Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The CeBIT stories you didn't see - and the spivs, saints and electrowetted spats that have enlivened Rupert's week

Monday 15/03/2004
It's the most challenging day of the high-tech news gathering week. The mighty machinery of the West Coast has been at the beach for the weekend, phones sit silently on desks and there's only a light dusting of press releases in the inbox for inspiration. So this hardy searcher after truth hits the Web, rattling along dusty lanes leading to university research departments, the better class of blog, technical forums.

And what's this? "Researchers in North Carolina have developed a data transfer protocol for the Internet that achieves speeds roughly 6,000 times that of DSL"? Heavens! I get quite excited for a Monday, and don't quite engage the little grey cells. A real news story. The usual claims are there in the press release – download MP3s in the blink of an eye, tremendous implications for supercomputing and science, blah blah blah.

But how does it work? Can't write the story without that...

Ten minutes of hard labour untangling the terminally confused press release later, and the truth is depressingly clear. The new protocol is just that – a protocol. It goes 6,000 times faster than DSL when you run it on a gigabit fibre that's, um, 6,000 times faster than DSL to start with. The real story is that Internet protocols aren't that good at working over very, very fast links – and this invention is somewhat better. Which is fine if you're writing news for IP Week and TCP Review but not really the meaty stuff you, the beloved reader, expect as your right. No good.

It's early in the week, but I can swear. And I do. Visions of gigabit DSL vanish, to be replaced by a mental picture of a press release writer swinging gently in the breeze while enraged researchers and frustrated journalists prod at the corpse with electrified pokers.

It's the only language these people understand.

Tuesday 16/03/2004
Now, this is more like it. Philips has announced a fluid lens technology that means you can make a tiny device out of two different liquids in a chamber, and by zapping it with the right volts -- electrowetting, which is what I thought girls used to do at Gary Numan concerts -- it'll change focus. Liquid optics are nothing new -- people have made telescope mirrors from mercury spun into a parabolic shape, and there are some very clever and cheap one-size-fits-all eyeglasses where you set the right lens shape for you by merely pumping the right amount of water into plastic bags in front of your peepers. But the Philips idea will work with digital cameras, potentially replacing quite a lot of expensive mechanical gubbins. This is the first time such a notion has hit the mass consumer market.

Or is it? Vague memories coalesce -- a French company called Varioptic had something similar. In fact, looking at the Web site, something astonishingly similar.

So similar is it, in fact, that m'learned friends have been retained -- and are even now, one assumes, frantically looking up 'electrowetting' in Larousse.

We'll have to wait for a court to decide, but from a quick reading of the patents involved it looks as if the Philips device is near-identical to the Varioptic invention -- which precedes the Dutch version by some time. It is impossible for Philips not to have known about the antecedent: the company's brusque retort to Varioptic's request for licence fees indicates that some bother is expected. It's also odd that such similar patents were granted.

Philips must have wargamed the forthcoming lawsuit and be sure that it can win either through dint of being right or the customary principle that my lawyers are bigger than your lawyers. Let's hope it's not the latter.

The history of technology is spattered with this sort of game, from the early days of wireless and television to our own uniquely convoluted gameshow of SCO versus The World. At least in this case it's over a good old-fashioned invention.

Wednesday 17/03/2004
Ah, good old Maewyn. We know him better as St Patrick, who in a long and perambulatory career among the verdant greens of early medieval Ireland put paid to the Druids and established a Celtic Christianity that was later to reinvigorate a battered and sullen Europe still reeling from the barbarian hoardes. He didn't throw out any snakes, didn't resurrect any dead people and most certainly had no idea that nearly two millennia after his death he'd be personally responsible for me drinking too much Guinness at the hands of the merciless Creative Labs. Of such mysteries are legends woven.

There are other mysteries at the Creative Labs St Patrick's Day Party. How come the Muvo 4GB MP3 player didn't make a fraction of the ripple that the iPod Mini's made, despite being first and very nearly as cute? How come the entire staff of VNU Business Publications has commandeered the pool table? And how come an Irish pub's idea of traditional St Paddy's Day nosh is sausage rolls and onion rings?

Nonetheless, some good comes of it. I find out from a roving marketing manager that the return rate for wireless kit at retail is 45 percent -- nearly one in two Wi-Fi devices comes straight back to the shop, 'cos the punter can't make it work. This meshes well with a recent report from the Wi-Fi Alliance, which says that it found around 25 percent of kit submitted for certification failed on first try.

It's not getting any better -- for every announcement that some piece of kit is certified, there are five claiming speed improvements, security enhancements or other widgetry that lie outside the Wi-Fi standard and risk messing up interoperability with other people's kit. If people's perceptions of wireless are sullied by this experience, then all that expected growth from new and faster networking technologies may never happen -- and no amount of Guinness will help.

In fact, I can categorically state that large amounts of Guinness won't help matters in any case. Woozily making my way back to North London, I wonder if in fact it was a dodgy onion ring that provoked my insides to complain so much. Yes, that's it. I just hope I don't have to return 45 percent of it.

Thursday 18/03/2004
The Internet took off when two things happened: the technology got easy enough for non-nerds to use, and flat-rate access providers removed the worries about the phone bills. It's thus a good thing that T-Mobile has announced a flat-rate wireless data package: buy one of their GSM/GPRS/3G/Wi-Fi cards and wherever you are, if it can find a T-Mobile hot spot, 3G or mobile network you can seamlessly connect and gorge away. Great. And the card only costs £99.

But oh, my dears, the service charge! Seventy quid a month. We're right back in the early days of mobile phones, where Joe Soak couldn't get a look in -- the only people who could afford such extravagance were wandering sales bods doing high-value deals. Used car merchants. Estate agents. Purveyors of fine chemicals to the gentry. The perception of mobile phones that this engendered did nobody any good: who wants to be a spiv?

And we risk repeating the exercise with T-Mobile's painfully pitched provision. Who most needs to be able to use the Net while nimbly skipping from place to place? Who stands to make enough money at this to afford the thumping monthly wedge? Let us hope that it's not spammers, virus writers, gangsters seeking to put the cyberpinch on bookies and those who surf the more exotic branches of human sexuality.

I'm sure T-Mobile has in mind only wholesome captains of industry, high earning, high status individuals who'll approach the product much as they'd approach the latest and most sparkling Lexus or Beemer. It would be a terrible shame were full 3G and hot spot net access to acquire a less than pristine reputation.

Friday 19/03/2004
You'll have feasted on our CeBIT coverage already, sent back single-handed by our intrepid one-man expeditionary force, Graeme Wearden. Of course, not everything makes it through our rigorous editorial process, so there wasn't room to tell you about Sony's heavily plugged press conference.

Now here is a company so far in advance of the times it has a fab new QRIO robot. It senses its surroundings! Aieeee! It is 60cm tall! Flee from Girant Roboto! It stands up when you push it, or can fall over gracefully on command! Professor! The army is useless against its power! It wants to play football! Actually, with that skill set it's probably already on its way to Anfield. It's certainly capable of dancing with chancellors  although the first robot-friendly budget is still some way back.

Not content with wowing the world with a robot called Queerio, Sony enlivened its press conference with tales of massive convergence, wireless wonders and other high-tech wonders. Unfortunately, this didn't stretch to the back-up press materials, which were only obtainable on a trestle table positioned at the foot of the escalators leading to the conference. The result, reports Wearden, was queues worthy of a Soviet supermarket when the cabbages came in, with scrums breaking out as those hardy souls who'd fought their way through for the press releases had to battle back out to get to the stairs. Every so often, the weaker members of the pack fell in combat, their battered corpses efficiently levitated up to the next floor and dumped in a neat pile at the head of the escalators together with their grave goods of shattered laptops and hideously ripped promotional cagoules. I made that bit up.

More press conference fun came courtesy of O2, which had a good tale to tell about rising from the chains of BT management like a post-spinach Popeye. The UK hacks felt very special: the UK head of communications fully realised the importance of the event and decided to spend it touring O2's own stand instead, well out of reach of impertinent questions like "why have you launched 3G in Germany and not at home?" Answering those was a task that fell to a German spokesperson (actually, Graeme's notes here say "slim leggy blonde woman", but I don't think we need to know that) – but alas, any answer she made is not recorded. And that bit about throwing off the shackles of BT mismanagement? Spoken with some feeling by heroic CEO Peter Erskine: bet there are some red faces among those who used to manage Cellnet and BT Mobile before the float. We'll have to ask the bloke who was in charge back then – hm, some cat called Peter Erskine.

Other than that, it was a superbly organised event and Graeme most certainly didn't engage in the traditional post-show pursuit of drinking heavily with our Continental comrades. The good burghers of Hannover can sleep soundly in their beds until this time next year.