Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Revealed: how to wind up a printer maker, wind down a magazine and knock the wind out of electronic engineers.

Monday 12/08/2002
One of my very evil pals -- you know, the sort that wilfully snatch the bread from the mouths of record producers and film executives -- reports that more and more ISPs are disconnecting users who trade MP3s. "I don't know what mine thinks of it," said pal muttered, "but my line's been solid in both directions for two weeks now." It's a dilemma. The ISPs know full well that MP3s and DIVX movies are one of the biggest attractions to get people onto broadband, and telling users not to do it will be as popular as a pub where drunkenness is not tolerated. On the other hand, it is illegal and the various industry associations are just a short step away from demanding the death penalty for anyone found in possession of a sound or video file longer than three seconds in length. What should the ISPs do? I think the answer's clear enough. A modest licence fee to the media companies that kicks in once the broadband suppliers become profitable will cover the true cost to them of the unsold CDs and DVDs (as has been pointed out, if the losses were anything like as big as the companies claimed, they'd have enormous holes in their balance sheets. They don't.). That way, it can all be legal and above board, and the ISPs can carry on selling a service the punters dearly want. Too simple to be attractive, of course. Tuesday 13/08/2002
My remarks last week about Philips' inability to cope with some simple queries about a product they're working on have provoked a few reactions. "If it helps," said one correspondent, "I'm trying to buy 100,000 chips from them and they are equally as (expletive deleted) useless and unresponsive." To which another exasperated engineer replied, "I worked for a period at a Philips subsidiary as a subcontractor: I could not believe how mind-bogglingly inefficient and bureaucratic the place was, or that nobody seemed to care provided the salary cheque arrived on time. You would have thought that Philips Semiconductors would have been mildly helpful about providing information to a high-volume user of bits actually within the Philips group, but you'd be wrong: they were worse than useless, even denying knowledge of bits that had made it into the RS catalogue" To my amazement, I found a Philips chip in a UPS I was dismantling for parts (oh, how the long summer nights fly past round here). I imagine that someone got into a lot of trouble for allowing enough information about the chip to escape to let someone else to design a circuit around it. Wednesday 14/08/2002
The news from VNU -- publishers of computer titles, and recent acquirers of PC Magazine and IT Week -- is shocking. They're closing PC Magazine, among others, and making huge numbers of pals redundant. Way back in March, I noted that VNU hadn't bothered appointing a new editor for the title -- and got a pained note from a senior pal inside the company saying "That's not fair!" -- which is rarely a good sign. And so it wasn't. It goes without saying that many people are deeply upset by this, even those who didn't lose their jobs in the closure. There are a handful of ex-Maggers at ZDNet UK, and we're all thoroughly hacked off. I was on the title from issue one, and can remember very vividly the first couple of years when running a big title with by far the largest editorial staff of any such enterprise looked risky at best. Ziff Davis was committed to "religious overspend" on editorial, and built a well-equipped labs to back up editorial opinion with repeatable facts. In return, it charged an arm and a leg for advertising -- the theory being that it would be read and acted upon by people who bought lots of IT stuff. "It'll never work!" snorted the rest of the industry. It nearly didn't. But with lots of money and dedication, it did -- and for a while, working for PC Magazine was deeply satisfying. But if you don't have that dedication to the cause, Mag can look like a very expensive business and ripe for cost-cutting. Then you find you can't do it cut-price, and you wonder why you're bothering at all. Perhaps the market's changed so much that there isn't any room to do things that way. Or perhaps it's not in VNU's genes to spend too much on editorial. Either way, it's a very sad day and a poor end to eleven years of top-notch IT journalism. Thursday 15/08/2002
To the Institute of Contemporary Art on Pall Mall, where top PR company Bite are holding their -- brace yourself -- Christmas in August spectacular. Loads of companies crowd into two un-air-conditioned rooms on the hottest day of the year, set up lots of monitors and PCs to increase the room temperature just that little bit closer to the surface of the sun, and show off their wares to a bunch of sweaty journalists. By and large, it was a success. Lots of keen PRs and marketing people -- some rather unsettlingly wearing T-shirts marked "Bite my bunny!" -- piled on the glad-handing and us hacks got our mitts on some very nice toys, albeit briefly The best bit was on Epson's trestle table. A long line of printers sat there, churning away, flashing their lights and looking very busy. I rattled off a few digital pictures, then zoomed in on the model numbers on the front panel -- odd, I didn't recognise them. A marketing woman popped up in microseconds and screamed "What are you doing?". Er, taking pictures of your printers? The ones you're showing to journalists? "You can't do that!" she said. "But I have." I said. "But you've got to sign this non-disclosure agreement, otherwise..." She trailed off. I shrugged happily. Now, I didn't know her, she didn't know me, and she was clearly unsure just how serious I was. She went for the sympathy vote. "But they're not launched yet, and we're not telling people about them until the launch, and we really don't want pictures appearing on some Web site, it would be such a disaster..." "Do you know," I mused outloud, "I work for a Web site. Could have them up in minutes." I think that was over-egging the pudding, because at this point she smiled, held up the NDA form and wagged her finger. I signed, of course, not being cruel. And as a result, I can't show you the pictures -- which I have here -- or tell you when the launch is, and probably can't even mention that Epson will at some point in the future be producing some new printers. So they won't. Right? Friday 16/08/2002
The two friends Edward and Kevin were discussing faith and technology in the pub. "You're a religious man, Kevin" said Edward. "Why does God allow your amateur radio gear to keep breaking down?" Kevin took a deep draw on his pint before answering. "He helps those who help themselves, you know. In my case, I pray for guidance and know that I'll get it, but I still insist on wearing fresh rubber gloves when working around high voltages." "You don't mean?" said Edward, realising the import of what was to come. "I do." said Kevin. "Praise the Lord, and pass the ham's new mittens" They finished their pints in silence. "It's the poor of this world I feel sorry for," said Edward as he returned from the bar with refills, "especially those Indian kids who thought that learning computer programming would be their escape route from poverty." "How so?" said Kevin. "Families ripped apart as their youngsters are imported to the US as cut-price code monkeys," replied Edward, warming to his theme. "One famous supercomputer manufacturer was just buying them in by the bushel, purely on their school's reports on their technical prowess. It's positively Dickensian. I'm so moved, I'm going to write the novel." "That would be..." said Kevin, pint poised half-way to lips. "Yes," said Edward. "Cray Tech Spec'd Asians." Not another word was uttered. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.