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Guy Kewney's Weekend Diary

MondayAn excited Pilot user (it's the smallest computer I have, and I am always on about the thing) rings up to say that US Robotics has devised an amazing new FM receiver for the beast.

The idea has "slack" as my k()01 (Web-speak for cool) friends tend to say. You have this itsy bitsy little PDA in your pocket, and a thin wire connects it to a data receiver which is a little bit like Teletext. You pick your subject, and it scrolls across the screen of your PDA as it is transmitted. Flattens the batteries in a day, I'm told. Well, heck, there's no progress without sacrifice.

My favourite ham radio expert reminds me it won't work in the UK. Here, your licence to transmit the most ghastly garage music does NOT include the right to include data. No, no; to transmit data, you need a licence specifically for that, and it must conform to European data transmission standards. Which don't exist. So sorry, no licence possible.

So you have to go to Sweden to see it work. "Oh, and by the way," adds the Pilot fan, "did you know about this 57,600 bits per second modem?"

Yes, I tell him, we've got the story in the old edition of PC Mag. "Oh, not that boring old Rockwell stuff, no; this is US Robotics' own version. They've got a digital signal processor, and they're doing it their own way."

Great, another incompatible standard.

Tuesday

Breakfast with Jim Barksdale. He's chairman of Netscape, and I've never met him before. This meeting doesn't start auspiciously, as he seems determined to be nice about Microsoft. I didn't come to talk to Barksdale so that I could hear nice things about NT and BackOffice, for goodness sake: I get enough of that from the Seattle Evangelists.

I think the problem is that his mind isn't on the meeting. We meet at the normally excellent Lanesborough Hotel -- it's the old hospital on Hyde Park Corner -- where I discover they've blown all their fuses, the programmable door locks have reset themselves and they can't manage hot coffee, never mind breakfast.

"So, since you are now clearly out to mend bridges with Microsoft, what's the new product?" I ask Barksdale.

His eyes come into sudden intense focus as he replays what he has been saying for the last 20 minutes. "Oh, no, they're our biggest competitors. We aren't anxious to be nice to them!" he expostulates, and launches into the sermon I came for, about ActiveX and standards.

I think I may have pushed his button too hard. At the point where his minder chuck us out (on the pretext that he has to get to a seminar and anyway, all the lights just went out again) he hasn't actually got round to telling me what Communicator actually is. It's the new version of Navigator, in case you wondered, with improved e-mail.

Wednesday

Microsoft excitedly invites me to a Web Site Builder Conference where, they say, I will get a gift of 20 Microsoft products. And Bill Gates will talk on October 30, "outlining the strategy". And also, how exciting, over 1.7 million developers are currently using ActiveX.

We can have a quiet chuckle over this. It's not that I think they're lying. Indeed, I bet this is right. That figure of 1.7 million is uncannily similar to the number that they used to quote as OLE developers.

But of course, OLE is NOT ActiveX. Oh, goodness no. Where did you get that idea, Guy? It's "substantially" different. And DCOM is not the technology formerly known as NetOLE. And I am Marie of Roumania...

Really, this ActiveX scam is beyond tolerating! Microsoft says that it's an "open standard" now because it has been given to The Open Group. It hasn't! It's simple (and deliberate) deception. The standard does not cover any part of ActiveX on the desktop. You can't write desktop ActiveX controls with it - server only. It applies to no platform except Intel-based Win32. It doesn't even cover Windows 3.1 and 3.11. If ActiveX controls are ever written for Alpha, it will not be written by Microsoft, but by Digital. Same for the Silicon Graphics and other MIPS-based machines; it may be Windows NT, but it isn't Intel so the Open Group can't have that unless and until Digital and SGI provide it. And Microsoft has not made the source code available. Nor the full API spec.

I go home in a bad mood; not the slightest point writing about this, because the Microsoft BackOffice juggernaut just crushes everything in its path. But I wrote it anyway (see next month's PC Mag).

Thursday

A hangover.

Well, Boy George didn't show, but it was all in a good cause. Freedom Radio is dedicated to the gay community and they're doing a programme on computer conferencing. They have the energetic Jennifer Perry, marketing chief for CIX, explaining why you should use CIX; I'm hauled into the studio with Rupert Goodwins, to explain what conferencing.

The low point of the evening was the visit to US Robotics, who did a late-night launch of 56Kbps modem technology. It isn't compatible with the Rockwell system and they seemed proud of it. Well, it means they're "in control of the technology", and that has to be nice. But it also means we have to decide whether to use Rockwell modems or USR modems. At least, that's the current status.

Friday

WinTap version 2.0. I wouldn't normally go to anything with that title, and I particularly would avoid it if it were at the Institute of Directors, where you have to wear one of their absurd ties. But it's a voice from the past; anybody who ever knew Telecom Gold in the early 80s, will remember that this was the heady pioneering time of Arcnet and 300bps modems -- and e-mail! I probably still have a TG account of JDS018, which was managed for me by Mike de Smith, author of WinTap.

In fact, it turns out to be fascinating; a contact manager, but one that understands every language in the world, can track your expenses as well as your names and addresses, and which you can embed in Word or Excel documents. Alas, they haven't included my USR Pilot in the list of supported mobile platforms. Judging by the enthusiasm they show when I let them play with the little thing, this will change.

The week finishes with a project to decide "What digital camera?" It turns out to be the easiest assignment I've ever had. The answer (to be printed in PC Direct just before Christmas if you want the full monty) is: "None of those on the market. Instead, buy a disposable 35 mm camera, get the pics enlarged, and buy a £125 24-bit A4 scanner." My, my, the stuff available today in boxes marked digital camera, is rubbish. And expensive...