Month: May 2016

WhatsApp sends Brazil nuts as Latam highlights tech leapfrogging

Corny headline. But there has been a right old tussle in Latam as an estimated 100m Brazilians had their favourite message app temporarily suspended this month when the authorities sought to clamp down on criminals using the service.

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Brazil’s media reports WhatsApp ban as episode highlights tech boom in South

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook whose founder Mark Zuckerberg declared “The idea that everyone in Brazil can be denied the freedom to communicate the way they want is very scary in a democracy.” It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last time MZ has to utter such a riposte.

It’s an age-old debate balancing the right to security and freedom of speech. That’s for another day, but  I’ll just say for now I tend to favour my right to life over my right to speak when there’s a genuine (dictators please note: g-e-n-u-i-n-e) violent threat.

The episode also illustrates the huge growth in the use of smartphones in poor and emerging countries. I first became conscious of the power of WhatsApp not in Clerkenwell or Camden, but several years ago in Colombia. Almost everyone I spoke to there connected to me via the service. The same was true in Bolivia, Honduras, Paraguay and El Salvador.

No wonder Zuckerberg blew $19bn on buying it in 2014. Its wildfire growth then was a symptom of the rocketing takeup of digital tech fuelled by cheap smartphones, low fixed broadband use and a rampant desire to network.

It was also another important reminder of how, over the ages, the “South” has leapfrogged the “North” in so many tech advances and takeup.

Other examples include solar energy development, use of salt-and-water fuelled lamps and 3D printing to manufacture hearing aids or agricultural tools in remote areas locally.

I think 3D printing is going to be even bigger than the internet. Imagine having your car in 2o66 made in your local 3D depot. You pay for your custom design from BMW, Lexus or Mercedes who give you a password, you give it to the guys at the neighbourhood 3D depot who are paid to complete the job using the raw materials and “printers” they have there. It’s got to be more efficient and greener than transporting finished products over thousands of land and sea miles.

All that will be based on observing developing countries leapfrog the west in such pioneering technology meanwhile.

So, thanks Brazil for reminding me that my northern-centric view of the world is horribly skewed and narrow. Think I’ll WhatsApp a few people with that message.


Strictly Comes the new BBC

I have a love-hate relationship with the BBC.

Love its shows. Whether it’s Attenborough, Match of the Day, Night Manager or Newsnight on TV and Danny Baker on Radio 5 Live. And it’s mostly impartial politically.

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Tell me straight Tom: will the government keep the Beeb independent? Dunno, Hugh.

But hate its arrogance and waste. When making announcements at several previous employers, I was called sometimes by up to five BBC journalists asking exactly the same question within a few minutes of each other. Then there was the presumption that its pre-eminent status would always demand the first interview. I took these as symptoms of wider profligacy and self-importance. (And that was not just me swallowing the Sky propaganda for which I was responsible for a few years).

So, at first glance, today’s government proposals on the BBC go some way to remedy this.

There’s to be a much tighter Whitehall rein than before with six people appointed by government to a new Board of twelve or more people to steer overall editorial direction. Ofcom, my old employer, gets to regulate the Corporation. The National Audit Office is handed the accounting role.

With a new mission “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high‐quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain”, over 60% of its shows are to be put out to tender so its in-house creatives are kept on their toes.

But the debate will centre not on which luvvies’ feathers have been ruffled by this but on editorial independence free from government interference.

Sceptics will ask, at its crudest, will so many government appointees really allow probing factual and news programmes which might embarrass the very government which appointed them?

Can pioneering shows like Panorama and Horizon feel confident they can keep exposing failings of public policy that make Ministers look shifty and uncomfortable?

No government would be foolish enough to simply appoint a raft of its own Party stooges onto such a Board to achieve this. Even in the bygone days of BBC Governors, Tories always appointed a mainstream trusty Labourite and Labour put a housetrained Conservative on the broadcaster’s ruling body.

So now the Government has to prove that it wants independence by appointing people beyond its own partisan ranks with a record of understanding the rapidly shifting broadcast and digital landscape combined with an awareness of business, regulation and reputation.

Like for Channel 4, the government could even delegate the appointment role to Ofcom. It now regards the body as “the widely respected and experienced media and telecommunications regulator” when, in opposition, Mr Cameron threatened “With a Conservative government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist.”

Only with genuine independents with a diverse range of backgrounds and skills will it have the strict rules in place to ensure the Beeb keeps being trusted and stays relevant.