Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Wake up, get out of bed, drag a comb across... oh, hold on, it's 4am and I'm wide awake. Then it comes back: I'm in San Francisco and I'm here for the launch of Sun's Jini networking technology. And my limbic stem thinks it's midday, and thus time to get up.

Which is cool. But what to do at 4am in San Francisco? It's a nice enough town but it does tend to go to bed at night. I try and get the World Service on my Sony shortwave radio, but all I manage to receive is someone yelling loudly that the Internet is the Antichrist and the Yewnited Nashuns is the World Government backing the Beast. At least, I hope that's not the World Service -- odd things are going on at the Beeb these days.

So I try and get the WS from the Web. Disaster! I have with me a cool 300MHz PII laptop and the very latest USB modem. I plug one into the other, and within seconds the computer bursts into life and demands a driver disk. Which I have, and a floppy drive to boot. What I don't have is the cable connecting the floppy with the laptop. Frustration!

Later that morning -- having spoken with numerous Sun engineers, marketing men and Jim Waldo, Chief Architect, about Jini and Microsoft, Java and theories of corporate control -- I borrow another modem, one that just works with standard drivers. I log on, download the right drivers for the USB modem, run this, uninstall that and sacrifice a small mouse to the other. Finally, everything works.

As the launch for Jini unfolds, I realise that the technology would have entirely solved my problems. With it, the modem would have told the computer what it could do, and then proceeded to send it the right driver software. End of story. It's not often that you sit watching a new product unfold and immediately realise quite what a good idea it is -- but I guess we'll have to wait and see whether Sun messes it up as much as it did Java. Signs are that it won't. Let's hope.

The finest moment of the launch came later, though. As I sat leafing through the press pack at the post-event reception, I got talking to Jon. He was yer actual young geek, speaking a strange mixture of East and West Coast computer slang and being very, very hyperactive. He reached into his bag (Sun gave us all one of these, with the curiously unsettling Jini logo. After thinking for a bit, I realise why it looks so worrying -- it's very similar to the old Tory party torch) and pulled out a small selection of brightly coloured plastic bits. "Zoob!" he said. "Cool!". Zoob is a toy construction set invented by MIT's media lab (they've got nothing better to do) where you clip corrugated balls into lip-shaped sockets and make up strange devices. It's superb, and Sun gave us all a set. It'll be big over here next year, I'm sure.


Um. How many martinis? Let us not count the ways. Instead, it's time for the Customer Visit. These can be dire: often, companies choose very dull companies who really don't want a load of journos trampling around their offices. This time, Sun pulls it off: we're all going to Pixar Animations!

Pixar made Toy Story and A Bug's Life, and is the top computer animation company on the planet. It's also filled with amazingly happy and bright people, enormous amounts of computing, stacks of graphical wonderfulness and the most incredible sense of fun. They have a thousand Ultrasparc processors in a room with 5 terabytes of disk! Wow! They have their own home-made laser device for putting computer images onto film! Wow! They have big bowls of bananas everywhere! Wow wow!

The very best bit of the visit wasn't handling the clay models for Bug's Life, or going through the storyboards, or meeting people so enthusiastic about their work they're almost incoherent. What really hit home was Pixar's in-house training programme: in a company with plenty to be proud of, this is the jewel. Called Pixar University (hey, they are Americans), it's a set of formal courses in almost every aspect of the company's work -- film making, writing, animation, sculpting, programming and so on. Top people from the outside are drafted in to be lecturers, and the courses take two hours a week. The real kicker, though, is that anyone from the company can -- and is encouraged to -- take courses in areas completely outside their notional job. The benefits are huge: new ideas, a better understanding of what other people do, new skills and much satisfaction. "Pixar people are lifelong learners", said our host, and it showed.


Grunt. Flying back overnight from California is rarely a pleasure: not helped this time by a catastrophically poor selection of inflight movies. So I'm happy to be back at my desk in the afternoon, trying to sort out a few hundred emails and wondering dully about deadlines.

But there are more troubles afoot outside. In a fascinating example of geopolitics spilling over into cyberspace, the East Timor virtual country (in both senses) domain is vaped by mass action over the wires. East Timor in exile turns out to live on a small Irish ISP... and it turns out that I know the sister of the system administrator. (Ireland's like that -- if you know one Irish person, you soon find out they went to school/college/pubs with, or are cousins of, just about everyone else on the island. It's great fun.)

I try to use this soupcon of geneware connectivity to get an exclusive interview, but am informed that said brother has been up for 48 hours, and isn't for chatting just at the moment. "Would you ask the carpenter of the Titanic for an interview about boatbuilding as the ship went down, now? You would not." was how it came back to me.

Fair point. I'll try next week.


This one won't run and run: Sightsound -- of whom you've never heard -- claims to have a patent that covers all downloading of audio and video content over the Internet. And it wants 1% of revenue, or else. Yeah, right. I went and had a look at the patent: six pages with a few boxes that certainly mention moving sound from a server over a public telecommunications system, but have almost no detail otherwise.

Now I'm no patent lawyer, but I'm aware that prior art is Kryptonite to even the most watertight registration: if someone did it before you then you can't patent it. And I was downloading music and images onto my Amiga from Cix -- the UK's oldest conferencing system, and still a worthy place -- in 1988. The Sightsound patents were filed in 1990 and 1996, and granted in 1993 and 1997. It'll have to go through court, of course, but this looks exactly like Compton claiming that it had patented multimedia. That lasted no time at all, and neither will this.


Now, here's a thing. Volvo sells nearly half a million cars a year. It employs many tens of thousands of people. It is a very large, successful and concrete business. Ford wants to buy it, for a figure not miles away from five billion dollars. Yahoo! has made an offer for Geocities, which is a web farm that employs around a hundred people, makes no money and probably never will. For a figure not miles away from four billion dollars. Four. Billion. Dollars. Of course, that's not real money -- it's Internet Stock Money, which is going through the sort of hyperinflation that just seems like another one of those strange exponential patterns you get when you mix TCP/IP packets with the real world.

Now and again, though, one is hit over the head with the sheer ridiculousness of it all. In theory, Yahoo! could buy Volvo and Ford could buy Geocities -- but could you possibly imagine such a thing? The virtual economy doesn't really mix with the real one -- which makes me very uneasy that it's just the virtual keeping the real detached from the full horrors of the Far East/Russia/South America collapse, at least on Wall Street.

I guess the Internet stock market has adopted that famous Pixar slogan: To Infinity, And Beyond! Perhaps it is just a toy story, after all.

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