Keep Calm and Carry British Tech

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the United Kingdom reading “Keep Calm and Carry On”, created during World War II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Look at your phone or tablet, most will say Made in China, Korea or Taiwan, some will say Designed in California, but what about the technology at the very heart of the device?  Where were the creators of that based?  Silicone Valley?  Shenzhen?

More than likely they were based in the UK.

Despite the likes of Jeremy Clarkson implying that if it’s designed or made in Britain then it’ll inevitably go wrong our nation has produced some of the best minds in technology, architecture, literature and science…  in the world.

Most PCs, even Apple Macs run on chips that are designed to be compatible with the Intel processors that powered the earliest IBM PC and their dependents.  Mobiles though need less power-hungry processors and this is where the Brits come in.

Back in the eighties Acorn (who had created the BBC Micro computer to accompany a pioneering TV show intended to teach computing to the public, and one of the first computers I learnt on) created the Acorn Archimedes which used a RISC processor – which basically uses a simplified set of instructions to run programs which allows for powerful processors using less actual power – perfect for mobile devices which was why Apple chose the processor for their Newton handheld and were one of the three partners that formed ARM.  Our school had an Archimedes and it seemed like a glimpse of the future compared to the BBCs and PCs.  We had no idea.

Since then ARM has developed the core designs that they licence to manufacturers such as Samsung who build the chips that drive iPhones, Galaxy SIIIs, HTC One Xs, LG Nexus 4s, Nexus 7s, Kindle Fires…  You get the idea.

The other company that has done the same with graphics chips is Imagination Technologies.  In the early nineties Hossein Yassaie joined the company and decided that computer graphics were the future, shortly afterwards he decided that people would one day want to do everything they could do on a PC on a mobile – a vision that seemed impossible to many at the time due to limits of the available technology.  However, like ARM, Imagination’s technology had lower power demands.  As smartphones have taken off, so has demand for both ARM and Imagination’s designs.

Their strength lies in the demand for new phones, the latest, faster, brighter, better, smarter every year; chipmakers couldn’t each dedicate the kind of design teams that the British firms have to such projects and so licensing from these independents is the perfect solution, and of course having so much design talent and experience in just two companies helps to ensure constant innovation to keep us all equipped for the future.

[Also BBC News]

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21st Century Hobbies & British Pi

English: Extract from Raspberry Pi board at Tr...

English: Extract from Raspberry Pi board at TransferSummit 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been said that having a hobby is a particularly British thing, when I was younger I used to spend evenings listening to REM albums while building model aircraft – many of which still linger in my mum and dad’s attic along with my old school books.

In the past some people have collected stamps, cheese labels and even old street lamps (which looked more like street theft in the BBC documentary on hobbies I’ve just watched while thinking about the subject of this post).  All these activities though gave people ways to enjoy their leisure time and as we reached the end of the twentieth century technology was playing its part in hobbies whether it was in building kit computers, programming home computers or playing video games whose graphics required a kind of leap of imagination that would be unthinkable to today’s Call of Duty playing generation of gamers.

Hobbies were something to be wanted, something to share and talk about.  Today though many of us grown-ups at least don’t have hobbies possibly because of the vast array of distractions from TV and the internet (and yes I’m aware of the irony.) 

Ooh, QI’s on the telly, er, be back in a bit…

I have heard people saying that their hobby is buying and selling things on Ebay, others that when they’re not watching TV or down the pub they’re on Bingo or Poker sites so the prospect of making money is a major driver rather than the satisfaction of making something or completing a collection.

One area that had been fading but is now bounding back is computing as a hobby – and typically it’s a British invention that is leading the charge.  Raspberry Pi began as an attempt to reverse the decline in the numbers of students going to Cambridge to read computer science which had once been the domain of many hobbyist programmers.  A group at Cambridge identified that something had changed in the way young people used computers; they were being taught word and excel in ICT lessons at school (when I was at school I was taught about mainframes) and at home they used games consoles and PCs rather than the ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s of the eighties where part of the enjoyment was typing in your own programs.

What was needed was a modern Speccy – a low-cost computer that could boot Linux and be programmed to do whatever you wanted.  The computer was designed and even before it went on sale its low-cost and versatility sparked the buried creative juices in hobbyists across the country and it has sold fantastically well and is soon to be Made in Britain too.  The foundation set up to develop the computer has also had enquiries from developing countries where such devices can provide access to technology previously unavailable.

The little one-board computer will be finding its way into a myriad of homebuilt projects in the years to come as well as its original use in encouraging the next generation of British tech engineering pioneers.

[Raspberry Pi 2.0  Gizmodo UK]  [Raspberry Pi Games Platform BBC News]

The Greatest Marketing Opportunity on Earth

English: Commemorative stamp of Greece, The Fi...

English: Commemorative stamp of Greece, The First Olympic Games (1896), 2 lepta. Русский: Марка Греции. Первые Олимпийские игры, 1896, 2 лепты (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Someone once said “the revolution will be televised”, in that case it will almost certainly also be heavily sponsored.  In Britain as “London 2012” looms large on the horizon it’s jagged magenta shards casting a great shadow upon our capital.  Ahem, sorry.  As the games draw close our commercial TV channels are increasingly packed with adverts from the official sponsors/supporters/partners.  British Airways encourages people to not use their services to fly abroad but to stay at home instead and support Team GB (by all means use BAs internal flights of course).  The athletes will be able to have a pre-event snack on the official cereal bar of the olympic games though Nature Valley’s adverts are the most light hearted and least sentimentalized of the lot.  According to their ads P&G have the competitors every need seen to from keeping their kit pristine with washing powder, their hair clean,  right down to essential “feminine hygiene products” to keep Mother Nature at bay.  If they eat at the Official Restaurant of the games, Maccy D’s, then they won’t need the Fairy washing up liquid much though.  If consolation is needed then a losing javelin thrower can skewer a Dairy Milk from the official treat supplier of the games.  They can pay on their olympic Visa cards.

Joking aside the games sponsorship has received criticism in many areas including the heavy levels of sponsorship from fast food and drink companies; the fact that spectators are not allowed to use any device that is capable of recording video (must watch the footage on Sky/BBC coverage of course); and the fact that their terms for the torch relay advised that runners should wear “comfortable, unbranded or Adidas shoes.”  One commenter suggested simply running barefoot.  Apparently one mum in Kent was told she couldn’t wear a Help for Heroes wristband.

Then there’s the food and we return to the Official Restaurant, mine’s a Big Mac, thanks.  In McDonalds’ sponsorship deal it is specified that they can have the monopoly on selling chips or french fries unless sellers jump through the loophole of them being part of a Fish and Chips package and even then LOCOG had to ask McDonalds for permission to allow our traditional combo.  In the same article The New Statesman reminds us that T-shirts with logos of companies that aren’t official sponsors have been banned from the Olympic Park.  Some credit though goes to the LOCOG catering team who are trying to provide an interesting selection of food for visitors.

Companies and organisations not officially linked to the games have been referring to “the events this summer” for fear of getting into trouble for mentioning the word “Olympics” due to restrictions to control “unauthorised association” with the games – a concept which has even been enshrined in law especially for the games.  If you do say anything about LOCOG that they consider is in a “derogatory and objectionable manner” then you can’t link to the Olympics site, Mike Masnick at Techdirt linked anyway here.

I’m far from alone in my view of the Olympics sponsorship, while preparing this entry The Independent also launched a debate on the subject as have the BBC whose piece includes the story of a butcher who was told to remove a 2012 themed display of sausages, an old lady who couldn’t sell a £1 knitted doll in a olympic kit, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet who were forced to change the name of a production from “Faster, Higher, Stronger – the Olympic motto – to Faster”.

I’m not a fan of the Olympics as such but as it’s in our country I do hope that the sports will take centre stage from next friday and it’ll be an event to remember for the right reasons.

Old is the New… New

Alfa Romeo Duetto

Alfa Romeo Duetto (Photo credit: lewong2000)

It seems that the more we step forward into the blinding light of our techno future the more people seem to be looking back.  Retro is still with us and is increasingly seen as a mainstream design choice.  As I see it the reasons are varied and often depend on the product.

For some the appeal of retro design comes from the feeling that designs from the fifties and sixties were crafted with more care and solidity, with metal rather than plastic, with levers and cranks that moved with a reassuring smoothness, clicked and whirred precisely giving a sense that they’d last forever and that you were getting what you paid for.  Such is the case with cameras such as Digital Leica rangefinders that remain true to their film predecessors’ styling and construction; Fujifilm’s X100, X1 and X-Pro1 cameras which are also built from metals and leather patterned plastic; and my favourite the Olympus OM-D E-M5 digital system camera which from most angles looks as solid, sleek and minimalist as the old OM series cameras – it’s only round the back that you see the array of buttons and the large screen that betray it’s 21st Century innards.  It is true that these cameras are relatively expensive and for many that will be the reason they’ll buy them but there is also another reason for products like these: to look longingly at what is often perceived as a better time in society as well as manufacturing.

Many retro products aim squarely at a time before bling when cool meant understated presence, celebrities and celebrity photographers used Leicas, drove E-type Jags and Alfa Duettos – the latter cars also currently being reborn with new century tech and tweaked, sharper lines to again bridge the gap between the past and the future.  There are hints of the rejection of overt showiness and loud celeb culture beginning to emerge.  In fashion and advertising the likes of TV shows such as Mad Men are having an effect for the same reason.  Stella Artois’ current campaigns have an obvious fifties-sixties style to associate the brand with what is seen as classic cool.

Instagram and Hipstamatic photos flood daily into Facebook and while the low-fi style of these is fun and interesting too many of the people taking the shots take the whole thing too seriously telling people that their pictures are more “authentic” because they look like old photos taken with film cameras, this kind of retro though is not strictly accurate though as film hasn’t had the kind of graininess and vignetting applied by these apps for most of the last fifty years, unless you had a really cheap camera, like the ones that you can now buy imitations of to deliberately get the poor quality – because it looks cool, of course.

So retro is either a desire to emulate a seemingly better time before our throwaway society and our transient carbon-copy celebrities, or it’s a fad to show how unconventional you are, or it’s a way to say how well off and tasteful you are, or it’s a case of designers taking cues from a time where form and function both mattered and subtlety had more impact than in-your-face showiness to create something truly stylish and often beautiful.

To create the future it is often useful to reference the past, both for its mistakes and its triumphs.

Cycling Back

Shimano Deore XT Schaltwerk hinten (am Mountai...

(or How It’s Made – 1945 Edition)

I ride a bike to work, and enjoy cycling, the wind in your hair, well the wind in just about every part of you depending on how you’re dressed.  So it was interesting to watch this video showing how bikes were made in postwar Britain, shortly before the coronation.

[Vimeo via Gizmodo UK]

British Traditions Roll On

The MC holding the cheese.

The MC holding the cheese. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even in the 21st Century some English traditions are still clinging on thanks to the dedication of individuals.  One of them, the annual cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill was run, rolled and somersaulted yesterday.

The tradition was officially ended in 2010 but has been continued by enthusiasts even though last year’s contest was controversially cancelled over plans to charge for taking part.

The four races down the 200m hill were run in conditions described as damp and the Jubilee Cheese was won by Craig Fairley of Brockworth.

See fuller coverage and photos over at Metro.

Brittanica – Going Digital Gracefully

English: Title page of the Americanized Encycl...

English: Title page of the Americanized Encyclopedia Britannica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Techdirt recently reported on how a British institution adapted to the new century’s technology rather than trying to sue its competitors into oblivion or whining “that’s not fair”.

The first decade of this century has seen a massive shift to digital distribution and consumption both legally and illegally.  Some traditional media creators have reacted to this with great anger and lawsuits that would keep Ally McBeal busy for a few series (ok, showing my age there, but it was the last legal series I watched).  Instead of adapting business models to cater for these new outlets, providing exclusive tasty content or extra value with digital downloads to tempt people away from pirate sites for example, they have tried to simply legislate the problem away – hence SOPA et al.

They criticise artists who give away content for free, ignoring the facts that this can generate sales as people will often pay for foll0w up material, as also often happens after someone downloads pirated material and then buys the album after they find they like it.  As a content producer I don’t condone piracy, but I don’t feel that tighter copyright laws will help either.

Which brings me on to the venerable, weighty and very British Encyclopedia Britannica.  In the nineties a CD based publication was launched and then as that market faded they launched their own online encyclopedia in the face of the onslaught of Wikipedia and the like.  In both cases they saw what was coming early on and adapted and restructured in order to embrace and make the most of the emerging technology rather than hold on to the past.  Britannica.com is still here alongside Wikipedia because it has evolved, moved with the times and because of its history and reputation it is still a trusted source of information.  They have a premium paid-for service that provides extras for members such as videos, research tools and more.

From door-to-door to digital with no fuss, taking it all in its stride.

[Techdirt]