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April 23, 2009

From dunce to developer

Bill Thompson is something of a Great Uncle of the world wide web. He’s not the daddy – that’s Tim Berners-Lee. He’s more of a godfather, who Berners-Lee might trust if he had a nasty accident with some html.

In his latest posting on the BBC News | Technology site, he points out one of the many ways in which IT education in Britain is rubbish and how more of us are going to need to at least know about programming and development.

I’ve been writing websites since about 1999. My first was a sort of primitive blog, without comments. I reviewed music, films and games. It had about one reader. Me.

Then in 2001 I created a community website for my home town called Tetbury Online. Miraculously the internet archive has preserved my earliest efforts from 2002 and 2003. The site’s changed cosmetically since, but not a lot. It’s still just a static load of html with some code from Google thrown in to make it seem a little more dynamic.

I was already thinking about it before Bill Thompson’s column came out, but he might have tipped me over the edge: I’m scrapping the whole site and rebuilding it in something a little more Web 2.0.

I’ve chosen Drupal as a content management system as it seems to be well supported, relatively simple and infinitely flexible. Oh, and free. That unfortunately means heaving the whole website to a new hosting company and shared server so that I can install the cms. My old hosting provider didn’t allow databases, which I’ve recently discovered is what makes the internet go round.

Drupal’s based largely on php – a programming language with which I am as familiar with as veganism or Hungarian. But from what I can tell, that shouldn’t matter. Drupal, and other CMS’s, like Joomla are based on a system of menus, buttons, drop-down boxes and remarkably little code. All the hard work goes on under the surface.

The biggest advantage of using a content management system over just html is that for the first time, I’ll be able to let other people fiddle with the site. I’m hoping that local groups will add events, businesses will update their directory listings and employers will post their vacancies. In short, while re-writing the whole site will be a chore, once it’s done I can share the load of updating the site with others.

The new site will also be about six billion percent more dynamic. I can enable comments on any page at the press of a button. No coding. Just a click. I can have every article appear on an RSS feed without having to understand how. And I can create event calendars, audio slideshows, aggregated feeds, and Google Maps in 30 seconds.

It’s an awesome bit of kit – it’s just a shame the barrier to entry (having your own shared server space = £30+ per year) is high enough to put people off having a try.

Hopefully by the summer when the site should go live, I’ll be able to call myself a developer, of sorts. All without learning any code. Now that they should be teaching in schools.


March 12, 2009

What next for Spotify?

I, and I suspect everyone I’ve recommended it to, love Spotify.

It’s ludicrously simple, the adverts are reasonably unobtrusive, and it’s free.

But I can still hear the creaking of the floodgates. Spotify’s a step forward for making everything ‘free’ to the consumer, but I think there’s much more to come.

First up, a simple one: Spoken word. Spotify would be 100% better if it had comedy, drama and classic radio documentaries available. I suspect much of this material hasn’t been released on CD before because it wouldn’t be economic. Now it is. The long tail’s wagging and I hope BBC Worldwide et al will jump on board it soon.

Spotify logoSecond, a new medium altogether: Games. I’ve had a look, and unless I’m mistaken, there’s nowhere to rent PC games online. Even sites like Swapgame and Lovefilm will only let you rent console games. And then they choose to prop up Royal Mail rather than use something more modern like downloads. The idea of spending £35+ on a new game has always baffled me. My attention span isn’t long enough to justify that sort of outlay. And rather than a fee-paying model, why not rent the games out for free in return for some advertising?

Thirdly, a step onto other people’s turf: TV. Project Kangaroo’s skipped off into oblivion, and there’s still a big gap in the market for non-PSB online TV. Some services are on the cusp of getting it right – we have BT Vision and it’s great, if a little expensive. Surely the ad-funded model is the way forward?

The best thing about these ways forward, in my opinion, is that they could bring in much more money than just streaming music. There’s a lot of scepticism that an advert every 20mins will be enough to pay the conservative record companies what they want. Each of these three ideas depend on the support of industries who are likely to be much more open to ‘free’ than the music industry has been.

If I was Spotify, I’d Diversify.

=====

P.S. This article hints at Spotify trying to get on mobile devices. If I were working for Google, I’d be pushing Android to get exclusivity on it – it’d make the Apple. fall from its tree and splatter all over Cupertino.


October 28, 2008

RSS comes of age

My RSS reader became much more useful yesterday.

The Guardian became the first major newspaper in the world to include its full articles in RSS feeds.

Sounds technical, but what it means is you can read the whole paper without going anywhere near the paper – and for free.

The best bit is the ability to filter things out. My blog reader is now getting updated any time Simon Hoggart (RSS) writes one of his brilliant parliamentary sketches. It gets George Monbiot’s (RSS) environmental polemics, and it gets Charlie Brooker’s (RSS) screenwipes and rants. You can also filter by subject.

I suspect this is unlikely to make The Guardian much money from advertising. Instead, I think they’re probably doing this to boost their international standing. It’s always been the pioneer among newspapers online, although I think others will be reluctant to follow suit on this one.


June 14, 2007

The end of social networking?

The BBC loves it. Rupert Murdoch loves it. Even the government is falling in love with it.

But like Grandstand, Marathon bars, the Drachma and the Beatles, everything has a lifecycle.

Find a FriendWhat am I talking about?

Social networking.

MySpace, Facebook and Bebo have quickly grown to become some of the biggest websites in the world. Facebook’s growth has been particularly impressive: 400,000 just over six months ago is 2,000,000 today.

But how long can these websites (if we can call them that) continue to expand? And what will happen when they reach their peak?

One small event triggered me to wonder whether social networking sites are ultimately doomed: My mum joined one.

Now, I can cope with this. I’m a grown-up and I know she’s only joined so she can spy on the local trouble-making kids (ah, if only Facebook had net curtains).

I think most mums are probably as inquisitive as mine. And they’ve got better things to do than join their own special site for middle-aged people. They’d much rather jump on-board the kids’ version and use it to their advantage.

But what happens when everyone’s mum is on Facebook, MySpace or Bebo? How will the yoof react?

Facebook I find particularly troubling. The USP of Facebook was that it was an academic site, useful for arranging nights out or joining groups where you slag off your lecturers. But then they opened up to everyone. Not only does this make privacy an issue, but it also leads to PSD, or Parental Snooping Disease.

While I can still just about see a use to Facebook, I wonder whether the fact that everyone is on there – and the ebbing away of the site’s coolness that will follow – will be enough to tip people over the edge and back to their previously hermitic existence when they weren’t connected to their ‘mini-feed’.

Ultimately, we’ll find ourselves asking ‘Do I really need Facebook/Bebo/Myspace?’ and then asking ‘Is that need outweighed by the fact that having my mum on there is mortally embarrassing?’. The more time I spend on Facebook, the more I begin to think it’s like Big Brother (the TV show rather than the Orwellian concept, although the latter may also be true). It’s addictive to start with, and then you realise it’s just wasting your time.

This isn’t what big business wants to hear. They’re piling onto the social networking bandwagon faster than you can say ‘cash-cow’. The trouble is… might they arrive too late?

And if they are too late and social networking recedes, then what next? Will we find new and more involving ways to connect with people online, or will we rediscover the phone, texting, and even (whisper it) talking face-to-face?


March 10, 2007

Image Rights and Wrongs

Paul McCartney and Heather Mills This has to be the most bizarre advert I’ve ever seen online. Presumably neither of them has given permission for this, which makes it all the more odd as it appears on a well-respected U.S. website.

The advert links to a UK-based consumer website, which is of no relevance to either Paul McCartney or Heather Mills – it’s just attention-grabbing. I hope they have good lawyers.

P.S. The word ‘abuse’ flashes in the advert, just for effect.


March 04, 2007

YouTube wants best of both worlds, but is getting neither

Google’s probably wondering why it bothered. YouTube is causing it a major headache, which it should have seen coming.

According to the Washington Post the company is trying to shore up content deals with providers like MTV and NBC, but is finding it hard because of the illegal content on its site.

At the same time, the great USP of YouTube is the ease with which people can get this illegal stuff. The BBC’s content deal this week is all well and good. But it’s all behind-the-scenes stuff and archive clips. What people want is last night’s EastEnders and Casualty. There’s a danger YouTube’s desire to get ‘proper’ content on its site will kill off its appeal.

I think this is probably just a transitionary phase though. Content owners will be happy to show real videos on YouTube when they get given a sizable sum of advertising revenue. If YouTube hosted EastEnders (with adverts) and the Beeb took 50%, they’d probably be pretty happy. So would I. As much as I don’t want to watch EastEnders, I’d be glad to see BBC programmes available 24/7. Their iPlayer seems destined to land some time around the next lunar eclipse at this rate.

The opportunities for companies like the BBC would be incredible. Shows that currently get six million viewers could be seen by ten times that number.

But the big ‘What If’ in the room is whether YouTube’s going to lose its street cred as it becomes all corporate and legal. If it wants to kill off the linear channel as we know it, it needs to act professional while still feeling like the naughty little kid of the internet.


January 31, 2007

BBC iPlayer a step closer

The BBC iPlayer might revolutionise television. It’s potentially bigger than Digital TV. And it’s coming. Because today the BBC’s Trust approved the software.

You’ll be able to watch all of the BBC’s programmes online, live. And then you’ll be able to download them to your computer for 30 days. You can set series links and keep hold of series like Doctor Who and watch them all at once.

They’ve made a few changes, some good and some bad. You won’t be able to download some classical music, or keep hold of certain radio plays. But it will have to be content neutral (initially it was Microsoft-only). This is great, but might delay the product launch. It’s already looking like late-2007, early-2008.

It’s what broadband was made for, and I can’t wait.


January 18, 2007

America's taking online politics seriously… but are we?

Millions of Americans were using the internet to learn more about the Midterm elections last year, with an average of 26million people logging on every day.

Research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that 15% of Americans chose the internet as their main source of election news, up from 7% in 2002. And 23% of those people were forwarding political commentary or videos on a blog, making it – perhaps – the most interactive election in history.

The busiest month of the online campaign was August, which is traditionally very quiet in American political campaigns.

Pew Research Project figures

As far as I know, these figures are broadly similar (in direction, at least) to the situation in the UK. We’re seeing a very similar picture in the decline of newspapers and television, while radio is holding up. Magazines are more complicated as some political publications (New Statesman etc) have struggled, while The Economist has been a runaway success story.

But on the internet, I wonder if we are seeing the same levels of engagement. While political blogs here are catching up with those in the U.S., more traditional websites (especially those of the main political parties) are very poor in comparison. Compare the British Labour Party website (here) with that of Democrat Presidential hopeful John Edwards (here) which is far more interactive and fresh.

There’s an interesting game of spot-the-difference to be played when looking at Democrat and Republican sources of news. Is there a similar split in the UK?

Pew Research Project figures (3)

Finally, while newspapers and TV seem to be in decline, it’s not all bad news for them as long as they’re willing to move their operations online:

Pew Research Project figures (2)

January 08, 2007

Google Reader Saved My Life

Google Reader Picture the scene. I’d visit a blog like Adam Meets World several times a day, just to see if he’d written anything earth-shattering. Of course he hadn’t. But I had to be first to see if he had.

I’d do this for several blogs, probably accounting for 90% of some people’s hits as I clicked ‘refresh’ out of boredom.

WELL NOT ANY MORE!!!

That’s right. I chose not to choose boredom. I’ve chosen something else. And it is Google Reader.

Google Reader gets all my favourite blogs, tells me when they’ve been updated and displays them all in a handy list (see left).

Not only has it saved time, but it’s also extended the life of my mouse. I heartily recommend it.


November 28, 2006

You are an arse and a wife–beater…

...and not only do you smell, you also beat your children.

What ya gonna do about it???

Well, the director of the Press Complaints Commission, Tim Toulmin, says you should be able to go to a Blogs Complaints Commission which acts as a regulator over libelous and nasty comment on the internet.

Like the PCC, it would be self-regulating and have no real bite behind its bark. You’d have to apologise publicly on your blog, retract the original comment and look very very sorry.

But it’s a non-starter. There are far too many blogs for any independent body to be able to oversee them. Even if done in the style of Wikipedia – so the job of regulating blogs was shared between many people – I can’t imagine that a body of work so huge could be adjudicated fairly. Mr Toulmin also seems to ignore the widely-held view that the PCC doesn’t work, so why would a blogging equivalent?

It might work as a voluntary scheme, adding greater credibility to the creme de la creme of blogs. But who would sit on a Blogs Complaints Commission?

I applaud Tim Toulmin for rejecting the idea of strict regulation, governed by law. But I challenge him to come up with a way of making this work.


November 22, 2006

Wi–Fi – The New Mobile Phone?

We’ve been here before. For years people have been complaining that mobile phone masts have been making them ill. We’ve even heard it from people who live near overhead power lines. But now there’s a new way of killing us wirelessly.

Wi-Fi.

According to The Times several schools have been dismantling their wireless networks over fears that schoolchildren may be becoming ill because of them. Some of the testimony from children and teachers is quite damning:

“I felt a steadily widening range of unpleasant effects whenever I was in the classroom,” he said. “First came a thick headache, then pains throughout the body, sudden flushes, pressure behind the eyes, sudden skin pains and burning sensations, along with bouts of nausea. Over the weekend, away from the classroom, I felt completely normal.”

Today’s letters page in the paper features more complaints from people worried about the health risks.

This news is even more worrying because of plans to create Wi-Fi bubbles (also known as Wi-Max) which cover entire cities in a cloud of wireless. If the health claims are well-founded, this news could well scupper these plans.


November 07, 2006

Getting off lightly

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6122046.stm

A firm responsible for an incredible 6,900,000,000 pop-up ads has been fined a whopping £2m by the Federal Trade Commission in the United States.

As a “heavy user” (stop laughing at the back) of the internet, there’s nothing more annoying than this kind of crap, especially when it’s the result of adware, which is what Zango specialised in.

These ads often prey on the most vulnerable, informing you that you’ve won £56,000 on the Icelandic lottery, but asking for your credit card details before sending you the (non-existent) money.

The CEO of Zango apparently “deeply regretted” any negative impact.

Bullshit.

Update: Zango is apparently still trading. Without any hint of irony, they’re offering an “ad-supported” game called Infection. You couldn’t make it up.


October 17, 2006

*We're all making television now…

Iain Dale is worried that his new internet TV station, 18 Doughty Street is about to be regulated out of existence by the EU. Similarly, YouTube could have to make sure its videos comply with EU legislation as would anyone hoping to put videos online. The British government are against it, saying it would harm future online businesses hoping to put videos online, but few other European countries oppose it.

So what’s going on?
Well the EU is updating its Television Without Frontiers Directive which ensures that standards in television are the same across Europe. The European Commission wants to extend the definition of ‘television’ to include:

  • Broadband, Digital TV and 3G Networks
  • Video on demand
  • Peer-to-Peer video sharing
  • Internet TV

A wide definition would mean that almost any video delivered publicly on the internet would be “on demand” and therefore subject to EU legislation. But it’s important to note that the EU isn’t necessarily including a definition that wide.

But is there a need for any regulation in this area?
Well, not necessarily. The rules need tidying up because they were written in 1989 with only minor revisions in 1997, just when Digital TV was starting up. And there’s an argument that there should be some rules which protect people from videos on the internet of questionable content.

But should these rules be set by the EU?

No.

The internet has never been regulated thoroughly by governments and it seems pretty dangerous to start doing that. The EU’s argument is that a dangerous video which is banned in Britain can easily be uploaded in Slovakia and then viewed by anyone in the EU regardless.

But it can just as easily be hosted in the Bahamas! The EU’s regulation in this area is utterly pointless as there are so many ways to avoid it that it’ll be redundant in about five minutes flat.

Iain’s gone quite over-the-top in proposing we quit the EU (this seems to be being used as an excuse for doing so). Instead he should be listening to what Jose Manuel Barroso said last night: try and change things from the outside rather than lecture from the outside. Only as a full and committed member of the EU will we stop these daft pieces of legislation from being created.


October 15, 2006

A Novel… in 90 seconds.

I’ve always fancied the idea of writing a book, just so long as I can take the credit without doing any of the work. So here’s my first – and probably last – novel, which I’ve condensed into a couple of hundred words to save you and me the bother of writing/reading it. Do let me know if I’ve inadvertantly stolen it from someone else.

Act 1
Man, aged about 30, living in London, 1997. Everything’s fine and rosy, but some things jar slightly. Traffic lights don’t look quite the same. People have mobile phone implants. You know, the usual. Reader suspects that this is some parallel version of 1997 (mammoth hints are dropped when Charles and Diana celebrate their anniversary together). Man gets himself into something he shouldn’t be in (walking in on some lame-ass drug deal or football bung). Reader is very sympathetic (following several chapters which have portrayed him as a thoroughly decent bloke who they’d quite like as a husband/son/father). Something-he-shouldn’t-be-in gets played out for 50-60 pages before he is summarily executed at the hands of some thoroughly unpleasant people. End of Act One.

Act 2
Man, aged about 30, living in Scarborough, 2032. Man has been playing an online-based ‘virtual life’ for the past three years and his death in the ‘game’ means he is booted out and returned to the real, offline world. Things have – you guessed it – changed significantly for the worse in those three years, with family members dying, North Korea finally having blown up the Eastern Hemisphere and climate change having progressed so quickly that it’s now on the downward-side of the curve, quickly approaching 57 degrees below zero. Majority of act chronicles his attempts to deal with this new world he inhabits. Act closes with him stealing someone else’s identity in order to be able to start again as a new player in his online game.

Act 3
Man, aged about 27, living in London, 1994. Said man finds that virtual world is unfortunately realistic and while he was happy in Act 1, his new life turns out to be thoroughly shite. Spends 20-30 pages pondering the fact that what life deals you is pretty much down to luck and realises that he has to choose between dying again (and going back to real world full of ‘real’ problems) or making the most of what his virtual self has. I’ve not quite decided which he should do yet.

Pile of toss, eh? Glad I didn’t waste a year turning it into a 500-page tome of crap.

P.S. If I turn out to have a rubbish sense of whether this is any good or not, I’m claiming full copyright on it. Don’t even try it!


September 04, 2006

Google's listening…

According to The Register Google is working on software which will use your computer microphone to listen what’s going on in your house. Not surprisingly, it hopes to use this information to serve you “content relevant advertising” which, in other words, means that you’ll be watching a football match on TV and Google will think “Hmm…sports fan, here’s an advert for Nike”. Similarly if you’re watching a news story about fishing, Google will listen and throw some angling adverts on your PC screen.

It’s an intriguing development. Obviously, they can’t do this without telling you, although they’re not likely to explictly go out of their way to offer you this amazing new ability to view more advertising. Instead I reckon they’ll package the software with the Google Sidebar, Google Talk or with GMail, meaning you’ll just have to tick a box saying you agree to their ‘terms and conditions’.

As the Register piece mentions, there’s a danger of being in a permanent state of deja vu, but the future uses of the software could be quite wide reaching. Imagine TV advertising tailored to the conversation you’ve just been having. Or radio ads which know which songs you like.

It’s the future, as Peter Kay would say, and it’s becoming more and more like Minority Report every day.


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