Amidst all the hype about the rollout of 4G and the excitement around fibre optic deployments (note to BT – I’m still waiting, and you said I’d have it in June), the UK has a hidden issue when it comes to communications. Too many rural areas still don’t have a decent, basic mobile phone signal.
In my village, in the middle of Suffolk, only one provider has any reception – and that is just 2G, not even 3G. When the local mast went down for a month last year it paralysed rural businesses, as well as impacting on the lives of local residents. And this is not the Outer Hebrides – I’m less than an hour from Cambridge and Norwich, and 20 minutes from several major towns.
Given my experiences, the news that the Government is considering forcing mobile phone operators to share their networks (so called national roaming), to widen choice, looks like a positive move. Putting aside the fact that the starting point for the new rules was apparently David Cameron being unable to get a signal while on holiday in Norfolk, it should benefit anyone living in the countryside. It will help stem the growing gulf between rural communication ‘have nots’ and urban dwellers with 4G and superfast broadband. A similar system operates in the US, which has a lot more challenging terrain than over here.
Obviously the mobile phone operators are crying foul, pointing out that they have spent heavily on masts in rural areas, and being forced to share their infrastructure will jeopardise future investment. Frankly, I just don’t buy this. Everywhere else they have competition and somehow survive – after all, most people pick a network operator on price/what you get for your money, rather than “do I actually get a signal?” At the moment they have captive markets that they have carved up amongst themselves, forcing people to choose by postcode, not package. Sharing infrastructure makes it more cost-effective and opens up new markets. Additionally the government has promised £150m to improve areas where there is no coverage at all.
The government claims it has big plans to turn the UK into a skills-based, technologically literate society. Entrepreneurship is being encouraged (albeit focused heavily on the media-centric Silicon Roundabout), coding is being re-introduced into schools and infrastructure projects promise faster links between major cities. So far rural areas have been left behind – with high speed broadband projects running late and a lack of skilled jobs hitting local economies. It is time for the government to address these issues or risk creating a two speed economy that deprives those of us in the countryside of the same opportunities open to the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Raspberry Pi is a quintessentially British invention. It was originally created because the University of Cambridge Computing Department felt that new students hadn’t a high enough level of programming experience when they began their studies. So a cheap, accessible machine was designed, using off-the-shelf components and plugging into available devices such as USB keyboards, SD cards and TVs. Like the webcam, another Computing Department invention (it was trained on the filter coffee machine at the other end of the building to avoid wasted journeys if the jug was empty), it combines technology with quirkiness and the British love of tinkering.
From these humble beginnings over 3 million have now been sold. To put this in context it is double the number of sales of the BBC Micro, the original government-backed home computer of the 1980s, and not far off the 5 million Sinclair ZX Spectrum machines that spawned a generation of programmers back then. It has even been shown to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, with founder Eben Upton ticked off by the Duke of Edinburgh for not wearing a tie.
However, the impact of the Pi has gone far beyond sales figures. It has created an ecosystem that spans everything from desktop arcade machines to funky cases. It is also being used within a whole range of other projects, from weather balloons to creating a pirate radio station. You can even run Spectrum games on it, linking back to the 1980s. And all of this from a non-profit company, that is now manufacturing in the UK.
And I’d argue that it has actually had a major hand in putting programming back at the heart of UK education. From September all primary school pupils will be taught programming, as opposed to how to use word processing applications. This will introduce a whole new generation to writing their own programs.
Even if just 5% go on to forge a career in technology, it will deliver a vast new workforce to the sector in the UK – as well as giving the other 95% some basic skills that will help them thrive in a world run by software. The availability of the Pi means it will be central to delivering these lessons, and the community has already created a huge volume of materials for teachers.
Once lessons start I’d expect many more parents to invest in a Pi (either driven by pester power or because they want to help their children succeed) – and at 20 quid for the most basic version it is within the majority of families’ budgets, at less than the price of a new PlayStation or Xbox game.
So I’d argue that the Pi’s rise to prominence hasn’t even really started yet. The combination of its community support, simplicity and the growth of programming means it will go from strength to strength. If you’ll excuse the pun, the Pi really is the limit…………..
Governments across Europe are always obsessing about creating their own Silicon Valleys, rivals to California that will catapult their country/city to international tech prominence, create jobs and make them cool by association. As I’ve said before, this is partly because such talk is cheap – bung a few million pounds/euros into some accelerators, set up a co-working space near a university and you can make some tub-thumping speeches about investing in innovation.
Obviously there’s a lot more to creating a new Silicon Valley than that. So I was interested to read a recent EU survey of European ICT Hubs, which ranks activity across the region. It doesn’t just analyse start-up activity, but also factors such as university strength, external links and business growth. While Munich, East London and Paris top the table, (with Cambridge at the top of tier 2), what is interesting is the sheer number of hubs and their relative strengths, despite many being quite close to each other.
There is a European obsession with a single hub to take on Silicon Valley, but as Paul Stasse points out in this piece on Tech.EU, if you zoom out and centre your ‘hub’ on Brussels, a 400km radius will bring in the majority of the EU’s ICT hubs. So consequently you need to go beyond individual cities or regions to move to a larger scale view. After all, Silicon Valley itself is not a single place, but a collection of cities and towns, that spreads from San Francisco through the Santa Clara Valley. So, while the Santa Clara Valley is geographically 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, the actual area of ‘Silicon Valley’ itself is much bigger.
In that case, why can’t Europe create its own Silicon Valley encompassing multiple hubs? Or even Valleys within countries – it is around 60 miles from London to Cambridge, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to build the M11 Valley (though with a catchier name).
The trouble is, California has some pretty big advantages that have helped Silicon Valley grow. While entrepreneurs and programmers flock there from all around the world there’s one business language (English), one legal system and one predominant culture. Being part of the US gives immediate access to over 300 million people in a single market. Europe’s diversity is both a strength and a weakness – you can’t simply up sticks and move your company from, say, France to Belgium, with the same ease as from San Jose to Palo Alto.
In my opinion what is needed are three things:
1 Be more open
I’m as guilty as the next person, but individual hubs need to look outward more, rather than believing that success ends at the ring road. Only by encouraging conversation between hubs and idea sharing will innovation flourish.
2 Make movement easier
You are never going to change cultures, but the EU has a role to play in standardising the playing field when it comes to creating companies, harmonising legal systems and generally helping create a single market. That way entrepreneurs and companies can move more easily and collaborate, without having to duplicate bureaucracy or red tape.
3 Celebrate what we have
It is time to end the obsession with creating the new Silicon Valley. It isn’t going to happen. Instead, celebrate the ability Europe has to build multiple, interlinked hubs that play to our strengths, rather than bemoan our inability to spawn the next Facebook.
Silicon Valley, Europe may not happen but by supporting existing, successful clusters and hubs we can build a technology industry that can drive innovation, growth and jobs.
Ultimately the fate of Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, under siege from US giant Pfizer, will be decided by its shareholders. But that hasn’t stopped the potential takeover from becoming a political football, with MPs, ministers, businesspeople and scientists all providing their views.
Some of them are justified in sharing their opinion – the MP for Cambridge Julian Huppert wants assurances to protect the high value jobs coming to the city from AstraZeneca’s proposed new research campus. University of Cambridge Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury, is concerned about the impact of a takeover on scientific research in the area and beyond.
Others however have fewer grounds for comment, but with a general election next year (and a European poll looming), it is a chance for the main political parties to try and differentiate themselves. It is a delicate balancing act, particularly for the Conservatives. On the one hand, they want to demonstrate their free trade credentials, but on the other they champion investment in scientific research as critical to moving the UK away from being a services-based economy. In many ways it is easier for Labour, as they are able to call for decisive action to stop the takeover, without having to actually implement anything.
Pfizer under attack
On the PR front, Pfizer is facing an onslaught from multiple sides:
- The positive tax implications of buying AstraZeneca and moving its headquarters to the UK have been highlighted as a major attraction of the deal, rather than a desire to invest in research.
- It is also hamstrung by previous behaviour – it shut its research centre in Kent (where Viagra was developed), leading to 1,500 job cuts and has slashed staff numbers following other takeovers. Indeed, the ex-CEO of AstraZeneca has said he has concerns that “they will act like a praying mantis and suck the lifeblood out of their prey.“
- A pledge to keep 20% of R&D jobs in the UK in the event of a takeover has led to worries that posts will be cut in the US.
- Finally, its first quarter revenue fell by 9%, $730m below analyst expectations, as patent protection runs out on key drugs.
The reason for much of this ire is actually retrospective. MPs and the general public are still smarting after the hostile takeover of Cadbury by Kraft, and in particular the broken promises on factory closures given to parliamentary committees by CEO Irene Rosenfeld. There’s a public determination not to be made a fool of again driving a lot of political behaviour.
The Pfizer PR strategy
This means that Pfizer is being cautious and taking the time to get its message across, with CEO Ian Read making trips to the UK (note how his Scottish background is being played up), intense lobbying of the government and assurances being given about jobs in the short-term.
However with less than three weeks until the bid deadline of 26 May, expect the tactics to evolve, depending on what will sway stakeholders. In a way AstraZeneca wants Pfizer to turn nasty, so it can claim protection from the Big Bad American, but I think that its opponent’s PR strategy is too clever to fall for that. It will just chip away, giving what appear to be increasingly concrete reassurances in public on jobs, while lobbying investors and politicians behind the scenes, potentially raising its bid without going overboard.
Will it be enough? Time (and PR) will tell, but I fear that the combination of Pfizer’s stealth approach and the short-term focus of many investors, will take the prize.
The internet has radically changed how we bank, removing the need to physically visit and turning a thousand and one redundant branches into All Bar Ones and Wetherspoons. But the actual mechanics of transferring money around haven’t really changed. Through a combination of regulation and the sheer complexity of the financial world most of us still entrust our money to a bank and use their systems to move it around. There are some notable new entrants, such as PayPal, and smaller banks, like Metro Bank, have been launched, but the majority of transactions still go through the same channels as before. The only change being that we do the work ourselves online rather than queuing up for hours in a draughty branch behind the man from the arcade paying in his weekly takings one penny at a time.
But most people recognise that the banking system doesn’t deliver the flexibility or mobility that technology can underpin. So how do you do banking without the banks? One way would be to make it simple to transfer money from person to person using a web-based platform that the majority of the world is a member of. Step forward Facebook, which has applied to the regulator in Ireland to launch e-money across Europe. This would allow people to transfer money to others on the social network as well as to buy things online. The combination of Facebook’s reach and brand could provide stiff competition to the likes of Western Union. However those worried about privacy may baulk at giving Facebook access to their bank details in any way, shape or form.
A second way is to change the currency altogether and allow payments and transfers through new forms of money, such as Bitcoin. However, the danger of an unregulated market has come back to haunt Bitcoin, with exchanges mysteriously emptied of money and government concern that the currency is used to pay for drugs, arms and sundry Bad Things.
Now the banking industry itself has come up with a third way. Paym, has been created by umbrella body the Payments Council and enables money to be transferred by simply typing in the phone number of the recipient, provided they are also registered on the service. Fast, direct and no need to give out your bank details to other people through insecure channels such as email. However it looks like the banks themselves are unconvinced by the possibility of doing themselves out of a job. 20 million account holders of RBS (and its subsidiaries NatWest, Ulster Bank, Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks), as well as First Direct, won’t be able to use the scheme until later in the year, while Nationwide’s five million customers will have to wait until 2015. RBS says it is prioritising getting its IT systems straight, after several high profile meltdowns, before joining.
With more and more of our money transferred online to friends and relatives who are further and further away from us, we need options that make it easy to transfer money simply, and quickly. But given our previous bad experiences with banks, will it be Facebook that steals a march and becomes the new financial hub for the internet age? Either way, consumers should benefit through genuine choice and hopefully better service, whoever they pick.
The industrial revolution mechanised previously craft-based activities, and since then machines have become more and more involved in creating the world around us. But until a few years ago, this mechanisation didn’t affect those of us in the creative industries – after all, our imagination and skills couldn’t be replicated by a machine.
The internet has changed all of that. In some cases it has allowed computers to take on tasks that were previously only done by humans, by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning and breaking them into discrete tasks. You can now get computer-written journalism, which use algorithms to bring together data and organise it into a rudimentary article. In the US, stories about minor earthquake reports are now routinely created and published, based on information supplied by the US Geological Survey. It isn’t much of a stretch to see short sports reports written based on player data and profiles, avoiding the need to send a reporter out to lower league matches.
However the biggest threat or opportunity to the creative industries is that the internet and digital technology has broken down the barriers around previously specialist occupations. Take photography. In the past only professional photographers could afford the equipment needed to create (and manually develop) arresting images. Now, similar levels of performance are available in a smartphone, and PhotoShop can do the rest. News stories frequently use amateur shots from bystanders who happened to be in the right place at the right time, adding extra depth to articles. Design and PR are both equally affected. Anyone can set up as a web designer or copywriter, without necessarily needing to undergo lengthy training.
In many ways this is a good thing – the internet has democratised creative industries that were previously off limits to most of us and enables more people to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas. It uncovers real talents who never previously would have been spotted, whether that is musicians on YouTube or specialist bloggers with a passion for their subject. But what it also does is amateurise previously professional occupations. How can a portrait photographer compete on cost with a bloke and an iPhone? Again, a copywriter on eLance charges much less than a professional. And the overall effect is that there is more stuff out there (words, pictures, videos of cute cats), but quality is far more hit or miss.
Before people start complaining, as someone that makes a living through PR and copywriting I obviously do have a vested interest here. But that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome more competition and the chance for more people to be creative. Far from it. However businesses need to understand that you get what you pay for – in the same way that fixing your car yourself is inherently riskier than going to a garage (unless you are a mechanic), working with amateurs opens you up to potential issues. Do they have insurance if something goes wrong, do they understand copyright, are they using legal images on your new website? There are 101 questions that you need to be sure of, before handing over your money. And it can be pretty obvious when a website has been put together by the managing director’s teenage son or daughter. Businesses therefore need to strike a balance between democratisation and working with amateurs if they are to stand out in an increasingly crowded global market.