31 March 2014 by Paul Dempsey
Amid all the accusations of corporate sell-out by the Oculus team, can we not acknowledge that, in the purest sense, this rather proves than
disproves the crowdfunding concept, when it is done properly.
Oculus went to Kickstarter with a concept, asked for non-equity and
non-debt financing to realise it, and delivered. Indeed, they delivered so well that the company has now been acquired for $2bn by an 800lb tech gorilla.
In return for its crowdfunding, Oculus offered early product access and
goodies, as Kickstarter requires. Its proposal was clear: to develop a
business based on a VR headset with innovative engineering.
I can understand that many crowdfunding proposals target niche markets, are short-term or one-off, and would otherwise struggle to secure traditional backing. The numbers are too small to offer professional investors a sufficient return. As for loans from retail banking, yes what did you do with all that bailout money?
But for a number of very decent hardware and software projects, even
sources of seed capital for long term commercial ideas have been shrinking. Any engineer with a cool start-up idea knows that well enough. Crowdfunding fills this gap as well - indeed it can provide an initial indicator of demand-over-time.
But make no mistake, if they get their initial cash injection, such successful ventures will have to start behaving like traditional companies at some point.
And this is what gets my goat about the slating the Oculus guys now face. That they got acquired by' uncool' Facebook is beside the point. They had an idea, the 'real' target market (gamers) backed them to take it further, and through their innovation they did that.
So the current wave of brickbats could stifle other attempts to bring other great ideas through, just as surely as our broken investment sector already does, by now stigmatising others who take the crowdfunding route.
"Ooh, you're another Oculus - you're too commercial for us!"
Please, be serious. The rules for crowdfunding are clear and the ambitious should not be punished for success. We need more innovators, so such reactions are not merely mean-spirited and perverse. They're dangerous.
Don't be that surprised if Erdogan gets away with banning Twitter
24 March 2014 by Paul Dempsey
However, there is another side to this, and we're seeing it in Turkey right now. What happens when a regime seeks to suppress criticism by blocking various services. As of last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been at war with Twitter - and most of us think he isn't winning.
Certainly, his government's IP-level ban on the messaging service has once more foregrounded claims of individual corruption on his part internationally. The move also appears to set back Turkey's demands to be seen as a western-leaning, democratic bridge between Europe and the Muslim world.
And Erdogan's personal bluster about Twitter does echo the 'marmalising' threats of one of Doddy's Diddymen.
The problem with all this is that we are not looking at Erdogan's moves through the eyes that matter most to him: those of his current and possible supporters. It's much the same as our difficulties in understanding the extraordinarily positive response Vladimir Putin has had at home to the annexation of Crimea.
Erdogan's core vote is said to be older and more conservative. Think on that for a moment. Even in the west, those likely to dislike or generally disregard social media are more likely to come from those parts of civil society. In Turkey - which, let's not forget, is undergoing strong economic growth - those people have also heard and reached their own conclusions about the allegations against their Prime Minister.
Similarly, we often overstate the importance other cultures attach to notions of plurality and democracy. Many people in authoritarian countries would prefer to start with a decent living wage and the rule of law (whatever laws there may be). Erdogan may be in trouble on the second, but he's not in quite such a pickle on the first.
However, there is a third global element - the degree to which many outside (and arguably many within) social networks are beginning to see them as vehicles for bullying.
Let's leave Istanbul for a moment, and compare and contrast between Washington DC and Beijing, China. Without wanting to be too explicit, bullying over a social network recently brought the child of some friends of ours close to a very serious depression, possibly (it was caught, so we'll never know for sure) worse. Parents aware of this incident now take a universally dim view of social media. Freedom of speech doesn't come into it. And too many people now have such tales to share.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in China, both Twitter and Facebook are blocked by the Great Firewall, though there are local equivalents such as Sina Weibo. And one trend attracting concern generally and among the country's leaders is the 'human flesh hunt'. This is a process by which a supposed wrong-doer (or sometimes simply a pretty girl) gets video-clipped, tracked down and publicly exposed by legions of netizens. It is a worrying trend, mob as judge and jury.
There are very different contexts involved here, but one can inform the other. The politician who is slated online can claim that this is the worst form of justice. And many people - and in many many countries - will agree with him or her.
In other words, if Erdogan does get away with what is - yes - an unwelcome imposition on free speech, don't be that surprised. The actual social problems that do ignite mass popular movements aren't there. And social media's strength is meanwhile far too easily undermined.
Comcast and Netflix reshape the Internet - and not for the better
24 February 2014 by Paul Dempsey
Wikipedia is our friend here. It defines net neutrality as "the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication."
In other words, the data that makes up your blog should be treated exactly the same as all 13 episodes of House of Cards, notwithstanding 'real' capacity and technical issues. Similarly, your ISP shouldn't charge you extra because you are a Frank Underwood addict rather than a frequenter of old school bulletin boards, assuming you both subscribe for the same connection speed.
Of course, we know that net neutrality is an ideal rather than a reality. Bandwidth throttling - particularly of P2P - does take place and there are numerous countries that operate great firewalls. But in essence, the Internet has grown and fostered innovation largely because it is a huge free market in that respect. Netflix has grown largely because of that.
But the company is now to pay Comcast to directly connect its servers to the cable operator's networks and thereby ensure its offerings arrive on US subscribers' screens uninterrupted by the hateful 'circle of wait'.
On one level, you might say fair enough. Netflix today accounts for a huge amount of bandwidth - as much as a third of Internet traffic in the US, according to some estimates. Why shouldn't it get out of everybody else's way?
It's not quite that simple. Netflix has largely agreed to the deal because of Comcast's clout as the ISP for much of the US population (and that proportion is set to mushroom further, if its current bid for one of its closest US rivals, Time Warner Cable, is accepted by regulators). What Comcast can secure by negotiation from Netflix, it may well be able to demand from others, establishing a further barrier to entry for new Internet services and potentially hobbling existing ones.
Beyond that, as Timothy Lee of The Cato Institute points out there are some potentially serious implications for competition in the Internet backbone market.
And let's not just paint Netflix as the victim here. It has struck a deal that will give it preferential access to Comcast subscribers on terms any direct competitor might not be able to match. You doubt that it has paid $19bn, but parallels with why Facebook is paying that much for WhatsApp are not entirely inappropriate.
The irony is that the likes of Netflix, Amazon and other new economy giants have long argued that despite their massive reach, their's should not be seen in the same light as other potentially anti-competitive businesses because the Internet itself levels the playing field. We're all playing on equal ground - just quite clearly now, more in an Orwellian sense.
A tiered pay-to-play-fastest Internet will rob the market of its dynamism. Even if a plethora of super-fast wired and wireless connections are soon available to every home, this deal implies so much gatekeeper power for those who supply the 'last mile' connection that some knock-on cost to consumers would seem inevitable. Less innovation, fewer choices and at more cost.
Actually, that does sound like something Frank Underwood himself would cook up.
Putting a price on Facebook's 'paranoia' - how about $19bn?
20 February 2014 by Paul Dempsey
According to Mark Zuckerberg, the deal took just 11 days from dinner conversation to announcement. Mind you, if a buyer is willing to put this much on the table (even if only $3bn is cash, and the rest various forms of stock), saying 'Yes' is never that difficult. When not developing more mobile tech, Facebook's skunk works might want to construct a new prosthesis for Zuckerberg's missing hand.
You can see why Zuckerberg 'went large'. WhatsApp (and in much of Asia, Tencent's WeChat) have been giving Facebook a bit of a kicking outside the US. They are both very good apps, easy to use and cheaper for IM based communication.
WhatsApp claims 450 millions users already and to be adding them at the rate of one million a day. It's biggest inroads are reckoned to be among younger non-Facebook (or 'Facebook Never') users. It's a group that does more of its communication on mobile devices. Where social media has been seen as a replacement for personal interactions, these younger users tend to use WhatsApp as an adjunct to it, it's much easier to 'push' instant communication to friends rather than waiting on them logging-in.
And of course, in the wake of Facebook's 10th anniversary, WhatsApp and WeChat are the newer, cooler platforms. E-years are shorter than dog years.
It's hard, then, to see this as anything other than a defensive move on Facebook's side. It does have its own messaging services, but the uptake is far lower. In that sphere - arguably because it has been comparatively slow to move on mobile - it has not caught the right kind of users' attention.
There is a temptation here to compare the price Facebook is paying to those foolishly thrown around during the heady pre-Millennial Internet bubble. However, a more long-term Silicon Valley trend among its giants - and Facebook is now unquestionably one of those - seems more appropriate.
"Only the paranoid survive" was the motto proudly displayed on the desk of Intel's Andy Grove, and Intel has a long history of making big buys to enter markets where it considered itself to be lagging. Part of the motivation is typically to catch up, another part is to head off the possibility that another company would acquire a technology jewel and leave Intel still further behind.
There's a bit of both in Facebook's move too. We've talked about its need to do more about the move to mobile platforms, but there has also been a fair bit of speculation that WhatsApp could be a target for China's social media giant Tencent (aka QQ). Merging WhatsApp and WeChat would certainly have given it an armlock over that part of the communications market, and added muscle that would truly make it Facebook's primary and equal global competitor.
So, to the extent that Zuckerberg has hinted that this was a non-competitive bidding war, only up to a point, Lord Copper. He went so high so fast that any rival would either gawp at the number - WeChat is doing well enough building its own network with help from Lionel Messi - or have no time to respond.
Of course, many of those Intel acquisitions have proved unsuccessful - especially its own M&A whirl on the Hokey-Cokey in mobile. Moreover, from a financial analyst's perspectives, deals of this size are inherently Manichean, brilliant gambles or inept calamities.
In this case, however, the links between WhatsApp and Facebook's existing core business are far stronger - one could, indeed did, hurt the other. In answering whether or not Facebook has paid over the odds, you have to factor in an element of risk mitigation. At this stage in social media's growth, that is very hard to do.
But let's try anyway. The deal should:
1. Remove a key strategic rival.
2. Bring non-Facebook users inside the fold at a time when growth has been thought to be slowing.
3. Answer criticisms about and greatly enhance Facebook's mobile strategy.
4. Offer a bolt-on enhancement that is complementary to Facebook's existing offer.
5. Provide more profiling data, particularly in terms of mobile behaviour.
6. Add a new revenue stream (WhatsApp transitions users to initially a $1 annual sub after the first year's usage).
7. Keep Tencent at bay for now and erect an arguably insurmountable barrier for most other players in the mobile IM space (I'm excluding Google here for reasons below).
A couple more caveats, though.
We'll keep a eighth point - 'Open up China to Facebook' - off the list for the moment. Facebook is currently blocked by the Great Firewall, but WhatsApp is not. Given Tencent's importance to the Chinese technology economy, which way do you think that will ultimately go? That's not a hint, but an honest question - the reality though is that the answer lies in hands other than those actively involved in the deal, and it should be discounted as a potential benefit for now.
Beyond that, Zuckerberg said that Facebook would hold to WhatsApp's no advertising strategy. That costs his company a sales opportunity, but arguably also keeps Google at bay - if instant social media doesn't have that revenue stream, the search giant may be less aggressive in attacking WhatsApp's market. Google is less enthusiastic about subscriptions.
Otherwise though, Facebook has many core business motivations for this deal. Further, against the current Internet landscape, you could say that this was a necessary one - price no object.
The serious stuff lies then in two areas. First, how well Facebook integrates WhatsApp and exploits the potential benefits it offers. Second, the 'unknown unknowns' of what will happen on the Internet over the next few years. The first can be measured, as can many of the motivations for this deal. The second cannot, except in retrospect - yet it is also where the $19bn number will most likely be praised or damned.
However, the figure now doesn't look quite as insane as has been suggested. There comes a point where defence is as costly as attack.
Edited: 22 February 2014 at 05:32 AM by Paul Dempsey
Facebook: We're 10 but the pressies are only for special people
4 February 2014 by Paul Dempsey
It's time to look back 10 years, so let's do exactly that. When thefacebook.com originally launched in February 2004, it did so only in elite US universities. Oxbridge came soon after. Then more global colleges. Then high schools. Then the likes of Apple and Microsoft (Mark knew where his bread was buttered early on). The hoi polloi only got a look-in from September 2006.
During those two-and-a-half years, Facebook created a buzz - and it did so by breaking one of the supposedly golden rules of Internet marketing. "The minute you go on the Internet," the thinking goes, "you are global, your audience is global and your customers are global."
Codswalllop. This notion has probably done more damage to Internet start-ups than any other. But I can remember it being gravely intoned before Mark Zuckerberg had his brainwave/good fortune and it's still being trotted out. Even now, far too many players rush in with give-it-away models where even success can expose their technical or financial ability to scale.
Of course, a lot of other good Internet marketeers understand the value of the tease. Hollywood mastered it long ago, and every big movie or TV release will be accompanied by not just trailers and interviews, but authentic-looking viral sites.
However, there's another important technological aspect to this. Even huge companies like Facebook with Paper (or indeed Google with Glass) that can afford to ignore the tyranny of accumulating clicks wherever and however they can, still know that much of their business is 'learn as you go'.
I don't think you could throw the old adage "You're only ever six weeks away from bankruptcy" at them. But swap 'bankruptcy' with 'irrelevance' and you can recognize that the cost of any high profile snafu can be hard to correct. For example, I'm not even sure that Facebook (and for that matter Google, Microsoft and Yahoo) have or ever will extricate themselves from the PRISM clusterblunder for a great many users.
But it's a birthday, so let's get back to the valuable lessons here. Facebook's staggered roll-out gave it time to scale its infrastructure and refine its offering before inviting in us mums and dads. Indeed, it still has a reputation among developers for endless - and for them frustrating - tinkering with its code. Though today, that remains largely invisible to users.
The point stands that success in the Internet age - and though I'm not a Facebook fan as a user, it has been a roaring success - means you can never stand still. To augment Andy Groves' famous maxim, "Only the paranoid survive", you can also say "And the bigger you are, the more paranoid you have to be."
So, impatient as you may be, stand back and look at what Paper is, beyond the glowing reviews (and the predictably irritating gloating of that iPhone 5S user you're stuck next to).
It's got some interesting ideas. Independent and anonymous selection of news content. There's a clever approach to zooming and flipping text as well as the presentation of images. The layout is clean and easy to follow (a point many traditional newspapers seem to have forgotten). It could up everyone's game, particularly with its focus on presenting information well on mobile devices.
But at the same time, it's the product of a very small think-tank at Facebook, just 15 people according to many reports. So, it's good enough to engage beta users - much like the original 'exclusive' Facebook incarnations - but probably still needs a lot of work.
And there may well be some controversy to come. Don't expect the traditional news media to be overly comfortable with anything that still further establishes social media as a gateway between them and us.
All in all, though, that's just another reason for Facebook to stick to a strategy that's served it well for a decade. Yes, a decade.
It's striking how badly patience has been downgraded in that time.
Edited: 05 February 2014 at 12:14 AM by Paul Dempsey
Google meets Lenovo in the Middle (Kingdom)
30 January 2014 by Paul Dempsey
As has been pointed out, the net 'loss' is anyway far less than the difference between the $12.5bn Google shelled out for Motorola Mobility two years ago and the $2.9bn Lenovo is paying now. Allow for earlier Google disposals (most notably the Motorola TV set top box business), cash on hand, tax credits and associated staff cuts. Then, you can argue that the Motorola related patents Google is holding on to have a value of $2bn against an earlier booked $5.5bn. And that ongoing value is worth thinking about: ask Apple or Samsung.
Meanwhile, the division's R&D arm is mostly staying within Google. Motorola's problem has not historically been finding really smart engineers. That team remains under the formidable leadership of Regina Dugan, former head of the bleeding edge US defence research agency DARPA. We know it has some cool projects in hand.
And, Nexus-wise (and Googly-eyed Glass-wise), Google will stay in the hardware business.
Finally there is the suggestion that while Motorola Mobility was founder Larry Page's whim of a buy, other executives and Wall Street did not like it. Patents they got, but the associated hardware bits they did not. So, good to be rid of the dross, yes?
You can cut the numbers and the intellectual capital and the oh-so-blessed market sentiment in a number of ways. So let's now add China.
Google has long had a difficult relationship with Beijing. After some high profile headbutting, its local servers reside in Hong Kong and perform erratically (if at all) on the mainland. Government officials have also spoken ominously of its wider influence.
At the same time, Google's Android operating system is by far the dominant platform for the region's smartphones (though access to Google Play is often another matter).
Lenovo, for its part, is one of China's tentpoles as the country seeks to build a world class technology sector. And it just went from Android user to Android evangelist.
Set aside the cruder aspects of the numbers, and you see a sweet deal with arguably much to support it on both sides.
Lenovo continues its drive to become the world's biggest mainstream electronics hardware player - it has also just added IBM's low end server operation to its existing leadership in PCs. Google finds a way to play nice with China after a long confrontation.
Or to put it another way, there's already plenty of scuttlebutt about how this is a 'chump change' deal for Google, a playground bruise. Sure, the numbers are huge to mortals, but, you know, not for them.
But really, it's just the cost of doing business globally. No evil has been done, has it?
UK engineering and the role of business ambassador
27 January 2014 by Paul Dempsey
The bricks-and-mortar contingent is there, as is defence. And with Dennis' appointment, there are now two F1 representatives within Prime Minister David Cameron's line-up of advisors and all-round tubthumpers for Business Blighty. The ambassadors are well-known names offering to talk of British success in various industries, thus raising their sectors' - not just their individual companies' - profiles overseas.
However, direct involvement by the hardware and software design industries is, at first glance, non-existent. Yes, you will find Hermann Hauser, one of the Acorn originals who have begat ARM and others. Mike Lynch, formerly of Autonomy, is another. But both act as ambassadors officially representing the consultancies and investment funds they work with today. There are no mainstream code slingers and chip designers.
Before we go any further, let's be clear that we can't lay all the blame for this at the PM's door or that of UK Trade and Investment. These are posts that executives put themselves forward for, as much as being tapped by Whitehall.
Similarly, my personal experience is that there is a historical and now inherited resistance among hardware and software's leaders to getting too close to the government. The name 'Inmos' can still provoke some serious sucking of teeth, even among those too young to remember its history in detail. And Whitehall's record on recent IT implementations doesn't exactly promote the civil service as the 'go to' source for much in the software world, beyond some nastier war stories.
Nevertheless as an expat, I have noticed that much of the rest of the world has little idea of advanced British engineering. I have - although over a period of years - even met postgrads and staff engineers in companies in both the US and Asia who tried to convince me that ARM originated as a Silicon Valley start-up.
Yes, I can equally talk about UK trade representatives who have admitted privately that working with cutting edge engineering firms terrifies them because they don't have much of a clue what these companies do. But that merely highlights that this is a two-way street.
The days of public funding for commercial engineering are behind us - defence and infrastructure orders notwithstanding. But if government is to understand better what some of our most innovative companies do, those companies need to make their voices heard. And if there are ways to leverage public funding to boost UK technology's international profile, it's worth making the best of them.
It was heartening, then, to see Nigel Toon of Xmos joining the Cameron-led trade delegation to China at the end of last year (and how appropriate that that should coincide with the company unveiling another round of VC funding). But Nigel is a savvy bloke who knows a good quote (including, for example, a memorable description of ARM as a gorilla - but "obviously, a very nice gorilla").
Whitehall's coats need a lot more tugging than that, because it is equally true that an expat notices how harder other countries do try at government level to establish technology leadership. And it's not just the emerging BRICs working the market harder, but also our more established leading EU rivals.
Now if I have piqued you, you might not know which coat to tug. Well, you could do much worse than a chap known as Baron Livingston of Parkhead, the minister assuming responsibility for the ambassador scheme. Some of you might know him better as 'Ian'... Yup, he's the chap who used to run BT.
The Mystery of the Peeping Tom
16 January 2014 by Paul Dempsey
The two Conan-Doyle updates - Sherlock in the UK and Elementary in the US - are drama at its most self-aware - an inevitable consequence of relocating Holmes in the 21st Century. Where they offer a commentary on profiling, surveillance and technology, they do so knowing the irony that their hero seeded the very concepts. Holmes was the first profiler, closely observing both victim and perpetrator for clues. His original incarnation also drew upon the cutting edge science of his time, authoring monographs and catching evildoers.
With Elementary still mid-series, it's not yet time to judge exactly where it will take the profiling theme, though its Holmes (Jonny-Lee Miller) will keep noting how foolish we are to willingly submit to it, by either governments or corporations. The shadows though are darkening.
Sherlock has completed its latest and all-too-brief cycle. Holding off too many spoilers for international readers, it does ultimately go all the way. After four-and-a-half hours, most of which adopts a jokey tone, it turned out to be less a trio of mysteries and more a mini-series that only revealed the ice in its heart during the last 30 minutes.
The main villain is a newspaper proprietor, Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), born of the UK phone hacking scandal. He is a manipulator of information to wicked, self-serving ends. He is also more than simply an update of Conan-Doyle's original blackmailer, Milverton. Rather he proves to be, in every sense, the anti-Holmes. And the solution to the problem he poses is genuinely shocking.
However, the series then goes past phone hacking to offer a full-on cyberhacking punchline. This coda suggests that things have got to such a point that our only hope is Benedict Cumberbatch's "high functioning sociopath". How comforting.
Sherlock is not alone in pushing contemporary surveillance themes to the limit. The big-hitter among technology-based thrillers remains the US drama Person of Interest. It has already spent two seasons exploring the good and bad sides of a world in which a Machine independently observes everything, analyses all our actions and, if necessary, recommends intervention.
For its third season, the programme has upped the ante by introducing a new antagonist, Vigilance. If Sherlock's concerns have been with the misuse of technology by those at the top of society, Person of Interest has now added its spin on where resistance could end up if that misuse goes unchecked.
An obvious evolution of the Anonymous hacking group, Vigilance seeks to protect privacy and curb snooping by any means necessary, including paramilitary assaults and murder. Rather than Guy Fawkes masks, its members adopt pseudonyms from a more successful uprising, the American Revolution.
What makes Vigilance interesting - and importantly there is no question that these are very bad guys, whatever their aims - is that Person of Interest's creators are establishing a continuum of responses to its surveillance society.
At one extreme, there is, as ever, a shadowy government agency that is as willing to use violence to 'protect' as Vigilance is at the other. But between them now stand a clutch of views held by the show's good guys. There are the beliefs that the Machine makes no difference, that it can be of benefit to mankind but needs to be controlled, and that we are on the verge of the Singularity - each embodied by a different characters with whom we are invited to identify.
The simple message is that we really haven't begun to think out the implications of where technology and surveillance are taking us, and it's about time that we did.
All three shows are exaggerations. They are satires, the signature tone for speculative fiction. Vigilance therefore is not Anonymous; rather it is a commentary on where protest could go if concerns are ignored or suppressed. Similarly, Magnussen is not Murdoch, but again a symbol of where allowing the elite unchecked power over information could take us.
But are these ideas and thematic indicative of wider public sentiment? We're back with the barometer.
One tenet of both episodic drama and any successful series of novels is that, over time, they all tend towards 'darkness'. The challenges that face their heroes must become ever greater. With the top levels of the characters exposed in earlier installments, the later ones find they can only develop them further by digging into ambiguities. And entropy must always play its role. That trajectory is visible in these speculative fictions but also in the Harry Potter books or Downton Abbey.
However, something else tends to happen with more typical pieces. Fans will praise the growing 'sophistication' but mainstream audiences and readers will start to jump ship. You can only escape that if your darker themes reflect the more general views of civil society, even where they are not yet fully expressed.
And the global audiences for Sherlock, Elementary and Person of Interest are growing. Yes, all are extremely well constructed and entertaining dramas in their own rights. But it's probably fair to say that they are latching on to - and offering a smart commentary on - wider public angst and anger.
By that measure, 2014 is going to be an interesting year.
Edited: 16 January 2014 at 03:02 AM by Paul Dempsey
Black Friday finds US shoppers in a cautious mood
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.
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