Hindhead bypass 1 : Google Maps 0

The Outsider and family dropped in on friends in Farnham to see in the New Year, and to blow the cobwebs away we all went for a New Year’s Day walk around the Devil’s Punch Bowl (DPB).  The DPB is a naturally occurring phenomenon, a dip and valley created long ago by a spring, now all but dried up.  It’s a beautiful area but until recently was best known by drivers as a major bottleneck on the A3 at Hindhead.  Not only was the road famous for traffic jams but it carved its way right around the lip of the DPB itself, a noisy and polluting eyesore for anyone who visited the area to wonder at the beauty of nature.


Looking north from the A3 tunnel entrance

That all changed on 29th July 2011 when a four mile stretch of dual carriageway road was opened that bypassed both Hindhead and its notorious traffic-light controlled crossroads, and the DPB itself.  The final solution wasn’t cheap, and the controversial decision to build a 1.2 mile tunnel with all the extra expense entailed, meant that both the time to take the decision and the time to build were long.  But finished and open it now is, and what a change to the environment and to journeys along the A3.

The old A3 around the Devil's Punch Bowl, no longer a road

Bypasses often get a bad press.  When the A34 Newbury bypass was being built protesters camped out in trees and in tunnels they had dug themselves to try to stop construction.  When the M3 Winchester bypass was being planned there were howls of complaint about the impact of carving a deep cutting through the chalk hills. My old home town of Salisbury has been waiting for a proper bypass for over 20 years and is no closer to having a route agreed.  But the A3 Hindhead bypass looks to me to be a wonderful example of how it is possible to get things right.  I’m not saying the bypass is without environmental impact, I’m sure there is some.  But here’s a case where, in order to restore a natural area to nature, even the old road has been ploughed up and will be grassed over.  The DPB itself is now peaceful, the only noise is that of families enjoying the countryside.  And the National Trust (who own the land) are planning to restore grazing to the area too.  So, 10/10 to the planners and road builders.  

Where's the Hindhead bypass, Google?

Whilst walking round the PWB I turned on Google Maps on the iPhone to see how the site looked.  I thought that maybe it showed the bypass being built, so I could see where I was in comparison to the roadworks.  What I was not prepared for was to be shown the old A3 still where it used to be, going round the lip of the DPB with not the slightest sign of the new(ish) bypass.  Maybe it was a phone thing I thought.  Maybe they just hadn’t updated the database for iPhone use.  But on the web version it’s just the same (see left – link here but may have been updated now).  Five months after the bypass was opened Google still haven’t caught up.  And if you’re using the Google Android SatNav application, is that wrong too?  If you want to navigate your way to Guildford, where will it try to take you – along the ploughed field?

For SatNav I use a TomTom stand-alone unit without the live updates, and I expect to have some roads that are out of date, after all I don’t pay money to download new versions very often.  But we are normally spoon-fed with the mantra that using cloud-based apps is much better as the information is always kept up to date.  I think companies making that claim need to deliver on the promise too!

p.s. Before Christmas I bought a new AA road atlas (2012 version) and guess what – it has the new road marked!  Paper >> Google

p.p.s. Bing’s no better – see here

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Whatever happened to the flip phone?

Son #1 had a problem with his phone. Now for most teenagers that would mean that the battery life was rubbish, or the camera had failed, or it had lost all the music. Or maybe that it was last years’s model and didn’t have a large enough memory capacity, or the browser was substandard.  Not so. Son #1′s phone problem was that his phone kept turning itself on. Yes, turning itself on, not off.

Unlike many of his age, #1 takes the rule about no phones at school seriously. The school has one of those curious rules that says that students are not allowed to take phones to school, but that if they do take them the phones should be turned off.

It took us some time to convice him that it just might be useful to have a phone in his bag, turned off, in case he needed it in an emergency. As the antiquated school bus (ex-Hong Kong, replete with signs saying “no spitting” in Chinese) had a habit of breaking down, we anticipated such emergencies being common.

Samsung E2120 candy bar phone

So we bought him a cheap Samsung candy bar phone with a prepay SIM and all was well. The phone was suitably straightforward, the battery lasted ages, and even the camera was half decent.

But every now and again #1 asked me to unblock the SIM. Apparently the phone had got turned on whilst in his school bag, and with various random keypresses the wrong PIN had been entered three times, blocking the SIM.

The first few times I was mildly interested, then after a few more times it got a bit more tedious, and eventually I put the PUK code in my own phone so I didn’t have to look it up on the internet every time.

After many more such unblockings I thought it had become time to investigate more fully.
Candy bar phones are very convenient and robust. There’s no hinge to break, no slider to jam, just buttons. But in order to save buttons and cost, Samsung use the “end call” button for the power on/off function too. And of course that button is on the exposed face of the phone.  The exposed face of the phone gets subjected to all manner of pressure from being bounced around in the school bag, and hey presto, SIM block.

So, I thought, how about replacing the phone with one where there are no buttons exposed?  Then nothing could get pressed accidentally and we’d be free from the SIM block problem.  A flip phone (or folding phone as Nokia reluctantly had to call it to avoid patent infringement), that would do it.

Motorola Star-TAC

Motorola were the first to introduce the folding flip phone with the Star-TAC in 1989.  And truly revolutionary it was too.  Most hand portables (analogue, don’t forget) were still brick sized at that time, albeit getting smaller each year.  The Star-TAC, for its time, was very small.  Soon everyone (well, except for Nokia) were jumping on the bandwagon, and flip phones became a very popular form factor.  Meanwhile the candy bar format evolved with sliders and covers, and a healthy variety of shapes and sizes co-existed for many years.

With all that history behind then, surely getting a flip phone for son #1 would be straightforward?  Apparently not.  For some reason, be it style, manufacturing cost, reliability or whatever, flip phones have become the very poor cousin, and are nearly extinct.  We should despatch Nigel Marvin at once to rescue some of the last samples and keep them safe in captivity for future generations to enjoy.

Samsung E1150 flip phone - cheap but very basic

It turned out the only budget priced flip phone was so basic as to be a non-starter, even for #1.  No camera, no media player, it just about made calls and sent texts.  Sorry Samsung, cheap it may be but not worth the effort.  So in the end I had to hunt through my past cast-offs and find a Nokia N80 (slider phone), which very thoughtfully has a very difficult to press on/off button on the top.  Problem solved, but an interensting reminder of how fashions in phones change, and how something so revolutionary in 1989 has all but vanished.


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In Germany armed only with a credit card

For our summer holidays this year the Outsider and family journeyed to Germany.  One reason for this is son #1′s pursuit to visit what seems like every natural history museum in Europe, and Stuttgart had one of the best in Germany, he said (we did Berlin last year).

Fast and smooth - the German ICE train

To avoid spending all our time a big city we decided to spend a few days first in picturesque Heidelberg.  Arriving by train (Eurostar, ICE and S-Bahn), a long but interesting and smooth journey, we bought a two-day transport pass at Tourist Information.  ”Cash or credit card?” the very friendly and efficient assistant asked.  ”Cash” we replied without thinking too much, after all we’d brought plenty, even allowing for the really awful exchange rate between the pound and the Euro.

It turned out the Tourist Information kiosk was one of the few places that accepted our credit cards.  We carry both Vias and Mastercard, credit and debit cards.  Having had difficulties in France some years ago when they were still using their pre-standard chip and PIN system, we hedge our bets these days.  What we were not prepared for was the almost complete lack of shops and restaurants that accepted any of our cards.  The Outsider was used to travelling to Germany quite often when still working, and never had much problem using plastic then.

In the UK we have become used to being able to use credit and debit cards almost anywhere.  Even the smallest of restaurants and shops seems to have a chip and PIN machine, even market stalls and craft traders in the middle of fields.  We’ve become used to cards being taken anywhere, and we rely on them.  If our cards were going to be useless in Germany, we were going to have to be very careful with our cash reserves.  Suddenly using cash for that purchase of our travel passes felt rash.

We did spot some people using a type of card in the local supermarkets, but those same supermarkets wouldn’t take our cards.  The Outsider didn’t find out what cards these were, maybe they were pre-payment cards, popular with shops as the risk of fraud is low, at least for the shop.

Eurocheque logo - still seen in shops in Germany

Some shops sported the Eurocheque logo.  Eurocheques were once quite popular across Europe, particularly before the days of the European common currency (the Euro).  They could be written in a variety of currencies and then converted back into the user’s own currency by the banking system.  But they were withdrawn in 2002 (coincidentally when the Euro was introduced) when cheque guarantee cards were withdrawn.  Whether this meant the shops still accepted Eurochques (at their own risk presumably), or whether they just hadn’t taken down the logos we never found out.

Fortunately for the Outsider’s family our fortunes changed when we moved to Stuttgart for the second part of our holiday.  For some reason there were more places that would accept our cards, even the supermarkets we used, so the pressure on our cash reserves eased.  When we asked in the Stuttgart Tourist Information kiosk they were at a loss to explain why the two towns were so different.

Maybe we were just unlucky.  Maybe it was just the particular shops we went in, and the restaurants we visited.  Maybe they were not so interested in the tourist trade (hang on, that’s Heidelberg we’re talking about).  Whatever the reason, we’re going to do our research before visiting Germany again, and make sure we have the right plastic.

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Waiting for the electric cars

We are told that electric cars will be commonplace in only a few years’ time.  Trouble is, I’ve heard this so many times before that I’m not really convinced.

When it comes to predictions about future traffic and car use, there have been plenty that have proved well clear of the mark.  If you go back far enough to early post-war Britain there were predictions that we’d all be using personal helicopters within the next ten years, a prediction that justified the then government in not spending large amounts on the country’s road infrastructure, a decision we’re still living with today.

Charging point in a local car park

But maybe things are changing this time.  In two local public car parks in Buckinghamshire, charge points made by Charge Master have just recently appeared and have been connected to the mains electricity supply.  They proudly boast two rows of pretty blue LEDs shining brightly to show they are ready for action.  Except there’s no cars to use them, yet.

These charging points have been installed under the government’s “Plugged in Places” scheme, although the DfT website only mentions London, Milton Keynes and the North East as part of this scheme, apparently forgetting they have also lobbed some money at Bucks.

After a bit if digging I found one mention about the installation of electric car charging points in local railway station car parks, and in some public car parks, so made enquiries of he local council’s engineering department.  Apparently the points have not been “commissioned” yet, and may be “later this year”.  My guess is that the simple bit, of installing the points themselves, has been done, but that the hard bit of working out the business model and implementing the payment infrastructure is yet to be done.

So where are the cars, and how good are they?  The BBC did a feature on their technology website in January where Brian Milligan attempted to drive (in stages) from London to Edinburgh in an electric Mini.  He found the range of the car lacking such that he had real difficulty reaching the next public charging point before the car ran out of juice.  He was forced to turn off all unnecessary equipment (like the heater, in January) and sit in his thermal underwear in freezing conditions, just to make it to the next charge point.  His attempt took a knocking from fans of electric cars (including Tesla, manufacturer of the high performance sports car) who pointed out the Mini was not a production car, and that real production vehicles would be far better than that.

Several car makers are now racing to get a viable car to market, but the models are still

The Nissan Leaf electric car

very expensive, and long range lacking.  At The O2 recently, Nissan had a display of their technology, and the Leaf electric car.  It’s a fine looking car, but with a price tag (even with the government incentive payment) of £25k, and a range of “a little over 100 miles” before it needs charging, I don’t think I’m likely to go electric any time soon.  Maybe when Ford brings out its electric Focus it will be time to look again.

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I went to the BBC the other day

Whilst on holiday in the Canary Islands, topping up on sun with the family, my phone rang. Being the meany that I am and not wanting to pay roaming charges, I hurriedly told the caller I was on holiday and abroad and could they call back next week.

It turned out the call was from a producer at the BBC who is making a series for Radio 4 on the development of the mobile phone, to be narrated by Stephen Fry.  We switched communication to email (isn’t free WiFi wonderful?) and by the end of the week I’d agreed to take part in the programme, to be interviewed for a half-hour or so on historical reminiscences.  So the very next week, whilst the rest of the family headed for the Natural History Museum, I went off to Bush House for my interview, or chat.

Bush House, home of the BBC World Service

Bush House is, of course, the home of the BBC World Service, but also home to technology programme Digital Planet (now renamed Click) and the sister TV programme, also called Click.  I’ve been a casual listener to the Digital Planet podcast for some while, although less frequently of late since I no longer drive to work.  It’s curious that the BBC hides all its technology programmes on the World Service and podcasts, and that none of this material reaches the regular broadcast listener or viewer.

Anyway, the programme for which they wanted me is to be on a regular broadcast channel, the home of Stephen Fry, Radio 4.

Philips (TeKaDe) System 4 mobile

Once the producer (Anna) and I were sat comfortably in the studio we had a far-back ranging conversation about mobile phone development.  She was particularly interested in the very early days of mobile in the UK, pre-cellular and even pre-automatic.  From what I can gather there was little difficulty finding people to talk about GSM, 3G, UMTS, and even TACS.  Indeed, a good friend of mine from O2, and some former Voda colleagues had all already graced the BBC microphone.  But BT Radiophone System 3 and System 4 were so long ago that people who can talk about them must be few and far between.  The Outsider cannot claim to have been directly involved in all that was covered, but managed to bluff through with (hopefully) enough anecdotes to satisfy the editors.  I can at least lay claim to having a Philips System 4 mobile (made by TeKaDe) in my car for a while, and also to using a

Storno System 4 phone

Stornomatic 900 mounted on a block of wood in a couple of hire cars when on trips around the country.  When you consider that there was not one microprocessor in these mobiles, and only one in the network equipment (and that only handled billing), it worked remarkably well.  Of course, radio coverage of each base station was large, capacity was small, and there was no need for complex hand-off of calls from cell to cell.  So the technology was much simpler than is needed in today’s high capacity, multi-purpose networks.  But at least you could understand what was going on!

So come the autumn, listen out for the Outsider on the mobile phone programme.  See if you can spot which bits are genuine experiences!  And no, I didn’t get to meet Mr Fry.

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It isn’t hacking!

Yet again the newspaper headlines are being hit with accusations of mobile phones being hacked.  A prominent advisor to the government is forced to resign, although bearing in mind said person’s past life as editor of one of the country’s most rumour-peddling Sunday newspapers, maybe this is no real loss.  All of this furore will most likely ignite public concern about mobile phone calls being tapped into, that privacy will be invaded, that nothing they say will be safe from prying ears.

Mobile phone hacking (like computer hacking) conjures up an image of an unkempt nerd with an inability to engage in traditional social behaviour using a pile of special purpose kit cobbled together to crack some seemingly impregnable security codes in order to gain access to the prized information.  If you want to try cracking the encryption codes in the GSM system that most of us use when making mobile phone calls, you’re not far from the truth.  The encryption codes were designed in the early 1990′s to be as secure as the technology then could manage, and so far have proven to be uncrackable except by some of the most ardent government organisations.

But the mobile phone so-called hacking that has hit the press needs none of this.  Indeed

No need for special equipment to hack into a voicemail account

it’s not the mobile phone network or the conversations that are carried that are being hacked, it’s the voicemail systems.  And the key vulnerability here is the four digit access code (PIN) used to gain access to the voice mail store.  Gaining access to this needs no high tech equipment, just a phone with a touch-tone keypad (just about any phone) or another mobile phone.

When voicemail systems were first invented they were sold as an extra service to the mobile phone service – indeed they were a revenue stream in their own right and regarded as a supplementary service for regulatory reasons (but that’s another topic altogether).  Mailboxes were built to order for each customer requiring one, and each customer was given a dedicated randomly-assigned PIN to access the mailbox.

Then in the late 1980′s we hit upon the idea of giving away a voice mailbox to every customer as a standard part of the mobile service.  The number of mailboxes now increased by one or two orders of magnitude, and could only be done economically if a cheaper way could be found of offering voicemail.  Part of this challenge was technology and engineering, but the other big part was customer service.  There was no easy way of generating and distributing a vast number of randomly-assigned PIN codes to the customer base, so an easy and cheap alternative was found.  The easy and cheap alternative was to make all the PIN codes the same, and to tell users to change them or their mailboxes could be compromised.  Brilliant idea, but of course not everybody remembered to change their PIN.  And no matter how many times you remind people, they will always “forget”, especially if it takes a little time and patience to change it.

And my guess is that the busier and “more important” a person is, the less likely they are to “find the time” to change their PIN.  So if you want to access someone’s mailbox, just call their phone, wait for the call to go to voicemail (after all these people are too busy to answer the call), enter the default PIN and see what you get.  Simple, eh?  And it’s not hacking as we know it, either.

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Contactless payment technology, nearly there (sigh)

I bank with one of the big four banks (are there still four after all those mergers?) and have done so ever since being ejected from the school and packed off to university a l-o-n-g time ago.  And hence I have a couple of debit cards (one for each of my accounts).  Some while ago these were, of course, upgraded to Chip and PIN for my ongoing protection against fraud.

Look for the "contactless" symbol - hard to find

But just recently the cards have been changed again, this time including contactless payment technology.  Now, for my added convenience, I can make small value purchases in some selected outlets just by waving my card near the shop’s card reader and without having to insert my card or PIN.

Looking at the list of retailers supporting this technology I was not that impressed.  Basically it’s fast food outlets which I generally avoid, especially now I’m no longer a commuter for whom an extra minute in a food queue could be a minute less in the mad dash to get the few remaining seats on the otherwise overcrowded train.  But by chance I was in Hemel Hempstead at the weekend with a half-hour to kill waiting for the start of the party that boy #2 was going to, and there in the middle of the main shopping street was Cafe Nero.

Cafe Nero - good for babycinos

Of all the coffee shops, Nero is one of our favourites, and one that I’ve got a loyalty card for.  I think Nero’s were amongst the first to introduce “Babycino” drinks for kids – frothed up milk at a knock-down price.  Costa beat them to it, and usually add marshmallows, but good value nonetheless.  I ordered, and showed my card to the barista, who asked me to pop it into the card reader.  ”Contactless?” I asked, pointing to the symbol on my card.  ”Yes, just a moment” she replied.  The card reader now indicated it was ready to receive my card, so I waved it and….. Nothing! It didn’t work.

Now normally I’m an optimist when it comes to technology, but also a realist who understands that introducing new things is fraught with failures and disappointments.  So I put the card away and paid with cash.  What was wrong?  Did I use the card wrongly?  Did the Barista hit the wrong key?  Maybe the card had to be validated.

Fortunately we still kept the (paper) leaflet at home that came with the new card.  So I searched through it and finally found the place where it said that you cannot make a contactless payment until you’ve first made a normal chip and PIN payment.  And then the penny dropped – the “Doh!” moment.  These cards are sent out through the post, and if they worked without having to be activated , goodness only knows how many coffees and sandwiches would be purchased by Royal Mail employees inadvertently brushing past card readers whilst delivering the mail.

Why hadn’t I thought of that sooner, before trying to use the card?  I used to notice things like that, to be able to think through the end to end process and look for the loopholes that could be exploited.  At least I realised before calling them up and complaining.

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Content providers – avoid the carriers for billing!

This sounds like a case of stating the blindingly obvious.

Simon Buckingham, veteran mobile content entrepreneur

In a recent article, Simon Buckingham made the point that mobile operators will always have aconflict of interests when billing users for third party content services.  Operators have their own plans for both content services, and for billing and promotion of their core services and hence third parties will always come way down the pecking order when it comes to getting them hooked up.  And even further down the pecking order if any new development is required for the third party’s service.

What’s new here?  Right back to the introduction of reverse-billed SMS carriers have touted this feature for carrier-based billing for third parties.  They used it for their own content-based services such as ring tone downloads, Java games and the like.  And for low value content charging it worked quite well.  I say quite, for there were always the odd problems with lost SMS messages and rather flaky delivery confirmations.  It was also limited to single networks (i.e. there was no consistent cross-network premium SMS charging).

But the main problem was that SMS was never built as a charging mechanism, and one of the consequences was that the overhead to the mobile network was such that the true cost per transaction remained high.  The other was that the price points were very limited and entirely dictated by the network operators, there was no scheme for variable price points dictated by the content vendor (i.e. the third party that was trying to build a business).  Not that this stopped the network operators claiming they had invented mobile payments systems and attempting to exploit them with third parties.

We realised some time ago that, if the mobile operators were actually to have a play in the payments arena, things would need to change a lot.  After all nobody was going to buy a fridge using reverse SMS to charge it to their mobile bill.  People were used to using their credit cards to pay for tangible goods in shops and online, and the same model was most likely going to apply when using a mobile.  But entering credit card details including billing name and address was never going to catch on when phones were still limited to small screens and 12 button keypads.

Mobile Wallet

One of the thoughts was for a “mobile wallet”, a repository for all the information needed to make a purchase that was held in the network and invoked as you got to the “pay now” screen in a transaction.  Conceptually an attractive idea, but one that had to be paid for somehow, and all the parties involved (buyer, seller, credit card company) were none too keen on paying more or losing margin.  And yet again there was the likelihood that any solution would be network dependent with specific APIs (such as how the mobile wallet was invoked at the right point).

In the end it was never implemented, at least not by the operators.  After all, what are PayPal or Google Checkout if not common payment methods used across multiple vendors, or indeed the Amazon APIs which happily sit in front of multiple shops and provide all the payment mechanisms needed?  And the Apple iTunes app store just goes to show how slick content purchase and billing can be if you put a mind to it.  Somehow I don’t think Mr Jobs considered for one minute using the mobile operators for content billing.

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The end of WML?

I read the other today that the BBC has now dropped WML from its mobile website.  For such a significant content provider as the BBC to drop this format must signal the end for this original, now rather quaint, format for the mobile internet.

WML stands for Wireless Markup Language and was created by the WAP Forum in the late 1990′s as a simpler language to HTML, more suitable for low powered mobile devices.  Its capabilities were more limited, supporting mainly text-based pages with a small number of graphical items.  Part of its parentage was Unwired Planet (later phone.com, and still later Openwave) who had created their own HDML, in some ways more feature rich than WML (it allowed for pre-programmed icons to be displayed on the handset, very efficient in code size).  But ultimately HDML was doomed as it was proprietary, and some major manufacturers (guess who) refused to license it.

Motorola Timeport

I led the team who put together the first commercial WAP service in the UK, a service we launched in January 2000.  Eleven years later that particular technology is now all but dead, but that still counts as a pretty good run when you look at the speed of technological change over that time.  Those early handsets were puny by comparison with today’s stunning devices.  All of them had monochrome screens, some could not support images at all, they used circuit switched dial-up data access that took several seconds to initiate a call, at a blisteringly fast data rate of 9600 baud maximum. And that dial-up connection meant you were charged for as long as you had the connection running, regardless of the amount of data sent and received.

Nokia 7110

Nokia came out with what was to become the definitive WAP phone of the time, the 7110.  The sliding front (on a spring) was flashy although I was never too sure about the durability of the microphone contacts.  The phone had a habit of crashing a lot at a time when phones didn’t do that very often.  I well remember one meeting with a content provider who had clearly become quite adept at turning the phone over, removing and replacing the battery, putting the cover back on and turning the phone back on whilst talking fluidly as if nothing had happened (and English was not his native tongue either).

The key to success then (as now) was content – how much and how good.  It was a struggle at first.  The best people to build content sites in WML were the content owners themselves who were running normal websites.  But the incentive for them to spend more money creating a mobile version of their content in WML for a very small user base was not great.  The alternative was either to procure raw content feeds and build content sites from scratch (which we did), or to rip content from a published website and re-purpose the content in WML (which we also did).  Re-purposing content seemed like a good idea at the time, as you could get the content owner to do all the hard work of building the web site and simply extract the bits you needed for the mobile version.  In practice this was not at all easy, and not helped by the fact that the content owners changed their sites too often, and most changes would break the content re-purposing engine.  This was before the days of XML data and separate style sheets, remember.

Ultimately the only way forward was to evangelise the mobile internet amongst a sceptical content community.  The BBC was important.  Its news site was amongst the best even then.  And fortunately its charter meant it was all but compelled to make its content available to new channels as and when they became significant.  And hence the significance of the BBC closing its WML site now.  It means that WML-only handsets now represent a small and dwindling market for its content.  If the BBC says it’s dead, you had better listen.

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Goodbye to NuevaSync (and others…)

When I retired from corporate life, one challenge that I had to overcome was how to organise my calendar.  In corporate life I had put all my activities, home and work, into Outlook running on the company’s Exchange servers.  But once the tether to work was broken I had to find a suitable alternative.  Fortunately there are several (free) online services, and being a Google Mail user already it made perfect sense to use Google Calendar.  Having taken the first giant leap into Google’s world domination, it was but a small step to get the rest of the family converted too, such that we now have a calendar each and a “family” one for combined activities.

All well and good, but I’d also bought an iPhone, and calendar sync was just a

NuevaSync - worked just fine

bit primitive two years ago.  Neither Google nor Apple had done the software to connect the two.  Hunting through the various support columns I realised I’d have to use a third party service to connect Google Calendar to the iPhone calendar, using the iPhone’s embedded Exchange protocols.  I plumped for NuevaSync, which seemed to do everything that I wanted.  I was a bit nervous about signing up for yet another online service just to synchronise my data, but crossing fingers that I would remember the login credentials when I needed them, I registered.

And it worked fine.  It synchronised all the calendars I had set up (did I mention this had now grown to eight as I was also running the bookings for a local church halls?), allowing me to see everything I needed on the phone, and make changes and additions wherever I was.

I always wondered what was in this for NuevaSync, presumably a small start-up with a good idea.  They seemed happy enough to provide the glue to connect Google Calendars to the iPhone and hence to spend money on the servers to run it all.  Where was the money for them?  Calendar sync is (quite rightly) a background function that nobody wants to actually see, so there’s no opportunity for even advertising revenues.

Then, inevitably, the email arrived to inform me that the “free trial” of the service (had they said that originally?) was coming to an end, and that I had two weeks to cough up or get disconnected.  So I did what any sane user of the Web2.0 generation would do.  Found that Google had now developed their own calendar sync and promptly disconnected from NuevaSync.  To give them some credit, they did have a “delete account” facility, whatever “delete” means in today’s everything-is-cached world.

This experience does make me think back to just how many services and start-ups I have seen bite the dust over the years.  When working for a mobile operator, one of my jobs was meeting bright-eyed bushy-tailed start-ups and seeing what they had to offer.  Many had great ideas, but too many thought that the network operators were a ready source of funds to be tapped without enough knowledge of how the business model really works.  True revenue growing applications were far too few in number.  So having heard what they had to say, and avoiding being tempted into holding a “trial” that would take resources on our side with little prospect of making money, I wished them farewell.  Depending on their level of funding they survived for a while, but without a sound business model so many of them were doomed to fail.  Which is a shame, as so many ideas were really quite good.

Many of the best ideas were bought up by larger fish, clearly one of the more successful strategies adopted by some start-ups.  Some of the not-so-good ideas also got snapped up, great for the start-up but not so good for the large fish who found they had an increasing number of small millstones round their increasingly weak necks.

Shuttered websites - 15 of the best from 2010

The other day I was reading an article about 15 websites that had closed in the 2010, and it struck a chord with me.  What I found interesting is that many of the shuttered sites were services being run by the large fish – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft.  A few years ago virtually all of the 15 shuttered sites would have been small start-ups.  My guess is that many of these big fish service were once start-ups that were snapped up in the acquisition days, but with the grim reality of rising costs and falling revenues have now been unceremoniously ditched.

So goodbye to all those sites that have been and gone, to the small companies who failed for reasons both good and bad, to all the bright engineers with ideas that were better than their business plans.  I miss the variety that they brought to the business in a world now dominated by just a few large players.  At least we have the consolation that the services now run by the big players are far more reliable than those pioneered by their start-up forebears.  And with the resources available, the feature list grows longer by the day.  Let’s hope that ingenuity has not been completely eradicated in the headlong rush to make money.

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