It's been great watching Maplin grow from a mail-order supplier of nerdy electronic bits to a nationwide chain of nerdy electronic bits and cheap gadgets, even if its shop assistants continue to delight and enthral with their extraordinary displays of creative incompetence each time I pop in to pick up a plug or cop a capacitor. Today, the company's making the news for interesting reasons -- it's decided to remove its video signal conditioners from sale and destroy them because they contravene the European Copyright Directive, EUCD. That outlaws things that only exist to circumvent copy protection, and video conditioners -- ostensibly there to make 'cleaner copies' of legit signals -- clearly fell foul.
These things are used to bypass a system called Macrovision that distorts video signals when you try to record them on VCRs. It doesn't work that well, causes a few problems of its own but has in the past stopped a few people from letting their pals have copies of Ghostbusters or whatever. Not that many people wanted the hassle of waiting for ninety minutes to make an analogue copy, and not that the professional pirates gave a hoot for any sorts of copy protection, but there it was. And now, it's safe from Maplins.
I talked to a friend ("Just call me Secret Squirrel DVD Hacker if you mention me") about all this, and asked him whether people still did video-to-video copies. "Well, people still copy stuff from DVD to VHS," he said, "and DVD players are supposed to read the Macrovision bit from the disc and turn the protection on if it's set." Note the 'supposed to'.
"But," he continued cheerfully, "when you do the multi-region hacks to unlock them, the Macrovision usually goes away."
So there's a good chance that sales of the boxes weren't anything to write home about, and the publicity from destroying the old stocks was a fair reward for doing the right thing.
Let it never be said that the EUCD is incapable of thoroughly locking down a stable door long after the horse is already at the knacker's yard.
The inescapable ability of technology to pick the very most embarrassing time to go wrong is no respecter of status. Take John Patrick, an old IBM hand of the very highest calibre: he is the person who got IBM to first notice and then take seriously a rather arcane invention called the Internet. He was also involved in the invention of things like the ThinkPad, was a founder member of the World Wide Web Consortium, all that sort of thing. And after 35 years at IBM, he sort of retired… but people like that don't really retire. In Patrick's case, retirement involves such low-stress activities as joining the board of Opera, the browser company that's about to float
The man is clearly an IT God. So when newshound Munir Kotadia got hold of him to talk about security, nobody was surprised when Patrick called back on an IP phone from his home broadband connection. These are the coming thing, as you know: worldwide phoning with nobody counting the minutes. You can do it on your computer, or you can get what looks like an ordinary phone, plug it into your home network and off you go. This is the posh way, and that was Patrick's way. He was quite excited about it.
"Very good," said Mun. "It's got great voice quality, hasn't it. Hello? Hello?"
A minute later, John Patrick phoned back "Dunno what happened there," he said. "Must have had some packet loss somewhere. Anyway, where were we?"
The conversation continued for a moment, and then "Hello? Can you hear me? Hello?"
When Patrick phoned back again, it was on an ordinary phone. We agreed it was for the best.
I don't know if you've ever considered running a blog. They are, one hears, all the rage -- and no surprise! What joy, to be able to share the events of the day and your thoughts with that silent friend the computer. I've done the same myself, and it's both therapeutic and creative.
But today, I read a terrible rumour in the press. Normally, I dismiss the pseudo-technical meanderings of the mainstream media as so much uninformed waffle, but this has the ring of truth. First-person reportage: it actually happened to them. But enough, let me share with you what happened to a pauvre petite as reported in that stalwart organ, The Daily Telegraph, today.
The woman -- we must not call her girl, not after she has so rudely been divested of her innocence -- at the heart of this shock revelation is none other than Peaches Geldof, daughter of noted Oirish rock god, honorary knight and hairy foul-mouthed saviour of the world Bob. She too started out enamoured of the joys of blogging, but as she said:
"I knew I would be mortified if someone I knew read it. Diaries are meant to be private and sacred. All the same, I found myself writing more and more intimately about my thoughts and what went on in my life. I wrote boring things, as well as risque things that I definitely wouldn't want Dad to read."
All well so far -- but then her best friend found the blog, and moreover read what Peaches had been saying. Tragedy.
"I felt sick and violated -- how could they? And then I realised. It was inevitable that if I broadcast my diary on the web, someone I knew would read it."
Did you know that? I've checked, and apparently it's true -- if you put personal details into your blog, then people you know can read it. What's worse, all they have to do is type in your name -- or even just their name -- into this World Wide Web thing, and it sends them to the right place!
So a lesson to us all. If you upload stuff onto the Net, people can read it.
Hard day at work and late night at the computer: ping! Did you know, says the IM, that Microsoft's source code for Windows 2000 and NT has escaped onto the Web? And indeed it has: at least, something that looks very convincing is out there.
It turns out not to be the full source -- which at 50GB, according to MS, would take some downloading even for those with the fuller pipe -- but around 1 percent of it. But it's interesting enough, according to those who've seen it. I particularly admire those who've gone searching through it for swearwords (plenty of those) and comments saying: "Don't do this, it won't work". Hallmarks of the real thing, and indeed Microsoft comes clean later and says the files are real.
Which raises a number of interesting issues. If someone finds a bug, are they morally obliged to report it? Or does that mark them as in receipt of stolen goods, copyright-wise, and thus marked for life as evil? That's a real risk: it is possible in law to sue someone for stealing software if they write something that can be shown to have been influenced by someone else's code, without permission. It's called tainting, and now Microsoft's private bits are in the field the company can in theory start hauling open software people over the coals on that pretext.
Which is daft. Firstly, while Microsoft programmers are just as smart as anyone else, there's nothing going on under the hood in Windows 2000 that gives it some untouchable edge. Software that does smart things does them openly -- the idea of underlining spelling mistakes with wobbly red lines was a good one, but having seen it any word processor programmer would be perfectly capable of writing code to make it happen. That's almost always the case. Secondly, who is going to write another Windows 2000?
Microsoft should publish a lot more Windows code and get with the programme. As many people know, there's a lot more out there that is being kept off the Net by people who fear it could be traced back to them. One by one, they'll give in to the temptation -- or have the code lifted from them by others -- and the stuff's going to get out there anyway. Might as well get some brownie points, answer some of the arguments of the Linux crew about accessibility, and concentrate on the next products, not the last.
I'm off tomorrow to sunny California, for the Intel Developer Forum Extravaganza. Lots more gadgets to keep me company this time, so watch the site for the odd review between reports of fab new chippery and Intel's antics.
But I don't want to finish the week without writing a note about Lynne Thomas, a very good friend and long-term stalwart of the industry, who died a couple of weeks ago and was buried yesterday in her native Wales. It's still a bit early in my life for contemporaries to go dropping dead on me, let alone someone whose talents at her job were matched only by her ability to deal with computer journalists as if they were human beings -- and nice ones, at that. I don't need to say how wonderful she was: if you knew her, you'll be painfully aware of her absence, and if you don't -- well, you missed out. Big time.
An anecdote will serve in lieu of an obituary. In her role as high tech PR, she regularly attended the 3GSM Congress at Cannes, sweeping all before her in precision displays of schmoozing and deal-arranging. One evening, she had been running a party on a yacht for Sendo. Things were winding down -- only a couple of bottles of champagne left and a handful of salty nibbles -- when she got a call. The Virgin Mobile lot were looking around for a final snifter: could they come aboard? Of course, she said, expecting a couple of unsteady marketing types. Five minutes later, a regal cortege pulled up by the gangway with the Longest Limo Ever in the middle (if you've seen the Windowlicker video, you'll have some idea). Out of the limo came forth a bevy of beauties, followed by a familiar beard wrapped around an enormous grin. It was Woolly Pully himself, and he was ready for action.
Blimey, thought Lynne. And us with nothing in. She quickly ascertained that there was but one shop open in the whole of Cannes that may have had sufficient supplies of fizz for the occasion. But how to get there? It was late, the streets were bereft of cabs and there was no driving to be done by anyone on the team. Only one solution suggested itself. "Can I borrow your limo?"
Minutes later, and the battlecruiser of the bourgeoisie was winding its way up through Cannes' very un-limo friendly streets. The shop was reached at the top of the town: it was shut, but not for long. The sleepy owner was roused, sufficient francs proffered and his entire stock of champagne decanted into the back of the Bransonmobile. As the last dregs of the previous supply was disappearing down the gullets of the thirsty top dogs, new crates appeared across the gangway, hoist aloft by the triumphant Thomas.
There are no shortage of other anecdotes. Buy me a beer any time in the next thirty years, and I'll be delighted to pass some on.