ultimate route etc. It was timetable nirvana. Only missing were prices. Why Network Rail could not take on this brilliant piece of work I don't know.

However, I have a good example finally of how a service can be delivered to everyone's benefit, and on my sample size = 1, appears to do the job.

A curse for cyclists is the state of some roads where subsidence, damage etc can result in a serious jolt and in fact be quite dangerous. We have been powerless to do much about this unless you have mountains of time and inclination to pursue through letters or waiting in phone queues.

Just recently, the CTC introduced FillThatHole.org which allows anyone to create a problem report for any road in the UK, including identifying it on a map and even including images. The report is then filed with the appropriate authority.

I thought I'd give it a try for one I noticed in Kensington and Chelsea, not expecting much. I got a confirmation back that it had been received, and another one that it had been forwarded on (yeh, so what!). But I was genuinely surprised that within 10 days or so, the repair had been made quite thoroughly. Even better, I got an email back within another day telling me that the hazard had been reported as fixed. Very cool.

Now, I have given credit to government for this, when in fact most of the credit goes to the CTC. And, I repeat, my sample size is 1. But, this is a great example of the sorts of things our governments (local and national) COULD be doing across their whole services portfolio to engage with its citizens. I'm sure it's not a huge system, but what I particularly liked was the way it kept you informed throughout the process, and closed it all off at the end.

Three cheers to the CTC, and one and a half cheers to the people in government somewhere who have at least allowed this to work!

UPDATE (9th March): The one thing missing from the system was the ability for the original reporter to re-open the case if the fix had not been made or not made satisfactorily. Within a day of me suggesting this feature, the CTC had added a button to do exactly this. So, that means four cheers for the CTC!

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Kristin Hersh Live

We went to see Kristin Hersh at the Koko Club in Camden (a lovely compact venue).

Kristin is a founder of the Throwing Muses group (Indy/Alternative genre). I particularly like her solo work however which is in various flavours from rock to almost country, heavy to acoustic. Her most recent album - Learn to Sing Like a Star - is just out and is a return to the heavier side, and has some cracking songs, including Ice, Vertigo, The Thin Man and In Shock.

You can get some (free) downloads of her material from the Throwingmusic.com site linked to above. Interestingly, 4AD - the UK record label is offering many of her albums in un-DRM'd AAC 192kbps for £7.90.

Anyhow, Kristin showed how good a musician she is, even if the mixing seemed to lose some of the subtleties (and a terrible resonance in the theatre for some bass frequencies!).

As an added bonus the support band were the McCarricks - Martin and Kimberlee. A cellist and violinist respectively I didn't know what to expect (this also expsoses my lack of knowledge too). But with the aid of a projection screen showing specially made short films accompanying each track, and with the underpinnings of the track on tape, the performance was different than anything else I've seen, and we both really enjoyed it. A sort of hybrid of Kraftwerk, Laurie Anderson, Depeche Mode, Dead Can Dance etc. though way different than any of the above. The two (husband and wife, rather than brother and sister incidentally), also played throughout the whole Kristin Hersh set.

A quick search for Martin McCarrick gave very little at first - just a Wikipedia entry. But that was enough for me to realise that I SHOULD have liked their work anyway. Martin has a great history working with bands I also love - including a long period at Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dead Can Dance, Marc Almon and also with both Throwing Muses and Kristin Hersh throughout the 90's. He was also a key member of Therapy, though I have to confess not being familiar with them. I later found a myspace site for mccarrickmusic and this has some of the tracks which give a good indication of their music. But I would say that I found their performance live (with added video) even more compelling and I would welcome a DVD of their films set to their music.

Anyhow, Kristin only has a few UK dates left, but if you get a chance in Sheffield, Manchester or Glasgow, and you're an Indy music fan, do make an effort - I'm sure you won't be disappointed. Europeans have an opportunity too before she heads home to the US.

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04 March 2007

A wonderful sight

It's often the case that we miss good astronomical events in the UK due to weather. But not last night!

This was the first time I can remember seeing a complete lunar eclipse, and indeed it was a lovely sight - by naked eye, with binoculars, or through a telescope.

The moon looked particularly eerie - like a slightly red ping pong ball hovering in the sky, and it was amazing to see how the rest of the stars shone like they never get to do on a normal full moon!

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23 February 2007

UK Government Science Investment

I was disappointed to read about the UK Government taking money from the science and medical research budgets to "soften the blow" of Rover's collapse.

That Rover was a dead duck was known for many, many years (decades even), and while I have sympathy with the workers there, I don't think they deserved anything different than any other worker laid off from a failed company.

But looking at it another way, the stupidity and short-sightedness of the government's moves seems clear: Does anyone for one minute think that Rover's demise came about by investing too MUCH in science and engineering research?

Once again, we have taken from the future to pay for past mistakes. Particularly nasty is the fact that medical research is reduced when clearly this has nothing to do with engineering.

As an aside, the article implies that the government has put a significant extra investment into research so it is merely taking back a little of that largesse. But I know that much of the money (like for the NHS) has gone on administration. For instance whereas a grant of £170k a few years ago would have been spent on the research, the grant is now topped up with "overhead" of, say £130k to pay for admin at the university. No more science is done than at the £170k level, but the cost is now £300k!

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Vista's mere 800 applications

I find this information from Computerworld somewhat surprising on a number of levels.

First is that just 108 applications have been certified to work with Vista, and another 683 have been awarded "works with distinction" whatever that means. Excluded from the list are applications such as all of Adobe's multimedia applications, most Symantec applications, and applications such as the latest version of Skype. Given Vista's huge gestation period, I can't help feeling that this is ridiculously low. I know this doesn't mean that all the other apps WON'T work, but I'm genuinely surprised.

The next thing that struck me as surprising - though perhaps it's a (major?) contributory factor to the above is that it costs $10,000 per app to get that certification. This is clearly a barrier to small software companies, and even larger ones if they are close to a new release of software. While I understand why this was probably a costly exercise for a 3rd party to undertake, I wonder whether Microsoft has been rather silly in making this barrier so high given the end result.

It's difficult to comment too much on whether it's the application vendors being slow, or cheap, or whether Microsoft has been very remiss in not putting enough backing behind making applications compatible with Vista out of the gate (let's face it, it's now almost 4 months since the release of Vista to business). But whatever the case, I think it's a poor state of affairs.

I think there would be a lot of fuss in the Apple camp if such a situation happened with Leopard, though a fair point against this is that there is no comparable certification step that I know of. But when I think back to the relative ease of transition from PowerPC to Intel with Rosetta and Universal apps seeming to deliver a very high level of compatibility from day 1, it seems Apple's approach to working with its developers* seems to have paid dividends.

But really, what was going on while Vista trundled along in prolonged development?

* I guess given that Adobe has also been one of the slowest to respond to Apple's Intel transition may indicate that it needs to look a bit closer at its development responsiveness

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19 February 2007

In praise of cycling MP's

I knew the moment I saw the headlines about politicians' expense claims that I was going to get exasperated.

"From £16,000 on taxis to £230 on a bike: politicans' travel expenses revealed" was the headline in the right-on Guardian. Perhaps I am just a little bit touchy, but that certainly seemed to be a dig at cycling MP's (and by extension, all cyclists). How else to interpret highlighting one of the smallest claims in an article generally criticising excess amongst our elected officials? Other newspapers also devoted column inches to the cycling claims of Jeremy Corbyn MP. Yet, it represents just 5 one thousandths of one percent of the total claimed by all MP's (0.0051%).

And, this weekend, Jasper Gerard, writing in the Observer under the headline "For our tireless MPs, no expenses are spared" sent me suitably over the edge with:
"But my favourite claim is Jeremy Corbyn's, who pocketed £230 - for cycling. Perhaps puncture repair kits are pricey."

Ha, bloody, ha!

Let's get this straight. The only logical and rational comment on Jeremy Corbyn's claims are to point out how much better the public purse would have been if other MP's made use of such transport. Diane Abbott's £2,235 in taxis is a start. And, boy, does she need the exercise. How about Mr Khabra's £3,007 (Ealing) and Mr Khan's £2,153 (Tooting) car expenses. And, perhaps Ms Janet Anderson and Mr Laurence Robertson (£16,612, and £12,015 mileage respectively), could at least get their fat arses out of their leather seats for SOME of their travel?

And, let's just look at Jasper's comment in more detail. The cost of cycling is actually the cost of a puncture repair kit is it? Just like the cost of driving is the cost of his in-car air freshener? Jeremy Corbyn cycled 1,100 miles in a year (on parliamentary business). I suspect his bike would need a good service after that amount of mileage with some new tyres, brake pads etc. That's probably about £100 or so a year based on my experience. Then there's the cost of the bike. And, lets not forget the cost of a decent lock, luggage carriers, waterproofs etc.

Cycling is considerably less costly than most other methods of transport, but it is NOT free. It's considerably beneficial for other road users who don't have their roads clogged up even more (please, this is not China - most cyclists cycle out of choice not economics). It's beneficial to our economy by not clogging up those roads. It's considerably more beneficial to the environment, and it's also beneficial to our health system (and the "health systems" of those cyclists too).

So, to Jeremy Corbyn, and those other cycling MP's: I praise you for your efforts and fortitude. Your £230 is the best value of the £4.5m spent last year.

And, to our unelected journalists who wouldn't know a crank from a cog: STFU!

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