It looks like being another Microsoft week, if I can't avoid it. Today, I have to finish my column for PC Direct. It has been decreed that one of the columnists must explain the Java lawsuit between Sun and Microsoft. Straws are drawn, and mine is the short one.
The trouble with trying to explain Java to people, is that they think they know what it is. I sat through a presentation by a really nice kid in the IT department of a courier company, last week; he kept explaining that "Java scrips" would not be a big part of the IT future, despite all he'd read. The illusion of knowledge was maintained for several minutes until in the end I had to ask him outright:
Well, we knew that. A relief to find he was as clueless as he seemed.
Java, in short, is not a language. It's a systems-integration platform; it is of use only in constructing "glue" to reconcile different applications. More of this later... but the point of the story is that Microsoft is utterly insane to fear Java as a threat to Windows. Nobody is ever going to stop using Word or Excel in order to use a different word processor or spreadsheet purely because the new one is written in Java linked applets. Indeed, I completely share the vision of Ovum's Cathy King, who predicts that the future is more and more Windows, because of the cheap Windows Terminal.
Fact is, there isn't a PC capable of loading Excel as fast as a WT can bring it up as a client on an NT Winframe from Citrix. The fastest PC I've seen, even with Excel already cached, can't give you a worksheet on screen in less than six seconds; a 486-based Windows Terminal would show you a copy in less than a second, because it would already be running on the Winframe server, and all you'd have to wait for would be the time taken to download the bitmap.
Editors' Day. All PC Magazine editorial staff take a day in the country, and selected industry segments come in to show us what they will be doing over the next six months or so. My job to sit in on the presentations of the leading display makers: with one voice, they tell us the future is the 19-inch CRT.
The argument is pretty clear, actually. New 19-inch screens are FSTs; that is, none of the big goldfish bowl effect you get from the typical "affordable" 21-inch display. But the typical gold-fish bowl has rounded corners, and in fact, you really don't get a readable image if you expand it to the full 21-inch diagonal. And actually, if you show the image area for the 19-inch, and the image area for the 21-inch, it's about the same.
But the image quality is vastly superior on the 19-inch; you can get a brighter image, too, and you're looking at £500 as a typical street price, this time next year.
I think this is going to kill the 17-inch display. With the greatest respect to the intellectual prowess of the typical PC buyer, nothing the industry ever does will kill the 14-inch display. These people read all the reviews and then they go out and buy the cheapest system. By spending an extra £100 or so, they could get a 17-inch display instead of a 15 inch. Instead, they actually opt for 14-inch. It's useless unless you're a teenager with bottle-bottom glasses, sitting six inches away from the set.
But those with enough sense to realise they need a 17-inch display will probably see the logic of going to 19 inches. It's really not that easy to make a 17-inch screen that's very significantly cheaper than a 19-inch one; if you're paying extra, you might as well go for a really nice screen.
More details, as the NDAs expire.
More grief from Microsoft, unhappy about the fact that MSN e-mail is under a cloud. We have to explain what they've done to put it right. In fact, this does more than just niggle, because part of the "Microsoft Tax" which people pay, but which we don't often write about, is the beta-test levy.
In the good old days, the deal was simple. You volunteered to test a piece of new software. In recognition of the contribution you made to its development, the publisher rewarded you by giving you a free copy when it was released. End of transaction.
Today, Microsoft produces stuff which even a charitable reviewer could not pretend is ready for beta-testing. A word processor which can't print, an email system which can't communicate: these are alpha-test products, and should be sorted out internally before being released to the world: but Windows 98 (Memphis) installed on the machine of an MSN user, broke the MSN server. And all the apologies in the world about "yes, our support staff should have known this" can't change the fact that innocent users are being duped into debugging Microsoft code; and at the end, all they get is the offer of a full price version of the software, same as everybody else. And Microsoft can get away with it, because it knows we can't manage without Windows.
The day ends with a luxury Mercedes arriving to whisk me away to the country. We get lost along the roads around Taplow, and I get there for a smart dinner, only to discover I've brought the wrong suitcase, and have only got my sneakers. Never mind, my reputation for eccentricity was in need of a boost...
A whole day of Microsoft. We're out at a secret country retreat. Well, not all that secret; it's Cliveden -- the old Astor house, now the smartest of smart hotels. You know, the place where Christine Keeler entertained Profumo? Not that anything like that goes on these days (well, I would say that, wouldn't I) but you can't help smelling the atmosphere.
Anyway, the purpose of the day is to network and come up with ideas about the challenges facing Britain, and the opportunities. "There are two rules," says the chief Microsoftie: "No product pitches from us, and no mention of the Department of Justice move from you."
Actually, the real purpose of the day is to let Microsoft know what to tell Tony Blair.
Microsoft UK boss David Svendsen buys the drinks, and lets us lesser mortals know how often he's been to Number Ten recently, and what he told Tony to ask Bill, and what he told Bill to tell Tony... and makes it clear that any Good Ideas we come up with, will reach the Highest Places Very Quickly.
I ask him, champagne in hand, whether his plan is, as he says, to provide UK PLC with the best in high tech or whether his first loyalties might not be to Microsoft -- a US based company. Strangely, he becomes irritated, and mentions the DoJ suit...
Otherwise, the who day is "off the record" and I can't tell you who kissed whom. But then, I would say that...
How can DVD survive DVDX? This is the format where you buy a DVD disc with a movie on it, pay around £5.00, and then can't look at it again.
The real killer is that if you have a DVD player, you can't look at DVDX movies.
Are these people deliberately trying to kill off the DVD format? I'm starting to think they must be: if you want to destroy a standard, all you have to do is create a new standard which is inaccessible to owners of the old one. I agree, the new standard doesn't look all that attractive: I mean, why would I pay £5 for a DVD disc when I can record the same movie free off The Movie Channel onto tape (or CD Video) and watch it as often as I like? But even so, you can bet that within six months of DVDX appearing, some clever technophile will find a way of cracking the protection.
And how would this apply to DVD data? "General Failure Reading Drive D: Please Deposit Twenty Pence?"
It's my fault, this mess. The "Fellows Awards" would never have happened if it had not been for my "clever" idea of calling myself (and Peter Jackson) by a more creative title than "Contributing Editor". And I decided Americans would be impressed by Fellow. So Peter and I are Editorial Fellows. And in a month, the Technical Innovation Awards come around, and a TINA has to be given by The Fellows.
Well, frankly, it's been a sod of a year for true innovation of the sort that attracted the first Fellows' Award -- in those days, Cliff Stanford called his service Tenner A Month, and nobody knew what the Internet was. But the success of Demon Internet has become a legend, since. And the precognitive abilities of Peter Jackson, whose nomination TAM was, deserve to be better recognised but that doesn't help us with this year.
I mean, the "product of the year" without any question, is the Pilot. Except, it came out last year. Microsoft Front Page, if it ships and works, is a big step in the right direction with Web building tools for the private individual, but heck, you can't call it "innovation". A better mousetrap, maybe.
There's been a whole load of fascinating voice-driven technology, all of which is a sure sign that the PC of the future will be voice-enabled on a scale that makes the mouse look like a passing fad. But -- a big but -- it won't be based on any of the Mickey Mouse crap that was launched this year and that, saving your reverence, Oh Microsoft will not include the stuff you tucked into a hidden corner of the disaster-ridden mess which is Internet Explorer 4.0.
Tricky. Any ideas? Try my new email, email@example.com, if you have one.
The rest of the day is spent regretting the idiocy of private tax firms who think that owning any sort of Mercedes Benz is somehow a substitute for knowing how to drive or navigate. If I tell you that my first appointment was on the Bath Road outside Heathrow, and that my driver reached the Bath Road at 9.20am, will you believe that in clear traffic, it took him 50 minutes to make it to NDS?
They do data broadcast from satellite, on the Ceefax principle. It's just one TV channel, which broadcasts 300 gigabytes of data; the data is selected by you, on your PC. You download it quite quickly; but unfortunately, the particular 10 megabytres you probably want, probably isn't being transmitted at the exact time you want it. So the 'response time' is vastly different from the transmit time: it may take ten seconds to download, but you may well have to wait a minute before it arrives.
And you need an extra half gigabyte of disk space spare. Who has? Well, maybe the new generation of 6 gigabyte disks will change this. And you also need a card with the satellite decoding electronics -- £200. And you need a dish. Now -- am I wrong on this? -- it seems to me that the people who have satellite dishes, and the people who have PCs, live in different parts of town. "Yes, it's true," says self-confessed middle-class propellor-head Dr Abe Peled, CEO of NDS, "when I came to install my satellite dish, my neighbours made me hide it."
A nice idea, in short, and no doubt the fore-runner of a lot of PC sales; but is it a Fellows' Tina?