Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The week starts well with a peak Apple experience, and even Bugs, radiating hatstands and intimations of mortality can't dampen the spirits

Monday 31/02/2005

To Regent Street by Underground carriage, there to keep an appointment with Genius. My first trip to the Apple Store, yet already I come as a dissatisfied customer. My iPod is running out of battery life and warranty at a worrying rate: with two hours per charge and just a month to go on the guarantee. I wanted to see what could be done, not without a certain nervousness at never having sent away the warranty form and buying the thing in a land far, far away from home. "No problem" said Alex, our Apple-savvy production bod. "Just book yourself into the Genius Bar at the Apple Store, and they'll sort you out."

Yeah. Right. So at 11:30 on Saturday morning I get an appointment from the online system which tells me to present myself with my petition at the Genius Bar, 4:30 sharp that very afternoon. Which I duly do.

The store is heaving. Packed. Pulsating with humanity of all sorts and ages, every demographic is represented except for that group known to professional anthropologists as "poor people". I think I bring the average annual income per household of the place down by 10K just by turning up in an anorak. I find myself a seat on the tastefully stripped bench by the Bar, and wait for my name to come up on the screen.

Everything's running about ten minutes late (and forget about those pictures of a fully staffed bar on the web site: there are two or three black-clad geniuses working their designer-clad backsides off. Nevertheless, a nice lad appears at the appointed hour, ticks my name off and says I'll be sorted out shortly.

At 4:45, a different nice lad looks at a screen and calls me up. He looks at the iPod, checks for the obvious sillies (equaliser on, backlight set) and taps the serial number into his computer. The iPod is there, but with no name or other details attached. No problem. He dives into a drawer behind the Bar and pulls out a Jiffy bag with - a brand new 3G 40GB iPod. Who am I? It doesn't matter. Do they want to take it back to the workshop and try and repair it, or at least test it? Naw. Just sign here, please.

At 4:55, my 11 month old (and showing it, frankly) iPod has been replaced by a sparkling new one for no more cost than a few moments of my time. Astonishing. All I have to do is take it home, plug it into iTunes and my portable musical life carries on as if nothing had ever happened. (This doesn't happen: later that evening, iTunes claims to have lost five thousand songs and when I tell it not to be so silly, there they are, it promptly duplicates them. There is no de-duplicate function in iTunes. Handy hint: sort by date, then block delete: not perfect, but it's a start).

So: Apple, take a bow. You may have an attitude problem towards the press (not in itself a hanging offence) and you may have been a bit of a stinker in the past with certain PowerBook problems, but in terms of hassle-free punter satisfaction you've just beaten every other company I've dealt with into a cocked folder. If Sony has any wish to stay on this planet, it should poach whoever it is runs your customer service side at once, at whatever price it costs.

Tuesday 01/02/2005

I have a Bug by my bedside. Not an infestation of cockroaches caused by habitual sub-duvet pie consumption, but Pure's emphatically designed digital radio. Today, in the spirit of scientific progress, I download and flash the experimental electronic programme guide -- first EPG in the world for a production DAB radio, pop pickers -- and enter the world of the TiVoistas.

It's good, for a beta. A bit clunky because you have to tune your radio to the EPG channel and silently await the data, but that'll be fixed in production says Pure. Imagine a large calendar with date and time running along the top and station name going down the side: the EPG software makes the Bug's limited screen a window onto this, and you can change station or time by using the navigation cursor keys on the radio's base. It's simple but very effective, and when you've found the programme you want you can mark it for later recording onto the SD card or find more information about it.

It'll be even better when the BBC starts broadcasting its EPG on a regular basis, rather than whenever some bloke at DAB Central has nothing else to do between games of Tetris: as it is, the only listings I get are for Capital Gold, Capital Disney, Capital Mellow, Capital Identikit Bland, Capital Bland Identikit, Capital Middle Of The Road, Capital Top 40, Capital I Remember 2004… sorry, got carried away there.

We shouldn't be too blasé about DAB, though. Although the UK's doing very well in rolling out the system, it's by no means as popular abroad. In Germany, there are no new licences on offer -- the regulator has suspended the process while it investigates different standards such as DVB-H that can do a lot more -- video, high quality audio, digital data services and so on -- because they've been developed a long time after the DAB Eureka 147 standard was finalised. In the US, the success of the digital satellite radio stations XM and Sirius means they're looking to Europe to expand -- although subscription-only music services sold on the lure of no advertising will have a hard time in the UK with its eight public service radio networks.

In short, the once-moribund world of wireless is fizzing with intrigue, uncertainty and interest. Does a soul good…

Wednesday 02/02/2005

MIMO is creeping out of the lab and onto the shelves. This technology -- Multi-In, Multi-Out -- is what happens when you stick more than one antenna on a radio. Do it right by adding circuits to delay and amplify the signals from each antenna in the right way, and you can treat each physical path between transmitter and receiver antennas practically as it own channel. Result: lots more throughput and reliability, lots fewer blackspots and awkward signal fades as you move about the office or home.

The latest device to sprout aerial excrescences like a cress-haired doll is the Linksys WRT54GX access point. Like its rival Belkin, it uses an Airgo MIMO-enabled chipset: it has three long blank antennas that look, frankly, like a hatstand. But with the right cards in the clients, it can pootle along at a reported 30Mbps while running streamed videos. MIMO works.

Or rather, it would if the companies concerned weren't so busy trying to sabotage the thing. The official next-generation MIMO-using Wi-Fi standard is 802.11n, which hasn't yet degenerated into a UWB-style Mexican stand-off but is trolling along slowly. Too slow for numerous vendors, who are offering pre-N MIMO kit, but which is pretty well guaranteed not to work with anybody else's in the new super-duper modes. Everything will work as ordinary Wi-Fi, we presume, but that's hardly the point.

The point behind standards is to grow the market. A fragmented market is not attractive to the users, at least not where interoperability matters. But we know how much the users matter.

The other area where we're being let down is in industrial design. There are any number of great physical designs that suggest themselves for devices that have to have multiple antennae. A wall-hanging starfish. A sunburst. A Sputnik. A model four-masted schooner, perhaps with solar cells in the sails.

All these delights await a jaded world, just as long as the manufacturers get their act together, talk to each other and take care of the users. It's not hard.

Thursday 03/02/2005

Grave news from Germany, where the Reg reports on the Telefon-Engle (Angelphone), a mobile phone designed to sit on top of the last resting place of your dearly departed. Weatherproof and with a battery designed to last twelve months, you can call it up and chatter to your hearts content.

Or so the news has it. Personally, I think that anyone who's invented a battery that can run a cellphone for a year has better things to be doing than poking around in cemeteries. It also shows a shocking lack of imagination.

Here's my invention to solve the same, er, problem. Take one gravestone, and coat it with solar cells. Inside, place a small yet powerful web server with copious solid-state storage and a 3G modem. Before you pass on, program up the server with as much detail of your life and works as you feel appropriate, including video and audio clips, and a calendaring utility. Carve URL on headstone. Die.

Then, those who mourn your loss can visit at any time from any web browser. And those who don't can be delighted by regular emails, in which you can tell them exactly how you feel about them, your happy memories of the things they did to you, and so on.

It may even be possible to extend this to limited forms of AI, so that you can check the bequests made in your will are being carried out -- or even continue to manage your share portfolio (not difficult, as recent models of the equity markets show the best match is made by assuming people make random trades). In fact, there's no reason your ability to meddle in other people's affairs should be in any way diminished by your untimely demise.

Take extra care when configuring the security of your gravestone server, though. The last thing you'll want is to succumb to a spammer's attack -- and we can't have graveyards full of zombies and worms.

Friday 04/2/2005

Over in the US, auction house Christie's is having a sale of computer documentation. Not old copies of MS-DOS 2.1 manuals, though -- it'll be thirty years before they become valuable -- but the good stuff. Letters by Babbage, papers by Turing, designs by Eckhert and Mauchly, all manner of paraphernalia that can be linked in some way to the development of the digital world. None of it's cheap -- Christie's expectations start at $400 and move up to the $50,000 mark -- but you can still enjoy a lot of it gratis at the original collector's website.

IT may be the first industry that self-documents. The really early stuff hasn't been curated any better than any mid-20th century endeavour, and lots has been lost for good, but once computers started to get good enough to help design other computers -- and the art of the back-up was learned -- then historical records started to move out of the physical and into the digital, where they belong. By now, there can't be any new digital product that doesn't announce its arrival with a shower of new online information, and all aspects of its inception, design and production will be created in a massless, instantly duplicable and searchable form. How much of this stuff is properly archived, I don't know: it's a worthwhile project to find out.

Moreover, the worries about archaic storage methods leading to incomprehensible records -- who now can read an 8-inch floppy? -- should be receding. As long as the data is networked, new storage and distribution techniques will drift in and out of the network as they are born and become obsolete. The data itself -- spread around the world -- will carry on: at least, this is the hope.

I'd like to see some of the mooted offline storage ideas become reality: the best, I think, was to use an X-ray laser to etch information into durable metal disks. This would be very high density, not too difficult to read and would comfortably survive in most environments for hundreds or thousands of years. A box full of those in Earth orbit, or dumped somewhere secure like the Moon, would be quite a time capsule for those we hope come later.

Although to be honest, a decent portable half-gig backup device would do me right now. Especially if iTunes is going to give me the same sort of fright it did on Saturday. [Don't you just love the way he always comes full circle? -- Ed ]

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