Guy Kewney's Diary

Monday

I hate press-deadline weeks on PC Magazine. The office is full of people frantically doing stuff they said they'd do last week (or last month) and to cover for their embarrassment in not having done it, they shout at each other for being late. This deadline week is particularly fraught, because I have to get out of the office two or three times, which will leave a vast gaping hole into which the can can be dropped. The can, of course, is the one that everybody else doesn't want to carry.

The installer from OR Technology has made my life particularly ironic, but installing an "A Drive" which takes ordinary floppy disks, and stores 120 megabytes on them. The technology uses a simple trick: a laser reads an optical track which is inscribed underneath the recording surface, and uses this as a servo. Result: you can get a hundred times as many tracks.

Trouble is, you need specially inscribed diskettes. Otherwise it works just like any bloody floppy drive, and stores a meg and a half.

My own plan is to use this to save phone bills. Every day, I have to take my Ameol database to work in the morning, and back home in the evening. Copying it across requires Laplink and a modem; or failing that, Laplink and a portable. And whatever they tell you about portables, it doesn't make them light.

So if I keep all the CIX messages that form my Ameol database on the "Superdrive" (as it's going to be called when they relaunch it in September) then I can keep backups on home and office machines, if you see what I mean; and the "real" data on the transfer. Only, the genius at OR has installed just one drive -- in the machine at work. "We thought you would prefer it if it just worked," they say, injured by my ingratitude. "Yes, I would, but how much use is one telephone?" I ask. "Sorry?" they say...

So I ring up Mike Dalton and ask him what's going on. He was main distributor for the Insite Floptical drive -- same technology, 1987 launch, 20 megabytes -- and he knows the "extra media" market well. "This has a major advantage over the Iomega Zip," he tells me: "it works as a standard diskette. So you don't have to have both. If you have a Zip drive, you need a diskette drive as well. I know Iomega says you don't, but since they actually ship their software drivers on a diskette..."

Six million Zips, total; Mike reckons the world will have three times as many Superdisks by the end of 1998. Already, Panrix, Elonex and a few other lesser-known names are fitting them as "standard options" or as default, for an extra £70 over the price for a PC with a simple 1.44 floppy. Big names are joining the bandwagon.

Two drawbacks, I tell him. One, the special diskettes cost £10 each. Two, I've only got one drive. What good is this? "None," he admits. "You won't be able to test it like that. I'll ship you another one."

What a nice man!

Tuesday

I'm supposed to be in IBM Hursley, looking at Voice-type. Or talking to it. Two weeks ago, of course, I was down in Cheltenham, watching the inventors of Dragon Naturally Speaking put that through its paces. Alas, Hursley has to be cancelled: it's press week.

Dragon's tamers tell me that there's a thing called the "hilarity barrier" in speech recognition. You start dictating, and the computer gets it mostly right. Then, you realise that it is starting to make quite inventive errors. You do your best, but however hard you try, you start to grin. This spoils your phoneme set not a little... the computer starts losing its grip. Your face splits, and you start to get repressed giggles. The computer, embarrassed beyond words, starts to behave as if you're speaking Mandarin. You fall apart and roll on the floor laughing. You've hit the hilarity barrier.

Voice Type isn't quite that ambitious, but having seen Dragon, I did want to make the comparison. "Not to worry; pop in tomorrow, we're having a seminar, comparing all available product," says the IBM product manager.

This means I can go and look at Bosch's new PABX for the tiny office, the Integral 33.

I'm fascinated by PABX technology, have been every since my old friend Derek Rowe built a 12-line system (he sold the design to Alcatel in the end) which I installed in my house -- back in the days when I was a freelance, working for Prestel and Microscope and Thames TV, and based at home. It was brilliant in its day, but its teeth are now long, and Alcatel, having forced me to pay them an extortionate "service fee" for years, now refuse to service it at all, just when I need their service. Imagine my surprise...

So Bosch has done much the same thing, but it's based on ISDN. You can have anywhere between six and 120 ports, and they can be ISDN lines, ordinary extension phones, special Bosch ?50 phone systems, fax machines, or even ordinary incoming analogue phones. Lots of clever software.

Of course, PC journalists don't normally go to PABX launches. Bosch has a neat way around this: they send a box containing a Bosch battery-operated screwdriver. Without the charger. "If you come to the press conference, we'll give you the charger," they say. I don't think a better anorak-trap has ever been invented.

Wednesday

The IBM voice seminar gets blown out -- Panasonic wants to show us its PD disc drive. It's a neat little CD drive (at least, that's what it looks like) but it will also read and write 680 megabyte PD disks. And Panasonic has lost out, heavily, to the rival CD-R re-writeable drives, because it decided that it couldn't afford to make enough to satisfy world demand, back in 1996. So it restricted supplies to the Japanese market for nearly a year; and by the time it arrived in Europe and America, we all had CD-R.

The idea of the PD drive is that if you buy one now, when Panasonic launches its DVD-R drives (re-writeable 5 gigabyte videodiscs) in January (ha!) they'll make sure you can read and write all your PD data disks in it. So this is a stepping stone.

I'm far from convinced. There are lots of people offering DVD, but what's the point? I can't buy a DVD disc to put in it. If you were selling software, what on earth would you do with 2.6 gigabytes per side, anyway? Nobody (well, Corel, maybe) needs it. And if you did produce DVD media editions, how many people would want one? Count would be in the low hundreds... and what use are DVD drives otherwise?

When the first DVD writeables appear next year (January, frankly, is optimistic) they will be over the $1000 mark in the US. Probably close to £1,000 in the UK (he added cynically). I freely foretell: "Low sales will ensue."

Of course, some folks are buying DVD because (they think) they will be able to watch DVD movies. Ha! again. There are almost no movies to choose from, and they are mostly in the US, where they are inscribed with an encryption layer which will prevent them from playing in the UK. And even if you do want to watch Batman Forever again and forever, you can't. All the DVD drives we've seen in the UK Labs have no MPEG decoder chips. Why?

Beats me.

I ask the nice Panasonic team when they expect DVD to be a significant part of the add-on media market. "About the year 2000," they say optimistically.

Thursday

A day from Hell.

I'm supposed to be in Bradford, visiting Microvitec. Then I have an appointment to eat curry with a group of programmers and training officers.

This involves getting up at sparrow-fart to drive up the M1, never my idea of fun; and requires an early bed. So, naturally, it turns out that I have to transfer 200 megabytes of someone else's data onto their machine first. And then I have to set up this rather neat Nokia software.

It's their Cellular Data Suite. It's a serial cable, plugs into the bottom of the Nokia 8110 phone -- easily the nicest phone I own. Cable and software together for around ?100 -- a small fraction of the cost of alternative systems that require modems -- and you can talk to the Internet from your notebook while on a train, or in a pub. Only drawback: speed is restricted to 900 characters per second. Not only that, however: you can store all the phone numbers in your phone SIM card, onto your hard disk, and edit them there, and have a backup. So when your SIM card gets stolen, you can replace the data! Brilliant!

The software comes on three diskettes. My Tecra, a lovely machine, has a removeable diskette drive; which is to say, no diskette drive -- because my daughter left it in Cornwall. The disks (I'm way ahead of you, don't worry) are stored on the hard disk of my desktop PC; all I have to do is Laplink them across to my Tosh.

Here's where I get too clever for myself. I installed the software on the desktop PC to test it. To be fair, I did try to install it on a Dell Lattitude, but the Lattitude blots the second page of its copybook (it blotted the first page two weeks ago when it blew all the fuses at home at midnight) by absolutely refusing to install the program. And (it turns out) if you install the Nokia Cellular Data Suite, it creates a "virtual" COM3 port on Com1; which, unfortunately, means that software which uses COM1 can't talk to the modem.

Which means I can't retrieve the diskette images.

Bed by 12.30, furious, because I could have gone to bed at ten, and I have to get up at 6.

And at 3.15, the phone rings.

Remember that PABX that we have at home? It allows internal phone calls. Our old cat, Isadora, is feeling the chill, and so decides to sleep on the kitchen answering machine. Then she turns over and presses the hands-free button. Then she puts a paw on the dial.

By the time we've actually worked out who it is who is so ill that they can't talk, we're all awake -- wide awake -- and furious. More adrenaline.

Not unnaturally, everybody oversleeps. I emerge from the bathroom at 8.15, realising that my chance of getting to Bradford is less than my chance of winning the lottery; but I go for it. The data I was transferring (remember that 200 megabytes?) turns out to have got stuck -- "Disk FULL" and I have to restart. The battery for my phone wasn't charging -- what sort of idiot designs a cell phone that won't charge its battery if it's switched off when you plug in the charger?

Finally, just as I'm about to get into the car and commit suicide on the motorway, the phone: it's the daughter. She's on a jury duty. She's also house-sitting and cat-sitting. And she can't get OUT of the house. And it's ten minutes before the train goes, and she's going to be in Contempt Of Court. A genuine emergency, in short, and bang goes another hour.

And finally, just when I get back home (I'd forgotten the cursed phone) the door: a tragedy. My neighbour can't rouse her husband, and thinks he has had a stroke. Indeed, he has; and by this time, it's apparent that the Gods don't want me to go to Bradford.

Friday

Today, of course, I was going to be visiting NetStore in Leeds, and Pace in Bradford, and a few other Yorkshire techies. Instead, I'm in London, somewhat depressed. So what do I choose to do to cheer myself up? I decide to test modems.

I must be insane.

Friends, if you buy a Motorola VoiceSURFR 56KFlex modem, do NOT under ANY circumstances, install the software that comes with it.

Next, I spend a couple of hours screaming at a Motorola Cellect3 PC Card modem, and the 8700 phone. All this achieves is a lot of conversations with a nice support person, and several Windows 95 restarts.

Not to worry: I have a little testing to do with my beta copy of "Metro" the new MSN 2.5. Play safe: I return to my Hayes Optima.

It naturally choses this moment to refuse, point blank, to connect to MSN. Every other modem I own, on every PC, will call MSN; the Hayes will call every other modem number I know. But it won't call MSN.

It's time to test that nice little Ericsson cell phone.

No, on second thoughts, I won't repeat what I said when I found my other daughter's rabbits had bitten through the serial connector cable. It would merely attract the Wrong Sort of Reader, who searches for that sort of thing on the Web... Time to walk the dog.

And as a Grand Finale: this diary was ready to post to the Web, and so, right on cue, the office email system (Lotus Notes) dies.

Fortunately, I have this brand-new Hayes 56Kflex... if you read this, it worked!

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