Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The twenty-first century may be well under way, but our telephone companies still act like it's the nineteenth, to Rupert's eternal annoyance.

Monday 25/11/2002
Hey, here's a surprise: GPRS services are hugely under-subscribed and showing no sign of returning a crumb on investment. One study published today says that the amount of revenue coming in from GPRS in Denmark wouldn't even cover the cost of the lunches eaten by the engineers who installed the stuff. Now, why could this be? Could it be that the prices were set so staggeringly high that nobody in their right mind dare use GPRS, in case one wrong click on a Web page resulted in all the money in their bank account being downloaded to the telephone company's coffers? Yep. The telephone companies response to this has been to deny it's a problem at all -- that's when they're not telling the handset manufacturers to remove the software that tells the user how much data they've used. But reality doesn't give a fig for the flights of fancy of a telco's marketing department, and users are more than capable of doing the sums and deciding for themselves whether the numbers add up. It's all a horrible reminder of the early days of broadband, when we couldn't decide why BT was being so cataclysmically inept at setting service levels and prices. Options considered included the idea that its networks were too shabby to cope with demand; the idea that BT's training was so poor it couldn't create enough engineers to maintain the service; the notion that BT was so scared of losing business elsewhere to broadband that it was deliberately dragging its feet; or just that gross incompetence was the order of the day. Whatever, it seemed that prices were set so high, and availability so low, that someone somewhere didn't want it to work. To some extent, most of the above suspicions adhere to the GPRS scene at the moment. Whatever the real reason, it's hard to have much sympathy for the companies as they weep into their balance sheets over the forthcoming fiasco that is 3G. If they can't get GPRS right, why should they manage something even more advanced? Tuesday 26/11/2002
There are certain obligations placed on people by society -- taxes, using a decent sewerage system and doing jury service not least among them. There should be a similar obligation with Internet standards, according to Bruce Perens, cofounder of the Open Source Initiative. He wants people to join the Internet Engineering Task Force to boost the voice of free software -- especially where the ability of IETF groups to adopt patented technology comes in. It's a controversial move, as lots of people think the IETF's diversity and lack of control by any one group has been its greatest strength. But aside from this particular issue, there's a good case to be made for as many people as possible getting stuck in where standards are being discussed and plans for future systems are made. Otherwise we all run the risk of ending up with a few big companies divvying up the standards between themselves for their own benefit -- as has happened frequently in the past -- just because the rest of us can't be bothered to get involved. We have a near-equivalent of democracy in information technology, thanks to the Net, and that's unique in the history of commercial development. It would be a sin of the highest order if it got thrown away by apathy -- which oddly enough is the biggest danger facing democracy in the political world. Perhaps we need civil society and the use of newsgroups to be taught in the primary schools. Wednesday 27/11/2002
I have discovered, at an age when such discoveries may still prove useful, what it is I enjoy doing more than anything else. It's egocentric, undoubtedly less fun for everyone else involved than for me, and leaves me wide open to a number of possible embarrassments -- some of keck-wrecking intensity. But I love doing it, and I want to do more. I did it for around thirty minutes today: it was an occasion of almost unbearable joy. I don't think it was so good for the other chap. The event took place, as such things often do, in a Paddington basement that had been hurriedly filled with equipment at the expense of what little décor was visible. After a hurried briefing by the man in charge, I sat down at a glass table next to my temporary partner, looked at the master of ceremonies opposite, gave a nod and we were off. The occasion was the interviewing of a Microsoft head honcho about the Palladium security initiative, and I was there as an independent voice. Mr Microsoft -- well, Stuart Okin, UK Security Czar -- said one thing, and I then presented an alternative point of view. I've perpetrated enough brutish rants about the shortcomings and dangers of Palladium not to want to reiterate them here, and to be honest there are any number of other areas and other companies where just as much could be said. But what annoys me more than anything -- yes, even more than The Archers Omnibus -- is hearing big high-tech companies being given an easy ride on the radio or telly, because the presenter has to take their word for things. An example: the other week, Intel was on The Financial World Tonight on Radio Five Live, talking about results or new chips or some such. The conversation wandered into the Intel Inside campaign, and one of the presenters said: "You must be doing really well for all those companies to want to carry your logo like that." "Just goes to show!" said the Intel spokesman. He knew, and the presenter didn't, that the Intel Inside campaign is paid for by Intel, who subsidise any advert that features the four note fanfare and the swirly graphic. Next time you see it on TV, note that it's always kept well clear of any other voice-over or music: them's the rules if you want the Intel dollar. I doubt someone like Coca-Cola would have been given such an easy ride over sophisticated marketing techniques. Anyway, following our little chat -- due to be broadcast on BBC World, in the Click Online programme next week -- I am now on Microsoft's Re-Education and Attitude Adjustment list, and will be having a meeting when my concerns and misapprehensions can be ironed out. Thursday 28/11/2002
Much fun with phones today, as a Sharp GX1 appears. That's one of 'em picturephones, with a built-in camera, GPRS, browser and suchlike goodies. The full review will be turning up in due course, but as this is now the third phone like that we have in the office it provoked an absolute orgy of silly photos which we then decided to send to each other. Just like the adverts say. But woe is us! Charles McLellan, the gruff Yorkshireman who controls reviews in this here burg, took a happy snap of himself and Multimedia Message Service (MMS'd) it to me. I got a text message with a long and incomprehensible URL. I sent another picture, even more hideous, back -- and he just got a URL. If you type in the URL to a browser, you get linked to a copy of the picture your friend thought they sent you, but which has instead ended up on a Web site somewhere It turns out that you can't send MMSs between networks. Why, I don't know -- I was of the opinion that telephone companies existed primarily to pass messages to each other, but clearly this is a new and exciting development that's caught them by surprise. The phone handset makers have compounded this silliness: despite both Charles and my phone having built-in Web browsers, the link in the text message couldn't be activated. No clicks, no cut and paste. You had to write it out longhand, then switch to the browser in the phone, then type it in. Despite that, and despite the very variable quality of the pictures themselves, there's enough fun left in the process to make it worth persevering. But it's not like the adverts say, and if there's a consumer backlash when the reality doesn't live up to the hype then the phone companies will have nobody left to blame but themselves. Friday 29/11/2002
Not that phone companies ever blame themselves for anything, of course. A word of advice if you're thinking about buying ADSL: make sure you find an ISP you'll be happy with for years to come before you start using the service. You can't do this, of course, but try. For if you don't, or if you decide for some other reason that a different ISP has a better service, you'll then enter a world of pain called migration. It is seemingly more difficult for a subscriber to migrate from one broadband ISP to another than it is for elephants to fly south for the winter. In principle, it's easy. Let's say you're with Satanic Internet Services, but would rather be with Heavenly Hosts. You check with Satanic, called rather tactlessly the losing ISP, that they'll let you go, and then you tell Heavenly Hosts that you wish to commence relations. Heavenly then tells BT, who manage all the ADSL connections in the country, and BT confirms this with Satanic. There is a small flurry of paperwork, perhaps some new kit at the subscriber's end, and things carry on in sweetness and light. And if you believe that, you'll believe anything. Let's reveal what really happens. Our heroic customer -- who just happens to be Chris Lewis, techno wunderkind at ZDNet UK -- decided to switch. He made the right phone calls, got the right noises... and then one morning a BT engineer turns up to remove his router. Mr Lewis, being canny to the ways of telcos, advised the engineer that this would not be happening until the migration had happened and all was provably well. Half an hour later, the DSL line went dead -- and the nightmare came alive. I'll spare you the full Kafkaesque horror of Mr Lewis' dealings with the two ISPs and BT, but BT had decided that the service should be ceased rather than transferred and was blaming everyone else -- including, in BT's traditional fashion, Oftel -- for the state of affairs. And no, they couldn't just turn it back on again for at least a week because "the equipment's been removed from the exchange." For those wanting an object lesson in poor customer service and world-standard buck passing, just try any situation involving three telecommunications companies having to cooperate. They might hate each other a lot, but that's nothing compared to the unmasked contempt they feel -- and willing show -- for the customer. As Mr Lewis asks, in tones of unmitigated menace, "when it is in the middle of processing a migration order why does BT choose the least helpful option if confronted with conflicting requests on a line? And having chosen that option, why does it not even bother to inform the new ISP that the migration has been aborted?" Why indeed? In our direct experience, migration goes wrong around 90 percent of the time, sometimes leaving people without service for weeks. It's damaging the broadband market in this country, and we're not going to let it lie. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.