Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Crime pays for one out of two scrotes this week, as Rupert threads his way through the madness that is 3GSM

Monday 14/02/2005

In France for 3GSM, the mobile phone industry bash. It's not clear exactly what bit of France I'm in, as Cannes -- the venue -- is full. So there was a lot of shuttling last night around in minibuses and taxis between Marseilles, Nice, Cannes and the hotel in Beaulieu Sur Mer. Which would have been a charming tour of the scenic Cote d'Azur, had it not been dark: similarly, the Belle Epoque hotel would have been fantastic -- heated open-air swimming pool, tasteful gardens, effortlessly sumptuous rooms -- had it not been more than an hour away from the conference and thus effectively just a distant room with a TV and a bed.

The press room was a tent on the beach, designed along the time-honoured lines by working out how many power points, seats and network connections will be needed for the attending journos and dividing by two. The result was similar to a full multistorey car park: anxious hacks cruising the aisles desperately seeking someone about to depart. The click of a closing laptop lid was a drop of blood in a lake of piranhas, and many took to bolting their notebooks to the desks before wandering off for half an hour. One rather fierce woman was in charge of four -- I, looking for a space, wandered over and said "Er, I wonder if..." I got no further. "We're REUTERS!" she said, in capital letters yet. "We NEED these for our WORK". "But..." "REUTERS!". "Writer!" I said. But she wasn't having it.

Yet the major downside of the tent was the positioning. It is hard to sit through a long and Powerpointy briefing about EMEA ARPUs when the Med is sparkling like a TV advert twenty yards away. How we suffer.

The first day of the show was a zoo -- imagine 30,000 phone industry people packed into a small French seaside town, all of them wandering around staring into their phones and bumping into passing Citroens. In the middle of all this, the plain people of Cannes -- elderly ladies in expensive scarves carrying tiny, neurotic dogs and large numbers of disaffected youths -- try to go about their normal business.

At least one of the above group made the best of it. A friend saw a very stylish mugging: a straw-thin teenager in a hoodie with a bandana over his face was wandering through the rampaging hoards of overfed suits, checking out their phones. Then he pounced -- his victim, a rather shiny Korean gentleman texting away on a very small, very colourful phone. The lad just rushed past him, grabbed the phone and was gone, leaving our executive still thumbing the empty air. Very impressive.

There was also some nonsense on a yacht with a three-piece Korean girl group who played a sort of Hooked On Classics medley amid pints of gin and tonic, but I won't bore you with all that. It was also amusing to wander pass the huge Nokia venue -- another huge tent on the beach -- while a Motorola-sponsored boat projected giant videos onto water sprays just in front of it. Petty childishness is the mother of invention, I always say. Tuesday 19/2/2005

The sun is shining as the train winds its way along the coastline from Beaulieu to Cannes, and as the pines, sea and rugged cliffs unfold it's possible to imagine that one is a minor aristocrat on the Grand Tour. Until you realise that the train has now filled with briefcase-toting execs all talking about WiMax.

At this point, I should declare an interest. I was flown out, fed and housed by HP, in exchange for which I hung out with some of their executives and attended a couple of events. In general this sort of thing works out well -- the HP execs had some interesting things to say and we get to cover more stuff than we could otherwise. But sometimes things go a little awry, especially if something out of anyone's control gets in the way. Let's say, purely hypothetically, that you've got some fab new product to announce – a phone, perhaps -- but one of your partners – the operating system guys, for example -- gets cold feet. Suddenly, you might have a load of journalists turning up for a big meeting and nothing much to say.

I don't know if that's what happened in this case, but it felt like it. The European journo contingent was waiting for a round table to start -- a generally pointless exercise in which one or two company bods discuss things with six or seven journos: the suits aren't going to say anything shocking and you're not going to get anything exclusive, so we tend to spice things up by hunting in packs.

However, this round table was excitingly different. It was a speech by the CTO of a South Korean telco, ostensibly about how HP had helped it do wonderful things with mobile services. However, it turned into a long talk about how clever the telco was and how, thanks to the unique conditions of the South Korean market, 3G and other new services were taking off far faster than in Europe or America. There was a certain restlessness in the ranks of the European journalists as they pondered how to turn this into a story that their European readers -- and, much more importantly, their European editors -- might want to read.

At the end, there was the opportunity for a couple of questions. "What is the relevance of this to the European market?" asked a Dutch chap.

"Ah, yes," said the exec. "Korea and Europe are very different markets. It would be most unsafe to draw parallels. There is no relevance for Europe." There was a sound as of a hundred laptops being closed simultaneously; we made our excuses and left.

The very best bit of 3GSM is meeting people you haven't seen in ages. By dint of walking a hundred yards past the Palais des Festivals, I found out that a group of old Sinclair Research techies are now ensconced in California designing iPod internals, how one mobile phone company had had to change the code-name for a flagship product because the engineers couldn't say it without laughing, and how many of my former colleagues have made much more money than I ever will.

I also found out that some things don't change. By one of the entrances to the main conference hall, a small booth advertised "UK Technology Today". It had a couple of charming bag-handing-outers and a bald chap in a suit. Yes, it was Our Government supporting the Brave Boys of British Technology. Excellent! "What's going on?" I asked. "Can you tell me which UK exhibitors have new products? Press releases?" He looked at my badge and grimaced. "You're the press?" I assured him I wasn't all of it, no. "Well... we are having a drinks reception... but you're far better off going to the stands and asking them all yourself. Here's a list. No, we don't know what they're doing.." There was fear, mistrust and discomfort behind those round glasses. The list was proffered in much the same way as one might proffer a rolled-up newspaper to a wasp: I took it, the hint and to my heels.

The Scottish equivalent stand had whisky. I know who won that particular battle for hearts and minds. Wednesday 16/02/2005

Another good side to 3GSM is the ability to test out a few theories and see how people react. For example: I have no idea what the future of high speed mobile data is. It could be telephony-based with 3G and its various add-ons like HSDPA and HSOPA; it could be WiMax and the various flavours of 802.16; it could be mixtures of the two or something entirely different. There are good reasons why none of them is quite right, and the arguments each side make against the other have some validity.

"Are people desperate for more bandwidth?" I ask. "Don't they want more a more reliable, cheaper version of what they've got already?" They might want, but they won't get -- while HSDPA can theoretically be rolled out to existing 3G network base stations without hardware changes, in practice it will need a considerable investment in extra bits and pieces. That's money which won't go into extending and improving the core service; money that'll have to come from the users.

"But the killer app is the mobile TiVO!" exclaimed one operator. "I'll be able to record my favourite TV at home and watch it anywhere on my handheld, whenever I like". He could be right: it is an attractive proposition and it doesn't take too much imagination to see this idea shifting loads of viewers and, more importantly, justifying all that investment in bandwidth.

Except, of course, the film and music industry are dead set against people having this level of control over their recordings. It is more important to the MPAA and RIAA that things go unwatched and unheard through aggressive DRM than two people watch and hear that which they deem only suitable for one. It could be this, rather than any technical or commercial issues, which finally decide how things pan out -- and the rather gloomy looks I got when this is mentioned does nothing to dispel that idea. Thursday 17/02/2005

Meanwhile, back in Utah, SCO is in rough water. I'd just about resigned myself to a long summer of nothing much happening as the infinitely slow business of American justice builds imperceptibly towards an actual trial sometime next year. But it may not get that far.

First, SCO's parent company, Canopy Group, is in the middle of internecine warfare. The top execs have been booted out, there are suits and countersuits flying over who did what to whom and where the money went, and there's a feeling that some of this nastiness is fallout from the way SCO has been, er, managed of late. This is the sort of thing that gets very interesting very quickly, as each side dips deep into their store of company secrets to find more mud to fling.

Second, as of today SCO is heading for a delisting from NASDAQ. It hasn't made the right filings in time concerning various aspects of the company finances -- share options, basically -- and it's poised to be booted off by the end of the month. It might not: there's a hearing to go and there's still time to make amends, but this is the sort of disaster that can only accelerate the demise of a company already in trouble. Why hasn't it filed? Ask the auditors. They're refusing to pass the paperwork. Could be any number of reasons: none of them, however, are good.

Third, the company's not selling any software. This hasn't seemed to bother them too much of late -- after all, when you're going to win billions of dollars in the court, who needs to flog boring old programs -- but when you're going to need someone else to throw you a lifeline, even a little hint that you might be a going concern helps.

SCO's best chance of survival would be a wholesale change of management at the top followed by a negotiated withdrawal from the lawsuits. The delisting alone is excuse enough to dump Darl, and I'm sure you can think of a few other factors that should be taken into account. Otherwise, we may just see the company collapse -- mass resignations, possible legal action, insolvency -- in any one of a number of interesting ways. Friday 18/02/2005

A joyful story from Cambridge, where a chav burglar made the mistake of breaking into a geek house. These two tribes are not natural friends, and as the geek had previously been relieved of his possessions by an earlier visitor the place had been wired for vision. A webcam on the computer noticed motion and promptly emailed off pictures of the chav contemplating his haul: the plod were overjoyed to recognise their lawful prey, and even happier to plonk him down in front of a computer to replay his misdemeanours.

I once set up a similar system for a rather paranoid friend of mine, who was convinced that someone was rummaging through her flat when she wasn't there. She was also rather suspicious of the estate agents she was using to flog the place, and so got me to sort out some motion detection software and hook it up to an email program. We were both on the BT ADSL trial at the time, which made it all possible: the software triggered by itself from time to time, presumably as lighting conditions changed, and on dial-up that alone would have sunk the project.

It worked. There wasn't anyone making use of her gaff in her absence, but we got some great shots of the estate agent showing people around. We also had one set of him going around the flat by himself (as arranged), which culminated in him about to leave, noticing something on the computer (we reckon it was the lights on the broadband modem), and giving the webcam a cheery wave as he left. Not quite as desired.

The best way to defeat this system is to wear a balaclava, at least until you've unplugged the computer. Perhaps the problem is that they don't come in Burberry check.

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