March 2010 Archives

Top three tech trends at SXSWi 2010

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Realtime web + location-aware apps = Awesome

Unless you were hiding under a rock (no doubt driven there by the sheer volume of tweets tagged #sxsw), you will have noticed the power of the realtime web and location-aware applications. This double act has been a darling of the tech world for a while, but its true awesomeness didn't really hit home for me until last week. As The Next Web noted, as more web apps make the leap to mobile, all other services will be features of location, just as video and photo sharing are features of social media today.

Privacy is not a binary issue

Which brings us to the thorny issue of striking a happy balance between sharing one's lifestream with others while maintaining one's privacy. danah boyd's opening remarks on privacy and publicity can been seen on YouTube or you can read the transcript at her site. And of course, this is SXSW, so you also have the option of a hip-hop recap and a visual note:

danahboydlecture.jpg 

Game mechanics FTW

Possibly the best session for me was Kickstarter founder Andy Baio's talk "Gaming the Crowd: Turning Work Into Play", which focused on how game mechanics can be woven into business applications to make otherwise dull tasks more engaging and, well, fun.

Switched has a good post on the talk, and you can see tweet-by-tweet coverage on Jason Wojciechowski's ScribbleLive blog.

The big lesson here is that you can get people to do almost anything if you turn the process into a game.

As Baio said, "Even though you know you're being manipulated, doesn't change the fact that the game is fun."

You could use that power for good - as games developer Jane McGonigal noted in her recent TED Talk on online gaming to improve the real world - or you can use it for evil, as demonstrated by now notorious auctions site Swoopo.

 

(Image courtesy of www.imagethink.net.)

Looking back at SXSWi 2010

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One week on, the dust has settled, the air miles and carbon emissions have been racked up, the bacon grease is sitting comfortably in those arteries and SXSW 2010 is over. How was it for you?

I went to Austin as a SXSW n00b, expecting something spectacular. I was disappointed. I've been reliably informed that this is the general n00bish experience, and that if I go again, my overall appreciation of the event will be much improved. Or my expectations lowered. Something along those lines, anyway.

For this first trip to SXSWi I joined the Digital Mission funded by UKTI which gives UK companies in the tech space a helping hand in exploring and expanding into new business markets.

This year the UK tech scene was represented by (deep breath) Amberlight, Audioboo, Blueleaf Digital, Brainient, Codegent, Codility, Cube Interactive, Face Group, FreshNetworks, GigLocator, Howard Baines, Illumina Digital, KMP Digitata, Likecube, Little World Gifts, Littleloud, Mendeley, Mobilized, MOFILM, Moonfruit, MusicMetric, Nsyght, oneDrum, Orange Bus, PageDo, Pixeco, Plug-in Media, Qhub, Rummble, Silence Media, Skimlinks, Slicethepie, Smidgn, SubHub, TweetJobs, UberVu, Vibio, Videojuicer, Wolfstar and WorldTV.

For these companies, and for the thousands more that were represented, SXSW was a massive networking opportunity. As with any big event like this, most of the action happened outside of the conference programme, at the parties and on the trade show floor.

At this point, I'd intended to include some video shot on my trusty Kodak Zi8. However, as nifty as the Zi8 is, it makes no allowances for people who accidentally delete their footage in the brainfog of jetlag. Techfluff.tv to the rescue!

See more at the Digital Mission blog.

I tried to make the most of the panels and conference sessions, but honestly, there was just too much choice. It seems the SXSW organisers prefer a hit-and-miss approach to quality control. It keeps you on your toes - or rather, your feet, as you're constantly hopping between sessions to find something worth listening to. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't.

One panel to pique my interest was What Guys are Doing to Get More Girls in Tech. And you can find out more about that over on Computer Weekly's WITsend blog, and finally, there'll be a report on this blog later today about the top three tech trends I spotted in Austin.

 

Was the budget good for IT?

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Kate Craig-Wood is founder and CEO of hosting company Memset. She said, "There are three things in 2010's budget which I'm really pleased to see as a high-tech entrepreneur:

1) Pushing RBS and Lloyds to lend to small businesses. Despite a healthy, profitable and growing business, we have not been able to get borrowing from any banks under the EFG without providing director's guarantees. We need banks to be willing to share at least a tiny portion of the risk, otherwise we may as well just extend our mortgages even more. As a cloud computing provider, we are very capital intensive - our growth rate is limited by cash availability more than anything else. Without borrowing our growth rate is capped at what we, the directors, can afford to leave in the business.

2) I'm really relieved to see the increase in investment allowance, doubling capital gains tax relief for entrepreneurs and the freeze on capital gains (we feared it would return to 40%). With these changes I am now more inclined to keep investing the majority of my personal wealth back into my business to help it grow as fast as possible.

3) I'm pleased to see that they are hearing our (high-tech sector's) desperate need for science & maths graduates, but that must not come at the expense of university-based "blue sky" research!

Barry Murphy, UK technology leader at Price WaterHouse Coopers, said measures to support the computer games industry sound positive but need more clarity around them. 

"The Games industry has long argued for support to stem the drift of talent and jobs from the UK. Just how much support is in the rules we still need to see, but if modelled on the film tax relief rules there is at least a well understood base to work from.

"The bigger picture here is how games are becoming part of the user media experience and are no longer confined to teenagers in darkened bedrooms. Online games have transformed into a social medium. As an example 8.5% of BBC iplayer viewing in September was via the PS3 games console.

"Additionally embedded advertising in games is set to be a large growth market therefore incentivising activity that allows the UK to participate in this economic success is welcome."

 

Matthew Poyiadgi, European vice president at CompTIA, the global IT industry association, said the speech held a couple of points which could spell good news for the IT industry:
 
"The 15% increase in government contracts to SMEs will have advantages on both sides. For IT SMEs this will obviously mean more opportunities to win contracts from government. But they need to be smart. They will be up against large companies who have been doing this for years, so will need to really understand what the department is looking for, identify how they can deliver it better than anyone else, and communicate that smaller organisations can do the job just as well as larger ones.
"The Chancellor also announced a green investment bank with £2bn of equity to fund low-carbon transport and energy schemes. He also emphasised his commitment to Digital Britain and rolling out broadband across the UK. Such high-tech initiatives require technology development, implementation and ongoing management, so this is great news for the IT industry which will play an essential part in supporting such projects. 
"This is a welcome move from an environmental perspective, but we shouldn't let the excitement of shiny new technology distract us from other important environmental challenges. There is a lot that can be done through better IT practices which will have a huge effect on emissions and help organisations meet targets and save money. 
"Perhaps a more important measure from the industry's perspective is the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme which comes into force on 1 April, placing responsibility on organisations to cut emissions across the board. IT has an important role to play here and that is why CompTIA has today launched a new certificate in Green IT, which will help organisations cut their carbon emissions and save money through sustainable IT practices."
 


 

Reactions to Gordon Brown's digital economy announcements

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What's the reaction been so far to Gordon Brown's digital economy announcements this morning? Similar to most government technology-related announcements: nice idea, but how's it going to happen?

Jim Killock, executive director at the Open Rights Group, highlighted the inconsistencies of wanting broadband for all while cutting off filesharers. He said: "These sound like great ideas, but the government cannot plan to deliver every service online, and simultaneously plan to disconnect families after allegations of minor copyright offences.

"The only consistent and reasonable way forward is to drop clauses 11-18 of the Digital Economy Bill, that would allow thousands of families to be cut off the internet."

Web designer Katy Bairstow agreed, saying on Twitter, "Super-fast connections to every home and internet-only government services are incompatible with bandwidth throttling and disconnection."

Sue Black, head of computer science at Westminster University, pointed to a potentially huge stumbling block in the shape of a lack of UK computer science talent. Computer science applicants are falling year on year, but the government has yet to invest money in the area and throw its weight behind getting more bright students into technology. Politicians are paying more and more lip service to the importance of the digital economy, but Sue warned none of this will reap the benefits they want if there aren't enough talented people working to make it happen.

She said, "It was great to hear from the prime minister that there will be £30 million for a new Web Science Institute and substantial investment in digital inclusion but for me this information is tempered with the knowledge that university computer science departments are closing. Lack of support and investment in university computer science now will mean a lack of knowledgeable computer science experts in the future. So when we are ready to take a lead in the global technology arena in 2015 we will suddenly realise that all the fundamental expertise we need is overseas. Oops."

Des Speed, CEO of Lagan Technologies, said plans for Mygov - which will deliver a personalised "dashboard" of public services for each person - need careful planning.

He said, "Individual web pages, whilst eye-catching, are not a panacea, unless they form part of a more coherent service management and delivery strategy. A two-dimensional page needs to be part of effective three-dimensional service provision.

"There are risks, for example, that bottlenecks and false expectations can be created. In our experience, any government to citizen implementation must be designed with the benefits in mind before any decision is made about the tools."

Colin Rowland, Senior vice presidentof EMEA Operations at OpTier, also focussed on the back ground systems that will be required to support the project.

He said, "The success of this project will be the ability to integrate multiple systems through one portal. It will be crucial for the government to ensure that the infrastructure and IT systems are up to task and able to cope with the massive surge in online usage that a system used by 60 million people could cause. To do this the Government will need to be proactive in tackling IT problems before they hit citizens and impact their user experience or worse lead to services being taken offline. If they aren't, millions will be seriously disgruntled at being unable to access vital government services."

Susan Anderson, director for public services and skills at the Confederation for British Industry, welcomed plans for online public services. But she warned that contracts for the work must be open for businesses to bid for.
"Next-generation broadband has great potential in both the private and state sectors. We welcome the Government's commitment to stimulating demand for it by providing state-run services over the internet.
"Innovations such as online consultations with GPs and teaching via the internet could help deliver better-quality services for consumers, and save the taxpayer money.
"However, we are concerned that the Government's intention to create state-owned 'business service companies' could actually backfire by preventing commercial companies from competing for contracts. It would be better to create a level playing field to encourage competition and efficiency."

Jos Creese, vice president at the Society of IT Managers and Chair of the Local CIO Council, said it will be crucial to focus on introducing cultural change as well as new technology.

"The role of IT in national economic prosperity and social well-being is incontrovertible but also well-known. Where politicians in the past have been somewhat fearful of technology programmes, Gordon Brown's speech is to be welcomed, as is the profile now being given to technology by all the political parties. Creating a supportive climate for IT innovation in both business and in the public sector will be essential to future UK competitiveness and to sustainable communities. However, this must extend further than support for the IT industry into priority for public IT infrastructure and the development of online services and support for the public. It must also recognise that IT programmes which fundamentally change things are inherently risky and require cultural change. Its not just about the latest IT."

David Clarke, CEO of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, said, "We welcome the higher profile that IT-related issues are currently receiving. One of the forces behind the Institute for Web Science is our past President, Professor Nigel Shadbolt. The Chartered Institute is also involved with the Race Online Initiative championed by Martha Lane Fox to help the 10 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, to get online. Getting these people the access and confidence to use the internet for these services will be the critical success factor for this approach. In this respect, 2014, the date when the Government plans to have its services online, is not very far away.

"We are absolutely convinced of the social and economic benefits that the internet can bring to citizens. Our view is that universally available internet access at high speed is a necessity for the UK to be competitive in the future.

"These announcements once again highlight the increasingly significant role that IT professionals play in enabling the information society and the critical role they play in the development of future services. We would encourage any post-election Government to place much greater weight on using IT professionals with Chartered IT status to lead initiatives such as this, which have will have a significant impact on people's lives."

David Roberts, executive director of the Corporate IT Forum said, "Writing on behalf of an organisation whose members' businesses employ an average of 20,000 people each, in the UK, we must applaud Mr. Brown's wish for digital Britain to be a world leader.

"One has to wonder just how this will be achieved and at what cost. Providing £30 million for an institute of Web Science sounds very grand indeed but it puts into perspective the diminutive £7 million funding provided to the Police Central E-crime Unit whose role is to protect electronic Britain for 3 years.  This imbalance will make large businesses worry that desperately needed funding for the protection of electronic Britain might be frittered away on a grand web-site and however much Members' four million employees will appreciate open access to public services it is not going to protect their jobs.

"While on the subject of open, Mr Brown implies that open source technology is 'freely available'. According to a timely survey of Members on open source matters, Open does not mean free. Open is not plug and play.  It is not self documenting, it does not self-maintain and interfaces need customising. Members prefer to build O/S systems. Package systems don't meet needs and there is organisational resistance to non-supported systems. Development and support costs are unpredictable.

"Where members do agree very strongly with Mr. Brown is in the need to invest in e-skilling people, perhaps starting with the elderly who will need to communicate with public services electronically which brings us back to the underfunded protection of electronic Britain."


Facebook overtakes Google: What does it mean for business?

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Facebook has overtaken Google for the first time, becoming the most used website by US users.
The Financial Times reported that the two sites accounted for 14 per cent of all internet traffic last week, with Facebook receiving 7.03 per cent and Google 7 per cent. The lead, while small, shows the shift from search to social web.
The hype around Twitter in 2009 took some attention off Facebook, but it still doubled its membership from 200m to 400m.
The trend shows the need for businesses to understand how social websites work, and how they might be best used within or for an organisation. If consumers and employees are flocking onto social sites like Facebook, how much of a role will they play in both consumption and business practices in five or ten years, and how do businesses adapt them to their needs? Social networks can fall as fast as they rise - as with MySpace - but the overall trend seems clear and the questions will need fast answers.

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