I suppose it would be more honest to tell the whole truth, not just a bit. In point of fact, I've been accepting postal press releases for the last month, and putting them in the bin. I mean, who has the time? I got flu; ordinary viral influenza, and spent two days in bed, and three days recuperating (over the weekend, of course, not on the company's time) and when I re-emerged into the vague twilight of Autumn in London, there was this heap of envelopes. I carried them to the office in a taxi. I spent the next week working like a lunatic, and kept catching sight of these things, glaring at me. "Open us, Guy, there might be a cheque in one of us."
Not at all. Power supply upgrades. Network diagnostic sniffers. Anti-virus warnings. Quarterly revenue figures. One day, I'll give you a complete list of the sort of crap that fills my letter box each day, and you'll weep.
And as a result of all that, what happens? I miss the invite to Nokia's new phone launch, where they finally bridge the gap between phones and PDAs. The new Nokia stores your diary. I want one. And if I'd gone to the conference, I'd not only have got one, I'd have got a sweat shirt, too.
I'm still not opening that pile of brown paper. The bin!
It's very hard to know, when having lunch with an American, whether it's OK to order beer with your meal. Being a beer snob, and knowing good bitter from 'best' bitter, I enjoy a pint once a week or so; and when your lunch partner orders Perrier or Coke, you're never sure whether this is a subtle hint that you're probably addicted to the stuff, and they aren't going to do business with you in future.
In this case, it was doubly awkward, because the American in question was my editor on PC Mag. And it was an awkward week, with news of big share dealings in our parent company, Ziff-Davis, and even bigger restructuring in Softbank, which owns Ziff-Davis and Comdex. Not the moment, in short, to start discussing 'the industry' and despite the friendly nature of the discussion, I think it's probably best that we merely record that lunch took place, and I had a pint of beer.
Nice beer, too.
Meanwhile, in the 'real world' Intel has discovered a bug in the Pentium. For the life of me, I can't tell why this is supposed to be a problem; I do not know of a way of producing a CPU without bugs. The Intel Pentium bug is particularly obscure, in that under certain circumstances, an invalid opcode will cause it to crash. Of course it shouldn't; no question. But remind me of the processor at any stage in history, which didn't crash under some circumstances? No?
Let it be a warning, I say. The Pentium is a pretty complex chip. You just wait till you see the complexity of some of the 3D graphics optimisers that will hit the market next year; and as for the future plans for Intel i86 architecture, it defies description. Bugs of this sort will seem trivial by comparison and don't say I didn't warn you. I will say "I told you so" and you'll say FOAD. But remember, I told you so.
My own home PC, a 133MHz HiGrade, which was my pride and joy way back when I bought it, is finally up for replacement. Well, it would be if I had the budget; in fact, I think I'll be forced to have it repaired. It's not a serious problem, technically; the heat-sink fan has ceased to function. But the consequences don't bear repeating.
But the trip to Barking means a chance to see HiGrade's new Tillamook-based notebook.
It's really strange. Most people who build PCs from a kit of parts, starting with a redundant 386 case, tend to assume that you can't get into the market with any portable machine, because you need to have hordes of tiny-fingered oriental workers assembling them. So the North Circular road of London is littered with screw-driver operations, where people build desktop machines and make pitifully small profits on them, and would go bust if they didn't sell servers.
HiGrade, by a bizarre chance of fortune, got into the notebook market two years ago, when they decided that there was a small niche. Most notebook makers made machines with a choice, either a floppy disk drive, or a CD. There simply wasn't room in a reasonable size case for both, not if you wanted a battery.
HiGrade put both in, and compromised on the battery. I think they claimed a half hour of battery life, and I think they exaggerated.
It sold like mad; few people actually rely on their battery for more than occasional reference to the system and most of the time they're plugged into the mains with the notebook battery functioning more or less as an uninterruptible power supply. But the important fact, the thing that mattered, the nub of the issue, wasn't whether HiGrade got the design right, or whether users were clever to work like that. What really counted was that HiGrade discovered that you can go to Taiwan, design a notebook to taste, and come back with a unique, value-add product with a profit margin way, way higher than a screwdriver clone maker can make on a 166MHz Pentium.
The HiGrade Tillamook is actually very nice. The loudspeakers are under your hands which, say purists, is silly, because the audio quality is degraded. Your arms cut out the sound. To which I can only say: Oh, come on! What sound quality? Two tiny little loudsqueakers? You want quality, connect the thing to your hi-fi. On those things, who the Dickens cares if the thing is almost entirely muffled, as long as the other one is audible? Stereo image? You're joking, Mr Feynman!
Lunch is a scramble.
We work -- these days -- in new offices by the side of St Katharine's Dock, which is in the City of London. Now, you may have your own opinion about how to take a tower system back to its maker for repair, but in my book, you need four wheels and an engine. A car. And so I took the car to Barking. And when I got back to the office, I decided that it would be best to put it into a car park.
Car parks in the City of London are £2.00 per hour. Car parks in Southwark are £5 per day. I parked the car in Southwark. And at that moment, the people who operate Tower Bridge decided it would be a good joke to lift the bridge and let a boat through.
So I was late for lunch. Two of my favourite bastard operators from hell, systems managers with large City corporates, and they were left gossiping about their users for nearly an hour, without my being a fly on the wall. I was crosser than I can easily describe.
That's why I missed Seagate Software.
At the end of the day, the folks from Vocalis arrived to talk about phones and computers.
You may think you've never heard of Vocalis but you have. It used to be Logica Telecoms, based in Cambridge, and the management bought it out. Now, they go around brainstorming about ways of using phones and computers. Primarily, they do robot phones; a product called "Operetta?" which has a human female voice and listens to what you say, but isn't an Operator. Speech recognition, of course, is a big part of this.
Actually, we got a lot of good ideas out of that; I think I might have fed one or two of them into Kewney's World this week. More to come.
It turns out that a friend of mine had to go to visit Foxton, near Cambridge. He's well into high tech. What, I asked myself, is in Foxton? I ring my contacts in Cambridge. "Foxton is a god-forsaken place," remarks one of the Dons, "but it does have George Grey. He's left Tadpole which he sold to IBM, and has used the money to launch Geofox. George in Foxton, you see..."
A quick trip to the Web site, and we have a story for Kewney's World. Interesting; and a machine arrives in short order.
Most of Wednesday is swallowed up in domestic chores, however, because of a broken piece of metal in my car brakes. It costs £76 to fix, plus £21 for insurance for a replacement car, since the company won't transfer the insurance unless the car is in for 'service.' Bureaucrats. They don't care, you know; they just obey the rules. Unless nobody is watching, of course...
The Geofox One arrives. You can read my review, or preview if you prefer; www.... but I have to say, I hope they get this one right. It's really quite disappointing just at the moment, and I'd say clearly they've had to abandon their original plans.
The trouble is, when Geofox was launched, there was no Palm Pilot. The market needed a Geofox; but today, why would you pick up something almost three times the size of the Pilot and nowhere near as easy to use, yet costing more than twice the price? For the infra-red? I don't think so.
So the re-positioning of Geofox as an e-mail machine was inspired, but the trouble is that they clearly didn't think of this in time, and it's only partly evolved. It needs to be utterly plug and play with every sort of connection. If you plug a modem into it, it ought to recognise it, configure it, and understand it. If you connect it to a PC, it ought to know that. If you plug a cellphone in, it ought to know what cellphone.
As it is, the thing starts dialling out, and since I entered the phone number in a form that didn't ask whether I had to dial 9 to get an outside line, it keeps dialling my switchboard operator. And can I find the command that stops it?
Not a good day, in all; I missed the Quantum Bigfoot launch. It's a cheap (£300) disk with 12 gigabytes of storage. No SCSI, and pretty slow, but boy! it's a lot of data. I'll try plugging it into this rather interesting motherboard that Soyo has sent me to test, and see what it does to performance. But not tonight; some twit in a tube train at Euston shuts the doors, and then discovers that the trip-switch won't hold and the engine won't move us. But does he open the doors and let us catch a Piccadilly line train?
Sometimes, I think earnestly and hard about telecommuting from Poole, you knwo.
The morning is spent trying to test the Geofox. In the end we decide that it's pre-production. I head off to lunch; over which I think it best to draw a polite veil. An Australian lunatic called Powell. Ask me about it when I'm less sober. Have a nice weekend!