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BBC: Cut the CrapMaggie Brown asks in the Guardian today ‘whether the BBC has become too affraid to take risks?‘.

Her piece focuses around the dreaded “BBC Editorial Policy Unit” which was set up to appese the fallout from the 2008 Russel Brand prank call debacle and the prior findings of the Hutton Inquiry. “Russell Brand-gate” was about Russell Brand being, well, Russell Brand albeit on a pre-recorded radio show where someone editorially should have known better, and the Hutton Inquiry was about the fact that the BBC ‘falsely’ claimed the UK government had lied about claims Saddam Hussain had Weapons of Mass Distruction in Iraq.

(Except, that it turned out that the BBC was right all along, but that only came to light years after the Labour-government initiated inquiry had performed it’s ‘duty’ and given The Corporation a good kick in the bollocks)

The Editorial Policy Unit (essentially an internal editorial watchdog), it is claimed, is stifling bold, innovative and risk taking content from being produced because the BBC is too afraid to broadcast anything that might create another Hutton Inquiry or Brand-gate.

And as a former BBC employee I would definitely agree we’ve ended up with a BBC that is afraid to take risks.

The reasons for this, however, go far deeper than just the Editorial Policy Unit – but into areas such as not having the budget for innovative programming because the Tory government has frozen the BBC’s income over the next 4 years (essentially a 17% reduction marked against inflation). Or the corporation being kneecapped from doing anything innovative or risk taking online because the findings of the Graff Report warned that the BBC might be stifling the commercial sector. Now whenever the corporation wants to do something new and innovative online it must perform a series of bureaucratic “Public Value Tests’ and market impact evaluations – in concert with the regulator OFCOM which takes years to compete.

So yes after the (editorial) kicking, (innovation) knee-caping and (resource) strangling the BBC has gone through over the past 5-10 years, yeah it pretty much is affraid to take another risk.

But isn’t that by design and as intended?

Graff Report, Hutton Inquiry, et al are all thanks to the desires of past and previous elected governments and the influence of the media industry as a whole but in particular Rupert Murdoch and The Guardian backed Association of Online Publishers (AOP). This is what everyone wanted, no?

It seems ironic that the publisher of the original piece by Maggie Brown is the main protagonist within the AOP that demanded the Graft Report in the first place.

And we, the British public, have let it happen – perhaps not realising just how lucky we were to have a public service broadcaster like the BBC that would take risks the like of which commercial sector would never consider doing. The promise that the commercial sector, now un-stifled from the BBC’s supposed market saturation, would step in and save the day has sadly not proven true.

So maybe there is a place for strong, risk-taking public service broadcasting after all. Maybe there is a something perverse about people whinging that they don’t want pay £145.50 a year for high-quality, advert free BBC content but then happily shell out £100′s every month to satellite and cable providers who’ve demonstrated about as much risk and innovation as a ham sandwich.

Because otherwise the severely handicapped BBC we have today is the BBC we all let happen. The gift we never really thought we’d miss until it began to disappear. Which it now slowly is.

“Cut the Crap” photo CC Jem Stone, a former colleague. The former Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke actually commissioned these ‘yellow cards’ during my service at the BBC for rank-and-file staff to use in meetings if unnecessary impediments were getting in the way of innovative and important work being broadcast. Oh how times have changed.

Memories of an era when the BBC was innovative and risk taking:

Why are we doing this

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Genetic testing startup 23andMe is running a ’1-day sale’ that removes their normal up-front testing fee of $199. The catch- you have to agree to subscribe to 12 months of their genetic update service, whatever that is, @ $9/m.

Seeing as I’ve had two friends ping me about the promotion, and its now ended up on Hacker News, I thought I’d write an off-topic on my concerns about the impact of genetic testing in this way.

For those that don’t know, I always expected to enter a career in bio-technology but as my understanding for the topic grew, so did my understanding of its implications and its (non-religious) ethical questions.

23 and John Doe

My advice to anyone thinking of doing genetic testing (be it 23andMe or another route) is to consider seriously doing it at as a “John Doe” (ie not using your real name and details).

Knowing you have a high susceptibility to a significant disease could have all sorts of implications for insurance – medical, life and even car.

In general insurance companies require you to disclose any and all information that you have that would be pertinent to them assessing risk. Clearly for medical and life insurance you knowing there is a high chance you will get Parkinsons (for example) is information your insurer would like to know.

Here in the US there are currently laws – such as Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) – to prevent insurance companies demanding this information.

However laws can be repealed. The health care and insurance industries are the ‘leaders’ in government lobbying. 23andMe could be aquired by an insurance firm.

Also consider laws differ in other countries, where insurance companies might be able to legally demand results. In Canada insurance companies can not only request it, they can demand you get this kind of testing before you can obtain coverage.

Consider further that databases can be hacked/stolen.

Think carefully whether you want your personal legal name and contact details all over the results of a test like this.

Photo CC licensed by hongiiv

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iPad Desk

It was interesting to read tonight that Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie, isn’t sure whether there is a long term future for tablets such as the iPad.

“I don’t know whether the big screen tablet pad category is going to remain with us or not,” is what he specifically said.

I find the tablet space incredibly fascinating which is why I uncharacteristically rushed out and bought an Apple iPad on the day they launched last year. Being the first of its kind on the market, as a product manager and technologist I needed to understand how this new device genre would fit into our personal and business lives.

It was interesting to learn this weekend that my parents and brother (who all live together back in our family home in London) have kitted themselves out with iPad 2.

A year later and sans-iPad 2, while I remain interested in the space I do feel it is incredibly over-hyped. Everything, for me, screams of the NetBook era but all over again.

On the consumer side, NetBooks never really replaced an existing device but instead tried to create a new need – albeit one that was at a low enough price point that many people could extend their budgets too in almost throw-away fashion. But their size and sub-performance limited their true abilities and people got bored quickly.

On the business side, there was a rush to the bottom where manufacturers focused on making cheaper and cheaper units, ever more decreasing their profitability until it became financially uninteresting for major players like Dell to maintain any real focus on their NetBook lines (do you see any netbooks on Dell’s website?).

Everything I can see points to the same thing happening in the tablet market. If Apple want their tablet to be mainstream they have to offer a mainstream price-point, and expect to see all of the Android tablets sink quickly to dizzyingly low prices as competition heats up in 2012.

We’ve already learned that content creation and productivity, like with NetBooks, is hard and unsatisfying on a tablet. Lack of a real keyboard, weird viewing angles, whatever. Point is, tablets seem destined to be content consumption and reference devices – which immediately makes them an uber-luxury item for many folks. It also becomes questionable just how valuable tablets are to business if productivity apps are inefficient on the form-factor.

So maybe there is some merit in Craig Mundie’s argument that big screen tablets (ie ones 12″+) might disappear. I think he’s right to imply a lot of interest in the small screen tablet market (7″-9″) – which is currently dominated by the Kindle if you consider that a tablet. That smaller form-factor is cheaper to produce (ie less of a luxury) and more tailored to content consumption over creation/productivity.

However, strategy is often about making bets – sometimes going long, sometimes shorting, sometimes hedging. For a company of its size and dominance I don’t see how Microsoft can afford not to place a bet around the larger tablet market. It’s a competitive space (Google and RIM, not just Apple) but I can’t see how they can throw in the towel before they’ve even tried.

What I don’t see though is how this is stacking up to become the post-pc era. Content still has to be created somewhere, work still has to be worked on somewhere – and at scale, it’s not on the tablet.

photo licensed under CC license, thms.nl

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Back in October 2010 the BBC announced that BBC Backstage - the developer platform and open data project I had created with Tom Loosemore and James Boardwell back in 2004 - would be closing at the end of the year.

It was sad news, but one that was both expected and appropriate. The project set out to do big things:

  • introduce a large and buerocratic media organization to the concepts of open data,
  • share that data with 3rd party developers in order to let them find new and experimental uses for it
  • foster internal and external innovation practices that were new, chaotic and sometimes challenging to an old encumbant.

But I think its fair to say that on the whole, the project met its goals and expectations.

As a by-product I think BBC Backstage, and the community that formed around it, also helped kick-start the fledgling London Startup community that we have today. What was then called “The London New Media Scene”, primarily because of the agency orientated slant of the London industry at the time, influenced a generation of non-commercial hackers and NTK subscribers to become entrepenurial and start building startups.

With BBC Backstage winding up, the BBC has produced a wonderful retrospective, “Hacking the BBC”, which I had the honour of being interviewed for. You can download a copy here (pdf) or see below.

The closure of BBC Backstage is certainly a sad day for me, but at the same time I’m confident that it was time to do it. The challenge for the BBC is maintaining the concept of open data and external innovation – and weaving it through the entire fabric of the organization. They claim that is something that is happening, and I think there are good people there championing the notion – but I think the BBC still has some way to go before that box can be really ticked.

You can read Jemima Kiss’s coverage on the Guardian’s website or you can check out a few photo memories I have of the project:

A very flush-faced looking me launching the project at OpenTech 2005 (photo by Natalie Downe)
Ben Metcalfe and the launch of BBC backstage

The BBC Backstage Team winning a New Statesman Award for innovation, 2006
New Statesman Award 06

and of course, cheekily snapping Tom Loosemore in a suit:
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I’ve been wondering why RackSpace acquired CloudKick (see RWW for a good overview of the announcement). CloudKick provides monitoring and performance measurements of your servers and cloud instances.

I doubt the acquisition has been made to bolster RackSpace’s own internal monitoring because the company would already have a very mature solution for that by now.

My concern is that RackSpace has acquired the company to be able to obtain, essentially by the back-door, performance and metric data of the servers running on RackSpace’s competitors. Given that CloudKick is geared up to predominantly monitor servers on Amazon EC2, GoGrid, Linode, RackSpace and SliceHost (which is also owned by RackSpace) it doesn’t sit well that suddenly one of the biggest vendors in there would suddenly be monitoring your server operated by one of the competitive vendors in that list.

This is always a problem when a company is purchased by one of the vendors it sits above in the value chain, esp when impartiality and independence is important in a space such as vendor monitoring.

The CloudKick Agent that you install on your server to log the data and send it back to CloudKick (now RackSpace) streams some pretty all-encompassing data about your server. There is no doubt in my mind that the competitive intelligence RackSpace can obtain from this is massive. And if I’m right, expect to see the price of CloudKick to drop and/or the free option to offer greater allowances in order for RackSpace to maximize the amount of data it can obtain.

While it looks on the surface that RackSpace made a smart move by obtaining CloudKick’s userbase (including Fortune 1000 companies), the question remains whether those customers will stay knowing that their data is being monitored by a big player like RackSpace. And further more whether the vendors themselves will be happy that large amounts of data in aggregate is being obtained by a competitor – I can see Amazon being particularly vulnerable and concerned here.

(this post is an elaboration of a comment I made to this effect on Hacker News)

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I’ve been saying for sometime that Apple is about to kill off the optical drive inside its future laptop ranges. And tucked into Steve Jobs’ keynote today was probably the foundation of that strategy.

The new MacBook Air (which is sans-optical drive) comes with a special usb-thumb drive that enables users to reinstall their operating system. It looks like this:

You can install an operating system from any external drive – it doesn’t have to be a DVD, it can be a USB disk, external hard drive or even an SD card. But you do need some kind of external disk, in case you can’t boot into the laptop, leaving the OS as the only piece of software that needs to be delivered via physical medium.

You can already download iLife and iWorks via the internet and license them online. And with the announcement of the App Store for Mac, Apple is clearly signaling the end of physical distribution of software.

Finally, if you subscribe to the Steve Jobs way of consuming media, the CD and DVD also dead there too. All the music, tv and films you could ever want are available for download via iTunes – be it to your Mac, iPhone or AppleTV.

Even if you consume your media independently, the Amazon MP3 store, music-on-demand services such Pandora and the continued widespread use of p2p all support the end of the physical distribution of media. NetFlix (probably anticipating this) are about to release a streaming-only service very soon too.

Plus there are many gains to be had on the hardware side of things

There’s another side to this story, which are the benefits to Apple from the loss of the optical drive.

Even in a large laptop like the MacBook Pro 15″ that I’m typing this post on, you can see from the image below that a large amount of footprint is taken up by the optical drive. Check out this photo from iFixIt.com which clearly shows the optical drive in green:

Every time Apple makes its laptops smaller, lighter and thinner they are having to deal with an awkward component that can’t be made any smaller – the optical drive has to take a 5″ disk regardless of the size of the laptop.

One of the reasons the iPad has such battery life is the ability for Apple to stuff the case full of battery. With the optical drive gone, Apple can make thinner laptops that have more battery inside them.

Finally, piracy can probably also be reduced if the USB keys themselves contain some kind of proprietary mechanism to check the operating system is being installed from an Apple-manufactured memory stick.

RIP DVD

Given Apple’s fairly recent switch to including SD card slots on MacBooks, I actually thought they would go with SD card but it looks like USB drive is going to be the medium of choice. I guess as the MacBook Air 11″ has shown, Apple has designs on such small technology that even an SD slot may be too big to accomodate across all of it’s lines.

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(for those not familiar with the back story, check here).

Having become clear Libya has no intention of ever releasing the vb.ly domain back to Violet, we have course-corrected by reopening her url shortening service under the new domain vbly.us.

We had originally pursued a number of other 2-letter options (eg xx.yy) to relaunch the service under. However, given what has happened with Libya and the .ly space we decided to avoid any ccTLD that has regulations that were unclear or open to interpretation. Ultimately, we don’t want what happened with Libya happening again to the service’s users, so for the stability and assurance of the service going forward we elected to register a .us domain.

A .us domain, registered and owned by a US Citizen (Violet) and hosted on servers in US (Newark, New Jersey to be exact) ensures that the service completely resides under US jurisdiction and benefits from full First Amendment Rights.

The domain vbly.us also means that you can easily modify your existing urls to work with the new domain. Thus http://vb.ly/yoururl becomes http://vbly.us/yoururl and will work as before. No urls were lost or forgotten during the downtime.

At a higher level, the “vb.ly saga” has been an interesting experience which I will write a more reflective post about shortly. Issues to be discussed range from the wonders of elastic server instances to meet the worldwide media influx through to dealing with a highly sensitive and emotionally charged issue such as Islam and the legal implications of Sharia law.

In the meantime, I’m sorry to all the users of the service who were let down by what had happened. With the .us registration we do not expect this to happen again.

Please follow the @vb_ly twitter account for further developments! You can also track this story on Hacker News.

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NIC.ly, the domain registry for the .ly domain, have made a statement regarding their deletion of our domain vb.ly (prior coverage here, here, here (slightly NSFW), and across the internet)

Contrary to their assertion in their statement, we did NOT receive any communication from NIC.ly before they pulled the vb.ly domain.

We had received other emails from them previously including our domain renewal notice just a month and a half before so I know they had a working email address for us and that we were receiving their correspondence.

They’ve made out in their statement that we ignored their email – given how upset myself and Violet Blue have been over this I would urge people to consider whether these are the actions of two people who would intentionally ignore such a significant warning. Why would we do that?

It is disappointing that NIC.ly didn’t use the opportunity of their statement to discuss the issue of a domain registry regulating, and essentially censoring, the content of a website. They attempted to redirect the conversation by over-embellishing the nature of the site to suit their argument rather than dealing with the wider issue for everyone which is why is a domain registry proscribing editorially what is and isn’t allowed content-wise on a website that use its domains. I would urge the wider Internet public to consider the incredibly serious issues that raises.

I am also disappointed that NIC.ly didn’t respond to our concerns about how this essentially makes the use of .ly domains for user-generated content untenable.

I do, however, feel relieved that they will not be letting anyone else register the domain – we were concerned from a security perspective of someone else registering the domain and re-routing existing vb.ly links out there to insecure or spoofed websites. We hadn’t highlighted this concern previously because we didn’t want to give away such a vector for abuse but now they have said the domain is ‘locked’ I’m happy to mention it.

UPDATE: Post publication, I have a further thought with regards to NIC.ly’s statement on their recent change to their policy on short domain registrations. From their statement:

NIC.ly’s concern that the rise in popularity of URL shorteners from abroad taking up all these names has deprived locals of their right to register the important 3 letter abbreviations of their various businesses and interests. We as a Registry would prefer seeing art.ly used for a website about Libyan art for instance

I wonder what the current owners of the domain art.ly think about this statement? I find it shocking that having been happy to have previously sold art.ly the current owners, the domain registry is now saying that they don’t really want them to own it and would rather they had it back and could sell it to a local company.

I had previously questioned whether NIC.ly’s was under pressure to recover ‘valuable’ domains that have already been registered to foreign owners. This would appear to confirm I was correct. I therefore feel this further puts into question the commercial viability for anyone using a .ly domain that could be considered ‘premium’ as there is now an additional concern of NIC.ly aspiring to have the domain back.

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I would like to warn current and future owners of .ly domains of a concerning incident regarding the deletion of one of our prime domains ‘vb.ly’ by NIC.ly (the domain registry and controlling body for the Libyan domain space ‘.ly’).

In short:

The domain was seized by the Libyan domain registry for reasons which seemed to be kept obscure until we escalated the issue. We eventually discovered that the domain has been seized because the content of our website, in their opinion, fell outside of Libyan Islamic/Sharia Law.

This is deeply concerning for everyone, but especially .ly domain owners, because it sets a precedent that all websites running on a .ly domain must comply with Libyan Islamic/Sharia Law in order to maintain their domains. This is especially concerning for anyone running a url shortener or hosting user-generated content on a .ly domain.

You may also not know that since June 2010 .ly domains less than 4 characters long may no longer be registered by anyone who isn’t in Libya – which suggests there is tension around foreign owned, high-value, short .ly domains.

The full story:

Our domain ‘vb.ly’ (which was joint owned by myself and my partner Violet Blue) was deleted by NIC.ly without warning or notice on or around September 23rd 2010. We were subsequently told that our domain has been removed to us being “in clear violation of NIC rules and regulations” relating to “text referring to adult content and offensive imagery from [our] main page”.

The regulations for .ly domains are available at http://nic.ly/regulations.php. Aside from the fact that we contest that any adult content or offensive imagery exists on the site (vb.ly is a url shortener), what is more concerning is that there does not appear to be any regulation(s) written on that page that actually pertains to the violation notice we were given.

In other words we felt that the NIC.ly registry was claiming it has deleted our domain for infringements that do not actually form any part of their regulations.

However after numerous emails and escalating the matter to NIC.ly directly, we were told by Mr Alaeddin S. ElSharif (Web services Dept. NIC.ly/Libya Telecom and Technology):

“…clause 3.5 clearly states that: “The Applicant certifies that, to the best of his/her knowledge the domain name is not being registered for any activities/purpose not permitted under Libyan law.”

Pornography and adult material aren’t allowed under Libyan Law, therefore we removed the domain…”

Again, while we contest that there was NO pornography or adult material on vb.ly, I would suggest that there is a far more concerning issue here if domain registries can decide on the validity of a domain registration based on the content of the website that uses it. I would argue that the two are extricably decoupled and separate entities.

An additional concern is that the clause being used here pertains to Libyan Islamic Law which appears impossible to find listed in English.

This incident also follows on from a significant (but sadly unreported) recent decision by NIC.ly that as of June 2010:

“.LY domains that are shorter than 4 characters are only allowed for companies or individuals having presence in Libya.” [link]

Existing owners of such domains may renew but those premium domains are no longer open for registration by anyone who does not have a presence in Libya. Think about that, the domains for bit.ly, owl.ly (another set of url shorteners) and ad.ly (advertising solution), would not be registrable now by foreigners. Previously, any domain available was available to anyone who wanted to register it.

We found this u-turn in registration policy surprising. We wonder whether having seen the ‘mini domain gold rush’ that occured with the .ly domain space, there is suddenly a desire – perhaps even pressure – to have local Libyans control some of the the most premium and valuable .ly domains.

With this already in our minds, we found the following line from the email communication we received about the deletion deeply concerning:

…your domain being removed from NIC.LY records and made available for re-registration for locals

We wonder whether this line suggests that in the back of the mind of the person deleting our domain was the motivation that a rare <4 letter .ly domain would suddenly become available for a local Libyan national to register.

I’m not against Libyans registering .ly domains; instead I suggest that NIC.ly/Libya realized too late the value of these premium domains and now there is clearly back-peddling going on to ensure they don’t all end up in the hands of non-Libyans. Further more, I wonder if there is pressure for NIC.ly to do what it can to recover premium <4 letter .ly domains where possible so that they end up back in the pool only available for locals to re-register Finally, I wonder whether NIC.ly are being pressured to go so far with this that they would even revoke domains for reasons that don’t specifically violate any of the regulations that domain owners agreed to upon registration.

.ly domain space to be considered unsafe

For these reasons I believe the .ly domains should be considered unsafe. Anyone running a business or relying on a website with a one, two or three letter .ly domain should be incredibly cautious. This obviously includes anyone who uses bit.ly, 3.ly, owl.ly and any other similar url shortener.

I cannot see how the deletion of our .ly domain couldn’t happen to the owners of these domains too. In fact bit.ly is hosting many, many links that depict the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), extreme pornographic subject matter, etc.

However, the fact that NIC.ly are asserting editorial control over the content of any website using a .ly domain is perhaps the most troubling to any .ly domain owner and indeed the internet community at large. Not only is it paramount to censorship and doesn’t reflect the decoupled nature of domains vs websites, but it sets a dangerous precedent in the space.

At the time of writing our domain vb.ly is still revoked and our website is offline.

To sum up:

  • .ly domains deemed to be in violation of NIC.ly regulation are being deregistered and removed without warning – causing significant inconvenience and damage.
  • .ly domains are being deregistered and removed due to reasons that do not correspond to the regulations defined in the official NIC.ly Regulations.
  • NIC.ly seems to want to extend their reach beyond the domain itself and regulate the content of websites that use a .ly domain. The concept amounts to censorship and makes .ly domains untenable to be used for user-generated content or url shorteners.
  • Libyan Islamic/Sharia Law is being used to consider the validity of domains, which is unclear and obscure in terms of being able to know what is allowed and what isn’t.
  • NIC.ly have suddenly decided that <4 letter .ly domains should only be available to local Libyans and this appears to create motivation to recover what premium domains they can to go back into this new local-only pot of domains.

You can read more about this, including copies of email correspondence, over at Violet Blue’s TechYum website.

UPDATE: My partner Violet Blue (former co-owner of vb.ly) has a thought provoking review of the way this story has played out across the media today. Her site is slightly NSFW.

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I’ve been wondering who will head up and run Google’s social network Facebook competitor. For me, the man/woman at the top steering the ship will probably be the single biggest factor as to whether Google can pull this off successfully (which needs to happen else the social network space will remain a monopoly).

And so with news that Google as acquired Slide I’m guessing that question has been answered: Max Levchin.

Max obviously has experience with social (from Slide) and also payments (from PayPal), the latter of which will be crucial to any financially successful social network/social games play going forward. Assuming I’m right (and Max must be getting some kind of top-job at Google), I’m actually glad it’s not an existing Googler – they’re are some great people working there at all levels but I can’t identify any executive-level folks who really get social.

I’m also guessing Max Levchin as GM is more palatable to Google than Mark Pincus, which further suggests that an acquisition of Zynga by Google is off the table now.

Liquidation preference?

In other thoughts, I’m wondering whether common shareholders will see any return? With Slide raising $78m at a $500m valuation and then a sale for $128m, will there be much left after costs + liquidation preferences, etc?

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