Category Archives: Technology

The BBC rages against the machine

During the last couple of weeks, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme has featured reports by Dominic Arkwright on the success and failure of computers during the last 40 years:

Forty years ago, computers were about to revolutionise our lives. They would steal our jobs, said the pessimists. They would give us more leisure time, said the optimists. But what has actually happened?

These interesting programmes are currently on the BBC’s web site, and can be found via the following links (NB: you will need Real Audio’s RealPlayer software):

Ocado OK?

Today I received a promotional email from Ocado, the new on-line grocery business that I wrote about a few weeks ago (see Shop Till They Drop), and since I abandoned my initial attempt to use their service, I wondered how they are doing.

Before they came up with the brand name Ocado they were called Last Mile Solutions, which is a much more meaningful name given the major logistical problem facing a grocery delivery business. However, L.M.S. is clearly not so good if you want to be remembered for providing food, and this new business, which appears to have been founded by a gang of guys from Goldman Sachs and Marks & Spencer, has lofty ambitions indeed! The following text comes from its website:

Our Mission

  • Our mission is to make grocery shopping the highlight of the week for our customers.
  • Our vision is to create an exciting new grocery experience in which our actions speak louder than our words. Our people are encouraged and trusted to exceed their own and customers’ expectations. Together we will deliver an unrivalled personal service that surprises and delights our customers every time.

The highlight of the week? Good luck, mate!

Different Perspectives

It’s always amazing how different experiences result in widely different opinions. During a recent trip to the UK Nick Denton wrote (Olde England):

Back in Olde England, and realizing with a jolt how modern it is. And did you read about Estonia, where the government has streetsigns indicating the presence of wireless networks? The more antiquated the infrastructure, the easier it is to scrap, and start afresh. Yes, so London buildings still look scrawny, and the trains rattle, but a visitor might be surprised by…

  • the cathedral spaces of the Jubilee line subway
  • the Heathrow Express, whisking arrivals from the airport to the center of town in 15 minutes
  • mobile phones sold like candy
  • 3p per minute calls to Australia
  • free electronic bank transfers
  • online grocery shopping
  • local government offices that call you back
  • discount airlines offering flights to the Med for the price of a taxi

Meanwhile, in response to an article on the benefits of broadband, BBC News | Technology | Riding the internet’s fast lane, John Corbally wrote:

I have had broadband for four years now in California at just $40 per month. My whole family back home in the UK – mostly salaried professionals – are not even on dialup and if they do have access at work, can’t see the movies I send them or even get in trouble for using the e-mail. I bank, shop, plan social events, communicate with all friends, read news, watch sports and movies, study and work online and have done for years. It frustrates me that England is so far behind on what will soon be like the phone or TV for being in touch with the world.

Two very different perspectives resulting in quite opposite impressions. I have written previously about the improvements in daily life here in the UK during the last decade, so you won’t be surprised to learn that I agree with Nick Denton. Just the other day I was amazed to discover that my sister, who currently lives in Philadelphia, still cannot order groceries on-line. She used to, but the business (, I suspect) went under. In some respects at least, the US really does need to catch up.

Goodbye Lineone (aka Tiscali)

Here’s a story that’s rather relevant to this weblog: BBC NEWS | Business | Tiscali back in the red. As the BBC story says:

Tiscali cut its sales forecast for this year to 800m euros, down from 1bn euros, after losing almost half a million subscribers in April, May and June.

Earlier this month Tiscali blocked the transferring of files on all carriers except their own dial-up and broadband connections. This is why my weblog stagnated in August. Tiscali barred from transferring any files, so nothing I wrote appeared on my site.

Tiscali has initiated this policy in the hope of forcing its customers to use its carriers and thereby generate revenue via the telephone. Well, not me. I refuse to pay for Internet telephone calls, and so have purchased web space elsewhere. In fact, if you’re reading this post I have already moved my website from Lineone (a part of Tiscali) to my own domain, and so contributed my part to Tiscali’s decline. Not only will this policy fail to increase revenue, it will drive viewers away, which will simply worsen the decline in advertising revenue. Goodbye and good riddance!

Doomsday for the Domesday Project

The column on the BBC News website occasionally publishes interesting stories. The basis of this week’s story, No home for digital pictures, first appeared in the press in March, and it’s about the problems caused when technology changes too quickly.

Apparently, a visual record of life in the UK in 1986 called the Domesday Project has run into trouble because the medium on which the information is stored is becoming increasingly difficult to access, and the BBC thinks this issue will become particularly problematic for digital photography in the future.

“The problem is there will be no way to look at them [the photographs]. That’s because technology evolves so fast that any storage medium in use today is bound to become obsolete sooner or later. Finding the right equipment to retrieve digital images stored decades previously on obsolete media will become almost impossible.

In fact, it turns out that images stored electronically just 15 years ago are already becoming difficult to access. The Domesday Project, a multimedia archive of British life in 1986 designed as a digital counterpart to the original Domesday Book compiled by monks in 1086, was stored on laser discs.

The equipment needed to view the images on these discs is already very rare, yet the Domesday book, written on paper, is still accessible more than 1,000 years after it was produced.”

This comparison is interesting, but also rather misleading. Is the original Domesday book any less rare than the equipment that reads these laser discs? It may have survived a thousand years, but is the Domesday book really readily accessible today? Isn’t it kept under strict lock and key by the Public Record Office? Is it written in a language and script that most of us still understand?

Ironically, the best place for most of us to learn about the Domesday book these days is the Internet. In fact, the information contained in the Domesday book is now more accessible than ever before thanks to the very digital technology that is criticised in this story.

All technologies have strengths and weaknesses, and information technology is no exception. What this story really highlights is the need to ensure that important information is copied onto whatever media is most appropriate in the future. The difficulty is not posed by the technology, but by the need to define what’s important. I don’t know if future generations will consider a multimedia record of ordinary life in 1986 as important, but I’m pretty sure they’ll still consider the Domesday book worth saving.

You have to love this…

BT ChartHere’s an example of the level of service now available from British Telecom that I mentioned in my previous post about British efficiency. These charts illustrating my household telephone usage were produced on-line automatically at the press of a button! BT’s billing information has gone from one extreme to the other in the last ten years, and in the right direction in my opinion. I wonder what they will do for an encore. Does your phone company provide a similar service?

Shop ‘Till They Drop A

Ocado Home PageA new home shopping service has opened for business. Ocado is in partnership with Waitrose, and its motto appears to be the rather bland and vague statement “Supermarket shopping, the way it should be”.

Ocado (strange name) obviously wants some of Tesco’s market, and is promoting the following benefits:

  • Fresh Waitrose goods (Waitrose is generally considered to offer the highest quality of Britain’s supermarkets);
  • Free delivery for orders of £75 or more;
  • and rather pointedly, “A service that can actually deliver what you order”.

This last offering is a not so thinly veiled criticism of Tesco’s service, which was known at one point for frequently omitting products ordered by its customers.

Ocado has come up with some good ideas to get the business going:

  • You can telephone their support helpline to be guided through the site;
  • You can make an appointment for a member of their staff to visit you at home and help you with your first order;
  • Or you can send them the receipt from your last shopping trip, and they will call you when they’ve opened an account for you and setup your shopping list online.

They’re also offering £10 off each of your first five orders over £75, but this last incentive is not as good as it seems. The five orders must all be completed within eight weeks of placing your first order, and this limitation makes me think that Ocado has misunderstood, or has chosen to ignore, how online shopping changes the way people shop.

Home delivery services are best suited to bulk purchases of non-perishable products, which is how I’ve used them since 1997. They don’t really work for fresh produce, which is still better if purchased as and when you need it. So, I use Tesco’s service to buy large quantities of standard products once every two months. There’s absolutely no way you need to buy groceries every week using these services, not unless you’re feeding a small army. I would be lucky to order twice during Ocado’s discount period, and so it’s not much of an incentive after all.

My verdict to date? Ocado has a tasteful web site (no pun intended), but it’s not yet as useful or flexible as Tesco’s well established online service.

HamBlog anyone?

“The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.”
Benjamin Jowett 1817-1893

I hate to be conventional by climbing on the self-reverential blogging bandwagon, but here’s a good story on weblogs from Canada’s National Post: Bloggers’ emerge from internet underground. It includes the following quote from Dave Winer of Scripting News:

If improved technology created the opportunity for a blog-explosion, it was Sept. 11 that created the desire for one. “A huge burst of growth came out of September 11th,” said Winer from his Silicon Valley office. “When there’s just an incredible amount of information available and people are so hungry for that information, then to have a great distribution system in place is in our national interest. September 11th was an incredible day for amateur journalism.”

I realise that modern technology has changed the scale massively, but it seems to me that ham radio operators were providing such a “distribution system” many years ago and it was equally in the “national interest” even then.

Everything old is new again…

“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don’t know.”
Ambrose Bierce 1842-1914

Having only recently read about this blogging phenomenon, I thought I would try it out by posting some things I wrote with similar intent way back in 1997.

I’ve Died And Gone To Heaven!

As reported in Wednesday’s edition of the Financial Times:

“British youngsters flocked to beaches in Cornwall where thousands of colourful Lego building bricks were washed up after being tossed overboard from a ship damaged in a storm in the Channel. The toy bricks had been on the way to the US from Denmark.”

Re-Engineering The Grocery Shopping

Having returned from New York to an empty fridge in an empty flat, it was time to order the groceries again. Since October I have been shopping for groceries over the Internet. We’re participating in a trial currently being conducted by one of the UK’s leading food retailers, and as you can probably guess, it has both advantages and disadvantages.

Actually, the fact that our orders are transmitted to the store via the Internet (as an email essentially) is really irrelevant to us; we could almost as easily send our shopping list to them via the Royal Mail. The significant benefit from our point of view is that our groceries are now delivered to our door at a time of our choosing. And since my New Year’s resolution was not to set foot in a grocery store (with the notable exception of Marks & Spencer), I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this new service! I truly hope it succeeds and is expanded to serve the whole of the UK.

However, I have to admit that the process has its problems. From the start we’ve never received everything we’ve ordered; every single delivery has missed some items that she who shall remain nameless deemed essential (Pineapple Slices In Syrup 439g; Salted Cashew Halves 100g) and that were reportedly out of stock on the day our order was prepared (how can they run out of laundry detergent or fabric softener for goodness sake?!). In addition, we have sometimes received goods intended for someone else (if you’re still waiting for your 10 lbs of potatoes and six tins of peaches, we have them here!). There haven’t been too many problems with payment, if you exclude that fact that their software refuses to accept the last digit of my debit card and that our accounts have yet to be debited for two out of our five deliveries. And of course, it was inevitable that eventually, the van wouldn’t arrive in our chosen two-hour time slot. But those teething problems aside, the service is a great time saver (except when she who shall remain nameless spends an hour and a half compiling the list) and a welcome relief to those of us that find grocery shopping in person a stressful chore.

It has occurred to me, however, that some of our criticisms of our home shopping experience are our own fault. We have made a classic mistake. We failed to adapt the way we shop to take into account the new information technology we’re now using. Having applied information technology to our grocery shopping, we failed to consider changing the way in which we shop for food. If we re-engineered the grocery shopping process, we might experience fewer problems and hence enjoy the benefits of home shopping even more.

For example, to use the new technology to its best advantage we really need to use it only for what it does best. Home delivery is excellent for non-perishable goods of consistent quality that can be ordered in bulk. It’s not so good for items of variable quality such as meat, fruit and vegetables. Consequently, we should consider splitting up our grocery shopping by buying fresh produce from the grocer on our street corner, convenience foods from those kings of own-label products, Marks & Spencer, and non-perishable stuff from the national food retailer via the Internet. But that actually raises another problem for those of us in small homes — where do we put all those items that we now want to buy in bulk? Storage space is often in short supply in the UK, where many people don’t have large freezers in which to store copious quantities of frozen food. So this new style of shopping could end up changing household appliances and presumably even homes, if it proved sufficiently popular.