It takes a special sort of idiot to arrive at PC Magazine with a sound card and a loudspeaker and an electric guitar. Let this be an Awful Warning to hopeful young musicians! -- do NOT get an honest day job. And if you do, don't let it be with Creative Labs as product manager for the AWE64Gold (professional) sound card; because strumming your stuff in a meeting room is really no way to attract the groupies.
Well, I say that... in fact, as the AWE demo went on, I'll have to admit the blinds around the meeting room became populated with eyes.
Before you make the obvious comment ("Oh, who needs a 64-bit sound card?") let me assure you that it isn't. It's a 64-voice card. And it sounds wonderful. It's all derived from E-MU - the company Creative purchased in 1993 - and aimed at the professional. No other word will do; you can record your own WAV and feed it in as one of the voices, and play it back as MIDI... and on and on, making a complete orchestra of sounds, without any of the artificial effects of normal MIDI.
Well, that's to say: the Creative guy could. Then again, he can play the guitar. You shouldn't assume that just because he can play the guitar, you can; and equally, you shouldn't buy the AWE64gold without trying it out. Because "usability" is the bit they haven't put in, yet.
There are settings everywhere. There's the Windows control panel, which has several appropriate parameters to get wrong. There's the special-purpose Creative application which sets the same parameters, only different. And there are other parameters, and SoundFonts.
But I wish all those girls would go away. It only encourages these guitarists...
The afternoon is rather spoiled by the arrival of the head of a Very Large PC maker indeed, who proceeds to brief us on "background" -- he predicts that a new Klamath-based PC will be shipping early, rather than late; if we like, we can have one to test in March.
Hm, and then again, hm. The Klamath chip isn't working properly, I gather; there's a bug list that nobody will show me ("Can't, Guy, we're under NDA") and it's also hot, hot, hot. I mean, you can't cool it down. Also, it's heavy. Intel is notifying all its OEMs that it's thinking of changing the way you put Klamath into a PC; the daughterboard it ships on is going to have four new screws, because the thing keeps jumping out of its socket in transit. Shipping in March/April? Hm.
But the good news: prices starting at £1,500 plus VAT.
It was "hate Microsoft" day. Why do they do this to me? I had just started a very, very difficult piece for my next PC Mag column [Kewney At Large] called: "In Defence Of Bill Gates." And right on cue, in comes the NT product manager to brief us on NT 5.0.
It was background, so I shouldn't pass on the details. Also, the details were starkly unbelievable, and if I did, you'd think I'd taken leave of my wits. For example, if one of Microsoft's rivals decided to sabotage NT networking in the market, one of the best rumours they could start about it would be "Oh, it's going to be based on a directory which is fundamentally the same as Internet Domain Name Server, DNS."
So yes; that's what Microsoft says NT 5.0 directory is based on. Jaws sagged around the room. "Oh, and Cairo? That's not shipping! Where did you get the idea we were going to ship Cairo this year? It's never been a plan, honestly. No, it's not even a product. Cairo is a technology, not a product."
They try to persuade us that NT 5.0 will ship this year. A likely tale; the first beta-test version isn't available yet, won't be out before April.
The afternoon gets worse: we have the Internet people around.
I have a grudge against the Internet people in Microsoft; this is personal. I wrote something quite unkind about MSN, a year ago and they decided to improve it and prove that they had improved it. I installed it about four months ago, and it was really quite useful; dial into MSN, and you have TCP/IP to the whole world. Cheap, and quite quick. It was flaky, but it worked half the time. So what have they done?
They've improved it. The "new" MSN comes on a CD. It takes 20 minutes to install, during which time a Pentium 120 with 32 meg of RAM seizes solid. It installs in 60Mb. And all the time it's doing this, it plays intrusive sound blasts, "wacky" marketing chat from some American in a crumpled suit and no tie, and video.
So they show me Internet Explorer version 4.0. This, a source informs me, is "important" because it's going to be the GUI for the Active Desktop under Memphis and NT 5.0.
I happen to know this is true; because it's been canned. Bill Gates saw IE 4.0 and blew a fuse and told them to burn it. Start again. It's "horrible," he said.
He's right. But what does this tell us about the likelihood of getting NT 5.0 this year?
Breakfast with IBM's David Winn, who runs the PC company in Europe. Nice breakfast. Interesting stuff. It's unfortunate that you can't tell the good news about IBM without having to reveal just how bad it got. Unfortunate, because of course, IBM senior managers desperately want to tell the good news, and aren't allowed to admit just how awful things really were.
The good news: things are profitable, IBM PC UK is growing like mad.
You see, there are two ways IBM can grow at 30 per cent in the UK and only nine per cent everywhere else. One is for IBM in the UK to be selling truly fabulous amounts of stuff. The other (more likely!) is that it's selling pretty much what you'd expect, but this is 30 per cent more than last year because the previous year was really very bad.
The previous year, it becomes painfully apparent, was actually worse than that. It isn't really a surprise; the absurd policies imposed on the very healthy PC company by the biscuit maker and his packaging side-kick (yes, Lou Gerstner and Rick Thoman) had all but destroyed most subsidiaries; they've been desperately struggling to recapture all the talent they lost. At last, it's working.
But breakfast does produce my favourite bit of IBM corporate-speak for some time. Everybody knows that Thoman's "branding" concepts were a disaster, but Thoman is still Gerstner's buddy, and has now been appointed chief financial officer. So his disastrous meddling with the PC company has to be referred to in positive language.
Now, how would you put a positive "spin" on that disaster? I'll tell you the official line: "Thoman put in place new mechanisms which didn't bear fruit till now." Now, being two years, more or less, since he was taken out of the loop.
Or, to put it another way: "Rick did things which we've more or less recovered from." But it doesn't sound so glorious, that way, does it!
Samsung is launching a new range of really nice monitors; they reckon to be the leading supplier in the UK and many other parts of the world. I sat in the dark and listened to their presentation about the Universal Serial Bus, and emerged with a press pack containing product specifications, pictures, a pewter hip-flask, and a half pint of The Glenlivet. Not my favourite malt; I donate it to a member of the PC Mag production team.
Not a good day. The central heating isn't working, and it's cold. A trip to Cambridge has to be cancelled in case the engineer can get to us in the morning. He can't. And apparently one of my colleagues is rather ill, in the production department...