Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Could Saddam's salvation lie in 802.11a? This, oysters, Galaxians and disposable cameras have distracted Rupert from paid work all this week

Monday 3/3/2003
Blip! Blip! Blip! That's the sound... the sound of freedom. To be more precise, it's the sound of a military radar. We've got lots of those in the UK whirring away. Some of them, says the Ministry of Defence, are on the same frequency as the new 802.11a wireless network. That's bad, and thus we should be denied a slice of the band -- at the least, be forced to tell them where we are before we're allowed to use it. How daft can you get? Any military radar that can be jammed by a laptop network card costing a few quid is not a military radar I'd trust. On that basis, all Saddam has to do is put a bulk order into PC World's Web site for a handful of Wireless Lan Adaptors Of Mass Destruction, and that'll be an end to it all. As for us telling the MoD where our networks are -- for heaven's sake, Colonel Blip! This is a laptop: it's designed to move around the place. Should I call you before or after I get on the bus? And can't they tell where the transmitters are? Even in World War II, you couldn't shove an aerial out of the bedroom window and send "Black Fox calling Pink Vixen" for more than two seconds before the chaps with Lugers were at the door demanding to see your licence. We shouldn't expect any more of the MoD. They're blithering idiots with a track record of enormous incompetence in matters technical. It's taken them 20 years and tens of millions of pounds to fail to provide the army with working Bowman radios -- walkie-talkies, in other words. Some of the RAF's planes lack so many basic safety and navigation aids that they have to get special dispensation to fly in European airspace. As for frequency management -- when the Home Office asked them what, exactly, they were using all their allocated gigahertz of bandwidth for, the MoD had to admit that it didn't actually know. At least that's better than "You can't do that, and we won't say why," which is what you normally get. Daft, I call it. In any case, once 802.11a cards become common in this country people will use them how they like and no brass-bound edict from an over-promoted Wingco will stop it. They must shut up and go away until they've proved their ability to do simple things, like ordering guns that won't jam, boots that won't melt and toilet paper that arrives. The UK troops in the Gulf aren't just known as the Borrowers because of their shortage of kit, but as the Flintstones because what they have got is so outdated. The whole mess is a grotesque scandal, and we should march on Whitehall with pitchforks and burning brands to evict the purple-arsed baboons who dwell therein. Only when they've fled naked to the hills and we've installed some perfectly competent secretaries from Temps 'R' Us to run the place can we hope to make progress. Gah! Tuesday 4/3/2003
"Life in plastic, it's fantastic." So sang Aqua, in their zeitgeist-defining opus "Barbie Girl", which helped bring the 20th century to a fitting close. But could even those savants foresee how appropriate their bien pensées would be to the dawn of the 21st? Today sees the launch of the first mass-market full-feature plastic (or organic, as we must call them for marketing reasons) LED display. It's part of a rather nice camera Kodak has announced, the EasyShare LS633, which would be a tempting proposition even without its ultra-high-tech eyepleasing screen. Does it really look good? Does it deliver on the better battery life, wider colour spectrum and greater angle of view promised by the technology? We'll have to wait and see. We'll have to wait a bit longer to see whether another aspect of OLEDs comes to pass -- their notoriously short lifetime. While the manufacturing benefits of OLEDs are significant -- as they're made from a plastic compound, not a semiconductor or a complex layering of precision layering, they're much easier to work with -- they're also very prone to degradation over time and contamination from the outside. That's what took so long to sort out in the decade or so during which the technology's been developed. Either Kodak has fixed this, or the life span of any digital camera is now so short that it doesn't matter. I doubt many people are using digital cameras from more than two years ago: the cost has come down so much and the features got so much better, the temptation to upgrade frequently is huge. Where's the point in designing a 20-year lifespan into a device that'll be landfill in three? We're already seeing that in laptop batteries, where the cost of replacing the specialist Li-ion cells after their two-year life is over is often enough to make it worth upgrading the whole device... how convenient. And so the celebration of disposable pop that Aqua brought forth may yet be an apposite paean to the age of disposable high technology portended by the LS633. Death in plastic, how fantastic. Wednesday 5/3/2003
A long time ago, a much younger Goodwins made a bit of pocket money in the school holidays by repairing fruit machines and pub videogames. He did this in a huge old garage on the edge of Dartmoor, as part of an operation run by a colourful local character who later came to the attention of the authorities for an exercise in popular art involving printing presses, security paper and fine etchings of American currency. While I was messing around with my soldering iron in the Okehampton shed, it was around the time that modems and all that they imply began to appear: wouldn't it be good, I mused, if all the Galaxian machines were hooked up so people could play each other and leave each other messages. Although the arcade machines are indeed networked together today, it's not for that sort of thing -- a solid indication of my commercial nous. Instead, a company called Inspired Broadcast put in the UK's single biggest ADSL order to BT and are hooking up tens of thousands of pub and club machines with the intention of downloading new games on a regular basis. Variety equals liquidity. As part of this, the company found that wireless networking was the best way to link multiple machines in one location to a single broadband line, so they did that. And then they realised that all that bandwidth and connectivity was just sitting there most of the time, so why not sell it to the punters? Voila, instant hot spots across the country on a scale that nobody else can touch -- and as they're already making money out of the existing service, it's nearly all gravy. Rather appropriately, I learned of this story from the peerless Guy Kewney through the good old fashioned sort of pub networking: the only packets contained crisps, the protocol was strictly beer-to-beer and the servers sported the best sort of fibre and Chanel. Cheers! Thursday 6/3/2003
I fancy an Oyster. Not the marine bivalve -- although I'll take the role of Walrus or Carpenter at the drop of a white rabbit -- but the new London Underground ticketing system. Formerly known as the Prestige project, this is a programme to replace those bits of paper with wireless smartcards. It's cost LUL around £1.2bn, but it should make life swifter as us congestion-charged Londoners try to percolate through the thrombosis of the tube. It's supposed to pay for itself after a while and then turn a small profit, but whether I believe that or not I don't know. Now, it appears that the business of introducing the Oyster will be a staged affair. London Underground staff already have theirs, as part of the beta test: some time in the near future, people who order annual Gold Cards online will get theirs, followed by monthly online orders and, finally, those who buy their tickets at stations. I'm a monthly man meself, so instead of renewing in the queue at Holloway Road I repair to www.ticket-on-line.co.uk (two hyphens. Ugh). It may have escaped your notice, but I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to big online e-commerce ventures: blow me down if the ticket didn't arrive the next day, courtesy of Keith Prowse and coming with its own charmingly hologrammed receipt disguised as a ticket to a rock concert. Now all I have to do is wait for the powers that be to email me and offer me my Oyster card, and I'll be at the forefront of early adoptivity once again. As for the security aspects: do I mind if they know where I am on the tube? Not really, and if I do, I'll just buy a single from the machines. I'll report back. Friday 7/3/2003
If you've been paying attention -- wake up at the back there -- you'll know that location-based services are going to be huge. Stuff that tells the network the whereabouts of your mortal remains will change our lives, once the relevant infrastructure is in place and the massive commercial enterprises involved have deigned to provide the services. Maybe. But why wait, when companies like PsiNT are there already? This small outfit from Poland has been developing Psion, now Symbian, applications for the past five years, and made quite a success of the endeavour. Now, it's produced MiniGPS -- a piece of software that runs on a Nokia 3650 or 7650, doing a simple job with marvellous consequences. All it does is monitor the identity of the GSM network cells you're passing through as you travel, allow you to give them names and optionally trigger actions when you move into some you've been to before. Why is this good? Well, you'll soon learn which cells service your home, office, friend's flat, destination railway station and so on. You can then get your phone to change or mute ring tone and otherwise reconfigure itself to a state appropriate to each location, you can set an alarm to warn you when you're getting near to the end of your journey (invaluable to those who snooze on late night, post-pub commutes), have the phone go bleep when you drive into a zone with a low speed limit, and so on. No doubt you can think of more -- the idea of it sending SMSs on entry or exit from certain areas has a whole set of applications of its own, for example. It'd be nice if there was a central directory of what cell ID maps onto what part of the map, but traditionally that's been seen as dangerous information and not published. Bet it won't take long for the glorious company of hackers to throw together one, though, whether or not the networks approve. MiniGPS works. One of ZDNet UK's developers, James Cohen, has been playing with it and pronounces himself delighted -- and he's a tough customer. It costs around a tenner, you can try it before you buy it, and it's the sort of genuinely useful application that just couldn't happen in the world of closed standards. We'll be waiting a long time before this sort of magic appears on Smartphone 2002 -- and in the end, that'll make more of a difference to the market than any number of choleric rants by such as I. A good thing too.