Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Hannover hangovers and Midband madness help distract Rupert from geopolitical gloom, but in the end Uncle Sam demands his attention

Monday 17/03/2003
The team has arrived back from CeBIT, and we're deep in the middle of the debrief. As usual, there are plenty of stories that weren't quite right for the site, for one reason or another. One of the most intriguing was a large French phone/DSL/networking company's beta test of its new phone upgrade promotion. It was demonstrated to a rather surprised journalist by one of the company's risingest young executives in a post-show bar. Showing great ebullience and enthusiasm -- obviously excited by the joys of Hannover -- the exec grabbed the journo's mobile phone and conducted a quick analysis of its pros and cons. So dissatisfied with the results was our truculent Frank that he promptly flipped the device into the nearest stein of lager, where it rapidly disappeared beneath the mobile foam. Oh dear. Upon removal from the drink, the phone was completely ruined, its memories a blank and the stored messages gone for good. I know the feeling. But when our slam-dunkin' pal came back to his senses, he had the good grace to offer to buy the astonished hack a brand new mobile -- which is an interesting way to get more of their phones out there. And they do have a name remarkably close to Alcohol. Perhaps they could do a co-branding deal with Heineken. Tuesday 18/03/2003
BT announces Midband, which sounds like a talent contest for Birmingham pop groups but is really the answer for people out of range of broadband. Or so we thought: on inspection, the promised permanently on system with more range and less speed than DSL turns out to be ISDN. Flat-rate ISDN, to be sure, but capped and not that different from Home Highway. It turns out, says head honcho Pierre Danon -- does anyone else hear a female voice coo "Oooooh, Danon!" whenever his name comes up? -- that they want to do permanently on email but it's very hard, even for the big brains at BT. Which is odd, as everyone else in the world manages it -- as did BT around ten years ago. Most people know that ISDN is a 128Kbps link, made out of two independent 64K digital telephone connections. In ISDN parlance, these are called B channels (for Bearer, would you believe), and like any telephone line they're only connected when a call's in progress. However, there's a third or D channel (for data) which is always connected. It's only 16Kbps, but that's OK -- enough to send "Email's here!" messages and trigger a B channel call if it gets congested. ISDN D channels have been always-on forever: it's been in the spec since the standard launched 20 years ago. Which means that BT has had an always-on nationwide network for at least a decade, but it's tried very hard to hide the fact from the outside world. Inside, there have been several attempts to commercialise the system -- originally with X-25 protocols, one of IP's forerunners, but more recently as part of BT's Internet thrust. Every time, one is led to believe, the technical side proved tractable but the idea fell apart because nobody could agree how to do the billing. As per usual, bits of BT saw D channel networking as competition, and BT's instincts to sell anything new as an expensive, premium service didn't do too well with the marketeers. There's no reason to think that the same reasons aren't behind the emasculation of Midband -- especially since there's been an industry standard, AO/DI, for D channel networking since 1998. But the chances of the company being taken to task for not developing the market properly are minimal. Will Oftel's transformation to Ofcom give it any teeth, or the taste for using them? Sigh. Wednesday 19/03/2003
Assuming you have any, where do you put your money these days? With the traditional investment vehicles scattered around the place like so many burned-out tanks -- see www.badpension.com for a creative take on this -- and no economy safe from the jitters, it's not easy to call. Gold? Gasmasks? No. Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian are the keys to a profitable future. Let me explain. Today, Apple has laid to rest the original iMac, the sweetie-like computer that turned the company around five years ago and regained Apple its reputation as the hippest bit-shifter on the block. They were OK computers, but brilliant examples of must-have marketing. Fab form, and all those colours to choose from. For a while in the late 90s, you couldn't visit any remotely creative premises without tripping over one of the translucent gumdrops. They were obviously -- and will always be -- very collectable. Nothing Apple did subsequently could capture the initial shock of the computer's introduction. But it did try, and among the experiments were a couple of essays in multicoloured translucent mouldings, the Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian iMacs. To be honest, they look like psychedelic dogs' breakfasts -- the multihued case is pretty cool, but it's only the top half: the whole effect is a bit like a coloured shirt with a white collar. However, Apple only made a few of them. In the world of antique wireless collection, there is a close parallel. In the early 1930s a British company called Ekco commissioned a famous architect, Wells Coates, to design a striking case for a new radio. The result was called the AD65, and you'd recognise it at once -- perfectly round with a semicircular dial around the outside of the case. There were two main models -- walnut-patterned Bakelite or black with chrome fittings -- and they became instant icons. In top condition, they can fetch up to £2,000 these days (original price: eleven pounds and sixpence). The company also made a small number of brightly coloured cases. Find one of these in Granny's loft and you could be looking at £20,000 at auction. I'd keep an eye on eBay, if I were you. Thursday 20/03/2003
We're still getting new Centrino-based notebooks here and they're still benchmarking very nicely, thank you. In fact, as gossip at Mike Magee's silicon scandal sheet The Inquirer points out, the Pentium M is such a good chip that it raises doubts about the future of the Pentium 4. For while there are plenty of reasons why a chip could be fantastic for a desktop but naff for a notebook, the reverse is rarely true. If a chip performs well while taking little power, it might just as well do it on your desk as on your lap. Clock for clock, the Pentium M outperforms the Pentium 4. It does the same watt for watt. And with the trend on the desktop going away from big boxes, you really want as little heat as possible inside your tiny case -- less fan noise, the possibility of built-in uninterruptible power supplies, all that sort of thing. Intel hates this sort of talk. It continued to deny that there was any point in putting a Pentium 4 into a notebook, even while companies were responding to customer demand and doing just that. It'll continue to argue -- and back up with massively disparate pricing -- that you want a P4 for the desktop and a Pentium M for your laptop. Nonetheless, when the market decides it doesn't want to do what Intel wants -- still holding out for that Itanium? -- it's only a matter of time before sanity percolates through even the densest of marketing departments. Not that Intel has the densest of marketing departments, of course. Anybody who can come up with the surrealist splendour of Centrino branding is clearly touched by genius. Or something. Friday 21/03/2003
The only good thing about the goings-on in Mesopotamia is that for once, Microsoft can feel like it's not the most attacked entity on the planet. And it's been a bad week otherwise for the Redmond tribe: two major security alerts, one of which was promptly used to bring down US Army servers, and a fix that was in some circumstances worse than the problem it cured. But never mind. The company is more than ready to employ the healing balm of irony to get it through these awkward times. How else to explain that it is sponsoring part of a computing degree course at Leeds University, and that the module to proudly bear its name is one on trusted computing? Yes, let Microsoft show you how to write secure, reliable code that can be guaranteed to run correctly and securely. It's very difficult, says Microsoft, unless you get the right idea from the off -- and who better than the security world's most trusted, most effective and most admired company to point the way, say I. And on that note, I shall repair to a weekend indulging in war porn. I have shortwave radios tuned to frequencies that must not be named, I have cable TV, broadband news feeds, digital radio set to rolling news and an infinite supply of barely trustworthy bookmarks. I can track completely false rumours as they ricochet around the world, while worrying mightily about Israel, Turkey, oil, WMD, the Arab Street, international law and terrorism. What very bliss is it to be alive... Click here to see more of Rupert's diaries.