Startling news from a distributor in Germany. The head of IBM's PC company, Jurgen Renz, has vanished. He was promoted, in January, to the post of assistant to Lou Gerstner himself. But my distributor friend says he's gone. Do I know where?
This is odd, but against all logic, it appears he's "resigned" -- with his friends insisting that the resignation was his, but only in the sense that he didn't see how to fight it. He was "resigned to his fate".
What can the man be raving about? He explains: I listen. Then I make some phone calls.
At the end of this, we have questions: "Why has Intel posted a profits warning, and Compaq, too?" And more significantly, "Why has IBM NOT posted a profits warning?
I'm reminded of the curious incidence of the dog, in the night. "But the dog did nothing in the night, Holmes!" Yes, that was the curious incidence of the dog in the night.
It's a Sherlock Holmes reference, you see. There was a dog in one of his stories (no, NOT the Hound of the Baskervilles!) who failed to wake everyone when the intruder intruded. Holmes deduced an "inside job".
My inside job, should I choose to accept it, is to find the Silver Blaize (I think) because on the face of it, if Compaq is going to have a problem with profits, and Intel is too, then so is IBM.
Phone calls to various excellent contacts inside IBM. "He's out. He'll call you back." One by one, they do not call me back.
An excitable Vampire roams the office, uttering chilling shrieks. The writers disappear into Meeting Rooms. It seems a Vampire cannot enter a Meeting Room without an invitation from the writers inside...
All the writers appear to be hiding, in short. It must be Deadline Day. As if to confirm this, a soul-chilling cry drifts over from the other end of the warehouse: "Kewney! Have you written..."
I feel it's time to enter a Meeting Room.
A messenger summons me out: it is someone from Nokia's press office. A phone has arrived, and my colleague has opened it and it doesn't work. Hardly surprising, my dear colleague; this is a phone simulation, not a phone. And why (he asks tersely) is it a simulation?
I can explain. I don't expect you to believe it, but here it is: the Nokia 6110 is a chameleon phone. It comes in at least six colours, and each colour changes as you polarise the light. Quite uncanny, first time you see it, in fact. And it quickly became apparent to the PR people at Nokia, that they had a problem: not enough phones.
It's like this: if you write reviews for a phone magazine like What Mobile? as my friend Simon Rockman does, you get these phones arriving, you use them, you review them, and (eventually, when the office fills up with empty cardboard boxes) you send them back. And while you have them, you photograph them. Except, of course, you can't do both, so the first phone call you make to test them is: "Hello, Nokia? I need another phone, for photography."
In the case of the Nokia 6110, it's twice as bad as normal; this is the phone with an infra-red link. So not only do all the phone freaks want to play with them, but so do the digit-freaks likeme, who want to transmit data over GSM via a PC. And then the photographer sees it. "Boring," he remarks, "another phone." Oh, no, says the Editor, not this one; it comes in six colours.
"Hello, Nokia? I need another six phones, for photography..."
The photo dummies are utterly convincing in every way apart from the fact that they neither make, nor receive calls. You see people "borrowing" them from the studio, and shouting at them...
That would be bad enough, but it seems it get worse. You can have all the photographic dummies you like, but there appear to be no genuine working models of the Nokia 6110 available for test. "What? None at all?" A tight-lipped negative is the only response. "Maybe next week?" Maybe.
The awful thought dawns. What has happened? -- surely, it's not possible that Someone found all these dummy phones, then found an order for a whole lot more, and threw a Pointy Headed tantrum? "We've got more Nokia 6110s for review than the office has space for; we are NOT ORDERING ANY MORE! CANCEL..."
The "profits warning" story takes a turn for the worse.
It seems my German distributor believes that he knows why Jurgen resigned. Apparently, he sold machines in advance.
This is something that has been going on in IBM since the year dot, of course, and it's the whole reason why everybody is turning to Dell as a role model.
Dell sells on a build-to-order basis. You send the money, they build the machine.
IBM and Compaq sell on a third-party value-add basis. They build the machine. They sell it to PC World. PC World puts it on display. You come into the shop. You think about it. You buy something from Del... and IBM and Compaq find they've made too many.
Then Intel cuts the price. New machines hit the streets from Dell, 205 cheaper. The old ones turn into obsolete junk; IBM and Compaq find that PC World can't sell them, and are sending them back. Tricky! "OK, PC World, you can cut the price to match Intel's new prices. We'll only charge you the new price."
Word on the streets is that Compaq in Europe ended up with 12,000 to 20,000 unsellable Pentium MMX 160 machines when the price dropped and Pentium II 233 machines were cheaper.
The problem in Germany is that the equivalent of PC World, there, refused to accept IBM's machines without a guarantee that if prices dropped, IBM would cut them to match. In other words, they insisted on "sale or return" -- which is fair enough, but awkward: because sale or return goods don't show up on the balance sheet till they are sold (or returned). So all the channel-stuffing IBM did in Germany was for nothing; the auditors saw the guarantee, and said: "This can't count towards income for the quarter."
As to why the channel was stuffed, you have your own guess to make. I think it's a habit; I think IBM and Compaq do this all the time. But what will happen when they switch to Build To Order?
Easy: they'll go through a six week doldrum, during which time they'll clear out their warehouses, and sell nothing.
Hence Compaq's profit warning, and Intel's profit warning. As I said, the mystery is the curious incidence of IBM in the night. No profit warning. I'm deeply curious. More phone calls to knowledgeable IBM executives. More deathly silence.
Ericsson's turn. The Nokia Card Phone (reviewed last week) appears to have a rival; the Ericsson GC25. It's a GSM phone that plugs into a notebook PC.
It finally arrives. I plug it into my trusty little Toshiba Portege 300CT, which I am starting to be in love with.
First step, unload all the Nokia drivers. Next step, read the manual. Honestly. What I want to know is, do I plug the thing in first, or do I run setup first?
The diskettes offer no clue. The manual, neither. On the diskettes is a message: "If you have a CD drive, please use the CD; it includes functionality not on the diskettes."
There is no CD enclosed.
Heck, let's go for it; plug the thing in. It turns out to occupy *both* slots of my PCMCIA standard PC Card. An aerial thingy clips on. A hands-free earpiece and microphone clips onto my collar. Windows "has detected new hardware" -- asks for the diskette. Bing: installed.
Except there's no sign of anything; no modem, no software. We run SETUP.
Three diskettes later, all is confusion! Software detects a modem on COM4, but the control panel sees no such device. There's a "Phone Modem Manager" with a menu, and some empty dialog box fields. One of them (it turns out) is where you enter the number to dial. And it works! Except ...
Oh, dear, how can one put this without being patronising? Look, the good news is: if you get one of these phones, you will be able to dial into remote systems and send data -- and it also works as a phone. But if you aren't terribly sure of your skills as a windows jock, go back to your phone procurement people, and say: "Reviewers -- like Guy Kewney -- seem to be very insistent that the Nokia Card Phone is much easier to use."
In short, the software for this is about as unfriendly as I've ever come across. It's just vaguely possible that this was not thrown together in a couple of weeks by some bright kid at Ericsson, who was told "Nokia's card phone is on the market next Tuesday, and you better have something that works" -- but frankly, my money is on the theory that it was frantic last minute panic. It simply isn't finished.
You need to be able to type numbers without the mouse. You need to be able to see the phone software when a call comes in, not only if you're running the phone software. If you aren't running the phone software, you ought to be able to set it so that it auto-loads when a call comes in. The call logging system should record the number you phoned, not the numbers you typed into the form after connecting, while bypassing music on hold. Oh, the list is tedious; but the message is clear: wait for the next version.
I think the next version might also be more stable.
And finally, if you have a mobile computer, you WILL have battery problems. It's not just that this card phone will connect at the full 2W power of GSM; it's also that it plugs into the system software at a naughty level.
For example, I save battery power by selecting START, "suspend" -- and the notebook goes into hibernation, and you shut it. At least, that's how it used to work -- but not now! If you have the Ericsson phone modem manager running, it lets you shut down, blank the screen, and close the lid. And then it turns the machine back on again! You may never know...
You'll find out, if you put the machine under your bed and go to sleep. When the battery finally does run down, the machine will start beeping at you.
Those Bunny People. Yerk.
Not that I want to help Apple sell its products, but on this occasion, I really think they've got the right idea. Sorry, you'll need QuickTime for Windows to see that, but it's very gratifying if you do.
Anyway, talking about high speed flame-throwers, I appear to have a new 3D accelerator. This one comes courtesy of Jazz, an American company which doesn't worship at the 3DFX throne. Instead, like hercules (these days) it builds its cards around the Rendition 2200 chip set. And the company has defied all pundits by surviving; and now they're offering their products in the UK.
So that nice young Michael Kahn arrives with a freelance technician, to install it in my system. They even bring a spare Quake II disc for me -- just as well, because I've left mine at home.
New Quake. I flex my mouse muscles. Load up GameSpy. Find a death-match site.
And what good does this do? I have precision-accuracy 3D acceleration and 16 bit textures, and... an out of date version of Quake without deathmatch maps!
At this point, it gets horrid.
Nothing to do with Jazz. The drivers are alpha, so a couple of glitches are to be expected. But it's OK, really; nowhere near as amazing as a Voodoo II card, but then, a quarter of the price, what do you expect?
No where it falls down is on ID Software's Web site.
If you go into a shop and buy Quake II ("The best game EVER! - can I have your next one early?") you are getting a broken bit of code. They launched way before they were ready; the thing had to be updated out of the box.
One of the worst things about hurried software, is version control. If you go to ID Software's site www.idsoftware.com, you'll find a total confusion of versions, and no FAQ, no mention of deathmatch levels, no guide to which version you need. Gamespy will tell you you need the latest version; you download it.
Nothing. The latest version assumes you made *all* the previous upgrades!
Half way through finding the missing patches, America wakes up, and all the FTP sites lock up. Nothing but 404s.
Look on the bright side, eh? I got through the week without having to go to the Windows show...