30 November 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Plenty of reasons for the early start have been offered. Consumers remain wary, particularly after this year's earlier government shutdown. Bricks-and-mortar retailers also remain conscious of the competition from online giants such as Amazon - and clicking repeatedly for that new flat screen telly does beat the idea of queuing until midnight and then facing the shopper scrumdown.
But initial reports are that while comparatively strong - though remember that 2012 was a pretty downbeat year for all US retailers - the crowds were big but flat, and those who did turn up had a very clear idea of the bargains they wanted. Casual bargain hunting remained spotty.
Beyond that, while there were plenty of YouTube clips of bargain-hunters-at-war, the actual rate of traffic was slower with the earlier openings. Some people just wanted to have a proper holiday with friends and family, and thought they'd wait for the weekend. Others probably didn't feel they could open their wallets wide right now.
This is all hugely important for the health of the consumer electronics industry, and chances are that it will emerge better than most of its rivals. But there were signs here of concern. Apple has held back on offers for Black Friday and the upcoming Cyber Monday until recently. This year, big spenders were offered $75 gift cards at its online store. For their part, some shed retailers - notably Target - were willing to offer even larger incentives to iPad shoppers.
Tablets are a tight margin market, even for Cupertino's finest, with both Amazon and Samsung competing hard.
Still, electronics does match well with the kind of Black Friday offers that attract most buyers, both white and brown goods. But there was anecdotal evidence that spending on peripherals remained slow. People had identified the products they wanted, and if stocks had run out, tough luck.
Black Friday only tells part of the story. Retailers reckon to make about 20% of their sales in the four or so weeks between now and Christmas. For electronics, always a big winner for pressies, that proportion is even higher. Much of that revenue does go online. Again, analysts like Shop.org reckon that Internet sales will make up 15% of business this year, up from 2012's 13%, but TVs, tablets, phones, laptops and even washing machines outperform the overall number.
So, we'll have a clearer picture after Monday when many of the online stores release their hot deals.
But the other factor already being discussed is the degree to which shoppers now use malls to eye up products and then later try to find them at the best possible price online. Black Friday hypes the consumer into a frenzy, but that's a lot harder when he or she is increasingly used to seeking out all-year-round bargain prices on the Internet.
It will take a little longer to fully analyze the significance of that last trend.
Sometimes they just get it right
28 November 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Last week, I had the dreaded hard disk crash. Worse was to follow. The part would take probably a week to arrive. However, the nearby Genius Bar lived up to its name.
Before even the end of the day, we had an external mirror up and running with most of my data (three days since the last back-up) in place. The full data recovery of the falied disk starts when the replacement arrives. All part of the deal.
Right now it's a kludge, but a workable one. It's why you can read this. And what struck me was how very straightforward the whole process was.
Given the beast that is the job, I know a bit about laptops. But to fix the problem, I never needed to call on or display that knowledge. Apple's 'genius' diagnosed the problem, set out the fix and explained it with absolute clarity.
An ordinary Joe's first response to such failures is panic. And all too often, he then has to wade through a load of techspeak. This time, I doubt anyone could have gone away confused.
Beyond that, this wasn't in the States, not even in an English-speaking country. But it was again possible to take in a laptop wherever I was and get clear instructions for the linguistically-challenged.
I don't think was isolated good luck. A non-techy friend had a major iPad failure only the other week and also came away singing Apple's praises for a simple there-and-then repair job.
Stuff does go wrong. It does break down even with the toughest QA programmes in place. It's what happens next that's arguably more important.
Steve Jobs infamous missives to some customers notwithstanding - and, yes, I heard about the recent Doctor Who 'free' download iTunes snafu in the UK - Apple does seem to put a great deal into the technical aspect of its customer service, more, it has to be said, than its rivals.
Beyond the design and the reliability for which it is often praised, that is another important part of the story. Credit where it's due. And thanks.
Apollo: JFK's memorial but LBJ's legacy?
19 November 2013 by Paul Dempsey
On May 25, 1961, Kennedy went to Washington's Capitol to deliver a Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs. It came shortly after Alan Shepard had become the first American to go into space, but had been beaten to the punch by the Russian Yuri Gagarin. Most people remember just one sentence:
"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
There is a popular view that Apollo thus became JFK's legacy, that the US stepped up its efforts in manned space flight largely to mourn the death of a president. That was also why the Apollo 11 lunar landing had to take place in 1969. This was one political and technological deadline that could not slip.
But this view ignores Kennedy's original intentions, and the critical role later played by those who seeded the policy - and one man in particular, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Space Race began with the USSR's 1957 launch of Sputnik and when Kennedy spoke the US was reeling in surprise at Gagarin's and Star City's latest achievements. The reasons were fundamentally existential.
Satellites could spy undetected and without challenge (in 1960, the US discovered that even its stratospheric U-2 spy planes were no longer invulnerable to Soviet surface-to-air missiles, following the downing of pilot Gary Powers' mission).
More important, rockets capable of putting a man into space and returning him home were equally capable of delivering targeted nuclear warheads.
What Kennedy needed was a rethought space programme that would fulfill a number of pressing needs. The US had to reassert its global technological primacy, both militarily and politically. So far when going head-to-head with the Russians, it had been repeatedly edged into second place. Kennedy needed to move the course to turf on which the US could win.
JFK gave the job to LBJ. What makes this particularly interesting is that this was a marriage of political convenience and the two men actively disliked one another. Typically, Kennedy strove to limit - even neuter - Johnson's power and authority.
But on space policy, JFK gave Johnson his seat as chairman of the National Aeronautics Space Council. It was in this role that Kennedy tasked LBJ after Gagarin's mission and he identified a manned lunar mission as the winnable race.
When Johnson assumed the presidency on Kennedy's death, Apollo was arguably even closer to his political heart than it had been for his predecessor. It was his policy, one of the few big policy calls that JFK had allowed him to make.
Importantly, LBJ would go on to hold office until the end of 1968, standing by NASA at a critical point in 1967. The Apollo 1 mission experienced a tragic launchpad capsule fire leading to the loss of its entire crew. At the time, the programme could have stalled or even been cancelled outright amid the related controversy. Johnson stayed the course.
Who then was the true father of Apollo? Kennedy did have to accept Johnson's recommendations. He then placed them before Congress and the American people in uncompromising terms (and explicitly credited LBJ's influence). Ultimately, it was JFK that made the executive decision.
Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides - time for a great new American enterprise - time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth."
Johnson's legacy though is that he provided the spark and then, though he would never have anticipated it, saw the work through to fruition. While Apollo does stand as a product of JFK's Camelot, the greater credit is due to his often-maligned successor.
Though whether you agree with that or not, would that we had men who could fix upon and empower such ambition today. Both JFK and LBJ were flawed men, but much of what they stood for and achieved remains remarkable.
Edited: 19 November 2013 at 03:24 AM by Paul Dempsey
China's Singles Day e-commerce splurge dwarfs US Cyber Monday
12 November 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Singles Day (in Mandarin, 'the bare sticks holiday') is when Chinese shoppers park themselves in front of a computer and hunt for bargains. This year, the country's leading online retailer, The Alibaba Group, says it alone racked up $5bn in sales through its various portals, $1bn of those in the first hour.
Let's put that number into context. On 2012's Cyber Monday (the Monday immediately after Thanksgiving), all US online retailers took in $1.5bn, according to comScore. This year, there is talk of breaking through the $2bn mark, but the US event is now very much little brother.
Singles Day has come a long way from its origins. It was originally a riff on 11/11 - hence, the 'bare sticks' - and was a chance for the unmarried or unattached to buy one another pressies. Traditionally, these might have been jokey t-shirts ("I'm single because I'm fat") or other tat-shop staples (a Boyfriend Pillow anyone?). Cable channel CNBC picked up on a few such items still being part of the game.
But, driven by Alibaba's aggressive marketing and discounting, the emphasis is now on the more universally solitary process of click and spend. Looking for that new TV, tablet, or smartphone? Singles Day is when you trawl the various online stores on Alibaba's TMall site.
And this year's offers weren't confined to the likes of Microsoft and even the discount-averse Apple. Wanna a cut-price BMW? On Singles Day, these cars are truly connected.
There are a few reasons why Singles Day has caught on so quickly and so strongly, though the analysts are still trying to nail down their relative importance.
China's emerging middle class does work long hours and has less time to shop in bricks-and-mortar outlets. Western-style Shopping malls are sprouting at an arguably alarming rate but tend to concentrate on higher priced luxury items anyway. Online shopping is simply more convenient, and offers discounts at the best of times but these can be very steep on Singles Day.
Another significant factor may be the absence of other expenses. Unlike Thanksgiving's consumer binges, Singles Day doesn't also involve the cost of travelling to see family or hosting guests. In China, such gatherings take place around the lunar New Year.
And though China is still largely a cash economy, many online vendors are happy to take orders C.O.D., greatly increasing the potential customer base.
A more awkward question, however, is whether some of the spending is down to younger professionals turning to luxury goods as they find themselves increasingly priced out of the country's property market. At a macroeconomic level, that observation - so far more a suggestion than proven - could point to more worrying broader trends.
Still, given those high-level factors, China now has more online shoppers than anywhere else: 193 million against 170 million for the US, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
As noted, the balance within all this consumer activity is still to be determined. What is clear is that Singles Day matters. Even if consumption profiles are different from the West - and certainly Chinese discretionary income is significantly lower for mass market items - they are a good reflection of patterns in the other emerging Asian markets. And there is just so much money changing hands.
Over the next few days, more data will come out about what were the popular and less popular items. Another big test will be logistics: on previous Singles Days there have been complaints that items were delivered late and incorrectly. Alibaba and others have invested hugely this year in warehousing and the delivery chain, but can even they keep up with demand? We'll soon have an answer to that.
However, this huge shift in consumer spending is only likely to continue. If it's not on your planning radar already, what have you been doing?
Taiwan leverages the creativity engineering now delivers
30 October 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Only a fraction of the NPM's collection can be viewed at any one time - you could expand it to the combined space of the British Museum and the Louvre and that would still be the case. It also only ever tells 'half the story' (the collection was largely built from items Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek moved from Beijing's Forbidden City and elsewhere during the Chinese Civil War). But, dear me, what a story that is and, more to the point, the NPM curates its resources brilliantly.
The main exhibition there now - and until early 2014 - looks at the patronage of and participation in the arts of the Qianlong emperor (Qing dynasty emperor Gaozong). It is breathtakingly good. And knowing that many of you do visit Taipei on business, I would implore you to go even if you have already taken the NPM off your 'ticklist'.
But there's another reason why engineers and anyone excited by new technology and art should make the trip. Alongside the centrepiece event, a clutch of modern artists have been asked to reflect on his influence and rethink the emperor for modern times.
It's a much smaller exhibition, as you'd expect, but also an ambitious and provocative one. The emperor himself might have been a tad non-plussed - not just because emperors are/were like that (I've never been a fan of that National Gallery extension, if you know what I mean), but also because the Qianlong specifically seems to have been more interested in the extension of and innovation within traditional forms, rather than the entirely groundbreaking stuff.
The Qianlong C.H.A.O. New Media Art Exhibition does exploit a lot of now familiar forms: electronic music, gaming, manga-based animation and more. And it pulls on pattern and image recognition, CGI, animatronics and other technologies. It is something that our world has enabled.
The 'C.H.A.O.' concept does still recognise the past, standing for 'Creativity', 'Heritage', 'Art' and 'Odyssey'. As the emperor was himself an artist, you can insert yourself into an animation or have your street dress translated into the design on a vase, all before your eyes. And it's all very quick - the technological tools we have produced don't muck about.
There's a nice idea here that, trained or not, we live in an age that allows us the benefits of an albeit somewhat 'guided' creativity, much as the emperor learned from the artists he supported.
It's also a very IT-led provocation, but not a snide or patronising one - the emphasis has been placed more on the artists 'sharing' than just showing off that they know some code. It's such a good idea that you hope it might inspire others beyond the dozens of creators the NPM recruited for this project elsewhere in the world.
Oh, and it's fun... and not just for the kids. You don't have to be an emperor - or some great and wealthy patron - to be part of this. Given the NPM's main role in continuing to preserve and promote great Chinese art from history, that's a very cool idea to put out there.
Edited: 30 October 2013 at 10:38 AM by Paul Dempsey
Science can't just put the US shutdown behind it
17 October 2013 by Paul Dempsey
The problem is that the Washington armistice changes only so much in practical terms. There are people prepared to not just wave about, but deploy and exploit the 'nuclear option' of a shutdown with no regard for its consequences. And that goes for both sides of American politics.
Our main concerns are science and engineering, and I'll first recap some of the impact on them. But we must also avoid solipsism in remembering the broader picture.
So, the following charges stand.
1.The scientific integrity of many federally-funded research projects that entailed continuously running experimentation has been destroyed. Many will have muddled through thanks to the goodwill of researchers themselves, but in some cases that simply will not have been possible.
2. Projects that have been paused and which can be resumed - thankfully, a likely hefty majority - will nevertheless face often steep restart costs. Yet, they will be required to stick to existing and extremely tight budgets. This may now raise questions as to whether some of that work can be brought to fruition.
3. The reliability of the US as a research partner is being reviewed by other nations. Many of those countries are not the most dependable funders themselves. But US technological primacy - also fundamental to its economic primacy - has been built around an image of stability.
Serious stuff. And in fact when you layer in the bigger picture, even in high level terms, things appear much worse.
For example, simply go from the personal - the struggles that will now face many already low paid federal workers after unpaid 16-day furloughs - to the macroeconomic - the willingness of politicians to play chicken with US debt repayments and the prospect of an entirely politically manufactured recession.
As noted, anyone who sees value in political tactics with these potential consequences (and the shutdown will have many more ripples) is 'not even wrong'. These tactics must be taken off the table.
Going back to the actual reasons behind Republican climb down, one set of pressures that did have some influence came from businesses, commercially-led lobbying groups and chambers of commerce that have traditionally supported the party, but also many that are non-partisan. Science and technological-led groups were less vocal and should make their views clearer if the threat returns.
However, a rawer accounting must follow. We need a full analysis of this shutdown's cost in terms of intellectual and economic capital - and stressing the link between the two. Science and technology's political branch has an immediate role here.
It is easy to want to move on, relieved that the shutdown is behind us along hopefully with its worst potential implications. However, once such a dangerous strategy moves from the realm of blowhard rhetoric into actual use, that simply isn't enough.
We need to know what damage has been done. More important, Washington's political clots need it ramming down their throats.
US shoots itself in the foot on research
16 October 2013 by Paul Dempsey
At time of writing, the websites of federally-funded agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have been closed down as have virtually all their other activities.
As both agencies note, "due to a lapse in government funding" virtually nothing is available. No access to existing research or programmes in train. No funding is available. No funding decisions are being made. No conferences are taking place.
Federally-funded projects both within the agencies themselves and elsewhere with their public and private sector partners are getting no help from Washington.
It is in the nature of scientists and engineers that many will now be continuing to work on their own initiative even though the money has been turned off. The quest for knowledge is more important than the petty squabbles of politicians. Those researchers ploughing forward deserve our thanks nevertheless.
However, it is also the nature of much contemporary research that it is expensive. Participants' willingness to invest 'sweat capital' simply isn't enough to keep things going when the barmy have their way.
A good example of this is the $350m U.S. Antarctic Programme. The NSF has just ordered it into 'caretaker status', according to USA Today. What that means is that environmental and climate science research bases are to be mothballed and most of their staff sent home.
If you have a science or research background, you can immediately guess what that will surely mean for many of the projects underway there until last week. But for those who don't, one primary concern is that much of the research undertaken in Antarctica and elsewhere is hideously complex and cannot be conducted on a stop-start basis. It must be continuous.
For many experiments, pushing the 'pause button' will have consequences that scientifically invalidate not only future work but also all that undertaken so far. This is pure vandalism.
In the case of the Antarctic programme, it's worth remembering that it has made critical contributions to, most famously, climate change research and our understanding of the earliest forms of life on earth. However, there's a lot more to the work than that.
The damage to US-only research is bad enough. Even if Washington gets its act together tomorrow, there will have been serious damage to many important programmes. This will set back not only American knowledge, but that of the world as a whole. It is also a false economy in that many of these projects are so important that they will need to be restarted from scratch - gee, guys, you get to pay for this stuff twice!
But the US - or at least its blinkered political leadership - might also care to consider what this does for its reputation internationally, not just in terms of its domestic science output.
As it has fought with tightening federal budgets and rising national debt, the US science establishment has had to come to terms with the fact that it needs global partners. Beyond that, complexity but also an increasingly globally-distributed talent base has meant that more and more major research programmes must have a multinational make-up.
US government initiatives work particularly closely with many in Europe, both at national and EU level. The UK specifically frequently partners with US agencies. And in the past, the Americans were the ones who could - and so often to their credit would - write the big cheques. This entire government shutdown fiasco may have given the lie to that traditional reliability.
And other countries may be rethinking their enthusiasm for US scientific partnerships just as another rich player is reaching out internationally.
The government shutdown forced President Obama to abandon his plan to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, handing the spotlight to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Similarly in science, China is undertaking a massive international cooperation initiative, particularly outside areas that border on military and national security outcomes.
China still can write the cheques and has an ever-growing pool of scientific talent to undertake its commitments to any cross-border research.
Much is said of competition between the two 'superstates', but in science it seems the US is happy to cede more and more of its position.
And so, when we consider all these issues, perhaps we might want Washington's politicians to learn one new geek 'term'. It beautifully describes their approach as it stands, whatever economic or political pseudoscience they might care to bring to it. And while this term may not seem rude at first glance, underneath it is exceptionally and deliberately offensive. But they deserve no better.
Gentlemen, you are not even wrong.
Why Ed Miliband vs The Daily Mail shows that we don't need press regulation
7 October 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Both sides have gone on the offensive. Attack a member of any influential person's family, but particularly a parent, and you can expect a robust response. However, the Mail now feels aggrieved that its stock-in-trade - going after a prominent leftie - has been recast as evidence of institutional antisemitism.
Importantly on that last count, Ed Miliband himself has explicitly ruled out any suspicion that his Jewish heritage influenced the offending article. However, that has not stopped many of the Mail's enemies raising the charge.
These aspects of the dispute have so far shaped its progress.
Allowing for his justifiable personal offence (compounded by the Mail on Sunday gatecrashing a private memorial service for another family member), Miliband is nevertheless a digital politician and a savvier player of the broader media game than is acknowledged.
One touchstone will have been the 'swift-boating' of US presidential candidate John Kerry in the 2004 election. Kerry's team was slow to respond to slurs questioning their man's military record in the Vietnam War. The lies went viral. Kerry's patriotism and his stance as the war hero standing against America's (and Britain's) misadventures in Iraq were nullified.
By characterising Ed Miliband's father as 'The Man Who Hated Britain', with little evidence beyond the diary entries of a 16 year-old and ignoring his distinguished WW2 service in the Royal Navy, the Mail was at least skirting the edge. By having the online version of the article accompanied by a picture of Ralph Miliband's grave and a snarky caption, it swandived into egregious tastelessness. Though importantly the print edition - the one actually edited by Paul Dacre - did not go that far.
Once more patriotism - here of the father and by extension the son - were offered up to the baying online blogosphere and the print faithful. And Miliband is having none of that either, particularly given his recent high profile role in blocking UK military intervention in the Syrian crisis.
Because here's what's changed. In the past, some angry rather than incandescent exchange would have taken place between the politician and the newspaper, perhaps not even in the public eye. As a newspaper, the Mail preaches to the converted with tremendous commercial success. The bulk of its print readers are unlikely to vote for a Labour politician. So, as a left-winger, you might once have just forgotten about it - it's your 'Chinatown'.
But today, MailOnline is the world's biggest web news outlet, reaching more than 100 million people a month while the print edition notches just short of 2 million sales a day. And MailOnline was the greater offender.
Hence one further reason for Miliband's angry open letter to the group's owner, Viscount Rothermere. This was mud that could stick on a much bigger canvas and quickly too.
Ironically, reaction driven by Miliband's rapid and almost certainly largely Net-driven response has put the Mail in a not dissimilar position.
In the light of its success in holding up print readership while all others have suffered gradual declines and just as importantly its huge online business, an accusation of antisemitism - even, as here, an erroneous one - is extremely serious. Particularly given that it is not the Mail's stance on 'issues' but rather its gossip and other lighter content that drives clicks from the crucial US market. In America, the taint of antisemitism is a company-killer (deservedly so, where it is true).
It is hardly that surprising, then, that while many have concentrated on calling for Dacre to make some public statement, the Mail's owners have dispatched its most senior Jewish journalist, city editor Alex Brummer, to prominently lambast the specific antisemitism charge. This isn't just a diversionary tactic.
Many will feel the Mail has brought this calamitous mess upon itself. Those of us in the business, though, will tend more towards the sane view of former Guardian editor Peter Preston that, while serious, this was nevertheless "a car crash of hapless mistakes and muddled signals, a conjunction of all those calamitous things that, in truth, dog every editor day by day."
Nevertheless, while there's a shedload of sanctimonious claptrap being peddled by the legion of Mail-haters (little appreciating how much it arguably makes them Mail-like themselves), this is our digital media landscape. You have to move before tomorrow's fish and chips have even been caught.
But there is one other important - and perhaps surprising - aspect to this tale. It shows how you can have freedom of speech where many of the things said might oppose your beliefs or are indeed offensive. But how also, in a digital society, those who see wrong-headedness can call those responsible to account as quickly as slanders or slurs are launched.
And all without the need for formal legislated regulation that could be subject to political influence or interference.
It got this one horrendously wrong, but we should cherish the Mail's right to make an ass of itself. We already have the tools we need to call the paper - or any other - on misdeeds, if such they are. And right now, according to a Sunday Times/YouGov poll, that's exactly what 57% of its own readership are doing in calling on it to apologise.
Now, which regulator led them to that conclusion?
Isn't it funny that whenever politicians do try to regulate an industry in the throes of a technological revolution, they are always behind the curve. Sometimes disastrously so.
Iran plays The Great Game
1 October 2013 by Paul Dempsey
The possession of nukes has long been seen as granting a country 'a seat at the top table', real political and economic influence. This ugly fact has long undermined the reasons why some argue that neither, say, the UK nor France require independent deterrents.
Setting aside moral objections (here more to highlight the realpolitik than anything else), the argument can run that no second-rank 'western' player truly requires these deadly toys. Their interests are so closely aligned with those of the US that in the event of a potential nuclear conflict it should simply allow the superpower to protect it under its arsenal umbrella.
We can hear such thinking again today as the UK works through the latest renewal of Trident. During continued economic difficulties to boot. And already, the skill and relatively large size of Britain's standing forces notwithstanding, the US has largely been ceded the global policeman/protector role in conventional terms.
However, this obviously does not apply to Iran. Rather, it maintains a strong regional enmity with a nuclear state - Israel's arsenal being the world's worst kept secret - in addition to a fractious relationship with the US since the revolution. Beyond that, it is interesting to ask whether Iran would align itself in another bloc under, say, Russian or Chinese protection.
There is then Iran's status within the Middle East. It is amazing to still hear the country referred to as part of 'the Arab world' as though the Iranians' Persian ethnicity is a trivial matter. It isn't. It brings its own history of conquest and empire, and beyond that further present-day economic rivalries with some of the world's richest countries.
Iran has clear ambitions to be the dominant economic power in its region. Its actions in this regard have also been very rational in geopolitical terms despite its frequent characterisation as a 'rogue' state - although certainly it is no great friend or admirer of the West.
One thing will not change as Iran reworks its negotiating stance: that insistence on being treated as a major player. Nukes historically have provided that, whether you like it or not. And you should probably live with it unless you are prepared to live with a greatly diminished British role on the world stage.
Beyond, say, the right to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (though now more a Cold War right), they mean self-determination in the most explicit terms and that your views must be considered regarding any major economic and political shifts in your region.
Given not only its existing regional ambitions but also the instability in, for example, Egypt and Syria, it is clear why that is a huge part of Iran's agenda. Then add the ongoing competition between the US, China and Russia for the region's resources and its stance comes further into focus. And yes, there is the question of Israel.
In this context, one 'agreement' already being suggested is that Iran does not join 'The Nuclear Club'. Rather it has now advanced its nuclear programme to a similar degree to Japan: it already has the know-how and raw materials to develop weapons, but will hold back as long as it is not threatened and its views are given nigh-on equal weight to those of actual club members.
The realpolitik in that might actually work. And it will head off more dangerous proliferation. The problem is that it will represent a major concession from the West, be none-too-welcome in Cairo, Riyadh and many other capitals, and it still won't necessarily calm down persistent enmities and rivalries.
It may also, though, be as good as it gets.
Jobs: The Movie
24 September 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Jobs' personal flaws as well as his strengths and genius were thoroughly detailed in Walter Isaacson's biography. The film is not based on it, but Ashton Kutcher has obviously done his background reading. He doesn't try to make Jobs likeable, though perhaps he does - more justifiably - go for admirable... as a businessman and visionary.
Director Joshua Michael Stern by contrast is a fanboy. Heroic music swells, trailer-like montages encapsulate 'genius', all other viewpoints (except for those of Woz and Daniel Kottke) are swept aside.
Jobs' difficult relations with his first initially denied daughter are there but dealt with obliquely so as not to raise too many concerns about this 'original rebel'. The same applies to many other stories that, while complex, are now well known.
Jobs emerges as the genius behind the Macintosh, and in so many ways he was the driving force. But he also spec'd it too highly to reach a mass market price and that it was John Sculley's Jobs-free Apple that ultimately made a success of the computer.
This makes no claims to be a technology film. There are lingering close-ups of 70s era circuit boards, and processor name drops, but it is more a business case study than anything else. And as such, it is trite and oblique - Hollywood at its most facile.
The original board that questions Jobs' extravagance and neuters his role is darkly Machiavellian. Jobs' own later moves to oust Gil Amelio and then much of the rest of the Apple board on his return to the company are its salvation. Really, people. There were two points of view, each arguably the right one at the time.
Which brings us back to Kutcher and his central portrayal. The actor actually goes for the ambiguity and plays up the bullying, ruthlessness and betrayal even as the film works in another direction. Along with Dermot Mulroney as founding backer Mike Markkula, their performances give us a sense of the real tale to be told.
The film only covers the period from Jobs dropping out of college through to his reclamation of the role as Apple CEO and the pre-iPod launch of its famous 'crazy ones' marketing campaign. Most of the key themes could nevertheless have been extracted from that period.
For now, though, it merely drives us back to Isaacson's book. It proved that it wasn't 'too soon' to look closely at Jobs life, and his influence on and interactions with those around him. Failing that, the old HBO film, Pirates of Silicon Valley, tells the same early days tale from the perspectives of both Jobs and Bill Gates far more effectively.
Suddenly Apple looks vulnerable
11 September 2013 by Paul Dempsey
There was the joint launch in Cupertino and Beijing, but more important was the expectation that Apple would unveil a deal with carrier China Mobile alongside a much cheaper iPhone. When the phone materialised but the deal did not, the blowback was immediate and brutal.
As the real centerpiece product, the "beautifully, unapologetically plastic" iPhone 5C, with its six different colours, had to be launched with an unlocked/unsubsidised Chinese price tag: ¥4,488 (£465). Quizzed on local social media site Sina, 90% of users disparagingly dismissed the 5C as too expensive.
OK, nobody ever willingly parts with their hard-earned cash, but potential consumers and analysts indicated before the launch that around ¥3,000 had to be the target.
Should a deal with China Mobile come about, the price point can perhaps be reached but even that might not help Apple turn around an atypical marketing blunder. The company is already playing catch-up in China and needed the 5C to be a special moment, a restatement of its position as the world's premier consumer electronics brand.
Unlike the US and Europe, most cellphones in Asia are sold already unlocked. One reason why Apple trails five local companies and Samsung in the Chinese handset rankings is that its rivals deliver smartphones to consumers at mass-market prices without carrier deals. Some have dual SIM slots and almost all are memory upgradeable, the latter being a consistent gripe about iPhones everywhere.
Moreover, local players have the advantage that they don't have to pay China's heavy import duties, a consistent gripe from Apple and Samsung.
Then there are some critical technology issues. In terms of the all-important App infrastructure, Android has won even though Chinese phones are blocked from access to the Android Market and must instead use a locally sanctioned alternative.
What matters is that Android allowed local hardware developers to get into smartphones with cheaper products. And as they provided momentum, Google's platform has become the one that software developers in Asia now target first. By contrast, the iPhone's market share now stands at below 5% in mainland China, and the iPad has also lost ground to cheaper - and again typically Android-based tablets: neither of those trends is good for iOS.
Finally, mainland China's local manufacturers are making some very good, very cool phones. The standard bearer for this shift is the fast-growing Xiaomi. It has long been seen as a bit of a joke by Apple fanboys - partly because of CEO Lei Jun's deliberate attempts to cultivate an image as Asia's Steve Jobs, even aping the late Apple founder's dress sense.
Well, there was another social media wake-up call on this front as the 5C arrived. Microbloggers accused Apple's new phone of being a copy of those from Xiaomi - now that is one heck of an image reversal. More to the point, handsets like Xiaomi's Mi3 disappear from stores as soon as stocks arrive. The Mi3 has options for chunky nVidia or Qualcomm quad-core processors, sleek industrial design and you can pick up two for the cost of one iPhone5.
This was supposed to be Apple's moment of renewal in the Middle Kingdom. Instead, it may have exposed the company's vulnerabilities in the fastest growing smartphone market. At the very least, that China Mobile deal can't come soon enough.
6 September 2013 by Paul Dempsey
I'm a huge fan of crowdfunding. It's a great way for people to access seed capital. It lets them assess the potential in innovative ideas quickly and at low cost. And it fills a gap traditional finance refuses to address.
However, I was not a fan of this proposal, Season 2 of Ain't It Cool with Harry Knowles. This was not because of him or its content, but its structure, presentation and gnomic communications strategy.
You would expect a project asking for $100,000 to produce a web TV series to talk a little about how the money would be used. Compared with other Kickstarter 'webseries', the target seemed steep. Particularly for a program that already had a set, studio space and had a clutch of celebrity interviews in the can.
Many proposals seeking even three- and four-figure sums provide a broad line-item breakdown. Most promoters know they are asking for fair-sized sums - as donations, not equity buys - so people have a right to know both where those are going and some evidence that the project has been thought through.
Not AICwHK. It was even reticent about how many episodes contributions would buy.
The reticence continued as the budget issue was raised, repeatedly and relentlessly during the campaign. Silence was deemed shiftiness; answers were deemed obfuscation. And it must be said, things got extremely nasty. To a point where, though critical of the promotion, part of me is glad the team got its money. The abuse some members received was appalling, grotesque even.
But there is still an important issue here. AICwHK did not break any rules. There is no requirement to provide a budget on Kickstarter, or to answer budgetary questions.
Beyond that, AICwHK was a Kickstarter 'staff pick'. It was endorsed by the crowdfunding company. Only an eight-year old reads that phrase any other way. A real 'staff pick' comes down to whether you serve Pepsi or Coke in the staff canteen.
So, why was AICwHK endorsed? In part, probably because it is one of the latest celebrity Kickstarters, alongside proposals from other 'names' like director Spike Lee, actor Zach Braff, and the creators of TV's Veronica Mars.
However, celebrity proposals are problematic. Their promoters have 'contacts'. They often have a great deal of money personally, and that changes the dynamic when you are talking about donation as opposed to investment. They could use traditional sources like banks and provide guarantees. And they typically want more than other projects in any crowdfunding system.
But going further, when a big-dollar pitch seems to trade more on its celebrity than a business plan, an endorsement inevitably raises another question, "What's in it for Kickstarter?" These proposals raise the profile of the site and the crowdfunding concept. Fair enough. But Kickstarter also makes its money from a percentage of what promoters raise: the bigger the project, the more cash it makes too if the target is hit.
Whether that influences endorsements or not (one hopes it doesn't), the connection nevertheless has echoes of Wall Street's obsession with fees over project quality. It looks wrong.
Kickstarter aims to make the fundraising process as simple and as neutral as possible. Good in principle. But the important words there are 'as possible'.
As noted, AICwHK did not break any rules. It played the game. And ultimately it won. But it has whipped up such a frenzy over the budget issue, that disclosure for all future crowdfunding now needs to be addressed.
So what next?
First, Kickstarter should get out of endorsements. The concept is meant to be freewheeling, leave it that way. Certainly, celebrities don't need the hugs.
Second, even if it does not want to set too many conditions, Kickstarter and the other crowdfunding vehicles need to do much more work on educating promoters and donors as to what reasonable expectations and benchmarks should be.
These still do not need to be 'rules'. The tone needed is more along the lines of 'Be advised....'
One final point. As the AICwHK project progressed, it emerged that one big reason why the team was being uncommunicative was that the plan was changing. What started as a webseries got the chance of being broadcast on public TV - that shift will have had a major impact on what it does with the money it has raised. The production values necessary for broadcast are higher.
I have no problem with that. Those with start-up experience know that the first business plan often gets torn up. The thing, again, is to explain the reasons why. Crowdfunding needs to educate its users not to feel afraid, or that they are committing some form of 'deception', when that happens. It's actually quite normal.
Congratulations then to Harry Knowles and his team with their project. A lot of people will be watching. Knowles loves movies and could make a terrific show.
But let's not have a great concept turn sour by undermining transparency. Rather, let it have transparency as a hallmark. And let's learn from this experience.
Social media's excuses have to stop
31 July 2013 by Paul Dempsey
At their height, some 50 rape threats an hour were being sent to Ms Criado-Perez. And over what? Primarily her involvement in a successful campaign to have a woman - specifically Jane Austen - replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note. Yes, there is a stage beyond 'rebarbatively immoral'.
And from Twitter's point of view, just about everything went wrong here.
Its system for reporting such incredibly abusive tweets was exposed as excessively onerous on the victim - what, fill out a form for each one.
Its manager of journalism and news, one Mark Luckie, shuttered his account, effectively turning a deaf ear.
Its refusal to take any responsibility for offensive or menacing messages was again shown up as first rank stupidity.
But perhaps worst of all, it again became clear that only those in the public eye can stand up to twit Twitter (and other social media).
The sad truth is that mass bullying - often of the very young and impressionable - takes place on social media all the time. It's just that usually those on the receiving end cannot take their complaints to a high profile blog or solicit campaign support from other well-known figures.
Criado-Perez was absolutely right to do what she did. By shining a light on Twitter's unacceptable side she may well help others. But beyond the apologies and understanding, there remains a kind of cowardice on Twitter's part (not to mention Facebook and many others).
Because when 'ordinary people' face similar assaults, Twitter roles out its supposed big guns. Except that they are nothing of the sort.
The initial fig leaf is a resort to the first amendment to the US Constitution and its protection of freedom of speech. This is why the social media companies argue that they must not monitor or censor (and I suppose Twitter gets a half-pass for not being in Prism).
The problem here is that social media really is like a pub. And here's how a pub works. If I go into one, get half-cut and start abusing all those around me, physically threatening them, I will get ordered out and probably banned by the landlord. And what's important about this analogy is that it applies as much in Washington DC as it does in London.
I struggle to see how any branch of social media is in any way different from a pub at the basic level. And when it comes to any form of personal abuse, rape or death threats, it's hard to see where there is any grey area. We're not talking about the validity of an political regime here.
The next fig-leaf is for the social media players to say that they offer their services free-of-charge. Except of course, they don't. Twitter is expected to turn a profit this year on advertising sales of more than $1bn. Other players are already in the black.
Users are profiled, sent the most 'appropriate' sponsored tweet or ad according to their interests and location. And all of that involves a traffic not in money, perhaps, but certainly in information.
So, spare us all the 'free' nonsense as well. Rather you just don't want extra overhead cutting into the bottom line.
Since being called out by Criado-Perez, Twitter has uttered nary a dicky-bird of note in response. Just the usual corporate hand-wringing. It's almost as though it's been caught by surprise (which would leave it looking profoundly incompetent) or it's hoping the whole thing will blow over (which leaves it still more damningly guilty of an utter abnegation of responsibility).
"By their fruits, ye shall know them."
So, farewell then 3D TV... with glasses
8 July 2013 by Paul Dempsey
And it's easy to see why. It's those darned glasses.
Nobody likes them. Worse than that, friends who tried out their 3D-ready sets complained nor just about discomfort but also about the specs getting lost or broken by the kids - and then costing a fair bit of coin to replace.
Nor will either broadcaster's decision come as much of a surprise to anyone who follows consumer electronics closely, particularly if they have attended any of the sector's shows in the US, Europe or Asia.
Almost as soon as ESPN launched its 3D coverage around the 2008 FIFA World Cup, the business had already switched its focus to higher resolution (4k) and smart TVs that leveraged Apple-like apps.
Even at the movies, the lure of 3D is declining. The format's share of revenues has been falling steadily and those blockbusters that have supported the technology are all thought likely to have been huge hits even if shown flat. Only for Avatar can 3D be truly said to have made a massive difference. As for The Avengers/Avengers Assemble, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Iron Man 3 - each one was simply an entertaining film in its own right.
However, none of this means that 3DTV is officially dead in the water. Proponents, notably Dolby and Philips, continue to insist that a glasses-free experience will work. And on the basis of those two companies' joint demos to date, I'd say they still have a chance.
However, it may well be some time before the consumer price tag on glasses-free reaches a mass market point. One glasses-free set due for launch this Christmas is still expected to cost more than $7,000.
A further problem is the size of display required. In the US, homes typically have the space to house screens of 60" and above. That's not so much the case in the rest of the world. And to get a truly immersive, communal 3D experience, big is beautiful. It's why the technology does work in today's cinemas with their floor-to-ceiling displays projecting heroes and heroines into your lap in a darkened room.
Then there are the issues surrounding the content itself. The last big original UK 3DTV transmission is expected to be the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who. Which immediately begs the question as to which audience is seeing such an important broadcast as its makers intend.
It's an awkward point, but might not some disinterested or simply less wealthy licence fee payers now feel that they are being fobbed off with a pauper's version, while the wealthier get the full effect? Sure, we went through the black-and-white to colour and 4:3 to 16:9 aspect ratio transitions... but they were accepted transitions. 3D is still very much an experiment.
Finally, despite all the claims for increasingly interactive technologies, second screen viewing and so on, I remain convinced that TV viewing is a largely 'passive' experience. Consider, one of the main objections to 3DTV after glasses is that it requires an 'effort' on the part of the viewer - watching a longer sporting event (a whole day of Wimbledon, say) is considered tiring.
Even some of the glasses-free demos I've seen have still made me consciously aware of straining to retain the right focus on the image. The technology will unquestionably improve, but if I'm feeling like that watching a five or 10 minute demo reel, there's obviously still a way to go.
The drive to higher resolutions simply makes more sense. 4k and indeed 8k look better - they simply pop out of the screen and provide an easily measurable way of deciding whether or not to upgrade your existing telly.
And you just sit back and enjoy.
Richard Matheson was a legend
25 June 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Filmed three times, most effectively as The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston, the zombie/vampire epic set the template for a more realistic view of fantasy. Apart from the flawed 2007 remake with Will Smith, its influence can be seen right now in the current Summer blockbuster World War Z.
Much of Matheson's work subscribed to H.G. Wells' template that sci-fi should introduce just one fantasy element within a realistic world. However, unlike Wells, Matheson used the genre to explore the human condition more than the potential impact of technology.
Duel, his short story and script for Steven Spielberg's debut film, is all about paranoia, how an ordinary Joe feels as he is menaced by an invisible truck driver. His most famous Twilight Zone episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", had a young William Shatner driven insane as a monster apparently pulled away at the wing on his plane.
Matheson never became a household name, nor was his literary talent fully recognised during his lifetime. But he was a huge player in the sci-fi genre, and a particular favourite among scientists and engineers.
With a typical spare prose style and a winning combination of wit and intensity, they found his fantasies realistic even though they (and Matheson personally) acknowledged their fantastic elements.
He also made a number of significant contributions to British fantasy. His short story, "Hell House", was filmed (from a Matheson script) in the UK as The Legend of Hell House, complete with a then groundbreaking electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, of BBC Radiophonic Workshop fame.
But perhaps more significantly, he was one of the key players in Hammer's adaptation of The Devil Rides Out, now recognised as one of the studio's finest films. Adapting Dennis Wheatley's near unreadable potboiler, Matheson came up with a typically driven battle of wits where the supernatural elements merely set the stage. He also helped give Christopher Lee, as the heroic Duc de Richleau, what the actor considers one of his favourite roles.
Chances are you have connected with one of these or Matheson's many other film and TV works and never even realised it. His novels and short stories, though, are certainly worth your time. And for once, most of his significant titles remain in print. I greatly encourage you to try them.
Big data/little human won't keep us secure
13 June 2013 by Paul Dempsey
Security services talk about two primary streams of information: human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT).
HUMINT is the traditional backbone of film, TV and literary espionage. It is the information agencies can acquire using, as the name suggests, traditional human sources. Agents, contacts, infilitration and so on. SIGINT is the information organizations such as the NSA deal with, acquired, as again the name suggests, by monitoring various forms of traffic. Radio signals, wiretaps and, today, what passes over the Internet.
Both are important to catching terrorists before they can act, as cases such as that of Najibullah Zazi, who planned attacks on New York's subway network, have previously shown. The old-fashioned work that identified Zazi could be followed up with surveillance that prevented him carrying out an atrocity and put him behind bars.
Worries arise when the two sources get out of balance. In the clearest example, a lack of HUMINT on Saddam Hussein's regime was one reason why those who sought to rebut claims that he was developing WMDs could not actually do so. SIGINT and bad sources dominated the case-building and set the path to what is now seen as an unnecessary war.
Whether Prism's disclosure exposes that this imbalance remains is hard to say in absolute terms. Rightly, the status of a country's spy network is highly classified information. Still, a number of ex-CIA staffers continue to claim that HUMINT operations have been long underfunded. So, the question does arise.
However, there are further risks in a proportional growth of SIGINT as a component in national security systems.
Notwithstanding the need for all covert activities to have clearly defined, constitutional and legal rules of engagement (the claimed lack of which is a key and undeniable factor in the current controversy), this kind of predictive data mining is far from proven.
We can debate how supermarkets can detect individual shopping patterns by monitoring what you order and view online and how you use a loyalty card. But an important point here is that these systems, while successful and very powerful, are essentially trying to trace predictable and repetitive behaviour.
They are really highly advanced and nuanced stocktaking. What sells? Who buys it? When do they buy? How does that mean you should promote your products? What goes on the top shelf and what on the bottom?
The data mining that security services undertake is, by definition, looking to detect acts that are NOT repetitive. A suicide bomber will, by definition, seek to act only once. Even one who does not offer up his or her own life will likely be taken out of action for some time by terrorists to obscure the detection trail.
Catching these evil-doers solely on the basis of data traffic is, to put it mildly, a tough ask. The algorithms for just consumer systems are notoriously difficult to create, horrendously expensive to develop and prone to periodic instability. So one can therefore reasonably ask whether these limitations lead to the kind of blanket surveillance allegedly being undertaken now. Grab everything and pray!
Then the problem becomes still more complicated. Without sufficient HUMINT to guide the sampling, you can end up with such a massive set of alerts that you get swamped in false positive reports and it becomes near impossible to sift them and find the true terrorist.
Meanwhile, you've still probably spent millions - actually hundreds of millions on developing these systems.
None of us in the 'normal' world can ever be entirely comfortable with the actions of covert state organizations. However, few of us would argue that they are unnecessary, or indeed anything other than essential. The question again comes back to the rules of engagement, and out of that, both the structure and funding of how those services work.
The idea that 'big data' can save the day and cut costs is a very dangerous one, though there has long been a sense that both Washington and London have bought into it. It means that some acceptable boundaries can be breached as you harvest results nowhere near as good as they need to be. Meanwhile, your own domestic civil liberty responsibilities can appear to have been jettisoned.
In the long run, none of that will help us defeat and catch those enemies who would do us harm.
Is movie science-fiction growing up again?
29 May 2013 by Paul Dempsey
And here's one more chance for those of you who arrived here via a search engine and not our front page.
OK, just one more....... Right......
Science-fiction is, at its best, a difficult and controversial genre. Despite the term's connotations, it's not that often about the future but rather its own time. Even the few works that respect science exaggerate. But the concept is based on exaggeration. It wants to highlight themes and ideas to discuss where we are or may soon be. It's satire without the jokes.
Today, that approach - assigned to the genre by H.G. Wells - is largely confined to the novel. Since Star Wars, now 36 years ago, Hollywood has mostly dealt in pure fantasy. That's where the box office is; not in the more cerebral ponderings of, say, Kubrick's 2001.
However, there are signs of change. For all its elegant 3D, spectacular action and occasional wit, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness is an angry, direct and sometimes confused post-9/11 allegory. Indeed, of all the mainstream films to deal with those events and the subsequent 'war on terror', it is the most explicit to date. Indeed, sometimes it's burdened with the subtlety of not so much Klingon as Vogon poetry.
There is an opening terrorist attack on London (which obviously has a 'special relationship' with the 'Federation'). There are stealth torpedoes to echo drones. The man running Starfleet is basically Dick Cheney. One villain emerges from - and is returned to - a cryogenic Guantanamo. There are clear suggestions of excessive and immoral coercion, if not actual physical torture, by the 'good guys'. And even Captain Kirk has no problem beating seven shades of revenge out of a prisoner.
Then, there is the climactic pyrotechnic destruction of much of downtown San Francisco by an unhinged fanatic piloting a starship directly into its skyscrapers.
And there is Khan.
One of the cleverest misdirections Abrams pulled off was getting the fans to obsess on whether the 'classic' villain was returning in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch's 'John Harrison' or not. It drew attention away from where the film was actually going, and continued to do so in early reviews where critics were begged not to give away the 'secret'. Abrams thereby neutered any detailed discussion of the film's real themes - and a potential 'too soon'/'bad taste' backlash - before it had entered wide global release.
Khan isn't simply Osama bin Laden, though there is a lot of the real terrorist in the character. However, he is also very much the enemy that we ourselves create. He is 'genetically engineered'. The first time he was let loose it didn't end well. But that doesn't stop Starfleet's Admiral Marcus making the same mistake 300 years later because of his own fixations.
It's easy to see some of the levels on which that can be read, beyond simply history repeating itself. In the immediate term: "As Bush, so Obama - what's really changed?" But over time too, the extent to which US policy is historically thought to have fostered its own demons has long been discussed in DC (and, following the recent appalling events in Woolwich, the same discussion is right now sadly a British one).
The film is a Summer blockbuster. The requisite chunks of spectacle must be delivered. The laws of physics must be broken. Kirk and Spock must be given stuff to do - and stand either as cyphers for the 'right way' or at least our own confusion over it. So there isn't much depth in all of this. However, the film also shrewdly confines itself to a moral perspective rather than one based on realpolitik.
Nevertheless, ideas are suddenly back in fashion. The original Star Trek was itself famous for that (though its worldview was far more positive and optimistic than the one offered by Abrams). However, beyond their reappearance in that film series, a similarly satirical view pops up in Iron Man 3.
Its bin Laden cypher is an updating of a one-time full-on Tony Stark nemesis, The Mandarin. But he now turns out to be an actor working for a rogue part of the military-industrial complex (a recurring theme in the series). Meanwhile, Tony Stark's War Machine sidekick is clumsily renamed Iron Patriot and mocked mercilessly in the script.
Neither film has the answer. But just to see mainstream Hollywood confronting contemporary questions so directly marks a change, probably a welcome one. Because there's more to come.
Later this Summer, Matt Damon will take up arms against Jodie Foster in a futuristic haves-vs-have-nots/99%ers thriller, Elysium. Meanwhile, at the recent Cannes Film Festival, Robin Wright turned up playing - erm - Robin Wright in The Congress, a film about an actress who sells her digital self to a movie studio. Less identity theft perhaps than identity lease, but you can see where that is likely to go.
Finally, since this is the DC column, here's another interesting note. When Star Trek movies have opened in the past, there would usually be some accompanying PR from the White House on how the President had screened and thoroughly enjoyed the film. At that political level, DC liked to associate itself with the notion that Starfleet represented American ideals, idealism and technological supremacy at their best - much as creator Gene Roddenberry intended.
This time, not a peep.
Edited: 29 May 2013 at 11:39 AM by Paul Dempsey
BT gives it away, YouTube charges: Part Two
17 May 2013 by Paul Dempsey
OK, the YouTube plan is bound to make any journalist smirk a little. A service that has built itself on free content, now wants to charge for some. With a few exceptions, my business has found that harder to achieve than it would have liked.
And YouTube faces similar problems. Erecting a pay-wall between the public and something they are used to just being there never goes down too well. Particularly in the mass market.
Specialists like The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal (focused on markets that have long been willing to pay for good analysis) are getting bettter and better numbers. But it will be interesting to see how The Sun gets on, now that it is following more upmarket News International stablemates The Times and The Sunday Times in charging for access. The Currant Bun is, after all folks, relentlessly populist.
As is YouTube. While it's wonderful to have online, on-demand access to the thoughts and lectures of Richard Feynman, the service is essentially about anthropomorphic felines, mindless amateur blatherers, and people otherwise (but not quite so consciously) making planks of themselves. Oh, and a few movie trailers.
Having said that, the video market has been better prepared for YouTube's move than that for newspapers. Netflix's successful transformation from a DVD rental to streaming-based service - despite the many analysts who forecast disaster - is the best example. There are several others, both at home and abroad.
Of course, you did always have to pay something for Netflix. But beyond that, YouTube does seem to have taken note of the success of the specialists.
Its launch channels variously include episodes from Sesame Street and clips from National Geographic. This kind of video works well online. Parents are increasingly looking for educational content online, as their offspring - even pre-schoolers - seize control of iPads, Kindles and Galaxies. One's own curiosity about the wonders of the world is often sated by Wikipedia or some other specialist site, so offering visual content in the same vein doesn't look like a bad bet.
And we come back to sport - famously termed the 'battering ram' for subscription services by Rupert Murdoch himself. YouTube has a deal with the PGA golf network (and The Sun, it should be noted, has its own deal for online Premier League highlights).
Also, on the face of it, this will all cost just a few pennies a channel - YouTube is charging from around 80p to £1.50 a month. And it only needs a tiny fraction of its one billion regular viewers to jump in to makes pots of money. The scale of the Google-company's reach is another important point here.
It is - or should be - confirmation that the traditional 'packaged' pay-TV model is broken for good. And it may well be that. But a couple of notes of caution.
Whenever the online audience perceives that you have taken something away from it, its attachment to what you continue to offer is challenged. This is particularly true when you have built your brand on user-generated content - i.e. ordinary people making stuff for you for nowt. The blogger-fuelled Huffington Post was merely sold with its owners pocketing a good few million - no question of subscriptions - and the blowback there still isn't done.
However, the other question YouTube's partners may ask themselves is why they need to stay with the company in the long term. Unlike an old-school cable or satellite TV operator, it's not as though YouTube controls the delivery mechanism. Nope, Google does not own the Internet.
As such, YouTube says that the subscription channels are an experiment for now - and, of course, there's no question of it ever charging for you to upload and share your own material. Of course, there isn't.
But the company does need to be wary of who wins from this over time. Consumers may be willing to pay for specialist content, but its very nature means that it's also now pretty straightforward for its providers to use YouTube as the pathfinder, and a way of building up their subscription brands, before striking out on their own.
As Netflix showed with House of Cards - and will soon do so again by bringing back the terrific Arrested Development - you need to supplement your 'partners' offerings with material of your own. Strangely, I would have thought that with Google's resources, YouTube would be doing that from the very beginning. But it remains a promise for the future.
BT gives it away, YouTube charges: Part One
10 May 2013 by Paul Dempsey
BT's is a huge punt. The company is paying £738m alone over three years for rights to 38 EPL games a season. On top of that, it is acquiring content for a BTSport service in markets such as rugby union, Scottish and foreign football, tennis, UFC, MotoGP and more. Then add facilities costs, talent costs, marketing costs, what BT's already paid to acquire the UK ESPN channels and more operational overhead. It's fair to say this must be close to a £1bn-marketing bet.
And the pitch is all about getting BT's pipe into your home. It flips the established satellite/cable broadcasting model by giving away something traditionally considered premium (sports) to sell something increasingly seen as a commodity (bandwidth).
It sounds crazy, but there seem to be three aspects to BT's strategy.
1. Like Google, it's decided that the traditional broadcasting model is bust for good. Streaming is the way forward and whoever offers the most reliable connection will get the business as services become more sophisticated and complicated, require higher resolutions (3D, 4k), and, perhaps most important of all, more of our in-home devices require highly reliable connections - all hail The Internet of Things.
2. The chance to offer some premium material is still there, it's just changing. The second generation of smart TVs reaching the market now offers much richer apps and the user interfaces are greatly improved. But these are manufactured by big global players who will, therefore, predominantly cut deals with other big Internet players like Netflix. BT can offer the same well-known services - not everyone's going to change that new LED display tomorrow - but also more local ones. Indeed, it's local content and service providers who say they struggle most on the open Web. Beyond that, there are also local services like telemedicine, which will require the kind of 99% reliability only offered by wired networks - and which, if it saves on GP or hospital visits, the NHS could be convinced to pay for, whether the patient is on BT broadband or not.
3. For the first time I can remember BSkyB looks vulnerable. As I type that, I can't help but feel it may prove a very daft sentence. BSkyB is and has long been a brilliant company strategically. But its core business remains tied to a fairly traditional pay-TV model that is looking rather tired. I'd bet that it will adapt. But from BT's perspective, this may be the time to strike. Again, it all comes back to who owns not just the pipe or signal but also the box in the home - and what that box can do (remember, don't just think content, think about the incoming realities of the machine-to-machine based connected home).
The question then is whether £1bn - or more properly, an annual £330m or so for three years - is too high a price to pay. BT currently has an estimated 5m broadband subscribers. The 2011 Census estimated there are 21.7m UK households. If BT got all 16.7m it doesn't already have on broadband, that would represent an initial acquisition cost over three years of about £60 per household. It won't do anywhere near that many, but if that figure stays below £150 (c.7m new customers), possibly £250 (c.4m new customers), this might work.
These numbers are, very much, finger in the wind. You do have to pay for the broadband pipe to get the free channel. A BTVision set-top box is also £5 a month if you want one (a reflection of the separate hardware subsidy). In balance though, they assume acquisition costs paid off over three years and telecoms, particularly wired telecoms, often allows much longer than that. Moreover, these numbers are not that far off the subsidies mobile operators apply to handsets, and we typically buy a new one of those every 18 months.
So they do suggest that BT may not be as far off with its numbers (if not its strategy) as has been suggested since the EPL giveaway was announced.
Perhaps more importantly, the end-game here goes far beyond that traditional content and how it is consumed. This is owning the gateway to the next major shift in communications.
And if you don't think it's coming soon, think again. Last week, a senior VP at ARM, the British company that provides technology that goes into almost every mobile phone, offered a projection that suggests its shipments inside embedded processors - those that will power this Internet of Things - could exceed those for mobile in just four years. That's simply staggering.
And, more than telly, it's why BT really wants your broadband business, and is willing to play big to get it.
Come back early next week and I'll try to similarly pick apart YouTube's opposite move into pay-TV, and the challenges it faces. And how, ironically, some of those may be the same as its parent Google has dumped upon my trade, journalism.
Edited: 10 May 2013 at 04:33 PM by Paul Dempsey
Let's give BA's UnGrounded some airspace
29 April 2013 by Paul Dempsey
The results of the UnGrounded 'lab in the sky' will be presented at the DNA Summit on innovation that awaits the passengers in London, this June. Then, more importantly, they will be pushed before the G8 Summit of major world leaders a few days later in Northern Ireland. The United Nations is also supporting the project.
I like the idea. It's too easy to scoff about 'talking shops' or grasp for comic parallels with some old Airport movie. And you always have the rather hobbled notion of the 'great and the good' jetting in with wisdom. But there's enough potential in UnGrounded that means we should give it a chance.
First, as I've noted before, we need to look at what has made Silicon Valley so successful and borrow the best of those tools, not just in the UK but worldwide. Any notable initiative with that goal should be worthwhile in terms of both what it says and making sure that plenty of people hear it.
Second, UnGrounded has the sensible aim of kick starting the debate. Its participants will not fly into Heathrow with a definitive solution. Rather the objective is to get STEM issues much higher up the global macroeconomic and political agendas. What's the harm in that?
Third, UnGrounded is to go beyond the 'same old voices' in recruiting its contributors. Ten of the 100 think-tankers will be recruited openly via Mashable. It's running a How Did You Get Your Best Idea? contest offering seats on the flight.
Finally, there is that core block of Valley leaders on board.
We do need more than platitudes. Beyond that, those of us who have closely followed the emerging STEM crisis and the Valley's development may end up finding many of the high level proposals familiar. However, we don't matter that much - if UnGrounded (and the DNA Summit in general) tugs at the coats of the unaware, it will do its job.
And to do that, you need heavy-hitters, such as those UnGrounded has recruited out of Google, Stanford Business School and Andreesen Horowitz, the VC-firm co-founded by Mosaic innovator Marc Andreesen. Just like the US domestic pressure group FWD.us, you need people who will be listened to.
So, let's keep a close eye on this one.
Meanwhile, here are three modest proposals from me on how to make it work.
1. Turn off the WiFi
Too many 'planes have it. It's actually a better discipline if you board with everything you need for your work, and shut out the usual distractions (and let's face it, the calibre of people UnGrounded wants have neverending inbox dings).
2. Easing the way for smaller companies
A couple of points from this column's feedback from recent articles on immigration. For newer companies, the issue isn't just policies that make it difficult to recruit foreign talent. Too often there are bureaucracies that make the process hideously expensive, even where national policies are relatively sane.
Then, there are the issues companies all face - but again, it's much harder for emerging ones - where they decide not to bring talent to them but to go to where it is. Far too many countries have regimes that make it unnecessarily complicated and expensive to set up overseas representative offices and the like. Create environments for the job creators at all levels.
3. Kick the politicians hard on education
STEM is an education issue, though one that will take laggards a generation to fix fully wherever they are in the world. However, even based on the existing talent pool, a more sensible approach to the cost of education would be a big help.
Inflation here is running at a frightenting level in the US and many other countries. However, the US is the most extreme case. From 1986-2012, overall US inflation was 115.06%; college inflation was 498.31%. Such numbers price out potential talent. And it's hard not to conclude that tuition fees in the UK are having the same effect, even if to a lesser degree so far.
The situation is surely unsustainable in any country that would truly be part of the 21st Century knowledge economy.
All the above are pretty obvious, but still must form part of both the UnGrounded and DNA Summit programmes. It is all about that link between talent and commerce.
So, good luck and bon voyage.
Edited: 29 April 2013 at 07:52 AM by Paul Dempsey
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