Archive for June, 2012

Computer history with a French slant

June 28, 2012 is an entertaining account of an important component in the development of online services – even if it looks like something of an anomaly within the broader history of the Internet and related networks.  Minitel provided a set of service to France Telecom’s customers using dial-up modems which now look incredibly slow and using simple table-top terminals.  The French PTT (posts, telegraphs, and telephones), as it then was, clearly understood the importance of building a critical mass of users who would ensure the development of a network and the availability of services.  Minitel developed, not just through the more or less respectable services alluded to in the  BBC article, but also because it was available as a tool for directory inquiries as an alternative to a set of paper phone books.  Also (not mentioned in the article) part of the context was an atrocious and dated phone network in the 1970s, which made it a priority for the Giscard D’Escaing government to invest in its improvement.

While the service was most popular in France, as the article mentions there were equivalents in other coutries including the UK.  Arguably the principle owed a fair amount to work by the British engineer Sam Fedida, who developed the British equivalent, Prestel, at British Telecom Research Labs in Martlesham Heath in Suffolk.  In Britain as in France postal and phone services were under the same ownership until around 1980, so Fedida had at one time been employed by the Post Office.  One important part of the design was to split the capacity of a communication link asymmetrically between two directions, so that the connection is faster one way than the other, a principle still followed by many broadband connections.

Prestel never took off as a household tool in Britain.  But it did achieve remarkable success among one particular group of niche users.  Travel agents (remember them) did find it a useful network and built up a kind of closed user group.  And the Bank of Scotland developed an online banking services using Minitel-style terminals, long before Internet banking as we know it came into use.  So Minitel perhaps had more impact than we tend to recognise.


Identifying the student experience

June 21, 2012

Last month (Freemium education) I posted about the new online venture from Harvard and MIT.  This week I note that this piece about the venture has floated close to the top of the BBC news most shared list.

The piece rightly acknowledges that Harvard and MIT have incredibly strong brands, and that they aren’t in this particular segment of the education business to make money.  But it’s worth picking up on this particular question, about half way down:

“Because if the content of university courses becomes freely available, what is it that students are paying for?”

Increasingly I would argue that it isn’t about content, and that whether you sign up to attend a traditional face-to-face university, or engage in some sort of distance learning, the value added by the university is to do with interaction (it’s also to do with accreditation and proof that you’ve learned something, which is another issue).  After all, long before the Internet, it was possible for anybody wanting to learn about a subject on the basis of one expert’s view to do so by reading a book.  And, thanks to the availability of public libraries, a keen student could always read the expert’s views at no cost.

Maybe the real clue to why students can benefit from attending universities came from overhearing snatches of a phone conversation earlier this week.  It was  early on Tuesday evening, and the phone conversation was a man clearly making arrangements to meet a friend, in time to watch that evening’s football game on television in a pub.  He could, of course, have watched exactly the same television coverage from home, but clearly wanted to be part of a group which was watching the game collectively.  The same principle applies to education: people like the sense of participation and like to feel part of a group.

TomTom finds its way

June 21, 2012

TomTom is a fascinating business for several reasons.  For a start, it’s an example of being successful through having the right product at the right time, and when the technology was available for that product to be saleable at the right cost – notably simple stand-alone satellite navigation devices in the early 2000s.  It’s also an example of the effective use of open source, not just for the software but also for mapping data which can be kept up-to-date with the help of information provided by users.  Perhaps most significantly, the same product which looked successful in the early 2000s is now starting to look dated.

It’s interesting, then. to see that TomTom has now made a deal with Apple to provide mapping and satellite navigation tools for iPhones – immediately bringing TomTom into the position of being a key player in the ‘ecosystem’ of hardware, application, and accessory providers that Apple has created.  This cartoon from the Guardian’s Kipper Williams rather neatly sums up one aspect of the deal – that it could be seen as a significant snub for Google who would like to promote their own mapping and direction finding tools.

Adjudicating on plagiarism

June 12, 2012

Plagiarism is a big issue in higher education and one of the key concerns is that students often genuinely don’t lack a clear understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and what doesn’t.  So it’s reassuring to see this recognised in the forthcoming report from the office of the independent adjudicator as covered in this Guardian piece – and my personal view is that the topic is a bit more nuanced than some of the ‘below the line’ comments would suggest

Standardisation through sockets

June 1, 2012

A slightly unexpected piece which was at or near the top of the ‘most viewed’ list was this piece on plug sockets – which in fact is a neat case study in standardisation and why it can be difficult to achieve.

But the author’s hope for standardised light fittings in British homes is unlikely to be met.  Not only are there too many legacy systems (bayonet fittings that have been there for decades) but many of us have a few non-standard fittings around, acquired over the years, for which we can still get bulbs.  And even if the bulbs for these aren’t as energy efficient as the latest bulbs for standard Edison screw fittings, it still makes sense both in terms of cost and environmental impact to continue using the fittings that we’ve got.

Autonomy being less autonomous

June 1, 2012

There are some parallels between Logica, mentioned in the previous post, and Autonomy.  Both were once ambitious British start-ups, and both depended on a team of bright people and creating a distinctive business with a clearly defined skills.  And both have been in the news lately, in Autonomy’s case because of the ill-tempered departure of its founder, Mike Lynch, not long after the company’s acquisition by HP.

This is being portrayed in most press coverage – including the Guardian article linked above – as a clash of cultures, between the small, entrepreneurial, Autonomy and the bureaucratic HP.  I’ve no doubt that’s true, but I also wonder how well Autonomy really fitted with HP, or even whether HP under Meg Whitman really has a clear view of where it wants to go.  The acquisition of Autonomy was initiated under HP’s previous CEO Leo Apotheker, and there was some synergy between Apotheker’s intention to focus on the less visible, back office, aspects of computing and Autonomy’s provision of tools for handling large amounts of data.  It’s not clear whether any of that synergy is still there.

Forty years of yellow

June 1, 2012

I’ve mentioned Logica in an earlier post, since I worked there in the moderately distant past and have followed developments in the business since.  Today comes the announcement that an acquisition by the Canadian firm CGI is expected to go ahead.  The official line seems to be to stress that the two businesses are complementary in terms of expertise and geographic coverage, and thus to reassure employees in particular that there won’t be swathes of redundancies.  But there is no attempt to gloss this over as a merger of equals: it’s a cash offer by CGI.  Logica did well in the early 2000s – still long after my time there – through services for text messages  and I recall the former chief executive Martin Read berating city analysts for only seeing the text message part of the business, and undervaluing the more established general IT services line of business.  Sadly those general IT services don’t seem to have been enough.

Two stories about Logica’s name and image, which were in circulation in my time there, are worth recounting.  One, which must have been embellished in the retelling, is that the founding managing director, Philip Hughes, had in a previous job been responsible for running a competition to find a new name for the IT company where he worked.  One of the entries was ‘Logica’ – which he deemed to be too good for his existing employer and which he kept for the business that he and some partners set up a few years later.  The other, which is very plausible, is that one of the very first items of outlay when the company started up was payment for the design of a logo.  It wasn’t quite the same as the logo in use today, but it’s recognisably a close variant, and uses the same shade of yellow which became one of the defining characteristics of the company.  It remains to be seen whether CGI will maintain the Logica name and image, or whether this takeover will be the end of forty years of yellow.