Tag Archives: BBC World Service

Smartwatches: Coming Soon to a Cosmos Near You

This is a column I did for the BBC World Service, broadcast this week. 

There’s been a lot of talk that the big boys — by which I mean Apple and Samsung — are about to launch so-called smart watches. But how smart does a watch have to be before we start strapping them to our wrists in numbers to make a difference?

First off, a confession. I’ve strapped a few things to my wrist in my time. Back in the 80s and 90s I used to love the Casio calculator watch called the Databank, though I can’t actually recall ever doing a calculation on it or putting more than a few phone numbers in there. About a decade ago I reviewed something called the Fossil Wrist PDA, a wrist-bound personal digital assistant. It didn’t take off. In fact, no smart watch has taken off.

So if the smartwatch isn’t new, maybe the world around them is? We’ve moved a long way in the past couple of years, to the point where every device we have occupies a slightly different spot to the one it was intended for. Our phones, for example, are not phones anymore but data devices. And even that has evolved: the devices have changed direction in size, from shrinking to getting larger, as we realise we want to do more on them.

That in turn has made tablets shrink. When Apple introduced the iPad Steve Jobs famously said that was the smallest the tablet could reasonably go, but Samsung proved him wrong with the phablet, and now we have an iPad Mini. All this has has raised serious questions about the future of the laptop computer and the desktop PC.

But it shouldn’t. For a long time we thought that the perfect device would be something that does everything, but the drive to miniaturise components has actually had the opposite effect: we seem to be quite comfortable moving between devices and carrying a bunch of them around with us.

This all makes sense, given that our data is all stored in the cloud, and every device is connected to it either through WiFi, a phone connection or Bluetooth. We often don’t even know how our device is connecting — we just know it is.

So, the smartwatch optimists say, the time is ripe for a smartwatch. Firstly, we’ve demonstrated that we are able to throw out tired conventions about what a device should do. If our phone isn’t really our phone anymore then why not put our phone on our wrist? Secondly, the cloud solves the annoying problem of getting data in and out of the device.

Then there’s the issue of how we interact with it. It’s clear from the chequered history of the smartwatch that using our digits is not really going to work. We might be able to swipe or touch to silence an alarm or take a call, but we’re not going to be tapping out messages on a screen that size.

So it’s going to have to be voice. GeneratorResearch, a research company, reckons this would involve a small earpiece and decent voice-command software like Apple’s Siri. I’m not convinced we’re quite there yet, but I agree with them that it’s going to take someone of Apple’s heft to make it happen and seed the market.

In short, the smart watch might take off if it fits neatly and imaginatively into a sort of cosmos of devices we’re building around ourselves, where each one performs a few specific functions and overlaps with others on some. If it works out, the watch could act as a sort of central repository of all the things we need to know about — incoming messages, appointments, as well as things the cloud thinks we should know about, based on where we are: rain, traffic jams, delayed flights.

But more crucially it could become something that really exploits the frustratingly unrealised potential of voice: where we could more easily, and less self-consciously, talk to our devices and others without having to hold things to our ear, or be misunderstood.

In time, the smartwatch may replace the smartphone entirely.

I’m not completely convinced we’re as close as some think we are, but I’ve said that before and been proved wrong, so who knows?

The rebirth of RSS?

This is a column written for the BBC World Service (here’s the show.). Views are my own, and do not represent those of my employer, Thomson Reuters. 

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, but I’ve been particularly wrong about something called RSS. RSS is a simple standard, dreamed up during the halcyon days of the social web when there were enough interesting people writing blogs for it to become somewhat onerous to drop in, as it were, to see whether their website had been updated. In other words, there was a critical mass of bloggers to take blogging into the mainstream, but there was no easy way for the medium to scale from the point of view of readers. It was like everyone printing their own newsletter but asking interested readers to drop by their office every so often on the off-chance that a new edition had been published. 

So RSS, short for really simple syndication, was born. Essentially it wrapped up all the blog posts into a feed, a bit like a wire service, and pumped it out to anyone who wanted to subscribe. It worked brilliantly, but contained within in the seeds of its own — and, I would argue, social media’s — demise. 

The problem was this: As RSS became more popular more blogs used it. And websites. Reuters has a dozen or so; the BBC too. Soon every website was expected to have at least one RSS feed. Software called Readers became the main way to digest and manage all these feeds, and they worked well. So well  that Google got into the game, and soon dominated it. But adding feeds was still a tad awkward, but really RSS’ demise was, in my view, because of something else. 

As social media grew — I’m talking the early years here, when blogging was the preferred medium of expression, and when a certain civility held sway — it contained essential contradictions. Not everyone could be a creator, because then no one would have time to read what everyone else had written. A few kings and queens of social media emerged, and while a long thin tail remained, for the most part blogging simply grew to become like what old media was. Lots of “Talent”, lots of unrecognised talent.

In its place grew a different kind of content that could be more easily commercialised — the breadcrumbs of daily life, the links we share — which we now think of as Facebook, Twitter, Kakaotalk and WhatsApp. Content has become shorter,  and while some of those tools initially used the RSS standard to deliver it, for the most part each became a walled garden, largely fenced off from each other and driven by the value in the data that we shared, wittingly or unwittingly. 

So back to RSS. RSS is still with us, though Google is canning their service soon (eds: July 1). I am a tad upset, having predicted RSS would sweep the world. I was wrong in that, failing to take into account that content, like everything else, will tend to cater to shorter attention spans and the economics of the marketplace. But I do have hope that RSS won’t die off entirely. There are glitzy tablet apps for those who like their reading to come with big pictures and swooshy noises when you turn the digital page. A host of companies, including, ironically the once undisputed kings of the walled garden, AOL, are launching readers for Google refugees. 

I for one still need to fix some problems with my own RSS habits — the tendency to acquire new ones, the failure to read the ones I do subscribe to — but at least some people somewhere thinks there’s life in a daily diet of serious, lengthy reading without lots of eye candy. 

Podcast: Cameras

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on cameras. (The Business Daily podcast is here. Script is here.)

Loose Wireless 120516

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Podcast: Google Dilemma

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on the Google Dilemma (The Business Daily podcast is here.)

Loose Wireless 120117

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Podcast: The Real Revolution

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on the rise of the smartphone (The Business Daily podcast is here.) 

Loose Wireless 120111

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Inside the Web of Things

This is a slightly longer version of a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service

I’ve long dreamed of an Internet of things, where all the stuff in my life speaks to each other instead of me having to the talking. The vision is relatively simple: each gadget is assigned an Internet address and so can communicate with each other, and with a central hub (my, or my computer, or smartphone, or whatever.)

The most obvious one is electricity. Attach a sensor to your fusebox and then you can see which or your myriad appliances is inflating your electricity bill. Great idea! Well sort of. I found a Singapore-based company that was selling them, and asked to try one out. It was a nice, sleek device that promised to connect to my computer via WiFi and give me a breakdown of my electricity consumption. Woohoo.

Only it never worked. Turns out the device needed to be connected to the junction box by a pro called Ken, who tried a couple of times and then just sort of disappeared. I don’t mean he was electrocuted or vaporized, he just didn’t come back. The owner of the company said he didn’t really sell them anymore. Now the device is sitting in a cupboard.

Turns out that Cisco, Microsoft and Google tried the same thing. The tech website Gigaom reports that all three have abandoned their energy consumption projects. Sleek-looking devices but it turns out folk aren’t really interested in saving money. Or rather, they don’t want to shell out a few hundred bucks to be reminded their power bills are too high.

This might suggest that the Internet of things is dead. But that’d be wrong. The problem is that we’re not thinking straight. We need to come up with ways to apply to the web of things the same principles that made Apple tons of cash. And that means apps.

The Internet of things relies on sensors. Motion sensors which tell whether the device is moving, which direction it’s pointing in, whether it’s vibrating, its rotational angle, its exact position, its orientation. Then there are sensors to measure force, pressure, strain, temperature, humidity and light.

The iPhone has nearly all these. An infrared sensor can tell that your head is next to the phone so it can turn off the screen and stop you cancelling the call with your earlobe. (The new version can even tell how far away you from the phone so it can activate its voice assistant Siri.)

But what makes all this powerful is the ecosystem of third party applications that have been developed for the iPhone. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of sensors. There are 1000s of apps that make use of the iPhone’s sensors–most of them without us really thinking about it.

This is the way the Internet of things needs to go. We need to stop thinking boring things like “power conservation” and just let the market figure it out. Right now I want a sensor that can tell me when the dryer is spinning out of control, which it tends to do, because then it starts moving around the room. Or help me find my keys.

In short, the Internet of things needs to commoditize the sensors and decentralize the apps that make those sensors work. Make it easy for us to figure out what we want to do with all this amazing technology and either give us a simple interface for us to do it ourselves, or make a software kit that lets programmy people to do it for us.

Which is why some people are pretty excited about Twine, a bunch of guys from MIT who are working on a two and a half inch rubber square which connects to WiFi and will let you program it via a very simple interface. Some examples: hang it around your infant’s neck and get it to send you a tweet every time it moves.

It may not be rocket science, but if you’ve got an infant-wandering problem it could be just what you needed.

Podcast: Web of Things

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on The Web of Things to Come  (The Business Daily podcast is here.)

Loose Wireless 122111

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Podcast: True Video Lies

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on how video doesn’t always tell the truth. (The Business Daily podcast is here.) The piece it’s drawn from is here

Loose Wireless 120711

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

True Video Lies

This is a longer version of a piece I recorded for the BBC World Service.

The other day my wife lost her phone out shopping. We narrowed it down to either the supermarket or the taxi. So we took her shopping receipt to the supermarket and asked to see their CCTV to confirm she still had the phone when she left.

To my surprise they admitted us into their control room. Banks of monitors covering nooks, crannies, whole floors, each checkout line. There they let us scroll through the security video—I kind of took over, because the guy didn’t seem to know how to use it—and we quickly found my wife, emptying her trolley at checkout line 17. Behind her was our daughter in her stroller, not being overly patient. It took us an hour but in the end we established what look liked a pretty clear chain of events. She had the bag containing the phone, which she gave to our daughter to distract her at the checkout. One frame shows the bag falling from her hands onto the floor, unnoticed by my wife.

Then, a few seconds later, the bag is mysteriously whisked off the floor by another shopper. I couldn’t believe someone would so quickly swoop. The CCTV records only a frame a second, so it took us some time to narrow it down to a woman wearing black leggings, a white top and a black belt. Another half hour of checks and we got her face as she bought her groceries at another till. No sign of the phone bag by this time, but I was pretty sure we had our man. Well, woman.

Except I’m not sure we did. What I learned in that control room is that video offers a promise of surveillance that doesn’t lie. It seems to tell us a story, to establish a clear chain of events. But the first thing I noticed was when I walked back out into the supermarket, was that how little of the floor it covered, and how narrow each camera’s perspective was.

For the most part we’ve learned that photos don’t always tell the truth. They can be manipulated; they offer only a snapshot, without context. But what about videos? We now expect to see cameraphone footage in our news bulletins, jerky, grainy recordings taken by unseen hands, raw and often without context.

This is not to say videos are not powerful truth tellers. But we tend to see what we want to see. When a policeman pepper sprays protests at the University of California there is outrage, and it does indeed appear to be unwarranted. But when four of the videos are synchronized together a more complex picture emerges. Not only can one see the incident within context, but also one gets a glimpse of a prior exchange, as the officer explains what he is about to do to one protester, who replies, almost eagerly: “You’re shooting us specifically? No that’s fine, that’s fine.”

This is not to condone what happens next, but this exchange is missing from most of the videos. The two videos that contain the full prelude are, of course, longer, and have been watched much fewer times: 12,658 (15 minutes) and 245,226 times (8 minutes) versus 1,346,781 times (1 minute) for the one that does not  (the other video has since been taken down).

I’m not suggesting that the more popular video has been deliberately edited to convey a different impression, but it’s clearly the version of events that most are going to remember.

We tend to believe video more than photos. They seem harder to doctor, harder to hoodwink us, harder to take out of context. But should we?

It’s true that videos are harder to fake. For now. But even unfaked videos might seem to offer a version of the facts that isn’t the whole story. Allegations that former IMF president  Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have been framed during a sexual encounter at a New York Hotel, for example, have recently been buttressed by an extensive investigation published recently in the New York Review of Books. There’s plenty of questions raised by the article, which assembles cellphone records, door key records, as well as hotel CCTV footage.

The last seems particularly damning. A senior member of the hotel staff is seen high-fiving an unidentified man and then performing what seems to be an extensive dance of celebration shortly after the event. This may well be the case, but I’d caution against relying on the CCTV footage. For one thing, if this person was in any way involved, would they not be smart enough to confine their emotions until they’re out of sight of the cameras they may well have installed themselves?

Back to my case: Later that night we got a call that our phone had been recovered. The police, to whom I had handed over all my CCTV evidence, said I was lucky. A woman had handed it in to the mall’s security people. I sent her a text message to thank her. I didn’t have the heart to ask her whether she had been wearing black trousers and white top.

But I did realise that the narrative I’d constructed and persuaded myself was the right one was just that: a story I’d chosen to see.

Podcast: Quaintness in Salt Lake

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on my predictions for next year  (The Business Daily podcast is here.)

Loose Wireless 110913

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.