Guy Kewney's Weekend Diary

Guy Kewney's Weekend Diary

Summary: Monday

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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I did not, honestly, believe that I would ever find myself doing fashion reports. Last month, over in Las Vegas, desperately trying to get some male model in combat gear to "look nerdy" for my digital camera, it suddenly struck me that this PC business is definitely out of control. I was trying to write about "wearable computers". It made me think of the Borg-ing of the world.

There are cyborgs on the planet already, of course. Did you read "Snow Crash"? Neal Stephenson - nice enough guy, met him at Hackers, didn't get a chance to talk much - has this neat idea of a world where people have a digital interface to their heads. They are so integrated with their computing appendages that a program can be "loaded" into their minds which crashes them. They go into snow mode, those randomly flickering white dots you see on the TV screen when there's no signal. White-out. Snow crash.

Well, this guy had obviously snow crashed. He was wearing khaki camouflage, he'd put boot polish on his face, he had his shoulders spread wide and his arms were struggling with his chest muscles in a vain attempt to go vertically down without crushing his rib-cage. Oh, and his jaw jutted. And he was wearing a PC.

What this means is pretty trivial, really. It takes two hands to hold a PC, and two hands to operate one. Few of us humans, so far, have two hands spare when operating one: hence the term "laptop." You have to create a "lap", which is a device temporarily created out of otherwise unused body space by sitting down. This provides a support platform for the laptop, without involving either of the normally-available hands. Alternative: if you are in an attitude which precludes the allocation of this body space to "lap" provision (standing up) you can get another human being to provide the support platform, or (this latest idea) you can tie the computer components to your garments.

They come in varieties. There are those that are clumsy ("Trekker" from Rockwell) those that are small, but useless (ViaWearable(href, img src etc is www.flexipc.com/stock/3pod.gif), with only a wimpy 486) and rather amazing, (MARSS, from McDonnell Douglas). This last was the one with the model inside it. It looks like a flak jacket (there's a blue police-colour one, too) and it contains batteries, cables, linked components such as Pentium, hard disk, mouse, and (this they all have) helmet.

Ah yes, the helmet. Head-mounted display and control unit. A one-eyed Terminator style appearance can be yours (as you mince down the catwalk) with a variety of miniature display units blocking one ocular input zone. And a microphone misinterprets your spoken commands.

Macho, it may look. I'd like to see James Bond get out of it in a hurry, though; and never mind the time taken to do a system shut-down. Just unbuttoning the jacket looks like it would take enough time for any girl to go to sleep.

Oh, the URL. Well, McDonnell Douglas starts off with a 60kb graphic, most of which isn't mapped. The buttons aren't visible till it's fully downloaded; and then it wants your registration documents. With a password, already. Why? It lets you in, whatever you say. Quarter of an hour wasted arguing with the dumb receptionist. Who ARE these people? And naturally, a search on MARSS produces no information. Good eh? Rockwell is no better; their ASCII-only announcement is in Macintosh, with the wrong extended character set. Via is the only one that is worth the bother, really, at www.flexipc.com.

Tuesday

Magneto-optical disks, a dead technology. "Small earthquake in Chile, few hurt," said my indignant Editor, "Surely with DVD technology here, nobody cares what happens to MO?"

Heard this one before, actually. There's always a new technology just around the corner; and anybody who interprets "around the corner" as "making current stuff obsolete" is mad. Look, I think DVD is brilliant. A whole movie compressed onto a 5Gb CD must, just must, be wonderful.

But do you have a DVD drive?

It just so happens that Toshiba has been showing a drive; back at Comdex, they had a working sample. One-off, prototype, disguised as a VCR. Actually, I have no personal proof it wasn't a VCR. I had no DVD disc to put into it.

Do you have a DVD disc?

When there are lots of DVD discs to play, of course you and I will buy a drive. And when there are lots of people with drives, I dare say all the film people will rush out to produce DVD versions, and interactive versions, of their latest hits. It hasn't happened yet, I urge you to note. Are you using magnetic bubble memory, by the way? That was "just around the corner" for the best part of a decade, and never happened.

Meanwhile, whatever the future of DVD may be, the writeable DVD remains an exercise in speculation both on price and availability. Nobody has released one. If you want to back up more than a gigabyte of data safely, you'd better have MO or magnetic media; and MO, as I was just about to tell you, is now obsolete.

The new stuff is called LIMDOW, and it is faster, safer, and more accurate than MO. And Plasmon is pretty pleased with having 2.6Gb discs available for writing, today.

Only one word of warning, then: if you don't have more than 25Gb of data to back up, stick to Iomega Zips and Jaz cartridges. They'll be cheaper. But I really do think you'd be silly to ignore MO or LIMDOW just because DVD may appear one day soon.

Wednesday

Cambridge. A short train ride from my North London home, walking distance from my house to Finsbury Park. "What's the quickest way of getting to Cambridge?," says innocent little me to the ticket office. Oh, for the days of British Rail. I spend a dreary 90 minutes in the code wind of WAGN's inability to run a train to Cambridge, while four high-speed express trains whizz past me, non-stop from Kings Cross, ten minutes further south (that means, I could have got there in ten minutes) and miss a meeting with Cambridge Ring inventor, Andy Hopper.

In the end, lunch is at 2.30. Cheerful company, though, because Chris Shipley, the new manager of Demo, has also missed Andy Hopper (traffic) and the two of us chat about the industry for an hour or so. She's off to France at eight in the evening, looking for Demo candidates.

Demo, you probably don't know about. It's very, very expensive with delegate tickets at $2,000 odd. I reckon it pays for itself within weeks. The idea is to get the world's IT inventors into one hotel in Palm Springs, and let them boast about what they are working on - not what they have already done. So you get to see work-in-progress. That's where I saw the Pilot last year, in February. Mail to chris.shipley@infoworld.com if you want details. Hope to see you there...

Thursday

Winston Churchill's scowl intimidates a quite crowded War Room audience of press delegates to hear Novell's Tom Schuster paint himself into a corner by selling Novell Directory Services as the ideal tool of network repression.

Tom really doesn't seem to understand the difference between "manageable" and "controllable." This could be a Novell problem, actually. Microsoft is not threatening Novell seriously in the corporate server stakes, as yet. Windows NT Servers are selling in large numbers, but to users, not big network managers. The trouble is that Microsoft has always, successfully, subverted the corporation.

The IT world cannot keep up with the demands of users. That's why users buy PCs. Now, as networks become a necessity, not a luxury, the simple truth is that networks can't keep up with the demands of users; it takes too long to get the network manager to admit that you have a genuine need, a genuine problem that existing resources don't solve, and a claim on the network manager's diary. At that point, you join the queue.

Far easier, say many, to DIY; buy a PC and install NT Server. And there's Tom and Novell solemnly assuring these IT guys that Novell Directory Services is going to let them keep control, because NDS is now being given away free, and will be available in every NT Server.

Well, it will indeed make things manageable. Controllable? Proverbs about riding tigers come to mind; better not mount that one, I think.

Friday

Computer Channel wants to know which 56Kbits/sec modem to buy. I do my best to explain that there are two (non-existent) products on the market, neither of which has been tested in the field, and a third proposal from Lucent. They say they want to know which one to buy.

It really is silly. Nobody actually knows whether Rockwell's 56Kbits/sec modem can be emulated by US Robotics, but I suspect it can. Nobody knows whether Rockwell is entitled to ask royalties on the design if Rockwell's modulation system becomes a standard - but I suspect not. And until Lucent lets me see something working, I have no way of telling whether it is compatible with one, either, or both the rivals. But who cares? Nothing is shipping, and nothing will be, for several weeks.

It's the old story; if you absolutely MUST have the fastest modem in the world at each end of a link, then it doesn't really matter which you buy, as long as it works; it will pay for itself within two months. The question of whether you have to buy something else in six months time is irrelevant. It would be nice if you could get away with no upgrade cost, but it's not the point. And since there's no way of knowing, placing bets is just that; a gamble. "But what should we tell customers?," asks the puzzled TV researcher. Beats me but how about: "Get ISDN?"

The day ends in disgrace; the company buys lunch for employees. I am an employee. You just don't want to know. After all, it will be Xmas soon... but if you do have any spare aspirin? Thank you.

Topic: Tech Industry

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