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