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April 10 2012

Instagram: what is Facebook getting for $1bn?

Is the social network just after another chunk of the world's visual memory, asks Guardian head of photography Roger Tooth

In my job I guess it's unsurprising that I keep hearing things about photography. "Facts" like half of all pictures ever taken were taken in the past 12 months. Could that be true? It might be if some people are taking pictures of every meal they eat. A colleague talking to a fellow guest at a wedding, who was sporting the brand new Canon 5Dmk3 costing £3,000 — was he a pro photographer? Oh no, he just wanted the best for his photographs. $1bn for Instagram.

Yes – $1bn for a smartphone app that makes your snaps look like retro Polaroids and sends them to your friends. It probably does a lot more than that, but to misquote Mark Knopfler that sounds a whole lot of money, if not exactly for nothing, really not that much.

Now I know I shouldn't admit this, but I do like some of these toning apps. Some of the effects are quite beautiful and the results can encourage the budding photographer. They're harmless and probably have quite a short shelf life.

In the end it really is the actual image under the electronic processing that counts. Most of the time the filters are covering the shortcomings of the original photograph and the person behind it. They will soon become a visual cliche and need continual updating to stay fresh.

The $1bn is buying Facebook another chunk of the world's visual memory. Facebook is making sure all those images don't end up on Flickr or in some other storage cloud.

But why the boom in making still images? Why are people still taking pictures and not shooting video?

Well have you tried video? It looks easy enough until you try editing it. If it's bad it's not just a bit of a joke it's a boring joke. With a still photograph processed through a toning app one can produce a finished and pleasing piece of work. And don't underestimate the growth of photography as a note-taking medium, not just for documenting family life, but as a useful tool for all sorts of professionals from doctors to plumbers to record and communicate. All those 1,000 words taken care of by the click of a shutter.

Roger Tooth is head of photography for the Guardian


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August 17 2011

Big broadband names must back £530m government drive to reach rural areas, experts warn

Plans to extend fast broadband to all of UK must be supported by the major internet service providers, industry figures say

The government's £530m drive to get super-fast broadband to the UK's rural communities will fail unless more is done to encourage the biggest providers to reach the most remote customers, industry insiders have warned.

Jeremy Hunt announced funding for Northern Ireland, Scotland and the English county councils this week to bring broadband to every home and business in the country. But a pioneering council-run project which has used £90m of public subsidy to build a network in South Yorkshire is already running into difficulties.

Five councils will have built a fibre-optic super-fast broadband network reaching 80% of premises across the Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham areas by the end of the year, but none of the best-known internet service providers – BT, TalkTalk and BSkyB – have so far signed up.

Without them, demand from consumers looks likely to be so low that the consortium, Digital Region, may be forced to abandon the aim of selling to householders and focus its attention on businesses and the public sector.

"The local projects are failing. Take-up is very low because of poor marketing and the limited choice of internet service providers," claimed Piers Daniell, an entrepreneur whose company, Fluidata, connects some 40 of the smaller internet service providers (ISPs) into BT's network.

"The bigger ISPs are key to driving uptake in the regions because they have the brands people are familiar with, they have big marketing budgets and additional services like television and phone calls."

Linking into a small regional network means renting optical fibre to connect that region to an ISP's own servers, and many of them are based in London. It also requires money spent matching up computer systems so that the process of adding new customers can be automated.

Most internet service providers are not prepared to make the extra investment, even in an area like South Yorkshire, which has 40,000 businesses and 500,000 home users.

ISPs prefer to buy their broadband capacity from BT and at most one or two other networks, said Daniell, which meant many of the dozens of rural networks being funded by government subsidy could be ignored, unless they are built by BT.

If the government's money is well spent, remote villages in regions such as Cumbria and the Scottish Highlands, where it is currently hard to load a simple web page, should be able to download or stream high-quality movies by 2015.

But Digital Region has also run into difficulties with BT. The consortium runs its fibre to street cabinets, but relies on BT's copper wire to get the signal from the cabinets to individual premises. Telecoms watchdog Ofcom has been asked to intervene over the price BT charges to connect new customers – Digital Region is charged £127 per customer, while connecting a BT customer costs £75.

David Carr, chief executive of Digital Region, said: "We support the government's apparent desire to introduce competition into the super-fast broadband market, but we question how committed it is to creating the regulatory conditions in which that competition can flourish. In this respect, we're hoping that the price reduction recommended by Ofcom will bring pricing more in line with what BT charges itself internally."

Carr said council-run networks had considered clubbing together to form a single access point for ISPs which want to reach rural customers. Fluidata is hoping to offer this service on a commercial basis, and to advise councils as they build.

"Local authorities need more support in building networks that can be sold," said Daniell. "It's easier if we have got communication with the people building these networks while they are building them, rather than trying to fix them afterwards."


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July 16 2011

Half a century at the forefront of British design

He's not a household name himself, but many of the products he has designed are

At his elegant home in Hampstead in north London – golden parquet floors, Eames lounge chair and ottoman, covetable rosewood sideboard by English designer Robert Heritage – Kenneth Grange, sleek in his black T-shirt, describes to me his latest work: the creation of a chair for the elderly for British manufacturer Hitch Mylius. "It's my first chair," he says, with almost boyish enthusiasm. (He is, though you'd never know it, 82.) "What's interesting is that it's almost a contradiction in modern furniture terms to attempt to make something that is overtly comfortable." He nods in the direction of the aforementioned Eames. "I mean, that's an absolute icon. But it's not comfortable, is it? You need a cushion. Modern furniture is almost always too low and getting off it is a bugger. It's really only designed to make the space look brilliant." Is his own chair comfortable? "Yes, it's bloody comfortable!"

Once you know who Kenneth Grange is – once you've learned a little about his remarkable 50-year career and your eye is in – you see his work everywhere: on streets and stations, in your kitchen, your cupboards and your desk drawer. If the tube had let me down this morning, I might even have travelled here in one of his designs (the London taxi cab, which he remodelled in 1997). Such visual omnipotence, though, is starkly at odds with his personality, which is not grand at all. Grange, modest to a fault, is apt to attribute even his greatest hits – the InterCity 125 train, for instance, which was introduced in 1976 and which is still going strong – to hard work and serendipity rather than his own genius.

The retrospective of his career that is shortly to be staged at the Design Museum is certainly pleasing, but he hopes, too, that it won't cause people to think that he is no longer working. "Because I am – surprise, surprise. Why would I stop? I mean, if a bloke can play the piano, you don't stop him playing it, do you?" It's his wife the unstoppable Grange feels sorry for. "It's a bugger living with a designer, you know. We keep sticking our noses in. She can't buy a tea towel without me having an opinion."

Grange, founding partner of renowned international design consultancy Pentagram, and visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, grew up in London's East End. His father was a policeman, his mother worked in a factory. The family home was, he says, "a good old-fashioned house, a bacon and eggs kind of house": plenty of brown, a three-piece suite, flowery curtains. "And I was rather a compliant little boy, too, so it was very much against character for me to put up my hand when they asked at school if anybody wanted to try for a scholarship to art school."

Once there, though – he enrolled at Willesden School of Art at the age of 14 – life was made simple by the fact that one could either study fine art or commercial art, end of story. "I chose commercial art; we were taught to do things like hand-drawn lettering. Design, though, was not a word we knew." So how did he get interested? Who informed his taste? "Well, I got lucky," he says. "I did my national service – I worked as a technical illustrator – and then I did a series of jobs working as an assistant to architects. And all my taste, all my ideology, came from them."

It was an exciting period to be young and a designer. Postwar Britain might have been austere, but it was optimistic, too. Things needed to be rebuilt and rethought. "It was a buoyant time, and that's the truth," says Grange. "The manufacturers had come back from the war to rebuild their firms and they needed help to do this. So the Council of Industrial Design [now the Design Council] was established by the Labour government as a kind of broking service. Manufacturers would come to them and the council would supply them with the names of designers. The council was very classy, it was run by people of substance. The top echelons were all servicemen. They'd had a tough time, they knew all about loyalties and ethics and they were scrupulously fair. But I also think I was probably the cheapest and quickest designer on their list."

The first commission he landed via this route (in 1958) was a parking meter for Venner. "I took [the project] on my honeymoon. It was the very first parking meter in Britain. Westminster Council had gone to America and contracted a company there to produce its meters, but when they showed them to the council, which had to approve all street furniture, they didn't like it. So they were stuck! They needed me to make it look pretty."

Soon after, he landed two rather heftier clients. First, there was Kenwood, for whom he restyled the Kenwood Chef in just three days. Then there was Kodak. "I couldn't yet make a living from product design, so I was working doing the displays for the Kodak pavilion at the World Trade Fair. I was arranging the products on the stand and someone overheard me say, 'It's a shame these are so ugly; I could make this really good if they weren't.' The next day, the phone rang. It was the head of development at Kodak, and he said, 'I understand you're going to design a camera for us.' It was thrilling, but I was scared, too, because I didn't know cameras. But again, there was an element of luck involved. I just happened to be in the right place at the moment when Kodak decided to start selling cameras for profit. Up until this point, their cameras were sold at a loss in order to shift film."

In 1959, Grange designed the Kodak 44A, in 1968, the Instamatic, and in 1972 the Pocket Instamatic, the first in a new generation of portable cameras. These were good years. He drove an E-Type Jaguar, and hung out on the King's Road.

His subsequent successes included irons for Morphy Richards, pens for Parker, the Adshel bus shelters of 1993, the "rural post box" for the Royal Mail in 1996… the list is long and varied. It is, however, the InterCity 125 of which he remains most proud. "Because it's big, and I use it almost weekly, to come up from my place in Devon," he says. "I was only supposed to redesign the paintwork. But, for my amusement, I decided to have a go at the shape, too. I did work on the aerodynamics, testing it in wind tunnels with the help of an engineer I was employing. I showed it to them with some trepidation. It was a bloody nerve, to be honest. If I'd been on the British Rail board, I'd have told me to piss off. But they weren't difficult to persuade in the end because the argument was sound: the design made the train more efficient."

So what about design in Britain in 2011? Are things more or less beautiful-looking? "Well, there's a lot of it [design] about, to be honest, and it's utterly disposable, most of it. You can go to a factory in China where they make toasters for every company you can possibly think of, and they will show you 20 new designs you can take away that morning, and you will leave with four for your own company, and you will return in a year for another four. It's an awful thing to say, but the poorer we are [as a nation], the more chance there is of us being more disciplined about what we buy.

"I'd like people to pay much more and keep things for ever. These things [he points to my digital tape recorder] are little miracles and it's a travesty of morality to throw them away. It offends me. As for the look of things, well, Apple is enjoying a reputation as the maker of the sleekest things. But they're a bit up their own arse, to be honest. Their things are overdesigned. I've got a Mac mini upstairs and every morning I try and fail to find the button on the back."

Is there anything Grange wishes he had designed? What makes him envious? "Well, the Scandinavians still take some beating. I've got a lamp called the Artichoke [by Poul Henningsen] and it's bloody brilliant." As for a piece of design he would like to own, he "wouldn't mind" an Aston Martin.

"Probably one of the later ones. They're as good a piece of motor styling as you can get, a piece of sculpture, really. That's why the place for them is indoors. It's amusing to go fast, but it's not important. The look is the thing. Actually, I used to know a wonderful, cranky pair of artists and they had a Morris Minor they loved and it was in their living room." Really? He laughs. "Yes, really. They had to take the house apart to get it in, but that's where they kept it, I promise you."

Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern is at the Design Museum, London SE1


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November 08 2009

Sir James Dyson doles out £45m among children

Dyson firm also pledges £5m to the Royal College of Art after shares deal nets the inventor £105m

Sir James Dyson, who pioneered the bagless vacuum cleaner and recently developed a desk fan without blades, has given £45m to his three children.

Each of them has received £15m from a shares deal, which also netted £105m for the billionaire businessman and inventor. The Dyson company bought back shares from the family for £150m in February 2008, according to documents filed with Companies House. The deal took place shortly before capital gains tax went up to 18% from 10%.

A company spokesman said: "For the past 35 years the family has been involved in the company, supporting it through hard times. It's only natural that James should want to look after their future."

The 62-year-old tycoon, who was knighted in December 2006, recently became the Conservatives' technology consultant. His other products include a hand-dryer, known as the Airblade, which dries hands in just 10 seconds. Company profits in 2008 rose to £90m on sales of £628m. The firm has also pledged £5m to the Royal College of Art to support aspiring designers.

Dyson's children, all in their thirties, have built their own careers and shown similar entrepreneurial spirit. But only Jake Dyson has followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a product designer himself. He studied industrial design at Central Saint Martins and set up his own, eponymous company in 2002. He has developed a range of lights that use motors to vary light angles and the size of the beam, creating rooms that "feel like they're lifting and breathing".

His sister Emily runs a London boutique called Couverture, which moved from Chelsea to larger premises in Notting Hill shortly after the shares deal. The fashionable, three-floor store sells women's and children's clothes, vintage pieces and furniture. Sam, the youngest of the Dyson children, is a guitarist with Bristol band The Chemists, who are currently touring with Skunk Anansie. He set up a record label after receiving the windfall and is also converting a barn near Bath into a recording studio.

Entrepreneurs often decide to leave little to their children. Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, has said he will leave all of his $58bn fortune to charity, while Dragon's Den star Duncan Bannatyne plans to give away his entire £310m estate.


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