This is the week that Kewney's World hits the Web. Naturally, I'm involved in the process; I'm supposed to come up with the most exciting story of the month, four times a month. Then you lot will all be excited and thrilled, and rush back here to read my diary, right?
The biggest story of the month, actually, is something to do with American Vice-President Al Gore, and I can't write that yet, because it involves getting an MP to emerge from the bushes and talk. After that, the big crash of the Internet directory service: I can't write about that, because Jesse Berst already did. There's Microsoft's "strategy" for the future, but that's ridiculous, and if I wrote that down, nobody would believe me. I know that, because Berst wrote it down, and I don't believe him.
It's hairy: the situation isn't helped by the fact that I have to have the stuff written by mid-afternoon, Wednesday. And tomorrow, Tuesday, when I'd normally be cooking the phone, I'm booked to appear at Editors Day, all day, down at Sandown. Yes, the horse racing place next to Esher in Surrey. No, there won't be any horses.
Today, it's the Chasm.
Tim Barnsley, one of the pioneers of computer distribution, is now a management scientist, and chief representative of the chasm-management school; he's providing a service to people who used to be small startups, and are trying to become established.
Of course, the easy way to do this would be to distribute their products. At least, it would be easy if you were a big distributor, and didn't have any competing products, and the product was one that sold itself. Back to square one...
Barnsley's analysis is that you can do a lot for these people by just introducing them to the right UK dealers; but you can do a lot more by explaining the Chasm. So it's time for me to explain it, too. And it's all to do with bell-shaped curves.
Most statistical analyses end up with bell shaped curves. You start off with a few people who are the smallest, or the earliest, or the quickest. Then you get to some who are a bit bigger or a bit later or a bit slower; and typically, there are a few more. Then you hit the people who are pretty small, but starting to be substantial. Or they're early, but not pioneers. And then you hit the middle of the bell shaped curve; and there, you have the average person, the bulk of the market. After that, of course, it tails off...
Marketing people aren't interested in the second half of the curve, where it all fades away. That's depressing, negative, empty, and contains little promise of sales... so gurus like James Martin have made their reputations by drawing a sort of "S"-shaped curve starting like an aeroplane on the ground, then rising increasingly steeply, then starting to level out. The bit where it loses altitude and comes down and lands is politically unacceptable, so he doesn't show that: all aircraft in his world are perpetually at maximum altitude. And Barnsley is a devotee of a new, post-Martin guru, who has discovered a new, magic part of this Martin curve: and it's the bit in the middle of the "S" where it stops curving up, and starts moving back to the level.
That's the "Chasm" and chasm dynamics, you can be sure, will be mentioned here again. Just as soon as I find the book...
Editors Day. It's rather hard to explain. You get a bunch of people, mostly advertisers in PC Magazine. You invite them to come to a race-course or a hotel, and you give them half an hour each to "present" strategically. They sit in a small room. Three technical Editors listen and watch the Power Point presentation. And then they're off.
It can go well.
Today, it starts off with a one-hour traffic jam in Marylebone. Instead of being at Sandown Park by 9.30, I'm actually in Paddington, dreading the journey through South-West London, because Hammersmith Bridge, the obvious route, is closed. In the end, I have a trouble free trip from Paddington, and get to our first group, which is 3COM.
To my itense delight, this turns out not to be 3COM at all; it's US RObotics under their new name. I'm a modem junkie. They tell us about the fact that IBM has decided to embed X2 technology in all its digital signal processors. Oh well; it wasn't going to be fascinating, was it...
After that, it goes downhill, rather, from the point of view of someone trying, desperately, to find the story of the week. A useful interview, for example, is with Plasmon.
It seems that the industry has deeply, badly screwed up the transition to Digital Video. Plasmon, seller of extension storage -- magneto-optical and phase-change as well as magnetic -- is doing its best to steer itself through the confusing interregnum; but despite brave public statements, the bottom line is: DVD will not be an important part of the PC business till the year 2000.
One thing that Plasmon has to tide us over is Panasonic's PD storage system; new drives out next month. It's CD sized, but is sector addressed; and the new drives will read CDs. So it's a sensible data storage item, and a useful PC peripheral, and read-write, and cheap. And one day, it will be a standard which DVD drives will be able to read, in compatible mode. And it's fascinating, but unfortunately, since I rang the technical director a week ago, I already have all this. And what about my Kewney's World?
Can you tell it's starting to get to me?
In the end, it's Imago who come up trumps. They have a 3Dfx chip, the Rush chip, on a Hercules display card; and in the course of telling me all about it, it becomes embarrassingly clear that the world of 3D graphics is not going Microsoft's way. Read all about it, as they say...
Vice President Al Gore dominates the evening. It's all to do with encryption.
It is the case that you can, legally, "export" software from the US only if the US Government deems it to be of no strategic value. Software which encrypts messages, is deemed to be of high strategic value, because (theoretically) the US has the world's best encryption technology. So other countries can't read messages that are encrypted in the US, but the US can read all those silly little banana republics' would-be covert transmissions.
It's also the case that the law is easily the silliest ever framed. It applies to anybody outside the US or Canada. If you are a Russian or Argentinian spy, based in Seattle, Washington or Washington DC, you can encrypt messages legally with 128-bit keys, using the RSA algorithm. You can transmit them, legally. And (in theory) it won't do you a bit of good, because when the message gets to Russia or Buenos Aires, they won't be able to decrypt it.
Of course, this is the most amazing nonsense. Most of the world's strongest key-encryption standards are based on work done in Europe. John Gilmour has arranged for a Greek company to reproduce the PGP standard; it is totally outside American control. And anyway, what do spies or Mafia members in Moscow care about whether it's legal to own PGP? "Oh, dear, Maxim. This message just in from Nicolai; it's encrypted with a 128 bit key. We won't be able to read it, or the Web site in Toronto will be in big, big, REALLY big trouble with the US Government. And we wouldn't want that..."
It may be the most obvious cobblers ever heard; but it's the Law in America; and so although it has not the slightest effect on the Mafia or the baddies, normal, respectable, law-abiding American businesses won't use strong encryption.
And as a result, all the software companies who would be able to provide encryption based services, and all the Web people who want to provide commerce with encryption-based security over the Internet, are stalled. And Al Gore simply won't listen when people tell him he's mad. "Use 56 key encryption, or give us the key in case the Government needs to read your mail," he says.
Yeah, right. A 56-bit key holding details about BT's planned merger with MCI would resist AT&T's attempt to crack it for all of ten minutes. And anyway; suppose I'm making political plans to get someone other than Al Gore elected? I'm allowed to, I hope you'll agree.
Anyway, the biggest software-only company in the world and the one with the grandest hopes of getting electronic commerce, is Microsoft; and it is well fed up with trying to get encryption regularised. And apart from Al Gore, and some strange idiots in France, the only supporter for "key escrow" in the world, is the UK Government.
And Tony Blair is too busy to listen. So Microsoft's European chief of legal staff, John Frank, buys me dinner at L'Escargot, and weeps sadly into his Chateau de Rothschild. It's probably the only time Microsoft and I have been utterly at one on any issue since MBasic was launched.
It's The Day! Kewney's World appears. They wanted some quotes. They got them. They're deliriously happy. They've even managed to get a picture of me that looks like me, and not a mad Japanese emperor with delusions of deity. And first thing I notice is that the link goes straight into a page saying: "What on earth are you doing here?"
They fix it. It's the dawn of a glorious new era! The Online Team loves me. I love them.
The Online Team are off for a day's "bonding" at Leeds Castle. Am I invited?
So I have lunch with Geoff Webster, head of FAST -- a man much maligned by Bastard Operators in the business.
It goes like this: once, it was merely a breach of contract to have more copies of software than Microsoft thought you ought to have. Then along came the Criminal Justice Act, and it became, potentially, a criminal matter.
Several people got highly excited about this, and the Federation Against Software Theft decided to get Teeth. And it compiled a list of 35,000 organisations who probably have 20 PCs or more, and set out to recruit them all at £1,000 a smack. And unfortunately, it appointed an agency to recruit them.
The agency concerned appears to have managed its affairs less cleverly than it ought: Webster tells me that he believes they went into liquidation. At that, they were lucky; my Bastard Operator friends have threatened far worse, and have attached epithets to them, compared with which "out of business" is a compliment.
In particular, they objected to the way some of the recruiting agents would show up unannounced, threaten to expose the company for software piracy, and offer to sort it out for a payment of a grand. It seemed pure extortion to several, and they lost no time in ringing me up to complain.
Webster explains that he's a badly wronged man. The Agency is no longer used (obviously!) and his new "awareness" campaign is aimed at chief executives, with the object of making them understand just how easy it is to be "legal".
This story will pop up again in a week or two, by the way; watch this space.