I'm working from home today, where home is the Edinburgh flat of my nearest and dearest (well, in one sense she comes in second after the teenager). Once again, I have cause to marvel at the way I can be virtually present in the office with full access to the editing system, email and other resources, chatting away to my colleagues through voice and instant messaging, and in full receipt of a thousand chattering news sources -- yet still be hundreds of miles away, dressed only in my beloved's rather florid dressing gown. Truly, technology is enhancing the human experience.
But there are frightening stories afoot today. SAP and Microsoft 'in merger talks', apparently. Nothing came of them and nothing will come of them, says Microsoft, which has decided to tell the world in anticipation of all being revealed in a court case this week.
The fact is, there's never any such thing as a merger. Even when the two companies joining hands in the sight of God and the stock market are of roughly equal size and power, one always ends up absorbing the other. One of the two CEOs ends up being CEO of the new monster, the other hanging around for a bit before departing on golden wings, and the management teams of the winning CEO quite naturally assume the dominant position in the corporate soul.
With Microsoft, there's no doubt about it: your cell walls broken down by acid and proteins hydrolysed by efficient enzymes, the constituent molecules of your body corporate are effortlessly assimilated into the metabolism of the beast. So when the 'merger' with SAP didn't come to pass because of "the complexity of the potential transaction and subsequent integration", as Microsoft said, it had to be because SAP mounted too efficient a defence. It most likely wanted too much money, or raised sufficient regulatory fears to make the Redmond digestive tract regurgitate its intended meal.
But be warned, world. MS is actively prowling for an entry into the corporate infrastructure software world, and is prepared to pay at least fifty billion dollars to play -- that being SAP's market capitalisation. Could get my own dressing gown for that sort of money.
And so to Citrix iForum 2004, in sunny Edinburgh. (Actually, it's not sunny at all - my hopes of catching Venus in transit are dashed by being in the only part of the Kingdom locked beneath a cold, grey sea fog. Haar haar.) We see before us a company stretching its wings a little in the marketing sunlight as it emerges from its 'only known by nerds' image. Not only has it acquired some retail products -- GotoMyPC and friends -- but it has commissioned expensive market surveys and started to have big fun with branding. The Citrix logo has acquired red blobs -- one above the I and one below -- and the red blob itself has been liberated. All over the show, blobness abounds, each containing Citrix' favourite word: access.
Yes, access is the theme. Access here, access there, access everywhere. Except the press room. Journalists poured in from around the world -- well, London, Bath and Holland -- to find five Wyse terminals blinking merrily in the corner. Could they connect to a chap's works VPN? They could not. Not that it mattered too much, since there was a wireless LAN permeating the aether. Security still to the fore, we were given little cards with access codes printed on -- nothing had been left to chance. The security was further enhanced by the network giving all the appearances of being a working wireless LAN, right up to the point where you wanted to send or receive a packet. At that point, for our comfort, convenience and safety, the ether went silent.
A man appeared, clutching a network tester. Time to cut to the chase. "I can see the SSID, but DHCP isn't returning any IP config info" I said. "Um." he said.
But then we had to hustle out and see the keynote. We started with 10 minutes of kicking house music with bouncing red blobs all across the stage -- possibly to soften up the delegates, some still visibly impressed by last night's sampling of Scotland's most famous export. All the usual keynote components were present and correct, including a promotional video. This was a re-run of one shown at a previous iForum, and was an example of the Babylon Five school of IT promotions. A space cadet in a dark, close-fitting shirt issued commands imperiously at various electronic devices, valiantly videoconferenced through static and pulled it off -- only instead of directing Star Furies against the Centauri battle fleet he was moving GPS-12 units from a warehouse in Denver to a customer in Tokyo. "Two years ago, that was science fiction," said the Citrix guy, manfully glossing over the way that for most of us, getting wireless networking going required a pointy-eared alien with a tricorder.
The other high point of the keynote was Keith Turnbull, the English VP of product development, who launched into an animated description of security woes in the wired corporate. Home computers on the work LAN were particularly troublesome, he said. Why, he had to keep removing Kazaa from his PC because his daughter insisted on installing it. This was a brave admission, given the RIAA's habit of suing 12-year-olds for their pocket money: I mean, my teenaged son runs a worldwide black market in nuclear materials and white slavery from his bedroom over my broadband link, but do you catch me dobbing him in in public? You do not, and as long as I get my Friday Manilla you will not.
The rest of the day is meetings, round tables, exhibition wanderings and repeated failed attempts to kick the wireless LAN into action. In the end, I liberate the wired network and the power supply connection from one of the Wyse terminals and jack in directly with my little laptop. Access all areas, matey.
The fuzzy memories of last night -- stuffed chillis in a Mexican restaurant are probably not best washed down with Isle of Jura malt in Sandy Bell's, if you want a quiet and restful sleep -- gradually fade over breakfast. There then follow some one-on-ones, including an hour nattering with the aforemenched Keith Turnbull. As usual, things take a little while to warm up. I'm not the most natural of interviewers, and find the artificiality of the situation and the adversarial aspects unnatural and unnerving. But once contact has been made, which in my case is usually easiest with engineering types, we're off. We banter away about quality of service, heterogeneous devices -- Citrix is keen to encourage lots of different ways to do things, he says - and the acquisition of the GotoMyPC mob.
Then it's time to repeat the exercise with the European MD, which is less successful. He's up on the marketing stuff, and I run out of ways to synthesise interest in the matter. The one time I think I've got something interesting, I'm wrong: he too is talking about GotoMyPC and suddenly mentions a new product, GotoMarket. My ears prick up. But no, it's just that catchphrase 'go to market' meaning 'launch something'. (Incidentally, the accursed Accenture win this week's Boloxpeak Prize for "reduced cost of expedition" meaning "cheaper to do".)
I get back to base at last, to find some curious stories floating around the office. BT invited 'Scoop' Wearden to the launch of its 21st Century Network project -- the huge upgrade it's selflessly putting together to give us all lovely fast connections at next to nothing. In the spirit of all this high teckery, BT has implemented a system for visitors to its BT Centre HQ: you walk up to a touchscreen, find your name from a list, click on it to printout your label, and then stick it to a badge. Access granted.
Like all good technology, it knows that mistakes can happen and there's a "can't find my name" button for people lost in the system or unable to actually recall their name. This takes you to a screen saying "Contact a member of staff", and the old meet and greet method of getting in takes over.
Makes sense so far? Over to Scoop for the full story: "That screen also includes a hidden button that goes to a further page with a full onscreen keyboard where you can enter any details you like. One BT spokesman mentioned that he was disappointed that no journalists had taken the opportunity to call themselves "Mickey Mouse". Perhaps the next reader to enter BT's hallowed portal should have a go at this?"
Interestingly, this system can even be hooked up to the invitations that BT's PR hounds send out. If a journo clicks the URL in their email to accept, this info is somehow automatically transferred to the touchscreen system. Our info, though, is that this process isn't faultless -- and that somehow the machine devoured the whole invitation list for online journalists. A PR spotted this a week before the event, when nary a single online hack had replied to the invite: new invitations were rushed out and everyone made it.
Everyone? Apparently not. We can't name names because of (a) a deep respect for the integrity of our friends on other online IT news services and (b) a deep fear of being sued (delete as appropriate), but one outfit failed to turn up. In some desperation, the overworked scribblers on the site phoned up BT's PR and promptly offered fifty quid to the chap who answered the phone if he'd write them a swift piece on the launch. "My rates are higher than that!" sniffed the PR to our source later.
Tower Bridge is stuck! Rather, it isn't now -- but it was last thing last night. Yours truly and a fellow Ziffian were thirstily striding across its Victorian spans in search of a last order at the local, the gloriously cheap Pommeler's Rest, when our 10:30 p.m. progress was halted by a ship slipping silently beneath the raised arms of the mighty landmark.
Some moments later, the ship having slipped and we not having sipped, we began to get the idea that all was not well. The raised arms remained jauntily aloft, and a number of people in safety jackets were scurrying around the place and yelling into walkie-talkies. "What's going on, mate?" I asked. "Go away. It's not coming down. You have to leave!" was the frankly bad-tempered reply. Leave? It was too late to vector to another pub, and there was always a chance we'd get across for a 10:59 swiftie.
Time passed, and with it the chance of that all-important beer. However, the situation was getting more interesting. Traffic was backed up, police turned up to block off the road, and various snippets of information had been gleaned from the very loud radios with which the troglodytes communed. "There's no oil in number two!" "Nah, can't shift it. It's seized. Seized solid!" and so on. Clearly, there were beans to be spilled and muck to be stirred. I grabbed my mobile phone and called the BBC.
"Um. Tower Bridge? Seized solid? Is it chaos?" asked the rather bemused voice in the newsroom. "Not chaos, really. There are some very annoyed people and a bus trying to do a U-ey, very badly. But it's stuck. It's the only way around the congestion zone, too, so if they don't fix it by tomorrow morning there'll be carnage. Carnage!"
"Sounds like Radio 5's sort of thing. I'll take your number and if they're interested they'll call you back."
They didn't, of course, although the bridge stayed erect for eight hours and did indeed cause no little misery the morning after. My mistake, as usual, was trusting in public service broadcasting. I should have gone the commercial route and arranged immediate sponsorship from Pfizer and that drug which cannot be named online for fear of triggering spam filters. A stiff decision.