ICT: How To Drive The Car (But Not How It Works)

There’s a mixed picture of the UK’s technological advancement presented by two government reports today. According to Ofcom, though we are behind on 4G and ‘superfast’ broadband adoption (greater than 24Mbps), we are the greatest online shoppers in Europe and the biggest users of the mobile Internet on smartphones. But according to Ofsted, we are failing to teach young people about technology in any useful way.

Where ‘Information and Communications Technology’ or ICT is taught (despite being compulsory in the curriculum, it isn’t taught in 20% of senior schools), it isn’t taught well. Pupils are apparently not stretched and few teachers have the capacity to teach anything beyond the basics.

The picture I draw from these reports is this: we are great consumers of technology but we are not equipped to produce it. This has serious implications. Having lots of people who can drive a car is useful in an economy. But nowhere near as useful has having people who can design and build them.

If the UK is to ever pull out of the current financial mire, at least in any long term sense, we need to start making stuff again. Given the state of the British car industry, we really need to start teaching our young people how to make digital stuff…

Twitter: Life’s Red Button

I popped in to 5live last week to talk about Twitter’s review of the year with Aasmah Mir. In the process I did some thinking about what it is about Twitter that has so captured people’s imagination. I didn’t get a chance to squeeze what I came up with into the chat on air so thought I’d put it down here.

For me Twitter is a bit like the red button for your TV: rather than passively observing what’s happening in the world it gives you a feeling of interacting, of being involved. Getting your information direct from the participants in major events – whether they be activists or celebrities – makes you feel that bit closer top the action.

That is true for both the dominant modes of use of Twitter that I see: the ‘few to many’ broadcast practiced by celebrities, and the ‘few to few’ interactions of niche groups connected permanently through ‘friend’ relationships (mutual followers) or more fleetingly through hashtags. For example, there’s a noticeable excitement from people following even fairly mundane live tweets from an event that may not be there if they were just reading a transcript or watching a video after the fact. Even though they’re not physically there, they feel somehow like they’re in the room.

This works because of the nature of Twitter, both that the posts are near-instantaneous, and that the reader can digest them in near real time because they are so short. It is these things combined with the very personal nature of the posts, that for me gives Twitter that sense of being close to the action, and hence its appeal.

Eton Mobius iPhone Case

I don’t review many cases for iPhones or iPads, or for that matter any other device. Why? Because it’s hard to make something interesting from them on the radio, where most of this content actually starts. Cases are a very visual thing.

I made an exception for the Eton Mobius. It’s a case that carries an extra battery that can give your iPhone a little boost when it needs it – fairly frequently in the case of a heavy user like me. But unlike other such cases, this one carries its own power source: a large solar panel.

Eton Mobius

The Eton Mobius gives you some free sun-juice for your mobile

This panel allows the Mobius to collect enough charge in one hour to give an extra 25 minutes of talk time – pretty impressive. It works too, even in Manchester’s gloomy winters. You can also charge the case up before you go out from a power source or laptop via a Micro USB port. This too works well, with the integrated battery indicator showing where the charge is up to. But this also brings me to my first niggle.

Apple may be irritating in choosing to equip all of its gear with a proprietary connector, but it does and nobody’s going to change that. For that reason long-term iPhone/iPad/iPod users like me have Apple chargers and docks all over the place for a quick charge when we need it. I don’t know why the Mobius has a USB connector rather than a standard Apple connector  – there’s certainly enough space for one.

Which brings me to my second gripe: the Mobius is enormous. It adds about a centimetre and a half to the length of the iPhone and the solar panel/battery on the back are almost as thick. To an extent this is forgivable: the nature of extra batteries and solar cells mean that this is going to be a big, heavy device. But given that constraint it would have been nice if they could find a way to incorporate a dock connector – possibly in such a way that the device would fit into the better designed docks, even while wearing the case.

This brings me to my third and final issue: getting your phone in and out of the Mobius is not easy and actually takes a reasonable amount of force. That’s a problem because the lack of dock connecter means that you want to take it out a lot. And given the hard shiny plastic from which the Mobius is made, applying this much force can be a little scary.

This now sounds like a pretty negative review, and certainly the Mobius has its issues. But for all of them I really see the value in this device. Modern smartphones – iPhones in particular – eat batteries. If you are a power user then you will be familiar with the constant need to seek out a power source in order to make sure you are not out of juice when you to come to really need your phone: be that for an important call, navigating around an unfamiliar city, or just entertaining yourself on the daily commute home.

With the price of power being what it is, a little free sun-juice, and the ability to stay topped up throughout the day is extremely welcome. So rather than panning Eton for this device, this is rather a piece of positive but critical feedback. Three stars says: “Great try, I look forward to seeing version two.”


LAKS Watch2Pay Watch

For the last few days I have been wearing a watch with a difference. This one is also a wallet. For integrated into the underside is a small slot for a payment chip that allows me to pay for goods up to a value of £15, just by touching the watch to a sensor in the shop.

This of course appears like magic to the staff in the shop, who when I paid for my lunch at Pret, crowded around to take a look. The watch has garnered pretty much the same reaction everywhere. I think this is because it feels like something from the future, and this is where the companies that have come together to create Watch2Pay (designers LAKS and card issuer Vincento) have been very clever.  The technology that the watch uses is being rolled out nationwide by MasterCard: pretty soon many of us will have a card that allows us to pay like this. That’s OK, but put that technology and a watch and it is suddenly very cool.

The watch itself is a pretty neat piece of design: given that it has a slot for a card underneath, even with a little fold-down door, it doesn’t feel at all unwieldy. And it is stylish in a neutral, masculine kind of way (there’s one for women too).

But the real genius here is its combination with the payment card, and personally I can see me continuing to use something like this once there are more places that accept Visa’s PayWave and MastercCard’s PayPass – the brand names of their (compatible) contactless technologies. For that reason I give it four stars.

Contactless Payments: The End of Cash?

I’ve been trialling a watch that could replace your wallet. The device contains a small slot for what looks like a SIM card from a mobile phone. This is in fact a payment card that communicates with the till when then watch is held to a reader, now being installed in shops around the UK. There’s no PIN number, but there’s a limit on transaction size and the account has to be topped in advance, so that you can’t be cleaned out if the watch is stolen.

Contactless Payments: The End of Cash?

Contactless Payments: The End of Cash?

This is, in short, a replacement for cash. It is designed for the many small purchases that we make throughout the day: newspaper, chocolate bar, sandwich, train ticket, coffee etc. And for me it is a lot easier.

The fact that it is in a watch is something of a distraction, albeit that it is a very sensible place to put a wireless payment card. The point is that both Visa and MasterCard are piling money into these ‘contactless’ technologies, with merchants rapidly beginning to fit out their stores with NFC readers that will enable people to pay with a wave of the hand, whatever medium the payment chip may be held in.

Darryl Morris on Radio Manchester joked about my prediction that we will see the end of cash within our lifetimes: I think that is a very safe bet. It will hang around for certain uses but in five years time I would be amazed if I am still carrying coins in my pocket on a regular basis.