Transience and protectionism

police helicopter

Police Helicopter

I had a bad night’s sleep last night. It was caused by the police helicopter which started to buzz around overhead at about 2 a.m. and continued for a further hour, the light occasionally flashing down into the garden and house and rather than giving my the ‘glow’ of reassuring me that the police were catching criminals in my neighbourhood it had the effect making me worry that we were about to get caught in crossfire or hostage situation. i.e. it wasn’t comforting at all. But perhaps they caught the criminals.

Taking this into cyberspace we have the governments “Digital Economy Act” which is designed for ‘our’ protection. The latest push is over filesharing. There’s a good summary on the ISP review site but the main issue is that ISP’s don’t actually have a huge amount of control and there are many ways to get around it (of course) because the internet is a multi-nodal network and not a sequential pipe with a tap that can be shut off when you feel like it….and who decides? – and what if they get it wrong?

BT and Talk Talk are going to court over this as covered in many of the papers. Here’s the Inquirers view and in it David Neal states “…legislation that has caused controversy ever since it was first hatched by a bunch of copyright holder firms and a Machiavellian ex-minister”.

My opinion is this is an attempt to protect a way of operating for businesses that have failed to understand the internet at a fundamental level. The time and cost of policing these policies would be better spent on creating micropayment models, providing free views and freemium content around paid for services and promoting channels to get users to the genuine products and services. If they did this well enough then there would be no need to police.

The only comparison I can provide to explain this is the Open University where we have given away huge amounts of course content through OpenLearn and provided much of our media through iTunes U which is currently at 32 million downloads and rising. It costs money to invest in these channels but there is no denying that student figures are increasing and that  a portion of students who have gone to OU freemium content have then gone on to register on a course.

Speaking of Machevelli, he’s quoted in John Naughton’s Guardian article about Amazon’s new Cloud Drive service and the response it’s receiving because of its new take on consuming media. Fascinating stuff but I am concerned as we move further into the digital that data becomes significantly more transient and more controlled through a selective bunch of ‘channel providers’. In increasing numbers all the articles I get these days seem to refer to Amazon, Microsoft or Google. There is nothing equivalent to a library in cyberspace, free browsing of book resources, and sharing of others people books. I say this as I sit next to my bookshelves. Last week I glanced over someone’s shoulder as I was leaving a meeting and caught sight of a book that I’d been meaning to read but forgotten about so I picked it up off the shelf. The equivalent of this is the iTunes store or Amazon bookshop but they’re so ordered and structured. Also it’s all about new stuff. There are organisations trawling/spidering twitter and Facebook content to target people with stuff but all the semantic web stuff aside I can’t help feeling that the random interaction with me to places I inhabit and books I read is a synergy that I enjoy and can’t be easily replicated online and something which we may lose  as a society if we aren’t very careful to find a way of preserving it.

I’m not sure that we can rely on Amazon and Google to be altruistic enough to care about localised public cyber libraries.

e-Books, content and openness

I’ve just been reading a book by Stephen King (Everything’s Eventual) – actually it’s a collection of short stories and that, says Stephen in his introduction, makes a big difference. He points out that short story writing almost died in its original format and then in early 2000 there was great interest in an Arthur C Clark short story which was published only in cyberspace. This prompted Stephen King to do the same, not for business reasons but to try another marketplace. The story “Bullet” sold hugely and for embarrassingly large sums even for the audio rights. He went to add that he didn’t know how many people actually read the book or simply tried the download because they liked the novelty of the ‘electronic package’. King believes it would likely be disappointingly low. We’re now in 2010 (no reference here to Arthur C Clark but prediction is wonderful in hindsight) and I think that e-Publishing is now settling down and becoming a very interesting way to get things out there and micropayments seem to becoming well established (as Apple will tell you with their iPhone store apps downloads) and lucrative.

I’m rambling here but to bring it back to local context, The VC of the OU extolled the virtues of iTunesU and the fact that the OU had passed 13m downloads through iTunesU and reached 10m visitors to OpenLearn (something of which I’m very proud having been responsible for the original specification…and by the way there’s still plenty of that spec left to complete!). These are both free services but through them there has been an increase in student numbers, an estimated 14,000 students began their learning experience through consuming this free content and going on to study. There’s an article from November 2009 about this when iTunesU downloads passed the 10 million mark. It’s an emerging marketplace for learning and for publishing high quality content.

So I do believe  that consumers care about quality in the electronic marketplace. I do believe that these are potentially extremely huge markets for those that care to explore them and I do believe they open up a world previously the preserve of the ‘officiandos’ to a wider audience.

I haven’t mentioned iPad yet and I don’t want to until I get to try it but my wife* remarked (*she’s the person who keeps me grounded) “If I were to try one of those eBook reader things then it probably would be the iPad”. (N.B. I’ve tried to get her interested in the Sony eBook reader, iliad pad and Bebook without success). I realise there’s more to iPad than eBook reader but that’s for another blog.

To crack the eBook reader market fully I think the following needs to be done :-

1. To find a way of displaying stuff so that it looks good outdoors in bright sunshine from any position, indoors in poorish lighting and generally in any environment where people read. The same issues apply to laptops too and still aren’t solved ‘to my satisfaction!’ (matt screens and improvements in eInk?)

2. To avoid any flickering or adverce wear and tear to the eyes from the ‘electronic experience’ over a book.

3. To find methods for tapping into the ambient environment for power and networking to avoid any cables or recharging. No-one wants a flat battery half way through a book. (…sitting on a beach with an iPad getting it solar fix is all fine but I live in England and it ain’t sunny a lot of the time).

4. Easy to use micropayment transactions for content without lock in (Apple take note!) – i.e. keep the content open and unbounded in order to give exposure to the maximum audience and keep the marketplace open for the benefit of all.

5. Add value over books including referencing to web sites for additional content (text and media), auto-updating and added value tools. You name it, you got it.

Anyhow time to stop and read my book for a while.


I see that Tony Hirst has added a post showing some nice graphs showing the trends showing potential growth of Twitter. What is they say about lies, damn lies and statistics? – It’s interesting to note trend data like this because things such as Secondlife get big blips in popularity and I think it’s when something new has been created within the space. Twitter shows steady growth but as Tony says the figures lie. Twitter is certainly filling a gap that existed as judging by the response to my recent post and the number of people who arguing very strongly in favour if it.

I’ve been recommended by a friend to read a book called “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” (Jonathan Zittrain). There’s a review of it in this months BBC Focus magazine too. According to the review he argues that the end of the internet as we know it will be because of the lack of creativity and people turning away from the web because of the lack of control and the prevenlence of malware and viruses, moving to more ‘locked down’ solutions. I haven’t read it yet but it does sound like an interesting read. I’m off to get it.