Field-testing Google at Heathrow

I bet this would have got more attention if it had happened in the US. Google has been offering free internet access to bored passengers at Heathrow‘s Terminal 1, and has used it as an opportunity to talk to people about ‘what they like and don’t like about our products’. Full marks! There is simply nothing more dull than sitting in the departure lounge, especially Terminal 1 where the shopping is pretty poor. And of course, waiting times have increased in the last couple of years thanks to the additional security measures. But it’s going to take more than this to make me fly via Heathrow regularly again. Too much of my life has already been spent at baggage reclaim there. I’ve started going through Southampton as often as possible: much smaller airport, but so much quicker to get through, inbound and outbound.

Deja vu PS2-style

I’m not a ‘petrolhead’, but I love the BBC’s Top Gear. The sheer passion and enthusiasm of Jeremy Clarkson and co is infectious, and you suddenly realise you’re tuning in week after week.

But an item on this week’s show, the last in the series, was familiar. Apparently F1 world champion Fernando Alonso credited his performance at this year’s inaugural Turkish Grand Prix to practising the circuit on the PlayStation. So they wondered, could Jeremy match his time around one of Gran Turismo’s simulated tracks in a simulated car, when driving for real around the same track in the same car? Simple answer – no. It’s understandable really; if you crash at full speed on the PlayStation, you get another try.

In fact, I tried a similar experiment myself, earlier this year. My wife and I visited Monaco – and emerged from the train station at a place which looked startlingly familiar to me: the foot of the hill just after the start of the Grand Prix circuit. I couldn’t believe it; I’d never been there in my life, but I knew the place like the back of my hand. We ended up walking the full circuit over a couple of hours, albeit stopping for some food and taking a detour to the ‘old city’. With each turn, I became more and more amazed at how good the PS2 version was. I knew exactly where I was, the whole time.

I’m watching you, Tiscali

Since switching to Tiscali a while back, I’ve noticed my internet connection suddenly ‘dropping out’ a lot of the time. Maybe once a day, I suddenly lose connectivity. Maybe for no more than a minute or two, but it was getting very annoying. Might be my fault, might be theirs, you never quite know.

So I found a piece of free software called Link Monitor, which sends a ‘ping’ signal to a website of your choice every few seconds, and alerts you when/if the signal doesn’t get through. All the details are logged in a simple text file. The results? – it isn’t anywhere near as bad a problem as it seems, but it is happening relatively frequently: actually, three times in the last 15 or 20 minutes. :( Certainly I never noticed such problems with NTL.

Online video has a future – of sorts

The San Jose Mercury News publishes its list of the Top 10 tech trends for 2006 – and starts with video, which it says ‘will come to the big screen in your living room and to the small screen on your cell phone’. I was always a little cynical about video, after a decade of watching postage-stamp sized pictures. But two things recently have completely changed my mind. I switched broadband provider, upgrading from a 300K connection to 2MB. And I bought myself a 28″ widescreen LCD monitor, at a remarkably cheap price which I suspect Dell are probably regretting.

The bandwidth boost certainly helps: although most online video is still being encoded for lower bandwidths, probably assuming a connection of 512K. (By my own non-scientific assessment, video optimised for a 1MB line passes the ‘good enough’ test. Anything more is a bonus.)

More important, I find, is the large screen size. When I click to view some online video, I invariably find myself maximising the video player to full screen, and pushing my chair to the back of the room. I guess I’ve been too deeply conditioned by thirty-plus years of watching TV from a distance.

I’m still not sure about small-screen video though. My phone at the moment is the HTC Universal, which has an excellent screen with a good VGA resolution, and very good sound quality. Watching video on it is perfectly possible, and I have a few video files stored on the 512MB SD card it came with, but I really don’t find myself watching them. The only good time is when you’re sat on a train; but even then, I’m always a bit self-conscious.

Recognising market realities

I’ve been following Robert Scoble‘s writings for quite some time: if you haven’t come across him yet, he’s a ‘technical evangelist’ working at Microsoft, who (according to the Economist) ‘might mark the beginning of the end of “corporate communicationsâ€? as we know it’. I’m inclined to agree. His transparent-beyond-the-call-of-duty approach is startling at first, but quickly wins you over. His employer has always had an image problem in the tech community; it’s hard to love a company run by the Richest Man In The World. But as Scoble proves, it’s a company full of well-meaning people who genuinely care about what they do.

Writing on Boxing Day, he does some searches to show the number of Microsoft teams who now engage directly with anyone who cares to listen, or more importantly, who cares to join the dialogue. I was interested to note one almost throwaway point: ‘I use Google cause that’s what most of you are using.’ This, remember, is a man whose job is to evangelise (or let’s face it, sell) Microsoft technology. And this is why it all works. Scoble isn’t shy of admitting ‘we aren’t number one’, and hence he maintains his credibility. Mind you, he isn’t averse to promising great things for Microsoft’s products in the future.

Incidentally, he’s right about the mass of anonymous email addresses. During my time with Microsoft, I remember asking where mail sent to our team email addresses actually ended up. The answer was never especially clear, and the mail generally didn’t make it to the front line.

links for 2005-12-26

  • My new WordPress-based, work-related blog. Thoughts on running websites in large bureaucracies, web editorial, writing for the web, web trends likely to enter the mainstream, all in layman’s terms.
    (tags: simondickson)
  • Proof once again that content is king. The hype behind podcasting is long gone, but this proves it has a role to play – if quality people choose to produce quality material. Half an hour of laugh-out-loud stupidity from the guys behind ‘The Office’. Bewar
    (tags: podcasting tv rss)

Design is a dying art

To design or not to design? If I’d been able to answer that question, this blog would have started weeks ago. But I couldn’t decide if I liked any of the WordPress.com themes on offer, or if I wanted to design my own in Blogger. In actual fact, if this still matters, it soon won’t. I read most of my favourite blogs via their (text only) RSS feed, in Bloglines. I almost never see their websites, and I genuinely don’t know what many of them look like. I don’t know why, but I just looked at Steve Rubel’s MicroPersuasion site – a feed I read every day – and got quite a shock!

Why I finally switched to Firefox

Until very recently, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was my browser of no-choice. By which I mean, in a world where one browser has a market share in excess of 90%, it’s insanity to work with anything else – especially if websites are your livelihood. In a clash between ‘standards compliance’ and ‘90% market share’, I’m afraid standards have to go out the window. But today, I switched my default browser to Firefox – and here’s why. Continue reading

Blogging on the move

OK, so perhaps you can’t email into WordPress.com, but I’ve found a possible solution. There’s a tool called Pocket SharpMT, which seems to speak to WordPress. I’m posting from it now. Only problem so far is that it doesn’t seem too keen on working with my PDA’s keyboard: not that it isn’t working, but I can’t see what I’m typing.

UPDATE (23.1.06): I’ve spotted a few hits to this item today; wonder why it’s suddenly of interest? Anyway, my new recommendation is the Windows Mobile version of DopplerRadio, currently in beta but working very well as a blogging client.