dab digital radio technology

Three Countries, Two People, One Message

Radio Galan, Sweden, 2008

I’ve been enjoying meeting colleagues from all over Europe and beyond in the last couple of days. Myself and James Cridland were invited to talk to a series of conferences in Sweden, Norway and Denmark about how you can combine radio and technology in interesting ways for listeners and advertisers*. Of course, to ensure that lots of people came to the session, it needed a buzzword, so it acquired the title Radio For The Facebook Generation. (You can download the script here).

The lineups for the conferences were really exceptional; indeed, more diverse and international than many of the conferences in the UK. Our fellow speakers included Dave Foxx (Big name producer from the US), Nik Goodman (UK Consultant – see James’ blog for a review of his session), Geoff Lloyd (Presenter at Absolute Radio), and Mark Ramsey – a guy who’s blog I’ve been following for ages, as he gives the US perspective on the effect that new technology is having on radio. Mark’s presentation was very impressive – hopefully he’ll publish some of it on his blog. On the huge stage and screen in Sweden, it really had impact. You might disagree with some of his analysis, and there’s plenty of debate about the speed of change, but I doubt anyone was left feeling that they could keep ploughing the same furrow for the next ten years.

James and I covered a bunch of subjects and projects that have come out of radio in the UK – things that we believe are innovative for listeners and advertisers*, and demonstrate how radio can use technology sympathetically to really improve the experience without undermining the core attributes that radio is loved for. So we talked about mi-XFM, RadioPop, Tagging, Visualisation, EPG, Text Information, Olinda – all useful milestones in the timeline of radio’s development.

What we both wanted to emphasise is that not only is it possible for public service and commercial radio companies to collaborate, it’s essential for the future development of radio. Individual companies alone can’t influence the direction of technology (not even the BBC), and consumer electronic companies need to see European sized markets to start integrating radio cleverly into devices. So I hope that what we showed was the practical benefits of Agree on Technology, Compete on Content.

It was also great to get questions from our host countries – three countries geographically and culturally close together, but with some differences in their radio industries. Norway has a strong national commercial radio station (P4 – nice building in Oslo), Denmark is doing brilliantly well with DAB Digital Radio, and Sweden has a really good selection of private stations. In all the countries, the private sector is in the minority against well-funded and heritage public service broadcasters, who don’t appear to face as rigorous questioning about the value of their public service as the BBC does in the UK.

For the first time, the green shoots of interest in Digital Radio are showing from the private radio sector. Their absence (either planned or unintentional) from Europe’s Digital Radio Plans (hereto dominated by the PSBs) has, in my opinion, been a real inhibitor to change. In a separate session, Joan Warner from Commercial Radio Australia brought a new, non-European perspective, about the benefits to commercial radio of digitisation, which in turn prompted questions more thoughtful and insightful than I’ve heard before in these sessions.

So I’ve come away from Scandinavia more hopeful than I ever have before that the private radio sector will be included (or will include themselves) better in the transition to digital, and can see that collaborating with their competitors and public service broadcasters in some areas in no way compromises their right to beat the daylights out of them in the ratings.

* Obviously, I was talking about the commercial benefits and benefits to advertisers. Even with the atmosphere of collaboration, I don’t think the BBC would be in a position to champion commercial benefits.

dab digital radio technology

PURE EVOKE Flow – Initial review of a converged radio


Along with a number of luminaries of the radio and consumer electronics world, I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of PURE’s new converged radio – supporting FM, DAB and WiFi in one familiarly styled case. I’ve been lucky to know the guys at PURE since the early days of the original EVOKE-1, and as well as their remarkable marketing skills, they’ve got a great in-house technical team, headed up by Nick Jurascheck.

So this is my initial experience of using my EVOKE Flow, based on about the first hour of usage.

You can feel it’s a well built radio, and the piano black casing is very attractive (matches my new eee pc 901), and the power supply has shrunk right down. Plug in, switch on, and it’s ready to go.

The display is such an improvement (although not yet colour), and the initial user experience is dead simple. There’s a short “setup” guide in the box, which guides you through setting it up. Selecting “DAB Radio” did a band scan, which picked up all the stations I expected it to. Similarly, setting up the WiFi was simply a question of finding my WiFi network by name, and entering in the password. The unit obviously does a variety of “brute force” attacks to find out exactly which encryption is in use, and correctly worked out that I use WPA-PSK.

It’s quick. There’s no sluggish response to the UI, and the display and soft keys keep up with even the speediest actions. The station lists are quick to show, and the filtering (by location, genre, keywords, sound quality etc.) works exactly as it needs to when you’re handling thousands and thousands of WiFi stations.

It sounds good. That warm, rich sound is just as good as it’s even been, even on some of the ropier internet streaming.

The navigation is pretty good. The top level divides things into logical blocks (DAB, The Lounge, FM etc.) and there’s reasonable consistent use of a “back” or “cancel” function to get back where you were. The only area I stumbled around in a bit was when I was using filters to find stations, and adding them to favourites, although I suspect it’s just a case of getting use to it.

The radio is designed to be used in conjunction with PURE’s “The Lounge” website, which is a device portal. This isn’t yet live, so I couldn’t test out the interaction between the two, but I can see it’s probably easier to manage favourites from The Lounge.

Other nice features – there’s a comprehensive list of “On-Demand” and “Podcast” content, which appears to have scraped the BBC dry. PURE sounds gives you access to the kind of incidental and background audio that has made Birdsong a minor celebrity station.

Any bugs? Well, yes a few. Once of the immense challenges of doing a WiFi radio is trying to keep track of all the darned streams and what they are. I tried finding a particularly big, popular, public service pop station in Europe (not in the UK!), and found it was linked to another stream from the same PSB. So I went hunting for a way of manually entering a stream address, and there doesn’t appear to be one. Maybe I can add it through The Lounge?

Navigation of the WiFi content (even on a decent screen, with a fast UI) continues to be a real challenge because there’s just so much stuff. Again, I guess that’s what The Lounge is for.

The DAB and WiFi are two very distinct modules in the radio, which are kept separate from the main menu downwards. I couldn’t find a way, for instance, of having a common favourites list between DAB and WiFi. I have some DAB stations I want, and some stations I want to stream – I intensely dislike using my bandwidth to stream stuff I could be getting over the air. (And I get text information from DAB too, which is finally readable on this display).

The DAB is lacking an EPG, which would have been so much easier to navigate on this device. I know the support of it from broadcasters is currently weak, but it would make navigation and discovery better. Maybe that’s also something that could be integrated into The Lounge?

Overall, I like it. It looks nice, it works nice, and it’s a significant improvement in user experience over the Acoustic Energy unit that it’s taken over from in the kitchen. The SRP is £150, which seems to be in the right ball park for this kind of radio, and it does do nice things for you.

So I know what you’re thinking – a WiFi/DAB radio isn’t new.

Some of the most interesting stuff in the Flow is under the bonnet, and it’s why it’s an exciting development. PURE have talked about enabling music downloading and tagging, and the reason they can talk about those kind of developments confidently is that the Flow is built on Linux. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first large scale production DAB device that’s got Linux at the core (kernel 2.6 for the production model, if you’re interested).

This is a remarkable development. It means the radio can be upgraded to support new functionality, and that functionality can be programmed far more easily that the traditional micro-coding (which makes you go blind, sterile and your hair falls out) associated with embedded microprocessors. Nick and the PURE team have written drivers for the hardware, and used the power of Linux to build a radio that behaves really well. It’s now a connected computing device, optimised for audio and radio. Brilliant.

I’m looking forward to what the radio industry could do with connected, software based, devices like Flow, to speed up the delivery of innovation to consumers. All it needs now is a lovely QVA Colour Screen, it will be darned near perfect.

radio technology

Twitter and the realities of SMS

FailTheWhale by Twitter

So Twitter SMS updates are no more. I couldn’t have been less surprised by Biz Stone’s blog post, but it would have been nice for them to have ‘fessed up before they stopped sending the texts. Actually, I’m kind of relieved, as now I know that when the phone beeps, it’s actually a message for me, rather than amusing but ultimately random musings from people far from me.

I’m relieved for another reason too.

Twitter have justified ceasing their “European” service on the basis that they couldn’t reach an agreement with the network operator(s) to provide SMS on the same basis as the US and Indian operators. They haven’t said exactly what the basis is, but I’d bet good money that one of the models proposed was an “offsetting” model, where they only paid for the imbalance between messages received and messages sent. They probably figured if they could get the costs of managing the balance manageable, they could probably cover the remaining costs through advertising.

But I’m glad Twitter weren’t able to get that agreement. I, and many others, have been trying since 2001 to cut a deal that would recognise media operators (radio and TV) as promotional channels that would build SMS traffic, and that we should be given a deal that recognises that. But no deal. And to a large extent, history has proved that SMS has grown to immense proportions in Europe because of the difference in pricing between voice calls and SMS, and not down to a few radio and TV stations using it. It would have created a bunfight of unbelievable scale if Twitter had “done a deal” that wasn’t offered to the rest of us. European telecoms regulators have this very strong sense of “Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discrimanatory“, and I suspect they might have waded in with a view.

Us Europeans are obsessed with SMS, and it generates immense revenues for the networks. On a straight capacity basis, SMS is about the most expensive way to communicate with someone, but it’s created a premium  niche, occupying a unique space in terms of personal/pervasive/urgency (and of course, flirting). But that isn’t the case in other countries, and I can see that other network operators might like the idea that Twitter could create the “cool” that would see SMS reach the same epic proportions (and profits) as Europe.

I think Europe is going to evolve again, and that evolution will be catalysed by events like this. I’m still connected to Twitter because I have Fring on my mobile and a (virtually) unlimited data plan. Whilst it hammers the battery pretty hard, Fring is my IM client (on which I receive Twitter updates) and my VoIP client (on which I save lots of money, and have a single number that reaches me wherever I am). Coupled up with Opera, GMail and Google Maps apps, and I’m pretty much set for mobile. And that’s all on an elderly Nokia 6680. SMS is still darned handy, but the rest of my connectivity is moving to IP.

IM is the future of messaging, and I’m surprised that more radio stations aren’t offering IM gateways. After the enthusiasm with which we seized SMS early on, it’s time to jump a new breaking wave of talking to listeners, and particularly those younger listeners we find it difficult to communicate with. Interoperability is a big barrier (it’s hard to chat to someone not on the same system as you), and there isn’t the same commercial imperative to fix that (remember, SMS used to be “same network only” when it launched, but the lure of 10p per message soon fixed that problem).

So Twitter isn’t invincible, and isn’t above the rest of us. It’s just another media company, battling for attention, share of mind, and eventually, ad revenue.

dab digital radio technology

Freeview Receivers Fail – Digital Deja Vu

World's Stupidest Freeview TV #2

Freeview is getting a pasting in the press at the moment, because a small number of set-top boxes have died after a change to the multiplex configurations. It highlights a problem faced by all digital platform operators, and challenges the notion that market forces can regulate the quality of receiver products.

The four digital TV platforms in the UK all use variants of the DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) standard. Sky and Freesat use DVB-S* (Satellite), Virgin Media uses DVB-C (Cable) and Freeview uses DVB-T (Terrestrial). DVB-T is widely rolled out across Europe, and is the basis for Digital Television in many countries globally. DVB is to digital TV as GSM is to mobile telephony.

Both DVB and DAB are standardised in detailed standards documents published by ETSI, but like all standards, there are options and alternate configurations. All these possibilities are laid out in the standards, and both broadcasters and receiver manufacturers work from the same document to ensure that the end-to-end chain works.

Or at least, that’s the theory.

In practise, commercial pressures trump technical diligence more than manufacturers would like to admit. The standards are written in technical English, but it’s a major committment to read and really understand all the detail in the documents, and that takes time, and it’s expensive. Then the testing phase is complex, because there are so many permutations to work through to be sure that your receiver is going to work in all permissible conditions, or at least behave gracefully when it can’t support something.

Unfortunately, there is another way to develop a receiver. A scant skim-read of the spec, combined with periods of time with prototype receivers in hotel rooms, hacking away at code until the signal is correctly decoded. I know of a number of receivers that have been developed in this way – simply bashing away at code based on what’s being transmitted. As soon as the required signal comes out, the code is committed.

It’s faster and cheaper than doing it meticulously against the spec, and it allows a manufacturer to race a box out potentially earlier than rivals, and without having invested much time in tracking the development of the technology. The manufacturer just wants to shift the box, get the cash, and move the engineers onto the next consumer electronic device.

Interestingly, DAB suffered from exactly the same problem that Freeview has now, but about 9 years ago. A well-known (and at the time, best-selling) brand of DAB receiver appeared to be working perfectly until DigitalOne came on air. At the time, the BBC multiplex was broadcasting 8 services, but DigitalOne had 10. The additional number of services crashed the receiver, because the engineers at the time had assumed that 8 services would be the maximum on a multiplex. Thankfully, this was a reputable manufacturer who organised and paid for the recall and firmware upgrading of all receivers free of charge. Other receivers have been had similar limitations which have only become obvious when used in other countries, where the multiplexes are configured differently to the UK, but still entirely legitimately within the published specification.

Sky and Virgin avoid the problems that Freeview have had by supplying the receivers themselves, and testing every box themselves for compliance. It’s more costly for them, but dramatically reduces the customer-service problems that crap products create.

Because crap products tarnish the platform more than the manufacturer.

The headlines in the papers run along the lines of “FREEVIEW FIASCO“. That’s unfair. Why isn’t is saying “DAEWOO BOXES DIE” or “BUSH RECEIVERS BITE THE DUST“? Why does the Freeview platform bear the brunt of the criticism when they’re working within the spec? The Daewoo spokesman is quoted as saying “We certainly had no intention of selling boxes that would not work witin a few years”, which is hardly a robust defence. Why no unequovical statement of “Our receivers were developed according to the DVB-T specification, and tested accordingly”? What’s your view of the Daewoo, Bush, Labgear and Triax brands?

The argument from manufacturers about receiver compliance is “let the market decide”. In other words, those reputable brands who develop compliant receivers will benenfit, and people who put out rubbish will get crucified by the consumer and their brands will be trashed. Unfortunately, the Freeview problem is showing that consumers don’t react like that. They’ve already forked out their money, and their motivation was to receive the Freeview service, not necessarily to buy a cherished Daewoo product. It’s Freeview that they’re raging against.

DAB suffers from this problem. Consumers appear to assume that no matter how cheap and obviously nasty a DAB radio is, it should work perfectly, and maybe that’s a legitimate assumption. In the same way that a supermarket can’t sell you dangerously unfit food, surely they won’t sell you a digital radio that’s functionally useless. Unfortunately, it’s not the case, and there are DAB radios out there (cheap and nasty ones) which simply don’t meet the requirements of the spec, particularly in terms of sensitivity (the ability to pick up weaker signals).

Doing receiver compliance properly is a high-risk issue. Broadcasters and transmission providers are wary of running compliance programmes in case they get sued by a manufacturer if a receiver stops working. Manufacturers find it difficult to get hold of sufficient test signals to check all permutations (and that’s even the digilent ones). The risk falls disproportionately on the consumer.

The DVB / DAB logos are only supposed to be applied to receivers reaching the spec, but clearly not many people trust the manufacturers’ thoroughness in testing for these logos to carry much value any more. The logos just go on the box if it appears to work. Freeview and Freesat now run a testing programme on receivers, which grants a UK specific “tick” logo to boxes proved to be compliant. I would prefer to see a crack-down on receivers falsely applying the DVB/DAB logos, rather than developing a safety net branding. But to do so would need a significant investment in compliance testing and enforcement by DVB Form/WorldDMB, customs, importers and retailers. Is it worth it for a £15 receiver box?

Photo – my own, entitled “World’s Stupidest Freeview TV #2”.

dab digital radio real life technology

The Radio Festival 2008

Where are we going again?

Radio Festival – the three days where the entire UK radio industry gathers to discuss the future of the radio industry, address the topics of the day, and indulge in the unprecedented transfer of value from wallets to bars. (Although this year’s free bars have been widely praised).

So where and how did Digital feature in this celebration of radio, and what did Lesley Douglas (Controller, BBC Radio 2) say that was the most insightful and valuable contribution of the whole event?

Twelve years ago, DAB warranted a token primer session in Techcon. (“Here is a picture of a mul-ti-plex. You can transmit many stations on one mul-ti-plex. It uses au-dio en-cod-ing called Emm-Peg Two”). I drove people around Birmingham in a Black Thunder demonstrating a DAB radio the size of a small beer fridge.

This year, ITIS and Fraunhofer presented useful and interesting applications for DAB. ITIS explained the many varied uses of TPEG, including the very topical FPI (Fuel Pricing Information) service (complete with early 2008 diagrams with references to sub £1/litre fuel – how we sniggered). If GPS mapping is the next big thing in terms of mobile technologies, then DAB allows those maps to be populated with large amounts of really useful real-time data. My hunch is that POI (Points of Interest) will itself become a Point of Significantly Valuable Commercial Interest to commercial radio stations (can I register the acronym POSVCI? No?). Fraunhofer demo’ed their Journaline applications, which is a lightweight browseable text service, something like a RSS Reader but delivered over DAB. Neat, but I wonder if it’s aiming at a class of radio (simple text display) that the radio industry is trying to get beyond now?

Festival proper started on Tuesday, with brilliantly produced an fabulously creative session on the Digital Radio Working Group (producer, Nick Piggott, GCap Media plc). Ahem. Look, it was never going to wow people when the report had already been out a week. The discussion (when it finally got going – the crowd took time to warm up this year) focused a lot on in-car receivers, and I felt that Peter Davies got away rather too easily with side-stepping the question about what to do about the punitively high transmission costs being suffered by commercial broadcasters at the moment. There also wasn’t enough discussion about coverage strengthening. But then, it was the first session, and the bar had been open the night before.

There was the obligatory session on music rights, where PPL and PRS/MCPS explain that they’re really only trying to help, but then get nailed (quite rightly) by everyone who asks a question from the crowd, and big kudos to Jay Crawford for exposing the levels of desperation to claw money from people to such an extent that they set up call centres to do mass enforcements of “workplace” music licences. A quick conversation with the landlord of the local hostelry confirmed that he’d been strong-armed into getting a licence because his chef occasionally has the radio on in the kitchen. Madness, from the people who brought you “let’s sue 12 year olds”.

But the really interesting thing about Festival now is that Digital crops up everywhere. It’s just part of life. (I don’t think it got mentioned in Matthew Bannister’s amusing session on compliance, made even more hysterical by Muff Murfin using at least three words from the seriously banned list unaware that two school kids had been ushered into the hall behind him for the next session).

On Wednesday, we had a session on visualising radio, which just served to highlight the commonality of the vision for radio in the future. I was on the panel next to Ben Chapman (Radio 1), and the fact is that we pretty much agree. Ben’s got different ideas on what his visuals will be, and in that respect it’s the very embodiment of “agree on technology, compete on content”. Radio is going to visualise, so the race is on to see who does it first, and who does it best (clearly, GCap will do both). There were some slightly random contributions from Westwood about his YouTube successes. (I wonder if he’s called that because of Westwood Hill, Sydenham, SE26). Chris North of Wise Buddah reminded us (as only an agent can) that artistes have finite time, so we need to bear that in mind when we come up with endless digital extensions to work on.

However, it was Lesley Douglas who really contributed significantly to the digital debate this year, in the dying moments of the festival. In a session where a panel of key industry people (Andrew Harrison, Tony Moretta, Lesley Douglas) take questions from the audience, one question prompted the discussion “has the UK picked an out of date digital technology?”. The conclusion, as usual, is no – when you properly consider all the elements that lead to success, there’s no better choice than DAB/Eureka 147. But Lesley closed the panel by saying something along the lines of:

I hope that this is the last year we have to discuss the technology, and that next year we’ll be talking much more about the content of digital radio, which is what matters far more to listeners.

I couldn’t agree more.

dab digital radio mobile technology

Better than Mobile Internet?

Broadband Gone Down? Blame the Shoes

Joi Ito is an influential guy in new media circles, and he’s fretting about Mobile Internet. In his post “Is mobile Internet really such a good thing?“, he draws attention to some of the fundamental differences in business models between wired Internet and mobile Internet. It may all be IP packets at a technology level, but the way money flows around is very very different, and that’s what Joi is concerned about.

To briefly summarise his thoughts:

  • The mobile internet ecosystem is very regulated; either by government and law, or by the network operators and their own business plans
  • The operators are driven to pursue revenues “above the wire” (from applications) because the cost of their spectrum and networks is very high
  • A significant amount of money goes to vendors to make the network equipment – (infrastructure and, I guess, handsets)

It’s these issues which make Joi wonder if models that work on wired Internet will successfully transfer to mobile Internet.

I think that if we move over to mobile too quickly we’re risking moving our game to a platform where the DNA is not what we’re used to on the Internet and most importantly, putting money in the pockets of people who do not redistribute it to startups, but instead feed giant vendor ecologies instead.

To me, the obvious differences between wired and mobile Internet are:

  • You pay for your computer and you probably expect to keep it for 3-4 years. You don’t pay (directly) for your mobile phone, and you probably want to change it every 1-2 years to keep “in fashion”.
  • Your wired connection is probably pretty cheap for your ISP to maintain, and has a significant amount of capacity that can be dedicated just to you. The spectrum for your mobile connection probably cost your Telco a huge amount of money, has to be shared amongst everyone in your immediate vicinity, and probably isn’t that spacious.
  • Because of the two reasons above, your wired ISP probably doesn’t see itself as a significant content provider and certainly wouldn’t try and take a cut of all the transactions processed across “the Internet”. Your Telco probably needs to create “above the wire” application based revenue to make their business plan stack up, and keep the money flowing to pay for new handsets and new network infrastructure.

It seems to me that the ideal mass-market mobile application would benefit from a network where:

  • The users pay for their own devices, and expect them to last some time
  • The network operator has low infrastructure and spectrum costs, and offers widespread coverage

Hmmmm… I wonder what technology could possibly fit that bill. Answers on a postcard please, copied to Joi Ito.

Seriously, it does serve to highlight again that a broadcast technology has unique strengths, even in a world apparently dominated by bi-directional IP. If you can come up with a set of applications that can be broadcast (or combined with a lightweight use of IP), then you’re going to have a massive advantage over the guys relying on the Telcos to enable their business plans.

dab digital radio radio technology

The Internet is not a risk to Radio

Participation Levels in Online Services by EduBlogger @ flickr

I was at the Media Guardian Radio Reborn conference last week, and Claire Enders showed us one of those scary “share of display advertising” graphs. True to form, every sector was either in decline or clearly looking a bit feeble (radio in the latter group). The share of spend was on the vertical axis, and the sectors (TV, National Press, Regional Press, Radio…) along the horizontal access, although “Outdoor” was inexplicably absent.

The only set of bars in growth was the set labelled “Internet”.

But this strikes me as being wrong; it’s an invalid comparison. “The Internet” is just a set of interconnecting networks, using an agreed communication protocol. There’s no business called “The Internet Ltd/plc” (although doubtless Google are working on that right now).

A more accurate set of labels would have been: “ITV & other commercial TV operators”, “Guardian & other national newspaper publishers”, “GCap Media plc & other commercial radio operators”, and… “Google & other search engines”. That would be a far more accurate indication of where the money is going. Money doesn’t go “to the Internet” – it goes to companies who have used “The Internet” as a platform to access consumers that they were previously unable to.

What a more accurately labelled graph would show us is that advertisers are moving their money to where they feel it is more effective, a feeling that’s re-enforced by apparently magical accountability for every display and click. (Can you tell that I’m sceptical?). The problem isn’t “The Internet”; the problem is that traditional media owners have failed to keep up with their clients’ demands, or (and probably more realistically), educated their clients to have more reasonable demands.

Google & Co. have a substantial audience. OFCOM tells us that 65% of the UK have “The Internet” (of which 86% apparently have “Broadband”, whatever that means). Here’s what’s interesting – whilst the content consumption on the Internet is fragmented beyond belief (and this blog contributes yet another consumption pin-prick on the map), the commercialisation and aggregration of that audience is in the hands of a much smaller number of media sellers. So actually, what Claire was really trying to tell us is that advertisers trust Google to deliver better results on a “per click” model or multimedia display model, than they do with incumbent TV, Radio or Newspaper companies.

The challenge for incumbent media owners is to change the perception of advertisers about “The Internet”. Some of that needs to be through real, demonstrable, product development, and clawing back some of people’s media consumption time that is now spent with Google, Facebook, et al. Incumbents allowed competitors to steal audience from right under their noses because they didn’t think “The Internet” would ever be a platform of significant reach. Now it’s up at 65% coverage, compared with ~90% for TV and Radio, and 50%-60% for Newspapers (national readership survey).

But the second challenge is to offer a commercial proposition that is attractive to those starry-eyed about “Internet” advertising. That’s a mix of really good, effective, communication with consumers, and believable and trustworthy measurement.

I think it’s amazing how much trouble Kelvin Mackenzie caused the radio industry by selfishly trying to derail RAJAR by claiming it was inaccurate. One person created an environment of anxiety about the reliability of RAJAR’s measurements, but everyone apparently finds Google utterly trustworthy and really truly believes that they measure every click and every ad delivery. Maybe they should look at some of the Javascript that delivers the ads, or work how many splogs there are out there? Or survey how many people have ad-blockers? I’m not trying to undermine the on-line advertising ecosystem, but there needs to be some reality about the fallibility of any system.

The radio platform is used by 90% of the population, and commercial radio used by 62% of adults. Commercial radio is about at parity with “The Internet” in terms of reach, but ahead on time spent consuming. With Digital Radio we have a platform that’s capable of delivering a similar digital advertising environment as “The Internet” platform, but is still far more ubiquitous in every part of life. I believe we’re still a long way off, in behaviour terms, people using “The Internet” in the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom; and thankfully economics will continue to make using “The Internet” in mobile environments a great deal more expensive than receiving digital radio. So if we can use Digital Radio to deliver advertising propositions that are the same as the ones delivered on “The Internet”, that can be measured as reliably, and are demonstrably as effective, we stand a chance of revitalising interest in what radio companies can offer advertisers.

dab digital radio radio technology

Too much technology

YouFM by NickPiggott@flickr

This week I was lucky enough to meet up with my colleagues and peers in the German commercial radio industry, and spend a day at a seminar organised by VPRT in Berlin. It gave me an insight into their world, and their situation, which I’ve been lacking for a long time. It also made me realise that they’re being let down by some technologists.

DAB Digital Radio has been dominated by public service broadcasters, and the membership of WorldDMB is testament to that fact. Of the hundreds of members of WorldDMB, only 3 commercial radio companies are represented; GCap Media (UK), Channel 4 Radio (UK) and Commercial Radio Australia. The UK’s approach of co-operation between the public and commercial sectors has been an exceptional undertaking. Only recently have commercial broadcasters begun to engage with DAB, visibly in Switzerland, France, Australia, Germany, and the mood is changing elsewhere.

What I’ve learnt in my two days with my German colleagues is that they’re asking very good questions, and indeed probably more informed and relevant questions than we did when we kicked off DAB in the mid-90’s. There are lots of questions that need answers, and when those answers have been gathered and assessed, then there will be a decision on a commitment to Digital Radio.

Not unsurprisingly, quite a lot of their questions are about making the right technology choices, and this is where I believe they’re being let down by some technologists.

Technologists love to create technology. There is always a better solution to a problem, a better framework to work within, a new concept, a new library. COMET, XMPP, Ruby on Rails, Java – technologists thrive and survive on new ideas and new, cleverer, solutions to problems. German technologists are no exception, and their innovations have been exceptional – DAB, MP3, RDS – all have significant input from German technologists, and my personal experience is that they have some incredibly agile and intelligent technologists. I would trust my life with some of the guys at Fraunhofer.

But sometimes technologists’ ability to create endless solutions means uncertainty and instability. And sometimes technologists create problems in order to create solutions to justify their existence.

One of the difficulties I see my German colleagues grappling with is whether they are using the right technology for Digital Radio. Should it be DAB? Or DAB+? Or “DMB Audio”? Or DAB-IPDC? Or DXB? Or IBOC? Or…..? Nobody wants to make the wrong decision, and buy into an out of date technology. And whenever it looks like the number of choices is narrowing, a technologist pops up and throws another suggestion in the ring. And, of course, they all claim to offer the ultimate, most future proof, elegant, scalable and cheapest solution.

Of course, I can help a bit. Don’t use DAB. It’s out of date. But if the UK had hung on in 1998 waiting for a “better” technology, we’d never have got on-air, never sold 7m+ receivers, and never made a success of DAB. And at least we have a relatively obvious migration path to DAB+.

Indeed, it analogous with buying a computer. Just accept that whatever you buy will be superceded in 6 months (or indeed, may already be superceded). If you keep waiting, you’ll never buy a computer and you’ll still be scratching on stone tablets when everyone else is sending e-mail and chatting on Facebook.

It’s a shame that some technologists can’t be a bit more market aware, and look beyond their ability to cook up new ideas and bring a bit more balanced assessment. It’s not providing a solution to keep creating new solutions. Answer more questions, provide more data. Which solution is most elegant? Most spectrum efficient? Most backwards compatible? Most closely matches the requirements list? (Is the requirements list reasonable?). How much will devices cost? Who will be building them? When will they be available? And of course, who else is using this technology set?

I hope the technology issue in Germany can be closed down fairly soon. They’re definitely suffering from too much technology, and it’s not helping. If they can slim down the candidates against a list of reasonable requirements, say “no” to people trying to bounce new/unproven solutions onto them, and make a technology choice, it will tick another box on the check-list marked “Things To Do To Launch Digital Radio”.

I also caught up with Sebastian Kett and Michael Reichert from SWR, home of the rather marvellous DasDing. A blog on what they’re up to will follow….

real life technology

(In)security through obfuscation

cutting loose by SqueakyMarmot @ flickr

Any security expert worth his salt will tell you that trying to achieve security by hiding things from people is doomed to failure. This week, I had a worrying reminder of how imperfect the security around banking can be.

I have been scanning in credit card receipts from a journey I made recently to a well-developed, technically advanced, Western country. Indeed, I was able to pay for absolutely everything on my plastic, hence the forest size collection of receipts.

Ironically, the trip started with a bump because my bank refused to authorise a withdrawal from a cash machine, necessitating a (long) phone call to their customer service department to get the mandatory foreign roaming block lifted. Apparently I have to do it every time I leave the country.

But it’s the credit card receipts which were most interesting. I’m not going to reproduce them here, because the security risks are extreme.

Once upon a time, all the digits of a credit card and its expiry date were visible on the receipt, which make it a fraudsters paradise. Simply by stealing a receipt, particularly one with a signature on, you could relatively easily make fraudulent transactions until the genuine cardholder noticed and called stop.

So, in the UK at least, the digits are now obscured. Only the last 4 digits remain visible, along with the expiry date, thus leaving somewhere around 50,000,000 permutations to guess my card details. (Assuming that there is a smaller subset of card issuer codes than the 9999 allocated, and that some cards will indeed share the same expiry date as mine). I find the last 4 digits invaluable to work out which card I’ve put something on, so I consider the risks acceptable for the benefit I gain, and obviously UK banks too. I’ve never seen a UK credit card receipt show anything other than last 4 digits and expiry date. (Let me know if you have seen different – excepting the old manually swipe receipts!).

Flicking through my foreign receipts, I noticed that the obfuscated digits varied from receipt to receipt. One of the showed last 4 digits. One blanked out 4 digits in the middle (starting at position 10) and another blanked out 4 digits (starting at position 12). So my three receipts looked like this:


The observant of you will now have noticed that, by holding those three receipts, only TWO digits of my card remain unknown. That’s 100 guesses. And to add interest to the matter, credit cards use a CRC-style validation, so you wouldn’t need to crank this through much of a Visual Basic programme to find the unique number that matched that particular validation code.

I’m amazed that this obfuscation isn’t standardised to prevent this kind of risk occurring. I think that the second and third examples are hideously insecure anyway, giving away the type and issuer of the card (first four digits) allowing an attack on a wider number of vectors. Why does anyone need to see so many digits of a card number?

In none of the above cases was I asked for a PIN number, nor was the CVV of the card checked. Just a simple scribble on the paper copy of the receipt. It’s incredible.

There doesn’t seem to be much I can do to reduce this risk, other than keeping a very tight grip on my own receipts (which I do as a matter of course), and check my credit-card on-line every couple of days. But if those three merchants ever get together with my (and other peoples’) receipts, they could have a heck of a party.

radio technology

Timeshifted Interaction

Macromote by jbwan @ flickr

The digitisation of media comes with costs and justifications.

One often touted justification for the cost of digitisation is that digital media will be more interactive, and that interactivity will lead to new revenues, increased profitability and so on.

Great theory. But the practice is proving rather difficult, because the interactivity isn’t happening as much as people had hoped. And less interactivity means that the potential revenues aren’t being realised. Falling at the first hurdle, and all that.

Let me make a postulation as to why. Maybe your moment of interest doesn’t coincide with the time to do anything meaningful about it. Maybe you don’t have time to interact right there and then. Maybe the device you’re using is particularly bad at doing interactivity.

Here’s two examples to explain better what I mean:

  • You’re watching The Simpsons / Family Guy / American Dad (insert wittily written, Korean drawn animation of your choice). The adverts start, and one of them is an advert for a car you’re kinda interested in. Pop quiz: What do you want to do now? a) Spend 10 minutes waiting for the interactive app to download, fill in the form “SMS-style” with the numeric keypad on the remote control, and confirm your ideal time to take a test drive whilst missing the programme you sat down to watch or b) ignore or that and watch the programme you sat down to watch in the first place.
  • You’re driving in your car (maybe the one you bought off the TV?), listening to the radio. You think the presenter’s quite funny, worth hearing more of. Do you a) stop to write down the URL of the show podcast and webpages or b) keep driving and keep repeating the URL in your head until something far more important (like traffic lights, or a speed camera) causes it to pop, irrevocably, out of your head.

It seems strange to me that we demand that people go immediately from “oh yes, that’s interesting” to full scale engagement. Why on earth do we expect people to try and do complex interaction on devices with tiny little screens and a single rotary-push dial?

If we can timeshift and pause media, why can’t we timeshift and pause interaction?

Why not let people do the “complicated” business of providing their personal information using a proper browser on a proper computer, and at a time that suits them? With better user interfaces, you can design experiences that will draw people in, maybe show them other things around that time, or around that event, that they might also be interested in. It’s simply a richer environment, in terms of time, attention and presentation.

I think it’s smarter to let people simply tag / pop / bookmark what they’re interested quickly and simply across their day, and then allow them to review what they’ve thought was interesting in their own time, in their own space. Let people take control of their interactions, and do it more on their own terms. Who knows, maybe they’ll do more of it?

There some interesting work going on around this subject; updates to follow.