First day back at work after the school holidays, where I spent as much time as possible away from anything Qwerty. Fun moments included watching a bonfire as big as a house melt the paintwork in the wee Scottish town of Biggar, watching some William Wallace beardalikes pulling a burning Viking longship through the centre of Edinburgh, and discovering just what Special Reserve Premium Strength Absinthe tastes like (a Liquorish Allsort dissolved in 90 percent alcohol, if you must know. Store below 19 degrees Celsius, it said on the label). Exciting though this was, it couldn't match the exploits of correspondent Geoff Einon, freelance journo and skier of this parish. He took himself off for a festive frolic in the snow -- and, like all sensible mountain-goers these days, took a mobile phone along. In this case, it was his spanking new Christmas present, an Orange SPV running Microsoft's exciting, groundbreaking Smartphone 2002. Take it away, Geoff... "After an impromptu and spectacularly unsuccessful Eddie the Eagle impression somewhere on a red run in Les Contamines I found myself in a rather painful heap in the snow. More painfully, it soon became apparent that my right leg was no longer working and not available to support locomotion. To summon assistance I extracted my new SPV from my pocket and turned it on. Since the SPV uses a typical Microsoft operating system (and in contrast with my iPaq which comes to life instantaneously), the SPV takes about a minute or so to boot up. I spent this time pondering my fate and speculating whether the mile or so trip down the mountain would qualify me for a helicopter or skidoo ride. The next time I looked at the phone it appeared to have turned itself off -- so I tried switching it on again. When it eventually came to life I could not get it to dial -- a closer examination revealed the legend 'Radio off' displayed very legibly on the SPV's excellent screen. No amount of menu searching let me find anything that would turn the phone's radio back on. At this point I remember making a few comments about the dubiousness of Bill Gates' parentage. I eventually managed to flag down a passing skier who let me use her Nokia phone (which switched on immediately) to call for help. Later analysis revealed that the problem arose because of the SPV's implementation of the ON/OFF button. It needs to be depressed for a couple of seconds to function as an on/off switch. If pressed and released briefly it summons a 'QuickList' menu -- where one of the items lets you turn the radio -- presumably to let you watch movies on the thing when airborne on something more reliable than two planks of wood. My conclusion is that during my attempts to switch the phone on I must have inadvertently selected the QuickList menu and then selected the Radio off item. It took quite a bit of frustrating exploration to find the QuickList menu again -- so I was without the use of the SPV for another day or so." So there you go: if you must place yourself in life-threatening situations with a modern information appliance as your only hope of rescue, don't pick something with an obscure user interface. Tuesday 7/1/2003
Regular readers may recall certain rude words in this diary concerning Microsoft's Xbox. The post-Christmas figures seem to bear this out, with it being beaten into third place by the Gamecube. Sales in Japan have been particularly disappointing, and Microsoft has put this down to the box's sheer bulk. A new, slimline model is in the works. Well, that may help. So it's quite a pleasure to report that the Xbox Live online gaming service is doing rather well. Not only have sales of the starter pack exceeded expectations in the US, but the UK beta testers positively glow with excitement when talking about the experience -- or maybe that's just one plasma bolt too many. Given the number of dedicated gamers who arrange LAN parties for mass fraggings, lugging huge amounts of kit across town -- sometimes across country -- it's clear that there's a market for mutual destruction, an area where the Xbox could be in with a chance. If it all works well enough, of course. According to a pal who's on the UK beta, it works more than well enough. The two-way voice communications are nearly flawless, the games have no discernable lag and the opportunities for wasting your best friend in a truly tasteless yet satisfying way are better than anything outside the Glastonbury festival. And is there no downside? "Well yes," says my horribly beweaponed robot monster friend (in reality, a slight, bespectacled lad from Hampstead). "It's the Americans. All the Brits are desperate to find places to play where the bloody Yanks can't find us. It's like being surrounded by a large gang of fourteen-year-olds with Tourette's, I don't mind the odd obscenity, but this is like having your ears filled with warm sewerage." We discuss this, and decide that when the UK product goes on sale we'll probably be able to provide our own set of pottymouth pimplefaces, and that Microsoft could usefully provide walled gardens for the grown-ups. Access could be limited by some sort of serious authentication scheme -- like being able to spell without putting numbers in the words. Wednesday 8/1/2003
Microsoft's taken the opportunity at CES to announce SPOT -- what is it with that company and dogs? SPOT, Smart Personal Object Technology, is Microsoft's R&D effort to put intelligence into small things. Such as the gizmo that Bill Gates described as pure company innovation, a wristwatch that picks up data from the air and displays it from time to time. Well, if you ignore the Seiko Messagewatch from the 90s and the Timex Beepwear, the various wrist-mounted computers and PDAs that have popped up from time to time over the past decade and Dick Tracey, then yes, it's another stunning invention from Microsoft that nobody thought of first. How do they do it? Less sarcastically, this is the first airing for Microsoft's tiny operating system that runs in real time on an ARM with a light dusting of support chips. This too stands alone -- apart from the hundreds of other ARM tiny real-time kernels -- but it's about time MS had something other than the ridiculously bloated CE to show that they can still write nifty software. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the watch is the radio technology used to relay information to it -- it's something called DirectBand, which is a way of subtly modulating FM broadcast signals to carry small amounts of data. The details aren't clear yet, but it'll be unlikely to work over in Europe where there are already various data services using much the same technology. Microsoft has in the past suggested doing something similar with TV signals, seemingly unaware that most of the world was already using the same idea for some obscure service called Teletext. At some point, a US wireless initiative will show at least some recognition that there's a world beyond the borders, but this isn't it. There is a long industry tradition of digital watches: Intel, Sinclair, Texas Instruments, Commodore, even HP have chanced their -- and your -- arms in the past with a variety of wrist-born gizmos. Almost to a fault these proved less than acceptable, with (you'll be amazed to hear) the Sinclair Black Watch being particularly risible. It's not at all clear that it ever worked properly, while the Intel watch at least managed some success despite a habit of running backwards if you walked over a nylon carpet. In general, it seems safe to say that once a high-tech company produces a digital watch, it's time to splash out on the clockwork alternative. Thursday 9/1/2003
Beep! It's another text message from Perdy Patterson, editor of fine cellular consumer publication What Mobile and occasional pizza partner of yours truly. As befits a mover and shaker of the media world, she lives in North London -- home, this Christmas, of mad axe-murdering bin bag operatives, a spot of ad-hoc ricin neurotoxin production, and the UK's longest armed siege. Ah yes, the siege... Perdy had a ringside seat. In fact, she was one of the lucky few to find themselves inside the police cordon and thus spending their post-Christmas period under 24-hour curfew. The text messages ranged from the exciting to the heartrending. "They've brought the battering rams into the street!", "We're out of loo paper", "How are we going to see the Arsenal game now?" and "Do you think sniper bullets go through two layers of uPVC?" (answer: "and the rest"). But now it's all over, and she no longer needs an armed escort to get to the offie. Although given the latest Home Office firearm statistics, there may be a market for this service, and perhaps a way for the Metropolitan police to recoup some of their incidental CS gas expenses. Incidentally, I also find myself connected at two removes to the Mad Camden Bin Bag Man. A friend of a friend -- yes, really -- lost her handbag in Camden a couple of years ago, and Beardy found it. He phoned her up and said "come and collect it". She did -- not without some misgivings, which were heightened by the large number of crudely sketched naked women on the flat's walls. That Christmas, she got a card from him. "You may remember me -- I'm the bloke who found your handbag", it said. "If you want to reward me, please send some money to my church." Now, I know there are some strange religions floating around that part of the world, but as far as I know the worst they suggest you do to sinners is forgive them... Friday 10/1/2003
What's in a name, mused the Bard. "That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." And it is to be hoped that the poor, confused lump of software called Whistler, then Windows Server 2002, then. Net Server 2003, will finally find happiness with Windows Server 2003 Microsoft .Net Connected, the name that Redmond has finally pronounced good. The same's true of The Processor Formerly Called Banias. Of course, nobody expects the internal code names to stick at birth, but Intel has decided to call this the Pentium M. This will live alongside the Pentium 4-M -- no chance of confusion there then -- but will also be a member of the Centrino family of components. The idea, says Intel, is that if you buy the complete kit of processor, support chips and wireless networking bits for your laptop design you can easily get it qualified and slap a Centrino logo -- which looks like a finch's head or a flight from a dart, according to taste -- on the box. Centrino is a strange name. In physics, subatomic particles end in -ino (including the infamous mystery object that caused so much confusion when it was first spotted in the lab it had the unofficial name of a fuctifino) and the elements, which are built out of those particles, often end in -um. Intel has turned that on its head, with the constituent particles having an -um name and the whole concoction being -ino. I don't suppose anyone other than physics nerds will care, but the company must be stuffed full of them. And as for production queen Laura's suggestion that it sounds more like half a junglist band, a la Oxide and Neutrino, I can only suppose since Centrino is largely made out of silicon oxide, it's a fair rap.