Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Starting your own UK Company - it's not that scary!

[This article is about forming Companies in the UK. Specifically, my experience covers England and Wales. To the best of my knowledge, the details are the same if forming in Scotland or Northern Ireland, but there may be differences in companies law in those countries, so please seek detailed advice if you are forming your company there.]

Whether you're launching yourself as a consultant, or starting another kind of business, the one thing you really need is a company of your own. For a lot of people, that's a big, scary idea, and they simply don't know where to start.

The good news is that it's trivially easy, and not very expensive either.

Finding a name

So what do you need? Well, the first thing is a name. You want a name that's memorable, and descriptive or suggestive of what you're selling (without limiting the future scope of the company). Being earlier in the alphabet is also useful. Don't use a dictionary word on its own: firstly, someone will already be using it, and secondly, you can't trademark/service mark dictionary words, you need to do something with it such as write it in a unique font or combine it with other words. ("Bright" isn't a trademark; "Bright Flight" is.) Be as inventive as you can.

Your best friends here are Companies House (http://www.companieshouse.gov.uk/), Google and WHOIS - I use http://www.virtualnames.co.uk/whois.php when I'm not using a Linux PC. Companies House's WebCHeck (their capitalisation) service lets you look for past, present and proposed company names, and make sure you're not going to conflict with someone else's trading name. WHOIS lets you search for related domain names. You want a .com or a .co.uk (both, ideally) as a bare minimum. Ideally, you want the full set of .com, .org, .net, .co.uk, .org.uk, .info, .eu and .biz available. You may wish also to consider .gb.com, .uk.com, .gb.net and .uk.net.

My experience is that this process - coming up with a list of candidate names, removing the ones that conflict with other entities and owned trademarks - takes several days. Don't get upset if your favourite name gets eliminated, or you'll find it a depressing process!

Domain names

Before you register the company, buy the domain names. They're not expensive. Getting the full set above (apart from the ones in the "You may also wish to consider" list) will cost you only £111+VAT from VirtualNames (http://www.virtualnames.co.uk/) - a domain registrar/ISP that I strongly recommend.

Why do you want to register the domains first? Because it stops cyber-squatters, who keep eagle eyes on newly registered companies at Companies House, from getting there before you.

Once you've secured the domains, you're ready to move onto company registration.

Buying your company

Now you're ready to buy your company. I'm going to assume that you want to form a Company Limited By Shares, the "standard" kind, but I'll cover other options later.

Years ago, it cost a small fortune. You'd have to buy a pre-formed company with a stupid name from an accountant or solicitor, along with its Company Seal, then go through the faff, bother and expense of changing the name to something you preferred - usually paying the original registrant even more to help you. Alternatively, you could operate it under another name...but "Clever Ideas (trading as Dumbsmart Bridge Ltd.)" never struck me as a great look.

These days it's a lot simpler - and you don't need a Company Seal any more! You can do it all yourself, direct with Companies House, but it's a lot easier to get someone else to do it. Surprisingly, it's often cheaper, and they'll provide you with Articles of Association, Memoranda of Association and a few other extras too. The firm I've used most of all is Companies Made Simple ("CMS" for brevity), at http://www.companiesmadesimple.com/ - and I'll use their prices here, all of which are ex-VAT. Other registrars are broadly in line with CMS's pricing, or slightly highter.

CMS's cheapest registration package costs all of £16.99, with a three-hour formation time. That compares very favourably with Companies House's £50 same-day service! They throw in a Google AdWords voucher that almost pays for the cost of registration too. I'd remove the Barclay's Business Banking option; I've not been favourably impressed with their service. We'll cover banking a little later.

If you don't want (or are not allowed) to register the company at your home address, many registration agents offer a Registered Office service with mail forwarding. CMS's package including that service for a year is £49.99 (this is instead of the £16.99, not in addition), and there are some added extras included. You may also need a Company Secretary. CMS offers this for an additional £75, although they hide it well!

So, the cheapest way to register (let's assume you want the .com and .co.uk domains, and don't need more than the basic services) is going to cost you (ex-VAT):

Company formation£16.99

That's a total of £52.19 inclusive of the new 20% VAT rate - the equivalent of a couple of months' mobile phone costs, or less than a tank of petrol.

Alternatives to a Limited Company

You don't have to have a Limited Company; there are other options. One that will appeal to group consultancies, and the likes of solicitors and accountants, is the Limited Liability Partnership, or LLP. This is a kind of half-way house between a conventional Partnership and a Limited Company. Unlike a traditional Partnership, where its membership is written into its Articles, the LLP is an independent legal entity. Partners can enter and join without major upset. Whilst each partner is responsible for their own actions, and jointly liable for the LLP's, they are not responsible for each other's.

An LLP can reduce paperwork, compared with a Limited Company. LLP registration can be a lot more expensive than a Limited Company's, though: ex-VAT prices vary from £94 to £150 or more. I find this strange, as Companies House charges only £15 (or £30 for same-day service). If you are thinking of forming an LLP, I'd suggest doing so directly with Companies House, and sourcing a standard Partnership Agreement (optional, but advisable) separately.


Now you've formed your company - from now on, I'll use that to mean either Limited Company or LLP - you need to consider banking.

If you're expecting to handle significant amounts of cash, or if you're going to need a direct relationship with a named account maanger, you should probably be looking towards branch-based banking. Branch accounts are generally a little more expensive to operate. Beware of non-optional "optional" extras: Barclay's, for example, likes new companes to rent accounting software from them, and it can be a bit difficult to persuade them that you want a basic account.

If you don't have those requirements, and you're happy to deal with centralised internet-based banking, I'd recommend Santander Business Banking (http://www.santander.co.uk/business/), currently operated under their recently acquired Abbey Business marque. Almost all transactions are free "forever", provided you don't exceed a substantial turnover level (£1 million at time of writing), and you can still pay in cash amounts (up to £3000 per month) free at Santander branches. They don't charge for cheque books or paying-in books, nor for cheques issued. For a small to medium sized business, that's a pretty good deal. The one warning I'd give is that they inherited Abbey's creaky computer systems. I think they're improving, though.

[Later note (2012-01-25): they didn't, and we sacked them in favour of HSBC Business Banking. In particular, we got very, very tired of Santander not being part of the BACS Faster Payments scheme, so that our payments to other UK banks were delayed by most of a working week, and any payments over a few hundred pounds having to be confirmed as non-fraudulent before they would be passed. That kind of fraud prevention may be fine for low-net-value personal accounts, but not for business accounts, where there's an established trading pattern, and transaction accounts are routinely in the thousands. There were other problems too, including more computer problems and outages at their end. HSBC offers small businesses an initial year of fee-free banking, and then a transition to a primarily online account that has no fees for normal operation, and this is now my recommendation.]

Your web site

So you've got your domains, and your company. Now, and finally, you need a shop front: a web site and corresponding letterhead. For these you need three groups of helpers here, and often you can find them all in one place. The really good news is that at Adeptium Consulting, we can provide all of these for you, and we're not as expensive as you might think, so don't panic! More about that at the end of the article.

The first helper is a designer. You've got a company name, and that's the starting point for creating a corporate image that fits it. Now, you may think, "Why do I, just a singleton consultant, need a corporate image?" Believe me, a good logo combined with a complementary colour scheme makes a great impact, whether it's on a letterhead or a web site. If you're handy with graphical design packages and/or fonts, you might even take this part of the work yourself, but if you do, do pleasse get opinions on your ideas from both strangers and potential customers.

The second and third groups are web site designers and web site hosting providers.

For the design, you'll need to work with a company that creates good, clean web sites that can be maintained and extended by someone who's not a computer guru. After all, you may want to be writing articles yourself when you get new contract wins, without having to pay someone else to do it. That's only the starting point, though.

You're going to need two sites - one that's "live", and one that's a private prototype area not accessible by the public, which parallels the live site. The objective is to make all your changes to the prototype site, never to the live site. Once your prototype site looks good, you've proof-checked it, and you are ready to roll it out to the live site, you need an easy and secure way to make that happen. Finally, the vital bit that many new business people forget - you need backup! Backups should happen regularly, and before each live rollout. Those backups should be sent securely to a server on a different network, so that if your web server fails completely, or a hacker wipes its disk, you can get up and running in minutes, not days or weeks.

Your hosting providers must be able to provide stable, reliable and scalable site hosting. If your business takes off, you want to be able to boost the hosting facilities to manage the increasing load, without visitors ever noticing. Your site designers should be able to work with your hosting providers to set up everything for you and document how to operate your site.


I wrote this blog article to help other business people and pass on some of the tips and tricks I've learnt, having formed quite a few companies, and set up many clients with web hosting, but I'm going to make no apology for a bit of promotion. After all, you got all this advice for free!

One of the companies I've formed, Adeptium Consulting Ltd., can help you with every stage of starting a new company - whether it's just setting up your web service, or the whole package from helping you find a company name, through registration, to sorting out your IT. We can even provide you a portfolio (that's to say, part-time and pay-as-you-go) Technical or IT Director who can be named on your Companies House register of Directors, to advise you on your technical needs, and help you present a much more attractive proposition to prospective customers or potential investors.

Finally, I'd like to make it clear that, with the exception of Adeptium, I have no beneficial interest in any of the companies I've recommended. That is to say: at the time of writing, I don't hold shares in any of them, I don't sell products or services to any of them, and I get no benefit from the recommendations. I have been a satisfied customer of products or services provided by them, and it's solely on that basis that I make the recommendations.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Musical finds, fiends, friends and enemas

Every now and again, I feel the urge to write something about musicians I've discovered or been pointed towards. This posting is sponsored by Spotify and the letter 'F'. Or not. Depending.

At this time of the year, the BBC publishes its list of musicians to watch for in the coming year. You'll find the current list on the Sound of 2011 mini-site. Usually, it's a pretty reliable selection of really decent talent. The 2010 list, for example, included Ellie Goulding, Marina and the Diamonds, The Drums and Owl City, all of whom were doing stuff that was fresh and good. (Marina's my favourite - she's intelligent, barking mad, and a damn good songwriter too. What more could you want?)

BBC's Sound of 2011 list is a bit of a disappointment.
The 2011 list, though, is a bit of a disappointment. I've watched all the videos, to spare you the indignity - and the only artist that got my attention was a grime MC who goes by the tag of Wretch 32. That's a pretty hefty indictment of the others, as hip-hop's not usually my bag, but this guy's good, and the production on Traktor was really slick. If his other tracks are as good, I'm getting the album. As for the other artists - sorry, but ... whatever. There was little else that wasn't derivative. Maybe I'll revisit the site in a while and have a second listen.

All of which means I have to do some actual research and find some names for you. Spotify's a great tool for finding artists you'd never heard of - just type a random word into the search box, listen to a few tracks and discover. Today, it's thrown up a strummer new to me: Paul Gilbert. Formerly of Mr. Big, and now with Racer X, he's a powerhouse guitarist who plays with accuracy and precision. For me, he's way ahead of Joe Satriani, whose work Gilbert's resembles. Much fuzzbox and overdrive, but the tunes aren't samey.

Something hip-hoppy, folky and ... Basque?
Fancy something hip-hoppy, folky, trance-y, techno-y and ... Basque? Look no further than Crystal Fighters. Mix Catalan instruments with Marina and an MC - and you've almost totally failed to grasp their range. Earlier in the year, they performed on Later with Jools: you can see the performances here.

More when I remember them.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

I told you so!

Regular readers will remember that I dropped a hot little piece of tittle-tattle about a month-and-a-half ago. In this blog posting, I happened to mention: "Will we see Windows and Office for ARM? Well, here's a bit of gossip: keep your eyes open in the next twelve months."

And, lo, it came to pass.

Today, The Register published an article that blew the secret wide open.

So was it just speculation on my part? No. What I wasn't allowed to say in that November blog piece was that I'd got the information from an authoritative source within Microsoft. In fact, I'd been sitting on the coup for about two months because I wanted to leave enough time that the source in question couldn't be traced - and it still hasn't been.

The Register's earlier article mentioning the Microsoft/ARM pact shows how much they'd been misled - or misled themselves. El Reg had speculated that the ARM licensing was to do with the next generation of XBoxen. With the advances made in recent ARM architectures, that might yet come to pass, but the real deal was the one that no-one had dared suggest: Windows and Office on ARM.

Glad to be of service.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Musings and Microsofts

You know, some of my recent blog posts (here, here, and here, for example) probably make me look like a rabid Microsoft-hater.

But I'm not. Not any more.

Sure, I don't like their business methods, and never have. Their software products in general are heavily bloated and inexplicably resource-hungry. (MS SQL Server 2005 Express needs over 1.3GB of disk space! How can a SQL server possibly need that much disk space?) They produce a very small amount of genuinely innovative technology (Kinect), and a lot of mediocrity. They are constantly trying to shoot down Open Source, a battle they know they can never win.

There's a lot to like, or at least admire, about Microsoft
However - there's a lot to like, or at least admire, about MSFT. They have some very smart people indeed. I've worked alongside or for a number of them, in my career, and I can't think of one who didn't deserve respect. (Declaration of interest: MS tried to head-hunt me once. I took a rain check.) Microsoft are superbly good at owning and controlling a market - try to buy a PC without Windows from a major retailer, and you'll see what I mean. Their marketing is sometimes hilariously inept ("I'm a PC!" - what, you're beige inside and out? "Windows 7 - my idea!" Yeah? I bet you drive your Ferrari 430 everywhere in first gear), but it clearly works sufficiently well. Some of Microsoft's products are rather good: their keyboards and mice are largely bland, but solidly built and just keep working; their Visual Studio development environment is recognised as probably the best in the industry.

The thing is, we - all of us - need Microsoft. We need their products to set a certain performance and behaviour standard, so that its competition knows how far they have to extend to better them and distract the public eye. The haters need a bugbear they can fulminate against. The City folk need a bellwether for the health of the technology industries.

However much MSFT huffs and puffs, Open Source isn't going to blow down.
I used to hate Microsoft too, for stifling technological progress and competition, but I think their Big Bad Wolf has come up against the brick house at last, and it's called Open Source. However much MSFT huffs and puffs, that house isn't going to blow down. If it wants inside, Microsoft is going to have to put the teeth away, ask nicely, and try not to eat the occupants.

It used to be the case that big corporate and Governmental buyers would call in the Microsoft guy with the clipboard and the tick list, much as their predecessors did with IBM and their mainframe products. The adage always was, "You can't get sacked for buying [IBM, Microsoft]." But things have changed. After a ropey start, Open Source is now considered commercial-grade, enough to get the attention of the big buyers. For some time, we watched MS offer Government purchasers ludicrously low prices for Windows and MS Office licensing. You don't often see those stories now, and it's not clear why. I suspect it's because the buyers' attitudes have changed. Where once they would raise the spectre of Open Source, to force Microsoft to discount their pricing below cost, now they're just not interested in paying for MS products any more, so there's no point having the conversation.

I don't want Microsoft to fail: I want them to change their approach.
I don't want Microsoft to fail: I want them to change their approach. I can't see Windows or Office going Open Source, however much I might wish it, but I can envisage a Microsoft that is driven by its market, rather than vice-versa; a Microsoft that engages with open standards without a killer agenda; a Microsoft that collaborates, not competes. It sounds like a hippy agenda, but it's not. IBM switched to that model, and saved itself from destruction. Sun Microsystems tried, but it was too late, and didn't fit well with a business model dependent upon declining chip and system sales. I don't think MSFT can make that change with Steve Ballmer at the helm (although I hear he's handy at rearranging furniture), but I have my doubts that Ballmer will hold his tenure for much longer. Windows 7 has gone some way to recovering from the train wreck of Vista, but Open Source is hurting Microsoft, and the hurt's only going to get worse. Ballmer's combative style is looking more and more outdated in the face of the modern market.

Another thing I never thought I'd say: good luck, Microsoft.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Microsoft: Linux is at the end of its life-cycle. Oh really?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov, president of Microsoft Russia, has reportedly claimed that Linux is at the end of its life-cycle.

I think that comes under the category of, "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"

There are a lot of companies that'd envy that kind of "end of life-cycle" product!
Linux works on just about every hardware platform bigger than a PIC, supports a mind-bogglingly large range of hardware, is used on everything from the smallest gadget to the world's most powerful supercomputers, and the average person in the street probably has at least five to ten times as many Linux OS licences as they have of Microsoft products. There are a lot of companies that'd envy that kind of "end of life-cycle" product!

ARM devices are squeezing Microsoft out from the bottom up, on embedded devices, and the top down: the new Cortex-A15 based chips will create Linux-friendly servers that should be hugely more power-efficient than the Intel/Microsoft combination manages - and Microsoft doesn't currently have mainline ARM products (Windows, Office) to defend its space - not yet, anyway. I blogged about the consequences earlier this month.

Pryanishnikov's comments form part of a recent FUD campaign Microsoft's been waging against Linux, and Open Source in general. (I blogged about more of it a month ago.) The campaign says more about Microsoft than Linux and Open Source Software (OSS).

The more Microsoft tries to chop off Open Source's Hydra heads, the bigger the problem they create.
The more frantically Microsoft tries to chop off Open Source's Hydra heads, the bigger the problem they create for themselves. Desperation is hard to hide; increasing desperation, even more so. The solution for MS, of course, is to accept Open Source, concede that MS doesn't have answers in a number of OSS's key markets, and probably never will now, and change the business model to work with OSS, rather than paying lip-service in public, and waving knives behind the scenes. I don't think Microsoft has the ability to make that change, though. It would involve admitting that revenues have peaked, which wouldn't please Wall Street one bit - but better restructure now than face a collapse later, which is where MSFT is heading without some creative thinking that has to happen now.

Ironically, conditions in both customer and stock markets could well mean that MS is closer to end-cycle than its competition.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Aww, a cute baby business-person!

What should you use for your forum "avatar" picture? Should you use your photo, a caricature, even a picture of you as a baby?

The more I think about them, the more I realise that the answers are completely different depending on whether they apply to business-to-business (B2B) sites like LinkedIn, or to informal social media sites (Facebook, etc.). I'll answer for B2B.

Linda Lee-Potter used a masthead photo from the 1960s. I always thought that a bit tragic.
It's not uncommon for photos to be a few years old, but it's daft to present one that's not clearly and recognisably you, now. For decades, the late Linda Lee-Potter, columnist for the Daily Mail, used a masthead photo from the 1960s, judging by the hair and the style. I always thought that was a bit tragic. B2B social media like LinkedIn can lead to personal meetings. Particularly for a businessperson, a really out-of-date photo can lead to an instantly negative reaction when the reader then meets them in person - which may carry over to their attitude to doing business with them

You want the in-person relationship with your counterpart to carry over naturally from your online discussions, you don't want to be jarred by meeting what appears to be your correspondent's Dad1! So, if you're planning to use a headshot, keep it recent and honest.

I don't see a problem with caricatures, provided they're recognisable - a good caricature is quite a neat way of presenting the "personal brand" with a bit of self-deprecating humour, particularly if the subject's a bit camera-shy. Whether it's appropriate depends largely on the writer's business sector. I guess the risk is that the cartoon eventually takes over as the "brand". When it becomes clearly out-of-date, replacing it with a new one means the "brand"'s starting again from scratch, as it'll be some while before the new picture's known, recognised and accepted by those who knew the old one. Photos don't have quite the same problem. Update them every few years, and the "brand" carries over to the new one seamlessly.

There's humour too in a photo of one's self as a child - I've a good friend who does this. It's perhaps not a great idea for a "brand", but fine for non-business networking or media-related sites. On the other hand, I don't think it's appropriate to use a family photo with kids as there are some inherent risks no parent should feel comfortable about. Even a picture with one's spouse is probably not a great idea on a B2B site, unless the spouse is a business partner too. Leaving aside personal risks, publishing a new picture of just the blogger alone could imply marriage (and therefore business) problems to canny readers.

I'm not convinced by the idea of using a non-personal picture/avatar of some sort on specifically B2B sites - it suggests that the person's hiding behind it, which raises the question - why? If they're going to be posting to forums on a B2B site, presumably they want to do business at some point. Being unwilling to admit to their appearance carries a host of negative connotations, and no positive ones, and makes first meetings awkward. There's a big exception to this: look for elephants later on in this post!

Photos are insidious. They create expectations in our minds.
I don't think there's a huge investment of readers' interest initially, but photos are insidious. They create subconscious relationships, associations and expectations in our minds. Not surprising when you realise how much of the human brain is devoted to sensing, recording and analysing images - nor that the first image the newborn brain learns to process accurately is their mother's face. We see faces everywhere, even where they're not. Readers will combine the picture with the person's online persona to form an expectation; it's how we're wired. And that means that the choice of picture is crucial.

However - there is an elephant in this room.

Unfortunately, if a businesswoman is attractive-looking, and publishes her photo, she will be likely to get unwanted attention from the knuckle-dragging2 contingent on the one hand, and short shrift from the Old Skool types on the other. Things are improving year on year, but however much the more enlightened males (and females) might abhor it, it still happens. Deflecting those issues by using an image that's not strictly a portrait - perhaps a company logo - or not using one at all, might suit her purposes better. It's all down to what works best for the individual. Martha Lane-Fox, Carly Fiorina and so on have used their images as her calling cards, and done terrifically well out of it, so there's no general rule.

Blimey, I'm sounding like an image consultant. Next stop, square red-framed glasses (*shudder*).

1 Particularly if they're female.
2 The Urban Dictionary defines "knuckle-dragger" as a racial epithet - which is not what I'd meant at all. I was referring to about the second image in the famous Ascent of Man image - an unreconstructed male of primordial mindset.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Desktop ARMs - and what they'll mean for Microsoft

[Background: the blog post I wrote on ARM's new Cortex-A15 MPCore processor core.]

If Apple finds that the ARM processors out-compete Intel on price and power consumption, and at least match x86 for performance, the choice to switch is going to be a no-brainer.

Apple has enough cash to buy every person in the world a McDonald's burger and fries.
Would Apple risk a legal challenge to any preferred-supplier lock-in agreement with Intel? Let's put it this way: at the time of writing, INTC market cap: $120bn, up 7.5% year-on-year and generally flat; AAPL market cap: $280bn, up 48% y-o-y and climbing consistently. Apple has around $26bn sitting around in the bank. That's an astonishing amount of cash. To put in context, that's enough to buy every man, woman and child in the world a burger and fries from McDonald's, and have change left over. Here's a statement I never thought I'd make: with a stock and cash exchange, Apple. Could. Buy. Intel.

Except Apple's got too much sense. If Apple switches to ARM for its MacOS products, Intel's stock will tank - while Apple's will go ballistic. And there's nothing Intel could afford to do about it, because Apple would buy them then, at the bottom of the market, just to shut them up and send their lawyers packing.

Will we see Windows and Office for ARM? Well, here's a bit of gossip: keep your eyes open in the next twelve months.

Microsoft knows that unless it raises its game, it'll be the meat in an iPad and Android sandwich.
Microsoft is not blind to ARM's incursion into desktop-grade computing, by way of Android and iOS tablets. With ARM's announcement of its Cortex-A15 MPCore architecture, Microsoft knows that unless it raises its game and is prepared to abandon positions entrenched for a quarter of a century, it's going to be the thin layer of meat in an iPad and Android sandwich, because for the first time since ... well, since the very emergence of the industry, corporate computing's got sexy.

And beige bricks aren't.

Once it's feasible to run MS products natively under MacOS's Boot Camp on an ARM, it'll complete Apple's business case for an ARM MacOS port, and the dominos start falling.

Let's look at the consequences if MS doesn't follow through on its internal projects. Documents To Go is already available for both iOS and Android. With the potential to take MS's market away from them, DataViz would be insane not to consolidate, add Open/LibreOffice support, and evolve their mobile application into a fully featured corporate-grade tool. QuickOffice is also available for both platforms, but to my mind isn't quite up there with DtG quite yet.

The fate of LibreOffice (as OpenOffice.org now is - daft name, but there you go) will be interesting. Based on C++, it's not in a great position to convert to ObjectiveC (iOS) or Java (Android). Of course, there is a development route for C++ into Android, via the Native Development Kit, but compared with the Java environment it's like pulling teeth, and it doesn't play nicely with Dalvik for now. LibreOffice may find itself the second layer of meat in that sandwich unless its developers can at least port to Android - ObjectiveC is probably too big an ask for now.

But anyone who's been around in the industry knows that Microsoft, whilst often slow to spot emerging markets, will adapt its products, marketing and spin to shut out competitors before they can cause too much damage. Microsoft is more vulnerable now than at any time in the past two decades, but it's still got teeth. It may yet be able to use them.

Friday, 12 November 2010

ARM's Cortex-A15 CPU, and how it will change your world

[From a discussion on LinkedIn (registration may be required to read it).]

Steve Liebson wrote a recent article on the ARM Cortex-A15 MPCore processor, launched at the ARM Technology Conference in Santa Clara on the 10th November 2010. It's a very interesting read.

ARM is closing in on the Big Iron server market, Intel's traditional home ground, with a processor capable of 2.5GHz operation, eight or even 16 cores per chip, and some smart interconnects and support to make them fly. It's an open secret that Amazon, Google and other intensely server-critical firms are keeping a watching brief, as the A15 promises remarkable improvements on their power consumption and heat dissipation problems. It's hard to believe that VMWare, Citrix1 and other cloud infrastructure providers don't have at least tentative roadmaps for rolling out their Type 1 hypervisor products to the A15.

What few people seem to be picking up upon, though, is how the A15 could change the corporate desktop market too.

Of course, it all depends upon the power figures, which, as Steve notes, ARM isn't yet publishing, but try this for size...

Put a dual-core 2.5GHz Cortex-A15 in a tablet and load Android 3. Make a desktop drop-in charge/kbd/mouse cradle for it - maybe inductive charging and Bluetooth inputs so it's contactless. Now you've a tool that will act as a touchscreen PC on your desk, or grab it from the cradle and bring it to meetings as a note-taking tablet. You've got the performance of an Apple desktop or mid-range PC product when you need it, and it should run a lot cooler than a laptop.

It's been a fair while coming but if the industry gets the right ideas, this could well be the processor that killed the PC and (with Android) stood up to Apple on its own ground.

So here's the real left-field question: given the power and BoM cost savings, how long now before Apple ditches Intel completely for ARM?

1 Since writing this article, the author has provided paid consultancy to Citrix. The comments made above are solely the author's own, were not made in the light of any "inside information" obtained from Citrix or its current or former staff, and have not been updated since the start of that consultancy, other than to add this footnote. Oh, and this footnote was added entirely from the author's free will - as a declaration of interests, not because of any lawyerly intervention or contractual obligation.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The East London Tech City: what will happen after the 2012 Olympics?

There was some interesting editorial on the "East London Tech City" on page 50 of Tuesday 9th November's London Evening Standard. (You can read it at standard.co.uk for up to 28 days: select e-Edition; free registration required.)

There appears to be an expectation that, despite the apparent technology bias suggested by the name, the majority of businesses resident there will be focused upon solutions for the financial sector, rather than pure technology per se.

It's going to be a fascinating thing to watch. Normally, I'd suppose that that would have to be the overwhelming business sector, since the costs of renting relatively central London property for a company would be way beyond the pockets of any but the firms most benefiting from rich City clients. However, I can imagine a certain amount of desperation on behalf of the land owners to get units occupied however they can, as soon as the athletes move out. It may change the rules of the game, at least for a while.

Could East London be the next M4 Corridor? It's not impossible. But the difficulty of commuting into the area from affordable suburbs might just restrict its potential. In the end, it might just be the haunt for City-related businesses anyway - after all, even in a property slump, few others' employees can afford Docklands warehouse-conversion flats.

Monday, 18 October 2010

On Microsoft's "OpenOffice Perspectives" video

[Based on a comment in a LinkedIn discussion.]

Microsoft recently published a video entitled "A Few Perspectives on OpenOffice.org"1

Publishing the video is a clear sign of weakness and worry on MS's part.
Let's compare. Microsoft is a NASDAQ-quoted corporation with about 90,000 employees, and a market capitalisation of around $223bn on annual revenues of about $62.5bn.

OpenOffice.org is a small business unit of Oracle (formerly Sun Microsystems), producing a standards-based free office suite.

Why would MSFT even bother to acknowledge OpenOffice.org? There are only two possibilities that come to mind:

1. MSFT doesn't like Oracle, so it wants to damage them as much as possible. Well, that's plausible;
2. MSFT's very seriously worried about its free-as-in-beer competition, and it's hurting.

Even if the true reason's 1., going to that much bother to try to rubbish OO.o makes it look to the world like 2. I suspect it's a mixture of both. More and more businesses are seeing the sense in not licensing N thousand copies of MS Office if they can have a free competitor that works well and can usually read MSO documents that don't contain too many macros.

But that video can only be considered a desperate rear-guard action. Let's face it, any business with the market penetration of MSFT can scare up a few customers who tried the opposition's product and came back into the fold - it would be shocking if it couldn't.

Publishing the video is a clear sign of weakness and worry on MS's part. Ironically, it probably helps the Open Source community more than it hinders it. After all, it's a backhanded validation of the OO.o suite of programs - and how much revenue does OpenOffice.org stand to lose?

1 Follow this link, and you ought to see "A Few Perspectives on OpenOffice.org" as the only option. MS appears to invalidate direct links, so you have to use the search function to get to it. You'll probably need SilverLight or MoonLight installed too.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Black Country Communion

It's not often I feel the urge to write a review of a single song.

Planet Rock sent me an email today, promoting their showcase this evening for Black Country Communion's self-titled d├ębut album.

Not surprisingly, I immediately Googled for the band's web site. Promising - Jason Bonham, Joe Bonamassa, Glenn Hughes (all of whom I'd heard of and respected), and Derek Sherinian, a name new to me. With that kind of line-up, it should be a no-lose.

From that site, I hopped across to their MySpace page. That page only had one song - One Last Soul - to show for itself. A little sparse for an album release; I'd expect snippets from most or all of the tracks. Enough, already: let's hear it!

What an utter disappointment.

A track that white-bread parents would be comfortable for their 11-y-o son to own
"One Last Soul" has been produced to within a gnat's firkin of its life. The song itself is a monument to early 1980s Big Hair Rock, American style. Aerosmith, Europe, Def Leppard all spring to mind, not Led Zeppelin, nor more recent rockers. The track has nothing to say to me at all. It reminds me of all the AOR albums that came out in my student days - albums I never wanted to pay money to own, and gifts I would probably have passed on to more appreciative friends. There's no rock honesty here - just a track that white-bread parents would be comfortable for their 11-year-old son to own.

If this is the best that Black Country Communion can come up with - and given that it was the only promotional track on their MySpace page, we must assume so - then they ought to pull the big wigs off their balding scalps and retire to spend more time with their royalties. Sorry, but there it is. I don't need a banal track so over-polished I can see my razor stubble in it.

[Later addition]
Some time after I wrote this, I ended up on Black Country Communion's YouTube page. There were other tracks here. "Mistreated", a live performance evidently videoed by a fan (given the poor quality of both picture and sound); and "The Great Divide", filmed in the recording studio and overdubbed with the final mix.

A lot of fake emoting over dressed-up arpeggios
Mistreated is an improvement upon One Last Soul, but not by much, and The Great Divide is probably the best track of them all. Not that that's a great recommendation; more like damnation by faint praise. Both tracks involve a lot of fake emoting over what are essentially dressed-up arpeggios. Can some of rock's leading lights not manage better than this? I thought better of Planet Rock, too. Still, since they got an exclusive live performance, I suppose they were duty-bound to set their critical faculties to one side and use it to their best advantage.

[Even later addition!]
All is revealed! I hadn't been on the Planet Rock website for a while, so I hadn't realised that Joe Bonamassa is actually an occasional presenter at Planet Rock! Even if it is for just one show a month, at an inconvenient time slot: last Saturday in the month at 6pm. I wonder which was the chicken, and which the egg: did he take the gig to get BCC promoted through Planet Rock, or did his pre-existing presenter slot mean Planet Rock was honour-bound to do the launch show?

Actually, in all fairness I suspect it was a lot simpler than that, and less cynical: he probably gave them the launch party on a plate, and they said, "Ta very much, we like exclusives!"

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Airport TV shows

You know, when there's a reality police show presented by some testosterone-boosted tooth-enhanced ex-Sheriff type, it starts with a load of legal boilerplate along the lines of "We're not showing this to entertain you (heaven forfend!), it's to educate you on what goes wrong when you break the law and run away from the cops afterwards."

But funnily enough, airport shows don't. The endless capacity of would-be passengers to admit the fault of anyone but themselves never ceases to amaze me. They probably watch the programmes at home, and jeer at the arrogant jerks who think that every rule will bend in the face of a loud enough complaint - then they arrive at Gatport Airwick (I might have got that wrong) and turn into just the same kind of clueless bozo they so despised last night.

So I thought, why not have some boilerplate for airport shows instead? Here's mine. Imagine the opening titles, and Sheriff Teeth (Ret'd) intoning this over them:

1. If you arrive at check-in after it's closed, it's closed, regardless of how inconvenient it is for you. The pilot has uplifted fuel for the calculated takeoff weight. The hold luggage is on its way, or already loaded. Every minute you spend harranguing staff and demanding to shout at superiors reduces your chance of getting a free ticket change. Oh, and the airport staff can't issue a refund. Get over it, and accept a later flight, or give up and go home. You choose.

2. If you roll up to check-in having chased ten beers with half a bottle of Smirnoff, don't expect to be accepted onto your flight. If you get rescheduled to a much later flight, and decide to drown your sorrows in the bar with something a bit more alcoholic than espresso, don't be surprised if you get refused later, too. Permanently. Just lie down, point your feet at your destination, and light your breath. You'll stand a better chance of getting there.

3. Don't expect an airline to accept your bus pass as a valid identity document. Nor your driving licence, nor the passport that's been through the washing machine, the tumble drier, and finally had its photo page steam-ironed.

4. You are not your sister, nor your brother, nor your cousin, not your deceased granny. The picture on that passport doesn't even look the same species as you, much less the same gender, and it expired years ago, as did its former holder. Under precisely which circumstances did you expect the check-in staff to accept it?

5. The hold luggage limits are stated, clearly, on the website through which you booked your tickets. There isn't an airline in the world that will accept your 120kg travel trunk, so undo the straps and tell your big sister to climb out. And no, you can't take her on board as cabin luggage.

Now travel safely, folks!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Friday 13th, three days late

Business as usual on Monday. Well, for the first ten seconds.

I couldn't log into my Linux PC. Which was a bit of an issue, because without it I wasn't going to get a lot of work done. A bit of exploring showed that it couldn't see the authentication server. So I try to log into the PC using a "local" user ID instead (one whose details are stored on the machine, not the auth server). No joy - it was still trying to check the auth server, and the login times out before it gets a reply. Actually, as it turned out, the heat death of the Universe would have happened before it got a reply.

Time to dive into what I jokingly call the machine room to check out the auth server. It's running, but won't respond to keyboard or mouse, and the screen is blank. Hmmm. Nothing for it but a hard reboot. Guess what? It's not booting. Take the cover off, and try again. The hard drive sounds like a miniature jack-hammer; looks like the heads are just ramming their end-stop. The auth server (a recycled older PC) is officially toast. And I don't have a drop-in replacement, not to hand.

It's time to go back to my Linux box, and reboot it into single-user mode (which means I can get into the command line without logging in). Set it up as a temporary auth server, in addition to the hundred-and-one other server tasks it's acquired. Reboot it back into a full running state, and log in.

Joy! I can log in now.

The joy is short-lived, however. I need to install PDFEdit, and I roll in a few security updates too. A quarter-way through, the download stalls.

I try to restart the download several times; no luck.

I reboot the Linux box. No difference.

I restart the local network switch. No difference; I can ping other machines on the same switch, but can't see beyond it.

I restart the powerline modem that feeds the switch. No difference; can't even ping the edge router that feeds the whole network.

I restart the powerline modem connected to the edge router, the other end of the connection. No difference. A laptop that connects to the edge router through WiFi seems OK, so we haven't lost the router.

I restart the edge router, just on the off-chance. Hah! I can see out again! Well, for a moment. About 3MB into the updates download on my Linux box, it stalls again.

There's only one thing left to do, and that's replace the powerline modems. They're both Advent units (PC World own brand; yes, I know, I should know better). I happen to have a couple of Devolo models knocking around and pre-configured, so I swap out the Advents for the Devolos.

It works! It was about time something did - I was beginning to lose the will to live.

This time, the updates and PDFEdit download and install without a glitch.

And then I discover that PDFEdit - the installation of which was the whole point of the exercise - can't even do something as simple as move an item from one point on the page to another.

Definitely One Of Those Days.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Accented characters on your UK keyboard under Windows XP

It's bothered me for ages that it is simply not possible to type most accented characters (other than acute accents) on a standard UK keyboard, under Windows XP. There were very few available: basically, if you press and hold AltGr whilst pressing a,e,i,o or u, you'll get the acute-accent versions of those characters. And that's it.

OK, I'm clearly slow on the uptake, because there is a way, it's just that Microsoft hides it rather well. Here's how to do it.
  1. Firstly, go into your Control Panel and select "Regional and Language Options". (You thought it would be "Keyboard", didn't you? So did I.)
  2. Click on the "Languages" tab. Under "Text services and input languages", click on the "Details..." button. (Told you it wasn't obvious!)
  3. In the box centre-left, you'll see "English (United Kingdom)", and the keyboard option for that will be "United Kingdom". Click on "Keyboard" and click the "Add..." button to the right.
  4. That should pop up a new dialog box entitled, "Add Input Language". The "Input language" option selected should be "English (United Kingdom)". Everything else apart from the "Keyboard layout/IME" checkbox should be greyed-out. Click in that checkbox. That should wake up the keyboard layout drop-down.
  5. Click on the drop-down and select "United Kingdom Extended". Now click OK. That should put "United Kingdom Extended" into your "Installed services" list.
  6. "OK" your way out of the other dialogs, until you're back to normal service.]
  7. In your taskbar, usually at the bottom of your screen, you should see "UK" followed by a keyboard symbol. Click on the keyboard symbol. That should offer you a choice of "United Kingdom" and "United Kingdom Extended". Select the extended one.
That's the heavy lifting done. Now, when you want to type an accented character, it's easy. You can still get the acute-accented characters as before. But now you can have the other accents too. To understand how to generate the accents, you need to understand how "dead keys" work. A dead key is a key that doesn't show anything when pressed, but modifies the next key you press. Here is a list of the new dead keys that the UK Extended keyboard introduces. Where it says "AltGR + (some key)" it means "Press and hold AltGr whilst pressing (some key), then release both":

Dead keyMeansAffects
AltGr+apostrophe (')Acute accenta e i o u w y
AltGr+2Umlaut / diaresis ('"' looks a little like an umlaut)a e i o u w y
AltGr+6Circumflex (see '^' above '6')a e i o u w y
Backquote (`)Grave accenta e i o u w y
AltGr+#Tildea n o

Note that if you want to type a backquote on its own, you press the space-bar afterwards. In addition to these, if you want to type a Spanish/Portuguese cedilla-c, you type AltGr-c or AltGr-C depending on whether you want lower-case or upper-case. These are the only accented characters you can type using the United Kingdom Extended keyboard. If you want access to more, use a US-layout keyboard, and select the "United States International" option in the same way as above. To get a feel for how US International layout works, go to http://www.microsoft.com/resources/msdn/goglobal/keyboards/kbdusx.htm - hover your cursor over the grave (`) and acute (') dead keys, and the AltGr key, to see which characters can be generated.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The one-page CV?

[From a comment on this post.]

I've been on both sides of this divide, having interviewed probably several hundred candidates in my time. I wish it had been fewer, but in many companies the CV filtration isn't done by people with skill types similar to the candidate.

Let's kick off with the thread subject: one-page CVs.

No. Well, a qualified no.

I want to see a front page that summarises the skill sets and levels - qualifications too, if the candidate's only had a short career so far - followed by 2-3 pages that go into more detail.

That first page tells me whether it's worth reading the others. It should be a set of facts, uncluttered, and unencumbered by fancy styling. Use one font, consistently. If it's hard on the eye, I've another ten in the pile that are more readable, plus evidence that you don't understand customer requirements, or don't care.

On the other hand, I don't want a Victorian novel, either. I've been programming since '75, in the industry since '85, worked with many companies, and my CV runs to four uncluttered pages. I've only recently expanded it from three. If you've written ten pages of florid prose (the current record is 14, from someone with eight years on the job), I don't want to know.

Remember you're dealing with several humans and a computer. The humans are reading your epistle; the computer is trying to scrape it for keywords. Keep everyone happy, and you're in the group that's in with a chance of interview.

Good luck.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Linux - a breakthrough technology?

(From a posting at LinkedIn)

I'm interested to see all the folks who've nominated Linux as their breakthrough technology. The thing is, Linux isn't a breakthrough technology, and never has been. When it was first written, it was already outmoded. It was designed only for a limited range of Intel PC hardware. It had a monolithic kernel that had to be recompiled any time you needed to change the options. The code was OKish, but not particularly smart, and there was nothing there that advanced the science of operating system design - in fact, quite the opposite. It was a college project.

What it had in its favour was one thing only: it was free, devised as a free alternative to Andy Tannenbaum's Minix.

And "free" is the breakthrough technology here. Even this wasn't unique. Richard Stallman, with his GNU project, started in the early 1980s, pioneered development and licensing of software that was completely free to use and modify. With Stallman's GNU toolkit welded to the Linux kernel, there was at last a usable, _free_ operating system, with source code for all to see. That's where I came in, at kernel version 0.12. The whole thing was amazingly robust and non-buggy, even at such an early stage.

In the subsequent development - essentially a full redesign - of the Linux kernel, it acquired platforms as diverse as the Acorn Archimedes and big IBM mainframe iron. It gained the ability to load and unload device drivers dynamically, whilst running, meaning that kernel recompiles became unnecessary. Its very freeness lended it to exploratory projects that led to new products, making it the cause celebre of the embedded systems world. And because it was licensed under the GNU Public Licence, modifications became integrated into the mainline kernel. Despite all that, there's still not all that much in Linux that's leading-edge, other than some funky filesystems.

So if you're tempted to nominate Linux as the technology that changed everything, think again. The leading edge technologies that changed your life were twofold. The first was called Richard Stallman, a man who wanted to change the world, and make software free, with source code visible to all. The second, made at his behest, a technology created by a lawyer: the Gnu Public Licence.

A man and a contract. Who knew?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The First Conservative Budget for more than a decade

I'm still "running the numbers", but at the moment it seems like it's the first time I've ever known a Conservative budget that wasn't completely ideology-driven, and actually did more than a dismissive hand-wave at those on lower incomes.

Harriet Harman's points (Merseyside worst hit, wealthy Cheshire least; substantial job losses to come) were well made, though.

Where I felt it was weak was in support of small businesses -- well, I would, wouldn't I?

In the current economic position, Big Business is more part of the problem than the solution. It acts as a brake on economic development. Equally, since the Tories are looking towards big Civil Service job cuts, there's going to be a fallback in tax receipts and an increase in unemployment. What will boost us out of the doldrums will be small business growth -- the only economic sector that can show genuine growth despite overall recession or stagnation ... provided that that growth isn't stifled by onerous taxation or bureaucracy. I didn't see much in the Budget speech that made a difference there, one way or the other. I'd hoped for more but, given the pre-Election manifesti of the Tories and LDs, I wasn't holding my breath.

Still, not as bad as I'd feared, nor as skewed to topping-up already full pockets. The full public services cutback plans will be the pivot around which the economic recovery will move. It remains to be seen in which direction it turns.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Phone tariffs, and bizarre ways to get them

I just had an interesting chat with Carphone Warehouse's Loyalty Team. The upshot of it is...a SIM-only tariff that costs me (well, LookBox) £5 per month, for which I get unlimited internet use1, 600 call minutes and a never-going to-need number of texts each month. Oh, and 80% off call costs when I'm roaming abroad, which is often.

There's got to be a catch, right?

Yep. It's a cashback deal. £35/month up front, and you've got to send back your 6th, 12th and 18th bill in order to get each of the £180 cashbacks. "Guaranteed" cashback, though, so if you miss your "slot", you can still claim it later.

I said, "Hang on - you already know my billing details, right? You already have my bills - you ought to, you send them to me! So what's that all about?"

"It's just what you have to do to claim the cashback."

I asked, "What happens if I can't find the bill?"

Now it gets really daft.

"That's OK. Give us a call, we'll print out another copy of the bill, and post it to you. Then you can send it to us to claim the cashback."

"Couldn't I just ask you to print out the bill and send it direct to the cashback department for me?"

"Sorry, it's just what you have to do to claim the cashback."


1 The usual "Fair Use Policy" (i.e. to be fair, please don't use it!) applies, of course.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Diane Birch is channelling Sandi Thom!

I just heard Diane Birch on Later with Jools Holland.

She just sounds SO like Sandi Thom! Now let me say that that's no bad thing. I love Sandi's music and lyrics. But now I've got to buy another artist, dammit!

Shouty marketing

I really can't stand shouty marketing material. I unsubscribed from one online magazine when I got an email that took that to the ludicrous limit.

Here's what I wrote to them:

Dear Mike and Webmaster,

SORRY, but I REALLY can't STAND emails that insist on SHOUTING RANDOM words. It's a VERY ANNOYING way of writing, and DOESN'T SPEAK WELL of the journalism STANDARDS of the magazine it REPRESENTS.

Most PEOPLE wouldn't let YOU KNOW why they UNSUBSCRIBED, but I THOUGHT I'd give you that COURTESY.

All the best,


Tuesday, 2 March 2010

US Airways Free WiFi? No, not really.

I'm a pretty heads-up kind of guy.

Let me rephrase that. I'm pretty much a heads-up kind of guy. (I never claimed to be pretty!) Every computer I own or control has virus protection, firewalling (usually customised), intruder detection, and a whole bunch of other stuff I'm not going to discuss. So it takes a lot to put one past me.

Someone did.

This January, after the Consumer Electronics Show 2010 in Vegas, I was coming back via LAX. (That's Los Angeles International Airport, to anyone who still flies by boat.) I'm in the bloody-awful Air New Zealand lounge, which Virgin Atlantic has the misfortune to share. So I'm looking around for WiFi, and I spot "US Airways Free WiFi" on the list. Sounds good to me. LAX is a US Airways hub, and I've just flown from Vegas on a US Airways flight, so I'm entitled, right? I connect. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work, so I disconnect, and try one or two others. Eventually, I find one that does seem to work, check my email, and shut down the laptop.

Wind forward a month or so.

I'm at home, on the same laptop, when the router goes down. I power-cycle the router, and sit on the "Wireless Network Connections"¹ dialog, waiting for the network to come up again. And I see: "US Airways Free WiFi". Not in leafy Cambridgeshire, surely?

So, I've been "had". The apparent network I connected to at LAX was in fact an ad-hoc (computer-to-computer) network, not an access point. In my defence, if I'd not been exhausted from four days of exhibiting at the biggest trade show on Earth (and the inevitable evening entertainments), the subsequent teardown, and travel, I'd have spotted the "ad-hoc" symbol in the networks list, and avoided it like a leper. But that's exactly how hackers do these things. Travellers are weary mortals, and easy prey.

Ever since that airport incident, my own laptop had been broadcasting "US Airways Free WiFi" to everyone else, encouraging them to connect with me, and start broadcasting it for themselves. It's like sneezing in a crowded room.

What was lost? Nothing, as it happens. If I'd had any shared folders advertised, the peer to which I'd connected could have raided them, but for good and sound reasons I didn't have network shares enabled.

The fix is very simple, and I recommend it to anyone else who travels with their laptop. It assumes you're using Windows' own WiFi configuration tools: if you're using a vendor-supplied tool instead, you'll have to work it out for yourself.

The vast majority of computer users have never needed to use an ad-hoc network, so the sensible thing to do, since it's a vector for attack, is to disable ad-hoc networking completely until uncured ham flaps past the window, and you decide you do need to use it. Ad-hoc networking, that is; not the ham. Ahem.

Here's how you do it on Windows XP¹. I don't use Vista (in fact, I upgrade² all Vista machines under my control to XP), and haven't yet needed to buy a Windows 7 machine, so if you're using any other Windows, you'll have to adapt these instructions to your own operating system.
  1. From the Start menu, select Control Panel, and choose "Network Connections" from the list.
  2. Right-click on "Wireless Network Connection", and select "View Available Wireless Networks".
  3. In the left panel in the pop-up window that follows, click on "Change advanced settings". You'll get a list of all sorts of stuff you don't care about.
  4. Select the "Wireless Networks" tab at the top of the window.
  5. Near the bottom of the page that's now show, there's an "Advanced" button. Click it.
  6. There's a list of three options shown. Select "Access point (intrastructure) networks only". If the "Automatically connect to non-preferred networks" box is checked, uncheck that one too. Then OK your way out of the dialog, and close everything else.
You're now protected, at last. With that one, simple change, you've prevented hackers using your machine to propagate this meme, and you've prevented anyone from viewing your shared folders. Now, why couldn't Microsoft have done that by default?

¹ Yes, Windows. I know, I'm a Linux guy by preference, but I do use Windows. (And then spend most of my time in Linux sessions in VirtualBox, or over SSH-hardened connections to Linux boxes, of course.)

² When I install another OS version, and it goes faster, uses less resources, is more compatible with past programs, works with more hardware, has less bugs and dies less often, that's an upgrade, right?

Monday, 1 March 2010

Copy of a complaint to the BBC about proposed closure of 6Music

I gather from a variety of news sources that plans are under consideration at the BBC to close 6music. I believe that this would be a profoundly retrograde step.

6music is the only national radio station to address its specific audience: those who wish to listen to an eclectic range of music from the 1960s to the present day. Even Planet Rock, the nearest comparison, has a more limited range of music styles and dates.

6music's quality of production is second to none, and its presenter line-up is stellar.

The _only_ reason why 6music has low figures is that it is only available on DAB.

Let's draw a comparison.

If BBC Radio 3 was a digital-only station, its listening figures would be dire. Even though R3 is on all formats, and 6Music only on digital, R3's listening hours are only three times those of 6Music.

The unavoidable conclusion is that if 6Music were on analogue as well, its figures would leave R3 in its dust.

And yet 6Music is apparently under threat, and R3 carries on regardless.

6Music has an excellent, high-value audience demographic, comprising individuals with broad musical tastes that are unsatisfied by any other radio station. From a personal perspective, R1 is too oriented to playlisted low-grade pop, frequently repeated, R2 is too staid and uninteresting, and the BBC offers me no other music programming (except for 6Music) that I'm interested to hear. I do listen to Radio 4. If 6Music were on FM analogue, I'd be listening to that in the car rather than R4, much of the time.

6Music is a superb asset that the BBC should nurture and exploit, not discard as it if were an inconvenience.If its closure is still under discussion, please do the sensible thing, and find a better, easier target. Even after the firestorm over GCap's attempted closure of Planet Rock, I do not believe you have the slightest idea of just how big a hole you would be digging for yourselves. Stop before you see kangaroos; that's my advice.

Jon Green

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The iCan'tPhone

So the speculation ends.

Steve Jobs has delivered us of an iPhone that can't phone, or a keyboardless laptop that can't multitask. Remarkable, since even Apple's Lisa, in 1983, could.

The Apple fanboi press predictably drooled over the prospect of a device that can't do email and web browsing at the same time, can't do USB unless it's in its Dock, and can't dock unless it's in the (less useful) portrait mode. Oh, and its screen resolution - 1024x768 - makes it even less impressive than the cheapest netbooks.

It's light, though, and it's got a fruit on the front. What more could you want?

Monday, 25 January 2010

[Ecademy] Community : Ecademy - making sales, or advancing business?

[This is one of the blog posts I posted at Ecademy. I am reposting them here as I probably won't be in Ecademy much longer.]

[Date posted to Ecademy: 09-Oct-2008. Original URL: http://www.ecademy.com/node.php?id=113882.]

Reading Nikki's recent blog, "I'm on Ecademy to make money, and so are you..." gave me pause for thought. [Later note: Nikki seems to have left Ecademy, so the links no longer work.]

Many Ecademists are here to promote their B2B enterprises - services, usually. It's a perfect playground for marketing and promotions people: in using Ecademy to sell their skills, they're demonstrating them. Job done!

I get worried, though, about Nikki's view of an Ecademy where everyone's here to make sales.

I have a vision of a circle of people in suits, each selling to the one in front, who's selling to the one in front of them, ... A bit like a sales version of MC Escher's "Ascending and Descending".

Clearly, that can't work, or involvement in Ecademy's a zero sum, and there are as many losers as winners. We all want to be winners, right?

As far as I can tell, and the Powers will doubtless be along shortly to set me right if I'm wrong, Ecademy was always about networking, more than direct selling.

The way it has to work is if we're primarily working towards promoting our businesses - and, more importantly, each other's businesses by referral - to non-Ecademists, with sales to Ecademists a secondary objective. That's how the zero sum gets broken. Coincidentally, it's also how networking works best!

As I've said elsewhere, I'm here mainly to get access to the right people, in the right places, to advance LookBox's success. Right now, I'm looking for a part-time (portfolio) CFO, and people to help with business development into Developing World educational projects, particularly Indian Subcontinent and China . In all cases, people who themselves have the right contacts to make things happen.

It's possible that, in the process of finding these people, I manage to jump a step and make direct contact with potential purchasers of our products and services. If that happens, I'll be delighted of course - but it's an aspiration, not an expectation.

Either way, with the right contacts made, we stand fair to make excellent sales ... just not in the direct model.

The quid pro quo for all of this - apart from the membership subscription, of course - is to be a connector, someone who enables connections, rather than simply exploiting them.

How many of the intensely sales-oriented individuals who blogspam are primarily connectors? I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that in networking meetings, the most pushy self-promoters have been the least likely to say, "I can't help you with that, but [name] over there can, and I know a couple of others who aren't here who might be useful too. Give me a card, and I'll get you set up." And they've had a lot fewer around them than the connectors, the hubs of the room, as Mike Segall pointed out in a recent seminar at a business conference in Birmingham.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that it's wrong to promote one's business to Ecademists. For some, particularly the marketing and bizdev people, that makes perfect sense.

But I'm mindful that there's a lot more sales opportunity out there than in here.

If we're all to advance our businesses, doesn't it make sense to most of us to change the emphasis from "How much money have I made out of Ecademy"? to "How much money have I helped Ecademists make?"

[Update: please also check out Fraser Hay's blog - same sentiment, different angle.]

[Ecademy] Community: Autoconnect meets guanxi - a different perspective

[This is one of the blog posts I posted at Ecademy. I am reposting them here as I probably won't be in Ecademy much longer.]

[Date posted to Ecademy: 14-Jan-2010. Original URL: http://www.ecademy.com/node.php?id=142626.]

By now, anyone on Ecademy who hasn't been living under a rock has become aware of autoconnect. It's a feature that's being introduced experimentally, allowing its subscribers to make random connexions amongst the Ecademy community. If you've received a request recently that said:
    (name) Was sending invitations to join their network on Ecademy, discovered you were already here and requests that you add them as a contact.
...that was an autoconnect request. If you've received one, you've probably received lots. Brace yourself; it's going to get worse yet.

This is scattergun networking. If you fire enough cartridges at enough trees, chances are you'll hit a bird eventually.

Let's draw a contrast.

I'd like to introduce you, if you haven't already heard of it, to the Chinese concept of guanxi (關係 or 关系 ). Pronounced "GWEN-shee" (approximately), it describes your value, as expressed by the quality of the network of people upon whom you can draw.

Guanxi networking is often misunderstood in the West to be similar to the kind of business networking with which Westerners are familiar. In fact, a guanxi relationship is more personal. It must be maintained actively, or it will wither, and it's not as casual as Western network relationships. Properly managed, a guanxi network connection is for life.

The heart of guanxi is exchanges of favours. If I want to connect with a certain person, I will find out who I know has guanxi with them, and then I'll use my guanxi with that connector in order to make the connexion. Sometimes, there's a whole chain of connexions, and often you end up making further guanxi relationships as you work down the chain to complete the connexion.

Equally, it's expected that if a guanxi friend needs help, you assist without complaint.

When I joined Ecademy, the ethos seemed to me to be similar to guanxi. A business community that was oriented towards mutual help, and long-term personal relationships. In fact, the Blackstar concept seemed about as near to guanxi as I've ever seen in Occidental networking.

Contrast this to autoconnect. Networking by robots - about as far from personal networking as it's possible to get. I've commented here and expanded here about how autoconnect requests are functionally identical to spam. And like spam, there's presently no way of opting out. You get the requests whether or not you want them.

It's also about as far from guanxi, and personal networking, as it gets. Maybe a valuable - guanxi - relationship can arise from autoconnect, but the vast majority of autoconnects won't yield any benefit.

Let's consider that for a moment. You gain thousands of contacts - or, at least, try to - but only a small handful work out. You've put several thousand people to inconvenience for a marginal benefit for a tiny proportion.

The business model is depressingly familiar. "Spamford" Wallace would be proud.