Rupert Goodwins' Diary

This week: open-toed sandals, knickers, accounting with taste, Paddington gets gaseous and Microsoft looks in the mirror...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday, 22/02/1999

In a rare burst of Maoist self-criticism, Steve Ballmer -- Bill Gates' sidekick -- says that Microsoft has got problems. The products are too much hassle, he admits. Software engineering needs to be re-established as a discipline. The whole development ethos has gone bad.

Wow! We've been telling them that for at least ten years but with absolutely no result: famously, Bill Gates once asked a group of journalists over to tell him exactly how Microsoft was perceived. They told him. He got mad. Practically threw them out.

Is this really a newer, humbler Microsoft? Or is it bluster, a show of contrition designed to disarm the judge in the increasingly farcical trial? Time will tell: if Ballmer and Gates can re-engineer the company's culture -- an even trickier task than the adoption of the Internet -- then they may yet regain our good wishes.

Tuesday, 23/02/1999

Yeah, yeah. So Burger King is offering internet access in the US. Perhaps we could encourage other chains to do the same: M&S could revive its failing knicker sales by having webcams in the changing rooms, the Church of England might benefit by building browsers into the back of the pews (and an electronic voting system to open a trap-door in the pulpit if the sermon's too boring), and nobody could resist a visit to have their teeth done if the dentist had a small LCD screen strapped to his forehead showing pleasant offerings from around the Net.

The retail revolution has yet to begin!

Wednesday, 24/02/1999

On a trip to see Cisco, I pass through the eternal building site that once was Paddington Station. My, it's changed. The big arrivals and departures board over the entrance to the platforms has been turned off -- how many times did I stand staring at that on my biennial pilgrimage to Plymouth? -- and in its stead glimmer two racks of Fujitsu gas plasma colour displays. I count around forty, which at £5K a pop is a significant investment in something that would shatter from a single well-aimed cider can.

At first, I think this is wonderful. Then I notice that it's harder to read, will result in more crowding and is in many ways a less useful method of finding the next train to Penzance. So why?

Laurence Grayson of PC Magazine has the answer. "Advertising." he says mournfully (nobody does mournfully better than Laurence). I expect he's right: we can all look forward to Bladerunner-style videos distracting us when we're really just hoping that the eternal queues for tickets will be dissipated in time for us to catch our train. Still, they could always equip us with infra-red controls and let us take part in some big videogame tournament...

Thursday, 25/02/1999

Oh, what a party! It's always the least promising ones that truly delight, and this one promised to be the PR Do From Hell. Sage, Geordie generators of accountancy software to blokes in garages across the nation, is 18 years old. To mark this auspicious event, it's throwing a party in the Voodoo Lounge: Leicester Square's Rolling Stones themed bar. Now, accountancy software is desperately dull. Rock music themed bars are atrocious places. So how come I ended up having an absolutely splendid time?

Set and setting, as the psychologists say, is everything. Sage, being Geordie, knows exactly how to have a good time with beer, and everyone's up for fun. And the Lounge, far from having memorabilia scattered around (we half-expected Brian Jones in a jar in the corner, pickled by Damien Hirst) is tres cool.

I get talking to Graham Wylie, the managing director and one of the most affable, easy-going, down-to-earth examples of the species you could hope to meet. And he's understandably delighted with Sage's progress to date. In 18 years, the company's gone from being a three-man operation run on a £40,000 Government development loan to a £2 billion multinational operation.

How did they do it? By understanding the market perfectly. An example: they recently bought a French company. At the meeting where the deal was struck, the French asked if Sage wanted to see a demo of the software. "How may dealers have you got?" asked Sage. "Er, 3000." "And users?" "100,000". "Fine" said Sage. "We won't bother with the demo."

It ain't about technology...

Friday, 26/02/1999

Due to a top-level lunch today, I and fellow IT Week hackette Shan Kelly have been recruited by the Open University to present a short series of pieces on PC technology. It should be transmitted in April as part of an OU/BBC magazine programme going out on Saturday mornings on BBC2.

The Beeb is upping the profile of the OU and using it to produce general-interest mainstream programming such as this -- they call it high-calorie TV, and are pitching it as an intelligent alternative to the normal breakfast-time fluff. The whole thing will last for about three hours from 9am onwards and will cover many technology issues: our part in the proceedings is to do a 5 minute "what the bits in your PC do" slot. You can't really get into the gritty details of impedance mismatch bus voltage boost in this sort of time, but it should be a useful bit of demystification.

If you catch us calling people 'darling' and using the word 'wonderful' a lot I hope you'll be understanding, and jokes about tweed jackets, kipper ties, open-toed sandals (with socks) and wobbly charts may be considered to already have been made.

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