Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Undead ghosts of software past, thousands of glowing balloons and Busby's big ears are all in the air this week

Monday 5/4/2004
If you've ever worked in technical support, you'll know the two stages of escalation. The first is RTFM, which as everyone knows stands for something like Read The Flipping Manual. The second, after the hapless user has RTFM and called back, is TSMYOYO -- Tough Sheep Mate, You're On Your Own.

All good fun. But if you're relying on security software -- oh, let's say ISS's BlackIce or RealSecure -- to defend yourself from a nasty beastie -- the ill-named Witty worm, for the sake of argument -- and you subsequently find that the worm takes advantage of a known flaw in the products, you may be less than impressed to get TSMYOYO when you try and get the patch. Actually, the correct phrase may be PUOFO -- Pay Up Or Flip Off -- as ISS would only supply the fix to people with a current maintenance contract.

Oddly, lots of people found this unacceptable. Neuzhund Munir Kotadia got wind of this dissatisfaction, and promptly wrote it up as a story -- not before checking with the company, of course. ISS was adamant that a maintenance contract was essential for getting a patch -- and moreover that "if you don't pay maintenance, you aren't allowed to use the product any more".

For some reason, the appearance of Mun's piece caused some conniptions in the ISS hierarchy. Further communications flowed. Of course people could download the patch regardless of maintenance status, the company, er, clarified. This had always been company policy. A senior executive called from the US to say that the original spokesperson had been 'confused'. And we were happy to relay this happy news to a relieved world.

Which would be fine and dandy, except for two things: that the free patch offer runs out in about a month, and that even while Mun was talking to the exec on the phone, the company's PR was forwarding an official statement confirming that there had been a change of policy. "In response to the recent security issue discovered in some of our products, ISS is offering a free update program to protect customers. This program will be extended to all customers regardless of maintenance contract status." the email said.

Fortunately, BlackIce and RealSecure customers now have a clear upgrade path. They can download the free patch, and have a month in which to find alternative security software. We suggest they look for vendors which don't try and use flaws in their products to extract more money, preferably ones who can at least get their story straight when they're talking to journalists.

Tuesday 6/4/2004
Whisper it quietly... Microsoft Bob is back! You may not recall this thrilling product from 1995 -- for some reason, it's never mentioned on Bill's CV -- but it is of such historical importance that it deserves better. These days, it would probably be called a skin: it sat on top of Windows 3.1 and made it look like a home. You moved between rooms, all gorgeously rendered in 256 colours, and clicked on various objects that let you... well, use Windows 3.1. There was a suite of home management software -- birthday card creator, anyone -- and a Letter Writer that cheerfully assumed everyone still communicated on paper. No email silliness for Bob!

The happy dog so beloved of people using File Find made its first appearance in Bob, as did various other "Friends of Bob" later to appear as assistants in Office and elsewhere.

Microsoft was very pleased with this piece of user interface engineering, which started off with a big splash screen of a huge yellow smiley wearing geek glasses, and made sure it was heavily promoted and available in stores across the States. And there it sat, to the utter indifference of Windows 3.1 users, until Windows 95 turned up and Bob was hastily buried -- you can read more about it here.

It would be mouldering in its grave still, had not a sharp-eyed Diary reader (big up to PeterI) spotted the following intriguing item in the Microsoft Developer Network's product update feed.

Microsoft Bob 1.0a

Wed, 31 Mar 2004 16:36:35 PST

Microsoft Bob 1.0a was posted to MSDN Subscriber Downloads on March 31, 2004.

Further inspection of the downloads revealed nothing -- Bob is still in hiding. Of course, 16:00 Pacific Standard Time on 31 March is 00:00 GMT on 1 April, which raises the suspicion that it was nothing more than a jape by some naughty developer support bod within the machine.

It's still nice to speculate, especially in the light of the current crop of zombie movies, that Bob is now among the Undead and prowling the Internet in search of peace. Whatever the truth, Microsoft can rest easy: ZDNet UK will remember him.

ZDNet UK always remembers.

Wednesday 7/4/2004
You remember the UK ID card farrago?

Our beloved government decided that ID cards were a good idea, and was somewhat shocked by the strength and consistency of the objections from all quarters. Despite various nasty tricks -- like counting thousands of online objections as just one response -- the message got through that almost nobody thought they were a good idea. Expensive, error-prone and time-consuming nonsense was the verdict -- and as for solving the problems of terrorism and crime, they'd do little of use. That's before the civil liberties issues they create. The Gov licked its wounds and went quiet.

But now, magically, they're back on the agenda. The civil liberties issues have been solved, says Blunkett, and events such as the Madrid bombings show the importance of getting them off the ground at once. We have four weeks before the Bill is published.

Pardon? Did I miss that re-education seminar? What the hell is the man talking about? I've seen zero -- as in none, as in the square root of flip-all -- discussion of the civil liberties issues from the powers that be, let alone some marvellous solution that's got everyone in agreement. As for the terrible events in Madrid, this must count as one of the most cynical and wrong-minded pieces of spin this year. Not only is it an execrable piece of manipulation, the Spanish have had ID cards for many years and look what good it did. Hell, if you want to find out for yourself you can buy one online for $90 and see whether it makes you any more law-abiding. The only developments since the last time they tried it on has been a flurry of reports about government IT projects, pointing out just how badly they tend to go wrong.

Couple that with that most peculiar scare story -- osmium tetroxide, an obscure and extremely expensive lab reagent, as a chemical weapon? Why, when you can buy sodium cyanide in bulk? -- which doesn't hold up for a moment's sceptical examination, and one has to conclude that something rather odd is in the air. Well, osmium is named after the Greek word "osma" -- stink.

I know; it's wearing trying to keep the outrage going when there's no shortage of places to spend it. But once more, with feeling.

Thursday 8/4/2004
Hot news from the Wireless LAN show in Olympia, from whence Graeme Wearden is radioing back the latest UK developments in this most exciting of fields. It's hard to remember the old days, when the British radio spectrum was overseen by an ex-Army guy at the Home Office who regarded every Hz as the sovereign property of the Queen. If you weren't a ham or a remote control model freak, getting a licence for any form of personal radio transmitter was verbotem -- and unlicensed gear was right out. Now, we can happily buy any number of walkie-talkies, mobile and cordless phones, and indeed wireless LANs, and nobody turns a hair.

As Graeme finds out, this isn't quite accurate. If you go out and buy an 802.11a network, it runs on 5GHz, a newly available band that hasn't quite been sorted out. In the US, you can use it as much as you like -- here, your network has to be able to do things like limit its frequencies and power, so it can't interfere with existing users. In some areas, notably those near military radar installations, you can't use it at all.

Guess how many people know this. Now guess how many people know how to check that their 802.11a equipment conforms. Alternatively, guess how many people just buy their kit from shops and on the Net and wouldn't know 802.11a from a tap-dancing frog in stilettos.

The result, according to Wearden's contacts, is that radio piracy is rife across the land, with illegal transmitters sprouting like mushrooms from schools, offices and homes.

Fortunately, Ofcom has a semi-secret network of automated monitoring stations scattered around the place, as well as a few in vans. Our every transmission is detected and stored by eternally vigilant machines, and miscreants stand out like a Bakelite wireless in Dixons. Surely these illegal stations will soon be closed down, before the very fabric of our island's defences is shattered?

Er, no. 5GHz is an awfully high frequency, more than double anything that's been used by ordinary types before. Ofcom's magic boxes can't actually pick it up, by all accounts, especially since 5GHz doesn't go very far. Doubtless some of the orbiting spy satellites with antenna the size of football pitches can pick up Giggleswick Technical College's illicit installation, but it's not clear how good Ofcom's connections are with Menwith Hill.

I can foresee a return to the days of funkspiel, the radio games so many enjoyed in the 60s and 70s when a variety of pirate broadcast and CB operators and the Post Office's detector vans (known to all as Busbies) kept each other mutually entertained. That all ended up with CB legal through sheer force of numbers -- and you can tell how successful the pirates were at avoiding capture by tuning around your FM dial.

Friday 9/4/2004
It's Good Friday, so obviously I'm not here, Any fab events will have to go unreported. Instead, here's a heads-up -- literally -- for an event due to take place on Star Wars Day, May 4th.(as in May the Fourth be with you... oh, never mind). At 19:00 hours that evening, there'll be a lunar eclipse -- and at the same time, hovering above Queen's House at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich Park in London will be Sky Ear. Over to Sky Ear operative, Usman Haque, who tells me in an email:

"Sky Ear is a glowing cloud of a thousand helium balloons filled with mobile phones and electromagnetic sensors that emit blue, red and yellow lights when activated. Visitors will be able to dial up the cloud, listen to the electromagnetic sounds of the sky and watch their phone calls create complex illumination patterns within the cloud."

The phones will be tethered 60 metres above the ground -- earlier ideas for the Sky Ear had them floating freely, but you can see the hassles that might cause. Although I suppose one should never rule out some sort of Pink Floyd Animals-style 'accident', where a giant inflatable flying pig became mysteriously untethered on its flight over Battersea Power Station and wafted straight onto the front pages, but in these far more regulated days I wouldn't expect anything so anarchic.

How cool is that? I'll be there with mobile phone in hand, and I may even pack a few more portable transmitters to see what best tickles the glowing sky monster. No mention whether they'll be able to pick up naughty 5GHz radio networks, so we'll have to wait and see whether they'll end up as standard Ofcom equipment, to be towed behind detector vans, but we can but hope.

There'll be a webcast for those who can't attend. Details of that, and a great deal more concerning this and other fab art projects, can be found here. Highly recommended.