Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in January 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect. Originally the magazine was called "The Review" and then in April 2004 it was renamed "Connected". The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2006. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.
Jan/Feb 2006 The Personalisation Of New Media March 2006 The Serious World Of Gaming April/May 2006 The Invisible Heart Of The Communications Revolution June 2006 Who Is Connected To The Net? September 2006 What Is Internet Neutrality? October 2006 What Do Consumers Really Want? November 2006 Web 2.0: Hype, Hope Or Here?
Feeling overwhelmed by the digital deluge? Well, it's going to get much worse but help is at hand, explains our Internet columnist Roger Darlington.
THE PERSONALISATION OF NEW MEDIA
Most of us already receive far too many e-mails and most of it is spam. But a third of UK homes are not even on the Net and worldwide five-sixths of the population is not on-line. More contacts for you and for the spammers. So the volume of e-mail will continue to explode.
The web already seems gargantuan. It is around 75 million web sites. But literally every day tens of thousands of new web sites, new weblogs, and new message boards come online and content is often up-dated almost minute by minute.
Two-thirds of UK homes already have access to digital television with a choice of hundreds of TV channels. An increasing number of us have a digital radio giving us access to many dozens of radio stations. But, as broadcasting and the Net converge, you will be able to access over your broadband connection literally thousands and thousands of TV and radio channels worldwide, not to mention a vast volume of video and audio files.
How can you possibly manage this electronic blizzard? In a word, the answer is 'personalisation'.
This means that you, your electronic communities, and the organisations with which you interact will shape what and when and how you access digital media. There are three main ways this will happen.
First, you decide what you will access.
This will involve 'pull' devices, like a clear and comprehensive organisation of 'favourites' or 'bookmarks' for the web sites you find most useful or appealing and like cleverer use of even more sophisticated search engines . It will involve 'push' techniques like use of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds from your favourite news web sites and weblogs so that you know whenever a new story is posted.
Using a personal video recorder (PVR) such as Sky+ [click here] will enable your favourite TV programmes to be recorded automatically and even in the future to suggest which new programmes you might like to watch. Even your e-mail can be managed, going beyond the use of spam filters than 'learn' what is really spam to new systems (such as SNARF from Microsoft [click here]) that rate 'proper' e-mail according to the importance you are likely to attach to it.
Second, your e-friends and like-minded Net users can guide what you access.
You can use what are increasingly called 'social networks' to keep in touch with old school friends or people who share the same interests and be guided by them as to information that will be useful or sites that should be visited. Indeed this can become a very active process by, for instance, labelling your photographs on a site like Flickr [click here] or tagging a web site using the del.icio.us system [click here].
Third, organisations will highlight content for you.
Passive techniques like the use of 'cookies' and active input of data by you will enable organisations with whom you deal to know who you are and what you are likely to be most interested in. The Amazon site [click here] already welcomes me by name, recommends books, CDs and DVDs based on my past purchases, and gives me the option of ordering through 'one click' because the site already knows my credit card details and my delivery address.
This kind of relationship allows organisations to target promotions and products in the knowledge that you are probably going to be quite interested in them. Amazon knows that I will purchase each new DVD set of The West Wing.
These kind of techniques do not have to be confined to relationships with commercial organisations.
Imagine if your trade union organisation could use your personal and professional profile to personalise your use of the web site so that it automatically displayed the latest information which is most relevant to your workplace or work or gender. Imagine if your local authority web site could display immediately the rubbish collection times or planning applications for your street or your entitlement to certain benefits or services.
The advantages of these various techniques are obvious: it enables us to combat information overload and it allows us to make the most effective use of our time and attention.
However, there are some problems with such personalisation techniques.
There will be concerns about privacy in relation to personal data, but the evidence is that consumers are willing to strike a bargain with companies: some extra information in return for better content or service.
Also there is a danger that we will only engage electronically with like-minded people, we will only seek information and opinions which reinforce our prejudices, and we will lose the serendipity of discovering a new interest or a new insight.
The answer is to combine several techniques: use personalisation techniques to manage e-mail and speed up use of e-commerce sites; use trusted sources of general information such as (in my case) the BBC [click here] and Guardian [click here] web sites and selected blogs; and regularly open ourselves to new material by reading a quality daily newspaper and some good magazines and deliberately surfing for new radio stations, television channels and web sites.
It's in your hands ...
Thought that digital games were just for young geeks having fun? Games are bigger and more serious than you ever imagined, writes our Internet columnist Roger Darlington.
THE SERIOUS WORLD OF GAMING
Video games are big, big business. Worldwide the market is $25 billion (£14.5 billion). We are now on the sixth round of the games console war with Microsoft's new Xbox 360 [click here], Sony's Playstation 3 [click here] and Nintendo's Revolution representing the state-of-the-art.
In the UK alone, the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association has announced record sales in 2005 of interactive entertainment software across all formats totalling £1.35 billion.
This is a world with a language of its own and a plethora of acronyms such as role playing game (RPG), first person shooter (FPS), real time strategy (RTS) and massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG).
There are lots of blogs devoted to video games such as the gamesblog [click here] on the Guardian site and ludology.org [click here] which is run by Gonzalo Frasca whom I recently met at a conference in Hungary. You can even do a degree in computer games technology at places like the University of Abertay Dundee [click here].
If you thought that most games were not for you, you are probably right. Just before Christmas, Keith Stuart, in a Guardian column called Gamesblog, wrote: The festive chart is a nightmarish, gut-splattered collision of zombies, street yobs, robotic assassins and killer cowboys.
More recently, female writer Aleks Krotoski in the same column observed: To date, few games have adequately captured the poignancy and the turmoil of real-life emotions. Sorrow, joy and anger are notably absent from interactive experiences.
However, some really interesting things are happening to the gaming market.
First, according to a study released by Nielsen Entertainments Interactive Group, the gamer demographic in the USA is expanding beyond its core young male audience to include more women and older adults and video games in general are becoming far more pervasive as the medium approaches mass market status.
Not all gamers are spotty teenage boys. The study found that nearly 40% of American gamers are female (there is a site called womengamers.com [click here]) and nearly a quarter of gamers are over the age of 40 (another site is called theoldergamers.com [click here]).
In the UK, in the 16-35 age group, 42% of men and 22% of women play games regularly.
Second, online gaming is becoming massive, especially as broadband becomes more generally available. In South Korea - broadband capital of the world gaming on the Net is simply huge and some people are literally professional at it.
The most popular MMORPG is called World of Warcraft [click here] which has a user base of over 5 million people including over 2.5M in North America and 1.5M in China. The postmodern world of Azeroth is a complex one with 60 levels of difficulty and the game manual runs to 200 pages.
However, for a monthly subscription of £7.50, you can spend an unlimited time in a fantasy world that can easily become addictive.
Third, games are moving beyond the sphere of 'mere' entertainment.
The most cost-effective recruitment tool currently used by the US Army is a war game called America's Army click here] which is available as a free download from a web site. Some 29 million have taken a copy, there are over 5 million active users, and 1.34 billion missions have been played.
Games are increasingly being used as tools to provide education or instruction, to advertise products in innovative ways (so-called advergaming), or even to engage people in politics.
Here in the UK, a project undertaken by Nesta Futurelab and game-maker Electronic Art - called Teaching with Games conducted a poll which found that a third of teachers are using computer games in the classroom and a majority believe they improve pupils' skills and knowledge [click here].
In the world of advergaming, instant-win promotions and contests requiring some level of consumer participation are increasingly popular. The company ePrize LLC [click here] has clients including IBM, General Motors and The New York Times.
As examples of the political use of games, Howard Dean was the first US presidential candidate to deploy a video game on his web site [click here] and more recently the technique was used in a Uruguayan election campaign. The web site newsgaming.com [click here] uses games and simulations to analyse, debate, and comment on major international news.
In short, you may not think of yourself as a gamer, but gaming is going to become a mainstream feature of the digital world if it is not already.
Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington lifts the lid on the least known part of the work of the regulator Ofcom.
THE INVISIBLE HEART OF THE COMMUNICATIONS REVOLUTION
It has no weight, shape or colour; you cannot see, feel or smell it; you cannot create it but it can be endlessly reused; it is immensely useful and hugely valuable. What can it be? It is, of course, the radio frequency spectrum.
In some respects, spectrum is like land: both are limited natural resources which input into a huge array of services; both have areas where demand exceeds supply and vice versa; both suffer from the problem of competing and incompatible uses in some areas; both have complex planning frameworks.
However, frequency has some extra complications: radio emissions spill over into neighbouring frequencies; radio emissions spread over national boundaries; and the value of spectrum is related to standardisation.
The uses of spectrum are immense. However, some 30% of frequency is taken up by defence needs. Around 28% is used for fixed, mobile and satellite communications. Aeronautical and maritime travel uses another 14%. Broadcasting takes up 13%.
Some indications of the value of spectrum are that it is estimated to contribute at least £24 billion a year to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while the auctions for 3G mobile licences raised a total of £22.5 billion.
Considerable technological developments and the rapid growth of communications needs are making demand for spectrum greater and greater. This is especially true in the section of the radio frequency spectrum known as the sweet spot which is between 300MHz and 3 Ghz.
All spectrum is a trade off between range and bandwidth and the so-called sweet spot combines good range with significant bandwidth.
Now everyone knows that Ofcom is the UK regulator for broadcasting and telecommunications. But many forget that it also has responsibility for spectrum and that more Ofcom staff work in this area than any other.
Traditionally spectrum has been allocated to competing uses on a command and control model with the regulator effectively making all the decisions. This is how 90% of spectrum is allocated in the UK today.
Some parts of the spectrum around 9% at present is called licence -exempt. This means that the regulator sets some rules but there is no licensing.
A third approach is to use market mechanisms to allocate spectrum. Essentially this means that available spectrum goes to the highest bidder and that previously allocated spectrum can be traded and used for new purposes or by new players.
The market approach was advocated in a review conducted by Professor Martin Cave; it has been adopted by Ofcom and is increasingly governing its decisions on spectrum; and it has the support of the Government, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioning in the Budget that sale of spectrum is intended to raise billions for the Treasury.
At first sight, market mechanisms seem a sensible way of deciding between competing demands for a scarce resource like spectrum. However, some of the complications soon become apparent when one considers what is often called the digital dividend.
This is the allocation of the spectrum that will be released when the whole of the UK has switched from analogue to digital broadcasting a process that will take place from 2008-2012.
When digital switchover has occurred, some 14 UHF channels in Bands IV and V will be come available. How should these be used?
This is what, in Ofcom jargon, is known as the Digital Dividend Review (DDR). This is already under way with Ofcom currently analysing all the technical, economic and policy issues.
The regulator will publish a consultation document in late 2006 and make a policy statement in spring 2007.
In the meantime, some will argue that the available spectrum should be allocated to mobile broadcasting. Current 2.5G and 3G services can handle video clips through present cellular systems but, if users want to watch programmes or films on their mobiles, a broadcast method of delivery will be necessary and spectrum will need to be given to that.
Others will put the case for the spectrum from switchover to go the the provision of high definition television (HDTV). Cable and satellite operators can provide HDTV without too much problem but, if we want HDTV to be available throughout the country in terrestrial form (such as Freeview), then additional channels will be needed.
So we see that spectrum is not such an arcade issue after all.
Wikipedia guide to spectrum click here
Ofcom's digital dividend review click here
A lot of media comment on the Internet seems to assume that almost everyone is now connected but is this true? Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington looks at the demographics of the UK Net population.
WHO IS CONNECTED TO THE NET?
In the summer of 2005, the communications regulator Ofcom commissioned a massive programme of research as the first-ever large-scale media literacy audit of the UK. Over 3,200 adults (aged 16+) and over 1,500 children (aged 8-15) were interviewed.
In the spring of 2006, the findings of this audit have been published in a series of six reports covering adults as whole, the nations and English regions, minority ethnic groups, those with a disability under 65, older people (65+) and children (and their parents).
The six reports total 400 pages. They represent an immensely rich source of data that will hopefully lead to some useful policy discussions.
What do these reports tell us about who is using the Net in this country?
At the time of the survey, 66% of adults had a PC at home and 57% had access to the Internet at home. Consumers living in rural areas, while no more likely to have a PC, were significantly more likely to have access to the Net than average.
Adults living in Scotland and Northern Ireland were significantly less likely than the UK average to own a PC or have Internet at home. There are also indications of lower PC ownership in Wales and significantly lower than average penetration of the Net in this nation.
However, adults living in London, South East and East of England were significantly more likely to own a PC and higher than average Internet take-up was also apparent in London and the South East.
In contrast to the take-up trends of mobile phones, the take-up of the Internet was affected more by socio-economic group than age.
Taking 45 as the cut-off age, while older consumers (47%) were significantly less likely than younger consumers (66%) to have Net access at home, the differences were less marked than between social groups ABC1 (72%) and C2DE (40%).
Some 6% of adults across the UK said they were likely to get Internet access in the next 12 months and 13% were unsure. People living in the South West of England were more likely to be unsure, with those in Yorkshire and the Humber the least. Overall, 19% of adults were voluntarily excluded from taking up the Internet (that is, they could afford it but did not want it). This was highest in Scotland at 24%.
Turning now to the situation regarding children, Ofcom's audit found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of children aged 8-15 have access to the Internet at home, and this is more common for 12-15s than for 8-11s (67% compared to 61%).
Access to the Internet at home is significantly below this UK average for children in Northern Ireland, at 38%. Access is also significantly lower for children from minority ethnic groups (51%) and those in low income households (42%).
A third of children aged 8-15 and well over half of all children in low income households have no access to the Net at home.
The reason that low income households do not connect to the Net is not primarily economic. Such households typically spend more on digital television than it would cost to buy a cheap PC and an Internet subscription.
It is more a matter of culture: such households are headed by parents who often are less supportive of their childrens education than many middle-class households and such parents themselves are not naturally attracted to an overwhelmingly text-based medium.
Recently the Government confirmed that it is setting up a cross-departmental team dedicated to improving access to technology for socially excluded groups.
The main focus of the Digital Inclusion Team will be to improve IT literacy among adults and schools, as well as helping the socially excluded access technology via mobile phones and enter the digital television world.
It will also look at the feasibility of extending access within the community. There are currently 6,000 UK Online centres across the UK, with 3,000 in deprived wards.
Following the Cabinet reshuffle after the local elections, the Minister responsible for the Digital Inclusion Team will now be Pat McFadden. He will need to work hard to eliminate the class divide in Internet take-up.
Ofcom report on media literacy amongst adults click here
Ofcom report on media literacy amongst the nations and regions click here
Ofcom report on media literacy amongst older people click here
Ofcom report on media literacy amongst disabled people click here
Ofcom report on media literacy amongst adults from minority ethnic groups click here
Ofcom report on media literacy amongst children click here
Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington explores an argument that is raging fiercely in the United States but has hardly been mentioned so far here in Britain.
WHAT IS INTERNET NEUTRALITY?
Internet neutrality - or 'net neut' as some (American) media call it sounds cosy and comfy, like motherhood or apple pie, so how is it possible that the subject has provoked huge political debates in the American Congress and bitter commercial debates among the media giants?
Writing in the Observer newspaper, John Naughton has said: The case for net neutrality is abstract, sophisticated and long term. A feature on The Register website referred to the occasionally surreal and often hysterical debate around net neutrality on US blogs and discussion forums.
So let's start by seeking a simple understanding of what the term means and then establish what the debate is all about.
The basic issue is whether the telcos and cable companies who build and run the infrastructure of the Internet the pipes, switches and routers over which all Net traffic passes should be allowed to charge content suppliers to carry their content on a differential basis according to the speed and/or quality of service they want to offer consumers.
Those who support Net neutrality argue that a basic axiom of the Internet is that all services should be treated equally. They insist that the fact that historically the Net has been 'neutral' to applications that it did not privilege one applications over another is the reason for the staggering creativity of the Net with a plethora of new services being developed and offered in such a short period of time.
They argue that, in the absence of Net neutrality, access providers will erect electronic toll booths that will inspect all data packets and apply different charges to each which would reduce creativity and innovation and lead to the development of specialised networks optimised for specific applications.
This is the position of many content providers such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, as well as many Net luminaries such as the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee.
Caroline Fredrickson, writing for the web site CNET News, argued: The Internet did not get where it is by letting gatekeepers determine what information reaches its destination or slowing the information from competitors. If the Internet is to be preserved as a forum for speech and innovation, Congress must reinstate the requirements of net neutrality.
The opponents of net neutrality insist that the principle may have worked when Net users were using low bandwidth applications such as e-mail and blogging, but that now there is increasing use of high bandwidth applications like Bit Torrent and requirements for high quality of service with applications like Voice over IP.
These organisations argue that this bandwidth has to be paid for somehow and, if they are forced to continue with a 'neutral' approach, the whole Net will suffer as traffic slows down and investments in new infrastructure are held back.
Opponents of net neutrality insist that the idea that content would be blocked by differential pricing is nonsensical scare-mongering because consumers have become used to comprehensive access to Net content and services and would desert any company that tried to limit access to content.
This is the position of the telcos like AT&T and the cable providers.
Richard Bennett, an American engineer who played a role in the design of the Internet, told an interviewer: In the name of opening up the Internet for big content, the 'Net Neutrality' bills [in the US Congress] criminalize good network management and business practices. Why can't we have more than one class of service on the Internet?
So who has got it right?
David Tansley, a technology specialist at the UK consulting firm Deloitte, has said: The question is, how do you marshall a finite resource where demand exceeds supply? Do you just keep adding lanes to the motorway or do you look for a way of disincentivising some of the motorists?
Unless you can defy the laws of physics, you have to consider a congestion charge. I think BT will do the same as the American telecoms companies.
Of course, if the likes of Google or Skype do not pay for the necessary network investments, who will? The poor end user of course.
Therefore it seems to me that this is not an issue to be resolved by legislators or regulators, but one best left to the market and customers.
John Naughton's column in the "Observer" click here
Caroline Frederickson's piece on CTNET News click here
Interview with Richard Bennett on The Register click here
Are you confused over the proliferation of offerings in the communications marketplace? Well, you're not alone. Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington poses the question:
WHAT DO CONSUMERS REALLY WANT?
I obtain my fixed line service from BT and my mobile service from O2 because these companies recognise trade unions. My Internet service provider is Pipex (it was a recommendation) and I take my digital television from Sky (I love the Sky+ PVR).
However, this approach is being challenged by an increasing number of providers in the communications marketplace. They want customers to take bundled services.
This might be double-play (such as fixed and mobile from the same company) or triple-play (such as fixed telephony, cable television and Internet from the same provider) or even quadruple play or as Virgin boss Richard Branson calls it, foreplay with all four services from the same source.
In a market where customers are switching all the time, the idea of bundling is to reduce 'churn' and maximise 'stickability'.
Recently I did something for the first time, when I was a panellist at a telecommunications conference for business leaders in my capacity as a member of the Ofcom Consumer Panel. The event was arranged by an organisation called the Telecommunication Executive Network [click here].
My particular session was called: "Building A Customer Friendly Brand And Customer Service Bundle: Are Triple And Quadruple Play What Customers Want?" (snappy, eh?).
I told the assembled business leaders that there's good news and bad news for players in today's communications market.
The good news is that, according to the Ofcom Communications Market report for 2006, last year the total communications market (that is, both telecommunications and broadcasting) was massive and growing. Total retail revenues were £50 billion and this was up by 5% on the previous year.
The bad news is that the same report shows average household expenditure growing by less than 1% to £87.67 a month. Cost savings from improved technology and all these so-called 'free' offers are keeping expenditure flat.
The good news is that there is still plenty of market growth opportunities. Internet penetration is still only 60% of households, broadband is still only about 35%, and even digital television is still just 70%.
The bad news is that the traditional markets are saturated. Some 90% of households have a fixed line and this figure is slowly falling. Some 90% of households have a mobile phones and the figure is hardly moving.
Even Internet growth is only edging up at an extra 3% of households a year. Most the movement is people up-grading from narrowband to broadband.
The sectors of the market which remain unconnected notably households with older and poorer consumers are not easy to win over because unfortunately these people remain unconvinced that the Net is relevant to their lives.
So, in this fiercely competitive marketplace where customers are increasingly promiscuous in choosing suppliers, what do customers want?
There is a general feeling that the web has reached an important new stage in its development, but there is little consensus on how to define this. Our Internet correspondent Roger Darlington gives his explanation.
WEB 2.0: HYPE, HOPE OR HERE?
The term "Web 2.0" [click here] was a designation coined at a conference in 2004 by a promoter of web business called Tim O'Reilly. He described the term as an attitude rather than a technology - which is hardly an exact definition.
The numerical term alludes to new Internet developments like the next version of the Windows operating system or the next version of the browser Internet Explorer where there is a clear date or number, but the web is evolving too quickly and too randomly to lend itself to such a clear designation of stages.
Nevertheless the web in the mid 2000s is so very different from that in the late 1990s that it is not unreasonable or unhelpful to give this difference the designation Web 2.0. I would identify five inter-related reasons for this difference.
First, the web is so much bigger now.
Arguably the Internet 'took off' in 1993 when its use doubled to more than 25 million people. But today around one billion people worldwide are on-line. The Net is now not just a mass media it is the most extensive media of all time.
Meanwhile the content of the web has grown exponentially. There are now well over 10 billion pages. Many thousands of new pages are added every day.
Second, broadband is transforming the Net experience.
In most industrialised countries now (and this is certainly true of the UK), there are more broadband users than narrowband users and, in countries like Japan and South Korea, broadband speeds of up to 100Mbps are becoming quite commonplace.
When one's Net connection is always-on, it changes the way one uses the medium. When bandwidth is greater, one is more likely to look at news sites offering video clips or social networking sites with photographs or e-commerce sites with graphical catalogues.
Third, e-commerce has really come of age.
The web has created the largest marketplace in the history of humankind and growth rates for use of e-commerce rates are phenomenal. Just three years after it was founded, Skype accounts globally for 7% of all international telephone calls.
Sites like Amazon [click here] and eBay [click here] are hitting traditional 'bricks and mortar' retailers, down-loading of MP3 music files is slashing the sale of CDs, and on-line advertising is now hitting hard television and press advertising.
As an example of the explosive growth, consider the forecasts from the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) that British shoppers will purchase £7 billion worth of goods this Christmas an expansion of 40% on last year.
Fourth, social networking is now huge.
People are using the web to make or renew contact with old school friends, current university students, or just people who share an interest or location. Almost every Net user under 30 is a member of one or more such sites.
Facebook [click here] is used by 90% of the students in the 41 UK higher education institutions which have signed up to the site. MySpace [click here], bought by Rupert Murdoch for a staggering $580M, has 110M users, 4M of them here in the UK.
When a disaster occurs, like the tsunami in south-east Asia [click here] or the flooding of New Orleans, the web can almost instantly create a site that creates a network of individuals and organisations that need to communicate with one another.
Fifth, user-generated content is changing the face of the web.
The biggest example of this is blogging there are now 55M weblogs and the number jumps every day. Those bloggers who are writing about current affairs are challenging traditional media and becoming citizen journalists.
The on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia [click here] now has 1.4 million articles in the English language alone all written for free by users and the aim of the site's owners is to have at least 250,000 articles in every language spoken by at least one million people.
Flickr [click here] is available for anyone to display their photographs to the world. When it comes to video clips, the sudden popularity of YouTube [click here] recently acquired by Google for an eye-watering $1.6B is stunning.
In short: Web 2.0 is essentially about a step change in participation. One thing is for sure though: as far as the development of the web is concerned, we ain't see nothing yet and, in even five years time, nobody will be using the term Web 2.0.
"Guardian" magazine article click here
Web 2.0 for trade unions click here