Guy Kewney's Diary

MondayIt started with SuperNova, showing me how the old tricks are still the best. Teach your customers a technique for programming which works, and forces them to buy stuff from you and you alone, for the next two decades.

Actually, it didn't start with that; it started with the unopened mail. A week's worth. Why? Think back: no, there was no diary last week. Yes, I did a lot of fascinating stuff, but on Tuesday night, I noticed a slight tickle in the back of my throat. Wednesday dawned, and I phoned in:

Me: "Hi, I won't be coming in." Editorial Assistant: "Hello, anybody there? Can you hear me?" Me: "Yes, dammit, I can hear you, I'm just suffering from a lost voice. I can't..." EA: Hello! Speak to me! Hello? Byeeee!"

At this point in a normal panic week, the alternatives are pretty easy. Either I get Lotus Notes to dial into the office server and retrieve all my mail, or I fire up the remote control package.

Easy to do, except my old faithful home PC chose this moment to die. It covered its wallpaper with moth holes, where the RAM was corrupted; it booted alternately into "no hard disk" or "safe mode" - which I'll admit is pretty safe, since it allows you to do nothing at all. So running remote Notes was impossible. I ran Scandisk, which ran 15 times, each time announcing that it had fixed all errors on the disk, and then finding another 700.

For these emergencies, I have a portable. I plugged it into the modem (it's equipped with PCMCIA slots, but sensibly ignores any cards I plug into them) and dialled the office.

Nothing. Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring.

After a half hour of this, I went to lie down for five minutes. When I opened my eyes, they didn't. They were gummed together. How that could happen in five minutes was a mystery, until my wife came into the room and asked if I wanted supper.

The next day wasn't any better. I couldn't even make a hoarse squeak down the phone, which was doubly irritating, because it meant I couldn't re-program voice mail. More to the point, I couldn't get my colleagues to walk round to my office PC and fix it. Oh, I knew what the problem was: wretched SuperDisk on a Promise controller; it's refused to function at all for three weeks - ever since the OR Technology people came around to fix it, and found that there was nothing wrong with it. Naturally, it malfunctioned again as soon as they left the building.

When it malfunctions, you can't eject diskettes. All it takes, after that, is for the office power to blip, and the system re-boots, and finds a floppy in the slot. Uh-uh.

So Friday, I got some work done on the home machine, managed to get e-mail to Rupert saying: "Please eject the diskette from my office PC!" and spent my third day in bed. We'll draw a veil over the weekend. Suffice it to say that today, Monday, was the first day I was able to get out and about, and so I went to SuperNova, to see a demo of component technology - and indeed, it was very impressive.

SuperNova sets up a component repository for the enterprise. As time goes by, you end up with components which function (roughly) the same in Excel VBA, or C++ or any other platform. All you have to worry about, it seems to me, is that this central component repository is gradually getting fully and fuller of complexity.

"Yes, we think the person who manages the repository will be pretty senior," they said innocently. Pretty senior! By the time the repository is three years old, he'll be God!

Tuesday

Apple Mac users are about to get Office 98. The day starts off with a "champagne breakfast" to launch it, at Olympia, the day before Mac Expo. Tubes and taxis between them manage to reduce my bank balance to collapse, but not to get me to the Hilton Hotel before all the champagne is consumed and the presentation half over.

The presentation is interesting enough: half of it is secret till next year. Goodness knows why, because - apart from the fact that it's Office - Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, but no Access - it won't ship for weeks, like most other Microsoft announcements recently.

The interesting thing, as far as I'm concerned, isn't whether it looks like Word. It's whether it runs Visual Basic for Applications, with ActiveX. So I ask. "Oh, good question; we don't know yet. We only saw it this morning for the first time."

Back in the real world, Imation says they've sold 7,000 parallel-port SuperDisk drives in Europe, in October. France, Germany, and UK. I have to say the parallel port drive is pretty neat, and much more reliable than the Promise-based one. Actually, they don't claim 7,000 sales; they claim $1 million worth at £99 each... or thereabouts.

I think I'm finally prepared to warn my readers to avoid the Promise card. If you have an old machine and need SuperDisks, go for the parallel port driver. No, you can't replace your normal diskette drive with the parallel port, but it is likely to actually work when you need it.

This does leave the problem of how you print. I have that fixed, too: get a redundant 486 based PC with 8Mb RAM, load Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, and create a printer server. Then link it to your den over some of that redundant cheapernet coax which they threw out of the office last year, and the NICs that go with them; and you have a home LAN.

The evening was a disaster. It's a fact that many dogs are bothered by thunder, but terriers are the worst. Both my dogs are terriers, and November 5 is an ordeal for them that is hard to describe. Oh, and my flu of last week has receded, leaving me with a hacking cough that makes sleep impossible.

Wednesday Yesterday's best story, for me, was the Alpha announcement by Samsung.

Samsung, like most Korean semiconductor companies, is 90 per cent based on memory production, and last year, the RAM market collapsed in a heap of poo. From a growth rate of 50 per cent to 150 per cent above the semiconductor market average, Samsung found itself into "unprecedented negative growth," as the polite Koran VP put it, wryly enough.

He showed some graphs; if you plot memory on the left, and processors on the right, then all the Korean chip makers are on the left, the Americans are on the right, and the Japanese are in the middle.

The decision to build the Alpha was probably inspired by Fate. I don't know how well it will work, but if the Intel emulation package FX!32 that they got from Insignia works in the real world, as well as it worked at the demo, then the heck with this Intel NT box. I want an Alpha. I always knew Alpha was faster than Pentium, but it never dawned on me that you would be able to create Alpha versions of NT software just by running a compiler over the Intel source code!

It does leave me wondering, today, whether Intel's pose of ignorant indifference about the Alpha plant is a bluff.

Officially, Intel's deal with Digital is just a deal over patents. Digital sued Intel for stealing its processor patents; Intel responded by counter-suing Digital. The deal sets up a cross-licence grid. And one of the links just happens to be a deal which gives Digital $700,000, and gives Intel the chip fab in Hudson. And when I asked the Intel folks why, they said: "Oh, did we buy the Hudson fab?"

But thinking about it, I wonder. Intel doesn't have anything, anywhere on its horizon, that would match Alpha for raw processing power. IBM's PowerPC family is fine for running the Mac today; in three years' time, I think it's a dead duck. We'll see, of course, but it will take a HUGE change of heart to revive it. Neither IBM nor Motorola is prepared to invest in the technology; they see the other partner getting all the benefits. Alpha, however, if it can run Intel code, is a really powerful machine; and Intel now appears to own it. And the factory that makes it.

Will Intel make Alpha? If it does, can it compete with Samsung and Mitsubishi?

Thursday

The new MSN software is here! MSN 2.5 is shipping as from today; and to celebrate, we're all invited around to MSN's brand new offices in Shaftesbury Avenue.

When the cab arrives, nostalgia kicks in hugely. This place, endeavour House, is somewhere I have not been for nearly two decades. To give you an idea how long ago it was: the last celebrity I came here to see was George Brown, the man who lost in a Labour Party leadership contest to Harold Wilson, and ended up red-nosed and wobbly in the department of Economic Affairs. And I came here to see him officially open a Control Data Corporation subsidiary, the existence of which is now a lost secret, known to nobody.

The software is demonstrated: it runs, it turns out, ONLY on Windows 95; not on Win 3.1 or NT, never mind Win CE. It also installs Internet Explorer 4.0, something I'm not eager to do.

This is very, very odd. The marketing presentations for MSN and MSN.co.uk, the web site, are excellent, and point to a future where they rank alongside today's TV and radio stations and newspapers, as general news sources. And they then talk about set top boxes, and portable video devices... and then launch something that runs on Windows 95, and only win 95? And not very well on that...

MSN 2.5 is a vast improvement on 2.0 which was a disgrace. Even the first beta was more stable than 2.0; the release product is much less confusing for the user, and actually rather good. But why only Win 95?

I did try to get them to answer the question, but they seemed to think I was babbling. No doubt... no doubt. I also noticed that the last column I wrote for MSN.co.uk was highly critical of Microsoft SSL software, and that since then, mysteriously, MSN.co.uk hasn't required a contribution from me...

Oh, well...

Friday

I could tell you about what we did today, but I'd have to shoot you. PC Magazine is being re-designed, and today is the internal roll-out. So I spend the day catching up with other chores, including a survey of colour printers.

One thing I've always wanted to know, and never got a straight answer to, is: what's the difference between a colour ink-jet printer, and a "photo-ready" colour ink-jet printer? And today, I find out: a distributor tells me it's really simple.

"The price of a good quality colour ink-jet or bubble-jet is now only just over £100, Guy, so you can tell there's no money in the printer. So the manufacturers must make their money somewhere else; and that's on ink cartridges -- consumables. If they can find a way of selling you special photo-quality paper at 10p a sheet, they will. Meanwhile, they can sell you a system with some image processing software, and a special 'high intensity' cartridge. There's nothing magic about that; it produces a darker black. And all that means is: it uses more ink!"

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