Tech in Britain

So last time I talked about how I’ve jumped on the podcast and netbook bandwagon since coming to London. In part two of my series on tech in the UK, I’m going to talk a little about my observations of the tech industry and tech usage in London. In general, I would say consumer adoption of new technologies is at about the same level if not slightly higher than in the U.S. However, institutional or systematic adoption seems to lag behind the States. Here are some examples to illustrate my point:

The mobile industry here is quite possibly better than in the U.S. I can’t speak to 3G coverage here because I don’t have a smartphone, but regular call services are definitely superior to the U.S. First off, there are more carriers than back home so the industry is much more competitive. The major carriers are Vodafone (parent of Verizon), O2 and Orange, but there are also second tier carriers like T-Mobile and 3 and smaller players like Lyca Mobile. Unlike the duopoly that AT&T and Verizon have in the U.S., these carriers all have about equal market share so they all have very strong networks and consumer-friendly deals. I’m currently on a recurring 30 day contract with Vodafone (who, no surprise, have the best coverage here) with 100 minutes and 500 texts per month for just £10 a month ($16). What’s better is that you don’t pay to receive incoming calls and texts. Therefore, I essentially get 200 minutes and 1,000 texts assuming my incoming and outcoming usage are about equal. There also seems to be a greater selection of fancy phones here outside of the iPhone and Blackberry (although most study abroad students just get a cheap basic phone). The iPhone is going to be on multiple carriers soon (Vodafone and Orange are introducing it early next year) and

Android phones seem to be more popular (although that could change with the Droid). Overall, the competitive landscape of the mobile industry here seems to be a big gain for consumers.

Other technologies are on a similar level to the U.S. as well. At LSE, I see an equal amount of PCs and Macs, although Macs are not officially supported by IT services here. TV is a little different because they don’t really have cable here. Everything is either broadcast (which you need to pay a TV license for) or satellite (Sky box, which gets you lots of American shows and even some American sports). There are some things that they don’t have here, namely the Kindle. It’s also annoying that I can’t access things like Hulu or ESPN360 because of broadcast restrictions. A small aside here: I think going subscription is a horrible mistake for Hulu. If my situation right now is any indication, there’s always a way around if content isn’t easily accessible through legal channels. Any sensible businessman would realize that some revenue is better than no revenue.

One interesting site they do have here that’s not in the U.S. is Spotify. I first heard about it on This Week in Tech; it’s basically a legal, ad-supported peer to peer streaming service. It lets you listen to as many songs as you want on your computer and mobile app and then links you to traditional music stores if you want to purchase the song. Right now, its invite only for free use or you can pay for the premium subscription. Unfortunately, Spotify seems just as bad as Google Wave when it comes to giving out invites, as I still have not received mine for either. This thing sounds more innovative from a technical aspect than a consumer aspect. From what I can tell it sounds a lot like any other streaming service.

I also want to comment briefly on Internet here especially in light of the net neutrality debate that’s been going on recently in Congress. Publicly, there are plenty of wi-fi hotspots around London and the ethernet connections (at least at LSE) aren’t bad. However, I don’t think the UK has net neutrality. LSE’s website, for example, actually states that it prioritizes school related content over “social” sites (although Facebook has worked fine). I’m not sure how exactly they differentiate this or how much this is actually implemented, but I’ve definitely experienced more problems with Internet here. For example, for the first few weeks here I couldn’t get CNN or ESPN videos to buffer at any reasonable rate. Then magically they started working fine. Of course this could be because these are American sites and it has nothing to do with net neutrality. However, I’m still a little skeptical of this whole situation.

The disparity in institutional tech adoption is much wider. LSE definitely weaves less tech into its infrastructure than BC. For example, LSE doesn’t have an equivalent of Eaglebucks or any type of electronic currency. Everything in the dining halls is paid for in cash. Also, if you thought class registration at BC was bad, its a lot worse here. Some universities, such as King’s, don’t even have electronic course selection. LSE does let you add/drop online, but I’m pretty sure the actual adding/dropping is done manually by a person because it only updates about once a day. There’s no Laundryview here (although they have a version of it for computers on campus) and the machines are the old models we had at BC which were replaced this year.

There are a few things they do well here as a school. The library has these cool self-checkout kiosks where you can just pop the book on a scanner and it automatically senses what the book is and checks it out for you. The NHS also uses a touchscreen self check-in system for appointments, thus freeing up receptionists to do other things. Believe it or not they actually do some things efficiently. And like a lot of countries I’ve seen around Europe, the credit and debit cards here have a little chip in them so you can stick it into the machine instead of swiping it. I’m not really sure what the advantage of this is because any time you save from the physical motion is negated by the few seconds you have to keep the card in to verify it, but it looks kind of cool.

I’m sure more observations and comments will come up over the next few months. I will also be doing a post on entrepreneurship here so keep an eye out for that. I’ll try to get back to the strictly travel/London related posts too, but I honestly haven’t been anywhere the past few weeks so there’s not much to say.

Mobility pays

Hi all, sorry I haven’t posted in a while. Really not much has been up. I’ve spent the past week or so battling a killer sore throat and then a persistent cough that’s still with me as I write this. I started taking an absolutely disgusting British cough syrup. It’s so bad they don’t even have a flavor, it’s just pure chemicals. At least its helping me sleep at night.

So no exciting stories about London and UK, but I did want to share some thoughts I have about technology in this country in two parts. Today I will go over some personal realizations I have had about technology adoption. Part two will focus more on my observations about tech use in London.

Living here has really converted me to two technologies I initially blew off: netbooks and podcasts. I understood the cost aspect of netbooks: most casual computer users could get all the computing power they needed for email, Internet, and word processing from an inexpensive netbook. I never thought I would use a netbook though because I need something more substantial both in terms of size and processing power in case I needed to do more advanced computing. To an extent that’s still true; I can’t imagine forsaking my Thinkpad completely. However, lugging this thing around London (it’s heavier than usual because I opted to go for the entry model) along with the rest of my books has convinced me that a netbook is a worthy investment. I bring a computer to class with me because I want to check email, read articles, and work on homework in between classes. LSE is too far away from my dorm to go back between classes and LSE’s computer labs are always packed and really slow. The Thinkpad is a great computer for typing long essays or doing some prolonged reading, but honestly all I really need when I’m at school is a netbook that can get me on Outlook and Facebook for a few minutes.

I’m a firm believer in netbooks now. Commercially I think they’ll be incredibly successful because they appeal not only to new computer users but to existing desktop or laptop users like me who want an ultra-portable companion to their larger, more powerful machines. In the near future, I can see computer labs as we know them being replaced by docking stations where people can plug their netbooks in to do more serious work on a larger screen. I would definitely consider purchasing a netbook to use alongside my Thinkpad. Perhaps one that runs Chrome OS when it comes out?

The other technology I’ve really begun to appreciate in London is the podcast. Yes, I know I’m a little behind the times on this one, but in my defense I never listened to radio. I had my mp3 player and playlists for music and the Internet for news. Radio just seemed like an outdated medium that had no appeal over TV and Internet. Living in London though has changed that because I actually have a reasonable commute. Listening to music all the time though gets a little repetitive and mindless. At the same time, I have a need to keep up with what’s going on in the world and as described above it’s not easy to whip out the laptop all the time. Thus, podcasts have turned out to be the perfect remedy for boredom on my walks and desire for information.

The three podcasts I usually listen to are BBC Global NewsWall Street Journal This Morning, and This Week in Tech(thanks to @codykieltyka for introducing me to this one over the summer). Global News does a pretty good job of highlighting the major events going on around the world each morning. It also usually features a special report on global issues that don’t necessarily get coverage in the U.S. WSJ This Morning is one of my favorites. It’s almost like the audiobook version of the WSJ. It covers U.S. political and financial news. The downside is that because of time zones,This Morning is really This Afternoon for me. Also Gordon Deal can get a little too editorial with his hosting. Still it helps me keep up with U.S. news because the WSJ here focuses almost exclusively on European news. Plus they have some pretty sweet background music (mix of recent stuff like Matchbox Twenty and Keane, Billy Joel, and 80s guitar riffs). It’s like they took my favorite playlists and inserted them into the transitions.

I’m not sure if I’ll maintain my podcast habit once I return to the U.S. After all, you can’t really listen to that much while walking from Lower to Fulton. I definitely understand its value for commuters though. If I took a bus or train to school everyday, I might even go with a video podcast.

There’s one last piece of technology that I sorely miss here, and that’s mobile Internet. As imperfect as it may be, my LG Voyager would really be a great asset here. Not only is it much easier to text with, it would nicely complement what I said above. It fulfills part of the function of the netbook: I can check email, news, and Facebook without having to carry a laptop. It would also make podcast management much easier as I can download and listen to them directly. I get a little jealous when I see people with their iPhones and Blackberries here, but data just isn’t worth it. I’ll live.

I didn’t necessarily have to come to London to make the following discoveries, but I certainly needed the lifestyle change (namely commuting to school and having to take everything I need for the day with me). Who knows what other realizations I’ll have as the year goes on! Check back soon for part 2 of my tech in London series!