Rupert Goodwins' 12 best days of 1997

1. Wednesday 9/7/97

Say what you like about Sage and its accounting packages, nobody can claim that this half-billion pound Newcastle company has let success go to its head. Director Graham Wylie, possessor of a goodly chunk of the Geordie software fortune, leads a notably unaffected life with few of the trappings of power that have destroyed many a lesser person. No yacht, no Jaguar, no mansion on the coast of Northumberland for him: a suburban house and four-year-old car suffice.

And no wonder. A tale comes to light today of practically his only indulgence on record: he attended an auction of cherished car number plates and, after furious bidding, secured WYL1E for a figure not unadjacent to £25000. The transfer was signed on the spot and some prepared plates handed over - with joy in his heart he rushed back home and affixed them to the family motor to await his wife's return.

She took one look and said "If you think I'm ever getting into that car again with those things on, you're sadly mistaken", and that was that. In vain he tried with new plates, this time with a healthy separation between WYL and 1E : "Nope" quoth the missus. "They go,and that's that"

And they went. People with an interest in acquiring these unique and prestigious plates should apply to rootle around in the Wyliean attic, where they reside to this day.

2. Wednesday 28/05/97

UUNet (the Internet Service Provider formerly known as Unipalm-Pipex) has a party at the Ritz to celebrate various things - the launch of the Pipex Dial 4 software, the 56K modem support (both X2 and K56Flex), the UK 155Mb backbone and so on. The serried ranks of journalists sit patiently as the speakers (UUNet, US Robotics, Hayes and Microsoft) tell us what good chaps they all are and what a good idea the Internet is. It's only for an hour, after all, and while the sound of beer bottles chilling in the garden outside is somewhat distracting we are, after all, professionals. As per usual, PowerPoint presentations glide across our eyeballs without leaving a trace; in case we've missed something important we're given hard copies of the slides as we leave the room.

We repair to the garden. As the Latin Jazz band strikes up and the frock-coated waiters descend, two thoughts are uppermost: how many canapes per hour can one man eat without exploding, and why do Hayes' slides have the US Robotics web site printed on them? Only I can answer the first question, but luckily the redoubtable Bill Pechey (whom God preserve) and sparkly, journo-friendly Anne Mitchell of Hayes are to hand to help me on the second point.

"Ooooh!" squeals Anne, as I point out www.usr.com on the printout. "Those... those..." Unfortunately, a frantic bongo solo during the Girl from Ipa Nema drowns out the rest. I can't possibly give any credence to the rumour (from sources close to the companies concerned) that US Robotics had swapped their presentation at the last minute: UUNet had insisted that nothing commercial should be mentioned, and during the rehearsal USR's presentation most certainly didn't. The one we heard most certainly did. Hayes stuck to the rules, and subsequently sulked. It's a dog-eat-dog world with modems.

Home late. Ouch.

3. Wednesday 1/10/97

Discover that Notes has eaten the mailfiles of everyone with a first name beginning with R,S,T,U,V or W. Fortunately, they are all restored... except for one. Rupert_Goodwins@ZD.COM is cast adrift in the depths of cyberspace (so if you emailed me over the past four days, try again). IT sigh and create me anew. By now, the leased line to the Internet is back again and we've worked out where to find the toilets, the smoking room, the kitchen and the nearest pub: essentials completed.

Tonight's launch is Elle's Backweb channel. Lounge decorously in the Caf' de Paris, hear great demographics - 40% of Net users are now female, Elle has eight websites already, and it all looks very swish. And it's really fun to be a sloppily dressed anorak circulating with sharply-clothed fashion journos.

Hear riotously amusing yet undeniably libellous tale concerning a marketing person, a kitchen sink and... well. Alan Clark would've been proud. Journalist who printed this story before finding out that it was wrong on all salient points is not looking happy, but seems that the subject is opting for a quiet life and won't engage m'learneds.

Food: Blinis, tiny poquettes of salmon and egg, frankfurters with mustard dip, delicious pastry confections. Drink: Tattinger. Survival value: 9/10. Am definitely in the wrong business.

4. Wednesday 3/9/97

I sit opposite one. I've known loads. I've even wondered about becoming one. But I've never really known exactly what it is that editors do all day (which is OK: they normally feel the same way about me). The bits of the job that I do understand seem thankless. Take recruitment, for example: magazine people tend to have an unorthodox range of skills and it's quite hard to find just the one you want for a particular niche.

One computer magazine editor pal of mine confirms a story I'd heard previously. The publication in question needed a deputy art editor - page design, pictures, that sort of thing - and found a likely bod from the East End. He did a creditable job at interview, got hired and set to work on the mag. So far, so good. The team then went out with a PR company for an evening's jolly: our hero's first such event. The free booze was too much; he got more and more garrulous and eventually had to be gently led from the premises, with his boss apologising profusely to the PRs for misbehaviour.

This would be bad enough, if not exactly unknown. Our chum then decides to go back to the office at midnight: the security guards are leary of letting him in, but eventually capitulate. Shortly afterwards, the alarms go off - he's down in the basement, rootling around. Out you go, matey.

Four o'clock in the morning, and he's back. Security guard in no mood for repeat performance, and refuses entry. Our pal gets physical: cops are called, and it's in the slammer to cool off. He's still too bladdered in the morning to be charged (a drunk and disorderly rap awaits), but eventually the office calls and say "Cool off. Come in on Monday at 10, we'll sort it out then".

He wanders in at 11 on the Monday, as if nothing has happened. Final straw, really: farewell, dep art ed. Later hear, through my East End pals, that he's come in for a fair amount of ribbing from his chums for such total stupidity, and that he hasn't even got enough money to buy a copy of the one issue of the magazine that he contributed to.

And you thought that computer magazines were havens of silicon-studded anorakhood. Lord, no.

5. Thursday 9/10/97

In conditions of tippermost toppermost secret, the editorial side of PC Magazine convenes in the upstairs room at a nearby restaurant. Our task: to decide the winners for this year's Technical Innovations awards, the good old Tinas. Of course, no details can be published until the awards breakfast itself (towards the end of November), but I can exclusively reveal I threw two paper aeroplanes at Mark Child, labs Technical Director, and we ate vegetarian rolls for lunch. Oh, and the proposal that we give Microsoft a special award for keeping us all so busy was rejected.

However: the restaurant overlooks St Kathryn's Yacht Haven, as do our offices. As we chewed our red onion and eggplant rolls in the weak yet welcome autumn sun, we let our gaze rest lightly on the various boats bobbing on the water. One dark-windowed gin palace in particular caught our interest - a well-dressed businessman was making his way towards it, followed closely by... well, a woman in very short skirt, rather dazzling jacket and rather a lot of makeup. They were shown aboard by a bloke in jeans and T-shirt, who then left. One of our number, bolder than the rest, sidled up as close as he dared and reported that a cheque had been signed and left next to an erotic statue of two people... well, not doing anything nautical.

Not that anything untoward was going on. A million respectable explanations suggest themselves. Just... well, watch this space. One word. Webcam.

6. Friday 10/10/97

The weekly pile of press releases hits the bin, and thoughts turn to delicious pints in waterside pubs. Favourite release of the week is headlined "Motorola Heralds New Era Of Internetworking For Europe" and goes on at length about "strengthening focus". It's only by page 2 that it admits that this new era is one remarkably lacking in Motorola, who is strengthening its focus by 'phasing out' loads of products.

This week's quiz comes courtesy of Networld and Interop show in Atlanta.

Study the following passage, then answer the questions below.

If you're using the argument that 'we aren't therebecause the standard isn't there yet,' then that's apretty poor argument," said Frank Hayes, programmanager for LAN switching at Cabletron. "If youdon't enter in this relative time space, you're behind the power curve."

1. What do you think the proponent is trying to say?

a. I watch Star Trek, me.

b. Buy our kit NOW. It won't work with anyone else's.

c. I know more than you. Be scared. Then buy our kit (which won't work with anyone else's).

d. I've lost my mummy. Why am I wearing this suit?

e. Please give me one of my purple pills.

2. What happened next to Frank Hayes?

a. The power curve suddenly turned around and bit him

b. He got first prize at the Kyoto Zen School of Incomprehensible Koans

c. Relative time space became relative space time and he vanished up his own wormhole

d. He was hoisted onto the shoulders of his fellow marketing droids, who shouted "Yeay! Way to go, Frank!" and punched the air a lot.

e. He was recruited by John Birt.

6. Monday 7/4/97

A press release appears on my desk. This is about a new Microsoft initiative for broadcasting Internet information to the home alongside the normal TV signal. Sounds good? I think so. Ring up MS' PR company to ask for more information. MS' PR company deny ever sending me such a press release. I read it out over the phone to them. Are you sure it's from us, they ask. I read out the reference number, and they promise to get back.

They call back. "Got what you wanted!" they say, and proceed to read out the press release to me. "Yes, I know..." I say. "But how does it work? It sounds like it wouldn't work over here, 'cos it would interfere with teletext, but there's no technical detail so I can't be sure." PR company mumble about only being a PR company, and someone will be found to answer my questions.

Eventually, an MS person phones up. "Got what you wanted!" he says, and reads out the same press release. I point this out, and ask how the thing works. "Don't know that, " he says, "we're working in real time here." Hm.

It takes a while of fishing around on distant Web sites, but I eventually find out that it's just teletext with another name. Of course, this is never stated explicitly and there's no hint that for the service to be adopted all the existing stuff would have to be ditched. It is, if you just take the company line, a brilliant invention by Microsoft which will sweep effortlessly across the globe.

I do not advise taking the company line on this one.

7. Wednesday 23/10/97

Ya can't escape it -- the keyboard is the least sexy peripheral yet invented. A mouse is cute, a modem has flashing lights, even the joystick has some amusing phallic overtones. A keyboard sits there and gets clogged up. Which makes Key Tronics' job particularly difficult -- the company, responsible for many of the keyboards used by PC manufacturers -- has decided to go retail and invites me to a hotel in Marylebone.

To my considerable delight, the Key Tronics people -- and their distributors and PRs -- turn out to be excellent fellows one and all, with a dry sense of humour and willingness to talk about almost anything. Keyboards are one thing, keyboard people who take it all with a deadly seriousness would be unbearable.

They show me the new range, including keyboards with built-on trackballs and touchpads and various wireless options. All... keyboards. I remain unconvinced that many people will be persuaded to shell out the recommended £125 for a keyboard with a trackball that doesn't work very well (none of them ever do) and a wireless link that needs batteries which run out after three months. Why not have a solar cell on the thing to trickle charge the cells? £125 gets you a lot of other things these days...

Surprisingly, they agree, while pointing out that the black keyboard with the sculpted edges (a much more reasonable £30) has considerable geek appeal. It does. I want one.

8. Wednesday 19/11/97

1998 will be the Year of Speech Recognition, eh? I asked Maggie 'Usability' Williams, who's been testing the latest products in the labs, what she thought of this suggestion.

"Well, Rubbered, shave gutter log way to glow beefheart flail quirk kneely arse well as a peeboard. Eye wooden wreck on end them."

Thanks, Mags.

9. Thursday 3/10/97

CompuServe? Just say DOH! If you had an online service that was being rapidly eaten alive by brash young competitors and fixed-rate internet service providers, and your major draw was your huge stash of software and other files that have been carefully assembled over a decade, you'd do everything in your power to protect that stash, right? Encourage people to add to it, that sort of thing, right?

Wrong. CompuServe has introduced new Terms and Conditions that seem to state that the company gets complete control on anything placed in a public area on the service . It can take a shareware program and give it away, reverse engineer it, change its name... anything it likes. In effect, if you place something in a library, you lose control over it.

You may have read on PCDN that the reaction from the shareware community has been one of incredulity mixed with anger: that's only the half of it. The rest of us, who've been with CompuServe through thick and thin, really can't believe that the T&Cs are as they seem - we're evenly divided between cock-up and conspiracy theories. Short of quadrupling the prices and withdrawing all local call access, it's hard to think of something that'll kill CIS with more efficiency.

We wait for further developments, but it looks as if Hollywood really isn't the only place where nobody knows anything.

10. Wednesday 29/10/97

While my morality may be untested, my vanity is rarely in question. I happen to be in DejaNews (the service which indexes Usenet) looking for stuff about new radio technology, and succumb to the old urge to type my name in and see what happens. Will there be hoards of people discussing my latest reviews? Some nascent fan club planning a surprise party? A film director desperately trying to find me to discuss a really hot script idea?

There are precisely two hits. One concerns bugs in the old Spectrum 128K computer, and mentions yours truly as perpetrator of same (in cyberspace, one's sins last forever. There is no redemption). The other mentions a Rupert N Goodwin, a 75 year old petroleum geologist from Louisiana.

Retire to a PR party in a Mexican restaurant. Miller Shandwick is responsible: one must draw a veil over the events of the evening, except for two words. Tequila Frenzy. Discover things about editor-in-chief Bob Kane that are utterly astounding and certainly good for a couple of extra percent at pay review time. Discover also that I've forgotten the lot five minutes later.

11. Tuesday 22/09/97

A friend is entertaining a pair of Swedish women, over here to see the sights and observe that strangest of species, the Londoner at play. It's late, and the whisky is flowing - state control of booze in Sweden makes this a treat - and with a fine sense of joyful curiosity one of the Swedes expresses an interest in finding out what lesbian sex sites exist on the Internet.

It is always a delight to be able to poke around in proscribed areas with a clean conscience - research, m'lud - so my pal fired up the modem and boldy clicked where so many have clicked before. What he uncovered - stop laughing at the back there, Kewney -- was a tangled skein of come-ons, false advertising, linked sites and every rip-off under the sun. A favourite trick is for a site to launch a new copy of the browser with a menu in it: at one point, three clicks ended up with around 30 little windows floating over the screen. Against that, there are itinerant password sites offering backdoors into the protected adult-only picture archives... but, he reports, you have to steer a very straight path for a very long time to find anything more salacious than a pair of nipples.

However, he is a professional and it was with pride that he finally managed to track down sufficient digital delights to impress his guests. If ever there was an industry in need of some serious sense beaten into it, online pornography is it. Can't see Which? taking it up though...

12. Wednesday 22/10/97

Big event today! No, not Microsoft being keelhauled by the US Department of Justice over anticompetitive practices, nor even MSN still barely qualifying as alive (the tales of the billing system cockups are matched only by the mail, upgrade and access cockups). Not even the story of Microsoft's PR company, Text 100, refusing to send out any more Microsoft review software unless you get a note from your mum - oops, commissioning editor - can divert the hard-working team from the main happening: The Boat Party!

So there we are , on HMS President, a couple of hundred IT journalists merrily consuming our way through the liquid assets of Harvard PR. In a first for PR partykind, Harvard has hired comedian Al Murray ("The Pub Landlord", Harry Hill et al) to lambast us halfway through the evening. This leads to some surreal moments in audience participation...

Al Murray: "What separates us from the animals, apart from beer?"

Drunken IT hack: "622 megabit ATM switches!"

Al Murray: "Christ. Why can't you just heckle?"

A veil is best drawn over the rest of the evening, except to note that the boat's bar disposed of three evenings' worth of beer in just over six hours; several Harvard executives were treated to an impromptu discussion of what we really thought of their clients and we suspect that several members of PC Direct's editorial team cast themselves adrift on a lashed-up raft made out of freelancers.

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