Guy Kewney's Weekend Diary

SundayDemo '97 starts on Sunday.

You have to understand that California is eight hours behind. The sun wakes up about four hours after your stomach is insisting that you're late for lunch. You're exhausted, you need to sleep, but you can't.

So you watch the sun rise, and fine, you're in the desert, somewhere east of Los Angeles, and these idiots have built a lawn, and are playing golf on it. At five in the morning, too. There are sand-smoothing machines sorting out the bunkers, and mowers with vacuum cleaners.

In the middle of the lawn, several miles long, are hotels. Inside, the world's best software developers and hardware engineers are showing the stuff they are working on.

The first thing that Sunday taught me was to travel with a spare modem. Mine simply isn't working, or so it seems. Off to Circuit City, where the plausible salesman talks me into buying a US Robotics Sportster PC Card for $200.

Satisfied with a morning's work well done, I spend the afternoon avoiding the official activity (playing golf with Hewlett-Packard) and drive into the desert to get away from this obscene green grass. Joshua Trees, Yucca plants, creosote bushes. That's what the desert is about - not snapdragons.

Rattlesnakes, hummingbirds...

The PC comes with me. A nice day to catch up with e-mail, if only GSM phones worked in the US. They don't. So I content myself with writing a few notes in the sun till the battery dries up.

Monday

It was nice to see John Scully. Would have been nicer if the former president of Apple had had time to say "Hi, Guy!" but he's apparently still smarting from something I wrote a year ago. I had to content myself with chatting to John Landry, Lotus Notes guru (now doing his own thing) and Stewart Allsop III.

Stewart's an Industry Observer turned shark; he's into venture capital. He says he's enjoying it. Maybe. Look, I remember Stewart when he was first Editor of Infoworld (in the days when I was a young freelance writer and worked for Infoworld myself. That was a few weeks ago [cough] or thereabouts. And he left Infoworld to launch the PC Letter newletter, which led to things like the Demo exhibition for ideas in progress (he founded that, yes).

And Stewart was very proud of being descended from Stewart Allsop (see your Dictionary of Quotations) and being a New Literary figure himself. And now he's putting money into new ventures, and writing nothing beyond a column for Fortune, which "gets harder and harder... because I have to declare interests".

Maybe it's new boy syndrome and as he gets used to VC, he'll get happier.

To work: after a hectic morning writing stories about neat stuff I saw at Demo it's time to post a report home. I have a pretty tried and tested way of doing this.

First, you dial into MSN. That gives you an ordinary Web connection, but at local call rates. Over that, you start a Telnet session. That links through to CIX in the UK. Bingo.

Well, if only. See, I'm a software reviewer in my spare time, and last week, as you'll recall, I installed the new MSN software. At the end of that experience, everything that does TCP/IP was broken, and I uninstalled. Now I'm reinstalling the original software, and discovering that it doesn't work. It's not my modem, after all, it's MSN dialup.

The afternoon is spent, not schmoozing and making contact. Instead I'm dialling MSN technical support. "We appreciate your patience, unfortunately all lines are busy. Please try later" - MSN hasn't even got enough lines for another music on hold.

Tuesday

It's Windows CE day. I try to be positive about this, really I do. One by one, CE producers appear on stage and talk about their improvements. And each time, I pat my shirt pocket reassuringly to check that I actually still have my US Robotics Pilot. Yes, it's there. I don't have to downgrade to something with three times the weight, a tenth the battery life, and impenetrable functionality.

Strange: the people here, Philips and HP, are very eloquent about the drawbacks of other CE makers. Easy to do, I suppose. What isn't here, though, is anybody from the PowerPC (Motorola) or ARM (Acorn) camp. I know these people are beavering away on CE designs for release later in the year, and I also know they're not basing their designs on the current CE platform. But apparently their work is not yet in good enough shape to demonstrate.

The only good CE machine turns out to be a telephone. At the end of their demo, organiser and MC Chris Shipley takes the microphone to make a few "housekeeping announcements" with an incentive to stay and listen, rather than running off to eat. "I'm going to draw names out of a hat, and the first three will get a free CE phone," she says.

This makes life easy: what would I do with a CE phone designed for US phone standards and built-in VGA? Carry it on holiday for two weeks? FedEx it to London? I march gaily out of the demo session.

Shipley takes her revenge: as soon as the door closes behind me, she announces: "And the third winner: Guy Kewney. Oh, dear, he's left the room. He doesn't win." You don't fool me, Shipley.

The day ends with a party thrown by Magic Maker. They've got Alan Dean Foster, who's doing a "live story-telling session on the Web" at Marexx.

It turns out to be terrible. They bill Foster grandiosely as "the world's greatest living science fiction writer," which makes me immensely grateful that my modest and unassuming friend and fellow writer on PC matters, Jerry Pournelle, isn't in the audience.

The demo starts out with a woman vapidly pleading with the room full of networking executives to stop talking; in place of their important schmoozing, she offers a series of insipid "thank you" speeches to the providers of the hardware, the network, the ISP.

Finally, the display comes alive with a wonderful animated Web graphic. It walks towards the camera, and freezes. An actor starts Foster's script. Web players start "talking" to the character and asking about the alternate worlds of Marexx.

Then it all goes horribly wrong. The animation freezes. The server crashes. The ISP bug which was supposed to be fixed last month turns out to have been partially fixed; it now kicks in sooner. The audience starts taking the mickey. "Why do you look like a short-order chef in a greasy spoon?" one Player asks the Builder - a UK visitor, obviously. No, it wasn't me. I was cringing with embarrassment for those involved.

Howard Morgan, chairman of Magic Maker, is looking unhappy. "How unhappy are you?" I ask him. "It cost me $50,000 for this room," he says tersely. "And another $20,000 for the musicians and equipment and Foster and the stuff. No, I'm not happy."

Back to the hotel to report; MSN isn't working. Well, I dare say the server is, but Windows 95 dialup networking simply isn't. I spend 35 minutes on hold to their tech support line. They tell me they can help me with my TCP/IP setup, but it's not their job to debug my modem.

Funny, the modem works fine with Ameol, which calls London and posts my stories at 57.6 kbits/sec. I can even dial the MSN local number from my terminal emulator. But what I can't do is get dialup networking to work. Wouldn't you say this was a problem with dialup networking?

I get an obnoxious tech support guy called Curtis who point blank refuses to discuss the reaons why I think it's the software, not the modem. He puts me onto "customer support" who kindly inform me that they can't help, I need tech support. They plug me back into music on hold. Two hours later, I give up...

Wednesday

This is the last report you'll get for some time. I'm off on holiday. It was my plan to use MSN to contact you from around the world - first New Zealand, then Hong Kong. I can't, it's broken.

It worked fine, until I installed the new MSN disk. So please, believe me: don't install the "upgrade" out this week. You'll end up having to completely re-install Windows 95 to fix it all.

The problem is that Microsoft doesn't understand modems. As you'll know if you ever went to Redmond, Microsoft staff aren't allowed to have them. They have a digital phone system so that even if they buy them, they won't work (actually, this is a fallacy, but it's one that the MIS staff believe in, and nobody is going to tell them different).

So they don't know the first thing about it all.

In order to make modem communications work, as any amateur can tell you, you need a debug mode. You have to be able to open a window that shows you what messages the modem is sending to the software, and a terminal window that lets you control the configuration of the modem so you can over-ride the setup strings. And Windows 95 simply doesn't have these.

And if you phone Microsoft, it's all the fault of your modem maker. Well, it isn't: here's the copy, and it came to you via modem. I did have to dial direct to the CIX phone number in Surbiton, at hotel rates. The modem handled that just fine. But Internet access? That's up to Microsoft.

Have a nice weekend. I'll be back in March.

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