Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Segway fails to roll for Austin Powers, the dark side of warchalking and something slips out of sweaty Palms.

Monday 16/09/2002
Typical. I return from San Jose, laden with presents and bursting with hot news about nanotechnology, new chip designs, out of this world wireless wonderment and the secret lives of top Intel executives, and what does everyone want to hear about? Segway. What was it like, Rupert? Did you fall off? Would you buy one? Fun, no, and not at that price. Not that I mind the attention, but people then assume that I'm in some way representing the company and start to argue with me. "But surely it's not safe... why not buy a bike... it may be OK for the US, but Europe?" All of which are good and valid criticisms, but I wouldn't dream of speaking for Segway without a hefty retainer. Whatever, it feels like the company's got no problem in raising mindshare and probably doesn't need to spend a penny on marketing or advertising. It just needs to get the toys out, into the shops and thence -- legally -- onto the road. Or pavement. Perhaps that's why the company failed to get into Austin Powers II. By all accounts, the screenwriter and the director were absolutely set on having a road chase sequence with Powers and his assailants whizzing down the tarmac on Segways but failed to extract enough of them from the factory to make the scene possible. It probably wasn't necessary: there are some scenes in films that need to be played for real, some that can be played with a bit of computer animated assistance, and some that just pop into your head fully formed the moment you hear about them. This scene is one of the latter: you can imagine it down to the last detail without having to go near a cinema, and it's none the worse for that. Mind you, the same was true of 95 percent of Austin Powers II. Tuesday 17/09/2002
News comes in from the US where a publicity-minded chap with a wireless networking company has been stealing customers from Starbucks. Michael Oh, whose surname is remarkably close to James Bond's Q, kitted out a car with a WiFi network hub and a link back to base. By parking next to Starbucks, he provided a free alternative access point and got 'a couple of customers'. Nothing illegal, and Starbucks shouldn't worry too much: the car only works within a kilometre of the networking company's HQ and the sheer expense makes it impracticable for anything other than getting your name around the place. It does open up the possibility that those young warchalking dudes who plod the streets looking for open wireless connectivity may be getting more than they expect. I relay this story later in the day to a pal who's just set up his own 802.11b wireless network, the only one in his street. "I was thinking of putting it behind a firewall of its own", he said, "and leaving some chalk symbols outside the house. Wait for the idiots to try and log in and... blammo!" He smiled at that point. I didn't ask what blammo meant, but I reckon that all their laptops belong to him. In fact, you could probably put the entire kit to lure the hapless into the saddlebag of a pushbike. Take one notebook running software that looks like a server containing tasty files, equip it with a WiFi adaptor and peddle into some public place. You could get points for every illicit connection made, with bonuses for extracting data from their hard disks while they're trying to get yours. The knock-out blow would be to let the hackers believe they got information leading them to some great treasure, whereas it really gets them into some place where you and a load of pals in police uniforms can spring out and yell "Surprise!" It'll give the country dwellers something to do when fox hunting's banned, that's for sure. Wednesday 18/09/2002
Sun's going into the low-end PC market, selling its 'purple boxes' in lots of 100 as devices to plumb into big servers. For around $300,000 you get a hundred 'purple boxes' with system software and other bits, suitable to run for five years. The same cost for PCs, says Sun would be closer to a million bucks. But then there's the cost of the back-end systems. It may make sense. It would make more sense if the PCs were closer to a Webpad, a basically portable device that clips into a stand at work, plops into a briefcase and then clips into a similar stand at home. With broadband, there'd be no practical difference between the environment at work or home -- saving oodles in support costs -- and we'd be back in the world of terminals and mainframes before you could say IBM. Add the hardware security features, like smart card readers, and the whole thing looks a lot easier for IT to look after than the current mishmash of PCs on the desktop and laptops wandering hither and thither. If Sun concentrates on security, ease of use and low cost, it'll have a strong story to use against Microsoft. If it can actually demonstrate all of the above, and have a decent pathway for existing Windows users to move across without losing too much hair, it may well start to sell decent numbers of an alternative to Redmond. Be nice if someone did. Thursday 19/09/2002
Our master at news Matt Loney sat down with Todd Bradley, CEO of Palm, today and got the skinny on new products. Some of this was under non-disclosure agreement or NDA -- we can't say what, of course -- but pleasingly quite a lot was open. Things like price points, launch dates, general overview of the products were all ours to broadcast as we wished. Of course, we wished. Seventy quid entry price? Revamp of PDA concept? GPRS? 7th October? M-Lo's fingers were trembling with excitement as he typed the hot news into the sleek, powerful machinery that throbs at the heart of ZDNet UK. Barely had the story been published than the first whiff of mystery drifted across the Channel like a hint of Eau du Cologne in a long-empty attic. Palm France lost no time in telling other Web sites that our story was all rumours and not even a little bit true. Mais c'est de la bouche du cheval, we said. Some time later, our comrades in Europe modified their indignation a trifle and said that we must have broken our NDA. We're still not sure whether that means we were told false rumours under NDA. "Don't tell anyone this because it's not true, but..." sounds like something from William Goldman's stories of Hollywood duplicity. Now, Palm US is saying that the dates we printed are wrong. I know a good journalist always checks his facts, but when the head of a company says "We're launching our £70 PDA on 7th October, and you can print that" that's strong enough to stand up by itself. We're trying to get to the bottom of it but our best bet is either that some palace coup has taken place in Bradley's absence, or he's a prime example of our very favourite animal -- the gabby CEO slipping the leash of their PR minder. Or it's just a case of the left Palm not knowing what the right Palm's doing... Friday 20/09/2002
You may remember that I mentioned Victorian physicist and lost hero of radio Oliver Heaviside a couple of weeks back, saying that he'd spent his final years going doolalli tap in Torquay. The current incumbent of the Heaviside House was also showing signs of alternative cognition, I said, relaying a report from my West Country contacts. Thanks to the wonder of Webbery -- and the recent electrification projects west of Exeter -- this then got back to the chap in question. I must admit to being a little worried that I had upset someone less bound by the strictures of society than most -- what if he were violent? A practitioner of black magic? Worst of all, a lawyer? -- but all is well. Let me relay the latest intelligence from the English Riviera, courtesy of our man's friend Roy. "(On 11 September) ...he paid his respects to the anniversary of September 11th by putting a tarpaulin on the roof saying: "Please remember the people who have died" and underneath he put a clothes line with clothing representing the people who died i.e. shirt and tie representing the office workers, fireman's helmet, chefs clothing and a policeman's hat. He then did a vigil by sitting on a giant's chair outside the house complete with standard lamp. Unfortunately the locals think he's nuts but in fact he's just an eccentric and a showman, a bit like a young Quentin Crisp and Torquay is the better off for it." We at ZDNet UK applaud him in his struggles, and if you know of any other eccentrics whose activities could do with a bit of exposure -- well, you know my email. Just nobody with a chainsaw, a voodoo doll or a seat in chambers, OK? To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.