Guy Kewney's Weekend Diary, from Chicago, Las Vegas

MondayHeck, the week is almost over. At least, if life were fair, it would be; it's been non-stop since we left Heathrow for Chicago last Thursday. And here we are in Las Vegas.

We - Rupert is with me - didn't have much luck in Chicago. The invite came from US Robotics. Now, as all the world knows, they sell the truly wonderful pocket computer, Pilot; and it's pretty much general knowledge that this is about to be updated. There's going to be backlighting for that little touch-screen. There's going to be a modem socket, so you can update your desktop remotely. Oh, and all sorts of things. I spent a tedious 10 minutes listening to another (rival) journalist smugly listing all the things it does. And so I was delighted to get invited to Chicago to get the in-depth briefing.

Pity US Robotics didn't invite someone from Pilot, too.

So we had a comfortable hotel, a great lunch, a fine dinner, and a half-hour view of the new robot-controlled assembly line. What more could one ask for? Like, news of the products like the Winmodem (it's a software-only modem using Pentium power) which has been available in the US for three months? Sorry; secret. Like, news of the new video conferencing software which has been in beta for the last six weeks, and is being demonstrated at the Comdex show? Sorry; secret. "What we can tell you is that we will be announcing new products as it becomes appropriate for the various territories we operate in."

So today, I bump into Karen, the PR chief inside USR. It's at a big USR party. "Hi Karen! When are we going to hear about the new products?"

She glares. "What is this? Tabloid journalism? Geez..." and stomps off, outraged.

I suppose we ought to include:

Sunday

Well, the diary has to start with Monday. But yesterday really was quite fun. There was the Blue Toga party, for example... and the queue for CE Windows.

It started off unpromisingly. I'm not just talking about the confusion of being paged as "Guymr" (pronounced "Goomer"), either. It was the flight itself. We arrived in Vegas around lunch in a high wind, on a 'holiday' airline, American Trans Air. The flight left Chicago's number-two airport, Midway, at 9.45, so obviously this involved a pretty early start from downtown, and not enough time to get packed and have breakfast as well. So we were, understandably, looking forward to the normal tasteless inflight meal with unwonted enthusiasm.

Our plane took off; signs appeared on the screen saying: "Your holiday starts now!" and a series of adverts for their holiday destinations followed. Beats me; I mean, if you're actually going on a holiday trip, why would you want to buy a holiday? And while we wondered who these people were, the stewards came around with drinks. All drinks $2.00; headphones $2.00. I got a cup of ice lightly sprinkled with tomato juice. Four hours later, that was it. At one stage I scrambled to the back of the plane in very bumpy conditions, and bullied them into letting me have a Coke. No food. "We only provide sandwiches on the return flight," they said. I couldn't wait that long, and said so. "Ohhhh, dear," they said sympathetically.

Lunch. Did you know that the Las Vegas Hilton has five 'major' restaurants? Well, it does. How many of them, do you suppose, in this City that Never Sleeps, are open at lunch time?

One.

The business of getting into Comdex is a gas. You stand at the registration tent with 2,000 other people trying to find your pre-registration documents. You make friends. You joke. You meet old friends from last year's queue. You snake past them back and forward as the line twists and turns up to the badge making machinery. You get a badge which has your post code in the phone number, and your name back to front.

While my friends were doing this, I was examining a special offer from Microsoft to promote its CE Windows operating system. It works like this: they have devised a machine that looks like a Psion, but is slightly heavier and clunkier. It runs software that looks like Windows 95 but is slower and clunkier. About all you can say for the combination is that it allows you to take an Excel spreadsheet off your desktop and play with it in the underground. And in order to evaluate this marvel (the Casio version, called, wittily, Cassiopeia) you hand over your credit card and $370.

Apparently, Microsoft's launch is tonight. This fact is elicited with some difficulty; nobody from Microsoft can be found to confirm it. The press office, of course, is not available on a Sunday. We show up anyway, on the reasonable logic: this is a press launch, Microsoft has invited the press, we are press: Microsoft will be glad if the Press arrives. Wrong! We are required to have an invite in our paws.

Help, thank goodness, is at hand; one of Microsoft's UK press officers strolls past. "Hi!" he says, "how're you doing?" We point out that we are not doing well. "Ah well, have fun!" he insists, disappearing inside.

(Not being invited was puzzling, actually. The next day, I did check with the UK press office, asking why I wasn't invited. "Oh, really? you weren't invited? - who are you?" they said. I suppose that answers the puzzle...)

So we felt reasonably happy about spending most of the evening chatting first to Cirrus Logic, who had a nice little private demonstration area of all their videoconferencing and modem stuff. They're licensing the US Robotics "times-two" or "X2" technology, they say; fascinating stuff on how to link videoconferencing from modem to LAN, LAN to ISDN, ISDN to modem. It nearly works! And the new 3D accelerator is very impressive; we spend far too long driving Monster Truck Madness around the desert...

The evening ends up at IBM's PC company corporate hostility suite. It's the "Blue Toga Party" - if you don't have a bed sheet, they have properly sewn Greek togas. And sandals! Off-the-shoulder togas, with most, not just some, of the IBM executives very obviously wearing absolutely nothing underneath. Is it possible that this is really the Microsoft thrash, and that the arrogant and indifferent group launching CE Windows is really the IBM people?

Apparently not. Things do seem to have changed a lot in the last 10 years, don't they...

Tuesday

I skipped the Bill Gates keynote. Apparently, it was one of those John Major "sit on a chair and be folksy" lectures. Me; I was summoned by Yogesh Gupta, of Computer Associates, to hear about how CA is coping with the opportunities of the Internet.

Normally, I wouldn't expect to agree with CA on very much. Gupta, however, endeared himself to me by being fascinated with my theory that BT needs to take over a bank. He got very enthusiastic about the idea, and added: "Of course, the other thing they have to do, and AT&T and all the carriers, is to get into fulfilment; they have to buy FedEx."

For sure; and BT needs to buy the Post Office. I'm serious, actually.

The afternoon is spent wearing out shoe leather, and interviewing Sam Palmisano, head of IBM's PC operations worldwide. Like the UK's Mike Lunch, Sam had either the wit or the good fortune to take over the chieftain's role at a time when things were at an all-time low; and now things are looking good, and of course, both men are able to look modest and say: "Oh, it was the team, not me" while their bosses pat them admiringly on the shoulders.

Sam allows me to assume that he is the brains behind the Intel deal - although the link with Intel isn't quite as clear-cut as all that. He says, modestly, that he wasn't the real person responsible for the whole deal. Quite. We have to admit, though, that whether it was Sam's baby or not, the whole banking world must be in awe of the operation; it tells IBM's PC customers that they can bank with IBM! Buy from IBM and in two years' time, you'll have a load of two-year old antiques. But *lease* from IBM, and it's a different matter entirely; and every year, they'll come and swap the antiques for hot new stuff. And it costs the same!

The day ends in chaos with an hour-long queue for taxis outside my hotel. Fortunately, I know this wretched town, and march off up the pimp-laden streets, past the purveyors of "Dream Girls" advertisements for dubious services, and find a cab coming down the road with its lights lit. I don't know how often I can get away with this trick before somebody else notices me doing it, but I've been going to Comdex for 15 years at least, and it still works.

Destination; Silicon NorthWest. It's a sort of mini-Comdex organised by a group of small companies from around Oregon and Washington states, and a Mecca for the knowledgeable because the food and wine are so good. This year, the products are a pretty wide range from useless (a small-medium-enterprise 'solution' for creating Web sites by typing the data into a web page) to the predictable (yet another Teach Yourself Java booklet with CD in the back). It turns into a social event, which is fine, because I have to leave and hobnob with a group of IBM dealers.

This turns out to be the best news source of the evening, because they have all been scouring the town for a source of Windows CE machines, which (it turns out) are almost all being delayed for months before they get to the UK. One has a 4Mb Cassiopeia, which appears to run 15 times faster than my 2Mbe model. I resolve to enquire about the costs of memory upgrades.

But these people are unreasonably optimistic about the idiocy of users. Just how big a worksheet can you run on a 2Mb PC? Are users really going to download all their Excel stuff and all their Word stuff and all their Internet Explorer cache into this? I doubt it.

Wednesday

Bump into Jerry Pournelle, science fiction writer. I have a complaint: "Jerry, I was searching Alta Vista, and found a character called by my name, killed off at the rank of midshipman in one of your space operas!"

He tells me this is no accident. I insist on a bigger part, next book. "OK," he says cheerily. Watch this space... and no, you needn't write to me telling me how damn sad it is, searching Alta Vista for your own name.

John Patrick, head of IBM's Internet operations, is my next appointment. It's scheduled for an hour from 10.30 and actually over-runs by 20 minutes, which is fine by me, because I find Patrick one of the most consistently well-informed people inside IBM these days. John has news of several new ventures in the finance structure market, and delights me by taking my theory about PTTs and banking very seriously; so it seems harsh to complain that this fascinating interview is, nonetheless, depriving me of an interview with someone at the coal face; Andrew Morbitzer. He's the man running the "skunkworks" in San Francisco, where all IBM's neatest Internet ideas are generated; and naturally, his press office, which is also John Patrick's press office, has scheduled the meeting for the same period. Bi-location, I understand, if proved, is accepted by the Catholic Church as grounds for canonisation. Nice to know IBM thinks of me as saintly.

The evening is spent eating cold pizza and indifferent beer at the Chapel of the Little Flowers, where Dr Ruth, the eminent sex therapist, is starring at the Microsoft GeekFest.

A GeekFest is very simple; you go there, and Microsoft gives things away. Mostly things that only Geeks would desire; tee-shirts, programming manuals, SDKs, plastic puzzles. I give my digital camera to Jim Louderback, editorial director of PC Week, so he can take a picture of me in the chapel sitting next to Dr Ruth. Jim runs a mile, and is discovered later geeking the sound system into operation. My colleague Rupert takes the photo for me. I reciprocate by pressing all the wrong buttons on his camera, and taking a 10-second delayed picture of the floor around my shoes.

The evening ends in a bar called Mad Dogs and Englishmen, where Traveling Software is not holding its Burnout Party. The idea of the burnout party is to take advantage of the fact that you've got nothing to do for the rest of the week, and might as well get a hangover of truly epic stature. To make things interesting, Mark Eppley has gone one better; previous parties involved giving people stick-on tattoos, so this one involves attaching fake body-piercing jewels. A prize is offered for the most creative body decoration. My attempt to fake a pierced eye-brow and nostril are utterly overtrumped by most other contestants, including one young lady who appears to be sporting the real thing. On both sides. No, not her nostrils...

The evening isn't a success as a party; the music is too quiet, and people are able to converse. This is great for me; I end up discovering lots of interesting stuff about Gateway 2000, Dragon Systems, and Microsoft. Watch this space for details as they develop. But Mark seems strangely dissatisfied with having provided a nice ambiance for journalistic research. I think he had planned an uninhibited party with which to make jealous those who couldn't find out where the Burnout was. Well, it always worked in previous years. Probably, what went wrong, was that this year, everybody believed him when he said it wasn't happening.

Thursday

It's raining. The day starts off like the earlier part of the week; the Corel balloon floats imperceptibly along in a non-existent breeze. By the time I've had breakfast and returned to my room (just before eight) the wind has turned, and the balloonists are panicking over on the horizon; and then the water falls. And when it rains in the desert, you better have enormous water-proof boots.

The morning's meeting with Intel is to discuss Flash RAM. They've found a new application for it; as the storage medium for all these digital cameras. That's why they lent me one for the week, of course; this is my session in the Digital Darkroom, where they unload all my images onto the Web.

How successful the demo is, I can't say. On an MMX-enabled HP 200 MHz machine, it takes a good 20 minutes to unload all the data. "Ah, that's because the PCMCIA card reader is on the ISA card. If it were PCI, it would really fly." In other words, the MMX stuff is all smoke and snake-oil, here? "Oh, no. Not at all. It would take far longer on a 386."

The images are, when examined, dreadful. I took one picture of a drain-cover with "say no to drugs" on it; all you can actually see is a white smudge. It might be paint, it might be second-hand food. Oh well; on to San Francisco; I'll let you know how that goes next week. There's a storm...

Friday

The night was spent in the airport; storms over San Francisco, air traffic control, and floods in Las Vegas. I'm taking cabs everywhere, and my ATM card has so far failed to work at all. I'm running very low on cash. A hotel would be nice. They appear to be full. And my driving licence appears to be AWOL.

Glamour, glamour, glamour; oh the glamour of this international travel, eh?

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