Monthly Archives: January 2009

coffeesbOh, look what’s appeared on the wall in my local Starbucks! It has gone rather quiet in there lately, as people cut back on expensive coffees. (I have not, because caffeine is not something I can easily do without.) Evidently the company is looking for new ways to bring people in, and this is what it has come up with: you can book a table for a group meeting for your business, community group or club. I find this very amusing, because this practice — the ability to reserve tables — was one of the things that made coffeehouses such hotbeds of networking and innovation in 17th-century London. Most famously Lloyd’s coffeehouse, opened by Edward Lloyd in the 1680s, was frequented by ship captains, shipowners and merchants who went to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd began to collect and summarise this information in a regular newsletter, and his coffeehouse became the natural meeting place for shipowners and the underwriters who insured their ships. Some underwriters began to reserve particular tables or booths at Lloyd’s to ensure that their customers could always find them in the same place, and eventually a group of them established the Society of Lloyd’s, which survives to this day as Lloyd’s of London.

So this move by Starbucks is a lovely echo of the golden age of coffeehouses. Another example is the use of Wi-Fi in coffeehouses to get your e-mail and read the news. In the 17th century, before street numbering, people would use coffeehouses as mailboxes, saying “write to me care of the Rainbow”, or whatever. They would also drop into coffeehouses to read newsletters, pamphlets and broadsides, which were available free to patrons. And coffeehouses, then as now, were often used as reputable and neutral venues for business meetings. (I went into all this in my coffeehouse internet piece, which grew into a whole chapter of my drinks book.)

The notion of coffeehouses promoting intellectual and commercial connections is in the air again as a result of Steven Johnson‘s new book, “The Invention of Air”. I haven’t read the book yet, but I used to write for Steven’s webzine, FEED, so he was an early patron of my interest in historical analogies. Several of his books also interweave old and new technologies, but whereas my thing is historical analogies, his is something like interconnectedness, if I had to choose a single word. He is also a proponent of the idea that video games are good for you, which makes him a hero in my book.


At the end of last year I was often asked to suggest some things that I expected to happen in 2009. Speculating about anything to do with finance seems to me to be a mug’s game, and it’s not something I know much about in any case. I’m on firmer ground with technology, however, so one of my predictions for 2009 is that Apple is going to kill the Kindle by opening the iTunes Store to sell e-books, and turning every iPhone and iPod touch into an e-book reader overnight.

There are two reasons I think Apple will do this. The first is that it needs an answer to the netbook phenomenon; and like many other people, I think Apple’s answer will be a larger iPod touch (perhaps twice as big, though not perhaps as big as the mock-up shown on the left). That would be a great machine for web browsing on the sofa, etc, and it would be consistent with Steve Jobs’ insistence that Apple could not make a sub-$500 laptop that was not a “piece of junk”. A bigger iPod touch might cost $399 and would do many of the things that people use netbooks for. It would also make a great e-book reader. At the same time, all those iPhones/iPod touches have a pretty good screen for reading already, and a big installed base, so it would be silly not to include them too. (There are some impressive third-party e-book readers for the iPhone already, but not much content is available.)

The second reason is that the e-book market is Apple’s for the taking. The situation now is much like that in the music industry, pre-iTunes Store (ie, pre-2003). There are lots of different standards for e-books, but none has achieved critical mass. The publishing industry has formed various committees to design a common standard, which will probably go nowhere. So far, this is exactly what happened with music (oh look, a historical analogy). What is needed is for an outsider to come in and make things happen. Amazon thinks it is the company to do this, with the Kindle, which it (but hardly anyone else) likes to call “the iPod of e-books”. Read More

Several people have written to me directly, or sent letters to The Economist, to ask whether the ditching of Southwest flight 1549 on the Hudson River on January 15th contradicts a point made in my article, “Fear of Flying”, from 2006. That article was a tongue-in-cheek piece about in-flight announcements, imagining what a brutally honest one might sound like on board an imagined airline, Veritas Airways, “the airline that tells is like it is”. One of the things the piece pokes fun at is the complex explanations airlines provide about the procedures for a water landing, with life jackets, slides that detach to form rafts, and so on, given that water landings almost never happen:

In the event of a landing on water, an unprecedented miracle will have occurred, because in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero.

I made the same point in more detail an earlier piece about pilotless planes in 2002. So, is this now wrong, given Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroic achievement this month? No. There have been a few successful water landings by narrow-bodied aircraft in the past, as this Wikipedia page points out. And flight 1549 was an Airbus A320, which is a narrow-bodied aircraft. The only attempt to ditch a wide-bodied aircraft, a 767, in 1996, was unsuccessful and the plane broke up, killing 125 of the 175 people on board (though, to be fair, the pilot was fighting with hijackers at the time). So the point made in my article stands: the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is still zero.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The main difficulty is that when touching down on water, the plane must be perfectly level, so that the engines on one wing do not make contact with the water before those on the other wing. Landing on a river, as flight 1549 did, rather than the sea, would no doubt improve the chances of success — as would having a pilot as skilled as Captain Sullenberger. Read More


Mobile-phone text messages (SMS) have a lot in common with telegrams, as I have pointed out on several occasions. The need for brevity forces you to be concise and encourages the use of abbreviations to save space. And of course I love the fact that Nokia handsets can announce incoming texts with three short beeps, two long ones and three short ones — Morse code for “SMS”. If text messages are Telegram 2.0, however, then might Twitter be Telegram 3.0? Once again the constraint of brevity applies, at any rate. The similarity between telegrams and Twitter messages (tweets) is explored by An Xiao, an artist based in New York, in a new piece that has just gone on show at the Brooklyn Museum (her video explanation). She’s taking a Twitter feed and turning it into audible Morse code. I think this is pretty cool, not least because there are also some portraits by Samuel Morse (himself pictured left) in the museum.

An Xiao notes that Twitter got going just after the demise of the telegram in America in early 2006. She also points out that there are some significant differences between Twitter and telegrams. Twitter messages are broadcast (one-to-many); telegrams were generally one-to-one messages. The other big difference is that the cost per bit has fallen to zero since the days of the telegraph. So instead of being used to send urgent messages, as telegrams were, tweets tend to be used to send trivia. Once you have near-instant point-to-point messaging, you can’t get any faster — just more verbose and trivial.

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