Monday, 22 February 2010

Seesaw online TV: review - "TV on demand" will take off

Seesaw from Arqiva is a new video on demand (or VOD) service which lets you watch previously-transmitted TV programmes from (currently) the BBC, Channel 4 (4od) and Five, streamed over the internet to your computer. You can't download anything, it's streaming-only.

Unlike BBC iPlayer and similar offerings from other channels, it isn't restricted to "catchup TV" for recent shows - it went live with over 3000 hours of content, mostly archive TV from the last decade, so there's a wide selection of programmes you can view on demand, from The Apprentice and Little Britain to White Teeth, even past series of Doctor Who from certain years:

No account or login is required. It's free, funded by ads (can't skip, can pause) - note there are ads even for the BBC programmes you watch via Seesaw because the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, did a deal with Seesaw.

If you click on the picture while an ad is playing, it'll pause the playback and open another tab to take you to the website of the advertiser, which is a nice touch. You can easily go back to the previous tab and resume playing.

Seesaw's service is still in beta currently so don't expect perfection, but it does pretty much what it says on the tin. It can be jerky of sound and pic though, depending on the time of day - when lots of people are on the Net, it's not very good, but it's the same with other VOD services like iPlayer.

You don't have to download any software or login, but it's designed only for Firefox, Internet Explorer or Safari on Windows or Mac computers (but from my testing Chrome in Windows works fine, though Opera doesn't).

It's certainly convenient to be able to search several channels' programmes in one place, in case you can't remember which channel broadcast a particular programme you missed.

In terms of content, although Press Association releases say that Seesaw have deals with "independent production companies who produce content for ITV", there's no ITV channel listing. So I'm not sure about ITV content. If they could get all the main free-to-view UK channels or indeed other channels on board too, Seesaw will be one to watch, pardon the pun.

Other similar free online TV services have more channels, on the non-UK front anyway (see my FreeTube free online TV review).

Finding programmes to watch, and watching

As you'd expect you can view by Channel (e.g. just BBC programmes). Or you can view by Category (Comedy, Drama, Factual, Lifestyle, Entertainment, Sport - dunno why it's not alphabetical).

Within each view, certain shows are automatically Featured, but you can browse programme titles alphabetically:

Alternatively you can search, and it cleverly offers suggested titles in a dropdown as you search:

But it doesn't offer searching by name of actor, programme description etc. Hopefully that'll come?

It shows all episodes for the year for a given series and you just click the name of the episode you want to see, then click on the picture to start it playing.

It will "turn the lights down" to heighten the viewing experience. But you can always turn the lights back up:

The controls are as you'd expect to pause, fast forward/rewind with the slider (except during ads), turn subtitles on or off, mute, volume up or down, etc:

And there's a full screen option (Esc to exit):

For trivia buffs

Seesaw uses the technology produced by the ill-fated Project Kangaroo, started up between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to set up a joint video on demand service.

Kangaroo was killed off when commercial broadcasters objected and the Competition Commission said No, so Seesaw's parent company Arqiva bought Kangaroo's assets for £8 million in 2009.

Any points to note?

I've mentioned above it works on common browsers on most computers.

It seems to slow down my computer a lot but that could be a coincidence.

Also, there's a bug in that in Internet Explorer 8 (but not Firefox). If you go to full screen view then back to normal size, the controls move downwards "below" the picture so you can't get at anything except the Pause icon; clicking to start the show playing again fixes it, but obviously then you have to watch it again from scratch:

Seesaw's terms say you can only use Seesaw if you're a UK "natural person (i.e. not a company or another business entity)" over 16. So non-UK people can't use Seesaw, though I don't know how they'd detect geospoofing which is pretty easy to do these days.

  • Aside: I've never known a company that could watch TV or surf to a site, except through the medium of a human being, so I don't see the point of banning companies. Do they mean, you can't use it through a company internet connection, or at work or college? If so, why don't they say so? But then I'm weird like that, I actually like to look at Terms and Privacy policies.

Their use of "High, Medium, Low" in the controls (only visible when you first start playback) might confuse some. That's to do with the speed of your Net connection, if you've got a fast internet connection pick High, else pick Medium or Low. I think they should use "My internet connection is: High speed Broadband, Normal broadband, Dial-Up" instead. At least they will provide a warning if you ought to switch to a lower bandwidth option.

There's the usual "Not suitable for under 18" type of age verification which is easy to just click on:

But they do offer a form of parental control, again probably not too tough for kids these days to get round.

The future?

In future, Seesaw intend to offer premium content which must be paid for, e.g. high profile US dramas.

AP quotes Seesaw's controller John Keeling as saying:

"This way of watching television will be on TVs from this year. One of the fastest selling electronic goods is an HDMI cable which connects a laptop to the back of the TV and bingo, you're online and your TV has become an enormous monitor for your laptop."

I think he's right. As I said in my iPlayer review, if you can hook up your computer to your TV, obviously that'll be much more friendly on the eyes and family in terms of watching stuff. Some computers can be connected directly, some need converters. It's easier to do now than it was. If there's demand for a howto blog post on this, please let me know in a comment.

However broadband speeds, or perhaps Seesaw speeds, do need to be a lot faster, more reliable and less jerky if consumers are going to migrate to watching TV over the internet; otherwise, it can be too painful.

I like the semi-interactive feature where you can click on an ad that's showing, to go to the advertiser's webpage. Now that following a consultation last year the UK will be allowing product placement on most TV programmes (to help commercial broadcasters whose revenues are suffering in the downturn), there's scope for Seesaw to set it up so that a viewer can click on the image of the product to go to the webpage for that product!

I must admit I've gone to As Seen On TV before because I really liked a jacket or whatever that I'd seen on a TV show, but I've never been able to find the item I wanted. While on the one hand one doesn't want to condone blatant commercialisation of everything, there's still room to do this sort of "click to buy" thing and stay on the right side of the line.

I predict it'll be coming on YouTube, anyway. Convergence, here we come!

(First heard of via the IAB ).

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Google offers UK SMEs free website & setup

If you run a UK business that doesn't already have a website, here's a tip: Google London are offering to give you a free business website, including a free domain name for 2 years, and "on the spot" help from Googlers to set up your customised site, if you're able to go to their Victoria offices on Thursday 25 Feb 2010 (this is happening between 10 am to 3 pm). Also, you'll get that all important Google goodie bag!

The free site will be set up using a "Getting British Business Online website wizard" (would like to know more about that tool) and no doubt the site will be using Google Apps since Google are involved and they feature Google Docs. It seems there will be help with online marketing too, or at least registering with Google to be indexed: "All sites created will automatically be registered in Google's search engine and so will be listed for relevant queries".

Registration closes at 5 pm London time Monday 22 Feb, that's tomorrow, so if you're interested register now for a spot, and make sure you bring all the business info with you that you'll need on your site.

This is part of the Getting British Business Online campaign launch event - currently it seems that over 1.5 million British SMEs are still without a website and "During 2010 we aim to get 100,000 small businesses online with their first website, for free."

I've not heard much about that campaign to date, though, apart from a Business Link page of 26 Jan 2010; the GBBO site seems more geared towards "partners" than SMEs seeking help, but if you have a non-London business and want help as part of this campaign, try this page and pre-register with GBBO. A small irony is that they're trying to get businesses online who aren't already, but as part of the form for pre-registering, they require an email address as compulsory!!

(Saw the Google link on ECCA).

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Google security problem: have you had this?

Is Google logging people into Google's system randomly with someone else's Google account? How is this possible?

Here's what happened: I started my computer, which I'd set to automatically open a few programs like Firefox.

I went to Firefox and searched via the Firefox search bar (which goes through GoogleSharing) for something I'd posted a query on, to check if anyone had answered the query.

I then clicked the search results link to go to the Google Group entry I was looking for - and was startled to see, at the top of the webpage, that I was logged in as sol[rest of name deliberately deleted]! Which obviously isn't me. See screenshot below (click pic to enlarge):

Like a good citizen, after taking the screenshot I immediately clicked "Sign out". But I suspect that if I'd then gone to Gmail, Google Calendar etc, I'd have been able to view sol...'s private stuff.

I closed Firefox and re-opened it, and then did exactly the same search in exactly the same way. This time, I got what I expected, I wasn't signed in as anyone at all:

I don't know what's going on. I did have some trouble with my computer slowing down terribly this morning, and had to shut it down using the Power button as it wouldn't shut down by itself. I run a full anti-virus and anti-spyware scan every week, but that doesn't mean my computer hasn't been infected. I'm about to run them again.

But, I really don't know what's going on. I'm now really concerned that someone else somewhere else in the world could just go to a Google webpage without logging in, and find that they're already logged in as me. And, being less scrupulous, get access to all my Google stuff, without my being any the wiser.

Has this happened to anyone else? On searching, I see this sort of thing has happened before (and not just with Google Groups), in 2007 there was "isolated bug in our [Google's] interaction with a proxy server in Singapore" and it seems to have happened again with Singapore users in 2009.

But I'm in the UK. Which isn't supposed to have fancy national filtering or censoring software, as far as I know anyway...

Anyway, I'm reporting it to Google but if anyone else has come across this issue, please post a comment. Very worrying.

UPDATE: no, I can't report it to Google, the link that Matt Cutts of Google gave in relation to the previous problems in 2007 just has no category appropriate to this issue! Well I hope someone from Google spots this.

UPDATE 2: with apologies to sol... for not thinking to do this straight off, I've obscured the second half of their name in the email address, and also in the screenshot, so that spambots etc don't pick up their email from this blog post.

UPDATE 3: Also, Moxie Marlinspike of GoogleSharing is looking into whether it might be to do with GoogleSharing. The person concerned has confirmed that they don't use GoogleSharing so it's not a GoogleSharing issue.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Children: 10 internet safety tips for parents & guardians

EU cyber-security agency ENISA have just published their suggested 10 internet safety tips for parents and guardians, to help preserve the security and privacy of children online.

Here they are in bold, with my notes added (in italics):

  1. Communicate with your child about his/her Internet experience. Discuss the importance of Internet safety and teach the basics
    1. See point 8 note 2, below.
  2. Set house Internet and mobile phone rules
    1. Note: see also ENISA's 17 golden rules on mobile privacy and security - not specific to kids, but still useful.
  3. Educate yourself on the latest threats facing children online and have a good understanding of how your child spend his/her time online
    1. Note: See Get Safe Online (UK), Stay Safe Online (US); and in more detail Ofcom's survey of online protection mechanisms
    2. The EU do have a Safer Internet Programme including assessments of social networking sites.
    3. Recently the EU assessed the child-safety of social networking sites against their Safer Social Networking Principles. You can read their summary and individual site-specific reports on the safety of individual social networking sites like Bebo and Facebook.
  4. Keep the computer and any other Internet-enables devices used by your child in a common room. Install firewall and antivirus software
    1. Note: on antivirus, etc, see some suggestions on free antivirus software & other software for online protection; and Microsoft have since released for free their Security Essentials antivirus.
  5. Ensure parental control, parental consent, age verification and content lock are activated. Ensure barring process and filtering are in place
    1. Note: it's a truism that many kids can easily get round these; nevertheless, they're worth considering. Thinkbroadband offers some brief info on parental controls etc; and see the more detailed Privacy Rights Clearinghouse guide.
    2. Be warned - it's one thing if a parent monitors their children's activities online, but quite another if the company selling filtering or monitoring software collects and harvests info on what your kids do on the internet, and sell it to marketers. And they've done that.
    3. Parental control software has also been known to block innocuous sites while letting unsafe sites through, and they may also censor sites based on the religious or political views of the software's proprietor.
    4. You can tell I'm not a big fan of parental control software. I say, teach your children critical evaluation skills, bring them up to be sensible off line and online, and let them explore and learn - see my notes to point 8, below.
  6. Analyse content providers’ policies and their compliance. Check contractual flexibility (e.g. how to delete an account) and use of automated moderation filters in conjunction with humans
    1. Note: hmm, this might be tough for non-lawyers to do given sites' (deliberately?) long and obscure terms and policies!
    2. It would be good if a site were to analyse policies etc and publicise the summaries. Rather like what the EU have done, see point 3 note 3, but on an ongoing basis. Anyone? Parents might be willing to subscribe.
  7. Check your child’s page or profile on a regular basis. Track your child’s spending online carefully
  8. Tell your child to never use full names and share passwords. Prevent your child from sharing personally identifiable information (e.g. address, telephone number, name of school, sport club).
    1. Note: that should be "or" share passwords, shurely.
    2. Child psychologist Dr Tanya Byron produced an excellent review for the UK government on children's use of the internet and videogames. From a 2008 speech of hers:
      "Kids socialise via technology. Our culture is now so risk averse we don't let kids out into the streets - the radius for children has reduced by 80% since 1977. They can't go outside so they go online. They're tech savvy but haven't got the skills of critical evaluation to keep themselves safe…
      Policing is pointless: Australia tried to set up blocking at ISP level, and within 24 hours a 14 year old boy had got round it by guessing his mother's password! It's not about prying, or even warning kids about predators online (in fact cyberbullying is their biggest fear); it's about supervision and thought.
      Parenting is an online not just offline task. Parents need to talk to their children, make sure that they think, that they know who they're talking to: prepare their children to understand the risks, give them the tools and critical evaluation skills to check the reliability of sources and that people are who they say they are."
  9. Ensure your child understand what it means to post photographs and any other content on Internet
    1. Note: see note 2 to 8 above.
  10. Educate your child by explaining never to arrange to meet in person someone he/she first met online. Warn your child about expressing emotions to strangers directly online.
    1. Again, see note 2 to 8 above. It's really about good parenting, not installing software.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Blogger music blogs - what to do if you get a DMCA notice

If your music blog uses Blogger or Blogspot and you get a copyright infringement notification from Blogger under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allows blogs etc to be taken down for copyright infringement, what should you do?

  1. Check that you really were authorised by the copyright owner of the music to link to the music complained about (and that the upload of the file you link to was also authorised), or that you have a decent chance of arguing that your use of their content was "fair use".
    1. Tip: see the Citizen Media Law Project's excellent note on Responding to a DMCA Takedown Notice Targeting Your Content for helpful info on the procedure and what's involved.
    2. You might well want to seek US legal advice in your particular situation; the EFF do take on some cases, but only a very few.

  2. If you're sure you have the copyright holder's permission or your use was fair use and you want to fight the take down, you can't just sit around - you need to send a counter-notice to Google ASAP. Here's how to send a DMCA counter-notification to Blogger. Note that:
    1. Google do link to a helpful counter-notification generator which you can use to produce your DMCA counter-notice.
    2. You have to say in your counter-notice that you believe in good faith that your content was wrongly removed - if you know it was actually infringing copyright, then you can't say that, you'll be done for perjury. So think about your justifications before you file the counter-notice. You have been warned!
    3. Although copyright complaints can be submitted online via an infringement notice form, you have to send your counter-notice to Google by fax or hard copy post to the fax number or address they give. Yes this sucks if you're not in the USA as it will cost you extra time or money.

  3. Generally, make sure that your email address in your Blogger profile is up to date, so that you don't miss getting any future emailed complaint notices from Blogger.

Team Blogger had recently clarified how they operate when they get complaints that a blog hosted on Blogger / Blogspot breaches copyright, but they didn't initially clarify how you as a blogger should respond, so if you missed the update to their blog post, then I repeat, see how to send a DMCA counter-notification to Blogger.

The good news is that now, rather than completely deleting the blogs complained about, following the negative publicity about "bad" takedowns Blogger are moving the blogs into draft so that if there was an error or the counter-notice is successful, the blog posts and links won't have been completely deleted as was the case before (though apparently they were still recoverable if subscribed to via Google Reader!).

The incidents where bloggers' blogs were taken down, in at least one case entirely by mistake when there hadn't even been a DMCA complaint, have been covered e.g. by the Guardian and Ars Technica.

This isn't legal advice etc, I just thought that a quick list of steps to take might be helpful, obviously if you need to you should consult a US copyright lawyer.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Blogger: update your blog template ASAP

If you use Blogger or Blogspot for your blog you've probably seen the announcements from Blogger when you login, and the blog post on the official Blogger Buzz, to update and review your blog templates in case they link to files hosted on Google Page Creator.

But if you use Windows Live Writer to publish your blog posts, like I now do, you may have missed the warning.

So just a reminder that over the next few days you'd better do what they suggest or links in your blog may break when Google take down their Page Creator. Which is a shame, it was so much more flexible than Google Sites.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Google Buzz: the privacy fiasco, & lessons for Google

First, the practical stuff - if you don't know how yet, see how to turn off Google Buzz.

Google Buzz - the lamentable history

Google Buzz just started being rolled out to Gmail users a few days ago, including for mobile, with the location you're posting from (apparently it'll be rolled out soon to businesses and schools too - even riskier, that!). If, like me, you weren't one of the first to get it, count yourself lucky.

It's caused a storm of protest in the blogosphere, leading to some climb downs on Google's part, and changes to how it works, because it invaded Gmail users' privacy in the worst possible ways.

For anyone who's not heard, it represents Google's attempt to get into social networking and online sharing of status updates, photos etc, by making all Gmail account holders (whether they liked it or not) users of Google Buzz, a kind of cross between Twitter and Facebook - with APIs for developers too, of course.

Molly Wood of CNET puts the problems succinctly:

"I do not, however, like a product that bursts through my door like a tornado and opts me in to wanton in-box clutter and spam (or, more precisely, bacn) publicly reveals my personal contact list without asking me, threatens to broadcast my e-mail address anytime someone wants to @ me in a Buzz, and even appears to grab photos off my Android phone that I've never uploaded."

It doesn't give you a choice of whether you wanted to use Buzz or not. Even if you said "No Thanks" to checking out its features, you still get the Buzz link in your Gmail under your Inbox, plus the other Buzz "benefits".

Even worse, it automatically decides who you "Follow", based on some weird stuff to do with who you've chatted with (e.g. someone I'd just talked to 2 or 3 times a year ago got added!) and, supposedly, who you've emailed, or who's emailed you, the most - which, in one woman's case, included her abusive ex-husband, not good. In my case, it didn't even pick up the people I email with most frequently.

Worse still, those you're automatically made to "Follow", and those who "Follow" you, are publicly listed in your Google profile (which you're forced to create if you didn't have one already). I repeat, you aren't given a choice at the start whether to display those "Follow" lists or not, and it wasn't easy to figure out how to turn off the display. You want the whole world to know who you've been emailing or who's been contacting you? I thought not.

People also couldn't block people who didn't have public profiles from following them - anyone can follow you in Buzz.

Personally, I also object to Google assuming that when I share stuff on Google Reader, it's shared with all my Google Buzz followers too. In fact I use Share on Google Reader as an alternative to starring things for myself, as you can only have one colour / type of star on Reader (unlike Gmail).

Amongst other things, Google clearly didn't appreciate that the people you want to share Google Reader items with are not necessarily your email contacts! Indeed they seemed to think it was an advantage:

"And don't worry, you don't have another list of friends or followers to manage. The people you follow in Reader are the same people you follow in Buzz – those you've already chosen to follow in Reader, plus the people you email and chat with the most in Gmail."

So one of the first things I did was to UNlink Google Reader from Buzz, because Google had of course automatically linked it.

And another thing - Buzz spams your Inbox and Sent box in Gmail with Buzzes.


Now, all after the "feedback" (aka complaints!), there have been a few U-turns just over the last couple of days:

  1. Google have made it easier to find the option to make your Follow lists private - though, smacks to Google, public is still ticked by default
  2. soon Google will turn auto-follow into auto-suggest (which is it what it should have been in the first place), so you can decide whether to go with Google's suggestion or not
  3. "Buzz will no longer connect your public Picasa Web Albums and Google Reader shared items automatically"
  4. They're adding a Buzz tab to Gmail Settings.

All stuff that should have been done from the get go.

And there are still privacy problems - just because you've hidden the list of who's following you, e.g. X, doesn't mean X has hidden their list of who they're following, so you could still be on X's public list!

It seems your email address can be discovered from your profile.

There's still not enough granularity and control over separation. As I said people you share one set of things with may not be people you want to share another set of things with!

While Buzz allows "private" messages to be posted to just one group, it appears to be the same groups you have in Google Reader (Coworkers, Family, Friends, "My Contacts"). You can't have separate groups for Buzz purposes.

Protecting your privacy against Buzz

Lots of people have posted about how to tone down Buzz, so I won't do it in detail. Here's some links/info:

  1. scroll to the bottom of your Gmail main page and click "turn off buzz" (note this apparently doesn't turn it off for all purposes)

  2. if you want Buzz, you should seriously consider making your Follow lists private - it's easier to do that now; click the Buzz link under your Inbox link, and then the first time you click your name on the Buzz page or click in the box into which you're supposed to type status update messages, this sort of window now pops up and you should UNtick the "Show the list" box, then Save:

    If you don't have a public profile, try clicking the "View and follow back" or "View and edit" link on the Buzz page; and there may be a tiny box at the bottom of the pop up window, which of course you have to scroll to to find; then and UNtick that.
  3. while you're at it, click "view connected sites", and for ones at the top of the list, click Edit then Remove site to unshare them:

  4. save your Gmail Inbox from Buzz spam
  5. generally, see the privacy checklist which was recommended by the EFF
  6. if you're posting to Buzz via your mobile phone or cellphone, make sure you decline to share your location. This is really scary because you can't limit the broadcasting of your location only to a certain group of people, it's either on or off. Stalker heaven, much?

Lessons for Google

People are becoming more sensitive about privacy - and so should Google, if only to avoid getting into hot water with privacy regulators.

Google has already been criticised by EU data protection regulators for the length of time it holds IP address information relating to Google searches.

Facebook has been investigated by Canadian regulators, not once, but twice.

Email is not social media; it's even more private, and privacy mistakes with email are even worse. Broadstuff, who point out this incident will only make people more suspicious of Google, have an excellent summary of the position and what Google ought to be doing next to save themselves: GOOGLE BUZZ - ANATOMY OF A SLOW MOTION TRAIN WRECK - including splitting it off from Gmail.

As LightBlueTouchPaper noted, Google need to review internally all new products or services for privacy implications, as standard. before forcing them onto unsuspecting and, more importantly, unconsenting users, in order to avoid bad press or indeed privacy law breaches leading to fines and the like.

You'd have thought Google would have learned something from the furore over their Chrome terms of service in late 2008. Maybe it's time for their lawyers to be given a more important role in Google. Quite seriously.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Online shopping: delivery - the last mile is still an issue, are solutions in sight?

I've gone on and on for ages about one big problem with internet shopping - having to be home to receive the delivery.

One advantage of Amazon Marketplace, which enables independent retailers to sell their goods via Amazon, is that once Amazon have verified a customer and their alternative addresses e.g. their workplace, orders from a Marketplace seller can be delivered to the customer's address registered with Amazon if the consumer wishes - including the office.

Unsurprisingly, the Interactive Media in Retail Group, a UK trade body for e-retailers, recently said they'd found that:

"the major area for parcel delivery businesses to work on is giving consumers a day or time as to when they will receive their goods, rather than them having to guess when they will come… when you ask consumers what they want to make deliveries more convenient, nearly eight out of ten are looking for a specific delivery day, and seven out of ten are looking for a time delivery".

So it's good that UK parcel carrier DPD have developed systems to enable them to offer 1-hour windows for home deliveries to customers of retailers like Three, Dixons Direct and

"Shoppers who buy from retailers shipping with DPD can receive a free SMS or email giving them a precise one hour window in which the driver will arrive. And, if the recipient of the SMS knows that they won’t be in to sign for the package, they can reply and arrange for DPD to deliver on a more convenient date."

To me, that's still not good enough - a 1-hour window is no use if it's not a window of the consumer's choice - I'd rather a 2 or 3 hour window I could pick when I know I'm going to be in. Having to arrange with work etc to be at home for a 1-hour window I can't control isn't much better than having to take half a day or a whole day off.

Back in December 2009 startup Shutl launched to much fanfare at LeWeb09 and supposedly, by connecting retailers with local same-day courier companies, gives online shoppers the choice of receiving delivery:

  • "within 90 minutes of purchase or
  • a one-hour time window of consumer's choice", apparently at almost any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Now that sounds much better from a consumer viewpoint. However, they say they're only trialling in London currently and, unlike DPD, haven't announced which retailers are using them, which suggests it's not many. The idea is great but they'd better get a move on…

It's interesting that according to IMRG and Internet Retailing, health and beauty retailer Boots is considering letting other pure play and multi-channel retailers use Boots' 2600 stores as pick-up points for their online shopping customers. Much more convenient to be able to collect your order from the Boots store nearest your work or home, e.g. at the weekend. (And Argos, anyone?)

However, I'm surprised that credit card companies haven't reached deals to "register" work addresses so that consumers can use their credit cards to get orders delivered to their offices, or that supermarkets like Tesco's which do offer short delivery windows of the customer's choice haven't made arrangements with retailers to make their deliveries for them (as I've suggested before).

Things still have too far to go on the delivery front, in my view. Online shopping has grown and grown, but it still has much potential, and it's about time fulfilment channels were sorted out properly to enable that potential to be met.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Apologies to the House… (funnies)

(Humour interlude)

If you've not read the "Apologies to the House of Commons since 1979" (latest version), there's some light relief there.

Amongst the serious stuff like apologising for claiming for expenses they shouldn't have (why only a few apologies there??), and failing to declare interests they should have, there are funny things like:

  • apologising for not saying sorry (01/02/2006 Stephen Byers)
  • using "unParliamentary" or "improper" words to describe others (07/03/2002 George Galloway, 28/06/2000 Peter Lilley, 16/03/2000 James Gray & lots more!)

My favourites:

  • 01/03/1982 Nicholas Edwards Suggested during a debate that another Member had been drinking
  • 07/02/1984 Peter Snape Remarks made about British Rail Southern Region commuters
  • 07/05/1985 Dafydd Wigley Damaging the Speaker's Chair during exchanges at the end of a debate
  • 19/04/1988 Ron Brown Throwing the ceremonial mace to the floor.

Heated debates, much? Did you know that in the House the line which members aren't allowed to physically cross was drawn so that the other side would be at least a sword's length away from it? (see Wikipedia on "toe the line").

Interestingly, there haven't been many MP apologies lately. Presumably because they think they have no reason to.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

What's that song on the radio?

A song is playing on BBC Radio that you like, but you didn't catch the name of the song or artist? And you really wanted to buy that song…

No problem. Ian Forrester has on the BBC Backstage Blog highlighted a great new service by Tim Coysh. This useful service is free but ad-funded.

The BBC What's On Now project displays the name of the song that's currently playing (and the current and next DJ) on BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, 1Xtra or 6 Music.

Not only that but he's tried to pull in the artist bio, album art and lyrics for the current song too, where possible. As well as displaying a BBC webcam.

Note that the page doesn't refresh itself if you leave it open, you'll have to reload it manually to get the most current info.

The "Database list" link lets you see the songs previously played on the supported stations, by date and time, and you can also search the database by artist, title, DJ or date. Obviously helpful if you're not at a computer at the time you heard a song you liked - make sure you note down the radio station and the time so you can look it up later!

(I wonder if an iPhone app or Google app is on the cards?)


Display. Unfortunately in Internet Explorer 8 some pages are sometimes slow to load or don't load at all and display can be a bit weird, but hopefully that will be fixed (especially given that BBC Backstage are supporting this project!)

Copyright. Being the nervous sort, I'm also a bit concerned about the display of lyrics and album art. If it were me I'd dispense with those bits (and maybe even the bios), at least until I knew that the rights holders had given their blessing and, more importantly, licence to display them.

The album art is pulled in from which I assume must have had permission from the copyright owners to both use it and (hopefully) make it available to developers via their free API. Similarly with the artist bios. But the lyrics are from lyricfly which seems not to have any kind of copyright licence.

It would be a big shame if such an innovative service had to be ended because of issues like this. I think record labels and music publishers ought to embrace BBC What's On, it's a great way to engage consumers and boost sales of the songs being played, but who knows…

Monday, 1 February 2010

Carnival of the Mobilists #209

Thanks to WAP Review for featuring my Mifi mobile wireless broadband review in Carnival of the Mobilists #209.

Check out the Carnival for a round up of other blog posts on things mobile during the last week!

Track changes to a webpage by feed or email - Google's "follow changes"

How to monitor or track changes to a web page (e.g. a webpage listing new publications, what's new, press releases or announcements, news) if the website doesn't provide a feed you can subscribe to? (for non-techies: see my introduction to feeds).

If there's no newsfeed, which is the case with too many websites, most of us wouldn't bother to keep checking back to see if the page has been updated.

Google's "Follow changes"

Luckily Google have introduced a very helpful new feature for their online feed reader Google Reader, so you can still subscribe to changes for a webpage on a site which doesn't provide a feed or proper auto-discovery, and get alerts.

How do you track changes to a webpage?

You can "add" the webpage's normal URL (web address) to Google Reader (button on top left of Google Reader):

Paste in the webpage's URL (as an example I've used which doesn't provide a newsfeed), and click Add:

If the site doesn't offer a feed or doesn't provide proper auto-discovery, Google offers to generate its own "feedified" version of that page for you, thus enabling you to follow changes made to that page:

Note that it will do so only if the page is in normal HTML in English, and not a Flash page or in a frame (though hopefully there will be improvements in future e.g. supporting more languages). And it won't track changes to a page if the website owner has chosen to block Google Reader follows by adding certain code to their page.

Changes to the page show up as a new feed item in your Googlified feed for that webpage, see illustrations below. You can add the new feed to a folder, rename it etc in the usual way.

You click on the item title (i.e. the "Generated feed for…" link) to go to the changed webpage.

Example: the UK's Office of Fair Trading, who have a lot of consumer-related responsibilities, don't provide an RSS or Atom feed for their press releases page. Using Follow Changes, I can be informed through my feed reader whenever new press releases are issued:

What's more, I can get those changes by email too, if I want - see below for a tip on how to do that.

What changes does Google track?

From my testing (through editing this web page on different days), the feed item won't display the entire webpage tracked. It shows:

  • additions

  • amended sentences (with the changed bits shown in bold in the feed item), so you can see what's changed.


  • it doesn't flag deletions (just additions - e.g. the screenshot below doesn't note the deleted line, just a new line I added at a dfferent location to mention the deletion)

  • it will only shows snippets (cut off) if there have been more than just a few changes.

What if someone else has already added the webpage?

Then Google doesn't offer to create the feed for you, it just adds it automatically to your Google Reader. That's pretty efficient, it must just generate one feed for every webpage requested, and serves it up to all users of Google Reader who asks for it.

Just as, with a "normal" feed, Google must effectively just fetch it once for all subscribed Google Reader users (though they must store several copies on their own servers), rather than fetch it afresh for every user.

How often does Google Reader check for updates?

As far as I can tell from my limited testing, it's checked at least 2 times a day, at about 9 am GMT, noon GMT - so perhaps it's 3 hourly?

How to get changes to a page by email

Here's a little trick for using Google Reader's new "follow changes" feature to receive your tracked webpage changes by email, rather than feed.

The advantage of email of course is that it comes to you, whereas with a feed you have to remember to go and check it - unless you have your feed reader open all the time, but then you still need to go look at it. (Maybe an add on to make it sound a "Ping!" when a new feed item arrives? I use a Chrome extension Google Reader Checker that shows in the Chrome toolbar the number of unread feed items, myself.)

Anyway, here's how to get Google Reader follow changes by email, free:

  1. Subscribe to the page so Google creates a feed for it, as mentioned above.
  2. While viewing the generated feed (go to it by clicking the "from … Google feed by Google" link in the feed item, if you're not already there), click the "Show details" link on the right:

  3. Copy the Feed URL link http://whatever (it doesn't look like a link, but it is, so you can rightclick it and copy):

  4. Now go to FeedMyInbox (a free service) and paste the feed URL in the upper box, and the email address you want notifications sent to in the lower box, and hit Submit.
  5. You'll get an email asking you to click a confirmation link, so do so.
  6. You can also create an account with FeedMyInbox by clicking another link in their first email, so you can confirm new subscriptions direct without having to do the confirmation link thang. More convenient.

And that's it, you can now get your Follow Changes notices by email.

How could Google Reader's "follow" feature be improved?

Before Google Reader's new feature was introduced, I used veteran tracker service WatchThatPage (see their FAQ), which also lets you subscribe to webpages and get email notifications of changes (or view the changes on a single webpage). I chose email as again you have to remember to go to the webpage to see the changes, else.

That service is free, though if you use it for business or ask them to watch a lot of pages they say they want a fee. I hear that lots of organisations use it for business current awareness. WTP don't seem very commercially minded though, as I know enterprises who've requested info on fees in order to pay them, and they've never responded. (Personally I think they should just put up a list of fees based on the number of times they have to check a week for a particular user (number of pages x frequency of checking) and provide Paypal or other payment details, and I think they'd pull in a decent amount. But there we go.)

There are some very helpful aspects of the WTP service, which monitors any http (but not https) web pages:

  • the user can choose exactly how often and when a particular page should be checked, and use "channels" to get separate emails for selected groups of webpages
  • it helps eliminate false positives - web pages that seem to have changed, but not in substance - by letting users report "page problems". E.g. where the only change on a page is the current date. (I've not used Google's Follow Changes long enough to know if it's smart enough to ignore those kinds of changes yet)
  • similarly users can report if it the alert says everything has changed when only part of a page has changed, and they adjust things accordingly.

Opportunities for Google to appeal to enterprise users

Google Reader could be really valuable for enterprise users to keep up to date with business-related information, what information managers and librarians call "current awareness", but oddly enough Google don't try to tout its use for that. They should, especially in conjunction with the ability to get Google Alerts as a feed.

Google should include Google Reader in Google Apps, which it markets to organisations, and develop Google Reader's features with the aim of making it more enterprise-friendly.

For example, with paying enterprises:

  • timing - let users choose if they want Google to check certain followed pages more often than the standard, e.g. 5 times a day at specific times set by the user, like WatchThatPage do
  • timezones and date stamps - let users set timezones for Reader, so the times shown on feed items are correct - and in addition clarify how timestamping on feeds works; it should show the time the feed item was received by Google (or the time the page was updated), rather than the (variable) time the individual gets round to opening the feed item. In business it's often useful or indeed essential to know the timing of things
  • adapting to problems - provide a feature like WatchThatPage's to enable false positives to be eliminated e.g. ignoring changes in the current date, and similarly false negatives
  • follow WatchThatPage! - basically just see how WatchThatPage does it (they've had years of experience), and do it at least as well. Buy them out, whatever...

I have other thoughts on how Google Reader (and other Google products) can be made more enterprise-friendly, but I'll leave that to another blog post.