A Year Ago: Rupert Goodwins' Diary

First published: Fri, 04 Jun 1999 18:54:54 GMT
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

This week: Heath and efficiency, dinosaurs versus Microsoft, the dog it was that flew, the crypto-foolish, and one of our battleships is missing

Monday 31/5/1999

Bank Holiday. Spent slaving over a slightly warm computer, except for the bit where I went out and slogged over Hampstead Heath instead. Much nicer out than in, as I told the policeman.

Tuesday 1/6/1999

So, farewell then, Nathan. Mr Myhrvold is on sabbatical from his post in charge of Microsoft's multi-national, multi-billion dollar R&D division (most notable output to date: a dancing paperclip) for a year. Or so. The boy done good by running a "make two, get one free" offer for the Science Museum over bits of Babbage's mechanical computer, but in terms of bang per buck? Hmmm.

It shouldn't be this way. If you go and look down the list of papers published by the kids at R&D -- and they're some of the biggest boffiniest brainiest minds in the business -- you can find all sorts of good ideas. Operating systems with upgradeable components that you don't have to restart every time you add something, real-time multitasking techniques, Asymptotic Model Selection for Directed Networks with Hidden Variables... er, right, thanks for that. But either these people are very good at hiding ideas under bushels or they've been lighting the wrong lamps.

Never mind. Whoever looks after the place while Nathan's out harvesting fossilised femurs on his dinosaur dig can concentrate on building a version of Windows CE that people might actually want because it's good, easy to develop for, high performance, low power and suited to the task in hand.

Which brings to mind one question: If Microsoft is committed to portable devices and computers everywhere, how come it's not one of the 721 companies signed up to for Bluetooth?

Wednesday 2/6/1999

What's got four legs and goes very, very fast indeed? Sony's Aibo, that's what, the incredibly cute (yet dumb as a bone) robo-dog that goes five better than K-9 by having legs and a waggly tail. What's surprising isn't that the complete production run sold out in twenty minutes on the Web, but that Sony appeared surprised by the take-up. However, Sony may be naïve but it sure ain't dumb -- having seen Spot run, the next batch will be just as limited yet much more expensive. And then comes Aibo 2, when the voice recognition and mains-socket trope is all sorted out.

Let's see. Tamagotchi, Furby, Aibo -- can you spot the common factor yet? Homo sapiens has an inexhaustible appetite for anything that can marry the appearance of intelligence, howsoever bounded, with unashamed kitsch. Which almost explains the continued survival of the Royal Family. But they could do with being cyberfied for the Millennium: here, surely, is a project worthy of Nathan when he gets back from his palaeontology.

(I suppose if you're scared of robot dogs you could be said to suffer from Aibohphobia -- which, as everyone knows, is really a fear of palindromes)

Thursday 3/6/1999

A representative of a very famous encryption company appears in the offices -- alas, not wearing a long coat, trilby and dark glasses -- to tell us all about said outfit (the company not the coat, silly) and its plans for the UK. It's established an R&D division outside the US to make exportable versions of its very popular American software -- as one must, these days -- and everyone will be bashing down the doors to get some of this very trustworthy, high performance, ultra-secure stuff. With this, he says, your Web site will do all that fab e-commerce with absolutely no chance of anybody sneaking a peek.

Lovely. So they've done an exportable client as well as the server, then? Er, no. Hm. Next question, please.

They're making the source code available for inspection and verification, then? Er, no. But the name alone is enough to convince -- why, the stuff's in all manner of commercial products already. Such as -- and here our friend names a product already famed for having its encryption knobbled by the American spooks. He seems unaware of this.

Uh-huh. And you've sold how many in the UK? Er, none.

Tricky chap, encryption.

Friday 4/6/1999

The day's normal placid stream of panics, deadlines and general crises is interrupted by loud noises from outside the office. HMS Belfast, the WW2 battleship that's been moored just up the river from Ziff, is being towed out to a dockyard for a quick hull respray and fixup. It is, apparently, the last time the noble vessel will pass under Tower Bridge -- when it comes back in July it'll moor closer to Greenwich. Probably something to do with that Millennium buggery. But we'll miss the old girl -- my personal favourite bits were the radio rooms with lashings of ancient maritime wireless gear. The tow goes well, with lots of loud hooting, helicopters overhead and only the slight indignity of the ship being towed out stern-first to mar the occasion.

One anecdote. In the days when Ziff was just across the river next to London Bridge the offices overlooked HMS Belfast, and one of the meeting rooms was almost on top of the beast. We had a get-together of the tribes there once, when editors from our sister companies in France and Germany came across. One of the Munich contingent looked out, and in an absolutely perfect Hollywood German accent said: "Aha. Zat must be vun ve missed."

Zut alors.

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