Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Army dreamer Rupert fails to get his message across, but could that be due to an intel failure?

Monday 10/03/2003
An idea I'd thought consigned to the grave is scrabbling at the lid of its coffin again. Powerline networking is back, for the third or fourth time. Siemens, one of the few telecommunications companies that seems to be making a success of its lot at the moment, is pushing its second-generation devices. Usual claims: hassle-free, 10 megabits a second, old problems of interference and cumbersome adaptors fixed, etc. Well, it might be true. But the only way it'll be more convenient than Wi-Fi is if it comes built in to computer power supplies as standard. Nobody wants to have to wire up an extra power point just to do the networking -- even less so if your second computer's a laptop. Siemens makes the only argument that stands up, that powerline networking is complementary not competitive to Wi-Fi, but to me it feels like the technology is a classic case of engineers spotting a nice idea and then assuming that people will buy it. I've never heard anyone say "Gee, I wish I could send data over the house wiring!" Perhaps I'm biased. I am, after all, a radio ham and do, after all, listen to shortwave rather more than is socially acceptable. And I've heard the tests done by the Radio Society of Great Britain, where signals of the same sort as used in the technology were picked up half a continent away. It interferes with the good stuff, and in the words of Microsoft: just how far do you want your private data to go today? Here's a prediction: people will still be trying to sell powerline networking in five years' time, and people will still not be buying it. Tuesday 11/03/2003
If putting networking on power lines is a daft idea, how about putting power on networking cables? Oddly, this may be a hotter proposition. 3Com has been doing it for a while -- the House at Roo Corner's wireless gateway sits aloof in a cupboard on the end of a powered strand of ethernet cable -- and now it's a proper standard. The idea is simple: there are spare wires in every ethernet cable, so why not use them to send the volts to power the device at the end? This lets you have all your power supplies in one place -- easier to maintain and back up -- and makes your networking more flexible. Where it really gets exciting -- bear with me on this -- is with network telephony. Ordinary telephones have one big advantage over IP telephones, in that they don't need to be plugged into anything but the phone line. You don't need to hook up a power supply to them: this makes them cheap, easy to make and easier still to install. With an IP telephone, there is no power to be had on Ethernet and rather a lot of computing flummery to be fed with electrons -- you need a power supply. Hassle. Misery. Domestic take-up of technology low: telephone companies happy, 'cos they don't lose customers to the wonderful fixed-fee world of networking. But now that's changed. 802.3af is the standard to watch for, so people can now make little Ethernet telephones that plug into a networking socket just like their older analogue Alex G. Bell-stylee devices. Which means people with broadband connections can use those to give their house a phone system no more complex and fiddly than the one the telephone company left them. It's a small step to the sunlit uplands of remarkably cheap and efficient phone services that the Internet promises, but a significant one. Wednesday 12/03/2003
Intel launches Centrino! And to this end, hires Vinopolis -- a sort of warehouse theme park in London dedicated to the grape as Disneyworld is to the mouse. This is a good sign: Intel is normally no slouch when it comes to throwing a bash: how can it go wrong? Our hearts first sank when we crossed the threshold. There are two kinds of launches, press launches and punter launches. This was a mixture of the two, with the suits outnumbering the casual elegance of your average computer hack by a good twenty to one. And that means -- uh-oh -- huge great launch briefings covering stuff that may be new to the assembled high-status customers but we'd sat through more than once in the near past. Reviews supremo Charles Mclellan and I are informed by the smiling, super-efficient East German PR that there will be drinks from five to six, launch from six to seven, technical round tables from seven to eight and then more drinks. We contemplate this two hour chasm in the evening with some alarm. Charles proposes that as he's just posted three reviews of Centrino machines he should be left off being powerpointed to death about the chip, and I consider the many hours I've already spent in technical briefings talking to the chip designers. And so, we repair to the bar and stolidly ignore the ever-more frantic voices over the PA system calling the faithful to prayer in the main auditorium. By 6:05, the bar area -- which is lined either side by vendors showing off their laptops -- is substantially empty of all but the hardened hacks and some like-minded PRs from a certain famous PC company. And then -- tragedy! The stony-faced Russian behind the bar says niet. On orders from on high, the bar is closed until the end of the lectures. Surely not! A launch with no liquid? But the barman remains resolute, even as he lines up the glasses. Our PR engaged in a mammoth battle of wills, before which a lesser man would have instantly melted into a puddle of acquiescence on the floor, but only extracts a solitary glass of wine apiece before the Cossack with the bottles slams the shutters down but good. A rumour surfaced that there was another bar just outside the auditorium, and runners were dispatched to find out if this was true. They came back empty-gulletted. Various search parties were sent out: we combed Vinopolis, a place stacked to the rafters with bottles of wine and champagne, amphorae, fake vineyards and other accoutrements of the cup that cheers, but found not a drop to drink. Needless to say, we didn't remain dry -- but the details of our exploits are not fit for publication. By the time eight o'clock came round and the delegates poured out of their place of torture with tongues like pillows, we were appropriately lubricated to be able to say nice things about Intel once again. But reports from abroad indicate that other Centrino launches were similarly restricted in the once-endless Intel largesse: the bean-counters are abroad and no-one is safe... Thursday 13/03/2003
A friend calls up, in some distress. She has a brother in the army, stuck out in Kuwait, and since they've all had their mobile phones taken away there's no way she can get hold of him. She's desperate to pass on some family events, and to that end has tried to use the British Forces Post Office e-Bluey service. A Bluey is forces slang for a letter from home, and e-Blueys are a way to send one from a computer. Fantastic idea -- or would be, if it works. My friend can't make head nor tail of the system, and just gets incomprehensible error messages. So I take a look at www.bfpo.org.uk to see what's going on. Now, even if you're not a Web designer you might expect it to be a simple matter of registering, filling in an online form and pressing a Send button. Not a bit of it. The instructions are in a PDF file, so you have to have Acrobat Reader on your computer (she hasn't, and it won't load), and the system uses 'Bank level' security -- in other words, you've got to have cookies enabled, SSL and various other things set up just so. Oh, and you've got to be running a PC, preferably not behind a firewall, and using IE. Now, SSL I can understand -- after all, there will be some pretty personal stuff said in these letters and while I doubt the security of the realm is at stake you certainly want equivalent privacy to that you'd get in a letter. The rest, however, seems remarkably bureaucratic -- especially given that forces' families won't always have a high level of technical expertise, up-to-date computers and a willingness to spend ages online downloading things like Acrobat. A plain form with simple authorisation would do the trick. In any case, I failed to get much further than my friend when I tried to register myself. I got to the point where it said "Check your email for your authorisation": the message I got had a link to click, but this just put me back at the beginning of the authorisation procedure. A scrolling ticker on the site apologised for unspecified technical difficulties, and promised a resolution in an unspecified time: not good. As my friend said: these are the people who are organising a war? (Fun War Project: next time you see a nice cosy piece in the press about army chaplains helping their khaki flock with matters spiritual, see if you can't track down the US Army Chaplain training documents on the Web -- the ones where they go into the psychological warfare aspects of the job. Nice stuff, like finding out the religious concerns of the local populace and handing over the details to the psyops teams back at base in order to create better propaganda. Amen to that, brother...)