Saturday, 30 August 2008

Of course, I would never connect to someone else's unsecured wireless network. Oh dear me no.

One of the things that always staggers me about the current state of technology is how quickly it changes. (And people who know me well are probably sick to death of me banging on about it. To those people, I apologise. Go and look at pretty photos of London while I talk to everyone who hasn't got bored.) Ten years ago, the Internet was slow, video was available only in postage-stamp sized RealVideo clips, Google was little more than a gleam in its founders' eyes, message forums and Java-based chatrooms were about as far as interactivity went, and the concept of MMORPGs was limited to text-based MUDs.

Nowadays, the web is growing faster than ever before, hosting costs are tumbling (my total costs for Ballpoint Banana currently come in at under £10 per year), and speeds are soaring. However, some aspects have not changed that much, and one of them is the physical infrastructure used to deliver all this shiny content into our vastly overpowered computers. Despite valiant efforts by Virgin (among others) to get optical fibres deployed on a major scale, pretty much everyone in the UK uses existing cables – either their phone lines or their TV cables. Well, apart from the 9% who are still on dialup for some unfathomable reason.

Wireless may be gaining popularity among home users, but it's only once the cable has made it into the user's home that this can happen. To some extent, that's a good thing, as it means the user has complete control over the hardware they have, instead of the ISP saying that customers need a specific type of wireless access. However, it is dramatically stifling the growth of public wireless.

"Public wireless", in this case, means access to the Internet that you can get anywhere (or anywhere reasonably urban, anyway). It's something of a niche at the moment, its use generally limited to people who carry laptops with them. However, with the entry into the market of ultraportable laptops like the Asus Eee, or phone-sized devices like my Nokia N800, people are starting to want to get access to the web wherever they are. Oh, and they don't really want to have to squint at it, either.

There's been two main attempts to bring public wireless to reality, and again, both of them are based on existing technology. The first uses the extensive mobile phone network, along with GPRS data transfer technology, to get the web onto phones, and the second uses the standard wired internet access technology and sticks wireless broadcasters on the end.

The mobile phone camp has the advantage that the mobile phone network already covers something like 95-99% of populated areas (that's a guess, but it's probably not far wrong), and has the secondary advantage that if you're the type of person who wants to browse the internet on the move, it's a near certainty that you already have a mobile. Apple and O2 have grabbed this opportunity with both hands, and are flogging the iPhone to customers on its Internet capabilities like there's no tomorrow.

However, there are disadvantages too, the main one being that mobile Internet access is still slow (GPRS just can't compare to ADSL or cable) and expensive. Let's not forget either that the screen size to which mobile users are accustomed was designed for showing phone numbers, not websites, and manufacturers are having a hard time cramming an entire web page into a screen and keeping the phone a reasonable size.

This is where the "extended wired access" camp can score highly. Wi-fi is now an accepted technological standard, to the extent that almost all laptops now come with it by default, and it works so fast that the limiting factor in the connection speed will almost always be at the service provider's end, not the device. It's also not restricted to any one type of device, so desktops, laptops and ultra-mobile devices can all use it (and talk to each other) equally well. Its disadvantage is that it's primarily been sold as a home or office technology, rather than for public places, so if you can pick up a wireless signal in the street or in a train station, it will either be very weak, or it will be...

...oh dear...

...a subscription service. There's a couple of these, notably The Cloud and BT Openzone. They show up on a wireless device as an unsecured wireless network, but if you connect to them they will deliver nothing except a "please pay us money" splash page until you pay inordinately expensive rates. (£4.50 for an hour? What is this, 1995?) Now, if I were using the internet for business purposes on the move, I can see that this might be a good deal. For the casual user, though, it's a horrifically bad deal, and you're much better off just wandering around until you can find someone who's left their network unlocked so you can nick access off them.

The way around this, I reckon, is for these service providers to recognise that when people are accessing the web on the move, for the most part they only want it for a few minutes. Maybe they're in a pub and want to identify the singer currently warbling on the sound system, or they're in a train station trying to get to the National Rail website, or they've just thought of a hilariously witty comment to post on their blog which they will definitely forget by the time they reach a net-connected computer. (And yes, all three of these situations have happened to me within the last few weeks. Apart from the whole "hilariously witty" thing.) They certainly don't want to pay for an entire hour – anything that will take that long can almost certainly wait until they get home.

This means that the way to get massive public uptake of public wireless access is, quite simply, to drop the prices for intermittent access incredibly low or even free. There should be a way to buy longer-term access (perhaps on a subscription basis), for people who actually need to use the web for hours when on the move), and this could come with other benefits such as higher speeds or prioritised traffic.

(Quick note - no, that doesn't violate Net Neutrality, because it gives priority to users, not websites. The network in this case doesn't care what you're looking at, only how you're looking at it.)

If that's how it should happen, will it? Basically, no. BT and others have sunk a lot of money into their infrastructure, and they're going to want to recoup that investment as quickly as possible, even if it doesn't build up future markets as fast as it could. The problem is the one that I touched on above – the underlying internet infrastructure hasn't changed much, so there's a lot invested in it, and the change that would be required to easily provide widely available public net access (like Wi-MAX) is slow, expensive and riskier than just using the current technology.

There is a bright side, and it's the fact I pointed out right up at the top of this piece: technology develops ridiculously fast. Pretty much every prediction made about how technology is going to develop has turned out to be wrong in some way, so it really wouldn't surprise me if some ingenious entrepreneur suddenly changed the face of wireless internet in much the same way that Freeserve did for dialup ten years ago. We can but hope.

Type the rest of your post here.

Continue Reading...

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

I many Americans would be up for a "Photoshoppers for Obama" lobby group?

I've just been watching a few bits from last night's action at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. This has hammered two things home to me:

  1. BBC Parliament is an extremely awesome channel even when it isn't showing anything to do with Parliament; and
  2. The Americans do glitz and glamour better than anyone else in the world.
I'd seen clips of the conventions in previous years, but really, nothing quite prepares you for seeing several thousand people decked out in a hundred variations of red, white and blue (and cowboy hats. I appreciate the cowboy hats), screaming in joy or alternatively booing like their life depended on it whenever the speaker slips key words into their speech. (Cheering: "Obama", "Democrats", "America"; booing: "McCain", "Republicans", "Bush", "eight years".) Everyone seems to be waving signs, rising from their seats to applaud wildly at every other sentence, and in some cases looking kind of tearful and like they can't quite cope. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The other main thing that I realised was that even if they were fielding a terrible candidate (and even if I didn't support them anyway), I'd be very tempted to throw my support behind the Democrats entirely on the basis of their typography. To see what I mean, take a look at this image from

And now compare it to John McCain's campaign logo.

There's nothing especially wrong with the McCain logo, but that font just looks like someone took Times New Roman and filed the corners off. The font used on Obama's page (and it's the same one that was used for all the speakers' names at the convention, in a rather good piece of visual continuity) is one that I've never seen before, and it's well-balanced, nicely rounded, clean and smart. Whoever is doing the graphic design for the Democrats at the moment is doing a superb job.

Continue Reading...

Monday, 18 August 2008

The United Kingdom. Reassuringly Useless.

As has been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in Beijing this week, Britain is a country that is remarkably difficult to describe in any lasting way. Just when I thought that "being useless at sports" was one of the key things that defined this place, our athletes go and put themselves third in the medal table. While we're on the subject, track cycling is much, much cooler than I ever thought. Whoever had the idea of a sport where all the competitors have to dress up like superheroes was a genius.

Some aspects of this country, however, do not change. I was in Liverpool Street station last night, waiting for a train back to Enfield (and listening to Belle & Sebastian, so I was already filled with the very British combination of slightly melancholy whimsy) when the giant video screen in the station started showing BAA's new Terminal 5 advert.

Terminal 5, as you'll probably remember, is the newest part of London's Heathrow Airport. It's been open since the end of March, but its grand opening was sadly marred by the fact that they hadn't quite got the rather important function of matching up passengers with their luggage working properly. Impressively, the terminal managed to misdirect 28,000 pieces of luggage in a mere 10 days, reaching new heights of incompetence previously unseen.

So, here we are, over four full months down the line, and what is the advert tagline that BAA has decided to go with?

"Terminal 5 is working." Not "Terminal 5 is working well." Not "Terminal 5 is a nice place to catch a plane." Not even "Terminal 5 – Now Losing An Acceptable Proportion Of Your Luggage."

No, BAA reckons that it is worth advertising the fact that – a third of a year after the terminal was supposed to be fully operative – it now performs to the standards that it was meant to be meeting all along.

Only the British could possibly think that was a good idea. My national identity is once again secure, no matter how glittering our athletic prowess. Thanks, BAA. Thanks.

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008


Milestones are always fun, and we've hit a big one today on The Beautiful Hypothesis – this is my 200th post! As I've tended to do in previous milestone posts, here's some handy statistics and fun facts about this blog.

  • It's been 582 days since post #1, making my posting rate 0.34 posts per day, or about one every three days. That's rather higher than I thought, and I'm very gratified to know that I'm just about hitting my original target.
  • The most common label I've used on my posts is "picture of the week", with 52 entries (oddly enough). Following closely behind is "internet" with 26. Good to see I've got my priorities right.
  • The word count for all posts, including titles and datestamps (but not including this post), is 104,525. In 12pt Times New Roman, this takes up 181 A4 pages.
  • The most popular post (by page views) is What's in your wallet?, my step-by-step dissection of a debit card. Over 20% of my visitors read that post, considerably more than even see the front page.
  • Phrases that my visitors have used to get to this blog include "funny badgers", "risc perfume for man", "hypothesis town services switzerland", "is the phrase 'yesterday morning' right" (I think it probably is, personally), "welsh translation of marseillaise" and "belinda carlisle satanica".

I could go on, but I think instead I will continue to the reason I didn't make this post a couple of days ago – I was working on this blog's newest feature! If you're a remotely regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I tend to go on a bit. I've been looking for a good solution for micro-blogging, or tumblelogging as it's sometimes known, so that I could stick short musings or observations online without going to the bother of making a whole new post.

I briefly considered Twitter, but the problem with services like that is privacy. If I suddenly decide that I don't want my posts up on Twitter any more, I have no guarantee that the owners won't keep them around on disk for years to come. Given the encroaching commercialisation of Facebook that we've seen in the last few years, too, I felt that I really needed to be able to control the posting completely.

Now that I have Ballpoint Banana running, and now that my Python coding skills are at a slightly less amateurish level (technically speaking, I'm a professional developer!), I decided that the thing to do was to develop my own blogging engine. So I'm very happy to announce the launch of Breezeblog, the simplest and most lightweight micro-blogging solution known to man.

To read my posts with the default settings, just make your merry way to this page. There aren't many posts up there yet, but once there are you will be able to read the archives from the settings page.

That page also gives you access to the RSS feed, and thanks to the wonders of Yahoo Pipes I can also offer a combined Beautiful Hypothesis and Breezeblog feed. So now you can stay completely up to date with anything that I write, and can also shake your head sadly in disbelief at the rampaging torrent of geekishness that is my life.

Continue Reading...