Any week that starts with me having to rip the top off my PC is not going to go smoothly, but, nevertheless, have great fun with a new video card, Motion Picture from Advanced Technologies Manufacturing Ltd. This is a UK company who's previously done stuff for Acorn computers in the educational sector - don't get me started on Acorn - but is now branching out to Windows, PCs and other, more common markets. To my great delight, the card is simple to install, takes no time to configure and works just like that. Software's fine, and the price is particularly good - £49. It's always a pleasure to find a good product that just does what it claims, even if the process of installing it means I drop a screw in the middle of my PC and have to spend half an hour shaking the darn thing about like a cocktail before the reticent fragment of metal drops to the carpet. Can't really blame that on the card, but nevertheless impress co-workers with wide knowledge of foreign swearwords.
I've brought in my ancient Sony camcorder to provide a video source for testing, and discover an old home movie of Amsterdam. Spend a pleasant half-hour setting up a screenshot for the article, whizzing backward and forward through some very dodgy stuff indeed. Am informed by Production (the unsung heroes of PC Magazine, who actually take everything and produce, as if by magic, a real publication) that Circulation do not feel that sales will increase if we are moved to the top shelves at WH Smith's. Reluctantly choose tasteful images of statue and modern art museum for screenshot.
Wireless LAN project steaming ahead. Find myself stuck in pages of Very Hard Mathematics, trying to work out whether to believe what various companies tell me about their products - what is the difference between Frequency Hopping and Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum transmission? Company experts curiously reticent about details, but the Web comes up with the goods. Soon discover huge amounts of industry politics concerning adoption of IEEE 802.11 wireless interworking standard, which makes the maths look like Janet And John. Now, I'm very fond of the technical stuff and find the politics of this business more boring than SQL databases, but - alas - the former are just as important when it comes to deciding what product is likely to be worth recommending. Console myself with a quick spin around a few Web pages discussing new satellite data broadcasting systems - it seems that by the end of the century there'll be hundreds of the little darlings up there giving us tons of bandwidth wherever we might go. Providing, of course, they can sort the politics out.
A busy day, very little of which is spent in the office. Microsoft has invited myself and Andrew Watts (PC Direct) to a lunch meeting to talk about NT version 4.0. We turn up to a room full of Microsofties, other journalists, PR women in red jackets (why they always want to look like Virgin stewardesses is a constant mystery) and some efficient flunkies who dole out the canapes and drinks with ferocious regularity. Talk soon descends to gossip about absent journalists, Microsoft's less pleasant marketing habits and what on earth the competition's up to - there's one techie Microsofty I keep plied with questions about architecture, network security and other esoterica. It turns out that this is the day that NT 4.0 Workstation and Server are both going to production - the thing's finished! So why, one wonders, will it not be available for another month (at least), and why is there no CD or list of server features in the distressingly thin press pack that's handed out? Decide to eat canapes and reserve judgement until final code in actual hands of actual journalists.
Back to the office -- more wireless LAN mashing -- thence out again to Viva! Radio. Every week at around 6:40 on the Wednesday, Viva! drive-time show I turn up and talk about 'the latest developments in science and technology' to an audience of... well, not very many. Viva! is an AM-only station transmitting to London only and, according to its licence, women only. This strategy has left them with so few listeners the audience research people can't actually count them half the time. Nevertheless, as a confirmed media junkie I'll happily cross town and sit in front of a microphone to natter about all manner of things -- who cares if nobody listens? (it's on 963kHz, by the way. Hint hint.) When I started this gig, I thought they'd want to talk about computers -- not a bit of it. They want soundbites about weird and wonderful gadgets, advances, ideas or whatever. This week, our combined research has come up with a power station that runs on orange peel, Internet telephony, a wristwatch that sounds like a Dalek, and a new cure for impotence. Not entirely sure my bosses at Ziff know I'm on-air talking about flaccidity and prostaglandin gels. Makes a change from modems.
Finish off the day back at Ziff, where Hitachi's storage division has taken over a local wine bar and enticed the entire company down for drinks. This sounds like a good idea... except that the Hitachi sales managers down there are the most intense example of the species I've encountered in a long time. And they're all wearing identical ties with little yellow disk drives on them -- I find myself staring at one while a well-meaning chap smoking a virulent cigar tells me how important DVD (Digital Video Disk, the new 9/18Gb CD-ROM replacement technology) will be. I agree. He tells me again. I agree again. He's on the point of telling me for the third time, when I point out I've written about this already. Move on to DVD-RAM, the rewriteable version. Aha! Interesting stuff! Don't know about this... and, it turns out, neither does he. Documentation is promised, and I take advantage of him nipping off to get me a mineral water (don't ask) from the bar to merge into the background and join in a discussion with journalists from Computer Life about the private lives of various editors we know.
While hunting for something else on the Web, happen across the oddest bit of software I've seen in a long time. Executor, from Ardi, is a Macintosh emulator that runs under DOS. These people have completely rewritten the Mac ROMs and put the software on top of an 68040 emulator program -- fire it up, and there's a rather peculiarly munged - hacker-speak for distorted - Macintosh running on your PC. Entirely bizarre, and quite perversely fun. Alas, the thing's very slow at reading floppy disks and the demo version - available from the Web site above - is limited to ten minutes before it self-destructs. This is just too short to load anything in to test it, which is frustrating; but it does come with various little utilities and demo programs. If you fancy baffling a pal, download this.
Big meeting at PC Magazine -- the Forward Features Planning get-together. Entire editorial staff pile into the boardroom and stare at a whiteboard with 48 spaces on it. These are the features for 1997 -- four an issue for twelve issues. Our task - fill those spaces. A long list of ideas has been circulated, so over coffee and fizzing discussion we try to predict what's going to be hot all the way through to December of next year. As the industry seems to be running on product lifetimes of around three months, this is an interesting challenge.
Two and a half hours later, we've done it. Well, the first crack anyway -- there'll be lots of changes as time goes on -- but it looks impressive and almost feasible. Now, much as I'd love to tell you exactly what we've got cooking, I'm sure you'll understand that our many friends elsewhere in the computer magazine publishing business would be even keener to find out and we like to leave a few surprises in store. However, it looks like 1997 is going to be a cracking year. We'll be doing some things we've never done before, and revisiting some of our old favourites in new ways.
It's fun, this business. Apart from the two and a half hour meetings, sulphurous stogies, product launches with no products and the occasional hangover, that is. And I still haven't quite worked out when I'm supposed to do all this writing that keeps piling up.
Rupert Goodwins is Technical Editor of PC Magazine