Why I love smart toothbrushes and loathe internet plug-ins

Column published on Saturday December 22nd 2007 in The Guardian
“Why I love smart toothbrushes and loathe internet plug-ins” – The Guardian headline

Stephen on the crazy world of Ogg Vorbis, plug-ins and incompatibility, and the joys of using a smart electric toothbrush


There is fury in the web community on account of Apple and Nokia’s reported bullying of the W3 consortium, the body (headed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee) that lays down the standards for the web. The casus belli is this: in the same way that all browsers are capable of reading baseline picture formats .gif, .jpg and .png, so the latest implementation of the web language HTML 5.0, due out soon, had planned to incorporate a baseline audio and video format, or “codec”, to stop having to load plug-ins for QuickTime, Real, Flash, Windows Media, etc. This was welcomed by the developer community, whose preferred codec is Ogg Vorbis: this weird, Terry Pratchett-derived name signifies an entity of higher quality as an audio codec than MP3, and has the advantage common to all Open Source software of being free and available for development by everyone.

The problem is that Nokia claims ownership of some elements of Ogg, which is essentially the file format for the streaming and delivery part of the codec. This was news to me: I thought Ogg was as Open Source as Vorbis. Anyway, Apple doesn’t like the idea of its QuickTime not being the baseline video codec and, of course, iPods don’t read Ogg Vorbis audio. So it seems it’s going to be the same old mad world of plug-ins and incompatibilities for the near future – unless, that is, you all subscribe to the Working Hypertext Application Technology Working Group mailing list (whatwg.org/mailing-list#specs) and exert pressure. Despite the high ideals of W3C, it is often closer to Swift’s Isle Of Laputa than anything sane – indeed, an angry developer recently compared it to Orwell’s Minitrue. Oh dear. All things that are human are also frail and foolish. Never mind. I am sure thousands of individual voices can be as influential as two big corporations.

On a happier note, I have added to my collection of unnecessary but pleasing technological doo-dads. I have not spent any time in the bathroom with you yet, so I am very happy to report that Oral-B has come up with a mad new electric toothbrush. It is so over-engineered as almost to defy description. A base station, where sits and charges the toothbrush itself, transmits by radio to a receiving element. The receiver substation is a plastic cartouche complete with obligatory LCD screen called a SmartGuide (phrases compressed with UpperCaseLetters such as this are DeRigueur for today’s sad MarketingPerson), which gives a reading of how long you’ve brushed, and how long you’ve got to go in each of the quadrants of the mouth, according to “professional” brushing standards recommended by dentists. It also tells you the time and rewards you with a smiley face when you’re done. Sigh. I think I’m in love.

It is basically, of course, an electric toothbrush, a class of good that appeared to be in the doldrums a few years ago. They would sit mournfully gathering dust in locked cabinets in Boots, along with Philishaves and weird objects made by BaByliss – foot spas and ceramic hair rollers, that kind of thing. Recently, thanks to cheap, battery-operated models and the low cost of charging units and components, they have enjoyed something of a revival. With this model – the Oral-B®, Professional Care™ Triumph™ (with Wireless SmartGuide) Oral-B (“powered by Braun”) enters the luxury end of the market. I suppose, given the low cost of a basic model, the margins are so tight that it has to consider every possible way to “add value”. It is the same with shaver and razor manufacturers. The core technology has not changed for 50 years, so they have to find a way to dress up new products. Although all this wireless tosh is senseless and functionally meaningless, I love it. Brushing my teeth bores me to tears and anything – anything – that relieves the tedium of the procedure is good.

I want a treadmill that presents on screen a reality game that interacts with your exercise: an adventure in which you chase villains, rescue damsels or solve puzzles – this is where technology should be headed so far as humdrum chores are concerned. Come on, you eccentric British software geniuses and game designers. Help me to a brilliant white smile and slim fitness the fun way.

© Stephen Fry 2007

This blog was posted in Guardian column

66 comments on “Why I love smart toothbrushes and loathe internet plug-ins”

  1. steph thelwell says:

    Hello Mr Fry [and friends], my cousin recommended your site, rightly so, and now I am drowning in the fantastic world of toothbrush chat, I would never have guessed…. thanks for all the www help most appreciated even though I have little capacity to remember any of it post Guardian browsing. x

  2. Mr. Fry,
    And fellow posters,
    C’est vrai, once you go electric, it’s impossible to go back. When I travel it’s so anticlimactic to have to resort back to manual labor to clean my less than pearly whites.
    Whether you go electric or manual is immaterial, though, as the previous poster suggests, unless you floss, daily, which I don’t, but do try and do, especially now that I have a very cute parisian dentist to go back to every 6 months.

  3. nicolakjones says:

    Off topic, so apologies for that…but have you ever tried using Scrivener when organizing your writing projects? I’ve no affiliation (honest!) but have been obsessed with it ever since I found it in November and I’ve been passing the suggestion on to everyone I know.


    It’s Mac-only, and beautiful… Hope you like! I’d love to know what you think :o)

    *Writing-up PhD student, for whom a pretty writing interface is vital*

  4. Pewter Tankard says:

    Well Mr Fry, I am surprised that you need to find more interesting ways to exercise. I remember the first series of A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie (more years ago than I care to admit) where you mentioned that your well-toned body was solely due to you practising “Dancercize”

    I see that life yet again fails to do anything other than imitate art:


  5. robertas says:

    Hello everyone, first let me wish you all happy New year and of course happy New year to our lovely Mr. Fry…
    I wish you new outlets for your creativity and talent, but plenty of time for your lovely self because your workload seems a tad bit hm grueling. Also it would be ever so nice if we could have another blessay very soon… pretty please? :)
    I got a bit worried recently as I have read a rather nasty report about Chantix, I do hope you have weened yourself because it does seem to have some rather unpleasant symptoms… well apart from constipation :) So I do hope you are well, chirpy (if not chirpy then cheery at least) and with regular bowel movements :)
    Anyhow the latest installment of Stephen Fry Appreciation Monday is up (I know its Wednesday but I have been away) so everyone do pop by…
    as Pewter above said toodle pip (I love it :)

  6. I adore the idea of the interactive treadmill. Maybe it could have a toothbrush attachment and a wee sink for spitting. And a plate…with breakfast on it so I could eat while I was chasing the bank robber and saving the puppy from the big bus. It would save so much time out of my day!
    Happy New Year everyone. Glad to see the back of 2007.

  7. Sergei says:

    I’m wondering if the W3C isn’t overreaching itself in specifying codecs browsers should support. That seems rather a leap from setting the rules about what are and aren’t valid statements in the language, and clearly gets into some contentious commercial territory. Perhaps it’s an issue best avoided.

    What puzzles me more though is why there is going to be a HTML5.0 spec at all. Are we not pressing on to XHTML?

  8. Yoru says:

    Interestingly, the theme has developed in what discussion. Has learned a lot of new. Thanks to all :)

  9. enidd says:

    You said, “I want a treadmill that presents on screen a reality game that interacts with your exercise: an adventure in which you chase villains, rescue damsels or solve puzzles.”

    Enidd says, “Oh, so do I. Exercise without intellectual stimulation is more tedious than a four-hour-long Christmas special. I searched long and hard for the augmented treadmill beast on the Interweb (almost a quest in itself, but without the longed for benefit to the upper thighs). After days of hunting, I discovered this – http://www.fpgamerunner.com/index.html – and thought I had defeated the end-of-level boss in single combat. Sadly, it was not the case – the FPGameRunner seems to be just vapourware and my emails have gone unanswered.”

  10. JulesLt says:

    Sergei – HTML5 started as a non-W3C spec – basically the W3C wanted to go with XHTML, whereas there was significant interest in just extending HTML, rather than starting again from scratch. The WHAT-WG was also working faster than the W3C for a lot of reasons that are documented on the web. Ironically, they seem to me to be quite similar to the reasons that led to XML being created by people frustrated with the slow-moving heavy SGML spec.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of what you are saying though – the IMG tag simply specifies ‘here is an image’ and as far as I can see the spec does not say that JPG or PNG images must be supported.

    And we don’t yet know what MS would have done if Vorbis or Theora support was defined in the spec. It could have been the clause that torpedoed the spec, while removing it moves that battle to another day. Given that they took no part in the early stages of WHAT-WG and HTML-5 it’s still uncertain what their attitude is.

    Going back to Mr.Fry’s original blog – I would like to say that the developer community was not uniformly up in arms, only a small, vocal, but important and influential part. For the vast majority of web developers and designers, the ability to create an inline movie player in a web page, with custom playback controls and CSS styling, without having to use Flash, will be a huge advantage. As will being able to use a URL to link directly to 4’33 in the middle of a long video. (In fact, as we know, the vast majority of developers out there were happiest when IE6 was at the peak of it’s dominance and that entitled them to ignore all else).

  11. Alan says:

    I know it’s a little late for the discussion – but just wanted to throw in my two-penneth…

    It’ll never happen. Standardisation of a media codec for HTML5 that is.

    In the same way as a Colgate professional electric toothbrush uses an incompatible charger from the Oral-B one described (if they all simply used the same charging stations maybe we’d end up with less plastic being wasted).

    Or how about laptops which all use the exact same voltage and amps with the exact same connectors?

    Cars that used the same parts?

    Human beings that are completely predictable?

    It’ll never happen.

    Working within the media codecs for streaming area [ahem], it is a field which has never been standardised. It’s as much a fault of the companies that have invented different ways of compressing and delivering these files, as it is for us allowing them to do so. A very topical example would be – why doesn’t iPhone/iPod Touch natively support Flash Video?

    The latest incarnation of Flash Video supports h.264. Quicktime supports h.264. Erm – so to the normal person you’d think h.264 = h.264

    Well, you are correct – at least at the codec level – once you actually get into how the video is delivered over a network, you discover that Adobe (Macromedia) has created it’s own proprietary transport protocol (RTMP) which they *will not* publish, as it’s part of their ‘content protection’ solution for content owners.

    A lot of people got very excited about the fact that Flash was going to support some MPEG standards – but they really screwed everyone when they decided that full streaming would require their proprietary, and not yet fully tested or released, streaming servers.

    So a Flash Video h.264 stream will not currently playback in a Quicktime player. Or at least without adding licensed support for RTMP.

    Remember when RealNetworks brought out their original media codecs? Until they fell fowl of the ‘proprietary’ bug, though later they somewhat successfully (certainly from a B2B viewpoint) formed Helix a community supported framework that is used in many embedded devices – like mobile phones. Helix embraces standards too, and it has support for Real’s proprietary codecs if you really have to.

    So – consider Ogg. The codec might be open source, but the delivery method seems less clear.

    Dirac – streaming? It’s too proprietary. See – Sony’s ATRAC3 codec.

    Now, who’s for a discussion about the benefits of Betamax over VHS? Anyone?

  12. MessyBlob says:

    Yes, it’s a shame that anything connected with beauty and personal hygiene has to be tarnished with marketing strategies that would be more at home with witch doctors and other elemental mystic magics. However, we are occasionally reassured by well-crafted scientific numbers that have no units in the SI system, e.g. “eyelashes are 74.5% curlier!”

    My point is that most products are simple at heart. It takes multi-coloured moulded plastics, emotional branding, excessive packaging, and tenuous marketing: all to make us feel that we’re buying something special. I’d consider the toothbrush bits to be heavily-marketed ‘valueless-adding’. I keenly await its inclusion in a 2015 TV production entitled, “100 Most Pointless Gadgets”.

    This post was brought to you from the 96-point multi-tactile linguistic expression device, capable of solving all the world’s problems in five minutes*.

  13. PhilRogers says:

    I Quote: “(phrases compressed with UpperCaseLetters such as this are DeRigueur for today’s sad MarketingPerson)”

    This has come from computer programmers, such as myself. When we create a variable name in a program, we’re generally not allowed spaces. Consequently, we invented this method of making multi-word names. The use of UpperCaseLetters makes it easier to read, and avoids ambiguity.

    And you might find it QuiteInteresting to know that we call it CamelCase because the words have “humps” in them.

  14. Bob_Robertson says:

    Don’t forget how patents prevent good ideas from getting around. Quicktime could have been the OneAndOnly format, but Apple encumbered it with copyright and patent. They want _control_.

    The best toothbrush I ever used was by a company called “Pro-Dentec”, their “Rotadent”. It doesn’t just go back and forth, it rotates the brush entirely around. The cleaning is fantastic, but (like Quicktime) it’s expensive and encumbered with patents and copyrights. They want the monopoly profits they get by keeping _control_.

    One reason I love the Creative Commons, the GPL, is that the best ideas get used and built on by many people. Quality improves at lightning speeds compared to “traditional” industries.

  15. I was going to mention the music-playing toothbrush, but others have beat me to it.

    Regarding the treadmill, however — I was a YMCA member back in the mid 90s, and in their gym they has stationary bikes with big video screens. You pedaled and steered, and moved around in a virtual world. It wasn’t a game, per se — there were no puzzles to solve and so forth — just a big environment you could bike around in and explore. You could even go underwater and see sunken ships and the like. (Of course, this was computer graphics circa 1992-3, so a bit blocky by today’s standards….)

    Oh yes, I almost forgot. You and I have the same model toothbrush. :-)

  16. Oh, and Phil is quite right about CamelCase.

Leave a Reply