Rupert Goodwins' Diary

In which Rupert enjoys Scotland's bonny banks and broadband, survives being a sassenach but comes a cropper with Microsoft's marketing.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 12/05/2003
As I'm at the Citrix iForum in Edinburgh later this week, I took myself up to that fair city for the weekend. This involved drinking heavily with pagans one evening, and going to the launch of a book of poetry the next -- which ended up at a disco in the Bathgate British Legion. Bathgate is a post-industrial working-class Scottish town, and isn't shy about having fun. Perhaps fortunately, the predicted swilling contest between the publishers and some booksellers didn't kick off and I escaped with my liver. I also ignored the suggestion that I introduce myself to everyone with "Hello, I'm Rupert. Didn't Thatcher do wonderful things for your country!". But the poetry was very good: "Sex, Death and Football", and plenty of it. We end with cheesy 70s tunes on the dancefloor under a benign picture of HM the Q -- the same one that the Sex Pistols so rudely adorned. It felt like a Channel 4 movie. Monday itself passes quietly. I'm holed up in a Tollcross tenement flat, virtually private networked to London HQ via broadband, writing about technology while the rain lashes down on Home Street outside. My music collection is shared from the London flat over broadband too -- the days of lugging piles of CDs up on the train have long since gone -- and I can also do the Stern Father bit, allowing the offspring limited access to the Internet by remotely fiddling with the router without letting him completely mess up his revision schedule. At least, that's the plan. There are ways around the blocks I've put in place, but as this severe regime was created as a result of his execrable result in a computing project I console myself with the idea that if he does bypass it, he'll at least have done some useful learning.
Tuesday 13/05/2003
Spread over two days, the Citrix iForum does a good job of extracting every last drop of juice from thin client computing. As is traditional, we kick off with some keynote presentations -- every year, I think "Surely, there's nothing more they can do with Metaframe!" and every year they prove me wrong. This year, it's more security, better printing (still something of a sore point) and more collaboration tools. Unfortunately, the keynotes finish with a case study from a financial institution: nothing wrong with that per se, but the presenter has more than a touch of the Mogadon about him. The journalist to my left -- who we won't call Jon Honeyball, to spare his blushes -- expressed what we all felt with some loud and sonorous snoring. Later, we have a Technology Tour -- a room full of computers running different aspects of the Citrix product line. They are attended by Citrixians, who wear the show uniform of red sports shirt and black trousers -- the effect is startlingly like a Star Trek convention entirely populated by Ensign Smiths, the hapless security bod who gets beamed down in order to get eaten/shot/blown up. The evening is spent at Stirling Castle, staring at large paintings of Englishmen being massacred. In between canapés, our guide took us outside to show us chunks of Scotland in the clear spring air. With some relish, he pointed out various battlefields where... ah, you've guessed it. And in the distance, the last rays of the sun picked out the enormous William Wallace monument on a nearby hill. Hm. I keep quiet and eat my dinner.
Wednesday 14/05/2003
More iForuming. As well as cruising the show floor, looking at various thin clients, software products, server thingies and the like, I present myself in the press room for various one-on-ones. There are some interesting discussions with Inmarsat, Symbol, HP and Wyse -- watch this space for more -- but one toe-curlingly painful one with Microsoft and Citrix about their relationship. Now, I am a technology journalist. It says so on my business card. I have an engineer's gut mistrust of marketing departments, I instinctively flinch from positioning strategies, and I regard happy-clappy ain't-we-clever presentations with the deepest suspicion. Unfortunately, the Citrix-Microsoft relationship is entirely about things they won't talk about, while the public face is one of mutual boosterism. Perhaps I poisoned the interview by starting off with "Let me guess: you both think the other's fantastic, and things are going even better than they were last year, when they were going pretty darn well?". Er, yes. That was what they were going to say. By leveraging off each other's strengths and unique insights, they can present complete best of breed solutions... you know the score. It was more than I could bear. Yes, they'll be doing some co-branded stuff later this year, and HP may well be joining in. How, I wondered, will Citrix's other partners -- especially those in direct competition with HP -- feel about that? Oh, Citrix cares about all its partners. How come Citrix is in the unique position of being so close to Microsoft without suffering the usual fate of such companies? Mutual respect of each other's core competencies. I'm afraid I was unable to swallow my instinctive reaction. The Citrix woman smiled happily, but the Microsoft representative -- a rather angular young man from the French office -- wasn't nearly so sanguine. As the interview ended, he practically redefined the word brusque with his "Thank you", expressed with enough Gallic disdain to fuel French foreign policy for the next 50 years. Perhaps it was the sheer blistering force of that statement, but shortly afterwards the network for the show went away. It hadn't been fantastic -- for a company dedicated to connectivity and mobility, the flakiness of the 802.11b in the press room was deliciously ironic -- but now it was gone completely. A few seconds later, a red-shirted Citrixian dashed into the press room. "It's a bloody virus on one of the booths!" he said as he commandeered one of the press terminals. Turns out that this had happened on the Sunday, during set-up: a Citrix partner had introduced a nasty little critter that flooded the network. All in all, an object lesson in real-world computing, and refreshing to behold after my close encounter with the dark forces of marketing.
Thursday 15/05/2003
Back in London, to an announcement that Sony is going for the jugular in the portable games console market. It's always been a hole in their product line, especially for a company with such a strong track record in portable devices. They didn't make the first transistor radio and they didn't make the first portable cassette player, but it's as if they did -- in both cases, they defined the market. Nintendo got there first on portable gaming and has seen off countless competitors. Now, Sony thinks it's got enough of a technological lead to carve out a decent niche for itself. Perhaps it has, but tech advantages have never been enough in the past. We've got eighteen months of guessing what the thing will be like, which presumably means they've specced enough of it out to get the developers going. It'll have a new, proprietary data storage device -- UMD -- being an optical disk with nearly two gigabytes capacity, as well as some fancy-pants display and Sony's own home-grown chips. Doubtless, it'll be spiffing. And doubtless, it'll not run PS2 games. For no matter what Sony goodness the thing has, it'll live and die by its software -- and even with Nintendo, developers have found the portable market hard going. The Game Boy Advance promised much and sold in gratifying quantities, but the games themselves didn't follow suit. Perhaps it was format fatigue, with too many companies turning out too much the same, perhaps it was pricing, perhaps it was just that people don't play nearly as many handheld games as they do consoles. But people got burned -- Sony may have its work cut out prodding coders into action. Whatever. I can't wait to see this thing, and I don't even play games. Some of the old Sony magic still works.
Friday 16/05/2003
Woe is me. It seems that the Microsoft Internet Toilet is no more. They've made a big job of canning it, though: once the Redmondians got wind of the UK iLoo, they kicked up a stink and said 'Sorry, it was just a hoax'. But it wasn't: the paperwork might not have been done, but the UK Microsofties had indeed started work. So statement after statement flooded out, each contradicting the other. But now the (Jimmy) riddle is solved and the .NET WC is history. But, according to those well-endowed noses on The Register who make something of a speciality of this sort of thing, it did get to prototype stage, with some early electronics plumbed into a converted portable potty. Presumably, the device still exists: in my experience, the cupboards of most big high tech companies bulge with dead ideas that almost made it. Can you think of anything more collectable? Sometimes, such things make their way onto eBay (although I'm keeping my Sinclair memorabilia), and this would be a prime candidate. I don't know if Gates famous lakeside residence has Net access in the smallest rooms - whiffy wi-fi? -- but Bill's Bog has a certain ring to it. It'd make a change to see a Microsoft product that could be sold as totally crappy... Click here to see more of Rupert's diaries.
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