Guy Kewney's Weekend Diary

Monday

Last week, the TMA (Telephone Managers Association) did a big spread about how it had surveyed its members. It found that more than three quarters of TMA members were buying "inappropriate" products. Reason: the telecomms suppliers were not providing appropriate ones. Fascinating stuff; it sounds like a condemnation of ISDN marketing, to me. "Yes indeed," said the TMA man.

It was a typical TMA do; Institute of Directors (no entrance without tie and jacket). They're all MAMCM: middle-aged, middle-class men. "No, these days we're changing; we're representing the small to medium enterprise -- you know, the SME." Fascinating. Someone will call. Not Monday, I told them, Tuesday. Monday, I'm in Paris. This, of course, is Monday.

No, I'm not in Paris.

The correct way to arrive in Paris for lunch on a Monday is to go there on Sunday night for dinner. I know this. Failing that, you can take the train on Monday morning, and as long as there isn't a fire in the tunnel, it's a great trip.

So why, I found myself wondering, am I sitting at Heathrow's Terminal 4 Charter terminal, in a coffee room with plenty of coffee but no coffee cups, at two in the afternoon, while in Paris, the waiters are serving the coffee?

The answer is that Psion Dacom, king of the PC Card modem, is launching its Global range.

To show how global Global is, they had this brilliant idea of inviting journalists from London, Amsterdam, Munich, Stockholm and various other major European cities to a lunch in the Eiffel Tower; there we'd see a modem that ran at 33Kbits over phone lines, and 9,600bps over almost every GSM phone every built.

It sounds brilliant. And if it had been bright and sunny in Paris, it might have been a blast. Instead, the French closed down all runways except one at Charles de Gaulle airport, and we sat in the waiting room in Terminal 4. No book stalls, no Body Shop, no coffee. Well, plenty of coffee, as I said.

We'll draw a discreet veil over my lapse in common sense; at 1.30 (London) the air traffic people gave us clearance to take off. Lovely antique Belfast-built Short turbo-prop; my brain must have seized, because I got into it.

Tuesday

The modem appears to work... as an ordinary modem. There appears not to be a cable suitable for connecting to my Panasonic GSM phone. Nor a disk to set it up (there's 2 meg of flash RAM in the thing for software to do this).

A courier is despatched. Meanwhile, TMA's various officials are trying (using both hands) to find the part of their body they sit on. I await a call. I don't actually know who is going to fill me in on this, because I happen to know the chap who is the TMA's SME, a consultant called Richard Cox.

Cox is an excellent source of wisdom on comms for the SME. Unfortunately, he is also the TMA's most-qualified expert on phone number reform. Cox was outraged when Oftel allowed BT to impose the phONEday by turning 071 numbers into 0171 numbers. Total benefit? We're waiting to hear what it was, but we know at least that it didn't work, because they're doing it again.. and Cox, bless him, has been given the job of advising Oftel and co what the TMA would like. Good for him, good for TMA. Trouble is, who is going to be ringing me to talk about SMEs? I know he won't have the time.

Anxious phone call in the afternoon from an accountant. "I used to be an independent financial adviser; I've apparently got to be a computer dealer." It seems that this is the only way of buying accounting software at a trade discount.

If this guy is right, then I want to know more.

Mail me, please: guy@cix.co.uk, if you hear about dealers for accounting software being forced to sell at full retail price. It's illegal if it's true, and it's also stupid. If I'm a financial adviser, I make my money offering a service. That means, I arrive at your business, tell you which software to use, and set it up for you. Heck, the adviser's an accountant, you aren't; you can't be expected to buy the stuff off the shelf and install it correctly. But you are entitled to expect that the adviser isn't a paid representative of one or the other product.

The accounting software dealer, generally, is not equipped to offer impartial advice. They can install it, but there's no reason for them to be expert in accounting. Lots of them aren't. It's been custom and practice for ages for them to provide the software to the customer at a reduced price without an installation service, and then your installation can be done by your independent advisor. For a fee. Paying the dealer a fee (included in the price) and the adviser a fee too, sounds like profiteering.

The day ends with the arrival of the connection kit for my GSM phone. It turns out to be another modem. It seems not to work. It has got the software loaded, and it accepts dialling instructions: but none of this appears to interest the phone. It just sits there.

Wednesday

The tension of waiting for the TMA's nominated spokesman to call is eased as other great deeds are afoot. What's afoot? Read on.

It's great excitement in the office about a new PC maker who's going to launch in April. Apparently I'm not allowed to say who it is. Just as well, because I think they'd be annoyed. They seem to be new at this, and it rather shows. They are launching (get this) "MMX upgradeable" machines.

I'm sorry, but I don't get it. We all know that if you use Intel's latest Socket 5 or Socket 7 motherboards (first shipped October) then you can pull the Pentium out, and plug a Pentium MMX chip in. Same clock speed.

One day, I dare say, Intel will get around to offering MMX upgrades to people with older Pentiums - a new Overdrive would be welcome for people with 100 MHz or slower machines. Trouble is, right now there's no chip that would do. MMX machines (for reasons which completely elude me) don't convert all the voltages they need, and have to be provided with a 2.8-volt rail. That's what Socket 5 means. And pretty much all older 120, 133 and 166MHz Pentium motherboards don't have this.

Simply summarised, you can't plug an MMX chip into those boards. But this new company is selling machines that use socket 5 and socket 7. So they can be upgraded.

Well, why? I mean, if I'm buying a PC today, I know that the MMX model costs £50 more than the non-MMX. I also know that all the benchmarks show how daft it would be to miss out on MMX, and I happen to know that the benchmarks actually understate the advantage. For example, there is actually no software optimised for MMX graphics transforms yet and so the overall benchmark systems can't include that. But Intel reckons that you get these operations done in 25 per cent of the normal time; maybe better.

So this lot will be selling a machine for (say) £1,500 without MMX, while their rivals are offering a machine for (say) £1,550 with the same spec, but including MMX. And if you buy the one without, and ask for an upgrade, the new chip will cost you £300 or so. And will they buy the old one back for £250? I don't think so.

The day ends with a call from the TMA. "Has our guy called you yet?" The answer is no, but alas! my voice mail droid doesn't seem to care, and she was the one who took the message.

I take the Global Dacom card home, feeling pretty rough. I must be sicker than I realised: I find myself around 9.15pm lying in bed with the Tecra on my lap, cursing my family downstairs for watching telly too loudly. It's hard to confess this, but it's true. I disconnected the Panasonic phone and called home, rather than walk downstairs. What can I tell you, I'm sick.

Thursday

The TMA official still hasn't called, so I call them. "Oh dear," says the helpful PR assistant, "He's out. I'll try to get a message to him. Will Monday do?"

It won't. On Saturday, I'm flying off to Demo 97. It's a secret show. People are allowed to demonstrate stuff there and not launch it, because it's work in progress, shared between peers.

The list of people there is "top secret" the PR idiot at Alexander PR assures me. Meanwhile on the Web is a list of interesting exhibitors: AT&T, Wallop Software, HotOffice, BBN Planet, Sun Microsystems, Intelligent Interactions. I also happen to know that Pilot (USRobotics) and Lernout & Hauspie will be there. Top secret indeed. Why do people pay these PR people fees? To obstruct journalists... I know, I know...

I get to spend an hour playing with the Dacom card. We manage to get it to talk to the phone once and then it decides to sulk. "We'll send you another phone," is the response. Nice, but what about my flight? I'm out of here Saturday! "It'll be with you first thing."

Bed early, temperature. Everybody else is out at the OS/2 drinking club; a disaster, I gather, when the landlord attacks one of the programmers. That's one pub which won't be suffering the nerd gathering again -- not, at least, till they change landlords. Which may be soon, judging from the tired and exasperated response of the local police station to our complaint...

I spend the late hours in bed again, talking to John Gilmore, one of the people who originally set up the Internet. He's now Electronic Freedom Foundation and he's outraged. The US Commerce department has issued a BS announcement about how liberal it's being, allowing 56-bit key encryption to be "exported" from the US. "This is a red herring," he explains. "These days, 56-bit keys can be cracked by brute force, and clever methods make it trivial. But what really matters is that the Commerce department is trying to get the debate off the rails. They're trying to shift it from "should we have control over encryption?" to "which system of control should we have?"

Friday

Supposed to be in Geneva, one-to-one with Hewlett-Packard's finest. Sneezing instead. No way to be there. Apologies aren't going to cut it with PA Consulting, I'm going to have to buy someone lunch. Oh, dear...

Gilmore comes back with the goods on the Commerce department: I urgently recommend you read www.bsa.org/policy/encryption/cryptographers.html -- it's got everything you need to know about data security.

Dacom's modem arrives "first thing" at 5.30. The TMA phone call?

Still waiting. And I'm out of here. Next posting from Palm Springs. I'll try to think of you all, I promise

By Friday, I still hadn't managed to make it talk to my cellphone.

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