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Rupert Goodwins' 3GSM Barcelona Diary

Tuesday 14/02/2006There's far too much going on to fit into one diary. In swift succession, I learn that the Adult Content area is a pale shadow of previous years — "Last time, there were dwarfs with silver platters of fruit on their heads!

Tuesday 14/02/2006

There's far too much going on to fit into one diary. In swift succession, I learn that the Adult Content area is a pale shadow of previous years — "Last time, there were dwarfs with silver platters of fruit on their heads!" says one excitable chap — and that Oracle has a chocolate fountain on its stand. Already bewildered by the notably psychedelic aura of Barcelona, I start to fantasise about chocolate-covered midgets running through the show halls.

It is in this frame of mind that I make my rearranged meeting with CSR – Cambridge Silicon Radio, as was– and try to focus on Bluetooth. Fortunately, the punk rocker inside me is sleeping off an encounter with last night's major discovery – in Barcelona, happy hour lasts from 2200 to 0200 – and all the good people from Cantab have to cope with is the internal engineer wireless geek.

It is a good meeting, although it starts slowly when my interviewee seems less certain of the physics of making wireless chips than he is of business development. CSR's efficient PRs quickly rustle up a chap with a doctorate in persuading radio waves to jump through hoops, and we're off. The company is adept at making Wi-Fi and Bluetooth work together, which is exactly what mobile phone companies are slowly realising they want. It has some smashing low-power tiny tech that is edging towards cognitive radio, which is going to be the big story in a few years time, in that it can sense what's going on around it and adjust automatically to the conditions. Some of that in the airwaves of 3GSM would be most welcome.

We then leave the briefing room to go to the demo booth. "Can't go in quite yet," says the PR, "We've got the Duke of York in there". And so they do – he's nodding sagely over a prototype board. Aha! That explains the excited rumour of earlier in the day that "Prince Andrew is coming out," which to my shame I misinterpreted in quite a different way.

On my way back to the press room, I'm phoned by Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden, who's holding the fort back at ZDNet HQ. "Something about an IP DAB phone. Can you get back to me on that?". Seconds later, a passing PR stares at my badge and says "Rupert! Come and see my client. They've got the BT IP DAB TV phone." I cannot ignore an acronymic call from fate like that, and swiftly relocate to the TTP stand.

TTP is another Cambridge company: they've done the software engineering on the Windows Smartphone that BT is launching today. It does indeed do IP, but purely in the service of delivering mobile TV — still, it's a good story. There are plenty of prototype phones from the BT Movio trial, but no sign of the new one. "Can I see it?" I ask. "I've heard a rumour that Steve Ballmer is going to pull one out of his pocket in his keynote later." "Oh, that's just a rumour," says TTP, "but we can't show it until we get a call during the keynote, so we don't steal Ballmer's thunder." Which I think is a fairly strong rumour, so after chatting amiably about the internals of the phone I wander off with a promise to come back later.

Later, I'm back. My friend on the TTP stand has indeed got one of the new phones in his hand — as rumoured, so it went — but he's looking a bit concerned. "Er," he says, "You see, we've got a DAB TV transmitter in the back of the booth to run the demo and we had to install new software instead of the stuff that was driving the trial units. And the switchover is taking a bit longer than we'd hoped"

Fair enough, I think, and look at the phone. It is displaying a familiar error message, something about not having a licence to display this content. "Isn't that the Windows DRM telling you off for being naughty?" I ask.

"Er," he says. "Yes. We can do everything else, but not actually show the TV pictures. Would you mind awfully coming back later?" He's a good enough sport to let me take a picture of the device, and in the time it takes me to get back to the press room, scale the picture, get it back to the UK and return, he's fixed it. Turns out that the licence is sent to the handset via the mobile phone network, which he doesn't have access to, and he had to copy the file on manually.

In one way it's DRM doing its job — but in another, it adds to my not inconsiderable suspicion that it'll mess up and keep on messing up in interesting and annoying ways until we find a better way of doing it. What exactly is the value in a mobile-phone sized broadcast stream that needs protecting so badly, and from what is it being protected? It's not so much a sledgehammer/nut interface, it's a thumb-sensing sledgehammer with automatic guidance. Some nuts just ain't worth that much pain.