Apple’s intent?

For UK technophiles, today is a red-letter day with the launch of two new pieces of hardware. The iPad 2, the follow-up to the now iconic tablet, will go on sale in Apple Stores around the country, while gamers will be eager to get their hands on Nintendo’s 3DS, a new version of the manufacturer’s big-selling handheld console.

Although similar to the first iPad, Apple’s new machine boasts greatly improved processing speed and a much slimmer casing, as well as two cameras for video conferencing. It will be available in 16, 32 and 64GB variants, as well as Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi and 3G. The price for a basic version of the iPad 2 (16GB and Wi-Fi) is £399, the same as the current iPad, with the most expensive version (64GB, Wi-Fi and 3G) priced at £659.

Nintendo’s new machine represents a far greater leap from its predecessor, with the 3DS offering three-dimensional visuals without the need for 3D glasses. This means the on-screen action now has genuine depth, alongside a raft of new features, including a 3D camera for taking pictures, Wi-Fi connectivity and the promise of 3D content via broadcasters such as Sky and Eurosport.

Nintendo recommended a retail price of £229, however, retailers keen to cash in on the inevitable demand have slowly pushed the price down since January, with Morrisons currently offering the machine on pre-order for £187.

DS consoles have sold in excess of 140million units worldwide since its first incarnation back in 2004, making it the second most popular most popular gaming console ever launched just behind Sony’s PlayStation 2 (150million). Apple too has done some business with the first iPad shifting more than 15million units worldwide since it launched in April last year. However, both manufacturers have faced uncertainty leading up to the launch due to a proliferation of rival tablets for Apple and the popularity of game-capable smart phones for Nintendo.

According to Matt Hill, Deputy Editor of T3 Magazine, smart phones represent a serious threat to the 3DS, especially as games on the phones are so much cheaper than the £20 to £30 consumers will have to pay for a 3DS title. “Compare the 3DS launch title Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition, which retails at £30, with Super Street Fighter IV on the iPhone and iPod Touch, which retails at £5.99. The former is a much better gaming experience, but is it 400 per cent better?”

A glasses-free 3D experience is the console’s big selling point but other manufacturers are not far behind with LG due to launch the similarly auto stereoscopic 3D-enabled Optimus mobile handset next month. Nintendo are quick to point out that pre-order sales for the 3DS have trumped those for any previous launch, suggesting to them that the competition from phones is negligible.

According to James Honeywell, a marketing Manager for Nintendo, smart phones are very different products from the 3DS.

“The strength that we have is the quality of the software. You can’t get the kind of software we’re offering on any other device. That’s what drove consumers to buy the original DS.”

He does, however, admit that pre-orders have exceeded all expectations “The numbers have been very surprising. We will have sold around 120,000 3DS units in theUKbefore it even launches.”

For perspective, the Wii sold 60,000 on pre-order while the DSi (the 3DS’s forerunner) sold 80,000. The price war between retailers is one possible explanation for the pre-order bonanza. As Honeywell states: “we expected some movement in the price, but no the steady decrease from the initial announcement in January. Ultimately it’s great for the consumer.” Yet there’s also the huge inherent appeal of a new piece of technology, especially one so targeted at the young.

The iPad 2 is a slightly different proposition. Though it does offer gaming, alongside myriad other uses, it is a machine targeted an older demographic, which is reflected in the price. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a similar “shiny” appeal as the 3DS, but those who bought the first iPad might not be as willing to part with another £400 for a bit more speed.

For Hill this remains the problem for the iPad 2: “The dual-core processor is much quicker and it’s aesthetically a much nicer machine, but that’s about it. So it depends how much consumers really need to have the newest, most beautiful gadget around.”

Some commentators have suggested that Apple is launching on the same day as the 3DS to show their intent within the gaming market, but for Hill this doesn’t make sense. “It’s a coincidence, nothing more”. Honeywell disagrees. “It’s near to the end of the financial year. It’s a good time to launch a product.”

This first appeared in The Daily ExpressThe original article can be found here.


How politicians should use social media

Organising a night out, poking your friends, catching up with a schoolmate you last saw in 1987 … Facebook has become a vital part of our social lives, but it could decide something a lot more important that whether you’re heading to the Dog and Duck tonight. It’s going to play a big part in who runs Britain. With an election happening in less than a month, politicians have woken up to the power of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. At stake are not only the keys to No 10, but – and more profoundly – how the Government engages with the people from here on in.

The general election on 6 May will mark the start of the campaigning season proper for parties, politicians and prospective parliamentary candidates. Much of the debate will take a traditional form, using door-knocking, posters and broadcasts. Yet in the last five years since the British electorate (or at least 61 per cent of them) took to the polls, the world has evolved beyond measure.

The development of social networking, alongside the unprecedented growth in online video content, added to an upsurge in broadband access – an increase of 28 per cent between 2006 and 2009 according to the Office of National Statistics – has transformed us into an increasingly cyber society, forcing politicians to adapt with varying degrees of success. Gordon Brown’s YouTube video on MPs’ expenses is unlikely to be remembered as a high water mark for the integration of politics and technology.

For anyone in public office, engaging in personalised interaction can be like dancing on a trap door. From America, Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ill-advised tweet on Judge Sonia Sotomayor – “White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw” – stands as a clear warning.

Yet, for every ill-conceived tweet or detrimental status update, there have been myriad successes for politicians, campaigners and pressure groups hoping to make a mark. Writing recently in this paper, Kerry McCarthy, Britain’s Twitter Tsar, said that MPs tweet because it can “reveal the person behind the politician; their principles, their passions, their personality. It’s the authentic voice that comes through, of the MP and in aggregate, of the Party”. So there can be a political reward. It’s also, she suggests, “good fun”.

Since it launched in 2006, Facebook has matured from a tool for keeping in touch with friends to a powerful and highly effective way of grouping communities, offering a collective voice to anyone with an internet connection.

This was highlighted in January when Islam4UK, an offshoot of the banned Islamic group Al-Muhajiroun, was banned under counter-terrorism laws, following a Facebook campaign.

Grass roots campaigns are one thing. An election campaign is another. But if Westminster was slow on the uptake about social networks, the 2008 election of Barack Obama, founded on a campaign with a comprehensive online strategy, should have proved portentous.

Speaking recently on Radio 4, Thomas Gensemer, the mastermind behind Obama’s online campaign, said that the ideal is “an integrated strategy that includes third parties, such as Facebook and Twitter”, working alongside more established methods, such as door-to-door petitioning.

Many factors played a part in securing the White House for the Democrats in 2008. Still, $560m in online fundraising goes a long way, especially when allied to an enthusiastic support mobilised via the web.

For Richard Allen, a former Liberal Democratic politician now employed as the Director of EU policy at Facebook, the use of social networking by the Obama campaign made people feel more empowered. “An Obama supporter in the backwoods of Oklahoma, who would previously have found it difficult to do anything practical, could now get together with other supporters. This allowed them to take ownership of the campaign rather than passively waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. This dramatically extended the Democrats’ reach.”

Allen also believes having a single presidential candidate around which to orientate the campaign made it easier for US activists to engage with the electorate. “In the UK there’s a much more complex relationship between the parties and the voters. When you cross the ballot paper, you’re not crossing it for David Cameron, Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg. You’re crossing the ballot for whoever your local candidate is.”

Looking at the Facebook fan pages of the party leaders suggests the British electorate has been slow to embrace parliamentary politics via the site – so far. David Cameron leads with 17,500 followed by Gordon Brown (4,000) and Nick Clegg (3,500).

These figures will no doubt rise in the coming weeks (David Cameron has added 3,500 fans in the last two months). The official party pages on Facebook, however, are in good health – the Conservatives’ page is the most popular, boasting around 25,000 fans and plenty of daily updates.

At the constituency level, MPs such as Tom Watson, the Labour candidate for West Bromwich East, have been building an online community for years through blogs and, more recently, Twitter. However, the problem for MPs such as Watson is that online communities have no regional boundaries. As such, members of his online community may have absolutely no say in returning him to parliament next month. Still, more politicians of all stripes are turning to social networking as a way to communicate. Following the success of Tweet Congress in America, a British version launched in December 2008 offering access to tweets from politicians, as well as political commentators and news services. Called Tweetminster, the service aggregates Tweets from the political world.

A recent Tweetminster report focusing on political traffic makes for interesting reading. Collated throughout 2009, the document suggests that MPs, prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) and grass-roots supporters representing Labour are the most active on Twitter, with more followers than both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats combined. But it also suggests that the Conservatives boast a greater reach, with official party posts receiving more mentions and retweets. In short, Labour supporters at the bottom are driving the Twitter conversation on the centre left, whilst official Conservative tweets from the top are driving the conversation from the centre right. Tweets and Retweets from the Liberal Democrats featured both grass roots and official traffic. Despite the surprisingly neutral conclusion of the research, the report still had Labour and Conservative supporters locking horns in the blogosphere over which party was the dominant force on Twitter. Such are the stakes.

According to Tweetminster co-founder Alberto Nardelli, “there is likely to be a significant rise in the number of candidates and MPs using Twitter in the run-up to the election. However, as it takes time to build a following and those that join late will struggle to find value in a short period of time.”

So those MPs not currently on Twitter may have missed the boat. Still, there are already large numbers on the site – 111 MPs and 226 candidates at the beginning of the year. What impact they will have on the election is difficult to quantify, especially as Twitter isn’t just an interaction between MPs and the electorate. Another important part of the equation is the traditional media, whether that’s newspapers, the BBC, Sky News or any other major news gatherer. While social networks may be able to set the agenda, it takes the force of traditional media to frame it.

For Nardelli, this is the key to how Twitter will influence the election. “More and more articles are using Twitter as a source, so it really depends on how traditional media interpret these stories.” And like any source, Tweets can be bent by the media to fit an agenda. In February, the Daily Mail ran a story suggesting that David Cameron had “ordered his party’s candidates to submit their online utterances [Tweets] for vetting”. According to Nardelli, Tory candidates had simply been asked to “be careful when discussing official Conservative policy”, a far cry from the “strict edicts” mentioned in the paper. The story was picked up by other papers and even received a mention on Newsnight.

So it’s the same cat and mouse game politicians have always played with the media, just using new tools. Still, the benefits seem to be outweighing the potential hazards, so much so that between January and March this year 16 MPs and 59 PPCs joined Twitter. That means nearly 19 per cent of parliament currently Tweets, a figure that should rise with the influx of current PPCs after the election.

Tweet Congress offers similar uptake figures for American politicians, yet Nardelli sees far more direct interaction between politicians and the electorate in Britain. “In the US lots of politicians have Twitter feeds but they tend to link to press releases or official blogs.” In short, you’re unlikely to find your local congressman sat at home trying to squeeze comment into 140 characters. In the UK, it generally is your local MP.

Before a Commons Liaison Committee, Gordon Brown recently spoke of broadening the franchise by lowering the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds, no doubt an olive branch to the Liberal Democrats, carrying overtures of electoral reform should there be a hung parliament after the election. It may also point towards a new attempt to engage with the younger demographic, mindful of their potentially significant voice harmonised by social networking. Yet it’s important to remember that these sites aren’t just playthings for listless teens. According to Facebook, the fastest growing demographic on the site is over 55-year-old women. Whatever the outcome in May, from here on in we’re all going to have a say.

This first appeared in The Independent. The original article can be found here.

A woefully predictable outcry

As laughable as it was predictable, MP Keith Vaz has criticised the publication of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a new game from Activision that features scenes of violence and places gamers in scenarios where they are asked to decide whether to kill civilians in order to infiltrate a group of Russian terrorists.

Quoted in Saturday’s Daily Mail, the MP for Leicester East offered his now stock reaction to the publication: “I am absolutely shocked by the level of violence in this game and am particularly concerned about how realistic the game itself looks.”

Mr Vaz’s crusade against interactive entertainment stretches back many years. In 2004, he called for the game Manhunt to be banned, claiming that the killers of British schoolboy Stefan Pakeerah had been influenced by its content. Both the police and the judge failed to find a link when the case went to trail. Indeed, the only person to own the game was the victim. Mr Vaz also campaigned against the game Canis Canem Edit (also known as Bully), claiming it was a simulator in which “players use their on-screen persona to kick and punch other schoolchildren.” The BBFC gave the game a 15 rating.

Addressing the House of Commons in 2006, Vaz offered insight into his personal campaign claiming “this is not about adult censorship, but about protecting our children.” If children are to be protected, they should hope for a better champion than the MP for Leicester East. There certainly is room for a debate over what’s acceptable not only in games, but in all modern media. Unfortunately, paying lip service to “outrage” every time a new adult-themed title hits the shelves advances the discourse not one bit. In fact, it only serves to muddy the water making the job of those who have genuine concerns for the nation’s youth all the more difficult.

The true motives of Mr Vaz are difficult to grasp. Of course, video games offer an available niche with which he could raise his profile.

Perhaps his concern is genuine, just misguided. I am more inclined to give weight to the former, particularly as the MP has a less than pristine history in the service of the British electorate. Mr Vaz was given a month long ban from the House of Commons in 2002 after a Committee on Standards and Privileges inquiry found against him on various complaints. He was also recently implicated in the MP’s expenses scandal, with the Telegraph reporting that Vaz claimed £75,000 in expenses for a second home just 12 miles from his main home.

In 2008, the MP appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight programme in a discussion on Geert Wilders, an elected democratic member of the Dutch Parliament who was banned from entering the UK for commissioning the film Fitna, which explored Koranic justifications for terrorism. “We don’t have absolute freedom of speech,” he maintained, denying both advocates of the film and those wishing to dispute it the right to a public debate in this country. He also admitted to having never seen the film.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is set to be one of the biggest selling games of the year, regardless of whatever nonsense either Vaz or the Daily Mail can cook up. As such, calls for it to be banned, moderated or censored offer nothing more than a sideshow to its release. However, it is born from the same ignorance and intolerance that has far more serious consequences when debating issues such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act.

The game has been given an 18 certificate by the BBFC. The publisher has also included checkpoints throughout offering the player the option to skip some of the more graphic scenes. This is a measured and responsible approach to a medium of entertainment that’s only just coming out of its infancy.

The gaming industry along with Government should maintain the ongoing debate on responsible content in what is a rapidly developing interactive media. Unfortunately, the histrionics coming out of Leicester East only serve to delay that process, amounting to nothing more than a 2D pantomime in a 3D world.

This first appeared in The IndependentThe original article can be found here.

Death, Jacko and Mrs. Slocombe’s pussy

The day after the death of Michael Jackson, I came across a heartfelt plea on Facebook.

“Would celebrities please stop dying? That is all.”

The last few months have been quite a busy time for the obit writers. Still, Jacko dying just hours after Farrah Fawcett was unusual. Earlier this year we had the even more bizarre death of Jade Goody. Not that the demise of a young woman from cancer is bizarre or, unfortunately, all that uncommon. But it was a surprising dénouement to a life that, when assessed, was as strange as it was short. This year has also seen the passing of Wendy Richards and Mollie Sugden. In January it was Jeremy Beadle.

I had the odd experience of breaking the tragedy of Beadle’s death to my sister last week. Now a native of Kentucky, news of the prankster’s passing had not reached rural USA. She was genuinely upset, even more so when I dropped Tony Hart into the conversation. We haven’t spoken since.

Jackson’s demise, the first to be given the 24-hour rolling news treatment, will probably be the defining death of 2009. In fact, it might be the defining death of the decade, his loss – in terms of celebrity – perhaps only comparable to that of Diana in the late Nineties. However, there were huge differences in how the two deaths were reported.

Twelve years ago, news was conveyed via the TV, with schedule’s interrupted by lengthy bulletins. The web, though out of its infancy, was still in short trousers and by no means the ubiquitous tool of today. Mass social networking sites were still some years away.

The morning of Diana’s death, I remember waking up to find most channels carrying a picture of the princess and her dates – 1961 to 1997. The story then unfolded via intermittent news reports. It was a death that we reacted to, informed as to the what, where and how by a series of somber newscasters.

Jacko’s death was far more involving. News was conveyed via multiple platforms. We all seemed to be taking part as the drama unfurled. Modern communications are such that you had just as much chance of receiving the news via a text, catching a reference on Facebook or reading a Tweet as seeing it on TV.

Once people had got wind that Jacko might be moon walking through the purly gates (he was found innocent, after all) then the full machinery of 21st century media cranked into life. Not only did we have access to rolling news, but we could choose which rolling news service to watch.

I spent the night flitting between Sky, the Beeb, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Online, Twitter and Facebook lit up like a hairdo on a Pepsi shoot. Millions posted tributes, jokes, condolences and the occasional comedy headline (“The Jackson Four” anyone?).

The day after I headed to Glastonbury and got taking to some of the media people who were at the festival when Jacko keeled over. Apparently, BBC employees, victims of Auntie’s commitment to comprehensive coverage, were running around the media tent desperate to find music journalists who could offer considered opinion on live TV. Finding music journalists at a music festival was the easy part. Finding music journalists who were anything approaching sober proved far more difficult.

Anyone who saw the Beeb’s reports from Glasto on that Thursday night will have noticed some of the experts were comically twitchy. One could barely string two words together.

That Friday, revelers were already wearing Jacko-inspired garb. The “I shot Michael Jackson” T-shirt proved very popular. One festival wit erected a big sign saying “Michael Jackson O2 tickets – Half-price!”

A week later and the memorial service was available on the BBC – TV and online – as well as in full high definition on Sky Arts HD. Not only did the Arts channel provide a clearer resolution for our collective despair, but it also benefited from the absence of Paul Gambucini’s turgid commentary.

The service, which costs $1.4billion, was paid for by the Californian state, despite Governor Schwarzenegger’s insistence that the treasury was close to bankrupt. The state piggy bank was empty, as was Jacko’s coffin if conspiracy theories are to be believed. We’ll never know. The cheque book may have opened but the lid remained firmly closed.

It was a large outlay for a memorial show, especially with state teachers under threat of redundancy due to California’s current coffer crisis. However, in LA the only real currency is celebrity, and in that Jackson had a long line of credit.

When it comes to sycophancy, the service proved once again that the USA is out on its own. The tone was set when the remaining Jackson Brothers entered with the coffin, each one wearing a single sequined glove. Preposterous.

Imagine the pallbearers at Mollie Sugden’s funeral entering the church sporting a pink rinse. It simply wouldn’t happen (although rumours persist that the vicar slipped in a reference to the church “pussy” during the eulogy).

The nadir of the ceremony came with the arrival of the Reverend Al Sharpton, a religious obfuscator who once ran as a Democratic nominee and, more recently, bathed in hot water over some misjudged comments towards Mormon Mitt Romney. A veteran of the civil rights movement, Sharpton built himself into a pulpit-pounding fury, hitting a crescendo by allying Jackson’s success with President Obama’s recent election.

That Michael Jackson opened the door to coloured artists is uncontroversial (even though Motown was in its last throws by the time the Jackson Five were being ushered on stage under the steely glare of Joe). But did Jackson really open the door for an Obama victory?  It’s a stretch.

Sharpton also talked of Jackson as a liberating force for black America. His words may have carried more weight had they been for one of the other stars on the bill, particularly Stevie Wonder or Lionel Ritchie. Instead, they were about a man who, for the past thirty years, had tried his utmost to distance himself aesthetically from the people Sharpton claimed he had done so much to liberate.

As if to compound the farce, Sharpton then addressed Jacko’s kids, bellowing in his best preacher “there was nothing strange about your daddy”. As a man of God, Reverend Sharpton has made a living from lying to children. What harm could one more do?

In between, Jermaine Jackson reminded us all of why he was a backing singer, offering up a squeaky rendition of Smile. We were smiling aright… Also singing were Usher and Mariah Carey. Most of the others I didn’t recognise.

Perhaps the one lesson we should take from the peculiar life of Michael Jackson is that thrusting a child into the media spotlight at a tender age may have some damaging psychological consequences.

Welcome to the stage twelve-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi, a finalist in Britain’s Got Talent to perform in front of a TV audience estimated to be more than one billion. The irony was no doubt lost on those weeping behind their sunglasses in the darkened Staples Centre. Still, the youngster warbled his way impressively through Who’s Loving You.

The final act of Jacko’s public life was to exit stage left, following an understandably emotional tribute from his daughter.  It was an almost serene end to a life that had been anything but. Those of us expecting the music to start, the lid to creak open and an exclusive performance of his new single were sadly left disappointed.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.