Never get in the lift with a Microsoft marketing person; or, if you do, keep your mouth shut. They have an interesting new marketing concept, called the "elevator response," where you have to answer the question before the person who asks has a chance to get out of the lift.
It's a great idea. A snappy, easily remembered 20-second comeback. Except, it seems the questions are getting too damn hard.
For example, why should I buy Office 97 if it needs 200 megabytes of hard disk, and I've got a machine with 120 meg total? Snappy comeback: because... well, erm; that is to say... Well, look, have you got ten minutes?
I got treated to a half dozen of these critical queries. In each case, the only way the marketing folks could deliver their snappy comeback before the lift door closed, was to press the "Door Open" button after 20 seconds. And then again. And then again. And at the end of two minutes, I'm afraid I still didn't want to buy the software.
Apparently, the 20 second responses still have some debug code left in them.
Groupware, they keep telling me (over the undead prawns on biscuits) is what business is all about. Today, we get a report from Coopers and Lybrand, which says that US companies which are doing well, attribute this to intelligent IT. Can it be that IT and groupware really works?
Hard to tell, says the man from Sun River. He's renamed his Network Computing division Boundless. Boundless, I quickly realise, is a word meaning "useless without a network" -- this Windows box costs £500 odd, and doesn't even include Windows, can't use a CD drive, and relies on a remote Windows "server" called Winframe (from Citrix).
"Suppose I want to share a virtual drive with someone else in the network?" I ask. "You can't," he says. "The system administrator will have to do it." Pause for thought. "So how do I run groupware? Can I install Lotus Notes, for example?"
Apparently this is a "good question." I'm powerfully reminded of Colossus's press statement a month earlier. They had another way of spending £600; a "revolutionary new upgrade concept." It turned out to be a "replacement base unit." You see, the PC that you have, a 486, perhaps, is obsolete; but the only bit that's obsolete is the "base unit". That's the box with the processor, disk, memory, and so on, right? So swap that out, keep the keyboard and network card and display...
Yes, you got it; the Sun River Boundless needs a display, keyboard...
No, don't call me. I'm not the Iomega Zip or Jaz helpline. But maybe I can help: you're almost certainly trying to install one of these removeable disks, and using a parallel port driver, and it won't install.
I can tell you what they would say, if you could get through to their help line. They'd say: "It's almost certainly a conflict. If you haven't just installed a Canon printer, then the most usual problem with Windows users is that they have a "LASTDRIVE" statement which is stopping our driver from giving your disk a drive letter. So we tell them to take all other drivers out, including CD rom drivers, and that sorts most of the problems."
And if it doesn't? "Well, another very common problem appears to be that some anti-virus software doesn't like ours, and won't install it. So we've been asking people to disable that, too. Once we know that works, then we can help them re-install the anti-virus program. Usually, it does."
The company says it's a victim of its own success. Well, that's true: I've never seen so many PC makers suddenly going for a new peripheral.
All the second-tier names have announced that Zip drives are going to be standard or main options on their new models. And I seriously wonder whether it won't hit the notebook makers hard. These new Tecras are wonderful desktop machines, but you don't want to carry one around, not unless you secretly fancy your osteopath and want an excuse to book extra appointments. And the rival Pentium notebooks are no better, frankly; but enough of that till some other time...
It's the big launch of the Psion 3c and Siena today. The most revolutionary new product they've had, they say. Or maybe not; it is, after all, only a week since they warned me not to get too excited, since there's "nothing new in this."
The smell of confusion gets stronger at the launch, where I arrive to discover that nobody from PC Magazine is coming. "But I'm from PC Magazine, and you phoned me up two days ago to ask if I was coming, and I said yes, OK."
The problem is that they're caught between two stools. They're selling more and more, and the share buyers are excited; but they're also seeing other people launch newer stuff and sell more. So they don't want to tell current buyers that they can't buy the old favourite. But also, they want to tell people who are buying Casio machines to buy Psion instead, cos it's new and exciting. Tough call.
They've missed a trick, though. You don't notice this sort of thing in time; only when you get home. You know, the old "batteries not included" trap? With these PDAs, the missing link is the link. For example, take the USR Pilot; when you get home, you open the box and out pops a diskette and a cable for your PC. You just plug that into the serial port, and the other end of the cable is a little stand that holds the Pilot neatly. But it's not just a cradle; it's a backup system. Just press one button, and everything you've laboriously typed into the Pilot is now stored on the PC.
With the Psion (and a lot of others) you have to buy a special cable, and muck about finding the socket, and then you can't make the software work... and then one day, you lose the damn thing, and all the data is gone. For ever. For £400, I think the Psion 3c ought to have this as standard.
What's this year's big Christmas Issue? Last year it was multi-media. Well, that's what people said; in fact, it was CD and sound cards and loudsqueakers. This year, I suspect, it really is multi-media. I think we're going to see ordinary home users say: "I'd like to include video clips in my home page, or on my new CD." Yup; not sound, but video.
There are two ways to get video into a PC. You can pinch it off TV with a video capture card, or you can create your own with a camera. And my goodness, there are some horrible cameras on the market.
In an attempt to sort out the flies from the ointment, so to speak, I spend the day trying to get sense out of my colleagues on Computer Life. The conversation [repeat at nauseam]:
Guy: "I say, what about the [&brandname&] camera?"
Life: "It's crap."
Consensus: get a proper camcorder, and then get a frame grabber card and pinch frames from it. I don't want to! -- I want a little el cheapo camera that sits on my PC and clips to my hat when I go shopping. Apparently I'm a couple of years ahead of the market...