Monday 28 June 2010

In Praise of the Skype Telephone

A bit of light relief with a serious message: save money!

In "Praise of Skype" - what do you mean? Surely everyone knows about all the benefits of the web telephone system? Aren't you several years behind the times with this piece?

No - no - not Skype itself! I really do mean the Skype telephone. The hardware. An actual handset you can buy and have in your house or office.

What? You are joking aren't you? [scoffing noises] I mean that's sort of retro isn't it? Or rather, a technological sidestep into a cul de sac. Not something for the comms-savvy 21st century modern techie-type, surely?

No, I am perfectly serious. I have been converted. A year ago I would have agreed with you and probably laughed at the very idea. But it is all in the flexibility it offers, especially for the home environment. Having what looks like an 'old-fashioned' cordless telephone when you have Skype installed on your computer might seem silly and unnecessary, but really it is only like having the Skype App for your smart phone.

Flexibility? Now you are having a larf! Everybody's got a PC in their home - and several in their office, plus a laptop - and most people have a smart phone with the Skype App don't they? What else could they need for making Skype calls?

Well, I think you are wrong. Not everybody does have a smart phone with the Skype App. Yes, most people have a PC in their house - but that's rather my point.

What is?

Well, when you make a Skype call from your PC there's lots of clever things you can do like video calls and screen sharing and so on, and that is fine for the office and quite often at home. (For example, video calls with the grandchildren in Australia.) But there are other circumstances - especially in the home - when you don't need all that.

Go on.

In fact 'all that' becomes a burden. You don't need it and don't want it. People often just want to blather on a cordless phone for hours on end while they get on with other things around the house, just like they have done for years with their cordless landline. In fact, before there were cordless phones people had great long extension leads so they could carry their receiver around the house. (Remember the 1970s? Flares, shag-pile carpets and huge long telephone extensions. Coolio coolio.)

Well, they can do that on their desktop or laptop can't they? You don't have to make a video call and most microphones are good enough to let you walk around the room at least. And if you have a laptop, or better still a small notebook, you can carry that around with you from room to room.

Yes, you are right up to a point. And in fact that is what my wife does. But it doesn't suit everybody. Let me tell you a true story.

Go on then -

Well, as you know, from early spring until late autumn my wife and I spend most of our time in Greece. The younger of our daughters lives in our flat in Germany the whole year. We have broadband connections in both places, feeding a desktop in Germany and my laptop in Greece, with WLAN to my wife's notebook. My wife and our daughter like to talk on the phone most evenings, usually for a considerable time. It used to be that our daughter always rang from Germany using the landline and one of the cheap pre-dial codes so that the charge went on the German bill - slightly cheaper than doing the same procedure from Greece. The bill for these calls came to somewhere between 5 and 10 Euros a week. Not a lot? Well, think about that for the best part of 30 weeks a year. A complete waste of money when they could talk free for as long as they liked using a web phone system like Skype. Once set up in both locations, it worked well. For a while. But I started to notice more and more that there seemed to be some excuse for not using Skype, and more and more of their conversations had reverted to the old landline and cheap code routine.

It took me a while to find out why. The German end was the problem. Our daughter found it a real drag having to boot up the PC and then sit in the office cubby-hole where it lives. For their length of conversations she needs to go the toilet at least twice; smoke at least two cigarettes (on the balcony); probably make herself something to eat and quite likely watch a TV programme, and deal with SMS and calls from her girlfriends on her mobile phone, all while talking to her mother. She says it is multi-tasking. Now, our daughter is probably an extreme example, but there must be plenty of people in a home environment who are not welded to their computers like us and would much rather talk using a traditional cordless phone or a mobile.

Solution? A Skype telephone! Hooray! I reckon the one I bought is just about the best option, and certainly for this particular circumstance. It is the DUALphone 3088, which plugs its own modem into your router and the handset sits in its own wireless base station, so you can keep it pretty much wherever you want in a normal-sized house.

- but does it work? Does your daughter use it?

Oh yes. Have a look at the photos - our daughter multi-tasking! In fact our two households are connected for hours on end every evening...with no running meter. And in our case, the handset has paid for itself within a year.

So, if you thought web telephoning wasn't for you because of perceived restrictions, think again. Have a look at the different equipments available. Surely between Skype on desktop, laptop, notebook, smart phone and skype phones themselves, landlines should be kicked into touch in almost every conceivable circumstance in office or home - the only exceptions being where local landline calls are free or part of a comms package you are already paying for.

[ Disclaimer: Neither Glanton nor Tom Muir have any connection, financial or otherwise with Skype or Dualphone. This is not an advertisement! ]

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Wednesday 9 June 2010

Welcome to the paid-for web: a contrary view

I disagree with my colleague John Royle about his post Welcome to the paid-for web. Or rather, I have a slightly different take on the significance and certainty of the events he describes.

I believe that tacit in his description of Rupert Murdoch's News International's decision to start charging for access to The Times and The Sunday Times websites is the assumption that the said news organisation and newspapers are actually important in a web news context.

There is no denying that News International is big and powerful as a print news organisation. And there is no denying that the London Times was once thought of as The Thunderer - THE Upmarket British newspaper; how Britain saw itself and the rest of the world, and essential reading for 'top' people everywhere and perceived as a source of sound information and steady, sensible opinion. However, that reputation has been steadily eroded in the decades since Murdoch bought the paper. Eroded to such an extent that for a number of years now it has been only half-jokingly referred to as "The Broadsheet Currant Bun" - a mildly scurrilous Cockney Rhyming Slang comparison to its stablemate at News International, the infamous and unapologetically downmarket redtop tabloid, The Sun.

Of course there is a lot of oohing and aahing at the moment about The Times and The Sunday Times charging for content because, well, it is a change. But I don't believe it is a very significant change; nor do I believe those newspapers' online presence is either important in a global web context, or would be greatly missed if it was to disappear completely. Generally speaking, I don't think there is any particular loyalty amongst online news consumers: one source disappears, another starts to charge - "oh well, never mind, forget them, let's move on. There is plenty more out there."

I believe online news is so big, so diverse, so instantaneous, and online news grazing so endemic and habit-forming that the majority of online consumers will soon forget about Murdoch's newspapers - if indeed they ever knew they existed. Yes, he may well get his 10% of current visitors to sign up (though my guess is it will be slightly less) and that small percentage almost entirely consist of libraries and universities along with journalists and commentators from other news organisations who need to have their fingers on every pulse - however weak. The few readers of The Times who still care deeply about their favourite newspaper are I believe almost exclusively confined to those who buy the print at the railway station kiosk or have it drop through the letterbox every morning. If you have paid for hardcopy you are not very likely to worry too much about any online version, one way or the other.

Based on the above, I don't believe everybody is going to cling to Murdoch's shirt tails and move to pay-for content. Firstly, I think very few will see 'Murdoch's 10%' (if he ever gets even that) as a good result. Nor will the advertisers.

Secondly, there is already a well-established model for charging for online news content: back issue archives. The Times itself, from 1795-1985 inclusive has been totally digitalised and available online in its entirety for nearly ten years now. At a price. And fair enough I say (although currently they only cater for institutional subscriptions, which is bad luck on private individuals without access through a subscribing organisation). Similarly, but more universally available, is the British Library's Colindale Online Newspaper Collection which currently provides total searchable access to 49 local and national titles from 1800-1900.

Surely this already established method is the way for news organisations to deal with their online presence? The everyday, constantly updated, headline and limited article output is to stay free (with any advertising that can be sold attached of course), and the back catalogue of full, uncut issues is available online in an archive at a price. I believe this is the way most newspapers will go. The Scotsman already does this. The Times was doing it too until last week, but they seem not to have realised.

If however, John is right, and print newspapers as a herd all turn to pay-for online content, then they will marginalise themselves in web terms. The massive online news consumer group will simply drift away to specialist online news services or organisations which remain free to view. There will be enough to satisfy every taste everywhere, I am certain.

And as for a general stampede away from free content of value on the web to charging, I suspect the former has been something of a rose-tinted illusion for a considerable time. As I have said, The Times Digital Archive has been online for the best part of ten years, and has only ever been available by subscription. Almost every serious specialist magazine which has an online edition charges for access, and always has done, in my experience.

However, daily news - real news, collected, processed and broadcast on the web on a constantly updating basis, is a different beast altogether. It's diversity, quality and volume may fluctuate, but I believe it will always be free.

So what do I think will befall The Times and The Sunday Times online output and any other national newspapers who do choose to go the same way? Surely they are asking to be treated like specialist magazines, when they are actually quite the opposite. What can they do? Perhaps they should be broken up into specialist departments and subscriptions sold for these new seperate sites on that basis, so that The Times newspaper as a total concept, an entity, no longer exists online.

Will John or I be buying the drinks in 2011? No doubt it will be me whatever happens! ;-)

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Monday 7 June 2010

Welcome to the paid-for web

Last week saw an event which I believe will go down as one of the most fundamental shifts of the internet age and will mark the end of the honeymoon period we have enjoyed thus far. I'm referring to Rupert Murdoch's News International's decision to start charging for access to The Times and The Sunday Times websites.

From this week you'll pay £1 for a day's access and £2 for a week. Furthermore he is blocking Google and other search engines from spidering the content - in other words News International content will not legally appear in any news feed or news digest.

The jury's out on whether this will work (Murdoch says he's prepared to lose 90% of visitors so long as the remaining 10% pay) but if it does, and my money says it will, then every single news and newspaper website will follow suit faster than you can believe. If you think about it, it has to happen. Every newspaper in the world is losing money and the web advertising revenue is just too widely spread to fund them.

I know it feels like a shame and we are being hard done by, and at odds with the fundamental perceived principles of the internet, but 'reality bites' and in the current climate every word that someone is paid to write is an asset and who can blame the owners of those assets for profiting from them on the web just as they do in print? There is no reason at all why one medium should cost and the other be effectively free, despite the presence of advertising.

My point is, that once the new News International business model is established then every digital product that has any value and can be distributed over the web will come with a price. My guess is that by mid 2011 it will be the norm. Incidently, did you see that I linked value with cost? Remember that old one?!

Projecting further ahead, I think we'll see a whole new raft of businesses floated who aggregate, summarise, and recommend all these paid-for digital products so that you can make an informed choice before subscribing and keying in your credit card number. These advisory services will, of course, cost you.

Look out too for new technologies to help you protect your new valuable digital assets - RSS blockers, cut and paste stoppers, screen grab disablers.  And if that fails then happy days for the poor cash-strapped lawyers of this world who will be employed to sue anyone re-publishing paid-for content.

Welcome to the new internet world where content costs; gateways rule; and people of our generation look back on the golden age of free access and free material on demand.

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