Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 1/10/2003It's rare for a day to be as pleasingly balanced as this. In fact, it's rare for a day that starts before dawn to be pleasing at all.

Wednesday 1/10/2003
It's rare for a day to be as pleasingly balanced as this. In fact, it's rare for a day that starts before dawn to be pleasing at all. But I'm up with the lark -- more accurately, the inelegantly wasted urban fox I disturb on my way out past the bins at the back of the flat -- to do an interview on BBC Breakfast about Microsoft's Media Center. What do I think? I'm tempted to lapse into Fast Show mode: A thousand pounds? For a television? With Microsoft's reputation? I try and get across that the basic idea of a home server is fine, but making an XP-based PC do the task isn't that good a plan. I fear I might have been slightly negative. Oh dear.

Lunchtime sees me at the launch of the new Palm Tungstens, which is cunningly disguised as lunch. Before, after and between courses, we're treated to PowerPoints from Palm and three of its bestest friends. These don't aid digestion: the worst by a mile is Oracle's suit, who barely mentions Palm but just gives us the standard pitch about how clever Oracle is and how many people it's managed to sack by using its own software. The assembled hacks, who are being kept from their nosh by this unpalatable fare, are not impressed. It's a very well-attended occasion, although anyone turning up in the hope of lugging away actual hardware is doomed to more disappointment: it transpires that there are but four review units allocated for the whole of the UK. There are around forty journos there; given the average review cycle of two weeks at best, that means it'll take around half a year for them all to get fingers on stylus. Look out for the "We review the brand new Tungsten!" headlines in March. Not.

But the seal of the day is provided, once again, by Microsoft. For the official launch of Media Center, we are invited to a very posh club just off Regents Street -- almost opposite Hamley's toy shop, which you can see as ironic if you're that way inclined. Most of the office are told "You cannot come; it's full"; unheard of for an important launch -- in the event, of course, entire armies of magazine journos turned up on spec and got in. Not the rest of ZDNet UK, who very sensibly decided to take Microsoft at its word and go and have more fun elsewhere.

Inside the club, a huge square room with an impressive glass cupola is dotted around with PCs and video projectors, and scurrying uberhip waitpersons who don't let a chap take so much of a sip of Bill's fizz before topping up. A boat has been pushed out.

I'm barely inside -- wearing a red Press badge around my neck, the significance of which becomes clear later -- when Microsoft's PRs descend. They've seen the breakfast show, and are keen to put me right on my terrible misconceptions. There's a basic law of consumer journalism: the nastier you are about a company in public, the nicer it tries to be to 'put you right'. To get the full force of this, it's best to be thoroughly off-message in as public a way as possible: BBC 1 fulfils that brief admirably.

So I get ushered to The Special Cinema Room, where "You'll see just how wonderful it is, Rupert, playing high-definition films you just can't see any other way. And if you like, we'll get you the kit to look at." My! In The Special Cinema Room is a huge plasma screen, millions of speakers scattered around and a pile of computer kit throbbing away. It's running Media Center, and playing clips from Terminator, cinema adverts and the like. As I enter, the screen's showing a massive Hollywood explosion, great orange broccolis of flame sprouting across the picture. The PR goes into his spiel, while I stare at Arnie.

"Scuse me," I say. "It just dropped a frame." The picture judders slightly and skips a beat.  "Ah," said the PR, "not really... but this is really so good, it's at the limits. When we get four- or five-gigahertz processors, it'll be fantastic." "There's another," I say, "but well, those special effects are difficult to compress. I guess." The image changes to a chunk of titles, scrolling slowly across the screen, plain white on black. It shudders again and gives that little hiccough so characteristic of a streaming video system not quite up to the job. "Um." I say. "You've got good eyesight!" says the PR, and steals silently away.

No plasma screen kit for Rupert today. But to be honest, when a £40 DVD player from Tesco's can do a better job than kit costing fifty times as much, I'll survive. I drink more of Microsoft's champagne, investigate the true high spot of the evening (the loos, shaped like giant eggs, which are all anyone can talk about), and catch a bus home.

Oh, the red tags? It turns out that various PRs and Microsoft partners at the launch are under strict instructions to "Pick a red tag at random and talk to them". Which is as farcical as you may imagine, heightened by the fact that the journos have all been given little silver USB drives with the MS press info on. These hang from the tags as well, but as none of the partners have been given any most of the conversations revolve around the partners and PRs desperately trying to blag the kit from the journos. A most agreeable sensation.

It was a good day.

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