Watching Marks and Spencer reach the end of its natural life is a sad yet salutary experience. Its combination of dogmatic paternalism, barely post-Imperialist ideas about British being ipso facto best, and resolute indifference to change, made it as patrician as Macmillan.
But if you want to know just how badly it's out of touch, go and look at its newly-announced web site, http://www.marks-and-spencer-gifts.co.uk/. I looked at the Gifts for Men section, which would sell me, among a few other things such as Star Wars T-shirt And Shorts Set, and Belt (that's what it says. Belt.), a Watch -- Digital. Yes, for fifteen quid I can get a Watch -- Digital. It has a stopwatch and is water resistant, but if there's anything about it that makes it better than the ones in the local garage I can't really tell from the Web site. There's no real information, not close-up shots, not even a splash of rah-rah copy. Why would I buy this Watch -- Digital? I Know -- Don't.
In the spirit of investigation, though, I pretend that I want this device. I gamely struggle through the shopping basket registration, only to find that not only is the Watch -- Digital not Stock -- In and they can't give me a Date -- Delivery, but that they don't take credit cards. No, not even on the Web site. They will, apparently. In April. When, perhaps, they'll have some products in stock that I might want to buy...
Santa's not going to be nice to the M&S board this year, is he?
The aftershocks of the Microsoft court decision rattle around the world of words. Something that hasn't been given enough prominence, I feel, is the issue of quality. It is a good sign of a monopoly that the quality of the product goes down -- I suppose it's all down to decoupling from the neo-Darwinist imperative or as Fat Boy Slim would have it, "I'm Number One -- Why Try Harder?". An excellent polemic arrives in the comp.risk newsgroup from a programmer, pointing out that while Windows 95 was promised to run with a 386 and 4Mb of RAM it was a daft bugger who tried with anything less than a Pentium and 16MB. W2K will need a 300MHz PIII and 128MB, no matter what anyone says. And for what, client-wise? Will you really need all that extra hardware to continue to browse the Web or process your words? Of course not.
In fact, the programmer continues, quite the opposite is so. At his company, fed up with such nonsense, they wrote a new Windows Explorer that did in 26k what the MS Windows Explorer did in 256k. And they didn't need hundreds of programmers, late nights or endless days. Is this likely to be the only component in Windows that is ten times bigger than it needs to be?
Anyone with a working knowledge of the mechanics of software will know that Microsoft turns out bloated, bug-ridden, resource-hungry code that could be enormously better by any one of a hundred metrics. If we get this sort of attitude shifted by the end of the anti-trust case, we'll be in very good shape.
And on the same story: two little developments. The US Feds are thinking of splitting up Microsoft, and Expedia (Microsoft's online travel agency) had its initial public offering on NASDAQ. The stock was priced at $14 but hit $68 during the first day's trading -- not quite as stellar as some, but still an enormous mark-up.
If this sort of thing is going to continue to be the case, then there's nothing to stop Microsoft from hiving off bits of itself at sufficient speed that by the time the Feds turn up with the bailiffs there'll be nothing left but a broadly-smiling Bill Gates and a pile of cash large enough to buy South America.
I wasn't going to talk about BT this week. But: record profits. A fake 'unmetered' tariff that raises our hopes then chucks them off Beachy Head. The French launching DSL at £25 a month while we hang on, preparing to be pathetically grateful for a bill twice that.
And then -- a friend and I are walking along Hampstead High Street, when we catch sight of a DSL modem in the window of a shop. And it's on. And its little lights are flickering away twenty to the dozen. We dash in avidly, especially my friend who's always been particularly peeved that his Hampstead home was just the wrong side of the trial boundary.
It turns out that this is Videonet, running the video-on-demand system over the DSL network. For £30 a month, you get all manner of video lovelies at 4Mbps... plus 128Kbps permanent IP out the back of the set-top box. "I'll take it, " says my friend. "and I won't bother watching any of the movies." But -- oh dear! BT hasn't quite got around to enabling the IP side yet. It said it would, said the shopkeeper, but (and I quote) "it keeps arseing about".
Why do you think might that be, distant readers? Anyone else fancy marching on BT HQ with pipe, drum and placard?
The office is quiet today, as loads of people have bunked off -- no, sorry, selflessly consented to the terrors of international travel -- to Comdex, taking place next week in the alien mothership perched in the Nevada desert that IS Las Vegas. I bet those Roswell nutters have got it completely wrong: there never was a small saucer downed in Area 51. Instead, a complete intergalactic generation ship had previously parked up in Vegas and only disguised itself thinly as a human city.
Comdex should be particularly interesting this year. The biggest buzz is coming from wireless ideas -- UMTS and Bluetooth -- where American companies are displaying the very best 'Not invented here' coolness they can muster (see last week's Diary for UMTS in the US, or ask Microsoft why it still hasn't signed up for Bluetooth). And, of course, there's a persistent and completely uncheckable rumour that Comdex will be the place and the time when our new owners will be announced. Disney? Murdoch? VNU? EMAP? Paul Allen? Yahoo!? Bertlesmann? We've heard them all... and, of course, have our own opinions as to each of them.
So if next week's Diary starts with the Mickey Mouse theme or contains adverts for Sky Sports 2, you'll know what happened.
Wish us luck.