Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Rupert goes overboard in the Navy, trains his cellphone to imitate Dr Who and bemoans the passing of his digital life history. But what's that crunching sound from the newsdesk?

Monday 21/10/2002
There are days when it seems that all al-Qaida has to do to is stay in bed, and the great experiment of the Enlightenment will grind to a halt under its own preposterousness. Today, the US Navy -- at the front line of the technocratic world's defence against the forces of darkness -- reports that it's lost nearly 600 computers, 14 of which contained classified data. Where have they gone? Who's got them? What's going to happen when Operation Kill Lots Of Bad Guys goes into action and everyone's sitting around waiting for their orders from one of these computers? Nobody knows. Nobody's got any idea. This is good headline stuff, but hardly the biggest problem confronting the Jolly Jack Tars' IT department. Another survey out recently revealed that the American Navy has more than 100,000 -- that's one hundred thousand -- different application programs. I didn't know there were that many in the world, but there are and Uncle Sam's using all of them. This includes banks of CP/M computers running Wordstar (ask your grandfather), as well as custom hardware and software and -- of course -- every variant of Windows ever to escape from the belly of the beast. It is all thunderously incompatible with itself, and by far the biggest challenge ever to face those intent on creating a single system where everyone from the Admiral of the Fleet to the lowliest cabin boy can share information. "They'd be better off ditching everything overboard and starting from scratch," said one person connected with the project that's aiming to do just that. Perhaps that's where the 600 lost PCs went, as a fresh-faced IT specialist decided the task of interfacing Electric Pencil with Lotus Notes over Token Ring was just too much for any sane man to bear and threw the entire kit overboard. Quite possibly hitting some dodgy geezer in a rubber boat containing a few kilos of Semtex. Stranger things have happened at sea. Tuesday 22/10/2002
So Sendo's launching its brand new Z100 Microsoft-powered Smartphone, and much to my sceptical heart's surprise I actually warm to the thing. It's nice and light, very colourful, easy to use and has lots of potential. It crashes a lot too, but then this is a beta. One of the best things about it, to an inveterate hacker such as myself, is that once you hook it up to a PC and sync to it you can start poking around with its constituent files. Lots of what the phone does is in XML files, just aching for a bit of text editing -- and here are the ring tones as Midi and .WAV files. I spend a goodly part of the short time allocated to writing a review of the thing just downloading odd noises for rings, text messages, incoming emails and so on. It's justifiable, I think, as each time I throw a new file into the phone it reacts in a different and unpredictable manner. This opens a whole new gamut of annoyances for the noxious traveller. No longer are you limited to irksome techno tunes picked out in bleepy-bleepy, but the whole corpus of music can be raided for your ring-tone needs. Is the finale of the 1812 overture better than Ride of the Valkyries? Is the Penguin Café Orchestra's Telephone and Rubber Band more knowingly apt than the Incredible String Band's A Very Cellular Song? Charles on Reviews wants the Tardis noise, which I agree is tempting... but the trouble here is that from the small space of a cellphone speaker you can't get any decent bass. Anything audible has to be high pitched... unless we manage to invent the pocket subwoofer. There is another alternative: ultrasonics. If you cross two ultrasonic beams, you get audible mixing effects at the point where they meet. The ultrasound itself can be emitted from a tiny aperture, but the effects can produce very deep notes. The one drawback is that the phone won't know where you are to set up the crossed beams -- so it'll have to sweep the immediate area in the hope of catching you. Of course, anyone else within range will also get a burst of the noise as the ultransonics whiz past like a lighthouse beam -- imagine the fun in a crowded train carriage when two or three of these go off at once! And there'll be no way to tell where the noise is coming from: you'll be perfectly safe, even as your fellow passengers degenerate into a fevered, maddened lynch mob. I wonder if Sendo has realised it's going to be responsible for the fall of Western civilisation? Bin Laden can turn over under the duvet and hit snooze again... Wednesday 23/10/2002
And talking of Notes, the progenitor of Lotus, Mitch Kapor, is back in the news. He's invested a few million in the Open Source Application Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation which intends to produce a personal information manager that will do much the same as Outlook. Code-named Chandler, it will bring together your emails, contact information, to-do list, calendar and so on, and act as a personal information hub around which you can run your life. And if you don't like the way it does something, well -- here's the source. Go and do it better. Now, this is a splendid idea. I don't like Outlook, and it doesn't like me. I find the interface contradictory, the performance sluggish and its features difficult to comprehend. I keep having to delete stuff I want to keep -- hell, I want to keep everything -- and anything involving big attachments (which these days is nowhere near unusual) means putting the kettle on, learning Sanskrit, translating War and Peace into Hungarian and solving world hunger by the time I get my file from A to B. I'm not sure that Chandler will do this: it doesn't seem to have very large data set management as a feature. But by my calculation, I've probably acquired more than a gigabyte of email over the past few years -- and had to throw it all away, despite storage getting very cheap and processors getting very fast. My son will probably acquire ten times that in his first ten years of online life: it's not just stuff that'll be needed for work or play, but an archive of an increasing proportion of our whole lives. I want to keep this stuff -- imagine how fascinating it would be to have the equivalent for people of a hundred years ago. But email and PIM software knows nothing of this. It all assumes information is transitory and small, which in an age where it is increasingly neither, is just plain wrong. I hope Chandler will evolve quickly to solve this problem: if so, it'll be truly life-changing. Thursday 24/10/2002
Tablets are everywhere, as Microsoft tries to tell us that what we need is a laptop with no keyboard. Personally, I find A4-sized tablets hard to swallow. It's true that they have some amazing handwriting recognition, and that the coming of the Web makes it much easier to envisage doing useful work armed just with a screen to read Web pages and a pen to click on links. Something that did that, ran all day, weighed next to nothing and cost a few hundred quid would be in with a shout as a nice domestic and office toy. But the tablet PC is almost none of these things. They really are laptops without keyboards, and have the same weight and battery life. Two to three hours between charges is just not interesting, even if you can top it off every half an hour or so from a charging point Three to four pounds in weight isn't something you'd want to take with you on your journey through daily life, and the thousand quid-plus price point is just plain daft. All through the sorry history of pen-based computing, one thing remains enormously clear -- they're good for single tasks, and rubbish at anything else. PDAs are OK once you get rid of the stray computing bits and make them very small, very light and cheap. Stock-taking systems love pen-based computing. Punters, though, are not interested in something with few advantages and plenty of drawbacks, especially when it's in direct competition with cheaper, more powerful, more portable alternatives. But Microsoft will keep on at it, in the same way that it'll produce an Xbox II and embedded XP. It gives us something to write about, I suppose, and we really should be grateful. Friday 25/10/2002
Back in the days of PC Magazine, we used to do group tests of laptops. And not just your 'slap in a benchmarking disk and write down a couple of numbers' tests, goodness me no. These were hardcore: we had robot fingers poking away at keyboards, battery discharge tests that sucked the very life from the poor little cells, and we finished off with our favourite -- the drop test. The logic was impeccable: at some stage in the life of your very expensive portable computer, you're going to drop it. Wouldn't you like to know that you'd bought one likely to survive? So, we dropped them. Onto concrete. From a height. They broke. Some crazy-paved their displays, others cracked at the hinges, still others lost a lump here or a disk drive there, but they broke. To their eternal credit, the PR companies swallowed hard and took back the broken bodies of their brave little soldiers with barely a whimper. We felt so guilty that we dropped -- so to speak -- the test from the list of things to do, but I still think it was a bold and justifiable silicide. Were we to bring it back, we'd have to update it to include PDAs -- and not just dropping them neither. What's the worst thing you can do to your PDA? Over to Matt Broersma in the newsroom, where his Psion Series 5 is sitting on the very same chair that he's about to... oh dear. That must have hurt. Yes, he broke it with his bottom. A once healthy -- nay, business-critical -- device, reduced to a psychedelic mosaic of shattered LCD through the sheer power of one man's arse. He is devastated, poor chap, and we -- well, we tried to be supportive, comforting and calming. It turns out we're not very good at those, but we are very good at giggling outrageously and making rude jokes about new user interfaces. Luckily, he's in the right place for such fundamental mishaps: a steady stream of new portable toys is always hurtling through the office, and I believe he's already been re-equipped for the price of a 400-word review. But will we adopt the Broersma Buttock Bounce as a standard part of our test suite? I think we should. Postscript: Fabulous Web site of the week is, where a ten-year observation of the Galactic Centre has resulted in a movie of a large star orbiting the black hole that lives in the middle of the Milky Way. Not an animation -- a movie. Six megabytes, so modem owners beware, but this is pure science fiction come true. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.